Southern Sierra High Route
August 15, 2020 - August 24, 2020
Introduction
This trip report covers a 10 day hike of the Southern Sierra High Route that my wife and I undertook in mid-to-late August, 2020. This route is described in great detail, and a free guide is provided on Alan Dixon’s website. With this trip report, I’ll try and offer my experience of the route, add some additional details that I feel are missing from Dixon’s description, and of course share some photographs. I hope you enjoy reading about my trip!
Context
This was the biggest backpacking trip of the year for my wife and I. We planned carefully to be able to take a full week off of work in mid-August of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic raised some questions about the feasibility of this trip in the spring, but by early summer it seemed pretty reasonable to go hiking in California.
We considered a few options for this trip, but it boiled down to basically another exploratory trip to the Wind River Range of Wyoming, or one of the three documented High Routes in the Sierra that I had yet to hike: The Sierra High Route, The Southern Sierra High Route, or the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.
The Kings Canyon High Basin Route was ruled out because we were interested in exploring the highest mountains along the crest of the Sierra. We didn’t have time for the full Sierra High Route, or want to deal with the logistics of a section hike from Roads End, so the choice was between the Southern Sierra High Route and a section of the Sierra High Route north of Bishop Pass. We chose the former for the higher, more impressive terrain.
The Southern Sierra High Route
The Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) is a roughly 100 mile traverse of the Sierra Crest between Bishop Pass and Horseshoe Meadows that mixes sections of the John Muir Trail (JMT) with sections of off-trail hiking. Alan Dixon (a.k.a. Adventure Alan) provides a detailed route description and guide on his website. The route is marketed as an alternative to the Sierra High Route or John Muir Trail.
Briefly, the route starts at the Bishop Pass Trailhead and crosses Bishop Pass before following the Sierra High Route section through the Palisade Basin, down to Palisade Lakes, and over Mather Pass. From here the route follows the John Muir Trail for 30 or 40 miles to just south of Junction Meadow (S), the low point between Glen and Forester Passes. There’s an alternate in this section that leaves the JMT just south of Pinchot Pass and rejoins it just north of Glen Pass. South of Glen Pass, the route is largely off trail, traversing high basins and criss-crossing the Sierra Crest just east of the JMT. It summits Mount Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route and follows the Whitney Trail south past Trail Crest, before leaving the trail again to cross Discovery and Crabtree Passes and enter the Miter Basin. It rejoins the trail at Rock Creek and exits to Horseshoe Meadows via New Army Pass.
In total, the route is 90 miles climbing 31,000’ and of course losing the same amount. Of those 90 miles about 44 are off trail (using the Mount Baxter Alternate), though that’s measured with CalTopo so one should assume it’s an underestimation. The route summits Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, and there are ample opportunities for additional summits along the way - we added two more. Dixon’s website points out that the SoSHR has 14 passes over 11,000’ in elevation, compared with the JMT’s 4, and the SoSHR crosses the Sierra Crest 8 times, compared with the JMT’s single crossing. In all, it’s an impressive line along the highest part of the Sierra Crest.
Conditions
As you’ll see, the conditions on this hike heavily influenced our experience. Going into the trip, we expected little impact from lingering snow or mosquitoes as it was late in the season. However, the weather forecast for the beginning of our trip gave us a bit of concern. A decaying tropical storm moving in from the Pacific was expected to bring unstable weather over California, with good chances for thunderstorms over the mountains and beyond. Meteorologist Daniel Swain tweeted “Major fire weather threat…” on August 15. If only we had known back then. But, all the information we had at the time was that we were likely to see some thunderstorms for the first few days on our hike, an easy enough hazard to avoid in the Sierra.
Final Preparations
We were able to head to Mammoth Lakes a week before our hike to help acclimatize. We worked the whole week and benefitted from sleeping at 8,000’ and running and hiking in the evenings at 9,000’+.
In spite of this, we didn’t start our hike on the fittest foot. The day before we were to start, I came down with a bout of food poisoning and spent most of the day resting. While it would have been nice to delay our start a day, anyone who backpacked in the Sierra in 2020 knows this wasn’t an option due to the restrictive permitting process. Fortunately, I felt progressively better all day and was well enough to walk the next day. We did decide to sleep in the next morning to give me a bit more time to recover, which led to a late start on our first day.
Day 1: Bishop Pass Trailhead to Timberline Lakes
3.5 miles, +1,300, 0% Off Trail
After dropping our rental car off at Horseshoe Meadows and our resupply at Onion Valley, Shannon dropped me off at the Bishop Pass Trailhead and set out to park the car. This year, the Forest Service was repaving the South Lake, so there were a number of parking and traffic restrictions requiring us to park 3 miles down the road at the Tyee Lakes trailhead, or, as the Forest Service encouraged, take the hiker shuttle up from Bishop. Obviously, we weren’t interested in riding the bus for an hour with a bunch of strangers in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century, so we tried our luck with the new parking rules. The whole project seemed very unnecessary to me, but I didn’t see the road before it was repaved.
I watched lightning flash over the peaks along the crest as Shannon hurried back up the road. We set out just after 5 o’clock as the clouds churned overhead.
Clouds above Hurd Peak from the Bishop Pass Trailhead.
Chocolate Peak from near the trail junction to Chocolate Lakes. The clouds were getting darker as we headed up.
Great views of Bishop Pass and the north face of Mount Goode across Long Lake. We thought about making camp here, but decided to try our luck with the weather and push on a bit farther.
The trail follows the shore of Long Lake quite closely on some spots.
Picture Puzzle high above the Bishop Pass trail. Shortly after this, it started to rain, so we hurriedly made camp at Timberline Lakes. Unfortunately the weather didn’t really clear until well after dark, so we ate some of our lunch supplies for dinner and went to bed early. A short day on the trail, but it was definitely more than I thought I’d be capable of 36 hours earlier.
