Sierra High Route 2018
Fulfilling a long-held goal, Alex, Tim, and Clara hiked the Sierra High Route through California’s Sierra Nevada in August and September of 2018. Given that it is mostly off-trail, Jennifer opted instead to join Emily in Europe to hike the Tour de Monte Rosa. Jennifer kept in touch by sending photos of the nice beds, after-hike drinks, and elaborate meals at the Swiss and Italian huts.
We spent 28 days hiking 240+ miles, crossing 36 major passes and making side trips to climb a dozen mountains. The High Route, as defined by Steve Roper, has some significant trail sections; where we could we substituted more off-trail walking for the trail miles. These variations and other aspects of our experience might be of interest to other High Route hikers, so this travelogue is split into two parts: an overall summary and a day-by-day report with more details. The stunning photos are Tim’s, the snapshots are Alex’s.
Planning and Logistics
Any long backpacking trip involves significant planning, but preparations for the High Route were in a category we’ve only reached once before. We made a major effort to minimize weight by upgrading to lighter gear or going without. But we didn’t come close to reaching the extremes of ultralight backpacking; among other “essentials” we brought a phone that served as our GPS and Alex’s camera, a second phone as a backup, a satellite-enabled emergency locator beacon and texting device, five pounds of professional camera equipment for Tim, and a portable solar panel to charge everything. We also brought climbing helmets, crampons, and one ice axe. But our packs probably never exceeded 50 pounds on the heaviest day and likely dipped under 30 pounds at their lightest, which we found quite manageable.
We planned three resupplies, mailing food to points where we could hike out to collect it. There are severe constraints on backpacking meals, which must have high calories for the weight and be easy to cook on simple stoves at altitude. Clara did all the food planning and cooking. She succeeded admirably; we never tired of the quesadillas, curry lentils with rice, or the other staples of our diet.
Two of the biggest problems with the Sierra High Route are getting to the start and returning from the end. There is no public transportation to either trailhead, and setting up a 300-mile car shuttle is a multi-day affair. Fortunately for us, family friends Hector Garcia-Molina and Adrien Costa helped us out. Hector drove us to Kings Canyon National Park to start the trip, while Adrien picked us up at Twin Lakes near Bridgeport for the ride home.
Reputation and Terrain
The difficulty of the High Route is a matter of opinion. At one extreme, some very experienced backcountry travelers have found it much more challenging than they anticipated. At the other end of the spectrum there is Granny Does the High Route. If you only have time to read one of these articles, we recommend the first!
Much of the walking is relatively easy but many of the passes are hard work, and a handful with evocative names like Frozen Lake Pass and Snow Tongue Pass have developed mythic reputations of their own. And then there is the talus, the piles of boulders that are common at high elevations. Talus fields always slow progress, but crossing fields of large blocks on steep slopes is especially demanding.
Part of the reason that people have different experiences is that the route can be much harder or easier depending on the season and route-finding decisions. Our trip was in late season, so we had less snow and more talus-hopping than would be the case earlier in the summer. Whether one finds the easiest route up or down a pass can make the difference between a fun experience and a frightening one. We generally did well with route-finding, keeping the difficulty even on the hardest sections well within our abilities.
On a typical day we would walk for 7–10 hours, cross one to three passes, and camp near a lake. With only a couple of exceptions, we swam every day, usually followed by an animated discussion of whether that was the coldest lake yet. Depending on how early we arrived in camp we either spent an idyllic couple of hours reading, exploring, and watching the sunset, or we rushed madly to swim, set up tents, cook and eat dinner, and clean up before it got dark and cold.
Our only real scare came while in camp. We were cooking with one stove and assembling the other, a process that involves a moment when some gas necessarily leaks. The wind carried the leaked fuel to the burning stove, resulting in the not-quite-assembled stove turning into a fireball. We all ran away and lay face down on the granite, expecting an explosion, but after a minute the fireball sputtered and died out. Lesson learned: When using multiple backpacking stoves, all should be assembled before any are lit!
