The Sierra High Route

Timeframe

Elijah and I only had a timeframe of about 12 days to do the SHR, Aug 3rd-15th. Luckily, there happened to be a lovely trip report on the backpackinglight.com forums from Manfred Kopisch and Andrew Fahrland who did it in exactly that timeframe, so we went for it.

Getting There

Elijah and I both live in the East Bay (Albany and El Cerrito). His father, Andrew, was extremely generous in offering to drive us to our starting point. We left the Bay late in the afternoon on Sunday Aug 2nd and arrived at the Cedar Grove Area past nightfall. We slept in the frontcountry that night at the Moraine Campground.

Typical Routine

Wake up around 5:45. Make breakfast. Clean dishes, filter water. Pack up. Start hiking around 7:15. Hike all day without stopping. Not breaking for lunch is key here, just eat calorie-dense snack food throughout the day while walking. Stop hiking anytime between 6:15 and 8:00 at night, but more often on the earlier end of that range. Soak feet in icy cold waters while washing clothes. Make dinner. Take care of any potential foot problems. Read Psalms and other scriptures. Debrief the day. Read aloud all of Roper’s descriptions for the next day’s itinerary while laying in bed. Write down notes in journal. Go to sleep around 10.

 

Part I: Cirque Country — 4 days

Day 1 — Road’s End to Grouse Lake

Dist: 8.3 mi

The drive from Moraine to the Road’s End Permit Station was lovely and we saw a young black bear ambling just off the road. After dealing with the bureaucratic aspect of things at Road’s End, we parked the car around the corner at the Copper Creek Trailhead. After making all the final preparations we hit the trail around 10 am. Andrew had just time to hike with us for about an hour.

The canyon scenery experienced during the first couple hours of climbing out of Road’s End is stunning.
The canyon scenery experienced during the first couple hours of climbing out of Road’s End is stunning.

The seven miles or so of climbing on the Copper Creek Trail do become a bit enervating. It is the longest single climb of the entire route, going up over 5,000 feet in a single go. The going is also very hot and dusty, and not much water is encountered. It is definitely a relief when the terrain levels out at the saddle where the hikers strike off cross-country for the first time to Grouse Lake, only about a mile or so away.

Since we had the benefit of leaving in the morning (Manfred and Andrew left 5 hours later at 3 pm, accounting for the only time difference between our two trips) we were debating pushing forward. However, Grouse Lake was so stunning that we decided we could afford stopping early. The full moon was incomprehensibly bright that night. We each woke up during the middle of the night to take in the moon-washed landscape of the lake.

Day 2 — Grouse Lake to wrong saddle on SW ridge of Marion Peak

Dist: 14.5 mi

  • Grouse Lake Pass – 11,086 ft. Class 2.
  • Goat Crest Saddle – 11,468 ft. Class 1.
  • Windy Ridge – 11,020 ft. Class 2.
  • Gray Pass – 10,881 ft. Class 1.
  • SW ridge of Marion Peak – 12,268 ft. Class 3.
Early morning reflection on Grouse Lake. We slept too close too the alluring shores and woke up with wet bags.
Early morning reflection on Grouse Lake. We slept too close to the alluring shores and woke up with wet bags.

Grouse Lake Pass was a lovely pass. The way down was our first talus hopping, but it was gentle. The small meadowland encountered afterward, and the ascent of Goat Crest Saddle was that first truly magical moment of cross-country travel I describe on the home page. Coming down from Goat Crest Saddle, the magic of the morning only increased with Upper Glacier Lake being one of the most gorgeous settings encountered on the trip. At Lower Glacier Lake we encountered a few fishermen. The descent from the outlet of the Lower lake to Glacier Valley involved our first bit of tricky slab crawling. Glacier Valley was a lovely meadowland with very easy walking. Next on the State Lakes Trail, the two State Lakes were also gorgeous, especially the upper one. Afterwards we joined the Horseshoe Lakes spur trail.

Windy Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings.
Windy Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings.

Next we ascended Windy Ridge. The views from this area are simply indescribable. They are easily some of the best on the entire trip. First, before the ground levels out at the saddle, one encounters the jaw-dropping Windy Canyon, carved by the Middle Fork of the Kings on the left. Then, when the saddle is finally reached, the view north opens up and it is perhaps unparalleled on the whole trip.

