Portrait of a First Descent: South Fork Kaweah

Picking off a High Sierra first descent in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks' most obscure corner

Scouting Trip look at Old Trails.
Scouting Trip look at Big Slide.
South Fork Kaweah location in the High Sierra.
Topo view of the area
Hiking in.
Hike in under Homer's Nose.
Giant Sequoias at Cedar Creek.
Day 1 put-in.
Day 1 bedrock
Day 1 - In the gorge.
Day 1 - Camping at Ladybug
Day Two - Gorge 2.
Day 2 - Scouting up high.
Day 2 - Ladybug Falls.

Photos, video and story by Darin McQuoid

A band of marble cuts parallel to the flow of water through the granite landscape of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. This band of marble creates over 200 caves — most created by erosion of the Kings River, Kaweah River and their tributaries. The marble band also gives some of these rivers a bit of a personality disorder as they transition from smooth granite through sections of sieve-filled marble.

The South Fork Kaweah watershed forms the southern border of the National Park. During the mining rush of 1873 to 1875, the trail system was one of several used to supply mining operations in Silver City on the East Fork Kaweah. Later more trails were developed for cattle grazing and access to some of the caves. Eventually settlers built a road to Silver City, and in 1978 the area was annexed into Sequoia National Park. Now the South Fork entrance is an obscure section of the park, and the trail system has been scaled back.

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At the road’s end is the South Fork Campground and trailhead. Here the river cuts through the marble band and looks terrible from a paddling standpoint. The well-maintained Ladybug Trail follows the north side of the river, eventually climbing up a tributary — Cedar Creek — where maintenance ends at a diminutive grove of Giant Sequoia. While not officially groomed, the historic trail continues beyond Cedar Creek, and in the spring of 2015, the High Sierra’s lowest precipitation year on record, conditions made backpacking the activity of choice. As a paddler, backpacking trips are just an excuse to camp by other rivers; really, they are just scouting trips under another name.

A mile beyond Cedar Creek, the trail returns to the South Kaweah, with the river flowing through a steep gorge, and the favorable sight of granite bedrock. Farther up is Whiskey Log Camp, an intimate campsite and the end of any trail preservation. Just upstream is a slide reminiscent of the famous Skyscraper slide on South Silver. At first glance, I knew one day I'd return to this spot with a boat.

The weather from 2015 to 2017 has been as bipolar as the geology of the South Fork Kaweah. Two massive floods early in the year ripped brush out of the rivers, while near record-high snowpack have dictated a year to do obscure waterways because classics are too high.

A five-mile hike, just to portage downstream? That's how I sold it to Joseph Hatcher and Robbie Gilson. With an average gradient of 500 feet per mile, the river between the Ladybug trailhead and Whiskey Log was destined to be full of portages, some in gorges sure to require tricky rope work.

We emerged two days later after just seven easy portages. We'll let the video and photographs do the talking about the experience on the water.

— Read McQuoid’s rundown of the paddling offerings in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks; plus check out his backcountry field-tested reviews of water filters, down jackets, and sleeping pads.

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