What: long trail hike in the most beautiful region of the Sierra Nevada
Where: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Distance: about 155 miles
Highlights: an alternative to the JMT with fewer people and great scenery
NPS: Trail conditions, Permit information, Permit availability, Bear canister requirements. To start at Roads End and hike clockwise obtain a permit for Copper Creek; if hiking counter-clockwise obtain a permit for Bubbs Creek.
National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map #25 Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks at 1:80,000 scale, 3.3 oz.
We have hiked many of both the maintained and the now-abandoned Sierra trails from Interstate 80 south to Cottonwood Pass, including entry from numerous east and west side trailheads. We’ve been over many class-2/3 passes, explored off-trail basins, and climbed quite a few class-2/3 peaks. We think this range of mountains is a superb place to go backpacking.
Over the years, we have seen the John Muir Trail (JMT) get more crowded, and nearly all of the other trails get less use. The Big SEKI Loop (BSL) is a long on-trail hike for people to consider as an alternative to the JMT. While certainly not as well known as the JMT, the BSL has a quite a few advantages.
The entire BSL is on maintained trails, just like the JMT. There are innumerable fantastic itineraries for people with off-trail skills and a copy of R.J. Secor’s The High Sierra Peaks, Passes and Trails, including Steve Roper’s Sierra High Route and Alan Dixon’s Southern Sierra High Route. Many people prefer to hike on maintained trails and a goal of the BSL is to provide them with a good JMT alternative.
Finally, many long hikes in the Sierra have significant logistical issues as they begin and end at places far distant from each other. Sometimes they begin and end on different sides of the range. Public transit between trailheads is complex if it exists at all. The BSL is just that, a loop. Park your car at Road’s End in Kings Canyon NP, have a great long walk in the mountains, and return right back to your car.
Big SEKI Loop versus the JMT
A major advantage of the BSL is that it starts and ends at the same place which significantly simplifies the logistics. The JMT is not a loop. The High Sierra Trail, the other major named trail in the Sierra, gets you off the JMT and has good scenery, but is only 72 miles and is also not a loop.
The BSL does not require any resupply. Many lightweight backpackers can walk 13-22 miles per day on trail; that makes it 7-12 days to do this route. Assuming a base pack weight of 12 pounds, plus 1.5 pounds of food per person per day, starting pack weight would vary from 22.5 pounds for 7 days to 30 pounds for 12 days.
Getting a permit to start the BSL at the Copper Creek Trailhead is not likely to be a challenge. In the past, we have always been able to obtain a first-in-line in the morning walk up permit at the Road’s End Ranger Station in Kings Canyon NP. Although permits may not always be available at the last moment, they should be easily obtained with a bit of advance planning. JMT permits are usually all taken the first day they become available.
Everybody’s taste varies, but for us, the JMT includes stretches that are not the best the Sierra has to offer. The JMT from Happy Isles to Garnet Lake is beautiful, but can be easily explored via day hikes or weekend hikes using the ESTA and Yosemite buses for shuttling if necessary. From Garnet Lake to approximately Silver Pass through the Mammoth region, the JMT is not as scenic as the areas further north or south. From Silver Pass to Evolution Valley the mostly forested JMT runs far to the west of very fine High Sierra terrain and misses a lot of the good stuff. Roper’s very fine Sierra High Route fixes these problems with the JMT, but requires a lot of skilled off-trail travel and and navigation. A high percentage of the BSL travels through some of the best terrain the Sierra Nevada has to offer.
58 miles of the BSL is concurrent with the JMT and its associated crowds. We believe this concurrent section includes most of the best of the JMT, including crossing four of the five big passes. The rest of BSL is on lesser used trails where it’s possible to hike for long periods of time without seeing other people. The BSL also avoids the Mount Whitney scene. While Whitney is the highest peak in the Sierra and has a trail, it also has a level of congestion and commotion that doesn’t suit everybody.