Views of the Palisades to the north opening up from the top of Windy Ridge.
Views of the Palisades to the north opening up from the top of Windy Ridge.

White Pass was long and challenging coming toward the end of our day. However the terrain going up White Pass is very evocative, filled with tarns and burbling cascades of water. It was here, almost at the very top of White Pass that we made our critical routing error of the trip. We thought we had made the final summit when in fact it laid just over the next hump, some two dozen yards on our left and maybe 20-30 vertical feet higher. However, we were tired, dizzy from altitude, perhaps a bit dehydrated and the sun was beginning to set and we didn’t want to already get behind. So we plunged onward for what we mistook for Red Pass. The pass only looked uglier and uglier as we hopped over the huge talus blocks leading up to it. It turned out to be an incredibly steep and incredibly loose scree slope, comparable in difficulty and danger only to the descent of Snow-Tongue Pass. Due to the fact that Roper says nothing of the difficulty of Red Pass, I had been having serious misgivings along the way. Sure enough, when we reached the top of the narrow notch, there was no Marion Lake and no visible way down: sheer class 4 to class 5 drop-offs surrounded the entire saddle. It was completely dark by then. We figured there was nothing for it but to hunker down and figure things out the next morning. We didn’t even make dinner due to lack of space, light and willpower. Delirious and demoralized we slept on the tiny bump with precipitous drops at our head and our feet, stowed our gear and waited out the windy night.

Day 3 — Wrong saddle on Marion Peak to Upper Basin

Dist: 8.8 mi

  • White Pass – 11,694 ft. Class 2.
  • Red Pass – 11,580 ft. Class 2.
  • Frozen Lake Pass – 12,346 ft. Class 3.

We allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit to recover from the previous night. We got going only around 8:30. We were dreading going back down the side we had come up. The going was slow and treacherous, we had to go one at a time because there was only one chute and we each created large rockslides. After, we stopped to make breakfast at a tarn and then got moving around 10. Figuring out our mistake and rectifying it was easy. We dropped down and over to White Pass with no problem. However, the sheer stupidity of our mistake and the costliness haunted us for the next few days.

At White Pass we met a foreign couple who were intending to thru-hike the SHR, taking a month to do it. They reported they were struggling with the route-finding were already a few days behind. We moved quickly over Red Pass. The descent was long and became a bit tiring, especially the final steep section over willows and boulders to Marion Lake. From the outlet of Marion Lake we failed to find the old JMT. The next section up into Lakes Basin involved frustrating route-finding, difficult lines and willow-whacking. However, getting up into Lakes Basin was something we had been looking forward to from the start of the trip and it was indeed one of the most gorgeous and remote places of the trip. Having such a landscape all to ourselves was incredible.

Looking northeast toward Frozen Lake Pass, the notch in center of frame, immediately right of prominent slanted pyramid on the left.
Rugged Lakes Basin, looking northeast toward Frozen Lake Pass.

We found the old JMT at the L-shaped lake, right where it fades and we were supposed to leave it. We stopped and boiled lunch at another one of the lakes a bit further into the basin. We did this for three reasons: 1) we were both feeling really crappy 2) since we hadn’t boiled dinner the previous night and ate snacky-lunch food instead our food plan was off and we needed to rectify it 3) Frozen Lake Pass was very difficult to identify, so we needed to take a very long time to study the terrain, the topo maps, the guide and discuss.

Finally, well into the afternoon, we struck off for Frozen Lake Pass. When we finally got into the tarn at the base of the pass, looking up we were a bit shocked at what we needed to go over. Two spots on the right and left looked preferable, but we knew we had to trust Roper, figuring that there would be sheer drop-offs at all the other saddles (which we saw was of course true when we got to the other side). Placing our faith in Roper paid off, for the pass was exactly as he described it, and the ascent really actually wasn’t that bad and was even a fun challenge. At the top, the views of Lakes Basin on the one side and Upper Basin on the other side were gorgeous.

Top of Frozen Lake Pass. Looking north into Upper Basin.
Top of Frozen Lake Pass. Looking north into Upper Basin.

