Big SEKI Loop (aka BSL), 154 Miles
Jim and I have hiked most of the trails (both maintained and now-abandoned) from Yosemite south through Sequoia National Park, including most of the east and west side trailheads. We've been over many class-2/3 passes, explored many off-trail basins, climbed quite a few class-2/3 peaks. We think this range of mountains is a superb place to hike.
Over the years, we've seen the John Muir Trail (aka JMT) get more and more crowded, and nearly all of the other trails get less and less use. In this post, I am describing a trail hike for people to consider as an alternative to hiking the JMT. The BSL is not famous, but it has some advantages when compared to the JMT.
The entire BSL is on maintained trails, just like the JMT. There are innumerable fantastic itineraries for people with off-trail skills and a copy of R.J. Secor's The High Sierra Peaks, Passes and Trails (including but not limited to Steve Roper's Sierra High Route), but there are many reasons people plan hikes on maintained trails. Our design point for this loop is to provide an alternative to the JMT that is suitable to hikers who prefer to stay on maintained trails.
BSL Route Summary
We propose this loop after considering lots of factors, and it really is best (by a fair bit) to start it at Roads End. The reason is that the least interesting pieces of the route are the 5-8 miles on either side of Roads End, and by making those pieces be the first half day and the final half day you have one very long intact continuous piece of fantastic walking, uninterrupted anything that is less than five-star. There are MANY other options for hiking in the Southern Sierra, and if you can't get to Roads End (there is no public transit and hitching is hard), or you can't complete the loop without exiting for resupply, we would not choose this particular loop. Obviously other people with lots of hiking experience in the Southern Sierra would have different perspectives.
View the route on a USGS map. You can change the map type (Satellite, USGS, Google, NPS, etc) in the upper right corner. You can create a printable USGS mapset from CalTopo. And you can also download the route data in kml or gpx format.
The route is shown here in red, with a shorter alternate route from Kern River to Roaring River Ranger station shown in blue.
The loop starts and ends at Road's End in Kings Canyon. This description runs counter-clockwise, but the hike is equally suited to either direction.
Part 1. From Roads End to Roaring River Ranger Station (15.3 miles). Via Bubbs Creek Trail -> Sphinx Creek Trail -> Avalanche Pass Trail.
Part 2. From Roaring River to the High Sierra Trail (14.7 miles), through Deadman Canyon and over Elizabeth Pass.
Part 3. On the High Sierra Trail (36 miles) all the way to the junction with the John Muir Trail at Wallace Creek.
Part 4. On the John Muir Trail (57.4 miles) all the way to the Middle Fork Kings River in LeConte canyon.
Part 5. From LeConte Canyon to Roads End (31 miles) via Simpson Meadow and Granite Pass.
Elevation Chart, counter-clockwise. Total miles doesn't align (137 vs 154) because the tracks I used to create the elevation chart are not detailed enough to take in all the twists and turns. Even so, the chart gives a reasonable representation of the profile.
You can download a document with a more detailed profile which you can print on legal size paper. This detailed profile runs clockwise.
Colby Pass vs Elizabeth Pass
There are two ways to go from Junction Meadow on the Kern River to the Roaring River Ranger Station. The 154 mile BSL crosses Elizabeth Pass. The shorter alternative ("BSL With Colby Shortcut") reduces the length of the loop to about 131 miles and crosses Colby Pass. Both options are very beautiful, and there is no obvious reason to choose one over the other in terms of scenery. There will be many hikers on the High Sierra Trail portion of the Elizabeth Pass routing, since the HST is a popular trail, whereas the Colby Pass option is relatively lightly used.
Advantages of Big SEKI Loop compared to JMT
The BSL starts and ends at the same place, so if you drive to the trailhead there is no need for a shuttle.
The BSL does not require any resupply. Many lightweight hikers travel somewhere in the 13-22 miles per day range, which is 7-12 days for this route. Assume a base pack weight of 12 pounds, plus 1.5 pounds of food per person per day, starting pack weight would vary from 22.5 pounds (7 days) to 30 pounds (12 days).
Getting a permit for the BSL is not likely to be a challenge. Although permits may not be available last moment, they should be easily available with a bit of advance planning, unlike the JMT permits. To hike clockwise, get a permit for Copper Creek. To hike counter-clockwise, get a permit for Bubbs Creek (or Woods Creek if Bubbs is not available).
The BSL is all good. Everybody's taste varies, but for us, the JMT includes a long stretch that is not the best the Sierra has to offer. The stretch of the JMT from Happy Isles to Garnet Lake is beautiful, but in our opinion is easily explored via day hikes or weekend hikes, using the ESTA and Yosemite buses for shuttling if necessary. The stretch from Garnet Lake to approximately Silver Pass (through the Mammoth region) is not as scenic as the areas further north or further south. And the JMT from Silver Pass to Evolution Valley runs far to the west (down-slope) of very fine High Sierra terrain, but unfortunately skirts the good stuff. On the other hand, the entire BLS is routed through the backcountry of Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park (aka SEKI), and it's all first class.
53 miles of the BSL is concurrent with the JMT and associated crowds. I believe this concurrent section covers most of the best of the JMT (excepting Muir Pass and adjacent valleys). But the other half of the BSL is on lesser used trails where it's possible to hike for many hours without seeing anybody.
The BSL avoids the Mount Whitney scene. There are several fairly easy Class-2 peaks (albeit without trail) that are accessible from the BSL, peaks that are climbed by just a few people, or a few dozen people, each year. Mount Whitney is 1) the tallest and 2) has a trail; but it also has a level of congestion and commotion that doesn't suit everybody.
