Big SEKI Loop (as an alternative to the JMT)
Feb 18, 2013 at 2:06 pm #1299434
Big SEKI Loop (aka BSL), 154 Miles
Jim and I have hiked most of the trails (both maintained and now-abandoned) from Yosemite south through Sequoia National Park, including most of the east and west side trailheads. We've been over many class-2/3 passes, explored many off-trail basins, climbed quite a few class-2/3 peaks. We think this range of mountains is a superb place to hike.
Over the years, we've seen the John Muir Trail (aka JMT) get more and more crowded, and nearly all of the other trails get less and less use. In this post, I am describing a trail hike for people to consider as an alternative to hiking the JMT. The BSL is not famous, but it has some advantages when compared to the JMT.
The entire BSL is on maintained trails, just like the JMT. There are innumerable fantastic itineraries for people with off-trail skills and a copy of R.J. Secor's The High Sierra Peaks, Passes and Trails (including but not limited to Steve Roper's Sierra High Route), but there are many reasons people plan hikes on maintained trails. Our design point for this loop is to provide an alternative to the JMT that is suitable to hikers who prefer to stay on maintained trails.
BSL Route Summary
We propose this loop after considering lots of factors, and it really is best (by a fair bit) to start it at Roads End. The reason is that the least interesting pieces of the route are the 5-8 miles on either side of Roads End, and by making those pieces be the first half day and the final half day you have one very long intact continuous piece of fantastic walking, uninterrupted anything that is less than five-star. There are MANY other options for hiking in the Southern Sierra, and if you can't get to Roads End (there is no public transit and hitching is hard), or you can't complete the loop without exiting for resupply, we would not choose this particular loop. Obviously other people with lots of hiking experience in the Southern Sierra would have different perspectives.
View the route on a USGS map. You can change the map type (Satellite, USGS, Google, NPS, etc) in the upper right corner. You can create a printable USGS mapset from CalTopo. And you can also download the route data in kml or gpx format.
The route is shown here in red, with a shorter alternate route from Kern River to Roaring River Ranger station shown in blue.
The loop starts and ends at Road's End in Kings Canyon. This description runs counter-clockwise, but the hike is equally suited to either direction.
Part 1. From Roads End to Roaring River Ranger Station (15.3 miles). Via Bubbs Creek Trail -> Sphinx Creek Trail -> Avalanche Pass Trail.
Part 2. From Roaring River to the High Sierra Trail (14.7 miles), through Deadman Canyon and over Elizabeth Pass.
Part 3. On the High Sierra Trail (36 miles) all the way to the junction with the John Muir Trail at Wallace Creek.
Part 4. On the John Muir Trail (57.4 miles) all the way to the Middle Fork Kings River in LeConte canyon.
Part 5. From LeConte Canyon to Roads End (31 miles) via Simpson Meadow and Granite Pass.
Elevation Chart, counter-clockwise. Total miles doesn't align (137 vs 154) because the tracks I used to create the elevation chart are not detailed enough to take in all the twists and turns. Even so, the chart gives a reasonable representation of the profile.
You can download a document with a more detailed profile which you can print on legal size paper. This detailed profile runs clockwise.
Colby Pass vs Elizabeth Pass
There are two ways to go from Junction Meadow on the Kern River to the Roaring River Ranger Station. The 154 mile BSL crosses Elizabeth Pass. The shorter alternative ("BSL With Colby Shortcut") reduces the length of the loop to about 131 miles and crosses Colby Pass. Both options are very beautiful, and there is no obvious reason to choose one over the other in terms of scenery. There will be many hikers on the High Sierra Trail portion of the Elizabeth Pass routing, since the HST is a popular trail, whereas the Colby Pass option is relatively lightly used.
Advantages of Big SEKI Loop compared to JMT
The BSL starts and ends at the same place, so if you drive to the trailhead there is no need for a shuttle.
The BSL does not require any resupply. Many lightweight hikers travel somewhere in the 13-22 miles per day range, which is 7-12 days for this route. Assume a base pack weight of 12 pounds, plus 1.5 pounds of food per person per day, starting pack weight would vary from 22.5 pounds (7 days) to 30 pounds (12 days).
Getting a permit for the BSL is not likely to be a challenge. Although permits may not be available last moment, they should be easily available with a bit of advance planning, unlike the JMT permits. To hike clockwise, get a permit for Copper Creek. To hike counter-clockwise, get a permit for Bubbs Creek (or Woods Creek if Bubbs is not available).