The descent of Frozen Lake Pass was much less enjoyable than the ascent, a phenomenon which would occur often on the trip. Steep loose scree and talus at first led into gullies filled with huge, loose boulders at from the first tarn down to the second tarn. Finally, the terrain leveled out at Upper Basin. Easy walking led to the JMT, where we quickly found a campsite because it was already late and we were so tired. We were 8 miles behind itinerary and feeling doubtful that we could make up the ground.

Day 4 – Upper Basin to LeConte Canyon

Dist: 17.4 mi

  • Mather Pass – 12,155 ft. Trail.
  • Cirque Pass – 12,047 ft. Class 3.
  • Potluck Pass – 12,146 ft. Class 2.
  • Knapsack Pass – 11,669 ft. Class 2.

For scenic mountain terrain, this day and Day 10 were my two favorite days. Also we started feeling more able-bodied and we began picking better route-lines. 

View southeast from Mather Pass. Split Mountain (14,065') in center of frame.
View southeast from Mather Pass. Split Mountain (14,065′) in center of frame.

We got an early start and charged up Mather Pass, surrounded by glorious country on all sides. On the way down, the hordes of the JMT began. Palisade Lakes were wonderful, then we struck off for Cirque Pass where we briefly chatted with a trail crew who were posted at the base of the pass. Cirque Pass was a long ascent involving a false summit halfway in; however the terrain was pleasant, only turning into trickier slabs at the top; the descent was short but involved some fun technical slab crawling. The unnamed Lake 11,672 at the bottom of Cirque Pass was unbelievably magical place.

Elijah resting at outlet of Lake 11,672. From left to right: Peak 12,005, North Palisade (14,249'), Polemonium Peak (14,080'), Mount Sill (14,159'), Mount Jepson (13,390'), Palisade Crest (13,559').
Elijah resting at outlet of Lake 11,672. From left to right: Peak 12,005, North Palisade (14,249′), Polemonium Peak (14,080′), Mount Sill (14,159′), Mount Jepson (13,390′), Palisade Crest (13,559′).

Going up Potluck Pass was tricky and some of the most exposed terrain yet; we met the coolest on our whole trip going down Potluck Pass, Pam, a sixty year-old woman hiking a southbound portion of the SHR solo. She was awesome, much respect for her.

Looking west from Potluck Pass.
Looking west from Potluck Pass.

Entering Barrett Lakes Basin, the beauty of the terrain did not let up. We contoured to Knapsack Pass on gentler granite slabs and peered down into the lovely Dusy Basin. We passed probably about a dozen people as we got further into it and closer to the Bishop Pass Trail. At the end of it we overlooked the magnificent LeConte Canyon. We rushed down the 2,000 feet to the valley floor where we met the JMT and quickly set camp beneath the trees.

LeConte Canyon at dusk.
LeConte Canyon at dusk.

Part II: Whitebark Country – 2 days

Day 5 — LeConte Canyon to Humphreys Basin — Dist: 21.8 mi

  • Muir Pass – 11,968 ft. Trail.
  • Snow-Tongue Pass – 12,172 ft. Class 3.

This was our longest day of the trip and the day we made up the most ground since we had 15 mi on the JMT. The approach to Muir Pass was long, but we worked through it very quickly. The terrain near the top in the vicinity of Helen Lake becomes first-rate.

Near top of Muir Pass. Looking northeast in the direction we are coming from. Helen Lake on left.
Near top of Muir Pass. Looking northeast in the direction we are coming from. Helen Lake on left.

At the top we checked out the hut and chatted with a few JMT hikers, one of whom informed us there was no way we were making it over Snow-Tongue Pass. Walking through Evolution Basin was exceedingly pleasant. Sapphire Lake and Evolution Lake were especially beautiful.

At end of Evolution Basin, looking back toward upper part of Evolution Lake. Ridges of Mt Spencer (12,431') on left frame, Mt Huxley (13,086') rising behind.
At end of Evolution Basin, looking back toward upper part of Evolution Lake. Ridges of Mt Spencer (12,431′) on left frame, Mt Huxley (13,086′) rising behind.

At the the outlet of Evolution Lake, standing above where the JMT drops down into Evolution Valley, we left the trail and headed east. Countering along this wall below Darwin Bench the views west were incredible.

