Dick's Adventures of 2019 - Part 1

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Back to Bear Wallow


Back to Bear Wallow

I camped and hiked at this location in January of 2018, but didn't finish the hike the way I wanted, so I made plans to return, having developed what I hoped was a strategy for success. This trip started on January 2, the earliest in the year for a first adventure since perhaps 1983. I left home at about 10:30, arriving at the Bear Wallow Group Camp a little over two hours later. With only three campsites and one picnic table, I'm not sure how this qualifies as a "group camp," but there has never been anyone else there during my two trips, so a "group" of one has plenty of room.

The location is on the Garnet Dike Road on the north side of the Kings River, three miles up river from where Balch Camp Road joins Trimmer Springs Road. The camp is about 60 miles from my house, located at about 1,100 feet elevation, but deep into the mountains in the river canyon. This area is commonly called the Upper Kings, and is officially the Kings River Special Management Area.

The weather was quite cool the first day, never getting above 50 degrees. Cold air flows down from higher elevations and sinks to the bottom of canyons like this, so I expected cold nights. In fact, the low of 23 was the coldest I've camped in since my hike to Devil's Postpile in 1980, when I slept on a foam pad in 22 degree weather (but warm inside my very good backpacker's sleeping bag).

The first day I wandered around the area, collecting firewood and enjoying the views of the river and surrounding hills. I had borrowed my grandson's chain saw, but could not get it started, so I was limited to branches I could break off by hand and break into pieces, usually by whacking them on the trunk of a tree. Fortunately, there were some dead manzanita and bush lupines that are easy to deal with and make excellent firewood. I also had a box of commercial wood for each night.

The sun sets early at the campsite, owing to its location in a narrow river canyon. The sun goes behind a hill across the river about 3:15, and the temperature immediately starts its downward run. By 5 p.m. it was 36 degrees, and I had my fire going. I cooked a Cajun sausage over the fire for my dinner, and spent the rest of the evening reading, checking out the stars, and keeping the fire going. As usual when solo camping, I got to bed about 8:30.

Hills above my campsite A small section of the winding Kings River

One of the many switchbacks on the Bear Wallow Trail is visible in the center of this photo

An endless forest of blue oaks above the river

When I hiked the Bear Wallow Trail last year I got up and had tea, then a leisurely breakfast, and took my time getting started. This year my plan was to skip the tea and have breakfast as soon as I got up, so I could get an earlier start. It's not good to hike immediately after a normal meal, but preparations for the hike delayed my start the right amount. I made a peanut butter sandwich, cut up an apple and an orange, and packed a couple of candy bars, with the intention of having frequent small snacks to maintain my energy level during the hike.

It seemed to work out very well. The trail is pretty much up hill for a long stretch, zig zagging up the steep hills on the north side of the river. When I reached the point where I turned back last year, I felt very good and capable of hiking another hour or so before heading back, so I was confident I could reach my destination.

By this point the trail had leveled off somewhat, although I knew there had to be more climbing to get to a vista point. The trail went down through a drainage, then up and down toward another. Here everything went off the rails, or at least off the trail. As I approached a fairly steep drainage, the trail deteriorated into a dozen cow paths, with no clear indication as to which was the right trail. I walked up parallel to the drainage till I found a place I could get across, then worked my way up toward a ridge, following cow paths or just taking the easiest route. One bonus was that I came to a rock outcropping with bedrock mortar holes.

One of two groups of bedrock mortars (Indian grinding holes)

I hiked up this trackless hill, dodging ground squirrel holes and pushing through the tall grass


It looked as if I was getting to a ridge top where I could have a view to the other side, so I kept going up that way. Like many "tops," there was another top beyond what looked like the top, but soon I was looking down at the river and the hills and mountains upstream from my starting point. To the south was a small, round hill, and I decided to make my way to the top, again following cow paths and just walking along the contour when there was no path that led up.

