Kings Kern Headwaters Loop
September 3, 2018 - September 9, 2018
Tag: backpacking, california, sierra nevada, seki
This trip report covers a six-day backpacking trip in the headwater basins of the Kings and Kern rivers of Sequoia / Kings Canyon National Parks from September 7-13, 2018. As before, I’ll focus on providing good photographs and supplementing with commentary when necessary.
This trip fell towards the end of fun summer season. Shannon took the Bar Exam in July, and I was on a three month sabbatical from work. We spent basically all of August hiking, having completed the JMT, a quick trip in the Mammoth area, and the Wind River High Route in addition to some other travel. We were in very good shape, but not exactly sure what we wanted out of this trip.
After some discussion on the topic, we settled on some reasonable objectives, but with an eye on flexibility. We planned to focus on the Kings-Kern Divide country, hoping to visit Rae Lakes, Lake Reflection, and summit Mount Tyndall. We also scoped out optional side-trips to summit Mount Rixford, Mount Gould, Mount Cotter, Fin Dome, something along the Kings-Kern Divide (possibly Mount Stanford), and Mount Williamson. We had no intention of trying for all of these, but wanted to keep a list in mind.
Our rough day-by-day plan was to hike from Onion Valley to Kearsarge Lakes on day one, move to Rae Lakes the next day, spend a day there exploring the basins, continue on to Lake Reflection on day four, cross the King’s-Kern Divide and continue on to Shepherd Pass on day five, climb Mount Tyndall and Williamson on day six, and then drop to the JMT and head out via Forester and Kearsarge passes on day seven. It seemed like a reasonable plan, but as is often the case, it didn’t work out quite this way.
Looking north from Duck Pass. On the 6th, we picked up our permit in Mammoth, a walk-up permit for Kearsarge Pass. We enjoyed a quick day hike up to Duck Pass before driving south.
The view north, with the Silver Divide just poking out to the right of the second picture.
Mount Williamson in the afternoon light looming high above Onion Valley Road.
We got one of the last couple of campsites at Onion Valley and spent the afternoon and early evening getting sorted out for the hike.
Day 1: Onion Valley to Rae Lakes
12.7 miles, +4,000’
We got a bit of a late start on our first day, due to a last-minute food reassessment that was forced by bear canister capacity constraints. But we hit the trail around 9 and waded through crowds en route to Kearsarge Pass.
The view of University Peak across Gilbert Lake.
Looking down on Heart Lake from the trail high above.
Big Pothole Lake from just below the pass.
Looking west over Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake from Kearsarge Pass. Mount Brewer and friends loom in the background.
Despite the crowds and the man flying his drone atop Kearsarge Pass, the hike was quite lovely. Kearsarge is one of my favorite east-side access points to the SEKI backcountry because it’s both short and scenic.
We debating going for Mount Rixford and/or Mount Gould en route to Glen Pass, but hadn’t had the foresight to fill up on water on our way up Kearsarge Pass. We only had a liter or so between us and it was warm, so we weren’t too excited about the idea. We opted to follow the trail around instead.
Shannon following the cutoff trail to meet up with the JMT with an awesome view of Mount Brewer’s northeast face.
Overlooking Bullfrog Lake.
After this we pushed on for a little while until we finally found a water source at the lower tarn below Glen Pass. We had to ration water for an hour or so beforehand. Rookie mistake!
Looking south from Glen Pass.
The view north.
Shannon hiking around the north shore of the southernmost Rae Lake.
That classic view of the southernmost Rae Lake.
We rolled into the basically-a-campground campsite on the peninsula of the middle Rae Lake, got set up, and enjoyed a couple hours of fishing, book reading, and doing nothing. It was crowded, as usual, but the scenery more than made up for it.
The last alpenglow of the day on Mount Rixford.
Day 2: Sixty Lakes Basin Day Hike
8.5 miles, +1,800’
Despite the background sounds of parties breaking down camp and hitting the trail from as early as 5, we stayed in our sleeping bags until the first light hit the Painted Lady. Then, jumped out to snap a few pictures and brew up some coffee.
Mid-morning light over Rae Lakes.
Our plan today was to explore the Sixty Lakes Basin. Given our departure time, we figured Mount Cotter was a bit aggressive, but thought Fin Dome might be a good objective.
Following the trail around Rae Lakes towards the isthmus. The climb to the divide separating the two basins was uneventful. We stopped and chatted for a bit with a fellow who had camped for two nights in the Sixty Lakes Basin. He said he had seen no one since he left Rae Lakes, an incredible contrast from the busy area just a mile away.