Looking southwest across Evolution Valley and Basin, Black Divide on the horizon.
Looking southwest across Evolution Valley and Basin, LeConte Divide on the horizon.

The 3 mile contour to the cirque at the base of Snow-Tongue Pass containing Lake Frances was a bit tricky. Since it was so heavily wooded finding peaks for way-markers wasn’t possible so it was a bit of a guessing game. We came a little too early and ended up in the cirque just south of the proper one. However it wasn’t a costly mistake as we were able to get over the ridge into the proper bowl without a problem. The descent of Snow-Tongue Pass might have been the most treacherous of the entire route. Going down one at a time is required for the probability of dislodging a boulder from the steep scree chutes and onto a partner’s head is high. Eventually one makes it onto the long talus slog below that leads past the Wahoo Lakes and into the wonderful Humphreys Basin.

Top of Snow-Tongue Pass. Wahoo Lakes in foreground. Humphreys Basin and Mount Humphreys (13,993') in distance.
Top of Snow-Tongue Pass. Wahoo Lakes in foreground. Humphreys Basin and Mount Humphreys (13,993′) in distance.

We eventually decided to finish at the inlet about a half a mile up from Upper Golden Trout Lake. Here we met the Hansens, a family of 4, who ended up being our trail angels of the trip. They had taken a mule team in about a week prior. They were the nicest family, and being with them was one of the most joyful experiences of the trip. They had such a personable and loving demeanor. They said they had too much food, so they gifted us with cheese, bagels, peanut butter, granola bars, chocolate, tuna and a salami stick.

Evening at our campsite at the inlet above Upper Golden Trout Lake. Looking west toward Piute Canyon.
Evening at our campsite at the inlet above Upper Golden Trout Lake. Looking west toward Piute Canyon.

Day 6 — Humphreys Basin to Toe Lake — Dist: 15.8 mi

  • Puppet Pass – 11,804 ft. Class 2.
  • Feather Pass – 12,376 ft. Class 2.
  • White Bear Pass – 11,912 ft. Class 2.

We woke up to a frost-covered morning. While we let our gear dry off in the sun we savored our last bit of time with the Hansens. Eventually we said goodbye and hit the trail around 8:45. Walking through the basin was lovely. Getting up Puppet Pass was easy going, but the descent involved steep, chunky talus. Next, we descended into French Canyon. After our short stretch on trail we began the steep ascent up the canyon wall toward Merriam Lake. The meadowlands below the lake were stunning, a true fairyland setting. Next we got up to Merriam Lake which was one of the most gorgeous of the trip. Elijah declared this his favorite spot of the trip.

From here we continued our long and tiring approach of Feather Pass. After that we entered Bear Lakes Basin, a basin rivaled in its beauty, ruggedness and remoteness only by the Lakes Basin. However Bear Lakes Basin was smaller and more contained giving it a more intimate setting.

Bear Lakes Basin. Outlet of Black Bear Lake with Ursa Lake visible below. Looking southwest, Seven Gables (13,060') looming prominently.
Bear Lakes Basin. Outlet of Black Bear Lake with Ursa Lake visible below. Looking southwest, Seven Gables (13,060′) looming prominently.

The descent from White Bear Pass was one of the least enjoyable of the trip however. The talus was especially loose and we had a few slips. We were glad when we got down to the outlet of Lake Italy. Roper complains about the large lake, but we found walking around its shores to be quite pleasurable. We set camp at the next lake over, Toe Lake, right at the base of Gabbot Pass.

Part III: Lake Country – 2 days

Day 7 — Toe Lake to Tully Hole — Dist: 19.0 mi

  • Gabbot Pass – 12,258 ft. Class 2.
  • Bighorn Pass – 11,281 ft. Class 2.
  • Shout-of-Relief Pass – 11,388 ft. Class 2.

This was the day we finally caught back up to itinerary. Gabbot Pass was pleasant, grassy ramps and descent was talus. It marked our last time over 12,000′. We got down to scenic Lower Mills Creek Lake. Then began the time-consuming section trying to follow a faint use path down to the Second Recess. When we finally got down to that hanging valley, it was one of the most sublime places on the trip. This then dumped into Mono Canyon, where we finally joined maintained trails. Ascending the Laurel Lake Trail was not a problem, and views down the main canyon were gorgeous. Finally when the terrain leveled out we reached the meadowlands below Laurel Lake. The scene really outdid itself here, with Red and White Mountain framed in the most perfect mountain setting one could imagine.

