Long Distance Trails

The High Sierra Trail Adventure

POSTED ON August 17, 2021 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

The High Sierra Trail, tucked into the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, offers a breathtaking exploration for adventurous souls. This 72-mile (116 km) grand spectacle of nature, spanning from the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park to the highest peak in the continental United States at Whitney Summit, promises an unparalleled hiking experience.

The trail is often compared with the famed John Muir Trail, given their shared landscape of alpine beauty and rugged mountain terrain. Along the way, trekkers are treated to the ethereal Hamilton Lakes Basin, a haven of tranquility amidst the mountain range.

The journey winds through the Sierra Nevada’s most awe-inspiring landmarks, each turn revealing new vistas that challenge the senses and ignite the spirit of adventure.

Join us as we embark on this remarkable journey, stepping into the wild heart of the Sierra Nevada on the High Sierra Trail.

Silverlight Socks Medium Ankle Black


  • FREE SHIPPING

  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE

SILVERLIGHT HIKING SOCKS

stars 627 reviews

History

Alpine Lake

The High Sierra Trail has a storied past, tracing its origins back to trail-building efforts in the early 20th century. The trail was officially completed in 1932, but its inception lies in the visionary planning of the National Park Service and the tireless labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a time when trail building became a crucial facet of preserving the natural wonders of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The trail emerged as a testament to human ingenuity and a desire to connect the diverse landscapes of Sequoia National Park.

In the 1920s, the National Park Service aimed to create a “trans-Sierra” hiking trail that would offer a complete wilderness experience. To turn this vision into reality, the CCC, an agency established as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was tasked with the trail’s construction. This monumental undertaking involved carving out a pathway through the Crescent Meadows in Giant Forest to the formidable Mount Whitney Summit, cutting through some of the most rugged terrain.

The trail’s most dramatic milestone is the sheer granite cliffs of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) at Precipice Lake, the work of CCC members under the leadership of Frank Viscek and Stephen Mather. This breathtaking spot, which marks the trail’s highest altitude, was the most challenging portion of the trail to construct due to its steep and rocky terrain.

Over the years, the High Sierra Trail has been meticulously maintained and improved by a collaboration of government agencies and volunteer groups. Despite the inevitable challenges and changes brought about by natural events and human interaction, the trail’s theme of wilderness preservation has remained constant.

Today, it stands as a testament to early trail-building endeavors and the enduring spirit of adventure, attracting hikers from around the world to experience the majesty of the High Sierra.

Key Facts About the High Sierra Trail

The High Sierra trail

Location: Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, USA

Total Length: 72 miles (116 km)

Time to Hike: Typically 6 to 10 days, depending on the hiker’s pace and chosen itinerary.

Trailheads: Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park (west) and Whitney Portal (east)

Difficulty Level: Moderate to strenuous, with challenging elevation gains and varying terrains.

Established: Officially completed in 1932

Total Elevation Gain: Approximately 15,000 feet (4,572 meters)

Best Time to Hike: Summer and early fall (late June to early October), depending on snow conditions

Lowest Point: Crescent Meadow, at 6,700 feet (2,042 meters) above sea level

Highest Point: Whitney Summit, at 14,505 feet (4,421 meters) above sea level

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

High Sierra Trail

The High Sierra Trail, a synonym for awe-inspiring natural beauty, offers an exhilarating hiking experience through the diverse landscapes of Sequoia National Park, starting from Crescent Meadow and concluding at the majestic Mount Whitney. Its close kinship with the John Muir Trail, especially in the final section, is well recognized.

Trail Description

The trail begins at Crescent Meadow amid the Giant Forest, a mesmerizing expanse of towering sequoias. The initial climb towards Eagle Scout Peak offers panoramic views of the Great Western Divide. The trail then descends into the Hamilton Lakes Basin, an idyllic sanctuary of alpine lakes, before crossing the famed Kaweah Gap.

