Living in a Hiker’s Paradise: SEKI

Neighboring national parks Kings Canyon and Sequoia are known by locals jointly as “SEKI”. They’re even administrated jointly. The two parks, however, are vastly different.  Kings Canyon is made up of a series of glacially sculpted canyons through which flow the ever beautiful Kings River and its tributaries. Sequoia protects groves of the Big Trees, beloved by all who meet them. One thing that both parks have in common is that they are predominantly wilderness areas, making them ideal places for hikers to get away from the crowds.

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Camping in an alpine meadow – Kings Canyon National Park

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Oobee meets a Big Tree – Sequoia National Park

We visited SEKI in the end of October, spending most of our time in Kings Canyon. This park was established in 1940 to preserve the spectacular Kings Canyon.  It also incorporated what was once General Grant National Park.  As it is part of the high sierra, I naturally was engrossed by its majesty.  Excepting a road running through the “Kings Canyon” section of the park , most of Kings Canyon Park is for hiking use only.

I initially wanted to head north on foot from the end of the road, where I expected less hikers to be present. However, there was a prescribed burn in that area. Instead we hiked the popular Rae Lakes Loop. Despite the popularity of this trail, we were able to find solitude by hiking an unmaintained trail into 60 Lake Basin. This was by far the highlight of our hike, though the whole loop was awe-inspiring.

The trailhead from which we started was at an elevation of 5,000 feet above the sea. The highest point of our hike would be Glen Pass—nearly 12,000 feet above the sea. 7,000 feet is no small gain. We completed the loop in a clockwise direction, heading north toward Paradise Valley. The first day’s hike through a canyon leading to Paradise Valley granted us spectacular views of the cascades and waterfalls of the South Fork of the Kings River. Even though it was well into autumn, the water flowed swiftly: white and foamy where it made leaps over rocks or plunges into deep, cool, mint-colored pools. Yellow fall colors dotted the landscape of white, green, and yellow granite and mostly evergreen trees (jeffrey pines, white firs, incense cedars, and the occasional noble sugar pine).

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Jeffrey Pine – Kings Canyon National Park

I was a bit ahead of Stephanie on the trail when suddenly I saw a black bear just 100 feet in front of me on the side of the trail. Not wanting to spook nor approach it alone, I crept backward on the trail until I ran into Stephanie. I told her I had seen a bear, and we walked forward cautiously. When we rounded the corner where I had initially seen it, we saw instead three hikers approaching us. They had already spooked the bear. She was now 20 feet off the trail, cowering. We walked by quickly, hopefully leaving her in peace.

We camped on the river in Lower Paradise Valley at a site that was gorgeous except for the abundance of used toilet paper spread about the premises by previous campers. Disgusted, we used our hiking poles to collect it all in the fire pit and burnt it all. Some people’s kids are flipping nasty.

The following day was tough—I was lacking energy as we had not eaten enough the day before, (having forgotten two days lunch in the FunBus). We slogged uphill for what seemed like many many miles—though it was only about six. Finally, the beautiful Castle Domes came into view. As we descended toward a meadow, the view became more and more breathtaking. When we reached the meadow floor, surrounded almost completely by impressive Sierra peaks, I said “We should probably camp here.” Stephanie agreed. We had been hoping to at least reach the junction of the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails, but this place was too fantastic to pass up.

 

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Castle Domes – Kings Canyon National Park

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Stephanie cooks gnocchi – Kings Canyon backcountry

We set up camp in a sandy area that had clearly served as a horse camp. I spent some time taking photos before the sun receded behind the western peaks. Then, we ate delicious pesto gnocchi followed by hot chocolate to warm our bones. We went to bed early as it was dark by seven o’clock, but—in the spirit of Halloween—we started listening to Dracula on audio.

Day three was just as grueling as the former day. Though I entertained myself by identifying the changing forest trees as we climbed higher and higher, the hike was exhausting. I wanted to reach the second creek crossing before we had lunch, but it seemed to take forever.  I ran out of water and ended up drinking straight from the creek.  I guess one of the crossings I had been searching for was more dried up than I expected, because finally, around 3pm, we came to a lake at the Baxter Pass junction—far past both creek crossings. Here we ate lunch and got ready to move on, but Stephanie repeated three times how much she loved this beautiful spot. The third time, she embraced the puppy dog eyes, so I said “Ok, dear, let’s camp here tonight.” We again didn’t get as far as planned—but instead camped at a very beautiful site. The small lake glittered, with Fin Dome peaking up behind it to the south. Tonight’s entertainment was a busy duck fishing for dinner on the lake.

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Camp at dusk – Kings Canyon National Park

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Fin Dome viewed from camp in the morning – Kings Canyon National Park

In the morning, the now still lake was even more beautiful.  I could’ve stayed all day, but I knew it would be worth it to get ourselves to 60 Lake Basin. After hiking just a mile, we came upon the first of Rae Lakes.  These series of lakes surrounded by colorfully forested peaks were gorgeous, and also popular. We could now see Fin Dome just across the lake from us. At the last lake, we reached the junction into 60 lake basin.

