Sierra High Route – From Road’s End to Twin Lakes in 17 Days
Aug 16, 2020 at 7:38 pm #3670821
Eight years ago I titled my SHR trip report Sierra High Route – The Trip of a Lifetime. Someone commented back then “Whilst it may be the trip of a lifetime, I have a feeling many trips of a lifetime are in your future.” How right he was!
While backpacking the John Muir Trail with my girlfriend last year, I would from time to time point at passes along the wayside and speak in glowing terms about the basins one would find on the other side when hiking the Sierra High Route. My girlfriend’s interest got eventually piqued and we decided to backpack the Sierra High Route this summer with 50% more time than Andrew and I took eight years ago so we can swim and fish whenever we like.
As the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words”. While I couldn’t describe the beauty, we experienced, in a thousand words, our photos give you a little glimpse into what it is like out there. Go and experience it for yourself if you have the chance – it is amazing!
Day 1: Road’s End to Lower Tent Meadow
On our way to Kings Canyon National Park
we stopped briefly at the General Grant Grove to admire the giant sequoias.
My daughter Hannah, who has been for many years a faithful companion on backpacking trips was driving us and we stopped briefly to take a photo together overlooking the confluence of the South and Middle Fork of the Kings River.
Once Hannah dropped us at the Copper Creek trailhead, Gela and I climbed the first 2,300 ft to Lower Tent Meadow for our first of many nights sleeping under the stars
Day 2: Lower Tent Meadow to Lower State Lake
While climbing up another 2,800 ft we said ‘good bye’ to Kings Canyon and the Grand Sentinel.
Grouse Lake makes for a fantastic first stop on the Sierra High Route. This time around its dep blue color wasn’t shining through like it did last time.
We took a little swim and continued over Grouse Lake Pass and Goat Crest Saddle to Glacier Lakes.
Gong through Glacier Valley
we arrived at Upper State Lake for the night.
Day 3: Upper State Lake to Marion Lake
The day before I had provided fresh trout for our lunch. Gela took her turn today and caught fresh trout for us. We would continue to do that through our complete trip.
We swam at the Horseshoe Lake
before going over Windy Ridge and Gray Pass to Cartridge Creek from where we climbed
over White Pass and Red Pass before descending to Marion Lake for the night.
Day 4: Marion Lake to Lower Palisade Lake
From Marion Lake we walked through the beautiful Lake Basin that always screams at me to come back and fish every single lake. One day …
Passing several lakes without fishing,
brought us closer to Frozen Lake Pass. This would be our first time of going through extensive talus
Standing on top Gela couldn’t believe that we went up here.
Once she started descending on the other side, Gela was asking herself whether this trip is really for her. At 5’2” she had a hard time with the talus.
We descended safely down to the Upper Basin
where we found this interesting rock … and life was good again 😊
Looking back at Frozen Lake Pass
we hiked quickly on the JMT up to Mather Pass for a well-deserved break
before going down to the Palisade Lakes.
Day 5: Lower Palisade Lake to LeConte Canyon
Climbing up to Cirque Pass was a pleasure – especially with the fantastic views back to Lower Palisade Lake.
Going down into Cirque Basin
we passed its lake on
our way to Potluck Pass with its gorgeous views
Going through Palisade Basin
we reached Knapsack Pass soon and enjoyed the view of Dusy Basin from there.
Once we reached the Dusy Branch it was down, down, down from there on the Bishop Pass Trail to LeConte Canyon while having a constant view of Langille Peak.
Day 6: LeConte Canyon to Darwin Canyon
Any hike through LeConte Canyon
has to include a visit to the Rock Monster. As you can see it lost its teeth and eyes over the last couple of years, but it is still extremely hard to escape it 😊
Passing Helen Lake
we were already thinking of Muir Pass with Muir Hut
and the view down to Lake McDermand and Wanda Lake.
This was familiar terrain as we had backpacked the John Muir Trail last summer. It was still interesting to see everything coming from the opposite direction. We would notice things that we had missed going the other way.
