Switchback Peak
Moro Rock ESS
Sunset Rock ESS

Mon, Sep 23, 2013
Switchback Peak
Moro Rock
Sunset Rock
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 Profiles: 1 2 3 4


Determined to make the best of an aborted climbing trip to the Big Arroyo, I was up at 5a to leave Bearpaw while it was still dark. I didn't bother with breakfast, figuring I could eat something on my way to Mineral King when it grew light out. If I could get the fifteen miles to Mineral King done by around noon, I'd still have time to visit a few summits around the Giant Forest area in Sequoia National Park. Taking less than 20 minutes to pack up and be on my way, I was soon cruising down the trail towards Redwood Meadow. That I was hiking by headlamp made little difference for the views which were non-existent for the most part as the trail descends through heavy forest cover in the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River drainage. After passing a first junction, I reached the river about an hour after starting out, just as the dawn was coming on. Though the water level was low at this time of year, I had some trouble getting across and back on the trail, with some bushwhacking to contend with in the half-light, half-darkness of that early morning hour.

The second hour went smoother, with better light, a real bridge over Granite Creek, and a pleasant pre-sunrise view of Moro Rock to the west. At a second junction I continued left towards Redwood Meadow where I arrived at the two hour mark. There is a large collection of giant sequoias nestled in this grove where several trail junctions occur. As the name implies, there is also a good-sized meadow surrounded by sequoias and other large trees in this mixed conifer forest. Several cabins are found, tightly shuttered and a corral for livestock and pack animals. There were no wranglers, packers, backpackers or visitors other than myself as I passed through the camp quietly.

Beyond Redwood Meadow the trail begins to climb steadily up the Cliff Creek drainage, contouring high on its northeast side. There are some views of Moro Rock, Sugarbowl Dome, and the surrounding drainages, but again most of the route is under forest cover. After four miles the trail eventually crosses Cliff Creek at another trail junction and the confluence with Timber Gap Creek. Here I took my first break to eat an early lunch masquerading as a late breakfast. Canned chicken on Ritz crackers were the main course. While I was enjoying my repast, an item I read on the cracker box had me puzzled: "Natural flavor with other natural flavor." Wouldn't "Natural flavor" have sufficed, I wondered? Later I learned this was a peculiar result of federal packaging law and it wasn't unique. Somehow, the "other natural flavor" was in reference to the carmelized onion flavor that was added to the already naturally flavored Ritz crackers. This was probably something I should have left uninvestigated.

The trail above the confluence begins to climb steeply as it makes its way to Timber Gap along the creek of the same name. The forest begins to thin some as it climbs above 8,000ft, offering some additional views, but the trees never take much of a backseat. The Tablelands above Bearpaw can be seen behind to the north along with the higher ridges around Timber Gap on either side of the drainage I climbed. I saw my first fellow humans, a backpacking couple, just before reaching Timber Gap. They had stayed at Redwood Meadow and were also on their way out to Mineral King. At Timber Gap I was back on familiar ground. I had been here only two months earlier while climbing nearby Empire Mtn. With a view to Farewell Gap in front of me, I descended the last two miles to Mineral King where I arrived just after noon, right on schedule. As expected, both Tom and Michael's vehicles were still there - they'd likely be coming out from the Big Arroyo later in the day. I unloaded my heavy burden into the van, happy to be done with the backpacking for now. Time for some more fun with a lighter pack.

I drove back down to Three Rivers where I spent some time with a WiFi connection to reconnect with civilization before heading back up to Sequoia NP on SR198. There were a number of summits in the general area within the park that had caught my attention. The first was Switchback Peak. Located just off the Generals Highway, the name was given more than 100 years ago for the old route that became today's main road to Giant Forest. Though only a third of a mile from the highway, the peak is located in the lower reaches of the park, where chaparral and forest compete for dominion of the landscape. Without the help of previous visitors, I knew it might be impossible to reach it due to heavy brushy. The turnout just northeast of the peak is a popular view point. I would have preferred to jump over the retaining wall and into the manzanita without an audience, but was unable to find a time without one or more vehicles sharing the location. Though they didn't say anything, I'm sure the couple standing there must have wondered what I was up to.

My first look on the other side of the wall was not pleasant. A wall of brush well over my head confronted me. I had better luck by moving to the shadier northwest side of the connecting ridge where I found an old use trail heading in the right direction. It wasn't well-used by any stretch and there was some old-fashioned bushwhacking to contend with, but for the most part it was just the ticket and it took less than half an hour to reach the summit. What looked like an old survey stick or flagpole from a distance turned out to be a yucca stalk crowning the summit. The last part of the summit is somewhat rocky, though no more than class 2, and happily makes for fine views. Once can see Moro Rock and Castle Rocks prominently to the east, and the impressive view of the Kaweah drainage for 270 degrees, including the steep and rugged Marble Fork to the north. I found no register, just a small cairn to mark the highpoint.

Back at the highway, I continued up to the parking lot for Moro Rock. Being a weekday and late in the season, I had no trouble finding a spot at the TH without having to resort to the shuttle or other means. There were still plenty of visitors to this highly popular overlook. The trail is perhaps a quarter mile in length, a series of many steps that have been hewn into the rock or poured with concrete. Though an engineering marvel, I feel the talent was misspent and the rock would have been better left as a class 3 scramble. The stairs, railings and placards could have been done without, but they have certainly provided a safe and educating experience to many thousands who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to stand at its summit. I found some solitude by stepping outside the summit railing and walking a short distance south down the rounded granite slabs. There are some additional concrete steps that were poured here, but no longer generally used. One can have the views pretty much to themselves (I suspect that on the busiest days, even this area is populated with overflow), perhaps shared with the numerous lizards sunning themselves on the warm rock. Higher than Swithback Peak, Moro Rock commands a grand view of the Kaweah drainage far to its headwaters on the Great Western Divide and a closer view to Castle Rocks across the canyon.

It wasn't quite 5:30p when I returned to the van, and with more daylight available, I spent about an hour hiking the trail out to Sunset Rock. Hey, what do you know? - it was almost sunset. Actually it wasn't all that great with the heavy afternoon haze enveloping the Central Valley and working its way westward up the slopes of the range. But it gave me something to do and I didn't mind having the trail and the rock to myself. It's not much of a summit or rock, really just a broad granite slab at the edge of the forest.

Finding a free place to sleep for the night inside the park is always a small struggle. I've spent the night at Crescent Meadow before, but uncomfortably so as there aren't any flat parking spots to be found in the entire lot. The other large trailhead lot in the area, Wolverton, is much better and that's where I spent the first night in Giant Forest. The lot can hold hundreds of cars, but there were only a few when I pulled in after sunset. I worried some that so few cars would make me more susceptable to detection, but I was able to spend the night in peace, unmolested. No rangers came by to trouble me. It had been a fairly long day before I got into the sleeping bag, so I had little trouble sleeping that night...


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