- Dates: Fri, Aug 18, 2018 to Sat, Aug 25, 2018
- Route: Custom loop in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
- Weather: Sunny, with highs in the 70s and 80s. Lows in the 30s and 40s.
- Distance: 105 miles
- Time: 8 days
- Trailhead: Lodgepole Campground
- Passes: Panther Gap, Elizabeth Pass, Avalanche Pass, Harrison Pass, Kaweah Gap
In early February 2018, two friends and I submitted applications for permits to summit Mount Whitney. Our plan was to take two weeks off in the summer and do an extended backpacking trek in the High Sierra. Somewhere along the way, we would bag Whitney and share high fives at the highest point in the lower 48.
Unfortunately, all three of our applications were denied. That was kind of a bummer! Still, it did not stop our pal Jason from piecing together a route of epic proportions. The planned route had us covering 180-200 miles in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks over 14 days. We ended up completing a 105-mile loop over 8 days with over 25,000 feet elevation gain/loss.
Jason was kind enough to plan the route, so I did not have to spend any time scouring books, blogs, and topographic maps for information. You really can’t beat that! Instead, I was able to focus my efforts on physical training, gear planning, and food preparation.
The original idea was to do two separate loops with minimal overlap to get a comprehensive tour of Sequoia National Park. Due to some miscalculations, we got started a day late and finished a day late as well. We could have gone back out for a shorter second loop, but everyone in the group was pretty banged up from the first go around.
Day 1 – Lodgepole, Bearpaw, Lone Pine Meadow
Our trek started at Lodgepole Campground. From there, we followed the hiking trail that leads to General Sherman Tree, but turned left and hiked over Panther Gap, down to the High Sierra Trail and onward to Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, elevation 7,800 feet, established 1934.
Despite its remote setting, Bearpaw is a full service glamping (glamorous camping) facility, complete with tent cabins, cooks on staff, hot showers, and a flush toilet. To gain access to these amenities, you need to make a reservation and pay $385 for a night’s stay.
If you are just passing through like us, you won’t be treated to these luxuries. However, you can use the first-come, first-served campground. Also, if you walk into the kitchen in between meals you can purchase snacks, beer, and wine.
At Bearpaw, we treated ourselves to some beers and took in views of the monstrous Great Western Divide. Before sunset, we hightailed it to Lone Pine Meadow (below Tamarack Lake) and set up camp for the night.
Day 2 – Elizabeth Pass, Deadman Canyon
Our morning started with steep switchbacks as we ascended more than 3,000 feet over Elizabeth Pass, elevation 11,375 feet. It was slow going and the climb was tough. As we made our way up, we met a couple European guys headed the opposite direction. In our brief exchange, one of them asked, “Is it flat after this?”
With an apologetic expression, I responded, “No it’s not.”
He then changed his question to a statement, “It is flat after this.”
I shook my head no and looked up at his friend. He touched his shoulder and reassured him, “It is downhill.”
Once more, he contested, “It is flat after this.”
The other side of Elizabeth Pass looked equally challenging to get up and they had just done that. We all had a good laugh about our foreign friend’s insistence that the trail would become flat. Just keep telling yourself that, buddy.
On the other side of Elizabeth Pass, we descended into Deadman Canyon and camped a few miles short of Roaring River Ranger Station.
Day 3 – Roaring River, Avalanche Pass, Bubbs Creek
We arrived at Roaring River in the morning where we met Cindy, the backcountry ranger staffed there. She was kind enough to show us to the pit toilet, a hollowed out tree stump with a weathered toilet seat on top. It was located maybe 100 paces north of the ranger station, down the hill and in the forest.
The haul over Avalanche Pass, elevation 10,013 feet, was not too difficult. Cindy had mentioned that Avalanche Pass was forested and gave us a tip on where to find a view, but we still had many miles to cover and decided to continue down into the Sphinx Creek drainage.
It was an enormous descent on a trail that must have been a great engineering feat. Large granite boulders were arranged into steps and tight switchbacks were carved into the steep mountainside.
On our approach to Bubbs Creek, we noticed plumes of smoke rising from the opposite canyon wall. Sable was quick to point out that she saw flames on the pines and shrubs over there. Sure enough, we were witnessing a small wildfire.
We crossed the footbridge over Bubbs Creek, elevation 6,200 feet, and sat down to brainstorm our next move. It was getting late and our original plan was to find a campsite here. With a wildfire looming above us, that was no longer an option.
