Wonders of the Kings-Kern Divide: Center and Milestone Basins, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13138A, Backpacking


  • Explore spectacular alpine lakes and flower-filled meadows
  • Enjoy wide-ranging views including Mt. Whitney and Milestone Mountain
  • Relax in this alpine wonderland on two layover days


  • Tasty vegetarian-friendly meals
  • All cooking equipment and bear-proof food canisters
  • All permits and campground fees


DatesAug 10–19, 2013
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffChris Franchuk

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Remote alpine basins, meadows filled with wildflowers, sparkling lakes, and dramatic towering peaks -- these are the wonders of the Kings-Kern Divide. Extending from the Great Western Divide to the Sierra Crest, the Kings-Kern Divide is a wall of 13,000-foot peaks with only one trail route passing through -- the John Muir Trail. While most visitors to this region merely pass through, we will venture off the beaten path, first stopping to visit Center Basin. Quietly tucked away and easy to overlook, Center Basin holds bits of history and awe-inspiring beauty. After crossing Forester Pass, we travel to the upper Kern River Basin, a vast amphitheater of alpine meadows and lakes hidden amongst granite outcroppings, with breathtaking views of surrounding peaks. Although technically off the Kings-Kern Divide, Milestone Basin is a nearby hidden gem that caps our adventure.

The trip is suitable for the well-conditioned and experienced backpacker. We will travel a total of 48 miles over seven hiking days, some with long ascents and steep descents, on established trails and cross-country routes. There will be two layover days to relax in camp, explore the surroundings, try your luck fishing, or climb a nearby peak. Join an enjoyable group of new friends as we discover the wonders of Kings-Kern Divide.


Day 1: On Saturday August 10th, we will meet at a campground near our Onion Valley trailhead for our first afternoon together. We will take this opportunity to become acquainted with our fellow backpacking companions, review details of the trip, arrange a car shuttle to our exit trailhead, and enjoy a potluck dinner together.

Day 2: We will finish trip preparations and drive a short distance to our trailhead (9,192 feet). The steep climb out of Onion Valley passes numerous lakes, including well-named Pothole Lake, before we enter Kings Canyon National Park at 11,811-foot Kearsarge Pass. After enjoying the view, we descend to camp at one of the many lakes, nestled below the Kearsarge Pinnacles.

Days 3-4: After passing stunningly photogenic Bullfrog Lake, we turn south on the John Muir Trail and descend into Vidette Meadow. Turning up canyon, we soon leave the trail to make our way to Golden Bear Lake in Center Basin, where we will camp for the next two nights. This route was once part of the original John Muir Trail until the trail over Forester Pass was built in 1932. Day 4 will be a layover day to explore the basin, climb a nearby peak, search for one of trapper Shorty Lovelace’s old cabins, or just relax in this alpine gem of the Sierra Nevada.

Day 5: This will be one of the most challenging days of the trip. With an early start, we return to the John Muir Trail and begin our steep climb up to our crossing of the Kings-Kern Divide at Forester Pass, which at 13,180 feet is the highest pass on the John Muir Trail. Now in Sequoia National Park, our route makes a steep descent down exposed switchbacks to our camp near sheer-walled and flat-topped Diamond Mesa.

Days 6-8: Over the next three days, our itinerary will become more relaxed, including one layover day. Where we decide to spend our time will depend upon what we as a group decide. Our route leaves the popular John Muir Trail and takes us cross-country into a meadow and lake-dotted alpine landscape that is tucked up against the Kings-Kern Divide. With sweeping views of the surrounding 13,000-foot peaks, the distinct pinnacle of Milestone Mountain will become visible as we make our way to aptly named Milestone Basin, situated just below the mountain.

Day 9: Hiking east over the Kern Plateau, a spectacular view over Kern Canyon and its surrounding peaks slowly changes with each step. Mt Whitney and the other peaks of the Sierra Crest will lead us through a growingly sparse, but no less beautiful, landscape to our crossing at Shepherd Pass (12,050 feet). We make a steep, rocky descent to our final night’s camp overlooking Owens Valley.

Day 10: On our last day, we will leave the alpine wonderland behind as we make our way down the eastern flank of the Sierra Crest. As we descend, our environment slowly changes to that of the high desert. In this dry environment, we will eventually find a small oasis of shade and humidity just before we reach the trailhead, marking the end of our adventure.



Getting There

Our trip starts in Onion Valley, off Highway 395 near Independence, California. Driving times are approximately 4-5 hours from Los Angeles, 5 hours from Las Vegas, 5-6 hours from Reno, or 6-7 hours from San Francisco Bay Area. There is no public transportation to the trailhead, but Eastern Sierra Transit (www.estransit.com) has service from Reno to nearby Independence. Information will be sent to all confirmed participants to help you set up travel and carpooling arrangements with other participants if you wish to. We recommend that you not reserve return flights on Monday, August 19th, as we cannot guarantee that we’ll reach our exit trailhead in time for return flights that day.

Accommodations and Food

Campground reservations will be provided for the first night, Saturday, August 10th. During our trip, we will seek out backcountry campsites that are pleasant and scenic while adhering to all land agency regulations and Leave No Trace principles. The trip fee includes the first night campground, all trip meals (starting with breakfast on our second day through lunch on our last trip day), as well as individual trail snacks. Meals will be hearty and appeal to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Trip members will share responsibilities for meal preparation and cleanup.

Trip Difficulty

Overall the trip difficulty is rated 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 corresponds to the most difficult trip), with some days being more difficult than others. We will hike 5-10 miles per day on both established trails and cross-country routes, with elevation gains of up to 2,600 feet per day and some long descents (4,600 feet on the last day). The elevation range for the trip is 9,192-13,180 feet, excluding our exit trailhead (6,300 feet), with the majority of our time being spent between 10,700-11,800 feet in elevation. It typically takes a few days for most folks to adjust to these altitudes. It is recommended to arrive a day or two early to help your body acclimate to the altitude.