Approaching Fin Dome from the south. Looks steep!
We contoured across the talus field to the lowest cliff and began looking for the ledge system described by Secor. But, from our angle below, it looked generally steep and scary. So after a few minutes of searching, we abandoned our goal and opted to just explore the basin instead.
Fin Dome from the lake immediately west.
Overlooking one of the larger lakes in the Sixty Lakes area. There was a trail leading generally north through the area, and some signs of people, but we didn’t come across anyone.
Looking back south towards Fin Dome.
Mount Clarence King.
We decided to make a loop of our hike, traversing the cross country pass in the north end of the basin towards Arrowhead Lake. The pass wasn’t too difficult, but there was a short downclimb, a bit of bushwhacking, and some forested route finding.
Eventually we found our way back to Rae Lakes, enjoyed a dip, and moved on to get a picture from the high peninsula near the ranger station.
Sunset light above Rae Lakes after a great day.
Day 3: Rae Lakes to Lake Reflection
15.5 miles, +4,300’
Our plan today was to hike over to Lake Reflection, an area I had read about and seen pictures of, but never visited. We planned to climb the Painted Lady en route to Glen Pass in the morning.
Catching one more beautiful sunrise at the southern Rae Lake.
The Painted Lady poking through the trees.
Morning light from our campsite.
One last shot from the Rae Lakes basin.
Standing atop the Painted Lady, overlooking Rae Lakes. The Palisades are poking out in the background.
Rae Lakes from above.
Descending the Painted Lady. The climb wasn’t too difficult, but the middle ~300 feet was a little bit steep and loose, so we climbed and descended individually through this stretch. It made for a nice side-trip, and the summit views were well worth the extra effort.
The west face of the Painted Lady the saddle/plateau just to the west. We ascended the face south of the visible gully and rock bands to the summit ridge and then strolled to the top.
Looking back over Rae Lakes from the saddle below the Painted Lady.
Mount Rixford looming above a tarn in the basin just east of the JMT.
Looking south from Glen Pass towards Mount Brewer, and Lake Reflection.
Looking down the switchbacks ascending the south side of Glen Pass. A train of NoBo JMTers passed us atop Glen Pass.
Overlooking West Vidette and the Bubbs Creek Drainage from the switchbacks below Bullfrog Lake.
Descending the Bubbs Creek trail towards East Creek, which joins in the valley at the left of this picture. The willows and aspens were just beginning to change color, hinting that despite the warm days, fall was just around the corner.
Continuing down towards East Creek.
Looking up at the Bago Spires from East Creek.
After leaving the Bubbs Creek trail, we had to cross Bubbs Creek to join the trail up East Creek. This crossing was not bridged and the creek was flowing well, even this late in the season. I suspect this crossing is impossible in early-season and still difficult even mid-season.
Panorama of East Lake. We considered stopping for the night here, but had a bit more daylight so we pushed on. Another pair of hikers rolled passed us as we stopped for a snack. I thought that I recognized one of them.
The last light of the day on Mount Jordan from the Lake Reflection outlet.
The trail above East Lake fades to nothing and frequently disappears beneath talus fans. It wasn’t difficult to follow, as it’s ascending a canyon to a lake, but beginner hikers might find it a bit adventurous.
We debated between setting up our camp across the stream just northwest of the outlet, or on the peninsula on the east shore. We opted for the peninsula, mostly because we didn’t want to cross the relatively deep outlet stream twice. We found a sandy site among granite slabs on this peninsula and set up our cowboy camp. The other group, a trio with three tents, had set up at obvious sites a bit lower on the peninsula. We fell asleep for the fourth consecutive night sans tent, under the stars.
Day 4: Lake Reflection to Upper Kern Basin
7.7 miles, +3,000’
Cowboy camping beneath morning alpenglow at Lake Reflection.
We slept in as the sun crept into Lake Reflection’s deep bowl, then rose and spent some time taking pictures.
Morning light on Mount Jordan and Mount Genevra.
A couple of shots from the lake outlet. If you look closely, you can see the other groups on the peninsula, which is not obvious from this angle.
Ascending through the forest south of Lake Reflection.
We had to plan our crossing of the King’s Kern Divide from Lake Reflection. There are three options: Harrison Pass is easiest (class 2) but was also the longest, requiring a drop back towards East Lake before ascending bowls towards Mount Stanford; Lucy’s Foot Pass required the same detour, but was a little bit more technical, Milly’s Foot Pass was the most direct, but supposed to be a bit difficult (class 3) at the top. As usual, Secor provides an excellent overview of each. I also stopped to chat to the other party at Lake Reflection, one of whom I had indeed recognized, he was the Charlotte Lake ranger who I had run into on my JMT hike. He explained that they intended to cross Milly’s Foot Pass, which he had done many years ago. He said it wasn’t bad, just a bit loose at the top.
