|Date: 6/8/2010 to 6/9/2010|
Location: Kings Canyon National Park - Roads End to Paradise Valley via Woods Creek Trail (see map).
On June 8th, 2010 I went on a two day solo backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park. My plan was to start at the Roads End trail head and follow the South Fork of the Kings River to Upper Paradise Valley. The next day I retraced my steps and hiked back out. By the time I was done, I had hiked approximately 22 miles, ascended a total of 1,916 vertical feet, and reached a maximum elevation of 6,959 feet.
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SmugMug Photo Gallery - over 100 select photos from my trip.
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360 Panoramic Photos - stitched panable photos that let you see more of what I actually saw.
Mist Falls Trail
I’m lucky to live close enough to the Sierras that I can leave my home early in the morning and easily make it to Roads End with most of the day leftover for hiking. Roads End is located in Kings Canyon about 5 or 6 miles east of Cedar Grove, and is literally the “end of the road” of Highway 180. This is a very popular starting point for backpackers, and a trail quota system is in place to help manage the impact people have on the wilderness. I made a reservation for a wilderness permit and picked it up at the Roads End ranger station. The ranger warned me to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and before I made it back to my vehicle to get my pack, I spotted a baby rattler. I don’t like snakes and would see another larger one before the day was over.
This year the Sierra Nevada Mountains received a greater than normal snow pack and the weather had remained unseasonably cooler than normal up to about two weeks before my trip. Then the temps rose quickly causing the snow to melt very rapidly. The Kings River was running at a 20-year high during my visit. The raw power of this raging river was phenomenal. It flooded over its lower banks, and all but the largest of boulders in its bed were completely obscured by a torrent of white, rushing water. It was a very impressive thing to experience.
My hike would take me along the Mist Falls and Woods Creek trails. The Mist Falls trail is one of the most popular and heavily traveled paths in Kings Canyon NP. The Roads End trail head starts at about 5000 foot elevation, and the first two miles of the wide and sandy trail are pretty flat and easy going. This part of Kings Canyon is glacially carved, and the canyon walls tower some 3000 to 5000 feet above the canyon floor. After two miles of hiking I reached a junction with the Bubbs Creek trail and took a moment to stand on Bailey Bridge (a foot bridge) which crosses the Kings River. It is a great spot to exam the river and take pictures.
The canyon, which had been traveling east-west, now turned northward and became narrower. Several sections of the trail had been flooded out and I had to do some minor cross-country detouring to get around them. Then the trail to Mist Falls began a gentle climb upward following the river. As I gained elevation I was treated to spectacular views of the canyon (which only got better as I climbed higher and higher). I especially enjoyed seeing an oddly shaped rock outcrop that presides over the canyon like some regal guardian. John Muir named this natural monument The Sphinx because it vaguely resembles the Great Sphinx of Egypt. After another couple miles and passing through spectacular scenery, I reached Mist Falls. In dryer years it is a beautiful waterfall. This year it was a raging mass of white water that filled it’s basin with a heavy mist for several hundred yards. I appreciated the coolness of the mist, but couldn’t get close enough to take a picture – it was just too wet for my camera and eye glasses.
The trail from Mist Falls to Paradise Valley gains elevation more rapidly than previous sections. The view of the canyon was spectacular as I entered areas with fewer trees. While walking along I spooked another rattlesnake who spooked me back with a shake of it tail. It quickly slithered off the trail and under some nearby rocks. It is hard for me to get used to the idea that rattlesnakes can be found this deep into the Sierras (at about 5700 ft elevation). The canyon became steeper and increasingly more narrow as I continued until I reached Paradise Valley where it abruptly levels off.
Paradise Valley is divided into three sections: Lower, Middle and Upper. And camping is allowed in only one place in each of these sections. At the very beginning of Lower Paradise Valley the Kings River flows through a narrow but relatively flat channel. This short section of river has massive talus boulders sitting in it that create a perfect trap for floating debris. A large natural log jam has formed here which is the landmark that tells me I’ve reached Lower Paradise. It is a neat place to explore. The canyon widens into a flat bottomed valley and the Kings River slows and meanders, its banks lined with aspen and alder trees. Gone is the constant roar of the crashing water found in the river further down canyon. Even with the river’s peak flow this year, it was a tranquil place to visit. My contingency plan was to camp here if I was too tired to go on. But I found myself with adequate energy and enough daylight left to continue on to Middle Paradise or perhaps Upper Paradise Valley.
