Not Just Big Trees

Most drives through California’s San Joaquin Valley aren’t joy rides. Southward from Sacramento along Highway 99, it can feel like an endless tunnel of fast-food restaurants, dairy lots, office parks, motels and warehouses.

Last summer, when I drove it, it was even worse: Dense smoke from wildfires wafting north from Los Angeles mingled with a punishing heat wave and whipped the valley into an inferno. The almond harvest was underway, and dust from that was caking everything it touched. It was as if I was driving through a bowl of clam chowder. My eyes watered. I coughed. I had a headache. What’s more, I had planned to visit Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks to see the giant trees, but hotels in the two towns where I thought to stay—Three Rivers and Visalia—were fully booked.

Both national parks held allure for me as I’d heard so little about them since moving back to Sacramento three years ago. Work in the San Joaquin Valley had taken me to the area, but I’d yet to get far enough east to see either one.

Scanning a map of the area as I planned the trip, and reasoning that I could enter the adjoining parks via the northerly Kings Canyon, I considered staying in Merced. I’d have to drive more on the journey. But a guidebook on California’s bed-and-breakfast inns included one entry for the town: Bear Creek Inn. Despite Merced’s proximity to Yosemite National Park, Bear Creek had a vacancy. Photos depicted a white mansion and an ornate wooden staircase leading to tidy, elegant rooms decorated with handsome Asian ceramics and quilts. Never mind the extra miles—I quickly booked a room for myself.

Squoia National Park
Granite cliffs in Sequoia National Park in the southern Sierra Nevada

Before checking in at Bear Creek, however, I drove farther south from Merced, aiming to cool off—the temperature was hovering around 111 degrees—at Millerton Lake State Recreation Area. On my roadmap, the lake seemed an outpost of blue about 20 miles east of Madera along Highway 145. This desolate road, I found, snakes over and around golden hills and amid rocky outcrops that stretch out for miles and miles. With the heavy heat beating down and waves of hot air billowing up from the pavement, it was a dreamlike panorama. I saw no other cars on the road. I happened to be reading a Cormac McCarthy novel at the time of the journey, which may well be the worst literary choice you can make while solo-traversing deserted byways during a heat wave.

This is why, too, glimpsing the lake felt almost magical, as if I’d arrived at a desert oasis. Once passing through the town of Friant, I drove alongside a massive dam before Lake Millerton came into view. It was low, with bathtub rings at the shoreline. Despite its rather depressing depths, I was not alone in seeking watery respite. In fact, I felt a bit late to the party: Barbecue festivities at the beach where I parked were already in full swing, and the shores were filled with large, colorful umbrellas and flotation toys of every shape and animation. Farther out, I saw motorboats and water-skiers, jet-skiers and a few kayakers. I changed into my bathing suit and headed in, unsurprised by the warm water on this sweltering day but certain this was one of the best places to be in the valley.

I had a similar thought a few hours later as I pulled up to Bear Creek Inn. The drive through Merced to reach the inn surprised me, with its leafy residential neighborhoods resembling Sacramento’s Fabulous 40s a welcome view from the dusty freeway. It felt every bit an oasis as Lake Millerton had been. In making the reservation, one of the caretakers, Jill Baumgartner, let me know that a wedding and reception would be ongoing during my stay but that the party would be over by 10 p.m. Upon entering the inn, I could easily see why it is a popular venue for nuptial celebrations; the photos I’d seen earlier were true to form, the gardens as well-tended as an English manor house and the interior akin to a fine-arts gallery. Several people were about the grounds readying the place for the next day’s wedding, but otherwise it appeared I had the entire mansion to myself.

Jill had booked me into the RaPaula Room, named after the original owner’s wife and arguably the most opulent in the house. It included a king-size canopied bed, plush sofa before a fireplace, two dressing rooms and a private bath with a tile floor and porcelain sink, a balcony overlooking the garden and facing west, ideal for sunset gazing. It was, as I said, an oasis, but one with a reminder of the sooty valley I’d left behind: complimentary bags of almonds harvested locally and placed on a platter next to the sofa. After showering, I nibbled on those while reading a brief history of Bear Creek Inn.