A challenging descent leads hikers to the Big Arroyo Junction (location), where the trail crosses the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. The trail then traverses the Chagoopa Plateau (location), leading to the Kern River Valley (location), home to the soothing Kern Hot Springs (location). A dip in the warm pool offers a refreshing break before embarking on the ascent to Wallace Creek.

Route Options

While the direct route from Crescent Meadow to Whitney Portal is the most common, several side trips are worth considering.

A detour to Moraine Lake or a soaking break at Kern Hot Spring add to the adventure. Hikers can also choose to loop back to Crescent Meadow via the Alta Trail after reaching the summit. Be mindful of the quota season when planning your itinerary.

Trail Highlights

In addition to the breathtaking landscapes and stunning vistas, the High Sierra Trail offers an array of highlights.

From the enchanting solitude of Upper Funston Meadow to the towering pines of Lodgepole Visitor to the exhilarating trek up Mile Hill, there’s plenty to marvel at. The trail’s significant points, such as Bearpaw Meadow (location), Junction Meadow, and the Chagoopa Creek Crossing, serve as reminders of the trail’s rich history and the tireless efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Challenging Sections

While the entire High Sierra Trail is a demanding trek, certain sections require experienced hikers due to their challenging terrain and elevation gains.

Here are some of the toughest segments of the trail:

  • Precipice Lake: With a steep elevation gain and narrow trail, this section is situated below Eagle Scout Peak and is not for the faint of heart.
  • Kaweah Gap: The climb to Kaweah Gap involves navigating through rocky terrain with significant elevation gains.
  • Kaweah Gap and Chagoopa Falls: Journeying through the Kaweah Gap, hikers are treated to stunning vistas of the surrounding peaks. Chagoopa Falls, cascading down the rugged terrain, adds a touch of natural beauty to the trail.
  • Army Pass and Chagoopa Plateau: The trail climbs Army Pass, demanding stamina and determination, but the rewards include breathtaking views from the Chagoopa Plateau, showcasing the alpine majesty of Sequoia National Park.
  • Wallace Creek: A gruelling elevation gain that presents a significant challenge. The section between Crabtree Meadow and Guitar Lake, with a series of creek crossings, further tests hikers’ endurance. Altitude sickness could pose a risk due to the rapid ascent. As hikers navigate this section, they can also enjoy the therapeutic Kern Hot Springs, offering a rejuvenating break.
  • Trail Crest and Lone Pine: Upon reaching Trail Crest, hikers are rewarded with sweeping views of Sequoia’s sister park, Canyon National Park.
  • Whitney Portal: The descent leads to the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, concluding at Whitney Portal near the town of Lone Pine.

Additional Trail Insights and Considerations

  • Trail Connections: The High Sierra Trail intersects with the John Muir Trail, providing an opportunity for hikers to extend their adventure and explore Yosemite Valley and other iconic destinations.
  • Side Trips and Quota Season: Hikers can opt for side trips to destinations like Mount Langley (map). It’s essential to be aware of the quota season and secure permits in advance, especially during popular times.
  • Altitude Considerations: With significant altitude gain, hikers should be mindful of altitude sickness. Acclimatization and awareness of symptoms are crucial to ensuring a safe journey.
  • Trail Conditions and Timing: Timing is key, with the best hiking season spanning from June to early October, when snow has melted.

Seasonal Considerations and the Best Time to Hike the High Sierra Trail

Tioga Lake up in the Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park

The High Sierra Trail offers a year-round adventure, with each season presenting its own unique charm and challenges.

Whether you’re traversing meadows in spring, relishing alpine lakes in summer, or witnessing the snow-covered wonderland in winter, the trail promises an unforgettable experience for those prepared to embrace the diverse climates of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Spring (April to June)

Springtime in the High Sierra brings a mix of weather conditions. Snow persists at higher elevations, so hikers should be prepared for snowy and icy conditions. At the trailhead in Crescent Meadow Park service, the temperatures may range between 40 and 60°F (4 and 15°C) during the day, dipping below freezing at night.

