USA - Sierra High Route

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These notes are not comprehensive, they are designed for walkers from Australia to add extra information to assist with planning a trip along the route.

What is the Sierra High Route

The Sierra High Route (SHR) is a long distance route that follows the crest of the Sierra Range in California. It is not a marked track but is rather a general route though the highest section of the range. Much of the 195 miles (310 km) of the SHR is off-trail and on or above the tree-line. It sort of parallels the John Muir Trail, JMT and for about 30 miles (50 km) conicides with that trail. However when the JMT descends into forest in the valleys, the Sierra High Route heads up and over untracked passes. Some of the off-track parts of the Sierra High Route are easy walking across alpine meadows. However the SHR also crosses a number of untracked passes where there is some scrambling, ascending or descending scree slopes. Some of these passes are quite slow and previous experience in steep terrain helps a lot to pick out the easiest route. We met an inexperienced US couple who took 6 hours to descend from a pass that took us just over an hour. Any Australian walker with experience at places like the Western Arthurs or the unmarked passes in the Blue Mountains should have little trouble with route finding. While it has billed as the hardest long walk in the USA, it is not as difficult as the harder walks in Tasmania. It is an ideal long walk for experienced walkers who want to see some of the best scenery the Sierras provides without having to share the experience with crowds. The JMT is also very scenic but has lots of people on it and you will see this on the short sections where the Sierra High Route and JMT coincide.
The passes use a grading system where a Grade 3 is more difficult than a Grade 2, most passes are grade 2. We found the grading system only relates to the most difficult scramble on the pass and did not give any hint as the overall effort needed. Some Grade 3 passes are relatively easy and quick while a grade 2 pass can be several hours of tedious boulder-hopping.
Note that the Sierra High Route is NOT the same as the High Sierra Trail. The High Sierra Trail is a designated track similar to the John Muir Trail.

Introduction - what we did

Our idea was to walk in the Sierra Range in California. Initially we thought about the John Muir Trail (JMT) which some friends had done. After some google searching and reading we concluded that the John Muir is a bit too popular and a less-used route in that range for experienced off-track walkers was the Sierra High Route (SHR). Essentially this route is generally above the tee-line. The SHR follows some sections of the JMT and includes some of the best parts of the JMT, namely Mather Pass, LeConte Canyon, Muir Pass and Evolution Lakes. With some friends telling us the SHR was one of the most beautiful walks anywhere plus numerous web sites stating similar things we decided to base our trip on the Sierra High Route. Note we did not intend to precisely follow the Sierra High Route as advice on several websites suggested some easier or more scenic alternatives or diversions. In the 1980s Steve Roper found a route for walkers through much of the highest part of the range and then wrote it up - he did not necessarily find the easiest route or extend it to include all the high sections and while the book has been reprinted multiple times, he has not updated it. For some short sections, others have found easier or more scenic alternatives.
We walked about 75% of Steve Ropers, Sierra High Route in July/August 2015. We flew from Australia to Los Angeles and later the same day caught another plane to Mammoth Lakes (8,000 feet) which was our base for the next 4 nights. We stayed in a villa unit near Old Mammoth Road as it had space to lay out and pack food and was close to the supermarket and outdoor shops. We then spent 2 days buying and packaging food for 40 days, then spent the third day hiring a car to place some of the food drops. On the 4th day, we were picked up in the morning and driven to the car park for Kearsarge Pass. We crossed the 11,845 feet pass that afternoon at a slow pace as we had recently come from sea level. We concluded that we needed to acclimitize more before getting onto the SHR proper and that at this stage of the trip the 6000 foot climb up Copper Creek at the start of the SHR might be hard. So we decided to follow the John Muir Trail north to our first food drop at Taboose Pass (thus bypassing the first 5 days of the SHR across Basin Lakes). The scenery on the JMT in this section is very good good as it passes the scenic Rae Lakes, crosses 2 high passes and is mostly above the timberline. The descents and ascents between the passes provided good acclimitization. From Taboose Pass we followed the Sierra High Route to Palisade Lakes (following the JMT) then left the JMT and followed the SHR around the side of The Palisades. We then left the SHR and crossed the higher (and harder) Thunderbolt Pass on the way to Bishop South Lake to get a food drop (the standard route crosses Knapsack Pass). We then followed the SHR (with some minor deviations to lakes or food drops) all the way to Toulumne Meadows. We then decided to skip the last 5 days of the SHR to Twin Lakes as there were fires in the area and also we had reports of dangerous ice conditions in Sky Pilot Col. I think we would have got through the col OK but the fires were more serious. As roads were being closed on some days due to fires, getting from Twin Lakes back to Mammoth Lakes to meet our flights back to Australia was also doubtful - there was lots of smoke around. Instead we purchased an extra days food at Toulumne Meadows and followed the JMT south-east for 6 days (5 nights) to Mammoth Lakes (the extra day was because we did not need the travel day from Twin Lakes). As you can walk from Toulumne Meadows to Mammoth Lakes on the JMT in 3 long or 4 easy days, we followed a winding route and camped at and explored a number of high lakes and basins away from the JMT. A nice finish to a great trip. Yes it would have been nice to do the final section of the Sierra High Route but its all great country and we can always come back to walk the section we missed (we are intending to do so).

