Backpack the High Sierra Trail

Yosemite Crescent Meadow Trailhead

Added by Carl Schnitker

First, you're in for amazing views- the trail goes through Valhalla, literally!

Secondly, you'll get a thru-hike experience, compacted. Don't have the time, or don't feel ready to do a longer thru-hike like the John Muir Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail? The HST is everything of a longer thru-hike, just shorter, so you can enjoy it all in a week! Finally, you get to summit Whitney! For most people I met on the trail, this would be their first time summiting a 14,000 foot peak. By going the long way up to Whitney, you give your body plenty of time to adjust to the elevation. Summiting the highest peak in the lower 48 will feel easy by the time you get there!

The High Sierra Trail begins at Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park, on the West side of the Sierra Nevada range, and ends at Whitney Portal on the East, traversing the highest and most beautiful part of the Sierras. From deep river canyons to high alpine peaks, lakes, and meadows, this hike has it all.

The most common completion time for the HST is 7 days. You can hike faster or slower; it all depends on how much you value time in camp and how far you're willing to hike in a day. 7 days is a good balance of hiking for most of the day, but still having time to rest and enjoy your campsite, and allows you to take a leisurely pace and enjoy your surroundings. Some people also add rest days or side trips- you can easily take a rest day at any of the campsites in the itinerary below:

Day 1: Crescent Meadow Trailhead to Buck Creek - 10 miles

Start at Crescent Meadow in Sequoia. The road might have a ranger guarding it- day hikers have to take the park shuttle to the trailhead. Just show the ranger your backcountry permit and you'll be allowed to drive your car to the end of the road, where there are bear boxes for you to leave any excess food (don't leave it in your car where bears can break into it!) and a beautiful sign for you to snap some trailhead selfies next to.

From the trailhead you begin the hike under tree cover but soon begin to walk along a sharp dropoff to your right, a pattern which will continue for much of the first half of the hike. Don't worry, it's not that scary, and the views are spectacular.

Follow the trail past many creeks and streams, small and large, until arriving at Buck Creek. Drop your packs, put your food in the bear box, and strip down (if you dare!) to take a dip in the creek. There are large pools just down the creek from the campsite, perfect for swimming in! My recommendation is to get dinner started, take a dip, and then have hot food waiting for you when you get out.

Day 2: Buck Creek to Precipice Lake - 8 miles

The mileage might not seem like much, but Day 2 is a doozy. Climbing from below 7,000 feet at Buck Creek to above 10,000 at Precipice Lake is quite an undertaking. But the views, hiking through the Valhalla valley? 100% worth it.

After a few miles of up and down from your campsite, you start to climb switchbacks from Lone Pine Creek up to Hamilton Lake, which is a great spot for a late lunch and a dip. There's also a pit toilet, one last little bit of civilization!

From Hamilton Lake it's less than 4 miles to your camp for the night, but don't underestimate it. The majority of the climb up to the lake is condensed in two short sections of switchbacks- at least you'll have fantastic scenery to look down upon during your frequent breaks!

Arrive at Precipice Lake and make camp. I'm sure you'll see why Ansel Adams called it one of his favorite spots in the entire Sierra range!

Day 3: Precipice Lake to Moraine Lake - 10 miles

Finally, a rest! Today you'll finish with a net elevation loss. Start up a few hundred easy feet of gain from Precipice Lake to crest the Kaweah Gap, and admire the Kaweahs, Big Arroyo, and the Little Nine Lakes basin. When you're done snapping photos, shoulder your pack again and get on the trail- you'll be hiking down into it! Enjoy a nice hike back down below treeline, and work your way down into the Big Arroyo.

You might be tempted just by looking at the map to plan lunch at Big Arroyo Junction- don't! It's legendary for never-ending clouds of mosquitos- instead, hike past the junction and into the up-and-down terrain on the edge of the Big Arroyo and find a spot along the trail. Trust me on this one!

From wherever you stop, it's gentle trail to Moraine Lake, where you'll be spending the night. About 2 miles from the lake you'll encounter a trail junction which can be hard to find. Keep a lookout, and when in doubt, stay to the right. I missed the junction completely and ended up making it to Moraine Lake just fine, so don't stress out about it too much.

Day 4: Moraine Lake to Kern Hot Springs - 7 miles

This is your "rest" day. All downhill, and only 7 short miles. Why? To maximize your afternoon time at the hot springs, of course!

From Moraine Lake, follow the trail for the 5.5 mile drop into Kern Canyon. You'll be following Kern Canyon up north all the way to the Whitney area. Acquaint yourself with the lush greenery and rushing river, have some lunch, and hike the easy 1.5 miles to Kern Hot Springs.

Kern Hot Springs is a perfect reward for the midpoint of your hike. The hot spring is natural but it flows into a concrete tub large enough for a person (or more if you get friendly!), with wooden stoppers for the inflow and outflow, and a wooden fence around 3 sides to preserve your modesty. It can be crowded here, so be sure to talk to other campers and establish a time for you to use the hot spring. I recommend taking a dip in the river to scrub your clothes and yourself while letting the tub fill up. When you can't stand the chill of the river anymore, it's only a few yards to a nice warm dip! The water can be scalding hot, so I'd suggest plugging the inflow for a few minutes and letting the water cool down before you get in all the way.

Campfires are allowed here, but only in established fire rings. Team up with some other hikers to gather wood and have a friendly dinner around the fire!

