Kings canyon 2021
Two days in Onion Valley, five days in the Sequoia/Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Park backcountry.
Day1: Hike/scramble up University Peak (13,589')
Day 2: Short hike toward Golden Trout Lakes
Day 3: Onion Valley trailhead - Kearsarge Pass - Glen Pass - Rae Lakes - Dragon Lake
Day 4: Dragon Lake - Rae Lakes - Sixty Lakes Basin - Gardiner Basin
Day 5: Gardiner Basin - King Col - unnamed basin NW of Mt. Clarence King - Woods Creek (to South Fork)
Day 6: South Fork Woods Creek - Rake Lakes - Glen Pass - Kearsarge Lakes
Day 7: Kearsarge Lakes - Kearsarge Pass - Onion Valley
"Do not come and roam here unless you are willing to be enslaved by its charms. Its beauty and peace and harmony will entrance you. Once it has you in its power, it will never release you for the rest of your days."
-Gordon Wallace, SEKI backcountry ranger 1935-1947
"In the vast Sierra wilderness far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is a yet grander valley of the same kind. It is situated on the south fork of the King's River, above the most extensive groves of forests of the giant sequoia, and beneath the shadows of the highest mountains in the range, where the canyons are deepest and the snow-laden peaks are crowded most closely together."
-John Muir, "A Rival of Yosemite," 1891
National parks get about 33 million visitors each year. Most of these visitors don't stray too far from their cars. I recall an encounter with a family in a minivan while working as a seasonal employee at SEKI. They asked if they could see the General Sherman tree from the parking lot. I told them "No, but it's literally right there, you just have to walk around that corner." They shrugged and drove off to the next attraction in the guidebook. The largest living thing by volume in the world and they couldn't be bothered to park the car. A small number of individuals explore the backcountry wilderness our national parks have to offer. Of these, 99% stay on designated trails which provide access to a small percentage of the total wilderness. It is in this true wilderness that I seek to experience the raw power and majesty of nature, without the aid of marked trails, or the distractions of other people. This trip took place along one of the busiest sections of backcountry trail in the nation; a portion of this route is on the famous Rae Lakes Loop. This portion is also part of the popular John Muir Trail (JMT) that connects Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP and Yosemite NP which is a section of the larger Pacific Crest Trail. And yet, by leaving the trail and traveling cross-country, I was able to spend the majority of two days without seeing another person. I focused on creating video content during this trip and I didn't even bring my good DSLR camera..
The traditional Rae Lakes Loop follows the valley's contours in a giant circle. My modified loop cut out the lower elevation/western portions of the hike and instead traversed off-trail through the beautiful high country in the rarely visited heart of the loop.
Check out the video trailer!
Flight delays landed me in Vegas around 10pm local time and I was on the road by 10:30. I set up camp in Death Valley around 1am and tried to sleep in what felt like a windy oven. I woke up before 5am to reach the Sierra crest for sunrise.
Westbound with the sunrise chasing me.
Death Valley sunrise
FINALLY! Alabama Hills at the base of Mt. Whitney and the rest of the Sierra crest. This is where the eastern Sierra shoot up from the surrounding valleys in an impressive display of plate tectonics.
Mt. Whitney is an impressive sight as it rises abruptly from the valley to the east. It is the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,505' above sea level. When I climbed it the official elevation was 14,494' and that's still what's on the USGS survey marker.
Screenshot from drone video - driving north along the Sierra crest toward Onion Valley.
Leaving town and the hot desert behind as I drive up one vertical mile to Onion Valley.
Looking south from my Onion Valley base camp.
Looking north toward Kearsarge Peak from Onion Valley base camp.
One of many puppers I saw. The campground/trailhead are on national forest property so dogs are allowed up until the national park boundary.
On the approach hike to University Peak (center right)
Switching from hiking mode to scrambling mode as I begin up the north face.
Onion Valley trailhead is very popular, especially on a Saturday. Once I left the trail I also left the crowds and started having beautiful high alpine lakes all to myself.
Is it just me or is this mountain giving the middle finger to all the other smaller mountains around it? Kearsarge Pinnacles and Kearsarge Lakes are seen in the middle left; that will be my final campsite during my overnight trip.