The new places we visited on this trip held quite a few surprises, from high plateaus reminiscent of Colorado or Wyoming, to cliff-bound lakes, to striking red mountains of slate. Overall, the Sierra High Route does an excellent job of taking in a wide variety of scenery; each day was different and the walking was almost always interesting.
Climbs and Variations
Particularly memorable side trips were ascents of Marion Peak along its knife-edge ridge and Whorl Peak with its route through a cave. Tim and Clara also did some climbing without Alex, notably Feather Peak, the most challenging mountain of the trip. Everyone agreed that the highlight of the trip was a day where we replaced a long stretch of trail around the Lyell Fork with more cross-country travel that linked together several remote passes. The area we walked through turned out to be another unexpected gem, and the lack of trails or even a route description made it a true adventure. This day was one of only three that we saw no one else.
About the first day of the High Route, Roper writes:
“It is hardly surprising that the initial stages of most mountain journeys involve laborious uphill travel. Coming at a time when the typical hiker is out of shape, unacclimated, and transporting the heaviest load of the trip, the seemingly endless hillsides can elicit rumblings from even the hardiest hiker. The first section of the High Route is a splendid example of such unremitting travel…”
No kidding! Up, up and then up some more, altogether over a vertical mile of ascent with our packs. We were all beat and happy to reach our first camp at Grouse Lake.
The first full day of cross-country walking was spectacular, crossing two high passes followed by a long descent before joining little-used trails. Even sitting out a brief afternoon hailstorm huddled under a boulder didn’t dampen our spirits. We ended the day camped at a beautiful spot between two of the smaller Horseshoe Lakes.
The High Route between the Horseshoe Lakes and Marion Lake crosses three passes but is easily doable in a day. We added a couple of side trips, first to Windy Point, which has a great view of the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kings River. We also scrambled up Marion Peak from White Pass, which was an interesting and in spots exciting climb along a knife-edge ridge (class 3). Marion Peak is the highest point on the Cirque Crest and so commands an inspiring view of the surrounding area.
From the intimate confines of Marion Lake it is just a short walk to the vast expanse of Lakes Basin. We climbed up and up to the back wall of the basin to our much anticipated rendezvous with Frozen Lake Pass. It took us several hours to ascend and descend the pass; both sides have steep talus, which made for slow going. After the pass we crossed the John Muir Trail on our way to our planned camp near Split Mountain.
Our first goal of the day was to climb Split Mountain, one of California’s 14’ers. The hike had a lot of variety (lakeshore, meadows, a bit of snow, and plenty of talus) and the views from the top of this relatively isolated peak overlooking the Owens Valley were fabulous.
We finished the hike early enough in the day that we decided to push on over Mather Pass and camp at Lower Palisade Lake. Heading cross-country to the trail over the pass we came upon what must have once been a summer campsite for Native Americans — chips of obsidian were everywhere in a small area. This wasn’t the first sign we had seen of the Sierra’s original inhabitants. Obsidian, which does not occur naturally in the Sierras, is surprisingly common near the lakes and passes they frequented for thousands of years.
Three passes and a peak, all cross-country, made for a long and eventful day. This day’s route also parallels and passes close beneath the Palisades, a long, exceptionally craggy ridge dotted with 14’ers and one of the most popular climbing areas in the Sierras. There was a lot of variety in scenery and the route-finding was interesting throughout this section. One thing we discovered that we have not seen mentioned elsewhere is that there are short sections of constructed trail that can be found here and there on or near the route.
We climbed Columbine Peak from Knapsack Pass. While listed as class 2, the easiest route we could find included some modest class 3. We greatly enjoyed the “diving board” summit and views of the Palisades.
We deviated from the High Route at Knapsack Pass, heading up to camp at an unnamed lake near Bishop Pass in preparation for hiking out to civilization in the morning.
