During a flight tour in April, the National Park Service discovered that a critical bridge over the South Fork of the San Joaquin had been damaged. For photos, refer to the PCTA website.
This bridge is in the northwestern corner of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, just south of the boundary with Sierra National Forest, and it’s critical to hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail (which overlap in this section). Hikers have three options now:
- Use the bridge, which is clearly damaged;
- Ford the South Fork, which will be impassable for most or all of 2023; or,
- Detour around the bridge, using one of many on- and off-trail routes.
Let’s look at each option more closely.
1. Use the bridge
Since the news originally broke, I’ve not seen further updates on the condition of the bridge. In the photos, which were taken from a helicopter, it appears somewhat intact, so maybe it’s still usable if your DNA is more akin to a monkey than a horse.
Planning to use the bridge seems like a risky option though:
- It could be washed out by higher water levels;
- NPS may remove it before or during the season;
- NPS could position a ranger there, issuing warnings and/or fines; and,
- If you slipped off, it could be fatal and you’d not receive much sympathy.
It’s worth pointing out that relevant organizations (NPS, PCTA, JMT Wilderness Conservancy) are universally encouraging hikers to plan alternate routes to avoid the bridge.
Don’t expect this bridge to be replaced in 2023. The replacement process will likely entail extensive engineering, installation team logistics, and a wilderness study.
2. Fording the South Fork
This will be a dumb idea for most of the 2023 season. But you might be able to get across it:
- During colder weather in May, when the snowpack is still melting solid at night; or,
- After early-September, when there will be less run-off and near-freezing nighttime lows.
- In both cases, cross in the morning, when water levels will be lowest.
At the location of this bridge, the South Fork contains run-off from its starting watershed (framed in by the Le Conte Divide, the Goddard Divide, and an unnamed ridge that divides the South Fork and Evolution Creek) as well as Evolution Creek, which is only slightly smaller than the South Fork where they merge. The river drops about 125 vertical feet per mile through this section, with no apparent areas where it slows down, like meanders through a wide-bottomed meadow.
I’ve crossed Evolution Creek twice after wet winters (late-June 2006 and mid-August 2011), both times at Evolution Meadow, which is significantly safer (i.e. slow-moving, though perhaps deeper) than the trail’s official crossing point about a half-mile further downcanyon. In 2006 it was naval-deep; in 2011 it was knee-deep. Now, imagine crossing a river that’s twice the volume and moving swiftly.
I’ve updated the High Sierra creek hazards resource with five potential alternates. These have been discussed elsewhere too (like here, here, and here, plus guidebook’s like Secor’s The High Sierra and Roper’s Sierra High Route), if you’re looking for more information than I will provide.
A. Bishop-Piute Pass
This all-trail route leaves the JMT in LeConte Canyon and rejoins it at the confluence of Piute Creek and the South Fork, a few miles downstream of the bridge. You’ll miss Muir Pass and Evolution Basin, two JMT highlights; but it has Dusy Basin and Piute Pass, which are very cool. Also, you can catch a ride to nearby Bishop for resupply and a shower.
I’m uncertain how Inyo National Forest will feel about this detour. Currently, USFS allows 36 and 30 hikers each day to depart for Bishop Pass and Piute Pass, respectively. Will hikers need one of these trailhead permits, or will their original permit be satisfactory, especially under these extenuating circumstances? I don’t know.
Update (May 24): Per the PCTA, the PCT long-distance hikers permit is valid for this reroute. Hikers with more local permits (e.g. like from Sequoia-Kings or Yosemite) technically need a new entry permit.
B. Hell for Sure Pass
This option allows hikers to experience most of official JMT/PCT, missing as little as two miles of it. It’s entirely on-trail (unless the shorter variant is used, which has some off-trail), and it passes directly by Muir Trail Ranch, a popular JMT resupply point.
Like the Bishop-Piute option, I’m uncertain how Sierra National Forest will handle wilderness permits. The Florence Lake trailhead is limited to 35 hikers per day (21 reservable, 14 walk-up).
Update (May 24): This is not the “official” PCT reroute, so the PCT long-distance hikers permit is not honored. Following the same logic as the Bishop-Piute alternate, all hikers will need a new entry permit after exiting here.
This alternate has one major negative: it’s the least efficient, adding 32 miles to bypass only two. The alternate itself does not appear to be very aesthetic, too, though this is partly offset by following the JMT over Muir Pass and through Evolution Valley.
To shorten the distance, those with some off-trail skills can take a shortcut, from Wanda Lake to Goddard Canyon, passing by Davis Lake. This route looks straightforward except for the section between the Davis Lake outlet and Goddard Canyon: steep-sided gullies must be avoided, and the South Fork must be crossed to reach the trail on the west side.
C. Over the top
This off-trail route is untested, but it looks good on satellite and it’s very direct. Also, it will melt out early because it’s south-facing.
Don’t expect it to be straightforward though, as it:
- Involves side-hilling across steep slabs,
- Cuts across multiple small drainages, and,
- Passes above and below steeper terrain that could be problematic if you get off-route.
It departs the JMT at the Evolution Creek crossing and rejoins the JMT on the northeast side of the South Fork.
D. Alpine Col
This is a well established off-trail pass, but I’ve not personally been on it. It’s described as Class 2 by Secor and by High Sierra Topix. Based on photos, this rating looks accurate.
The north side of Alpine Col will remain snow-covered for most or all of 2023, based on satellite imagery from past wet winters like 2016-17 and 2018-19. Traction will probably be helpful, and possibly required if the snow is firm. An ice axe might be desired by those uncomfortable on steeper snow.
E. Snow Tongue Pass
This is expert-level, loose Class 3, on the north side. It’s not difficult to reach the pass from the south, but the north side is STEEP (about 45 degrees) and will be entirely snow-covered for most or all of 2023. Axe and crampons, and the knowledge to use them, full stop.
We were one of the first groups of PCT hikers that left Kennedy Meadows Aouthon May 5th and planned a resupply in Bishop due to this bridge being unusable. For us the most logical detour hence was Bishop Pass and Piute Pass. However, we did not connect them as you show on the map as we had to go to Bishop. We went back to the trail from Aspendell. Bishop pass is very beautiful and not hard at all. Piute is very easy as well. Everything was still snow covered, only the last 0.5 miles had some patches of dry trail in Piute canyon, reconnecting with the PCT. The last miles of descent in Piute canyon were tricky as the trail is carved in rock faces and when it is covered in steep snow you can’t see it and have to navigate the rock face. Also, snow close to rocks equals deep postholing. By now though, these last miles are probably getting snow free and will be easy. I still think it is the best option for most PCT hikers.
We tried going back on the PCT after rejoining it to check out the bridge. Unfortunately snow slowed us down and a thunderstorm started rolling in. We wanted to set up camp further north to set us up for an early crossing of the next pass, so we turned around about 1.5 miles from the bridge.
Thanks for the report. Stay safe.