NOTE: In 2014, Alan Dixon and I hiked an extension of the Sierra High Route to the south, following the spirit of the original SHR, but covering the highest terrain and peaks of the Sierra, including a traverse of Mount Whitney. We've published some details of our route, which we called the Southern Sierra High Route.
After several years piecing together different sections, I finally completed the entire Sierra High Route (SHR) in the summer of 2014. Last year, after hiking most of the route solo, I decided to save the last 30 miles so I could come back this summer and hike them together with Karen. This July we trekked that last section - the beautiful and challenging northernmost part of the SHR, from Tuolomne Meadows to Twin Lakes. The SHR fits exactly into the type of exploring I've been enjoying in recent years. It stays as high in the mountains as possible, and traverses the most beautiful sections of the Sierra, while also avoiding trails for about half its length in favor of cross country travel in more remote terrain. It has arguably become the most well known and popular route of its kind. There is a lot of good information available about the SHR, so I won't include a set of maps or complete details here. But I will include notes on the most interesting and challenging sections of the route. My hope is that these notes can be used as a supplement to other sources. If you are interested in learning more, there are two useful resources; Steve Roper's book describing the route, and Andrew Skurka's excellent set of maps and data.
The SHR is a staggeringly beautiful and challenging trek. It is also a great introduction to the challenges and rewards of off-trail wilderness travel. You can hike the whole thing, or bite off little sections (highly recommended if you are new to this type of hiking). Be well prepared to navigate and be ready for the conditions at the time you travel (snow, weather, etc). Completing the SHR is not only a joy in itself; it opens the doors to infinite options for more trips through the mountains of the world. I find that enticing and exciting.
The following are comments and notes based on my experience on the SHR. Conditions and experiences vary widely, so take these as they are; simply my experiences. Your mileage may vary.
Kings Canyon. The southern terminus and starting locale for the SHR. While it is a notable Sierra landmark, it's a long drive to get there, and it's HOT and LOW. If you are starting here, try to get an early start and be prepared for a very hot first day. I started here at mid-day in a heat wave. Not a good plan.
White Pass. The section of the SHR from Gray Pass to White Pass is as tantalizingly remote as any part of the route. The valley between these passes has no trail, but bold peaks line the horizon and a lush green drainage and river fill the bottom. The terrain here is fairly easy to negotiate. From the top of Gray Pass, the location of White Pass and the easiest route to the pass is not crystal clear. Take care to identify White Pass from the top of Gray Pass. It is difficult to see because Gray Pass is an east-west pass and White Pass is south-north. Look at your map and use your compass! White Pass will be along a ridge that is going directly away from you at Gray Pass. Once identified, White Pass is easy to climb and descend.
Frozen Lake Pass. This is the first pass on the SHR that ventures into class 3 territory (assuming you are traveling from the south). At the lake below the pass, spend some time making sure that you head for the correct notch. There are several notches in this ridge that look similar. My preferred technique is to mark the heading from the lake's outlet to the pass on my map before the trip. Then I quickly verify the locale of the pass with my compass when I arrive at the lake. I hiked this pass in a low snow year (July 2013). I found the climb up to the pass to be straightforward and easy. The descent is much steeper and involves dirt and scree in a narrow chute. Be careful not to roll rocks down on your partners below. I rolled a ton of rocks while descending, but since I was hiking solo it didn't matter. If filled with snow this chute would be more challenging and exciting, and might require axes or crampons for some people to feel comfortable. In 2013, the "frozen lake" on the northwest side of the pass was clear of ice in mid-July. After getting down the chute, there's a fair bit of talus hopping to reach the comfort of Upper Basin and the JMT.
Cirque, Potluck and Knapsack Passes. These three passes are closely spaced over a span of about 5 miles. None of the three is very difficult, but with moderately complex terrain in a few places, crossing all three of these passes can take most of a day. Depending on your level of fitness and navigation skills, expect to spend at least 5 hours, and maybe 7 or 8 hours navigating from Palisade Lake to Dusy Basin. Cirque Pass is fairly simple, but the terrain causes a lot of zigging and zagging near the top. It is easier to stay generally on the left side as you get near the top of the pass. Once on top of Cirque Pass, drop down but stay left, looking for a narrow (6 feet wide) chute you can drop through about 100 feet below and left of the pass. After dropping through the chute, easy ramps take you very quickly down and left (and eventually back right) to the outlet of the lake between Cirque and Potluck. For Potluck Pass, follow the guidance in Roper, staying left of the pass and climbing up loose talus and scree. Then take ramps right to reach the summit. From Potluck Pass, follow Roper's instructions to gain a small notch a half mile from the pass. Here you will see Bartlett Lakes and can navigate through the lakes to Knapsack Pass. To gain the pass you wind through some ledges and easy talus. If you take the easiest route, this will go quickly - but don't be surprised if you are slowed by ledges and talus as you attempt to reach the pass. Generally, you want to stay to the right and traverse into the pass from the right. Descending Knapsack, trend left as you drop and look for cairns that will take you down chutes, slabs and talus to Dusy Basin.
Snow Tongue Pass. Getting to Snow Tongue Pass involves a long traverse in the forest after leaving the John Muir Trail below Evolution Lake. Expect to spent a lot of energy going up and down small drainages on this traverse. After several miles of traversing, the route heads into a beautiful valley toward Snow Tongue Pass. Be careful to identify Snow Tongue Pass correctly before your final climb. The route up is straightforward. On top, follow Roper's directions and go right a bit before descending a steep chute. There is plenty of loose rock in this chute, so be careful. After the chute there is a long, long hike through talus to reach Humphreys Basin. The talus here is large and stable, but will test your patience.