The trail crosses the Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap, where temperatures can be much colder. Remember to check the local ranger station for up-to-date weather and trail conditions.

Summer (June to September)

Summer is the most popular season to hike the High Sierra Trail. From June to August, the summer months bring warm temperatures ranging from 70 to 90°F (21-32°C), and the trail becomes snow-free. Afternoon thunderstorms are common, so carrying rain gear is advisable.

This is also the time when the meadows burst with wildflowers and wildlife is active. Good fishing can be found in the Hamilton Lakes Basin, and a dip in Kern Hot Spring is rejuvenating after a long day of hiking. At this time, the quota season is in effect, so reservations are required to start hiking from Crescent Meadow.

Fall (September to November)

Fall brings about cooler temperatures, vibrant foliage, and fewer crowds. Early to mid-fall is an excellent time to enjoy hiking without dealing with the summer heat or the quota season. However, be aware of rapidly changing weather conditions, especially at higher elevations such as the Trail Crest, Mount Whitney, or the Chagoopa Plateau.

Winter (December to March)

Winter in the High Sierra is harsh, with much of the trail closed due to heavy snowfall and the risk of avalanches. If you plan a winter visit, hiking to summit Mt. Whitney through the Mount Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal is not recommended due to extremely cold temperatures, a high risk of avalanches, and the trail is hard to follow with snow cover.

Be sure to check with the ranger station for up-to-date winter trail conditions and potential closures.

Designing your Itinerary

High Sierra Trail Directions

The High Sierra Trail, a remarkable thru-hike through the heart of Sequoia National Park, offers a 6-day itinerary that begins at Crescent Meadow and ascends the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River.

Day 1: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw Meadow (11.4 miles/18 km)

This journey starts at the Crescent Meadow trailhead. From the parking lots, you can take a side trip to Moro Rock, which offers stunning views of the Great Western Divide. The trail crosses over the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, where you’ll experience your first taste of elevation gain. Camp at Bearpaw Meadow.

Day 2: Bearpaw Meadow to Big Arroyo Junction (11 miles/17 km)

The second day is a long journey, but it’s worth it. After winding through a forest of towering sequoias, hikers climb up to the Chagoopa Plateau, passing by picturesque meadows and enjoying stunning views of the Great Western Divide, Precipice Lake, and the Kaweah Gap along the way. You can set up camp at Big Arroyo Junction and enjoy a side trip to the Hamilton Lakes Basin, a gorgeous spot to relax by the alpine lakes.

Day 3: Big Arroyo Junction to Moraine Lake (8 Miles/12.9 km)

The third day offers an easy climb to Moraine Lake. This is an 8-mile (12.8 km) stretch at the bottom of the Kern Trench. You can camp at Moraine Lake and enjoy views of Mt. Stewart and the surrounding peaks or the Upper Funston Meadow, located less than 5 miles away.

Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow (13.7 miles/21.9 km)

On the fourth day, the trail continues to Junction Meadow, crossing the Kern River Valley. Hikers can immerse themselves in the Kern Hot Spring to soothe their muscles after the challenging ascent. Camp at the nearby designated camping site for the night.

Day 5: Junction Meadow to Guitar Lake (12.4 Miles/20 km)

Day five continues to Crabtree Meadow, intersecting with the renowned John Muir Trail. Remember to be mindful of altitude sickness as the ascent continues. An overnight stay at Guitar Lake offers a prime spot to rest before your final ascent.

Day 6: Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal (15.6 Miles/25 km)

The sixth and final day is a challenging climb up the 13-mile (22 km) hill to Trail Crest, followed by the trek to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. At the summit, you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the Canyon National Parks and Yosemite Valley.

