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Eye candy: Thru-hike of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route

Earlier this month I completed the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in its entirety, plus several more of its alternates and section-hike segments. All told, my 204-mile route featured 70,000 vertical feet of gain and 102 miles of off-trail travel, and I completed it in about 9.5 days. For much of the route, it was my second — if not my third, forth, fifth, or even sixth — pass through, which detracted from the trip’s adventure element but which allowed me to focus more on field-checking the Guide.

Upper Sphinx Creek. A thru-hike would normally begin at Lodgepole and finish at Road’s End, but I entered and exited at Road’s End in order to avoid a hitchhike or shuttle. An additional upside was hiking again portions of Loops 1, 2E, and 2W -- three of the nine section hikes into which the route can be broken.

Upper Sphinx Creek. A thru-hike would normally begin at Lodgepole and finish at Road’s End, but I entered and exited at Road’s End in order to avoid a hitchhike or shuttle. An additional upside was hiking again portions of Loops 1, 2E, and 2W — three of the nine section hikes into which the route can be broken.

Mt. Silliman sunset. Lights of the Central Valley, the food basket of the World, shimmer 10,000 vertical feet below and 50 miles to the west. In the High Sierra, such views of civilization are rare.

Mt. Silliman sunset. Lights of the Central Valley, the food basket of the World, shimmer 10,000 vertical feet below and 50 miles to the west. In the High Sierra, such views of civilization are rare.

Wildflowers in Tablelands. There are few walk-able ridges in the High Sierra, with the 11,000-foot Tablelands being a notable exception. Wildflowers were at their peak.

Wildflowers in Tablelands. There are few walk-able ridges in the High Sierra, with the 11,000-foot Tablelands being a notable exception. Wildflowers were at their peak.

Horn Col (aka Lonely Lake Pass). The weather was uncharacteristically unsettled for the first few days of my trip, with afternoon thunderstorms (normal), morning thunderstorms (not normal), and even marine inversions (not normal for July). That I had done the route before gave me extra confidence to navigate in low-visibility situations.

Horn Col (aka Lonely Lake Pass). The weather was uncharacteristically unsettled for the first few days of my trip, with afternoon thunderstorms (normal), morning thunderstorms (not normal), and even marine inversions (not normal for July). That I had done the route before gave me extra confidence to navigate in low-visibility situations.

Looking west from Longley Pass, the route’s highpoint at 12,420 feet. If not for a July snowstorm at the highest elevations the night before, this section would have been completely snow-free. Because of an extremely dry winter, conditions were more August- or even September-like than July.

Looking west from Longley Pass, the route’s highpoint at 12,420 feet. If not for a July snowstorm at the highest elevations the night before, this section would have been completely snow-free. Because of an extremely dry winter, conditions were more August- or even September-like than July.

Table Creek campsite. On a route with such long stretches between good campsites, there is a strong argument for a full-sided shelter, with mids being the most storm-worthy for the weight. Combine it with a water-resistant bivy for cowboy camping on low-risk nights.

Table Creek campsite. On a route with such long stretches between good campsites, there is a strong argument for a full-sided shelter, with mids being the most storm-worthy for the weight. Combine it with a water-resistant bivy for cowboy camping on low-risk nights.

Gardiner Basin, south fork. Each summer thousands of backpackers complete the Rae Lakes Loop. About a dozen access Gardiner Basin, which sits in the middle of that loop. It’s just as superb and which you’ll have to yourself. Access is made easier by an old trail that is faint but followable.

Gardiner Basin, south fork. Each summer thousands of backpackers complete the Rae Lakes Loop. About a dozen access Gardiner Basin, which sits in the middle of that loop. It’s just as superb and which you’ll have to yourself. Access is made easier by an old trail that is faint but followable.

 

King Col (aka Moulthrop Pass). This is the single most intimidating feature on the route. It’s a steep chute, and its upper section consists of hard dirt and crumbly, ball bearing-covered rock. Early in the season, entry is further complicated by a corniced snowfield.

King Col (aka Moulthrop Pass). This is the single most intimidating feature on the route. It’s a steep chute, and its upper section consists of hard dirt and crumbly, ball bearing-covered rock. Early in the season, entry is further complicated by a corniced snowfield.

Col Creek. The reward for successfully navigating King Col is Col Creek (unofficial), a tributary of Woods Creek. It’s a fast and brush-free descent on continuous slabs. Pyramid Peak is the tallest summit on the left skyline.

Col Creek. The reward for successfully navigating King Col is Col Creek (unofficial), a tributary of Woods Creek. It’s a fast and brush-free descent on continuous slabs. Pyramid Peak is the tallest summit on the left skyline.

White Fork Pass. From this 12,300-pass, which is a worthy alternate route, there is a stunning view of the Cirque Crest, including the next major landmark: Cartridge Pass. First, however, the route must descent to the South Fork of the Kings River.

White Fork Pass. From this 12,300-pass, which is a worthy alternate route, there is a stunning view of the Cirque Crest, including the next major landmark: Cartridge Pass. First, however, the route must descent to the South Fork of the Kings River.

