My friends Julie, Fred, and I just completed a 49-mile backpacking trip—mostly off-trail—through the California High Sierra, crossing the range from west to east. Here’s the report.
Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time is hike across the Sierras, one-way. There are many ways to do this on-trail, but that’s boring. I wanted to do something that left the valleys and reached the highest of the High Sierra, going deep into the rugged granite peaks that line the region. When Andrew Skurka published his Kings Canyon High Basin Route guide last autumn, I found a section of it that matched these goals. My friends Julie and Fred—both former assistant directors of Deer Crossing Camp like myself—enthusiastically joined. (Another friend and former assistant director, Morgan, got sidelined by a work emergency last minute. We missed you Morgan!)
Disclaimer: This route is hardcore! Don’t attempt it unless you have significant cross-country backpacking experience, map and compass skills, strong ankles, beefy thighs, and a sick love of getting pummeled by gnarly mountain terrain over and over again.
All photos by Julie McPherson and yours truly.
Day 1: Lodgepole to Silliman Lake
- Hours: 3
- Miles: 4.5
- Starting Elevation: 6,800′
- Final Elevation: 10,000′
- Highest Elevation: 10,000′ (Silliman Lake)
We spent most of Day 1 getting a 6-hour ride (thanks Dana!) from South Lake Tahoe to our starting point, Lodgepole campground in Sequoia National Park on the western side of the Sierras. Two days prior we dropped Julie’s car at the terminus, Onion Valley Trailhead, on the eastern side of the Sierras.
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Getting back to Julie’s car from the west side (without a vehicle) would have been incredibly challenging, which meant that we were fully committed to this hike after started. Onion Valley or bust!
The first few miles followed the Twin Lakes trail, and then we cut up Silliman Creek following an easy use trail and smooth granite slabs.
We camped by Silliman Lake (SPOT coordinates) near a Sierra Club group. Our thighs ached from gaining more than 3000′ in three hours, but this was a mere taste of things to come.
Day 2: Silliman Lake to Cloud Canyon
- Hours: 12
- Miles: 13.5
- Starting Elevation: 10,000′
- Final Elevation: 10,200′
- Highest Point: 12,345′ (Copper Mine Peak)
The day started with our first pass: a steep, rocky mess. Here Fred scratches his head wondering how we’ll ever get over it.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy with a little hand-over-foot climbing. Look how relaxed Fred is.
The next six miles took us across the Kings-Kaweah Divide (water to the north flows into the Kings River, water to the south flows into the Kaweah River) and a magical part of the Sierras called Tablelands: essentially a bunch of mellow granite slabs. It made for easy hiking and excellent views.
In the photo below, you can see Mount Whitney in the far distance (center-left). Awesome.
At the far end of Tablelands we ran into two other hikers doing the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, Daniel and Nico. They were doing a 13-day stretch of moving a bit slower than us, understandably.
They were kind enough to take our photo.
Leaving Tablelands but continuing to follow the Kings-Kaweah Divide, we crossed Pterodactyl Pass and continued easy hiking over slabs and through meadows.
Lonely Lake (10,785′) offered a posh beach and infinity pool effect. We almost busted out the lawn chairs and umbrella, but then we decided to push forward and try to camp in Cloud Canyon.
Julie and Fred at “Horn Col” (a.k.a. Lonely Lake Pass). This was my favorite pass of the whole trip, simply for aesthetics.
The easy granite slab traverse continued as the afternoon waned. We aimed for Copper Mine Peak, the tallest and darker-colored mountain in the photo below.
Passing an old copper mine, we climbed a rocky use trail (i.e., an unofficial/unmaintained trail that sometimes disappears) towards the summit. The setting sun painted the mountains in hues of red and orange.
Group selfie on the top of Copper Mine Peak (12,345′), just as it started getting frigid:
Panorama from Copper Mine Peak (full res):
As we descended into Cloud Canyon from Copper Mine Peak, we lost the faint use trail (marked only by the occasional cairn) and ended up descending a steep ridge into the upper part of the canyon in the pitch black.
As soon as we found the river at the bottom the canyon and semi-flat granite slab, we made camp and crashed hard (SPOT coordinates).
Day 3: Cloud Canyon to Cunningham Creek
- Hours: 9
- Miles: 10
- Starting Elevation: 10,200′
- Final Elevation: 11,150′
- Highest Point: 12,100′ (Thunder Ridge Pass)
When morning came we finally got a look at our campsite (look for the creekside sleeping bags in the photo below) and the majestic Cloud Canyon and rock formation (on the right) called Whaleback.
The hike down-canyon was pleasant and easy. We ran into one more hiker who simply waved at us. On a totally flat section, I managed to roll my ankle on a loose rock. It was a light and useable injury that I managed with an ACE wrap. Later Julie taped my ankle (thanks Jules!), putting her recently recertified Wilderness First Responder skills to good use.
Hooking around Whaleback to renter the high mountains, we enjoyed a few brief miles of maintained trail and took a siesta at the “idyllic swimming hole” described in Skurka’s route guide, which Fred and I gave our seal of approval.
We now entered our next big Sierra mountain range: the Great Western Divide, which runs north-south. We climbed up a nice slabby bowl and crossed an easy pass above Talus Lake.
Entering the Table Creek watershed, we weren’t quite sure where our next destination—Thunder Ridge Pass—was located. I almost took us to an easier-looking false pass toward the south, but after knocking our heads together for a while we learned that we needed to head far up the mountains, toward the almost impossible-looking faces in the far right of the photo below.Up and up we went over endless fields of broken granite, a.k.a. talus.
