Trail & Route Comparisons

Marion Peak and Marion Lake as seen from below Dumbell Pass

Marion Peak and Marion Lake as seen from below Dumbell Pass

The Kings Canyon High Basin Route is new for 2015, and there is not yet a robust community of thru- or section-hikers who can share their experience with it. Until there is, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the KCHBR in the context of other long-distance trails and routes.

Sierra High Route (SHR)

Steve Roper’s line along the Sierra Crest from Road’s End to Twin Lakes was the most direct inspiration for the KCHBR. It’s no surprise, then, that the Sierra High Route is the closest comparison. Both are rugged, committing routes that require a high level of athleticism and backcountry skill, and are worthy objectives for those who seek a pinnacle backcountry experience. There are important distinctions between the two, however, and the experiences are absolutely not synonymous. Notably, there is little overlap in their routing; the proportions of on-trail/off-trail mileage differ; and the logistical complexities are not even.

John Muir Trail (JMT)

The John Muir Trail and KCHBR share 14 miles of trail, are blessed with the same High Sierra climate, and require about the same amount of time to complete (1-3 weeks depending on the individual). But otherwise they are very different trips. The KCHBR is predominantly off-trail, features far more vertical gain and loss per mile, has more and more dangerous natural hazards, sees an infinitesimal fraction of the foot traffic, offers no “community,” travels further distances between emergency help, and lacks supporting infrastructure like on-trail resupply points, established campsites, and bridges. A KCHBR thru-hike is not an obvious “next step” for ambitious JMT thru-hikers, but a section-hike might be perfect.

Other long trails

Points of differentiation between the JMT and KCHBR, above, will apply as well to most other long-distance trails in the Mountain West (e.g. Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Continental Divide, etc.), though generally the High Sierra is drier and higher. Long trails in the East (e.g. Appalachian, North Country) are barely comparable, and an introductory experience to the High Sierra — perhaps using a KCHBR section-hike — would probably be prudent.

Ascending Adventurer Col, from where there is a superb view of the Palisades


  1. John Thoreson on July 27, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    Hi Andrew, I’m planning a northbound hike of the KCHBR from Lodgepole to South Lake (Bishop). At Junction Meadow two options present themselves: 1) continue north on the KCHBR route to Section 3 or 2) descend to Road’s End via Bubbs Creek and then head north on Section 6 which is shared with a portion of the SHR. Assuming your legs were “unstoppable” and dramatic views a top priority, which way would you go? Thanks for your input!

    • Andrew Skurka on July 29, 2019 at 8:02 am

      My general recommendation is to start and finish section-hikes from the same location, for logistical simplicity. Lodgepole to Bishop is especially tough because they’re on opposite sides of the range. But may you have worked something out…

      In your case, I’d take the KCHBR as long as you can before you run short on time and need to exit. Once you get to Junction Meadow, remain on KCHBR into Gardiner Basin, then into Arrow, Lake, and Dumbbell. Any of these basins can be short-cutted by jumping on the JMT. I’d probably recommend skipping Gardiner, if I had to pick one — it’s circuitous route through there and drops very low, and you have a really tough pass on the exit.

      If you study the maps carefully, you can find a route from the KCHBR to Palisades Basin that does not involve dropping down Cataract Creek. Then you can follow Roper’s route to your exit. Although, it still might be faster to hike down Cataract, then to the Middle Fork into LeConte, and exit on the trail.

      • John Thoreson on July 29, 2019 at 11:16 am

        Thanks for the recommendations; I’ll stick with the KCHBR at Junction Mdw. Good points on logistics. This will be the last leg of a bigger trip starting at the north end of the SHR similar to Katherine Cook’s 2017 hike, so the logistics of this leg will be similar to the others.

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