I had my map and compass ready for a difficult trail, but the unmaintained trail proved to be easy enough to follow. We climbed switchback after switchback uphill for a couple of miles, granting us beautiful views of Rae Lakes below.

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View above Rae Lakes – Kings Canyon National Park

When, huffing and puffing, we finally reached the top of the climb, a small and beautiful lake greeted us and we sat with her to catch our breath.

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Break on a Lake – Kings Canyon National Park

After circling uphill around this lake, we were suddenly overlooking more lakes on the other side below us.  Climbing down into the basin was steep and slick in some places. We followed the trail across many lakes, and got up close and personal with the other side of Fin Dome.  Once we were well into the basin, the trail began to fade and to go in different directions. While Stephanie took a break and watched our packs, I ran ahead looking for the perfect camp spot. I ended up finding us a spot on what we liked to call “our lake”, as we turned out to be the only ones in the basin for the two nights that we stayed there.  This was truly a hidden paradise, and I felt as at home on this lake as anywhere I’ve ever lived.

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Spot our tent? – Kings Canyon National Park

In the morning, I woke up in the dark and made a pot of coffee. This I carried with me as I circled “our lake” and climbed a rock that jutted out toward the middle of the lake.  I sat upon this rock watching the dark turn to light, taking pictures, and waiting for the sun to come up over the surrounding peaks. Finally, impatient with waiting (the peaks being quite tall), I headed back to camp.

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Dawn on “our lake” – Kings Canyon National Park

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The Sun is up but not over the peak – Kings Canyon National Park

When Stephanie woke up, we ate breakfast and drank more coffee. Life was good. We then hiked south from our campsite up one of the smaller peaks for a view of “our lake” from above. We were pleased to see another lake on the other side as well. After this hike, I took Stephanie out to the rock on which I had spent my solitary morning. We then explored north along the slight trails. After viewing a few more lakes, we stopped and ate lunch. After lunch, we decided we were both feeling lazy and headed back to our little paradise.

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Last shot of 60 Lake Basin – Kings Canyon National Park

The next morning, we left 60 Lake Basin early as we had a very difficult day ahead. After climbing back up and then down to Rae Lakes, we then ascended yet again to the highest point of our hike: Glen Pass. Not wanting to carry too much water up to the pass, I hoped to filter more at one of the few small lakes on the way. Unfortunately, when we reached these lakes, I quickly realized that they were very difficult to reach. They were both at the bottom of long talus slopes. Needing water, I backtracked to what looked like the most gradual route to the lake. I first had to go up a small hill of talus. After going over this, there was yet another hill to cross before I would reach the lake. Fortunately, between these two hills was a pond about twenty feet long. This, I decided, would suffice. The only problem was that it was frozen over. I hastily grabbed a large rock and broke the surface. The ice was thin and I was glad for the scummy pond water.

After this detour, the hike up to Glen Pass did not get any easier. To be honest, much of the rest of this day was a blur to me. It was so strenuous and exhausting that I didn’t even stop to take any photos.  After the long day, we camped along Bubb’s Creek and slept soundly. The following day, our hike out was quick and easy, and we were happy to get back to the unlimited snacks in the FunBus.

Completing a six-night backcountry hike in Kings Canyon was an amazing and challenging opportunity. After we hiked out, we recovered for the rest of the day and night at a free campsite in the Sequoia National Forest. Though I had no regrets about our epic hike, the length of it regrettably meant that we had fewer days to explore Sequoia National Park. We had wanted to undertake an intense backcountry hike among the giants, but alas, that trip will have to wait until our return to the Sierras.

Nevertheless, we did enjoy a few day hikes in the sequoia groves.  Sequoia National Park was in fact the second national park, established in 1890  to protect the endangered Sequoia trees from the threat of logging. Like their coastal brothers, the sequoias are designed to survive the ages, but cannot survive man’s greed. Many of the biggest giants are long gone. Still, we can hope that the majesty of the few remaining sequoias will continue to inspire their protection forever.

“Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” –John Muir

We particularly enjoyed hiking through the less popular Redwood Mountain Grove. The highlights of this hike included the remains of a small cabin built in a hollow fallen tree and the Hart Tree (see below).

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Old cabin in a sequoia – Sequoia National Park

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Doorway into sequoia cabin – Sequoia National Park

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Hart Tree – Sequoia National Park

The following day, we visited the General Sherman Tree which, by mass, is the largest tree on earth!

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General Sherman Tree – Sequoia National Park

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General Sherman Tree from above – Sequoia National Park

I also enjoyed admiring the beautiful and tiny sequoia cones. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small can produce such a giant.

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Sequoia cone – Sequoia National Park

SEKI is a hiker’s paradise because both parks include vast expanses of wilderness areas which are full of trails and void of roads. The scenery is similar to that of nearby Yosemite National Park, including abundant flora and fauna, beautiful Sierra peaks, and alpine lakes. Furthermore, the hiking conditions are similarly fantastic to those of Yosemite: great weather and very few bugs. The difference? There are far less visitors who enter the backcountry of SEKI. For those who enjoy solitude, this is a place where it can still be found.

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