Volcanic Lakes Loop

To finish off an industrious Labor Day week, I set my sights back on Kings Canyon National Park and a loop which I had long dreamed of hiking. The Monarch Divide rises high above the South Fork Kings and forms the northern wall of Kings Canyon, with its western foot comprising stunning river-cut cliffs and hairpin bends before transitioning eastward to a monumental glacial valley which continues uphill along the Kings deep into the heart of the Sierra Nevada. My goal was to climb Kennedy Mountain near the middle of the divide and traverse cross country to Munger Peak before descending back into Kings Canyon.

My first hike in this subrange was a summit of Goat Mountain on the far east side of the divide which at the time was far and above the most strenuous hike I’d completed and which instilled my deep love for the remote places of the Sierra Nevada. I’d heard of Goat Mountain from elite trail runner Leor Pantilat‘s blog, and shortly after when I read his trip report on a longer loop in the Monarch Divide I was determined to return.

The Hotel Creek junction.

I woke up at 4am just outside of Kings Canyon National Park, had a bite to eat and drove a half mile up CA 180 to the Lewis Creek Trailhead. I’m not a huge fan of hiking in the dark, but with a 35+ mile day ahead of me, it seemed prudent to start as early as possible. I turned on my headlamp and hit the trail, turning on an audio recording of Up and Down California to try to keep myself awake in the darkness of the nearly new moon. I love to hear William Brewer’s tales of the early days of exploration in the Sierra Nevada and having climbed his namesake peak three days earlier, I was eager to hear his recounting of its ascent. I happened to be near the point in the book at which he first enters what is now Kings Canyon and was disappointed by what he had to share.

He went into great detail about mineral and logging activities in the area, but when he came to describing the range and various peaks I found him uninspiring and underwhelming. Perhaps it is because he was writing this story contemporaneously with mountaineering through harsh winter conditions. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t paying full attention in my half awake stupor.

I saw something ahead of me reflecting the light of my headlamp and I knew that I must be approaching the junction with the Hotel Creek trail. I was surprised that there would be retroreflectors on a trail junction sign, and soon found that the light I saw was reflecting off the eyes of a mule deer! I blocked my lamp and gave shout to disperse the deer and continued on my way, finding the expected trail junction soon.

Moonset over the Monarch Divide.

As I crossed Lewis Creek, twilight was finally full enough that I could turn my headlamp off and continue through thick manzanita in the dim light of early morning. Two years earlier when I attempted a similar hike I lost the trail in this location and ended up meandering cross country for an hour before regaining the trail and eventually being forced to turn around. Now that I was paying close attention I was unsure how I could have lost the trail last time — it was very obvious where to go. At this point I had completed Up and Down California and restarted it, now listening to the story of Brewer’s travel from New York City to Los Angeles (via Panama — the Panamanian Railroad, since the canal had not yet been built).

16 inch pine cone south of Frypan Meadow.

I came across some massive pinecones, more than a foot in length, and soon found a perplexing set of trail signs. Two signs, located no more than twenty feet apart, indicated alternately that it was one tenth of a mile to Frypan Meadow and two tenths of a mile to Frypan Meadow. More confusing, the sign indicating two tenths of a mile was closer than the other! Strange…

-0.1 miles.

A little while later I found a large boulder not far from the trail and climbed atop it, eating a slow breakfast as the morning alpenglow began to warm the Great Western Divide to the south across Kings Canyon.

Sunrise on Kings Canyon and the Great Western Divide.

I sat atop the boulder for some time spying on distant peaks with my telephoto lens.

Eventually I continued on and as I passed through an avalanche-ravaged copse of aspen, the sun finally crested the ridge to the east. This stretch of stunted aspen was the spot where I eventually opted to turn around two years ago. This time, I arrived just as the sun and had more than enough time to continue forward. With the surroundings visible enough to hold my attention I turned off the audiobook.

Sun cresting the Monarch Divide.

I crossed Lewis Creek a second time and was glad to find that it was still running since I might not have another opportunity to fill water before the opposite side of the crest.

This stretch of trail was badly scarred by a recent fire and I suddenly had a sense that I was no longer on the trail. I heard some movement on the hill above me and was surprised to see someone coming down the trail with nothing but a pair of hiking poles. I found that I had indeed missed the trail and worked my way up to the hiker to say hello. He wasn’t wearing a backpack and it was awfully early to see another dayhiker heading down. After a short chat I found that he had camped on the north side of Kennedy Pass the previous night but accidentally left his rain fly at Frypan Meadow and was returning to retrieve it. It turned out that he was hiking the same route as I but over the course of four days rather than one. I envied him for the extra time he had in the backcountry, but was content with my fleeting visit knowing that my pack was surely much lighter than his.

