Mount Harrington

Mount Harrington is an impressive but relatively unknown peak along the Monarch Divide which separates the glacier-carved canyons of the South and Middle Forks of the Kings River.  The peak lies within the Monarch Wilderness on National Forest land, perhaps the most rugged and alpine region of this relatively small wilderness area that is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park.  Mount Harrington rises just over 11,000 feet which is a fairly modest altitude compared to peaks farther east, but the relief from the bottom of the canyons is extremely impressive as the Monarch Divide is over 7,000 feet above the canyon bottoms. The result is a ideal vantage across both canyons overlooking a sea of peaks in some of the most rugged and wild terrain in the lower 48. It’s a long climb to reach Mount Harrington since all approaches start from the bottom of Kings Canyon. However, the reward for the many miles and lots of elevation gain is a short but sweet third class scramble along an exposed ridge to a small rocky summit perched above Kings Canyon. The 360 degree panorama includes views of the Great Western Divide, Kings Kern Divide and Kaweahs to the south, the Palisades and Cirque Crest to the east, and the LeConte Divide, Goddard Divide, and Black Divide to the north.  The most dramatic view, however, is the view of Mount Harrington itself from a peaklet along the Monarch Divide just to north of the summit. From this outstanding vantage Mount Harrington takes on a Matterhornesque profile.  When combined with the 7,000 ft of relief down to the bottom of Kings Canyon and the rugged backdrop of the many peaks of the southern Sierra, it’s one of the great vistas in the region. Complete photo album here.

 The two main approaches to reach Mount Harrington are Lewis Creek and Deer Cove. Lewis Creek starts in Kings Canyon National Park and is slightly longer but includes some more shade under pine trees.  The Deer Cove approach is entirely in the Monarch Wilderness and is the shortest route, but is exposed to sun for the first part and has some sections that are quite sandy.  The Deer Cove route was closed for a couple years after the Rough Fire due to extensive fire damage, but a lot of work from the forest service and volunteers has enabled the trail to reopen as of August of 2017. They did a fantastic job clearing out the many blowdowns and brush from the trailhead to Frypan Meadow (the first 6 miles).  Due to the amazing trail work it’s a very pleasant trail that is well graded and has some awesome views of the Great Western Divide and also Mount Harrington from below. While signs of the fire are still visible, the land is incredibly resilient and many of the trees have re-sprouted and the brush has filled back in. The Deer Cove Trail is also a great descent route as the sandy nature of the trail makes for an cushy descent for downhill running. One word of caution is the Deer Cove Trail is largely exposed to the sun all the way to Wildman Meadows (~4.5 miles in) so an early start is recommend. Just before Wildman Meadows at 7600 ft, the trail rounds a corner and enters a completely different ecosystem, from the south facing brushy slopes experienced to this point to a spectacular red fir forest with bountiful ferns and lush grassy meadows.  The trail continues through the lovely forest to the junction with Frypan Meadows. At this junction the trail work ceases and the trail becomes more rugged with some downed trees and faint tread as it continues climbing in the fir and pine forest. Some flagging placed by the ranger helps to stay on track, however these can be difficult to see at times in a rather nondescript forest setting.  In particular, at 8500 feet after crossing the East Fork of Grizzly Creek the maps show the trail traversing west into a small drainage and up to a saddle at 9000 ft. The original trail bed does exist here as we found, but this does not appear to be the consensus route used currently. Instead, a use path heads straight up the ridge and meets the original trail where it traverses back east at ~9200 ft. This new route avoids some brush that has overgrown the original track where it switchbacks at 9000.  Back on the original trail, continue up through lush meadows and pine forest to a small spur above Grizzly Lake at about 9800 ft.  Here the trail disappears for good and it’s all cross country travel. The most efficient route is to follow the drainage up from Grizzly Lake to the east face of Mount Harrington. Immediately below the face are some very pretty meadows with a babbling brook and wildflowers in season. The east face of Harrington provides a dramatic backdrop as the cliffs rise over 1000 ft above.  From the meadow, the terrain transitions to friendly granite slabs providing an efficient route to the Monarch Divide. Ascend to the peaklet north of Mount Harrington and marvel at the amazing rock fin and then continue down talus to the saddle between the peaklet and Harrington. Here the scramble portion beings, a short but sweet class 3 scramble.  The scramble is not technically difficult but there is exposure with cliffs on both sides. The summit views are marvelous and the summit register is an original placed in 1966.  It appears only 2-3 parties per year make the trip up the Harrington – a remote and not frequently visited destination indeed!  The fun does not need to end after Mount Harrington.  On the north side of the Monarch Divide lies a beautiful basin at the headwaters of the Gorge of Despair featuring several interesting rock features along the Silver Spur and small lakes.  The rock features of particular interest to alpine rock climbers.  Peak 10697 is a prominent pointy summit and includes a great view of the surrounding region including Lake 9599 (the westernmost Swamp Lake) and the Palisades in the distance.  A peak to the north of the lake that empties into the Gorge of Despite is named Tenderfoot Peak (10,641 ft) and also includes an original register placed in 1980 with very few entries.  The register is located in a small glass jar in the summit rocks. Continuing north along this ridge would likely yield more views including Tehipite Dome and Tehipite Valley. 

