Yucca Point Trail – Sequoia National Forest
October 15-17, 2020
I have been on a quest since the SQF complex fire burnt the Forks of the Kern trail and burnt ~30 miles up the upper Kern river. My quest is to find an alternative to the Forks of the Kern Trail and the Upper Kern River. I have found an alternative, but, not a match by any stretch: The Upper South and Middle forks of the Kings River.
Forks of the Kern Status
Firstly, a little report on the Forks. I cannot tell you how many emails and txts and calls I have answered since August from people wanting updates and to get into the forks before the season closes on November 15th. Literally hundreds. Well, I just doubt it’s going to happen. No way. Even if the SQF fire was contained consider:
- The trail is burnt so following it would be impossible. That means trampling a new trail. Never good
- Many of those dead trees down there from the pine beetle have fallen while burning on the trail. The western divide ranger district goes in there in the beginning of the season each year and does it’s best to clear the trail. They have a herculean challenge ahead of them.
- The Western Divide Ranger district is way short of resources. It’s a shame, but a simple matter of fact that they are understaffed and underfunded.
- Since the fire is not contained and there are more stupid people on earth than smart ones, the liability of people hiking into the hot zone of the fire would be too much to indemnify.
So, since august I have been searching, researching and talking to the experts about an alternative to the Forks. I got a lot of help. Thank you for all the help:
- Steve Schalla aka “Steven Ojai” of https://www.flyfishingthesierra.com/
- Mike Hillygus of http://stillwaterriveroutpost.com/
- Dani Dayton, Visitor Information Services, Forest Service, Sequoia National Forest, Kern River Ranger District
- Sydney Peters, Administrative Support Assistant, Forest Service, Sequoia National Forest, Western Divide Ranger District
- Indirectly, Mike Mercer of The Fly Shop. Big surprise: the Missing Link does well here.
I had never fished the Upper reaches of the South or Middle Forks of the Kings River. I had heard from a small amount of fly fishers that have fished it that it was good and brutally rugged. So, with expert’s help I planned for about 3 weeks to explore this place I had never been to before. A place that had some folklore about how rugged it is. I stared at satellite images of the rivers for hours.
Nuts… let me start with the good news: spectacular fishing. Surprisingly big fish too. Mountain rivers and streams and creeks don’t typically hold big fish. The Upper Kings River does.
On day 2 I ran into two great guys who camped cross river from me, fairly close to me, that I didn’t even notice (because it’s so rugged) until nighttime when I saw lights. Armen, great guy, is a fly fisherman and his younger buddy, whose name is escaping me right now was spin fishing.…and they were killing. They showed me pictures of some quality fish. You know it’s good when beginners and the not so experienced are doing well…and catching big fish. I gave them some Mercer’s missing links. I love helping beginners. I love talking about fly fishing to people who get as excited about it as me. I love helping with guidance and giving away the flies I tie. It brings me so much joy. Like the many fly fishers I meet from this site and on the river, I asked them to join me on the forks next season.
I fished a couple hours on Thursday night after hiking in, all day Friday, and a couple hours on Saturday before hiking out. 85% of the time I fished dries only. The only time I did the dry dropper thing was mid day when it always slows. I fished size 12 Huck Hoppers and wrecked. Note: on the hike in I saw a black grass hopper about a size 6. I had never seen a grasshopper that dark black before. So, the first huck hopper I tied on was black size 12 and it did well. After ~4 hours of fishing it on the middle fork, it was completely chewed up from trout teeth, would no longer float upright, and still caught fish.
After 5pm I fished size 16 and 18 Mercer’s Missing Links. Recently, I had the pleasure of email meeting the fly fishing famous Mike Mercer of “The Fly Shop”. He is that guy that invented the fly; the fly you would want if you only could have one (the Adams or the Missing Link). Nicest guy in the world. So, I actually tied 3 dozen of them in green, traditional rusty brown and black for this trip and my annual October Mammoth trip I have coming up. They did well, but I have a feeling size 18 anything would have worked at night during the witching hour from 5pm to dark.
The hatches were prolific, but, the one natural that was out of the ordinary was an abundance of a ~ size 14 white mayfly. It kinda’ looked like a Cahill that you would fish in the spring in the eastern US. So interesting. I’d love to know exactly what it was. I have no idea. I have never seen a pale mayfly like that in the sierras. Please email me if you know. Guesses are welcome because I sure as hell don’t know what it was.