The BSL is all good. Everybody's taste varies, but for us, the JMT includes a long stretch that is not the best the Sierra has to offer. The stretch of the JMT from Happy Isles to Garnet Lake is beautiful, but in our opinion is easily explored via day hikes or weekend hikes, using the ESTA and Yosemite buses for shuttling if necessary. The stretch from Garnet Lake to approximately Silver Pass (through the Mammoth region) is not as scenic as the areas further north or further south. And the JMT from Silver Pass to Evolution Valley runs far to the west (down-slope) of very fine High Sierra terrain, but unfortunately skirts the good stuff. On the other hand, the entire BLS is routed through the backcountry of Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park (aka SEKI), and it's all first class.
53 miles of the BSL is concurrent with the JMT and associated crowds. I believe this concurrent section covers most of the best of the JMT (excepting Muir Pass and adjacent valleys). But the other half of the BSL is on lesser used trails where it's possible to hike for many hours without seeing anybody.
The BSL avoids the Mount Whitney scene. There are several fairly easy Class-2 peaks (albeit without trail) that are accessible from the BSL, peaks that are climbed by just a few people, or a few dozen people, each year. Mount Whitney is 1) the tallest and 2) has a trail; but it also has a level of congestion and commotion that doesn't suit everybody.
As of 2012, bear canisters are required only for the middle section of the BSL (28 miles from Forrester Pass to Pinchot Pass).
When to go
All of the info describing when to hike the JMT applies to this route as well. There is one river crossing without a bridge (across Palisade Creek where it meets the Middle Fork Kings). That crossing could be difficult in high water early in the season, although with adequate scouting people in prior years have been able to find a log.
Clockwise or Counter-Clockwise both work, and there is no natural direction in terms of scenery or logistics. In either direction, you start at 5,000' and immediately climb to about 10,000 feet, so there is no option that eases you into altitude or effort. This initial climb is likely to be exhausting for the TMS'ers (Too Much Stuff'ers).
Hiking clockwise puts you on the JMT in a south-bound direction, which is the way most of the JMT crowds are travelling, so it will seem less crowded than if you are walking north-bound against the flow of traffic.
Hiking clockwise also puts the Colby Pass shortcut at the end of the trip, so if you fall behind your intended schedule you will have a way to shorten the trip. If you hike counter-clockwise, there is no reasonable way to shorten the trip and get back to your car after you pass the Woods Creek Trail junction. In an emergency you could exit via LeConte Canyon and Bishop Pass, but that puts you a very long way from your car. For this reason, hikers who are unsure of their pace or want to have the option of ending early would do better to hike clockwise.
Finally, there is one river that does not have a bridge, and might pose problems during high water. At the junction of the JMT and the Simpson Meadow Trail one must cross Palisade Creek. At low water one can wade. During higher water (early season), hikers in previous years have been able to scout around and find a suitable log. On the off-chance that there is no way to cross, it would be better to learn this early in the trip. If hiking clockwise, retracing steps back to Roads End is the only reasonable trail option to get back to the car if Palisade is not crossable. If hiking counter-clockwise there are two options: hike out via Bishop Pass to South Lake (east side, far from car); or retrace south on the JMT to Woods Creek Trail.
There are two bailout-early trails that return to Roads End: Woods Creek Trail and Bubbs Creek Trail. These are located mid-trip whether hiking clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Navigation via a simple map is sufficient. GPS is overkill. Compass and/or altimeter would also be useful in case you find yourself in a significant snow storm, or if you are navigationally challenged. The Trails Illustrated Map #205 of Sequoia King Canyon National Parks covers the entire route and all variations, including all emergency exit routes should they become necessary. This map is 1:80,000 which is marginal for significant off-trail travel, but is perfectly adequate for this route and minor side-trips off route. It weighs 3.3 oz.
The Tom Harrison 1:125,000 Sequoia & Kings National Parks Recreation Map also covers the entire route.
The JMT includes the summit of Mt Whitney. The BSL does not cross any summits, but there are several class-2 peaks close to the route. The CalTopo map and the kml file show locations of some SPS peaks, but none of these peaks can be reached by trail. The information about routing is from RJ Secor. Anybody who is planning any significant off-trail travel is advised to get a copy of RJ Secor's comprehensive book: The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails.
Some off-trail alternatives that might look tempting
There are some variations that, on the map, look like they might be good options. The following are variations that could be used, but all of these require off-trail navigation and are not appropriate for those wishing to stay on well-defined trails.
