Get Out, Go Wild, Go Trail Running at Kaweah Oaks Preserve
by Scott Artis
I’m a prospector. Not so much in regards to satisfying a thirst for that bright yellow, malleable element 79, but I am most definitely in search of naturally occurring treasures. I’ve found that putting an ear to the ground is often the best way to find the next spectacular vein, many of which are just mildly buried by the intricacies of our busy, daily lives. Nonetheless, while these gems of nature continue to exist in relative obscurity, there is a story, a connection with nature if you will, that is longing to be discovered. And in ever such a pioneer-esque fashion, I packed up my gear and let the power of 200 horses lead me to what is now a California valley rarity.
As I stepped from the confines of my contemporary conveyance, the wild greeted me with a scampering Western fence lizard, who, ironically enough, had been sunning himself on a wooden fence post. A grasshopper navigating a slight breeze decided upon a soft landing at my feet, and a pair of red-tailed hawks dancing amongst a clouded backdrop shouted, “Welcome!” I was now in the real world and I couldn’t help but liken myself to an explorer looking back 100 years before settlement sparked a great valley transformation.
Kaweah Oaks Preserve is indeed an incredible example of unique riparian woodland with a historic range that has been conservatively estimated at 80 square miles. Although a remnant of its former glory, it in no way impedes the experience or its ability to rejuvenate the soul. In fact, the mosaic of valley oak woodland, brushy openings dominated by elderberry and other native shrubs, and perennial alkali grasslands were bristling with excitement. As I stood ever so solemnly in the meadow, a multitude of birds called out from the tree-shrouded banks of the Deep Creek distributary, a testament to the incredible restoration and conservation efforts that have taken place at the 322-acre preserve over the last 30 years. And it is this work that has allowed more than 300 plant and animal species to stake their claims here.
But Kaweah Oaks Preserve is more than a natural wonderland; it’s a community hub and a beacon of health and wellness that draws 10,000 visitors annually. Located seven miles east of Visalia and nestled along the Highway 198 corridor, this destination is often overlooked and most definitely overshadowed by General Sherman, the largest known living single stem tree on Earth and iconic inhabitant of Sequoia National Park. This is exactly what makes the preserve so elusive to outsiders and ensures an omnipresent position on the lists of favorite local hotspots.
And then there are the runners. Open year-round from sunrise to sunset, Kaweah Oaks Preserve is a freebie opportunity to ditch the asphalt, get your feet wet (or dusty) in the art of trail running and feel like you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest city. I’ve yet to set foot on the preserve and not encounter one, two or five athletes navigating the series of interconnected trails. When all is said and done, the four officially designated, well-maintained trails that diverge from the main footpath result in a unique 4 mile experience that delivers the sights and sounds of nature 200 years ago.
Grapevine Trail (1/4 mile): California wild grape vines can be seen growing on the valley oak trees. The grapes ripen in the summer and early fall and make for an all natural sweet treat. A personal favorite of mine, this trail takes you through an accidental archway of grapevine trellises and provides a front row view of vines skyrocketing 50 feet up — an effect that completely blankets some of the massive oaks.
Swamp Trail (7/8 mile): Aside from the grape wines, blackberries can also be found on the trail. It has a fresh-water pond during wet years when the water table is high and never disappoints.
Wild Rose Trail (3/8 mile): California wild roses and the aromatic mugwort bestow an unprecedented backdrop for those cognizant of the true value of running trails.
Sycamore Trail (3/4 mile): The trail is adjacent to Deep Creek, which typically begins flowing with crystal clear waters in late spring and early summer thanks to the Sierra Nevada snowmelt.
However, it is during April’s Earth Day that the preserve witnesses an annual athletic migration as 300 runners converge on the open space — paying homage to and supporting nature. It is a single point in time each year where the music is loud, the parking lot is full, the runners are primed, and the eyes of the audience are on the finish line and not the birds. Like any springtime run, weather is always an unpredictable variable. The Kaweah Oaks Preserve 5K Trail Run is no exception. From sunny blue skies to waxing and waning drizzles, the race and trails are always at the behest of atmospheric conditions. The connection of the foot with the unpaved path can result in the scattering of fine dust one day and the splattering of mud or water the next.
But hey, that’s what makes trail running so invigorating.
So, as you join the throngs of national and international visitors on your next trip to Sequoia National Park, deviate from your intended course and explore the wild treasures and trails at Kaweah Oaks Preserve.
Kaweah Oaks Preserve is located at 29979 Road 182, Exeter, CA 93221. The preserve is owned and operated by Sequoia Riverlands Trust, a non-profit organization.