Spiderwoman thru-hiked the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in 2017 with her partner, The Brawn. These are her “tips” about the route, a term that does not do justice to their comprehensiveness and detail. The information has been split into eight posts to improve readability:
- Section 1: Tablelands
- Section 2: Great Western Divide
- Section 3: South Fork Basins
- Section 4: Cartridge Basins
- Section 5: Ionian Basin
- Section 6: Monarch Divide
- Reflections, campsites, conditions, and comparisons
She has shared all of her photos from her trip, available here.
Bert From Belgium and I started at Lodgepole and walked up Twin Lakes Trail. But we left the trail too soon. I didn’t realize this until The Brawn and I were back in the area. Bert From Belgium and I did leave Twin Lakes Trail at a creek (although much smaller than Silliman Creek) and did step onto a use trail (although very faint compared to the obvious use trail up Silliman Creek), and made it up to the base of the granite slabs none the wiser. If we had stayed on Twin Lakes Trail just a bit longer we would have come to the correct use trail, notable for being wider and well-trodden. Best of all, Skurka points out (in his Critical Interim Updates – v 2.5) that there’s a “trail sign (PR-02)” where the use trail starts. Too bad those updates were stowed in my pack. Doi.
Having walked from Cedar Grove on trails and back roads, The Brawn and I were descending Twin Lakes Trail on our way toward rejoining KCHBR a couple miles shy of Lodgepole. We stepped off Twin Lakes Trail onto the obvious, and correct, use trail along Silliman Creek. The correct use trail passes up along the right side of a small, sloped meadow area and has that trail sign nearby.
The Brawn and I made our way up the use trail in a wind-driven rain. It seemed like the weather might be passing through, so, trying something new, we hunkered down for nearly an hour in the lee of a large tree. Our spot was perched on the edge of the open valley where Silliman Creek ran below. We had a relatively comfy and dry spot, a 180 degree view, so settled in with a mindset to be entertained by the dynamic weather rolling through.
The “granite slabs PR-04” are steep and they go up for quite a ways. The rain had pretty much stopped but small trickles of water still sheeted and splashed down their shining, slanted faces. The place was so alive; we really enjoyed the walk up. Our approach shoes definitely added to the enjoyment because of their ability to stick onto tiny crystals on the slick, sloped granite and hold us safely in place. With a robust, front-burneresque fear of falling, trusting my feet is everything for me out there.
There was a lot more snow on the “pass between the Silliman Creek and Horse Creek drainages (PR-06)” in 2017 compared to 2016. Travel up the chute was a cinch in 2016 – we were able to access it from the bottom and stay in it the whole way up. But in 2017, the lower section of the chute was choked with snow so we dropped into its midsection after scrambling up the slabby left side for a bit.
The “contour into the main fork of Horse Creek” didn’t go smoothly in either 2016 or 2017. If there is a third time, lemme tell you, it would be a charm, because I know what to do differently now. What didn’t go well was, after reaching “the start of the mapped creek where several shallow draws merge”, we stayed too high and too committed to our contouring effort. The terrain gets quite steep, and is made of large blocks of granite interspersed with small vegetated areas. Clambering across those features just to stay on our contour was slow, sketchy, and wrong…because the situation devolved into being impassible due to the steepness. So we had to descend into the Horse Creek drainage anyway, and down a sketchier slope. What I learned is, the data is somewhat misleading here, so descend into the Horse Creek Drainage as soon as you really start scrambling while “skirting the upper or lower fringe of the mapped marshy area”.
Only descend as far as needed to make travel efficient because you’ll be reascending to reach tarn 10410. Tarn 10410 is a nice orienting point as you make your way up to “PR-07 Kings-Kaweah Divide”. In 2016, the tarn was a forgettable puddle of water ringed by a wide shoreline of mud. But in 2017, it was a gorgeous infinity pool whose water lapped tranquilly at its low, grassy banks.