My hope was that the top of this hill would turn out to be the official vista point, and that I would see the main trail leading down hill from there. It did not work out that way, but I decided that if this was not the official vista, at least it was MY vista, and I had a good 360 degree view. This included a long stretch of the Monarch Divide that runs between the middle and south forks of the Kings River, and terminates in 9,500 foot Wren Peak, all with a dusting of snow. I also had long views of the river upstream from my campground, and across the canyon at seemingly endless hills and ridges, lit dramatically by the low winter sun.

The Monarch Divide and Wren Peak The river upstream from my campsite
Steep canyons and ridges of the Upper Kings area The hilltop I climbed, seen from the trail

Now it was time to head back down. I pretty much followed the same faint animal trails that had guided me up to the final hilltop. When I got back down to the saddle just below, I went down the ridge that led back toward where I had left the trail. To avoid crossing a steep drainage, I went a little higher up on the ridge than the route I had followed on the way up. As I made my way down, I saw what looked like a pretty good trail across a drainage to my right. I went down a steep section, up the other side via another cow trail, and arrived at the trail I had spotted.

I should point out that, in this country, the difference between a cow trail, a "pretty good" trail, and a cross country route is fairly subtle. Almost everywhere I walked I had to beware of squirrel holes, holes made by cows walking the route when the ground was soft and wet, and tall, dead grass. However, I soon decided I was on the right path, when I spotted a section where red plastic ribbons were tied in the trees to mark the way through areas with lots of false trails.

I arrived back at a point I recognized, where there was a wooden sign pointing to the "correct" trail. This was the sign that had guided me to the confusing mass of cow trails, and the fact that I arrived here on an alternate trail made me suspect that the sign is no longer reliable.

From this point I was hiking back down on the same route that brought me up. It was pretty much all down hill, but there were some steep spots and places where the trail goes along a steep hillside. It's not a sheer drop-off, but the hillside is such that you could be seriously injured stepping off the trail. I walked carefully, using my poles, avoided this fate and made it safely back down to my campsite, arriving just in time to see the sun disappear behind the hills across the river. I don't know how high the temperature got, but it was above 60 when I got back, so it was at least ten degrees warmer than the previous day. This differential did not apply at night - it got down to 25 degrees.

I rested a while, then spent about a half hour gathering wood, which required a number of 300-yard round trips in two directions. I had planned to fix a grilled cheese sandwich, but I ended up having a "backpacker's dinner" of cheese, peanuts, crackers, and vegetables, avoiding the need to fire up the stove.

I postponed starting my fire as long as I could, but with darkness approaching by 5 p.m., the temperature again dropped into the 30s and I settled in next to the fire ring, reading and enjoying a couple of candy bars for dessert. I got to bed around 8:30, and again had a comfortable night's sleep inside the camper shell.

The next morning I refused to come out of the camper until I saw sunshine getting close to my camp. It was probably about 8:15 when I got up, but it was still below freezing. As I had done last year, I moved my chair to a spot in direct sun about 50 feet from camp, and had hot tea before starting breakfast. 

The narrow, overgrown Bear Wallow Trail Sycamore tree in the drainage east of the trail

On the final day of these short camping trips I usually don't do anything but eat breakfast and pack up, but I don't do it fast. After cooking and eating breakfast, and getting things loaded at my normal slow pace, I didn't get started for home till around 12:30, about an hour later than usual. It was a nice, sunny day, and I enjoyed the 60-mile drive along the river and lake and through the low foothills that mark the start of the Sierra Nevada range.

I decided that I was done with the Bear Wallow Trail, although I would happily camp at that location again. I think I might bring more wood and sit by a morning fire till lunch time.

--Dick Estel, January 2019

More Bear Wallow Photos





Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 
Bear Wallow
Bear Wallow
Empty seed pods in the sun Blue oak with the river below Artistically-arranged dead brush
The Monarch Divide and Wren Peak, from my vista point
Rocky cliffs high on Rogers Ridge Looking down into the valley of Mill Flat Creek Ribbons mark the trail
A close look at the hilltop vista point A forest of leafless buckeye trees These steps were steep enough to require extra effort
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Bear Wallow Camp Pine Flat Lake Wren Peak Climb
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Updated January 19, 2019