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A Summer Trip to the Southern Sierra in Search of the Big Trees

A Summer Trip to the Southern Sierra in Search of the Big Trees

Old Sep 8th, 2010, 04:04 PM
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A Summer Trip to the Southern Sierra in Search of the Big Trees

For our summer getaway this year, we decided to go on a week long camping trip in the Southern Sierra and search out some of the Giant Sequoia groves. We left on August 20th thinking that most schools were back in session and wanting to avoid the madness of Labor Day weekend.

We drove on I-580 to get out of the Bay Area and then south on I-5 to Los Banos where we turned on to CA 33 since we wanted to avoid the congestion of Hwy 99. Hwy 33 was interesting because of all the varied agricultural crops that you pass by. We even saw some tomato harvesting. Thankfully, the day was not that warm which is quite rare in August for this area.

We took 33 down to Hwy 180 where we turned left for Fresno and King's Canyon National Park. This part of the Valley is mostly vineyards and there are a lot of Sun Maid Raisin signs in the fields. In Fresno, 180 becomes a freeway which takes you quickly through the city. We had planned to fill up with gas but never saw a single station after passing Hwy 99 until we reached Squaw Valley in the foothills - a distance of over 30 miles. So, we learned it's best to fill up before getting on 180 in Fresno if you want lower gas prices.


After entering the Park, it's just a short distance to Grant Grove Village where there are two large campgrounds. You can't reserve any sites at these campgrounds so it's best to arrive as early as possible on a Friday or Saturday. We found a fairly decent campsite in the Azalea Campground and proceeded to set up our tent and other camping equipment. We chose a spot where the table and fire pit were up a hill and over some rocks from the road, so it took a little more time than usual to carry everything in.

After buying some firewood at the store, we relaxed in camp, had dinner and then attended the campfire program in the amphitheater at Sunset Campground. The program this evening was about John Muir and featured a ranger dressed as him reciting many of his writings. It was a well done program but way over the head of most of the kids in attendance.

Our original plan was to camp two nights in Grant Grove and then two nights in the Canyon. However, before leaving home we had read online that there was a fire burning there. After checking at the Visitor Center, we learned that the Sheep Fire was still burning and that there might be some respiratory issues for those camping in the Canyon. We decided to stay camped at Grant Grove but drive into the Canyon for the day.

The drive to Cedar Grove is very spectacular but also not for the faint-hearted with all the twists and turns and steep grades. This is one of the deepest canyons in the US with many great vistas. It's about an hour drive from Grant Grove Village to Cedar Grove.

A few minutes after we re-entered the Park, we encountered our first fire fighters. They were stationed along the road to prevent the fire from entering the campgrounds and visitor areas. Parts of the fire were literally burning right beside the road just a few hundred yards from Cedar Grove. It was an eerie feeling to be so close to the fire. However, it was not burning out of control and, in effect, it resembled a managed fire. It had been burning for over a month and I believe it still is burning as I write this. Because it was a fairly windy day, the smoke was not that bad and it did not interfere with any of our activities that day. The ranger in the Visitor Center did say that the smoke had been very bothersome during the night hours as it settled on the valley floor after the winds subsided. Although there were people camping in the campgrounds, many of the sites were empty and a number of loops were closed.

After checking out the small Visitor Center, we drove out to a couple of viewpoints along the road, walked out to Knapp's Cabin, and took the short hike up to Roaring River Falls. The falls were impressive but the area was very busy with families spread out all over the rocks, kids climbing up boulders, and people swimming and fishing in the pools below the falls despite warning signs everywhere warning of the dangers associated with such activities.

We then drove up to Road's End to look for a place to picnic. All the parking was taken here so we drove back down the road a little ways and found a nice picnic table right by the river.

After lunch, we joined a ranger led walk out to Zumwalt Meadows and then walked around the Meadows on a nice trail. Again, there were many families here enjoying the river with beach chairs, radios, inflatables, and coolers. After our walk, we drove back out to Road's End where we were able to find a parking place this time. We thought that all the cars were there for the several trails that took off into the wilderness but soon discovered that most were there to enjoy the swimming holes in the river. We walked out to Muir Rock and it was covered with young people jumping and diving into the water. There were dozens of groups here making the most of the deep pools in the river. The scene was more like a water park than a National Park. It's probably best to avoid this area on a weekend in mid-summer. Before heading back to Grant Grove, we drove back into Cedar Grove and took a shower in the laundry/shower facility behind the store. Shower hours are limited so you have to take advantage of them when they are available.

