I will admit that I had no idea what the High Sierra Trail was until a friend emailed me saying: “I just got permits to hike the High Sierra Trail. Want to go?”
I still didn’t really know what I was getting into when I replied, “Yep.”
It’s safe to say that most hikers and backpackers know of the John Muir Trail, a 211 mile trek through the famed Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, arguably the finest mountain scenery in the United States. The trail passes through the some of the crown jewels of America’s Park system: Yosemite National Park, John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. On the fast-end, the trail can be traversed in about two weeks or if you take it slow, it’s upwards of three, maybe even four weeks.
It turns out that the High Sierra Trail (HST) is like the JMT’s little brother and an incredible alternative. At only 72 miles, it can be completed in under a week, but it still features everything the Sierras have to offer; Colossal mountains, jagged peaks and ridges, crystal clear alpine lakes, magnificent lush forests, stunning meadows, towering waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife.
The HST begins at Crescent Meadow in the developed area of Sequoia National Park before leading up the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River and up and over the Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap (10,700′). It then descends into Big Arroyo basin, climbs back up the Chagoopa Plateau, descends into Kern Canyon and after running up nine miles of the bottom of the canyon, it turns east to meet up with the John Muir Trail (and Pacific Crest Trail), 49 miles in from Crescent Meadow. Finally, the HST follows the John Muir Trail for another 13 miles before culminating on the summit of Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous U.S.) and ending at Whitney Portal on the far east side of the range.
Up until this point, the longest backpacking trip I had done was the 32-ish miles Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park. That trip was supposed to be five days, four nights, but we bailed out a day early due to some unforecasted snow. Other than that, most of my backpacking trips these days are quick overnights on a solo mission with my pup – I find a pretty lake relatively close to home, hike in, photograph sunset, sleep a bit, photograph sunrise and hike out. I’m usually home with plenty of time to spare before happy hour.
Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive in planning a fully self-supported eight day, seven night trip with no options to bail early. Despite my obscenely overweight backpack, I wasn’t worried about the physical aspect of the hike, but the mental part. Thinking back to that snowstorm in the Tetons and how miserable I was, I didn’t know how I’d mentally react if things went south early on this one.
But luckily, I worried over nothing. During the week, I had a few brief low moments, but the everyday grind of trail life just became more and more comfortable. I never got that moment of “Get me the hell out of here!” that I had on the Crest Trail. (The absolutely pristine weather was most-definitely a factor in mental stability as well!)
The High Sierra Trail was definitely one of the harder things I’ve ever done, but watching the sun rise atop of Mt. Whitney and looking back over the pristine wilderness that we just spent a week hiking across, gave me one of the greatest senses of accomplishment I’ve ever experienced.
General Information & Planning:
- The History of the High Sierra Trail
- Planning for the High Sierra Trail
- Packing List & Tips
- Photography Spots & Tips
- Day 1: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw
- Day 2: Bearpaw to Hamilton Lake
- Day 3 (Part 1): Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap
- Day 3 (Part 2): Kaweah Gap to Moraine Lake
- Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
- Day 5: Junction Meadow to Crabtree Ranger Station
- Day 6: Crabtree Ranger Station to Guitar Lake
- Mt Whitney: The Tallest Peak in the Lower US
- Day 7: Guitar Lake, up Mount Whitney, and out to Whitney Portal