A Visit to the Middle Fork of the Kings River

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    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    4.5 days, 75 miles, and roughly 20,000 feet of climbing/descending.
    Day 1: Up the Copper Creek Trail to Granite Pass. 10 miles, 6,700 ft (!) gain.
    Day 2: Granite Pass to Simpson Meadow. 11 miles, 4,700 ft loss.
    Day 3: Simpson Meadow over the Golden Staircase and Mather Pass to Upper Basin. 20 miles, 7,700 ft (!) gain.
    Day 4: Upper Basin over Pinchot Pass to Upper Paradise Valley. 21 miles, 2,000 ft gain, 5,200 ft loss.
    Day 5: Upper Paradise back to Road's End. 8.4 miles, 1,800 ft loss.

    1 map

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    There is simply no easy way to visit the heart of the Middle Fork of the Kings River. Your options are as follows:

    1.) Wishon Reservoir to Tehipite Valley. A notorious hike, 18 miles of western slope forest followed by a 3,000 foot descent switchbacking down the north rim of the MF Kings valley on a trail that has been allowed to disappear.
    2.) Descend Goddard Creek and/or the Enchanged Gorge from the vicinity of the Ragged Spur. Notorious as one of the worst bushwhacks in the Sierra.
    3.) Descend the old Cartridge Creek trail from Lake Basin. Also notorious as one of the worst bushwhacks in the Sierra.
    4.) A trip over your Eastside pass of choice will get you to the headwaters near Muir Pass in as little as 18 miles / 4,000 ft of elevation gain, but to get to the heart of the Middle Fork gorge requires another 10 or so miles of travel.
    5.) Take the Copper Creek trail out of Road's End over Granite Pass and down to Simpson Meadow. This will cost you about 20 miles and 7,000 feet of climbing.

    I've done #1 and #4, and ticked off #5 on this trip. I'm saving #2 for when I am feeling masochistic, and I'm saving #3 for when I have done something truly awful and feel the need to cleanse my spirit with suffering.

    The Middle Fork of the Kings River is a special place in that it seems to have been mostly forgotten. As detailed above, many of the trails leading to it have been allowed to disappear through disuse. It's so difficult to reach that Simpson Meadow, arguably the heart of the Middle Fork, is one of the few places that was never grazed by sheepherders looking to feed their flock back in the late 1800's. Considering that sheepherders grazed nearly every meadow in the range (even some of the most remote, like Bench Canyon) this is an impressive statement at the difficulty of reaching it before the CCC spent so much effort blasting in a trail.

    It can more than a hundred years for meadows to recover from grazing, either by sheep or by horses or cattle, and I had been told by a friend who had visited Simpson Meadow that it does in fact look very different from your average Sierra meadow. I am glad to report that vast swaths of the meadow are indeed in pristine condition, and look very different from your average Sierra meadow. The ground has a solid 18 inches of loamy, uncompressed soil filled with old grass husks, and the grass itself grows waist high and is studded with various wildflowers. Visiting a meadow untouched by grazing was one of the motivations for this trip, in addition to wanting to visit an out-of-the-way corner of the Sierra.

    However, I am sad to report that a big chunk of Simpson Meadow has been grazed into overuse, and much more recently than the 1800's. Right alongside the trail in the most open and scenic stretch of the meadow, there is a packer's camp where the horses have been allowed to graze. The grass is thoroughly trampled in this area, the ground is turned over, there are numerous roll-pits where the horses clean themselves, and an ugly permanent camp complete with a hitching line strung between two trees and metal storage boxes is clearly visible from the trail. It saddened me to see such a remote area treated with such disdain for leave-no-trace principles. I understand that there is a place for horse packing in the Sierra, but it never fails to bum me out when I come across a packer camp that, to put it plainly, looks like shit. Despite that smudge on the area, as usual it doesn't take more than walking a couple hundred yards off-trail to find pristine wilderness, and shortly away from the packer camp there is much pristine meadow to be enjoyed by the wilderness traveler.

    Well, that is enough oratizing for one trip report, here's some pictures:

    View of the backside of the Palisades from Granite Pass.

    One of the lower Volcanic Lakes, on a brief off-trail excursion.

    The Cirque Crest above Glacier Canyon.

    The Middle Fork of the Kings River at Simpson Meadow.

    I must have just missed the caddisfly hatch. Oh well, this far in the backcountry the trout will strike anything you throw in the water anyway. (The reputation for good fishing on the Middle Fork is well deserved.)

    Waist-high grass and corn lilies in a pristine section of Simpson Meadow.
    7.5 simp

    Still pretty, but this is where the horses have done their work.

    Above Simpson Meadow, the gorge gets very narrow and the evidence of recent glaciation is everywhere.

    Devil's Bathtub.

    A nice campsite in Upper Basin.