From our camp we had a short cross-country to the Bishop Pass trail for the hike out. The number and variety of people always increases when approaching a trailhead. We met a crew who had spent the whole summer living in the backcountry repairing trails, packers with trains of mules hauling in supplies for the trail crew, fishermen, backpackers, day hikers, a pair of High Route hikers heading in to do a portion of the route, and finally someone walking their dog. At Parchers Resort near the trailhead we picked up the supplies we had mailed. With our packs reloaded we caught the very convenient Bishop Creek Shuttle into Bishop where we spent a hectic evening buying perishables we couldn’t mail, repairing equipment, shopping at Eastside Sports to replace equipment we couldn’t repair, and doing laundry. We topped off the evening with a very enjoyable dinner and margaritas at Las Palmas.
No one was excited about hiking back over Bishop Pass. Besides the long uphill grind on a trail we had just walked the day before, even after the pass many miles of trail walking lay ahead, most of which Alex and Tim had done before. So we decided instead to try an alternate route over Lamarck Col, which would put us in position to climb Mt. Darwin, a stretch goal for the trip. The Bishop Creek Shuttle once again came in handy, though it could only drop us off at an intersection with the road to our trailhead. Facing the prospect of hiking two miles of pavement before we even reached the trail, we were relieved to quickly catch a ride from another backpacker to the trailhead.
The Lamarck Lakes trail turned out to be a great choice, with interesting and very different scenery from nearby Bishop Pass. The last couple hundred feet to the pass involved either circuitous boulder hopping or crossing a steep snowfield; our crampons made the snow route safe and easy. From the pass we had our first good view of the route up Darwin, which we all agreed looked intimidating.
Anticipating a difficult ascent, we were up early and on our way before the sun hit our camp. The approach was long: talus fields, steep moraine, and then a crossing of the Darwin glacier. When we finally got to Mt. Darwin itself, the climbing was steep, and often loose, class 3. We were moving slowly and eventually decided to turn back at what was probably the hardest part of the climb. Not being particularly experienced on class 3 terrain this was a great learning experience and failing to make the summit was not a disappointment.
We packed up our camp and hiked to the other side of Mt. Darwin to camp at Evolution Lake. On the way we passed through the Darwin Bench, an exceptionally beautiful area.
Overall we thought hiking over Lamarck Col to Evolution Lake is a High Route variation worth considering for anyone resupplying in Bishop; while one misses out on the trails through LeConte Canyon and over Muir Pass, the alternative avoids repeating Bishop Pass, and adds Lamarck Col (a 13,000’ pass), Darwin Canyon and the Darwin Bench.
Everyone loves Evolution Lake; it’s widely considered one of the highlights of the Sierras. We spent most of the day climbing Mt. Spencer at the other end of the lake from our camp. Alex climbed the normal/easy class 2 way via the mountain’s south side. Tim and Clara decided to make a loop by climbing the peak from the harder, class 3 north side, descending the south side, and then scrambling a long ridge above Evolution Lake back to camp.
In the afternoon we moved camp by traversing north above Evolution Valley to Frances Lake, putting us close to Snow Tongue Pass, the next day’s adventure.
When people talk about the difficult passes of the Sierra High Route, Frozen Lake and Snow Tongue are always at the top of the list. As promised, the ascent of Snow Tongue was easy and the first view of the descent was impressive. We spent quite a bit of time considering the best way down, though the tracks in the steep, loose chute clearly showed where many parties had descended before us. Donning our climbing helmets and going one at a time we picked our way down to where the descent exited on to a snowfield. We had no real problems with the descent, but it was slow going. Once off of the main descent we made our way across and down talus slopes into vast Humphrey’s basin, where we camped at Mesa Lake.
We first headed over Puppet Pass and down to a broad bench above French Canyon dotted with pretty lakes. We dropped our packs at one of the lakes and climbed Pilot Knob, which despite its unassuming name is a prominent peak with excellent views over the area. After retrieving our packs we worked our way down through increasingly dense and sometimes brushy forest into French Canyon and on to a short section of the Pine Creek trail before heading up the other side of the canyon to Merriam Lake. This ascent was possibly the worst of the trip, with its steep uphill through uniform, dark lodgepole pine forest. Fortunately it was also short and we soon arrived at beautiful Merriam Lake in its impressive cirque. The lake had a sand beach (which is uncommon in the Sierras) where we saw bear, coyote, and perhaps cat tracks.