Elijah standing in the meadows below Laurel Lake. Red and White Mountain rising in the north (12,816').
Elijah standing in the meadows below Laurel Lake. Red and White Mountain rising in the north (12,816′).

Pleasant walking was short lived however; the maintained trail died as soon as we reached the meadow and we couldn’t keep track of the faint footpath, leaving us bushwhacking through willows and scrambling loose talus. We reached the pristine, diminutive Laurel Lake nestled beneath Bighorn Pass. The terrain was pleasantly grassy, however the incline was one of the steepest ones of the trip, giving it a very aerial feeling. The views from the top was awesome. Next we contoured over to Shout-Of-Relief Pass; this was also a fun pass, involving some technical terrain, scrambling around and over granite slabs. The views from this pass were again stunning.

Looking north from Shout-of-Relief Pass. Unnamed basin below curves to the northwest toward Tully Hole below. Ritter (13,150') and Banner (12,942') loom on the horizon.
Looking north from Shout-of-Relief Pass. Unnamed basin below curves to the northwest toward Tully Hole below. Ritter (13,150′) and Banner (12,942′) loom on the horizon.

Next we plowed down into the unnamed basin below, containing many evocative tarns. We accidentally got a little too far east and onto the right side of a ridge, and so ended up joining the McGee Pass Trail sooner than Roper intended. We reached Tully Hole, completed our usual ritual of giving our feet an ice soak in the rushing creek, and had a lovely night celebrating catching up to itinerary. We built our first fire of the trip here.

Day 8 – Tully Hole to Red’s Meadow — Dist: 19.2 mi

  • Duck Lake Pass – 10,535 ft. Trail.
  • Mammoth Pass – 9,434 ft. Class 2.

The day we got into Red’s Meadow was our easiest terrain yet. We me two really cool PCT section-hikers on the JMT, and then we spent a couple hours with our friend Patrick who was fishing Purple Lake and Virginia Lake, and we still ended up getting to the Resort by 3:50. After six miles on the JMT, we left off for Duck Lake. Duck Lake was the largest body of water encountered on the trip and it was surrounded by very pretty mountains on all sides. After getting up to Duck Lake Pass, we were standing on top of the main Sierra crest for the first time, and we would follow it the rest of the day all the way to Mammoth Pass. The terrain was had a dry, high desert feeling. The ground was coated in fine pumice, the rock was dark black or red and volcanic and there was little greenery. After an unnamed pass we were looking down on Deer Lakes, the uppermost of which was the most unearthly, phosphorescent blue.

Uppermost Deer Lake, its eerie blueness caused by mineral deposits.eere
Uppermost Deer Lake, its eerie blueness caused by mineral deposits.

Next we worked up to Deer Lake Pass, then followed the crestline for a few miles, before striking off for the descent of Mammoth Pass, which involved a fun pumice run. Then we met up with a pack trail and charged down the hillside to Red’s Meadow where we had hummus, beer and then a hot dinner. That night we soaked our feet in the hot springs nearby, which ended up doing wonders for all the pain Elijah had been having in his feet.

Part IV: Headwaters Country – 3 days

Day 9 – Red’s Meadow to Ediza Lake — Dist: 13.6 mi

  • Nancy Pass – 10,169 ft. Class 2.

In sharp contrast to the previous day, the terrain on this day ended up being one of the two or three most rugged on the trip.

In order to get breakfast (you have to dine-in at the Mulehouse Cafe) we got a late start and didn’t hit the trail for Devil’s Postpile until close to 9:30. After passing the Postpile, we struck off on the Becks Lake Trail. The switchbacks on this trail got a bit monotonous; we eventually reached the tarn below Nancy Pass; the pass was pretty steep, and identifying it for sure took some deliberation. After a final scree chute to the top, we were greeted by the view of the Ritter Range up close. Looking at the Minarets from here was an awesome experience; there are few rock formations more intimidating and awe-inspiring.