By our estimates, we were 6-7 miles from Road’s End, where we could try to hitchhike back to Lodgepole. Or, we could use the remaining daylight to hike 2-3 miles up canyon and camp there. We talked openly about our predicament, occasionally pausing to look up at the wildfire.
“It seems like the wind is blowing it toward the cliff.”
“There’s no way it could possibly burn 2-3 miles up canyon in one night.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t look too bad. It’s a sleepy lookin’ fire.”
Our limited knowledge about wildfire behaviors was painfully evident. Nonetheless, we came to the conclusion that hiking closer to our next destination and away from the fire was better than leaving the backcountry.
Day 4 – East Lake, Lake Reflection
After witnessing a colorful sunset and smokey skies the night before, we were relieved to wake up to cleaner air the next morning. We had made the right decision to continue hiking.
Jason’s dazzling description made us all excited for our next destination: Lake Reflection. At Junction Meadow, we crossed Bubbs Creek and followed the East Creek drainage up to East Lake, where we had lunch, soaked our weary feet, and basked in the sunshine.
On our approach to Lake Reflection, we mistakenly climbed up a precipitous game trail. Rather than backtrack, we attempted to traverse a talus slope, but ran into an impassable cascade surrounded by thick foliage.
We made our way back to the trail, and after a short while arrived at Lake Reflection, elevation 10,040 feet.
As the sun set, the scenery became more beautiful. At twilight, hundreds of bats descended on the lake to feast on bugs. As they swooped down, the bats dipped their snouts into the lake ever so slightly. On shore, we stood in absolute awe of the feeding frenzy. None of us had ever seen anything like it.
Day 5 – Harrison Pass, Kern River
From Lake Reflection, we backtracked a quarter mile or so to a primitive trail that we used to gain access to Harrison Pass, elevation 12,720 feet. We would use this route to climb back over the Great Western Divide. The trail was not marked on our paper topographic map, but was indicated on Gaia GPS.
We found ourselves in a stunning alpine cirque, complete with glacial lakes and gargantuan peaks. Towering above us were Mount Stanford, Gregorys Monument, and Mount Ericsson, all approaching an elevation of 14,000 feet.
I filled my water bottle in a stream that flowed from one of the lakes, not bothering to filter it. As Jason said many times on this trip, “This is the source.”
Tip: Prefer to treat your water? I don’t blame you. Here are my favorite systems.
At these altitudes, many miles from the nearest trailhead, I willfully embrace the opportunity to quench my thirst without the hassle of purification. This water is unaffected by the harmful pollutants downstream, most of which are human caused. Up here, you drink from the cupped hands of God.
As all semblances of a trail disappeared, we began to make our way over a formidable talus slope. Skirting around a huge moraine, the going got tougher as the talus turned to scree and the angle got steeper. It is a good thing we drank some Holy Water, because the greatest challenge of our trip lay just ahead.
Ahead of the pack, Justin opted to stay high, using the cliff face for handholds while scrambling over loose fragments of rock. I traversed lower, kicking my feet into the scree to generate less than certain footholds. Pushing ahead, I lost track of Jason and Sable. I shuffled my way up the pass and got above Justin. I looked above, feeling discouraged by what I saw.
“Hey man, let me check Gaia real quick,” I yelled back at Justin.
Sure enough, I was right where the trail was supposed to be.
“This is it, dude. We’re right on track. Can you see Jason and Sable?”
“Yeah, they are a ways behind.”
“This looks really bad, man. I’m not sure we can all do this,” I said. “Let me see how far I can get. I don’t know if this is even possible.”
I rested for a few minutes, breathing deeply and noticing the fear that had set in. This mountain was falling apart. Every handhold crumbled, my foot slipped on every step, and medium-sized boulders that seemed well-anchored slid with the slightest touch.
Thinking back to my teenage years, I remembered scrambling up the face of Red Mountain in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah. Conditions were similar, especially after a storm, although the air was much thinner here.
After several discouraging attempts to skirt around the scary parts, I determined that the only way forward was to power up the middle and counteract the inevitable sliding with quick, forceful steps. It took an enormous amount of energy, so I stopped frequently to catch my breath.
Finally, I made it to the top, relieved to see that the other side was a gradual descent into a gorgeous basin. I let out a cathartic howl to signal to my homies that I was at the apex of that damned pass.
I waited patiently, expecting Justin to appear at any moment and desperately hoping everyone was ok. I was happy to see him masterfully find his way up the chute. After reconvening, we discussed Jason and Sable’s status.
