The running joke in California is that Fresno is the "gateway to Bakersfield." For most visitors, Fresno, 185 miles southeast of San Francisco, is just a place to pass through en route to the state parks; it can, however, be a good place to stop for food and lodging, and it makes a good base for exploring the Sierra National Forest .

Founded in 1874, in the geographic center of the state, Fresno is in the heart of the Central Valley and in recent years has experienced incredible growth. Like most growing cities, it has seen increases in crime, drugs, and urban sprawl.

As the seat of Fresno County, the city handles more than $3 billion annually in agricultural production. It also contains Sun Maid, the world's largest dried-fruit packing plant, and Guild, one of the country's largest wineries.

If you have any reason at all to be in Fresno, try to visit between late February and late March so you can drive the Fresno County Blossom Trail. This 62-mile, self-guided tour takes in the beauty of California's agrarian bounty at its peak. The trail courses through fruit orchards in full bloom and citrus groves with lovely orange blossoms and a heady natural perfume. The Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau, 848 M St., Third Floor, in Fresno (tel. 800/788-0836 or 559/445-8300;, supplies full details, including a map.

Sierra National Forest

Leaving Fresno's taco joints, used-car lots, and tract houses behind, an hour's drive and 45 miles northeast gets you to the Sierra National Forest, a land of lakes and coniferous forests between Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks. The entire eastern portion of the park is unspoiled wilderness protected by the government. Development -- some of it, unfortunately, beside the bigger lakes and reservoirs -- is confined to the western side.

The 1.3-million-acre forest encompasses 528,000 acres of wilderness. The Sierra's five wilderness areas include Ansel Adams, Dinkey Lakes, John Muir, Kaiser, and Monarch . The forest offers lots of opportunities for fishing, swimming, sailing, boating, camping, water-skiing, white-water rafting, kayaking, and horseback riding, all regulated by certain guidelines. Downhill and cross-country skiing, as well as hunting, are also available, in season. Backpackers will find solace here, as some 1,100 miles of forest hiking trails traverse the park.

Getting There -- After visiting the ranger station at Oakhurst, take Highway 41 to Highway 49, the major road into the northern part of the national forest. This is more convenient for visitors approaching the park from Northern California. Highway 168 via Clovis is the primary route from Fresno if you're headed for Shaver Lake. There is no approach road from the eastern Sierra, only from the west.

Visitor Information & Permits -- To learn about hiking, camping, or other activities, or to get the fire and wilderness permits, visit one of the ranger stations in the park's western section. These include Bass Lake Ranger District, 57003 North Fork (tel. 559/877-2218); and the High Sierra Ranger District, 29688 Auberry Rd., Prather (tel. 559/855-5355).

Supplies -- Shaver Lake is one place where you can stock up on goods and supplies if you're going into the wilderness, but stores in Fresno carry much of the same stuff at lower prices. Cheaper supplies are also available in Clovis, outside Fresno (which you must pass through en route to the forest), at the Peacock Market, at Tollhouse Road (Third St.) and Sunnyside Avenue (tel. 559/299-6627).

Weather -- In the lower elevations, summer temperatures can frequently reach 100°F (38°C), but in the higher elevations, more comfortable temperatures in the 70s and 80s (20s Celsius) are the norm.

The Major Wilderness & Recreation Areas

Ansel Adams Wilderness -- Divided between the Sierra and Inyo national forests, this wilderness area covers 228,500 acres. Elevations range from 3,500 to 13,157 feet. The frost-free period extends from mid-July to August, the best time for a visit to the park's upper altitudes.

Ansel Adams is dotted with alpine vistas, including steep-walled gorges and granite peaks. There are several glaciers in the north and some large lakes on the eastern slope of the Ritter Range. This wilderness has excellent stream and lake fishing, especially for rainbow, golden, and brook trout, and offers challenging mountain climbing on the Minarets Range. The wilderness is accessed by the Tioga Pass Road in the north, U.S. 395 and Reds Meadow Road in the east, the Minarets Highway in the west, and Highway 168 to High Sierra in the south.