Mid-day on Friday when it got hot and the water warmed, the bite on top slowed a bit. Which, of course, is no surprise. So I nymphed a little with a dry dropper rig with a huck hopper on top….and every nymph I tied on seemed to work. naturals like my green caddis cripple and attractors like my rainbow warrior cripple both worked great. But, the dropper thing didn’t last long because I started catching fish on the huck hopper again. And with a dropper during a fight, it typically wraps around the fish and double hooks the fish or gets caught in the gills. I always want to catch and release with the least impact and stress on the fish. I’m the guy that tries to shake fish off at my feet. So I just cut off the dropper part and fished size 12 huck hoppers successfully until the witching hour. Then I switched to size 16 and 18 Missing Links.
Over the course of a full day of fishing and ~3 more hours of fishing on the night and morning on both sides of that day, I landed 3 fish over 18” and lost 3 fish over 18”. I caught plenty of fish in the 10-14” range. I saw plenty of trout fry on the banks; a great sign of a healthy river. Every fish I caught was a rainbow. But, it appeared to be many different types of rainbows; there were chromers and really dark spawning looking like rainbows. I understand they have a lot of species of trout in the kings that have turned wild and reproduce with much success. In contrast to the Upper Kern, none of the many fish I caught jumped. The wild native Kern River Rainbows are just jumpers and go ballistic….and make them so hard to land. On the Kings I never had a fish run me down river or go nuts like they do on the Kern. Don’t get me wrong the fights were great: lightning runs you’d expect from wild fish. Shoot, I even broke a fish off….and then switched to 3x so it wouldn’t happen again. My hook to land ratio was a lot greater than I typically get on the Upper Kern. I chalk that up to the difference between wild fish and wild natives. There are very few places in the world that only hold wild natives. The upper kern is one of those places.
I spent most of the day on Friday fishing my way up the Middle Fork of the Kings River. It had the least info on it. It was the hardest to access. And I was told was the most rugged. So, I couldn’t resist; that is the adventure gene in me that sometimes borders on unsafe. I think I fished a couple miles up stream and I caught fish the entire way, but it was so rugged it could have only been a mile. There is no river trail, nor is there much river bank. It’s mostly wading upriver through giant slippery boulder fields. I caught a good amount of big fish in the Middle Fork when all the intel I got from others said I would only catch small fish. It was such crystal clear water on the middle fork that many times I could see the fish so I got to hunt them. I got to see some refusals too.
Saturday morning, I fished the South Fork from the trailhead for a couple hours and did well. I ran into an experienced fly fisherman that told me he had been coming there for years. He told me downstream there were many lunkers and that he caught a 21” the day prior. When I go back I’d like to take a shot at those lunkers downstream on the South Fork.
Favorite Moment: Like many, I always seem to remember the fish I lost more than the ones I land. But, there was one special experience I will remember from the Kings. After the bear sighting I climbed / waded my way up to a plunge pool into crystal clear deep turquoise water. I didn’t notice all the lunkers in ten feet of water on the opposite side yet because there was a large fish working on top right at the head in some current. I slowly moved, out of the water on the rocky bank to 30-40 feet. I could see the fish was feeding on a ~10 second cadence, but I could not tell what the fish was rising on. He was tailing too, like a bonefish so my guess he was catching the emergers before they hatched and flew away. I carefully stepped in the water to a casting position. I said to myself, “he’s going to strike on the first cast and I will only get one shot at him.” I had that black size 12 huck hopper on and for a second considered switching to a size 16 missing link. For a second. I waited the cadence, then casted and the huck hopper. It landed perfectly upstream in the current. When the huck hopper over his head he whacked it violently and I set hard. It was a great battle in that large pool. After a few minutes I put my GoPro on its tripod in the water and pulled the fish to it to witness the fight. Out of the water it was a really darkly colored beautiful trout north of 18”. He was still pissed off when I released him.
My god what a rugged place. I’m not a lifelong backpacker. Backpacking is a means to an end for me. I am a fly fisherman. I have learned quite a bit about backpacking over the last decade. But, over half my backpacking has been in the Forks. I have backpacked parts of the JMT and cottonwood lakes above 12k feet and other places in the Sierras. But, I have never backpacked a place that is so rugged there are no trails. Once the trail down into the canyon ends there is no trail. It’s too rocky for trails. My buddy Warren who has taught me so much about backpacking backed out of the trip last minute because of the smoke forecast. So, I hiked in alone. Thank God, I found a place for my tent downstream quickly. Over the entire 3 day adventure I only saw 4 primitive sites and I covered many miles. And two of the sites required river crossings.