On the summit ridge.
Screenshot from drone video of summit flyover.
Screenshot from GoPro helmet video. The downclimb was semi-controlled rockslide surfing.
Screenshot from GoPro helmet video. Glissading down this snow chute was a preferred alternative to sliding down unstable rocks the entire way.
The large snow chute in the top/middle of the frame that slants down and to the right was the location of the glissade shown in the previous image.
Screenshot from drone video - diving into a snow/ice-rimmed lake at 11,500'.
University Peak dominates the view for much of the hike back to Onion Valley.
After ~3 hours of sleep and a 10 hour day climbing University Peak I was happy to have a few quiet moments around the fire before crashing hard for a good night's sleep.
This shows the path of my day hike on Sunday. I followed the vegetation up to the right and then up to the left tracing the base of the cliffs.
Relaxing during my last evening at base camp and thinking about tomorrow - 5.5 miles up to Kearsarge Pass and the border of Kings Canyon National Park.
One last campfire at base camp. Fires aren't allowed above 10,000' in the park and, as a leave-no-trace practice, I think it's best to avoid campfires in the backcountry altogether.
A hiker returns to the trailhead by light of their headlamp under a starry sky.
OK. Camp is broken down. Bag is packed. Car moved to trailhead parking. Extra food stored in bear boxes. Time to hit the trail!
Say goodbye to cars, pavement, toilets, and all that other civilized stuff.
Screenshot from video. At the top of Kearsarge Pass, looking west into Kings Canyon National Park. Proceed as the way opens.
Soon I got a view of Charlotte Dome, one of many giant monoliths in the park. They are spread out and they're in the backcountry but the domes of Kings Canyon are as impressive as those found in Yosemite Valley.
At the top of Glen Pass looking down at Rae Lakes Basin.
My first look at the beautiful clear/turquoise waters of the Rae Lakes.
I left the relatively busy Rae Lakes basin and headed off-trail to an upper basin that is the home to Dragon Lake and Dragon Peak. Peaceful little lakes and meadows are nice but I'm here for the high country. And I had this all to myself. I had hoped to summit Dragon Peak the day before but it didn't work out. I was glad to at least get this up-close-and-personal view of her for my first night in the backcountry.
I try to eat my trail mush for dinner. The little white riding hood is to keep the mosquitoes away.
I had a great campsite that first night. I still had a view of Upper Rae Lakes basin to my right...
...and a view of Dragon Lake/Peak straight ahead/to my left. Pull up a rock (since I don't pack a chair) and get ready for the show! I was watching all this unfold from my campsite when I realized I could get a good photo with the reflection in the water. So I scrambled down a rocky hillside for another view.
Scrambling down that hill was worth it. This photo with the reflection in the water is one of my favorites from the trip. All of Rake Lakes basin is now in shade as the sun sets, but Dragon Peak catches the last of the day's light.
After months of planning and measuring sun angles against the surrounding topography it feels great for the plan to come together as I watch an amazing backcountry light show on such a beautiful peak.
Just hanging out with my friends while the sun sets.
Even well after the sun had set, Dragon Peak was getting hit by the bright light of the western sky.
One last look at her before the light fades away. The softness of the dusk light allows the individual rock layers to show their variety.
The moon appears for a few hours before setting in the middle of the night.
Wake up, break camp, and head back down to Rae Lakes for impressive morning views of Painted Lady.
Morning at Upper Rae Lakes. Dragon Peak is in the background and last night's campsite is tucked behind that tree line in the upper left/middle part of the frame. This is the view as I hike out of Rake Lakes and into Sixty Lakes basin. I would not see another person for two days.
Screenshot from video. Sixty Lakes Basin is where the mosquitoes really started to swarm, even in the middle of the day. I didn't take lots of photos as I pushed uphill and off-trail toward the pass to Gardiner Basin.
Screenshot from video. This is upper Sixty Lakes Basin. That low notch in the upper right portion of the frame is the pass over into Gardiner Basin.
Screenshot from video. If it weren't for the mosquitoes, Sixty Lakes Basin would be a tremendous spot to hang for a couple days. The many lakes are rimmed by large flat boulders perfect for sunbathing and relaxing between dips into the chilly water.
