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Trip Report: The Sierra High Route (Part 1)

August 25th, 2018: My friends Julie, Fred, and I just finished hiking 140 miles of the Sierra High Route—what some call the hardest hike in America. Our friend David joined us for the first week. This is the report.

Warning: Very long post with lots of pretty pictures! Recommended viewing on a larger screen.

This is the first of a two-part report. Here’s part two.

What is the Sierra High Route?

Here’s how Backpacker magazine puts it:

Conceived by climber Steve Roper in 1977 and first published in his book Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, the SHR is a classic mountain journey similar to the John Muir Trail (JMT), but with a huge difference: It touches trails only grudgingly, and it rarely dips below 10,000 feet. Steep, rocky, and often hazardous, it’s thru-hiked only half a dozen times each year and requires more self-reliance and routefinding skill than the average trail hiker possesses.

Or as we put it, more concisely:

The Sierra High Route: Not F**king Around

The Sierra High Route is HARDCORE. First of all, it’s not a trail—it’s a route. Seldom is there a nice little line in the ground to follow. Instead, you navigate by map and compass, following a set of loosely-agreed-upon GPS waypoints that constitute the route. (We used Andrew Skurka’s mapset to guide the way, despite the fact that it’s designed for south-to-north hikers—we were going north-to-south.)

“Flat” a word that rarely enters the vocabulary of the SHR hiker. The route is an unending series of up-and-down scrambles across mountain passes, fields of broken rock (a.k.a. talus), and bumpy alpine valleys. It doesn’t make sense to measure one’s time on the SHR in terms of mileage, because it’s really more about the vertical. The 10 miles per day (average) that we hiked would only take about 4 hours on trail, but we needed double that time to cover the same ground.

While the SHR loosely parallels the John Muir Trail—and sometimes joins it—it’s nothing like the John Muir Trail in terms of socializing. We met exactly four other people hiking the SHR during our two weeks: all males, all hiking alone. Those interactions were brief, and for the most part, we hiked and camped by ourselves, only meeting other hikers on the brief sections where the SHR overlapped with an established trail. Yes, true wilderness solitude is still possible! And this is where you’ll find it.

In this report I share the highlights of each day of our journey, combining Julie’s, David’s, and my photographs with Fred’s GPS traces (as measured in 1-minute intervals by his Suunto watch with Strava).

If you’re curious about the places named below, you can follow along on this map, which roughly outlines the SHR (someone else made it). We started at the top—Twin Lakes—and ended at South Lake trailhead, just below Bishop Pass.

Enjoy the journey!

Day 1: Twin Lakes to Spiller Creek

  • Hours: 5
  • Miles: 5.2
  • Elevation Gain: 3,461′
  • Elevation Loss: 338′
  • Fred’s Strava (shows our actual route—requires free Strava account)

Our first (half-)day started in South Lake Tahoe, where we finalized our gear and food the day before. At 6am Julie and I departed to get to the Bridgeport Ranger Station by 8am (when it opened) to secure our permit for the hike.

Julie and I were the first in line. Except for the two fishermen who snuck in just before us. Sneaky fishermen!

We secured our permit for a 2-week hike for the grand total prize of zero dollars. Thank you, Bridgeport Ranger Station! You make getting into Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks easy and affordable. (Sierra hiking pro tip: You only need a permit from the district where your hike begins. After that, you can go wherever you want!)

Free wilderness permits make Julie happy.

Julie stashed her car in Bishop, and I gave her a ride back up to our friend’s house in Mammoth Lakes, where David and Fred met us.

Obligatory pre-trip photo. From left to right: David, Blake, Fred, Julie.

Driving together to Twin Lakes (the northern terminus of the SHR), I parked my car at Annett’s Mono Village for $20 and we began our hike in the early afternoon, following an established trail up Horse Creek.

Fred hiking up the Horse Creek trail.

Lest we get complacent, the Sierra High Route soon revealed to us its true face: endless talus fields. We followed the canyon up and up, putting in multiple thousand feet of elevation gain with fully loaded packs on our first day. Julie even decided to carry 3 liters of water, just to make her day a little more interesting!

Number of f**ks that the SHR gives about you (and your feet, and your feelings): zero.

After a quad-busting afternoon, we finally crossed Horse Creek Pass (rating: 2) and camped just below it with a grand view of Spiller Creek: a true gem of the Sierras.

Fred overlooking Spiller Creek, just after crossing Horse Creek Pass.

Quick note about mountain passes: We gave each pass on the Sierra High Route an informal rating of 1, 2, or 3.

