Sphinx Lakes in Kings Canyon

Notes by piero scaruffi | Other California destinations | California hikes
This is one of the most massive of my day hikes. It involves a significant elevation gain (1600m at the trailhead, 3600m at the last lake), a steep approach via the Sphinx Creek trail, and several hours of cross-country hiking ("the trail you make is the trail you take"). One has to deal with pretty much all different kinds of terrain: sandy trail, rocky trail, foresty trail, bushwhacking, granite slab and finally tallus rock. The total distance from the trailhead to the last Sphinx Lake (which I call Sphinx 7) and back is about 42 kms, the distance of the marathon. Needless to say, it is worth it because the Sphinx lakes basin is one of the most spectacular sights in all of California.

Trail description

If you parked at Roads End, at the first parking lot, marked by the sign "Information", the trailhead is right in front of the tiny ranger station (at an altitude of about 1600m). There is a water fountain right at the trailhead.
Starting at the ranger station of Roads End (next to the water spigot), you will follow signs for Bubbs Creek, Sphinx Creek Junction and then for Avalanche Pass.
After three tedious kms (about 20 minutes) of very wide flat sandy trail, you reach the first fork (Paradise Valley). Bear right and walk over a series of five bridges. (Note the sign after the first long bridge: there is a fork that will not be obvious when you are coming down, especially after dark). You are on the Bubbs Creek trail going east. Steep switchbacks take you in 3 kms (1 hour 10') to another junction (Sphinx Camp N36.79352 W118.52838). The Bubbs Creek trail continues east, but you want to turn right into the Avalanche Pass trail, aka Sphinx trail (the "sphinx" is right on top of you, on the other side of the creek). Walk over the bridge and ascend the extremely steep trail to the top of the mountain in front of you. For the whole way you are flanked by rapids and waterfalls. At the top (about 1.5 hours, so about 3 hours from Roads End) the trail turns right and crosses a very small creek. Then it bends left and goes up a little less steep but straight roughly south. At some point it flattens out and even starts descending a bit as it approaches the Sphinx Creek. Now you need to leave the trail and there are two ways to go about it.
1. The faster way is that you get off the trail about 15' after the tiny creek crossing, before the trail turns right and crosses the Sphinx Creek (ideally, about 200m before the Sphinx Creek, altitude of 2600m, about 3h 15' into the hike). It is sort of obvious where it would be a good place to leave the trail, because on your left you start seeing more forest and less steep hillside (N36.75573 W118.53163) and the trail has reached a peak and is starting to go down instead of up. Head uphill and south, coasting the Sphinx creek that you cannot see but you can hear to your right. Keep higher than the creek to avoid the shrubs and swamps. Walking into the trees is the best way to walk on soft soil and avoid both shrub/swamp (further down below) and boulders (further up the ridge). After about 5 minutes, you should cross an eastern creek (almost dry in the summer). From this point you want to head southeast, basically facing the sun if you are hiking in the morning. After 200m, you should enter a moraine that looks like a river of boulders (no water, just lots of boulders, like the remnants of an avalanche) heading east. Climb this moraine until you can easily enter the forest to your right, still trying to keep the general southeast direction. If you are walking too high, you are doing too much boulder hopping, which can be time consuming and dangerous. If you are walking too low, you are bushwhacking into thick vegetation. You want to stay halfway between the two ends of the spectrum. After about 1 hour (4 hours from the start), you should reach a swampy meadow (N36.74606 W118.52521) with the most aggressive mosquitoes in the park. There is no need to cross the creek unless you want to. On the other (south) side, there is a wall of granite.

Scramble up the rocks and slabs (about 100m vertical) to Sphinx Lake 1 (4.5 hours, altitude of about 3000m). If you are lucky, you will find a semi-trail that makes it easier to scramble up the talus rock (if you climb too much to the right of the trail, you'll hit granite slabs and, further to the right, thick vegetation).
2. The more comfortable way is to follow the Sphinx Creek from the right (western) side. Stay on the trail until you cross the Sphinx Creek. This can be tricky in early season or after a big rain because there is no bridge. Once the other side, start ascending and moving away from the creek. If you stay about 200 meters to the right of the Sphinx Creek, you should be able to avoid the worst of the mosquitoes and to avoid most of the rocky moraines. You will reach Lake 1 over foresty terrain.
Sphinx Lake 1 is marshy on the right/western side (and the eastern side looks a lot less friendly). If you coast the marshy side (this may require crossing the creek east to west, which in early summer is not trivial), you may find the vestige of a trail and get to another wall of boulders, to the right of the creek. There is again a vestige of a trail that appears, steep switchbacks leading to a foresty area which hides the second lake, Sphinx Lake 2 (5 hours, 3186 meters).
Coast the lake to the right (west) following a use-trail. When the trail ends, just scramble up the boulders in the general south direction. The twin lakes (third and fourth lake) are right above your head but you want to aim for the lowest point of the crest in front of you. First, you have to climb above some intimidating cliffs. You can go around them to the right or you can use a steep notch. Then move to the left (i.e. towards the water) as you go up in order to hit the outlet of the lakes.

I call these lakes the "twin lakes" (about 3300m): they are one next to the other, separated by a thin strip of rocks and vegetation.
You should first get to Lake 3 (N36.72783 W118.51811). You should find a trail on its northern shore that heads west to Lake 4. The two lakes communicate. A series of logs should help you cross to the southern side of the twin lakes.
If you look up/south, you should see two canyons in front of you, separated by an oblique pyramid.

