The western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California are rich with history and ripe with beautiful scenery. Horsemen have been traversing this area for almost 200 years, in search of both gold and adventure.
Last summer, I decided to spend a weekend up in the Sierra foothills in the town of Three Rivers on the southwestern side of mountain range. About 75 miles southeast of Fresno, the small community is adjacent to the Kaweah River, which flows from the Sierras into the Lake Kaweah Reservoir just outside the town.
I had a few good reasons to go to Three Rivers. Not only is the town a stone's throw from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but it's also home to Wood ?N' Horse Stables, owned by world champion Appaloosa trainer Christy Woods. A couple of years ago, Christy had invited me up to Three Rivers to ride with her. I finally decided to take her up on her offer.
Into the Hills
Christy's facility was only a couple of miles from the dog-friendly bed & breakfast where my Corgi and I spent the night, so we arrived early in the morning to ride before the heat of the day set in.
Situated on a winding road through hilly Three Rivers, the ranch is located on several well-maintained acres. Christy lives on the property in a beautiful ranch home, and her horses dwell in large, picturesque paddocks.
Christy helped me settle my dog in a nice, well-shaded wooden kennel and we started tacking up the horses. I was to ride a loud bay leopard named Cowboy, who was quiet and relaxed at the hitching post. Christy assured me he was like that all the time, and that I would have a good ride.
Christy, her friend, Lynn, and I headed out onto the road, which led us to a trail into the hills. We rode over golden rolling expanses, through the kind of terrain for which California is famous. The landscape was dotted with interior live oak, and the slopes were scattered with chaparral.
We were at about 1,500 feet in elevation, and even though the temperature was rising, we had a nice breeze that kept us comfortable.
The vistas along the ride were gorgeous as I got a look at Three Rivers from above. Cowboy was the perfect trail horse, quiet and steady, allowing me to take plenty of pictures and soak in the scenery.
As we rode, Christy told me that she regularly gives trail rides to visitors to the area, who range from complete novices to experienced riders. She limits her groups to four riders on horses she loans out, although there's no limit if the riders bring their own horses and stable them on her property.
The rides are one to three hours, depending on the riders' experience. She uses her own horses, which are well-trained and in great condition.
The ride was over too soon, but as the day warmed up, getting back to the ranch seemed like a good idea. Once home, Christy gave me a tour of her facilities. I got to meet several of her horses, including her newest, a Secretariat daughter.
While walking through the ranch, two does and a fawn ran across our path, and I wondered how it must feel to be so lucky as to live in this foothill paradise.
Higher up in the western Sierras, just six miles from Three Rivers, is Sequoia National Park, and adjacent Kings Canyon National Park. Unlike Three Rivers, the terrain in the higher elevations is rugged and steep. The riding in these national jewels is incredible, with stunning vistas around just about every turn.
Sequoia National Park is the closest national park to Three Rivers. The second oldest national park in the United States, Sequoia spans 404,051 acres and is home to the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, Mount Whitney, which towers 14,505 feet above sea level.
Sequoia National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman tree, considered the largest tree on Earth. Part of the Giant Forest, it's one of five of the 10 largest trees in the world. Much of Sequoia National Park remains untouched, and looks very much like it did before Europeans settled in the New World.
Although the entrance to Sequoia National Park is only six miles from Three Rivers, you'll have to drive a bit farther to the Horse Corral Pack Station, where half- and full-day rides on seasoned trail horses are offered, as well as backcountry pack trips.
It takes two hours to reach the pack station, but the drive is scenic and will at times take your breath away.
The pack station is located in the Big Meadows area, at 7,600 feet above sea level. Visitors can rent the Big Meadows guard station overnight from June 15 to October 15.
The guard station, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corp, was recently refurbished and is available by reservation only. Big Meadow and the surrounding mountains offer peaceful views, as well as access to numerous trailheads. Riders and hikers can venture into the wilderness areas filled with pine forests and alpine lakes.
Another great area for riding in Sequoia is Mineral King Pack Station. The pack station is accessible to several great trails, including the Atwell-Hockett Trail, which provides views of a giant sequoia grove and meadows; Tar Gap Trail, which is a moderate climb to alpine lakes, forests and vistas; and Timber Gap Trail, which takes you to environs of forests and lakes.
The Franklin Pass Trail is considered the best horseback trail from Mineral King, and is a more strenuous climb to lakes and alpine vistas. The view of multicolored rock that rises 10,000 feet into the sky is one of the highlights of the route.
Rock Creek Pack Station offers multiday packing trips through Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park, along with the adjacent Golden Trout Wilderness area.
Located near Mount Whitney, this area is ripe with pine forests, rocky outcroppings, tall peaks, and fragrant pine forests. Layover days allow for shorter rides out from camp to such areas as Little Whitney Meadows, the south fork of the Kern River in Templeton/Ramshaw Meadows, and Kern Peak and Big Whitney Meadows.
