This 88 mile loop out of Kearsarge Pass features enough jaw dropping scenery to fill a book, or in this case, a giant trip report.
Mileage: 88 miles
Day(s) Hiked: 7/14/12 > 7/21/12
Dog Friendly: No
Red Tape: Overnight camping requires a permit.
I headed out of LA on a Saturday morning, and was at the Onion Valley trailhead around 11 after grabbing a permit and sandwich down in Owens Valley. It was already pretty hot outside, and the next few hours were a slog as I lugged 50 pounds up the dry crowded trail.
At Kearsarge Pass, I made sure to pose for a photo to have a “clean” version of myself to compare to my appearance at the conclusion of the hike. The spiderman pose was unintentional.
I reached the Kearsarge Lakes that afternoon and immediately moved towards the fourth lake to get away from all the people. The first lake had about a dozen people camped on it while I had the last lake all to myself. I tried to get a nice photo of the late afternoon light hitting the Kearsarge Pinnacles, but fell a little short. There’s always next time!
The day ended with a book and some bourbon along the lake shore. Looking west past the lake, there was an expanse of sky that made me feel as if I was alone on the roof to the world.
As I packed my pack the following morning I heard a load tear. Immediately my heart sank and I looked at the front of my pack to reveal a 3 inch rip right down the center.Fortunately, I had brought a gear repair kit and immediately went to work on what is likely one of the worst sewing jobs in the history of mankind. Once I finished that, I applied some super glue and duck tape to the tear to help seal it and to cover up any evidence of my horrific domestic abilities.
The whole ordeal set me back a couple of hours, so I quickly left my camp and set off down the trail towards Bubbs Creek to the East Lake junction.
My goal for the day was Lake Reflection and I wanted to get there with some time to spare. Hiking down I crossed paths with all sorts of hikers, including many of the type that seem to be specific to the JMT or other popular trails like the Rae Lakes Loop. One group had a boombox fitted to the outside of a pack blasting tunes to the benefit of everyone hiking around them. What modern times we live in.
After a few hours I was at the East Lake trail junction, where the only major river crossing of my route was. Fortunately, Bubbs Creek was running low this year and it was an easy walk through thigh deep water. During a high snow year, this crossing could be very dangerous this time of year. It was a nice refreshing break in this instance.
The next 5 miles are a steady climb up a beautiful mountain valley. Unlike the Bubb’s Creek trail, this area felt much more remote and I only saw a few people for the next 24 hours. The trail reflected this as well as it occasionally faded away into a sea of bushes or boulders. It was never too hard to pick up back up again a bit further along. This canyon and East Lake are both stunning, and they serve as a great appetizer for Lake Reflection.
I enjoyed a nice break at East Lake and could have easily stopped for the day and been content, but I couldn’t pass up Lake Reflection so I didn’t linger for long. I rushed up the hill as quickly as I could for fear that I would miss the golden light and I suddenly felt a wave of nausea and dry heaved alongside the trail. An omen of things to come.
But all was going relatively well and I reached Lake Reflection with some time to spare and not a soul in sight. This is a truly magnificent lake and I sat there in awe for a bit staring at Mount Jordan towering over the water. It slightly drizzled for a half hour and then broke just in time for a glorious sunset. Clouds fluttered over Mount Jordan’s peak as it caught the last light of the day to create a stunning display of ethereal beauty. I retired to my tent a happy man.
The following morning began with another setback. I made a rookie mistake and left a valve open on my camelback, which leaked overnight and soaked a pile of clothing. I was left with no choice but to wait a few hours to dry everything out, leaving me with another very late start.
I made my way back down to the Bubbs Creek trail while stopping to photograph some of the spots I had rushed past on the previous day.
I noticed that the mountains to the North were slightly hazy compared to the previous day. It turns out that a wildfire had started the night before at Woods Creek, about 20 miles away. Fortunately, my route would take me in the opposite direction.
My next stretch was the Bubbs Creek trail down towards the Avalanche Pass trail junction. This is a pretty flat stretch of trail that alternates from meadows to forest, and in some stretches you can walk directly along the creek.
By the time I reached the trail junction, it was already 4:30. My late start was going to come back to haunt me, because my intended destination for the night was 2500 feet above. The avalanche pass trail climbs steadily from 6000 feet to 10000 feet, and when I was planning the trip I did not want to do that climb in one stretch with a heavy pack. There is only one spot to camp on this stretch, which is a flat area where the sphinx creek crosses the trail, about 2500 feet up. I decided to take an extended break, fill up on water, and go for it. In retrospect, I probably should have called it a day there.
The avalanche pass trail climbs basically straight up a cliff and it immediately reveals incredible views of the Paradise Valley/Bubbs Creek junction. The trail is carved out of rock and it one of the biggest marvels of engineering I’ve ever seen in the wilderness. It was a truly amazing view that I was too spent to enjoy.
