California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains is one of my favorite mountain ranges. It rises abruptly from a flat valley at the sea level, to 14500 feet in a matter of just few miles. It is one of the most dramatic mountain ranges in the world. Only a few mountain roads cross it.
I had a chance of spending few months in the Sequoia National Forest while working at the mountain camp for families. Sequoia National Forest borders the famous Sequoia National Park and shares the same amazing landscape and nature.
Our camp was set at the elevation of 7500 feet (almost 2300m) and to get there I had to go to Fresno first. Fresno is a major city in the Central Californian Valley. It is an amazingly unremarkable place. My Californian friends were saying that it is one of the most boring places in the whole of California and I think they were right. The city is a center of massive area of intensive agriculture on irrigated land and that’s all about it. If it wasn’t enough to send you in other direction it has also a very unpleasant climate. Days with temperatures over 40C are very common in the summer. It is good only as a shopping base for supplies.
Half an hour drive west on Hwy 180 and landscape changes dramatically. The road starts steep and curvy climb, which lasts another hour, before reaching elevation of the camp. While driving you can see the changes of climate and vegetation together with the elevation. On the valley floor, apart from the lush greenery of irrigated land, there is only semi desert vegetation and dry grass. Later comes brush with juniper and Pinyon pine. At the elevations between 4500 and 6500 feet there is the zone where the giant sequoias grow. But they grow in isolated groves far from the main road. Instead you see mostly the Ponderosa Pine. Finally, the dominant vegetation at the elevation of our camp was variety of the evergreen coniferous forests with Lodgepole Pine, Red Fir and Mountain Hemlock.
It is a very nice environment indeed. At this high elevation climate was much more pleasant than in Fresno. It was still warm but not too hot. It was also dry, for the first two and a half months there was not a single drop of rain. It is the perfect place for a vacation camp.
Institution of the summer camp is well established in the USA. Every year millions of kids go for a week or two to spend some time in natural environment. Most of the camps are located in the mountains, forest or on the lakes. Our camp was a bit unusual because it was designed for kids and their parents. The idea is that while kids are playing with the camp instructors parents have time to relax. Of course they can join play and activities if they wish. Most of the families spend one week at the camp each summer. Some of these families come back year after year and some of the parents have been here as a kids.
The camp is a great fun as there are plenty of activities. Horse riding, mountain biking, archery, shooting, wave boarding on the small lake, barbeque almost every day, astronomy classes after dark or singing around the giant camp fire. But probably the best activities (and one of the most popular) are excursions involving some interesting hikes. Usually such trip involves off road drive to the remote trailhead (which is usually fun in itself) and then hiking. We had good, experienced guides who could explain us all the local ecology and geography. One of the best excursion was trip to the isolated sequoia grove: Redwood Mountain Grove. It involved the long bumpy drive and a few miles trek. But the reward was forest of the giant sequoias. Not a one tree, not two, but the whole forest. It looked more magical than the scenery from the Lord of The Rings movie. Because of the isolation it was completely empty. There wasn’t a single tourist apart from us. You can of course find some easily accessible sequoias, right next to the main roads, but they are usually lonely trees, fenced off and surrounded by busloads of tourists.
Another great option are some of the longer hikes above the tree line. Especially the trek from Lodgepole Village area to the Heather and Emerald lakes offers some great views and, at the end, you can rest on the banks of the clean alpine lake. On the way you can branch off and instead of the lakes go on to the top of the Alta Peak (11204 feet) but this options requires good legs and a lot of stamina. A bit less challenging is hike to the top of the Mitchell Peak (10365 feet). The view from the top is great but the hike itself is a bit boring comparing to the Alta Peak ascent or the Emerald Lake hike.
Great way to explore Sequoia National Forest is riding mountain bikes (note that they are prohibited in the neighboring national parks). One of the best excursion was trip to the Buck Rock fire lookout. It was a very slow and tiring climb using some narrow forest roads. At this elevation mountain biking (actually any physical activity) is much more difficult than at the sea level. But there was a reward at the end. The fire lookout is perched on top of the rock pinnacle and offers an amazing view from its 8500 feet elevation. It is understandable because its purpose is to provide an observation platform for the forest officials who look for early signs of the forest fires.
It is a small building (maybe 3×3 meters) with a bed, radio and basic supplies. To get there you have to climb the 172 steel steps attached to the rock. It is a basic and lonely place to work but what a view it offers. I could work for free just to be able to stay there. Way back from the fire lookout is much easier than climbing up there. It is a fast and adrenaline pumping downhill ride on a wide gravel forest roads. And what a ride it is. I can’t remember much of the scenery because I was too busy braking and generally trying to stay alive. Great fun for those who are not scared of speed.
One more thing you can’t miss is horse riding. It is, at the end, a quintessential part of the American West experience. Apart from that, it is simply a great fun to visit area on a horse back. I never rode horses before but our camp had some really patient, calm and polite creatures on hand so I did have a chance to feel like real cowboy once or twice.
Of course during the three months stay at the camp we visited all the touristy highlights too. Like the General Sherman or General Grant trees. Both are absolutely gigantic sequoias. Some say they are the biggest living things on the planet. There is also the famous drive-through fallen sequoia (Tunnel Log) or old house made inside of the log of another fallen sequoia (Tharp’s Log). All easily accessible just off the Hwy 180. If you don’t want to go off the main road to the fire lookouts I recommend visit to the Moro Rock. It is a granite pinnacle next to the main highway which offers some superb views. You just need to climb 400 steps from the parking lot.
It was really one of my best summer vacations. I was there at work but in such place work and play blend together easily. For example staff dine together with the guests. We could also take part in all the activities in our time off duty.
Most of the staff members were Americans, majority of them students of the Californian colleges. Rest of us were foreigners attending various students programs (like myself). We lived in wooden cabins between the trees, not far from the guests area but far enough to have some sort of privacy. Food was good, weather even better, almost paradise.
The absolutely best part of the camp was an open air Jacuzzi. Especially after dark when all the kids went to sleep. With the view of stars above and drinks in our hands it was an ultimate experience. Especially good after the whole day spent hiking, biking or horse riding. Highly recommended.