Crossing the Great Western Divide via Shepherd Pass ->Junction Pass ->Cener Basin. Secor describes Junction Pass: "Class 2. This is the original route of the John Muir Trail. It has not been maintained since 1932, but traces of the old trail are still visible…" Old maps show a trail over Junction Pass; indication of a trail has been removed from modern maps.
Crossing the Great Western Divide via Harrison Pass -> East Creek. Secor describes Harrison Pass: "Class 2. Some maps show a trail over Harrison Pass. Be forewarned: This trail has not been maintained for many years, and the especially critical section of it leading up the north side of the pass has all but disappeared…." Indication of a trail has been removed from modern maps.
Sixty Lakes Basin instead of Rae Lakes -> Arrowhead Lake ->Dollar Lake. There is a trail into and through part of the basin, but the off-trail route from the northern Sixty Lakes down to the JMT north of Baxter Creek requires picking a good line in order to avoid steep drainages and some cliffs.
Cartridge Pass -> Lake Basin -> abandoned Cartridge Creek Trail down to the Middle Fork Kings River. This trail is shown on old maps, but has been removed from modern maps.. Secor says "This trail has not been maintained for more than fifty years – if it was ever maintained at all. This is an old sheep route which was once the route for the JMT, until the trail was constructed up Palisade Creek and oer Mather Pass in 1938. The Cartridge Pass "Trail" is for all intents and purposes a difficult cross-country route." The route from the South Fork Kings River into Lake Basin is not difficult for somebody with basic cross-country skills. However, the descent from Lake Basin to the Kings River requires careful choice of routes and is choked with vegetation in the lower reaches — not fun.
From Simpson Meadow to Roads End via Kennedy Pass instead of via Granite Pass. This is still an official trail and is shown on current maps. The stretch from Pine Ridge to upper Kennedy Canyon has not been maintained recently (as of 2012 when we last hiked it) and the tread is often obscure or obliterated. It is not a thrash, but it does require care and a good off-trail navigation sense in order to relocate a lost trail.
SEKI maintains an description of the condition of official park trails. Some of the routes listed above are not included, since they are no longer official trails.
You know, from the CalTopo view of the route, you can switch to different map layers (control in upper right) and view historic USGS maps, dating back to the early 20th century! It's fun. Gaia GPS on the iPhone offers access to these same cool historic USGS maps, as well as some historic UK OS maps!Feb 18, 2013 at 2:20 pm #1955700David W.BPL Member
@davidpcvsamoaLocale: East Bay, CA
This looks like a great route to see a good portion SEKI that is logistically manageable for those of us coming from the west side. I have tabbed this page for future reference. Thank you for sharing the detailed trail description.Feb 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm #1955746AnonymousInactive
"In this post, I am describing a trail hike for people to consider as an alternative to hiking the JMT. The BSL is not famous, but it has some advantages when compared to the JMT."
A truly excellent route! I hope this attracts the interest and appreciation it deserves. For those who want to experience the best the Sierra has to offer on trail, you need look no further. I also hope it never becomes as famous as the JMT,
for purely selfish reasons.
Thank you, Amy, for sharing your years of experience.Feb 18, 2013 at 4:31 pm #1955754Hiking MaltoBPL Member
As I was walking to work this morning I was thinking about if it would be possible to string together a Sierra route between Tahoe and Kennedy Meadow that would be on par with a thru hike. It would be incredibly cool to spend a summer in the Sierra. One alternative that I would add to this route would be to replace the JMT over Forester section with Junction and Sheperds passes to the east.Feb 18, 2013 at 5:25 pm #1955769
"One alternative that I would add to this route would be to replace the JMT over Forester section with Junction and Sheperds passes to the east."
That is one good way to vary the Big SEKI Loop for people who are prepared to deal with cross-country travel and/or abandoned trails. It has been many years since we crossed Junction Pass, but IIRC there are a few stretches that are no longer recognizable as trail. I don't recall it being difficult, but somebody expecting a trail might be surprised. Same holds for Harrison Pass.
Secor describes Junction Pass: Class 2. This is the original route of the John Muir Trail. It has not been maintained since 1932, but traces of the old trail are still visible…
Secor describes Harrison Pass: Class 2. Some maps show a trail over Harrison Pass. Be forewarned: This trail has not been maintained for many years, and the especially critical section of it leading up the north side of the pass has all but disappeared…"
For folks unfamiliar with the history, both Harrison and Junction Passes were at one point crossed by well constructed trails, but they were abandoned in favor of Forrester Pass. Rock slides have obliterated pieces of those trails, and neither trail has been maintained for decades.