Black Giant Pass. The route’s longest stretch of on-trail hiking, which is just 12.6 miles long, ends at Helen Lake just below Muir Pass (its hut is visible in this photo) on the John Muir Trail. From there, it climbs to Black Giant Pass in order to access Ionian Basin.

Black Giant Pass. The route’s longest stretch of on-trail hiking, which is just 12.6 miles long, ends at Helen Lake just below Muir Pass (its hut is visible in this photo) on the John Muir Trail. From there, it climbs to Black Giant Pass in order to access Ionian Basin.

Mt. Goddard summit. This worthy 13’er is less than 2 miles and 2,000 vertical feet off-route. Its prominence creates outstanding views in all directions. Here, looking northwest towards the headwaters of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River.

Mt. Goddard summit. This worthy 13’er is less than 2 miles and 2,000 vertical feet off-route. Its prominence creates outstanding views in all directions. Here, looking northwest towards the headwaters of the South Fork of the San Joaquin River.

Upper Goddard Creek. Between Lake 10232 and Lake 9797, there are two miles of sublime high country. Descend gradually on granite slabs and grass, pass through open lodgepole forest, and parallel a meandering creek of impeccable clarity. No one accidentally ends up here -- it’s REALLY hard to get to, and get out of.

Upper Goddard Creek. Between Lake 10232 and Lake 9797, there are two miles of sublime high country. Descend gradually on granite slabs and grass, pass through open lodgepole forest, and parallel a meandering creek of impeccable clarity. No one accidentally ends up here — it’s REALLY hard to get to, and get out of.

Upper Goddard Creek. Without question, the most committing section of the hike is through Ionian Basin and down either Disappearing Creek (Enchanted Gorge) or Goddard Creek to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. It’s rugged country: entirely off-trail, huge vertical relief and littered in talus and scree.

Upper Goddard Creek. Without question, the most committing section of the hike is through Ionian Basin and down either Disappearing Creek (Enchanted Gorge) or Goddard Creek to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. It’s rugged country: entirely off-trail, huge vertical relief and littered in talus and scree.

Grouse Lake Pass. This unremarkable pass is one of my favorites: it was one of my first off-trail passes in the High Sierra, it’s been my first or last pass on numerous trips out of Road’s End, and the view over the South Fork of the Kings River to the Great Western Divide, Kaweah Peaks, and Tablelands is a healthy reminder that there is nearly infinite exploration left to do in the High Sierra.

Grouse Lake Pass. This unremarkable pass is one of my favorites: it was one of my first off-trail passes in the High Sierra, it’s been my first or last pass on numerous trips out of Road’s End, and the view over the South Fork of the Kings River to the Great Western Divide, Kaweah Peaks, and Tablelands is a healthy reminder that there is nearly infinite exploration left to do in the High Sierra.

Posted in on July 27, 2015
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17 Comments

  1. Benjamin on July 27, 2015 at 11:49 pm

    I’m confused as to why you say “On a route with such long stretches between good campsites, there is a strong argument for a full-sided shelter, with mids being the most storm-worthy for the weight.” From what I’ve read from you, you’ve made it sound like a square tarp is the most versatile form of shelter. So, why would a lack of “good” campsites be a case for a less versatile shelter? Can you share a little more of your thought process there?

    After being a tent backpacker for my whole life, I’ve just recently made the switch this summer to a tarp and am still trying to figure out when to use my tarp vs. my single wall tent. I don’t feel fully confident yet, so I’d love to hear more about how you decide what shelter to take with you.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 28, 2015 at 6:15 am

      In this case, by “good” I meant “protected.” There are some long, exposed stretches on this route, especially when you consider that travel speed is often 50 percent of what it would be on trail, and even less for the really steep or brushy sections.

      Indeed, a square tarp is very versatile — *the* most versatile shelter, actually. But it’s difficult to pitch a square tarp so that you are protected on all sides. With practice it’s possible, but it’s not as fast to pitch as a fixed-shape mid and the entry/exit is not as fast either (no door with a zipper). So I think for these “high routes,” a mid is a better choice. Read my observations from a similar Winds trip last year.

  2. John Wright on July 28, 2015 at 8:41 am

    This brought back memories from taking one of your guided trips a few years ago. I believe we descended King Col (although I could be confused for sure). Now I want to get back and explore more.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 28, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      Nope, that was Snow Tongue Pass. The two are very similar: steep with hard dirt and embedded talus.

  3. Aaron Sorensen on July 28, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Imagine having the knowledge of this and the SHR. You could connect almost the entire sierra from any point.

    • Andrew Skurka on July 28, 2015 at 6:29 pm

      That’s a little generous. The southern half of the Great Western Divide is left out, plus the Sierra crest south of Mather Pass, plus who knows what further north (I don’t know those areas as well).

  4. Rick Stockwell on July 28, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks for the great post. What are you using to measure your distance and elevation gain on trips like this? I know using Gaia to track eats up a lot of battery and I don’t think you use another GPS. Mapping software can’t capture all the little detours we take. Does your SPOT give you the distance and your watch elevation gain? Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka on July 28, 2015 at 6:28 pm

      I recorded my route using my Suunto Ambit 2 watch. But for the distance and elevation data, I just use what Caltopo spits out at me (plus distance multipliers for steep sections). When I compare my tracks to the Caltopo estimates, they are pretty close, or at least close enough that it’s not worth recalculating all the data based on an actual track.