  • rating “1” passes were easy—essentially just hiking, sometimes with light scrambling (a.k.a. the obligatory use of hands)
  • rating “2” passes were challenging—typically involving unstable rock fields and lots of scrambling
  • rating “3” passes were JESUS CHRIST I NEVER WANT TO DO THAT AGAIN

Day 2: Spiller Creek to Cascade Lake

  • Hours: 12
  • Miles: 9.4
  • Elevation Gain: 5,072′
  • Elevation Loss: 5,335′
  • Fred’s Strava

“Hey, why don’t we do a ridiculously long second day, ending with a sketch-as-hell pass at 11,500 feet?”
—said none of us, ever

The day started with a leisurely stroll down Spiller Creek. Ahh, what a place!

David, soaking it in.

We left Spiller Creek by climbing over Stanton Pass (rating: 2).

Fred and yours truly on Stanton Pass.
The horizon meshed well with my Clif Bar!

Apparently my hair was a subject of interest.

Yes, it’s so pointy.

Some light cross-country travel took us to Soldier Lake, a beautiful lunch-and-swim spot. Here we (re-)discovered that

  1. trees offer shade
  2. trees also have sap
  3. sap gets on things
  4. the category of “things” includes our backpacks and hands and feet
  5. shady trees are problematic lunch spots
Fred, Blake, and David overlooking Soldier Lake

We dropped into Virginia Canyon and then climbed out again through a frustrating morass of bushes, grasses, and trees that some people call a “forest.” What is this forest business?!? We’re on the high route! We’re here for granite, baby!

Fred and Blake descending into Virginia Canyon.

Well, our wish was soon granted.

Ascending toward Sky Pilot Col, near Shepherd Lake.

Already tired from a long day, we decided around 4:30pm to make the push over another pass, “Sky Pilot Col.” Why not? As we debated what a “col” actually is (here’s the answer), we pushed farther up the long, rocky valley.

Higher and higher we go!

Well, what we didn’t know is that Sky Pilot Col is one the biggest and sketchiest passes on the entire Sierra High Route. If we had actually read Roper’s book, we might have known this. I actually own the book! But it’s way too wordy, the maps suck, and most significantly, it details the route from south-to-north: the opposite of our direction. So we didn’t read it, and we just winged it. We’re just following little red dots on a map, man.

See that little black speck on the pass? That’s me. Oh, and the photo angle makes the pass look mellow. It. Was. Not. Mellow.

Needless to say, it was a “3” pass. We made it over safely. And on the other side we were greeted with a lovely scree (a.k.a. tiny pebble) field, which we hopped and slid down. Going down, scree fields are fun and easy. Going up, they are hell (see: Deerhorn Pass from our King’s Canyon High Basin Route trip report).

Descending the south side of Sky Pilot Col.

As always, the SHR reward hard work with excellent views.

We made it! Holy crap.

After a very, very long day—more than 5000′ total elevation gain—we hit the sack at Cascade Lake.

Funny-not-so-funny side story:

Earlier this day, in the forest section, we met our first other Sierra High Route hiker, named James. He was clearly a fit hiker, and told me that he had good experience on trails, but not much experience hiking off-trail. He had actually taken a wrong turn on the first day and wasted multiple hours going up the wrong canyon.

We ran into James a few more times on the ascent to Sky Pilot Col, and he told us that he was also going to attempt the crossing that afternoon. But after we got over Sky Pilot, descended to Cascade Lake, made camp, and ate dinner—we still hadn’t seen James.

As we settled into our sleeping bags, we see a headlamp beam high above us, cutting through the pitch black. It only could have been James. We watched the little light bounce its way down the steep slope, and finally James appeared by our camp. I asked him if he’d had fun going over the pass; he replied with a very serious “no.” Apparently he had taken a wrong turn near the crest and descended a different, even sketchier pass to get to our location. In the near-dark! Holy crap! I can only imagine what that was like. We didn’t more details.

The lesson here, kids, is that the Sierra High Route means business. Don’t do this unless you have significant off-trail navigation experience, and definitely bring some friends along! James got lucky, but his luck could have turned very quickly. I’ve spent a full decade doing off-trail hikes in the Sierras, and only very recently have I felt prepared for the Sierra High Route. And I certainly would have done it without 2+ friends. People die in the mountains every year. Be smart and stay humble.

Day 3: Cascade Lake to Lower Gaylor Lake

  • Hours: 8
  • Miles: 8
  • Elevation Gain: 2,264′
  • Elevation Loss: 3,435′
  • Fred’s Strava

After yesterday’s mammoth effort, we decided to take it easy.

David, Fred, and Blake, sleeping in the pre-dawn hours. (Julie, how did you get this photo? I’m usually the first one up!)

