A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Sierra High Route

The Sierra High Route is one of the most spectacular and challenging treks in North America. Stretching approximately 195 miles (314 km) north to south through the Sierra Nevada, it is a largely off-trail affair that stays between 9,000 ft (2,743 m) and 12,000 ft (3658 m) for most of its rugged course. Along the way aspirants will negotiate class 3 scrambles, talus slopes and huge boulder fields, while passing through an alpine wonderland of granite spires, glacier carved valleys and turquoise lakes. 

I hiked the SHR in September, 2011. All logistical details have been updated as of March, 2018. The SHR is one of a dozen long distance rambles featured in  Paul “Mags” Magnanti and my, 12 Classic Long Distance Hikes in the US. The article below has been reprinted from the eBook.

Details

Distance:  195 miles (314 km) approx.

Avg.Time:  15 – 17 days

Difficulty Level:  Challenging

Start / Finish:

  • Mono Village, Yosemite National Park, CA (northern terminus)
  • Which direction should I go?: Six of one, half a dozen of the other. If you don’t have friends helping you out on the transportation front, going south to north is a little easier logistically speaking (see below).

Sierra High Route Overview Map (Courtesy of Christy “Rockin” Rosander – LadyOnaRock – Google Maps)

Getting There & Away:

There is no public transport to either trailhead:

  • Northern Terminus: From Mono village it’s an easy 14 mile hitch to the town of Bridgeport, from where onward public transport is available with Eastern Sierra Transit.
  • Southern Terminus: My friend and I took a taxi for the 85 mile journey from Fresno (nearest big city) to Road’s End (2011). We paid $150 between the two of us. A cheaper option might be to advertise for a ride on Craig’s List.
  • Note: If I was to hike the SHR again, and it’s quite likely that I will, I would do so in a southbound direction and combine it with with Alan Dixon and Don Wilson’s Southern Sierra High Route. This joins the SHR at Dusy Basin and brings the overall distance total to approximately 270 miles. As per the Dixon/Wilson extension, I would then finish my hike at the hitching-friendly trailhead of Cottonwood Lakes, from where it is a short ride down to the public transport accessible town of Lone Pine.

Season:

  • July to September. Depending on snow levels, late June and early October can also work.

Maps & Information:

  • Steve Roper, The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country. Highly recommended. Written by the man who pioneered the SHR. Includes 1:24,000 black and white maps, hiking notes and lots of other great information on the region. The maps aren’t ideal for navigation purposes. Your best option is to combine Roper’s excellent route descriptions with one of the mapping options listed below.

  • OnTheTrail.org:  Free downloadable 1:24,000 topos for the SHR. In addition there is an elevation profile, GPX data and overview maps.
  • Caltopo.com – Free downloadable USGS 7.5 / 1:24,000 topographic maps for the Sierra High Route.
  • Tom Harrison 1:63,360 topo maps (4): King’s Canyon, Mono Divide, Mammoth and Yosemite. I’m a big fan of Harrison’s maps, though for navigation purposes on the SHR, you’re better off going with the 1:24,000 sheets.
  • Permits: You’ll need a backcountry permit for the SHR. If beginning at the southern terminus of Road’s End, you can pick one up at the trailhead. Alternatively, you can organize one in advance via the Sequoia & Kings Canyon NP or Yosemite NP websites.
  • Bear Canister: Legally speaking you are required to carry a bear canister in many places throughout the High Sierra. See the Sequoia Kings NP and Yosemite NP websites for details.

Descending from Frozen Lake Pass.

  • Resupply: Reds Meadow is the primary resupply point on the SHR. Situated approximately 118 miles north of Road’s End, it has a small store, restaurant, laundry and cabins. The store selection is limited, so it’s best to send a resupply box (Note: As of March, 2018, they are charging $40 to hold packages). See the Red Meadow website for details. If you don’t plan on overnighting, you can still do some laundry and get cleaned up at the ‘hot spring’ showers at the nearby campground.
  • Resupply 2: Once you reach Reds, another option is to catch a shuttle down to the full service town of Mammoth. They buses run from June 16 through to Labor Day and the price is $7 one way (2017).

Devil’s Postpile.

