A Backpackers Guide for planning your Adventure Across the High Sierra Divide
The High Sierra Trail is a hiking trail that spans 72 miles (116 km) across the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. It is a popular backpacking route that takes hikers through some of the most scenic and remote areas of the Sierra Nevada, including pristine alpine lakes, towering granite cliffs, and breathtaking waterfalls.
The trail begins at Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park and ends at the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Along the way, hikers will cross three mountain passes, including the famous Kaweah Gap, and experience a variety of terrains and ecosystems, from subalpine forests to alpine tundra.
The entire trail itself can be completed in 6-10 days, depending on the pace of the hiker and the amount of time they want to spend exploring the surrounding areas. Hikers will need to obtain permits in advance as the trail passes through several wilderness areas, including the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness.
Here is a brief description of the main sections of the trail: Beginning at Crescent Meadow
- Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw Meadow (11 miles / 17.7 km): This section of the trail takes hikers through lush forests and past the impressive Moro Rock. The trail then climbs up to Bearpaw Meadow, which offers stunning views of the Great Western Divide.
- Bearpaw Meadow to Hamilton Lake (7 miles / 11.3 km): This section of the trail is relatively short but steep, as it climbs up to Hamilton Lake. The lake is a popular spot for swimming and fishing and offers spectacular views of the surrounding peaks.
- Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap (8 miles / 12.9 km): This section of the trail is one of the most challenging, as hikers will climb up to Kaweah Gap, which sits at an elevation of 10,700 feet (3,261 meters). The pass offers breathtaking views of the Kaweah Peaks and the Great Western Divide.
- Kaweah Gap to Guitar Lake (6 miles / 9.7 km): This section of the trail is relatively easy, as hikers will descend from Kaweah Gap and cross several streams before reaching Guitar Lake, which is situated at the base of Mount Whitney.
- Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney Summit (6 miles)- Continue on to Crabtree Meadows, which has a bear box for food storage and campsites with stunning views of Mt. Whitney Summit Mt. Whitney, which is the highest peak in the continental United States at 14,505 feet (this will require an early start and a long day of hiking) Descend to Whitney Portal, which is the end of the High Sierra Trail and where you can catch a shuttle or arrange transportation back to your starting point
- Take a rest day to recover from the previous day’s climb, or use this day to travel back home or explore other parts of the area
Seeing Mt. Whitney
Many who visit these parks are interested in seeing Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the “lower 48” states. However, Mt. Whitney is on the far eastern boundary of these parks. A chain of mountains that runs north/south through the center of Sequoia National Park called the Great Western Divide blocks views of Mt. Whitney from park roads. The best place from which to see Mt. Whitney is the Interagency Visitor Center on Highway 395, just south of the town of Lone Pine on the east side of the Sierra. If you begin in Sequoia National Park and approach Mt. Whitney from the west by travelling across the Sierra Nevada range, you should apply for a wilderness permit from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.
Climbing Mt. Whitney
Mt. Whitney lies on the boundary of Sequoia National Park and Inyo National Forest. Most people who climb Mt. Whitney start from the east side of the Sierra and remain in Inyo National Forest throughout their hike.
**Please note that a High Sierra Trail permit is needed to access the High Sierra Trail between Seven Mile Hill and Kaweah Gap. A permit for the Alta Trail is not valid for travel on this segment of High Sierra Trail**
Altitude sickness is an illness that can occur when at a high altitude (typically above 8,000 feet or 2,400 m). Symptoms of mild to moderate altitude sickness include dizziness, fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, and rapid heart rate. The best treatment for altitude sickness is to descend to a lower altitude.
Suggestions from NPS on route variations
The campsites suggested in the following description are for hikers with a minimum amount of time to make the trek to Mt. Whitney. For hikers with more time, a summary of distances between the alternate campsites mentioned is given at the end of this description.
Beginning at Crescent Meadow
Day 1 – to Bearpaw Meadow (11.4 miles/18.2 km): The trail leaves from Crescent Meadow on the southeast edge of the Giant Forest. For the first half-mile, the trail travels through shady, well-watered terrain covered with dense forests of red and white fir, sugar pines, and occasional giant sequoias. The trail then emerges onto a warm, south-facing slope at Eagle View. From here, you can see back to Moro Rock to the west, down to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, and ahead to the glaciated peaks of the Great Western Divide. The nearly-level trail then passes through part of the area burned by the Buckeye Fire in 1980. Spring-fed streams cross the trail late into the season. Creek crossings may be hazardous early in the summer. Be sure to check the conditions when you pick up your permit. Beyond the Seven Mile Hill Trail junction, the trail crosses the steep slopes and bluffs of the south side of Alta Meadow and Alta Peak. Hikers taking a more leisurely trek to Mt. Whitney may wish to camp along one of the two forks of Nine Mile Creek (8.8 miles/14.1 km). After passing Nine Mile Creek, the trail descends to Buck Canyon, a spectacular canyon well-known for floods, avalanches and rockslides. After crossing Buck Creek, the trail climbs some 500′ in slightly over a mile, arriving at the Bearpaw Meadow area 11.4 miles from the trailhead. In addition to camp sites, this is the location of the Bearpaw Meadow Camp, a simple tent hotel run by the park concessionaire (reservations required).
