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Spiderwoman’s KCHBR Tips || Section 6: Monarch Divide

Spiderwoman thru-hiked the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in 2017 with her partner, The Brawn. These are her “tips” about the route, a term that does not do justice to their comprehensiveness and detail. The information has been split into eight posts to improve readability:

She has shared all of her photos from her trip, available here.


Wind whips through a larger-than-life amphitheater

Simpson Meadow Trail

I ate a nice big breakfast. Our food bags were full again, so I was back to my normal, stick-to-the-ribs pot full of energy. By the time we got to the “small trailside campsite at Horseshoe Creek” (which I thought was kinda big), I was feeling sick to my stomach. The problem was obvious – I’d eaten more than my stomach wanted to digest, so I knew it was just a matter of time and I’d feel fine. Skurka’s head’s up that there’s no water until “8 miles and 4000 vertical feet of climbing away” had us stocking up on water out of the creek. Not wanting to run out, I decided to carry 3 liters.

And what a mistake that was. I didn’t drink a drop of water until after setting up camp at State Lakes. It was a complete cluster to have humped 3 liters of water up there while my stomach was hurting and I was faux vomiting from the pressure of my hip belt. But how funny. You have too little food and you suffer. You have too much food and you suffer.

The trail does indeed “climb aggressively” in the first part of the 8 mile walk to State Lakes. We ascended 1000 vertical feet per hour, almost like clockwork, and took short, but much needed, breaks at each interval. There were several inviting places to camp along the way. If I were to do this section again, I’d try and set myself up to climb 2000’ish in the evening, dry camp at one of the lovely spots along the way, and finish the ascent in the morning. The view is wide open for so much of the climb. It would be a real treat to enjoy the evening and morning lightshows from up there.

Prostrate, thick-stemmed shrub. Old growth? The things we get to contemplate while traveling 1 mph.

Goat Crest

Emily and her ponies were just finishing their morning packing as we walked up the “use trail” into gorgeous Glacier Valley. I took a liking to one of the mules and he let me pet him until my hand was as black as he was. Emily understood the attraction; turned out he was her favorite. She stopped what she was doing and patiently answered all my questions. I had to reign myself in though because 3 or 4 or 10 new questions would bloom for every 1 answer she gave. I love learning about subcultures and I love women. But I knew she was on the clock so I wrangled my enthusiasm and self away.

Tiny delicate frogs call this meadow home. Ribbit.

Skurka’s instructions for reaching “PR-65 Goat Crest” from “PR 63” are spot on. Our only hiccup was a challenging little scramble as we made our way up “Slabs + chutes” on the “valley’s east side” to “Lake 10,429”. It’s an uncomplicated stroll over and up to “PR-66 Grouse Lk Pass”.

A typical rhythm. ID’d this tucked away pass with map/compass a few hours prior. Getting ever closer.

Ah, Grouse Lake. That lake is so meaningful to me. Grouse Lake marked my first camp on my first thru-hike of a route. Stepping off Copper Creek Trail with Josh “Buddy” in August of 2010…picking our way around and over granite slabs…trying to avoid crushing wildflowers and being dismayed that that would be impossible and then feeling sad and concerned and wondering how in the world do you walk on a carpet of wildflowers without beating them up?…and following our bearing up a rolling horizon of rock and trees until, like a magic trick, a lake appeared. Our lake. And we found it with a freaking map and compass?!? I was hooked.

Some people get baptized in a lake. I got baptized by finding a lake.

Skurka writes that there is a “horse trail” that will get you to Copper Creek Trail. His instructions are spot-on. We used it. In reverse, the spot where it leaves Copper Creek Trail is obvious. It’s cairned and there’s a well-worn use trail at the intersection. I don’t remember it from my 2010 and 2011 walks up Copper Creek Trail – I wonder if it was there?

Grouse Lake was hoppin’. There were lots of folks camped there, and the several we met were neat to talk with. One couple who’d just attempted the Bailey Range Traverse in the Olympics rode up on mules in order to save their energy for the section of the SHR they were starting. Another man from a trio who were also starting a cross country route was kicked back in a full-on chair. After shaking off my initial surprise, I showered that chair with so many compliments it would have blushed if it could. I love having my thinking challenged by alternative approaches, my paradigm expanded by diversity.