On Sunday morning, we drove up to Panoramic Point just above Grant Grove Village and hiked the trail to Park Ridge Lookout. This 5mi r/t hike along a ridge line is quite spectacular and ends at a fire lookout where we had extensive views to the east, south, and west. There were only a handful of people that we ran into on the trail. After a nice picnic back at the parking lot, we drove down to the General Grant Grove and finally got a look at some of the giant Sequoias. This grove is very pretty but it was also very crowded. Again, it's probably best to avoid on the weekends since it's so close to Fresno. By Sunday evening, the campgrounds were less than half full whereas they had both filled up on Friday and Saturday nights. Azalea Campground has some nice sites but there is a real shortage of restrooms here. In fact, a couple of the loops had no facilities so some people would drive to the restrooms because they were so far away. The small restroom near us received a lot of traffic but the park staff did clean it frequently.

On Monday morning, we broke camp and then drove up to Buck Rock. Here is another fire lookout which is even more spectacular than the one at Park Ridge. You do need to drive a two mile dirt road to get up to it but it's not very difficult. The lookout is perched on top of a large rock column at 8500 feet elevation and you have to climb several flights of stairs totaling 172 steps to reach the top. For more info including visiting hours, see:


After climbing Buck Rock, we headed south for Sequoia National Park.
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Old Sep 9th, 2010, 03:45 AM
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Sounds like the start of a great trip. I would not like to go through fire that close to the road, but I'm a chicken.

Thanks for the report.
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Old Sep 9th, 2010, 04:41 AM
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This is wonderful! I can't wait to
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Old Sep 9th, 2010, 04:32 PM
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It's about an hour drive from Grant Grove to Lodgepole at Sequoia National Park. Unlike Grant Grove, Sequoia's two campgrounds nearest the Giant Forest are on the reservation system. Lodgepole had plenty of open sites but none for two nights so we ended up camping at the National Forest campground Upper Stony Creek where we found a nice, spacious site overlooking the creek. This campground was less than half-full for the two nights that we were there. After setting up camp and enjoying lunch, we drove back to Stony Creek Village to take a shower and buy some ice. We then spent the afternoon relaxing at our site and along the creek.

On Tuesday morning, we drove to Lodgepole and hiked the trail to Tokopah Falls. This is a beautiful hike through a lovely forest that ends in a box canyon with an impressive cascade at the end. Of course, the falls would be more impressive earlier in summer but it was still an enjoyable walk. There were a lot of ripe berries near the Falls and there was noticeable fresh bear scat on the trail. We didn't see a bear but there was obviously one nearby. We had the trail to ourselves mostly on the way out but it was quite crowded during our return. It's best to do this hike early in the morning.

Our next stop was The Giant Forest. We parked at the General Sherman Tree Parking Lot and walked down to the Congress Trail. This is a two mile long paved loop trail that is absolutely stunning. This trail takes you through one of the most scenic parts of the Giant Forest. It's an easy trail that takes you by some of the most impressive trees on the planet. Since our last visit in the 90's, the Park Service has done a great job of restoring this area by removing buildings and getting rid of cars in the grove. The Giant Forest is one of the greatest wonders in all of our National Parks and should be on everyone's must see list.

After visiting the Giant Forest and paying homage to the General Sherman tree, we took the shuttle bus back to the parking lot and then drove down the road to the Pinewood Picnic area. While having lunch, a young bear came running through the grounds and approached our table. We quickly took our food and got in our vehicle but the bear did not seem that interested in us. Instead, it started turning over some rocks looking for grubs. The bear became the center of attention for other picnickers and even folks driving on the main road who somehow noticed the commotion. After a while the bear moved on and we were able to finish our lunch.

After lunch, we visited the museum and then hiked the Crescent Meadow loop trail. We also stopped at the Auto Log but you can't drive onto it anymore. We elected to save Moro Rock for the next morning on our way out of the Park. We returned to Lodgepole, bought some food at the market and drove back to our campground.