Click map to open an interactive CalTopo map in a new browser tab. Instructions for using CalTopo.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense. Our trail distance chart is based on the Trails Illustrated maps. Use the stated distances as guidance; various sources of trail distances rarely agree. We strongly recommend that anybody engaged in cross-country travel in the Sierra use RJ Secor’s book for more detailed route descriptions and difficulty levels.
|Miles from Prior Point||Cumulative Miles||Altitude|
|Roads End Trailhead, Cedar Grove||0.0||0.0||5035|
|Middle Fork Trail junction, at Simpson Meadow||11.7||22.9||5990|
|Cross Cartridge Creek||3.7||26.6||6400|
|Acquire JMT at Palisade Creek.||4.8||31.4||8070|
|Bench Lake Trail junction, near Taboose Pass Trail junction||6.5||48.9||10795|
|Pinchot Pass (north end of bear can zone)||3.5||52.4||12130|
|Sawmill Pass Trail junction||3.9||56.3||10346|
|Woods Creek Trail junction||3.8||60.1||8492|
|Baxter Pass Trail junction, near Dollar Lake||4.1||64.2||10200|
|Rae Lakes, near ranger station||2.0||66.2||10540|
|Sixty Lakes Basin Trail junction||1.0||67.2||10565|
|Junction with trails to Charlotte Lake & Kearsarge Pass||2.1||71.2||10745|
|Bubbs Creek Trail junction (possible exit west via Bubbs Creek)||1.4||72.6||9515|
|Forester Pass (south end of bear can zone)||7.4||80.0||13180|
|Shepherd Pass Trail Jct (near trail to Tyndall Ranger Station)||4.9||84.9||10890|
|Acquire HST at Wallace Creek||4.4||89.3||10405|
|Jct with Colby Pass Trail at Junction Meadow (start Colby shortcut)||4.3||93.6||8080|
|Low point on Kern River, at Funston Meadow||9.3||102.9||6730|
|Jct with trail to Moraine Lake, south end||3.8||106.7||9160|
|Jct with trail to Moraine Lake, north end||3.2||109.9||10225|
|Jct with Big Arroyo Trail||4.6||114.5||9560|
|Leave HST at Elizabeth Pass Trail Jct||6.0||123.9||7400|
|Roaring River Ranger Station (rejoin Colby shortcut)||10.7||139.0||7400|
|Bubbs Creek Trail Jct||5.7||151.1||6280|
|Roads End Trailhead||3.7||154.8||3035|
Notes for Potential Hikers
What is SEKI?
Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are contiguous and jointly managed by the National Park Service. They are often called Sequoia Kings Canyon, or SEKI for short. The SEKI and the adjacent USFS John Muir Wilderness are the most beautiful high country areas in the Sierra Nevada range.
When to go
- June: usually a lot of snow at high elevations.
- July: severe mosquitoes and great wildflowers.
- August: wildflowers and mosquitoes both in decline.
- September: no mosquitoes and few wildflowers. Autumn colors.
- October: transition season with possibility of winter storms dropping snow that does not melt the following day; back-country ranger stations are closed. We only travel deep in the SEKI backcountry in October when the weather forecast is all clear and then only for a few days at a time.
Information describing when to hike the JMT applies to this route as well. There is a river crossing without a bridge across Palisade Creek where it meets the Middle Fork Kings. The crossing could be difficult in early season high water, although with adequate scouting people in prior years have been able to find logs to scurry across.
The timing of the mosquito season is dependent on the snowpack. To determine how the snowpack compares to normal, go to the River Forecast Center, open the Snow Data section on the right panel, and check the box Current Day SWE % of Normal. Our general guideline is that the mosquito season ends sometime in August. If the spring snowpack is well below normal early August is safe. If the spring snowpack is well above normal mosquito swarms may persist until late August.
There are two map brands listed in the Resources section: Tom Harrison and Trails Illustrated. Both brands are waterproof and cover the entire route including all emergency exit routes should they become necessary. The pair of Harrison maps have a slightly better scale but there is no overlap between the two maps so they is a little hard to use near the Keasarge Pass Trail junction. Either brand is adequate for this route and minor side-trips off route. Those planning to venture off trail should use CalTopo to print more detailed maps.
Weather and gear
We have a complete and annotated gear list series of articles. This gear has served us very well on all of our hikes, including the Big SEKI Loop.
