Ascending Cirque Pass looking down towards Lower Palisade Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
Earlier this year, my adventure partner Sean Cronin and I were looking to do an extended trip in the backcountry and any location in the world was fair game. After much deliberation we chose to forego an exotic overseas destination in favor of our backyard, The Sierra Nevada. The obvious choice was to tackle the John Muir Trail, the famous 211 mile path stretching from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney.
Several weeks of planning went by and I walked out to my mailbox on a sunny July afternoon to find the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. In it, I found an article that was about two guys who had just completed the JMT by headlamp in the middle of the night. The premise was that the JMT was so over traveled that the only way to gain a true wilderness experience was to hike it at night. My decision was made right then and there. We were scratching the trip. If I have to hike something in the middle of the night to find solitude in the mountains the rest of the general public can have it.
Immediately my brain started churning on what trip we should undertake instead. Sean and I still really liked the idea of doing something in the Sierras, but what would it be? Several years ago I had heard about an alternative to the JMT called the Sierra High Route. From what I understood, most of the route was completely off-trail, stretched 195 miles from Kings Canyon National Park to Twin Lakes outside of Bridgeport, CA, traveled mostly above 10,000 feet crossing 33 mountain passes, had less than 20 people a year thru-hiking it and to sum it up in a word, was “burly.” I ran the idea by Sean over the phone and he said he would start looking into it. Five minutes later my phone rang. “Why didn’t we think of this in the first place!” he said, “I’m in!” And that was that. The second week of September we got dropped off at Road’s End in Kings Canyon National Park to start our journey.
Descending down to Upper Glacier Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
While the beginning of the route started on a trail, it was immediately apparent that it was going to live up to all of the hype. By the end of the first day we had reached Grouse Lake and had already climbed over 5500 feet. As we set up our first camp in a hail storm I started laughing. “This is going to be awesome,” I said to Sean. “Yep!” he replied.
Upon waking up the next day we began our first big day of cross-country travel. After leaving Grouse Lake we wouldn’t see a single soul until three days later when we joined the John Muir Trail for a brief stint to get us up and over Mather Pass. The scenery was spectacular.
Hiking from White Pass to Red Pass in Kings Canyon National Park
Over the course of those three days we traveled through one pristine valley after another in the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. Many of the lakes we encountered didn’t even have names, even though they were some of the most beautiful bodies of water I have ever seen. It became extremely obvious that if there isn’t a trail to a location, people aren’t going there. We were in heaven.
A beautiful unnamed lake near Frozen Lake Pass on the Sierra High Route in Kings Canyon National Park
On the morning of the fourth day we awoke at the base of Frozen Lake Pass (12,400 feet). Considered to be one of the hardest passes on the route we weren’t really sure what we were in for. We stared up at the steep endless field of boulders to a small notch on the horizon. At first glance it looked intimidating but as are with many things in the mountains, whenever you’re looking across at something it always looks worse than it is. Our ascent was tedious but in the end we cruised up and over with little difficulty. The route was steep, mostly Class 2 and 3.
Holding an altimeter on the top of Frozen Lake Pass in Kings Canyon National Park
After descending Frozen Lake Pass we arrived at the John Muir Trail. While the Sierra High Route travels mostly off established trails, it piggybacks on the JMT and several other trails out of necessity for short sections. This is simply because it is the most efficient way to navigate the landscape.
Within a half hour of being on the JMT we began running into things we hadn’t seen in awhile, people. After a short period of time we climbed up Mather Pass. Thanks to the extremely well constructed switchbacks, the pass turned out to be trivial compared to several of the mountain passes that we had already tackled. From the top of Mather Pass we gazed down on Palisade Lakes and in the distance was our next obstacle, Cirque Pass. After a little over an hour on the JMT we were at the outlet of the Lower Palisade Lake and ready to leave the trail once again.
Collecting water from a small tarn
We ascended a few hundred feet in elevation to a small tarn below Cirque Pass and made camp for the evening. Our camp site was magnificent. To the south was Lower Palisade Lake and Mather Pass and to the east was the impressive Palisade Crest (a series of peaks all over 13,000ft). The best part about our view was being able to see the difference between the Sierra High Route and the John Muir Trail. If we had stayed on the JMT we would have been forced down into a valley with less than spectacular views. Instead we were headed up and over 12,000ft Cirque Pass back into the true Sierra high country. Again, we were the only people around.
Our tents are illuminated at dusk near Cirque Pass
The next day we climbed up and over Cirque Pass, Potluck Pass and Knapsack Pass ending up at the top of Bishop Pass amidst a typical fall afternoon thunderstorm. While it was uncomfortable hiking through the hail and rain at the end of a long day, as a photographer I couldn’t have been in a better situation. Upon reaching the top of Bishop Pass and making camp the storm began to break and Sean and I got to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The light hitting the clouds was so intense that it literally illuminated the entire landscape. I always feel so lucky to be in the right place at the right time when Mother Nature decides to put on her show.
