Indian Pools and Rancheria Falls trails offer exertion-free hikes

Sometimes the best hikes aren't really "hikes" at all. More like mellow strolls. No exertion necessary.

Two fine examples are located within a couple miles of each other along Highway 168 near Huntington Lake. Knock off both in one afternoon, and you'll still have enough time to spoil dinner with a chocolate shake on the drive home.

Indian Pools is a great place to beat the sweltering heat of summer. Locating the trailhead is a bit tricky, but that doesn't prevent hikers of all ages and abilities from walking along the banks of Big Creek. Most bring towels.

The first thing to look for is the Sierra Summit Ski Area gate. If it is closed, park in the large lot across the highway and start from there. If it is open, drive a half-mile to the far end of the ski area, crossing a bridge over Big Creek, and toward a cluster of mobile homes.

Ignore the dirt road and look for a trail signed "Indian Pools." The path quickly meets up with Big Creek and guides hikers through blooming flowers along the granite-coated stream banks.

At 0.7 miles, the "official" trail ends at a large pool deep enough for jumping and swimming. There also is a large shallow area for wading.

To escape possible weekend crowds, follow a well-worn "use" trail that continues upstream to more pools and waterfalls. Rock cairns or "ducks" help hikers navigate a couple hard-to-follow sections.

The farther you go, the more interesting the terrain becomes.

Rancheria Falls, on the other hand, is just as pretty but far less ambiguous. The trailhead is easy to find, and there is no doubt when you get there.

From Highway 168, a half-mile above the intersection with Kaiser Pass Road, take a right turnoff marked Rancheria Falls (Road 8S31). Drive 1.3 miles to the trailhead located around a sharp curve and park off the road.

The trail is well-graded and easy to follow, leading through a forest of pines, firs and berries. Just when the scene starts to become repetitive, the trail spills onto the base of a 150-foot waterfall lined with glistening boulders.

So perfect is the setting, you might just want to pick out a downstream boulder with a clear view of the fall and have a lavish picnic.

Even though you didn't really earn it.

Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on July 11, 2002