FRESNO -- Standing atop Big Baldy, a granite dome perched on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada, the views stretch out forever.
Even though Big Baldy can be climbed year round, the scenery is never better than in winter. But instead of hiking boots, you'll need snowshoes or cross-country skis.
To reach the trailhead, take Highway 180 to Kings Canyon National Park and drive 6.6 miles south on the Generals Highway to a large wooden sign that reads "Big Baldy Trail." Park here or a few yards past the sign where snowplows have cleared a wider turnout.
From the trailhead it's a two-mile tramp to the summit and 560 feet of elevation gain. You won't see a trail -- it's buried in snow, remember -- so follow others' tracks or red reflectors in trees marked with the number 10.
The route generally heads south and follows Big Baldy Ridge. After traversing a belt of pine trees, views of Redwood Canyon, one of the world's largest giant sequoia groves, open below.
One mile into your journey, crossing a flat area covered with large boulders, Big Baldy itself comes into view. It's easy going for a while -- there's even a gradual downhill -- before an uphill kicker to the summit.
The final push is relatively steep. Just follow the trail markers and don't stray too far toward the edge of the ridge. It's a long way down.
Through the thick forest, you'll see the rounded summit hump. Just a bit farther now.
To the west lies Redwood Canyon and its thick blanket of trees and ridges. Looming in the background and usually shrouded in clouds and fog, is the San Joaquin Valley. On a clear day you can see across to the Coast Range.
To the southeast sits Little Baldy, Big Baldy's conical little brother. Beyond that and moving farther east are the serrated summits of the Great Western and Kings-Kaweah divides, partially obscured by treetops. Snow-capped peaks of Kings Canyon and the Monarch Divide dominate the view to the north.
It's also possible to reach Big Baldy by using of Montecito- Sequoia Lodge's groomed ski tracks. Going that way is easier, but you'll have to pay $25 for the privilege. (Go to www.montecitosequoia.com for details.)
Here's the lowdown to four other excellent snowshoe trails:
Dewey Point, Yosemite National Park: It's a seven-mile roundtrip from Badger Pass to this classic viewpoint perched on the southern rim of Yosemite Valley directly across from El Capitan. By taking the Meadow Trail, which leaves the groomed tracks of Glacier Point Road at Summit Meadow, the terrain is gentle most of the way.
This is a popular route, so go during midweek to escape the crowds. Just don't expect total solitude. Maps can be purchased at the trailhead, located at the north end of the parking lot.
Coyote Loop, Sierra National Forest: Located along Highway 168 at Tamarack Ridge, this six-mile tour offers views of Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake and Red Mountain. For a shorter trip, go out to the Shaver Lake vista and back.
Since the Coyote Nordic Trailhead is also a popular snowplay area, the parking lot fills rapidly on weekends. Get there early to ensure a space. A Sno-Park pass is required. Stop by the Forest Service office in Prather for a map.
Panoramic Point, Kings Canyon: If you thought this was a grand view in summer, just wait till you see it in winter. Views of nearly every peak in the Southern Sierra are your reward for this 2.5-mile, 1,000-foot climb from Grant Grove.
Once you've reached the end of the snow-covered road, yellow circles in trees guide you to the top. It's also possible to continue another 2.5 miles to the Park Ridge Lookout. Maps available at the Grant Grove Visitor Center.
Panther Gap Loop, Sequoia National Park: Giant sequoias, frosted peaks, pristine meadows, solitude -- this six-mile loop from Wolverton has it all.
Start by following the marked ski trail to Pear Lake. But when that trail veers left and steeply uphill after 1.3 miles, yours continues through the forest on a steady climb to Panther Gap. (Follow yellow triangles marked with a panther.) After enjoying the views, the route back heads through Red Fir Meadow and Long Meadow. Maps available through Sequoia Natural History Association (www.sequoiahistory. org).
Here are some guided snowshoe hikes:
Yosemite: Free ranger-led hikes are offered at 10:30 a.m. daily. Meet at the Badger Pass A-Frame; no reservations required and snowshoes provided.
Sequoia/Kings Canyon: Free ranger-led hikes offered most weekends, but advance reservations are required. Snowshoes provided. Call (559) 565-4307 for Grant Grove and (559) 565-4436 for Lodgepole.
Sequoia Field Institute: Guided four-hour snowshoe hike Jan. 26 to experience the full moon in Giant Forest. Fees are $52 per person and space is limited. Details: (559) 565-4251.
Yosemite Conservancy: Guided hikes to Mariposa Grove (March 9) and Dewey Point (March 16). Fees are $92 per person and space is limited. (The Feb. 9 trip to Dewey Point is full.) Details: (209) 379-2317.