I was looking for an alternative to the forks of the kern and technically it is… but the trail is not maintained…. It’s more like a bush whack / fishermen’s trail. The bushes and branches grab you constantly. There are a number of deadfall detours that take you off trail too. And once you get down in the canyon there is no trail. It’s too rocky. You are truly in the barely explored wilderness. I also talk about the “tax” of the forks. It’s that 1100 foot decent over 2 miles into kern canyon. Well, the “tax” here is much more significant.
The Kings River is not for the faint of heart. I had my lightweight Orvis wading boots. It was hot enough not to need waders. I’d guess it was about 300 cfs in both the South and Middle Forks.
I did two nights and had my share of calamity with a couple falls. No biggie; just pain. I’m banged up, strained, cut, and bruised. The smoke moved in on Friday night. On sat morning before the sun came up I could smell it. when the sun came up it was there. I txt’d from my garmin satellite tracker to my buddy Warren for a smoke report. He told me it was going to get bad. So, I caught and released a handful more trout that morning on the South Fork where I had not fished yet. Then hiked out mid day on Saturday before the smoke got bad.
Surprises / Fun Facts / Stories:
- The Kings Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America. That is quite a fun fact if you have been to the Grand Canyon. It has steep canyon walls and where I put my tent was at the base of the southwestern side. Why is that interesting? Well, I was shocked by the fact that It was pitch black by 6:30 PM and not light until after 7AM. There is only so much you can do in the tent for 12 hours in the dark. Thank god for the podcasts I download to my phone before leaving and my solar charger….which, btw, I had to do a river crossing over the S. Fork to get it in the sun.
- The other issue I was surprised by was the river flow. I used this graph to gage what I’d be in for: https://www.dreamflows.com/graphs/day.660.php which read 70 CFS before I left. 70 CFS is nothing…a creek. As mentioned already I didn’t find 70 CFS; more like 4 times that. The other shock was that the high-water mark was 30 feet above the waterline. That is more crazy than the “Killer Kern”. Like I said earlier I’d guess it was about 300 cfs in both the South and Middle Forks. That means after the confluence my guess would be about 600 CFS. I only saw one place after the confluence where a cross was possible even though I did not attempt it. but I can only imagine that river in the springtime at over 20,000 CFS. They call it the “Killer Kern” and that is because people can drive to the Kern; there is access. There have been 294 deaths at the Kerrn river from 1968 to May 2018….because you can drive to good portion of it. If there was a way to drive to the Upper Kings it would kill a lot of people.
- You have to plow through the national park to get there. That means paying a fee. I needed a re-up on my yearly national park pass, so not a problem. It’s just so like me to plan so carefully for so long and not even notice that the drive takes you through Sequoia National Park and out the other side.
- I ran into 3 hunters and actually saw them before they saw me. And for Gods sakes I was the one standing in the river! Nice guys. But, I’m not a deer and really didn’t want to get mistaken for one. I never did hear a gun shot, but I was only there a couple hours on that last day. So I don’t know if the deer and the bears won this day.
- Helicopter story – on the night after hiking in I was fishing the witching hour and doing well. Then from nowhere, a coast guard helicopter blew in…one of the big ones with a bunch of people on board hanging out the open doors of the side doors… it was only 100 feet over my head. Blew my hat off… It circled around me up and down the river. Talk about knocking down the hatch. At first I was like, “holy shit, they are here to get me because there is a fire close”. But, I waved to the guys hanging out the side, and they waved back. They didn’t use their loud speaker like I have seen in search and rescue. They circled me about 10 times even landing downriver at one point. So, I figured they were just doing search and rescue drills. Pretty impressive. But, kinda’ ruined the hatch I was working. It would have been nice if they used their loudspeaker to tell me not to worry.
- On Friday when I fished the middle fork I saw a small bear crossing the river about 200 yards ahead of me. And then I hooked up. By the time I was in a place to look up again at the bear it was gone. Little bears are sometimes accompanied by pissed off big female bears. So, because I was alone I was a little wigged out. Yes, of course I forgot my bear spray back at camp. Yes, of course I fished it straight through.
- This was the first backpacking trip i have done without having to use a jetboil, let alone a camp fire. There is currently a forest wide ban on anything ignited because of the fires. I survived. i had jack daniels.
