Packsaddle Cave Trail (Sequoia National Forest)
- Location: North of Kernville in Tulare County, Sequoia National Forest. From the town of Kernville, about 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield, follow Sierra Way, which becomes Mountain Highway 99 for a total of 15 miles. Just beyond the turnout for the Fairview Campground, turn left into a large parking lot across the street from the Packsaddle Cave Trail Head. Approximate coordinates are N 35.9292, W 118.4901.
- Agency: Sequoia National Forest/Kern River Ranger District
- Distance: 4.8 miles
- Elevation gain: 1,400 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG-13 (Steepness, elevation gain, terrain)
- Suggested time: 2.5 hours
- Best season: October – May
- Recommended gear: sun screen; sun hat; hiking poles
- Recommended guidebook: California Hiking
- USGS topo map: “Fairview”
- More information: Trip description here; Map My Hike report here; Wildernet page here
- Rating: 9
The Kern River Valley is a year-round outdoor destination, with recreational opportunities that include fishing, boating, kayaking, skiing and hiking. For hikers, it’s the portal to the southern Sierras and the Sequoia National Forest. Elevations range from 3,000 feet to nearly 10,000 feet, so whatever time of year you visit, you’re sure to find a good hike. The Packsaddle Cave Trail is an ideal choice for the cooler months, offering a taste of Sierra scenery that is very different from the mountains of So Cal, yet not as far (180 miles from downtown L.A.) as one might think. L.A. hikers could easily make this part of a weekend spent in the area; Packsaddle Cave could even be done as a long day trip for San Fernando Valley and Antelope Valley area hikers.
Cross the highway to the Packsaddle Cave Trail Head and begin a steep, exposed climb, gaining about 850 feet over the first 1.1 miles. When you stop to catch your breath, you’ll be rewarded with views of the north fork of the Kern River and the Greenhorn Mountains behind you.
At 1.1 miles, you finally get a breather as the trail reaches a saddle. You then begin a descent along the south wall of a canyon cut by Salmon Creek. The steep-walled gorge, flanked by mountains and rocky outcrops, resembles Yosemite Valley, only with far fewer tourists. You descend gradually at first, then sharply, reaching Salmon Creek at 1.8 miles.
After crossing the stream, continue along its north bank, passing through some overgrown bushes and briefly climbing onto the hillside before dropping back down to the water (2 miles.) Soon after you make a third and final crossing. This is the trickiest one as several trees have fallen over the water, obscuring the route, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble picking out the trail on the north bank of the creek. Follow it up a rocky, loose slope to a spot shaded by oaks where a campsite has been set up. This is a nice spot to catch your breath before the final steep ascent to the cave.
Shortly past the oaks, the trail makes hard left and begins climbing the hillside. By this point, you will see the mouth of the cave and after 0.1 mile of ascent, you’ll reach it. The cave goes back fairly deeply so bring a flashlight or headlamp if you want to explore further. Despite some graffiti on the walls and the prior vandalizing of the stalagmites and stalactites that once grew from the ground and hung from the ceiling, the cave, plus the vistas of the valley below that it provides, is a terrific place to stop and rest before beginning the steep return.
Text and photography copyright 2016 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.