  • Resupply 3: If you’re not keen on carrying food all the way from the southern terminus to Reds Meadow (or vice-a-versa), you can exit the SHR at Dusy Basin via the Bishop Pass Trail. This will take you roughly 8 miles over to the South Lake Trailhead. From that point it is a further 1.2 miles to Parcher’s Lake Resort, which accepts resupply boxes. Contact first to confirm; in 2016 they were charging $25 to hold a package (Note: Parcher’s represents a particularly good option if you plan to extend your hike to Mt.Whitney or Cottonwood Lakes trailhead).
  • Resupply 4:  From the above-mentioned South Lakes Trailhead, you could also try to hitch down to the nearby full service town of Bishop.
  • Resupply 5: A mere 27 miles south of the northern terminus is the Tuolumne Meadows Store. Burgers, ice cream and beer is available. It’s two miles off route. Just sayin’……….

Route / Conditions:

  • Character: The SHR is a largely cross-country hike, which as the name suggests, takes the walker on a high-level route (virtually all between 9,000 and 12,000 ft.) through some of the most pristine wilderness in California’s High Sierra. During its course it passes through Kings Canyon National Park, Inyo National Forest and Yosemite National Park.
  • Terrain: The SHR traverses some thirty-three passes, by way of boulder fields, talus slopes, granite slabs and the occasional meadow or lake basin. It ain’t no walk in the park; metaphorically, rather than nationally speaking.

Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa on the Sierra High Route, 2015 (photo by Liz “Snorkel” Thomas).

  • Scenery-wise it doesn’t get much better. Granite spires, majestic glacier-carved valleys and countless alpine lakes. The Sierra High Route arguably has more stunning vistas per square mile than any other long distance hike in the contiguous United States.
  • Navigation: Due to the trail-less nature of much of the SHR, good route finding & map/compass skills are required. For GPS users, be sure to bring a non-electronic navigational backup.

Approaching Sky Pilot Pass.

  • Altitude: From the southern terminus of Road’s End, the initial climb from the Copper Creek Trailhead takes the hiker from 5,050 ft to over 10,000 ft. If you are coming from sea level, this may prove to be a potentially head spinning proposition.  To minimize the chances of AMS symptoms, consider making an afternoon start and camping mid-climb (i.e. 7,000 to 8,000 ft). For more information on trekking at high elevations, seeTips for High Altitude Hiking on the website.

Virginia Peak

  • Swimming: If you happen to be a water-lover, there are enough swimming opportunities on the SHR to satisfy your average mermaid. At these altitudes, the water temps can be a little on the brisk side, however, don’t be dissuaded. It’s an incredible feeling swimming in an alpine lake surrounding by beautiful mountains on all sides (Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, I was singing soprano for most of the hike).

The SHR is second to none in regards to amazing swimming opportunities.

  • John Muir Trail Vs Sierra High Route:  When people think of long distance hikes in the High Sierra, the John Muir Trail is the first name that usually comes to mind. How do the JMT and SHR compare? Both are stunning hikes which are similar in length and travel in a North/South direction through the Sierra. That being said, despite their close proximity the two walks remain quite distinct in character. The JMT is a well maintained trail from start to finish, spends considerable time traversing valley floors and along with the Appalachian Trail, is possibly the most popular long distance hike in the United States. In contrast, the SHR is a route rather than a trail, stays almost entirely between 9,000 and 12,000 ft., receives little in the way of hiker traffic and remains relatively unknown outside of the U.S. long distance hiking community.

The final descent (northbound) to Twin Lakes.

Reflections

At Day’s End

“The white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it seems above all others the Range of Light.”

~ John Muir, “The Yosemite” (1912)

As a long time admirer of John Muir, the Sierra High Route holds a special place in my hiking heart. To my way of thinking, the pristine, trail-less nature of much of the route encapsulates the spirit of Muir’s writing, in a way in which other more frequented pathways in California’s High Sierra never quite do.

During my SHR thru hike I carried a well-leafed copy of Muir’s “The Yosemite.” At the end of each hiking day, I would find a place to camp, set up my shelter and spend half an hour reading the classic text. As I did so I would regularly look up and gaze in wonder at the surrounding peaks, soaking up the alpenglow as the sun clocked out and the moon clocked in. During these times I’d occasionally think back to 1986, when a seventeen year old version of yours truly first discovered the writing of John Muir. The memory made me smile. The book that had gotten me started was “The Yosemite”; the very same copy that I was carrying on my hike some twenty-five years later. What can I tell you; I’m a sentimental bastard at heart 😉 .

John Muir

 


Comments

A Quick & Dirty Guide to the Sierra High Route — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for providing such a great guide and including tons of additional resources. My wife and I completed an AT thru last year and are now scouting shorter duration trips. For now the 2-4 week ones seem to suit us better than another 6 months on trail.

    The SHR sounds like a great trip. Also, thanks for sharing the differences between John Muir and SHR. JM is another consideration high on the list.

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