Day 2: Timberline Lakes to Glacier Creek Lakes
9.1 miles, +2,900, 55% Off Trail
Lingering high elevation clouds made for a nice sunrise over camp, and indicated a good likelihood of an afternoon storm today. We were able to get out of camp early, and my stomach was feeling a bit better than the day before.
Fish rising in one of the Timberline Lakes.
A few lovely shots of the morning light on Mount Agassiz.
Bishop and Saddlerock Lakes, and even Mount Humphreys, from Bishop Pass. The hike to the pass went by without incident. We saw groups heading up and down. The afternoon thunderstorms the previous day gave some people a bit of excitement.
Columbine Peak, Giraud Peak, and the Black Divide rise above the remarkable Dusy Basin. From here, the route descends the Dusy Basin Trail for 1,000 feet before setting off cross country for Knapsack Pass to the South.
To the east of the Dusy Basin trail rises the fourth highest mountain in California: North Palisade, and several of its 14,000’ neighbors.
On our way down the Dusy Basin Trail, we ran into a lone hiker, Cameron, who was getting off the Sierra High Route to pick up a resupply. We chatted for a bit, quite impressed with his adventure.
We found our way down the trail and set off for Knapsack Pass without incident.
Making our way up Knapsack Pass under growing clouds.
The view down Barrett Creek (?) and across Palisade Creek of Observation Peak and the impressive collection of unnamed peaks around it.
The view north to the Black Divide and Evolution Range from Knapsack Pass.
The Palisades above Barrett Lakes, with Potluck Pass pictured below Palisade Crest at right.
Descending Knapsack Pass was a tiny bit tricky, as described. We accidentally dropped too low and completely missed Lake 11468 and had to climb back up to Lake 11523.
North Palisade, Polemonium Peak, and the long south slope of Peak 13962 (aka Barrett Peak).
A shot directly up at North Palisade, now only 2,000 vertical feet above us.
Looking back over Lake 11523 from near the vague notch.
The view of Devils Crags across the basin from Potluck Pass, with a bit of rain beginning to fall. When we crested the pass, we heard a thunderclap off in the distance. We figured we should be able to get down to the Glacier Creek Lakes and make camp there.
The tip of Amphitheater Lake poking out from its high basin under cloudy skies.
On our way down Potluck Pass we ran into a couple of guys who had climbed Mount Sill, which is a recommended side trip on the SoSHR and was on our minds. They seemed pretty tired, and only offered up that the climb was a “slog.”
We made it down to the larger Glacier Creek Lake and made camp north of the lake on some slabs. We spent a couple of hours hiding from the rain as it passed through a few times before enjoying a lovely sunset.
Evening light on Mount Shakespeare across Palisade Creek.
Alpenglow on Palisade Crest above the Glacier Creek Lakes.
We went to sleep with a plan to climb Mount Sill the next day and then see how far we could get after that. I hoped to get over Cirque and Mather Passes to set us up to climb Split Mountain the next day.
Day 3: Mount Sill and Glacier Creek Lakes to Upper Palisade Lake
7.2 miles, +3,100, 85% Off Trail
An equally impressive sunrise over Shakespeare Peak.
The weather didn’t look ideal, but we figured we’d be able to get off the summit before noon which meant we should be able to avoid the worst of any afternoon thunderstorms which the cloudy morning skies portended.
We set out to climb Mount Sill via the southwest chutes as described in the Dixon guide, Secor, and elsewhere.
Quickly, we were greeted with a large field of enormous boulders which slowed progress to a crawl. I was somewhat frustrated that this fairly difficult quarter mile long talus field wasn’t mentioned in either guide we had referenced.
View of the south shoulder of Mount Sill above the boulders and a large moraine boulder field.
Shannon climbing the final chutes high above the Polemonium snowfield and cirque. We were a bit slower than anticipated climbing the peak because it was almost entirely hopping over medium-to-large talus, save a half mile at the beginning and a brief let up at about 13,000’. There wasn’t anything too technically challenging until the final 600 or 800’, it was just a long boulder slog. I was quite surprised that this wasn’t mentioned by either Dixon or Secor as I found it reasonably difficult for terrain in the Sierra.
Shannon climbing along the summit ridge of Mount Sill. We found some difficult, but very fun climbing along the ridge to the summit. It was definitely class 3 in places here with a few airy steps.
The view south from the summit of Mount Sill. We couldn’t see as far as normal due to some haze. In retrospect, this was probably the first smoke impact of our trip, maybe from the SQF Complex to the south.
North Palisade from the summit of Mount Sill.
View of the Palisade Glacier, the moraine-dammed Lake 12165 and Sam Mack Lake.
Me standing on the summit of Mount Sill.
A slightly more dramatic shot of North Palisade, as the clouds continued to build.
Downclimbing the gully back to the high cirque between Mount Sill and Polemonium Peak. We made it down to the cirque before the rain and hail started. It wasn’t too bad, and we only heard a couple of thunderclaps in the distance, but we did hide under a rock for a snack break.
The view down a snowfield to the lower cirque. We hoped the snow would soften enough to book-ski down, but it was still a little bit too hard and steep, so we descended talus instead.
Shannon descending through some of the largest talus on the route.
We made it back to camp in mid-afternoon as it tried to thunderstorm all around us. Mostly it was just spotty rain. We decided to rest for a bit and then see if we could get over Cirque Pass and down to the JMT.
We were pleased to have summited Mount Sill, but I found the Southwest Slope route to be almost not worth the effort. This is a very long, meandering talus slog with some redeeming climbing near the top. The summit view is definitely great, but I think that Mount Agassiz would be a more enjoyable climb for most SoSHR hikers looking to add a peak on the northern end of their trip. I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince anyone to make this switch, so if you do attempt Mount Sill, be prepared for miles and miles of difficult talus.
The view over the larger Glacier Creek Lake as the storm cleared. Cameron found us packing up our stuff as the clouds cleared, and we chatted for a bit about his trip to resupply over Bishop Pass.
The view of North Palisade and Polemonium Peak from the other side of the Glacier Creek Lakes. The hike around the outlet of the lake was quite nice and we found some really awesome campsites near the lake outlet. I’d definitely recommend trying to camp there if you can.
