Who: Jason and me
Where: Kings Canyon National Park
Mileage: 66 miles
Elevation gain/loss: +17,600ft/-17,600ft
More photos: here (see Jason’s here)
A big ol’ loop from the depths of the Kings River up to the Sierra crest and back round again. Jason and I completed a modified version of the classic hike dubbed the “Circle of Solitude” by Mike White in his book Kings Canyon National Park, cutting south to Lake Reflection and heading off-trail over the awful death trap that is Harrison Pass instead of taking the longer route over Forester Pass. I’d been eyeing this loop since reading CaliTrails report of it in 2013. Coming from LA, an east side entrance over Kearsarge Pass made sense for him, but the one of the things that made this loop appeal to me is the combination of a west side entrance with all the glory of lots of time spent in the high country. The trip was as gorgeous as I’d imagined and Harrison Pass pushed both Jason and me to (past?) our limits of comfort.
Driving Oakland to Kings Canyon
I had reserved a permit for myself months in advance, but all the reservable permits were gone by the time Jason decided to join me on this trip. He drove down the night before (Day -1) so that he could be first in line at the permit office when it opened. He grabbed his permit and then spent the day hanging out around the Roads End area.
Jason and I had planned to meet up at 7pm at the ranger station, but I hit traffic and knew I wouldn’t make it on time. We knew there wouldn’t be any cell service down in the canyon, so our backup plan was to check in every half hour at the permit station. When I knew I’d be late, I called the ranger station before they closed and had the super sweet ranger leave a note on the message board that hopefully Jason would find. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that the permit station at Roads End is separate from the Visitor Center, which I had called. The permit station is all the way at the end of the road where the trails up Bubbs and Woods creeks start, but the Visitor Center is about 6 miles before that at Cedar Grove. So, while Jason was waiting patiently at the permit station, my note was flapping in the breeze miles away. Whoops.
I arrived down in the canyon around 8:20pm and found my note on the board at the Cedar Grove visitor center. I waited there until 8:30pm, then drove through the campgrounds looking for but not finding Jason. I went back to the Visitor Center at 9pm and still he wasn’t there. I checked the map again and noticed the permit station at the end of the road, so I drove out there. It was empty. I parked and poked around and there was a note from Jason on the board there! Phew. I found him at the campsite he described around 10pm and set up my tent and crashed. Coordinators take note: opportunities abound for confusion in meeting up in the valley!
Roads End to Bubbs Creek Crossing
10 miles, +3,350ft/-200ft
We packed up camp and drove over to Roads End where we were greeted by a chill bear who was interested in the breakfast some dudes were cookin’ up at a picnic table near the Copper Creek Trailhead. You are pretty much guaranteed to see bears roaming around Roads End.
On the trail in earnest, the first bit is flat as you hike from the end of the road back into the valley. The bridges crossing Bubb’s Creek mark the end of the flat and the start of the elevation gain. The trail is well-graded on switchbacks, so it’s not too strenuous, and as we climbed we were rewarded with views back down the canyon towards Roads End.
After gaining about a thousand feet or so on switchbacks, the trail flattens out and ascends at a moderate pace on par with Bubb’s Creek’s flow down the valley. The trail passes in and out of forested areas, sometimes opening up to views of the big walls of granite that enclose the canyon.
I was feeling strong (as I often do at the beginning of a trip), but Jason was getting tired and the altitude was getting to him. (This would swap to be the other way around at the end of our trip, when Jason would fly up to Avalanche Pass as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.) When planning, we thought we might stop somewhere along Bubb’s Creek to camp for the night, but we decided to push on to crossing where our route turned south on a spur trail to East Lake, diverting from the main Rae Lakes loop route, which would continue east, following Bubb’s Creek.
The Bubb’s Creek crossing on the trail to East Lake can be swift and dangerous in the early season. Bubb’s is a major artery for the snowmelt. Even now, early August of a dry year (2016 snowpack was 73% of average), the ford came up to my knees. Jason made it across on a pair of slippery, skinny logs. There aren’t a lot of places to camp between the crossing and East Lake, which was beyond our reach for the day, so we snagged a campsite near the bear lockers in the woods just south of the creek.