The canyon on the left/southeast side ends in a brutal semicircle of peaks (North Guard towers above this amphitheater). There are actually two main lakes up here (which i call Sphinx 8 and Sphinx 9) and the higher one seems to have ducks every summer.
The canyon on the right/southwest side offers an affordable grade over a green patch along the creek. This is the side that you want to take if you want to see Sphinx 5,6,7 and Sphinx Pass.

You can walk up that green patch (actually, a lot of boulders and shrubs), basically following the creek, or (better in my opinion) you can walk straight up the promontory that separates the two canyons, slightly on the western side of the oblique pyramid.

This way you are walking above the western canyon. The first advantage is that you get to see the two lakes on the left canyon (which most people miss). The second advantage is that this route is less uneven than the valley below. The third advantage is that you walk above the lakes. As you keep moving southwest, entering the southwest canyon on its left/east side, you should see to your right two tiny ponds, then Sphinx 5 (N36.71849 W118.51505), then Sphinx 6 ( and finally the last pond (usually icy and surmounted by snow), which I call Sphinx 7 (about 3500m, 7.5 hours). On the other hand, if you walk too high, you may be hitting boulders all the way up, which is not good.
Now there is virtually nowhere to go, because in front of you (southeast) there is a wall of boulders surrounded by vertical peaks on both sides: that is what i call Sphinx Pass (N36.71091 W118.50401).

It takes about one hour to climb Sphinx Pass (just boulder hopping to the top), with the view of the last three Sphinx lakes behind you.

At the top, you get a wonderful view of Mt Brewer and North Guard to the southeast and the South Guard to the south, and the valley right below you.

You don't see Big Brewer Lake which is slightly to the right (southwest) of the pass.
Coming back down is going to be faster (about one hour to the twin lakes, one hour to the first lake, one hour to the trail) but not much faster (once on the trail, it takes about the same 3 hours to get to the Roads End parking lot). In 2006 it took 4 hours to get from the top of Sphinx Pass to the trail. In 2004 we did the whole hike in 13 hours. A lot depends on terrain and snow conditions.

There is, needless to say, plenty of water along the way, so you don't need to carry much.

There is drinkable water at the trailhead (right by the little ranger station).

From the parking lot to where you leave the trail:


The Sphinx Lakes:

Pictures of this hike: click on Sphinx Lakes.

(click to enlarge)

Driving directions to Roads End from the Bay Area.

Take 101 south, 152 east lo Los Banos (about 1 hr 30') to 99 (about 2hr), 99 south to Fresno (about 300 kms, 2h 30'). In Fresno, take 180 east and follow it (the freeway is not completed yet, it will go through town and then turn left into Kings Canyon Ave) to the Big Stump park entrance (85 kms, 1h 15') to the fork with Sequoia Park (5') to Grant Grove village (3kms, visitor center, restaurant, water, restrooms, market) to Cedar Grove (50 winding kms, 50', via Kings Canyon Lodge 20', Boyden Cavern 30', Kings Canyon border 40') and then (10 kms) Roads End. Park at Roads End, at the first parking lot, marked by the sign "Information".
Cheap gas in Fresno: Arco on Kings Canyon Ave, or the gas stations on Clinton Ave & Weber. Cheap lodging: Belmont Ave exit of 99.
Region's map (Google Earth):


Kings Canyon's visitor information: 559-565-3341

Cedar Grove ranger station closes at 4pm and it's open only in summer. Grant Grove visitor center (180 entrance): open 8am-6pm in summer, 5km east on 180 from the Big Stump Entrance Station.

Summary of the hike

  • Roads End (1534m) to Paradise Valley junction: 3kms, 35'
  • First switchback 40'
  • Avalanche Pass/Sphinx trail junction (1914m): 6.5kms, 1h45'
  • Top of Sphinx trail: 10.5kms, 3h (2600m)
  • Lower Sphinx Lake: 12.5kms, 4.5 hours (2956m)
  • Upper Sphinx Lake: 13kms, 5 hours (3108m)
  • Twin Lakes: 14kms, 5.5h (3214m)
  • Sphinx 5: 15.5 kms (3338m)
  • Sphinx Pass: 17kms, 7h (3657m)
  • (The distances are meaningless because there is no trail: i listed the straight line, but you are unlikely to follow a straight line, so the real distance can be twice as much as the straight line)

Loop via Avalanche Pass

You can do a loop via Avalanche Pass. Cross over Sphinx Pass and turn right into the canyon that drains Big Lake Brewer. Stay high on the right side (north side) of Big Brewer Lake which now becomes very visible. The ridge on your right side goes down west. Before you reach the next lake (you should still be high to the right of it), turn around the ridge to the west and then north (the ridge should now be low enough that you should neither lose nor gain elevation). If you keep in the general direction northwest at 2800 meters of elevation, you should eventually cross the Moraine Creek. At this point you can either head northwest and hit the trail below you (but you lose a lot of elevation) or keep following use trails and animal trails that coast the mountains on your right and head north. The first drainage on your right is the Moraine Creek drainage. Continue north to the next drainage, which is the correct one.

Mt Palmer should be in front of you. The use trails should eventually hit the Avalanche Pass trail (around N36.73745 W118.55969). At that point ascend the trail to Avalanche Pass and then follow it downhill back to the starting point.

  • Sphinx Pass: 8h
  • Big Brewer Lake: 9h
  • Ridge: 10h
  • Avalanche Pass trail: 12h
  • Avalanche Pass (3060m): 13h
  • Back where you left the trail: 14h
  • Back to Sphinx Camp: 15h
  • Roads End: 16.5h
Another possible loop is to reach East Lake via the lakes south of Sphinx Pass

through this pass visible from Sphinx Pass:

See also climbing Mt Brewer from the Sphinx Lakes.