Ascending toward Thunder Ridge Pass:
On the top of Thunder Ridge Pass, we looked down on the what Skurka describes as “the most difficult section of the [route] this far,” a super-steep descent over a pure half-mile talus. Yes, it was sketchy indeed.
Thunder Ridge Pass from the other side:
We spent the final hours of the day countouring around a large ridge to reach Cunningham Creek, our destination for the night.
We actually arrived before dark. It was a miracle.
Julie noticed that the mountains and pass above our campsite (South Guard peak, Longley Pass, and an unnamed peak) looked like the Wu-Tang Clan logo. She was correct.
Day 4: Cunningham Creek to Vidette Canyon
- Hours: 12
- Miles: 9.5
- Starting Elevation: 11,150′
- Final Elevation: 10,900′
- Highest Point: 12,700′ (Deer Horn Pass)
At the base of a boulder I found a deflated cellophane balloon with the words “CONGRATS GRAD”. Now I will send this picture to every friend and family member who graduates from anything:
Our morning started with by crossing the Great Western Divide at Longley Pass (12,500′), which felt like a lunar landscape (full res).
I anticipated an easy day of hiking because (1) we had less than 10 miles on the itinerary and (2) many of them were supposed to be on a use trail (most of which had been decent thus far) and then a real trail. But such things did not come to pass.
As we descended from Longley Pass to Lake Reflection, our use trail disappeared many times, stranded us on at least one cliff, dragged us through bushes, and generally kicked our ass. It was tough, slow hiking.
Traversing the edge of Lake Reflection:
At the bottom of Lake Reflection we joined the “real trail” that stayed “real” for only a hot second and then COMPLETELY EVAPORATED. As we ascended the canyon eastward toward Deerhorn Mountain, Mount Stanford, and Mount Ericsson, we were essentially going cross-country. Whatever trail in indicated on the maps is a LIE. So we slowly found our own way up the canyon, climbing some sketch cliffs (“Just one rule: don’t fall!”) along the way. Yours truly, looking a bit intimidated by the sheer face of Mount Ericsson.
This section of the King’s Canyon High Basin Route is considered an “alternative” by Andrew Skurka, appropriate “if extra time and muscle power are both available.” We decided to give it a shot because the standard route (East Creek) traveled through on-trail through a lame-looking canyon. We’re here to do the high rocky stuff, we thought, so let’s do the Vidette alternative! Well, we got what we wanted.
Ascending toward Deerhorn Saddle was a ridiculous experiment in uphill scree-field navigation:
If Deerhorn Pass had a tagline, it would be “hold onto anything for dear life as your footing slips away from underneath you.”
Eventually the pass mellowed out. Here is Fred looking badass, as always:
At the top of the pass the sun was setting, and I realized that we’d be hiking in the dark again before we’d reach the first lake in the Vidette drainage. So much for our “easy day”. At least Julie and I got these sweet photos, looking southward from Deerhorn Pass.
Skurka briefly mentioned the existence of “extensive talus in upper Vidette Creek”. This is an understatement. We spent the final few hours of our day descending the truly gnarly (Class 3, not Class 2) north side of Deerhorn Pass and then boulder-hopping across talus for what is only 1.5 map miles but felt like an eternity. As a bonus, much of the upper talus had little ball-bearing pebbles sprinkled across them (multiplying the sketch-factor), and the talus fields actually came in giant waves, meaning that we did a good amount of up-climbing while we were supposed to be losing elevation. All in all it was a super tough descent, something that we should have attempted earlier in the day with more time and more light.
Navigating the Vidette talus fields by headlamp:
The final quarter-mile before arriving at the highest lake in Vidette Creek did prove fun: we were able to walk straight down the wide creek, hopping between flat rocks. As soon as found the least-lumpy-looking camp spot (SPOT coordinates), we crashed hard.
Day 5: Vidette Canyon to Onion Valley
- Hours: 6
- Miles: 12
- Starting Elevation: 10,900′
- Final Elevation: 9,500′
- Highest Point: 11,760′ (Kearsarge Pass)
We awoke knowing that today was our easiest day: all we needed to do was descend Vidette Creek, meet to the John Muir Trail, and hoof it back to the car. Our thighs, knees, and ankles were all very excited for some simple, easy, boring trail time.
But first things first: where the hell were we? Daylight revealed another pleasant high-elevation Sierra lake. We’re starting to take these for granted.
Fred found a nice rock for a pillow:
We looked up at the what we descended the night before and saw an almost vertical wave of scree and talus. The photo doesn’t do it justice; this was not an easy canyon to descend by any measure.
Making our way down Vidette Creek proved simple, minus the occasional cliff face.
We thought we’d found victory at the lower Vidette Lakes, until moments later we were tossed into a marshy, willow-choked bush-fest. So close, so close!
TRAIL FEELS SO GOOD! So clean, easy, and simple. Thank you, trail builders everywhere.
As we hiked out on the John Muir and Kearsarge Pass trails, we encountered roughly 37 other hikers: twelve times more than those we’d encountered in the past four days.
Julie was stunned by the eastern Sierra.
The final, fast descent down Kearsage Pass to Onion Valley:
Not much on this earth feels better than a pit toilet, water spigot, and car waiting for you a trailhead.
With an estimated total elevation gain/loss of 29,000′ over four days and most of the trip spent above 10,000′, this was the burliest trip that any of use had every done.
- Blake’s High Sierra summer backpacking gear list
- Andrew Skurka’s Kings Canyon High Basin Route overview
- Caltopo for free access to high-resolution USGS maps
- The Tom Harrison map that we used in addition to Skurka’s maps