The descent leads to the Whitney Portal trailhead near Lone Pine, marking the end of your adventure through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Note: Throughout the itinerary, you’ll find numerous front-country and backcountry camping spots. However, it’s essential to secure permits in advance, especially during the quota season. At these camping spots, amenities like pit toilets and bear boxes are usually available.

Gear Essentials for Hiking the High Sierra Trail

High Sierra Trail

Embarking on the High Sierra Trail requires careful preparation, notably in selecting the right hiking gear.

  • Footwear: Invest in sturdy, waterproof hiking boots or opt for lightweight trail runners to tackle rocky trails and potential creek crossings. Quality footwear enhances stability and protects against the rugged landscape.
  • Quality Hiking Socks: Just as important as footwear, but often overlooked. Good hiking socks like Silverlight socks enhance comfort on the trail and prevent painful blisters.
Silverlight Socks Medium Crew Black


  • FREE SHIPPING

  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE

SILVERLIGHT HIKING SOCKS

stars 627 reviews

  • Clothing: Layering is key. Pack moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layers, and a waterproof outer shell. Silverlight’s hiking gear includes high-performance clothing designed for comfort and protection.
  • Backpack: Opt for a durable and well-fitted backpack with ample capacity. Consider Silverlight’s selection, providing ergonomic designs and features for efficient load distribution.
  • Navigation Tools: Carry a detailed map, compass, or GPS device to navigate the trail’s twists and turns. Silverlight’s hiking tips page offers insights into efficient navigation strategies.
  • Shelter: A lightweight, weather-resistant tent is essential for various outdoor conditions.
  • Sleeping Bag and Pad: Choose a sleeping bag appropriate for the season, paired with an insulated sleeping pad for comfort. Explore Silverlight’s recommendations for a cozy night’s sleep on the trail.
  • Water Filtration: Ensure a reliable water filtration system to stay hydrated. Silverlight’s hiking tips emphasize the importance of water safety, guiding you to suitable filtration options.
  • Nutrition: Pack lightweight, energy-dense foods. Silverlight’s delicious backpacking food ideas page offers insights into nutrition choices that sustain energy throughout the trail.
  • Safety Essentials: Include a first aid kit, multi-tool, and a whistle. Silverlight’s hiking tips underscore the significance of preparedness and safety on challenging trails.
  • Bear canisters: It is required to have a bear canister or access to bear boxes when camping in designated backcountry campsites along the High Sierra Trail. This helps prevent bear encounters and keeps wildlife safe. Here is a link with all the locations of 11 bear boxes along the High Sierra Trail
  • Lastly, remember to adhere to the “Leave No Trace” principles. Carry reusable utensils and trash bags to pack out what you bring in. Doing so not only minimizes your impact but also preserves the pristine beauty of the High Sierra for future visitors.

Navigating the High Sierra Trail: Maps, Markers, Permits and Regulations

The Great Western Divide

To ensure your journey on the High Sierra Trail is both safe and enjoyable, it’s crucial to understand the requirements and regulations.

Permits

For overnight hiking and camping on the High Sierra Trail between late May and September, a wilderness permit from Sequoia National Park is mandatory. These permits are issued through a quota system to limit the impact on the trail’s fragile ecosystem.

Permits can be reserved at the Lodgepole Visitor Center or online through Recreation.gov, starting in the first week of March. For the out-of-quota season (October until May), self-issuing permits are available at ranger stations.

Maps and Trail Markers

For navigation, detailed trail maps are indispensable. The National Park Service provides topographic maps that outline the entire trail, including key landmarks, elevations, and potential hazards.

Access these maps digitally or acquire printed versions for a tangible reference on the trail. Find official maps on the National Park Service website or at the Lodgepole visitor center within Sequoia National Park.

You can purchase one from the Sequoia Parks Conservancy Bookstore. The High Sierra Trail is well-marked with signs at major junctions.

However, in the event of snow, the trail can disappear, making a good map, compass, or GPS device essential. The Silverlight app can help you navigate the trail by following the marked line inside the app.

