The cover of Mike White’s “Best Snowshoe Trails of California” declares, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” It’s a true statement, and I heartily recommend this guidebook, which has helped me find good places to hike in the snow.
Last weekend, I took White’s advice and met up with friends in Fresno to snowshoe the Tokopah Falls Trail in Sequoia National Park.
I’ve featured Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in this column several times over the last year because, having grown up so close to Yosemite, I didn’t start actively exploring the other national parks of the Sierra Nevada until recently. I’ve been enjoying the discovery a lot, and I’ve tried to share my adventures with readers. Sequoia and Kings Canyon have much to offer, and the drive from Merced to the Kings Canyon National Park entrance on Highway 180 is just under 2 1/2 hours.
The sky was blue, the air was crisp, and the snow was 3 to 4 feet deep when we strapped on our snowshoes at the Lodgepole Visitor Center and started our trek through the Lodgepole Campground to the falls.
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The trail is extremely popular during the summer, when the campground is open, but on our visit, we saw fewer than 20 people. A warm day preceding our visit melted the top of the snow and the following night had refrozen it into a hard, crunchy layer. We saw many people on the trail without snowshoes who managed to stay on the frozen layer most of the time, but there were also many deep “post holes” where softer areas had given way and legs had sunk up to 2 feet. It was definitely helpful to have the snowshoes.
The trail isn’t marked with reflectors, as many snowshoe trails are, but many people preceded us along the route and their footprints made the trail obvious. Lodgepole Campground is situated along the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. You walk through the snowy campground until you see a bridge over the river. After crossing the bridge, the trail takes off to the right, following the edge of the river.
Footbridges cross three sizable streams, but watch out for places where the trail crosses smaller unbridged streams. The path gradually rises about 500 feet to the end of the Tokopah Valley, where you can see the river tumbling 1,200 feet down the high granite headwall.
Although much of the fall was frozen over and then covered by snow, the steep canyon was still a magnificent sight. The ice of the lowest part of the fall was visible, and we watched ice climbers ascend it with ropes and axes.
The round-trip distance is about 4½ miles. In the summer, it’s closer to 3½. If you do the hike, it’s recommended that you observe the falls from the trees, as there is some degree of avalanche danger at the far end of the valley. Snow is piled high over the river, and although some people left evidence of crossing it directly below the falls, it’s very dangerous to do so. You risk being trapped and drowned or suffocated in the river’s channel beneath the snow.
Tokopah Falls is a great snowshoe hike when the park is a winter wonderland, and it’s also unforgettable in the summer, when the Tokopah Valley and Falls look entirely different. I highly recommend it both times of year.
Closest to home, of course, are Yosemite’s snowshoe trails in the Crane Flat and Badger Pass areas. The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias can also be a great destination, but it’s closed this year. For maps of Yosemite snowshoe trails, go to: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/brochures.htm. Snowshoes can be rented at Badger Pass.
If you head south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon, be aware the Generals Highway, which connects Kings Canyon (the northern park) and Sequoia (the southern park), is closed through March 18. This means if you plan a trip before then, you should visit one park or the other.
My favorite snowshoe routes in Kings Canyon include the Grant Grove (an easy walk of one-half to 3 miles among gigantic Sequoias) and Panoramic Point (a road during the summer that becomes a wide and snowy path for snowshoeing during the winter). Panoramic Point is more challenging – 5 miles round trip with a 900-foot elevation gain, but it’s worth it for the view.
If you head to Sequoia, I strongly recommend Tokopah Falls, though Big Baldy may also be a good option after the Generals Highway reopens March 19. Sequoia and Kings Canyon offer free ranger-led snowshoe hikes on weekends and holidays. Snowshoes can be rented at Wuksachi and Grant Grove.
Adam Blauert: firstname.lastname@example.org