August 14 – 20, 2021
This is an 80 mile loop hike through varied terrain in Kings Canyon National Park that includes parts of the Sierra High Route, John Muir Trail, and the Rae Lakes Loop.
Day 1 – Here we go again, ~15 miles, ~3300′ up, ~6000′ down
I was just here a few weeks ago when I did the Circle of Solitude. This route will start out the same, beginning at Onion Valley Trailhead at about 9000′. Next stop is Kearsarge pass, at about 11,800′. From there it’s on to the JMT for a short stretch before reaching Vidette Meadow and descending west along the Bubbs Creek Trail.
I’ve covered this bit of trail on several occasions, but it never fails to impress. My original plan was to take a couple of days getting to Sphinx Junction, however, I was making pretty good time and ended up stopping about a mile or so before Sphinx. This ended up being a pretty big day for me with respect to elevation gain/loss (over 9k total) and my feet took a bit of a beating.
Day 2 – Here’s what I did wrong, ~14 miles, ~6200′ up, ~2200′ down
Now I realize the error in my way. From Sphinx Junction, there’s no camping all the way down to Roads End. Once at Roads End, there’s a huge climb up the Copper Creek Trail. If you begin your trip at Roads End, you can get an early start on the exposed climb and hit it when your legs are fresh. If you do what I did, you first have to drop over 2000′ in 5 or 6 miles before starting the climb. And just for added fun, I didn’t start the climb until 11:00, just as the day was heating up at the lowest elevation on the trip. This was after taking an hour break at Roads End to rest my legs after the 2000′ descent.
The climb up Copper Creek is fairly unpleasant. There was a good water source below Lower Tent Meadow, but I didn’t load up, as I expected to top everything off when I reached Lower Tent Meadow. Bad plan. There was barely any water there, and what there was wasn’t moving and was full of bugs. I opted to wait for the next source (a range had told me that there were 3 really good water sources on the climb). It’s hot and exposed, and I’m getting thirsty. At one point I start to bushwhack over towards the water in Copper Creek before deciding that’s a bad idea. Eventually the trail switchbacks close to the water course in Upper Tent Meadow, which has some flow. Ahh, now I can get my refueled.
From there, it’s not too far from where I break off the trail and make my way over to Grouse Lake. At about 10,500′, I stop here for the night.
Day 3 – Here’s where the smoke shows up, ~8 miles, ~2200′ up, ~2300′ down
The next morning begins with the feeling of excitement as I’ll be going over the first off trail passes on the Sierra High Route. Grouse Lake Pass is just a short distance away, sitting on the northwest flank of the lake, at just over 11,000′. I quickly make my way around the lake, up the granite slabs, and eventually to Grouse Lake Pass. I can only imagine that with good visibility, the view down into the Granite Basin and over to the Great Western Divide is stunning. Unfortunately, through the smoky haze, my view is very limited. I can tell that I’m in a great setting, I just can’t get the view with the crisp clarity that I want.
The important thing, though, is that I can see what’s around me and make out my next destination, Goat Crest Saddle, to the north. I opt to try to maintain my elevation and contour around rather than drop down into the valley. There are always options out here. Going down will make for easier walking, but more up and down. Staying high means I’ll be tip toeing across boulders of varying sizes and stability, but get to maintain the elevation that I’ve gained. I’m pretty comfortable on this terrain, so staying high didn’t bother me. Eventually I did dip down a little to get some water before ascending up to the Goat Crest.
Now it’s down the slabs to the Glacier Lakes area and eventually the Glacier Valley. Here, you intersect the State Lakes Loop Trail for about 2 miles and then branch off on the Horseshoe Lakes Trail for another mile. This is where I called it a day.
Day 4 – Here’s what I’ve been waiting for, ~7 miles, ~3200′ up, ~3000′ down
After a little overnight sprinkle, I wake to clear skies and am ready for the meat and potatoes of the route. First order of business is through the forest to a shallow spur coming off of Windy Ridge. Once on the spur, it’s up to Windy Ridge. This area provides great views north into the Middle Fork of the Kings River and Goddard Creek along with the peaks of the Black Divide, White Divide, and the Ragged Spur. Far to the west, through the smoky air, Tehipite Dome can be seen.
From Windy Ridge, I contour around to Gray Pass, which opens up a view into the South Fork of Cartridge Creek. The headwaters of the South Fork make a great place to explore through the morning before working up steep slabs and ledges to White Pass and a view into the main fork of Cartridge Creek above Triple Falls.
Red Point and Red Pass are now visible to the east. Again, I manage to contour around without losing any elevation. From Red Pass, the next rest of this portion of the High Route are laid out in front of you. Views down into Lake Basin and even Frozen Lake Pass far to the east are visible.
First though, time to lose some elevation and drop down steeply to Marion Lake, named after Helen Marion LeConte. Marion Lake is an amazing shade of blue, something akin to the deep, deep ocean. Absolutely stunning. Nestled into the lower reaches of Lake Basin, this was my destination for the day. However, it’s still pretty early and I was able to see some lakes up above that still had plenty of trees for me to hang my hammock, so I venture on.
I cruise up through the scattered pine, sometimes following a use path, sometimes not, before setting up camp near the lake labeled WL10592T on the quad map. Once the wind dies down, this is a beautiful evening, with the moon hanging just above the horizon and great views of the stars once it dips below.
