What: A 134 mile, 12 day loop hike
Where: Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California
In 2018, Rachel and I embarked on one of our favorite hiking adventures to date, the Big SEKI loop trail. In the few years prior we had hiked across the Olympics, around Mt. Rainier, and portions of the PCT in Washington State.
So, we were ready to head southbound to the Sierras. Originally, we set our sites on the JMT, but quickly realized how difficult it can be to get permits. Plus, we were afraid of being overrun in a swarm of hikers on the JMT.
Fortunately, Rachel stumbled upon an excellent JMT alternative – The Big SEKI Loop.
What is the Big SEKI Loop?
The Big SEKI Loop is a hiking route that navigates through portions of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It covers a beautiful stretch of backcountry tucked within California’s Sierra Mountains, and overlaps with a small southerly portion of the JMT. SEKI is an abbreviated mash up of SEquoia-KIngs Canyon.
Even getting to the trailhead via car is epic. From Fresno, you’ll drive though vastest arid farmlands, disappear into a tunnel of giant sequoias, sidewind along steep canyons until eventually the road ends. It’s here that the adventure begins.
The Big SEKI Loop Route
There are several variations of the hike that can be done. And, there’s really no right or wrong way to do it.
However, most people start from the Road’s End Trail Head located in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. From there, you can choose to go clockwise, or counter clockwise. We chose to go clockwise, starting at Copper Creek Trailhead.
There are a couple of things that we did differently than other hikers.
- Instead of doing a big circle, we did a B, skipping the Rae Lakes.
- We took Colby Pass from Junction Meadow.
Here’s a map of the route we took.
Why We Skipped Rae Lakes
About midway through the hikes sit the Rae Lakes. A lot of weekend backpackers will start from the Road’s End Trailhead and then do the Rae Lakes Loop in a weekend.
On day 5, we could have taken the purple section on the map above, to go through Rae Lakes, but we chose to take the Woods Creek Trail back toward Roads End. We did this variation in order to pick up a food resupply that we left at Roads End.
Overall, we were disappointed that we didn’t get to see the Rae Lakes. But, it was a logistical decision that we had to make. When we first started the trip we originally planned to carry all of our food from day 1. But, as we carried our loaded packs in the smoky, hot, sun scorched climb on day 1, we quickly re-strategized. We offloaded half of our meals into a bear locker at Road’s End, thus turning our SEKI Loop into a B instead of an O.
Alternatively, if you want to do the Rae Lakes section, you have three options I’ve heard of for your resupply, or no resupply.
Carry All Your Food With You – This is doable, but heavy. Even with minimal gear we decided last minute to change our approach. Most passes you’ll cross are 10,000+ feet, so a heavy haul of food can make that miserable.
Restock at Onion Valley – At about 4 miles south of the Rae Lakes there is a 7 mile offshoot trail that leads to Onion Valley. You could possibly drop off a resupply there, or have someone drop off a resupply for you. Alternatively, you could hitch a ride from Onion Valley to the town of Independence to do a resupply there. However, this sounds like a real pain. It also adds at least 14 miles to your trip.
Hire a Cowboy – On the trail we ran into a number of cowboys running in supplies to different areas. Presumably, you could hire some to drop off a resupply for you. However, this is an added cost, and I’m not sure about the logistics of such a thing.
Colby Pass Vs. Elizabeth Pass
If you do the Big SEKI loop in a clockwise direction you’ll have a choice between two different variations once you reach Junction Meadow, which was on day 10 for our trip. Both variations will take you to the Roaring River ranger station and campground. But, Colby Pass is the most direct route, and about 20 miles shorter than the Elizabeth Pass Route.
From Junction Meadow to Roaring River:
- The Elizabeth Pass Route is about 38 miles.
- The Colby Pass Route is about 17.2 miles
Either route is beautiful. With a longer timeline we would have probably taken Elizabeth Pass, but I’m happy we ended up taking Colby Pass. It was one of the most remote, beautiful, and wild areas of the trail we did – despite washouts, and landslides. To hear more about that, check out day 10 and day 11 of our SEKI Trail Journal.
One of the benefits of doing the SEKI loop clockwise is that you hit Junction Meadow toward the end of your trip. So, if you’re planning to hike Elizabeth Pass but you’re running behind, you can always take the Colby Pass shortcut.
Here’s a full run-down of our SEKI route. As you can see, some of the days were fairly stout in terms of altitude. You can also get a better look at each section by checking out the trail journal entry for each day.
|Journal Entry||Daily Miles||Cumulative Miles||Altitide Low||Altitude High||Net Alt Change||Altitude Gained||Altitude Lost|
Why Hike the Big SEKI Loop?
There are a number of reasons people choose to hike the Big SEKI Loop. Namely, it tends to offer a balance of beauty and convenience.