Today’s travel was entirely off-trail but relatively straightforward, with pleasant landscapes and zero passes.

Fred and Julie, navigating.

The clouds that had been steady building each afternoon finally dumped on us, delivering 30 minutes of rain and wind that prompted us to don our (somewhat embarrassing) poncho-tarps.

Poncho-tarps, ahoy!

The rain ended quickly. That’s what I love about Sierra summers! There’s hardly any rain; when it does rain, you can see it coming from days away; and it usually ends quickly.

Who survived a half hour of rain? We did!

We passed by an old mining site (the “Great Sierra Mine” on our maps)—along with an open pit you wouldn’t want to fall into—before descending into wide open Gaylor Lakes region, just north of Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. I fondly remember these meadows: a great place for a future day-hike and picnic!

Day 4: Lower Gaylor Lake to Lewis Creek

  • Hours: 9
  • Miles: 17
  • Elevation Gain: 2,260′
  • Elevation Loss: 2,507′
  • Fred’s Strava

The threat of rain continued through the previous evening, so each of us set up our rain protection systems. I walked around in the morning and photographed each of them. Shall we take a quick tour?

(Notice how I said “rain protection systems” instead of “tents”—because none of us brought tents! Who needs those clunky, heavy things?)

Blake’s tarp tent. Ahh, how geometric, how svelte! Too bad I couldn’t full extend my legs, and I needed to use my bear can as a prop.
David’s tarp, setup with the assistance of FOUR hiking poles. A bit sad, but it did the trick.
Fred’s bivy sack. The most legitimate of all our solutions, although it has an internal moisture retention issue.
Finally, Julie’s tarp tent, secured by rocks instead of tent stakes. The clear winner!

Notice how we did a TON of miles today? Yup, that’s thanks to the fact that we were on trail all day: a welcome relief from the up-and-down off-trail of the past three days.

Today, trails were Julie-approved.

Sometimes the SHR doesn’t have a better way to get from point A to B than following the pre-existing trail, and today was one of those days. We cruised from Gaylor Lakes through Tuolumne Valley, south toward Vogelsang Pass… but not with stopping at Tuolumne Valley Grill for BURGERS first.

We all got double cheeseburgers. Oh my god, they were so good.

Passing through Yosemite is weird sometimes. There are so. Many. People. And there are these High Sierra Camps where you can glamp and dine in style, in the middle of the high country. Maybe some day I’ll stay at one… ahh, who am I kidding? No I won’t.

David, checking out the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp.
Julie, on Vogelsang Pass.

We ended our day on a lovely granite shelf adjacent to Lewis Creek, just below Vogelsang Pass (rating: 1), where we decided to speak only Spanish for the evening. (Fred is Spanish, David lives and works in Guatemala, and Julie and I both speak good-enough Spanish.) We also ate a communal pot of spicy dehydrated beans to fuel a game of “fart tennis,” just in case you were wondering if we are adults or not.

How lucky are we to have a campsite like this all to ourselves? Answer: very lucky.

I did a quick food census, ensuring that I had enough left for three more days of hiking (before our resupply in Mammoth). The inventory included:

  • Breakfast: Pro Bars and Clif Bars (I ate two each morning)
  • Lunch: almond butter, big crackers, sausage / meat bars
  • Snacks: cashews, raisins, candied ginger
  • Dinners: Annie’s mac’n’cheese (1 box per night, prepared with real butter and dried milk), Snickers bars, and mini-candies (Rolos and Reese’s Peanut Butter cups)
I ate it all.

Funny story: While eating dinner, two dudes are hiking past us on the Lewis Creek trail. The first one sees us and beelines over, asking us “Hey, which way are you going on the trail?” We indicate that we’re going the direction that they came from. The next words out of his mouth: “Can you do a HUGE favor for me?”

Not the best way to start a conversation.

We indulge him and ask why. He tells us that he dropped his Magellan GPS device somewhere in the last mile, and he wants us to find it tomorrow and mail it back to him—his address is stored on the device.

“Um, why don’t you just go back and look for it?” I ask. He tells us that his friend works in the kitchen at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill and needs to get back. Then he tells us that we can just keep it if we want. And they disappear. No names, no other details.

Well, long story short, we found the device the next morning. We carried it out. And David dropped it at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill, where it hopefully made its way back to the dude. Lucky him!

Day 5: Lewis Creek to Blue Lakes

  • Hours: 9
  • Miles: 12
  • Elevation Gain: 3,707′
  • Elevation Loss: 3,241′
  • Fred’s Strava

The first half of the day was on trail, following Lewis Creek to the Isberg Pass Trail. Not much to report—we pounded a lot of dirt. The more interesting part was when we cut cross-country for a few easy meadow miles to reach Blue Lake Pass (rating: 2), gateway to the Mammoth Lakes backcountry.

