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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.

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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  1. bobbz

    Hmmm….I grew up in the Sierras, worked for the Forest Service in the Sierras, read books about the Sierras, and rarely heard it referred to “The Sierra” except in geography class. I can’t fault Backpacker for calling it the Sierras. The Sierra Nevada IS the mountain range, no question about it, but if you’re going on a camping or backpacking trip, you don’t go the the mountain range, you go to the Sierras—the Sierra mountains, or Sierras for short—any of hundreds of mountains that compose the range.

    Profile photo of bobbz

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