Dark Side of the LeConte Divide, John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14140A, Backpack


  • Traverse remote LeConte Divide
  • Explore seldom visited Red Rock and Red Mountain basins
  • Swim in pristine alpine lakes


  • All food and cooking gear  
  • Trip and meal planning
  • Backcountry permits and Lake Florence ferry


DatesAug 16–23, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffTimothy Jung

Trip Overview

The Trip

Dark Side of the LeConte Divide explores a striking portion of the Sierra Nevada range via a rarely travelled loop along the western border of Kings Canyon National Park.  Following the spine of LeConte Divide, we encounter a surprising variety of topography. Our trek begins and ends with a scenic four-mile ferry across beautiful Florence Lake.  With this enjoyable short-cut to the backcountry, we quickly ascend into the alpine zone and remain there for the rest of the trip.

From the east side of Florence, we hike south over Thompson Pass into a seldom visited region of the John Muir Wilderness known as Red Rock Basin. It is a rocky, semi-rugged highland easily traversed off-trail. From Red Rock Basin we continue on and off trail to Reddy’s Hole, Red Mountain Basin, and Bench Valley.

Our trip gains its “Dark Side” moniker from the colorfully named lakes and passes of the region. We will travel to Devil’s Punchbowl, Lucifer’s Saddle, and eventually across LeConte Divide into Kings Canyon National Park via either Hell-for-Sure or Gunsight Pass.

Our effort to traverse the LeConte Divide will be richly rewarded. The region across the divide is spectacular, with a harsh beauty typical of the High Sierra. From our pass atop LeConte Divide, we gaze into a huge trail-free zone that reaches from Goddard Divide to Ionian Basin, Black Divide, and Blue Canyon. Camping near the moonscape of Martha Lake, we will position ourselves for an optional peak-bag on our “rest” day.

We begin and end our trek on trail, but spend the rest of the week hop-scotching pristine lakes and basins on and off trail, with a layover day opportunity to summit the major peak in the region (Goddard).

From the summit of Mount Goddard (13,500 feet), most of the entire range is in view, from Whitney in the south to Yosemite in the north.  On the final stretch of the trip, we descend through striking Goddard Canyon (waterfalls during wetter years), spend a short time on the world-famous John Muir Trail, enjoy a hot springs soak near Muir Trail Ranch, and end our trip with a leisurely ferry ride back to our starting trailhead.

Dark Side of LeConte Divide is not to be missed if you are an enthusiastic backpacker with off-trail high-altitude hiking experience, and enough energy to reach the best views that can be found along the crest of the Sierra Nevada range.


Day 1: Our hike begins Saturday morning with a four-mile ferry across Florence Lake. From the east side of Florence, we head south up the Thompson Pass Trail to Lost Lake or Thompson Lake, where we camp at our first alpine lake.

Day 2: We continue to gain elevation as we climb our first pass (Thompson). Shortly after reaching the pass, at about 10,000 feet, we head off trail into Red Rock Basin. We will establish camp at one of the many un-named lakes or tarns of the basin.

Days 3-4: These days are spent wandering the highlands of Red Rock Basin, Reddy’s Hole, Red Mountain Basin and Bench Valley, with camps at beautiful alpine lakes, such as Devil’s Punchbowl and Schoolmarm. Significant portions of our trek will be cross-country and off-trail. We also cross our second pass, named Lucifer’s Saddle by a previous Sierra Club leader.

Day 5: Today we tackle the LeConte Divide. We have two options, and both are spectacular. Hell-for-Sure or Gunsight Pass will take us into Kings Canyon National Park and the wild Goddard mountain region.

Day 6: We layover in the shadow of Mount Goddard. Some will rest, others may explore the notoriously remote and rugged Ionian Basin, and at least a few of us will make an attempt at climbing Mount Goddard, the highest peak in the region.

Days 7-8: We spend two days descending from Martha Lake to our trailhead. The final days will be filled with a variety of scenery. Goddard Canyon is dramatic (South Fork of the San Joaquin River). It leads to a section of the John Muir Trail. On our last day, we enjoy a soak in a hot spring before returning by ferry across Florence to our starting point.

Our hiking schedule is not absolute. How far we get each day and where we camp depends on how fast the group is able to travel, the weather, trail conditions, and other factors outside our control. The route is not rigid, since we will be hiking off-trail during sections of the trek. There may be portions of the route that require scouting during the trip, and flexibility is important. This discovery process, finding new ways through the wilderness, is part of the adventure of off-trail cross-country travel.



Getting There

The formal start of the trip is Saturday morning, August 16th at Florence Lake.  Our meeting point will be a public campground near the western shore of Florence.  Florence Lake is about three hours northeast of Fresno (the nearest airport). The leader will provide detailed driving instructions to participants.

