• Log In
  • Sign Up
    • I just returned from a 5-day trip backcountry adventure in the high Sierra of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, known as SEKI (Sequoia and Kings Canyon were technically once two contiguous national parks, but they are now operated as one).

      SEKI is this magical place due to its extremely rugged terrain that is almost entirely inaccessible by car -- or even day hiking. Yosemite is the poster child of the Sierra Nevada, but SEKI is its more majestic sister to the south. A small sliver of the park is home to the biggest giant sequoias on earth. General Sherman, the planet's most massive tree by volume, can be found amongst its groves. However, little else is widely known about this beautiful park.

      Only a few areas of the 850,000-acre park are accessible by car. The majority contains unique terrain and forests found nowhere else in the world including the Great Western Divide, a double Sierra summit, and the farthest point from a road in the contiguous United States -- the Enchanted Gorge. And it all must be accessed on foot. In this trip report, I'll feature some of that hidden beauty.

    • As seen by the official Park Service map, there are so few roads through this park. Backpacking is the only way to experience the magnitude park.

      We started our backpacking journey out of Mineral King, a remote subalpine glacial valley accessible by a single-lane 25-mile road that climbs to 8,000 feet. It's a grueling drive, with hundreds of curves, taking more than 2-hours to drive.

    • We picked up our wilderness permit from the Mineral King ranger station. It is standard for a ranger to lecture about where to poop and bear safety before issuing the permit. But the lady issuing our permit that day was extra stringent with rules and regulations.

      She stated that our planned route was inaccessible due to snow, cornices, and swift water. She stated that park service was not traveling anywhere in the backcountry because objective hazards were too high. Further, she was skeptical that Joseph was capable of accessing the high country. I said no more, got the permit, and left.

      Her skepticism fueled my fire. I was determined to try our planned route. There was so little information on the trail conditions because the park service had yet access the backcountry. I knew there was going to be significant snow because there was unprecedented snowfall the winter before. We brought trekking poles with powder baskets, gaiters, truly waterproof boots, a pair of crampons, and an ice ax. Yeah, in July. Here's my Ultralight mountaineering kit, made by leaving most things like ropes at home.

    • The hiked started as a summer Sierra hike does. Lush forest, abundant wildflowers, and green meadows.

      I knew the green wasn't going to last. Anxiety overcame me for what may come. I anticipated steep snow, cornices, and dangerous river crossings. Joseph didn't care. He told me just to deal with it when it comes.

      My worries became a reality just two miles from the trailhead, but somehow that was comforting. Confronting the objective dangers firsthand is easier than imagining them.

      So, we were backpacking ultralight. We had one pair of crampons and one ice ax to share. Why lug more when you can share gear? I have more mountaineering experience that Joseph, so I gave him the crampons and I took the ice-ax. I started the traverse in bare boots. That ranger who issued our permits would've been shaking her head.

      Joseph followed in crampons. And crampons are waaaay more effective than just an ice-ax.

    • We were greeted by marmots the next day. They had little fear of humans.

      They just chilled by our camp and feasted on the roots of alpine grass.

      A golden eagle flew above. It made a call to another bird, and the marmots immediately stood up. The golden eagle is the apex predator. They are known to swoop and eat marmots.

    • We summited Sawtooth pass. It took us a few hours to get up. The trail was non-existent. The park service no longer maintains the trail. But luckily, the ascent was relatively snow-free because of the warm south-facing slope. Only at the top were we able to see the descent. The north face was what we had to go down, and it was no longer feeling like July:

      I pondered for quite a while. Our plan was to hike Columbine Lake, through Lost Canyon, past Big and Little Five Lakes, over Black Rock Pass, then exit through Glacier Pass. That's some 25 miles. With deep snow and lack of equipment, it wasn't clear how long it would take. And what if we got 20 miles in, then reached an impassable obstacle, that would double the miles.

      We decided to alter our route. We would descend a series of snow-covered valleys to Spring Lake, then make out way down the snow-free cliff creek canyon, and over Timber Gap to get back to Mineral King.

      Descending Sawtooth pass to Spring Lake was much harder than I expected. The snow atop the cirque of Sawtooth pass was too steep to ascend safely in just hiking boots, so I opted to down climb a rocky ridge.

      Then we traversed the snow to get over to another valley. The snow turned out to be quite steep. (Note the red snow is not blood, rather algae that thrives in the melting spring snowpack)

      I kept slipping, but I'd catch myself by posting the spike of the ice ax deep in the snow. Joseph, even with crampons, slid out of control. Luckily, he self-arrested with trekking poles.

    • We got a glimpse of the Sierra's most unique high peak, the elusive Black Kaweah. The Kaweah ridge stands nearly 14,000ft tall, but some 20 miles in any direction from a road, making it the most remote range in the Sierra. It has a local magnetic disturbance, so compasses in the area vary from magnetic North by up to 8 degrees.

      Further, the peak gets its impressive black-rock consistency through lightning strikes. The summit is full of fulgurite, which is sediments that fused via millions of volts of lightning strikes.

    • Our camp that night overlooked the magnificent 3,000' slopes Black Rock Pass crests. No roads connect the east and west sides of the park, so foot passes are what rangers rely upon traversing the park. Black Rock Pass is the original foot pass connecting the parks greatest attractions: Sequoia Groves and Mt. Whitney. If you look closely, you can see switchbacks running up the mountain.