“One of us needs to go down and help Sable with her pack,” said Justin. “I can do it, man.”
“Nah, I don’t want you doing that. I don’t feel comfortable with that,” I replied.
“Why not?” Justin asked.
Perhaps out of mental exhaustion, I could not articulate my reasoning at the time. In hindsight, I felt I was a better candidate because I am a decade younger than Justin.
At that moment, Sable appeared. She did not seem to be struggling too much. I asked, “Do you want me to take your pack?”
She said, “No, I’m okay,” so I merely assisted her with picking the best line. She zipped right up and thanked Justin for carrying her pack on a tricky section further down.
I leaned back, slid with as much control as possible, and found my way to Jason. He was having a hell of a time climbing around the edge of the chute, where the crumbly cliffside met the degenerating scree. I saw the frustration on his face and the futility of the task at hand. I knew exactly how he felt, because I had just experienced it.
I offered several times to take his pack, but he either refused or made a vague gesture at a future safety point where the transfer might occur. I did my best to indicate where I had gone up, to make it a little easier.
Dressed in a tank top and short shorts, I shivered as brisk gusts of wind blew. This area had been in full sun when I came up, but was now completely in the shade.
With his usual grit and toughness, Jason dug deep and ground his way to the top. At last, the whole group was together again with that terrifying experience behind us.
After celebratory snacks and photos, we continued navigating off trail, past Lake South America. We rejoiced when we found a trail marked by cairns, which felt like a superhighway after the difficult route finding we had done all day.
Just after dark, we found a nice place to camp next to the Kern River. Our dinners tasted extra good that night.
Day 6 – Kern Hot Spring, Moraine Lake
After breaking down camp, we gradually descended along the Kern River into Kern Canyon.
At Junction Meadow, we made the decision to take a different route back to Lodgepole over the remaining three days. Rather than go over Colby Pass, back to Roaring River, and over Sillman Pass, we would blast over to Kern Hot Spring, up to Moraine Lake, over Kaweah Gap, down to Bearpaw, and out to Lodgepole.
We arrived at Kern Hot Spring that afternoon and were eager to jump in the cold river water and rinse off. Afterward, we all had the chance to soak in the main tub and natural pools below it.
Kern Hot Spring consists of a concrete tub with both an inlet and outlet plug. Two people can sit comfortably across from each other in the tub. To fill it with scalding hot water, remove the inlet plug. Next to the tub, there is a small stove pot that can be used to cool it off with river water. With his usual craftiness, Justin cooled it off faster by filling his bear can. To drain the tub and release hot water to the natural pools below, remove the outlet plug.
A few days later, we would visit Sequoia Fire Lookout, where we talked to the live-in ranger stationed there. She had visited Kern Hot Spring in the 1980s and her description of it was exactly the same as what we encountered. In an ever-changing world, it is reassuring to know there are places that remain the same for decades.
After a revitalizing soak, we ascended around 2,000 feet to Moraine Lake, a picturesque waterfront with a lovely mountain backdrop.
Day 7 – Kaweah Gap, Precipice Lake, Hamilton Lake, Bearpaw
From Moraine Lake, we hiked back over to the High Sierra Trail, taking in exceptional views of the Great Western Divide along the way.
To our surprise and delight, we saw several Great Basin bristlecone pines, which I had only seen in Utah before. I did not know they lived in the Sierra Nevada and these were some fine specimens. Characteristically, they looked mostly dead with gnarled and twisted branches. As Miracle Max says in the Princess Bride, “There is a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”
After passing Big Arroyo Junction, the landscape became increasingly extraordinary. On the approach to Kaweah Gap, giant peaks surrounded us. We passed through lush meadows dotted with scrubby pines and granite boulders. At one point, we reached a group of grazing horses next to a shallow, bumbling brook. This is the stuff dreams are made of, folks.
From atop Kaweah Gap, elevation 10,689 feet, we were graced by sweeping views of Nine Lakes Basin. Encircling the basin were 12,000 and 13,000 footers, including Eagle Scout Peak, Mount Stewart, Lion Rock, Lawson Peak, and Kaweah Queen. It is hard to describe the enormity of this terrain with words, and it was challenging to capture it with a 35mm prime lens.
The deceivingly long descent to Hamilton Lake was even more breathtaking. Along the way, we passed Precipice Lake, one of the most exquisite sights I have ever laid my eyes upon.