    A stormy morning prompted a fast hike over Pinchot to avoid lightning exposure. I was originally going to go up Arrow Pass and climb Arrow Peak before descending the Window Creek drainage back to the trail, but it seemed like a bad idea given the thick cloud cover even at 6 AM. It turned out the storm was all bark and no bite, but at the time I had no interest in being on top of a mountain!


    Nice alpine forest in Upper Basin. One of my favorite sections of the JMT.

    South side of Pinchot Pass.

    This marmot was more concerned with sunbathing in a brief patch of clear sky (and stealing food from hikers) than he was about the approaching thunderstorm. Perhaps I should have learned something from him – 45 minutes of light rain was all that ended up happening that day.

    A nice dry campsite in Upper Paradise Valley. You can see a 10 foot diameter dry spot on the ground thanks to the thick cover of the Jeffrey pine I camped under. I put up my Hexamid for good measure, but it was bone dry even after the afternoon showers. It was nice to leisurely cook dinner while sitting on a rock when everybody else was hiding in their tents to stay dry.

    As always, hiking out Woods Creek is a pleasant experience.

    Thanks for reading!

    Bob Gross
    BPL Member


    Locale: Silicon Valley

    When did you do this trip?


    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Just got back yesterday afternoon.

    Oh, I forgot to mention, it was HOT. 102F in Simpson Meadow, 93F climbing the Golden Staircase. I slept without a sleeping bag on two of the nights.


    What a route! Thanks for the report and the excellent pictures. You've also given me a serious dose of motivation in the process.

    Billy Ray


    Locale: the mountains

    Nice trip Andrew!

    Many years ago I entered Middle Fort via #1 and exited via #2… solo

    A great trip…


    Adam White
    BPL Member


    Locale: On the switchbacks

    Awesome trip report, thanks!

    I have a permit confirmation for Copper Creek trailhead on August 8th. I was looking at doing this exact same loop, albeit perhaps ascending Glen Pass and descending Bubb's Creek instead of descending Wood's Creek to Paradise Valley–but we'll see how I feel at Wood's Creek crossing.

    Was there any easily accessible water on the climb up to Granite Pass?

    Any other noteworthy suggestions for someone who is about to follow in your footsteps?

    BPL Member


    Hi Andrew,

    Seeing this report on a Friday afternoon in the office is torture. I wish I would have taken you up on your offer and come along for this trip. Luckily our backpacks are already packed and Philipp, Daniel and I will be gone tomorrow morning for another adventure.

    Have a great weekend,


    Steven Paris
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest


    Great trip report, it looks beautiful up there!


    If I remember correctly, this is your trip to the Gates of the Arctic with your boys. Best of luck and safe travels!

    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Manfred, just sent you an e-mail.

    Adam, best of luck on your trip. Glen Pass would be a nice addition. Before the weather turned stormy I was planning on doing a bunch of cross-country stuff around Lake Basin and Arrow Peak and then meeting up with Woods Creek, so I was already planning on descending that way which made the choice easy.

    On the way up to Granite Pass, there was water at Lower Tent Meadow (a few trickles cross the trail) and at Upper Tent Meadow (keep an eye out on the left for a use trail that heads about 100 feet off trail where a stream comes down through the "meadow"), and at Granite Lake. On the way down to the Middle Fork, there was water at both forks of Dougherty Creek, but that was it. It's very dry out there right now, and most small streams and some lake outflows are dried up completely. I had 1.5L of capacity and that worked OK but only because I was hiking fast and made it between water sources quickly.

    Justin Baker
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    Awesome, this gives me some ideas for future trips.

    I was out in yosemite wednesday and witnessed the worst weather I have ever seen (haven't been in too much terrible weather though). Looks like you didn't get any of that.
    I tried to go over to elewyn lake and when I got over the ridge it was post apocalyptic looking, wind blown hail welting my legs, very dark, lightning hitting all around the lake. I couldn't keep warm enough with rain jacket+poly base layer and shorts. The dry trail turned into an above ankle stream as I ran below the treeline and waited 5 hours for it to stop raining and thundering. Wasn't able to make it into a loop because of that.

    Did you do any fishing?

    Andrew F


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Wow Justin. Sounds like quite a storm. The weather looked terrible for me – huge black bottomed clouds with anvil tops going way up into the air – but nothing really ever happened. Would like to hear about the rest of your trip too.

    Yes, the fishing was great, though the fish were all pretty small (rainbows around 6-10".) In some spots they were so eager you could get them to jump out of the water by false casting. I mostly fished the Middle Fork and Woods Creek. I didn't end up fishing any of the lakes.

    Matt Jones
    BPL Member


    Wow. Really love the shot looking down into the valley with the low cloud ceiling rolling in.

    Gordon Gray
    BPL Member


    Locale: Front Range, CO

    That sounds like the perfect trip. Distance, route, elevation, and the fricken screnery. My god.

