Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Big Baldy (Sequoia-Kings Canyon)

View of the foothills and High Sierra from Big Baldy
6 miles round trip, 1150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

Big Baldy is a high granite dome with far-reaching views of the Sierra Nevada in California's Kings Canyon National Park. At over 8200 feet, this summit towers over the Sierra foothills and lies further west from the Sierra crest than other such domes, making it an excellent place to view the length of the mighty Sierra. A rolling hike with a series of ascents and descents accesses the summit after an enjoyable ridge walk and an informal trail past the summit leads to an extraordinary, wide-open viewpoint of the Great Western Divide and the canyons of the many forks of the Kaweah River. While not an exceptional hike for the Sierra Nevada, the scenery is excellent and the hike is quite enjoyable, delivering a classic Sierra Nevada granite dome experience with just a fraction of the people you'd see at the Yosemite domes or at Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park.

I hiked Big Baldy during a brief day trip to Kings Canyon National Park on a July weekday. Big Baldy is in the Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon National Park, which is nearly four hours from the San Francisco Bay Area but just an hour and a half out of Fresno. From Fresno, I followed California Highway 180 east as it turned from freeway gradually into a mountain road, passing by Squaw Valley and then climbing from near sea level to over 6000 feet above. After entering Kings Canyon National Park at the Big Stump entrance, I came to a junction with Highway 198 (Generals Highway) shortly; here, I turned right and followed Generals Highway for 6 miles until I came to the Big Baldy Trailhead on the right (south) side of the road. There is no parking lot here, just a wide shoulder with enough parking for 15 to 20 cars.

From the trailhead, the trail wanders south along the ridge, flat for the first two hundred meters before beginning a switchback climb upon encountering the first of multiple knolls along Big Baldy Ridge. The trail then swung around the west side of the knoll, offering the first views of the hike down into neighboring Redwood Mountain Grove in the valley below and the foothills beyond that.

The trail tackled two such knolls in the first mile and a half of the hike, ascending and descending each, with each knoll involving 250 feet or less of elevation gain. The terrain varied between a more open ridgetop walk and more densely forested saddles between the knolls. Manzanita grew copiously along the trail and some pockets of blooming lupine and paintbrush remained, although spring wildflowers had largely faded in the hot summer weather.

Trail along Big Baldy ridge
The top of the second knoll was slightly bald, providing more westerly views of the foothills and Redwood Mountain Grove. From here, the summit of Big Baldy was also visible to the south, its exfoliating granite dome rising above the surrounding forest on the ridge.

Big Baldy
After passing the second knoll at about a mile and a half into the hike, a side trail joined from the Montecito Lake Resort, a lodge on national forest property just beyond the border of Kings Canyon National Park. I ignored this side trail and continued south along the ridge. The next climb to the summit was the most extended ascent of the hike, with 400 feet of uphill between the saddle and the summit. As I ascended along this ridge, the trail frequently broke out onto the granite cliffs defining the west face of the mountain. From these cliffs, there were excellent views of the domed summit of Big Baldy ahead and the first views of the summits of the High Sierra to the north. 

Exfoliating granite on Big Baldy
A final uphill push brought me to the 8200-foot summit of Big Baldy, which up close felt more like a long granite fin than a dome. Trees partially obscured views to the east but there was only air below me to the west. Closer in, Redwood Mountain Grove formed the heart of the view, nestled in the valley directly below. Redwood Mountain Grove is the largest remaining grove of Giant Sequoias in the world, now preserved as part of Kings Canyon National Park. The trees below may be difficult to appreciate from this far up, but looking down to the sides of Redwood Creek I could see the long, red trunks of a few giant sequoias. On top of the opposite ridge, I could see a collection of almost pure giant sequoias that's known as the Sugar Bowl. Redwood Mountain Grove is also home to the Roosevelt and Hart Trees, two of the larger known giant sequoias; those are not easily visible from Big Baldy.