From Nancy Pass, looking northwest over the rugged terrain we'd be be traversing over the next day and a half, with the Minarets and Ritter and Banner on the left.
From Nancy Pass, looking northwest over the rugged terrain we’d be be traversing over the next day and a half, with the Minarets and Ritter and Banner on the left.

The goal of the rest of the day would be to curve around the base of them and end up at the base of Ritter and Banner. The descent of Nancy Pass involved some technical terrain of steep slabs and loose talus. The next objective was an unnamed saddle and unfortunately the terrain made it impossible to contour, so we had to drop all the way to the meadows below and then ascend the saddle. Next we had another steep hillside to surmount before reaching Minaret Lake. This lake is absolutely gorgeous, one of the most dizzying encounters of black rock, white snow, ultramarine blue water and green grass. Norman Clyde Minaret juts out behind it with astonishing sharpness.

Minaret Lake. Clyde Minaret (12,281') on the right.
Minaret Lake. Clyde Minaret (12,281′) on the right.

We continued our upward push, until we reached a 20 foot headwall standing in the way of the final push up to Cecile Lake; we found a crack in the headwall and after a short bit of bouldering we reached the lake. We had more talus around the lake, then reached one of the sketchiest portions of the trip, the descent from Cecile Lake to Iceberg lake. This short chute, some 50-75 vertical feet, was alarmingly steep, even steeper and looser than Snow-Tongue Pass. Going one at a time, we eventually reached the bottom, and after a little bit more talus, we eventually reached friendlier terrain and made it down quickly to Ediza Lake on a footpath.

Ediza Lake was without a doubt my favorite camping spot of the entire trip, regardless of the fact that there about a dozen or so people sprinkled around the lake. To top it all off, there was a meteor shower that night.

Day 10 – Ediza Lake to Lyell Fork — Dist: 18.3 mi

  • Whitebark Pass – 10,522 ft. Class 2.
  • Glacier Pass – 10,970 ft. Class 3.
  • Blue Lake Pass – 11,237. Class 2.

This was the only other day that could compare to Day 4 for best mountain terrain. I started the day off by waking up early for the sunrise on Ritter and Banner, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Early morning sunrise of Ritter and Banner (right) and Minarets (left)
Early morning sunrise of Ritter and Banner (right) and Minarets (left)

Getting up Whitebark Pass was next on our itinerary, and the ascent of this was certainly one of the most pleasant and scenic of the trip.

Ascent of Whitebark Bark Pass, looking back southeast at Volcanic Ridge (left), Minarets (center), and Ritter and Banner (right).
Ascent of Whitebark Bark Pass, looking back southeast at Volcanic Ridge (left), Minarets (center), and Ritter and Banner (right).

Then we walked past the inlets at the head of two of the most wonderful lakes, Garnet Lake and Thousand Island Lake. Next, we began the ascent of Glacier Pass, which involved big chunky, stable talus. Being at the top of this pass was very alpine, a world made solely of stone devoid of any trace of vegetation; it was the windiest moment of our trip, and the scene of the ultra-blue Lake Catherine set against the black crags of Ritter and Banner and the glacier in the col in between them was gorgeous. We had been warned about the terrain beneath Glacier Pass and Roper does mention some sketchy class 3 slabs; however, as usual, we found the technical, class 3 slabby stuff to be much more fun than talus slogging. After traversing up and down across more rugged terrain, we reached Twin Lakes, which we were able to cross without problem.

Next, we worked our way up a long valley that steepened considerably near the top; here we encountered two gentlemen who were working on a southbound thru-hike of the SHR. After, we began contouring around one of the ridges of Electra Peak, and then descended down into Bench Canyon. Bench Canyon was one of the most perfect meadowlands of the trip, expansive, lush, full of water, remote and seemingly untouched. After enjoying some easy strolling, we began upwards again, ascending to Blue Lake, then beginning our ascent of Blue Lake Pass which was easy, but alas not as easy as Roper made it out to be.

Standing atop Blue Lake Pass marked our entry in Yosemite NP, which felt so good. The early evening descent into the meadowlands below was lovely. Then, not even a half-hour after our entry into Yosemite, we saw a young black bear ambling aimlessly around, the first one we’d seen since Day 1. Eventually we dropped down into the very broad, densely wooded saddle containing the Isberg Trail. We hunted around for the trail for quite some time; just after we started becoming nervous about finding it, Elijah picked it up. We plunged down the very steep switchbacks to the canyon floor containing the Lyell Fork. After crossing the creek, we set up a lovely campsite and made a fire.