Trail Regulations

To maintain the trail’s natural beauty and protect its wildlife, hikers must adhere to the following regulations:

  • Campfires are allowed below 10,000 feet (3,050 meters), but not in the areas of Hamilton Lakes and Big Arroyo. Always obtain a California Campfire Permit if you plan to have a fire or use a camp stove.
  • Under the Leave No Trace principles, all trash must be packed out, and camping within 100 feet (30 meters) of any water source is prohibited unless indicated otherwise.
  • Toilet facilities are available at some campsites, but for most of the trail, you will need to follow backcountry sanitation guidelines.

Accommodation, Camping, and Overnight Stays near the High Sierra Trail

Camping along the high Sierra Trail

The High Sierra Trail offers various camping and accommodation options to suit a range of preferences and budgets.

Here’s a detailed guide to popular campgrounds and lodging options along the trail:

Campgrounds

  • Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp: Located near the midpoint of the High Sierra Trail, this campsite offers tent cabins and dining facilities for hikers.
  • Big Arroyo Junction: This is a backcountry campsite located near Kaweah Gap on the Great Western Divide.
  • Moraine Lake is another picturesque camping location along the High Sierra Trail, with stunning views of the Kaweah Peaks.
  • Kern Hot Springs: This area features natural hot springs, and camping is only permitted in designated areas.
  • Junction Meadow: Close to Kern Hot Springs, this first-come, first-served campground has a ranger station and water source.
  • Crabtree Meadow is another campsite option near the trailhead, with limited facilities but excellent views of Mt. Whitney.
  • Guitar Lake is a popular overnight stay option for hikers looking to summit Mt. Whitney the following day.
  • Outpost Camp: Situated approximately 3.8 miles (6 km) from the Whitney Portal trailhead, this campground is a popular stop for hikers. It’s nestled in a beautiful alpine meadow with easy access to water from a nearby stream.
  • Trail Camp: Located about 6.1 miles (9.8 km) from the Whitney Portal trailhead, this campsite is another popular option for overnight stays before summiting Mt. Whitney.
  • Lodgepole Campground: This campground is situated about 7 miles (11 km) from the High Sierra Trailhead and offers tent and RV sites, as well as showers and a camp store. Check reservations here.
  • Whitney Portal: Located at the eastern end of the High Sierra Trail, Whitney Portal campground is about 11 miles (about 17 km) from the summit of Mt. Whitney. Be aware that you’ll need a permit to stay here.

Lodging

  • Wuksachi Lodge: Located just outside of Sequoia National Park, this lodge offers a variety of rooms for guests.
  • Silver City Mountain Resort: This rustic resort offers cabins and tent camping options near Mineral King Road.
  • Sequoia Village Inn: A budget-friendly option with basic rooms and amenities near the entrance to Sequoia National Park.
  • Montecito Sequoia Lodge: Located on a private sequoia grove, this lodge offers various accommodations, including cabins and tent camping sites.

Backcountry Camping

For hikers wanting a more secluded experience, backcountry camping on the High Sierra Trail is allowed with a valid wilderness permit.

Campsites must be at least 100 feet away from water sources and adhere to Leave No Trace principles.

Beyond these, there are numerous other campgrounds and accommodation options. Visit the Sequoia National Park website for information on campgrounds and to make reservations.

Resupplying and Refueling: Surviving the High Sierra Trail

High Sierra Trail

Like other long-distance trails, the High Sierra Trail is not a trail where food, water, or gear will be readily available once embarked. So, packing adequate nutrition is paramount.

Here’s a comprehensive guide to effectively managing resupply points and ensuring you’re well-fueled for the adventure:

Resupply Points

Plan your resupply points based on the estimated pace and hiking speed. Bear in mind the challenging elevation gains and varying terrains that may affect your daily mileage.

