Trip Report: 36 Hours in Sequoia National Forest, CA

Taylor Stephan | | Trip ReportTrip Report
Needles Lookout
Needles Lookout, Sequoia National Forest, CA. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan

Early in the morning on Friday 8/7/2020, I set out from Costa Mesa, CA, and headed up Interstate 405 on a mission to Sequoia National Forest. To be honest, I usually spend my free hiking and backpacking time in the Eastern Sierra but decided to change it up and give the southwestern Sierra a look.

From Southern California, I took the straight shot up I-405 to I-5 to Highway 99 to Bakersfield, CA, then jumped to Highway 65 to Portersville, CA, and finally Highway 190 to Camp Nelson. The drive starts as freeway, and then once you hit Bakersfield turns into a mix of agricultural and oil fields, and then finally a twisting 2-lane road from the foothills into the mountains. The drive took me a little over 4 hours with no traffic along the way.

I somehow snagged the last spot available at Quaking Aspen Campground, just outside Camp Nelson, in the northern reaches of Sequoia National Forest. With travel restrictions in place due to coronavirus, campgrounds are extremely hard to come by with few first-come-first-serve spots and most sites requiring reservations online, especially last minute on the weekends. Even wilderness permits are hard to get ahold of for the time being.

I’ve never been to Sequoia National Forest, so I stuck to what seemed to be the “must do’s” of the area with limited time. I hit the trail running and started off at the Needles Lookout Trailhead. There’s a small sign that leads you from Highway 190 to a dirt road running about 2.5 miles to the trailhead. The trail itself is quite nice and secluded, with amazing views to the north/northeast. The out and back trail is around 4.5 miles, but the must-see is the lookout at the end. After climbing a few staircases, you emerge at the top of a granite outcrop with 360 views of the surrounding mountains, forests, and valley. The lookout structure unfortunately burnt down in 2011, but the hike is still completely worth it.

Needles Lookout
Needles Lookout Trail. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan
Needles Lookout Trail
Needles Lookout structure. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan

After Needles Lookout Trail, I made camp at Quaking Aspen and discovered I forgot my poles for my tent (lucky me). I somehow maneuvered my pole-less tent into a makeshift lean-to and set up for the night. The campground is in a prime spot, with tall trees covering providing plenty of shade and a quaint meadow next door that leads to the Slate Mountain Trailhead. With my drive, hike, and a couple of beers behind me, I was ready for some sleep.

After Friday night under my lean-to, I woke up Saturday morning with plenty of stops on my agenda, but no set campground for the night. I started off heading south on Highway 190 and stopped at Dome Rock first. The dirt access road is quick and easy, and the “hike” is more of a stroll up the backside of a giant granite outlook. At the top of Dome Rock, I could see incredible views of my hike to Needles Lookout the previous day, as well as some of the mighty Eastern Sierra 14-ers in the far distance. Though not nearly as big and magnificent, Dome Rock did give me some semi Half Dome Yosemite vibes.

Dome Rock
View from Dome Rock. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan

After Dome Rock, I continued south to Trail of 100 Giants Trailhead. My 10 am arrival time was not nearly early enough, as the trail was already overrun by tourists. The Trail of 100 Giants is a must-see, with access to some truly huge Giant Sequoia’s right at your fingertips. Just walking among them, I could feel their imposing presence, and marveled at their sheer size and strength. I would definitely go back, but I would make sure to go on a weekday as this spot is easily accessible (and frequented) by tourists.

Trail of 100 Giants
Giant Sequoia’s on Trail of 100 Giants. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan
Trail of 100 Giants
Looking up into the Giant Sequoias. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan

From Trail of 100 Giants, I continued south/southeast from the mountains to the high desert to Johnsondale Bridge. To be frank, I was blown away. Again, I had never been to any of these areas previously and wasn’t even planning on stopping at Johnsondale Bridge to begin with. The bridge crosses the mighty Kern River and was the perfect spot to stop for lunch. I was able to find a nice spot down by the river and watched the mostly local crew from nearby Kernville fly fishing, cliff jumping, rafting, and simply chilling. I’m not sure what the water temperature was, but it felt amazing in the 100-degree summer heat. If I didn’t have to find a campsite still, I probably would have stayed there for the rest of the day.

Kern River
Kern River, Johnsondale Bridge, CA. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan

I continued my journey south down Highway 99 mirroring the Kern River towards Kernville. I was hoping a first-come-first-serve dispersed campground along the Kern River would be my rest spot for the night, but it was an absolute zoo. I should have known better, with it being a 100-degree Saturday in August, but I kept my hopes up as I passed site after site. I finally found a spot at Lake Isabella, but with not an ounce of shade in sight at the site, I decided to call my journey.

I looked up a few other first-come-first-serve spots but figured after seeing the crowds along the Kern River, I made my way home. From Kernville, I headed southwest on Highway 178 to Bakersfield, and then mimicked my trek from the day before. Even though it was a quick trip, I saw an area I had never been to before and learned what to expect next time I head that way. Sequoia National Forest might not be as well known as nearby Yosemite or Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but it’s definitely worth the trip (added bonus: no national park entrance fee). Seeing a Giant Sequoia in person is truly something special, and I won’t be forgetting this weekend trek anytime soon.

Route Map
Route map overview. Photo Credit: Taylor Stephan

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