The Kaweah River is fed from snow melt in the southern Sequoia National Park & Golden Trout Wilderness . Since this location is the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains, where drought is more apparent, expect this river to be smaller than most of the other Sierra rivers.
Above the town of Three Rivers, the mighty Mineral King Road peels off Highway 190 and winds its way up 25 miles – deep into the southern section of Sequoia National Park. This is a dead end canyon and it is so gorgeous – you’ll want to spend the whole weekend. The road is long, narrow, curvy and takes hours to drive one way. The route closes for winter snow and stays gated for more than half the year.
Don’t plan on doing Mineral King (as a day trip) in addition to the main attractions of Sequoia groves in Sequoia National Park, unless of course, you have a whole week to burn. Mineral King is a remote, high elevation valley that is a favorite hikers paradise, with backpackers trailheads leading into Golden Trout Wilderness. Climb to upper altitude alpine lakes for a day of fishing. Play at the creek at the campground and listen to nightly ranger talks during the summer. Bears and marmots are very active in this area.
Sierra Nevada / Central California
Seeking solitude while camping is difficult near the National Park. Dispersed camping is allowed on a few dirt back roads, but you will need a decent National Forest map to find these routes.
The least busy, smallest campground around these parts is the South Fork Campground which does not accommodate motorhomes. Access is by a secluded South Fork Road, a dead end, rural residential, paved road – on the edge of town (Three Rivers, CA) With only 10 camp sites it is nmuch quieter than any other option. Perfect campground for tent campers, day hikers or backpackers.
Dry Creek Rd #J21 and North Fork Road (dirt roads, on the north side of the lake) are excellent routes for secluded picnics and wildflower meadows. Possibly gated part of the year, these roads connect to the seldom-seen, west side of the Sequoia National Park and some secluded Sequoia groves.
We are taking 20+ mies of dirt road driving, to reach any decent back road destination, so choose this path only if you have a.) a printed hard-copy topo map, b.) a worthy, high clearance vehicle and c.) a full free day to kill just driving slow (25 mph) and exploring.
North of the Giant Sequoia , above the Western Divide Highway (CA 190) sits a little known Sequoia Park called Mountain Home. This lush forested area separates the Sequoia National Park (to the north) from the Giant Sequoia National Monument (to the south).
Mountain Home is just up the mountain from the West Sierra river town of Springville, CA
Western Sierra Nevada
In part of the vast Sequoia National Forest, lies a hidden gem of State Forest land worth visiting. Waterfalls, the Tule River, fishing ponds, campgrounds and easy access to Golden Trout Wilderness trails.
The official name of this forest: Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest is quite a mouth full, so most just call it “Mountain Home”. In short MHDSF is managed by Cal-Fire and the California State Park system.
the Largest old growth Sequoias in the state!
Numerous awesome Campgrounds can be found near the Sequoia groves, the Tule River, hiking trailheads, fishing, waterfalls. Balch Park is the County Park, listed below.
Balch Park Sequoia
located within the Mountain Home State Forest is a popular destination for the locals and families. Balch Park Campground is paved and RV accessible. 71 campsites, on first come basis.
Meadows, mountain peaks, streams, waterfalls, huge granite rocks & cliffs are all over. Plus some secluded groves of Giant Sequoia trees. Mosquitos can be annoying in these parts, so bring the chemical warfare and the screen room tent.
Roads Open: May – October
Forest mountain roads close annually, due to winter snow
Area activities include:
Backpacking Back Road Exploration Campground Camping Fishing Hiking Horseback Riding Meadows Mountain Biking Picnic Sequoia Groves Swimming Holes Tule River (North Fork) Golden Trout Wilderness
USDA Forest Service Map is highly advised for this area. There are many dirt roads & numerous trails. Minimal cell phone signal inside these dense forests and large granite river canyons. GPS even has trouble getting connected, due to the immense canopy of trees.
In the backcountry, tent camping is allowed any place on soil 100 feet from trail or water. No camping on meadows. Ground fires are very allowed with fire permit. Use existing camp site when available. Check with the correct ranger district for all back country camping rules. Wilderness permits are needed for backpackers and horse packers staying overnight in the wilderness area.