Topography and Access

The Sierra Range is in California. The range rises gradually from the west to a high crest of 13,000 to 14,00 feet then falls abruptly to the east into a deep almost flat valley that ranges from below sea level in the south to around 3000 feet in the north. The range contains numerous small glaciers which are receding and recent glaciation has left behind many lakes and extensive areas of scree and polished granite slabs. The forests are pine trees with a fairly open forest floor and usually easy to walk through. Just above the treeline, the alpine area is usually grass covered. The high passes are often filled with loose scree and some of the higher slopes are covered with stones and rocks. The combination of lakes, occasional trees and glaciated peaks makes the high parts of the range very scenic.
The closest international airports are Los Angeles and San Francisco. The approach by road from these two cities to the west side of the range takes around 4 to 5 hours following winding roads through the foothills. To drive from Los Angeles or San Francisco to the east side of the range takes between 7 and 10 hours. As the east side of the range is a long valley, it provides good access to the eastern crest which is also the highest part of the range. Overall, it provides the best access for the Sierra High Route. We used Mammoth Lakes as our base but the towns of Bishop or Independence would also be suitable although they are lower in elevation and not as good for acclimitization. Buses run from San Francisco to Mammoth Lakes. An alternative is to fly from Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes, there is one daily flight operated by Alaska Airlines, we took that option.
Buses operate on the highway on the east side of the range linking Bridgeport, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Independence but they dont go to the trailheads which can be many miles away (between 10 and 20 miles, 16 to 30km). The exception is the resort town of Mammoth Lakes where free shuttle buses operate from the town to the high lakes. A bus also operates from Mammoth Lakes to Reds Meadow which is a popular resupply point.
To get to the start of the walk, we used a charter with 'East Side Sierra Shuttle' and the driver/owner provided good service at a reasonable price. There is more than one charter operator so there is competition and costs for charters are reasonable.

Acclimitization

As most of the SHR is between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, the effects of altitude can be a problem until acclimitized. We decided to spend 4 nights in the town of Mammoth Lakes which is at 8,000 feet to start acclimitizing. The first day we crossed an 11,800 pass and soon worked out that while our health was not effected (no headaches etc, we got some benefit from staying in Mammoth Lakes) we had not yet fully acclimitized. Over the next 5 days we crossed several 12,000 passes and descended to around 8,500 feet several times and by then we were fitter and used to the altitude.

Number of days

Beware when reading US based walking sites. For muli-day tracks, Americans have something they call 'zero' days which are either a rest or a re-supply day or on the Sierra High Route can be the two days over Kearsarge Pass to get to the start at Bubbs Creek. They do NOT count these in the number of days of walking!! We worked this out when reading multiple reports of the Sierra High Route and found that its common practice in the US  for through trips. The number of walking days and the dates for some trip reports did not match and it took some careful reading and date matching to discover that most trips took about a week longer than the stated number of days. Hence, while some websites indicate to plan for 25 to 30 days walking, adding in rest and resupply days brings it to around 30 to 35 days. We allowed for some half days as some places are too pretty to simply pass through so we planned on 40 days in total. In hindsight, as we had only one rest day (on day 20) you could easily add another 4 or 5 days to that total! While some have done it much faster, they were already acclimitized, familiar with the passes and area and also did long 12 hour plus days and had less time to appreciate the scenery. Most walkers will find walking the track in 20 days or less is simply not realistic. We met some normal walkers along the route who allowed only 25 days and they were unable to complete the route. We also saw Brian Lucido pass us on his record 7 day run of the Sierra High Route - pretty impressive but he knew the route, carried almost nothing and did not stop much.

When to go - Weather

The Sierras is unlike most mountain ranges as the weather is almost always fine from early July through to around mid-September. The Sierra High Route crosses many high passes so starting around mid-July and finishing by early September is ideal. Its possible to have snow in some passes in July and you should finish before the first winter storms start. While the weather is much finer than say New Zealand or Tasmania, the odd storm can sweep in. We started at the end of a 4 day storm that dumped rain and snow all over the range and large numbers of JMT walkers had to be rescued. So take a light tent, waterproof jacket, overpants, gloves etc and hope you miss the rare summer storm. During summer the most likely weather event are thunderstorms. These usually take several days to build-up and often it rains for only a few hours. Occasionally they can last all night but often clear next morning. Overall in 41 days, we had 1 night of thunderstorms, another night with nearby thunderstorms (we were dry but we could see it was raining nearby), 3 nights of mist/cloud, a dozen days of thick smoke haze (like Victoria, fires are common in California) and the remainder were blue skies or fine with some thermal clouds. For someone experienced in Tasmania, New Zealand and the Himalayas, the weather is mostly crazily fine.