Our break at Sapphire Lake was relaxing
and swimming in Evolution Lake added to the feeling of relaxation.
Now we would leave the JMT and climb up to Darwin Bench and eventually Darwin Canyon where we camped with a gorgeous view of the beautiful Darwin Lakes.
The sky seemed to be on fire that evening as we were looking forward to picking up our re-supply the next day.
We had decided to go first over Lamarck Col into North Lake for resupply and then from there over Piute Pass into Humphreys Basin to continue on the SHR instead of going over Snow Tongue Pass to get into Humphreys Basin.
Day 7: Darwin Canyon to Loch Leven
We saw a Bald Eagle in Darwin Canyon fishing in the Darwin Lakes. That was a first for us. So far we had only seen Golden Eagles in the Sierra.
Coming down from Lamarck Col we crossed snow
and right after that hit huge sandy area where we were once again surprised to see how wildflowers carve out a living in that environment.
Seeing North Lake made us look forward to some goodies we had put into our re-supply bucket
and consequently we would get down pretty fast leaving the mountains behind us.
Day 8: Loch Leven to Merriam Lake
Starting our day at Loch Leven
and walking through all the wildflowers along the way made for a great morning. The Sierra was in high bloom during our trip and one could write a whole trip report with just wildflower photos.
The view back at Piute Lake and Loch Leven from Piute Pass made us realize how easy Piute Pass is
and what a great gateway into Humphreys Basin.
While crossing Humphreys Basin on our way to Mesa Lake
we were constantly in awe of the wildflowers.
When we reached Puppet we got a great view of Puppet Lake, Paris Lake, Alsace Lake, Lorraine Lake, Roget Lake and Blanc Lake.
Descending the talus was once again hard for Gela,
but it brought us first down to those beautiful lakes
and more wildflowers
and eventually into French Canyon
from there we climbed up to Merriam Lake where I would swim before the night.
Day 9: Merriam Lake to Bear Creek
Merriam Lake greeted us with calm mirror-like water in the morning
and we climbed from there along LaSalle Lake to the top of Feather Pass
On the way down through the snow
we admired the ‘feathers’ that gave it it’s name.
Bearpaw Lake was a perfect stop swimming and fishing.
We spent a lot of time there before climbing from Ursa Lake
towards Black Bear Lake.
From there it was a short climb to White Bear Lake and White Bear Lake Pass which can be seen on the right of the lake.
While descending from the pass we got into a thunderstorm with heavy hail the size of small grapes. We found cover under a big talus boulder and waited the storm out for almost an hour.
Those daily thunderstorms during our first 9 days had slowed us down and when we reached Lake Italy we decided to descend from the snow level
on Lake Italy trail
down to the JMT and pick up the SHR again the next day at Tully Hole.
Day 10: Bear Creek to Tully Hole
What a different world it was down there at the JMT with all the trees
As we were familiar with this stretch from last summer’s JMT trip, we advanced fast over Bear Ridge and started climbing up along Mono Creek and Silver Pass Creek from where we enjoyed great views back.
At Silver Pass Lake we once again sat out a thunderstorm for an hour before going over Silver Pass
and by Warrior Lake
on our way down to Fish Creek.
Day 11: Tully Hole to Red’s Meadow
We were looking forward to comparing the SHR to the JMT on this stretch. The first part, climbing from Tully Hole
to Lake Virginia
and Purple Lake
What we were looking forward to, was the route over Mammoth Crest and we were not disappointed.
After climbing to Duck Lake (with Pika Lake in the background)
we went over Duck Pass down towards Barney Lake and Skelton Lake,
but noticed our mistake right away and kept climbing a little to an unnamed pass to get to the Deer Lakes
from where we climbed up to the Mammoth Crest with its interesting geological sights like these lava rocks
or these views down to Horseshoe Lake and the Twin Lakes.
