Alpine lakes, 14,000 foot mountains, Giant Sequoias and grassy meadows? The 60-mile High Sierra Trail has it all and literally passes through Valhalla. We did it last week.
For many, the 210 mile-long John Muir Trail (which runs North-South through the Sierra Nevada) represents the quintessential thru-hike. However, it's not always easy to leave life behind and hit the trail for 2-3 weeks to complete it. The shorter High Sierra Trail runs West-East across the entire range and offers similar scenery and objectives, but at 60 miles from its start to the summit of Mt. Whitney, it's easily hikable in a week or less.
By the time you hike from the summit of Mt. Whitney to Whitney Portal in the Eastern Sierra, you'll have hiked about 70 miles from the trail's start at Crescent Meadows in Sequoia National Park. My buddy Daniel and I took seven days for this trip and hiked over 80 miles total, but two days were side trips for mountain climbing and off-trail exploration; one of those days was the Whitney summit and descent. We met some others on the trail who did the entire thing in four days. This would also be Daniel's first backpacking trip.
Daniel looks out across the valley from Kaweah Gap.
Why Go? The High Sierra Trail showcases some of the best landscapes, features, and trails in the Sierra Nevada. It begins at Crescent Meadows on the western side of Sequoia National Park, among the groves of Giant Sequoia and ends at the highest point in the contiguous United States — the 14,505' summit of Mt. Whitney. It passes multiple alpine lakes, meadows, valleys, canyons, rivers, and mountains along the way. At times, it feels like you're a character in Lord of the Rings.
The Snow Peak LiteMax Ti Stove weighs 2 oz. and boils 1L of water in 4.5 minutes.
Day 1: Daniel and I started off the day by picking up our wilderness permit and a bear can (I brought my own) from the Lodgepole Village Visitor Center in Sequoia National Park. We took the park shuttle from the visitor center to the Crescent Meadows trailhead to begin our journey. We spotted a momma bear and her cubs on the ride over. We were on the trail by 10:30 am and proceeded to hike all day, through Valhalla (an epicly-scenic valley,) passed Bearpaw Meadow, and camped at Hamilton Lakes — about 16 miles total.
Skinny dipping in Precipice Lake.
Day 2: We started the day with a hot breakfast, broke down camp, and proceeded to hike out of the valley, gaining elevation pretty quickly. We took a nice break in a shaded portion of the trail overlooking the larger of Hamilton Lakes to eat lunch and check the map. From there, we hiked to Precipice Lake, where we took a long break to skinny dip (ultimate freedom in the wilderness). After the icy water had chilled our bones, we continued on the trail to Kaweah Gap (10,700') and then down into the valley surrounded by the Kaweahs to the north and Mineral King to the south. We hiked until reaching a flat area just south of Mount Kaweah (the highest peak in the Southwest Sierras.) We cowboy camped here; we'd be climbing in the morning.
Daniel's feeling a little uneasy about being at 13,667' for the first time in his life.
Day 3: We rose at 6 am to get an early start on the day. We cached our bear cans and the majority of our food in a hollowed-out tree by where we camped and by 6:30 am, we were cross-country hiking toward Second Kaweah. Our approach was a few miles long and strewn with boulders and downed trees, but the terrain was still easily navigable. Once we were at the base of Second Kaweah, we began a 2,000' 2nd class scramble (which required us to use our hands, but did not require ropes or technical climbing) to the 13,667' summit. From the summit we could see Whitney to the northeast and Mineral King to the south, and the Central Valley to the west. The view was magnificent. We spent a good deal of time on the summit before climbing down and hiking back to our camp from the night before. We arrived back by 5 pm, relaxed while making our Backpacker's Pantry dinners, and went to bed early.
We spent most of Day 4 hiking through Kern Canyon. Daniel was enjoying the Boreas Buttermilks pack.
Day 4: We slept in until about 8 am, ate a hot breakfast, and broke camp. This was a bigger hiking day — we logged about 16 miles through Kern Canyon, stopping for an afternoon river swim along the way.
We were rewarded with this private escape at Crabtree Lakes for traveling a couple of hours off-trail.
Day 5: We hiked out of Kern Canyon, regaining the elevation that we had lost, until we reached Crabtree Meadows. At the ranger station, we cut right, and cross-country hiked for a few miles until we reached Crabtree Lakes. Along the way we discovered an old, unmaintained trail that wasn't even on the map. We set up camp at our own private alpine lake at 11,500'.
The birds were teasing me at 13,184'.
Day 6: Daniel's feet were pretty sore and blistered from the abuse we'd been putting them through, so he relaxed at the lake while I headed north to climb Mt. Hitchcock (13,184',) which towers above Crabtree Lakes. Climbing Mt. Hitchcock's south slopes from Crabtree Lakes was more of a cross-country hike up a bunch of loose, crappy scree. The view from the summit was worth it though, as I could see where we had hiked from (the southwest Sierras) and where we were headed (Mt. Whitney). After I made it back down to the lake from the summit, I went for a swim, and then we headed back on the trail and hiked to Guitar Lake — our last stop before summiting Mt. Whitney the next morning on the 4th of July.
