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). 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.
How long will it take?
The standard option, via Elizabeth Pass, is about 155 miles with at least 40,000 feet of gain. The segments concurrent with the JMT and HST are regularly maintained by trail crews. The remaining trails do not see trail crews annually or even every decade, and conditions will vary and may include trail and bridge washouts; it is critical to read the NPS Trail Conditions information.
Backpackers with extensive experience hiking in similar conditions can use this information to estimate their trip duration. Those who have not yet done enough backpacking to confidently predict their pace in these conditions might start by assessing how much gain and loss they are comfortable doing day after day, at altitude, and carrying a pack. Daily gain and loss is often a better predictor for pace than only using daily mileage. A simple way to establish your baseline would be to climb and descend the stairs in a building; 40 repetitions in a ten-story building would be about 4000 feet of gain and the same loss. Consider the effects of altitude, pack weight, and trail conditions when translating your comfortable baseline into a prediction of how long your hike will take.
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 can be harder to get. Hiking clockwise puts the sun in your face for the long north-south section of the JMT.
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.