There’s a reasonable chance you’ll have no precipitation at all or you may get just a few short afternoon showers. On the other hand, the monsoonal weather pattern that feeds northwestern Mexico in late summer can misbehave and wander north into the southern Sierra. When that happens, it’s possible to get severe and prolonged storms. You must decide whether to take rain gear and shelter for what is likely or for what is possible. We have made a choice to always be prepared for what is possible. Some people hike in the Sierras prepared only for what they expect. You choose, but DON’T base your decision on ten trip reports or ten friends who said they had no rain. We have been in the Sierra backcountry at least twice during unexpected severe storms during which there were weather-related deaths and much SAR activity; we may have been in deep trouble if we had not had proper gear.
With the currently changing jet-stream patterns, we may start to see more unusually strong summer monsoon storms coming up from the south, similar to the anomalous Ridiculously Resilient Ridges that have prevented normal winter storms from reaching California in the recent past.
The BSL does not cross any summits, but there are several fairly easy off-trail Class-2 peaks climbed by just a few people each year near the route. The CalTopo map show locations of some SPS peaks. Anybody who is planning off-trail travel is advised to get a copy of R.J. Secor’s The High Sierra Peaks, Passes and Trails.
Two options: Colby Pass versus Elizabeth Pass
There are two ways to go from Junction Meadow (mile 93.6) on the Kern River to the Roaring River Ranger Station (mile 139.0). The shorter option is shown as a purple line on the CalTopo map.
- The BSL follows the High Sierra Trail (HST) over Kaweah Gap, then connects with trail over Elizabeth Pass and down Deadman Canyon. This option is 45.4 miles.
- The shorter alternative, BSL with Colby Shortcut, crosses Colby Pass and descends Cloud Canyon. This option is about 20 miles, shortening the overall loop from 155 to 130 miles.
Both options are very beautiful, and there is no obvious reason to choose one over the other in terms of scenery. There will be many hikers on the 30 miles of the primary routing that is concurrent with the HST, whereas the Colby Pass option is relatively lightly used.
Clockwise or counter-clockwise both work, and there is no prefered direction in terms of scenery or logistics. In either direction, you begin at 5,000 feet and immediately climb to about 10,000 feet, so neither option has a kinder start. This initial climb is the toughest challenge on the route. Light packs will make this a lot easier.
If hiking clockwise the permit for the Copper Creek Trail is relatively easy to obtain. If hiking counter-clockwise the permit for the Bubbs Creek Trail is harder to obtain.
Hiking clockwise puts you on the JMT in a south-bound direction, which is the way most of the JMT crowds are traveling, so it will seem less crowded than if you are walking north-bound against the flow of traffic.
Hiking clockwise also puts the junction with the Colby Pass shortcut at mile 94, so if you fall behind schedule you will have a way to shorten the trip. If you hike counter-clockwise, there is no reasonable way to shorten the trip and get back to your car after you pass the Woods Creek Trail junction. In an emergency you could exit via LeConte Canyon and Bishop Pass, but that puts you a very long way from your car. For this reason, hikers who are unsure of their pace or want to have the option of ending early would do better to hike clockwise.
Finally, early in the season crossing the bridgeless river at Palisade Creek can be difficult; on the off-chance that wading is not safe and no log crossings can be found, it would be better to learn this sooner rather than later. If hiking clockwise and Palisade can not be crossed, retracing your steps back to Roads End is the only reasonable trail option to get out to the trailhead. If hiking counter-clockwise you could hike out via Bishop Pass to South Lake, ending up on the east side and far from your car or retrace your path south on the JMT to the Woods Creek Trail and take it out to Road’s End.
There are two bailout trails that return to Roads End: Woods Creek Trail and Bubbs Creek Trail. These are located mid-trip whether hiking clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Where to start and resupply options
We believe the best option is to start at Road’s End in Cedar Grove on the west side and complete the loop without stopping for resupply. Alternately, one could start at Onion Valley on the east side.
Starting at Road’s End has several advantages:
- Once you leave the road you have a long uninterrupted trip through wilderness.
- No part of the route is repeated.
- Permits for the Copper Creek Trail at Road’s End are relatively easy to obtain.
