The South Fork of the Kings River trail crossing in the backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park has become notorious this year among Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail thru-hikers as one of the most difficult waterways to cross along the entire length of the trail. This fork of the Kings River continues its journey by flowing through Paradise Valley — where it knocked a footbridge off its foundations during its flood stage this year — and onto Cedar Grove, where it parallels Highway 180 along the canyon floor and provides dramatic views as it tumbles toward the Sierra foothills until it is captured and controlled behind the Pine Flat Reservoir dam.
Backpacker reported missing
Rika Morita, 32, of Japan was northbound and hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail when she was last seen on or about July 8 in the vicinity of Rae Lakes. She was reported as missing on Saturday, July 22.
On Sunday, July 23, another group of PCT hikers discovered a body underwater in the South Fork of the Kings River at what the National Park Service described as “an alternative water crossing at about 10,000 feet elevation.” That afternoon, park personnel confirmed the location of the body.
Recovery of the deceased individual occurred Monday, July 24, and was transferred to the Fresno County Coroner’s Office, where the victim was identified as Rika Morita.
According to social media posts by friends and fellow hikers, Rika, who at five feet tall, 100 pounds, expressed concern about the upcoming river crossing. She had crossed a previous creek on July 8 with two companions that she met during her hike.
Rika continued on, but the pair was under the impression she would wait for their assistance at upcoming crossings. There are two fords of the South Fork-Kings within a couple miles of each other. But they never saw Rika again.
High water hazards
Due to this year’s high water, there is an alternative route at the South Fork of the Kings River crossing that allows hikers to avoid both crossings of this river. Travel time will be slower without the trail, but much safer.
SOUTHBOUND: Rather than ford the South Fork twice, stay on the east side of the river before the first ford in Upper Basin (elevation 10,830 feet) and walk about 2.5 miles on a use trail, an unmaintained trail that is visible due to prior use (river will be on the southbound hiker’s right).
NORTHBOUND: Following the switchback descent after the Bench Lake Ranger Station, hikers will arrive at the main South Fork crossing (elevation 10,040 feet). If the water looks too treacherous to cross, look for the use trail that stays on the east side of the river (river will be on the northbound hiker’s left) for just under 2.5 miles.
In early season or after a heavy winter like that of 2016-2017, waterways without bridges are the greatest hazards for mountain travelers. High water volume due to snowmelt and steep, narrow channels combine to make a dangerous, often deadly, combination.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks advise that wilderness travelers have flexible plans and scout for the safest locations and times to cross a waterway. Water levels fluctuate during the day (they are generally lower in the morning; higher in the late afternoon), and the least hazardous place to cross won’t necessarily be right at the trail.
If the water looks dangerous, find another crossing location, wait until the water level goes down, watch another hiker go first (or assist each other across), or change your route.
Editor’s note: This section of trail that includes the South Fork crossing is featured in a “Hiking the John Muir Trail” installment, a series about a 2015 southbound journey. Although 2015 was a drought year that followed several other drought years, this South Fork-Kings River crossing was still significant. See story here.