I climbed as hard as I could for 3 hours straight and arrived at the campsite just as night set in. I quickly gathered some wood so that I could have a fire for the night. After dinner, I relaxed by the fire with some bourbon and jazz and had a fleeting moment of relaxation. Then, I had another flash of nausea and before I had a moment to think I sprang to my feet and expelled the contents of my dinner and extinguished my fire. I went to bed with an uneasy stomach hoping that things would improve by morning.
I didn’t feel as good as I was hoping the next day so I weighed my options. Heading back down to Bubbs Creek, only to go up 6000 feet back towards Kearsarge Pass was a very unappealing “escape route”, so I decided to continue with the trip despite what I assume was minor altitude sickness. Ideally, I should have been able to take a day off to rest but I did not feel that I had enough time for this on my trip so I forged ahead. This is something I’ll be thinking about when I plan future trips.
The hike from Sphinx Creek to Avalanche Pass is about as boring as the Kings Canyon backcountry can get. It was basically a walk in the woods with no variation or views. It was peaceful but after awhile hiking it alone was a bore. Even Avalanche Pass is basically a plateau on top of a forested hill with no sweeping views to speak of.
Heading down the other side of the pass granted the occasional view up Cloud Canyon – my destination for tomorrow.
The hike was pretty easy as I was at Roaring River early in the afternoon without having seen anyone on the trail all day. My altitude sickness was slowing me down a little bit and had me feeling a little weak, but it wasn’t a huge limitation and I was still able to enjoy myself.
I took advantage of the best tasting crystal light I’d ever had and enjoyed some friendly conversation at the Ranger Station before going up the river a couple hundred feet to set up my camp. I had a great campsite all to myself right on the river and I set out all of my clothes for some laundry. It was evident that this campsite had been in use for quite some time.
As the sun dropped towards the horizon, sunlight splintered through the trees and sent god beams over the river creating a magical display. I grabbed my camera gear to capture the moment and noticed that the knob I use to tighten my camera to the tripod was missing.
Retracing my last couple of days, I realized that I hadn’t used the tripod since the Bubbs Creek trail and the knob could be anywhere over the past 15 miles. I tried to find it around the roaring river station but had no luck. I retreated back to my camp where I entered a moment of pure frustration. I kicked some logs and cursed at the top of my lungs. Not only was my ability to photograph severely hampered, but I’d be carrying 3 pounds of mostly dead weight for the remainder of the trip.
I made another fire and sulked as I came to terms with my predicament. Eventually I snapped out of it. This was my big vacation for the year, and the fulfillment of a dream that I’d had for almost a decade. I wasn’t going to foolishly be miserable throughout it due to a few setbacks. I vowed to make the next day an incredible one.
The goal for the next day was Cloud Canyon. As I packed up my campsite I was giddy in anticipation. This location was high on my list of places I wanted to visit, and it is so remote that you can only access it on a big trip like this one. It’s fair to say that this entire loop was based on going through this valley. For the first few miles of the day, the trail meandered through the woods along the roaring river.
With practically no warning, the trail suddenly opens up. Trees make way for grass, and the expansiveness of the canyon suddenly opens up around you. Across the lush meadow stands a massive granite fin – known as the whaleback – that ascends a thousand feet above the canyon floor. Welcome to Big Wet Meadow.
I put my pack down, sat on a rock, and marveled as the scene played out in front of me. Occasionally, I’d snap a photo when I remembered that I wasn’t dreaming.
After an extended stay in this special place, I continued up the trail towards Colby Lake. Hiking along Cloud Canyon without a soul in sight or any sign of civilization, I felt a profound sense of solitude. These are the types of experiences you can only get by going on an adventure of this nature.
Wildflowers splashed color around the trail. A rainbow formed overhead. I looked around for Unicorns but I did not see any.
Colby Lake exceeded my expectations. It is perched below a beautiful steep ridge, and the opposite direction provides sweeping views of the Sierra. I had it all to myself. Exploring the lake revealed giant fish swimming around the lake shore. The water was also very deep and there were places where it looked like you could dive in directly from cliffs along the lake. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn towards the cold, otherwise I would have enjoyed a nice swim.
The cloudy skies were foreshadowing the potential for an incredible sunset, if the sun was able to break through on the horizon. I kept a close eye on the clouds on the horizon for any evidence that there might be an opening. It’s amazing how fast sunsets like this can pop up. A hint of orange tint started appearing in the clouds overhead and within a few minutes the sky was ablaze. I grabbed my camera gear and tried to get to work.
With a broken tripod, I was severely limited in my ability to set up shots. I figured out a way that I could hold my camera to the tripod as long as one hand was permanently fixed upon a lever. Framing a composition while making sure that my camera didn’t tragically fall into the lake was a very stressful and difficult task, but I somehow managed to pull it off.
The ridge line next to Colby Pass suddenly lit into a glorious red and the entire area was basking in the reflected glow. It was such an intense display of color I could barely believe it.