Dinkey Lakes Wilderness -- The 30,000-acre Dinkey Lakes area, created in 1984, occupies the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, southeast of Huntington Lake and northwest of Courtright Reservoir. Most of the timbered, rolling terrain here is 8,000 feet above sea level, reaching its apex (10,619 ft.) at Three Sisters Peak. Sixteen lakes are clustered in the west-central region. You can reach the area on Kaiser Pass Road (north), Red/Coyote Jeep Road (west), Rock Creek Road (southwest), or Courtright Reservoir (southeast), generally from mid-June to late October.

John Muir Wilderness -- Occupying 584,000 acres in the Sierra and Inyo national forests, John Muir Wilderness -- named after the naturalist -- extends southeast from Mammoth Lakes along the crest of the Sierra Nevada for 30 miles before forking around the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park to Crown Valley and Mount Whitney. Elevations range from 4,000 to 14,496 feet at Mount Whitney, with many of the area's peaks surpassing 12,000 feet. The wilderness can be accessed from numerous points west of U.S. 395 between Mammoth Lake and Independence.

Split by deep canyons, the wilderness is also a land of meadows (especially beautiful when wildflowers bloom), lakes, and streams. The south and middle forks of the San Joaquin River, the north fork of Kings River, and many creeks draining into Owens Valley originate in the John Muir Wilderness. Mountain hemlock, red and white fir, and white-bark and western pine dot the landscape. Temperatures vary wildly throughout the day: Summer temperatures range from 25° to 85°F (-4°-29°C), and the only frost-free period is between mid-July and August. Higher elevations are marked by expanses of granite splashed with glacially carved lakes.

Kaiser Wilderness -- North of Huntington Lake and 70 miles northeast of Fresno, Kaiser is a 22,700-acre forest tract commanding a view of the central Sierra Nevada. It was named after Kaiser Ridge, which divides the area into two regions. Four trail heads provide access to the wilderness, but the northern half is much more open than the forested southern half; the primary point of entry is the Sample Meadow Campground. All other lakes are approached cross-country. Winter storms begin to blow in late October, and the grounds are generally snow covered until early June.

Monarch Wilderness -- Monarch is at the southern end of the John Muir Wilderness, on the western border of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, 65 miles east of Fresno via Highway 180. The area extends across 45,000 acres in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests. The Sierra National Forest portion of the region -- about 21,000 acres -- is rugged and hard to traverse. Steep slopes climb from the middle and main forks of Kings River, with elevations increasing from 2,400 to more than 10,000 feet. Rock outcroppings are found throughout Monarch, and most of the lower elevations are chaparral covered with pine stands near the tops of the higher peaks. Monarch is located at the southern end of the John Muir Wilderness, on the western border of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, approximately 65 miles east of Fresno via Highway 180.

Huntington Lake Recreation Area -- At 7,000 feet, this area is a 2-hour drive east of Fresno via Highway 168. The lake is one of the reservoirs in the Big Creek Hydroelectric System and has 14 miles of shoreline. It's a popular recreational area, offering camping, hiking, picnicking, sailing, swimming, windsurfing, fishing, and horseback riding -- or you can just appreciate the beauty. The main summer season stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There are seven campgrounds and four picnic areas in the Huntington Lake Basin, plus numerous hiking and riding trails.

Nelder Grove Of Giant Sequoias -- This 1,540-acre tract in the Sierra National Forest contains 101 mature giant sequoias in the center of the Sequoia Range, south of Yosemite National Park. A visitor center stands near the Nelder Grove Campground, with historical relics and displays, including two restored log cabins. The Bull Buck Tree -- at one time thought to be the largest in the world -- is 246 feet high and has a circumference at ground level of 99 feet. There's a mile-long, self-guided walk along the "Shadow of the Giants" National Recreational Trail in the southwest corner of the grove.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.