Redwood Mountain Grove
Sequoias of Redwood Mountain Grove
The Great Western Divide was visible to the east, though trees still rose high enough here that the view was interrupted in spots. The Central Valley lay beyond the foothills to the west, but as usual it was shrouded in smog. On clear days, one can see across the Central Valley to the Coast Ranges, but those days are now rare. The southern end of the Central Valley- defined by the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Basin- were once arid and desert-like, but European Americans built an extensive irrigation system here after evicting the native peoples of California through genocide. The result was one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, a valley that now accounts for half of the US's total output of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. However, the topography of the valley traps air pollutants and the heavy use of fertilizer in farming creates copious particulates, which combine to make the Central Valley one of the smoggiest areas in the United States; air quality here is bad to an unrivalled degree in this country.

To the north were good views towards Kings Canyon. The canyon itself was not visible, blocked by the closer forested ridge of Buck Rock Lookout, but many prominent peaks in the park were visible. Massive Spanish Mountain was closer by, its summit rising to over 10000 feet, an 8200 foot differential from the Kings River below in the canyon. By some measures, this makes Kings Canyon the deepest canyon in North America, although Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border contests that claim; having been to both, I still have to tip my hat to Hells Canyon as the drop from He Devil Peak to the Snake River is soul-shakingly dramatic.

To the east of Spanish Mountain was the Obelisk, a high granite dome; further to the east were the peaks of the High Sierra, including the prominent pyramid of Mount Goddard.

View towards Kings Canyon from Big Baldy's summit
While the views at the summit of Big Baldy were nice, especially the northerly views to Kings Canyon and Redwood Mountain Grove, I wanted better views to the south and east so I continued along the ridge past the summit. A better viewpoint lay at the end of the ridge about 2/3 of a mile further; while the official trail ended at the summit, an informal but easy-to-follow trail continued from here to the granite outcrop at the south end of the ridge.

This social trail continued south along the ridge, dropping from the summit and passing some communications equipment to the east before climbing briefly to the top of a massive granite outcrop. Hiking past the high point of the outcrop, I came to an incredible view.

Granite dome at the end of Big Baldy ridge
The Great Western Divide formed a wall along the eastern skyline here, its jagged peaks thrusting into the sky. This was my first return to the area since a visit to Sequoia-Kings Canyon with my parents in 2005, so I took a little while to remember the peaks here. Nearby, I spotted Mount Silliman and Alta Mountain, two outlying granite peaks west of the divide. I spotted the Watchman rising above Tokopah Valley, a granite valley at the foot of Alta Mountain in the Lodgepole area of Sequoia National Park. Along the Divide itself, I only recognized the sharp profile of Sawtooth Peak, an impressive granite wall rising above Mineral King Valley. Castle Rock stood opposite Giant Forest and Moro Rock on the south side of the Middle Fork Kaweah drainage. Slightly closer in from the Divide, I could see Little Baldy, a granite dome that is the lesser sibling to Big Baldy; I had hiked this dome during my 2005 visit. Even closer in, a great granite outcrop stuck out from the lower ridges of Big Baldy, towering over the North Fork Kaweah River far below.

Great Western Divide from the end of Big Baldy ridge
Mount Silliman and Alta Mountain
One of the most magical parts of this view, though, was seeing the full development of the Sierra Nevada from the Central Valley to its high crest. I could catch just a glimpse of the green fields in the valley, which faded into the brown foothills of the range. The foothills then transitioned steeply into rugged, forested ridges which at midday were struggling to emerge from the sea of smong. Above these ridges were the broader shoulders of the high peaks that are home to giant sequoias, the largest living things on earth. These forests then faded into the shining granite of the Great Western Divide, the shimmering rock that made the Sierra Nevada into John Muir's Range of Light.

The foothills above the Kaweah River watershed
There were about 10 cars parked at the trailhead on a nice weekday, so expect some company and difficult parking if you come on a weekend. However, although I occasionally passed other hikers on the route to the summit, I saw only one couple on the social trail between the summit and the outcrop at the southern end of the ridge: hike out to the best view and you'll avoid most of the hikers on this trail. On top of that, there's plenty of room to spread out at the far outcrop and enjoy views, while the summit has limited space. This is a good hike in Kings Canyon National Park for views of the Sierra Nevada, but make sure you get to see the best it has to offer by continuing past the summit to the outcrop at the end of the ridge.

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