This is a screenshot from a video at the beginning of Gardiner Basin. I have to get to the far side of that lake. I'm just including it to show what off-trail travel can look like in the Sierra - huge fields of talus, rocks ranging in size from grapefruits to SUVs. They're sharp, irregular, unstable, and perfect for breaking ankles. On a trail you can sort of zone out and daydream or sing songs but in an area like this you have to focus 100% on every step. A broken ankle out here means triggering the emergency rescue beacon and a helicopter ride to a hospital. If you're used to trail hiking it can be a rude awakening if you planned a cross-country route without taking delays like this into consideration.
I made it to the harsh landscape of upper Gardiner Basin and then picked my way down to the lower lakes where I found trees, meadows, and giant towering cliffs going straight down to the lake's edge.
The best sunset views of Mt. Gardiner are from the upper lakes but I wanted to make more progress today so I pushed on to the lower lakes. Sunset light wasn't going to be great so I hoped for a clear sunrise tomorrow morning.
The area around the lakes is picture-perfect Sierra Nevada with lush meadows and rock gardens, all surrounded by sheer granite cliffs.
Home for the night. The mosquitoes chased me into my tent well before sunset.
So there I am sitting in my tiny one-person tent, talking to myself, and otherwise trying to pass the time while I wait for it to be dark enough to go to sleep. Then, even inside a yellow tent, I can tell there is a beautiful glow coming from the west. Despite the swarms of mosquitoes hovering around my tent door, I jump out to find that I was right about there being no alpenglow on the peaks around me. However, I was treated to this beautiful sunset with a clear view off to the west.
One more with the crescent moon.
Sunrise was a little cloudy so I didn't get the clear, crisp morning shots I was hoping for. Still, not ugly.
This would be a great view for breakfast, but the mosquitoes force me to jam an energy bar in my pocket and get on my way. From here I'll try to find a route up to King Col which lies just under Mt. Clarence King and the King Spur.
Screenshot from GoPro video. This is a peek over the ice cornice looking down the steep north side of King Col.
Again, this portion of the trip was mainly captured on video, but here is a shot from below looking up at King Col. This is just about the only navigable route over this impressive ridge and was the key to my off-trail loop through this area. If that snow/ice cornice had been larger at the top, I would have had to retrace my steps back to Rae Lakes or bushwhack through a forested valley and hike back up to my starting point in a very long detour. It was steep but it was doable.
From the lake below you can see my route from King Col. It is just to the right of center and is the thin chute that runs down and to the left. This part of the trip had been on my mind for days. It's usually not passable this early in the season but the lower than average snowfall this year allowed me to cross it in mid-June without the use of crampons or an ice axe.
A wider view looking back at King Col and the surrounding ridge from the other side of the upper unnamed lake.
Mt. Clarence King. This beast is the reason why it's so hard to find a cross-country route through this area. The Rae Lakes loop basically follows the valleys in a giant circle around this mountain but I wanted to find a way to nuzzle up next to her and walk among her jagged cliffs. I read Clarence King's "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" years ago and it was cool to be so close to his peak, even if he was a little hyperbolic in his writing and downright deceptive as he led a double life posing as an African American later in life.
Now I pass these lakes and continue the long descent down into the valley of Woods Creek. I'll drop over 3,000 vertical feet hiking down to the river.
A wider view of Mt. Clarence King and the western ridge I came over (King Col is just out of the frame on the right).
This steep face means the river flowing from those upper lakes is basically one giant 3,000' waterfall.
As the terrain steepens I get my first view of the valley below. The rock face on the other side of the valley (also shown in the next two photos) is going to look completely different when I get down below it.
The rock formations on the opposite side of the valley are starting to show their true grandeur as I get lower and lower.
Finally! From below, Castle Domes appear as impressive granite domes towering above the surrounding landscape.
Screenshot from video. I made it to the bottom of the canyon which means crossing Woods Creek so I can get to the trail on the other side. This is another benefit of a low snow year; this river normally has A LOT more water in mid-June.
Screenshot from video. I started on the Woods Creek trail which intersects with the PCT/JMT. This means a busy trail which means AMENITIES! Metal signs, maintained trail, and a big 'ol suspension bridge.