Julie’s panorama on Blue Lake Pass: talus on both sides!

Shortly after the pass we dropped down to “Blue Lake” proper, which is actually two lakes. They may be my favorite lakes in the Sierras.

Two perfect lakes perched atop the clouds: what more could you ask for?

Part of us wanted to push farther. But there were no obviously great campsites in the next few miles… and truth be told, we were captivated by Blue Lakes. So we jumped in, dried off, set up camp, and enjoyed the evening there. Life is not all about pushing hard! Sometimes you need to stop and kiss the granite.

Soaking in the Blue Lake goodness.
Was it cold? I’ll let the anticipatory looks on our faces answer that question.
We make a nice animated GIF.

Day 6: Blue Lakes to Thousand Island Lake

  • Hours: 10
  • Miles: 10
  • Elevation Gain: 2,874′
  • Elevation Loss: 5,013′
  • Fred’s Strava (broken into two halves today) part 2

Smoke marked the morning. A plume that we spied the previous day from Blue Lakes Pass—rising from the nearby Lions Fire—had settled in the valley.

Looking from Blue Lakes toward Mammoth and the Minarets.

As we traversed the high country toward our next waypoints, we managed to stay above the smoke.

What I’m thinking: “Gosh, it’s smokey!”

Once within site of Twin Island Lakes, the smoke really picked up. At one point we couldn’t even see across the valley, a distance of only a mile.

“That must be Twin Island Lakes… or a cigarette factory on fire?”

Here we ran into our second fellow Sierra High Router: a young guy named Will, from Maryland. He told us that he’d originally planned to do 10 miles a day on the SHR, but he had quickly learned how unrealistic this assumption was. He was feeling humbled, for sure.

Thanks for taking this group picture, Will!

And then, as soon as it came, the smoke left—leaving us with a normal Sierra afternoon and a bunch of waterfalls to ascend. Ah crap!

Granite waterfalls: yet another fun feature of the SHR.

Julie and I had tackled these waterfalls on a different trip, where we did a section of the high route (this day and two days bordering it) in the other direction. We remember the waterfalls being really hard… but this time we breezed through them!

Fred scrambling up the side of a waterfall toward me.

We found ourselves at Lake Catherine and Glacier Pass (rating: 2) sooner than expected.

Fred, looking tough next to Banner Peak and Mount Ritter.
Julie, descending a snowfield from Glacier Pass.

We finished our day at Thousand Island Lake, a popular overnight destination for hikers from Mammoth. We felt a bit shocked and appalled by all the other humans with whom we had to share our wilderness. But hey, the view made up for it.

The whole crew, looking back toward Banner Peak.

 

Day 7: Thousand Island Lake to Devil’s Postpile

  • Hours: 7
  • Miles: 13
  • Elevation Gain: 1,883′
  • Elevation Loss: 4,163′
  • Fred’s Strava

Because of time constraints and excessive smoke, today we “cheated” a little, departed from the SHR, and bee-lined it to Devil’s Postpile where we could catch the shuttle to the city of Mammoth Lakes, our planned resupply spot.

Because we were essentially hoofing it on the John Muir Trail all day, none of us took any interesting photos. But I would like to take this moment to highlight one member of our group that has not received much attention yet: my backpack.

Go on, scroll down and look at that photo. Then come back up. She’s a beaut, isn’t she? She doesn’t have a name yet, but I’m already in love with her. It’s a Circuit from ULA, a popular provider of long-distance hiking backpacks. Recently, ULA started offering custom color customization of their packs—as soon as I saw that, I knew it was time to replace my old Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack that was having many issues. With a little color consultation from my artist friend Tilke, the new pack was born!

Some have said that the color combination is a bit strong, gaudy even. But other hikers along the trail (three, to be exact) complimented it! You know where I stand.

If I need to get rescued by a helicopter, I’ll have no problem being seen.

Okay, enough about my pack. We made it successfully to Devil’s Postpile and grabbed the town shuttle (although for future reference, if you want to get to town quickly, take the Pacific Crest Trail to Agnew Meadows and pick up the shuttle there). Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by hot food, live music, and lots and lots of people. Luckily, we are so good-looking that no one even noticed the dirt on our calves.

The crew in Mammoth Lakes, just after the shuttle.

In town we met with friends, Skyped with significant others, resupplied our food, spent the night, and then said goodbye to David. Thus ended week one of our 2-week adventure.

Second half of the trip report, right here.