A spectacular sunset from a clearing storm lights up the peaks surrounding Bishop Pass
While Bishop Pass isn’t technically on the Sierra High Route it was a necessary stop for us. We had a resupply waiting down at Parcher’s Resort we had to retrieve so we could continue our journey. The next day we descended several thousand feet down to the resort and began sorting through the resupply. After organizing our gear more weather began moving in. We had a decision to make. Pack up everything and head back into the high country in extremely bad weather or get a cabin for the night and have a couple of beers. We chose the cabin and the beers.
The next day, after climbing back up and over Bishop Pass, we began our next section of the High Route. Rejoining the JMT we traveled through Le Conte Canyon, crossed Muir Pass, and descended into Evolution Basin. At the end of Evolution Basin we finally left the trail once again and began climbing towards the next major High Route obstacle, Snow Tongue Pass.
Walking by the famous Muir Hut on the top of Muir Pass on the John Muir Trail
We had heard a rumor over the course of our travels about Snow Tongue Pass. We ran into one guy who claimed that it would be impossible to descend without ice axes and crampons. The guy claimed to be a Mammoth local and gave us advice on Snow Tongue Pass and about every other location in the Sierras, most of which I’m pretty sure he had never actually been to. We quickly realized it wasn’t a wealth of knowledge he possessed but a strong will to impress his buddies that he was guiding aimlessly into the wilderness. Needless to say we took his advice with a grain of salt.
Luckily, and not to my surprise, our Mammoth “local” turned out to be completely wrong. After cresting the top of the pass and looking down, the descent looked discouraging but was far from impossible. After several hours we made our way safely down, completing another one of the formidable barriers of the High Route.
Navigating using a topographic map from the top of Snow Tongue Pass looking east towards Mount Humphreys
The next day of the trip was probably my favorite. We had the extreme pleasure of traveling through Bear Lakes Basin, one of the most remote locales in the Sierra Nevada. After a long and trailless climb over Feather Pass we descended into Bear Lakes Basin. We were immediately greeted with babbling brooks, cascading waterfalls and 360 degree panoramic views of spectacular Sierra Nevada scenery. Mark Twain once wrote that Lake Tahoe was the "fairest picture the whole world affords.” I think if he had the opportunity to travel to Bear Lakes Basin he may have changed his mind.
A spectacular afternoon view overlooking Bear Lakes Basin
As the days went by we crossed pass after pass through one amazing valley after another, finally descending down to Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station where we picked up our final resupply. Again, lured by the comforts of civilization, we grabbed a cabin for the night to recharge our batteries for the final leg of the journey.
Ascending back into the high country we made our way towards the Minarets and camped at one of the most dramatic camp sites of the trip, Iceberg Lake.
A beautiful sunrise over Iceberg Lake and the Minarets
The following day was, by far, the hardest of the trip. Making our way around the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak we hiked towards the boundary of Yosemite National Park. The terrain was so rough that in the afternoon we were only able to move a little more than a mile over the course of four hours. It was frustrating to say the least, but with one foot in front of the other we pushed on.
Navigating through one of many endless fields of boulders
A mandatory stream crossing at Twin Island Lakes
The next day we crested over Blue Lakes Pass and into Yosemite National Park. For both Sean and I it was the first time either of us had entered the park without using a car. It was a pretty cool feeling.
We descended cross-country finally picking up a series of trails that pointed us in the direction of Tuolumne Meadows. Little did we know that Tuolumne Meadows would be the termination of our journey.
Taking a rest in the grass next to Rosy Finch Lake
The night before reaching Tuolumne Meadows the wind really started to pick up. Sean and I are very familiar with high winds in the Sierra and it usually means one thing - a big storm is on the horizon. When we arrived in Tuolumne Meadows the next day, we began asking around about the status of the weather. A ranger informed us that there was in fact a big early winter storm on the horizon that was supposed to hit in the next several days. We got on the phone with some of our friends in Lake Tahoe to verify the information. All of them had the same answer - bail out. So at mile 167 we had to pull the plug.
As it turns out we definitely made the right call. Two days later an unseasonable winter storm hit the Sierra with a vengeance and dropped over a foot and a half of snow in the high country. If we had decided to continue we would have been hosed. That much snow would have made travel pretty much impossible and put us in a very dangerous situation. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can only take what the mountains give you. When Mother Nature decides to put the hammer down it is best not to be in the impact zone.
Getting a much needed drink of water near Feather Pass. We didn't purify or filter our water for the majority of the trip.
Relaxing at camp at White Bear Lake
Even though we were unable to complete the last twenty-eight miles of the route, I don’t really feel cheated. On a previous climbing trip I had traveled on some of the terrain that we would have encountered. The scenery and terrain is impressive but, in my mind, doesn’t compare to some of the earlier sections of the route we had already completed. We definitely experienced the best the Sierra High Route has to offer.
In the end, the Sierra High Route lived up to all the hype. The country is huge, the terrain is rough and the views are spectacular. Almost every day we were tested with our physical ability, route finding skills and mental fortitude. I feel so lucky to have been able to experience such a grand adventure. Now only one question remains, what’s next?!
A silhouette of Sean next to one of the Minarets