Hiking in Sequoia National Park

In mid-2015 I had the opportunity to take a day trip to Sequoia National Park.  The 200 mile trip from Santa Monica carried me up interstate 5 and then Highway 99 and 65 through Bakersfield and toward Kaweah Lake.  As you begin to near Kaweah Lake the elevation gains begin and the views start to open up.  My rental vehicle for this trip was a 2015 Toyota 4Runner, and with the windows down, sunroof up and hatch window open the cool breeze and smells of the mountain forests ahead burst into the vehicle.

4Runner over Lake KaweahLake Kaweah CAJust off Highway 198 is the Horse Creek Recreation Area and Horse Creek Campground.  As I went through the area on this August weekend only 4 of the campsites were occupied.  If you’re looking for a place to camp outside of the National Park and away from the crowds this seems like a good choice.  The campground is opened and closed depending on the water level and conditions of the lake though so be sure to check the status ahead of time if planning a trip here.

As you wind around Lake Kaweah you’ll enter the Three Rivers area just outside of the boundary for the National Park.  This area is home to several small convenience stores, markets and fuel stops.  This is your last chance to fill up or pick up any provisions before heading into the park.  I would recommend planning ahead however as most of these businesses, like many remote communities outside a National Park, charge a premium for their wares.

Approaching the park boundary the elevation continues to rise with road side signs calling out increments in 1000 foot changes as you ascend.  Peaks inside the park begin to come into view and there are numerous pull offs and overlooks to admire them from.  Continuing to climb, the landscape will change from sparsely forested hill sides to densely wooded steep ravines.  At around 6000 feet above sea level the giant sequoias begin to come into view.  As with most natural wonders pictures simply do not do justice to the enormity of these ancient trees.  Dotting the hillsides these giants block out the sun as they tower above the lower canopy of mixed conifers below.

Glade in SeqouiaThe park contains multiple groves of sequoias with many reaching the same heights as a 26 story building.  Wider at their base than some city streets these giants can live up to 3000 years if not taken down prematurely by man or natural disasters.

I worked my way further into the park on Highway 198 stopping frequently to examine groves of trees and wooded glens.  At one of these stops I was admiring a wooded grove that was something out of a National Geographic photo when I discovered a path leading through the trees with a sign marking a 1 mile hike to the Lincoln Tree.  I should stop for a moment and note here that I consider my self an intelligent hiker.  I have some rules for hiking in remote areas, and I generally don’t bend them, but this innocent looking sign combined with the seemingly insignificant 1 mile distance had me throwing caution out the window.  My standard guidelines are to never hike alone, but if I am on a solo hike to always make sure someone knows my planned route, any alternative paths I might take, when I am returning and have a map of the area.  Because this was a spontaneous venture into the woods I was breaking all of these rules and it could have gotten ugly.

I returned to the pull off where I had parked the 4Runner, grabbed a bottle of water and headed up the trail.  For roughly a quarter mile or so the trail wound across the face of the ridge paralleling the road below.  The trail here was well worn, and easy to follow as it turned to the right and headed through the trees up the ridge.  The weather and the temperature were perfect and I was enjoying the tranquillity of the forest as chipmunks scurried about between trees and logs preparing for the coming winter season.

The trail soon cleared the tree line and began to head up higher through a field of granite rock faces and small scrub brush.  The trail began to be marked by cairns and was still quite easy to follow.  Views of the ridge above and out into the valley below were breathtaking.   I spent about an hour milling around at the top of the ridge taking photos and admiring the view.  There were several clusters of indian mortar holes in the rock faces toward the top of the ridge.  The Monache Indians inhabited the area and used these mortar holes to grind acorns for food along with hunting deer, bear and smaller game.

After exploring the top of the ridge and never finding the Lincoln Tree I decided it was time to head back down to the 4Runner.  As I passed by some of the clusters of scrub brush noises inside of them drew my attention.  Several mountain grouse were darting around inside the brush hunting down insects and chasing each other around.  I stood for several minutes watching these unique little birds as they continued along, oblivious to my presence.  They eventually retreated further into the bushes and out of sight.  I rounded the last grouping of scrub brush and stepped up onto a rock outcropping.  Suddenly some movement off to my left caused me to stop dead in my tracks.

As I focused on the source I discovered that there was a black bear walking down the hill toward the path leading back to where I had parked.  Unlike Glacier National Park bears are much less common here in Sequoia and I had not been making noise while hiking to ward them off.  I was standing down wind and had not been seen or heard by the bear.  Since it was heading across my path, and it appeared the bear would continue down the ravine and away from the direction I was going, I chose to stand still and watch rather than shouting and trying to scare it away.  This ended up being the correct decision as moments later there was more movement off to my left and a bear cub emerged from the trees.  In the video posted below you’ll see I scrambled behind the rock ledge I had just stepped up on to further conceal myself from the cub.

After the point where the video ends I continued to watch as the mother bear proceeded down the ravine and the baby bear loitered behind.  The cub dug around several downed logs and generally meandered along like a toddler following a parent.  After several minutes the baby turned and began to walk toward where I was concealed.  This sealed my decision to break another rule (never leave the trail) and I quietly slipped into the woods to my left and bushwhacked down the ridge picking up the trail and heading back to the 4Runner.  While I’m glad I had the chance to observe the bears, it could have turned into a very dangerous and potentially deadly situation.


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