Bearpaw High Sierra Camp
This tent cabin camp is 11 miles out on the High Sierra Trail. It features tent cabins with beds, showers, and meals. It’s operated by Delaware North Companies from mid-June to mid-September, depending on weather conditions. During heavy snow years, it may open later than usual.
Reservations are required and often fill quickly, though cancellations may open a spot. For reservations and more information, visit www.visitsequoia.com or call (877) 436-9615.
Day 2 – to Big Arroyo Junction (11 miles) : East of Bearpaw, you begin your ascent into the Great Western Divide. After passing some nice campsites at Lone Pine Creek, the trail follows a long series of switchbacks, overshadowed by the Angel Wings, a sheer granite wall to the north of the trail. The route crosses Hamilton Creek just above the lower Hamilton Falls and climbs another series of switchbacks to Big Hamilton Lake (16.6 miles). The popular campsites here offer outstanding views and fair to good fishing for brook, rainbow and golden trout. Beyond Big Hamilton Lake the climb begins with a series of sweeping switchbacks across the bluffs to the north of the lake before turning east towards the sheer-walled avalanche chute known as Hamilton Gorge. East of Hamilton Gorge, the trail enters the alpine life zone of the Sierras, a region where the short growing season, avalanches and lack of soil make life impossible for plants other than herbs and low shrubs. Precipice Lake, nestled beneath Eagle Scout Peak’s north wall, often stays frozen into mid-summer. Beyond the first precipice lake, the route passes a series of shallow glacial ponds to finally arrive at Kaweah Gap on the Great Western Divide (20 miles). From this pass at 10,700′, it is only a few hundred vertical feet down to the open valley of the Big Arroyo. The trail continues a steady to moderate descent to the campsites at Big Arroyo Junction (22.5 miles).
Day 3 – Moraine Lake (8 miles) or Upper Funston Meadow (12 miles): After two strenuous days of hiking, the journey from Big Arroyo to Moraine Lake is relatively easy. If you have a tighter schedule, you may wish to bypass Moraine Lake, an extra .8 miles (1.3 km), and proceed directly to Upper Funston Meadow, at the bottom of the Kern Trench. After leaving Big Arroyo Junction, the trail makes a moderate ascent up the north wall of the Big Arroyo, providing views of the east side of the Great Western Divide. Once it reaches the Chagoopa Plateau, the trail levels off and soon reaches a junction on a tributary of Chagoopa Creek. The right-hand trail branches off from the main High Sierra Trail to Moraine Lake (30 miles/48 km from Crescent Meadow). The left-hand loop trail follows a more direct route across the Chagoopa Plateau, rejoining the Moraine Lake Trail at Sky Parlor Meadow (30.8 miles/49.3 km). From here, it descends to the bottom of the Kern Trench. This stretch of the trail can be long and dry, so be sure to fill your water bottles at Sky Parlor Meadow. To reach Upper Funston Meadow (34.5 miles), turn south upon reaching the bottom of the canyon.
Day 4 – to Junction Meadow (13.7 miles from Moraine Lake/9.7 miles; from Upper Funston): If you are coming from Moraine Lake, continue about 1 mile beyond the lake to rejoin the High Sierra Trail at Sky Parlor Meadow. Descend into the Kern Trench, but turn north upon reaching the bottom. If you are coming from Upper Funston, retrace your steps to the junction with the trail from the Chagoopa plateau, and continue north along the bottom of the canyon. The Kern River Trail drops into a marshy area beyond the junction, then leads through a forest of Jeffrey pine and incense cedar. Keep an eye through the trees to the west to catch a glimpse of Chagoopa Falls tumbling down from the rim of the canyon. At 36.8 miles from the trailhead, you will arrive at Kern Hot Springs, complete with a crude cement bathtub in which to soak your aching muscles. The water from the spring is 115 degrees F . The tub is only a few feet from the cold, rushing Kern River, and runoff from the tub mixes with river water to create a warm pool, allowing you your choice of temperature for bathing. If your schedule allows, you may wish to camp here, but you must stay in the designated campsites, which are often heavily used. Beyond Kern Hot Spring, the trail continues along the bottom of the glaciated valley of the Kern River. This canyon runs almost due north and south for about 25 miles along the Kern Canyon fault. The trail ascends steadily to Junction Meadow (42 miles).
Reaching The John Muir Trail
Day 5 – to Crabtree Meadow (8.9 miles): Leave Junction Meadow and cross a steep, rocky slope covered with manzanita and currant. The trail begins to climb out of the Kern Canyon, offering increasingly impressive views of the canyon to the south and west to the Kaweah Peaks. At 48.9 miles from the trailhead , you will reach the junction with the John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney. There are campsites here and at Crabtree Meadow (53.1 miles). Guitar Lake (56.6 miles) is the last campsite with water before the summit of Mt. Whitney.