The Beauty of the Sierras
The Sierra’s are beautiful. There’s no use arguing that. Their one of my favorite places to hike. I’ve hiked hundreds of miles throughout the Sierras and it’s never gotten old. Nothing matches the rugged terrain, steep stone peppered valleys, or breathtaking vistas.
Even when compared to the iconic California jewels of Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadow, Sequoia-Kings Canyon is unparalleled in it’s beauty. You disappear into the canyons, and marvel in the shadows of ancient trees.
As long as we take care of them, the Sierras are a gift that keep on giving.
Rugged Terrain and Fewer People
The SEKI loop is pretty rugged in sections. That’s one of the reasons it’s so awesome. The result of those rugged trails? Less people.
If you’re not an experienced hiker, you might not have the best time on this route. On the most intense day of our trip we climbed almost 5,000 ft. On most days we gained well over 2,000 ft. And, usually right after we gained that altitude, we lost it again.
The JMT portions of the trail that we were on were less rough, and busy. We quickly realized why it was difficult to get a JMT permit. It was like a hikers highway. We met a lot of great people on the JMT sections, but we were also delighted when we were alone on the SEKI variations, like Colby Pass and Simpson Meadow.
Easy Travel Logistics
Since it’s a loop, that automatically makes the Big SEKI Loop fairly convenient compared to thru-hikes like the JMT. With the JMT you enter in Yosemite Valley and then exit at Mt. Whitney, so you need to arrange travel at each end of your journey and probably some food drops as well.
With a loop hike, like SEKI, you start and end at the same place. Plus, since it’s a loop you get to see new scenery the whole time as well, just like a thru-hike.
The main logistical challenge on the SEKI loop is figuring out your food drop, which I discussed above. But, it also serves as a good incentive to pack light, and only bring what you need.
What’s the Best time of Year to Hike the Big SEKI Loop?
Like the JMT, the summer months from June-September are typically the best time to hike the Big SEKI Loop. However, this can vary from year to year. Typically, there is too still too much snow in May, and June at higher elevations.
If you choose to hike in July or August you’re going to encounter more mosquitos and it tends to be the hottest part of the year. In September, the crowds on most hikes tend to thin out as students return to school. But it can be a beautiful time of year, since there’s still no snow, fewer mosquitos, and plenty of wildflowers. October, can be a little hit and miss since it’s the shoulder season. You could end up with primo hiking temps, or you could get soaked, or even snowed on. So, be prepared.
For our hike, we began at the end of July and finished at the start of August. We encountered some extreme heat at the lower elevations, especially closer to the trailhead. We also had frequent thunderstorms. So, just remember, expect the unexpected, no matter what time of year you go. The weather in the Sierra’s can change quickly. We experienced this first hand on day 3, when the sunshine turned to hail and rain, pinning us down in a makeshift shelter scared for our lives.
Hiking gear is up to you. But, there are some essential you’ll need. And, although we tried to go lightweight, there were a few supplies that would have been nice to have.
Map – Obviously you’ll want a map. The National Graphic Trails Illustrated version is the one we used. It’s waterproof, and tear resistant which comes in handy. Mine now smells like sunscreen, which helps bring back good memories of our adventure every time I open it.
Bear Canister – You absolutely have to have a Bear canister for this hike. There are sections in the northern part of the hike where you won’t need one, but they are mandatory in the Rae Lakes loop area, and south of that.
You can rent them from the ranger station or buy your own. Here’s the one we own, which is lighter than the ones they rent in the park. Also, I like that it’s clear so you can see your food and where it’s at without having to empty your canister every time.
Rain Coat and/or Rain Pants – I know what you’re thinking. And, no, we did not bring rain coats. But that’s because we didn’t bring a tent either. Instead we brought poncho tarps that were multipurpose. When it rained we could don them over ourselves and backpacks, and we could tether our tarps together at night to create a tarp tent shelter.
The only problem with this strategy was that we got thunderstorms on a lot. And, overall, we stayed safe. But, having a rain coat would have been handy on a couple of those super rough days. I don’t regret using the poncho tarps instead of a tent, but in retrospect, a good lightweight rain coat or pants could have added a lot of security on Day 3 and Day 4.
Hiking Shoes – You can use whatever you want. But, I’m just going to use this chance to promote my new favorite hiking shoe, the Altra Timp 1.5. For this trip, I used the Altra Lone Peak, which worked out great. But, I have since upgraded to the Altra Timp 1.5. Overall, I’ve found that you can’t go wrong with Altras due to their superior comfort, light weight, and support.
Is there other gear I’m forgetting? Maybe. If so, I’ll add it here as I remember.
Want to Know More About the Big SEKI Loop?
For a full recap of our journey, you can check out our trail journals. Each entry has extra details on the area, and beautiful pictures from each section.
Have You Hiked the Big SEKI Loop?
Have you hiked the Big SEKI loop, or another alternative? Did we miss anything? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
We’d love to hear from you.