This was the first day on the High Route that we did not encounter another soul all day.
From Merriam Lake we climbed further up the basin until we reached Feather Pass. After Tim and Clara climbed Feather Peak we crossed the Bear Lakes area and went over White Bear pass. We camped at Teddy Bear Lake with a great view at the lip of a hanging valley overlooking a branch of Bear Creek.
This was a short day. We hiked along Lake Italy, over Gabbott Pass and down to Lower Mills Creek Lake — the first cross-country portion of the High Route that we had hiked before, albeit in the other direction. Lower Mills Creek Lake is easily on our list of top 10 campsites in the Sierras. We saw three other parties crossing the pass and an additional group at the lake, so clearly we aren’t the only ones who like this area!
To make up for yesterday we had a long day today. First down, down, down to cross Mono Creek and then up, up, up to Bighorn Pass. The traverse from Bighorn Pass to Shout of Relief Pass was the most interesting and challenging (from a route-finding perspective) walking of the day. The descent of Shout of Relief Pass has some of the most striking scenery of the High Route: a complicated light colored granite basin dotted with little lakes in front of the deep gash of Fish Creek with its dark metamorphic rock, all framed by huge, colorful Red Slate Mountain in the background.
The first part of the day was interesting cross-country travel through meadows, across slabs, and generally downhill until we hit the McGee Pass trail. Like Humphrey’s basin this area was a small revelation — although we had traveled nearby on previous trips we were surprised to find such a stunning and different landscape.
Once on trail the miles went by quickly as we passed Virginia, Purple and Duck Lakes on the way to Duck Lake Pass, where we headed north off-trail to the Deer Lakes, our destination for the day and 14.5 miles from our previous camp. In contrast to every other campsite we had used, this site had some trash left by previous occupants, most notably .45 and .22 caliber bullet casings. Picking up one of these discarded hunting artifacts, there was a glint of black underneath — an obsidian chip, a discarded hunting artifact from another time and culture.
We hit the trail early so we could get to Mammoth Lakes and begin work on our resupply tasks as early in the day as possible. We began with an awesome ridge walk along the Mammoth Crest, with great views in all directions. We could see the Lions Fire burning near the Minarets, but encouragingly there was relatively little smoke.
The descent off of the crest was a fast, fun plunge down a pumice-filled gully, deep and soft enough to take at a run even with packs. The last part of the walk to Red’s Meadow was through a burn scar from the 1990’s. The fire must have been very hot, because only now, over 20 years later, were scattered small trees growing in the middle of the burned area.
Once at Red’s Meadow we picked up our resupply packages and made our way to town using multiple shuttles. Having already had some practice in Bishop we efficiently worked through cleaning, repairing and in some cases replacing equipment. The High Route is hard on gear: Tim and Clara both bought new boots (Tim’s were at the point where he could put his finger all the way through holes in the tops) and Alex replaced his one pair of pants, which were being held together with duct tape after the seat had ripped out a week ago.
After Mammoth Lakes the High Route starts on a trail that had been closed for weeks due to the Lions Fire, so we were excited to discover the trail had reopened just the day before our arrival in Mammoth! The trail took us to an area south of the Minarets before striking out cross-country over Nancy Pass. The pass was harder than we expected: steep and brushy on the west side, and fairly loose rock and scree on the east side. Nancy Pass did provide an amazing view of the Minarets, which only improved as we worked our way north. We arrived at Minaret Lake (which is also reachable by trail) to find Labor Day crowds — there were numerous other parties camped around the lake.
Leaving Minaret Lake we hiked through familiar territory (at least to Alex and Tim) past Cecile and Iceberg lakes; from the outlet of Iceberg Lake we left the trail and contoured into the valley that leads to the Ritter-Banner saddle. Here we stowed most of our gear and headed up Mt. Ritter.