Permits

A Wilderness Permit is compulsory and quotas apply for all access points. Permits for the JMT which starts in Yosemite Valley can be hard to obtain as they must be booked well in advance and a ballot is held as demand exceeds supply. However, unless you want to climb Mt Whitney from Whitney Portal, general permits for the Sierras are pretty easy to get particularly if you enter the range from the east side. To explain, you need a permit to enter the area and they have a daily quota at each entry point. The anomaly is that once you have entered the area, for the number of days specified on your permit, you can walk anywhere in the range (except exit via Mt Whitney Portal) as long as you do not leave the wilderness area for more than 24 hours at a time (they allow you to resupply and stay one night each time in town). Most of the permits can be booked in advance with some being reserved for walkups on the day. As the west side of the range is close to Los Angeles and San Francisco advance bookings for those access points tend to get booked early. However its different for the east side of the range as there is less demand and bookings are much easier to obtain. Note that the booking system requires you to specify the area for each nights campsite although there is no requirement to follow that itinerary. When doing the booking, the site has a time limit which can be tight. First time through, make up your campsite list from the drop-down menu (the sites are by area so select closest feature) and write them all down. You will be timed out with no warning or explanation of why you cannot proceed further, very confusing. Start the process again but this time using your written list you can fill in the fields and drop-down boxes quickly and should be able to complete entry in time to get to the payment page. Regardless of the length of your trip, the booking fee for the permit was $16. While no-one asked to see our permit, there are plenty of reports on the web of rangers escorting walkers without permits out of the range. If you decide to walk for more than 50 days then a different system which applies to Pacific Crest Walkers applies.

Bear Barrels

These are compulsory for all trips in the Sierra Range (its a condition on the wilderness permit). There are multiple models available, essentially they are a large plastic barrel that weighs just over 1kg that are strong enough for a 300kg bear to not break and have a fiddly opening method that bears with claws cannot open. The round shape also makes it difficult for the bears to carry the barrels to another place to hide so dont tie strings or ropes onto them. The barrels are large and are a pain to put in a pack but do stop bears from eating your food. We used the clear models as they have the widest opening and when searching for food, its easy to determine which barrel you need to open. We planned on 8 days walk between most food drops (7 nights food) and found we could not get all our food for 2 people plus sunscreen, toothpaste etc into 2 barrels so we ended up with 3 barrels. If repeating the trip, where possible I would change the itinerary to be 5 or 6 nights between drops so we could use just 2 barrels or maybe extend sections to be 9 days (8 nights food for 2 in 3 barrels). We met some people who managed 7 or even 8 nights food for 1 person into 1 barrel (by not taking items like crackers (dry biscuits) etc) but they did this by replacing some real food with protein supplements etc - not very inspiring. We like to enjoy our food so we rejected such extreme measures. It would be nice if someone designed a collapsable barrel but they do not exist.
Either at night or when away from your tent, place all food into the barrels and then put the barrels away from your tent. Many bears have already wasted lots of time trying to open bear barrels and most of the time they just ignore them, sometimes they will push them over just to see if the lids are loose (they might get lucky). We have heard of some cases where the bears have discovered that if they roll the barrels over a cliff they break. Hence place the barrels well away from cliff edges. Also dont eat or cook inside your tent, use an area away from your tent.
Chances of meeting bears. Well as the Sierra High Route is mainly above the tree-line its rare. Black bears tend to inhabit forests below the tree-line where there are lots of natural food. Of the more than 100 groups we met (most of them when on the JMT sections), only 2 groups saw a bear. Its uncommon to see or meet them and they tend to avoid humans. However they are around (we saw some scats) and bear safe practices with your food and camp should be followed.

