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By Dave Boyer

Location:

Central California east of Fresno.

From Fresno, go 47 miles east on CA 180, to Piedra Road, then 17 miles on Trimmer Springs Road to the split at the bridge that crosses the river to Balch Camp. Drive time from Fresno is about an hour and a half.

Seasons open:

Year round weather permitting.

Elevation

1000-1200 feet.

Nearby Facilities & Camping:

There are several developed camping spots along the Kings River and Pine Flat Lake. The lower lake is only 45 minutes from the Fresno area. Pine Flat marina offers limited fuel and supplies (559) 787-2506. Fuel can be purchased east of Fresno along highway 180 north of Sanger.

The Kings River:

Located in the foothills above Fresno, the Kings River winds its was down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range and flows into Pine Flat Reservoir. Itís the major tributary feeding the lake and is known for its excellent white water rafting. The river is quite scenic and offers many camping opportunities for the rafters as well as campgrounds designed for travelers exploring the area. Above Pine Flat Reservoir there are a few trails that offer the off road enthusiast a way off the pavement, two of which follow along sides of the Kings River itself.

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The Kings River has one of the largest watersheds of the Sierra Nevada Range. Because of this, rafting has become a popular sport on this section of the river. The white water rafting portion of the river generally starts well above the Rogers Crossing river gauge and ends above the lake usually at  Kirch Flat, a standard developed campground. The fishing along the upper section of the river can be excellent at times and itís common to see tour guides bringing in groups to angle who are looking for that big catch of the day. Both trails along the river are usually two wheel drive friendly making it a popular spot to visit from late spring through fall. During the off season especially between February and March, most of the upper Sierraís are closed off due to snow, and this section of the Kingís is lightly used. Late winter and early spring is a good time to relax and explore the region without being hassled by the larger crowds.


The weather:

By far the best time to visit is when the weather is mild. Temperatures range from the teens of winter to triple digits often seen in mid to late summer. During summer the hills turn a golden brown thatís typical of the Sierra Foothills. Daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees make for good swimming opportunities but the evenings can stay quite warm. Fall is a good time to visit offering cooler days which provide enjoyable camping while still giving access to several trails throughout the area located at higher elevations. As winter approaches, the rains begin to turn the hills back to their green state. The area receives little to no snow but the days can be cold and damp especially late December through January which are generally  the coldest. During mid-spring the weather starts to warm and the flowers begin to bloom, most notably the California poppy. As stated above, this is a fantastic time to visit. The upper trails above the Kings River generally open by Memorial Day but the high country holds snow into June at times.

 

The trails along the Kings River:

As mentioned, both trails along the river above the bridge are class one and during good weather most any vehicle can drive either route. The North side can be slightly more slick in wet weather and there are a couple of small creek crossings but they are rocky and only have minor approach and departure angles. A low sitting vehicle might hit their front cowlings so care should be taken. Both sides follow a ridge that climbs from the river level to a few hundred feet above it. Some sections drop almost vertical to the river bottom and being most of the routes are narrow, it might be nerve racking having to backup due to on coming vehicles. Although uphill vehicles have the right of way, common sense should prevail and it might be advisable to give a bus or vehicle pulling a trailer the road. During the rafting season itís common to see both of these vehicles along the route, especially on the northern trail.

Upper Kings River Campgrounds:

Also see The Davis Flat Trail for additional information.

As the river begins to rise due to the spring runoff, the rafting companies begin to start their runs. In general this occurs around the first of April and the region is infiltrated by a number of companies and clients ready to take on the rapids. The area becomes quite busy but many of these contractors supply areas for the rafterís to camp at. The staging areas are generally located on the South side of the river along with the three major forest service campgrounds but the rafting contractors bring in their own mess tents, specialized camp gear, showers and toilets leaving the public CGís alone. Some private boaters will bring in their own vehicles and equipment to stay at the forest service camps, but in most cases you should be able to find a vacant spot during the weekdays. These public campgrounds have vaulted heads, table and fire rings. Some sites are better than others but a few are nestled in reasonable cover. Along the North side of the river, there are a few forest service group camps that also have vaulted restrooms open to the public. Most of these areas are somewhat desolate compared to the designated campgrounds on the South side but the North side is where to find the best camping. Although there are no facilities, these boon dock spots are the places to find if youíre looking for the most privacy from other campers.

