Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway
Here's a highly recommended drive through some unspoiled national forest land located between Kings Canyon/ Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. If you follow a counterclockwise route you'll end up about 13 miles south of Yosemite, which makes it an easy transition to some more pretty nice territory. You can do it in a day if you push it; but why? Camp at some of the nicer forest service campgrounds you'll find, with very few fellow travelers to contend with. And it's a fine place to be a backpacker, with lots of trails into areas lightly touched by civilized man. And there's one lake in the middle, and another at the end. Don't expect trophy sites; this is the classic case of the trip being more important than the destination. The bottom line: this is a nice drive for many hours through some unspoiled forest with many nice spots to camp or unhinge your pack. Elevations will range from about 3,300 feet to 7,300. About nine miles of the road is unpaved with lots of potholes but perfectly okay for any type of vehicle.
This all starts at the village of North Fork, northeast of Fresno and south of Oakhurst almost due south of Bass Lake, a popular recreation area. Stop at the Bass Lake Ranger District Headquarters and pick up a copy of a publication titled "Sierra Traveler- A Visitor's Guide to Your Public Lands." Another choice would be a Sierra National Forest topo map. Make sure you've got a full gas tank and get underway.
As you leave the ranger station you'll turn left on Road 225 and take it to the well-marked Forest Road 81/ Minarets Road. The first stop is the Redinger Lake overlook, with views of a reservoir that helps provide electrical power to Southern California. Ho hum.
Next up is the Jesse Ross Cabin (left). Located near a Mono people campsite, Ross was an early settler who built his cabin in the 1860's and left it for us to admire. That leads to a pull-off signed Mile High Vista with sweeping views of the Minarets, Mount Ritter (13,157 feet), Mammoth Mountain and 15 other peaks over 10,000 feet.
Time to consider a potential diversion. Mammoth Pool is a man-made lake with no development other than a private campground and store on the way in. It has a primitive but functional boat ramp for small fishing boats. The shoreline is pretty rocky and good swimming spots are hard to come by. But it's an alpine lake amidst a sea of forest. Here's a tip. If you follow signs to the dam you come on a sign pointing to a picnic area. It's a pretty spot right on the lake (left) where you can picnic and fish from shore. You can swim too, although it's cold. But on our last trip we picnicked too long, ended up staying for dinner, and as dark approached decided it would be too risky (wink, wink) to leave for the campground so we camped there. Somehow fishing from your campsite seems a lot more fun than having to drive somewhere. Not too shabby.
At 6,200 feet Arch Rock is an arch, but won't make you forget the ones you saw at Arches National Park in Utah. It's a few feet off the ground, but appears to be cut from granite, not sandstone, so it took a lot more work for mother nature to achieve than the easy work in Utah. And it's a lot easier to get to than the ones in Utah.
Jackass Meadow at 7,000 feet is a pretty spot to view wildflowers in the spring or have lunch anytime. There's a raised wooden walkway out to a viewing platform that works well for people with physical limitations or moms with strollers.
Globe Rock, at 7,150 feet, is a large granite ball perched precariously on its base, seemingly on the verge of toppling at any time. But its probably been that way for eons. Just the same, we stayed on the uphill side. There are mortar holes in the base rock, evidence that the Mono people thought this was pretty cool. So did President Teddy Roosevelt; he had his photo taken here while on a hunting trip. You can too.
If you haven't had your fill of giant sequoias, Nelder grove is a 1,500 acre preserve with over 100 mature trees, including an alleged contender for world's tallest tree honors, the 246 foot tall "Bull Buck Tree."
The road ends at Bass Lake, a popular recreation area. Sited at 3,400 feet it is 4 miles long by 1/2 mile wide and supports all types of boating, camping and a warm water fishery. Click our link for more info. At this point you are situated about 13 miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park, headed for the Wawona part of the park. If you make that trek you will soon appreciate what you left behind, nice campgrounds with few or no people and little traffic. By our count there are about 19 campgrounds along the drive, all with pit toilets but only three with drinking water. But they are very nice indeed. And being national forest land, you can really camp anywhere except a few restricted areas that the rangers can highlight when you start. Free campfire permits are required for use in undeveloped camping areas. And being national forest, man's best friend will be a happy camper too; leashes only on trails. Black bear live here, so take the usual precautions.