Food

We are not great fans of commercial freeze-dried meals - Monica dislikes cheese which is in many meals and also the amounts are often too much for one but not enough for two. So we brought what we could from Australia. US customs allows muesli bars, porridge, sugar, tea bags, lollies, dried meal flavours like Beef Stroganoff, Chow Mein (Maggi and other brands) etc and in total we brought a full box with about 15 kilograms of food. Before we collected our luggage, US customs opened our bags and inspected them in the airport - we found out later when we opened our bags and saw that they had inserted inspection notices. We left all our food in its commercial packaging so that it would pass through customs and planned to later repack it and for this we included several boxes of resealable bags plus a set of scales. US customs do not allow dried meat and dried vegetables so we could not take those. For meat and vegetables, about 2 weeks earlier, we placed an order with Mountain House and ordered some large cans of Ground Beef, Diced Beef, Diced Chicken, Italian Pepper Steak  which were all good bases for meals. We also ordered large cans of Beef Stew, and Green Beans which were just average. While the beans were fine, being freeze-dried they are bulky (a real issue with bear barrels) and we really should have ordered more vegetables from the next supplier. We also bought some small packets of Mountain House 'Fire Roasted Veggie Blend' which were very nice but expensive being in small bag sizes. For dried vegetables we placed an order 2 weeks earlier with Harmony House which produces dried food (not freeze-dried). We bought a Sampler Pack which provided a nice wide range of vegetables. All were good except we gave away the Jalapenos as they were a bit hot for us.. If repeating the trip, I would order a Sampler plus some extra 2oz or 3oz packs of favourite vegetables. We had the food parcels delivered by US Post to our Mammoth Lakes accommodation.
NOTE on US supermarkets - the supermarket at Mammoth Lakes (Vons) has lots of liquid based meal flavours but almost none that are dried and also have very few herbs and spices (most spices are just hot or hotter!, many of the locals came from Mexico). As there are lots of dry spices and dried meal flavours in Australian supermarkets, be sure to bring those with you. Vons has most other items you would expect to find such as dried discuits (crackers), really small and concentrated water flavouring like Pink Lemonade (we brought several boxes to take back to to Australia) and all the normal things like Beef Jerky (multiple choices), cheese, dried fruit etc. For VONS, join the club (its free and does not require giving any personal details) and they give you a real discount on all future purchases. There are several outdoor shops in town where we bought gas canisters and other outdoor items, the main ones are Kittridges and Mammoth Mountaineering Supply which are on opposites sides of the main road.
We then weighed and packaged all our meals then put each weeks food into a box ready for delivery to the food drop. We included our stove fuel (gas canisters) into each food drop as no parcels were going by post. We then spent one day hiring a car and driving to Toulumne Meadows to leave one box at the post office there (no problem with fuel if you deliver it yourself). We had planned to also drive to Bishop the same day to put two food drops there (one at North Lake and the other at South Lake) but as our transport was taking others to Bishop South Lake, those two drops were done on the way to Kearsarge Pass. Note that most places charge $20 or $30 for holding a food drop. An alternative is to use the bear boxes at the road ends as they are free.

Food Drops

Cardboard boxes are fine for food drops left with accommodation, Toulumne Meadows post office or in a bear box at a road end. Note all the road ends have multiple steel bear boxes to store food drops in - this was something we did not discover until we got there. The bear boxes cannot be opened by bears (some humans have trouble as well!). All food drop boxes need to be labelled with your name, and expected collection date. As the rangers regularly check and remove expired food drops, add several extra days to allow for unexpected delays. Note the bear boxes can be opened by anyone and while there is no guarantee your food will not be touched, it seems that there are few problems with this system and many were using it. To place a food drop away from the roads where there are no bear boxes, use a bear barrell, do not try to hide it from bears - bears find food by smell and they will find it - note that black bears can climb trees.
To save some time, we either left food at commercial places (a small fee of $20 or $30 applies) or in 2 cases had someone carry it up and meet us in a pass. Having it carried up was an expensive option but did save us much time, in both cases it would have added 2 extra days to the trip to descend to the bear boxes at the road then return. The cheapest option is to place all food drops into the free bear boxes at each road end and then descend from a pass to collect your food and I expect most will do that.

Shelter/tents

The weather is generally fine and mild and explains why so many US tents are very lightweight and mainly fly-mesh. Some even sleep cowboy style - namely under the stars or just use a light tarp. Having no tent is fine for short trips where you have a multi-day weather report but I would not advise that for an extended visit. In early to mid-summer mosquitos can be a significant problem so I suggest a lightweight tent is ideal. Also when the odd thunderstorm does happen you will stay much drier.

Water

Some have asked about water. While California and the Sierras is suffering from drought, the huge numbers of lakes means that there is plenty of water on the Sierra High Route. However, you do need water bottles as it can be several hours between lakes. It is strongly advised to treat ALL water. We use a water filter and pump through all our needs for drinking water for the next day. We noticed many using tablets, they would have a drink, refill their bottle, add a tablet and would then have to wait the required time before using. The outdoor shops in Mammoth Lakes have multiple water systems so pick the one you prefer. We did not treat water that was being boiled for meals as boiling is one of the recommended treatment options.

Note that Giardia and other pathogens are present in many of the water sources, including those at the highest elevations. Why is this? First, native animals such as bears might be polluting water supplies but we suspect that much of it is from humans. This is because there are no toilets in the back country of the Sierras (well not quite true - when we were at Woods Creek, the first toilet on the John Muir Trail was being constructed) and there are campsites everywhere. On some tracks you will be amazed at how much effort has gone into track construction. An example are metre wide zig-zagging tracks on a 45 degree slope of large scree such as in Bishop Pass - amazing construction. However, unlike Australia they spend all the effort on track construction and forgot about toileting and the problems this causes for water supplies. Local walkers told us that twenty years ago you could drink the water but not now. To summarize, dont risk it, treat all water.

Maps and Track Notes

The one and only guide book which is essential is 'Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country' by Steve Roper. While its an interesting read, nearly half the book is history etc and to save weight some cut out the route description pages and carry only those. Even the route decriptions are full of 'extras' and sometimes there is a page of writing to skip over to the next actual track note. If you make a summary of the notes, copy his exact wording as sometimes subtle hints in the writing are important. The writing is understated - if Roper suggests something, he means thats the only way to go. If adding in other areas and walking lots off-track, then the book 'The High Sierra, Peaks Passes Trails' by R Secor is helpful as it briefly describes nearly all the passes.