My goal for the BSL is to provide an alternative to the JMT for people who want to hike on maintained trails. Folks with off-trail skills and interests can grab a copy of Secor's book and do all sorts of creative things :)
Thanks for mentioning this – I updated the original post with info about some of the abandoned-trail variations.Feb 18, 2013 at 5:36 pm #1955773
"For folks unfamiliar with the history, both Harrison and Junction Passes were at one point crossed by well constructed trails, but they were abandoned in favor of Forrester Pass. Rock slides have obliterated pieces of those trails, and neither trail has been maintained for decades."
I can attest to Harrison Pass, since I was there last August. Going up from the Kings side (the north side), there was zero trail visible or even imaginable. Once on top, I could see a few tiny pieces of trail, but they were constantly being messed up by the rock slides. Let's just say that it was 'interesting' for a solo traveler, and it was sure the place to put those ultralightweight priciples into use.
–B.G.–Feb 18, 2013 at 6:17 pm #1955783Hiking MaltoBPL Member
I can't speak for the quality of the trail. I went over on snowshoes. :) Trail looked good from what I could see (under ten ft of snow). My avatar is taken from junction pass looking north.Feb 18, 2013 at 6:25 pm #1955786James CastleberryMember
Great route Amy! Thanks for putting it together and sharing. Soon to be classic and on my to-do list for this year. Love the many possible alternatives.Feb 18, 2013 at 8:51 pm #1955847David LutzMember
@davidlutzLocale: Bay Area
Looks like a very cool loop. I was trying to decide what to do this summer and this might just do the trick.
Thanks for putting that together.
One small suggestion to top it off – a map list or recommendation would be great.Feb 18, 2013 at 9:19 pm #1955860
One small suggestion to top it off – a map list or recommendation would be great.
Good idea. I added a paragraph at the end of the original post.
Next steps when I get some time — I'll add locations for the back-country ranger stations, and maybe for bear boxes, into the kml file.Feb 18, 2013 at 9:29 pm #1955864Ken ThompsonBPL Member
@hereLocale: Right there
Awesome. You and Jim are awesome. Looks like a fantastic trip.Feb 19, 2013 at 6:56 am #1955955
Thanks – maybe some day I'll do that but it's a couple days just to drive down there
I noticed that there are several river canyons in between that could shorten it, even more than your cut-off. 154 miles is a bit much for me, especially with bear canister and the high altitude – I get splitting headache above 10,000 feet but maybe after a few days I'de get over that.Feb 19, 2013 at 9:00 am #1955991
I made changes to the original post:
I replaced the map in the original post with a map that's much easier to read/interpret.
I added info about abandoned-trail alternates (that I don't recommend for people seeking a trail hike).
I added links to SEKI permit info.
I added an elevation profile image.
I also updated the kml file, so if you download it via the original post you'll get a couple additional minor trail alternates.Feb 19, 2013 at 9:40 am #1956008Chris SBPL Member
@bigseaLocale: Truckee, CA
Nice looking route and quite the climb that first day! I was hoping to do something similar this summer, but other things already came up and I'll likely do shorter version — likely parts 2 and 3 plus the Colby Pass shortcut of your route, but starting/ending at Crescent Meadow instead of Roads End.Feb 19, 2013 at 9:55 am #1956012Art …BPL Member
Thank you for taking the time and effort to share !Feb 19, 2013 at 11:44 am #1956044Nico .BPL Member
@nickbLocale: Los Padres National Forest
Looks like a fun walk that could be used in a pinch for a week+ long trip when there isn't time (or motivation) to cook up an elaborate route of my own.
Will definitely keep this in mind.
Thank you for coming up with this and sharing it with the community here.Feb 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm #1956148AnonymousInactive
" I get splitting headache above 10,000 feet but maybe after a few days I'de get over that."
You might consider having a chat with your doctor about Diamox. It is widely used and quite effective for preventing altitude sickness, and might be just the ticket for you. It's a shame to miss all the Sierra beauty above 10,000' due to something that can probably be dealt with.Feb 19, 2013 at 4:59 pm #1956163
But, I've always gone above 10,000 feet with a day at most of aclimatization climbing Cascade volcanoes
Maybe I'd be okay after a few days
Can you take Diamox if you get altitude sickness, or do you have to take it before as a preventative?Feb 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm #1956167
"Can you take Diamox if you get altitude sickness, or do you have to take it before as a preventative?"