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Monarch Divide Semi-Loop

The Monarch Divide is a region of the High Sierra that is easily overlooked. Topping out below 12,000 feet, the peaks along the divide are not as impressive as nearby zones to the north, east and south. The most used trail into the Monarch Divide is the Copper Creek Trail to Granite Lake and Granite Pass, starting at Road’s End in Kings Canyon. This trail is well-maintained and includes some fantastic views of Kings Canyon right from the start and much of the way up. The other access trail is the Lewis Creek Trail which is near Cedar Grove. This trail is used infrequently resulting in some sections of narrow tread and brushy sections. Either way, it’s a long way from the canyon floor to the Monarch Divide with over 10 miles and 6,500+ feet of elevation gain either way you go. Looking at the maps, my first desire was to climb Goat Mountain and see the panoramic views from its summit. Upon further inspection, it seemed like a point-to-point semi-loop was possible utilizing both the Copper Creek and Lewis Creek trails and including the summits of Kennedy Mountain, Munger Peak and Goat Mountain and a traverse through Volcanic Lakes. The section from Kennedy Pass to Granite Pass would be off-trail but the terrain seemed favorable to easy wandering. This last minute itinerary design turned out to be fantastic. I found an adventure running playground that exceeded my expectations with stellar scenery and opportunities for off-trail exploration. Strava route hereThe next image is an annotated panorama from the summit of Kennedy Mountain which shows virtually the entire drainage basin of the Middle Fork Kings River from Finger Peak to Mount Bolton Brown to the Monarch Divide, arguably the most rugged and wild watershed in the High Sierra. Click on image or here for the full high resolution version. 

I started out up the Lewis Creek Trail with some pre-dawn running making way into a pleasant pine forest for a few miles. Eventually, the forest became more alpine in character before opening up into a long avalanche scoured hillside with a forest of miniature aspens (except a handful of large aspens). I was about a week too late to see the fall color through this section but I imagine it to be awesome if timed correctly. After a long traverse through the avy slope I made my way up the final switchbacks to Kennedy Pass and then continued up the ridge through easy off-trail terrain to the summit of Kennedy Mountain where I was greeted with a lovely view to the Middle Fork Kings Canyon, the Palisades, Goddard Divide, Black Divide and White Divide. From Kennedy Mountain, I returned to Kennedy Pass and dropped down the Pass’s north side through a section of snow. I mistakenly turned off the trail a bit too soon, but scrambled down some steep grass and granite slabs to rejoin the trail near a small tarn. At the tarn I left the trail for good and headed up to East Kennedy Lake, a Sierra gem with pristine blue waters and a beautiful backdrop of cliffs along the Monarch Divide. The surreal setting was highlighted by the recent snow on the granite cliffs.

From East Kennedy Lake, I ascended steep grassy slopes up to a small saddle high on Dead Pine Ridge that provided access to Volcanic Lakes, a glorious granitic basin with a series of large alpine lakes. The origin of the name “Volcanic” perplexed me as this area seem far from volcanic in character. Descending to the largest Volcanic Lake (10,199 ft) via meadows and granite slabs, a tremendous view of the Palisades above the lake came into focus. The setting was so impressive I could hardly take a few steps without stopping to photograph and admire the picturesque scene. At the shores of Lk 10,199 I ascended more slabs to a knob with a centralized vantage where I could see five of the lakes surrounding me (there are at least eight large lakes in the basin). From the knob I crossed between Lk 10,284 and Lk 10,288 and then ascended yet another grassy gully to a broad area of meadows and slabs which took me to Granite Pass. In my entire time from East Kennedy Lake to Granite Pass I saw no evidence of human impact. From Granite Pass, I crossed the Copper Creek trail and traversed slabs and more meadows into the basin below Munger Peak. Munger Peak and Goat Mountain lie along the Goat Crest, a short north-south oriented spur between the Monarch Divide to the west and the Cirque Crest to the east. I chose to climb over Munger Peak from the north and found slippery snow on the talus in the final few hundred feet which made things slower than I otherwise would have expected. With conditions as they were, it would have probably been more efficient to cross over to Munger’s dry south side and tag the summit as an out-and-back. At any rate, I eventually made the summit of Munger and snapped some photos before heading down to the gap between Munger and Goat for the much-anticipated last climb of the day up Goat Mountain. The ascent up Goat Mountain was loose in the lower part but became more solid in the upper portion with a finish through large talus blocks near the top. The view from Goat Mountain’s summit was all that I had expected and more. It’s truly a remarkable point with a sweeping panorama from the Evolution area to the Kaweahs. The centerpiece of the view overlooks the South Fork Kings Canyon and the Murro Blanco with the peaks of the King Spur most prominent, including Mount Clarence King, Mount Cotter and Mount Gardiner. I also enjoyed the view looking to the Kings-Kern Divide including Mount Stanford, Caltech Peak and Mount Ericsson. Beyond the Kings-Kern Divide Mount Williamson and Mount Whitney were clearly visible. At this point in the afternoon clouds were beginning to gather to the south and chilly winds were increasing, but I spent quite a bit of time on the summit admiring the stupendous panorama. The afternoon light along with some the cumulus clouds enhanced the photography.

After over 30 minutes on the summit, I descended Goat Mountain and headed down down to Grouse Lake with straightforward and efficient cross country travel en route. Below Grouse Lake I located a use path which deposited me at the Copper Creek Trail. Along this use path there were some phenomenal views of Mount Clarence King and Mount Gardiner. After a break, I started running down the well-maintained Copper Creek trail which is excellent for a descent since its fairly non-technical. I caught up to Erica part of the way down, the only person I would see all day (Erica enjoyed the day at Granite Lake). Towards the bottom of the trail there was some great evening light through Kings Canyon and the Grand Sentinel rock feature (aka the El Capitan of Kings Canyon). Both Erica and I made it back before dark and we both agreed it was a fine late-season day to be in the Sierra. I’ll definitely be back for further exploration in this area and I’m especially keen on ascending Goat Mountain in the spring when the snow-capped peaks will offer a different perspective of the panorama; one of the best in the Sierra. The Copper Creek Trail to Goat Mountain segment is also the beginning of the Sierra High Route, which I aspire to do someday as well.