Once we reached Hamilton Lake, our group had a playfully heated exchange. Justin and Sable wanted to go on to Bearpaw, with the prospect of beer and sandwiches in mind.
Based on our calculations, we would arrive just after sundown and I was skeptical they would serve us. Not to mention, the thought of not staying at Hamilton Lake was unsavory to me. I was practically salivating at the prospect of shooting timelapses at such a splendid location.
Jason with his usual carefree demeanor, was indifferent to either option. At last, I collapsed under peer pressure and we made it to Bearpaw in time for tri-tip sandwiches and beer. It was a Friday night and we had also worried about not getting a campsite. Lucky for us, we got that too.
Day 8 – Lodgepole, Cheeseburgers
Retracing our footsteps from the first day, we hiked the High Sierra Trail westward, later skipping over to Panther Gap and down to our vehicles. As predicted, we got to Lodgepole in the early afternoon with insatiable appetites and a desperate need for showers.
Thankfully, Lodgepole had a cafe with $13 double cheeseburgers and $1 per minute public showers. After snarfing down burgers and fries, taking six-minute showers (Justin went for nine), and gathering supplies for car camping, we made a last minute decision to grab second double cheeseburgers for the road.
We struck out on securing a developed campsite, but the ranger at Dorst Campground gave us a tip on where to stay in Sequoia National Forest. We all felt a great sense of accomplishment and strengthened the unbreakable bond that only backpacking buddies share.
We intended to do two loops with a food resupply in between, so I prepared 14 days worth of food for this trip. Previously, the longest backpacking trip I had done was 7 days in the Wind River Range, Wyoming.
For backcountry campers who visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, bear cans are highly recommended and even required in some areas. More specifics can be found on the official Sequoia and Kings Canyon website.
Stuffing your food in a bear can is a superior method to hanging it in a bag because bears can climb, chew through paracord, and are generally clever and adept at retrieving human food.
Without opposable thumbs, they cannot open a bear can, though they may try. For this reason, you should place your can at least 100 feet away from camp before turning in. It is also wise not to put it near cliffs, hillsides, water, etc. in case a bear tries to roll it.
Most backpackers use BearVault cans to keep their food locked up while they sleep. They are the industry standard, tried, tested, and true. BearVault make a small version called the BV450 and a large one called the BV500.
A BV500 can hold about seven days of food for the average person. All four of us brought BV500s on this trip and used them for eight days, which is longer than I would recommend. It is not possible to cram enough calories into a BV500 to sustain high energy output for eight days. By the end, we were all running at a noticeable deficit.
Dehydrating Food – Breakfast and Dinner
A month before the trip, Chefman happened to send us a six tray food dehydrator. Thanks Chefman! I had wanted a dehydrator for quite some time but never pulled the trigger.
Kim helped me assemble daily breakfasts in quart size freezer bags. In went Nature Valley Protein Granola with powdered whole milk, coconut, walnuts, and dehydrated fruit. To keep things interesting, I dehydrated blueberries, strawberries, and bananas.
For dinners, I made a stove top beef and bean chili loosely based on Chef Glenn’s backpacking recipe. It dehydrated well and produced five meals.
In addition, I dehydrated bell peppers, mushrooms, squash, zucchini, and jalapeños to add to a few varieties of Annie’s Mac and Cheese. I put the pasta in quart size freezer bags with dehydrated veggies, then stuck a sandwich bag filled with the cheese powder and powdered whole milk inside.
I also dropped in tiny Ziploc bags with seasoning and I brought containers from the Nalgene Small Travel Kit to store ghee and olive oil.
To further diversify my meals I brought along dehydrated refried beans and instance rice with taco seasoning, Fritos, and cheese. I gleaned this recipe from Andrew Skurka, but substituted white rice for brown and cheddar for smoked gouda.
For two final dinners, I packed ramen with dehydrated veggies. These meals were not quite as gourmet as the others, but they would hold me over until cheeseburgers became available.
When hiking all day, I typically do not eat lunch as a single meal. Instead, I eat a solid breakfast, snack throughout the day, and enjoy a big supper before bedtime. For Sequoia and Kings Canyon I bought snacks from Walmart (I ain’t proud) and Trader Joe’s. Below is a list of what I got from each store:
- Beef jerky
- Smoked gouda
- Nature Valley protein bars
- Lindt dark chocolate
- Tuna packets
- Gummy worms
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Dried mango
- Dried banana
- Caramel wafers
- Gummy mango
- Moon cheese
- Trail mix made from: Peanuts, cashews, almonds, mini peanut butter cups
- Cheddar cheese
I also like to bring salami, but I forgot to on this trip. It was a mistake that I sorely regretted, but shit happens.
