Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Tokopah Falls

Tokopah Falls
4 miles round trip, 650 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

The lovely and relatively short hike to Tokopah Falls in California’s Sequoia National Park follows the Marble Fork Kaweah River through a granite-bound valley to a long, tumbling cascade down a great granite slope. Starting at the Lodgepole Campground north of the park’s main Giant Forest visitor area, this hike is exceedingly popular due to its central location, good scenery, and relative gentleness. A rockier stretch at the end of the trail presents the only rougher terrain of this hike. While a lesser destination than the park’s giant trees or High Sierra lakes and peaks, Tokopah Falls is still a satisfying day hiking destination in this second oldest of US national parks.

Anna and I hiked out to Tokopah Falls during a Memorial Day visit to Sequoia National Park, although I had first explored this trail with my parents during a visit to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in 2005. The trailhead is inside the Lodgepole Campground: specifically, the trail starts from the north end of a bridge across the Marble Fork Kaweah River. However, there’s no parking at the true trailhead, so it’s necessary to park at the large lot just past the entrance to the campground, past the visitor center and store. There are flush toilets near the parking area. Visitor shuttle buses also serve the trailhead parking lot, although for the most part this lot is used as a launching point for visitors who are taking a bus to Giant Forest rather than the other way around.

From the trailhead parking lot, we followed the campground road two hundred meters east along the south bank of the Marble Fork Kaweah until coming to the bridge across the river that accessed the campground’s upper loop. We walked across the bridge, savoring the views of the happily cascading Marble Fork, and found the trailhead at the north end of the bridge. We hopped onto the Tokopah Falls Trail and began to follow the trail to the east along the north bank of the river.

The trail followed the Marble Fork Kaweah River, staying near the river for its entire length. Traveling through the forested valley, the trail provided occasional glimpses of the granite cliffs that hemmed in the valley, creating a miniature and less spectacular version of Kings Canyon or Yosemite Valley. Flowers bloomed on the forest floor during our late May visit, the most notable of which were mustang clover, a tiny, pink-and-yellow flower.

Mustang clover
The earliest stretch of the trail followed the Marble Fork Kaweah River closely; in fact, we were able to see across into the Lodgepole Campground on the opposite bank. After this initial stretch, the trail became a bit more distant from the river but detours from the main trail revealed many pretty cascades along this vivacious mountain stream. The trail ascended steadily at a gentle grade and never felt difficult.

Small waterfall on the Marble Fork Kaweah
Marble Fork Kaweah
The steady ascent leveled out at 0.8 miles from the trailhead, where the river entered a calm, forested valley with great granite peaks rising all around. The granite wall of the Watchtower became more easily visible on the southern side of the valley here. The calm, clear waters of the Marble Fork Kaweah here were a nice contrast to the more vigorous flow encountered earlier in the hike.

Granite walls rising over the Marble Fork Kaweah River
Marble Fork Kaweah
This flatter stretch of trail traveled through a lodgepole forest at the bottom of the valley until it began climbing gently but steadily again at 1.3 miles. As the trail returned to the banks of the cascading Marble Fork, more nice views opened up, including improving angles on the Watchtower.

The Watchtower rising over the Marble Fork Kaweah River
The trail crossed a tributary stream on a well-built bridge at 1.5 miles as it returned to the forest. Although the alternating stream-and-forest scenery along this trail was not necessarily remarkable, the lush environs still made this a very enjoyable experience.

Footbridge over Marble Fork tributary stream
At 1.7 miles, the trail finally emerged from the lodgepole pine forest, providing the first open views of Tokopah Falls at the head of the granite-bound valley. Rather than being a free-falling drop like the waterfalls of Yosemite Valley, Tokopah Falls is more of an extended tumble down a sloping granite face: the Marble Fork Kaweah River drops over a thousand feet into the valley from the Table Lands above, but the individual drops are never more than about 50 feet tall.

Tokopah Falls
The trail began to climb steadily again, now entering rockier terrain. At one point, the trail passed underneath overhanging rocks while traversing a pile of talus: this was the trickiest terrain of the hike. No true rock scrambling is needed here but the trail surface is broken up across large rocks and presents a bit more of a challenge.

Rocky final approach to Tokopah Falls
The trail smoothed out a bit as it continued traveling across a rocky talus slope, delivering open views of Tokopah Falls ahead and the Watchtower rising above. Marmots frequent the talus slopes here: I saw quite a few lazing out on these rocks when I visited during my youth.

At two miles from the trailhead, the Tokopah Falls Trail ended at the base of its namesake waterfall. From here, only one of the lowest tiers of the waterfall was visible, with snowmelt from above flowing down a large granite step. The Watchtower rose ominously above, displaying its sharp form when viewed from this angle; the high granite cliffs making up the south side of the valley behind the Watchtower were also quite impressive. The area around the end of the trail was quite crowded, as this is a popular hike; a line of people waited to take selfies of the waterfall on a large rock. Despite the busy nature of the trail, the valley was still an imposing sight and well worth the trip along the Marble Fork Kaweah.

Tokopah Falls
The Watchtower
Although the hike along the Marble Fork Kaweah up Tokopah Valley is extremely popular, I would still recommend this hike to casual visitors to Sequoia National Park: this is one of the few spots in the park where hikers can so accessibly interact up close with the granite landscape that makes the Sierra Nevada so remarkable. While the falls can certainly get crowded, there's enough room on this trail to spread out a bit and enjoy this pretty corner of the Sierra.

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