Trail Running in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
February 28, 2011 by Leor Pantilat · 8 Comments
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI) provide one of the most spectacular wilderness running experiences anywhere. The parks contain over 800 miles of trails, most of which are in the high country of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range. Also known as the “range of light,” the southern High Sierra is characterized by tremendous mountain scenery, including jagged peaks, awe-inspiring canyons, alpine lakes, and lush meadows. The range reaches its climax within these parks as twelve of California’s fourteen peaks over 14,000 feet are located here. The parks also contain the largest tree on earth, the General Sherman tree, and the most famous giant sequoia forests in existence.
Trail running in SEKI can be divided into two sections: western approaches via the San Joaquin Valley and eastern approaches via Owens Valley/Hwy 395. The approaches are strikingly different. In order to explain why, one must understand the basic topography of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Imagine the range is like a tilted table gradually rising from west to east until it reaches the crest, where there is a precipitous drop on the east side. Since winter storms typically come from the west, this explains why the east side is rain-shadowed and arid while the west side is forested and lush. Also, the close proximity to lower, inhabitable elevations on the east side provides relatively short and easy accessibility to the High Country. Meanwhile, due to the rugged terrain building up to crest, the approaches on the west side are typically lengthy and begin at lower elevations.
Below we give examples of selected easy, moderate, and advanced trail runs from both western approaches and eastern approaches. Many of the described routes enter extremely remote areas so be prepared with extra food, clothing, and all the essentials. The weather in the High Sierra can change rapidly and thunderstorms are common in the summer months. Extreme temperature swings from 80+ degrees to subfreezing are well within the realm of possibility, and can occur in as little as a few hours. Also take note that many of the routes described below ascend above 10,000 feet so be mindful of acclimation issues.
There are three primary trailhead areas on the west side: Cedar Grove, the Giant Forest area, and Mineral King. Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon is the lowest of the three, but the runs originating here are extremely dramatic with the towering cliffs of Kings Canyon looming above. The Giant Forest area contains the most famous giant sequoia forest and access to some great views of the Great Western Divide chain of peaks. Mineral King is the highest trailhead of the three and provides the easiest accessibility to the alpine on the west side.
Cedar Grove/Kings Canyon:
John Muir described Kings Canyon as “a rival to Yosemite.” This stunning canyon features towering granite cliffs, a powerful river, meadows, and waterfalls. The road into Kings Canyon is closed from mid/late November until mid/late April each year, not due to snow, but instead the extreme hazards posed by rock and ice fall from cliffs above.
Easy – Zumwalt Meadows and River Trail: Zumwalt Meadows and the River Trail provide a rare relatively flat trail running opportunity in SEKI. There are three starting areas: Zumwalt Meadows parking area 4.5 miles east of Cedar Grove village, Roaring River Falls parking area 3 miles east of Cedar Grove village, or Road’s End. There is about 6 miles of trail here at the bottom of the canyon. From Road’s End the Woods Creek Trail can be taken to the bridge across the South Fork of the Kings River, where the River Trail can be taken down to Zumwalt Meadows and Roaring River Falls beyond. These trails provide fantastic views of the high granite walls of Kings Canyon, lush meadows, and the South Fork of the Kings River.
Easy – Mist Falls: Start from Road’s End and take the Wood’s Creek Trail 4 miles to Mist Falls. The falls itself is not a huge drop like those in Yosemite, but it’s an aesthetic waterfall, particularly in the early summer when water volume is immense. The first three miles are relatively flat with around 600 feet of elevation gain in the last mile.
Moderate/Advanced – Junction Meadow, East Lake, and Lake Reflection: After 2 miles along the Woods Creek trail, continue on the Bubbs Creek trail for 8.5 miles to Junction Meadow. The first two miles entails an 1,100 ft hill climb but then ascends a relatively gradually up to Junction Meadows (el 8,136 ft) over the remaining 6.5 miles. Junction Meadow features a jaw-dropping view of Mount Bago and its colossal granite cliffs. It is a 21 mile round trip to Junction Meadow, but this is an out-and-back so turn around at the distance that suits your itinerary. For an advanced run, continue beyond Junction Meadow along the East Lake Trail to East Lake, which is reached in 3 additional miles. East Lake (el 9,468 ft) has a delightful view of Mount Brewer and North Guard Peak. Continue on another 2 miles to Lake Reflection (el 10,029 ft), one of the most spectacular lakes in the High Sierra with rugged peaks of the Kings-Kern divide providing an amazing backdrop. Round trip distance to East Lake is 27 miles and to Lake Reflection is 31 miles.