Putzing around camp, we ran into a family with two boys not more than 10 years old who had come down from off-trail Longley Pass, which they reported had a big snow cornice on it. Jason and I were both definitely a bit taken aback by seeing such young kids out on an adventure of that sort, but the kids seemed totally unfazed.
Bubbs Creek Crossing to Lake Reflection
3.9 miles, +2,050ft/-150ft
We took our time getting up in the morning, knowing we’d only need to make it to Lake Reflection, less than four miles away. We filled up our water back at Bubb’s before packing up and heading out. As the trail climbed the south, we were rewarded with wildflowers and expansive views of the Bubb’s Creek canyon below.
We stopped for lunch at East Lake. My photos from this break are garbage because I didn’t notice that my camera was on some stupid ultra-saturated setting. Whoops.
The maintained trail ends at East Lake, but there is a use trail that continues to Lake Reflection. It was easy to follow in the beginning, but it begins to peter out after a while. We found it easier to climb above a small talus field we encountered, then we headed back down towards East Creek, following cairns here and there before picking up a more defined trail close to the base of Lake Reflection.
We set up camp at an ideal spot on the east side of the lake and each had different plans for our afternoon. I puttered around Lake Reflection, exploring its east shore, while Jason backtracked a half mile or so to try to find a use trail leading east towards Harrison Pass. It was a good idea to do that since he did indeed find the trail and we didn’t have to spend time in the morning looking for it. Thanks, bud :)
With several hours still of daylight to kill, we took a dip in the smaller section of Lake Reflection, close to its outlet. Jason asked me if I wanted to take off my altimeter/gps watch and I was like nah it’s a diving watch, good to 100 meters! This turned out to be a mistake and the altimeter’s readings about our elevation change would be a source of comedy for the remainder of the trip. When I got home and went to send the watch off for warranty repair, I realized that it was two weeks beyond the expiration of the warranty. I’m pretty sure there’s a Garfield comic with a similar theme. Yep. Man I hate Mondays.
Lake Reflection to Lake South America via Harrison Pass
5.1 miles, +2,900ft/-1,200ft
Today was the big day—the day we’d tackle the only off-trail pass of the trip. We rose with the sun to get some photos of the things that Lake Reflection is named for before packing up and heading out around 8am.
Look how happy Jason is here. He has no idea what’s to come. It’s almost like when I listen to podcasts recorded a week or so before the 2016 presidential election—it’s endearing to visit that world, a world where they Don’t Know Yet.
We followed the use trail that Jason had found. It starts around the northern part of a clearing, towards the northern edge of the canyon that leads east towards Harrison Pass. It’s *not* on the south side, where the stream coming down from the tarns below Harrisson ends up. To find it, look for this open brushy area with horizontal streaks of talus, and head to the left of the talus.
The use trail climbs steeply, but soon enough it flattens out in a wooded area. From here, you can see another small hill a bit ahead. We turned southeast at this point to avoid gaining too much elevation on the north edge of this hill.
After we gained the ridge, we had an amazing view southwest towards the peaks surrounding Lake Reflection. We could see the cornice on Longley Pass, too. It’s that strip of white that can bee seen on the ridge line in the photo below.
We came to an area where the terrain flattened out and opened up and since we were feeling confident (lol!) about our progress (lolllllol!!!) so far, we took a quick snack break where we’d have a view of the route ahead. We had to cross the creek that’s running down the middle of the green slope in the photo below, and then we’d climb the slabs on the right (south) side of the creek to finally reach the talus and tarns below Harrison Pass. Easy enough, right? Wrong. Finding a good spot to cross the creek turned out to be trickier than expected, since the side we were on had about a 20 foot cliff along most of it. We managed, though, and soon enough we were climbing the slabs as planned.