On Wednesday morning, we broke camp and drove back to Lodgepole to buy some ice and then drove up to the Moro Rock parking area. The trail to the top is short but steep and is entirely on rock with railings available for hanging onto. There was a ranger talk scheduled and we made it to the top in time to participate. The view from the top is very impressive and well worth the effort to climb up. While on top, we were able to observe the traffic situation on the General's Highway and could determine when the downhill traffic was permitted to drive the one-way section through the construction zone. Vehicles were let through only once per hour. We also noticed that the day was warming up and that we were in the midst of a heat wave.

We made it through the traffic control and headed down the General's Highway towards the Ash Mountain entrance. We thought about spending the night at Buckeye Flat but that campground was a zoo with small sites all crammed together filled with folks attracted to all the swimming holes nearby. We continued on to the Visitor Center where we had our picnic lunch. Here we decided to take a break from camping and find a nice motel. It was unbearably hot. Our destination for the night was Kernville.
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Old Sep 12th, 2010, 12:15 PM
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To get to Kernville, we took CA 198 through Three Rivers and Lemoncove to CA 65. In Exeter, we stopped for gas and noticed a thermometer that said it was 110 degrees. This is citrus country and there were miles and miles of lemon and orange groves. We took CA 65 south to CA 155 where we headed east towards Lake Isabella. CA 155 is one of the most desolate roads I've seen in California. We were the only vehicle on the road for much of the trip. The road is steep in several spots and because it was so hot, the engine started to overheat. Fortunately, by turning off the air conditioning and even running the heater for a bit, the engine never got too hot.

Kernville is a neat little town located on the Kern River just before it empties into Lake Isabella. We got a room at the Kernville Inn and immediately took a dip in their pool which was quite cool compared to the air temperature. We also washed some clothes in the inn's laundry room. We had dinner next door at Cheryl's Diner. The food was pretty good but they served no beer or wine so we would not eat there again but they did have a nice outdoor seating area.

The next morning, Thursday, we got an early start. After victualling at the excellent James Market, we drove north towards Johnsondale and Lloyd Meadow Road in search of the Alder Creek Waterslides.


This area can be a zoo in summer but we were fortunate in that we only had to share it with a couple of very nice ladies from back east who were on a road trip very similar to ours. This was a very warm day and the cool creek water was very welcome. The rocks are very slippery here and it's best to wear some type of water shoe or sandal.

We also drove up the road to Lower Peppermint Creek. We tried to find the 100 foot waterfall but had wrong directions. There are, however, some nice cascades and rock pools just a few minutes upstream from the campground. Again, the water was very cold. Both Alder Creek and Peppermint Creek drain into the Kern River which was in the canyon below us.

After the watersports, we headed further uphill to the Western Divide Road and the Trail of 100 Giants. This is another beautiful paved walking trail through an outstanding grove of sequoias. This is the second most southern sequoia grove and there are some impressive specimens here. There is also a very nice picnic area across the street. We camped for the night at the very nice Quaking Aspen campground which is at a very refreshing altitude of 7000 feet. This campground was virtually empty except for a few campers who were preparing for a day of rockclimbing at the Needles on Friday.

We started Friday by hiking out to the Needles Fire Lookout. This 5mi r/t hike is very popular but we got an early start. Almost at the end of the trail, we ran into the ladies we had met at Alder Creek the day before. They had the same guide book that we were using. I thought that Buck Rock was the ultimate fire lookout but the Needles is at least the equal. The cat-walk at the top is not for those who experience vertigo but, if you make it to the top, you get to meet Marge and her cat who staff the lookout. The trail itself is very scenic and not that difficult.

Here's a picture of the lookout that I found online:


And for more info about the Needles:


Our Needles hike was done in excellent weather but we were told that a cold front was approaching and, indeed, the weather started to change that afternoon. It was supposed to cool off rapidly that night and be about 20 degrees cooler the next day.We decided to head over to the Eastern Sierra. Maybe it would be warmer over there.

After driving over Sherman Pass (9200 feet), we drove out towards Bald Mountain Lookout. I guess we hadn't had our fill of fire lookouts yet. We took the short hike up to the fire tower but it was closed to visitors because of the high winds that afternoon. You could really feel the change in weather. It was becoming quite cool.

We camped at Chimney Creek Campground. This spot has been seriously neglected and is in very bad condition. There was no water and the restrooms were locked. There was trash everywhere and there was a lot of horse manure scattered around. We made the best of the situation but had no reason to linger the next morning.
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