Feather Pass and White Bear Pass. Ascending Feather Pass is not a significant challenge, but once on top, the SHR becomes more challenging for the next several miles. I did this section of the route with Alan Dixon in late 2011. It was a very high snow year, but we were trekking in September when the snow was at its lowest. Descending Feather Pass was not difficult, but did require attention to route finding. Use your map carefully, along with beta from Roper, to navigate to White Bear Pass. This section is another of the best, most remote parts of the SHR. Soak it up. White Bear Pass is an unusual pass, with White Bear Lake only a few feet below its summit. From the top of White Bear Pass be sure to stay right (north), as Roper and Skurka suggest, and descend class 3 slabs down to Brown Bear Lake. We ended up plowing through several very steep sections of willows to avoid steep rock. We descended this pass in a hurry, in a small snow flurry, expecting the heavens to open up any second. With more time you might find a better route.
Gabott Pass. Climbing to Gabott Pass from Lake Italy is a pleasure. Easy climbing in a remote alpine setting. Once on the pass, you will see the huge north facing cirque below the pass. This area holds a lot of snow, so expect this section to have more snow than most sections of the SHR. Because the terrain is not too steep, walking on snow probably made our progress easier and more enjoyable than hiking on the talus that was surely buried below us. The long descent from Gabott Pass down into the Second Recess has a faint use trail most of the way. Staying on this trail will greatly simplify your descent. If you lose the trail look around until you find it again. The trail will not be apparent until you have descended to about 11600 feet. From Upper Mills Creek Lake all the way down to Mono Creek you should be on a faint trail virtually all the time.
Mammoth Crest. No real challenges on the crest itself. This is a unique section of the route. The exposed crest provides great views nearly all the way. Follow Roper's directions to drop from the crest, and enjoy a steep run down the sand and small volcanic scree to join the trail near Mammoth Pass. There are multiple trails in this area. Pay attention to make sure you are on the correct trail before you begin your descent to food and rest at Red's Meadow.
North Glacier Pass. This was one of my favorite sections of the SHR. The hike along the remote west side of Thousand Island Lake, and the stroll up to North Glacier Pass is stunning. There is a use trail most of the way up to the pass. As you near the pass you will likely encounter snow. Stay left as you approach and you will be able to avoid it as much as possible. As Roper states, the terrain north of the pass is complex. Follow Roper's directions carefully all the way to Bench Canyon. I found the notes in Roper's book to be spot on in this section and I had no trouble navigating here.
Bench Canyon to the Isberg Lake Trail. Camp in Bench Canyon or at Blue Lake if possible. You will know why when you see this canyon. Oddly, in this very remote section I encountered a group of about 10 hikers who have traversed the Sierra via different routes every summer for almost 30 years. See my story of this serendipity here. After ascending Blue Lake Pass (easy), you will descend and hike cross country for several miles. The terrain north of Blue Lake Pass is just as good as on the south side. Take your time. Following Roper's directions and Skurka's maps, you will soon descend and cross the Isberg Lake Trail, which you will follow down to the Lyell Fork. As noted on the map, do not attempt to descend the steep canyon wall to the Lyell Fork until you have found this trail. This was the most difficult section of the SHR for me. I spent two hours here searching for the trail. A huge storm the previous day may have made this more difficult than usual - I don't know. I finally found the trail by zig zagging northwest along its route on the map, and looking for it at the start of its descent to the Lyell Fork. I was unable to find it on the more level terrain above. Once the trail is found, you have clear sailing all the way to Tuolomne Meadows and beyond.
Mount Conness. The SHR takes one of its boldest lines as it ascends partially up the east ridge of Mount Conness, and then descends a rib down to the Conness Lakes. Karen and I hiked this section on a gorgeous early morning. It was one of those mornings that you won't soon forget.
Sky Pilot Col. This very steep pass is intimidating from the south side. The pass lies on the left side of a cirque and the ascent is a lot of work. But the hiking is actually pretty straightforward. Step up, slide down a little. Repeat. The descent from Sky Pilot Col down to Sheperd Lake is tedious, long and full of nasty talus. It starts with a steep drop (stay left of the pass), and then levels off onto loose and sharp talus. As Roper describes, pay attention and take your time. Once at Sheperd Lake take a break and breathe a sigh of relief. The walking all the way to Stanton Pass is much easier.
Stanton Pass. Ascending Stanton Pass from the south involves only a relatively short climb, as easy terrain takes you almost all the way up. The last 200 vertical feet do involve a little bit of scrambling. Stay left and follow obvious ramps. You may have to do a few class 3 moves. I found the notes for the descent from Stanton Pass in Roper's book to be confusing. Do not descend down and left from the saddle at the top of the pass. There is a bit of a use trail below the pass for a little while, but it dead ends. Instead, from the top of the pass, traverse left (southwest) for about 200 or 300 feet directly along the ridge crest. For part of this traverse, we were just left of the crest (south). Keep going until you can see all the way down steep but connected chutes that allow you to descend to lower angle terrain. You will see obvious use trails in the chutes. Descend carefully, as this is perhaps the trickiest terrain on the SHR. After a few minutes the terrain will moderate and you will have easy walking down to a bench where you can see the whole of the magnificent Spiller Creek valley. Traverse right along the valley, staying above 10000 feet, and heading for obvious Horse Creek Pass. This valley has no established trails but has incredibly easy and pleasant walking. Another of the gems on the SHR. This is a great place to spend your last night before completing the route.
Horse Creek Pass. The north side of Horse Creek Pass is steep, narrow and holds a lot of snow. Be prepared if it is a heavy snow year. After descending past the initial chute, and adjacent to a large ice field, you will gradually begin to pick up a use trail. With some patience you will be able to follow this trail for several miles down the canyon. Huge trees line this canyon, along with a few active beaver ponds. Enjoy these last miles before arriving at trail's end at Twin Lakes.