We took our lunch break at the large tarn whose outlet spills over the edge and down the way we’d come. We were able to mostly follow use trails around the few tarns in this area, first heading southeast around the main tarn, then cutting north between it and the next, then heading straight east along the north edge of the final tarn.
And then there was talus. So. Much. Talus. And unstable, too. Usually, I find talus annoying and tedious, but not dangerous. Not this talus, though. As if foreboding what was to come, it was loose and unstable. Boulders the size of VWs would tip forward as we stepped on them. It got steeper and steeper. At one point, I lost my balance and tumbled forward, banging my knee and setting my adrenal glands into overdrive.
But then it flattened out, and the talus gave way to what for a moment looked better, but turned out to be worse: steep loose sand and gravel. This photo just does not do justice to Harrison Pass, which is the sandy large gap in the cliffs. It looks like it’s going to be no problem, right? Just hug those rocks on the left, it’s not to steep, easy peasy, we’ll be there in half an hour! In reality it took us two hours for just this last few hundred feet.
Because everything was so loose, we had to climb with only one person moving at a time so that we were sure we wouldn’t knock basketball-sized boulders down on each other. Every step was slippery and unstable, every other rock we tried to grab for hold on the cliffs was loose. I couldn’t believe this pass used to be used to drive sheep to graze in the Kern headwaters on the south side.
We did get to see some skypilot, though! This gorgeous flower only grows in the talus slopes of the Sierra above about 10,000 feet.
Maybe these next photos give a better perspective on how loose and steep Harrison Pass was. Just piles of boulders of varying size embedded in a steep sandy slope.
Towards the end we had the choice of sprint-scrambling up a super steep section of sand at the very top of the pass, where a slip would have sent us sliding all the way back down, OR climbing over a ledge. Yay, choices! I love having options. We were both exhausted at this point, and Jason went first, choosing to make a go of the steep sandy slope. I stood and watched. I wasn’t confident that I could maintain the effort needed to make it to the top, so Jason dropped his back and came back to the top of the ledge where I was. I hoisted my pack up to him and then climbed up myself. Finally, we had made it!
Jason was an amazing person to do this with. Together, we kept each other calm. Even in times where it was dicey, we didn’t instigate panic in each other. I felt super lucky to have been doing this with him. Good job team.
After the pass, we had a mile, mile and a half, of cross country travel to make it to Lake South America. This area, the headwaters of the Kern River, was incredibly beautiful. There is just something about these high tarn-strewn plateaus in the Sierra that gets me every time. The cross-country travel is easy and there are incredible views of peaks off in the distance. Knowing the power of the Kern River just a few miles south of here, it’s so impressive to see the little trickles of streams at its source.
We made camp on the western shore of Lake South America, cooked up some grub, and passed out.
Lake South America to Bighorn Plateau
5.5 miles, +1,100ft/-1,400ft
I got up early catch the sunrise. I am all about that alpenglow life and I thought our perch on a shelf above the Kern headwaters would give a nice view of that glow on the Kaweahs. I headed west about half a mile to the edge of the ledge and was rewarded with both gorgeous views and watching a sleeping buck wake up and walk off without noticing me.
We planned a short day on this day, knowing that Harrison Pass would probably take a lot out of us. Good thinking, past selves. We got going at a leisurely 10am or so and headed south from Lake South America on a connector trail that meets up with the JMT.
After passing a small tarn south of Lake South America, the trail pops over a ridge with a great view of the geography we’d be navigating in the next day or so. We could see the ledge ahead for the morning’s walk, plus the forested valley of Tyndall Creek, and Kern Canyon beyond.
We also had a nice view of Mt. Whitney as we descended. It’s the flat-top guy in the middle of the top of the frame.
We joined the JMT for a mile or so and the steady stream of people we passed made feel a smidgen less self-pity for not being able to snag my own permit for that this year—our trip was prettier, harder, and we had it essentially to ourselves, harumph. Still, the section of the JMT we hiked was pretty nice or whatever, I guess.