Crystal Crag stood out
as did one of the Red Cones
on our way through the burn area of the 1992 Rainbow Fire to Red’s Meadow. Once there, we enjoyed a dinner at the Mule House Café, took a hot shower and washed our clothes.
Day 12: Red’s Meadow to Cecile Lake
Passing by Devil’s Postpile
we hiked up to Superior Lake where we caught our lunch
before climbing up to Nancy Pass.
From where the Minarets became our next goal.
Walking along Minaret Lake seemed like a scene out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Isn’t it interesting how different it looks when looking back?
Day 13: Cecile Lake to Rush Creek
The view of the Minarets in the morning gave it once again a totally different mood.
The same was true for looking back at Minaret Lake
Now we descended all the way down to Cecile Lake
and began our descent to Iceberg Lake
It took us way longer than anticipated as we eventually cliffed out and needed to climb all the way back to Cecile Lake before finding a suitable route down to Iceberg Lake. Lesson learned: Never follow use trails but think for yourself. Otherwise you might end up on the mountaineer’s route that exceeds your skill level.
Once we reached Ediza Lake with views of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak,
we decided to go down to Shadow Creek to use the JMT to Tuolumne Meadows instead of following the SHR to there.
Walking along Garnet Lake
and Thousand Island Lake
we wondered whether we should have staid on the SHR as the other side of the lakes looked so inviting. Island Pass went by fast and from Rush Creek we started our climb towards Donohue Pass before making camp.
Day 14: Rush Creek to Gaylor Lake
Going over Donohue Pass one is greeted by this great view of Lyell Canyon
from where you can look back to Lyell Glacier.
Walking through the campground at Tuolumne Meadows was eerie. Seeing it completely deserted with all campsites empty should have been a warning to us. When we arrived at the store/post office/grill we were shocked to see — nothing. The whole building was boarded up and partially dismantled. We were stumped. After all we received a delivery confirmation from the US Post office telling us our priority mail package to the Tuolumne Post Office had been received. What would we do without our resupply?
Five other hikers were sitting at a picnic table having the exact same situation. One of them had walked to the ranger station and was told their packages are most likely at the Lee Vining post office – and that the YARTS bus would run there at 5 pm.
When thinking about it I, realized our trip would be over as we would lose at least two days if not even three days retrieving our package and getting back here. While we were all discussing why the postmaster, who received our packages didn’t send us a post card, why there is nothing posted on the building letting people know where to get their packages, etc. I had an idea.
The other five hikers had already decided to take the bus to Lee Vining, so I asked them whether they would be willing to sell us their remaining food. They looked at me in disbelief, but everyone dug out their bear canisters. There were several remaining Mountain House meals, Nuun tablets, a packaged cookie, etc. Everything together was just enough to save our trip. When I wanted to pay, everyone declined with a smile. They were happy to help us finish the last three days of the Sierra High Route and that was enough for them. Just experiencing that level of kindness in the backpacking community makes those trips so worth it – especially in today’s times.
Now we continued on through Tuolumne Meadows
towards Gaylor Lakes where we slept once again under the stars.
Day 15: Gaylor Lakes to Secret Lake
Sleeping under the stars is one of the great things that the Sierra’s good weather makes possible.
Great Sierra Mine (with Gaylor Lakes) was our first goal
On our way to Mine Shaft Pass
from where we could see Saddlebag Lake.
Going down to Green Treble Lake (with Maul Lake)
we passed once again endless wildflowers
and this ptarmigan. Do you see it?
Finally, Wasco Lake, Steelhead Lake, Sky Pilot Pass and Secret Lake Pass came into view when we reached the top of the Mount Conness Shoulder.
From there we made our way down to the Conness Lakes before going up past Cascade Lake (with Steelhead Lake and Saddlebag Lake) to Secret Lake for the night.
Day 16: Secret Lake to Soldier Lake
From the top of the shoulder between North Peak and the Shepherd Crest we had a straight view down to Upper McCabe Lake.