I’d always been curious what camping at the established site (with bear locker and stream) just below 8000’ along Copper Creek Trail would be like, so it was neat our timing let that happen. Despite passing lots of folks on the trail, we had it all to ourselves. It’s on a hill, but there are lots of platforms that have been stamped level. It was a nice night.

Striding it out on trails and backroads for the next couple days didn’t hurt our feelings any

Head’s up. Small black flies were borderline unbearable the next morning. They appeared below about 7000’. A head net was key because they wanted IN…corners of the eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth. The other 2 places we were hounded by them was walking down the Middle Fork Trail as we neared Simpson Meadow, and then from Cedar Grove up the first half of the Don Cecil Trail.

We got a quick hitch from Roads End down to Cedar Grove. Agnes, the founder of Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps, had just dropped a group off and joked that it didn’t seem right not to pick us up since she had a big empty van. She told us all about her work and I swooned at how focused it is on female empowerment and creating opportunities for underrepresented populations. She knew Emily the packer and then over this winter, listening to the She Explores podcast, I was like Agnes! I know you! Such a small world.

But it gets better.

An hour later and we were sitting on the upper deck outside the café, stomachs full, planning our next errands: laundry, showers, and walking back to the Ranger Station for our resupply box. A man walked up. He had kind eyes, was squeaky clean, and was clearly intent on starting a conversation. He commented on my ice axe and maps and we invited him to sit. Very quickly, startlingly quickly, he cracked me open and had me telling him ya, we’ve heard of KCHBR, we’re enjoying the heck out of it right now! (I rarely talk about walking a route while I’m out there. On my 2010 SHR, a random dude hauled off and yelled at me on Mather Pass, saying I was lying, that I surely hadn’t just descended Frozen Lake Pass. I was speechless in front of the crowd up there. I didn’t push reasoning with the poor guy cause his ego was obviously unstable. That’s just one of a few strange examples. It’s wayyyy better to be incognito.)

I told him I was surprised he’d heard of KCHBR with it being new and all. He said it was because he was following someone’s blog, and he must’ve mentioned her first name, Katherine, because when I asked what her last name was, he gave me a look. An almost stern look. He slowly said Cook, then finished with, are you Spiderwoman and The Brawn? My jaw dropped. We really looked into each other’s eyes this time. We had exchanged several emails in the past, and here we were meeting in real life for the first, most blessedly random, time.

Philip had reached out to me via email a couple years prior because he and his lovely wife Helen, who had just joined us at the table, were planning on doing a section of the HDT and he’d found my Tips online. They were here in Cedar Grove for some section backpacks of KCHBR and the SHR. It turns out we are both big fans of Katherine’s writing and we sat there jockeying for who’s the most awed by her physical and mental prowess in the wilderness.

I was so stoked to hear she was just starting KCHBR (which she was capping off her SHR and SoSHR thru-hikes with – a feat that shows she possesses elite-level stamina), and that she and Philip had the technology to communicate with each other out there, because I wanted to pass on some beta, particularly about King Col, Should-Go Canyon, Dumbbell Pass, and Amphitheater Pass. (Spoiler – Katherine made it over King Col! It was so cool finding that out. I was so happy for her, and highly valued hearing a first-person account of the changed conditions up there after a bit of time passed since our encounter with it.)

It was getting late. Helen kindly drove The Brawn to pick up our resupply box. Intuiting we had lots to focus on before sunset, Philip and Helen said their good-byes. I’m looking forward to the next time we get to say hello again, share a round of hugs, and hopefully share some special trail time.

Glamour shot of my power plant framed by Kings Canyon in the background

After sorting through our resupply box, we some odds and ends we wanted to ship home. Since the closest PO is at Grant Grove, a 30 mile drive away, it was time to get creative. I asked a friendly young cashier if she had any brainstorms for us, and since she didn’t, she offered to mail the box for us since she was leaving the next day to catch a plane. I thanked her profusely, gave her cash for postage and to treat herself to a gift on us, included a little note with repacking instructions and our address, and let her get back to work – this all went down lightning-fast because people were waiting in line behind me.

