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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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Roads Less Traveled

Just Because There Aren't Crowds Doesn't Mean These Campgrounds Aren't Worth Visiting

May 28, 1999|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the summer rush to the alpine splendors of the Eastern Sierra, many campers stomp on the accelerator and don't look up until they have sunk their teeth into the chili-cheese bread at Schats Bakery in Bishop.

They're making a mistake.

One of the prettiest and least visited parts of the range is the southern Sierra. Encompassing the mountains to the east and west of Kernville, this part of the Sierra lacks the 12,000-foot-plus peaks found farther north, but includes thick forests, gorgeous meadows, small trout streams and substantial but relatively unknown groves of giant sequoias. More often than not, visitation is usually light--on a long hike last July into a popular part of the area's Golden Trout Wilderness, I encountered only 13 people in eight hours.

The first part of the following list of campgrounds concentrates on the southern Sierra. The rest is a grab bag of campgrounds in the western U.S.--yes, there is life outside California. Except where noted, all sites listed have piped water, picnic tables, fire grills and outhouses.

Southern Sierra

* Troy Meadows--This large campground in the Eastern Sierra is popular with the dirt-bike crowd because of its proximity to a network of off-highway vehicle trails in the Sequoia National Forest. Although one might expect the place to resemble Gasoline Alley, on weekdays it remains fairly quiet, helped in part by the fact that some of the campground's sites are the size of a small parking lot.

The area offers an abundance of things to do. Fish Creek, which lives up to its name, runs through the back of the campground, along with a trail that follows it downstream. Farther west on Forest Service Road 22S05 is Bald Mountain; you can drive almost to the top of the mountain, where a fire lookout tower offers great views of the Dome Land Wilderness. Also nearby is the Blackrock trailhead, a major jumping off point for hikes into the Golden Trout Wilderness--it's a short 30-minute hike to beautiful Casa Vieja Meadows.

Troy Meadows has 73 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Cost: $5 per night. Information: Sequoia National Forest Cannell Meadow Ranger District, (760) 376-3781. Note: No trash collection.

* Belknap--Located just outside the western Sierra village of Camp Nelson, this pleasant forest service campground sits in a heavily shaded area along Belknap Creek. A short walk down the road leads to a trail that follows--here's a mouthful--the South Fork of the Middle Fork of the Tule River through the impressive MacIntyre Grove of sequoias. This is a very good campground for families with children, since civilization is just around the corner.

Belknap has 15 sites; reservations can be made through the National Recreation Reservation System at (800) 280-CAMP. Cost: $12 per night. Information: Sequoia National Forest Tule River Ranger District, (209) 539-2607. Note: Trailers are not permitted.

* Quaking Aspen--Located along the Western Divide Highway at an elevation of 7,000 feet, this campground is especially colorful in the autumn, when the aspens turn gold after the first hard frost. Of course, there's plenty to do in the summer. It's a short drive to the trailhead for the Needles, an 8,245-foot granite spire with a fire lookout tower perched on top. The tower is reached via 137 lung-busting stairs, but it's worth the effort--views of the Lloyd Meadow basin and Golden Trout Wilderness can't be beat. Bring the camera and prepare a place on the wall for an 8 x 10.

Quaking Aspen has 32 sites; reservations can be made through the National Recreation Reservation System at (800) 280-CAMP. Cost: $12 per night. Information: Sequoia National Forest Tule River Ranger District, (209) 539-2607.

* Lower Peppermint--Located on Lloyd Meadows Road, about 37 miles north of Kernville, the campground sits above the mighty Kern River in a remote corner of the Sequoia National Forest. The attraction here is Peppermint Creek, which has numerous fine swimming holes later in the summer. For some nice hiking, drive to the end of the road and hop on the Jordan Trail, an old cattleman route.

Lower Peppermint has 17 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Cost: $10 per night. Information: Sequoia National Forest Hot Springs Ranger District, (805) 548-6503. Note: Don't count on piped water being available--bring your own or boil/filter water from the creek.

* Dispersed camping--Here's how it works: You go to the ranger station and get a campfire permit and then pick a campsite virtually anywhere on the Sequoia National Forest's network of old logging roads. There are, of course, a few rules. You can't block the road and campsites must be 100 feet from streams. Also, garbage must be packed out and dispersed camping means you must be comfortable with a lack of outhouses. Good campsites can be found in the area surrounding Quaking Aspen campground.

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