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Route Development Parameters

North side of White Fork Pass. On the loose dirt and gravel, we were happy to be going down, not up.

North side of White Fork Pass. On the loose dirt and gravel, we were happy to be going down, not up.

The High Sierra is like a blank tapestry — full of opportunity, but no predetermined structure. What rules and guidelines did I follow in creating this masterpiece? In no particular order:

Keep it off-trail

By being independent of the trail system, which is confined to small and narrow parts of the High Sierra, the Kings Canyon High Basin Route can explore some of its most remote and rarely visited parts. It feels like a bona fide wilderness experience, versus the industrial backcountry tourism found elsewhere. The route is also inherently more engaging: without trail, signage, bridges, benched switchbacks, established camps, food storage lockers, or nearby help, a KCHBR hiker must make every decision and must pay attention every second of the day.

Encompass definitive topography

As I began to stitch together a continuous line of travel based on my broader exploring of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, much of it naturally coincided with the watershed boundaries of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River. This theme stuck, and helped make obvious the route when there were multiple options.

The view north from Tablelands. The  South Fork of the Kings River runs right to left through the center of the photo, out of view deep in a canyon. On the skyline can be seen the Palisades (right side) and Black Divide (left side).

The view north from Tablelands. The South Fork of the Kings River runs right to left through the center of the photo, out of view deep in a canyon. On the skyline can be seen the Palisades (right side) and Black Divide (left side).

Natural “flow”

Challenging terrain was not avoided in maintaining the KCHBR’s topographic theme and ensuring that it lived up to its name. At least up to a point. To avoid it from ever feeling contrived (“This is dumb.”), I avoided segments that felt hard merely for the sake of being hard, when the effort involved would have been in gross excess of its reward. The KCHBR never, for example, remains off-trail when a perfectly good trail is available, or climbs the hardest pass on a ridge if there were easier and aesthetically comparable passes nearby.

Easy logistics

The logistics of a loop route are wonderfully simple and fast. Park a car at the starting point, complete the hike and return directly to the car (in which you wisely stored fresh clothes, flip-flops, and a bar of soap), and drive home. In comparison, point-to-point routes involve time-consuming car shuttles or inefficient public transit. Since that is not how I care to spend my vacation time, I identified nine section-hikes ranging from 30-80 miles, all loops.

A KCHBR thru-hike is not a loop, but its logistics are still far easier than point-to-point trips of comparable length: the termini are separated by just one intersection and a 2-hour drive. Alternatively, a 25-mile all-trail route between Silliman Pass and Road’s End will close the route. Unfortunately, this terrain is simply not up to KCHBR’s standards and therefore not part of the official route.

Avoid technical travel

The route’s most difficult terrain features low-angle and low-risk scrambling that requires occasional use of hands. On the Yosemite Decimal System, this terrain is rated Class 2. In late-spring and early-summer, an ice axe and/or crampons may be comforting if not required for safe passage on lingering snowfields. But otherwise, ropes and climbing equipment are unnecessary.

Talus-crawling below Amphitheater Pass

Talus-crawling below Amphitheater Pass

Avoid the John Muir Trail

It may be “America’s Most Beautiful Trail,” but the John Muir Trail is my least favorite part of the High Sierra. It offers no sense of solitude; the trail is outrageously dusty and littered with horse shit; and its campsites are heavily impacted, surrounded by Charmin blooms, and plagued by fearless bears and “mini bears” (mice, marmots, ground squirrels, etc.). The KCHBR uses the JMT for just 14 miles.

Avoid the Sierra High Route

The KCHBR was directly inspired by Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route, which is top-notch and highly recommend. But I minimized overlap between the two routes so that the KCHBR would feel like a unique backcountry experience. I mostly accomplished this: the routes share just 8 miles off off-trail travel and 14 miles of trail. More importantly, I avoided the SHR without sacrificing the quality of the KCHBR. Mile for mile, I actually think that the KCHBR is a finer route: a greater proportion of off-trail travel, far easier logistics, and more consistent “flow.”

1 Comment

  1. Todd Foster on April 12, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Hello,
    Saw the mention of your Wind River guide on Section Hikers. Thought: Now if he only had such a guide for the High Sierra. Dialed up your site and there it is. I’m still integrating the concept. It will take some time. But very exciting.

    I once did the big trail loop from Cedar Grove to Whitney, the High Sierra Trail, then returned via Kern/Kahweah past Colby Lake, Cloud Canyon, Elizabeth Pass. Outstanding, and it did Whitney from the west avoiding much of the crowds.

    I’ve long wanted to access Kern/Kahweah via Shepherd Pass and do a slow exploration of Kahweah Basin and upper Cloud Canyon, inspired by Steve Roper’s classic and poetic writing.

    Now I’m living off grid in the east rain shadow of Mt. San Gorgonio, eastern sierra trailheads make the most sense. I’m thinking of linking into one of your loops from Shepherd Pass.

    Only reason haven’t ordered your guide is have no color printer. But I can have topos printed at service center like Staples. Soon!

    Best, Todd F.

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