Day 5 – Here’s the sucky part, ~9 miles, ~2800′ up, ~2800′ down
Today, I awake with mixed emotions. I’m a little sad to be leaving the solitude of the High Route behind later today but I’m also looking forward to seeing part of the JMT that I’ve never been on. First order of business, is to thoroughly explore the Lake Basin though. I deviate quite a bit from the line on my map here. Navigation is pretty straight forward and the footing is the same, at least for a while.
Lake Basin is dotted with spectacular, unnamed lakes, that form the headwaters of Cartridge Creek. The original JMT used to run through here and over Cartridge Pass the trail built over Mather Pass and the trail was rerouted, I believe in the 1930s. I can’t help but wonder what this area would look like if the JMT still ran through here. At this point, I hadn’t seen a person or a single piece of trash in about 48 hours. I knew that would come to an end soon.
Eventually, I start to angle my way up towards Frozen Lake Pass. This is said to be one of the 3 hardest passes on the SHR. I’m still quite a ways from the line on my map, picking my way through 3rd class ledges and slabs before hitting the talus field below the pass. Luckily, by coming the way I did, I avoided the bottom half of the talus, trading it for some attention grabbing 3rd class terrain. Never too hard or scary, but always demanding that you pay attention.
At just after 11:00, I manage to top out Frozen Lake Pass, achieving my high point for the trip, at around 12,300′. The east side falls away steeply, first over loose dirt, then more talus before coming to a small tarn. From there, I was expecting an easy descent down into Upper Basin. That wasn’t the case! Everywhere I looked, boulders give way to slabs, which then fall off steeply. As I work my way south, I eventually find a series of gullies and slabs that lead me to terra firma. It’s never felt so good to stand on dirt!
After a little break at a small lake, I work my way through the southern reaches of Upper Basin, angling towards where I know the JMT lies. Eventually I intersect a well worn path going north and south, and I’m officially on the JMT again. I cover about 3 miles on the JMT before finding a place to set up camp, just off the side trail that leads to Bench Lake.
Day 6 – Here’s where all the people are, ~13 miles, ~3000′ up, ~4100′ down
This morning, the sky is clear and the air is cold. I could tell a little low pressure was blowing in yesterday and could feel it this morning. With overnight temps about 10* less than the previous nights, I was a little slow to get moving. Eventually, I get packed up and get moving, past the stark Lake Marjorie and up to Pinchot Pass, at just over 12,000′.
The south side of Pinchot overlooks a beautiful little basin dotted with spectacular lakes. This forms the headwaters of Woods Creek, which eventually flows into the South Fork of the Kings River. Passing Mount Cedric Wright and Twin Lakes and following Woods Creek along some amazing granite slabs, I lose about 3500′ from Pinchot Pass. The sad part is, I know I’ll be making it up soon!
At the bottom of the descent, the trail intersects the Woods Creek Trail, which is part of the popular Rae Lakes Loop, below the Castle Domes, at the famous Woods Creek suspension bridge. From here, I climb up about 1000′ and set up camp, just off the trail, near where Baxter Creeks trickles down from far above.
Day 7 – Here’s where I try to finish strong, ~15 miles, ~4400′ up, ~4900′ down
Today is an unknown. I’m definitely going through Rae Lakes and over Glen Pass, but from there, I’m not sure. I’m still a day ahead of schedule after combining days 1-3 into the first 2 days. I think my legs are still a little upset with me for this! But I cast off, headed south, not sure what my plan is. I contemplate going to Charlotte Lake, or maybe Kearsarge Lakes, or possibly even going over Kearsarge Pass and camping near one of the lakes on the way back down the east side of the pass. We’ll see how I feel.
Rae Lakes is always a beautiful place to walk through, and today proved to be so again. There weren’t as many people around as I had expected. Passing a few, all in good spirits, I made my way south. At one point I stepped off the trail to take a picture of one of the lakes. When I looked to my left, a big, fuzzy bear comes sauntering across the trail, just a few yards from where I stopped. He paid no attention to me as he made his way down below the rock outcrop I was standing on and off into the thickets beyond. I used to see bears on almost every trip but it’s been a couple of years. Finally broke my dry spell!
Eventually, I’m on my way up Glen Pass. The JMT is kind of mean like that. It takes you over a pass, then drops you way down into a river valley, before taking you up and over the next high pass. In contrast, the Sierra High Route takes you up high and then leaves you there. Sure, you’re going up and down, but you seldom drop below 10,000′. It’s nice to consistently stay at or above tree line for days straight. Leaves you with a very satisfying feeling.
I make my way over Glen Pass and down the south side. The day is still young so I turn the corner, leaving the JMT and make the decision to go over Kearsarge Pass too, and probably camp down below it on the east side. Standing on top of Kearsarge Pass, where I had stood 7 days ago, looking east towards the Owens River Valley and at my watch, I decide I’m going home today. It’s about 5 miles back to the car and I just put my head down and make the miles. After all, there’s BBQ down in Big Pine and that seems much more appetizing than what’s left in my bear can.
At a little after 4:00, I’m back to my car, washing up in the creek, then down to town and on the road home. I had planned a series of loops that include a section of the SHR and a section of the JMT. After looking back and realizing how much I enjoyed the SHR portion, I’m making some changes to my plan. Instead of looping back on the JMT, I’m going to do a longer point-to-point and stay with the High Route. If for no other reason, I hate to give up that elevation once I get it!