Advanced – Rae Lakes Loop: According to the park service, the Rae Lakes Loop is one of the most popular backpacks in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, if not the entire Sierra. Typically backpacked in 4-5 days, the loop can be run and/or hiked in a single day. The loop is ~42 miles long and climbs from 5,035 ft at the trailhead to 11,978 ft at Glen Pass. The portion between Vidette Meadows and Woods Creek Crossing is along the John Muir Trail and passes through the Rae Lakes area, a chain of large alpine lakes over 10,500 feet with superlative views of rugged Sierra peaks. The trailhead is at Road’s End in magnificent Kings Canyon and travels along Bubbs Creek and Woods Creek, including passage through Vidette Meadows, Castle Domes, and Paradise Valley. Spectacular scenery unfolds around every corner.
Insider’s Scoop: Most backpackers do the Rae Lakes loop clockwise, which makes sense as you gradually gain elevation through the Rae Lakes basin. However, for running it makes more sense to go counterclockwise reaching the highpoint at Glen Pass in 18.5 miles, followed by 27.5 miles of mostly downhill.
Giant Forest/Wolverton/Crescent Meadow:
Easy – Giant Forest Trails: A myriad of trails travel through the most famous giant sequoia grove on the planet with relatively small elevation gains. These trails through the majestic Sequoias are a treat. There are several pretty meadows and wildlife if often spotted here, including deer and black bears. Trailheads include Giant Forest paring area, Crescent Meadow, Wolverton, and the General Sherman Tree parking area. There is some 50 miles of trails in this region to explore so pick up a map and design a loop to fit your time and distance goals.
Moderate – Alta Peak: Starting at Wolverton, the Alta Trail makes a gradual ascent over 7 miles to the summit of 11,204 ft Alta Peak, which features a spectacular view of the Great Western Divide peaks and the “tablelands” region. The roundtrip is around 14 miles.
Moderate – Pear Lake: Pear Lake is large alpine lake situated beneath the cliffs of Alta Peak. Aptly named, the lake has the shape of a pear. The trip to the lake includes passage through a series of other delightful lakes, including Heather Lake, Emerald Lake, and Aster Lake. This run also starts from Wolverton. After 2 miles along the Alta Trail, turn off onto the Pear Lake Trail, reaching Pear Lake in an additional 5.25 miles (7.25 miles each way, 14 miles total). An alternate trail for a section of the return trip adds only 0.25 miles and provides great views.
Moderate/Advanced – High Sierra Trail to Kaweah Gap: The High Sierra Trail starts in Crescent Meadow at Giant Forest and travels to Bearpaw Meadow in 11.5 miles, Hamilton Lakes in 16.5 miles, and Kaweah Gap in 21 miles each way (42 miles roundtrip). The first 11.5 miles to Bearpaw Meadow are very runnable with gradual inclines on great trails, including great views of the Great Western Divide. Bearpaw Meadow (el 7,880 ft) is the site of a High Sierra Camp with small tent cabins and backcountry dining for customers. The camp has an outstanding view of the Great Western Divide. Beyond Bearpaw Meadow, the scenery becomes more dramatic with every step. The Hamilton Lakes amphitheater is one of the most scenic locations in the entire High Sierra with big granite cliffs surrounding the emerald blue waters of Hamilton Lake (8,235 ft). Views continue to improve on the moderately steep ascent to Kaweah Gap (10,680 ft). Just before Kaweah Gap is spectacular Precipice Lake. Aptly named, the sheer cliffs of Eagle Scout Peak fall right into the waters of the clear blue lake. This stunning view was immortalized by Ansel Adams in 1932 with his shot “Frozen Lake and Cliffs”. A similar shot was taken in July 2010 by Leor Pantilat.
Mineral King is a spectacular glacier-carved valley amongst the towering peaks of the Great Western Divide. At 7,800 ft, it’s the highest trail head on the west side and there are numerous great trail running opportunities here.
Insider’s Scoop: The long, narrow, and windy road to Mineral King is closed from November 1st through late May. It’s a slow drive, but well worth the views and scenery at the end.
Insider’s Scoop: The parking lot at Mineral King has infamous marmot residents that have developed an affinity for chewing automobile radiator hoses, fan belts, and insulated electrical wires. The problem is most acute in early season and can be entirely avoided by parking down the road at the ranger station or visiting in late summer and fall.
