Section 3 of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route (KCHBR) begins at Junction Meadow and ends at the South Fork Kings River at the bottom of the Cartridge Pass Trail.
We found this section to be the slowest-going and most sketchy section of the route (although we did not hike Section 5).
This section, from Junction Meadow, follows the Bubbs Creek Trail east to the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail. It climbs past the Bullfrog Lake junction before following the trail west at the junction for Charlotte Lake. Past the lake (and the ranger station), the route follows the Gardiner Basin Trail over Gardiner Pass and drops to Gardiner Creek.
The route then leaves the trail (if you've managed to stay on it) and heads over what could easily be considered the most difficult part of the entire route, King Col. The route drops to Woods Creek from King Col before turning west to follow the well-defined trail west. It then climbs a nondescript chute (possibly the least enjoyable part of the route) into Arrow Basin (we took, what I believe was, the wrong chute). It then follows Arrow Creek up and over Arrow Pass before then dropping to meet the Cartridge Pass Trail at the South Fork Kings River.
The route between Junction Meadow (just north of Bubbs Creek) and Charlotte Lake follows well-established trails and is easy to follow. Head east, up the Bubbs Creek Trail until reaching the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail.
Turn north on the PCT/JMT and climb to the junction for Charlotte Lake. The trail then heads west to Charlotte Lake, past the ranger station, and then continues west following the Gardiner Basin Trail. We found this trail to be fairly easy to follow. It maintains a relatively uniform altitude as it heads toward Charlotte Dome (the large granite feature visible at the head of the valley).
Our map showed two trails leading up to Gardiner Pass from the Gardiner Basin Trail. We didn't find either one. The way up to the pass was moderately steep and was mostly forested. No talus or scree to be found. It wasn't particularly difficult to reach the top, but it wasn't particularly enjoyable either. We couldn't see the top of the pass until we were nearly there. Once in a while we would find what looked like a trail and follow it for a switchback or two before it faded into nothing. As far as passes go, the south side of Gardiner Pass was probably the least scenic of anything we've been through until this point.
The north side of the pass had a well-defined use trail the whole way down that we picked up from the east side of the pass. It's also mostly free of trees; it's a very different experience than the south side (more enjoyable, I say). We passed a series of tarns before continuing past the lake at 9,544 ft / 2,909 m on the east side. From here, the trail got a bit trickier to follow and we followed some mystery cairns down to Gardiner Creek (which was swarmed with mosquitoes).
We crossed to the north side of the creek at around 9,050 ft / 2,758 m despite our map showing the trail a bit further down. The other side of the creek was tricky to navigate and we bushwhacked up to the east to 9,350 ft / 2,850 m before crossing back to the south side of the creek and continuing to follow the creek up along the south side.
After crossing Gardiner Creek, the next big objective is King Col.
King Col was, for us, the most challenging pass of the trip, and I would not suggest doing it at the end of the day (unless you're trying to night hike). The north side is objectively more sketchy than anything you've done on the route up until this point, so if you've already reached your limit as far as what you're comfortable with, consider bypassing it. You cannot see King Col from the south side.
Climbing east along the south side of Gardiner Creek, we cross back to the north side around 10,200 ft / 3,109 m. We make the mistake of attempting to climb directly to King Col by contouring at 10,800 ft / 3,292 m until we were directly south of it and then cutting straight up. We encounter steep terrain that requires some high-consequence moves to navigate. I think the smarter move would be to climb at more a northeasterly angle to King Col from around 10,600 ft / 3,231 m.
The last bit of terrain leading up to King Col from the south is extremely mellow and gradual – especially compared to what's to come.
We encounter a lingering snowfield at the top of King Col that prevents us from dropping down anywhere except for the northwest side. This is fine since I think this is where we would probably be dropping anyway.
When I first saw King Col I thought to myself, “this doesn't look too bad”; however, I changed my mind once I began descending. The terrain is incredibly steep and incredibly loose. Mentally prepare yourself to dislodge large pieces of rock and watch them crash to the bottom for most of your “hike” down.