Day 11 – Lyell Fork to Tuolumne Meadows Backpackers’ Campground — Dist: 17.5  mi

  • Vogelsang Pass – 10,675 ft. Trail.
  • Tuolumne Pass – 9,921 ft. Trail.

This was the only day where we did not go off-trail a single time, making it feel rather lackluster. My camera had died at the end of the previous day. Borrowing a cord, I recharged it at the Tuolumne store.

We got started around 7:45. Climbing up the Isberg Trail, we caught a glimpse of Half Dome from the backside which was very cool. Then we descended to the valley containing Lewis Creek. Here we caught the Lewis Creek Trail which we would be on until Tuolumne Meadows. Lewis Creek was very lovely; we ascended upstream before cutting over to Vogelsang Pass which was a short set of easy switchbacks. The mountain views from the top were the only of the day and they were quite nice. Next we had a long and nondescript descent into Tuolumne Meadows. We reached the High Sierra Camp at 2:00. We were very frustrated to discover that the Tuolumne area can be quite convoluted and we ended up walking the 2 miles to the Tuolumne Grille (I don’t know why we didn’t wait for a shuttle). We got delicious hot food from the grille as well as more hummus. We slept at the backpackers’ campground.

Lembert Dome at dusk.
Lembert Dome at dusk.

Part V: Canyon Country – 1.5 days

Day 12 – Tuolumne Meadows to Virginia Canyon — Dist: 19.5 mi

  • Mine Shaft Pass – 10,900 ft. Class 1.
  • East Conness Ridge – 11,250 ft. Class 2.
  • Sky Pilot Col – 11,650 ft. Class 3.

Since the Grille only opens at 8 am, we debated whether or not to get hot breakfast, and, predictably, ended up going for it. We planned to catch the 8:23 shuttle to the Lodge, and were very frustrated when it didn’t show and we had to wait until 9:00 for the shuttle. We didn’t leave the Lodge for the Gaylor Lakes trailhead until 9:30.

After crossing over Tioga Road, we ascended a hillside into the basin containing the three Gaylor Lakes and two Granite Lakes. This expansive basin was yet another perfect, sublime meadowland and it felt surprisingly untouched considering Tuolumne Meadows was less than a half dozen miles away. Next we worked up Mine Shaft Pass and checked out all the cool remnants of the Great Sierra Mine from the 1870s. At the top, this point marked our reentry into rugged terrain. We contoured over steep slabs, staying higher than the route describes, eventually reaching the inlet (rather than the outlet) of Spuller Lake.

Pristine subalpine meadows north of Green Treble Lake. Looking southwest into a perfect cirque between White Mountain and Mount Conness.
Pristine subalpine meadows north of Green Treble Lake. Looking southwest into a perfect cirque between White Mountain and Mount Conness.

The goal of the next few hours would be to get up and over the East Ridge of Mount Conness. Going up was steep grassy ramps, then going down was a short bit of tricky class 2-3 stuff.

Standing on top the east ridge of Mt Conness. Sky Pilot Col identifiable as the low point in the saddle separating the whiter Sheperd Crest (left) from the redder crests of Excelsior Mountain and Black Mountain (right).
Standing on top the east ridge of Mt Conness. Sky Pilot Col identifiable as the low point in the saddle separating the whiter Shepherd Crest (left) from the redder crests of Excelsior Mountain and Black Mountain (right).

Next was easy walking to Cascade Lake, then our approach of the notorious Sky Pilot Col began. First we climbed up a steep hillside to Secret Lake. Then we ascended the loose talus to the next bowl, then more of the “every-steepening talus,” then the final, “offensive” scree slope. We had heard a lot about this pass and we were surprised to find that it was really not as bad as all that. It was certainly less sketchy than a number of the other obstacles of the trip. On the descent we were able to safely contour the steep scree slope on the right before following talus down to Shepherd Lake where the terrain became pleasant once more. At the lake we met a couple who were section-hiking a leg of the SHR.