From there we worked our way over to Secret Lake Pass and enjoyed one last view back
before heading over the pass
to the lake for a swim
Going down into Virginia Canyon
was delightful. Going up the other side afforded us nice view of the Shepherd Crest
before reaching Soldier Lake for the night.
Day 17: Soldier Lake to Twin Lakes
During the night the temperatures dipped down to 23.2F which produced a nice frosting on our sleeping pads. What a contrast to the high daytime temperatures we had to endure – often in the 90s. The morning was still lovely and we had a beautiful view of Virginia Peak and Stanton Pass from our campsite.
Return Lake came into sight when we climbed Stanton Pass.
While climbing down from Stanton Pass
into Spiller Creek Canyon we were greeted with views of our last pass – Horse Creek Pass.
Spiller Creek Canyon had more wildflowers for us.
That scenery changed abruptly when we reached the top of Horse Creek Pass.
Going down through talus and snow
we reached eventually Horse Creek with its waterfalls and views of the Sawtooth Ridge.
A short while later Twin Lakes came into view.
That was an incredible feeling. We had made it – from Road’s End all the way to Twin Lakes!
What could I possibly add to these photos? The scenery on the Sierra High Route is amazing. Being off-trail most of the time is enormously rewarding despite the navigation challenges that come with it. Going in July compared to September eight years ago meant we were greeted daily with an abundance of wildflowers while at the same time having to endure high temperatures up to the 90s, mosquitoes and almost daily a thunderstorm. While being on the Sierra High Route Gela suddenly asked me why I took her last year on the John Muir Trail with all its dust and horse manure. What could I possibly answer to that? The JMT is beautiful in its own way and it was a good way to find out what daily mileage we would both feel comfortable with. My estimates that were based on our JMT hike were nevertheless too optimistic. I didn’t realize how much big talus can slow down a 5’2” person until we were out there. I would just hop from boulder to boulder being 6’1” tall while Gela was constantly climbing up and down boulders or work her way around them. During this Sierra High Route I was often thinking back to Andrew and myself backpacking the SHR eight years ago. Back then we were explorers and challenging navigation was a major part of the experience. I will always hold that trip in a special place. Gela and I spent on our trip more time swimming, fishing and taking photos of wildflowers, which made for a different experience that is very special to me in its own way.Aug 16, 2020 at 7:54 pm #3671060Matthew / BPLModerator
Thank you for sharing this trip report. You show so many spots that I would like to experience myself. Thanks for this inspiration. :)Aug 17, 2020 at 4:54 am #3671085Brad RogersBPL Member
@mocs123Locale: Southeast Tennessee
Awesome trip report. Thanks for sharing!!!!Aug 17, 2020 at 7:00 am #3671094David NollBPL Member
@dpnollLocale: Maroon Bells
Great report Manfred. I got cold just watching you swimming. That must have been chilly.Aug 17, 2020 at 7:44 am #3671096Paul WagnerBPL Member
@balzaccomLocale: Wine Country
Spectacular report. Thanks for posting this.Aug 17, 2020 at 10:32 am #3671150Kevin BabioneBPL Member
I always enjoy your reports – thanks again. That talus looks pretty daunting (to an East-Coaster who’s never hiked anything like it).