A campsite will be reserved for Friday night for anyone who wishes to arrive early and begin adjusting to the altitude. Most trip participants will arrive Friday afternoon or evening to car camp together in the park. The first group meal is lunch on the trail Saturday, August 16th and the final trip meal is lunch on the trail on Saturday, August 23rd. 

Accommodations and Food

Meals on the trip will be filling, tasty, and packable. We will be serving various types of protein, including meat, but will always have a vegetarian option. As is true on other Sierra Club Knapsack trips, meal preparation is a group effort and you will be expected to help in the kitchen. Our meals are designed for simplicity as well as enjoyment. The quality of our meals is of particular interest to the leaders. It is our goal that you will be well-fed and fueled for strenuous days on the trail while maintaining reasonable pack weights. All cooking gear and stoves are provided.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated a 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the most difficult trip). The first two days in particular will require stamina as we adjust to substantial elevation gain. We continue our trek at high elevations and across high passes; two over 10,000 feet and another over 11,000 feet. Ill-prepared participants will have difficulty. The mileage is not excessive but the elevation is high, and we are planning three or more days of off-trail cross-country travel that may involve loose and angled surfaces. Each participant is given a portion of the group's food and gear to carry each day. We estimate each person's share of group gear to total approximately 15 lbs.

It is essential for all participants to be in their best shape and to have some experience hiking at elevation and off-trail. Participation in this outing requires that you have backpacking experience, be physically fit, and understand that off-trail travel requires a flexible approach.  Significant experience in cross-country off-trail backpacking is not required.  That said, hiking on rough, rocky terrain requires good balance, aerobic strength and a patient attitude -- all requirements for this trip.

The leader will carefully screen participants to ensure each individual, and the group as a whole, maintains the ability to accomplish the goals of the trip in an enjoyable fashion.  We expect that everyone arrives fit and motivated.  The leader will call each participant to discuss the expectations of the trip and answer questions.  While some days will be long, including cross-country travel, others will be moderate in distance to allow breaks for afternoon swims and exploration. 

Equipment and Clothing

Quality well-tested gear is essential, especially well-broken-in boots that you know perform on and off trail while carrying substantial pack weight. Participants provide their own personal gear. Your backpack must be capable of carrying a large plastic bear-resistant canister, which protects our food from bears and other critters.

The Sierra is known for favorable summer weather for backpacking, but that does not mean storms do not happen.  They do, and your gear needs to be functional.

Always essential is a flexible and positive attitude. Conditions often require a change in route or itinerary. By definition, backcountry off-trail travel requires adjustment. The positive attitude of our trip participants is infectious and makes the trip enjoyable, especially on harder days.

We strive to travel light. In fact, we cannot reach our goals with extra or heavy gear.  When we gain substantial elevation or leave the trail, it is especially important to keep pack weight down. This is a point of emphasis, but even more so on trips like this one with cross-country components.

A helpful article on backpacking equipment is available at http://www.knapsack.org/basic_equipment.html and provides a general overview of appropriate gear for this outing. Additional materials will be sent to all participants as we prepare for the trip.



You are welcome to bring your own map and compass, both for your personal sense of security, and to more fully appreciate our route and the inspiring landscape surrounding us.

  • The U.S.G.S. 7.5-rninute "Lake Florence", “Mt. Henry”, “Mt. Goddard”, “Blackcap Mtn.” “Mt. Darwin” and "Ward Mtn." quadrangles together cover our planned route.

Alternatives include:

  • The 1:47,520 scale maps published by Tom Harrison: such as “Kings Canyon High Country”.
  • The 1:63,360 scale map of the John Muir Wilderness published by the U.S. Forest Service.

Maps may be purchased online at http://www.rei.com/ or http://store.usgs.gov/

You may also consider one of the many apps for smart phone or iPad such as Topo Maps.  Useful information can also be found at sierrabackpacker.com.


  • Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. An excellent general reference to climbing routes, cross-country routes, and trails in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. The California Academy of Sciences. An excellent guide to the plants and wildlife of the Sierra Nevada.


The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward a greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club. Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park.

Conservation issues arise for discussion naturally during the trip, often after dinner, as we appreciate and enjoy the wilderness preserved within Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness.  We will discuss the efforts that were required to preserve these valued wilderness areas, and current issues that challenge the health of the park, surrounding ecosystems, and the communities in which we live.

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 permits from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest.



Timothy Jung makes his home among the rolling hills and frozen lakes of Minnesota. His wilderness experience began during his youth around Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It continued into the mountain ranges of the American West. He has since hiked and climbed in the Rockies, the Sierra, Alaska, the Himalaya, and the Andes. When time allows, he enjoys mountaineering on high snowy peaks. Tim joined his first Sierra Club outing more than 20 years ago -- first as a participant and later as a leader -- and continues to enjoy the camaraderie of the shared wilderness experience. Tim especially enjoys the enthusiasm of people new to backpacking and high mountain travel.

Assistant Leader:

Jake Jaramillo

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