Circling the Cirque Crest, Kings Canyon National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14138A, Backpack


  • Hike a satisfying cross-country route at timberline
  • Enjoy a layover day in a high lake-filled basin
  • Experience sweeping views of the Central Sierra peaks


  • Stories and lore from past Knapsack trips
  • Great food, lightweight and simple to prepare
  • Seasoned leadership team


DatesAug 10–18, 2014
Difficulty5 (out of 5)
StaffAndy Johnson

Trip Overview

The Trip

The inspiration for this trip comes from many sources, but chief among them is a conceptual route along the crest of the Sierra Nevada that parallels the famed John Muir Trail, but goes higher, stays higher, and keeps off-trail to the greatest extent possible. By “conceptual,” we mean that there’s no set path or trail to follow, only general guidelines and landmarks -- some key destinations linked together through a desire to stay as close to timberline as possible (timberline being that variable elevation where the trees thin out, a narrow band between forest and exposed granite).

Such a route had been sought and achieved in small pieces, over decades of early trips into the high backcountry of the Sierra, but was first described cohesively by famed mountaineer and writer Steve Roper, in his 1982 work, “Timberline Country, The Sierra High Route.” Our trip will follow the first section of this route, going from Road’s End in Kings Canyon to Lake Basin, then peeling away over Cartridge Pass and returning via Arrow Creek and Paradise Valley. We’ll be retracing the steps of several of the very early Sierra Club High Trips and experiencing up close the attraction of the high country where the trees thin out and give way to meadows and peaks.

This is a strenuous trip, with significant elevation gain and loss and most hiking done away from established trails. Hiking terrain will be loose, steep, and exposed in some sections, and there are several stream crossings that may require wading through cold water. It is intended for participants with previous backpacking experience at altitudes above 10,000 feet, although all well-conditioned backpackers are welcome to apply.


This trip starts on a Sunday and ends nine days later on a Monday. There is one planned layover, where trip members will be free to explore a high lake basin. Each day has some cross-country, except the final day.

Day 1: The trip begins at the relatively low elevation of 5,000 feet in Kings Canyon Park, at Road’s End. The first seven miles are all on trail will see us gain 5,500 feet to a cross-country cutoff over to Grouse Lake (10,500 feet). The trail is extremely well-graded, and the miles pass easily. Yes, this is a hard first day, and it will test each of us, but it’s been done many times before, and everyone always gets to camp for hot soup and relaxation. The spot at Grouse Lake is renowned for having one of the best views in all the Sierra -– featuring evening sunset, morning sunrise, and a lake view spread out below. It’s worth the effort.

Day 2: Today is all cross-country as we move over to Glacier Lakes (10,500 feet), crossing one minor and one major saddle. This is the real start to Roper’s High Route, and the going is remarkably easy. Your leader was impressed at the ease of route-finding when he first led this route in 1994.

Day 3: We move down canyon through Glacier Valley, briefly catching a trail through the State Lakes and Horseshoe Lakes areas, and winding over Windy Pass to a fun campsite on the South Fork of Cartridge Creek (10,200 feet).

Day 4: We move over two minor passes, Grey and Red, and then descend to Marion Lake (10,300 feet). We have a final walk over to our layover spot in Lake Basin (10,600 feet).

Day 5: Today is a layover, with great opportunities for exploring Lake Basin. Fishing is good here, and there are more lakes than anyone can visit in a single day -– take that as a challenge!

Day 6: We move to the head of Lake Basin and follow a very old trail (the original route of the John Muir Trail) over Cartridge Pass (11,800 feet). This is followed by a descent to the South Fork of the Kings River (9,500 feet), then a scramble up to Bench Lake (10,500 feet). We’ll camp on the moraine and enjoy views across the lake as well as downcanyon, with views of the fabled Muro Blanco.

Day 7: We climb over Arrow Pass (11,600 feet). After an optional ascent of Arrow Peak, we make a partial descent of Arrow Creek to one of its several lakes (10,500 feet).

Day 8: Continuing down Arrow Creek, we cross over a shoulder to Woods Creek, where we regain an established trail, then finish with a saunter through Paradise Valley. Our final night will be alongside the South Fork of the Kings River (6,600 feet), where we’ll sleep soundly on soft forest duff.

Day 9: On the last morning, we continue walking through Paradise Valley and past beautiful Mist Falls, then cover a couple miles of flat trail back to Road’s End, under the watchful eye of The Sphinx.

The route as outlined above is tentative and may be modified due to unforeseen circumstances. Please bring a flexible demeanor and a good sense of humor, should we need to make any changes! No matter what route we ultimately follow, it will be enjoyable and inspirational -- as John Muir said, “… keeping us close to Nature’s heart.”



Getting There

The trip begins at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, August 10th at Moraine View campground (5,000 feet elevation), just east of Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. The leaders will reserve a large campsite for all who wish to arrive Saturday evening. Although the official start of the trip is early on Sunday morning, it is highly recommended to come in the day before, to relax, hang out in camp, and get a good night’s sleep at the trailhead altitude.

