YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Weekend Escape: Sequoia : Snow Found : They Drove 250 Miles for This Cross-Country Getaway, and Finally Found Enough White Stuff to Make It All Worth It

March 06, 1994|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER: Schoenberger is a business reporter for The Times

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Cross-country skiing in Southern California? It sounds oxymoronic, like sunbathing in Antarctica or snow-shoeing across the Amazon. But, in fact, there are quite a number of options for weekend snowscapes not too far from Los Angeles--depending on the weather.

However, when we set out in January on our quest for early season snow, it had up to then been a dry winter, and we ended up driving 250 miles to Sequoia National Park, which is, arguably, at the southern end of Central California.

Over the holidays I had made an exploratory day-trip to Mt. Pinos in the Tehachapi Mountains, about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles in Los Padres National Forest. At well over 7,000 feet, Mt. Pinos is purported to be the best Nordic skiing in Southern California. But with only a meager crust of snow in late December, the best trails at the mountain's Ski Center weren't open.

So it was that I dragged my family unit off on a weekend ski trip to Sequoia National Park in early January. My wife, Susan, and I had spent several romantic days there last year during a snowstorm that dumped about four feet of fresh powder. With reports of a 21-inch snowpack, we hoped to repeat the wondrous experience. This time we brought Sonya, our 8-month-old daughter, who had experienced last year's skiing from the womb.


We hit the road after work on a Friday evening and drove as far as Three Rivers, the little town in the foothills where Highway 198, the General's Highway, begins its steep ascent into the Sierra Nevada range. Dining on cheese sandwiches and coffee in the car, we took about three hours and 40 minutes to reach our accommodations, including a pit stop in Bakersfield. We stayed at the Best Western Holiday Lodge on the west side of town, a motel offering a large room with a wall heater that made sounds like an old Pontiac, without generating much warmth.

The goofy babble of our human alarm clock, courteously demanding soy formula and a dry bottom from behind the metal bars of her motel crib, got us out of bed early the next morning. Awakening to a view of the live-oak-studded rolling brown foothills instead of our usual patch of suburbia was a pleasant shock, which we noted as we drove up the road to breakfast at the Noisy River Cafe. This was not a bad choice for a guacamole omelet and pancakes, even if the low-water Kaweah River was too far away to be heard.

A thrilling hour's drive up the precipitous switchbacks of the General's Highway and we were at Giant Forest Village, where we checked into the lodge and got the bad news: Ski conditions were terrible here. The network of trails around Giant Forest, thick with powder last year, weren't worth trying. (This is no longer the case. Recent snowfalls have left about six feet of snow in Sequoia.)

I blamed my ignorance of this fact on the Park Service's road and weather information line. The recording had told me during the planning stages of the trip that the road was open but icy in spots, so you must carry chains, and that the snowpack at the Lodgepole Visitors Center, about four miles from Giant Forest, was 21 inches deep. That sounded good enough to me.

But suddenly it felt silly to be driving around in the only car with a loaded ski rack. Undaunted, we drove to the Ski Touring Center at Wolverton Campground, which is off the main road on the way to Lodgepole. The clerk at the ski shop recommended a 30-minute drive north to the Big Meadows campground area (7,900 feet) in the Sequoia National Forest. In the future, he advised, call the ski shop for the straight poop on snow conditions. We glumly ate cheeseburgers at the snack shop in the Warming Hut next door, watching maniac sledders trudge across the Wolverton meadow and up a hill--past several perimeters of keep-off-the-snow signs erected in vain by park rangers--then whiz down the ice-crusted slope.

When we arrived at Big Meadows in the early afternoon, the sun had softened up the snow nicely, making it fairly skiable. We loaded Sonya into her backpack and hoisted the 18-pound, 9-ounce bundle onto my shoulders, then ventured off on the Starlight trail. It wasn't the Winter Olympics, but the air was fresh, the sun was warm and the scenery was beautiful--offering glimpses of the high Sierra peaks over the treetops.

It should be noted here that it's not advisable to carry a child in a backpack unless you're an experienced cross-country skier. I'm no champion on skis, so we avoided steep terrain. I didn't get the challenging aerobic workout I had fantasized during the long drive up, but then neither did little Sonya get crushed in an uncontrolled fall. We did hit the deck a few times, harmlessly, which she seemed to think was pretty funny. Otherwise, she sang out vociferously in her happy banter as we glided past the Douglas firs, cedars and sugar pines, she trying to grab every branch and put it in her mouth as we passed.

Los Angeles Times Articles