Among the five owners of the property dating from the late 1800s were German immigrant, gold-seeker inventor, teamster and so-called “Father of Merced” Henry Huffman; cattleman, veteran and state Assemblyman Clarence Ray (“C. Ray”) Robinson; farmer, professor, investor and entrepreneur Jack Hooper and his wife, Mona, both of whom carried out extensive preservation and renovations before reopening the property as a bed-and-breakfast in 2001; and, at one point in between, the Dominican Sisters of Kenosha, Wisc., who were the occupants as they owned and operated a hospital across the creek from the house.

Along with the diverse owners have been the numerous guests from all walks of life, Jill told me one morning over a decadent breakfast of scrambled eggs and crêpes filled with crème fraîche and drowning in blueberry sauce: Professorial job candidates at UC Merced with expertise in every discipline imaginable, both elaborate and simple wedding parties spread out across the well-manicured garden, and European tourists en route to Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

I got an early start the morning after my first night at Bear Creek, heading south again, this time to Fresno and then turning eastward. After several miles, the mighty southern Sierra Nevada range was abruptly visible, and just as extrusive as the plains east of Madera had been the day before. Here along Highway 180, amid golden fields, were also miles of orchards, and every so often a fruit or nut stand. I stopped at one to stock up on goodies for a hike I’d planned to do later in the day.

Bear Creek Inn
Bear Creek Inn

Dry, grassy fields soon gave way to a hilly terrain and canyons dotted with chaparral and oak until I finally arrived at the Big Stump entrance of Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument and passed on to General Grant Grove before driving northward. I was feeling spoiled for two reasons: First is that Kings Canyon, where I was headed, is among the National Park Service’s lesser-visited destinations, overshadowed by the more popular Sequoia National Park on its southern border. This may be partly due to its very limited access, with the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway covering just several miles within the park and running mostly instead through Sequoia National Forest. Secondly, the byway shuts down in winter.

On that note, too, almost instantly upon entering, I had left the Central Valley’s oppressive heat long behind. It was overcast by the time I reached the serpentine byway, which eventually runs parallel to the South Fork Kings River. And with that, I was deep within, well, kingly, sawtooth precipices and plunging gorges, the Sierra Nevada at its most rugged and with the highest peaks in the lower 48 states, all of them formed by Ice Age glaciers. I later read that the park’s great selling point is that canyon floors and extreme elevation—six peaks here climb more than 14,000 feet—allow for desert heat and arctic cold and therefore diverse wildlife.

I stopped briefly at the Cedar Grove Visitor Center to buy some postcards before continuing onto, literally, Roads End Permit Station. I wasn’t planning to camp or hike into the park’s backcountry, but rather to briefly see Zumwalt Meadow to the south. Said to be one of the park’s prettiest vistas, it has granite cliffs that surround an unusually verdant valley. I walked the meadow’s mile-and-a-half loop, sitting briefly on a bench to take in the quiet and watch drifting clouds before continuing back along the byway until I could turn southward at Hume Junction Gate. It was just a short distance from there to the reservoir named Hume Lake, where I parked and walked down to the shore to eat my fruits and nuts, along with a sandwich and crackers I’d bought earlier in the day. Meanwhile, I watched kayaks and canoes drift by and families unpack elaborate picnics and set up umbrellas.

Moro Rock
Moro Rock offers sweeping views in Sequoia National Park

Shortly afterward, I was back on the road and in Sequoia National Park with far more cars than I’d seen at Kings Canyon. It was late afternoon and, after some quick time calculations, I settled on the 3½-mile cute-sounding Little Baldy trail. In my guidebook, I read that one park ranger anointed Little Baldy a little gem. There were no cars at the trailhead as I pulled up.

I climbed steep switchbacks at first, but the ground was soon enough even and the hum of traffic inaudible. I also had a lovely view westward toward the valley, its heat barely a memory as I passed higher into a forested landscape. At one point, I came upon unabashed marmots busily carting twigs and dirt across the trail before I reached a granite plateau, Little Baldy itself.

There, I took out my park service map to get a better idea of the landscape. I identified Silliman Crest and the breathtaking Great Western Divide, and there were also the famous sequoias not far off to the south. The grand trees, Earth’s largest, had been what had drawn me here, but I instead dwelled some moments on how I had cursed myself for the trip while blazing through the San Joaquin Valley. Yet, as it happens so often with memories of our travels, when I recall this road trip, my mind settles on the joy at plunging into Lake Millerton, experiencing luxury at Bear Creek Inn, cloud-gazing amid the lush Zumwalt Meadow, feeling gobsmacked at Kings Canyon’s grandiosity, and my peaceful lunch at Hume Lake.

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