- Bear canisters are only required between Pinchot Pass (mile 52) and Forester Pass, (mile 80). This means that the food for the first third of the trip does not need to all fit into the can.
Resupply: For those who choose to resupply, you would exit the BSL at Onion Valley and hitch to Independence, adding 14 additional miles of hiking. It might be possible to hire somebody to deliver a package to the Onion Valley trailhead or Kearsarge Pass. The availability of package delivery seems to change from year to year; if readers have information about this please add a comment.
Starting at Onion Valley has several disadvantages:
- The wilderness experience is broken half way through the trip when you descend into Kings Canyon to cross the road at Road’s End. The half-day on either side of Road’s End is the least interesting part of the route and putting it in the middle of the trip breaks the spell.
- The seven mile leg from Onion Valley to the BSL must be hiked twice, adding about 14 miles to the trip.
- Onion Valley is one of the most popular trailheads on the east side and permits may be more difficult to obtain.
- Bear canisters are required from Onion Valley to Forester Pass which is the first leg, meaning that all your food must fit in the can.
The main advantage of starting at Onion Valley is that there is easier access to the BSL for people who do not have a car. Fly, bus or train to Reno and take the ESTA bus between Reno and Independence; this bus runs 4 days per week. Then do the easy hitch or arrange a shuttle between Independence and Onion Valley. Reverse all of this to get home. Road’s End, on the other hand, is not served by public transit and the only reasonable way to get there if arriving in California by train, bus or plane is to rent a car.
Resupply: For those who choose to resupply, it might be possible to send a package to an NPS office at Road’s End; if readers have information about this please add a comment. It is not an easy hitch to any town from Road’s End.
Some alternatives that might look tempting
There are variations that look plausible on a map, but all of these require off-trail navigation and are not appropriate for those wishing to stay on well-defined trails.
Crossing the Great Western Divide via Shepherd Pass ->Junction Pass ->Center Basin.
Secor describes Junction Pass: “Class 2. This is the original route of the John Muir Trail. It has not been maintained since 1932, but traces of the old trail are still visible…” Old maps show a trail over Junction Pass; the trail has been removed from modern maps. The abandoned trail is easy to follow north of Junction Pass; on the south side it is a horrendous talus field.
Crossing the Great Western Divide via Harrison Pass -> East Creek.
Secor describes Harrison Pass: “Class 2. Some maps show a trail over Harrison Pass. Be forewarned: This trail has not been maintained for many years, and the especially critical section of it leading up the north side of the pass has all but disappeared….” Indication of a trail has been removed from modern maps.
Sixty Lakes Basin instead of Rae Lakes -> Arrowhead Lake ->Dollar Lake.
There is a trail into and through part of the basin, but the off-trail route from the northern Sixty Lakes down to the JMT north of Baxter Creek requires picking a good line in order to avoid a steep drainage and some cliffs. There are at least three variations for this descent that go.
Cartridge Pass -> Lake Basin -> abandoned Cartridge Creek Trail down to the Middle Fork Kings River.
Secor says “This trail has not been maintained for more than fifty years – if it was ever maintained at all. This is an old sheep route which was once the route for the JMT, until the trail was constructed up Palisade Creek and over Mather Pass in 1938. The Cartridge Pass “Trail” is for all intents and purposes a difficult cross-country route.” The route from the South Fork Kings River into Lake Basin is not difficult for somebody with basic cross-country skills. However, the descent from Lake Basin to the Kings River requires careful choice of routes and is choked with vegetation in the lower reaches. This trail is shown on old maps, but has been removed from modern maps.
From Simpson Meadow to Roads End via Kennedy Pass instead of via Granite Pass.
This is still an official trail and is shown on current maps. The stretch from Pine Ridge to upper Kennedy Canyon had not been maintained when we last hiked it in 2012 and the tread is often obscure or obliterated. It is not a thrash, but it does require care and a good off-trail navigation sense in order to stay on the often missing trail.
SEKI maintains an description of the condition of official park trails. Some of the routes listed above are not included, since they are no longer official trails.
From the CalTopo view of the route, you can have fun switching to different map layers (control in upper right) and view historic USGS maps, dating back to the early 20th century. Gaia GPS on the iPhone offers access to these same historic USGS maps.