Thunder Pass

August 6-10, 2003

by Bill Finch

Most of the snow had melted in the high country and I figured Thunder Pass would be passable. Bagging this pass had been on my agenda for more than ten years and I was really looking forward to revisiting the areas I would hike through on my way there and back.

Day 1

The stairs into Sphinx Creek canyon were almost as impressive as the young hiker I met a half hour after I passed this point. stairs
Stairway to Sphinx Creek Canyon - Impressive stonework awaits the hiker that climbs into Sphinx Creek Canyon.

He was a young German who had attended a conference in San Diego and decided to spend a week following the conference in the mountains. He put on his Tevas, strapped his scooter onto his pack, hitched to Lodgepole where he bought some cheese and crackers and a blanket, then proceeded up the High Sierra Trail, cut off to Elizabeth Pass, hiked down Deadman Canyon, came over Avalanche Pass and was heading into Cedar Grove when I met him on the trail. I was so bemused by his appearance and his story that I forgot to take his photo or ask for his name. Soon I was off trail and crossing the riverbend on Sphinx Creek below the first Sphinx Lake. riverbend
Riverbend - The bend in Sphinx Creek is break in the forest below a broad apron of granite.

Fresh green of aspens caught my eye as I followed remnants of trail up the beautiful canyon. aspens
Aspens West of First Sphinx Lake - Bright green of the backlit aspens caught my eye.

The moon rose over the North Guard massif as I took an after dinner stroll around the third Sphinx lake. moonrise
Moon over North Guard - Sphinx Lake Basin is surrounded by striking peaks.

Day 2

Before I knew it, the next day arrived and I was quickly over Sphinx Pass into the Brewer Basin pass
Pass from Sphinx Lakes into Brewer Basin - I spent the better part of a day making my way across this beautiful area.

and making my way toward Cinder Col, the pass to South Guard Lake from Brewer Basin. pass
Cinder Col into Cunningham Creek Headwaters - I spent the better part of a day making my way across this beautiful area.

I spent a leisurely hour taking videos of the many small water falls spilling down from the lake at the pass. A wrong turn put me way behind schedule and I ended up camping by the outlet of South Guard Lake. Shortly after getting in the tent, the light became odd so I stuck my head out to see the cliffs across the canyon bathed in spectacular alpenglow. alpenglow
South canyon wall of Cunningham Creek - What a view! To think I almost missed it.

Day 3

I was up early the next morning and soon I was heading up the gravelly slopes to Longley Pass. Longley Pass
Gentle west slope of Longley Pass - I crossed tracks of many hikers as I moved toward the pass.

Beyond the ever-present cornice on Longley Pass lay the headwaters of East Creek. headwaters
Longley Pass - East from the pass are the headwaters of East Creek.

I made another navigational error which cost another few hours, but eventually Thunder Pass and Thunder Mountain came into view. Thunder Pass
Thunder Pass and Thunder Mountain - I was a little concerned about the snow below the pass but the loose, steep grunge turned out to be the real problem.

The pass was much more difficult than I had imagined. After I reached the top, it was pretty obvious that I had not picked the easiest route. Down below were the western headwaters of the Kern River. smoke
Pink smoke of a forest fire to the south hung over the central part of the Kern headwaters.

Smoke filled the canyon in the distance and as I descended to the lakes below, the smell of a forest fire became strong.

Day 4

The next morning, I was relieved to see crystalline views to the east where there had been smoke the night before. headwaters
Central Kern Headwaters - The smoke had cleared the next morning as I descended into the central Kern headwaters.

I dropped over a couple of impressive granite benches and into the heart of the Kern headwaters, one of the most beautiful parts of the range. lake
Unnamed Lake of Kern Headwaters - This is one of many beautiful lakes in this huge basin.

I headed north toward the Kings-Kern divide Mt Erikson
Unnamed Lake of Kern Headwaters and Mount Erikson - Another magnificent view in the Kern headwaters.

passing by lovely tarns and starkly beautiful scenery. treeline
Leaving the Trees - Another magnificent view in the Kern headwaters.

Soon I was looking down at Lake Reflection from the top of Little Joe Pass. Lk Reflection
Lake Reflection lies in another world far below.

The descent of the avalanche chute was slow - my football knee had swollen so much I couldn't bend my leg much. pass
Little Joe Pass - Little Joe Pass is one of the chutes that comes down this slope above Lake Reflection.

Finally I reached the bench above Lake Reflection and took a well-deserved break. This was my fourth day of hiking and I had promised the family that I would be back that night. I was pretty sure I was not going to be able to make it out, but I was going to give it a try. The sun was dropping quickly as I passed by East Lake and Mount Brewer, and by the time I got to Junction Meadow I was hiking by flashlight. I called it quits and camped by the bearbox below the drift fence. Mt Brewer
East Lake and Mount Brewer - Clouds were building over Mount Brewer as I passed East Lake.

Day 5

The next morning, I hustled down to the trailhead and called home to let everyone know that all was well. trail
Trail near Trailhead - The trail becomes wide and sandy along the South Fork of the Kings River.

One Page Version 22 January 2013