As of 2012, bear canisters are required only for the middle section of the BSL (28 miles from Forrester Pass to Pinchot Pass).
When to go
All of the info describing when to hike the JMT applies to this route as well. There is one river crossing without a bridge (across Palisade Creek where it meets the Middle Fork Kings). That crossing could be difficult in high water early in the season, although with adequate scouting people in prior years have been able to find a log.
Clockwise or Counter-Clockwise both work, and there is no natural direction in terms of scenery or logistics. In either direction, you start at 5,000' and immediately climb to about 10,000 feet, so there is no option that eases you into altitude or effort. This initial climb is likely to be exhausting for the TMS'ers (Too Much Stuff'ers).
Hiking clockwise puts you on the JMT in a south-bound direction, which is the way most of the JMT crowds are travelling, so it will seem less crowded than if you are walking north-bound against the flow of traffic.
Hiking clockwise also puts the Colby Pass shortcut at the end of the trip, so if you fall behind your intended schedule you will have a way to shorten the trip. If you hike counter-clockwise, there is no reasonable way to shorten the trip and get back to your car after you pass the Woods Creek Trail junction. In an emergency you could exit via LeConte Canyon and Bishop Pass, but that puts you a very long way from your car. For this reason, hikers who are unsure of their pace or want to have the option of ending early would do better to hike clockwise.
Finally, there is one river that does not have a bridge, and might pose problems during high water. At the junction of the JMT and the Simpson Meadow Trail one must cross Palisade Creek. At low water one can wade. During higher water (early season), hikers in previous years have been able to scout around and find a suitable log. On the off-chance that there is no way to cross, it would be better to learn this early in the trip. If hiking clockwise, retracing steps back to Roads End is the only reasonable trail option to get back to the car if Palisade is not crossable. If hiking counter-clockwise there are two options: hike out via Bishop Pass to South Lake (east side, far from car); or retrace south on the JMT to Woods Creek Trail.
There are two bailout-early trails that return to Roads End: Woods Creek Trail and Bubbs Creek Trail. These are located mid-trip whether hiking clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Navigation via a simple map is sufficient. GPS is overkill. Compass and/or altimeter would also be useful in case you find yourself in a significant snow storm, or if you are navigationally challenged. The Trails Illustrated Map #205 of Sequoia King Canyon National Parks covers the entire route and all variations, including all emergency exit routes should they become necessary. This map is 1:80,000 which is marginal for significant off-trail travel, but is perfectly adequate for this route and minor side-trips off route. It weighs 3.3 oz.
The Tom Harrison 1:125,000 Sequoia & Kings National Parks Recreation Map also covers the entire route.
The JMT includes the summit of Mt Whitney. The BSL does not cross any summits, but there are several class-2 peaks close to the route. The CalTopo map and the kml file show locations of some SPS peaks, but none of these peaks can be reached by trail. The information about routing is from RJ Secor. Anybody who is planning any significant off-trail travel is advised to get a copy of RJ Secor's comprehensive book: The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails.
Some off-trail alternatives that might look tempting
There are some variations that, on the map, look like they might be good options. The following are variations that could be used, but all of these require off-trail navigation and are not appropriate for those wishing to stay on well-defined trails.
Crossing the Great Western Divide via Shepherd Pass ->Junction Pass ->Center Basin. Secor describes Junction Pass: "Class 2. This is the original route of the John Muir Trail. It has not been maintained since 1932, but traces of the old trail are still visible..." Old maps show a trail over Junction Pass; indication of a trail has been removed from modern maps.
Crossing the Great Western Divide via Harrison Pass -> East Creek. Secor describes Harrison Pass: "Class 2. Some maps show a trail over Harrison Pass. Be forewarned: This trail has not been maintained for many years, and the especially critical section of it leading up the north side of the pass has all but disappeared...." Indication of a trail has been removed from modern maps.
Sixty Lakes Basin instead of Rae Lakes -> Arrowhead Lake ->Dollar Lake. There is a trail into and through part of the basin, but the off-trail route from the northern Sixty Lakes down to the JMT north of Baxter Creek requires picking a good line in order to avoid steep drainages and some cliffs.
Cartridge Pass -> Lake Basin -> abandoned Cartridge Creek Trail down to the Middle Fork Kings River. This trail is shown on old maps, but has been removed from modern maps.. Secor says "This trail has not been maintained for more than fifty years - if it was ever maintained at all. This is an old sheep route which was once the route for the JMT, until the trail was constructed up Palisade Creek and over Mather Pass in 1938. The Cartridge Pass "Trail" is for all intents and purposes a difficult cross-country route." The route from the South Fork Kings River into Lake Basin is not difficult for somebody with basic cross-country skills. However, the descent from Lake Basin to the Kings River requires careful choice of routes and is choked with vegetation in the lower reaches -- not fun.
From Simpson Meadow to Roads End via Kennedy Pass instead of via Granite Pass. This is still an official trail and is shown on current maps. The stretch from Pine Ridge to upper Kennedy Canyon has not been maintained recently (as of 2012 when we last hiked it) and the tread is often obscure or obliterated. It is not a thrash, but it does require care and a good off-trail navigation sense in order to relocate a lost trail.
SEKI maintains an description of the condition of official park trails. Some of the routes listed above are not included, since they are no longer official trails.
You know, from the CalTopo view of the route, you can switch to different map layers (control in upper right) and view historic USGS maps, dating back to the early 20th century! It's fun. Gaia GPS on the iPhone offers access to these same cool historic USGS maps, as well as some historic UK OS maps!