Near the crest of Cirque Pass, Mount Sill appeared along the crest horizon.
We were not able to find the “obvious narrow slow” that Dixon mentions in his description of Cirque Pass either from afar or on our way up the pass. There wasn’t much else to go off in the guide, so we just chose our own route up. The slabs forced us a little farther east than we wanted, so we ended up having to traverse across gaps in the angled slabs.
Dixon’s (and Secor’s) description of the south side of this pass made a lot more sense. We were tempted a little bit too far east below the tarns and had to traverse back west. On our way down, the clouds opened up and spit rain on and off for an hour.
Our first views of the Palisade Lakes were made even better by some great evening light broken up with the patchy cloud cover.
As the rain passed, a beautiful rainbow framed the lakes and mountains behind.
Lovely evening light across Palisade Creek on Mount Shakspere.
As we passed above the small lake due west of Palisade Lakes, we were treated to a stunning reflection of Norman Clyde Peak, Middle Palisade, and Disappointment Peak. The lower parts of the descent from Cirque Pass were really beautiful.
We found the JMT at Lower Palisade Lake and greeted a few of the 15 or so groups occupying every free space near the lake’s outlet. In the first few minutes on the JMT, we had seen more people than in the day and a half traversing the Palisade Basins. We decided to put a mile or so behind us and find the better sites Dixon mentions up the trail.
View of the setting sun over Lower Palisade Lake and Devil’s Crags on the horizon.
One more shot of the lovely sunset over Lower Palisade Lake.
We pulled over just before the crossing of the creek that runs into Upper Palisade Lake. There was another large group camped in the small forest here, some with their tents only a few feet off the trail, and three or four other groups near the creek, but we managed to find a slightly isolated spot.
Despite the low mileage measured by GPS, we had done a pretty full day and slept well. We thoroughly enjoyed the Palisades section of the route, but were ready for some easier on-trail miles.
Day 4: Upper Palisade Lake to Upper Woods Creek
14.5 miles, +3,400, 0% Off Trail
Our first goal for the day, Mather Pass, under some morning clouds -- a likely indicator of another storm today. We were feeling a bit sore this morning from the previous day’s talus hopping adventure.
Views from the climb of Mather Pass. We passed plenty of people headed in both directions on our way up this climb.
View over the Upper Basin south of Mather Pass. Even though it was still early in the day, the thunderclouds were building nearby.
Heading south through the Upper Basin with great views of Vennacher Needle and the other peaks nearby.
We stopped for a snack break at the crossing of the South Fork of the Kings River. As we snacked and soaked our feet, it started to rain a little bit -- at 12:30 this was pretty early in the day, so we figured we were in for a big thunderstorm. And sure enough, the first thunderclaps rang out soon, not too far away. We figured we could make it to Lake Marjorie safely unless it really picked up, so we donned our raincoats and walked on.
Ten or fifteen minutes later, the storm really picked up. It rained very hard, then hailed for a while. We searched for a cave to hide in, but had to make do huddling under a large tree. It was raining hard enough that it didn’t make sense to set up the tent, as it would have just gotten soaking wet in the process. So, we stood under the tree for another fifteen minutes or so, waiting for the rain to stop.
As quickly as the storm moved in, it shifted north and we headed off again to climb the steep trail towards Pinchot Pass in intermittent sunshine.
The view of Mather Pass and the Palisades through a gap in the trees en route to Lake Marjorie. On this climb, we passed a group of folks with very small backpacks, followed by some horsepackers.
When we reached Lake Marjorie, the clouds were still swirling around, so we decided to set up the tent and wait it out for a while. We waited a couple hours until it was clear enough that we figured we could get over Pinchot Pass safely and comfortably - we were trying to have fun after all.
The view back over Lake Marjorie, with Mount Ruskin in the background.
The highest lake north of Pinchot Pass is a special treat, a remarkable shade of blue contrasting with the red rocks of the peaks in this area.
We crested Pinchot Pass and were treated to some more amazing late-afternoon clearing-storm views in both directions. Here you can see the high route option through this section, over Mount Baxter just left of Grasshopper Pass.
Evening light on Mount Wynne above Pinchot Pass.
The view north, with Mount Sill and North Palisade poking out on the horizon.
Another shot of the beautiful golden light over the peaks south of Pinchot Pass.
We hiked down until we found a sheltered campsite near some water and made camp for the night as it got dark.
Tomorrow we would be presented with a choice between following the JMT or the Mount Baxter alternate. The Mount Baxter option was more in the spirit of the high route, but would likely be much slower and more difficult. We figured that because we were a little bit behind schedule and had been hit with bad weather (by California standards) every day so far, making up some miles on the JMT would give us a better chance of completing the high sections in the southern part of the route, which we were really excited for. So, we settled on that plan.
Day 5: Upper Woods Creek to Kearsarge Lakes
20.1 miles, +3,400, 0% Off Trail
Morning views of the peaks south of Woods Lake. The fourth day in a row of morning clouds warned of more unsettled weather.
The colourful Crater Mountain above tarns on the descent from Pinchot Pass.
We found some sort of rabbit hopping around just off the trail.
Views down Woods Creek. The descent south of Pinchot Pass is a tough one. It’s long, and the terrain, especially below the Sawmill Pass trail junction, is pretty rocky.
Some shots of the famous Woods Creek suspension bridge. There were a few ranger-drawn signs in this area directing people where to camp and poop, a sure sign of overuse.
The view north to Window and Pyramid Peaks.
By mid day we reached the Rae Lakes area. Here’s the classic shot of Fin Dome rising above the outlet of Arrowhead Lake, with some of the higher peaks just barely visible in the background.
Fin Dome and Mount Rixford behind.
We stopped for lunch at the north end of the lowest Rae Lake. It started to rain a bit, so again we sought shelter, this time under a rock.