We go one at a time and stay close to the wall on the north side – using it to stabilize ourselves as we descend. There is a spot, a few hundred feet down, where one of us can get completely out of the way to allow the other one of us to descend without fear of kicking rocks down onto the one in front. We scoot on our butts for most of the way down.
After this first break spot, I have to wait until my hiking partner reaches the bottom before I can safely descend the rest of the way.
ALTERNATE (BYPASSING KING COL): The easiest thing to do if you're wishing to bypass King Col would be to simply hike the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail north, past the turnoff for Charlotte Lake and over Glen Pass north to Woods Creek.
However, another reasonable alternative (should you want to also go over Gardiner Pass) would be to continue up Gardiner Basin and cross into the Sixty Lakes Basin via Sixty Lakes Col (east of Gardiner Lakes). This will rejoin you with the PCT/JMT north of Glen Pass and you could then follow it north to Woods Creek. Note: I have not been over Sixty Lakes Col and cannot provide any beta on what the crossing is like or how difficult it is (but the internet tells me it's Class 2).
After descending around 350 ft / 107 m, the terrain levels out, and you are met with a long section of talus hopping down to the lakes below. We pass the lakes on the west side and then follow the northernmost outlet, still keeping west of it, as we descend slabs north to Woods Creek below.
When you reach Woods Creek, you need to decide what to do next. The route turns west, follows the trail for a bit, and does a truly miserable climb up to reach Arrow Basin. I would not recommend this route. The climb was awful and it took us nearly 3.5 hours to cover around 1 mi / 1.6 km while climbing over 2,000 ft / 610 m.
I think we may have climbed up in an ill-advised spot as we read that we were meant to climb up the east side of Window Creek. However, we climbed up a chute where there was no creek to be found (I've marked the two spots on the map below). It's possible that this alternate (possibly “correct”) route up is not as miserable as where we climbed, but I have my doubts.
WOODS CREEK BYPASS: It should.\ be noted that Woods Creek can be a potentially hazardous crossing in the early season or high snow years. There is a suspension bridge around 1.2 mi / 1.93 km east where the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail cross Woods Creek. Take the bridge if you can't find a safe route across.
ALTERNATE (BYPASSING THE WOODS CREEK CLIMB): Apparently, there are (at least) three options you have if you wish to bypass this miserable climb into Arrow Basin (which isn't particularly spectacular and certainly not a highlight of the route). When you reach Woods Creek, you can either:
- Turn right when you reach Woods Creek and follow the trail up to the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail. Follow the PCT/JMT over Pinchot Pass, past the Taboose Pass Trail, and down to the South Fork Kings River. Then, follow (what's apparently) a use trail west to the base of the Cartridge Pass Trail.
- Turn right when you reach Woods Creek and follow the trail up past the suspension bridge and to the White Fork. You can follow the White Fork north over White Fork Pass and then drop down to meet the KCHBR northeast of Arrow Pass. I have not hiked this route and cannot provide any beta for it, but I can't imagine it's worse than the avalanche chute.
- Turn right when you reach Woods Creek and follow the trail up past the suspension bridge and to the White Fork. You can follow the White Fork north and then cross White Fork Saddle (to the west) before crossing Explorer Pass to the north and rejoining the KCHBR northeast of Arrow Pass. have not hiked this route and cannot provide any beta for it, but I can't imagine it's worse than the avalanche chute.
Once we reach the top of the horrific avalanche chute we climb up from Woods Creek, we enter the mouth of Arrow Basin.
The walking into and through Arrow Basin is pleasant compared to what we've just come up and we contour at around 9.900 ft / 3,018 m until we reach Arrow Creek. We follow the creek up on its east side before crossing it just above 10,400 ft / 3,170 m.
We continue climbing, in view of the lakes below us to the east until the terrain levels out a bit at around 10,950 ft / 3,338 m. From here, we can see Arrow Pass. However, it's not the pass we first think it is. Directly east of the lake at 11,000 ft / 3,353 m is an unnamed pass that you can see a clear path up. This looks attractive as a pass, but I promise you that the other side is steeper and potentially holding snow, and it's not Arrow Pass.