In the past few years, researching, acquiring, and testing lightweight backpacking gear has become one of my favorite pastimes. Budget and sustainability are always considerations and whenever possible, I like to find deals or obtain used gear.
Tip: Not sure which lightweight backpacking gear to buy? We’ve done the “heavy lifting” for you. See our top picks.
For this trip, I brought a lot of stuff that I have used on several trips. However, I also had the chance to test out some newly acquired items. If you want to see the full list, click the button below.
Otherwise, scroll down to read short reviews of five particular items (some of which failed on me).
MSR Carbon Reflex 2
The Carbon Reflex 2 is a two-person, non-freestanding shelter that weighs 2 lb 3 oz. It fits me and my gear perfectly, with room to spare.
Two years ago, I bought this minimalist tent from the Cascade Designs Pro Program. I no longer have access to that perk, but it was a sweet deal, something like 20-30 percent off.
Last October, while camping in Yosemite National Park, one of the connectors between pole sections slipped into the pole. Justin got it out with a hanger, but it slipped back in on the last night of our trek through the Grand Canyon of Tuolumne. In order to pitch it, I had to MacGyver the thing and with that setup, its weather resistance was compromised.
I sent it to MSR and they told me they fixed it under warranty, though I did have to pay for shipping. It held up for a few more trips, but on the first night of our Sequoia and Kings loop the same connector slipped into the pole again. Grr! I do not think they re-adhered it or anything. In my opinion, they should have sent me new poles altogether.
Fortunately, the weather behaved and I came up with an improved MacGyver system, using my trekking poles to hold the tent up. I will be contacting MSR to see what they can do, but in the meantime I am searching for a new shelter. I will probably switch to an ultralight tarp and groundsheet combo.
HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 2
Leading up to the trip, I was not confident that my Salomon Speedcross 4 GTXs would hold up for another 200 miles. I had already put 300 miles on them and they were starting to look rather worn. Furthermore, they are better suited for running technical trails than backpacking.
I tested some Altra Lone Peak 3.5s and they were comfortable, but there was some awkward foot slippage when my foot came down at a lateral angle. Having accumulated 100 miles road running in HOKA ONE ONE Bondi 5s, I had grown to like the plush cushioning their shoes are known for.
In a somewhat impulsive buy, I got a pair of HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 2s (read my review) and wore them around for a few days. Halfway from Tucson to Sequoia, I snuck in a trail run up Ryan Mountain in Joshua Tree to test them out. They felt good.
By the end of the 105 mile journey through Sequoia and Kings, I had some nasty blisters on both pinky toes and heels. Those blisters caused me a lot of pain and I will not be backpacking in HOKAs again.
Tip: Nobody likes blisters. Find out how to prevent them.
Patagonia Ultralight Down Jacket
I have a synthetic North Face Thermoball that is warm but almost twice as heavy as the used Patagonia Ultralight Down Jacket I bought from Patagonia Worn Wear. It weighs 9.6 oz and is seemingly warmer than my Thermoball.
I am glad there was someone willing to trade in their Ultralight Down Jacket so I could become the happy benefactor. I still cannot believe I scored a flawless down jacket for $90.
Massdrop x Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt
I have now spent 14 nights sleeping outside under this quilt and I do not miss my mummy bag whatsoever. Rated at 20 degrees, it has kept me toasty warm down to the 30s and I am completely sold on quilts for 3-season backpacking.
The premise behind quilts is that compressed down does not keep you warm and is a waste of materials and weight. In other words, the fabric between your body and sleeping pad is useless so get rid of it.
In a collaboration between the two companies, Massdrop and Enlightened Equipment teamed up to produce the Revelation Quilt in mass quantities at a bargain price. I got the wide version for $230. Normally EE sells it for $290. I am sure they will be doing this deal again, so keep an eye out for it.
Tip: Want to learn more about this quilt? Read my review.
Pure Outdoor Carbon Cork Trekking Poles
I bought these poles a year ago on Monoprice for $27. They are sturdy, lightweight, and seemingly well-constructed. Yet, the carbide tips deteriorated on this trip and got shaved down to the plastic.
The poles came with rubber feet that might have prevented this. Sadly, the rubber feet fell off and were lost on another hike. I plan to contact Monoprice and ask for replacement carbide tips. We shall see what they say.