All of the US survey maps are available on-line and can be downloaded for free. However they dont show the Sierra High Route (its not a track as such) and it is not always obvious where it goes, even after reading the guide, its not great as a guide! The descriptions sometimes make more sense when you are on the route but that does not help if oyu dont know where the pass is! Fortunately some walkers have created map sets that show the approxiamate route of the SHR and many would consider them essential. At the website, On the Trail  you can download a set of detailed topo maps where the SHR is marked by a red line. An alternative is to download and pay a fee for the mapset prepared by Andrew Skurka which shows pretty much the same thing.

The maps come as PDFs. With Acrobat we then exported the map as a TIFF Image (you could also use JPEG but the output is not as good particularly if you are cutting them up later). Then using any image editing program, we then cropped each map into 7 x 5km rectangles (saved each one as a new file) and then printed each piece on an A4 colour laser printer. That gave us good detailed maps at 1:24,000. We printed the maps as double sided, first week one side and second week on the reverse etc. That cut the paper down and also allowed us to dump maps once used. A general note on maps, while the US still uses miles, the maps all use the universal world wide grid system which are 1km squares. Hence the maps have a 1km grid on them and are very easy to use if used to km. Some maps have contours in feet, some are metric, the US has not really decided which system they should use.

Its also a very good idea to carry more general maps. We found the Tom Harrison maps to be ideal. They are topographic maps printed on waterproof paper and show all tracks and cover a wide area so you can take alternative routes if needed. They are ideal for planning as well. The maps we used are 'Kings Canyon High Country', 'Mammoth High Country', 'Mono Divide High Country', 'Yosemite High Country' and 'Hoover Wilderness'. We also got the 'Kearsarge Pass Rae Lakes Loop' map as the above mapset skips a small section of the Kearsarge Pass track but the tracks there are so well signposted you dont really need it for just 5km of track. I suggest to get the maps and guide book together thus saving on postage costs. The maps and guide book can be ordered on the web from Amazon etc.

Our Itinerary


The Roper book is a good read but is a bit thin (actually has nothing) on details such as campsites and walking times. Detailed descriptions of campsites are actually unnecesssary. If there is water such as a tarn or lake, then an existing cleared tentsite can usually be found nearby, they are all over the place and if you are after only 1 or 2 tentsites they are readily found. Roper provides no clues as to how long each section takes making it difficult to plan a trip. The times provided below are the walking times that we took for what we did. You should add another hour or two for stops, lunch etc. You might be a bit faster or slower but they should give you a guide. We took our time as we wanted to see it as much as we could and were not rushing through. Note we were slow the first 4 days and those days are also a bit short in distance and walking time as we needed to acclimitize.
1 Over Kearsarge Pass to Kearsarge Lake, 5 hours
2
Slow climb to camp at tarn  before Glen Pass, 3.5 hours
3
Over Glen Pass to the pretty Rae Lakes, 3 hours
4
Descend to Woody Creek Bridge, 4 hours
5
Steady climb to small tarn before Pinchot Pass, 5.5 hours, lovely sunset and sunrise views here
6
Over pass to Bench Lake, 4.5 hours
7
Collect food from Taboose Pass Track, up valley to Upper Basin, 3 hours, thunderstorms and heavy rain overnight
8
Meet the SHR, follow JMT for one more day to camp above Palisade Lake, 4.5 hours
9
Over Mathers Pass in morning rain to camp above Palisade Lake, 4.5 hours
10
Over Cirque and Potluck Pass, camp near Barrett Lakes, 5.5 hours, thunderstorms surrounded us
11
Leave SHR, over the more difficult Thunderbolt Pass to Bishop Pass and camp at Bishop Lake, 7 hours
12
Descend to Bishop South Lake, collect food drop, stayed in cabin at Parchers Resort, 3 hours
13
Climbed back over Bishop Pass to camp in the very scenic Dusy Basin, 5.5 hours
14
Descend into Le Conte Canyon to join JMT, followed JMT to camp near Big Pete Meadow, 5 hours
15
Over Muir Pass to camp at Lake Wanda, 6 hours, scenic spot marred by thick smoke from fires
16
Short day to the very scenic Evolution Lakes, 3 hours, great sunset location
17
Leave JMT, climb to Darwin Shelf then up to camp at last lake under Alpine Col, 4.5 hours, Suggest camp at the more scenic Darwin Shelf
18
Over Alpine Col then very rocky route to Lake Muriel, 5 hours, next day was a rest day here, lots of smoke
19
Over to Piute Pass to collect a food drop then across alpine meadows to Puppet Pass and camp at Lake Paris, 4.5 hours, pretty sunrise at campsite
20
Descended into French Canyon then climb to tarn above Lake Miriam, 3.5 hours, scenic site
21
Over Feather Pass to camp at Black Bear Lake, 5 hours, the Bear Lakes are pretty, you could spend a whole day exploring this area, we had lots of smoke around so views were not ideal
22
Descend the very steep White Bear Pass then along Lake Italy and over Gabbott Pass to camp at Upper Mills Creek Lake, 9 hours
23
Down Second Recess then climb to camp at Laurel Lake, 6 hours, hot day, campsite very pretty
24
Over Bighorn and Shout of Relief Pass to camp beside tarns above Tully Lake, 4 hours, small tarns on shelf near Cotton Lake are very scenic
25
Leave SHR with brief descent down gully to Tully Lake then follow tracks to Tully Hole, join JMT to Duck Lake then leave JMT and over Duck Pass to Lake Barney, 7.5 hours
26
Descend to Lake Mary, 2.5 hours, use free bus into the town of Mammoth Lakes, collect food drop and stay overnight in hotel
27
Took bus to Reds Meadows, followed tracks to Minaret Lake, 5 hours, note we skipped the SHR from Duck Lake to Minaret Lake as reports stated it was not the most scenic section of the route, some parts had been burnt, some of it lacked views and overall is less interesting.
28
On SHR, past Cecile and Iceberg Lakes, sidetrip to Lake Ediza then over easy passes to Garnet Lake, 6 hours, very scenic area
29
Over easy pass to Thousand Island Lake then over North Glacier Pass to camp 500m past Lake Catherine in hidden side valley, 5 hours
30
Continue west following pads to Twin Island Lakes, 4 hours, could have easily gone further but we had spare time
31
Continue to Bench Canyon and Blue Lake, 4 hours, had a very long lunch watching a snake devour a fish, very scenic area
32
Over Blue Lake Pass and west to Isberg Pass Trail, follow track to camp at creek 3km past Lyell Fork, 7 hours
33
Follow track over Vogelsang Pass to camp at Boothe Lake, 7 hours, lake very pretty. Note you are not allowed to camp within 4 miles of Toulumne Meadows so Boothe or Vogelsang Lake are ideal camp sites
34
Followed tracks to Toulumne Meadows, 3.5 hours, collected food drop from post office. With a wilderness permit, camping in the designated walkers area is free and booking not required. This place has a cafe with burgers etc and a general store with some food supplies

