Foothills await early-bird hikers

With snow still chest deep in the High Sierra, what's a hiker to do?

Rather than cool your heels until summer, take advantage of the extended spring by heading to the foothills.

The Middle Fork Trail is just the place.

Starting at 3,300 feet elevation, the trail follows a brushy ridge that runs a couple hundred feet above the Kaweah River.

One moment, you're above the chaparral with awesome views of Moro Rock, Castle Rocks and snowcapped Lippincott Mountain and Mount Eisen.

The next, you're inside a shady grotto fed by tiny streams.

Immediately after leaving the parking area, the trail crosses Moro Creek, which a couple days ago was running so high that to cross I had to remove my shoes and socks. (Sandals work well, too.) The rest of the streams are easily rock-hopped.

After about an hour of hiking (and just as you begin to wonder whether there really is a waterfall), the trail descends into a side canyon that amplifies the sound of gushing water. You've reached Panther Creek Falls.

Unfortunately, there's no head-on view of the 100-foot cascade.

But with a little easy hillside scrambling, it's possible to climb onto a granite slab near the brink with views of the river canyon.

On the other side of Panther Creek -- again, tricky in early season -- and down a bit sits a splendid campsite, the first place on the trail where camping is legal.

Most day hikers turn around here, but the trail continues. The next major landmark, Mehrten Meadow, is another 3 uphill miles away.

Thanks to the unseasonably cool weather, the Middle Fork Trail should be pleasant until early June.

After that, it's just too hot.

And because of poison oak, which blooms in abundance, long pants and shirts are recommended.