ADVENTURE HIKES AND CANYONEERING© Christopher Earls Brennen
IN THE SOUTHWEST
Hike J4. The Needles
- Hiking time: 3 hours
- Estimated hiking distance: 5 miles
- Elevation gain: 850 feet
- USGS Topo Map: Sentinel, Durrwood Creek
- Difficulties: None
- Special equipment: None
- ACA Rating: 1A II
This short and easy adventure in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada takes you through pine forest to a group of bare granite domes and spires known The Needles. On the 8245ft summit of the highest pinnacle is perched a classic fire lookout tower that is still manned at least part of the time. A series of wooden steps winds its way up steep rock to the lookout. The ascent of the stairway and the spectacular view from the summit represent the highlights of this short adventure. It should also be noted that The Needles is a first class rock climbing venue. There are many challenging routes with excellent rock on the spires and domes of this mountain.
This is a summer hike that can also be pleasant in the early fall. Deep snow covers the area in the winter and spring when the fire lookout is closed.
From Porterville in the San Joaquin Valley take SR190 east into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Entering the Sequoia National Forest the narrow, winding road climbs steeply. About 12.7mi past the Camp Nelson turnoff, and just after Quaking Aspen Meadow turn left onto a dirt road following the sign for the Needles Springs trailhead. Drive 3mi to the well-marked trailhead (36o7.19'N 118o30.52'W).
The gentle and easy trail proceeds southeast from the 7400ft trailhead (36o7.19'N 118o30.52'W) through woods on the northeast side of a ridge. To the east is the Kern River Basin and, beyond that the southern spine of the Sierra Nevada with its snow-capped peaks readily visible. Let your eyes follow the Kern River Valley far to the north and you may be able to pick out Mount Whitney on the horizon about 35mi away. The trail climbs 850ft to a trail crest where you get a good view of the ultimate objective, the rocky dome of The Needles topped by the fire lookout tower. The route first drops 400ft to Needles Saddle (36o6.68'N 118o29.32'W). There the switchbacking ascent of the rock begins, the view expanding with each switchback. Every so often you get a glimpse through the trees of the fire lookout tower perched precariously on the very top of the mountain.
The Needles from the trail The Fire Lookout
Eventually you come to the bottom of the wooden stairway and footpath that zigzags its way up the last part of the jagged spine to the summit and the tower. Brace yourself and ascend to the 8245ft summit (36o6.58'N 118o29.09'W), actually to the balcony around the tower. This balcony provides a magnificient 360 degree view of the beautiful high country of the western Sierra Nevada. When I was there the forest ranger was cooking a delicious smelling breakfast that further heightened the experience.
Return by the same route; the hike can be easily accomplished in five hours.
Last updated 6/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen