Seven years ago I thru-hiked with Buzz Burrell the Sierra High Route, which parallels the crest of the High Sierra between Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park. Its 200 miles represents less than 1 percent of the total miles that I have hiked, yet the experience proved to be one of the most influential: it revealed to me the grander sense of adventure when off-trail.
I followed up with a traverse of Iceland, the Hayduke Trail, and a few neat trips in Alaska. And when I began offering guided backpacking trips in 2011, exploring remote terrain via off-trail travel was a primary focus on the longer and more advanced itineraries. Thank you, Steve Roper, for inspiring what I’ve done since 2008 while wearing a backpack.
A few months ago in “Short is the new long,” I wrote vaguely about my future backpacking plans. Rather than single expeditions lasting multiple months and covering thousands of miles, my emerging interest is shorter routes that showcase a single topographic feature like a mountain range, watershed, or canyon system. Not only are such routes more practical for a husband and home-owner, but they can sustain a higher level of overall awesomeness than longer trails or routes, which invariably include mind-numbingly boring “transition” miles between worthy sections.
Today I’m thrilled to introduce my first original project, which I stitched together over two summers. The 124-mile Kings Canyon High Basin Route circumnavigates the upper watershed of California’s Kings River and is encompassed entirely within Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. It’s an instant classic, and I believe it’s at least on par with the original, Roper’s Sierra High Route, for being the finest route in the High Sierra.
World-class terrain and scenery
Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park (SEKI) is huge. It’s bigger than its more famous neighbor to the north, Yosemite, and more than 50 percent bigger than the Smokies. The topography is so intense that a road has never been built across it. It is home to all thirteen of the peaks in the High Sierra exceeding 14,000 feet. And it’s incised by the snowmelt-filled Kings River and its tributaries, which have at one point cut a 8,200-foot deep canyon.
Sequoia-Kings is also God’s country: majestic alpine lakes, glacier-polished granite, and reliably blue summer skies. It’s not always perfect: early-season river fords can be terrifying, the first hatch of mosquitoes is terrible, and bushwhacks through low-elevation chaparral is heinous. But but if I had to pick one place to backpack for the rest of my life, SEKI would be a top contender.
The Kings Canyon High Basin Route explores this terrain in grand style. Many park highlights are on it, including Tablelands, Cloud Canyon, the Great Western Divide, Enchanted Gorge, and the Cirque Crest, plus the route’s namesake basins that are perched just west of the main Sierra divide — Gardiner, Arrow, Lake, Dumbbell, and Ionian. There are 16 passes above 11,000 feet, every single one off-trail; the highest, Longley, is at 12,434. Finally, the KCHBR provides a unique experience in the park, generally staying far away from other long-distance trails and routes like the John Muir Trail, High Sierra Trail, and Sierra High Route.
Continuity and “flow”
Two-thirds of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route — specifically, 82 of its 124 miles — is officially off-trail. Five of these segments are longer than 10 miles, and one extends for 21! Save for the very beginning, very end, and 11 miles on the High Sierra Highway (aka John Muir Trail) in the middle, its on-trail miles are typically on lightly traveled pathways deep in the backcountry.
Due to its primitiveness, run-ins with other backcountry users are infrequent, and likely non-existent when off-trail. More importantly, the route has a nearly uninterrupted identity, with each segment naturally flowing into the next. Unlike the Sierra High Route or its proposed southern extension, which often alternate between exciting off-trail legs and relatively mundane stretches on the overcrowded JMT, the KCHBR almost never feels like a disjointed experience. In this sense, it’s more similar to the Wind River High Route, which also feels high and lonesome for nearly its entire length.
Truthfully, a debate over the the qualitative merits of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route and Sierra High Route would not be productive. They are unique routes, both superb, and deserve inclusion on the bucket list of every skilled and ambitious backpacker.
There is one distinct advantage of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, however: logistics. Its south and north termini, Lodgepole and Road’s End, are separated by just a 2-hour drive and one road junction. This proximity makes feasible a car shuttle or hitchhike. Also, there is no need to get from one side of the range to the other, fly into and out of two different airports, or spend hours in a bus on I-395. Logistics can be simplified even more by connecting the termini on foot with 30 extra trail miles.
The Kings Canyon High Basin Route is also section-hiker-friendly. The reality is that very few backpackers have the time, desire, or ability to take on all 124 miles in one go. For section-hikers, I have outlined nine loop hikes ranging from 30 to 80 miles, and many more itineraries are possible.
Get more information
On the Kings Canyon High Basin Route minisite, I have posted a significant amount of information that will help backpackers gauge their interest in the route, assess its appropriateness for them, and to gain a general understanding of the scheduling and travel options.
To thru-hike or section-hike the route, the Kings Canyon High Basin Route Guide is extraordinarily useful, if not essential. It contains detailed route descriptions, annotated topographic maps, and useful databooks, plus additional planning information about permits, regulations, transportation, resupply, and more.
The First Edition of the Guidebook will be available by June 1, 2015, as an electronic download. Pre-ordering customers can download immediately the Pre-Edition and will be upgraded when the First Edition is ready. A physical guidebook is being considered, but one will not be available in the immediate future.