KERNVILLE, Calif. — If you have ever wanted to go camping in the winter or thought about visiting a dude ranch off-season, consider a weekend of cross-country skiing, high in the snow country.
If you long for an invigorating weekend away from the crowds and on your own, a Sno-Cat trip to Big Meadow in Sequoia National Forest will fulfill your need for a winter adventure.
This will be the third season that Hafenfeld Ranch and Kern River Tours have operated Sierra Sno-Cat Tours, transporting cross-country skiers into the wilderness to their ranch cabin on Big Meadow. From the ranch you ski on untouched powder snow, around the meadow, across snow-bridge-covered streams, through the trees that lace the meadow's edge and along forest service roads.
No one else is there except the other nine people in the group. Sierra Sno-Cat Tours has exclusive access to this area of the national forest, and has the only permits allowing skiers to stay overnight. This assures truly remote back-country skiing in a wilderness setting and all that implies.
You Hear Only the Wind
One of the joys is the silence; you hear only the wind in the trees, the sound of an icicle falling from a pine branch, the call of a jay and the whirring of your skis as you glide down the trails.
You start your adventure at the Sequoia Outdoor Center next to the Kern River in Kernville, only three hours from Los Angeles off California 178 north of Bakersfield. There you will be outfitted with boots, gaiters, cross-country skis and poles. You load into a van driven by your guide, Barry Tessman, an experienced telemark skier, outdoorsman, river guide and stunt man. He will take you up to the snow line above Kernville in the national forest.
Bruce Hafenfeld of the Hafenfeld Ranch will meet you on the road in his new Sno-Cat, equipped with padded seats, ski racks and blankets. This hearty machine will make its way up the closed forest service roads to the back-country cow camp his family has owned since the 1800s.
Hafenfeld has spent considerable resources to modify and care for the Sno-Cat, so you can rest assured that he drives with care and expertise. Along a road of new snow, the Cat churns and bumps like a giant tank, throwing chunks of the stuff into the air. You see panoramic vistas, valleys, streams, stands of Ponderosa pines and sequoias, views that not only remind you that you are far from civilization but that take you mentally far from the demands of everyday realities.
A Winter Paradise
Depending on the amount of new snow and the altitude of the snow line, it takes anywhere from an hour to 2 1/2 hours to travel the nine or more miles to Big Meadow. You will ski across the meadow and up through the trees to the ranch cabin. It cannot be seen from the meadow; it's on the hillside in a pine forest above the split-rail cow pens. In summer this is a real working ranch for range cattle. In winter it's a cross-country skier's paradise.
Most of the season and well into April, there is plenty of untracked powder snow, at times flowing over the fence tops.
The meadow is skirted by trees and gently rolling hills. Experienced telemarkers will find good downhill runs. The Sno-Cat can take you up to nearby Cannell Peak, the highest point that can be reached from the meadow, where you will find 2,000 feet of vertical all to yourself, with no lift lines.
Beginners can ski in tracks laid down by the guides or along the road that circles Big Meadow. Forest paths, streams and hills provide a varied and challenging terrain for any level skier. You might follow the tracks of a coyote or a deer, or choose a hill of virgin powder that, as one skier put it, "Aches to be skied."
You have 1,000 acres to ski in, more territory than can be covered by even the best skiers on a two-day weekend.
Earning Your Lunch
The cabin is at about 8,500 feet, and when you reach it you will have earned the plentiful ranch lunch waiting for you. While you were skiing across the meadow, Bruce and crew drove the Sno-Cat up to the cabin, cleared away the snow, made lunch and stocked the "snow fridge" on the front porch with beer.
This ranch has been in the family for more than 100 years and there has been a cabin on the site for more than 30. The old cabin was made of logs, and when the wind blew through the valley, we were told that it was so drafty that you could fly a kite inside.
The cabin was rebuilt seven years ago, after the original burned. Although the atmosphere is genuinely cowboy, it is a modern structure, with hot and cold running water. The downstairs is one big room, a large kitchen with a long ranch-style table and an antique wood-burning stove at one end and comfortable sofas at the other.
Upstairs are beds and dorm-style sleeping arrangements for 10 people. Bring a warm sleeping bag, a pillow and a towel. The bathhouse, with a marvelous hot shower and tub, is a few steps away from the cabin and has the only flush toilet on the meadow.