Moderate/Advanced – Monarch Lakes & Sawtooth Pass: This run heads up the slopes to delightful alpine lakes gaining over 2,000 feet in 4.2 miles on a well graded trail containing many switchbacks (8.4 miles RT). The trail passes through red fir forest, meadows, and avalanche chutes. As you ascend, views of the Great Western Divide and surrounding region become more expansive. One can continue beyond Monarch Lakes another 1.3 miles on an arduous, steep trail to Sawtooth Pass (el 11,720 ft). A worthwhile detour from the pass is 12,343 ft Sawtooth Peak with stellar views from its summit. Sandy slopes on the southwest side of the ridge can be taken to the popular summit from Sawtooth Pass.
Moderate – Farewell Gap and Franklin Pass: Both Farewell Gap and Franklin Gap are great destinations for medium distance runs. Both have substantial elevation gains, but provide panoramic vistas of the valley and surrounding alpine terrain. The Farewell Gap trail departs from the Mineral King pack station and ascends up the valley 4.5 miles to 10,680 ft Farewell Gap (nearly 2,000 feet elevation gain, 9 mile RT). The Franklin Pass trail departs from the Farewell Gap trail 2.25 miles from Mineral King and reaches Franklin Lakes in another 2 miles and then crosses the Great Western Divide at Franklin Pass (11,720 ft) another 1.5 miles beyond the lakes. The run to Franklin Pass is 5.75 miles each way and 11.5 miles round trip.
EASTERN APPROACHES (described from North to South):
Note: All the approaches from the east side generally involve substantial elevation gains and are at altitude so they are considered moderate to advanced unless otherwise noted.
Insider’s Scoop: No roads enter SEKI National Park from the east so all of the routes described below begin outside the boundaries of the National Park. Instead, they are located within the John Muir Wilderness managed by the National Forest Service. The National Park boundary is at the Sierra crest so one must ascend to a pass on the crest in order to enter the National Park proper.
Bishop Area (North Lake/South Lake/Lake Sabrina):
Insider’s Scoop: The splendid scenery in this region is only a 30 minute drive from the town Bishop, which contains a bevy of dining, lodging, and service options. The ease of accessibility and full range of amenities makes this a great destination for multiple days of trail running.
Insider’s Scoop: Make sure to stop at Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery in downtown Bishop for some of the best nature and scenery photography you will ever see.
North Lake – Piute Pass/Humphries Basin: Departing from the North Lake Trailhead (9,320 ft), the Piute Pass trail ascends to Piute Pass (el 11,423 ft) in 5 miles and offers an outstanding view of Humphrey’s Basin (10 miles RT). One can continue on and descend into the basin where there are gorgeous meadows, tarns, alpine lakes, and 360 degree views, including Glacier Divide and Mount Humphreys.
Sabrina Basin Trails: The Sabrina Basin trail departs from the dam just below Lake Sabrina (el 9,040 ft) and splits into several trails providing access to numerous delightful alpine lakes between 4-6 miles from the trailhead. This is a picturesque region with ample opportunity for exploration.
South Lake – Bishop Pass/Dusy Basin: Well deserving of its status as one of the most popular hikes in the High Sierra, the trail to Bishop Pass is spectacular. The trailhead at South Lake is at 9,800 ft and climbs to Bishop Pass (el 11,960 ft) in 5 miles (10 miles RT). The trail passes numerous alpine lakes, including Long Lake, Saddlerock Lake, and Bishop Lake. The final climb to the pass is steep and contains numerous switchbacks. Bishop Pass is located on the Sierra Crest with sweeping views of the west side of the crest that are revealed upon reaching the high point. From Bishop Pass, the trail descends into breathtaking Dusy Basin, with miles of wildflower meadows, dozens of alpine lakes, and inspiring views of the rugged Palisades group of peaks.
Evolution Semi-Loop – North Lake to South Lake: This point-to-point semi-loop travels 56 mile from the North Lake trailhead to the South Lake Trailhead with 9,800 feet of elevation gain. The route includes three passes – Piute Pass, Muir Pass, and Bishop Pass. This is one of the best extended routes in the High Sierra with some of the most visually stunning scenery in these mountains, including Humphreys Basin, Evolution Basin, and Dusy Basin. A substantial section of the route is along the John Muir Trail.
Logistics note: Since the Evolution semi-loop is not a complete loop, arrangements for a car shuttle are necessary. In some seasons, this route only becomes snow-free in late July.
Big Pine Creek:
Big Pine Creek (el 7,677 ft) is the primary trailhead for access to the rugged Palisades group of peaks. The Palisades are the most alpine region in the High Sierra and contain five summits over 14,000 feet. There are two primary trails heading out of Big Pine Creek, the North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail and South Fork Big Pine Creek Trail.
