Hiking the Ladybug Trail, tucked into a remote corner of Sequoia National Park, is a study in contrasts.
One moment your ears are filled with thunder from the South Fork of the Kaweah River, swollen by spring runoff. The next, the only noise is the crunching of footsteps.
One moment you're hiking along a grassy hillside peppered with wildflowers. The next, you're strolling through a stand of incense cedars.
Throw in a few stream crossings, views of distant rocky pinnacles and up-close encounters with giant sequoias, and it adds up to quite a hike. Especially for one that's not long or difficult.
The trailhead, 13 winding miles off Highway 198 from Three Rivers, is so out of the way that the park service doesn't bother collecting entrance fees. Nor does it charge for use of the South Fork Campground.
Who says the best things in life aren't free?
From the parking area (elev. 3,620), the trail follows the river upstream for a short distance before crossing it on a wooden footbridge. Then it climbs through oak woodlands and gigantic boulders, taking you high above the river on what's known as Bone Hill. At bone-dry Putnam Creek, you may notice the first of many faint junctions with old, abandoned trails.
After log-hopping across Putnam Creek, the trail climbs back into the main river canyon before descending into Ladybug Camp at 1.7 miles. Situated next to the raging river, Ladybug Camp (elev. 4,280) is so named because it serves as the wintering home of thousands of ladybugs.
If this is as far as you're going, there are campsites and granite slabs to kick back on, relax and watch the churning waters. (When the river mellows, it's also a good spot for swimming and fishing.) If not, follow the signed trail up a switchback toward two excellent viewpoints. The first shows Garfield Creek tumbling into the South Fork. The second highlights Homer's Nose, a rocky summit that looms 4,000 feet above.
Passing through grassy hillsides and cedar forests, the trail then crosses Cedar Creek, 3.1 miles from the trailhead. The giant sequoias growing right alongside this delightful stream are impossible to miss.
The trail crosses the creek and proceeds uphill to another junction with an abandoned trail (this one is actually signed) before dropping and climbing once again toward the Kaweah. There are several large waterfalls in this area; unfortunately, you have to work your way down a loose, sketchy hillside to get an unobstructed view.
Finally, after 4 miles, the trail spills into Whiskeylog Camp (elev. 5,120), situated next to a small stream a stone's throw from the rushing river.
As is the case with any lower-elevation hike, long pants are recommended to prevent ticks and poison oak, which grows in abundance along the trail.