Sequoia National Park’s western half comprises nearly the entirety of the Kaweah River watershed. Five distinct forks (North, Marble, Middle, East, and South) feed the larger Kaweah River at their various confluences in and around the town of Three Rivers. Although the North, Marble, East, and South Forks all carry an impressive volume of water toward the great reservoir of Lake Kaweah, the Middle Fork, generally considered the main fork, is the longest, largest, and most impressive of the forks.
Many of Sequoia National Park’s finest footpaths follow the northern wall of the Middle Fork’s impressive canyon. Moro Rock juts out over the canyon bottom several thousand feet above. The High Sierra Trail runs along the middle elevations before following Hamilton Creek to the Middle Fork’s headwaters near Kaweah Gap. Higher still, the Alta Trail runs the length of Giant Forest before ascending to the summit of Alta Peak, which stands nearly 10,000’ above the park’s Ash Mountain Entrance. However, none of those trails come close to the actual river itself. For a more intimate experience with the Middle Fork, the Middle Fork Trail allows hikers to experience the numerous habitats of the foothills as it gradually ascends deep into the Middle Fork toward Redwood Meadow and connecting trails with the high country at Bearpaw Meadow and Cliff Creek.
Given the Middle Fork’s lower elevations (generally between 3,000’ and 6,000’), summertime temperatures are generally too oppressive to make this hike enjoyable and safe. Fall, winter, and especially springtime are the best times to enjoy this route, and the Middle Fork Trail is Sequoia’s best option for off-season backcountry travel. Day-hikers can penetrate about as far as Mehrten Creek, while backpackers can follow the trail to its end near Redwood Meadow provided high water at several major crossings does not prevent travel. If you are traveling the route in the spring, it is best to consult with rangers at the Foothill Visitor Center regarding current conditions.
Hikers should also be aware that the park closes the access road to the Middle Fork Trailhead (also the access road to Buckeye Flat and the Paradise Creek Trail) during mid-fall, winter, and into early spring. If the road is closed, you can park at the Hospital Rock Picnic Area and follow the road for 0.4 mile to the Buckeye Flat Campground access road. Keep left to continue another 1.4 miles to the Middle Fork Trailhead. This section of road walking will add another 1.8 miles of distance and about 600’ of elevation to the route. For day-hikers, this probably means you’ll go no further than Panther Creek. If the road to the trailhead is open, Mehrten Creek is a more ambitious but still achievable goal.
Striking out from the Middle Fork Trailhead, you drop a quick 50’ over 0.1 mile to the bank of Moro Creek which drains the area around Crescent Meadow some 3,000’ above. The creek spills over a pretty set of cascades under the shade of oaks and sycamores. Rock hop across and commence travel heading generally east on a meandering and sometimes undulating course.
The meandering of the trail leads you onto sections of hillside with varying slope aspect, a term which refers to the direction a slope is facing. Slope aspect dramatically influences the type of vegetation you will encounter. Slopes facing south receive full sun exposure, and you can expect to see hardy, drought-tolerant plants like chamise, ceanothus, manzanita, yuccas grasses, herbs, and a variety of other shrubs that make up chaparral communities.
North-facing slopes receive less direct sun-exposure, especially at the ground level, which allows for greater water retention. With more water available, north-facing slopes support evergreen hardwoods like canyon live oak and California bay laurel, and where more water is available, deciduous hardwoods like California buckeye, California sycamore, white alder, and bigleaf maple. The transitioning slopes facing west and east showcase a mixture of the two communities.
Wildflower displays, including flannelbush, California poppy, owls clover, ceanothus, phacelia, mariposa lilies, blue dicks, and many more brighten the landscape between March and May. As a result, the botanical display is ever-changing and much more diverse that what you would experience at higher elevations.
In addition to so much botanical variety, the route also features incredible views of the surrounding canyon. Hikers familiar with Giant Forest will have seen a lot of the highlights – Castle Rocks, the Great Western Divide, Moro Rock, etc. – from a higher vantage point, but the lower altitude perspective is equally impressive in its own way. The Middle Fork itself threads through the bottom of this impressive canyon, rumbling along generally 200-500’ below.
The trail continues on in this way for a gently ascending 3 miles until approaching Panther Creek. A picturesque waterfall spills into a shaded grotto, forming a pool that invites a dip on warm days. Below the pool, Panther Creek gushes into the Middle Fork over an unseen and unaccessible waterfall. The cliff-side view looking up and down canyon is impressive enough, and there are a number of suitable campsites on the east side of the creek. Bear in mind that Panther Creek can be a difficult crossing during high water periods (usually April and May when snowmelt =swells the creek). If the water is high, don’t chance a crossing as a wrong move would sweep you over the cliff and into the raging Middle Fork.
Beyond Panther Creek – provided you have the time and energy to continue that far – the trail continues in its meandering fashion, but by this point the gained elevation leads to a different scheme of vegetation with the first conifers – ponderosa pines and incense cedars – appearing alongside deciduous black oak trees. Black oak leaves turn golden during October and November, making this section a fine bit of fall hiking. Over the past six years, many of the conifers in this area and above have been hard hit by a decrease in precipitation and an increase in heat. Bark beetles have ravaged the area, leading to many dead conifers. It is undeniably a sad sight, but the rest of the natural features and views remain as outstanding as ever.
At 5.3 miles, the trail takes a bend to the north to enter Mehrten Creek’s heavily wooded gorge. A side path at 5.6 miles leads downhill toward a set of campsites. Older topo maps show this trail leading all the way down to the river, but I was unable to follow the trail for long. The trail reaches the banks of Mehrten Creek and another set of campsites at exactly 6 miles from the Middle Fork Trailhead. This will be the end of the line for most day-hikers. Be sure to cross Mehrten Creek (providing it is safe to do so) and pick your way upstream for about 30 yards to reach a point where Mehrten Creek spills 15 feet over a granite shelf into a shady pool. This is also an inviting place for a dip on a warm day.
Backpackers can continue beyond Mehrten Creek across Buck Creek and then over various crossings of the Middle Fork, Eagle Scout Creek, and Granite Creek before climbing up to Redwood Meadow. This track does not display the route, and I recommend using the Tom Harrison Map to guide your way. I also recommend checking with the Foothill Visitor Center Rangers to ensure that the crossings upstream will be safe. Heavy run-off during the spring of 2017 took out at least one bridge crossing the Kaweah, and it is unknown when the bridge will be repaired.
Tags: Buck Creek, Buckeye Flat, Castle Rocks, Great Western Divide, Hospital Rock, Mehrten Creek, Middle Fork Kaweah River, Middle Fork Trail, Moro Creek, Moro Rock, Panther Creek, Redwood Meadow, Sequoia National Park