Middle Fork Kings River Gorge

17 Sep 1999 - by Ron Hudson

A Grand Circle; Middle Fork Kings River Gorge, Tehipite Dome and State Mtn; and Finishing up the 1999 Summer Season

I had this curiosity about the Middle Fork of the Kings River and, since I needed two "orphans" for the SPS list, was enticed by the possibility of doing the two peaks by an unusual way and exploring a relatively unknown route up a canyon gorge. So, on Sept 17 with about 3 days food and a light pack (15 lb) I parked my car at Yucca Point, which is west of Horseshoe Bend on the Kings Canyon road and about 9 miles west of Cedar Grove. I even had a small rope and somes pieces of climbing gear with me. A maintained trail used mainly by fishermen switch backs gradually down to the river 500 feet below. The trail ends at the junction of the Middle Fork (flows from Tehipite Valley) and the South Fork (flows from Kings Canyon). I then proceeded up the Middle Fork. The seven miles of unknown river canyon between the junction and Little Tehipite Valley did not look too bad on the topo map; some width to the canyon most of the length, except near the upper end and with little significant contour gradient. I had asked around, but got no word that anybody had surely gone the length of the canyon before. I found no description of a route in the guide books we use for the Sierra. And why was there no route? It would be a challenge, if it is possible. During floods, and maybe much of the year anyway, a lot of water from a tremendous area would drain through the narrow gorge; it probably is impassable with any safety much of the time.

I then proceeded up the rocky river bottom at not a fast rate, less than one mile per hour. The going involved boulder hopping from small, up to room size boulders. Sand, brush, some forest, some class 3, and multiple river crossings is what it was. The going was not bad, with only a few obstacles that took a lot of route finding. The most difficult aspect in terms of safety was going through the river where its flow narrowed to 10 feet or less between boulders. The flow was not particularly high; the logs and debris on the canyon sides 20-30 feet above the current water line attest to flows thousands of time greater than the present late September flow. It was about an average snowfall year for the area; however, there had been summer rain, and snowfields from two winters ago melting in the heat. Where the river was 50 feet wide, it was maybe 18 inches deep with no rapid flow and was easy to wade.

I often had no choice about the route and was forced to go through a swift flow in a number of places. However, I never had to swim and only a couple times got wet above the crotch. So, in the swift places I held onto rocks or used a pole to hold against the current. A few places I went well above the river on slabs to get around it. One spot was about 150' high and took me half an hour to find a passable route. There were birds and a couple ducks around in the gorge but surprisingly few fish. I guess the yearly snow melt flood is too high for many fish to survive.

The canyon walls are high and spectacular. The bouldery terrain required extensive going up and down, in and around, through and over. After seven hours in the canyon the first day, I bedded down in a sandy spot and made a fire. I was only a mile from the end, but I did not know if the real narrow spot on the map at the outlet from Little Tehipite Valley would be passable. The upper two miles, of the seven in the unknown gorge, had a strip of wooded forest on one side and I even followed a small trail that had bear prints. Things had gone well so far; better than I had expected with only the swift spots being a problem; but excitement goes with danger and anticipation! Right near the end, though, I saw evidence of man. A few boot prints and a fire ring with charcoal. So I knew somebody must have come there from Tehipite Valley. It turned out that the final section was completely vertical on the sides, but had a flat stony bottom with little gradient and 50 feet wide; easy to wade. It was a relief to get into Little Tehipite Valley with much flat and open forest area. There were some old camps used by horse parties, and plenty of space and flat terrain.

Going through the first Valley there were a couple of old cabin ruins; I guess they had been used by sheepherders and fishermen. I picked up a trail leaving Little Tehipite Valley, shortly later I could see the massive hulk of Tehipite Dome, and I was in Tehipite Valley. The Dome towers 3500 feet above and is the highest (from top to bottom I guess) in the Sierra. There are good views also of slick granite to the south including the Gorge of Despair. Lots of forest and meadow and good campsite area. There was one party camped there; the only people I saw on my 3 1/2 day trip. The river plain has a lot of boulder rubble without vegetation; this could be from the recent flood years. I spent hours trying to get to the top of the dome from the Valley. First on the E side of the creek on its W side then on the W side of the Creek. There was an animal trail going up past the waterfalls SW of the Dome and I followed it up about 1500' in altitude, but I would have had to drop way down to the creek on steep terrain and then go way back up toward the Dome. Anyway, I needed to move on because I was going to be in Reno in two days to pick up two orienteering friends at the airport. I went back down; then east along the Valley bottom. I followed the trail shown on some maps on the north side of the river. The trouble was that it had not been maintained in a long time and had numerous washouts, fallen logs, and obscuration by vegetation growth. I stopped to sleep, then started before dawn and continued on. I had only made one mile per hour in the Valley until I got to within two miles of the junction at Simpson Meadow. There it became a normal maintained trail.