Local Ranger Stations:
Sequoia USFS Headquarters
Tule River Ranger District
Mountain Home Backroads
Dirt back roads are so narrow they cannot accommodate the large motorhome or RV traveler. Trucks pulling horse trailers are common, with very few options for a pull-out to pass.
This forested area is filled with old logging roads that lead to lush Sequoia groves & meadows. The whole network of forest roads back here either – loop back to each other, or deal end, often at a trailhead parking area. No roads connect through to any other portion of the Sierra range. Golden Trout Wilderness is a road-less area of the Southern Sierra Nevada.
Signs Not Reflective
The old skool, painted, wooden road signs do not READ well at night, so avoid arriving in the dark.
When it’s dark outside, it is best to STOP: Shut off the vehicle, get out and take a stretch break, find the north star; Get your bearing straight, look at the real map with a flashlight – before driving miles to an unknown destination, just to turn around.
Be very aware of the Forest Service signage, use your trip meter for clocking mileage. Have a good map on hand. See MAP ABOVE. It is very easy to get lost in this forest and you may end up driving for hours, maybe in circles. I swear this intersection looks familiar.
Mountain Home Campgrounds
Balch and Frazier are the two larger, developed campgrounds; all others are smaller camps w/ primitive facilities.
NOTE: all the Campgrounds in this forest now charge an overnight fee for camping. (Decades ago they were free, but not anymore.)
Frasier Mill Campground is spelled w/ a Z (like Frazier)on many printed maps and inside some camping books, but the proper spelling (on a sign at the campground) is actually Frasier w/ an S. This camp is located at the site of an old lumber mill. Meadows, trailheads, picnic areas, parking.
Decent signage leads to smaller, secluded campgrounds and hiking trail heads. Dirt road driving will be required. See BACKROADS (above heading) for tips on back road driving and night time arrivals.
Plenty of trails for horses back in these parts, most of them lead to Golden Trout Wilderness. Watch out for oncoming vehicles with horse trailers!
No primitive camping outside of developed campgrounds. Due to fire dangers around these majestic Sequoia trees. You must camp within the designated campground, or HOOF IT into the the wilderness for backpacking.
Mountain Home Hiking
Numerous trails around each campground area will lead to the waters edge @ Tule River; into the Golden Trout Wilderness (for longer day hikes), along creeks w/ wildflowers, near lush meadows or through Giant Sequoia Groves.
Bikes are limited to existing paved and dirt roads; NO SINGLE TRACK trails for mountain bikers – due to the fragile, shallow roots of Sequoia groves, and the direct access to Wilderness. NO bikes in the Golden Trout Wild!
Calaveras is a small but popular Sequoia Park in the Gold Rush foothill country of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains. Large Sequoia redwood trees, Visitors Center, nature trails, 2 large campgrounds, Stanislaus River access, hiking trailheads and picnic spots. Summer and weekends are usually busy. Plan your visit on weekdays or off-season for less crowds.
Park is open during the winter, but expect rain or snow. Sledding is allowed in the State Park during decent snowfall. Snow chains or 4WD may be needed to reach this location during winter months.
walk-in camp sites for tents only:
North Grove Environmental
Oak Hollow Environmental North
Oak Hollow Environmental South
NFS Camp Sites Nearby
Beaver Creek Campground is located on Beaver Creek, on a dirt back road, way back in there. Past the big river. Just beyond the South Grove trailhead. USDA web site states that this camp is currently closed due to tree hazards. Google Maps has it listed, but the gov web site does not. Call local rangers to find out!
Sourgrass Recreation Area is just north of the State Park. Forest Road #52 will lead to numerous river destinations, camp sites, fishing spots and swimming holes.
Wakalu Hep Yo Campground: Primitive camp; 49 camp sites w/ fee. Pack it in, Pack it out. No garbage services. No reservations. First-come, first-serve. aka Wild River Campground
Big Meadow Campground is a large NFS camp, located right on Highway 4, about 20 miles from Arnold, CA; Large forested camp w/ shade, hiking and fishing closely; North fork of Stanislaus River; Autumn colors in the aspen grove; 68 camp sites, some of which can accommodate RVs. Max length = 27′
Primitive Camp Sites
No primitive camping inside this state park; Campfires are only permitted inside the 2 developed campgrounds.
