One of the great things about California is that the state has an enormous amount of “wild” space. Some of these spaces are State Parks; some are National Parks; and some are open spaces that are run by other governmental organizations and non-profit foundations. The variety present in this system of wilderness protection and preservation means that there’s always something new to explore; and there’s always hidden gems to be found. Take for example the Moro Rock Trail (yes, that’s right: Moro Rock, not Morro Rock). This trail is one of my “secret” favorite summertime trails in the Southern Sierra, and one that is fairly accessible. Why is it one of my summertime favorites? For starters, you get to climb Moro Rock (Elevation 6,275), and you get to hike amongst giant sequoias. You also get some spectacular views of the Southern Sierra mountain range. And, if you’re particularly lucky, you might even get to see some black bears. Interested? Read on!
Directions: The trailhead is right next to the Giant Forest Museum in Sequoia National Park off Highway 198. There is a parking area next to the museum; but do note that during the summer, this parking area becomes full on a regular basis, as this is a popular area for park visitors. As a matter of fact, if you are looking to take the shuttle to Moro Rock, this is the area you will want to park at to catch the shuttle and or see the museum. If you take the shuttle, you will only experience a .4 mile roundtrip hike up and down the rock itself. My recommendation: beat the crowds, do this hike, experience the wilderness. After all, you’re in Sequoia National Park for a reason! Regardless of which route you take – NPS Shuttle or hike, do not leave food in your car! This is an active bear area due to the amount of human traffic that exists during the summer. Bears can and do break into cars for food in broad daylight, and in some cases, are not dissuaded by crowds. Don’t take the risk and store any food you have properly before you leave.
The Trail: From the Museum, the trailhead is slightly to the Southwest. It is well signed and well-marked with a large wooden sign. One of the many nice things about the trail is that once you are approximately .10 miles or less from the trailhead, it feels like you are deep in the wilderness. From the trailhead, the trail passes underneath many old growth pines, and if you are there at the right time of year, you will be surrounded by either: a) lush undergrowth; b) wildflowers; or c) both. After a short period of time, the trail passes beneath several Giant Sequoias, and this allows you to get up and close with the giant trees without having to deal with the crowds that are present at some of the specific tree-viewing locations.
For the most part, the trail is flat, and there is little elevation gain for the first 1.3 miles. At 1.3 miles, there will be a well-signed turnout to Hanging Rock, which is .1 miles off the main trail. I think the most interesting thing about Hanging Rock is its name. The name makes it seem like it is a teetering boulder about to fall off a steep cliff, but it is nothing but a glacial erratic that was left behind once the ice ages ended; and in that respect, is not that different from many other freestanding glacial erratics in the Sierras. Also, the rock is not actually “hanging”. In my mind, a better name for this rock would be “teeter-totter rock” or “slanted rock”, but these names don’t really have the dramatic cache that “hanging rock” does. While the rock is a little bit of a letdown, the area in which it is located has great views of Moro Rock, so this is a good detour to take, as it allows you to explore, and gives you a great perspective of the area around Moro Rock.
Once you are back on the main trail, it is .2 miles to the base of Moro Rock, where you may see a lot of people, or not many people, depending on the time of day. Like any hike, as I’ve noted before, timing is everything. My tip: if you do this hike before 11 am, or on a weekday, you probably will not see many people climbing the rock; and if you can’t get an early start, you might want to try going late in the day as well. When I climbed Moro Rock last, I saw about fifteen people on the rock; and the time before that when I climbed it at sunset, I saw no people. From what I hear, these hikes are the aberration, as this is a popular hike, but again, timing is everything in hiking.
As for the ascent up Moro Rock, be warned: if you are afraid of heights, this portion of the hike might not be for you. While the ascent will never confuse anyone with the Half Dome cables in Yosemite, Moro Rock is a granite monolith, and there are steep drop offs in places from the staircase. While the metal framework of the staircase is oodles safer than the original 1917 wooden version, if you suffer vertigo or dislike heights you might not like being on the narrow portions of the steps when people are coming and going. Having said all of that, if you like a bit of a challenge, this is a lot of fun, and the summit has a great three hundred and sixty degree view of the Sierras and Central Valley. Take your time and enjoy the view before heading back down the trail for a four mile roundtrip hike, or with the Hanging Rock add on, 4.2 mile hike.
Tips: As mentioned above, this is an active bear area, and I have seen bears all three times that I have done this hike. Store your food carefully, and have your camera ready to take photos if you are lucky enough to spot one!