Monarch Divide Steeplechase, Kings Canyon National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13127A, Backpack


  • Climb the Kings-Canyon Gorge
  • Explore remote regions of the Sierra Nevada
  • Swim in pristine alpine lakes 


  • All food and cooking gear
  • Backcountry permits
  • Organization and route-finding 


DatesJul 20–27, 2013
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffTimothy Jung

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Trip Overview

The Trip

The Monarch Divide Steeplechase begins at the valley floor of Yosemite-like Kings Canyon, and ascends into a seldom visited region of Kings Canyon National Park known as Monarch Divide.  Our trip is named after the traditional track & field event (Steeplechase), which is the theme for our adventure.  We will encounter obstacles -- passes, stream crossings, boulder fields, thin air, and the unexpected.  We will surmount each obstacle with enthusiasm, in our quest to reach a remote and beautiful area of the High Sierra.

Our effort to climb from the deep canyon floor to the peaks and passes of the Monarch Divide will be richly rewarded.  Initially, we travel through several life zones, each distinguished by a different conifer.  Few trips provide such a wide range of flora.  We first encounter pinyon pine, sugar pine, and white fir. As we ascend, we notice ponderosa pine among manzanita and black oak. Red fir and Jeffrey pine can be observed in the mid-elevations, followed by western white pine, white bark pine and lodgepole pine in the high basins.

As we climb the south-facing walls of Kings Canyon, the Grand Sentinel and the Sphinx come into view across the gorge.  Eventually the vast Great Western Divide opens to us.  We view numerous peaks, such as Brewer, Clarence King, and Gardiner to name a few.

Our rewards multiply as we cross our first pass into the pristine lake basins of the Monarch region.  We leave the trail and hike cross-country to several lakes famous for their remoteness and beauty, including Kennedy lakes, Volcanic lakes, State lakes, Glacier lakes, Kid lakes and the distinctive Grouse Lake.  Our modest total mileage will allow time to bag a peak or two, for those so inclined. Options may include Dougherty Peak, Munger Peak, Kid Peak, and Goat Mountain.

Monarch 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 out of Kings Canyon at approximately 4,800 feet. All trips out of Kings Canyon begin with a stiff climb! After an easy mile, we head up the north canyon wall in a series of switchbacks on the Lewis Creek Trail. After this initial steep section, the trail becomes slightly more gradual, although we steadily climb throughout the first day.  It’s hard work, but the trail is good. We camp halfway up the gorge at Frying Pan Meadow.

Day 2: We continue to gain elevation as we head north toward Kennedy Pass at 10,900 feet. Wildflowers spread across the little used trail at high elevations.  After “summitting” Kennedy Pass, we work our way east along the Monarch Divide, having completed our hard-earned elevation gain.  East Kennedy Lake (named after a Fresno rancher, not the slain brother of JFK), is one camping option.  More likely, we continue over grassy slopes cross-country to reach the welcoming Volcanic lakes.  We remain high in the alpine region the rest of the trip.  

Day 3: This day is spent exploring the Volcanic lakes. We will travel off-trail, finding our way by map and compass.  The miles will be short, but the terrain challenging. 

Day 4: We return to the trail below the Volcanic lakes.  Hiking north on the Simpson Meadow Trail toward Lake of the Fallen Moon we enter new regions to explore, with several options to continue our combination trail-and-cross-country loop.  Our most northerly destination is Lower State Lake, with beautiful views of a cirque that includes Dougherty and State peaks.  

Day 5: Today is a planned rest day.  Rest day options are many, including relaxing, swimming, a day hike to the Horseshoe lakes, or climbing Dougherty Peak.

Day 6: We leave the trail that links Dougherty Meadow, hiking up Glacier Valley to the Glacier lakes. From there we ascend a cross-country pass to the exquisite Kid lakes.  The location of our campsite this day may depend on the weather and the speed of our group.  We join a portion of the famous Roper Sierra High Route for the last cross-country section of our ramble.

Day 7: Our last night in the wilderness is spent at Grouse Lake, famous for its views across Kings Canyon. The broad granite slabs of Grouse Lake create one of the most picturesque campsites in the entire range; a perfect backdrop to celebrate the culmination of our wilderness journey. 

Day 8: On the final day, we descend to the valley floor via the Copper Creek Trail. We leave the wilderness, return to our cars, and gather at Grant Grove for showers, a hearty late lunch, and beverages.



Getting There

The formal start of the trip is the morning of Saturday, July 20th in Kings Canyon. The trip commences a few miles from the terminus of Highway 180 near the east end of Kings Canyon. Cedar Grove/Kings Canyon is about 60 miles east of Fresno and approximately 220 miles from San Francisco or Los Angeles. A campsite will be reserved for Friday night at Moraine campground 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, July 20th and the final trip meal is lunch on the trail on Saturday, July 27th.  We will have a short car shuttle between the Copper Creek and Lewis Creek trailheads.  The two trailheads are just few minutes' drive apart.

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 gain 6,000 feet from the trailhead to our second camp. We continue our trek at high elevations and across high passes; one 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, are 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. 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.

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 really makes the trip. A helpful article on backpacking equipment is available at 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.  We strive to travel light!


Our plan to traverse the Monarch Divide and its many lake basins is well covered in Tom Harrison's Kings Canyon high country trail map.  USGS topographical quadrangle 7.5-minute maps can be reviewed on line at the USGS.  Relevant USGS topo maps include: the Sphinx, Cedar Grove, Marion Peak, and Slide Bluffs.  See also Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails (The Mountaineers) and Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.  Published by the California Academy of Sciences. 


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.

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


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



Tim Jung hails from the flatlands 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 was a participant in his first Sierra Club national outing more than 20 years ago, and has never stopped enjoying the camaraderie of the shared wilderness experience.

Assistant Leader:

Jake Jaramillo

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