I continued across Simpson Meadow toward Granite Pass, State Peak being my goal. Then climbed up the pass on the not much used trail, but it was in fairly good shape. I left the trail to get to the lakes on the W side of State Peak. I was running out of food; I had brought three days worth I thought, but long days made me eat a lot. Many ripe gooseberries around helped provide something in my stomach with some caloric value. I even found some huckleberries (tiny compared to those in cold climes like Alaska) that tasted delicious. I also tried some wild onion roots/bulbs; they are starchy but too tangy! I had brought little clothing and no tent or bivy sack, to save weight. Weather had been great and was forecasted so, but lots of clouds were forming around some of the peaks. I went up the main SW ridge on State 1000' or so but found it ending in a cliff. I would need to drop down 500' and continue upward. Unfortunately it was near sunset and worse, it started raining. I did not like class 2 and 3 on the slippery rocks. It was an unfortunate situation. Only an hour or two away from the peak that I had already seven years before failed on, with the prospect of having to spend at least another two days of my life to get this remote peak. But I could not safely continue in the rain and approaching darkness. So I went downward and on to Granite Pass - soggy meadows and swollen streamlets from the rain. But into the night it still continued raining! I stopped occasionally at some quite bountiful gooseberry bushes that the squirrels and bears hadn't yet visited. I got fairly filled up with my wild fruit dinner. At least I had gotten down to a lower safer elevation, but was getting cold in the wind and wet. At one point, I could only stand under the shadow of a tree but was getting soaked. No good wood or dry area there to start a fire. I did warm up by wrapping my sleeping bag around me inside my wind parka.

Then, finally, the rain stopped. I walked on with my flashlight until I came to a location more sheltered by trees. There was enough dry wood to get a good fire going, and I sat around it for a couple hours, until 11 pm warming up and drying everything out. But I still needed to hike out 12 miles and be back to Roads End fairly early in the morning to try make my appointment in Reno. I knew I would be late now; I proceeded with haste by waking up at 2:30 am and starting on the trail at 3:15. It is not bad getting going in the cold with a fire to warm up with first! So I walked for hours in the dark. I kept walking to the pass and then down all the switchbacks to Kings Canyon. I finally made it to Road's End at 10:30 am, Sept 20. It would have been earlier except for a nap and, when I got up, still in the dark, I got turned around and stupidly walked 180 degrees in the wrong direction! It was 25 minutes until I realized my error, so I did one section of the trail three times. The hike was an epic of about 48 miles, starting at 2800' and going up to 12,000', and a constant battle to meet my time schedule for the last two days.

Next was the problem of getting back to my car. I was about three miles to the Cedar Grove lodge and another nine to my vehicle. There were some cars and an occasional day visitor at Road's end. I resigned myself to walking at least to the lodge. But, a car came, I stuck out my thumb, and got a ride to the lodge. There I satisfied my hunger for a while -- ah -- real food! Although I didn't want to impose on people, the only way I was going to get to Reno was to start walking the nine miles or be bold. I asked some people who looked like backpackers without luck. At the entrance to the lodge a couple were loading their car; I asked, and they let me join them. Perhaps they didn't want to confront a grub like me with a "no" answer. They were from out of state just touring the parks, and found that I could be a tour guide for the nine miles. I was back at my car at 1 pm. On the way to Reno, I was able to leave a phone message for my friends and got there at 8:30 pm, only two hours late.

While I was there in the Tahoe area for the U.S. Orienteering Championships I was able to finish the five SPS List peaks I needed around there. The conditioning and acclimatization from all the peakbagging helped me in winning my age division (men 50-54). It was fun, and 400 people attended the meet. No problem with the peaks (Highland, Round Top, Granite Chief, English, and Lola), I just made sure I wore bright red, with the hunters around.

I did Tehipite Dome (#244) Sept. 29, on the the way back home from Tahoe, as a day hike. It took me 12 1/2 hours from Rancheria trailhead for the muchly level 29 miles. A note about the route on Tehipite here. Near the Dome on the way in I went x-c from the trail and down the brushy ridge leaving the Blue Canyon trail at 8600'; this is recommended in R.J. Secor's guidebook. Coming back; however, I was able to save an hour by heading NW from the dome's N ridge before the first peaklet on the ridge, contouring and walking through the small valley to the head of the spur at 0.7 mi NNE of the summit, a saddle 1.1 mi NNE of the summit, and the trail at 7700' a couple hundred yards N of that saddle. It was much easier than the way I came down, with little brush and saved me a least a mile and 700' of gain.

I then climbed #245 - Alta Peak the next week (Oct 4) after attending Steve Eckert's list finish (his #247 on Kern Peak). I did it via Lodgepole-Tokopah Falls-Emerald Lk and a third class route (not mentioned in Secor) up the N face of its W Ridge. And the next week (Oct. 12), my second to the last on the list, State Peak from Taboose Pass. I didn't want to go over Granite Pass again! I saw nobody in the two days and two nights it took me. I walked down the S Fork Kings River from Taboose Pass and the Muir Trail intersection about 4 miles. There was a use trail in places and some brush, mostly avoidable. Lots of fish in the river! I left the river at about 9040' to go up the slope and drainage (class 1) to the lakes area 1.0 mi NE of the summit. Then skirted around to the south (class 2) the ridge at the head of the lakes basin and up the E side of the peak (class 2) to the summit. Came back down the ridge, class 3, and back the same the rest of the way. The fall colors were beautiful; yellows, reds, oranges of the aspens and willows there.

So only San Joaquin Mtn remains for me on the Sierra Peaks List; I'll finish that probably by late spring 2000. It was a great summer!

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