From almost any of the higher elevations of the southern Sierra one can descry the splendid group of the Kaweahs, one of the most beautiful and spectacular in all of the Sierra. To the north, the sheer walls of the Kaweahs rise above a great cirque, to the south and west, three of them have an easy approach up one face, with the exception of the Black Kaweah, which is sheer on all sides. In their beautifully serrated lines they are among the most conspicuous mountains in the Sierra.
This is one of the most jagged and remote places in the range, and its forbidding northern sentinel, Black Kaweah, is one of the Sierra’s most awesome peaks. The volcanic rock of the region changes radically from black to red in a few thousand feet; this rock is so loose and friable that the area has proved a death zone for the unwary.
The Kaweahs form one of the most impressive, and most infamous, of the High Sierra's subranges. They lie within Sequoia National Park. The Kaweah Peaks Ridge branches off from the Great Western Divide, perhaps the most prominent Sierra subrange not on the Sierra Crest, at Triple Divide Peak. The Kaweahs are large, imposing, often steep, & consist of questionable (or if anything, unquestionably bad) rock. Lying in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, the approach to these (either from the west or the east) is long and difficult. The Monarch of the group is Mt. Kaweah
(13,802 ft or 4,207 m), also known as the Big Kaweah or Great Kaweah. While Mount Kaweah is separated from contiguous US highpoint Mt. Whitney
& the main Sierra crest by a mere 11 miles, the Kern River canyon, at an elevation of a little over 7,400 ft (& thus almost 6,400' below Mt. Kaweah), lies between them.
A traverse of the Kaweah peaks (Black Kaweah to Second Kaweah; from here to the summit of Mt. Kaweah is just a walk-up) was first done in July, 1997 (Claude Fiddler, Andy Selters, & Danny Whitmore), and goes at VI 5.9 YDS (over less-than-perfect rock)- this is an accomplishment to be respected! One of SP's resident hardmen seano
reports "...in my experience doing this traverse S-N, you can hit all the summits and stay near the ridge at no harder than maybe 5.2-5.4. The only "cheat" is to use the ledge from the Pyramidal-Koontz notch to tag Pyramidal via the standard NW 4th class route instead of going straight up the south/east side." Draw your own conclusions- I'll take his word on that without doing a first-hand investigation myself :)
The gem (in the rough, one could say) of the range is the Black Kaweah
, a steep, imposing, dark slag-heap of a mountain. Any ascent of the Black Kaweah should be looked upon with respect, and the infrequent technical ascent represents a difficult and bold accomplishment. The Kaweahs are named after the Yokuts tribe kawia
(from 1500 California Place Names- Their Origin and Meaning, by William Bright).
As the Kaweahs lie basically in the middle of the Sierra, any way one goes about it, a long & arduous approach will be involved. Access can be gained from either the west side (from Mineral King) or from the east.
· West side approach: Mineral King
Facilities and services are available at Mineral King during the summer. Maps, local wilderness permits, first aid, and bear canisters are available at the Mineral King ranger station
. Hours are daily 8.00 - 16.30, June through early September. After that, wilderness permits are available on the porch of the station. In the spring and early summer, proper precautions should be taken against the infamous maurauding marmots of the area, known to chew through crucial automobile cables, thus disabling said vehicles.
The ranger station is reached by driving approximately 25 miles on Mineral King Road from its junction with highway 198, & is on the L-hand side of the road (driving from the Central Valley), across from the Cold Springs campground. The Mineral King Road typically closes November 1 and, weather permitting, reopens for Memorial Day weekend. This road is extremely steep, twisty, & in parts, narrow & dirt; allow 1 hr for getting to the ranger station from highway 198 along Mineral King Rd.
The standard approach from the west is the Sawtooth Trail,
which begins understandably at the Sawtooth Pass/Timber Gap trailhead near the end of the Mineral King Road, around ½ mile past the ranger station. A limit of 20 people/day is in effect for this trail; permits are obtainable at the Mineral King ranger station (should be contacted beforehand to ensure permit availability).
After approximately 1 mile, the approach trail goes to the R (L goes to Timber Gap) where the trail splits. There are a few ways to approach from here- the main thing is that you end up at the Big Arroyo.
is a useful map for the directions below.
Follow the trail & skirt the hillside to your L, working your way up the drainage. Pretty much at the point you meet the river, you will have 2 main options- I will describe the fastest way. Very near the river crossing, look for a smaller, unmaintained trail to your L (a sign will reaffirm that this route is indeed non-maintained). Take this (the maintained trail to the R goes towards Sawtooth Pass, also a viable, although longer, option- I haven’t done this way & so I won’t describe it).
Take the unmaintained trail as it traverses the slope upwards. You’ll do some talus & brush (I’d recommend long pants for this section) navigating, skirting a prominent large, black tower above you on your L. Staying to the L of the river, you’ll eventually be able to look up & L to Glacier Pass, your next goal. Follow the faint trail (if you can keep track of it- otherwise simply navigate the easiest section to the pass) to the pass (you’ll pass by a last solitary stand of trees to your L). Once there, the trail (look carefully) traverses a steep slope to the (since you’re now going downhill, skier’s) R, bypassing the headwall to the L. An axe and crampons would likely be beneficial here early season. Take this trail down to beautiful Spring Lake (also a good place to camp).