The walk between “PR-07 Kings-Kaweah Divide” and “Superb views to north” is dramatic. It was just about at the word “north” (on the map) that Bert From Belgium and I sat for what seemed to be an hour. Our project was matching terrain features to the map in order to navigate to “PR-08 Pterodactyl Pass”. We were definitely challenged. Finding our first feature to positively ID along Tableland’s Kings-Kaweah Divide was tricky. It took brainpower, relaxation, creativity, animated back and forth, positive attitudes, and lots of time to solve the puzzle. In other words, it was an awesome opportunity for map/compass navigation practice.
I was curious to see how The Brawn would fare. He wasn’t going to get a free-pass just because I already knew which landform Pterodactyl Pass was. Equal opportunity for skill development, right! Lucky Brawn? Or Poor Brawn? He wasn’t seeing the terrain/map relationship well (aka wasn’t taking the time to relax into the art that is navigating with map/compass) and expressed his frustration with me for not just pointing everything out. Things got back on track with a Q&A session. I asked leading questions in order to guide his thinking. He stepped up and we were back to walking in short time.
Map/compass navigation is a serious time and attitude commitment! It’s the only tool I’ve ever used for navigation, and this experience showed me exactly what it costs in terms of time and mental stamina. Hot damn it’s a lot! I wouldn’t trade it for anything though. I wouldn’t be half as interested in x-country travel if the challenge of map/compass navigation was taken away. For me, it’s figuring out the navigation puzzle that makes backpacking a route so engaging, and by extension, so mentally-stimulating and memorable. It can be anxiety-producing, too, but hopefully mainly rewarding and fun.
Skurka’s hint “for a landmark use the knob, which is the northernmost knob on the ridge to have a sheer east face” is what really helped us match up terrain features to the map. IDing the “sheer east face” was key. Once you ID that, you can work your mind south-southeast to Pterodactyl Pass.
Bert From Belgium and I reached the top of “PR-08 Pterodactyl Pass” a little too far on its north end. I think we were on its shoulder rather than smack down in the saddle. It was too steep to descend where we were. The Brawn and I hit the pass further to the right (in the saddle this time) and the descent was a breeze.
Bert From Belgium and I approached “PR-09 Horn Col” from Lonely Lake’s “shore-level”. From “PR-08 Pterodactyl Pass”, we ascended close to Lonely Lake’s outlet stream, then rock-hopped our way along Lonely Lake’s western shore to reach a sweet little sandy beach on its north end. This line has you clambering through large talus blocks just after leaving the lake, but it’s not long until travel is smooth again.
The Brawn and I approached “PR-09 Horn Col” from “the ridge above”. From “PR-08 Pterodactyl Pass”, we ascended a good distance west of the outlet stream. When we had finally traveled far enough and had our first view of the lake, I was surprised at how far above it we were. From there, to reach the col, we were set up to just contour east-northeast. It was neat to be able to take a different approach to “PR-09 Horn Col”. I hadn’t necessarily been planning on that.
If I had to pick a favorite, it would be approaching from “the ridge above”. Contouring around the top of the bowl was more interesting to me than a straight shot up to the pass. And travel along the lake’s shoreline, and through the talus on its north end, was kinda slow. That said however, the views from lake level were pretty fabulous.
“Elizabeth Pass Trail” was conspicuous on both my hikes. When The Brawn and I crossed it, I looked up to the right and saw a tiny dark spot on the skyline. I could barely make out that it was a person in silhouette standing on Elizabeth Pass. That person stood and watched us all the freaking way to “PR-11 jct old track”. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, they dedicated a considerable amount of time to watching us, um, walk. We were putting on a pretty boring show, so I assumed they must’ve been curious about where we were heading? It’s funny to admit that I started feeling badly, like I should step-it-up and walk faster so they wouldn’t have to stand there so long.
The “old mining trail” is easy to find; you’ll naturally intersect it as you move eastward. It also makes moving across the small talus on the “walk-up slope immediately below” much more efficient as you head up to the “low point on the ridge”. This area was very different from my first trip to the next. There wasn’t a hint of a trace of snow up on the “low point on the ridge” in early October 2016, so we walked a carefree zigzag up the track to the ridge.