WALK-IN environmental campsites are available at both of the State Park campgrounds – North Grove & Oak Hollow.
For car camping and free of charge camping spots, you’ll need to exit the park and start your searching on the back roads, in the neighboring Stanislaus National Forest. First, get a good topo map and try to pick several spots worth exploring. Obtain a campfire permit from the USFS ranger station (Arnold, CA)
Driving dirt roads and looking for a primitive camp site should be accomplished during daylight hours. Arriving at night could pose serious problems, like getting lost, encountering wildlife, settling on a poor place to camp or worst, sleep in your car. Always plan for plenty of time and daylight to find a good (free) camp.
Across the Highway (SR 4) from Calaveras State Park a long dirt road ridge line will lead to Railroad Flat – Forest Service Rd#5N23, Summit Level Road
Just north of Calaveras State Park is a paved road worth checking out – Board Crossing Road #52 becomes Forest Service Rd #5N02
State Park has nature trail around Sequoia grove & guided tours in summer. Day hiking trails throughout the park and fishing trails along the river.
Southern Sierra Nevada Foothills
Great Western Divide
2021 – MUCH OF THIS RIVER may be INACCESSIBLE, due to the Castle Fire 2020
One of the smallest rivers in the Sierra Nevada, the Tule River has three forks and is located within Tulare County. Tule drains the Golden Trout Wilderness on the Great Western Divide, part of the Sierra Nevada range. California Highway 190 connects the upper elevations of the Giant Sequoia to the farm town of Porterville. Tule River parallels this main Sierra highway as it flows west into the Central Valley.
Inside Mountain Home State Forest – Hidden Falls & Moses Gulch Campgrounds, both have small waterfalls & swimming holes. Dirt roads access these back woods camp spots, but they are both popular among the locals in summer months. Off season is best for minimal crowds. Mosquitoes can be fierce; bring the repellent or a screen room.
Clear, cold, snowmelt water, flowing west – out of the Golden Trout Wilderness. Deep within the Western Sierra Nevada, lined with granite cliffs and neighboring the oldest Sequoia groves, the north fork of the Tule River descends down the forested canyons to meet the oak-land foothills at Springville, CA.
Central Sierra Nevada Mountains
Sonora Pass CA 108 / Ebbetts Pass CA 4
Stanislaus National Forest
The Sierra Nevada mountain route that usually closes first and opens last, due to snow and rock slides . Sonora Pass snow is epic, but often unaccessible most of the year. Snow melt can be slow and this route may not open by until mid-summer. (Quite typical on this highway). Check Cal Trans Hwy Reports. Summer and early Autumn is the time to visit this region, so plan accordingly.
This Big Sierra River is so far reaching that it covers areas from two different Wilderness Areas and two Sierra highway systems: Sonora Pass 108 & Ebbetts Pass Hwy 4.
The North Fork of Stanislaus River starts up at Highland Creek (below Highland Lakes) and parallels the Ebbetts Pass pavement westward down the mountain. Numerous lakes and parks along this steep northern fork, all lined with impressive granite rock. Spicer Reservoir, Elephant Rock, Summit Lake, Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Stanislaus National Forest.
Middle Fork of Stanislaus River, overview
Clark Fork flowing from the Dardanelles in Carson Peak Wilderness, become the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. Numerous Campgrounds, RV camps, horse camps along Clark Fork Road. California Highway 108 may still have a real old fashioned pay phone at this intersection. Go look.
Kennedy Creek comes in from the south side of the highway and creates Kennedy Meadows, a horse packing ranch; Not to be confused with the Kern Kennedy Meadows, way down south.
Eagle Creek and Kennedy, plus the Clark Fork are the main headwaters to Stanislaus River making up the Middle fork of this river. Traveling southwest thru the forest, with numerous Reservoirs and plenty of campgrounds.
Middle Fork comes together near the Fence Creek Campground @ Hwy 108. Flowing downhill to join Donnell Lake, then 10 miles of ‘really rugged wild river’ down to Beardsley Lake, then to Sand Bar Flat Campground further below, and on towards the county line @ Calaveras.