The climb of Ritter is long and fairly demanding. We crossed several snowfields, some steep, in addition to the main glacier — our crampons got a workout and we regretted leaving our ice axe behind. There was also lots and lots of talus. The view from the summit is tremendous, as Ritter is the highest peak for many miles in every direction. By the time we got back to where we had left our packs it was already 6pm, but we decided to push on to the nearby Nydiver Lakes, which we reached shortly before sunset.
This day started by crossing nearby Whitebark Pass and hiking around the heads of Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes to reach the beautiful alpine valley the leads up and over Glacier Pass.
The descent on be other side of Glacier Pass was spectacular, following a cascade down into the deep gorge of the north fork of the San Joaquin river. We mostly stayed close to the cascade except where cliffs and waterfalls required a detour. With careful route-finding we kept the whole descent to class 2. Just before leaving the cascade for good (where Roper describes the start of the traverse to the Twin Island Lakes) we found the remnants of an old mine, including tailings, some equipment, and a small tunnel cut into the side of an outcrop.
The weather had been building all day and the first cracks of thunder told us we didn’t have much time as we approached our planned camp at the southern Twin Island Lake. Indeed the skies opened up just as we were setting up our tents and the rain continued off and on for another hour.
We contoured around the enormous valley of the San Joaquin until we could descend into the high basin of Bench Canyon. With its floor of granite slabs, small pools and scattered trees it is an exceptionally pretty spot even by the standards of the Sierra Nevada.
As we headed up to Blue Lake pass at the head of the canyon, the weather built up rapidly and by the time we were below the pass ugly black clouds were rolling over the crest. We set up a rainfly shelter, had lunch, and then huddled under the shelter through periods of rain, hail, lightning and thunder. When there was finally a break in the storm we pushed on to the pass, where we met a pair of High Route hikers, the fourth party we had met since Kings Canyon walking the entire route. With more rain coming our way we hurried down the talus slope and made camp at the lake below the pass.
From Blue Lake Pass the Sierra High Route does a long detour on trails all the way to Tuolumne Meadows. We decided to try an alternate route that avoids most of the trail miles by recrossing the main ridge into Lyell Canyon. We all agreed that this day was the highlight of the trip, both because of the adventure of exploring an area on which we had little information, but also because it was strikingly beautiful and different from other things we had seen. We saw very little evidence of camping and no use trails. Perhaps not surprisingly, we saw no one else all day, only our second day with no human encounters.
Here are the details of this alternate day for those who might consider it. Our variation used three passes: Foerster Ridge (reached by contouring from the lake below Blue Lake Pass around Mt. Foerster to the saddle on Foerster’s north ridge and then heading down to the Lyell Fork); Sluggo Pass (which leads from the Lyell Fork into the Hutchings Creek drainage) and Russell Pass into Lyell Canyon. All three passes are class 2; we found Foerster Ridge to be an easier-than-average pass for the High Route, and Sluggo was about average but fairly long on both sides.
Russell was fairly hard, perhaps approaching the level of Frozen Lake Pass (i.e., one of the harder passes, but not the hardest, of the trip). The approach to Russell is through the upper (northern) branch of the Hutchings Creek Basin. This valley starts out as wall-to-wall slabs — just polished granite from one side to the other — and the walking is easy. In the higher part of the basin we encountered small but unavoidable snowfields that were flat and easy to cross, as well as some some short stretches of stable talus. The pass itself, which is marked by an obvious red notch above the last lake, looks worse than it is. By keeping to the left we were able to mostly avoid loose rock and scree until close to the top. The far side of the pass has a short, steep, unstable talus slope, but the talus is mostly small and it is easy to avoid the larger blocks. After that the going down to Maclure Lake involved straightforward travel over snow (which was flat and easy), talus and slabs.
