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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

Thru-Hike The Roadless Sierra

Thru-hike the most remote miles in California's range of light

by: Charlie Wood & Casey Lyons

Beware whitewater crossings more than knee deep (Garrett Cotham).
Beware whitewater crossings more than knee deep (Garrett Cotham).

video icon Worried about crossing the Sierra's swift and cold streams? Don't be: Learn how to safely ford rivers in this exclusive video.

The Hike
The best section of the most scenic long trail in the country is the 203.7-mile stretch in the central Sierra from Kennedy Meadows Campground to Red's Meadow Campground. In that span, the PCT crosses Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the John Muir Wilderness–and never meets a single road. It's the longest roadless span on any National Scenic Trail in the country. On the way, you'll have a chance to summit Mt. Whitney (the Lower 48's highest point at 14,497 feet) and experience the legendarily gentle weather of California's central Sierra. Plan for 10 to 15 days to cross this roller coaster of subalpine and glaciated terrain.

The Crux
River crossings in high, fast, freezing water. After a heavy snow year, creeks swell to 50 feet wide well into July.

The Key
Astute river scouting, patience, and a "got dunked" plan. The most challenging streams are Evolution Creek, Bear Creek, and the North Fork of Mono Creek between Muir Pass and Shelden Pass (miles 145, 162, and 175 respectively). The trail doesn't always intersect them at the best place to ford, so scout upstream for shallower crossings. Evolution Creek, for example, is slower and braided into smaller segments just a third of a mile upstream. But strength in numbers is the real key, even if it means waiting for more hikers to show up. The most stable river-crossing method is the tripod: Three hikers unclip their hipbelts, place their arms on each other's shoulders in a triangle formation, and cross slowly with the strongest hiker forming the upstream "point" of the triangle. Before you cross, be sure to look for downstream obstacles to avoid (like rocks, waterfalls, downed logs) if you lose your footing. And if you do go for a swim, immediately stop and warm up once you reach dry land: Build a small fire, make a hot drink, and eat a calorie-dense snack, like peanut butter. Still chilled? Do push-ups.

The Way
From Piersonville, take US 395 three miles north to J41, a dirt road leading 22 miles to Kennedy Meadows Campground. From Mammoth Lakes, take CA 203 (Minaret Rd.) 13.1 miles to Red's Meadow Campground.

Plan It
Check the Pacific Crest Trail Association ( for maps and Yogi's PCT Handbook ($25, for on-trail beta.

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Reader Rating: -


May 10, 2012

The north fork of Mono Creek is between Seldon (not sheldon) pass and Siver pass.

David, Gilroy,CA
Dec 18, 2008

Best trip I have ever been on. I can't wait to go again. Go later in the summer and the streams are a lot easier to ford.


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