- Falls / Injuries – I came back home bruised, strained, battered from this trip. God didn’t give me much, but he did give me the agile gene and I’m athletic for a little guy. One of my best buddies calls me “goat-boy” because of it. it’s a nice attribute to have if you are a wading fly fisherman. But….
- On the way down the trail I felt that tinge I have felt so many times before over the last decade. I have been an endurance runner since my 20s. but, a decade ago I started suffering a chronic injury when running. It starts with a tinge in the back of my calve. It’s a tear in the sheath that holds the muscle. If I keep running the hernia gets worse and worse. So I have learned to stop and give it a few days to heal. Well, I felt the tinge early in the hike down. By the end of the trek I was limping. Uggh….
- Well, it got so dark so quickly on that first night I had trouble hanging my food. i couldn’t find a branch low enough if you can imagine that. Because it was dark after one of my throws (rock attached to cord) I stepped back into nothing and fell down a hill in the dark. It was dirt and bushes there…thank god. And I did manage to turn mid fall and land on my stomach instead of my back (bad). But, I bent my pinky backward when I landed and feared it was broken. It was not. But, it was very strained and sore.
- I started using a wading staff this year to quickly navigate up stream in the Kern and I brought it on this trip. But, even with that I took a fall end of day on the middle fork when I was already tired from the crazy ass adventure of wading and climbing. This fall was from a bit of distance though. I stepped down on a dry rock in the river and my wading boot just never caught anything; it slipped immediately and quickly. I fell with some velocity and hit my right knee and stomach on rocks at the same time. At 58 falls are just not the same as when you are young. I haven’t had that much pain in a long time. I literally sat in the river for 10 minutes collecting myself in pain and hoping to back down the swelling in my knee. The pain in my stomach was like nothing I had ever experienced. At one point I thought I was going to chunder. While sitting in the river collecting myself I couldn’t help but think if I hit my head my corpse wouldn’t be found for a week. “That’s it.” I “called it” at that point and slowly limped back to camp using my wading staff arguing with myself if I had pushed the safety thing a bit too far by being alone.
- On Saturday morning early I crossed the river by my camp and walked down river on the island to the actual confluence of the middle and south forks. I think I hooked a couple and/or caught a couple fish on the middle fork there and in the actual confluence. Great water for a streamer which I will do next time. But, out of the wilderness from downriver on the middle fork comes a young guy; very fit… “excuse me is that the yucca point trail?”. I laughed, pointed and said, “yea, it’s right there.” He seemed relieved and smiled. I knew no one had hiked in between when I fished up river and then, so I asked, “I fished 2 miles upriver yesterday and didn’t run into you guys. So, where in the hell did you come from?” “I think we made it about 7 miles upriver.” Aghast I said, “my god. You must have made 50 river crossings in the process.” He said smiling, “you could not imagine what we have seen and been through.” I said, “oh yea I can, I almost killed myself just fishing it a couple miles.” They were ultra light backpackers. No tents, no rods, basically dry clothes, wet clothes, a lightweight bag and food. One of them, my age, but as fit as a 20-year-old, had a waterproof pack. He literally floated on his back through the confluence to get to the other side to hike out.
The Kings River is not for the faint of heart. The “tax” here is more significant than the Forks of the Kern. But, the fishing makes it worth it for crazy old guys like me. I cannot wait to get back in there. Next time not alone, though. The Forks of the Kern is tame compared to this place.
Interestingly enough the Yucca Point trail is not at altitude. It’s ~3,100 feet at the trailhead. So, it probably gets very little snow, if any. there is actually poison oak there. There is no shortness of breath like hiking at altitude. But, it does get hot; very hot.
The Official Forest Service site says it’s 3.6 miles long with a 1,360ft descent and ascent. That translates to a 1.8 mile hike with 680 feet of descent. My GPS, which has 2” resolution, said the hike down was 1.29 miles. Although I haven’t looked at the actuals yet from my garmin inreach satellite tracker, I bet that descent was close to 1000 feet. Google Earth says the altitude is 2,058 feet at the confluence which supports my theory that the decent is ~1000 feet. It’s funny how many of the official sites are so wrong. The content for them was built years ago before technology.
Since I cannot get into the upper Kern for the close of the season, I am hoping to get back in to the Upper Kings before the season closes November 15. 11/15 is the end of the fishing season in most of the sierras and typically an epic fishing time of year….and bitter awful cold. Since the Forks of the Kern will most likely not be opened again until next Spring, the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River by way of the Yucca Point Trail is the only legit alternative I know of for the fly fisherman who is willing to pay it’s “tax”. The tax is significant.