Directly north of the lake is another broad pass – east of Arrow Peak. This is not the pass.
Arrow Pass is located southeast of this pass. We walk along the lake's west shore before climbing toward the aforementioned broad pass east of Arrow Peak (west of Arrow Pass). Once we're about level with Arrow Pass, we take an easy contour east to it.
This seemed a more pleasant option than attempting to climb directly up to Arrow Pass from the lake (I don't know how plausible this route would be).
Just make sure you don't go over the broad saddle/pass directly east of Arrow Peak (it will drop you into the correct basin, but I have no idea what the other side looks like).
We drop down the talus-filled east side of Arrow Pass before contouring around the north side of the marsh below (although it's more like a lake). Contouring at around 10,700 ft / 3,261 m, we cut north down a steep hillside west of Bench Lake until reaching the South Fork Kings River below.
Travel east along the South Fork Kings River wasn't difficult.
When we got close to the mapped Cartridge Pass Trail, we managed to find it without much difficulty. This is the end of Section 3. If you continue east along the South Fork Kings River via the Muro Blanco Trail (which may or may not be well-defined), you will hit the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail. From here you can easily reach the Taboose Pass Trail which can be used to exit to the Eastern Sierra (Highway 395).
Making a Loop
The most reasonable place to start a loop of Section 3 of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route would either be Road's End in Kings Canyon National Park or the Taboose Pass Trailhead on the East Side (accessible via Highway 395).
STARTING AT ROAD'S END: If you want. to begin/end at Road's End, simply follow the Bubbs Creek Trail up to Junction Meadow – the southern terminus of Section 3. From the northern end, at the Cartridge Pass Trail, the easiest thing to do if you want to connect the two ends of this section would be to hike east to the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail. You can then hike south over Pinchot Pass and Glen Pass before descending to Bubbs Creek and following the trail west back to Road's End. Alternatively, you could also head south over Pinchot Pass and then follow Woods Creek out to Road's End.
STARTING AT TABOOSE PASS TRAIL: If you prefer to begin in the Eastern Sierra, the most direct access to Section 3 of the route is via Taboose Pass. Hike over Taboose Pass to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail. Follow the PCT/JMT north to the South Fork Kings River and turn west, following a use trail to the Cartridge Pass Trail.
Alternatively, if you prefer to hike this section northbound via Taboose Pass, follow the PCT/JMT south over Pinchot Pass and Glen Pass to the junction for Charlotte Lake. You can pick up the route here and skip the section between Junction Meadow and the junction for Charlotte Lake (this section is on-trail and isn't particularly interesting). That said, don't let me stop you from hiking down to Junction Meadow and then turning around to hike back if you want to hike all of Section 3.
KCHBR Section 3 Map
Section 3 of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route is, in my opinion, the most difficult (note: I have not hiked Section 5). The first 13.4 mi / 21.6 km are on a trail (although the trail up to Gardiner Pass is difficult to follow, as is the trail on the north side of Gardiner Creek.
King Col is truly sketchy and shouldn't be attempted if you're uncomfortable with long, steep, and unstable descents down loose scree interspersed with talus. If you've been far outside your comfort zone with anything in Section 1 or Section 2, you may want to consider bypassing King Col.
A lot of this section is below tree line (nearly everything before Gardiner Pass, low points in Gardiner Basin, everything around Woods Creek, and lower sections of Arrow Basin) and there are plenty of opportunities to bail on the route if you find yourself needing to get out of the backcountry.
Both King Col and the climb we did into Arrow Basin were the most challenging parts of this section (although I've realized that where we climbed into Arrow Basin was probably not where we should have). The easiest part of this section was the first section leaving Junction Meadow and heading to Gardiner Pass.
Hiked this section of the route? Questions about this section? Comments on this post? Drop a comment below and let me know!