The trip A wrong turn on any hike is a headache. But at elevations above 12,000 feet, where you’ll find most of the passes on this loop through the southern Sierra’s Palisades, navigation missteps can be onerously time-consuming, exhausting, and downright dangerous if the weather turns. But the reward on this high route is well worth some trip-planning homework: You’ll traverse lake-filled cirques in the shadow of razor peaks, camp on granite slabs amid meadows and pockets of delicate alpine wildflowers, and see the Range of Light much as John Muir did–in solitary splendor.
Tech assist Save yourself a costly mistake by using Google Earth (earth.google.com) to identify and bombsite crucial chutes and passes. Then enter the coordinates into your GPS. In the field, use the go-to function on your GPS to find those crux waypoints. Example: Download our Google file at backpacker.com/palisades.
The route Our 34-mile, four-day loop straddles Muir’s namesake wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park. Follow the popular Bishop Pass Trail into Dusy Basin. Leave the path where it swings sharply west at 11,000 feet and head southeast to Knapsack Pass (11S 0362838E 4105313N*), crossing into Palisade Basin. (For a more direct route to a higher pass, leave the trail sooner, at 11,700 feet, and bear southeast for Thunderbolt Pass, located at 11S 0364470E 4106529N.) Either way, continue east over Potluck Pass into the Glacier Creek drainage. Turn northeast for Scimitar Pass (11S 0367398E 4105633N), a difficult scramble between Mt. Jepson and Palisade Crest. Descend to Elinore Lake in the South Fork Big Pine Creek drainage, then cross Contact Pass to Big Pine Lakes. From the fifth lake, head up the inlet stream, following its north fork to Jigsaw Pass (11S 0363702E 4109329N). A steep scramble down Jigsaw’s west side returns you to the Bishop Pass Trail. Recommended side hikes: 12,662-foot Columbine Peak from Knapsack Pass; 13,390-foot Mt. Jepson from Scimitar Pass; and 14,153-foot Mt. Sill from Glacier Creek.
The Way From US 395 in Bishop, drive west on CA 168 for about 15 miles. Turn left onto South Lake Road, then continue six miles to the Bishop Pass trailhead at South Lake.
Guidebook The High Sierra–Peaks, Passes, and Trails, by R.J. Secor ($30, The Mountaineers Books)
Map Kings Canyon High Country ($9; Tom Harrison Maps; 800-265-9090; tomharrisonmaps.com)
Season Mid-July through September
Permit Required for overnight trips; make reservations up to six months in advance.
Contact Inyo National Forest, (760) 873-2483, fs.fed.us/r5/inyo