We opted for Milly’s, knowing that we could always turn around if we encountered anything too sketchy.
Looking back over tarns and East Lake from high in the talus bowl towards Milly’s Foot Pass.
Talus slogging. From below, the top of this bowl seems to be an unbroken 100-foot wall of rock. But near the top, a notch appears that was previously obscured.
Looking up the notch.
Looking through the notch at the north face of Mount Jordan.
Shannon scrambling up the last 100 feet of solid class 3 to the top of Milly’s Foot Pass. We didn’t find this pass especially difficult. The talus slog lower down was worse than the crux at the top, which was actually kind of fun.
Looking east from the top of Milly’s Foot Pass over the upper Kern River Basin.
Looking down the Kern River Canyon. This canyon runs about 25 uninterrupted miles straight south from the upper headwaters.
Some lovely lakes on a bench overlooking the Great Western Divide.
Climbing towards Lake South America.
Our original plan for the day was to get as close to Shepherd Pass as possible, setting us up for Mount Tyndall and Mount Williamson the next day. But we were both so impressed by the scenery in the Upper Kern Basin that we decided to call it a bit early and roll out our sleeping bag on a bench overlooking the peaks of the Great Western Divide.
Evening light on Mount Ericsson.
Another beautiful spot for a night under the stars!
Day 5: Upper Kern Basin to Anvil Camp with Mount Tyndall side trip
12.8 miles, +4,200’
The wind picked up a bit in the night, and the small stands of pine trees around us made a racket, so we didn’t sleep well. It was also a bit colder than the night before, which may have been the higher elevation, we were camped at about 11,500’ as opposed to 10,000’ the night before. But the scenery more than made up for the mild discomfort.
Sunrise over the Great Western Divide.
Morning light on Mount Ericsson.
Daybreak over the Upper Kern Basin.
Onward, to Shepherd Pass!
Looking north towards the tarn below Lake South America, and Mount Ericsson. Milly’s Foot Pass is visible on the ridge at left.
After crossing the low pass, we dropped to another high plateau above Tyndall Creek.
Looking back at the Great Western Divide from somewhere near Shepherd Pass.
After a relatively uneventful hike from our campsite the night before, we reached Shepherd Pass in early afternoon. The wind had picked up some more by this time, so we found the most sheltered campsite available, behind a large boulder north of the tarn nearest the pass, and rested for a lunch. Besides the wind, the weather was otherwise good, so we figured we would climb Mount Tyndall, and decide later whether we would camp atop the pass and attempt Williamson in the morning, or descend Shepherd Pass for the relative shelter of The Pothole.
Partway up the North Rib of Mount Tyndall.
This route, the North Rib of Mount Tyndall, is supposed to be one of the finest class 3 routes in the Sierra. It really did deliver, with 1,000’ of exceptional slab climbing.
Shannon scrambling up talus on the North Rib.
On our way up, we trended slightly right, as the rock was a bit more solid.
As we got higher, the views to the north opened up. Even the Palisades poked their heads out. Mount Sill is the round-topped mountain on the horizon.
Shannon scrambling up, with the full North Rib (and talus fan) below.
The summit ridge. We made a slight navigational error on our ascent. Because we had trended right on the more stable slabs, we followed a band of talus that leaves the North Rib, forming a Y-shape, with the primary route on the left, and our route on the right. This arm is vaguely visible in pictures, and obvious in retrospect. When we reached the top of the ridge, we found a large, imposing gendarme, which was much more difficult than advertised. So we had to drop back below the ridge, and traverse across relatively difficult slabs for a few hundred feet to meet the true end of the rib. If you climb this route, keep our routefinding error in mind.
Shannon on the summit of Mount Tyndall.
Shepherd Pass, far below.
The imposing west face of Mount Williamson. It’s difficult to imagine a relatively easy route climbing this face, but it does exist!
Looking down the North Rib.
Making my way down the North Rib. Descending through the slightly looser rock on the main rib was fine, the slabs to climbers-right were a bit too steep to walk down comfortably.
Shannon strolling off the bottom of the North Rib.
Mount Tyndall from below. If you look very closely, you can see the smaller talus piles that branch off to the right that misled us.
