Woods Creek Trail: Kings Canyon National Park

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Ahhhh granite!

The choice to visit Kings Canyon was a sporadic one. Packing on Friday morning, and planning to do a local overnighter, Sharon raised the idea. Sold! We decided to leave that evening and picked Woods Creek Trail, knowing nothing about it.

In the past we’ve had trouble locating a trailhead. We’ve had trouble finding the trail. We’ve had trouble finding campsites. Never would we have considered that finding the ranger station might be so difficult. We drove into the park after spending the night in Sequoia National Forest and attempted to follow the road signs to the ranger station. This may be one of the few times where looking at a map may have been detrimental to reaching a destination. We knew where the station should be, but the road signage was rather misleading.

After an hour of searching and literally driving around in a circle, only to find out the ranger station was closed for the season, we eventually ended up at Roads End. Here a backcountry permit station was open and we obtained one of the available permits. In a rush to get started, the permit stayed on the dashboard.

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Kings River

Unbeknownst to us, Woods Creek is one of the park’s more popular trails. It serves as the starting point for the 40-mile Rae Lakes Loop and leads to several popular campsites. The trail starts off following the South Fork of the Kings River and then veers due East along the eponymous Woods Creek.

For the first couple of miles, the eastbound trail is flat, and the canyon wide. However, as the river and trail turn to the North, the canyon narrows and the climbing begins. Over the 11 miles of our outbound hike we would gain over 3500 feet. Though much of the trail wanders through forest and riverside vegetation, the open areas give spine-tingling views of sheer 2000+ foot cliffs. The grandness of the area does its best to make the hiker feel small.

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Falls (I don’t remember if these were Mist Falls though)

The first “point of interest” is Mist Falls. About 4 miles in, the cascade is the turnaround point for most day hikers, and the backpacker leaves the crowds behind, continuing up towards Paradise Valley. Here, the contour of the trial smooths out a bit and the river meanders through lush vegetation and the bends house many potential swimming holes. At the time of our visit, however, it was a bit too chilly for swimming.

Three campgrounds with designated sites, the Lower, Middle, and Upper Paradise Valley campgrounds are fairly equally spaced over the section of trail. The Lower and Middle even provide thunderboxes. No squatting required! We took full advantage. Here, the more ambitious trekker leaves the majority of backpackers behind.

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South Fork Kings River in Paradise Valley

At Upper Paradise Valley a bridge crosses the river. Reading the trail on the opposite bank can be a little tricky. There are a few well defined use paths, but the true trail heads off to the right, along the river. Look for cairns, and the rock arrow which I added (assuming it survives the winter).

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Is this what the bears are after?

Shortly after crossing the bridge and climbing a few hundred feet I heard Sharon start yelling. “Luke, get over here. Now! RUN!” I turned around and made my way back towards her. I must have spooked a couple of bears, she claims cubs, which ran right past her. They were gone. Another missed sighting on my part. I commented that if they really were cubs, it probably was not the best idea for me to run in their direction. “If mommy was watching, she would not have been pleased!”

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Home in the canyon

We originally planned on hiking to Castle Domes Meadow, or maybe even up to the John Muir Trail, at about mile 15.5. However, we had been watching dark clouds forming on either side of the canyon and quickly closing in on us. We stopped early, found a suitable spot, pitched our tent, and ate dinner. Just in time! As soon as we settled in, the rain started. It didn’t stop until the morning.

Waking up we were both warm inside the tent, but outside was a different story. The summer hiking season in the Sierra Nevada is certainly over. The cold was nipping and I, stubbornly refusing to don gloves, had trouble getting my hands to cooperate in breaking down our wet camp. Though the sun was shining on the rims of the canyon, it was still a couple of hours from reaching us bottom dwellers.

The overnight rain took on a different, whiter, fluffier, form 2000 feet higher. Snow kissed the peaks, enhancing the scenery. It was quickly melting as we headed back down.

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Canyon panorama with the Sphinx center

The way down provided me with plenty of time to view the Sphinx, a 9,146 foot granite behemoth with its distinctive gulleys. I only wished that snow would have settled on this formation. Guess we’ll have to visit again in the winter. Maybe one day I’ll stand at its summit.

As we neared the junction with Bubb’s Creek Trail we heard reports of at least 2 bears in the area. We missed the first and hoped to get a look at the second. I heard some rustling in a thicket of bushes between the trial and river, so we headed down to the shore to see if we could spot the bear coming out.

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Here’s Fuzzy!

More rustling! Even closer! “We’d better not stand here if that bear comes out. We’ll be right in its path,” I turned to Sharon. She agreed and we quickly made our way back towards the trail. “There it is!” she yelled. The bear did come out of the bushes staring directly at her, maybe 20 feet away. The closest encounter to date.

We got out of its way and it walked right past us continuing along the bank. Camera equipped with a 300 mm lens, we hiked with the bear snapping many pictures. Sadly, between observing the bear, making sure we didn’t become the bear’s play toy, and trying to keep the camera steady I didn’t get the settings just right and most of the pictures did not turn out.

As we approached the trailhead, we watched an SAR helicopter, equipped with a gurney, fly low through the canyon. We ran into a couple of rangers who were manning the permit station the previous day. The permit station itself was closed “due to an emergency”. In the National Forest, outside of the park we drove past a whole slew of SAR vehicles. Some unlucky adventurers were likely in trouble. Keeping our fingers crossed that the made out alright.

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The General Grant

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General Grant Tree and Grant Grove Village

We made a quick stop to see the General Grant Tree. Though not the largest tree in the world (it’s the 3rd), this 1,700 year old giant sequoia has a larger base diameter than General Sherman. The grove is filled with ancient giants. Among them, the Fallen Monarch, a hollowed out, downed trunk was large enough to house people and stable horses. Again, the park has a way of making visitors feel small.

We stopped in Grant Grove Village to pick up some snacks for the drive home, and after smelling cooked food (this was a no-cooking trip) we decided to visit the restaurant. Big mistake. It takes a lot for two hungry backpackers, each having consumed a bagel and a few energy bars, to dislike what they eat. However, the hummus, likely re-constituted powder, was both soupy and chunky. Sharon’s pasta was rather tasteless. My eggplant was overcooked, the pepper sauce indistinguishable from Sharon’s pasta sauce and the rice…billions of bowls of rice are served every day and one would be hard pressed to find one worse than this soggy, mushy side. The only redeeming quality: The balsamic caramelized onion of which I wish I had a plateful.

Despite the food, the views, giant cliffs, giant trees, and bear encounters made this a memorable trip. Though, shamefully, this was our first time hiking in Kings Canyon, it surely will not be the last!

For more national park adventure, visit our National Park Service Guide.