The burn scarred meadows gradually gave way to sparser grass and finally talus as Kennedy Mountain rose above me to the west. I considered climbing a streak of ruddy talus directly up the peak’s southern ridge but decided I was better off staying on the trail all the way to Kennedy Pass; I would have plenty of cross country hiking ahead of me and it was too early in the day to add new challenges (in retrospect, this route would have saved at least a mile and probably would have been more pleasant climbing).

Kennedy Mountain.

I met the top of Kennedy Pass and took it as my cue to head west towards Kennedy Mountain. Below the pass on the northern side I saw the backpacker’s tent set up near a small tarn.

The view north from Kennedy Pass.

The route to the summit was easy going across kitty litter, turning to larger talus near the top. Several couloirs dropped precipitously off the north face of the peak and I contemplated what it might be like to ski in such a remote location. If only Kings Canyon were more accessible in the winter!

A narrow couloir near the summit of Kennedy Mountain.

I reached the summit at 9:30 am having climbed 6,000 feet in about five hours and putting me on pace for the rest of my planned hike. I wasn’t sure how rugged the terrain between Kennedy Mountain and Munger Peak or how difficult the route finding, but having completed the majority of the uphill hiking I felt comfortable that I could continue as planned.

The view northeast from Kennedy Mountain.

I ate a languid second breakfast and pulled out a cookie, reading through the summit register and finding lots of familiar names. I wasn’t too surprised to read that both Bob and JD had arrived at the peak after first visiting neighboring Mt Harrington to the west, Bob’s entry understated as usual and JD’s filled with anticipation of a long hike out, also as usual. There was also some refreshing banter which made me chuckle and some less welcome political banter…

I stowed the register and began identifying the usual landmarks. Nearly 3,000 feet below me to the northwest I could see picturesque Kettle Dome; far to the north, Mt Goddard’s hulking pyramid; to the northeast, the imposing wall of the Palisade Crest; to the east, Split Mountain’s twin summits rose conspicuously; to the southeast, Mt Williamson’s horns peered over the Sierra crest; and far to the south beyond the Great Western Divide, Mt Whitney’s summit plateau slunk off to the west.

I spent half an hour reveling in the beautiful day before packing my camera and heading back towards Kennedy Pass, returning quickly back to the summit for a moment when I realized I’d left my cookie! Ahead I saw East Kennedy lake nestled among polished granite cliffs. Beyond, rose Munger Peak with a broad saddle connecting its north and south summits and Goat Mountain.

East Kennedy Lake; Munger Peak and Goat Mountain beyond.

I only spent a moment on the trail before heading sharply east, traversing the cliffs above East Kennedy lake. The talus was steep and loose and I occasionally set off small clamorous slides of debris. I quickly reached a beautiful grassy ledge which ran uninterrupted from the south side of the lake to the saddle above the lake to the east.

The ledge ascending to a saddle above East Kennedy Lake.

I dropped over the saddle and down large talus and granite slabs, jogging along a babbling mountain stream, brimming with scrub and overripe wildflowers, arriving at the Volcanic Lakes basin. A dozen lakes of various sizes sat in yawning bowls of polished granite, their outlets flowing along the sturdy canyons and dropping off out of site to the Middle Fork Kings. Why they are called volcanic lakes, I cannot fathom, as I did not see any hint of vulcanism.

A creek running down to Volcanic Lakes from the saddle above East Kennedy Lake.

This whole region was rugged and expansive, providing every bit of the “adventure running playground” Leor had promised! And all along, no evidence that any soul had ever visited this place!

Volcanic Lakes.

I clambered up a steep ridge above the easternmost lake, opting to add some elevation rather than set a long traverse into the Granite Lake basin. Atop the ridge I had a view of Munger Peak and I set a beeline for it, traversing granite slabs gently sloping upwards on my right. I crossed the Copper Creek Trail almost precisely at Granite Pass and continued onwards without pause, the granite beginning to tilt upwards toward my left.

Munger Peak and Goat Mountain.

