4.5 days, 75 miles, and roughly 20,000 feet of climbing/descending.
Day 1: Up the Copper Creek Trail to Granite Pass. 10 miles, 6,700 ft (!) gain.
Day 2: Granite Pass to Simpson Meadow. 11 miles, 4,700 ft loss.
Day 3: Simpson Meadow over the Golden Staircase and Mather Pass to Upper Basin. 20 miles, 7,700 ft (!) gain.
Day 4: Upper Basin over Pinchot Pass to Upper Paradise Valley. 21 miles, 2,000 ft gain, 5,200 ft loss.
Day 5: Upper Paradise back to Road's End. 8.4 miles, 1,800 ft loss.
There is simply no easy way to visit the heart of the Middle Fork of the Kings River. Your options are as follows:
1.) Wishon Reservoir to Tehipite Valley. A notorious hike, 18 miles of western slope forest followed by a 3,000 foot descent switchbacking down the north rim of the MF Kings valley on a trail that has been allowed to disappear.
2.) Descend Goddard Creek and/or the Enchanged Gorge from the vicinity of the Ragged Spur. Notorious as one of the worst bushwhacks in the Sierra.
3.) Descend the old Cartridge Creek trail from Lake Basin. Also notorious as one of the worst bushwhacks in the Sierra.
4.) A trip over your Eastside pass of choice will get you to the headwaters near Muir Pass in as little as 18 miles / 4,000 ft of elevation gain, but to get to the heart of the Middle Fork gorge requires another 10 or so miles of travel.
5.) Take the Copper Creek trail out of Road's End over Granite Pass and down to Simpson Meadow. This will cost you about 20 miles and 7,000 feet of climbing.
I've done #1 and #4, and ticked off #5 on this trip. I'm saving #2 for when I am feeling masochistic, and I'm saving #3 for when I have done something truly awful and feel the need to cleanse my spirit with suffering.
The Middle Fork of the Kings River is a special place in that it seems to have been mostly forgotten. As detailed above, many of the trails leading to it have been allowed to disappear through disuse. It's so difficult to reach that Simpson Meadow, arguably the heart of the Middle Fork, is one of the few places that was never grazed by sheepherders looking to feed their flock back in the late 1800's. Considering that sheepherders grazed nearly every meadow in the range (even some of the most remote, like Bench Canyon) this is an impressive statement at the difficulty of reaching it before the CCC spent so much effort blasting in a trail.
It can more than a hundred years for meadows to recover from grazing, either by sheep or by horses or cattle, and I had been told by a friend who had visited Simpson Meadow that it does in fact look very different from your average Sierra meadow. I am glad to report that vast swaths of the meadow are indeed in pristine condition, and look very different from your average Sierra meadow. The ground has a solid 18 inches of loamy, uncompressed soil filled with old grass husks, and the grass itself grows waist high and is studded with various wildflowers. Visiting a meadow untouched by grazing was one of the motivations for this trip, in addition to wanting to visit an out-of-the-way corner of the Sierra.
However, I am sad to report that a big chunk of Simpson Meadow has been grazed into overuse, and much more recently than the 1800's. Right alongside the trail in the most open and scenic stretch of the meadow, there is a packer's camp where the horses have been allowed to graze. The grass is thoroughly trampled in this area, the ground is turned over, there are numerous roll-pits where the horses clean themselves, and an ugly permanent camp complete with a hitching line strung between two trees and metal storage boxes is clearly visible from the trail. It saddened me to see such a remote area treated with such disdain for leave-no-trace principles. I understand that there is a place for horse packing in the Sierra, but it never fails to bum me out when I come across a packer camp that, to put it plainly, looks like shit. Despite that smudge on the area, as usual it doesn't take more than walking a couple hundred yards off-trail to find pristine wilderness, and shortly away from the packer camp there is much pristine meadow to be enjoyed by the wilderness traveler.
Well, that is enough oratizing for one trip report, here's some pictures:
View of the backside of the Palisades from Granite Pass.
One of the lower Volcanic Lakes, on a brief off-trail excursion.
The Cirque Crest above Glacier Canyon.
The Middle Fork of the Kings River at Simpson Meadow.
I must have just missed the caddisfly hatch. Oh well, this far in the backcountry the trout will strike anything you throw in the water anyway. (The reputation for good fishing on the Middle Fork is well deserved.)
Waist-high grass and corn lilies in a pristine section of Simpson Meadow.
Still pretty, but this is where the horses have done their work.
Above Simpson Meadow, the gorge gets very narrow and the evidence of recent glaciation is everywhere.
A nice campsite in Upper Basin.
A stormy morning prompted a fast hike over Pinchot to avoid lightning exposure. I was originally going to go up Arrow Pass and climb Arrow Peak before descending the Window Creek drainage back to the trail, but it seemed like a bad idea given the thick cloud cover even at 6 AM. It turned out the storm was all bark and no bite, but at the time I had no interest in being on top of a mountain!
Nice alpine forest in Upper Basin. One of my favorite sections of the JMT.
South side of Pinchot Pass.
This marmot was more concerned with sunbathing in a brief patch of clear sky (and stealing food from hikers) than he was about the approaching thunderstorm. Perhaps I should have learned something from him - 45 minutes of light rain was all that ended up happening that day.
A nice dry campsite in Upper Paradise Valley. You can see a 10 foot diameter dry spot on the ground thanks to the thick cover of the Jeffrey pine I camped under. I put up my Hexamid for good measure, but it was bone dry even after the afternoon showers. It was nice to leisurely cook dinner while sitting on a rock when everybody else was hiding in their tents to stay dry.
As always, hiking out Woods Creek is a pleasant experience.
Thanks for reading!