We showed up to long lines at the laundry/shower building. Shoot! It was decision time. It’d be dark by the time we finished. Instead of dealing with the hassle that would be finding a place to camp in the dark, we donated our brand new bottles of laundry soap/shampoo/conditioner/body soap (and shower tokens that the custodian had gifted to The Brawn while the building was closed for cleaning earlier) to the same custodian and left. It was a beautiful and cooler time of day for a walk up the Don Cecil trail anyway.

Not knowing what the next day had in store in terms of water, we grabbed plenty from Sheep Creek. You can access water where the trail crosses it on a pretty stone bridge; it’s a small waterfall here. We walked steadily uphill on great tread and got to mingle with oaks, my favorite tree. Their graceful reaching limbs were showcased against the backdrop of a strikingly pink evening sky. It was a gorgeous combination, but the burrowing black flies were bad enough for head nets again and the netting unfortunately detracted from the sightseeing (and breathing).

Then it was pitch dark and we walked by head lamp. We got into an area that looked like it must’ve been a mess of blow downs. There weren’t too many to crawl over or around though. We weren’t sure where or when we’d find campable terrain, so when we topped out (when looking at a Tom Harrison map this is where the trail ends and road 14S11 begins) and found a huge flat area we were relieved and more than ready to pitch our tents.

We followed cougar tracks down gravel 14S11 the next morning and quickly came upon very nice flowing water. There was a lot of sign of development/large equipment activity up there, like maybe underground cable was being laid? The activity looked fresh enough that we commented that thank goodness it was a Sunday. We had the place to ourselves. It may have been dusty and noisy otherwise.

There were some side roads to avoid as we made our way down toward Horse Corral Meadow – staying on our main road was obvious though. The turn onto gravel 13S12 was also obvious because there was a sign for Sequoia High Sierra Camp. That windy, uphill road terminates in a large, well-used parking lot. A trailhead sign welcomes users to Jennie Lakes Wilderness, and a posted note warns that for some perturbing, unknown reason, trail signs were being stolen, so carry a map and double check yourself at trail junctions.

After walking up that trail for a short bit, the left turn toward the High Sierra Camp is obvious. We stayed right, and several miles and trail junctions later, eventually walked over JO Pass and camped at the established site at the junction with the trail that heads east to Twin Lakes. Walking on a path all day was so relaxing. We talked with nice people, enjoyed big trees and flowers, and most luxuriously, got to zone out.

I figure it was approximately 28 miles to walk from Cedar Grove to the use trail that leads up to Silliman (just shy of Lodgepole). We linked the Don Cecil Trail with gravel roads 14S11 and 13S12, then walked through Jennie Lakes Wilderness over JO Pass and rejoined KCHBR at the use trail. Tom Harrison Maps were great: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Mt Whitney High Country, and Kings Canyon High Country. There was plenty of water, it was pretty, and I was glad we did it. I recommend it as worthwhile if you have a desire for even more variety while you’re in the area, to stride it out on a couple dozen quick miles, to make KCHBR into a loop, and to ease transportation logistics.

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2 Responses to Spiderwoman’s KCHBR Tips || Section 6: Monarch Divide

  1. Jim Kirk January 13, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    I have hiked down that section from the Monarch Divide (Dougherty meadow) to Simpson meadow a couple of times. but always avoided hiking up it due mostly to the lack of water, I have subsequently read there is a place about half way where there may be running water available by traversing around to the right (west) a relatively short distance to a nearby creak. If so your idea about hiking half way and bivouacking would be a lot better if there was obtainable water. Do you remember seeing anything like this?

    • Andrew Skurka January 14, 2019 at 8:45 am #

      There is a seasonal source that’s accessible about halfway up. The USGS 7.5-min quads actually show a trail (for which I’ve never seen the junction) leading over to it, https://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=36.9418,-118.6154&z=15&b=t

      I would not even bother to look for this water source except early in the summer after wet winters, and I wouldn’t trust it until I validated it once first-hand (or got some really good info on it).

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