Daniel basks in the twilight at Guitar Lake.
At Guitar Lake, we made dinner and prepped for the big summit day as the sun set over the edge of the lake. We cowboy camped so that we could get a quick start when we awoke at midnight. Our goal was to be the first people on the summit on the 4th of July; simultaneously be the first people on the west coast to witness sunrise that morning.
I made it to the junction near Trail Crest — 1.9 miles to go!
Day 7: My alarm went off at midnight; I was fully alert by 12:03 am. I looked up and the first thing that I saw was three headlamps dancing along the side of Mt. Whitney. I jumped up, woke Daniel, we packed as quickly as possible, and then hit the trail. They were at least a mile ahead of us, on only a 4.5 mile trail. We had to catch them. Daniel is a marathoner and was giving me pacing advice, "It's a marathon, not a sprint." To which I replied, "It's not a marathon, it's an 8k and they've got a 2k lead!" We continued to power walk up the mountain, but never seemed to gain on the three lights ahead. By this time, there were two more headlamps closing the gap behind us. It had become a race to the summit. All of the sudden, I rounded a switchback and the three guys that the lights belonged to were sitting on the rocks, out of breath. By this time, the light from behind had passed Daniel. I continued around the switchback; Daniel shouted, "See you on the summit." That was all I needed to hear; I was off! I made it to the top in 2:37, becoming the first person to summit the highest point in the contiguous United States on the 4th of July.
Light pollution from the Central Valley separated this view of the Western Sierras from the Milky Way.
Daniel, the guy who passed him, and a few others trickled onto the summit over the next hour. It was still dark enough to see the Milky Way with the naked eye so I shot a timelapse while we all hunkered down during below-freezing, windy twilight. Everyone slowly made their way toward the edge of the summit as the sun began to rise, as if to draw closer to it's impending warmth.
On Mt. Whitney's summit at 14,505', Daniel and I were among the first people to witness sunrise on the 4th of July on the entire Pacific coast.
Temperatures on Mt. Whitney's summit dropped well into the 20s that night — we were thankful for the rising sun's warm glow.
We stayed on top until about 7:30 before beginning the grueling 11-mile hike down to Whitney Portal. Though the trip down was long and exhausting, I was much happier to be going down than the hordes of people hiking up. I arrived at Whitney Portal around 4 pm; Daniel arrived about an hour later. We treated ourselves to a nice juicy cheeseburger and fries from the portal store. Bliss. We had made it.
Hordes of dayhikers were making their way up the switchbacks on the way to Mt. Whitney's summit.
What You'll Need To Bring: Backpacking gear. The less stuff you carry; the lighter your load is — the better. Our base weights (everything carried, minus consumables — my camera gear being the exception) were around 10 pounds.
A wilderness permit is required to hike on the High Sierra Trail. These are easiest to obtain through Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, in order to do the trail from West-East. Permits beginning in the Mt. Whitney zone are much more difficult to obtain.
Bear cans are also required in SEKI. These can be rented for around $5 per week (plus a $10 mail-in fee) from the Lodgepole Visitor Center.
There was ample water along the trail; we never carried more than a liter or two at a time. Use discretion as to whether or not you need to treat your drinking water.
Taking public transit to the park allowed us to do a bit of trip planning on the way.
How Do You Get There? Because the start and end points of this trail are more than five hours away from each other by car, we opted to utilize public transit instead. We took Amtrak from Union Station in Downtown LA. A bus took us to Bakersfield, where we caught the train to Hanford. From Hanford, another bus took us to Visalia. Total travel time was around six hours. Cost was $35 each. The following morning we took the first-available Sequoia Shuttle at 6:10 am into the park. Cost was $7.50 each. The shuttle dropped us off at the Lodgepole visitor center just as it was opening. After picking up our wilderness permit and bear can, we took the free park shuttle to the trailhead. We were hiking by 10:30 am.
Upon reaching Whitney Portal, we discovered that the Eastern Sierra Transit (our initial option for reaching the MetroLink three hours south in Lancaster) only ran Monday/Wednesday/Friday. We were able to catch a ride from someone we met on the trail to Santa Clarita; from there we took the MetroLink back to Union Station in DTLA. Cost was $9.50.
What Should You Do While You're There? Adventure! There were tons of mountains, meadows, lakes, and rivers to explore along the trail. Think of the trail as a guideline; don't be afraid to deviate off-course.
What We'd Do Differently: Nothing. This trip was everything that we wanted it to be.
Pack: Boreas Buttermilks 55L ($158 - On sale, Highly Recommended)
Shelter: Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2 ($675 - Highly Recommended)
Stove: Snow Peak LiteMax Titanium ($60 - Highly Recommended)
Pot: Snow Peak Trek 900 Ti Cookset ($53 - Highly Recommended)
Jacket: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket ($320 - Highly Recommended)
Check out Chris's full gear list.
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