    Brian Mix
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western slope, Sierra Nevada

    I was trying to compare dates…I got stuck on Forrester pass on the 20th. A brief 6am storm followed by brief clearing and then an hour of intense lightning hail and snow. When I made the summit there was 3"of fresh snow on the south side.
    As per usual the scenery in your pics is great.

    Steve Genest


    Locale: SoCal

    Wow…quite an undertaking! Well written report and great pictures. A trip of that magnitude is beyond my capabilities but still an inspiration. Thanks!

    Doug Coe
    BPL Member


    Locale: Bay Area, CA, USA

    Andrew–I was looking for somewhere new to go in the Sierras, and your route looks really good.

    So, I'm doing it starting next Tuesday. Uh, though I'm going to take seven days, not four and a half. : )

    Adam White
    BPL Member


    Locale: On the switchbacks

    Andrew's trip report inspired me to do this loop last year. It was an instant favorite of mine. I did it again this year, a few weeks ago!

    I did it a little quicker–I took two days, this year.

    It's a beautiful loop with simple logistics, spectacular scenery, and plenty of exploring options to fill those seven days. You'll have a great time!

    Watch the progress of the Rough Fire–it looks like it could be a smoky ascent along the Middle Fork Kings (as of today):


    Doug Coe
    BPL Member


    Locale: Bay Area, CA, USA

    Adam–Thanks for the info on your recent trip. Yeah, I hope it's not too smoky next week.

    I'm taking seven days for my trip because it'll probably take me that long to do it…without any side trips!

    How were the daytime temps? Especially going up to Granite Pass and on to Simpson Meadow? I'm assuming those are the hottest parts.

    Adam White
    BPL Member


    Locale: On the switchbacks


    Well, I'll put it another way–there are plenty of sights along the way to keep you enthralled for seven days.

    The climb up to "the lip" and Granite Pass is a notorious section of trail. There's little water on the way up to "the lip"–just few crossings of Copper Creek, which may or may not be dry right now. I've always done that section in the morning, and am usually on top of Granite Pass by noon, so it never seems very hot to me.

    If you haven't seen this thread yet, there's more information here about that climb here.

    The descent to Simpson Meadow is dry (after crossing a few forks of Dougherty Creek, which are hopefully still flowing). But, it's downhill, so not a big deal.

    Simpson Meadow and the Middle Fork Kings trail can be hot. I'm usually there in the afternoon. There's not much shade:MiddleFork

    …but the Middle Fork is nearby, so there's water access, although the trail keeps its distance from the Middle Fork. Well–there's one place along the Middle Fork Trail, just before the Cartridge Creek footbridge, where the trail kisses the river. If you're lazy like me, that's the place to stop. It is a great place to soak feet.

    Doug Coe
    BPL Member


    Locale: Bay Area, CA, USA

    Adam–Great, thank you for the info on temperatures and water. I'll be going slow enough the first day to be in the hot part of the day before I stop around Granite Basin.

    I think I'll carry lots of water to be sure if things.

    Doug Coe
    BPL Member


    Locale: Bay Area, CA, USA

    I just saw this on the SEKI Park website:

    "At this time, travel to Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park is closed to downhill and eastbound traffic due to the Rough Fire at the junction of Highway 180 and the Hume Lake turnoff."

    Hmmm. Doesn't look good for my planned start Tuesday morning from Road's End near Cedar Grove. Might have to try a walk-up permit somewhere else entirely.

    I'm just glad I checked before taking off tomorrow morning for Cedar Grove. :)

    Adam White
    BPL Member


    Locale: On the switchbacks

    Bummer, Doug. Last year, my trip was almost canceled due to a wildfire near Tent Meadow. But, it was quelled the day before I left.

    One alternative I could propose would be a trip I did earlier this year. 80 miles, but an out-and-back, so you could shorten or lengthen as you see fit. It was out of Courtright, over Hell For Sure Pass, down Goddard Canyon, then up Evolution Valley/Basin. Turn around wherever you want–I turned around near Wanda Lake. It was all on trail. Here's a TR: Crammin' it in.

    Per the Sierra National Forest Forest Order (here) you'll have no problems getting to Courtright. In particular, see the map on page 4. I'd call the ranger station in Prather first–particularly to see if there are any reports of smoke. Per the latest Caltopo MODIS imagery, it doesn't appear to be too smoky in Goddard/Evolution, but a change in wind direction could certainly change that.

    You could also consider something out of Mineral King, but there's the Cabin Fire somewhere down there. I haven't looked at it–but check before you go!

    Doug Coe
    BPL Member


    Locale: Bay Area, CA, USA

    Adam–Thanks for the idea for a future trip. I ended up going to Desolation Wilderness for four days. No smoke! Now I have several SEKI trip ideas to choose from for next year. This forum is great that way!

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