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June 2001

Splendor Hiking The High Sierra

Take the finest mountains in the world, add high-country meadows, glacial valleys, alpine lakes, pine-and-hemlock forests, and what do you have? A recipe for backcountry bliss.

Want to find a drop-dead gorgeous hike in California’s Sierra Nevada? Pin a map of the Sierra to the wall, blindfold yourself, then throw a dart at the map. If it hits paper, you’ve found your hike. When you’re headed for the finest backpacking landscape on this fair planet, every spot is a bull’s-eye.

Are you thinking that I’m exaggerating? Spend a week there soon, meandering past painted meadows and brilliant white granite outcroppings, standing in the shadow of massive craggy peaks, basking in the Sierra sunshine that warms you like it does nowhere else. Such scenes aren’t rare or isolated moments. They come at you nonstop for as many miles or days as you can spare. In the Sierra, the question isn’t where to hike; it’s whether you can bear to return home when your food runs out.

Of course, a lot of wilderness-loving Californians flock to a handful of Sierra hot spots every summer weekend. Don’t let the crowds deter you. Some 400 miles long, the Sierra is chock-full of nooks and crannies where you’ll meet few, if any, other backwoods wanderers. I speak from experience, having squinted into Sierra sunshine off-and-on since I moved to California for college in 1976. I also speak for several devout Sierraphiles who’ve written books on the topic (see “Guides” at end of article). Together, we’ve compiled some tips for finding solitude, as well as 21 weekend to weeklong journeys. I can’t guarantee that you won’t see another soul, but I can promise that your own soul will be touched by the glorious high country, sweet-smelling pines, and most of all, the heavenly light that bathes this range from dawn to dusk.

The Keys To Solitude

Time-tested tips for finding quiet trails and lonely Sierra campsites.

  • Go off-trail. Solitude may be just behind that boulder or clump of trees.
  • Be flexible when seeking a permit. If the ranger says your chosen trail is crowded, ask where people aren’t hiking.
  • Turn left where everyone else turns right. If you reach a campsite full of tents, wander on to another meadow.
  • Make a list. Guide author R. J. Secor used the Sierra Club’s list of 247 peaks as an excuse to visit everywhere, discovering more in the process of getting there than in tagging the summits.
  • Take the hard trails. The 6,000-foot elevation-gain climb over Shepherd Pass weeds out casual hikers. Other east-side 6,000-footers: Baxter Pass, Sawmill Pass, and Taboose Pass.
  • Use the quota system. Any place with quotas limits the backcountry population. If you’re in, the others aren’t.
  • Go a long way in. John Hart, author of Walking Softly in the Wilderness, identifies three places in California that are more than 12 crow-miles from the nearest road. All three are in the Sierra, and two are described on the following pages.
  • Hike early and late in the day. You’ll be rewarded with cooler hiking temperatures and scenic alpenglow.
  • Hike off-season. Be willing and able to cross a long stretch of snow, and the hills will be alive with no one but you.
  • Head for Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, where some of the best opportunities for solitude await (especially off-trail). Try the headwaters of the Kern River and the Middle Fork and North Fork Kings Rivers.
  • Start hiking midweek.
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