One quick question…Did you tell the other hikers to distribute your resupply package among themselves or were you able to pick it up? I love the instant camaraderie we all have with other backpackers. We did something similar to your new “friends” a couple years ago while doing a hut-to-hut-to-hut traverse of the AMC White Mountain huts. On our last morning we had a relatively easy 2.5 mile hike down to our car, so we all unloaded any uneaten snacks from our packs and gave them to a couple of thru-hikers who were very appreciative.Aug 17, 2020 at 11:06 am #3671157
The other hikers planned to pick up their own re-supply packages and didn’t need any extra food. Once we were back home, I contacted the post office and it turned out that the ranger’s information was wrong. While Lee Vining is indeed the next closest post office, all packages to Tuolumne Meadows were rerouted to the post office in Yosemite Valley as both are in Yosemite NP. I can only imagine the frustration of those hikers when going the next day to the Lee Vining PO and not getting their re-supplies. The post office in Tuolumne Meadows should really post a notice on the closed building to let people know what happened to their packages. And it would be nice if the postmaster in Yosemite Valley would send a post card to everyone who got their package rerouted from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. In regard to my package: I contacted the postmaster in Yosemite Valley and requested to return it to sender. Tracking shows that it made it to the next two facilities in a single day, but since then I see for the last seven days “Your package will arrive later than expected, but is still on its way. It is currently in transit to the next facility.” with no further update. I wonder what is going on there …Aug 17, 2020 at 11:24 am #3671162Kevin BabioneBPL Member
I hope it’s not an example of the post office practicing for the November election…Aug 17, 2020 at 12:57 pm #3671169Dave HeissBPL Member
@daveheissLocale: Pacific Northwest
What an epic trip. Thanks for letting me come along via this excellent trip report.Aug 18, 2020 at 5:37 pm #3671458Logan KBPL Member
Outstanding trip report!
Thanks so much for sharing!
LoganDec 2, 2020 at 10:43 am #3686863
Awesome and timely!
I would like to do this hike next year. I just started reading Roper’s book.
Manfred – how much of off trail navigation did you have before your first attempt in 2012? I have mostly done well marked trail hikes like JMT, CT, PCT sections etc. How can I acquire the skills before I attempt this hike? I can definitely try to acquire some skills by taking some classes in REI or online compass training etc from Skurka’s videos.
I should probably find someone who is experienced in navigation skills if I attempt this I guess.Dec 2, 2020 at 11:33 am #3686870
I’m participating in Orienteering events since my childhood and thus feel very comfortable with map & compass and going off-trail. Depending on where you live you could participate in such events – they often offer beginner’s clinics at the events – or use permanent courses that often are offered by Orienteering clubs. For example here in the Bay Area the BAOC offers a multitude of permanent courses from beginner to advanced on 6 different mapsDec 2, 2020 at 11:55 am #3686873Brad RogersBPL Member
@mocs123Locale: Southeast Tennessee
Navigation in the Sierra above treeline in good weather is generally fairly easy, but I would absolutely be comfortable with a map and compass. The past few years I have starting taking a phone with Gaia as well and while I wouldn’t rely on it entirely (as it can break or run out of juice), it’s always nice – particularly if you want to find exactly where you are quickly.
What may be more of a challenge if you haven’t done much of it is getting used to all the talus hopping and some sketchy sections. Just don’t plan on doing trail miles off trail – I generally figure 1 mile an hour for talus sections, and feel lucky to get that.Dec 2, 2020 at 12:22 pm #3686877
Thanks Manfred. I live in Austin, TX. I will see if there are any online courses that I can take. Closest national park is Big Bend for training. Thought it may be easier to just fly to California and train.
Thanks Brad. Yep – will definitely have phone, gaia etc. I am not sure if you all have checked out the gpx tracks that is there for SHR. I will carry that as well for reference. The only experience I have of talus is when I did a day hike of Mt St. Helens in Washington – 4.1 miles and 4500 feet with lots of boulder hopping and had to use hands. I was thinking of doing the 118 mile section in 9 to 10 days. I think Mafred did it in 8 days in 2012 – which many folks have said is pretty fast.Dec 2, 2020 at 12:35 pm #3686879
This website seems to have gpx tracks:Dec 2, 2020 at 12:42 pm #3686881
The AOC (Austin Orienteering Club) offers regular events. It might be worthwhile looking into that to practice some off-trail navigation.