Participation in this outing requires that you have recent backpacking experience, have very good aerobic and physical conditioning, proper equipment, and realistic expectations for the trip. Experience in cross-country backpacking is not necessarily required, but having good balance and a patient, tolerant attitude are requirements for the trip. Carrying a 40-pound pack for miles uphill over rough terrain for several days is a physically demanding and aerobic task. In order to enjoy this trip, participants need to train at least 4-5 months in advance with aerobic exercise such as running, bicycling, hiking, swimming, etc. and some strength training. The best preparation technique is to day hike with a weighted pack and hiking boots up hills or stairs. This closely mimics backpacking, which allows the body, feet and mind to adapt to the physical task as well as your equipment.

It is essential that you be prepared for extremes in weather conditions (see Equipment). Although it is known for its temperate summer weather, the Sierra Nevada can experience sudden, unexpected spells of rain, hail, snow, heat, and cold at any time during the year. (Both leaders have experienced freezing conditions in August.) Summer daytime temperatures can soar into the upper 80s, while nighttime temperatures can dip into the 30s or lower. The very nature of a backpack trip sometimes requires the occasional change in route, assisting other trip members, or the possibility of turning back for safety reasons. Therefore, participants should have a flexible and team-oriented attitude. You can expect to have an enjoyable time exploring the spectacular backcountry of the Sierra Nevada with a new group of friends and experienced leaders who will work with you to make this a great trip.

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club will provide group cooking equipment (stoves, fuel, pots & cooking utensils), a group first-aid kit, water purification tablets (you may bring your own preferred water treatment method, such as a filter or chemical treatment), and bear-proof food storage canisters (i.e. bear cans). At the start of the trip you will be issued a full bear can and a portion of the group gear with a combined weight of up to 17 pounds. It is very important that you limit your personal gear and pack weight to no more than 25 pounds, so that together with 1-2 liters of water your total pack weight will be 45 pounds or less at the start of the trip. We require that you bring or plan to share a tent (highly recommended) or lightweight tarp (at a minimum), sturdy & comfortable but well-broken-in boots that provide good ankle support, a sleeping bag that will keep you warm in freezing temperatures, a small personal first-aid kit and waterproof rain jacket & pants. The leader will send a detailed equipment list to participants well in advance of the trip. For more information on personal gear, go to http://www.knapsack.org/basic_equipment.html. The leaders reserve the right to weigh and inspect your gear at the beginning of the trip as needed, for both your comfort and trip enjoyment.



  • White, M., Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, A complete Hiker’s Guide (2 volumes), Wilderness Press, 2007. Includes trail descriptions of some of our route.
  • Morey, K & White, M., Sierra South, 8th Edition, Wilderness Press, 2006. Includes trail descriptions of some of our route.
  • Secor, R. J., The High Sierra -- Peaks, Passes, and Trails, The Mountaineers, 2009. An excellent general reference to trails, cross-country routes, and climbing routes in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, California Academy of Sciences, 2007. An excellent guide to the plants and wildlife of the Sierra Nevada.


  • Natural Geographic Trails Illustrated Sequoia / Kings Canyon map (1:80,000) shows the entire combined National Park, our route and nearby areas.
  • Tom Harrison's trail maps:  Kings Canyon High Country Trail Map and Mt Whitney High Country Trail Map (1:63,360) together show our entire route.
  • The U.S.G.S. 7.5-minute series maps: Kearsarge Pass, Mount Clarence King, Mount Brewer, and Mount Williamson (1:24,000) together provide greater detail of our entire route.


The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy and participation in the goals of the Club.

As California’s principal watershed, the Sierra Nevada is a critical resource to the health of the state’s people, environment, and economy. Increasing demand for water, as well as constant conflicting watershed land-use pressure highlight a growing water crisis. The area we will be traveling in comprises two of the Sierra’s major watersheds -- the Kings and Kern Rivers. During the trip, we will spend some time discussing past, present, and future issues concerning this and other watersheds.

We will also be discussing and practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace. With an average annual visitation around 1.5 million, Kings and Sequoia national parks, like many other wilderness areas, provides inspiration to people from all over the world. While our wild lands are diverse and beautiful, they are also fragile. Collectively we can help protect them today and for future generations by further educating ourselves and adopting the skills and ethics that enable us to leave no trace.

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



Growing up next to the Cascade Mountains near Seattle, Washington, Chris began backpacking at an early age with his father and the Boy Scouts of America, where he earned its highest rank of Eagle Scout. He has been a trip leader with Sierra Club National Outings Program since 2009, backpacking and climbing throughout the Sierra Nevada, and has adventure-traveled throughout the United States and abroad, including Belize, Peru, Switzerland, Australia and Tanzania. Chris currently lives in San Jose, California where he is a technical project manager and is working on a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He enjoys reading, photography, running and riding his bike around San Francisco Bay.


Nancy Mathison took her first wilderness trip to the High Sierra in 1972 and has returned to its spectacular landscape to backpack and cross-country ski every year since then. She began participating in the Sierra Club National Outings Program in 2001 to venture off the beaten path with other backpackers who share her love for adventure and the wild, pristine beauty of the Sierra. Having led over 20 trips for Sierra Club National Outings, she has backpacked throughout the western United States and Alaska, and has hiked in Switzerland and Italy. In her other life back down at sea level, Nancy is a professional clarinetist and teaches instrumental music in the public schools. She enjoys weekly hikes in the mountains near Santa Barbara, and has recently begun to dabble with organic urban farming.

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