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Winter hikes (ski touring)


(Published January 26, 2001)


Whether it’s summer or winter, the Big Meadows area between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is a favorite destination year-round. Whether hiking, horseback riding, camping, sightseeing, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, the Big Meadows area is an ideal locale to enjoy the amenities of the Sierra Nevada.
   We spent the day on cross-country skis, our preferred mountain mode of travel in the winter. Due to the rolling terrain, spectacular vistas, and off-trail and backcountry opportunities, all levels of skiers can be entertained at Big Meadows.
   The Big Meadows Road provides access to several campgrounds, Horse Corral Pack Station, a Forest Service ranger station, backcountry trailheads, and the Buck Rock Fire Lookout. In the winter, the snow-covered roads are available for use by winter recreationists.
   The area, which is now a part of the Giant Sequoia National Monument, is located eight miles south of The Wye (near the Kings Canyon park entrance) on Highway 180. There is a sign on the highway that indicates the Big Meadows turnoff; turn east for one-quarter of a mile to a plowed parking area. (See “Getting there” for additional information on road conditions and access.)
   The Big Meadows area has been a popular cross-country skiing destination for many years. Until the 1980s, there was a warming hut at the meadow, which was operated by the now-defunct Wilsonia Ski Touring.
   Previously at Big Meadows, the Montecito-Sequoia Cross-Country Ski Resort had included the area in their network of groomed trails. The resort is currently under new management, however, and last winter (2007-2008) they didn’t groom the trails. Hopefully, the grooming policy will resume and there will once again be packed snow and built-in two-way ski tracks — quite a luxury.
   After stopping in at Montecito-Sequoia’s ski shop to purchase our trail passes (they also rent skis), we had one more decision to make — whether to drive the half-mile back to the Big Meadows Road trailhead or ski directly from the Montecito-Sequoia lodge area.
   The helpful folks at the ski shop informed us that there was one steep hill between the lodge and Big Meadows that wasn’t yet fit for skiing, which helped us make the decision to drive. By 11 a.m., we were stepping into our skis at the Big Meadows parking area.
   The trail is actually the Big Meadows Road and groomed for about 4.5 miles. Several well-marked side trails/roads also take off from the main Big Meadows Road with levels of difficulty ranging from easy to intermediate to advanced, so the possibilities are endless.
   The trail begins at about 7,550 feet elevation, heading north up a gradual grade for about three-quarters of a mile to a junction. There is a sign here that indicates that Rabbit Meadow is to the left (north).
   This was our first rest stop, and we started peeling off layers. The day was sunny and warm, and although mid-January, it was reminiscent of spring-skiing weather.
   With jackets off and sunscreen on, we continued our journey east. We did not take the time to tour Rabbit Meadow, which is an easy one-mile loop ski that intersects again with the Big Meadows Road about a half mile further up the trail.
   We traveled through an open forest of lodgepole and Jeffrey pines and red fir. The trail is easy to follow and the gently rolling terrain made for constant skiing with steady gliding, the best kind of workout.
   The kids, on the other hand, weren’t interested in our cardiovascular health. They were on a mission to find slopes, the higher and steeper the better, and the farther we traveled, the more conducive the terrain became for their type of skiing.
   The day was so warm that huge clumps of snow were falling from tree branches above. This was also a form of entertainment for the kids, especially when the timing is so perfect that a “snow-bomb” actually hits its moving target, namely Mom or Dad.
   About one mile from the Rabbit Meadow junction, the trail emerges onto a plateau. Here, the recent snow-groomers plowed an area on the south side of the road that is an excellent Great Western Divide viewing area.
   On this exceptionally clear winter day, we were able to see Little Baldy, about 11 miles away via the Generals Highway. Farther yet, we looked beyond the Kaweah’s Middle Fork canyon to the snow-covered Great Western Divide, easily spotting Sawtooth Peak, Empire Mountain, and Farewell Gap in the Mineral King area.
At a little over two miles, we reached the westernmost arm of Big Meadows. We ate lunch here, at Horse Camp, perched in the sun on a lodgepole pine fence, overlooking a large section of the massive meadow.
   While sitting here, several parties of skiers passed by, heading both in and out. After lunch, we continued on our easterly route and immediately came to the Buck Rock Lookout spur.
   This is a steep road that ascends about 1,100 feet to the fire lookout in 2.3 miles. The views at the top into Kings Canyon are unforgettable... so we assume.
   We haven’t yet skied there, although we were certainly tempted. We stayed with our original route, however, and will look forward to the Buck Rock tour on another day.
   We skied another quarter mile on the Big Meadows Road and came to the Forest Service ranger station. Most of the skiers that had skied past while we were eating lunch were now sprawled on the sunny porch of this cabin enjoying their lunch break.
   Just beyond the cabin is the summertime trailhead parking area for Jennie Lakes and Weaver Lake. Skiers can actually take this short, groomed cutoff to utilize a restroom here, another unexpected amenity along this trail.
   After we climbed a small bluff, we headed down the other side. This is now the beginning of the Big Meadows Campground. The campground is extremely large, extending for more than a mile along Big Meadows Creek.
   We continued skiing until our agreed-upon turn-around time of 2:30 p.m. This found us on the east end of the campground, still on the groomed road, but we were the only tracks, meaning we had gone where no skier had gone before... this winter.
   Our elevation at this point was 7,600 feet. We skied about four miles with very little vertical elevation change, making it a great ski trip for beginning skiers with lots of stamina.
   The Big Meadows area offers many skiing opportunities. A skier could make their every outing of the season to Big Meadows and be able to explore some new terrain each time.
   We, too, will soon return to this superb area. It’s a winter paradise that we look forward to exploring.












THE KAWEAH COMMONWEALTH is published every Friday in Three Rivers, California.
EDITORS/PUBLISHERS: John Elliott and Sarah Barton Elliott
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