As I approached the peak I crossed a once lush meadow and weighed my options. From my research, most ascents were along the northeast ridge however the west ridge rising high above me looked climbable, provided that the scrappy brush growing halfway up wasn’t too dense. So I continued my beeline straight up the peak, finding some steep slabs near the base and some fun class 3 climbing nearing the summit.

The climbing became increasingly steeper as I neared the top, but then abruptly let off and all that was left was a short traverse. I made the summit at 2:30 pm and was glad to have all of the ascent behind me. Even though I had another ten miles to reach the road and some rough cross country travel before I would reach the trail again, it seemed likely that I’d return to the highway with daylight to spare.

Striations on the slabs mimicking the erosion on the ridge above.

I inspected the summit register which closely resembled a rats nest and found some familiar names. I was surprised to see that the most recent entry was that of Matt Yausi who had apparently been up to the peak just two weeks before the Sierra Challenge this year.

Goat Mountain.

Goat Mountain sat to the southeast, obstructing much of the view — if someone were to attempt a similar hike in the future, I would recommend climbing Goat Mountain instead. Not to say that the view from Munger Peak was lacking!

South lay the Great Western Divide, Mt Brewer, whose summit I stood atop three days prior, featured prominently.

Mt Brewer.

Although the clouds had been growing darker all day, it seemed a bit too late for any thunderstorms to start. After half an hour on the summit I took a glimpse back west towards Kennedy Mountain where I’d been five hours ago before heading down towards the Granite Pass trail.

Mt Harrington, Hogback Peak, and Kennedy Mountain.

I scrambled down some easy class 2 talus along the ridge towards Goat Mountain before heading more directly down the sandy south face of Munger Peak. I jogged the rest of the way down to Grouse lake, retracing my route from when I’d climbed Goat Mountain three years ago. I eyed Mt Hutchings along the way — it looked like less than a thousand foot ascent from the trail and might have a great view of Mts Clarence King, Cotter, and Gardiner!

Grouse Lake and Mt Hutchings left.

I reached the northern shore of Grouse Lake and found a beautiful though narrow sandy beach. I had been waiting all day for this short break before the last leg of my hike and found the cold water very refreshing! I was surprised to first hear and then see several people on the opposite side of the lake. I dressed and rounded the lake on its east, knowing from my previous trip that there were some large cliffs on the west.

Grouse Lake beach!

I waved at the party of three or four, but they either didn’t see me or ignored me, so I continued along hoping to pick up the use trail which would return me to the Copper Creek trail.

Mule deer antlers.

I met the trail shortly and decided that the “mere thousand feet” to Mt Hutchings was more than I was willing to commit to. Before heading back to the trailhead though, I hiked back uphill a couple hundred feet to The Lip to take one last glimpse into Granite Basin, not knowing when I might be back.

Granite Lake (from Munger Peak).

The jog down the Copper Creek trail was swift and just as beautiful as I had remembered. Meadows gave way to manzanita groves which gave way to ferns and brambles. The ridges rose up around me and drowned out the distant peaks and finally the forest rose up too, obscuring the ridges.

Mt Clarence King, Mt Cotter, and Mt Gardiner.

At upper tent meadow, I found numerous parties tending camp and felt that my day of solitude was now over. Civilization had reached me. Towards the bottom of the trail I met and passed several hikers and startled a mule deer off the trail and down the mountain. I was amused to find the deer again on the next switchback and again on the next. Soon the Sphinx towered high above me and I was back at highway 180 near where Rafee and I had started and ended our ascent of Brewer.

The Sphinx.

From the Copper Creek trailhead, I had six miles left along the highway to reach my car. I hadn’t been dreading this part of the trip (nor was I enthused about it), but in the moment I found it to be miserable. The shoulder of the road was uncomfortably hot and swarming with gnats so I followed the trail for a while but found it too meandering. After two miles I was thrilled to hitch a ride with a couple from LA and enjoyed trading hiking stories from the day (they had hiked to Roaring River Falls which I have yet to visit) on the short drive back to my car.

I took a quick bath in the Kings and bid farewell to the pullout which had been home for the week before hitting the road.

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 10,600 ft

Total distance: 32.88 mi

3 thoughts on “Volcanic Lakes Loop”

    1. On the climb/descent of Lewis and Copper Creek trails water should be plentiful this time of year. On the other side of the Monarch Divide you’ll always be within a mile of a lake, though they may still be snowbound this year. It may be worth calling the rangers at Roads End who should be able to tell you current conditions as they make frequent trips to Granite Pass.

Leave a Reply