We didn’t hear any thunder during the rain spell and we wanted to cover some more ground today, so we pushed on in the rain. Rae Lakes was crowded as usual, but most people were at the designated camping area, or on their way there from Glen Pass. We passed a couple of folks who said there was a bear nearby. We stopped and looked around for a little bit, but couldn’t find it.
Shannon climbing towards Glen Pass.
Mount Rixford from Glen Pass.
When we crested Glen Pass, we were surprised to see blue sky to the south.
South Guard, Mount Brewer, North Guard, and Mount Farquhar from Glen Pass.
While the skies cleared over us, it was pretty cloudy to the north.
Charlotte Dome from the JMT south of Glen Pass. We were getting pretty tired by the time we reached the junction to Kearsarge Lakes. We’d have to go over Kearsarge Pass tomorrow to get our resupply. We debated whether to camp at Charlotte Lake or Kearsarge Lakes and settled on Kearsarge Lakes because it’s nicer, but that would require a few more miles on our tired legs.
East Vidette through the trees.
East Vidette, Vidette Creek, and Deerhorn Mountain.
The upper trail trail past Bullfrog Lake has some really nice views.
Eventually, we reached Kearsarge Lakes and made camp at one of the obvious campsites near the second highest lake. It was pretty busy. One group in particular was making quite a bit of noise, but they quieted down not long after sunset. The setting sun made for lovely views of the pinnacles.
We climbed up to the highpoint near the lake for sunset and saw that it was quite hazy to our west. We were able to stare directly at the sun, which appeared dark red on the horizon. Maybe we should have taken this as a warning of what was to come.
Lovely pastel clouds over University Peak.
We were glad to be within a few hours of our resupply over Kearsarge Pass. We figured the next day would be pretty easy to hike over, get it, and hike back, and then maybe head a few more miles south on the JMT.
Day 6: Kearsarge Pass Resupply
12.3 miles, +3,400, 0% Off Trail
On the day of our resupply, we woke up to hazy skies, the first sign of what was unfolding across California. It was mildly smoky, especially to the west, but we had no idea where it was coming from. I was somewhat concerned that a fire had ignited in Sequoia or southern Kings Canyon which would definitely spoil our trip if it grew too large. We hoped that we could get more information from folks starting their trip over Kearsarge Pass.
Smoky views of the Kearsarge Pinnacles. We could just make out the East Vidette ridge only a few miles away. We ran into a group on the climb who told us that the lightning storms over the past five days had ignited ten thousand fires.
Hazy University Peak from near Kearsarge Pass. We encountered more and more groups heading back and forth over the pass. Nobody entering knew where the smoke was coming from, some didn’t even realize that it was smoky.
On our way back over Kearsarge Pass, the smoke had cleared a bit.
We didn’t have time to pack up and continue south, so we camped at Kearsarge Lakes again. The early evening light at Kearsarge Lakes was quite nice, even with a little bit of haze lingering.
After reading Dixon’s description of Junction and Shepherd Passes, combined with the smoke from this day, we decided to cross Forester Pass instead. The reward of Junction Pass just didn’t seem worth the effort in our assessment, and we wanted to make sure we could complete the southernmost cross country section of the route.
Day 7: Kearsarge Lakes to Wallace Creek
21 miles, +4,700, 30% Off Trail
We woke up to a much clearer view of the Kearsarge Pinnacles.
Mount Bago from the trail.
The views from the lower trail past Bullfrog Lake are pretty nice too.
Classic JMT views of East Vidette along the drop to Lower Vidette Meadow. As we headed down the trail here, we passed a hiker who was throwing snack food from a bag he was carrying off the trail into the bushes. He stopped doing it when we got near and I was too surprised to say anything to him.
Along Bubbs Creek on the way up Forester Pass. As Dixon describes, we didn’t find the use trail to Junction Pass very obvious. It seemed like the option Dixon describes is just a few feet past (south of) the large horse camp with bear boxes.
This was my third time crossing Forester Pass. Each time, I’ve found it to be a long climb with great views.
Views of the impressive north face of Junction Peak. We crested Forester Pass to the applause of a large group of hikers who were waiting for the rest of their party. We took a lunch break, enjoyed the views, and surveyed what lay ahead.
Smoke from the Castle Fire (later renamed the SQF Complex) diffused up the Kern River towards us. But it wasn’t terrible at Forester.
A slightly-too-friendly marmot atop Forester Pass.
The south side of Forester Pass. This was the last section of the JMT to be built, in the 30s.
Looking out over the upper reaches of Tyndall Creek.
The so-named Wrights Lake Pass, with Mount Whitney behind.
A wider shot with Mount Tyndall and Williamson as well.
Smoky views of the Great Western Divide.
The view of Diamond Mesa and Junction Peak from Wrights Lake Pass. We found the routefinding to the pass quite easy.
The view south of the Wrights Lake Basin.
We came across some deer on our way through the basin.
And the remains of several old, dead Foxtails.
There were still some hearty living Foxtails as well.
Shannon strolling through the Wrights Lake Basin. The forested ridgeline ahead is the vaguely tricky hump we’d have to cross to get to Wallace Creek.
Looking north towards Wrights Lake Pass.
And west to the Kaweahs.
The Kaweahs from higher up trying to get across the ridge to Wallace Creek.
More Foxtails. These trees only grow in a few small areas in California, only one of which is in the Sierra Nevada.
Mount Whitney and Mount Hale (I believe) as we wandered through the forest trying to connect Wrights and Wallace Creeks.
We definitely did not choose the best line. In retrospect, it looks like the easiest route would be to drop to the large, flat area at about 3300m almost at the JMT, and then head back up.
It took us a while to find the old trail up Wallace Creek, but we did. Following the main branch of the creek helped. While we had hoped to make it to Wallace Lake tonight, we didn’t have any more daylight, so we camped near a cool little canyon along Wallace Creek with fantastic views of the Kaweahs.
Some high clouds made for an awesome sunset.
