Get your camping on

May 23, 2007 

Attention outdoors enthusiasts: It's time to go outside and play.

Heading into summer's annual springboard, Memorial Day weekend, campers, hikers and anglers can expect to find the best early season conditions in years.

Snow levels in the central and southern Sierra are at 8,000 feet or above. All mountain roads are open (with the exception of the Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway). And daytime temperatures in places like Yosemite Valley, Cedar Grove and Huntington Lake hover in the mid-80s.

Remember last year? Seven feet of snow blocked Kaiser Pass Road on Memorial Day Weekend, facilities along Yosemite's Tioga Pass Road didn't open until June 30 and high water overwhelmed streams and reservoirs, creating terrible fishing.

Not this year. It should be glorious out there.

To help folks out the door, I've compiled a list of the best public campgrounds within easy driving distance of the central San Joaquin Valley. There sure are a lot of them -- I counted more than 120 in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, the Sierra National Forest and the northern half of the Sequoia National Forest, which includes the Giant Sequoia National Monument.

What jumps out is the variety. From crowded facilities plush with amenities in world-famous locales to primitive sites where you're happy to get a weather-beaten picnic table and fire ring, there truly is a campground for everyone.

Personal favorites, campgrounds that draw me back year after year, include Tuolumne Meadows (a hiker's paradise), Mono Hot Springs (the overall scenery is unmatched), Sheep Creek (gotta love the Kings River running through your backyard) and Deer Creek (Huntington Lake, for sentimental reasons).

Nothing opens up the outdoors like camping. And between now and Labor Day is the best time to enjoy it.

Before you pack up the tents and sleeping bags or fuel up the RV, be sure to review all the rules and regulations for your chosen spot. Find out if reservations are required, recommended or not needed. And since few things can ruin a camping trip like an uninvited bear, proper food storage is essential. Those bear lockers are there for a reason.

Now, on to my list of the top 40 campgrounds, categorized by activity and locale. Some appear more than once.

Best family destinations: Lower Pines and Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite); Mono Hot Springs (Sierra NF); Lodgepole (Sequoia NP); Azalea and Sunset (Kings Canyon NP).

Best lake access: Lupine/Cedar Bluffs, Spring Cove, College, Deer Creek, Lower Billy Creek (Sierra NF); Hume Lake (Sequoia NF).

Best river access: Wawona (Yosemite); Moraine and Sheep Creek (Kings Canyon NP); Mono Hot Springs and Kirch Flat (Sierra NF); Potwisha (Sequoia NP).

Best nearby giant sequoias: Nelder Grove and Gigantea (Sierra NF); Azalea and Sunset (Kings Canyon NP); Redwood Meadow and Belknap (Sequoia NF).

Best nearby hiking: Tuolumne Meadows and White Wolf (Yosemite); Cold Springs (Sequoia NP); Crystal Springs (Kings Canyon NP); Sample Meadow (Sierra NF).

Best high elevation: Vermilion and Trapper Springs (Sierra NF); Big Meadows and Quaking Aspen (Sequoia NF).

Best low elevation: Kirch Flat (Sierra NF); Potwisha and Buckeye Flat (Sequoia NP).

Best free campgrounds: Sample Meadow and Clover Meadow (Sierra NF); Big Meadows and Tenmile (Sequoia NF).

Best places to avoid RVs: Yosemite Creek (Yosemite); Nelder Grove and Placer (Sierra NF); Buckeye Flat and Atwell Mill (Sequoia NP); Belknap (Sequoia NF).

Most crowded: Lower Pines and Upper Pines (Yosemite); Lupine/Cedar Bluffs and Spring Cove (Sierra NF); Lodgepole and Dorst (Sequoia NP); Hume Lake (Sequoia NF).

You can always find a site at: Sheep Creek and Moraine (Kings Canyon NP).

Most off the beaten path: South Fork (Sequoia NP); West Kaiser and Voyager Rock (Sierra NF).

The reporter can be reached at marekw@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6218.

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