The South Fork Big Pine Creek Trail ascends 5 miles to Brainerd Lake (el 10,256 ft) with spectacular views of Middle Palisade, Norman Clyde Peak, Palisade Crest, and Mount Jepson along the way. A use path continues 0.5 miles beyond Brainerd Lake to spectacular Finger Lake, nestled among granite cliffs with a great view of Middle Palisade. With nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain over 5 miles, this is a challenging mountain run/hike.
The North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail is one of the classic trails in the High Sierra, with amazing views of Temple Crag and northern Palisade peaks as it passes by a chain of picturesque high alpine lakes. It is 7.75 miles to the junction with the Sam Mack Meadow Trail, reached after passing by first lake, second lake, and third lake. The Sam Mack Meadow Trail (aka Glacier Trail) can be taken another 2.5 miles to the terminus of the Palisade Glacier (el 11,700 ft), the largest glacier in the High Sierra. Alternatively, one can continue on the North Fork Big Pine Creek Trail to see fourth through seventh lakes.
The Kearsarge Pass Trail ascends from the Onion Valley Trailhead (el 9,192 ft) to Kearsarge Pass (el 11,811 ft) in 4 miles making it a challenging trail to run. Numerous small lakes are passed along the way with fantastic views of University Peak. Kearsarge Pass has a great view of the Kearsarge Lakes Basin and Kearsarge Pinnacles. The lakes, beautifully positioned below the Kearsarge PInacles, can be reached a couple miles beyond the pass after a steep descent.
The Disneyland of High Sierra trails, the Mount Whitney Trail ascends to the summit of the highest point in the contiguous United States, the 14,505 ft summit of Mount Whitney. The trail entails over 6,100 feet of elevation gain in 13 miles each way (26 miles round trip). The Whitney area is spectacular and the extra steps required to hike/run Mount Whitney are worth the trouble.
Insider’s Scoop: Between May 1st and November 1st, a quota system is in place with only 100 day users permitted per day. For full details on the permit system, visit the National Forest Service website here. Specific details on the 2011 application process can be found here. The rangers are strict about enforcing the quota and permit system, so a bandit run on Whitney is not a bright idea.
Easy – Cottonwood Lakes: From the Cottonwood Lakes/New Army trailhead along the Horseshoe Meadows Road (el 10,040 ft) a relatively easy 4 mile run can be made to Cottonwood Lakes (el 11,000+ ft). The scenery here is tundra-like with expansive meadows and clumps of alpine pine trees. A relatively flat spur trail can be taken deeper into the Cottonwood Lakes basin where there are several large lakes to explore.
Moderate – New Army Pass: Continue another 4 miles beyond the entrance of Cottonwood Lakes basin to New Army Pass (12,280 ft) passing by Long Lake and High Lake along the way. A short and steep section immediately precedes the pass. The tundra-like terrain here is gorgeous.
Cottonwood Pass/New Army Loop: One can make a great loop by continuing 3.5 miles beyond New Army Pass to a spur trail that descends 1 mile to the Pacific Crest Trail. Follow the PCT south for 5.5 miles to Cottonwood Pass (el 11,120 ft). The Cottonwood Pass Trail can be taken 3.5 miles to Horseshoe Meadows. A quick 1.3 mile run along the Horseshoe Meadows road completes the loop back to the Cottonwood Lakes/New Army Trailhead. Total mileage for this loop is 23 miles.
High Sierra Trail: Passing some of the most gorgeous scenery in Sequoia National Park, this point-to-point 49 mile route goes from Crescent Meadow (western end) to its official conclusion at the John Muir Trail at Wallace Creek (eastern end). In order to reach the nearest trailhead, the trip continues over the Sierra Crest and down to Whitney Portal for an additional 23 miles, hence 72 miles total. Logistics seem like a nightmare for a point-to-point thru run of the High Sierra Trail since a car shuttle would entail a several hundred mile drive around the Sierras from Giant Forest to Whitney Portal.
John Muir Trail (JMT): The JMT is a legendary point-to-point 211 mile trail from the summit of Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley providing a comprehensive experience of the most wild and rugged section of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. A large section JMT passes through SEKI and it is arguably the most scenic stretch of the trail.
Insider’s Scoop: The JMT is not close to any trailheads within SEKI. Several of the longer routes described above, including the Evolution Semi-Loop and Rae Lakes Loop, utilize significant sections of the JMT. The shortest route to access the JMT is over Kearsarge Pass out of Onion Valley (6.5 miles from TH).
- Bishop, CA
- Lone Pine, CA (gateway to Mount Whitney)
- Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park Service Website
- Park Service Official Twitter Stream
- SEKI Park Map
- Bishop Webcam
- Mineral King Webcam
- National Park Webcam
- Whitney Webcam