  5. Michael Whiteside on July 29, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Great photos Andrew. Thank you.

  6. Brad on August 1, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Is that a Cuben Duomid, Solomid, or Solomid XL? I don’t see mid panel tieouts on the end so I am assuming a Solomid or Solomid XL.

    Thank you for the pics. I am going to Brooks Range for two weeks in August, but considering the Kings Canyon High Basin Route for my big 2016 hike.

  7. Bob Ward on March 28, 2016 at 4:30 am

    Andrew, King Col seems like a nasty decent on the north side. You indicate that on your guide that King Col Central might be a better alternative. Have you gone over this pass and if so can you provide a brief description?

    • Andrew Skurka on March 28, 2016 at 8:15 am

      I checked out King Col Central on my way to King Col. I didn’t scramble down the whole thing, but I saw a path that would go, generally straight below the pass. Definitely Class 2, maybe Class 3 in one spot.

      The problem with King Col Central is that it drops you into the next drainage to the west. Col Creek is superb — after you reach the first lake below King Col, you’re on a clean granite slab the entire way; and only just above Woods Creek must you punch through some brush. The next drainage down looks steeper (but steady, so I think it still goes) and brushier; it tightens up more towards the bottom so you have fewer options; and in Landsat imagery it very clearly consists of talus, broken slabs, and tundra batches, with few slabs especially the further down you go.

      The other consideration is how you’re set up for the next section. If you intend to do Arrow Basin (as the Guide currently proposes), you’re a little bit further away if you descend Col Creek. However, after doing both Arrow Basin and White Fork last summer (second time each, first time back-to-back), I am going to change the route so that it goes up White Fork. In this case, you’re better off coming down Col Creek, as there is a lot of elevation re-gain if you descend the creek below King Col Central.

      Arrow Basin is just too much of a struggle to reach — it’s a steep and huge climb (1,900 vertical feet in about .75 miles) on a dry south-facing slope covered in chapparal, some of which was thankfully burned completely not too long ago. Not enjoyable until you reach the canyon rim. In contrast, White Fork has a tricky start (the canyon just above the JMT) and then crosses some extensive rockfall (small), but beyond that it is excellent.

      • Manrico Scremin on November 1, 2018 at 3:50 pm

        I’m planning to do part of the Kings Canyon High Route. My wife and I are very experienced backcountry travelers. E.g., we’ve done most of the Sierra High Route and have been north of the arctic circle nine times on long, unguided hiking, ski, and canoe trips.

        Having said that, King Col is a non-starter for us. Everything I’ve read and seen makes it look way too dangerous. Andrew’s guidebook and post above describes going over King Col Central and then heading down that unappealing valley to Woods Creek.

        Google Earth makes it look like you can go over King Col Central, go straight across the basin, up the slope on the other side, and then down into Col Creek just below where the King Col chute discharges. Unfortunately I not able to attach or paste a GE screen shot here to show the route.

        Does this seem like a reasonable route?

        • Andrew Skurka on November 1, 2018 at 7:52 pm

          I don’t think King Col is any worse than Frozen Lake, Snow Tongue, or Sky Pilot. It’s very steep, yes; and also loose, but not the kind of loose that lends itself to runaway rocks.

          I’m confident that you can hop from the drainage north of King Col Central to Col Creek. See the map below. If you can handle King Col, that’s preferred, because it involves a few hundred less vertical feet of change. But if you think the extra safety margin is worth it, then definitely do the double-pass.

          You’re right to want to descend Col Creek. I understand that the drainage below King Col Central goes, but Col Creek is stellar, several thousand feet of granite slab. It’s a little crappy towards the bottom, just before Woods Creek, but you’ll only think that because everything in the High Sierra is normally so good.

          King Col & King Col Central

          • Manrico Scremin on November 1, 2018 at 8:38 pm

            Thanks for the information Andrew. I have to say I’m surprised about the comparison with the other passes. I’ve done Frozen Lake Pass and Snow Tongue Pass (twice). I thought they were quite reasonable although you had to be careful and go slow. The photos I’ve seen about King Col make it look downright nasty.

            I’m happy to see the “double-pass” as you call it is probably doable. That’s probably the route we will do. We are a “no drama” kind of group. 🙂



  8. Ken Steinhoff on June 30, 2016 at 10:59 pm

    You mentioned you were in/out from Roads End. Have you any more developed thoughts on making a loop of it? I’d like to do something more interesting than a shuttle or a random dusty trail between trailheads.

    Also, great pics! What size wide angle lens?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 1, 2016 at 12:15 pm

      I would have loved to make the KCHBR a loop, but the terrain in between Road’s End and Silliman Pass is simply not up to the standard. There is no way to avoid a long, mundane stretch between Roaring River and the Silliman Crest, unless you skip Tablelands, which you shouldn’t.

      When I did my thru-hike, I sucked it up and made a loop — I liked the logistical convenience, and I was also doing route research.

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