Cirque Crest Loop: Windy Point & Marion Peak

The Cirque Crest is located between the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River which form the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Naturally, the terrain is extremely rugged and the scenery is magnificent. The Cirque Crest is one of the most remote areas in all of the High Sierra. Typical access from the west is via Road’s End and from the east via Taboose Pass. Both options entail lots of trail miles and lots of elevation gain followed by substantial off-trail travel making this region particularly suitable for adventure running.  For this exploration into the Cirque Crest region I decided to access from the west side via Road’s End and encircle the western portion of the Cirque Crest including Windy Point and Marion Peak. The route came in over 50 miles with over 15,000 feet of gain and required nearly 19 hours, but it was well worth the effort and I look forward to returning to this rugged and wild region for further exploration. GPS route here.
Windy Point is a grand view of the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, one of the most rugged canyons in the world, including Le Conte Canyon, Goddard Creek Canyon and Tehipite Valley, Yosemite Valley’s smaller sibling. The deep chasm of Middle Fork Kings Canyon is surrounded by towering peaks including the fabled Palisades to the east, the Goddard region to the north, and the Cirque Crest to the south. Taken together, this view encompasses the most rugged and wild region of the High Sierra. Windy Point is located about one mile off the Sierra High Route at the end of Windy Ridge that protrudes into the Middle Fork Kings Canyon drainage. For those on the Sierra High Route journey it’s well worth the extra effort to reach this fantastic vantage, a classic view of the High Sierra. Windy Point is also the location of a series of famous Ansel Adams photos and I was privileged to see the same view as Ansel minus the clouds and snow patches in his photos. A comparison of one of Ansel’s photo to mine is provided below.

Ansel Adams Windy Point 1936 (1)

North Palisade from Windy Point, Ansel Adams 1936 (Note: this artwork may be protected by copyright. It is posted on the site in accordance with fair use principles)

North Palisade from Windy Point, Leor Pantilat, October 12, 2014

After a long time gazing in awe at the stupdenous view from Windy Point, I retraced my steps to the Sierra High Route, passing near Lake 10,236 which has a spectacular backdrop of peaks and canyons behind its blue waters. I continued along the Sierra High Route over Gray Pass to a beautiful basin below the Cirque Crest which gradually ascends to White Pass. At White Pass, I left the Sierra High Route and proceeded up the northwest ridge of Marion Peak. This ridge is mainly a class 2 scramble with a some class 3 in spots but most of the exposure can be avoided. It’s a fun route in an amazing setting with excellent views into Lake Basin.  The summit of Marion Peak has a stellar 360 degree view with a sea of peaks all around including the Goddard Divide, the Palisades and the Cirque Crest. To the south, Arrow Peak and Arrow Ridge are prominent and Taboose Pass seems close at hand (but in reality it’s quite a trek).

I descended the steep and very loose southeast chute of Marion Peak into a small basin with a couple alpine lakes and then climbed a talus gully toward a ridge spur off the Cirque Crest. Crossing over this ridge entails some class 3 scrambling and then more easy cros country terrain through a remote basin with a few alpine lakes and excellent views to Arrow Peak and Arrow Ridge. I was hoping to climb State Peak as part of the loop, but when I reached a small col northeast of the mountain it became apparent that to get from my location to State Peak I would need to engage in a time-consuming and exposed ridge traverse. Since my legs were growing tired and sunset was approaching I decided to save State Peak for next time, which proved to be a good decision as I would not have made it back to the trail before dark. Looking over the maps in hindsight I might have been able to get to State Peak via a different approach without this ridge traverse, which is something to keep in mind for next time. This is an area I’ve been wanting to visit for awhile so it was great to finally get out there and I look forward to exploring Lake Basin in the future including Marion Lake. Actual mileage was ~51 miles. GPS route here.

Mount Stanford and Kings-Kern Loop

Mount Stanford is a very attractive mountain located on the Kings-Kern Divide straddling Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. At 13,973 ft, it’s just shy of fourteen thousand feet so it doesn’t draw the attention comparable to Sierra fourteeners, but it’s just as impressive of a mountain in terms of stature, difficulty to surmount, and commanding views. The peak is extremely remote with long approaches via either the eastside utilizing Kearsarge Pass or University Pass or the westside from Road’s End in Kings Canyon. In fact, the westside of the peak harbors one of the most remote drainages in the High Sierra with rarely seen views of the Ericsson Crags and the west face of Stanford. As far as trail visibility, Mount Stanford is only prominent from a small stretch of the John Muir Trail from Forester Pass down to Center Basin. Via the southwest slopes originating in Upper Kern Basin, most of the elevation gain to climb Mount Stanford is fairly easy, but the summit itself is located along a narrow and precipitous ridgeline to the north of Gregory’s Monument. Strava route here.

Gregory’s marks the end of the easy scrambling and while it’s only 30 feet lower in altitude than Mount Stanford, Gregory’s is more like a point along the ridge instead of a true summit. The scramble between Gregory’s Monument and Stanford features an improbable ledge/ramp that allows Stanford to be climbed without technical gear from Gregory’s Monument (otherwise the cliffs are sheer). However, care must be taken due to immense exposure and some loose rock along the traverse and scramble. For my summit of Stanford, I decided to approach via Road’s End and make a loop including East Lake, Harrison Pass, Upper Kern Basin, Milly’s Foot Pass and gorgeous Lake Reflection. While my route entailed more miles and elevation gain to climb Stanford than the eastside approaches (or even if I chose to do it as an out-and-back), I’m certain it was the more aesthetic and scenic route.

Along the way to Stanford I walked beneath the towering spires of the Ericsson Crags and passed by several high elevation tarns. Travel up the drainage to Harrison Pass was better than I expected and I managed to skirt most of the scary sketchy loose gravel on the steep slope heading up the final chute to Harrison Pass. Above Harrison Pass, I started to feel the altitude a bit having come directly from sea level and the cumulative effects of exertion to reach this point. It took a few minutes to negotiate the scramble portion and figure out the route, but I was soon atop Stanford enjoying the stunning panoramic views including the Kaweah Range, the Great Western Divide, Mount Brewer and the Sierra Crest. After departing Stanford, I headed down into Kern Basin and traversed around the shoulder of Mount Ericsson’s south ridge heading for Milly’s Foot Pass. I had been to Milly’s in 2009 and it was just as sketchy as I remembered it with kitty litter over the rock. I felt more safe climbing more difficult but solid rock on the side of the chute than descending down the chute itself. Fortunatley, this portion is only 100 feet or so and I was soon on gravel and talus slopes heading down toward breathtaking Lake Reflection, one of the finest alpine lakes in all of the Sierra. This heavenly lake features crystal clear waters and dramatic views of Mount Genevra and Mount Jordan, seemingly rising straight up from the pristine shores. I enjoyed a snack and rest at Lake Reflection and then continued back to East Lake, completing the lollipop loop of the Kings-Kern Divide. I met up with Erica just below East Lake and we enjoyed stellar evening light on Mount Bago as we descended toward Junction Meadow. The final 10 miles of trail back to Road’s End were enjoyable with net downhill and beautiful evening light. Next time I hope to climb Mount Ericsson and Mount Genevra. Overall, the route entailed nearly 38 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain. Strava route here.