Text and photos by Sue Burns
It’s fair to say that when summer arrives in the Central Valley, we acclimate to the months of scorching temperatures, hunkering down indoors during stretches of 100-plus-degree days and venturing out to water our yards and cannonball into our swimming pools at dusk. By the time September begins, though, we are ready for cooler climates, and we are often teased with a day or two of mid-90s. We think that fall is mercifully on the way — but then the thermometer leaps again. What’s a local to do? A day trip to a beautiful mountain retreat with cool breezes and fresh air is just the ticket, and Camp Nelson in the Sequoia National Forest, less than two hours away via Highways 198, 65 and 190, fits the bill.
We took the drive on the first of Sept-ember to visit friends at their cabin, winding our way along the 110 turns (counted by our host) that begin just above Springville and continue to the turnoff on Nelson Drive, just past the big red tractor and the mailboxes. The views and scenery on the journey up do not disappoint. Seemingly endless vistas of trees and brush cover the steep hillsides. There are glimpses — if one looks down the precipitous drop over the edge of the road — of the Tule River rushing below. Above the trees already beginning to change into their fall colors, sharp rock lines cut into the clear blue sky.
Passing the “Altitude 4,000 Feet” sign, the atmosphere seems to change in an instant. The pale peach rock lining one side of the road turns a vivid orange, and suddenly pine and sequoia trees abound. The shady, hilly roads are a welcome respite from the bright sun in the valley as we pass rustic cabins with all manner of fencing and outdoor decorations.
Camp Nelson is a close-knit community of people who have been coming to their cabins for years. Children and families have grown up together on weekends, fishing, hiking and picking fruit during the warm months, sharing campfires and s’mores during the summer, and enjoying the snow at Christmas. It’s the kind of community where, if you mention that the washer in your shed broke, you just may find your neighbors have fixed it when you return for your next stay. It’s the kind of community where the sheriff’s deputy pulls over as you’re picking pears growing in trees just off the road — not to tell you that you can’t pick the fruit, but rather to see what you’ve found and tell you where you can find more.
Our friends had promised a plethora of fruits to pick, and they know from whence they speak! Blackberries, which grow along most every road, will be in season now until November. We made several stops to pick them, as it seemed that many people already had the same idea. We still managed to pick a couple of pounds while extra careful to avoid the stinging nettles as we leaned in as far as we could to get the ripe berries. There were clumps of gorgeous purple berries, higher than we could hope to safely reach, and I imagine that the birds were laughing at our disappointment, knowing that they would enjoy them after we walked away.
Finished with the blackberries, we made a couple of other stops for Gala and Golden Delicious apples ripening on the trees now (the Granny Smiths aren’t quite ready yet), and for Bartlett pears. Per our friendly deputy, we learned that Sierra gooseberries and elderberries can also be found along the roadsides. He said he’d just made a batch of gooseberry jalapeño jelly before getting back to his day.
Camp Nelson is a great local adventure whether you go for the day or a longer stay. You can be as relaxed or active as you choose — there are hiking trails, camping and fishing areas, biking and so much to see!
Locals’ recommendations include:
- Soda Spring, a naturally occurring, bubbling spring where we picked blackberries (tradition has it that the first time one visits Camp Nelson, one should take a drink from the spring).
- Picnicking under a tree in the big meadow.
- Picking apples at the chapel.
- Getting a burger at Pierpoint Bar & Grill.
- Going to the Great Western Divide.
- Visiting the Golden Trout Pack Station.
- Walking, fishing and camping under the Sequoias at Belknap.