Day 6 – to the summit of Mt. Whitney: If you have arranged for transportation from Whitney Portal and this is the last day of your trip, this will be a long day (19.1 miles). You may also camp at Trail Camp (65.7 miles from the trailhead) or Outpost Camp (68.7 miles) on the east side. If you are hiking back to Giant Forest, plan to return to Crabtree Meadow (round trip to the summit, 16.8 miles).
The final climb begins with a moderate traverse along the “back” side of Mt. Whitney; then, the trail begins its switchback climb to trail Crest, the divide between the west and east sides of the Sierras.
Fill your water bottles before starting on this climb; there is no reliable water supply between Guitar Lake and Trail Camp on the east side.
A hundred yards below Trail Crest, you will find the 2.4 mile spur trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney. If you wish to leave your backpack at this junction while you make the climb to the summit, be sure your food is secure from the hungry marmots who frequent this area. The trail to the summit follows an open, rocky route along the west side of the Sierra crest.
The windswept, barren summit of Mt. Whitney is home to hardy flocks of rosy finches. When not looking for handouts from hikers (please remember that feeding animals in a National Park is illegal), these tame little brown and pink birds eat, among other things, insects that have been blown upslope from lower elevations and have become trapped in melting ice or frozen on the surface of snow fields.
The Mount Whitney Hut was built at the summit in 1909 as a station for meteorological observations. The metal roof of this hut attracts lightning which can be conducted through the building to individuals inside. Do not seek shelter here during a storm. During a thunderstorm, it is unsafe to be anywhere on top of the mountain or any exposed high place. Check the weather conditions before beginning the hike to the summit.
Exit Mt Whitney Portal
After returning to Trail Crest, hikers heading out to Whitney Portal will descend and begin a decent through 100 switchbacks to Trail Camp, a popular camping area for hikers coming from the east side. Although often crowded, this site offers an impressive early morning view of the rising sun’s light striking Mt. Whitney. If you camp here, however, be aware that the sun drops behind the crest of the Sierras fairly early in the evening, and at 12,000′ (3658 meters), the air cools down quickly. If you keep going, the rocky trail follows Lone Pine Creek down to Mirror Lake, a glacial cirque that is closed to camping, then continues along the creek to Outpost Camp, the last camping before Whitney Portal.
Continue Back to Sequoia National Park
Day 7 (if returning to Giant Forest) – to Kern Hot Springs (14.5 miles) or Upper Funston Meadow (18.5 mi.): Retrace your previous route.
Day 8 – to Big Arroyo (12 miles from Kern Hot Springs; 8 miles from Upper Funston): Retrace your previous route.
Day 9 – Explore Nine Lakes Basin and return via Kaweah Gap to Hamilton Lakes (4.8 miles/7.7 km plus side trip): An unmarked trail leaves the High Sierra Trail at the point where it turns west and begins the climb up the east side of Kaweah Gap. Follow this unmarked trail north if you wish to take a side trip to the Nine Lakes Basin.
If you plan to hike in this or any off-trail area, always carry a topo map and compass, and be sure you know how to use them.
Day 10 – to Crescent Meadow via the High Sierra Trail (15.5 miles/25 km): Retrace your previous route.
****Hikers may not access the High Sierra Trail eastbound between 7-mile creek and Kaweah Gap with an Alta trailhead permit.
Elevation Gain/Elevation Loss
+15 500 ft. – 13900 ft.
When to Hike the High Sierra Trail
The highest passes on the high mountain trails can also be held during winter. Spring has become virtually impassible. Most HST travels take place between July and August, but there will be softer crowds after schools start in October.
Getting Permits for the HST
Almost 85% of these are reserved for pre-purchase with the rest reserved for walks. See if permits are available here. Permits cost $10 plus $5 per person (meaning permits for 2 people will cost $20). You should remember that you are requesting permits, not permits. You will have to return the bag either before the hike or at Lodgepole Visitor Center at 12:30 in the early morning when the hike starts. For a reservation in the permit, please submit your application through the mail as directed below.
Bus and Shuttle Services
A $20 shuttle runs through Sequoia National Park via the Sequoia shuttle buses between Visalia and Sequoia National Park. Once in the parks, use Route 2 buses (the Grey Route) to Crescent Meadow. Free shuttle buses run between 7:30am and 6pm, and are completely Ticketless so simply jump on and off at every stop. Alternatively, park at Giant Forest Museum and take free Route 2 towards Crescent Meadow trailhead. The eastside shuttle service returns to Whitney Portal and takes you into your car at Crescent Meadow. The journey takes six hours and my last estimate was at $125 per person for five cars.
Public transit both ways
Flight from Fresno. V-line buses to Visalia. Take Sequoia transit shuttles or park services buses to Crescent Meadow Trailhead.