South Fork Stanislaus, the shortest of the forks, flows down from Pinecrest Lake, Dodge Ridge Ski Resort and the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Then hits Lyons Reservoir (4228′ elev) near the community of Long Barn, CA Italian Bar brings it right down to Historical Gold Camp, Columbia.
Eventually the massive Stanislaus River ends up in the San Joaquin (Central) Valley, like most of the Western Sierra rivers do, growing the food crops for all. California is a huge agriculture state.
Backpacking Big Wilderness
With Wilderness making up the majority of the landscape around these river canyons , there is ample opportunity for day hiking, creek fishing and backpacking adventures. May as well plan for a full week off of work, if you wanna explore in some depth. Many trailheads have small parking lots located on dirt roads, which are usually passenger car accessible.
PCT = The Pacific Crest hiking trail cuts right across the tallest Sierra Nevada mountain pass – Sonora Pass 108 @ 9625′ elev.
Black Bears are common in this region and several areas have bear boxes for proper food storage. If not available, you’ll need a bear canister or learn to properly hang your food in a tree.
Winter closures due to deep snow is common more than half the year up here. Check Cal Trans for highway conditions and w/ local rangers to find out what back roads are open, and which ones are too muddy. 4WD may be needed to reach certain destinations, if snow & mud are still present. Winter SNOW CAN LAST UP HERE: on the peaks all summer long; And snow can start falling as early as October, so know the forecast before you set out on a major backcountry trip.
Wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the backcountry. Stop by a ranger station to get the latest details before your big trek into the woods. USFS web sites are not always so up-to-date. A phone call or personal visit may be needed to get accurate info.
The Wilderness boundaries on each side of the pavement (CA 108) along with giant granite walls, steep cliffs, boulders, wild raging rivers and dense forests make dirt road accessibility somewhat limited along the Sonora Pass Highway. Ebbetts (CA 4) has more dirt road accessibility, especially beyond Beardsley Lake.
County Line Road #6N06 will take you past a developed NFS Camp called Fence Creek Campground. The dirt road climbs into the forest meadows, with 2 trailheads to be found within a few miles. Horse Corral at Wheats Meadow. Numerous primitive campsites for backpackers, car campers, horse campers. Lush meadows, hidden forests, boulder outcroppings, dead end roads.
Back behind Pinecrest Lake & Dodge Ridge Ski are several dirt road loops w/ primitive camping at Bell Meadow Crabtree
Campfire permits are Required for camping outside of developed NFS campgrounds. Obtain a free campfire permit before you build a fire. Have a bucket and shovel at camp, always; attend the fire at all times.
Levitt Lake @ 9556′ elev, on the eastern slope of Sonora Pass has rocky road to wonderful scenery. Mid summer snow melt, so bring the good jacket – even in summer. High elevation camping, hiking, kayaking; rock scrambling at tree line. This alpine lake best reached with high clearance vehicle.
Union, Utica, and Spicer Reservoirs have a few dirt roads to explore off Spicer Rd #7N01, with abundant trails for hiking and mountain biking. Tons of firewood, free for the cutting. Bring your saw!
Kayaking and canoeing are popular at both Union and Utica. Dirt road access. No motors on lake. FREE LAKE CAMP: Shoreline camping is possible, but summer crowds – can get downright insane. Nothing like a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. Big families camping out all week long w/ all their toys, tents, multiple vehicles. Try to visit in the off-season for the best experience at these 2 lovely lakes. Spicer has developed campgrounds w/ fees, but has real boat ramps and can also accommodate RV campers.
OHV Trails Stanislaus
4×4 camps and dirt bike trails can be found at Niagra Creek, on the south side of Highway 108, before Clarks Fork.
Union Reservoir has a popular 4WD trail that connects up to Lake Alpine @ Ebbetts Pass.
BACK ROADS TIP
Regular dirt roads can become “4WD needed” with any decent amount of snow or heavy rains, especially on the steeper sections. Remember: No guard rails on the dirt roads. If you plan to camp ‘way back in there, in the boonies’ – make sure you know the weather forecast and have a vehicle that can get out; no matter how sloppy the road gets. Thunderstorms are possible. Snow is 75% of the year.