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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Hiking The Sierra High Route

On this burly, 210-mile traverse, which crosses 33 passes and barely touches established trails, you can find Alaska-sized scenery, complete solitude, and just enough risk to keep things interesting.

by: Steve Howe

North Palisade, California's third highest peak - Photos by Steve Howe
North Palisade, California's third highest peak - Photos by Steve Howe
Minaret Lake beneath the Ritter Range
Minaret Lake beneath the Ritter Range
Descending Mt. Conness
Descending Mt. Conness
Campsite below Cirque Pass
Campsite below Cirque Pass

Think you can't find life-altering adventure in the Lower 48? Think again. Right under Yosemite's nose is an extra-burly route that gave our battle-scarred veteran more than he bargained for: more scenery, more solitude, and more jaw-tightening risk. Join him on an Alaska-size trek across a landscape of irresistible power.

The pond is so blue I can't tell if I'm descending to a lake or climbing out of a hole into the sky. The question doesn't even seem weird to my oxygen-starved brain, still ditzy from clambering across 11,500-foot Red Pass. I've barely begun this trek, and already things are feeling surreal. They don't get any more normal once I reach the uncanny blue oval, its translucent sapphire water so clear I can see 20 feet down.

I strip for a quick baptism to wash off the 6,400 feet of climbing and five passes I've crossed since joining the Sierra High Route at Kings Canyon two days ago. The cold slap of September-cool water reorients me. The map says this is Marion Lake, at mile 23. Only 160 miles to go.

Conceived by climber Steve Roper in 1977 and first published in his book Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, the SHR is a classic mountain journey similar to the John Muir Trail (JMT), but with a huge difference: It touches trails only grudgingly, and it rarely dips below 10,000 feet. Steep, rocky, and often hazardous, it's thru-hiked only half a dozen times each year and requires more self-reliance and routefinding skill than the average trail hiker possesses.

Yet every inch is also achingly beautiful. Since I left Road's End in Kings Canyon, I've been staggered by the flower-filled meadows, skyscraping cirques, and clear streams flowing over polished granite slabs. If there's a Shangri-La in the Lower 48, the Sierra may be it. And if there's a Shangri-La in the Sierra, the lake I'm crawling out of might get my vote.

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READERS COMMENTS

petekandu
May 19, 2012

I did the JMT about four years ago and we had 11 straight days of huge storms and torrential rain including three inches of hail. The river crossings were a nightmare, waist deep and bone chilling cold. Bear creek scared the hell out of me. It didnt stop raining until the day after Muir Ranch I have never been so wet nothing kept it out

Alan Bernat
May 17, 2012

The SHR does seem to be an epic trip. I lived in the Sierra for 10 years and I've lived in Colorado for the last 30 years. Many people in Colorado look at me askance when I tell them how nice the Sierra are. Not that the Colorado Rockies aren't very nice, but the Sierra has that long roadless area from Tioga Pass south. Most of the wilderness areas in Colorado are too small for extended trips (with the exception of two and RMNP). I go to the Winds for extended trips. Still, I miss that white granite, the jagged peaks and really great climate of the Sierra. Another comment, I guess that the author would have seen more people if he had gone a month earlier in the season.

Ronnette
May 29, 2011

As for all the aforementioned comments about lightning and thunderstorms, I strongly recomend reading Shattered Air: A True Account of Catastrophe and Courage on Yosemite's Half Dome by Bob Magic published in 2005. Too much to tell here, just read the editorial review at amazon.com. But basically it's the true story about five experienced hikers that got caught on top of Half Dome in 1985 during a summer thunderstorm when they were struck be lightning; two were killed and the other three sustained life threatning injuries. But the book also contains a wealth of information about everything a hiker/backpacked should know about lightning. Everyone thinks that finding shelter under, next to or near a big granite boulder or slab is a wise thing to do. Not so. Read the book.

Caleb
May 21, 2011

I have been backpacking for the last two summers in high-school and I'm currently working on my orienteering skills. What can I do and what do I have to learn to have the skills to hike this trail when I am old enough? Thanks for the help!!

Steve Kazmer
Jan 21, 2011

Two of my son's and I went to a remote lake up above Florence Lake in the West Sierras. The first night we went 1/2 the distance due to a late start then slept and broke camp early, and hiked to our destination. That afternoon at about 3pm it clouded up and began to lightly rain. By dusk we were hanging onto our tent polls. The wind kicked up and it hailed & rained so hard it sounded like it would come through the tent roof. The thunder and lightening were out of this world crazy. The rain stopped for an hour then began again the same as before. It didn't stop till midnight, also with thunder and lightening. All the streams around us swelled up to within 3' of our camp site. By morning all was well and we had a beautiful hike down. Caught (5) 16” Golden’s & (8) 12” Golden’s. I released all of them.

Tom Cox,, Sr, age 64
May 15, 2009

Mid-July, 2008, en route to Mearrian Lake, had to make emergency camp in four hour thunderstorm at Puppet Lake. We picked small depression between granite slabs between altitude stunted tiny gnarled conifers. Rain/hail started at 3:30 PM and was over at 7:30 PM. Resumed High Route trek in AM with no more rain. Feather Pass, Bear Lakes Basin and Gabbot Pass were absolutely glorious.

Amber
Feb 11, 2009

The JMT is lower, of course, but when I hiked it for 22 days in August, we got zero rain. I agree - if it doesn't start raining by 5pm, no problem.

Scott Sinner
Sep 30, 2008

No, and in my case, cuddle with your hiking partner of the same sex under a limp rain fly and wait it out with a Snickers bar. Seriously, though, thunderstorms in the Sierras are rare and only happen in the afternoon. Watch for buildups, plan accordingly, etc. If nothing's hit by evening, you're in the clear. I did the whole route this summer and we experienced this only once in the 23 days. For more info and learn how to stick it to VVR, email me at scottasinner@yahoo.com

Rick Challenger
Sep 20, 2008

I'snt it dangerous to camp above treeline? What do you do in the case of a thunderstorm?

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