The cross country section of this days hike had been awesome. The hiking was relatively easy and the scenery was really impressive. It was hard to believe we were less than a mile from the JMT the entire time, given that we didn’t see even a sign of anyone. I’m a big fan of this area of the Sierra and it was really fun to explore a different route through it.
We planned to hike to Iceberg Lake the next day, with a side trip up Mount Russell if time and conditions (and our nerves!) permitted.
Day 8: Wallace Creek to Iceberg Lake
8.1 miles, +3,800, 80% Off Trail
Did I mention the awesome views of the Kaweahs from our campsite? We found, and followed the old trail up Wallace Creek without too much difficulty. It did come and go and places, though.
A lovely meadow just a bit below Wallace Lake.
Looking back at the Kaweahs from near Wallace Lake.
Here’s the view of the headwall above Wallace Lake. We ascended more or less directly up the middle, as described in the guide.
The views all around Wallace Lake were awesome.
Wallace Lake and Mount Barnard. At 13,996’, Mount Barnard is the twelfth highest peak in California, and the highest peak under 14,000’. Were it 4 feet higher, it would likely be climbed at least ten times as often.
Shannon scrambling up the headwall. We found a few class 3 sections, but didn’t try to avoid them. The talus was large and a bit loose in places, but not bad.
Above the headwall we found a beautiful high drainage with some easy walking and great views of the north side of Mount Russell. This photo has the (probably rarely climbed) North Arete.
Mount Carillon above Tulainyo Lake. While this would have been a great spot for a dip, but the air temperature was pretty cold.
The Cleaver above Tulainyo Lake.
Large snow banks (about 10 feet) on the shore of Tulainyo Lake.
Looking up at Russell-Carillon Col from Tulainyo Lake. Dixon is right, it’s not as bad as it looks.
Shannon climbing Russell-Carillon Col.
The northeast face of Mount Russell just to our right.
Tulainyo Lake, with Mount Williamson in the background.
From Russell-Carillon Pass we were treated to our first view of the east face of Mount Whitney. We could quite clearly hear people talking on the summit.
We sat on the col and debated a climb of Mount Russell’s East Ridge. Unfortunately, it was getting later in the day and some clouds had begun to move in. Also, we were quite intimidated by the route from below. It looked quite steep and exposed.
Fortunately, there’s another, much easier, SPS-listed, 13,500’+ peak just east of Russell-Carillon Col, Mount Carillon. We figured we could try this much less committing peak.
Mount Russell from Mount Carillon. The East Ridge route is the prominent ridge at left.
Mount Whitney from Mount Carillon. We took advantage of the cell phone service on the summit to check the weather forecast and the status of the fires, finding nothing too threatening.
Another shot of Mount Russell.
This cool panorama captures most of the Whitney Zone, at left is Mount McAdie and Arc Pass, which leads south to the Miter Basin. This pass could be used as a shortcut to skip Mount Whitney, Discovery Pass, and Crabtree Pass if needed.
I know this is a lot of photos of Russell, but I found the perspective from Rusell-Carillon Col quite cool.
The climb up and down Mount Carillon took less than an hour and was definitely worth the short diversion.
After a short section of nice walking, the route drops 1,000’ down this sand slope. Despite extensive signs of use, it was slow going and not something I would be too excited to ascend.
We reached Upper Boy Scout Lake and stopped for a snack just as it started to spit rain. The five or so tents were the first people we had seen since just south of Forester Pass.
The route up to Iceberg Lake was quite easy to follow, though it’s more of a network of trails than a single, well-defined path. As we approached Iceberg Lake, the east face of Mount Whitney and its pinnacles grew more and more imposing. We passed another ten or so people heading up and down.
Mount Russell (again, but this time from the south) above Iceberg Lake.
We briefly lost the trail when it hit the headwall just below Iceberg Lake, but it was easy enough to figure out which way to go (up!) that we didn’t worry about it. We reached Iceberg Lake in the late afternoon and searched for a quiet, flat spot. There were at least a dozen other tents set up in all of the little rockwall-protected alcoves close to the lake. Despite the slightly more serious nature (at least on paper) of the Mountaineer’s Route, it felt like we were back on the John Muir Trail.
The East Face of Mount Whitney directly above our camp at Iceberg Lake. The setting here was really stunning.
Just a few of the other groups at Iceberg Lake. About an hour before sunset, a solo hiker arrived playing some loud music on his phone and began loudly constructing a wall out of rocks. I went to visit him and asked him to use headphones if he wanted to listen to music, which did the trick.
We planned to get a relatively early start the next morning, around sunrise. We hoped to be ahead of most other groups to minimize the danger of rockfall, and to be able to get over Discovery (and ideally, Crabtree) Pass before the afternoon thunderstorms which we had come to expect from the unrelenting weather pattern.
Sometime around midnight, a group of two or three climbers descending the Mountaineer’s Route woke us (and probably several others) with loud stories of their various climbing accomplishments. It was nice to have the foam earplugs that I always make sure to pack now.
I know I shouldn’t bitch about the crowds too much because obviously we were there as well, and any California backpacker should know that Mount Whitney is one of the most heavily used areas in the state. But, we were still in a wilderness area and observed several groups violating Leave No Trace. There was an empty tent at Upper Boy Scout Lake with food sitting out in the open, dozens of wag bags stashed just off of the trail, blatant construction projects at both Upper Boy Scout and Iceberg Lake, and a few groups making little effort to be quiet after dark. I guess my complaining is just to: encourage everyone to practice Leave No Trace, caution you to avoid camping in this area if you think this will bother you, and remind you that foam earplugs are well worth the small price and weight penalty.
Day 9: Iceberg Lake to Sky Blue Lake
7.2 miles, +2,800, 65% Off Trail
Ready to climb Mount Whitney! We were up at 5-something and headed out just before the sun rose over the White Mountains. We succeeded in beating all but one party out of camp, and they were roping up for the East Buttress, so there was no one above us as we climbed.
We had an awesome vantage point as the sun rose.
Shannon climbing easy class 3 in the chute.
The view directly up the chute.
