Foothill hikes in Seqouia National Park

In a land of 13,000-foot peaks and trees with bases as wide as city streets, the little things are overlooked easily.

Stand atop Moro Rock or inside the Giant Forest sometime and try not to gawk. Everything is so huge, so vast, that it's easy to forget about the splendor beneath your feet.

The foothills area of the park is an ideal place for a gentle reminder that nature's beauty comes in all sizes.

Most people entering Sequoia National Park on Highway 198 zoom past places such as Marble Falls, Paradise Creek and Ladybug Camp without realizing what they're missing.

Especially in the spring. While higher elevations remain blanketed beneath the largest snowpack in a decade, the foothills are at their peak.

"If anyone's going to stop and do a foothills hike, now's the time to do it," Sequoia interpretive ranger Melanie Rawlins said. "In fact, we encourage it, especially for people that don't have winter gear."

When snow cuts off access to Mist Falls and Tokopah Falls, Marble Falls becomes the must-see waterfall in the area. All you'll need is some endurance and a sturdy pair of shoes.

Park at the day-use area at Potwisha Campground and begin hiking up a dirt road that immediately crosses over a flume. After a quarter-mile, a signed trail to the right starts snaking up the hillside.

For the most part, the trail stays high above the Kaweah River's Marble Fork and follows the contours of the chaparral-soaked slope. Everything is in bloom, from redbud to miner's lettuce. You'll even pass a few Yucca plants leaning out over the canyon.

So gradual is the trail you won't believe you've gained 2,000 feet by the time it dead ends against Marble Falls. The last mile is especially scenic with several outcroppings of white marble.

While the upper reaches of the falls mostly are hidden from view, the lower cascades leave quite an impression. Marble Falls was raging last week, and water levels only will increase as the weather warms.

One word of warning: Stay clear of the river. As a rule of thumb, rangers deem all moving water unsafe for swimming until at least the Fourth of July.

"Even being close to the river hopping on boulders can be really dangerous," Rawlins said.

For another slice of foothills splendor, park at the Hospital Rock Picnic Area and walk about a mile to the Buckeye Flat Campground. From there, the Paradise Creek Trail crosses the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River on a sturdy footbridge, ascends a short slope and meets Paradise Creek.

Taking either of two trail forks, you arrive at a delightful waterfall framed by rust-colored granite. Above the fall, the trail climbs a ridge with outstanding views of Moro Rock. This area is especially lush with ferns and wildflowers growing underneath a canopy of live oaks, willows and pines.

An even shorter, but no less scenic hike can be accessed from South Fork Road, turning right (south) just before Three Rivers.

From South Fork Campground, just inside the park boundary, follow the Ladybug Trail for 1 1/2 miles through dense forest and wildflower-covered slopes to Ladybug Camp. Below the trail, the roaring South Fork of the Kaweah River provides constant companionship.

Alas, most of the ladybugs have long since vacated their winter mating grounds. But it's a fine area for a picnic, flat and open.

All hikes in the foothills area are best attempted in spring or summer mornings, as the heat can be daunting.

Originally published in The Fresno Bee and on fresnobee.com on April 13, 2005.