ManfredDec 2, 2020 at 12:46 pm #3686882
Wow! Thanks Manfred…..already checking them out:-)Dec 2, 2020 at 1:16 pm #3686886
I’m torn in regard to GPX tracks for a cross-country route. The main downsides I see are
– If you follow the line of a downloaded GPX track on your GPS you will just follow the footsteps of someone else – including all the mistakes that person made
– You won’t make any route choices and will miss interesting things to the left and right of that line
– You will contribute to creating a ‘trail’ along that route. This summer I was surprised by the many parts of the SHR that have during the last 8 years turned into trails. I suspect the main reason for that is that many people follow the same GPS track they download from somewhere. As they all walk the same line they create a trail through the wilderness and thus take away from the wilderness experience of others. The big part of the beauty of a route for me is that everyone finds their own way
Having said that, I bring a GPS an my trips and have my own planned route on there. Planning routes during the winter months is a lot of fun for me and creates joyful anticipation. I spend endless hours on Caltopo, Gaia, Google Earth, etc. to create a route and divide it into daily segments based on terrain, elevation gain & loss along the route, etc. During the trip I record a track on my GPS and learn a lot afterwards by comparing the track I took to the route I planned. Analyzing why the planned route didn’t work as intended helps me to plan better the next time. Analyzing why I made a mistake and the track deviates is equally helpful – often it is mental fatigue at the end of the day, sometimes it is following other people’s footsteps instead of reading the map myself, sometimes it is an over eagerness to get somewhere coupled with lack of dead reckoning that results in going up/down a gully/ridge too early, etc.
In a nutshell, I would recommend to read the Roper book while pouring over maps and creating your own route for your GPS unit. Your experience will be so much more rewarding than simply following someone else’s footsteps that you downloaded as a GPX track.
ManfredDec 2, 2020 at 1:59 pm #3686903Matthew / BPLModerator
Just my $.02 but thank you for being thoughtful about sharing off-trail GPX files.
I like how Skurka does it where he only drops a few pins, particularly at really difficult/dangerous spots (e.g. go “east of this lake”). I think that helps minimize the likelihood of establishing a trail.Dec 2, 2020 at 5:22 pm #3686934
Manfred – thanks for your reply. I just started my planning process. I do plan to get Skurka’s planning kit he sells. Reading Roper’s book (just started) and his motivations for not including tracks. Understand the motivations. I may have it as a backup. I do want to draw some routes as you indicate to blaze my own trail. Lets see.
Did you wear anything heavier than trail runners? I always use Trail runners like La Sportiva Bushido’s. Also, did you take carmpons or ice axes. Will I need it in August?Dec 2, 2020 at 7:03 pm #3686948
I used La Sportiva Ultra Raptor trail runners on the SHR. When we went this July we didn’t need crampons or ice axes. Just check the snow situation a couple of weeks before you go and you will know. This August you would certainly not have needed them. Most likely next August you won’t need it either.Dec 2, 2020 at 7:29 pm #3686952
Thanks for all of your help!Dec 2, 2020 at 9:22 pm #3686964d kBPL Member
Wow, Manfred, I just saw this trip report. My envy knows no bounds :-) what an incredible trip! You really hit high spots in the High Sierra, in all its glory…I only wish I had the stamina and skills to follow (approximately) in your footsteps, but seeing your beautiful pictures of some familiar spots and many unfamiliar ones (and maybe eventually visiting just a few of the unfamiliar ones) will have to do!Dec 3, 2020 at 7:52 am #3687001
Yes, the Sierra High Route makes indeed for an incredible trip. We enjoyed it so much that we are considering to backpack it again this coming summer – this time from North to South which will make for a totally new experience.
Enjoy your holidays! Hopefully 2021 will allow us to meet again in person.
ManfredDec 4, 2020 at 8:15 pm #3687332Alex WallaceBPL Member
@feetfirstLocale: Sierra Nevada North
Good stuff! Narrative & pics are great. Thanks for sharing.
I’ve done many trips that incorporate portions of Roper’s “high route,” but not the whole shebang, yet. Your report has motivated me to change that. I especially liked your “relaxed” pace to the route; I’m thinking I’ll do the same.
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