Shannon climbing as we neared the notch. The climbing up the main chute was not very difficult, more class 2/3 than 3. And it was very clean, from the many thousands of people who have climbed and descended this route over the years.
Mount Hale and the Great Western Divide from The Notch.
Close-up of Mount Hale, an impressive peak that I will have to come back and climb some day!
Are you tired of photographs of Mount Russell yet? This one has the South Face Right Side route which climbs the talus (and probably sand) gully to class 3 terrain on the headwall. We talked to a pair at Iceberg Lake who climbed this route and said they found about 50 feet of class 4-5 terrain at the top. I don’t know if this is a Secor sandbag, the route has changed, or they climbed the wrong chimney at the top.
We traversed about 100 feet west from the notch and then turned south (not north, like Dixon says) for the summit. There is reportedly easier terrain if you traverse farther west, but we enjoyed the engaging class 3 to the summit, even if we had to stop and warm our fingers periodically. The rock here was a tiny bit looser so we took some care not to dislodge these boulders.
Shannon climbing the last fifty feet or so to the summit of Mount Whitney.
Mount Russell from the summit of Mount Whitney.
We found a dozen or so people on the summit who must have all come up the Whitney or John Muir Trail.
Summit selfie! We had both climbed Mount Whitney before, but not together and not via the Mountaineer’s Route.
The view south, with Keeler Needle, Mount Muir, Mount McAdie, and Mount Langley plainly visible. Discovery Pass is the sand slope just left of Mount Muir.
The Whitney Trail heading south from the summit.
One more shot of the beautiful Mount Hale and Wales Lake.
Mount Muir, California’s twelfth highest peak with more than 200’ of topographic prominence and a worthy side trip for the capable class-3 climber passing by.
We passed probably 50 people heading up and down the Whitney Trail.
The view of the switchbacks on the Mount Whitney Trail below Mount McAdie, Arc Pass, and some of the crest peaks to the south (Mount Mallory, Corcoran, LeConte, Langley, and Cirque Peak) from near the summit of Mount Muir.
The class 3 section on Mount Muir is not long, but it’s quite tricky with a delicate slab move near the top. Choose the wrong route and you’ll find yourself with 2,000’ of air beneath your feet. There are plenty of useful annotated pictures on the internet.
The view north from the summit of Mount Muir.
Shannon downclimbing from Mount Whitney. It was almost noon and clouds were building again.
Another view of Mount Muir’s summit from the west. When we got back to the trail, we came across a couple of guys in running shoes, shorts, and singlets who were debating a sidetrip up Mount Muir. We encouraged them to give it a try.
Looking north at Mount Muir and Whitney from the Whitney Trail. We left the trail just a bit south of Trail Crest and headed directly south for Discovery Pass. No surprises here, the route goes easily as described.
Mount McAdie from Discovery Pass.
And from midway down the loose sand-slope south of Discovery Pass.
At Upper Crabtree Lake, we stopped for lunch. The dark clouds overhead prompted us to set up the tent in case it decided to rain. While we were setting up, another hiker descended to the lake from Crabtree Pass, and we talked to him for a few minutes. He was out for a day hike from his camp at Sky Blue Lake, which he said wasn’t too far away.
As the sky darkened above us, we noticed an orange glow through the gap between Mount Chamberlain and Crabtree Crags. Given that it was still midday, this was definitely from one of the wildfires. But the location of the glow, which we guessed was near Chagoopa Plateau, didn’t exactly line up with the fires we knew about. Even in retrospect, it’s difficult to determine whether the glow was from a smaller, northern fire like the Shotgun Fire, or the larger Castle Fire (both of these were later renamed the SQF Complex Fire) farther south. But in either case, the glow was close enough to worry us a bit. However, we knew the only hazard in our alpine setting was smoke and made a plan to monitor conditions and hurry out if they deteriorated.
The smoke and glow from the wildfires made for some nice light for photos.
After resting for a couple of hours, the sky cleared enough that we believed we could safely cross Crabtree Pass, so off we went again.
From Crabtree Pass I was able to get a good shot of the massive sand slope south of Discovery Pass. This is another sand hill that I would not be too excited to ascend. We came down the upper sand hill trending descender’s right until the rock band, where we cut hard descender’s left until we were back on the sand. Easy.
The view of Crabtree Lakes from Crabtree Pass.
Mount McAdie from Crabtree Pass. The West Chute is plainly visible, leading to the notch between the two summits.
Overlooking Lake 12129, which fills the upper Miter Basin like a bathtub. We were quite relieved to begin descending south from Crabtree Pass because it was the last cross country pass we had to cross. At this point, we just had to descend through the Miter Basin to Rock Creek and then follow the trail out and we would complete the Southern Sierra High Route!
Mount Langley (background) and The Miter (illuminated, center-left) above Lake 12129.
Mount Pickering high above the Miter Basin, opposite Mount Langley.
Dixon describes the travel through the Miter Basin as “complicated” and mentions that it will “force you to make many small detours.” This is an accurate description. We spent a lot of time wandering through the rocky chutes, dead-ends, and cliff bands of this area. It was quite mentally tiring to make so many micro-navigation decisions while travelling so slowly.
Despite the difficulty, the scenery more than made up for it.
After what felt like many hours, we finally found the enormous Sky Blue Lake, and the trail that circles its south, east, and north shores. We made camp along the southeast shore. There was one other group here, but they were pretty quiet.
Sunset light in the Miter Basin.
When I was refilling water from the lake, a couple of guys with very small backpacks headed past on the trail. I chatted with them for a while, they were near the tail end of a two week hike linking sections of the Yosemite High Route, the Sierra High Route, and the Southern Sierra High Route. They relayed some stories of difficult terrain crossing from the Merced drainage to Bench Canyon where they took an alternate described by Roper. They also told me about some fairly sketchy travel on the Acrodectes alternate, descending Mount Baxter, which made me happy to have skipped that section. Interestingly, they also decided to skip Junction Pass based on the description.
