Kaweah country

You'll find utopia in the Sierra Nevada foothills

Three Rivers' Cort Gallery

Three Rivers' Cort Gallery

David Zaitz

We arrive well after nightfall at our rented cottage somewhere up a winding Sierra foothill road above Three Rivers. It's too dark to get any sense of the terrain, and as the rain pounds the cottage roof through the night, I wake up several times with a feeling of unease and one lingering question: Just where are we, anyway?

With morning comes a conclusive and spectacular answer. The blinds open to unveil a view of a foothill ridge dusted with snow. To the east rises the snowcapped crest of the High Sierra. Scrub jays dart from oak to oak, and an ephemeral waterfall traces a white cascade down a rock face below the ridge.

But what really jumps out is the green. Some scientists say the human eye can distinguish more shades of green than any other color. All of them are visible in the Southern Sierra foothills in spring.

We head out to quickly orient ourselves, passing Irish green pastures and forested slopes the shade of dark broccoli. Sunlight brightens patches of grass to the hot neon hues of a Chartreuse cocktail. For travelers who only go this way en route to Sequoia National Park when the hills have dried to their summer gold, such variations on verdure can be positively shocking. But in spring, while the high country continues to slumber under ice and snow, the foothills are the place to be.

Three Rivers: views, art, and drum circles

The Kaweah River country lies in Tulare County, a half-day's drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco. State 198 enters it from the San Joaquin Valley, passing through the citrus groves east of Visalia and winding along the reservoir of Lake Kaweah. It's an abrupt transition: One minute the highway is crossing the flat expanses of the valley; the next minute the Sierra foothills, mottled with granite outcrops, begin their rise. Then, as the highway approaches Three Rivers, the view opens to encompass the snow-covered Sierra.

"This is the only place on this side of the Sierra that you can be at 1,000 feet and look up and see 14,000-foot mountains," says John Elliott, who, with his wife, Sarah Barton Elliott, edits and publishes the Kaweah Commonwealth, the local paper. "There's nothing else like it."

Three Rivers stretches along the highway in a somewhat random manner. While it dates back to 1879, there's no quaint Main Street lined with old brick buildings. Instead you'll find clusters of roadside shops and riverfront lodges that give the town the look of a 1960s vacation retreat. Still, thanks to its setting and ungentrified vibe, Three Rivers is increasingly drawing urban expatriates from Los Angeles and San Francisco. There's a mix of newcomers and families with deep ties that extend back generations. Sarah Barton Elliott's family has been in the area since the 1870s.

For more than 50 years, the team roping event at the Lion's Arena has been one of Three Rivers' biggest annual events. The arena is a modest venue with a tiny judge's stand, and although the ring is lined with sponsors' placards, the signs promote local businesses rather than big corporations. Homespun as it is with its pancake breakfasts and tri-tip barbecue, the event draws not only local weekend ropers but leading cowboys too. Many of them make the winding, 40-mile trek north through the oak-covered hills from Springville, where a major professional rodeo is held the same weekend.

While the Old West still has a foothold here, the area also has its New West elements. In good years, spring runoff from the mountains turns the main fork of the Kaweah River into a prime whitewater-rafting run with some class V rapids. For the most part, the arts scene is more private than public, but the Cort Gallery serves as a community gathering place. The gallery not only has exhibit space but also holds weekly drum circles and other events while the Kaweah River rushes by.

Forgotten dreams and roadside redbud blossoms

Three Rivers has long billed itself as the gateway to Sequoia National Park, and while the main highway does lead up to the big trees, many visitors don't realize that the park's foothill sections are just out of town.

We head out on North Fork Drive, where a wooden shack with vines creeping up its sides is the last intact structure of the Kaweah Colony, a utopian Socialist community based here in the 1880s. Said to be among the smallest operating U.S. Post Offices in the country, it's the size of a walk-in closet, with a bank of brass mailboxes on one wall and ornamental bars across the frosted clerk's window.

Colony members came here to establish a mill and cut timber on lands claimed by its members in the Giant Forest area. Still, the colonists obviously revered the big trees, dubbing one sequoia the Karl Marx Tree (later renamed the General Sherman Tree and still considered the world's largest living thing). But when the Giant Forest became part of the new Sequoia National Park, the colony was banned from logging, which helped speed the demise of the social experiment.

Driving back along the winding roads, we spot creamy blossoms dangling from California buckeyes and redbuds bursting with pinkish red flowers. Back in town at the Cabin, a coffeehouse and bookstore, the smell of coffee and buzz of conversation hang in the air. "If you want opinions on just about anything, this is the place to go," says John Elliott. "Sometimes I go to the Cabin just to find out what people are thinking. Hit there and the post office and I get all the news I need to hear."

Out on the South Fork of the Kaweah River, a rainbow of wildflowers lines the Ladybug Trail. Purple and white Chinese houses and the bright red of Indian paintbrush are sprinkled in the grasses, while dudleya, growing out of crevices on nearly vertical rock faces, put out stalks lined with small yellow flowers. Undisturbed by our approach, a young bobcat takes in the scene from atop a boulder as pale blue butterflies flutter above a creek's cascade. When spring comes to the Kaweah River country, the locals are plenty impressed too.

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