Of all the place names in the Sierra Nevada, Roads End has to be one of the most alluring.
Five miles past Cedar Grove, in the heart of Kings Canyon National Park, the pavement gives way to dirt, sand and pine needles. To go any farther, you must park the car and walk.
Roads End is best known as a jumping-off point for backpacking trips to destinations such as Paradise Valley, Charlotte Dome and Rae Lakes. But it's also a great spot for day hikes, including one that I try to do every year that takes in many of the area's best landmarks and views.
I'm calling this hike the Roads End "Loop," and the quotation marks are needed because it's really a small loop attached to two tails. If 12 miles sounds like too much, simply cut off one of the tails and save yourself about 4 miles. Or cut off both and a 12-mile hike becomes less than 5.
Start by hiking the main trail to Mist Falls, past the small ranger station. This wide, sandy trail parallels the South Fork of the Kings River (though not right next to it), and you'll undoubtedly encounter several fellow day hikers and backpackers en route.
It's an easy stroll. Although some areas are open, views of the canyon walls are mostly blocked by thick forest. At 2 miles, the trail hits a junction. Take the left fork toward Mist Falls and Paradise Valley.
Up until now, the trail has been dead flat. That's about to change as the next 2 miles to the falls require a 600-foot elevation gain. But unlike the first section, the river is seldom out of sight -- or earshot.
Steady climbing through forested areas and exposed granite slabs leads to the base of turbulent Mist Falls. When the falls are running high, like they were this week, a cool-but-gentle spray soaks everything within 200 yards.
After you've taken time to soak in the falls (or get soaked by them), head back downhill toward the canyon floor. Except don't retrace your steps at the trail junction. Instead turn left and cross the South Fork of the Kings River on the sturdy Bailey Bridge.
Now headed toward Sphinx Creek, the trail crosses several short wooden footbridges that span strands of Bubbs Creek. If you need water, now's the time to get it (be sure to use a filter) because you'll soon be headed uphill.
The climb up the Bubbs Creek switchbacks can be demanding because they're sun-exposed. But the sweat pays off with views of Kings Canyon (back toward Roads End), the canyon containing Mist Falls and a towering rock pinnacle called The Sphinx.
Higher up, the switchbacks give way to a gentler gradient until the trail reaches Sphinx Creek Camp, 1.8 miles from the Bailey Bridge. By now, you're back in the forest, and there are several shady logs to rest before heading back downhill.
Not surprisingly, the way down the switchbacks is significantly easier than the way up, but the views are equally jaw-dropping. Just be sure to go left at the first trail junction on the canyon floor (past the wooden footbridges) toward Roads End. This way back is a little longer than the way in, but you'll be on the other side of the river with significantly less foot traffic.
To reach the parking lot, continue 21/2 miles until the trail meets a red-painted metal bridge. Cross the river and head up a short hill back to the trailhead.
Now you know why Roads End really is just the beginning.
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