It ended up being a much longer trek than I expected because of the unanticipated, numerous creek crossing that lay ahead – which quite frankly were a bitch to deal with. This year’s above average snow pack and late melt produced a lot of water coming down the canyon walls that collected in streams. Many of these streams would be dry later in the season. But now they were gorged. It seemed like every quarter to half mile I had to navigate another stream crossing. It wouldn’t have been bad, accept that the trail usually crossed these vernal streams at their widest points and the water was deeper than my boot tops. If there had been 4 to 5 inches less water I could have easily walked through all of the streams. Instead I had to get creative and find safe but passable routes that didn’t require removing my boots.
Other than the half dozen or so stream crossing, the most memorable thing about Middle Paradise Valley was a clearing in the forest that gave me a great view of the falls at Arrow Creek. The clearing may have been made by fire and/or avalanche and was filled with low shrub. Pines and cedars lined the outer perimeter. Just inside of that was a zone of aspen with bright green leaves that quaked in the breeze. The valley was getting deep in shadow as the day approached evening and the light green of the aspen groves stood out against the darker green of the surrounding forest. And beyond this, in Upper Paradise, I could see the falls of Arrow Creek cascading down the canyon wall. It was a neat place to visit, but I didn’t stop for long.
I arrived at the designated campsites in Upper Paradise Valley around 7:30 PM (approximately 11 miles from the trail head). I was tired, hungry and had developed a blister on my left heel. I found a suitable place and put up my tent. I shared the area with two other groups that had already made their camps. One group annoyed me by periodically putting green logs on their campfire which filled the area with smoke. Otherwise it was a nice place to camp. The river was nearby and made a constant yet pleasant noise. Large Ponderosa pines towered around me. And not far away was the Arrow Creek falls. I ate my dinner in the dark and then sacked out for the night. As usual, I didn’t sleep soundly even though I was exhausted. Around 4 am I heard what sounded like a bear growl. Initially, in my groggy state, I tried to convince myself it was my imagination. The next morning I found bear dropping about 30 yards from my tent. That’s to be expected when visiting a popular place.
In the morning I had a chance to explore this place. It was beautiful. Because I was surrounded by pine trees I could only get little glimpses of the surrounding canyon. But what I could see was spectacular. A footbridge had been built across the Kings River a few years ago which made crossing the river far, far easier. Before the bridge, hikers had to either ford the river in a flat gravelly section (impossible at present due to the swift, high water) or attempt to walk across some downed trees lying across the river.
I had allowed myself three days for this trip, but I realized that I couldn’t explore farther than this point because I wouldn’t be able to walk all of the way back to the trail head in one day. If I didn’t have all of those pain-in-the-butt streams to cross on the way back I could have easily walked further in one day. I decided to turn around and head back down the canyon, perhaps staying the night at Lower Paradise. I got there fairly early in the day and thoughts of sleeping in my own bed, a shower and warm meal propelled me onward and after seven hours of hiking I was back at Roads End and my vehicle. I took my time driving home and enjoyed the rest of the trip. Just outside the Grant Grove area on Highway 180 is a vista overlooking the Central Valley. I had never passed through this area at night (it was after 9 PM) and was astonished to see the city lights of Fresno. Actually the entire Central Valley was aglow – a testament to the number of people that live there which reminded me why I like to sometimes escape to the Sierras.
This was a good trip. I covered lots of territory and saw many beautiful things. It wasn’t the epic journey I made last year when I went to Moose Lake in Sequoia NP. And I didn’t have much solitude – I must have run across 50 to 60 people during two days (most were day hikers close to Mist Falls). But it was fun and I took lots of photos. I will return someday and explore further, perhaps doing the entire Rae Lakes Loop.
-- Scott Toste