We followed the JMT up a small climb to where it flattens out near a little tarn. From there, we cut off the trail eastward, using Mt Whitney as a landmark for our bearing. Soon we encountered a bit of talus, though, so we turned south again to avoid it. Without too much difficulty, we found our way down to the Bighorn Plateau.
We made some deer friends at Wright Creek that runs through the plateau. I splashed in the creek, we found a spot to camp along the edge of the plateau, where the meadow meets the forest. I had been wanting to visit the Bighorn Plateau again ever since I explored the area on a “rest” day that we took when we hiked the High Sierra Trail. It’s got everything I love: easy off-trail hiking, a lovely stream, expansive views of 13k+ peaks all around. I mean, maybe I just have a little bit of thing for these high alpine plateaus. It’s not like it’s a problem or anything, though. I can quit anytime.
After resting for a few hours, we set out to explore the plateau, heading northeast towards Mt Tyndall. We puttered around a bit before turning back for dinner, wondering if it was the super dry couple of years that made the tarns the map showed elude us.
Bighorn Plateau to Gallats Lake
12.3 miles, +2,400ft/-3,700ft
We took a different route back to the JMT than the one we had taken the day before, following Wright Creek mostly, staying a bit north and above it. We met the JMT almost exactly where I had left it when I explored the area on the HST trip. The next several miles would be a repeat, in reverse, of trail I’d walked on that trip two years prior.
Last time I came to this crossing of Wright Creek, I lost my balance and dunked my boot in the water. I managed to keep my boots dry this time!
The trail descends several thousand feet down into Kern Canyon, with great views and impossible trees along the way. Like seriously, this juniper looks like somebody just came along and plunked it down on top of a granite ledge.
Down in Kern Canyon proper, the trail passes through a Jeffrey Pine forest where we found the junction to the trail west towards Colby Pass. Turning south at this junction would have taken us on a leisurely trip along the Kern River, but we were headed up up up again.
Despite making pretty good pace since the Bighorn Plateau, it was still just after noon when we started our ascent of the trail up towards Colby Pass. It was hot. Really hot. And pretty steep. Not the most pleasant hiking, but pretty nonetheless.
After climbing a thousand feet or so, the trail flattens for a nanometer before plummeting immediately a hundred feet straight down a cliff. Cool. I love to lose elevation we just gained. It’s so inspiring. And hey, if you could make that trail basically giant switchback stairs, so it’s extra annoying to hike down, that’d be super great!
We continued up the canyon and the trail mellowed out to a reasonable rate of ascent. There were a few nice swimming holes and waterfalls, and some good views of the granite walls below Picket Guard. Eventually we made it to Gallats Lake, which isn’t so much of a lake as a swampy grassland meadow where the Kern-Kaweah River makes a lazy horseshoe bend.
We stripped off our boots and laid around on the warm rocks. Jason was definitely really clean, and not dusty or dirty at all, as you can see. We both got cleaned up and spent the rest of the day just being out. I reminded Jason it was Monday and we weren’t at work.
Gallats Lake to Brewer Creek
12.9 miles, +2,700ft/-4,700ft
The trail continues following the relatively flat valley of the Kern-Kaweah River for a while before cutting steeply northeast toward Colby Pass. This day and the next I would have issues with being super tired on ascents. I think it’s related to when I eat real meals vs snacks, since before we started this ascent I only had a granola bar. Jason mentioned that one of the reasons he journaled his trips was to figure out a better food schedule that helped him feel good all the time while hiking. I think I’ll try that this summer.
The trail climbs through the forest at first and then breaks out into a more open scrubland with gorgeous views of the Kaweahs.
Colby Pass itself offers a fresh view to the north. We took a short break before descending the extremely steep engineered switchbacks on the north side of the pass.
We made our way down to Colby Lake, where we stopped for lunch. The water in the lake was exceptionally clear and we saw a lot of fish, so if you’re an angler, this might be a good destination.
