Wind Wolves Preserve: Try this Central California option when Sequoia is a challenge

Winter can be a magical time to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in Central California: Snow dusts the branches of the mighty ponderosa pines, firs and sequoias; crowds are scarce; and designated meadows and trails present near-perfect sledding and snowshoeing opportunities. But winter also means weather-related road closures, including key arteries such as Generals Highway, which connects the two parks, and Highway 180 between Grant Grove and Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon. This year, visitors will find even more closures due to ferocious fires that swept the area in 2021, burning more than 88,000 acres and destroying an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the world’s mature giant sequoias. All indoor lodging options, including the Wuksachi and John Muir lodges, remain closed indefinitely, and food-service options are limited.

There are advantages to visiting the parks now: Sequoia’s Giant Forest, home to the landmark 275-foot-high General Sherman Tree, has reopened on a limited basis from Friday through Monday. Popular trails such as Congress and Moro Rock remain open, although traction shoes and poles are recommended because of the snowy and icy conditions. If you go, consider a weekend stay in a cabin or motel in the town of Three Rivers near the south entrance. Get to the park early to avoid traffic; bring food, water and tire chains; and stick to paths that are open and deemed safe by park rangers. Also, brace yourself for scenery that includes charred trees and denuded hillsides. “There are definitely places where visual evidence of the fire will be with us for quite some time,” said Rebecca Paterson, a National Park Service public affairs specialist.

Wind Wolves Preserve, about 30 miles south of Bakersfield and about 120 miles from Sequoia’s southern reaches, offers an outdoor experience that is quite different from Sequoia’s lush forests and rivers — yet it’s just as extraordinary and is typically easier to plan for this time of year. Surrounded by oil fields and almond and orange groves, the 93,000-acre preserve is an ecological oasis of open grasslands, saltbush shrubs, riparian wetlands, and native plants and wildlife. A surprisingly robust creek and 15-foot limestone waterfall sit near the main trailheads, while juniper and pinyon forests, oak woodlands, ponderosa pine and bigcone spruce trees can be found in its southern reaches.

A former cattle ranch that dates to the mid-1800s, Wind Wolves takes its name not from resident canines, but from the tall grasses that cover its hills and resemble running animals. The nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy bought the land in 1996 to provide vital habitat to endangered species, such as the San Joaquin kit fox, and rare species, including the tule elk, and to address the “dire need for equitable access to outdoor spaces” in California’s rural Central Valley, said Melissa Dabulamanzi, the preserve manager. With an elevation range that stretches from 640 to 6,000 feet, Wind Wolves offers a year-round network of well-maintained (and dog-friendly) hiking and biking trails, as well as group and individual campsites with potable water and picnic tables. Despite its proximity to the Interstate 5 corridor, Wind Wolves attracts a modest 60,000 to 80,000 visitors every year, according to Dabulamanzi. In contrast, Sequoia and Kings Canyon drew 1.2 million visitors in 2020.

Unlike Sequoia, Wind Wolves Preserve isn’t prone to weather-related closures, although summers can be scorching hot. Winter and spring, when California poppies, grape soda lupine and yellow monolopia often blanket the hills, are good times to visit. The popular San Emigdio Canyon Trail is a leisurely 3.8-mile hike, with creek access and picnic areas. For a hardier workout, check out Tule Elk Trail, a nine-mile loop that leads to a lookout with stunning vistas highlighting the preserve’s diversity. “It’s such a cool vantage point,” Dabulamanzi said. “You have the lush riparian habitat of [San] Emigdio Canyon below, there are the hills to the north and the Los Padres mountains to the south. On a clear day, you can even see the Eastern Sierras.”

Comments for this post are closed.