Specific driving directions and campsite meeting instructions will be sent out to trip participants a couple months before departure.

Accommodations and Food

The leaders have good experience planning tasty, nutritious, and lightweight fare. We can accommodate some but not all dietary restrictions and preferences. It’s your responsibility to indicate any special dietary requirements on your trip application. All equipment for cooking and preparing meals is provided on this trip -- participants need only bring their own cups/bowls, utensils, and water bottles/carriers. The trip will provide means of water treatment for those who want it.

All food “on route” is provided, including breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, and happy hour refreshments. The first trip meal is lunch on Sunday the 10th, and the last trip meal is lunch on Monday the 18th. Trip members are on their own for any meals at Moraine View campground. All meals on the trip are prepared by trip participants, under supervision of trip staff, in rotating cook crews that share in the easy work of making and setting out the day’s fare.

After the trip, you might want to treat yourself to a relaxing dip in the cold water of the Kings River, or the hot showers at Cedar Grove.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 5, the most difficult rating applied to Sierra Club backpack trips. It won’t be the hardest of fives, so to speak, but will nonetheless present rigors and challenges, especially when moving cross-country, away from established trails. We will hike up, over, and down steep and loose terrain at different times, and cross several cold streams. This trip is best suited to backpackers with previous experience hiking on loose terrain at elevations above 10,000 feet. The first day may well be the hardest, as we ascend 5,500 feet over eight miles.

It is imperative that all trip members be in very good physical condition before the trip starts. Once underway, it is awkward and disruptive to escort ill-conditioned hikers off the trip. It’s also unfair to all who put in the effort to condition properly, for others to show up out of shape. Proper conditioning consists of regular practice hikes with loaded pack and boots in the months before the trip -– not something that can just be crammed in the weekend before the trip. Some further thoughts on conditioning are at

Weather in the Sierra Nevada can be highly variable. Temperatures on our trip might be as hot as 85 or 90 degrees F in the middle of the day on a sunny slope, while nights can easily fall below freezing if a cold front moves through. As well, even though most days are very pleasant, we can expect rain at any time, sometimes even an extended storm. Accordingly, your personal gear must keep you cool during the day, warm at night, and dry if it should rain.

Equipment and Clothing

Most backpackers are familiar with the basics: Boots in good condition that provide traction on granite slabs and adequate ankle support. Also a properly fitted pack, large enough to hold all personal gear, plus a portion of the group’s gear, which means a cylindrical animal-proof food canister and a share of the cooking gear. Some form of rain protection, both jacket/poncho and tent or tarp. And layers of warm clothes. From there, the list will include a hat, sunglasses, water bottle, cup, spoon, etc. There is a convenient list of all such items at



Compass and maps are not required, as the leaders will be carrying these. However you are encouraged to bring your own maps if you wish to follow the route as we go, and the trip leader will be quite pleased to help you trace the route on your map, and offer instruction in use of the compass as well. There are four USGS 7.5 minute series topographic maps that cover our route: The Sphinx, Marion Peak, Mount Pinchot, and Mount Clarence King.


A primary reference work is Steve Roper’s “Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country (2nd Ed.).” An excellent review of the area’s natural history is “Sierra Nevada, The Naturalist’s Companion” by Verna Johnston (1998). Another good book is “Close Ups of the High Sierra” by Norman Clyde (1997), which gives a flavor of the early mountaineering in the Sierra. The trip leader will suggest more books in pre-trip newsletters.


If people in general could be got out into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish. – John Muir

The Sierra Club's history is steeped in efforts to preserve endangered habitat and wilderness. Indeed, the Club was instrumental in passing the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System and afforded the High Sierra the highest level of protection possible. As Club members, we have reason to be proud of this accomplishment when we hike through the region.

Since the days of John Muir, the Sierra Club has believed that its outings program provides a perfect opportunity for members to both enjoy the fruits of past conservation victories and learn about current concerns. While on the trip, we will talk at times about the Club’s conservation campaigns and encourage participants to bring their own stories of involvement in efforts to protect our threatened natural areas.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park.



Andy Johnson has been an active Sierra Club leader since 1980, and is a former chairman of the Knapsack Subcommittee. He enjoys finding challenging and rewarding cross-country routes in the High Sierra, and especially sharing those places with other people. Apart from backpacking, he has an active interest in knots, bicycling, and motorcycles.

Assistant Leader:

Michael Cadigan's first backpack trips were in the beautiful Lakes Basin of the northern Sierra with an adventurous scouting troop -- many seasons ago. He has been a volunteer and trip leader with the San Francisco Sierra Club Inner City Outings Chapter for over twenty years. He has been participating in Knapsack outings and SF Bay Chapter Outings off and on for the last ten years. Recently retired from high school teaching, Michael is looking forward to more outside adventures -- especially in the Sierra, the Cascades, and the scenic Southwest.

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