High Sierra fall finery: Hwy. 108, Twain Harte to Kennedy Meadows!


Pinecrest Lake’s chilly waters made for bracing wading by author’s grandson Jack Taylor

Clark Fork River meets the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus just 25 miles east of Pinecrest.
Kennedy Meadows Resort offers cabins, camping, horseback riding, hiking and cute store and tasty restaurant.
Huge talus pile below Columns of the Giants are sure to intrigue four year-olds like Jack, and adults!
Pack horses await early morning cowpokes at kennedy Meadows Resort.

Where do you go for a scenic, accessible and family-friendly tour of the high Sierra?  My wife and I wanted to take our grandson camping, fishing and hiking, so kid-friendly was on our list.  Jack, four years old (“and three weeks”, he is quick to add) had been camping once with his parents, but had not been deep into the Sierra.  We recently chose Hwy. 108, targeting a place just 10 to 60 miles east of Sonora – Twain Harte up to the Kennedy Meadows area.

We assumed camping would be wide open (it was), the weather would be stunning (yes, 80 degree days, 45 degree nights!) and the fish would be biting (pretty slow, actually). After 21 years on the Dodge Ridge National Ski Patrol, with 300 some trips both winter and summer, I had a pretty good idea of where to go.

With our teardrop trailer in tow, we headed first to the cutest of several quaint towns, Twain Harte, developed and named for two famous authors who both lived in the state, Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Our choice for lunch, The Rock (voted top hamburger and brewery in Tuolumne County), always a dependable place, kid-friendly with five choices for $5 kid’s meals (and, coloring menus, always a hit).

We then trekked about 15 miles further up Hwy. 108, and spent the early afternoon at Pinecrest Lake, long a favorite of Stocktonians and our family.  Jack found time to go wading (though the water was a bit chillier than he expected, with the lake level still quite high despite the drought).  After a short hike around the south west end of the lake, we decided to find our campsite.

We arrived late afternoon at Clark Fork Campground, just off the highway, with only six of its 28 spaces taken while we were there.  Best of all, it is only miles from the entrance to the Carson-Iceburg Wilderness Area.  The beautiful Sierra scenery is there for the taking (or, hiking), with a number of shorter hikes, as well as much more strenuous trails into alpine backcountry. 

That night, it was mac and cheese around the campfire, with s’mores the dessert hit!  Four year olds make the best of campgrounds, with rocks for leaping, fallen trees as “balance beams” and being mesmerized by evening campfires!  We all slept well that night!

The next day, it was a hearty, delicious breakfast and exploration at Kennedy Meadows Resort, long a back-packing and horse-packing favorite for trips into the Emigrant Basin Wilderness Area.  The resort boasts camping, rental cabins, horse and mule rides and access to some of the best hiking in the central Sierra.  Jack was smitten by some of the 65 horse/mule herd; the resort offers 1 ¼ hour rides for $25 each.

We later returned down Hwy. 108 and did the short, paved-trail hike into the Columns of the Giants.  These huge hexagonal columns were formed thousands of years earlier when hot lava flowing from a crack in the Sierra then cooled, creating one of the world’s most intriguing wonders.  Jack found the 3/8 mile hike fun, the giant columns interesting, and the two pineapple-sized pine cones from huge sugar pines of high intrigue!

Fishing was reportedly slow in the Clark Fork River and both the South and Middle Fork of the Stanislaus, as well as in Beardsley Reservoir and Pinecrest Lake.  So, we did a bit of practice dry casting, and decided we would try fishing at a later date.  Jack returned to an earlier activity, throwing stones into the Clark Fork, and seemed happy enough.

This entire stretch of Hwy. 108, from Pinecrest to Kennedy Meadows, offers views extraordinaire, glimpses of trees turning their fall colors, a wealth of National Forest campgrounds (half off with a Federal Senior pass) and many hiking options just right for families with kids.  And, weather is generally sunny and beautiful into October (though, check weather forecasts and prepare for changeable conditions). 

At the end of our several day camping adventure, Jack noted “way cool; let’s do it again and bring more s’mores!”.  So, we shall plan a return when the fish are really biting!

When to go: Highway 108 east of Strawberry is often closed by snows around November 1; Kennedy Meadows Resort closes on Columbus Day (October 13).

How to get there: From Manteca, go east on CA Hwy. 108 to Sonora (the largest town, for provisioning), then continue about 60 miles further east to Kennedy Meadows.

Dining, lodging, camping options: Favorite restaurants along Hwy. 108: the Rock and Eproson’s House in Twain Harte, The Pie Pizzeria in Sugar Pine, the Steam Donkey in Pinecrest and the Kennedy Meadows Resort restaurant; for lodging: the Christmas Tree Inn in Sugar Pine, Long Barn Lodge in Long Barn, Pinecrest Resort, Pinecrest Chalet and Strawberry Inn and Kennedy Meadows Resort.  You will find about a dozen campgrounds east of Strawberry; though check with Stanislaus Forest for seasonal closings.

Hiking: From the Kennedy Meadows area into the Emigrant Wilderness, the Carson-Iceburg Wilderness, Columns of the Giants (2 miles west of Kennedy Meadows); around Pinecrest Lake, or (from Strawberry) the old Sugar Pine rail-trail along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River (also ideal for mountain biking).  Stop at the Stanislaus Summit Ranger Station in Pinecrest, for flyers and Maps.

What to bring: Binoculars, camera, good hiking shoes and gear for about any type of weather!

To plan your visit: For information on camping or hiking in the Stanislaus National Forest  go to www.fs.usda.gov/stanislaus/, or contact the Summit Ranger District, 1 Pinecrest Lake Road, Pinecrest, CA 95364; (209) 965.3434.  For information on Kennedy Meadows resort, www.kennedymeadows.com, or call (209) 965.3900.

Next week, we explore Apple Hill, that pretty slice of the Sierra just above Placerville, home to scores of apple orchards and wineries –ripe for touring in the fall!

For more inspiration on other travel destinations in California and the west, see my blog, http//blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel, or contact me at tviall@msn.com

Happy travels in the West!

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