It’s one of California’s best multi-day backpacking trips, a spectacular traverse of the Sierra Nevada, taking you from the mountain range’s biggest trees to its tallest peaks. The High Sierra Trail starts at Crescent Meadow in western Sequoia National Park and ends 50 miles to the east at the junction with the John Muir Trail. From there, most hikers continue to the summit of Mount Whitney and then hike down to Whitney Portal. The full trip is about 74 miles and takes four to eight days.
But the delights of the High Sierra Trail don’t come easy. In addition to the challenges of a typical Sierra Nevada backpacking trip, the High Sierra Trail introduces two others: scarce permits and a huge distance between the start and end trailheads. In July of 2011 I hiked the High Sierra Trail, and these notes can help you plan your own trip.
Your first decision is what time of year to go. In the spring, lingering snow can cover trails and melting snow can swell streams to dangerous levels. In the fall, the risk of an early snowstorm increases by the week. Avoid these times of year. Generally, the best period to be on the High Sierra Trail is from late July to mid-September. Aside from the occasional thundershower, weather in the Sierra Nevada during these weeks is clear and pleasant.
Your next decision is how to carry your food. Contrary to popular belief, a bear canister is not required on the High Sierra Trail. Bear canisters are only required in the Whitney Zone, east of Mount Whitney’s summit, so if you don’t spend a night in the Whitney Zone, you don’t need a canister. Nevertheless, you are likely to encounter bears on the High Sierra Trail and I recommend storing your food in a canister. On our 2011 trip, we all carried one. After seeing two bears next to the trail on our first day, we didn’t mind carrying them. With careful packing, you can fit all of your food for the trail into a single large bear canister.
Now, which direction to hike? As a rule, the western slope of the Sierra Nevada is much gentler than the eastern slope, so, when hiking from west to east, you ascend slowly with lots of time to acclimate before climbing Mount Whitney. When hiking in the other direction though, you climb Mount Whitney first, then descend gradually for the next several days.
The truth is, if you’re in good shape and not prone to altitude sickness, you can do the hike in either direction. A bigger concern is getting a permit. Hiking from east to west means starting in the Mount Whitney zone, which is an enormously popular area with strict quotas for backcountry visitors. Getting a permit for a Whitney Portal start is notoriously difficult: you must choose a set of preferred dates by February, enter a lottery, and then hope for the start date you want. Getting a permit from Crescent Meadow in the west is comparatively easy. But you still need to get one early. When I got my High Sierra Trail permit in April 2011, reservation quotas had already been met for many of the best starting dates. As an added bonus, Crescent Meadow happens to be within Sequoia National Park, which means you don’t need a Trail Crest Exit permit (which would otherwise be required for a trip ending at Whitney Portal).
Because the start and end trailheads are 280 miles apart, you need to think about out how to get from one trailhead to the other. There are five basic options:
Have everyone drive to the end trailhead. Leave half the cars there, then use the remaining cars to drive everyone to the start trailhead. At the end of the hike, use the cars at the end trailhead to drive everyone back to the start trailhead.
Convince your friends or family to drop you off and pick you up. Lure them with promises of a scenic drive and reimbursement for gas, food, and lodging.
Split your group in half and start at opposite ends of the trail. Exchange keys in the middle. Organize a meeting spot afterwards to return the keys.
You can park in Visalia and take public transportation to Crescent Meadow. At the end, you can hitchhike to Lone Pine, then take public transportation back to Visalia.
You might be able to hire a van to transport you between Whitney Portal and Crescent Meadow. But even if you’re willing to spend the hundreds of dollars this costs, you might still not get a ride. When I called shuttle companies in 2011, they said they wouldn’t do the drive at any price.
There are two routes you can take from one trailhead to another. Both take about the same time (five and a half hours) and both are exceptionally scenic:
For the first route, take 395 south from Lone Pine, then 14 to Mojave. In Mojave, take 58 to Bakersfield. Then take 99 to Visalia and 198 to Lodgepole. This route is longer, but on straight, fast roads.
For the second route, take 395 south from Lone Pine, then 178 west to Lake Isabella. Continue on 178 to Bakersfield. Then take 99 to Visalia and 198 to Lodgepole. This route is shorter, but on winding, mountainous roads.
Before the hike
Finally, you’ll need to decide where to spend the night before the hike. If you’re starting from the east, Lone Pine or Whitney Portal are good choices. From the west, you can spend the night before in a motel in Fresno or Visalia or you can camp somewhere along the General’s Highway. Lodgepole is the best option there, since you’ll need to pick up your wilderness permit at the ranger station there on the day you start hiking. Be aware that Lodgepole’s campsites are reservable and fill up quickly, so reserve them ahead of time. There are other campgrounds along General’s Highway, but they are first-come first-served.
All that said, what’s my personal recommendation? Pick a week in August to do the hike from west to east; get a permit in early March for yourself and some friends and then make camping reservations at Lodgepole in Sequoia National Park for the night before the hike; on the Friday before the trip, have everyone with a car drive themselves to Lone Pine; on Saturday morning, leave half the cars at Whitney Portal, then drive to Lodgepole to camp; on Sunday morning, get your permit and start hiking; hike all week, finish on Saturday, and spend the night in Lone Pine; on Sunday, pick up your cars from Lodgepole and drive home.