From there, due to fires etc, we left the SHR and followed the JMT back to Mammoth Lakes. With several extra days we were off-track a lot following a zig-zag route and explored higher lakes etc hence our times are not very relevant or useful to other groups

 

Suggested basic itinerary to do all of the SHR (normal walkers - 50 days total)

This itinerary starts by following a scenic section of the JMT and this is done to assist with acclimitization.
Fly into Mammoth Lakes, allow 4 or 5 days to buy/pack food and drive it to road heads to place in bear boxes at Onion Valley (Kearsarge Pass), Bishop South Lake, Bishop North Lake, Toulumne Meadows Post Office and maybe Pine Creek..
Start - Taboose Pass, carry 10 nights food, climb to Taboose Pass (lunchtime on second day) to meet JMT, leave 4 nights in a bear barrel for drop, follow JMT south to Kearsarge Lakes (this is the acclimitization bit). Sidetrip for return day trip to Onion Valley car park to collect food, 8 nights (7 carry), then down Bubbs Creek valley to Kings Canyon. Start the Sierra High Route with a 5,500 feet climb and continue on the SHR to Basin Lakes. Descend Cartridge Pass (not Frozen Lake Pass - that puts you too far north of the food drop) to JMT, collect food drop of 4 nights. Follow SHR north to Dusy Basin then over Bishop Pass to Bishop South Lake for night to collect next food drop, 7 nights (6 to carry). Back over Bishop Pass then follow SHR around to Piute Pass then descend to North Lake to collect next drop of another 8 nights. Follow SHR north to Mammoth Lakes to stay the night (eat and stay in town). Alternatively take longer from Piute Pass to Mammoth Lakes using an extra food drop at Pine Creek (allows more time in the very scenic Bear Lakes area). At Mammoth Lakes, collect food drop of 7 nights and follow main walking track to Minaret Lake (the convulted SHR to Minaret Lake is not worth walking) then follow SHR through to Toulumne Meadows, collect food drop at post office, 6 nights (5 to carry). Follow last section of SHR to Twin Lakes, hitch out to Bridgeport from where buses run along the highway to Mammoth lakes.

Some of the prettiest sections are around Puppet Pass, Gardiner Basin (which the SHR does not visit) and Bear Lakes Basin. You could spend more time in these areas by adding a food drop at Pine Creek.
Note that the Sierra High Route is more of an idea than an actual track to follow. Most groups do variations and indeed this fits in well with the ethos of the routes creator (once you read the guide you will understand). So if you see an attractive photo or hear of an interesting place nearby I suggest you plan your trip to pass through. We visited a few places off the SHR and they were just as scenic as those on the route.

