horse-packing-through-king’s-canyon-national-park
Photo of a cowboy leading a pack train of mules along the side of a giant boulder.  © Jerry Ginsberg
Horse and mule pack trains, like something straight out of the Old West, still ply the steep trails of the High Sierra in King’s Canyon National Park. © Jerry Ginsberg

By Jerry Ginsberg

King’s Canyon National Park is contiguous with Sequoia National Park. These two parks sitting deep within California’s famous and sometimes forbidding Sierra Nevada mountains are administered jointly.

Photo of a peak at sunrise. The top of the peak is glowing yellow, while the foreground is in deep shade. There is a reflection of the peak in water in the foreground. Fin Dome, an 11,000 foot granite summit in the Rae Lakes area of King's Canyon National Park. © Jerry Ginsberg
Fin Dome, an 11,000 foot granite summit in the Rae Lakes area of King’s Canyon National Park. © Jerry Ginsberg

A little history

Established way back in 1890, King’s Canyon was once known solely for what was then its premier attraction, the General Grant tree. This giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is the second largest in the world, just behind its bigger brother, the General Sherman tree a few miles south in Sequoia N.P.

With the nation having come out of the cataclysmic and very tragic Civil War just a quarter century earlier, we can see by the names chosen for these towering giants where the hearts and minds of many folks were at the time.

Photo of several tourists standing in front of and looking up at a giant sequoia tree. General Grant Grove of Giant Sequoias  © Jerry Ginsberg
General Grant Grove of Giant Sequoias © Jerry Ginsberg

A terrific park

The General Grant Grove of giant sequoias is a wonderful and easily accessible place of great enjoyment, but the front country represents just a tiny morsel of this sprawling 720 square mile treasure of pristine wilderness and very lightly visited chunk of raw Nature. After its sequoias, King’s Canyon includes the stunning glacially carved mile deep Canyon of the King’s River, a rugged back country that contains more of the canyon and its swift flowing river, several peaks topping 14,000 feet, high meadows, passes and icy cold alpine lakes.

There is so much to see here. An old legend tells of a lone hiker having a chance meeting with John Muir along the banks of the King’s River. The hiker asked Mr. Muir what he should do with only one day in the canyon. Muir promptly replied, “Just sit down and cry.”

Photo of a mountain at sunrise reflecting in a lake. Painted Lady reflects in Rae Lakes, King's Canyon National Park.© Jerry Ginsberg
Painted Lady reflects in Rae Lakes, King’s Canyon National Park, CA.

Saddle up!

While many hardy folks will opt to backpack into the King’s Canyon back country, my ability to embark on such a trek passed long ago, if it ever existed, which is doubtful. However, as an experienced and one-time competitive equestrian, I was delighted to learn that local outfitters offer multi-day semi-deluxe horse packing trips into the King’s Canyon back country.

With a friend and fellow photographer who had never ridden before, I set out on a two week adventure to discover unique and original images within this spectacular wilderness. The outfitter provided two very capable wranglers along with a half dozen pack mules to carry our copious gear. As a long-time Quarter Horse guy, I was mortified to be assigned what I took to be a mere tourist-grade saddle mule. It turned out to be an excellent choice.

Once we loaded up with two fifty pound boxes per pack mule, our little band climbed up and over the rather mild Kearsarge Pass at a very placid pace. After then traversing the higher (13,000 feet) and steeper Glen Pass, we dropped down into a vast basin known as Rae Lakes, a place chock full of crystal clear lakes below sharply carved granite peaks. Mirror-like reflections were everywhere.

Wranglers unpacking one of the mules. Wranglers set up a comfortable camp, laying out provisions and tending the stock, leaving us free to explore. © Jerry Ginsberg
Wranglers set up a comfortable camp, laying out provisions and tending the stock, leaving us free to explore. © Jerry Ginsberg

The experience

During our stay we moved camp a few times in order to explore new areas of this natural wonderland.

With our great wranglers setting up a comfortable camp, laying out provisions and of course, tending the stock, my friend and I were unfettered and free to explore for the best compositions.

After almost two weeks of continuous adventure, it was time to head back. When just about to descend the absolutely vertical Glen Pass this time, an expletive spontaneously and inadvertently escaped my lips. For the very first time, I was thankful to be sitting on my sure footed saddle mule Pedro.

Getting there

Sequoia / King’s Canyon is about two hours by car from Fresno, two and one-half hours from Bakersfield.

As you make your plans, keep in mind that Sequoia / King’s Canyon, Inyo National Forest and other large areas of California were closed for significant periods in 2021 due to drought and fires. Plan accordingly and check frequently.

Outfitters offering horse/mule trips into the Sierras include:
Sequoia Kings Pack Trains, with locations at the Kearsarge Pass trailhead and Pine Creek Pass trailhead.
Red’s Meadow Resort, Mammoth Lakes, CA

The U.S. Forest Service also has a list of authorized outfitters.

Photo of Jerry GinsbergJerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.

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