Day 10: Mount Irvine and Sky Blue Lake to Horseshoe Meadows
19.7 miles, +4,500, 40% Off Trail
Early in the morning, just before sunrise, I woke to the sound of light rain on the tent, which was pretty surprising. In my experience, John Muir is mostly right that “it never rains at night in the High Sierra” unless there’s a weather system moving through or some residual thunderstorms lingering into the evening, which we knew from yesterday’s forecast that there wasn’t. In retrospect, I think this may have been from a Pyrocumulonimbus cloud which grew above the SQF Complex (more on this later...), but I don’t know if the timelines line up exactly. In any case, it left me wondering about the weather a little bit in the morning.
Fortunately, we rose to only partly cloudy skies and beautifully clear air.
Sunrise over the south rib of Mount McAdie.
Morning light over Rock Creek.
We still had one day of vacation and food, so we decided that given the good weather we would camp another night in the Miter Basin and use the day to climb some of the peaks in the area. I identified Mount Irvine, Mount Mallory, Mount Corcoran, and Mount McAdie as possible objectives, all via Arc Pass. The first two were relatively easy (class 2), the second two a bit more involved (class 3 with difficult-to-follow route descriptions). I figured we could do the first two to get a look at McAdie and Corcoran and see how we felt and how much daylight we had left.
So, off we went, climbing up chutes towards the small lake just north of The Miter.
Awesome morning light on Mount Pickering (center) and Mount Newcomb (right) above Sky Blue Lake.
The beautiful blue sky over Mount Mallory was a welcome relief from the haze that had blown over us over the past few days.
The Miter over the small, unnamed lake just to its north.
South of Mount Langley, the High Sierra fades into the high meadows and forests of the Golden Trout Wilderness.
The view of Mount Whitney and Mount Russell from Arc Pass. Clouds rolled overhead and the familiar grey tint reminded us that the wildfire still wasn’t far away.
Mount McAdie from Arc Pass. See if you can follow Secor’s description of the From Arc Pass route from here. I got lost about halfway through.
Shannon on the traverse from Richins Pass to the sandy bowl directly south of Mount Irvine. Secor’s rating (class 1) of the From Arc Pass route on Mount Irvine is obviously wrong as the first step in the route description is to cross Richins Pass, which is listed as class 2-3 (I’d say 2). Fortunately this didn’t impact us too significantly.
Mount Mallory and Mount LeConte from the sandy traverse to Mount Irvine.
Mount McAdie, and Arc Pass, from the summit of Mount Irvine.
We found the summit of Mount Irvine without much difficulty. However, from our high vantage point it became obvious that we would not be treated to bluebird, or even partly-cloudy skies all day as the smoke, thicker than we had seen yet, moved in from the southwest.
It wasn’t long before we could barely make out Mount Russell, less than 3 miles away. It was pretty obvious to us that we were being smoked out and it was time to get out of the mountains. So we headed directly down from Mount Irvine to Sky Blue Lake.
On the way down, the smoke got significantly worse and the orange glow from yesterday returned to the west.
Back at Sky Blue Lake, conditions were worse. The formation at center is only 1 mile away from where this picture was taken.
We packed quickly, ate a snack, and headed south.
It wasn’t long before we picked up the use trail along Rock Creek which was quite easy to follow. At this point, we just had to follow the trail up and over New Army Pass. We were a bit uneasy to leave the alpine and enter a section of forest which we knew was connected to the wildfire, but it still seemed far enough away that we could get over New Army Pass safely.
In the meadows below New Army Pass, we ran into a group setting up camp on their northbound hike of the John Muir Trail, half of them wearing N95 masks. We chatted briefly. They asked us if they would be safe camping there. We said we didn’t know, but we weren’t going to take our chances. Not long after, we saw them behind us heading east over New Army Pass. At the time, I wondered if it was right to encourage them to exit the wilderness. But looking back at the conditions they would have seen -- they intended to finish in two weeks, around September 10 -- I think we were right.
Heading over New Army Pass. These pictures were taken a good two or three hours before sunset.
As we descended New Army Pass, slightly more at ease, I looked over at Shannon and saw every loose hair on her head standing on end. I told her to put everything down and run down the trail as fast as she could. At the time, this seemed a better idea than kneeling in the field of small boulders we were in. She sped down the trail and I picked up her things and followed. Fortunately, Shannon reached the safety of a rock alcove not far down the trail and took shelter. Her hair returned to her shoulders, indicating we were out of danger. Not long after, thunder echoed off the cirque walls around us. It sounded like the lightning strike was high above us. We waited a while for the adrenaline to wear off and to see if there were any more lightning strikes.
I’m fairly confident that the sole lightning strike we heard, which occurred in the early evening, was a pyrocumulonimbus thunderstorm fueled by rising air from the wildfire just a few miles to our southwest, an indication of extreme wildfire behaviour.
Eventually we worked up the courage to leave our hiding place, encouraged by seeing the group we had met earlier, who seemed relatively unfazed.
A singed oak leaf that fell from the sky. The nearest oak trees to our west that I could think of are in the Kern River Canyon, ten miles away.
The Cottonwood Lakes were calm enough for ash to collect on the lake surfaces. I must of course point out that this was a beautiful area of alpine lakes and Foxtail Pines that I would love to return to, if only it wasn’t so far from the Bay Area.
As we passed the lowest Cottonwood Lake (Lake 11031), it got dark. We didn’t even entertain the idea of stopping to camp for a night, opting instead to finish our hike by headlamp. So, we marched through darkness for a couple of hours back to the trailhead, which we reached some time around 10. A dream and a season’s goal accomplished, we packed up and headed for a warm shower and bed.
Epilogue
If only our difficulties ended as we returned to civilization. We spent the night in Bishop before heading back to South Lake to fetch our other car. When we arrived at the Tyee Lakes Trailhead, we discovered that the Inyo National Forest had changed the parking rules for their South Lake Road repaving project (one of the most impressive misuses of taxpayer money I’ve seen on National Forest land) while we were out hiking and had towed our car. So, we had to head back to Bishop to get our car from a man named Billie. The whole ordeal took several hours and cost many hundreds of dollars, but eventually we got our car back, returned the rental, and made our way farther north.