Previously, the thinking was that Diamox needed to be working in system for a day or two before you ever go up to high elevation. Now the thinking is that it still works best that way, but that if you wait until onset of symptoms and start Diamox, it is better than nothing.
One problem is that you tend to be thirsty for the first day or two on Diamox, and if you don't have sufficient water to keep up with that, then you will feel even worse. I've seen people take Diamox when they were dehydrated, and they feel like crap.
I've carried Diamox on three peaks, but I actually consumed it on only one. On two, I had been monitoring my vital signs very closely, and I never got into any stress, so I never bothered to take any pills.
–B.G.–Feb 19, 2013 at 5:34 pm #1956176Randall SprattMember
I did the JMT in 2011 and the HST in 2012. I loved the trails, but agree, it was not a solitary experience!!! I have been looking for "less traveled" options, and your route is perfect for adding to my "must do" list. Looks like a winner. I'll track this thread for updates!!!
RandyFeb 19, 2013 at 7:03 pm #1956209AnonymousInactive
"Can you take Diamox if you get altitude sickness, or do you have to take it before as a preventative?"
You can take it either way, but for those prone to AMS, prophylaxis saves some initial discomfort.
Edited: I just read Bob's post. His advice about staying hydrated is on the mark, but that is good mountain policy in general. Diamox has a diuretic effect, and what goes out needs to be replaced.Feb 21, 2013 at 10:29 am #1956893Elizabeth TracyBPL Member
This is fantastic. You have put a lot of hard work into describing it for people.
While many people could do this without resupply, there are others who can't or won't want to walk 15+ mile days, and WILL want a resupply. It might be helpful to list Kearsarge Pass/Onion Valley as the easiest resupply exit.
– ElizabethFeb 22, 2013 at 4:07 pm #1957499
Question about permits
If I go clockwise, I'de get a permit for Copper Creek. I bet that's lower use. That would entitle me to do the entire loop?
Would I be able to get a permit a few days after Labor Day or should I make a reservation?
Is there any place near Roads End where I could camp out over night?
Then I could just get up the next morning and pick up my permit? They open at 7 AM.Feb 22, 2013 at 4:36 pm #1957504
I'm pretty familiar with Sequoia and Kings Canyon. They are administered as a single park.
"If I go clockwise, I'de get a permit for Copper Creek. I bet that's lower use. That would entitle me to do the entire loop?"
Lots of backpackers want to go up Copper Creek simply because it is right there at Roads End. Unfortunately, it is quite an uphill march, so I would not recommend it to the faint of heart. Of course, if you try to start out over Avalanche Pass, it is even worse.
"Would I be able to get a permit a few days after Labor Day or should I make a reservation?"
It's hard to say. Reservations are almost always more reliable.
"Is there any place near Roads End where I could camp out over night?"
Yes, Cedar Grove is about six miles back down the road, and there are some big car campgrounds there.
"Then I could just get up the next morning and pick up my permit? They open at 7 AM."
Yes and no. Lots of backpackers try to do it that way. They roll into one of the Cedar Grove campgrounds, spend the night, then drive up to Roads End at the crack of dawn. Then they discover a waiting line that has been forming at the permit station. Often the people waiting are striving to get into the walkup permit quota for the most popular trails, like the Rae Lakes Loop one way or the other.
I have gotten excellent results by reserving my permit, and then picking it up in the afternoon the day before I actually start out. That also allows me to hit the trail at 6:00 a.m. while it is cool and not wait until 7:30 or 8:00 like the waiting line people do.
Yes, one permit will allow you to travel the entire loop. Technically, if you leave the loop and go to town for resupply, you will need a new permit to re-start there. Some people have devised good methods for legally working around that.
–B.G.–Feb 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm #1957511
Thanks Bob (and Amy and…)
They close at like 2:45PM so I'de almost have to leave a day earlier because it takes two days to drive there (14 hours) oh well, maybe I could go further the first day and get up early the second day to get to the permit station well before 2:45PM.
Are there vacancies in Cedar Grove campgrounds?
Another thing, do you really have to carry out your toilet paper? Not that big a deal – two zip bags – I've become acustomed to draining the poop tank in my RV which has to be way worse – but sort of weird.
Maybe I should wait a week after Labor Day and start on the next Sunday or something.
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