Want a shorter trip, perhaps the most scenic section is the middle part of the Sierra High Route. I would suggest start at Bishop South Lake and walk through to Mammoth Lakes (food drop at Piute Pass/North Lake), about 15 days walking. If you had a few extra days a 4 or 5 day loop from Mammoth Lakes to Minaret Lake then across to Thousand Island Lake and return to Mammoth Lakes via Agnew Pass/Summit Lake picks up the best scenery around The Minarets. This uses the Red Meadows bus service for access.

Alternative Route

While the Sierra High Route was a great trip, we did not climb Mt Whitney or traverse the high country near it. With information we collected on our trip plus new information from the web I have proposed the ultimate high level adventure in the range which I have called the Sierra High Traverse. (see seperate webpage for details).

Route Assistance & Variations - add this to the guide book information

The guide book is at times rather thin on detailed information. These notes are provided to give some assistance to find the safest or an easier alternative route.for some of the more awkward or difficult sections. There are are also some good notes about passes on the web at High Sierra Topix.
Thunderbolt Pass, from the south, you can see a rocky ramp that rises direct to the pass, follow this all the way, its easier than it looks, dont get fooled to climb screes on the right. To descend from the pass, on the right hand side climb to the highest point, some cairns indicate a steep very rocky rough descent to a shute (often has snow) then soon after it gets easier and leads out onto alpine slopes. The rough section while only about 250 m long takes about 1 hour to descend.
Alpine Col, Most recommend this pass instead of Snow-Tongue Pass. We got reports that Snow-Tongue Pass was a pile of tettering loose blocks and very dangerous which was followed with a long tedious scramble. Alpine Col is not hard or dangerous, just a slow tedious scramble for several hours on scree. Approach the pass along the edge of the lake on its west side (the 'cliff' beside the lake can be passed under) until directly under the pass then climb up scree. About half way down the pass on the northern side there was a cliff band that was scrambled through in the middle. Big scree continues all the way to the other end of the lake below the pass, not hard, just tedious.
Puppet Pass, the approach from the east is not obvious as the pass is not visible but just keep climbing steadily up easy slopes. To descend, go to the northern side of the pass then descend to and follow the the base of a cliff. The rest of the pass has big blocks and is best avoided.
Merriam Lake, the climb from French Canyon in forest to the lake initially has no track, it starts steeply then veer left towards the main creek to pick up a pad that closely follows the creek to meadows above. From Merriam Lake dont climb the steep slope next to the cascade as described in the guide, its a steep scramble, instead follow the wide easy ramp on the right that passes to the right of the cliff. Easy scenic walking leads to a small tarn above the cliff, a very scenic spot which we camped near and from there its easy walking to the next lake
White Bear Pass, the steepest pass on our route. Ascent is fairly easy to walk but requires some scouting as there are false leads. To descend, veer right a little and follow the line of small green bushes as they lead all the way down, dont follow scree bands as they all lead onto steep polished granite slabs.
Gabbott Pass, the ducks (cairns) described in the guide have vanished. The guide is fairly correct except for the very last bit from the fine viewpoint. The route to the right follows a gully then valley of large talus and is a pain, its easier to walk to the very end of the level ridge then descend directly towards the lake.. Its still rocky blocks but the rough section is shorter.
Second Recess, make sure you find and follow the track down, this eventually descends steeply following a narrow band between two huge granite slabs. When it seems to peter out in scrub, veer right a little crossing a small bit of slab and the trail then continues to a small waterfall on the valley floor.
Bighorn Pass, climb to the pass is easier than it looks, the traverse to Shout of Relief Pass is not very clear, Ropers notes are no help here. In between the passes is a large ridge, you can either descend, climb the ridge then descend into the gully beyond or descend lots towards the lake on the left then follow the gully up to Shout of Relief Pass. Note you climb the gully to Shout of Relief, dont climb either of the two ridges as you will then have a difficult scramble along the ridge into the pass.
Cotton Lake, skip the steep descent into Izaak Walton Lake as after the lake there is a very steep descent across Horse Canyon (Ropers guide does not tell you much about that). Instead from Cotton Lake turn right and descend to Tully Lake, there are several easy gullies. Follow a pad beside the lake downstream, this leads to the main track which provides a nice scenic walk through Horse Canyon.
Mammoth Crest, we skipped it but apparantly it is a nice scenic walk. The section from Mammoth Pass through to Reds Meadow is not very pleasant as the forest has been killed, so many suggest descending from the end of Mammoth Crest to Lake George then Lake Mary to pick up the free shuttle bus into Mammoth Lakes.
Minaret to Cecile Lake, the guide describes climbing a class 3 slot, its difficult and most need a rope. An easier but exposed climb is on the right, the rocky gully leads onto the top, take care but no rope needed.
Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake, dont be tempted to descend the obvious but very steep, loose gully thats 100m before the outlet. Instead go to the lake outlet where a well-used track leads down the scree to Iceberg Lake.
Lake Catherine, about 200m past the lake, there is a short grassy ramp on the left, this is actually the start of the route to Mt Ritter. If you follow the ramp for 50m it leads into a pleasant grassy bowl which provides a nice sheltered campsite. This is one section of the SHR where there are few campsites.
Lake Catherine to Twin Island Lakes, to descend the waterfall, traverse right about 100m then descend steeply down the cliff. There are several routes down shallow gullies to a short drop at the base of the cliff. Dont traverse too far as there is only one area where descent is fairly easy.. Also at the bottom of page 170, the guide states the route is complex, its not, just descend then ascend following the base of the cliffs, keep close to the cliffs (keep right at junctions) and you will be fine as it leads onto a terrace which is then easily followed to the left around to the first of  Twin lakes.
Twin Lakes, dont traverse near lake level, for both lakes climb over the domes and descend the other side as thats much easier.
Blue Lake Pass, to climb it the guide suggests following grassy slopes, slabs and talus and this suggests that the steep ramps/slabs you can see directly below the pass is the route to follow, they are not. Instead climb the obvious wide grassy gully 100m right of the pass, near its top veer left up a ramp and this leads onto a level terrace. Follow this left 100m and when it ends a fairly easy climb up low slabs and mild talus leads into the pass. The contents of the climb in the guide are correct except you cannot see most of the elements from the bottom. To descend to the west, dont descend the talus, its steep with big scree, instead traverse a long way to the right easily crossing some small scree bands and stone to the obvious white quartz outcrop. From there its an easy descent on grassy slopes and slabs to meadows.
Isberg Pass Trail, the guide is well out-of-date here, this is a wide well-used obvious trail, you would have to be blind to cross it and not see it.
Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, there are numerous trails around the camp, more than the map suggests, make sure you find the signpost and junction and follow the correct trail.
Boothe Lake, to get to Boothe Lake, where the two trails run parrallel, its an easy shortcut down a rocky slope that saves a 1km walk. The side track that leads into Boothe Lake has no signpost. Note that this is a good campsite for the last night before Toulumne Meadows, TM, as you are not allowed to camp within 4 miles (6km) of TM.

