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Backpacker Magazine – June 2010

Secret Hikes: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Explore a granite wonderland, cross two little-used passes, and score High Sierra solitude on this point-to-point hike.

by: Michael Lanza



Nothing against John Muir and his beloved Yosemite Valley, but backpackers in the know hit the southern Sierra’s east side for the best high-country experience in the Range of Light. The peaks are bigger, the people fewer, and there are so many lakes above treeline that, when you gaze down from above, it’s like looking into a liquid sky.

This 43.7-mile route, joining the Baxter Pass and Sawmill Pass Trails, leads through the best of it. You’ll climb to granite-rimmed alpine basins, camp in secluded sites above treeline, and, yes, stroll 11 miles on the John Muir Trail. Start from Baxter Pass trailhead; it’s 1,500 feet higher than Sawmill, and the initial climb is more shaded. Camp in a site west of Summit Meadow at mile six, to break up the 6,300-foot ascent. The next day, finish the climb to 12,300-foot Baxter Pass—watch for rare California bighorn sheep (only a few hundred exist). Then descend and detour south on the JMT to the Rae Lakes basin, where you’ll camp in a cirque beneath an arc of 12,000- and 13,000-footers. Planning tip: This spot is so exquisite, it demands a layover day (see Magic Moment) and a dip in Dollar Lake (enter from the sandy beach at the north end). Then, backtrack north two miles on the JMT to the unmarked Sawmill Trail junction (at 10,346 feet, less than a mile south of Twin Lakes). Here, the JMT swings north below the west face of 12,372-foot Mt. Cedric Wright at mile 24. Cut south and climb two miles to Woods Lake. Spend your last night near the lake. On your last day, finish the climb to 11,347-foot Sawmill Pass, then work through a 10-mile, 6,800-foot drop to the trailhead.

›› Magic Moment When the solitude and scenery ratchet up a notch in the hidden
paradise of Sixty Lakes Basin, you linger to count every single tarn in your Sierra kingdom. Hike here during your layover at Rae Lakes: Turn off the JMT on the northwest shore of the upper Rae Lake onto an unmaintained use trail; it’s four miles round-trip.

›› Local Knowledge Acclimatize by sleeping for a night pretrip at Onion Valley Campground ($16, recreation.gov), at 9,185 feet. Pack a fly rod to fish for trout in the nearby stream in Grays Meadow.

›› Do It Start: From US 395, 2.3 miles north of Independence, drive 5.8 miles west on Fish Hatchery Road (bearing right at a fork). End: From US 395, 8.6 miles north of Independence, link Black Rock Springs, Tinemaha, and Division Creek Powerhouse Roads 3.5 miles to trailhead. Map Tom Harrison Maps Kings Canyon High Country ($9; tomharrisonmaps.com) Contact (559) 565-3341; nps.gov/seki



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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Giampiero
Apr 04, 2014

In August of 2013, I used the Sawmill Pass as an entry onto the JMT and Whitney. Sawmill was great, but there was not a ton of info out there. I thought I'd share a trip report. The Sawmill Pass is the first section of this report. Happy Trails Everyone!
http://giampiero.com/hiking/john-muir-trail/

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Sep 23, 2013

You still have FEE-FREE NATIONAL PARK DAYS this year! September 28 and November 9-11 weekend. When hiking with kids, teach them how to stay found without using a compass or map by reading "Felix the Sugar Glider: Be Safe. Hike Smart." (Amazon). This book uses a fun approach to staying found on or off the trail. And for anyone wanting to know how to use a compass, this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Before you hit the trail, be sure to calibrate your compass to the declination of where you will be hiking. Go to: http://magnetic-declination.com. A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather day or night but you need to know how to use it. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart". The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Sep 23, 2013

You still have FEE-FREE NATIONAL PARK DAYS this year! September 28 and November 9-11 weekend. When hiking with kids, teach them how to stay found without using a compass or map by reading "Felix the Sugar Glider: Be Safe. Hike Smart." (Amazon). This book uses a fun approach to staying found on or off the trail. And for anyone wanting to know how to use a compass, this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Before you hit the trail, be sure to calibrate your compass to the declination of where you will be hiking. Go to: http://magnetic-declination.com. A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart". The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Learn to stay found day or night by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors.

Star Star Star Star Star
AZ Hiker
Sep 23, 2013

You still have more FEE- FREE NATIONAL PARK DAYS this year! September 28 and November 9-11 weekend. When hiking with kids, teach them how to stay found without using a compass or map by reading "Felix the Sugar Glider: Be Safe. Hike Smart." (Amazon). This book uses a fun approach to staying found on or off the trail. And for anyone wanting to know how to use a compass, this book makes learning how to use a compass easy. Before you hit the trail, be sure to calibrate your compass to the declination of where you will be hiking. Go to: http://magnetic-declination.com. A compass doesn't need satellites, a signal, or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it. Learn how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Look for it on Amazon, "Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart". The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Learn to stay found day or night by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. Learn what to pack for a day-hike, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail) just in case you end up unexpectedly spending the night outdoors.

sarah
Jul 14, 2012

we just finished this hike (early july 2012). we went with a group of experienced backpackers, and this trail is tough. the climb up baxter pass is very difficult / steep for the entire climb, and the trail is unmaintained - we lost the trail several times and needed a gps to find it. the climb down sawmill is also tough as it is steep down hill and seems to go on forever. scenery is great, especially once you get further west, but we wish we had just started from inside king's canyon from the start.

sarah
Jul 14, 2012

we just finished this hike (early july 2012). we went with a group of experienced backpackers, and this trail is tough. the climb up baxter pass is very difficult / steep for the entire climb, and the trail is unmaintained - we lost the trail several times and needed a gps to find it. the climb down sawmill is also tough as it is steep down hill and seems to go on forever. scenery is great, especially once you get further west, but we wish we had just started from inside king's canyon from the start.

ponca
Mar 22, 2012

If someone happens to find a wedding band on baxter pass, please let me know. It means a lot to me.

Loren
Mar 22, 2012

I can figure out the basic trail but is there a name so I can look up past trip reports?

Matt Menger
Mar 22, 2012

I lost a wedding band on the Baxter Pass Trail headed up to the pass in August 2010. I was suffering from altitude sickness, so don't remember exactly where, but somewhere ~ 9-11,000 feet. Anybody finds it, please contact me at menger83@aol.com Thanks.

Attraction in Australia
Aug 19, 2010

Lake is a worthy companion to the nearby Rae Lakes. Its convoluted landscape leads to generally smaller lakes and a more intimate feel than does the open landscape of the Rae Lakes. Each hollow in the granite holds a pleasant surprise: a meadow, a small campsite, a bubbling stream, or maybe your own private lake.
http://www.australiavoyage.net

JKamp
Jul 13, 2010

Is there a map of this 43.7 mile trail that someone can link too?

Moonduster
Jul 12, 2010

Isn't Cathedral Lake in Yosemite, not Kings Canyon?

Warren
Jul 08, 2010

I was just up there hiking to cathedral lake and I believe that hike is lower elevation but there was still enough snow to mask the trail. Can you believe snow in JULY! We were able to find the lake by following other footprints, but I wonder if this hike described above is not as popular, and is higher in elev, then perhaps it's easier to get lost in the wilderness? Would you recommend a GPS for this hike, and what are some corresponding co-ordinates? Thanks. P.s large trout seen jumping for food at cathedral lake last weekend.

Loren mckechnie
Jul 08, 2010

Kings canyon has some of the post pristine & amazing fly fishing in small streams. Not to be missed! Get out there! See you on the trail.

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