The Southern Sierra High Route
Overall, the Southern Sierra High Route is a really good route. It can be reasonably broken into three sections: the northernmost cross-country section through the Palisade Basins, the John Muir Trail miles, and the southernmost cross-country section through the Whitney Region.
The northernmost section starts with the relatively easy and very scenic Bishop Pass Trail, a good start to any hike in the High Sierra. The scenery only improves entering the Dusy Basin and leaving the crowds behind with the sharp south turn towards Knapsack Pass. Past here are several excellent miles of cross country hiking through high alpine basins beneath one of the highest sub-ranges of the Sierra. This is a relatively popular area for cross country hiking, so you’re likely to see another group or two, but it’s much quieter than any of the trail hiking you’ll do. This stretch of cross country is somewhat difficult, with three cross country passes to cross in only a few miles, but the reward is worth it.
At Lower Palisade Lake, the route rejoins the crowded John Muir Trail. It’s difficult not to describe the miles from here to Wrights Creek Pass (or the Center Basin turnoff) as “filler,” but at least it’s good filler. The southern half is the better half of the JMT, in my opinion, so I didn’t mind re-hiking these miles.
Obviously I can’t comment on the Acrodectes alternate, other than what we heard from others, but it sounds like it’s the most difficult cross-country travel on the entire route. I can understand why it was included in the guide, and I think it’s best left up to each party whether they attempt it or not.
The southern off-trail section was fantastic. We skipped Junction and Shepherd Passes so I can only comment on Wright Lakes Pass and south. This section was high, beautiful, featured long stretches of easy cross-country travel, and was very quiet except for the Whitney Zone. It seems necessary to cross through the very busy Whitney Zone in this section and Mountaineer’s Route to Discovery Pass seems like the most reasonable way to pass through this circus, and it’s well worth it to visit some of the other basins in this area.
Comparison with other High Routes and Trails
This was my third High Route and the first that I managed to complete in a single push. I can’t comment on the sections we did not do (the Acrodectes alternate, and the Junction / Shepherd Pass section), but I feel we completed enough of this route to offer a comparison with the Wind River and Yosemite High Routes.
Let’s start with the route difficulty because it’s pretty easy. This is the easiest of the three, and the Wind River High Route is the most difficult. That’s what the numbers say and I agree.
I’m a sucker for big-mountain alpine scenery, and the Southern Sierra High Route delivered in that department. It definitely beat out the Yosemite High Route, though the latter was not without its highlights. However, I think the Wind River High Route still takes the cake in this department, at least for me. It’s hard to beat the rugged beauty of that range, especially when hiked end-to-end.
While I may claim the Winds are more scenic, I definitely can’t claim they have better access or conditions. The hiking season in the High Sierra is almost twice as long, and despite our troubles, the weather usually cooperates from June until October. There’s not much difference in conditions between the Southern Sierra and Yosemite. The access is roughly equivalent as well, permits are sort-of difficult to get in both places, and you can easily reach all trailheads involved in a few hours drive in a standard rental car from a nearby airport. There are some variants of the Yosemite High Route that are logistically easy (the figure 8), but the Southern Sierra High Route isn’t bad at all.
Finally, let’s talk about the remoteness. If this is very important to you, you should probably think about skipping or modifying this route. Half of the route miles are on the most heavily trafficked middle-distance backpacking trail in the United States, and that doesn’t include the very popular starting trailhead (Bishop Pass) or the very heavily used areas around the highest peak in the continental US. If you’re out there in the summer, you should expect to see lots of people as you pass through these areas. We found the other cross country sections to be relatively quiet. Of course the Wind River High Route is much quieter and more remote, and the Yosemite High Route falls in the middle, with a mix of quieter and busier sections.
Hopefully that’s a fair comparison of these three routes. Feel free to reach out to me if you have more specific questions.
Attempting the Southern Sierra High Route High Route
So, should you do it? Like I’ve said before, I wouldn’t recommend this for your first backpacking trip, but it’s a good candidate for a first High Route. The logistics are easy, the weather is usually good, the navigation is not difficult, and most of the hiking is relatively easy. Plus, you have the safety net of the JMT/PCT just to your west the entire time if anything goes awry.
That said, based on what we saw, I don’t think this is an alternate to the JMT. Cross country hiking is a lot different than on-trail hiking, and the JMT attracts a less experienced crowd of backpackers these days. If you’re considering this route, you should be prepared for long, sometimes technical sections of travel without trails or other people around.
I do have a few comments about logistics that I hope will be helpful. First, if you need to resupply on this hike, Onion Valley is the no brainer spot to do it. It adds about 20 miles round trip, but it’s all easy trail hiking. Second, I really feel this route is best hiked southbound. If you go the other way, you will find yourself ascending routes that should be descended and vice-versa on several occasions:
One last thing about the logistics. If you can’t get the competitive Bishop Pass permit on the day that you want, consider some alternatives. Treasure Lakes will require you stay one day just off the Bishop Pass Trail before heading off. Or, you can head out from Lamarck Lakes or Piute Pass and join the Sierra High Route / John Muir Trail for a bit extra in the north.
Guide Materials
This is the part where I usually toot Andrew Skurka’s horn. But this isn’t his guide, so I finally have some grounds for comparison! I found the Southern Sierra High Route guide less helpful than the guides for other High Routes. It reads more like a trip report than a guide. It’s missing a lot of the micro-route and historical/geological information of the more detailed guides, the map has no comments, and the datasheet is much coarser - there are only a dozen or so waypoints. You can recreate some of the more helpful guide materials on your own by copying relevant comments onto a map, and creating your own waypoints and datasheets, but it’s a lot of work.
Conclusion
Alright, I hope you enjoyed reading some or all of this trip report, or even just looking at the pictures. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me, my info is in the header at the top of this page. Happy hiking!