The view from my campsite as I start the long but gradual climb back up to Rae Lakes.
It's been a little cloudy for the last day or so but this is the first sign of a real Sierra thunderstorm. I'll have to keep my eyes on that.
Home for the night.
Let's keep it real. No insta-filter nonsense here.
I realize this may not be the most impressive photo but 1) it was much more beautiful in person, and 2) it's a special spot in the history of the park. I had planned to hike up that basin for camp last night but the cross country travel so far has been really tough and I just didn't have it in me. Backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson lived for these mountains (and meadows) and spent his life protecting them and the people who visit them. He disappeared in 1996 while on patrol. His remains were found up in this drainage five years later, the year before I came here to work and explore. His story was told to remind us that traveling alone in this wilderness can have dire consequences, even for experts who know the terrain inside and out.
"I live in a valley at 9,700 feet in the High Sierra. I won't tell you where it is, for what I have to say about it may entice some of you to come, and there are enough already. Fortunately many of you prefer your screaming, blackened sulfur dioxide cities. Splendid! Let not I be the one to draw you out. The more of you who remain, the more lonely will be my mountains, which is just the way I prefer them. Nor would I tell those of you who are seeking this country where I live. Find it yourselves, and it will be all the sweeter."
-Randy Morgenson, 1990 (not written about the area pictured above)
The gradual ascent brings me to lower Rae Lakes. I get my first view of Fin Dome.
Yes, three very similar photos. It's a beautiful basin, sorry!
The clouds continue to gather, but only a slight drizzle so far. No thunder which is promising since I still have to cross over Glen Pass this afternoon.
One last look at Painted Lady before I hike out of Rake Lakes basin and over Glen Pass.
The clouds were thick but weren't producing any lightning so I sprinted up the pass and had dramatic views from the top.
Loving the dramatic lighting on the high peaks!
Most folks are excited to see the north side of the pass; Rake Lakes with the pleasant meadows and trees, but I prefer the steep cliffs on the south side.
Making my way down the south side of Glen Pass and enjoying the variable lighting as the clouds cruise by.
I cruised pass the Kearsarge Pinnacles on the first day of my trip but I planned to spend some time exploring them on my last day. Here I'm breaking off the main trail to go down to the lakes for a closer view.
Even though there were several other hikers camping here I found a great spot by the lake that gave me clear views in both directions.
I planned this campsite for the morning light that should be hitting the pinnacles first thing in the morning. It was a pleasant surprise to get a sunset over the lake right at a notch between two mountains.
Leave it to Florida Man to find a sunset over water in the middle of the Sierra Nevada mountains!
After the sun sets the sky turns an eerie purple.
One last look at University Peak where I started my trip six days ago.
Yes, lots of the same view. The light kept changing so I kept shooting.
The sun is gone but the show isn't over!
My last campsite, beneath a crescent moon and the jagged Kearsarge Pinnacles.
That's it for trip photos. My phone died that night so no morning photos. I was able to grab a few videos with the GoPro but you'll have to wait for the final video to see those.
On my drive back to Vegas I saw this fire in the valley near Mt. Whitney. The Inyo Creek Fire, as it was later known, expanded exponentially after I left due to high winds. It ran up the canyon above it and eventually shut down the Whitney Portal, forcing hikers to abandon their cars there.
I took a video as I drove past the action because I saw lots of fire engines all lined up. It wasn't until later I watched the video and realized I captured a helicopter taking off too. The fire eventually had 25 engines, 5 helicopters, 4 fixed-wing aircraft, 7 crews, 1 water tender, and 2 bulldozers working.
The drive back to Vegas didn't get any less exciting after passing the fire. Sandstorms, rain, and a dramatic drive through 120 degree Death Valley still stood between me and a deep dish pizza.
My rental had 100 miles on it when I got it. She did what I needed and I dropped her off with a little dirt and a lot of miles.
Almost there. Thirty minutes of sorting and packing gear in a sweltering parking garage and I was ready to hit the hotel, shower, eat, and hopefully sleep before my three flights the next day to get back home.
It's great to be alone in the wilderness but I'm ready to be back home with this crew who were able to join me on my trip thanks to the magic of polaroid and a perfectly shaped pocket on my backpack strap.