As quickly as the light show on ridge started, it ended. I was fortunate to even get a shot off during the couple of minutes that it was lit. Now, I turned my attention in the opposite direction towards the horizon, where I captured one of the most amazing color displays I’ve ever witnessed. The sky turned for a fiery orange, to a deep crimson, and then finally to a velvety purple before finally fading into twilight. I stood in awe and captured shot after shot of this amazing display of light.
Once it was all over, I let out a victorious cheer that echoed throughout the empty canyon and danced in jubilation from the amazing moment. I had witnessed the most beautiful sunset of my entire life, and it happened to be in an incredibly scenic Sierra canyon that I had all to myself. I had fulfilled my promise of an incredible day by leaps and bounds.
That night, winds howled and rain pattered on my tent until daybreak. After it had stopped for about 10 minutes, I emerged from my tent and considered my options. The weather seemed to be clearing up so I decided to go for it and started towards the pass.
The hike up the pass was steep and difficult, but it’s a short stretch and I was up top after a brief sustained effort.
Descending the canyon on the other side, I walked along the Kern-Kaweah river and headed towards the HST/Kern River.
At Gallats Lake I saw a cool horseshoe bend in the river, but outside of that I found this section of trail to be rather drab, at least in comparison to all the surrounding areas.
I had originally planned a side trip to Picket Creek Lake or Milestone Basin while I was in this area, but my altitude sickness hadn’t gotten much better and there were still many ominous looking clouds in the sky. I decided that going offtrail by myself with these factors was not the best idea, so at this point the goal of the trip was simply to get back to the car. It’s only 35 miles away with two 12,000 foot passes in between. No big deal right?
The rest of the day was spent making my way over to the John Muir Trail. First, I headed down to the Kern River valley, where I was back among the big trees and… bulbs?
Traversing over to the JMT, there is a fantastic view looking down the Kern River valley in the direction of the High Sierra Trail.
Once I hit the JMT, the peaceful solitude I had been enjoying for the past couple days immediately eroded. It was a little jarring to suddenly see so many people. The sun was quickly setting and the trail was in fairly thick woods. I began heading North, in hopes that I could find an opening that would allow me to do some sort of photography for sunset or sunrise. After a mile or so, I reached another group of campers and I asked if there was anywhere up the trail where I would be able to see sunset. A dazed kid in a poncho just gave me a blank stare and I realized that they might not be the most informed group of people to ask. The sun was about to set and I gave up on my hope to escape the trees and made camp.
The following morning I reached an opening in the forest after about 20 minutes and was immediately pissed off at the kid in the poncho.
Further along the trail, I reached Bighorn Plateau, which was one of the biggest highlights of the trip. I can’t wait to go back and spend some more time here.
This whole region is pretty incredible. It is essentially a giant plateau above the treeline, surrounded by striking peaks in every direction. The landscape feels epic, yet the trail is almost completely flat and the whole experience is incredibly relaxing. What’s even more incredible is how different this area is in comparison, to say, the Kern River valley which is only a few miles away. One of the things I love about the Sierra is the sheer variety and abundance of different types of natural displays of beauty.
The big obstacle for the day was Forrester Pass, which at 13,153 feet, stands as the second highest pass on the JMT behind Trail Crest on Mount Whitney. By the time the trail steepens to ascend to the pass, you are already well above 12,000 feet so the ascent is actually pretty easy if you are moving northbound. The landscape becomes increasingly sparse as you approach the pass.
This pass is another engineering marvel where the trail was literally carved out of a cliffside via dynamite. When I was at the bottom I couldn’t even tell where the trail went because I never would have believed the route that it takes.
Reaching the pass, I was back in Kings Canyon and was hitting the home stretch. I was only a few miles from the JMT/Bubbs Creek junction that I had hit a few days ago, and after that I was only a hop and a skip away from civilization. While my altitude sickness never vanished, it fortunately had not gotten any worse so I was feeling pretty decent as I began to descend down from the high mountain pass.
Instead of camp along the JMT again, I decided to explore a new area and get away from the crowds so I took a small detour into Center Basin. I found the basin to be completely empty and made camp between the first couple of lakes. It was a very calm and peaceful spot to end my week long sojourn. The afternoon light hit the center basin crags and I snapped off some photos of the last sunset of the trip.
As I headed out on the trail on the last day, I was already ordering a pizza in my mind. I blazed up the trail past Bullfrog and Kearsarge Lakes and was on the pass by noon.
I happily posed as a friendly hiker took my portrait. I thought the strap lines on my wrists were tan lines, but they disappeared after I showered :p. I was home 5 hours later enjoying a bounty of beer and food.
While a ton of stuff went wrong on this trip, it was a life changing experience for me. When I first reached Kearsarge Pass on day one, I felt a sense of uneasiness as I treaded down by myself into the deep wilderness. Upon exiting the wilderness over the same pass eight days later, I had conquered a difficult challenge and overcome a number of obstacles along the way. That feeling has carried with me and I now feel much more confident that I can follow through on whatever path my dreams take me on. I can’t wait to see where they take me next.