Both Jason and I were pleasantly surprised to find the next few miles of trail to be filled with wide open views of Cloud Canyon. I really enjoyed this section of trail, but somehow don’t have a lot of photos to show for it. Maybe that’s because Jason had my brain all wrapped up in trying to name the countries whose names when spelled in all caps in English have trivial fundamental group (read: no loops in any of the letters, so GERMANY is out but FIJI is in). Comment below with the ones you can come up with!
After a surprisingly nice several miles of big open views, the trail enters the forest north of Big Wet Meadow. From there it’s trees trees trees. Pretty and all, but pretty monotonous and not optimized for blog-ready photography. We camped at a pleasant flat spot in the woods just above the trail after crossing Brewer Creek.
Brewer Creek to Sphinx Junction via Avalanche Pass
13.5 miles, +3,200ft/-4,950ft
The morning was filled with more mileage in the woods down to the Roaring River ranger station, where we turned east to climb up toward Avalanche Pass. About halfway up we were treated to a fantastic view straight up Deadman Canyon toward Elisabeth Pass.
The trail to Avalanche Pass is pretty unremarkable save for the fact that it’s the biggest troll of a trail I’ve ever ascended. It literally DOES NOT GO over the low point where you’d think it’s heading at the top. Instead, when you think you’re almost there, the trail designers were like lol nope and they turn you back up the shoulder to the east. What the hell, guys.
But someone who was there before us apparently needed to know what time it was.
After a short break at the top of the pass, we headed down the Sphyx trail, which is notorious for reminding people who ascend it just who’s in charge here. Hiking down it is no joke either, since we had to descend nearly four thousand feet in just over five miles. The trail itself is an incredible feat of engineering and even though it punished our knees and ankles with rocky ledges and steps, we couldn’t help but marvel.
We decided to camp one final night at the Sphynx Creek Junction on the Bubb’s Creek Trail. It’s the closest place to Roads End that camping is allowed and spending the night here meant we’d be able to hit the road for our drives home at a reasonable hour in the morning. I was also really clean by this point.
Sphinx Junction to Roads End
3.8 miles, +90ft/-1,350ft
This was the end. We were so excited about the prospect of real food and legit coffee that it took us barely over an hour to reach the trailhead, even with a pause to make space for this buddy.
Want to do this trip yourself? You’ll need a permit for the Bubb’s Creek trail from SeKi. Pick up the Tom Harrison Mt Whitney High Country trail map. The USGS Mt. Brewer quad is useful if you are choosing
pain and possibly death Harrison Pass over Forester Pass. You might also find my CalTopo route helpful.
10 thoughts on “The Circle of Solitude”
Great Blog. I’ve always wanted to complete this loop! What mapping application or software did you use to plot the graph with the different landmarks?
I used CalTopo for the topographic map overview and SierraMapper for the day-to-day elevation profiles. It’s been a few years since I used SierraMapper, so I don’t know if it’s still maintained.
How do you reckon Harrison Pass would have been if you went in reverse? Reaching the pass looks significantly easier from Lake South America, and your description of the slope between the pass and the talus reminded me of Sawtooth Pass, which is much easier to descend than ascend.
It’s a lot steeper than Sawtooth and strewn with loose bowling ball size boulders amidst the sand. I know people who have walked up from the south side and turned around because of the steepness on the north side, but ymmv. Also, depending on your timing you might climb up to the top from the south and find the north chute covered in snow.
I went over what I thought was Harrison Pass in 1992. Above Reflection Lake up stable large talus, up a certain amount of loose sand, but then through a narrow gap that was barely wide enough for the pack and out the other side. Wasn’t as difficult as what you described. To be clear, you never went through such a gap (probably about 15-25 feet deep)? We camped on EXACTLY the same spot at Reflection BTW.
There are at least 3 routes from Lake Reflection to the Keen Headwaters. The one I describe is Harrison. No gap as you describe. Maybe you were on Lucy’s Foot Pass or Molly’s