From our camp on a small bench above the outlet of Maclure Lake we had a great view over a huge granite basin and up to Mt. Maclure and its glacier. Tim found a snow cave we could enter that spanned the lake’s outlet stream; the light and colors inside were remarkable.
Our hike down to Lyell Canyon started on broad granite slabs, then meadow, then forest, and finally a steep downhill out of the hanging valley. The only route-finding consideration is to cross to the north side of the main stream before the steep descent. After 3 miles we stepped on to the John Muir Trail where it bridges the Tuolumne River. We then hiked the 10+ miles through Lyell Canyon to the Tuolumne Meadows Store where we picked up our resupply.
The day began with a few miles of walking through monotonous lodgepole pine forest before emerging into a parkland around the Gaylor Lakes and heading up to an abandoned mine with interesting old buildings. Then we had a long, complex traverse with great views high above the Saddlebag Lake area before descending to Spuller Lake. This is a no-camping area, so after lounging around for a couple of hours in the warm sun we moved down to a lower lake for the night.
After retracing our steps to Spuller Lake we resumed the High Route. We dropped our packs on the shoulder of Mt. Conness and climbed the peak from the east. We met two other parties near the summit and began to suspect it might be a weekend — indeed it was Saturday. We thought nothing of having no idea what day of the week it was, but the people we met marveled at this novel state of mind. After our descent we moved on to Cascade Lake, which was a complete zoo: fishermen, hikers, a large school group — it was even busier than our visit to Minaret Lake. We realized that one issue with the High Route section between Tuolumne Meadows and Cascade Lake is that, while mostly off-trail, all of it is within a couple of hours walk from a road.
The first event of the day was the ascent of Sky Pilot Col above Cascade Lake. We quickly left the hordes camped at the lake behind and ascended talus and then scree to the pass. The descent on the other side was long and a bit complicated, with small talus, snow, and one steep field of large, sharp blocks that we went through very slowly and were glad to leave behind.
Below the snow and talus we reached a lake and entered a world of lush grass and forest as we continued down into Virginia Canyon. We crossed the canyon and headed up the other side, with the terrain transitioning from forest to granite slabs. At the top of the climb we camped at spectacular Soldier Lake, which not only has great views from its outlet but an impressive cirque. Tim and Clara, who apparently needed more exercise, did a circumnavigation of the rim.
There was a lot of anticipation of our final full day of the High Route. We first crossed Stanton Pass early in the morning. Considered perhaps the most “technical” pass (class 3) it did have one steeper spot on a slab where extra care was needed but otherwise wasn’t harder than any other pass. It took a while to hike down into Spiller Creek Canyon and then up the other side to a bench with a small tarn.
Then we started the day’s main activity, climbing Whorl Peak. The lower half of the mountain is just arduous: steep sandy gullies and slabs to get up into the first chute where the real climb begins. But the upper half is a unique and fun scrambling experience. From the first chute one moves into a second and then (through a somewhat hidden passage) into a third chute where the climb continues up through a large chockstone cave. After that is the “sidewalk in the sky”, a 3 foot wide flat path first overlooking a 1000’ cliff and then cutting directly though the face of the mountain to the summit. The view from the top was outstanding and took in most of our trip since the Ritter area. The descent took a while because of the loose sand and unrelenting steepness of the mountain. Everyone was tired when we got back to the tarn.
We quickly packed up and moved to another tarn close to Horse Creek Pass, arriving just in time for a quick swim before the sun disappeared behind Matterhorn Peak.
We woke to the coldest morning of the trip, and the thought occurred to us that we were finishing the High Route just as the Sierras were beginning their rapid slide into winter. We were over Horse Creek Pass ten minutes after leaving camp, after which we had talus, snow, and more talus before reaching tree line. Then down, down, down eventually hitting an unpleasant and apparently unavoidable section of bushwhacking through willow and aspen, and finally a couple of miles of good trail to Twin Lakes.
And then it was over. We high-fived in the parking lot and then met Adrien, who had driven up from the Bay Area to give us a ride home.