Rock Creek Pack Station also offers special horse-related excursions. In the spring and fall, the station hosts four-day horse driving trips on which the ranch stock is driven to or from High Sierra pastures.
Mustang trips, where riders search for bands of wild mustangs in the Sierra lowlands, are also offered. These trips leave from the eastern side of the Sierras, which is a several hour drive from the Sequoia/Kings Canyon area.
Kings Canyon Trails
Unlike Sequoia National Park right next door, Kings Canyon National Park is dominated by the presence of the mighty Kings Canyon River. High, craggy peaks and tall pines make for incredible views from the bottom of the canyon floors.
Kings Canyon National Park covers 461,901 acres of giant sequoias, mixed conifer forest, and rugged canyons. The park is made up of two sections. The smaller is the detached General Grant Grove section, which preserves several groves of giant sequoias, including the Redwood Mountain Grove, the largest remaining natural grove of giant sequoias in the world.
The larger section of the park forms the headwaters of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings Rivers and the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Both the South and Middle Forks run through large glacial canyons, one of which is Kings Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the United States. Much of the park is accessible only by foot or by horseback.
East of the park's glacial canyons are the peaks of the Sierra Crest, with an elevation of 14,248 feet at the summit of North Palisade, the highest point in the park. This country features barren alpine ridges and lake-filled basins, created by glaciers during the Ice Age. This high country is accessible only by foot and horseback.
Cedar Grove Stables offers everything from one-hour rides to multi-day packing trips through this amazing countryside. The day rides, which can be as long as eight hours, go along the Kings Canyon River in the Cedar Grove area. One ride takes you to a small waterfall, where you can dismount and enjoy your packed lunch. Winding, rocky trails alternate with flat areas right along the river.
Cedar Grove Stables, located just outside the village of Cedar Grove offers a number of pack trip destinations, including trips to Monarch Divide and the Rae Lakes Loop. Stunning vistas await riders who sign up for one of these extraordinary trips. You can stay in the village between rides, and enjoy lodging, food, and gift shops.
If you prefer to ride in deep forest, the Grant Grove Stables is a good choice. Located near the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon, the stables offer one- to two-hour guided trips. Guides can take you to the General Grant Tree, the second largest tree in the world. This giant sequoia is believed to be 1,650 years old.
North Grove, Lion Meadow, and Dead Giant Loop are also excursions options, and offer riding through lush forests filled with giant sequoias that tower above the trail.
Pack trips through the giant sequoias and in Golden Trout Wilderness are offered by the Bach Park Pack Station, and include spot trips, where you can ride to your camping destination and be dropped off with your gear. The packer returns for you on a predetermined day, so you can stay as long as you'd like. This is a great way to get into the backcountry if you want to both ride and hike.
On extended trips, the Bach Park Pack Station guide and stock stay with you during the entire time. You bring food and gear for yourself, as well as food for the packer. If you prefer to focus your energies on just riding, the "all-expense trip" has the packer handle everything, from furnishing the stock to cooking and equipment.
Bring Your Horse
While most trail riding options in Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park involve riding pack station horses, you can bring your horse to certain areas in or around the park.
If you'd like to ride in the foothills, which feature golden rolling hills in the lower elevations of the southwestern Sierras, consider keeping your horse at Wood ?N' Horse Stables. Christy can put up a number of horses in her tidy corrals, while allowing you to camp on the property in a recreational vehicle or camper. She'll then provide you with guided rides around the area on your own horse.
Two-and-a-half hours from Three Rivers is Evans Flat, located at 6,500 feet elevation in the Sequoia National Forest, in the Greenhorn Mountains. During the Kern River Gold Rush of 1854, miners crossing the Greenhorn Mountains founded the town of Keyesville, near the Keyesville Recreational Mining Area.
Four equestrian campsites and a fenced pasture are the accommodations available for horse owners who wish to use this campground as a home base for day rides into the wilderness.
At Big Meadows in Kings Canyon National Park, five horse-camping sites are available. The meadow, located at 7,600 feet, is the starting point for spectacular rides out into alpine wilderness, including lakes, creeks, and forests.
Spending time riding in the southwestern Sierras near Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks means seeing some of the most beautiful terrain the West has to offer. Whether you rent a horse for your time in the mountains or bring your own, it'll be an adventure you'll never forget.
Wood ?N' Horse Stables
Grant Grove Stables
Kings Canyon National Park
(559) 335-9292 (summer)
Horse Corral Pack Station
Sequoia National Forest
(559) 565-3404 (summer)
(559) 564-6429 (year-round)
(559) 679-3573 (cell)
Sierra National Forest
Cedar Grove Pack Station
Kings Canyon National Park
(559) 565-3464 (summer)
(559) 337-2314 (off season)
Mineral King Pack Station
Sequoia National Park
(559) 561-3039 summer
(928) 855-5885 winter
Balch Park Pack Station
Audrey Pavia, a freelance writer based in Norco, California, rides competitive trail with her Spanish Mustang, Milagro. She's the author of Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Book House).