On top of Sky Pilot Col, looking northwest at the descent toward Soldier Lake and Virginia Canyon beyond.
On top of Sky Pilot Col, looking northwest at the descent toward Shepherd Lake and Virginia Canyon beyond.

Avoiding willows and downed trees, we strolled down the hillside to the floor of Virginia Canyon, yet another lovely fairyland, especially with the golden light of dusk illuminating everything. We crossed the creek, built a fire and set camp for the last time of the trip.

Day 13 – Virginia Canyon to Mono Village — Dist: 11.2 mi

  • Stanton Pass – 11,170 ft. Class 3.
  • Horse Creek Pass – 10,600 ft. Class 2.

We were both quiet and reflective throughout our last morning. We climbed the hillside up to Soldier Lake, and after we got out of treeline the terrain was achingly gorgeous in the early morning sun. Stanton Pass involved challenging but fun technical terrain of steep class 3 slabs on both the ascent and descent. The mountain views from the top, our last of the trip, were quite good.

On Stanton Pass, looking back southeast the direction we are coming from, Sky Pilot Col and Shepherd Crest (center) in the distance.
On Stanton Pass, looking back southeast in the direction we are coming from, Sky Pilot Col and Shepherd Crest (center-left) in the distance.

Next we were down in Spiller Creek Canyon, one of the most beautiful subalpine meadowlands of the entire trip. It was a perfect way to end the SHR.

Contrastingly, the final bit downhill through Horse Creek Canyon to Mono Village was one of the most exasperating parts of the whole trip, involving difficulties following a faint use path, steep loose fields of slate shards, and some of the worst willow-whacking of the trip. I suppose at least it helped take away some of the sadness of being done that we had been feeling while walking through Spiller Creek Canyon. Eventually we joined a maintained trail and hurried down the final couple miles to civilization.

My parents were very sweet in offering to pick us up on the tail end of the trip. They had spent the previous night in Bridgeport and went sightseeing that day, and we met them in the parking lot at 2:50 pm; it was a wonderful way to end the whole thing.

A final selfie to end the trip. Looking southwest down Spiller Creek Canyon.
A final selfie to end the trip. Looking southwest down Spiller Creek Canyon.
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8 thoughts on “The Sierra High Route”

  1. Tremendous report! I ran into y’all at “one of the most remote areas of the High Sierra” according to Roper…White Bear Lake. My take away was: 1) you cats were moving fast 2) your gators set the new standard for minimalist gear 3) the GoLite Jam pack is perfect for the SHR 4) differences are the spice of life. On my N-S jaunt, I thought Feather Pass was straight forward but Gabb Pass was a bitch as it went on forever. White Bear Pass was also straightforward, I thought. Anyway, nice meeting you guys, enjoyed your writing prowess.

    1. Mateo–Awesome to hear back from you. You were doing some real deal hiking too (and props to you for taking it on N-S) and it certainly was one of the most evocative and remote areas of the whole trip.
      Glad you enjoyed the report 🙂

    1. Didn’t see a single ranger the entire length of the trip. I just completed Alan Dixon’s SoSHR and decided to take a risk and use an Ursack instead of BV500. Ran into three rangers during midday. They never even asked to see my permit though.

  2. Really enjoyed your report! I just completed the SHR last week, i read (and watched) your report multiple times before i began my trip … i found it a true inspiration. We completed thew SHR, but not nearly as fast as you two. What a great trip it was.

    I am now planning on hiking the Wind River Range High Route next summer, maybe I’ll see you out there:)

    Thanks for this website!

    Doug S.

    1. Hi Doug,

      So pleased to hear that you enjoyed my video and that helped inspire you to do the SHR. Thanks for sharing, it means a lot to hear that.

      Congrats on finishing — such a huge accomplishment!

      Hope I do see you on the WRHR! Love bumping into fellow high route hikers. I’ll be out there in the beginning of August!

      Happy trails,

      Austin

  3. Two years later I now know who I ran into at WHITEBEAR LK. I remember your youth and your gaiters! One SCC iffy face and one face of a cherub! Your photos came out nice. You guys were in a hurry. Aloha…

    1. Wow. Two years and I didn’t even remember I already commented. 2 years ago! Geeez. Heading back again Aug 16-30….

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