My suggestions for the SHR

1. Allow 40 to 45 days for the Sierra High Route. Adding in a few days at the start to buy/pack food plus to acclimitise, makes it a 45 to 50 day trip.

2. Acclimitize first before getting onto the Sierra High Route. One way is to allow 4 to 5 days walking at the start. If you plan to walk all of the SHR, then I suggest use part of the JMT to acclimitize. One way is is to start at Taboose Pass. First night camp before the pass, next night over the pass to meet the John Muir Trail and on the way hide a food drop for 4 nights in a bear barrel. Then follow the John Muir Trail south for 5 days to Kearsarge Lake near Kearsaage Pass, the trail goes up and down a lot providing good acclimitization. A sidetrip over Kearsarge Pass to the road to collect a food drop then follow Bubbs Creek west to Kings Canyon. Start the SHR with the 5500 foot plus climb up Copper Creek Trail. Cross Basin Lakes and descend Cartridge Pass to the JMT then to Taboose Pass to get your hidden 4 day drop then continue north as normal..While its possible to place and collect a food drop from the bear boxes at Kings Canyon, its an extremely long drive of 10 hours plus from Mammoth Lakes to Kings Canyon

Another acclimitization alternative is to do a series of one day walks first to as high as possible, maybe visit Yosemite Valley (not very high!), do some walks from Toulumne Meadows to the north, and then maybe climb Mt Whitney (if you can get a permit). You could then start from Kearsarge Pass and descend direct to Kings Canyon to the start of the SHR.

3. Be flexible, there are many scenic lakes and it will depend on weather conditions just how pretty they can be. Also wild fires are a regular event in the forests near the SHR so take some more general maps (the Tom Harrison maps are ideal) and if some areas are closed due to fires, you can then walk in a different part of the range. There are lakes everywhere and we could easily repeat much of this walk and deviate past different lakes without doing too much repetition. In some areas its a bit like the central plateau of Tasmania with many lakes but the big difference is that real mountains tower around. The range is so extensive that you could spend years exploring this range which is what some local walkers do.

4. Red Meadows or Mammoth Lakes for resupply - which one to use. Food drops can be delivered to Reds Meadow and this is a popular site for JMT walkers but there is not much else there for backpackers. I suggest going into Mammoth Lakes as it takes about the same time, the town has a supermarket, many restuarants, bars and hotels to eat at and there are free shuttle buses from the outlying lakes into town so you dont have to walk far down from the tops. Its also nice to be able to have a shower etc. There are several outdoor shops where you can replace any damaged or worn out gear. Also, during summer, shuttle buses run from Mammoth Lakes to Reds Meadows (a park entry fee of $7 applies but thats pretty cheap) so you can easily get from one to the other.

5. If you want to do an even longer trip and traverse all of the high peaks in the Sierra Range then look at my suggested new route, the Sierra High Traverse

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Last updated : November 11th 2017