How to plan a High Sierra Trail backpacking trip

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.

Elizabeth and Miguel at High Sierra Trail start

Weather

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.

Bear canisters

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.

Direction

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.

Permits

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).

Logistics

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:

Car shuttle

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.

Friends

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.

Key swap

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.

Public transportation

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.

Private transportation

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.

Driving route

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.

Personal recommendation

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.

7 thoughts on “How to plan a High Sierra Trail backpacking trip

  1. Hi Miguel,

    Amazing site! My wife and I are really hoping to hike the High Sierra Trail next July. We live in Delaware and I am currently trying to work out all of the logistics to make this trip happen. I have never hiked on the west coast, though I have done many backpacking trips on the east coast.

    Couple of questions for you and feel free to email me at ryanjohnlawrence@gmail.com if that would be easier – what types of clothing did you bring for the hike?

    I am thinking that when we reach the Whitney Portal, we will just try to find a ride to Lone Pine, where we will stay the night in a hotel there. We hope to stay in town or travel up to Oregon afterwards to visit some friends – any recommendations on getting our after-hike luggage out there? I was thinking about just shipping it to a hotel…

    Anyways, thank you so much for this site and the information that you posted. It has been very helpful in my planning so far.

    Best,
    Ryan

  2. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for the great comment. Hope your trip works out.

    For clothes, you can use a typical Sierra Nevada backpacking list – prepare for sunny days with temperatures in the 70s, nights with temperatures just below freezing, and a possible thunderstorm. As for myself, for bottoms I took synthetic pants, insulated tights, and swimming shorts, and for tops I took short- and long-sleeved t-shirts, a synthetic long-sleeve button-up shirt, a puffy jacket, and a waterproof jacket. You can layer these as needed.

    For luggage, I’m sure your hotel would be willing to store it until after your hike, the trick is getting it there. You could drop it off yourself, but that adds a lot of driving. You can probably ship it – I have a feeling hotels in Lone Pine are used to dealing with this kind of stuff.

  3. Hi Miguel,

    Thank you so much for your response. I am thinking that we will be going around the 2nd week of July, similar to you. That weather sounds amazing, and surprisingly similar to a backpacking trip I took last April in Virginia around Grayson Highlands. Thanks for your recommendations on clothing, I was having a hard time finding what people brought in their trip reports. That looks like a good mix of light and warmer clothing.

    Thanks for the advice on the luggage too. I think we will probably contact the hotel that we plan to stay at and make arrangements with them to have our luggage shipped out there. Will be one less thing to worry about before we hit the trail. After some more research last night, we plan on taking a bus up to Reno and then renting a car to drive to Oregon (just over the border, luckily) to visit some friends.

    I’ve never been out west and am very excited to do some backpacking. Thanks again for your trip planner – it’s been absolutely wonderful. And your images are what sold me on making this my next trip.

  4. Thanks for the detailed information you’ve provided. We’re planning a company trip to Kings Canyon National Park this coming March. We also plan to do hiking and backpacking for a week. I was actually looking for information about bookings and places where we can leave other things.

    I am looking for more suggestions. I hope anyone can help.

    Thanks!

  5. Hey I was wondering if going in december in possible(will they let me in?) I don’t mind extreme temperatures ir heavy snow.

    I’m just wondering because, I’m not sure how to get a permit for decenmber and no one.seems to go at that time.

    I appreciate any help. :)

  6. Jeremy and Greg, doing this trip in December or March would turn it into a multi-day ski mountaineering trip. You’d have to worry about snow storms, sub-freezing temperatures, and route finding with no trails. It’s do-able, but definitely outside my area of experience.

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