  • Bearpaw Meadow: Bearpaw Meadow is a potential resupply point. While limited, it provides a chance to restock essentials and manage your pack weight for the upcoming segments.
  • Hamilton Lakes Basin: Hamilton Lakes Basin serves as another potential resupply point. Be mindful of carrying adequate supplies, as this may be your last chance until reaching the Whitney Portal.
  • Sequoia Kings Pack Trains: For longer journeys, consider utilizing resupply services. Sequoia Kings Pack Trains offers food drop services to various points along the trail. Planning a food drop involves packing your food, labeling it correctly, and getting it to the pack station on time.
  • Muir Trail Ranch is the last resupply point for many hikers on the trail. It’s located 13 miles from the junction of the High Sierra and John Muir Trails. It offers both bunkhouse (shared) and private accommodations.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of packing lightweight, energy-dense food. You need to balance the weight of your pack with your nutritional needs. Consider packing food with a high calorie-to-weight ratio to maximize energy efficiency.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

High Sierra Trail Transportation

Getting to the High Sierra Trail involves a few steps, but the journey is well worth the effort. The trailhead for the High Sierra Trail is situated in Sequoia National Park, which is accessible by both private vehicles and public transportation.

Nearest Airports:

The closest major airports are Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) and Bakersfield’s Meadows Field Airport (BFL). Both serve as convenient entry points, connecting travelers to the natural wonders of Sequoia National Park.

  • Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT): Situated approximately 64 miles (103 km) from the trailhead, Fresno Airport is a primary gateway. Flights to FAT are well-connected, offering a range of options for travelers planning their High Sierra Trail experience.
  • Bakersfield’s Meadows Field Airport (BFL): Located about 89 miles (143 km) from the trailhead, Meadows Field Airport, Bakersfield, is another viable option. This airport provides a scenic route for those looking to explore the Eastern Sierra region.

Ground Transportation:

Upon landing at either Fresno or Bakersfield’s Meadows Field airports, various ground transportation options ensure a smooth transition to the High Sierra Trail

By Car

  • Shuttle Services: Several shuttle services operate between the airports and trailhead areas. These services offer a convenient and stress-free way to travel, with options for both shared and private shuttles.
  • Rental Cars: Renting a car provides flexibility for those who prefer independent travel. Multiple rental agencies operate at the airports, allowing you to explore the region at your own pace.

From Fresno, take Highway CA-80 East towards Kings Canyon National Park. Continue on Highway CA-180 until you reach the Big Stump entrance station, then follow the signs to Sequoia National Park. Once inside the park, take the General’s Highway to Lodgepole Visitor Center, where the trailhead is located.

From Bakersfield, take Highway CA-65 North, then take Highway CA-198 East towards Sequoia National Park. Enter the park through the Ash Mountain entrance station, then continue on the General’s Highway to the Lodgepole Visitor Center.

By Public Transportation

  • Public Transportation: Public transportation options are limited, but the Sequoia Shuttle operates from Visalia to Sequoia National Park during the summer months (typically late May through early September). Visitors can take a commercial flight to Visalia Municipal Airport and then hop on the Sequoia Shuttle. This shuttle service includes a park entrance and allows visitors to get around within the park.

Getting Around and Trailhead Access:

Upon reaching the trailhead area, additional transportation options are available to get you to the starting point:

  • Trailhead Shuttle Services: Some local companies offer shuttle services directly to trailheads, providing a hassle-free way to commence your High Sierra Trail journey.
  • Private Transportation: Taxis and rideshare services are also accessible in nearby towns, offering a convenient means to reach the trailhead.

Conclusion

Embarking on the High Sierra Trail offers a chance to immerse yourself in nature’s epic theater, featuring towering peaks, verdant meadows, and serene lakes. Its challenging yet rewarding path invites intrepid souls to traverse through the heart of Sequoia National Park, home to the world’s largest trees and the highest point in the contiguous United States.

As one communes with the wild, remember to respect its sanctity and preserve its beauty for future generations.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *