National Parks Hall of Fame: Best Peak

No crowds. No frills. No cakewalk. This hang-on-for-your-life climb is not for the meager-hearted.

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North Palisade, Kings Canyon, CA

Guarded on all sides by soaring granite walls, knife-edge ridges, and icy couloirs, North Palisade (14,242 feet) is the adventurer’s answer to Whitney: a gorgeous challenge, but without the conga line of climbers. The approach alone keeps even the hint of a crowd away. The route up the dizzying east side starts with a seven-mile, mostly off-trail trek that ascends 4,500 feet from the trailhead at Big Pine Creek to the high camp just below Palisade Glacier (the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada). Summit day’s 2,000-foot climb goes like this: Head out around 4 a.m., in crampons, and traverse the glacier to reach the U-Notch Couloir; ascend 10 pitches of 40-degree snow and ice to the top of the U-Notch, then several pitches of 5.6 rock climbing; reach the summit block with a final class 4 move. None of it, not even the scrambling, is a “gimme,” says Bela Vadasz, owner of Alpine Skills International. This is you-fall-you-die terrain: Go guided unless you have solid climbing skills on snow and rock.

Want to go it alone on a less technical ascent? A class 4 route leads all the way up North Palisade’s west side, but you’ll need peakbagging experience, solid routefinding skills, and a stomach for exposure. West-side climbers typically backpack over Bishop Pass from South Lake trailhead and travel cross-country to a basecamp in Palisade Basin (or higher, by a small tarn south of Thunderbolt Pass). The entire trip covers 19 miles, ascends 6,000 feet, and includes talus-filled chutes, exposed ledges, and a final squeeze through a tight keyhole to stand on the summit. Pack a rope and slings to ease the descent.


Season Late June to early October

Permits Required

Map Tom Harrison

Maps The Palisades ($10,

Guide Alpine Skills International for the east face ($795,

Contact (760) 873-2483 (Inyo National Forest permits),