The classic shot of Mount Tyndall from the lowest tarn.
The wind had kept up for the entire time we had climbed, at a sustained 20-30mph. Having already spent a sleepless, windy night atop Shepherd Pass on a previous trip, the prospect wasn’t too inviting, especially if the reward was simply repeating a climb we had previously done. So we opted to descend Shepherd Pass for better shelter for the night, finish at the trailhead the next, and hitchhike back to our car after that. We descended to the Pothole, but it was still fairly windy there, so we continued on another mile to Anvil Camp, where the trees bore the brunt of the wind.
Day 6: Anvil Camp to Shepherd Pass Trailhead
13.5 miles, +800’
The wind continued all night, but we broke out our earplugs, so it wasn’t much of a problem.
Mount Williamson from the Shepherd Pass Trail.
The hike down to the trailhead was uneventful. We passed a few groups headed up, most intending to climb Williamson. We reached the Shepherd Pass parking lot around noon to find no one around. Fortunately, we had prepared for this and knew it was only 3 or 4 miles to the much busier Onion Valley road. So, after a brief rest, we kept on walking down the road. We passed a crew doing work on one of the gauges on Symmes Creek, where we stopped to fill water, but they said they couldn’t give us a ride.
When we reached Onion Valley Road, there was enough traffic that it didn’t seem worth continuing walking. But it still took an hour or so until the campground host at Grays Meadow offered to drive us up that far, and then another hour-ish until a PCT trail angel stopped for us and brought us back to our car. At the end of the day, it took us about 4 hours to get from Shepherd Pass to Onion Valley.
We threw our things in the car and turned north, intending to use the seventh day we had budgeted for our hiking trip for some day hiking and hot springs in Mammoth.
For the next couple of nights, we splurged on a hotel in Mammoth, and explored the area a little bit. We enjoyed a quick afternoon hike at the Little Lakes Valley, and some time in a local hot spring.
Bear Creek Spire standing tall at the end of the Little Lakes Valley. The weather had deteriorated again today, but we didn’t see any indication of thunderstorms.
The afternoon’s clouds made for a fantastic sunset from Minaret Vista.
And an awesome sunrise the next morning, here’s Mammoth Mountain.
And the full Ritter Range bathed in morning light. With that splendid send off, we headed back over Tioga Pass, bound for home.
Our route for this trip was intentionally vague, leaving room for flexibility. I think this worked out well for what we wanted out of this trip, which was something a bit more relaxed than some of our previous trips, with time to explore and enjoy the scenery. I was very pleased that we managed to climb Mount Tyndall, as this was our second attempt (we had previously managed Williamson but abandoned Tyndall due to weather). And the Painted Lady made for a fun side-outing. I’ll comment specifically on six areas below.
Sixty Lakes Basin
We spent a half day hiking from Rae Lakes out to the Sixty Lakes Basin. It was certainly fun, but the scenery wasn’t as spectacular as I hoped. If you’re seeking solitude on a short detour from the JMT, this is a good option. But beyond that, I’m not sure how much it has to offer. Of course, that’s all subjective and some people enjoy nothing more than a lightly forested alpine lakes basin.
The Painted Lady
Climbing the Painted Lady made for a fun side-trip for our flexible schedule. The rock through the steepest section was a bit loose, but not quite to the point of being frightening. The awesome views north from the summit more than made up for a bit of adventure on the ascent.
I had heard lots about Lake Reflection, largely in the context of the Circle of Solitude route. In my opinion, this lake lived up to the hype. The incredible vertical relief of the surrounding mountains complements the gorgeous alpine lake nicely, and the deep bowl offered some shelter from the elements. The trail from East Lake to Lake Reflection was a little bit harder than I expected, but not terribly difficult.
Milly’s Foot Pass
We didn’t find this pass too technically difficult, probably fairly rated at class 3. We actually found it quite fun, as the rock was solid through the tricky section. The bottom 2,000 feet of talus were a bit of a slog.
Upper Kern Basin
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this area. The views of the massive Great Western Divide were only made better by the small lakes and stands of trees dotting the area. We decided to cut a day a few hours short just to take in the sunset and sunrise over this basin.
We climbed the North Rib route of Mount Tyndall, about which RJ Secor says “This is a good climb.” He’s right, it was a lot of fun scrambling up steep, but quite solid rock to the summit. We made a slight routefinding error that I discuss above, but basically boils down to not paying attention and following the largest part of the rib, so keep an eye out for that if you attempt this route.
That’s all I have for this trip, I hope you enjoyed reading!