Hikers visiting the Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park are faced with two options:
Climb, or don't climb?
Because Kings Canyon is the deepest river gorge in the United States, it stands to reason most of the hikes begin with some serious energy expenditure.
Most, but not all.
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Take the River Trail, a lightly trodden path linking two of Cedar Grove's finest features: Roaring River Falls and Zumwalt Meadow.
Access the River Trail from either the Roaring River Falls parking area or Roads End, the terminus of Highway 180. From either starting point, it's a relatively flat 2.7 miles to the opposite end.
Rarely do short hikes offer such variable terrain. In just a few footsteps, you'll pass through forests of incense cedar, fir and pine; moraines left by an ancient glacier; and picturesque Zumwalt Meadow, where dogwood and cattails bloom in abundance.
Of course, they don't call it the River Trail for nothing. The South Fork of the Kings River is your constant companion, and when not seen it always can be heard.
Two bridges spanning the river are a great place to stop and gaze at the rushing water and ponder how, in their previous life, each droplet existed as snow on some distant mountain flank.
While at Roads End, be sure to take the short stroll to Muir Rock, the apartment-sized boulder along the river where John Muir himself once lectured.
For those looking for a little more challenge, take the Hotel Creek Trail to the Cedar Grove Overlook, a 5-mile round trip offering a bird's eye view of Kings Canyon's unique geography.
Climbing 1,200 feet over the course of 2 miles, this trail is best hiked in the morning before the sun's rays beat down on the south facing slopes.
Once atop the ridge, catch your breath and follow a short spur trail to the overlook itself. From this vantage point, it's easy to retrace the footsteps of glaciers that scoured this area hundreds of thousands of years ago.
From here, either retrace your steps or continue along the Hotel Creek Trail until it joins the Lewis Creek Trail and head downhill to complete an 8-mile loop.
Muir died in 1915, decades before the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940 or the annexation of the Cedar Grove area in 1965.
Thanks to him, all this beauty still exists today - and not at the bottom of some lifeless reservoir.
Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on May 14, 2004.