      The view was just stunning.

      Joseph and I survived our glacial descent.

      A monolith the size of Half Dome.

      I was grateful we altered our course to avoid walking over Black Rock Pass for two reasons. First, it looks like a pain. And second, the very steep ice fields would be extremely dangerous to traverse.

    • There are a series of backcountry ranger stations in the park. The ranger who issued the permits stated that they are staffed and stocked by foot and pack animal. She was wrong. We watch this turboprop climb above 12,000', over Black Rock Pass, to drop a load of gear presumably at the Little Five Lakes ranger station. The pilot buzzed by us, deep in the canyon on his return flight. His 30-second passage through Cliff Creek Canyon took us over 24 hours.

      Black Rock Pass is too dangerous for pack animals to cross safely, so the Park Service built a newer and better trans-Sierra trail, now famously known as the High Sierra Trail. At 71 miles, the trail gives a great sense of the sheer magnitude of this park. It's a whopping 71 miles by foot to go from edge to edge of the park. Here's a fascinating history of the trail:

    • The beauty of the Cliff Creek drainage was most surprising. I thought this portion of our journey would be a long slog through the mundane forest. I was dead wrong.

      It started at Spring Lake, a stunning alpine landscape that felt like it was a painting. Above it stood a monolith of granite the size of Half Dome.

      As we descended, wildflowers surrounded us.

      The views were breath taking.

      Beyond the wildflowers was a massive waterfall, not even named on our map. This is the kind of waterfall tour busses surround in Yosemite. Here, there was no one. We had the place to ourselves. We hadn't seen anyone for three days.

    • Following the waterfall was this massive riverbed. When the water level is high, cliff "Creek" would have been 1/4 mile wide.

      We found this lonely Giant Sequoia in the middle of the river. It's quite special to see one of these it the backcountry.

      The forest began to burst with life as we descended further down the Cliff Creek drainage.

      We had numerous river crossings.

      Even a swampy meadow crossing.

      And sometimes the trail was the river.

    • Wow....I am exhausted and exhilarated with the scale and scope of your backpacking trip. Fantastic images that really captured the grand scale of EVERYTHING! I sorta felt like you were Bear Grylls dragging me out for a "little" hike that was in fact ginormous.

      Trail construction back in the day is unfathomable to me. Despite the areas you mentioned reputed for lightning strikes, I am sort of surprised there were no archived wildfire patches of black charcoal. Just pristine green. Huge props for the small group (two) and "flash" approach which probably is great if the weather turned crazy in a minute.

      I am sure you don't breathe heavy with "I told you so..." breaths...but, did you want to go back to the permit ranger and just sorta nicely let her KILLED IT!? LOL

      I think rangers have to be obnoxiously conservative due to most people having no idea what they are getting into and it ends up being a silly and dangerous rescue.

    • I don’t remember ever reading a trip report as good as this. I felt like I was there. Thank you for taking the time to write it up.

    • What a trip! Great photos too. It's incredible that in such a populous state like California there are still places this remote.

      I have a book on the history of Sequoia that is just astonishing. In the 1800s there was a commercial rush to harvest big trees, Redwoods and Sequoias, and many giant ones were felled. Somehow in the last hour of a legislative session, some group snuck an addendum into the Yosemite bill to include Sequoia, and a National Park was formed and (long story) many giant trees were saved.

      I know how much you love the wilderness, so congrats on an unforgettable trip.

    • Thanks Robert!

      My problem with rangers it exactly that. They are obnoxiously conservative, so I don't listen to their advice. Kinda like the boy who cried wolf. I'll never know when there are serious dangers. They need to be objective rather than opinionated.

      One thing that impressed me was the ranger issuing the permit asked if I carry a satellite messenger or phone, and if so, what's the registration number and model so she could note it in their system in case of an emergency. In my case, I have an Acr ResqueLink, so I have her the info. It's cool that SEKI is finally acknowledging and endorsing satellite messengers. They better, people can get 40 miles from a trailhead.

      And on trails, yeah the construction is sub-par! That made it magical. The place is returning to its native roots. But, I think USGS and USFS need to take the unmaintained trails off their maps, because they're so dangerous in places.

    • And Sequoia only got thrown in the Yosemite bill for the giant trees, but there's so much more to the park than the groves. In 1926, they got a lucky break, expanding the park by massive amounts from the groves in the west to Mt. Whitney, which is the "backcountry" and the area I went.

      What's crazy is that of the 1,353 square miles, 97% is now congressionally-designated and legally defined Wilderness, where not even as much as a trail can be developed now. Luckily Walt Disney didn't get to build his SEKI ski resort:

    • That blows my mind. 🤯 I had no idea. What a cartoon. Imagine how the world would be different today.

    • To be fair, even though they made it over Glacier Pass the ranger was right about the rest of the router being impassible and dangerous. They made a good call not climbing Blackrock Pass. The southwest side of the slopes are always the first to melt but theres a good chance you could have gotten stuck on the east side of the divide.

      I did that loop last summer and it was the best backpacking trip Ive done so far, challenging but worth it. I hope they try again after the snow melts and complete the loop. As beautiful as the Cliff Creek valley is, the Big Five Lakes, Little Five Lakes, Lost Canyon, and Columbine Lake are 10x better.