MY neighbor tempted me with the notion: a magical mountain campsite. No-hassle reservations. Only half a day's drive from Los Angeles.
Car camping without being campfire-to-campfire with 100 other people? In one of the most popular areas of the most populous state in the union? In the summer? Was it possible?
The affirmation came in the form of Quaking Aspen, a campground inside the national monument. (The monument, carved out of the Sequoia National Forest, is not be confused with the other nearby big tree preserves, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks.) The campground sits just above 7,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, the nearest small town 28 miles of mountain road away. Pines and cedars towered overhead, shading the campsites all day long. A stream bubbled along its edge. And it was blissfully unpopulated.
Still, until I got there with my 14-year-old daughter, Courtney, we were dubious. Every turn of the road, we expected to come upon a line of cars, a lot full of RVs. Our reserved campsite — on a Friday night in late July, no less — was as promised: clearly marked, with table and fire ring, nearby water pump and elbow room to spare.
Our nearest neighbors were blue jays and golden-mantled ground squirrels. There wasn't another tent within half a dozen sites. If a group site 200 or so yards away hadn't held a Cub Scout troop, we'd almost have felt isolated.
It wasn't perfect. There were some mosquitoes. But bug spray was a small price to pay for such idyll.
We popped up our tent, fluffed up our sleeping bags and fired up the camp stove. Dinner was pasta with garlic chicken and vegetables, brought from home in the cooler, and some sheepherder bread. Car camping has undeniable advantages over backpacking.
After dinner, we looked at our map, planned some tentative routes and then settled in to read by lantern light. Home felt a good, long distance away.
The next morning, we headed out to hike to the Needles, clustered climbing rocks that resemble nothing so much as ancient Egyptian monoliths. Climbers flock here during the summer to sample the variety of vertical routes. Some believe these formations have a supernatural aura, and they've been named accordingly: Sorcerer, Witch, Wizard, Warlock and Voodoo Dome.
Serious climbers frequent a primitive campsite closer to the Needles, so ours was the only car parked at the trailhead. The 2 1/2 -mile path climbs up through the forest toward the rocks, where peregrine falcons nest. We pulled on lightweight backpacks and headed up the shaded trail. Through breaks in the trees, we caught dramatic views of the southern Sierra and the rock formations.
Atop the Magician's 8,245-foot summit sits Needles Lookout Tower. The historic fire lookout is staffed by a lone, live-in ranger who passes the summer peering through the windows looking for wisps of smoke. If all's clear, four people at a time can share the ranger's view after climbing up a 12-story iron staircase and crossing a metal bridge.
The view can seem limitless — stretching over the Golden Trout Wilderness, up the Kern River canyon and all the way to Mt. Whitney on the eastern side of the Sierra. A haze in the air occluded Whitney. We may have escaped L.A., but not pollution.
The peak of Dome Rock, a quarter of a mile down a dirt road from the Western Divide Highway, is another goal hikers and climbers share. This granite monolith — 400 feet high and 800 feet wide — has a steep, carabiner-worthy approach on one side. The other side offers an easy walk with views in all directions.
As we explored, waterfalls fed by vigorous springs or snowmelt tumbled down to the unpaved roads. The 100-foot Peppermint Falls roared out of a campground of the same name and plummeted over sandy-colored rocks into lovely pools. The top of the falls can be treacherous, but a side trail took us to the bottom, where we relaxed in the water's cooling spray.
We stopped for lunch at the Ponderosa Lodge, run by the Brewer family for more than 30 years. The family almost lost the lodge in the McNally fire, which tore through this area two years ago, and Peter Brewer worries that "extensive undergrowth is setting us up for a catastrophic fire like they had in Yellowstone" in 1988. He says forest management hasn't been as effective since the area became a national monument, and the amount of undergrowth seemed to back up his opinion.
Losing any of this wilderness to fire would be a tragedy. Giant Sequoia National Monument, established by President Clinton in 2000, boasts 38 sequoia groves, including the increasingly visited Trail of 100 Giants, where the trees reach more than 270 feet. We strolled along that winding half-mile trail, craning our necks to see the leafy treetops and marveling at the massive trunks that dwarf all human visitors.
Back at the campsite, we hoped for a glimpse of a solitary black bear that we were told paid an occasional visit, but the grounds remained serene. We sipped tea while dinner simmered on our Coleman stove. The stealth arrival of nightfall sprayed stars across the sky. Soon, the scent of the pines enveloped us as a cool breeze stirred the needles of the trees, and we drifted off to sleep, father and daughter, only hours from home but in a quiet, faraway space.
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Among the giants
From Los Angeles it's about 200 miles to Quaking Aspen, going north on Interstate 5, then onto California 99. North of Bakersfield, take California 65. In Porterville, go east on California 190. About 28 miles beyond Springville — the last town with gasoline — are the campgrounds.
WHERE TO STAY:
Quaking Aspen Campground has 32 individual and seven group campsites. Two-night minimum stay on weekends; three nights on holiday weekends. Reservations are available through the National Recreation Reservation Service, (877) 444-6777, http://www.reserveusa.com . Single-family site, $15 per night; group site, $22.50. Campground closes Nov. 7 for the winter. Information available from the U.S. Forest Service, Tule River Ranger District, 32588 Highway 190, Springville, CA 93265; (559) 539-2607.
Ponderosa Lodge, 56692 Aspen Drive (at Great Western Divide Highway), Ponderosa; (559) 542-2579. Family-owned lodge is good for meals and food supplies. Two guest rooms, $75-$185 depending on occupancy. Open Thursday-Monday.
WHERE TO GO:
Giant Sequoia National Monument contains 38 sequoia groves. The monument and surrounding Sequoia National Forest have 1,000 miles of hiking trails, including the popular half-mile Trail of 100 Giants. Sequoia National Forest, 900 W. Grand Ave., Porterville, CA 93257; (559) 784-1500, http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/gsnm.html .
Freeman Creek Grove, also called Lloyd Meadow Grove, is the closest to Quaking Aspen. Its 1,400 acres have never been logged.
— Dan Blackburn
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