But, in early September 2017, a beautiful cornice swept across the entire ridge. Well, nearly all the way across. There was a narrow snow-free corridor on either end of the cornice. They both looked steep and loose, but passable. After a debate, I followed The Brawn up the right side. It was fun-challenging, got our attention, and had The Brawn apologizing. I laughed it off. I love opportunities like that out there, times when my whole brain concentrates on the task at hand, and I’m simultaneously filled with peace and a pinch of fear.
Once you’re on the “old mining trail, now a use trail, climbs east-northeast along the ridge” on your way to “PR-12 Copper Mine Pass”, just know that your time on that ridge lasts for a bit. I was surprised how long it took to reach the pass. I kept hoping I hadn’t missed something as I was moving forward. There’s no good reason why I should have been surprised, kinda random I know, but I thought I would mention it in case you relate. In other words, you can relax into that “use trail” as it winds its sweet way directly to the pass (which is directly below and to the right of Copper Mine Peak).
The views along the way are insanely gorgeous. We got to watch clouds being born in the cirque below us. Puffs of white gauze would appear out of thin air and grow and morph and swirl up high to coalesce among the peaks. I had a moment up there. The kind where you’re intoxicated by the sublime, so blissed out and in touch with the concept of love you feel all the world’s problems would be solved if everyone just acted out of love. But even that sentiment can be corrupted. People love different things. Exhibit A: Copper Mine Peak.
Despite my qualms with the fall-out associated with extractive industries, the “mining track” “immediately below the pass” is a gift leftover from the miners. That initial descent is an “exposed” feeling spot indeed, but felt super chill thanks to the track. In 2016 we just cruised down the track all the way to the “old mining camp” at “11,400 feet”. But in 2017 we hadn’t descended far at all (like, minutes later) before the track was concealed by an extensive snowfield. The snowfield ended just above the “old mining camp” at “11,400 feet” and we quickly hopped back on the track.
Shortly after passing through the “old mining camp”, I lost the “mining track” both with Bert From Belgium and with The Brawn. Once Bert From Belgium and I lost the track, despite taking time to look for it, we never found it again, and continued to look for it as we made a long arch down into Cloud Canyon. We intersected the creek just northish of “PR-13”. I really wanted to find it with The Brawn this time around so we went looking in a direction Bert From Belgium and I hadn’t explored.
Bert From Belgium and I unsuccessfully looked for the track directly north of the “old mining camp”. So The Brawn and I headed east/downhill and eventually found the track on a steep hillside below the “old mining camp”. This steep hillside is grassy and treeless. It is bordered by nearby trees on its left/north side, and it’s into these trees that the track travels. On its right side (more in the distance), this steep open hillside is bordered by an even steeper gully that itself is bordered by a canyon wall with the creek dropping down it. If you can find the “mining track” here, you’re golden all the way to “PR-13”. Be prepared for a little hide and seek further along the way, but nothing that’ll make you lose it.
Your descent ends just north of the obvious tarn at “PR-13”. The track takes you all the way down. The track ends at the woods’ edge, and we saw cairns there that would help climbers “In Reverse || To find the mining track from the north”. Another clue for finding the “constructed trail” is rusted miner detritus scattered about the nearby flat rocky area. We found excellent camping in this flat area. Several tents could be pitched here comfortably.
Travel in upper Cloud Canyon was like a stroll in the park. Things slowed downstream due to the “willow and other brush”, but it wasn’t bad; it wasn’t a bushwhack. Eventually, when we had to choose between denser brush on the west side of the headwater stream (that feeds “Roaring River”), versus talus hopping on the east side, the talus hop won. We stayed on the east side until joining up with obvious “Colby Pass Trail”. Skurka comments that “The trail may be a welcome sight” – it never ceases to amaze me how fast and relaxing trail travel is when juxtaposed with cross country travel.