A Springtime drive along the Kings River:

Early or late Spring is a great time to visit the area but as Summer approaches it doesnít take long for the warmer temps to take their toll. The grasses begin to brown and the flowers begin to wither. Obviously it all depends on the yearly precipitation which varies year to year, but itís safe to say that  late March through April is prime time for a good flower bloom. The pictures below are from both March and May and it should be easy to distinguish which images are from March just by looking at the foothills.

The South side:

After the long drive around the lake, the site of this unique bridge signifies your reached the beginning of the trails.

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Crossing the bridge takes you to the north side of the river but the south side  is where most of the developed forest service camps are located. The river trail ends at Mill Flat but the Davis Flat Trail starts at this location. (Please see the link above)

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SONY DSCEach campground varies in size. The amount of privacy between the sites is limited on the layout of the campground. One of the camps had been closed by the forest service and was overgrown during my visit. Camp 4 seemed to have the best sites but there were a few at Mill Flat that were reasonable. Overall, none gained a rating as a first-rate site by a long shot. Heavy use has taken its toll and most sites were somewhat trashy. But considering the traffic this place gets, itís understandable.

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The California Poppy bloom of April 2012 put on a good show.

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The Blue Lupine showed off it color as well as several other forms of ground cover.

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There were better camps than this particular site, but it was fairly isolated from the rest. Lacking shade would be the only caveat but on some visits the California Redbud might make up for the limited coverÖthe trees were in full bloom during this outing and were quite striking. Practically all the sites have fire rings, most have tables and a few such as this one have free standing BBQís.

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The scenery traveling in and out of the south side is very nice. Also along this side is a forest service cabin.

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For those interested, this cabin is for rent.

The North trail:

The opposite side of the river is where the boon dock areas are found. After crossing the bridge, the road splits up river to the camping areas. The trail on this side is roughly twice as long as its southern counterpart.

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Following the the road to Balch Camp also leads to Black Rock Reservoir and further up to Wishon Reservoir. This is a fantastic route to explore especially the canyon below Wishon.

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But back on the Kings, following the north trail upstream is where the best camping is found. The trail runs through Oak tree stands that add to the scenery.

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As the trail continues, it climbs several feet above the river in a couple of spots along the drive as shown below.

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Notice the color of the grasses between April and May. As shown in the early April and Mid-May pictures above, it doesnít take long before the warmer weather turns the hills to a golden color. Depending on the rains, the hills can stay green longer during a year with higher than normal seasonal precipitation.

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Even though the south side has most of the forest service camps, there are a few larger group staging areas on the north side such as this one. There are a few that have vaulted heads but itís the boon dock spots that shine. Those spots are further up river.

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This is a typical boon dock spot along the river. To avoid being stuck in the sand, care must be taken if driving onto beach.

 

 

 

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Up the road, the spur in the above picture led to this camp shown below. 

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There are several spots like this along the north side of the river. Most do not have facilities but privacy may outweigh tables and restrooms in some cases.

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This camp is one of the few boon dock spots with a table.

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Here is one of the two creek crossings. Both are easily forded in most any weather.

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More of the April flower bloom.

 

 

 

 

 

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Towards the end of the trail, the Garnet Dike camping area supplies some nice cover and the standard facilities similar to the campgrounds found on the south side of the river. This is also the end of the vehicle trail and the start of a hiking trailhead into the backcountry. Itís common to see rafters putting in at this location during the peak rafting season when the water is high.

Nearby off road attractions:

The Davis Flat trail.

The Sawmill Flat trail.

The shelf road to Balch Camp and Black Rock Reservoir.

The Sycamore Springs Trail.

The Granite Gorge Trail.

The Dinkey Creek Trail.

Blue Canyon and Big Creek Trail.

 

Summary:

Although the trails along the Kings River are more or less considered roads, they can be an enjoyable off pavement drive. I will say that the designated campgrounds are not what I would call premium sites. Quite often people leave trash and the sites are heavily used. This is also true for the boon dock spots. Face it, the area is well used. Yet when most of the upper Sierraís are closed to camping, the area along the Kings River offer a place to stay out of the snowline and with the coming of springtime the hills bloom with color making the Kings River a truly beautiful spot to visit.

Thanks for following Sportsmobile 4×4 Adventures.

Maybe see ya on the trail.

Dave Boyer