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Going to Extremes

Can you ever really have too much of a good thing? Once you've seen the biggest tree, largest glacier, and deepest canyon, nothing else compares.


Biggest Tree / Highest Peak
High Sierra Trail, Sequoia NP, CA

Few treks start and end with a bang quite like the High Sierra Trail. The 72-mile route begins at the foot of a giant sequoia called General Sherman, the world’s most massive tree, and ends atop Mt. Whitney, the Lower 48’s skyscraping highpoint. In between, you’ll slice east-west through the Sierra’s finest territory in half the time it takes to hike the JMT. Which means this trek also wins the most-granite-per-mile award.

A short paved trail leads past the 2,500-year-old General, which dwarfs even surrounding sequoias with its 275-foot height and 102.6-foot girth. Gape awhile, then continue 2.4 miles through the Giant Forest toward Crescent Meadows. Sequoias peter out by Eagle View, a rocky perch above the 1,000-foot gorge cut by the Middle Fork Kaweah River. Here, catch your first views of the glacier-scooped peaks of the Great Western Divide.

Now start your nonstop tour of Sierra highlights. Make first night’s camp at mile 11.4, among the daisies of Bearpaw Meadows. Day two: Begin climbing the Great Western Divide, with the sheer granite wall of Angel Wings rising 1,800 feet above the switchbacks. Pond-hop glacial tarns to reach 10,700-foot Kaweah Gap at mile 20 and camp 2.5 miles farther in Big Arroyo Junction. A mellow third day crosses the Chagoopah Plateau and Sky Parlor Meadow before dropping into U-shaped Kern Valley at mile 30.8 (it’s steep and dry; fill up at Sky Parlor). Camp at Upper Funston Meadow (mile 34.5). Soak in Kern Hot Springs at mile 36.8 on day four and overnight at Junction Meadow.

Next comes the Whitney approach and climb. Jump on the JMT at mile 48.9 and hike until Crabtree Meadow (53.1) or Guitar Lake (56.6), the last suitable basecamp with water before the big summit day. Start predawn and ascend Whitney’s back side; take the 2.4-mile summit spur trail and dash to 14,505 feet (carry layers and snacks). End your big-to-high epic at Whitney Portal and grab a shuttle.

Do it
From Visalia, go east on CA 198 to Giant Forest trailhead. (Whitney Portal shuttle: DIY or highsierrashuttle.com.) Map Tom Harrison Mt. Whitney High Country Map ($10, tomharrisonmaps.com) Guidebook Sierra South, by Kathy Morey ($19, wildernesspress.com) Contact Reserve permits at least two weeks prior to trip: nps.gov/seki. Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/25771

→ Most wintering bald eagles and most salmon in the Lower 48:
This two-fer goes to Washington’s Skagit River.

→ Most hot springs:
Yellowstone’s10,000 thermal features. Target Dunanda Falls for just-right 110°F pools.

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