From Spring Lake, you need to get over the Great Western Divide- this looks as imposing as it sounds. Here you have 2 options as well-
1. Go L & work your way up the switchbacks to & over Black Rock Pass.
2. Go straight up & over Cyclamen (also known as Hands & Knees) Pass- while it looks imposing, it looks stiffer than it actually is. If you manage to stick to the poor trail that weaves its way up the slope, it is class 3 (if not, you’re looking at class 4 (or harder) slabs).
If you take Black Rock Pass, simply follow the trail to Little Five Lakes, your next goal. If you took Cyclamen Pass, skirt the hill to your L until you see an obvious pass to your L (class 2, cross country). Gaining this pass, you’ll see the Little Five Lakes below, & the trail coming from Black Rock Pass, below. Talus hop (class 2/3) until you get to the lake & gain the trail. From here there are excellent views of the Kaweah range.
Take this trail to a trail junction. Take a L here. From here, follow the trail down, down, down through the forest. You’ll finally drop into the gorge containing the Big Arroyo. Follow the trail ‘til you get to the river. Cross it, & you’re at base camp. There is an abandoned cabin here, & a bear box to keep your food in. Great campsites here.
While a very long day hike by most people’s standards, this is certainly attainable in a long day- get your permit as early as possible & get going- the passes you need to cross are bad places to be in the event of a thunderstorm!
· Conditions phone number: 559-565-3341
• East side approaches:
The 3 most viable approach options from the East Side are, from north to south, the Shepherd Pass, Whitney Portal, & Cottonwood Pass trailheads. These approaches converge at the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail & High Sierra Trail (HST) junction. These 3 approaches to this point are described below. After these descriptions is that from this intersection onward, to below the Kaweah Basin. These directions are merely for a cursory overview for different approach options, & are to be used in conjunction with a good topographic map. One such map (recommended) is the Tom Harrison Maps' Mt. Whitney High Country map
(esp. useful for backcountry travel as it is shaded, depicts timberline, gives trail distances between junctions, & is waterproof & tear resistant).
From Shepherd Pass trailhead:
The Shepherd Pass trailhead is the northernmost logical access point for the Kaweahs from the Eastern Sierra. The alignment of the Shepherd Pass trail is grueling & utterly illogical (there are at least 800’ of unnecessary elevation gain), & simply making it to Shepherd Pass on this trail is a testament to an individual’s brute strength, sheer willpower, & incredible hardheadedness. To read about the Shepherd Pass approach, check out the “Getting There” section on the Mt. Williamson page
From Shepherd Pass, continue on the trail, heading SW 3.4 miles until reaching the trail junction shortly before the Tyndall Creek ranger station. From here, head south along the John Muir Trail (JMT) 4.4 miles to the junction with the HST. The distance from the TH to the HST junction is approximately 18.8 miles, with a great deal of elevation gain (esp. just getting to Shepherd Pass).
The circus that is the Whitney Portal (8,340’) and the first 8.5 miles of the standard Mt. Whitney Trail leading to Trail Crest (13,650’) define the most logical E Side approach option. Check out The Mount Whitney Trail page
for the approach & start. Check the Mt. Whitney page
From Whitney Portal, take the trail for 8.5 miles to Trail Crest. From Trail Crest, ditch the maniacal crowds & go westward down the John Muir Trail (JMT) for 5.6 miles to the Crabtree ranger station. Continue W on the JMT for .8 mile to its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Take the combined JMT-PCT N for 3.4 miles to the junction with the HST. The total distance from Whitney Portal until the HST junction is around 18.3 miles, with plenty o’ elevation gain.
Cottonwood Pass TH
The most sensible way to approach the Kaweahs from the S in the Eastern Sierra is from the Cottonwood Pass TH. Follow the trail W for 3.8 miles to Cottonwood Pass (11,140’), and the intersection with the PCT. Continue W, then N, on the PCT for 19.7 miles, going past the Rock Creek ranger station & numerous junction, to the junction with the HST. From the Cottonwood Pass TH until the HST junction, it’s about 23.5 miles.
Upon reaching the junction with the High Sierra Trail (HST) from either of the 3 previously-mentioned alternate approaches, go west on the HST for 3.1 miles until reaching the trail junction at the Kern River. From here, go S for 1.2 miles until Junction Meadow is reached. Going R (W) here & following the trail for approximately 3 miles deposits one at Rockslide Lake, 1000’ below the Kaweah Basin.
While bear canisters were not required in the backcountry (on the W-side, at least) as of autumn 2005, they are recommended. Bear boxes are also available at the drive-in campsites near Mineral King and should be utilized when camping there.
No reservations or trailers are allowed while car-camping in the Mineral King area. Campsites offer pit toilets & drinking water; 6 people and 1 vehicle per site are allowed. After the water is shut off in mid-October to prevent freezing pipes, with no fees charged thereafter in the season.
Both the Cold Springs (west of ranger station 1/4 mile, 37 sites) & Atwell Mill (on Mineral King Road, 6 miles west of ranger station, 21 sites) are $12/night (as of 3/2006).
· National Weather Service weather forecast
Go to this site
for an image from the Mineral King webcam, as well as the current conditions at Mineral King.
· Climbing California's High Sierra, by John Moynier & Claude Fiddler (a Falcon guide, ISBN 0-7627-1085-3)
· Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks
· Wilderness Office, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks: 559.565.3761