Day 5: Kern Hot Springs to Wallace Creek - 11 miles

A longer day today, but a relatively easy one. Heading North up Kern Canyon you gain elevation slowly, and you have the time and energy to enjoy the lush forest. But remember to save a little for the end- there's a bit of a climb before your camp for the night!

This stretch could be considered the most "boring" section of trail- no sweeping vistas or grand views, just the forest and the canyon walls. But if you're an enthusiast of wild creatures, it's the perfect time to hike as quietly as possible and try to spot a squirrel, chipmunk, deer, or even bear! Have a competition to see who can name the most wildflowers, or who can name the waterfalls cascading down into the canyon. Sing a song!

Day 6: Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake - 7 miles

Today's hike is a whole lot of climb in the morning, and up-and-down for the rest of the day. From early on in the hike, you start to get little glimpses of the high Eastern Sierra peaks, and the farther along you get, the more tantalizing views of your goal, Mt. Whitney, you receive. You won't see the West face in it's full glory until you're nearly at Guitar Lake, but it's definitely a good motivator!

Have lunch at one of the stream crossings along the trail and enjoy the view. 2 miles from Guitar Lake you'll pass through Crabtree Meadows. There's a backcountry ranger station and a pit toilet here- try to find the ranger and ask about conditions going over Whitney. Any extra information you can get is valuable when planning your summit bid.

Hike the last 2 miles to Guitar Lake and find a tent site. It can get crowded here, but there are plenty of spots if you just look around. Remember that now you're in the Mt. Whitney Zone, and have to comply with all the special regulations. The ranger issuing your permit will explain all of these to you.

Try to get to sleep early- you'll be getting an early start in the morning!

Day 7: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal - 18 miles

It's the big day! Set your alarm for 3:30 AM so you can be on the trail by 5:00 at the latest; you want to be off the highest part of the mountain by noon in case afternoon thunderstorms roll in.

By now, you'll be acclimatized and the hike up Whitney should feel easy. Plus, you've eaten over 10 pounds of food- isn't it nice to be hiking with such a light pack? Bundle up, eat your breakfast, and start the hike. You should have plenty of company on your hike; when you wake up, you'll likely already see lights dancing up the trail of hikers who want to catch sunrise on top! Whether you choose to leave that early or not, here's where having a headlamp rather than a handheld flashlight is nice- the start of your hike will be in the dark, and it gives you one less thing to deal with.

Congratulations! You've stood atop the highest point in the lower 48! High-five a stranger, write your name in the summit register, and start the long hike down. Look as grizzled and hardcore as you can for the dayhikers still coming up who will be impressed with your big pack. After summiting, the 11 mile hike down starts to sink in. Yeah, it's a lot of walking. Yeah, you're feet will hurt. Push through! It's all downhill. And the trailhead at Whitney Portal is right next to the Portal Store. Drop your pack, grab a burger, and think back on your adventure!

Details about my own hike, extra photos, packing lists, and more on my blog.

Useful Resource: nps.gov

Pack List

You'll want to pack pretty light on this adventure to avoid hauling a huge pack over the high passes and long days! You'll need the camping essentials:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag & Pad
  • Backpack (Around 65 liters, or 4000 cubic inches, is a good size)
  • Stove & Cookware
  • Raingear
  • Warm clothes
  • Basic Essentials (Toiletries, Sunscreen, Phone)

Plus some extras because you'll be traveling in the wilderness:

  • Map & Compass - Look for a map that covers the entire Sequoia National Park, West to East
  • Water filter or chemical tablets
  • Headlamp for Whitney summit bid
  • First aid kit with blister care (Duct tape, moleskin, and GlacierGel can fix most blister issues)

If you plan on spending any nights outside of campgrounds with bear boxes (like I did) you'll need to carry a bear canister. I recommend the BearVault BV500, but whatever you use, make sure to check with the Park Service that it's an approved canister. If you don't own one, not to worry: Sequoia National Park has plenty available for you to rent. Pick it up at the visitor center when you pick up your permit. You can also plan your trip to include nights only at established bear boxes, and save yourself the weight and bulk of a portable bear can. The Tom Harrison map of the region indicates their locations; you can also inquire at the Visitor Center or email the permit office.

Last but not least, don't forget the camera! I carried almost 5 pounds of camera gear; I think it was worth it. Every photo in this post is an original photograph from my trek! If you don't want to bring a DSLR, your iPhone is up to the task. Just be sure to keep it in a waterproof case, and watch your battery! You can get through a weeklong trip on a single charge if you stay on airplane mode and turn it off every night; alternatively, an external battery can give you a few extra charges so you don't have to worry about taking photos or even reading books on your phone.

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Activities:

Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Photography

Skill Level:

Advanced

Season:

Summer

Trail Type:

Point-to-Point

Distance:

71 Miles

Rating:

Features:

Forest
Hot Springs
Lake
River
Scenic
Swimming Hole
Waterfall
Wildflowers

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How to Get There

12 months ago

A Trip You'll Never Forget!

I find myself thinking about this trip all the time! We did it in four and a half days which was pretty intense but worth it still. We went in the beginning of sept. and the weather was beautiful and had the place to ourselves for the most part. One of the best parts of the trail was having lunch at the hot springs a great reward for making half way and giving you a little boost to finish the trip. A trip any lover of the Sierras must do.

12 months ago

over 1 year ago

The best trip I've ever been on by far. Maybe hypocritical coming from the guy who wrote the article, but I can't recommend this trip enough, either as an introduction to the Sierras or a hike through the best parts of a familiar range. If you've got the backpacking chops, go for it! Pack light, swim in every lake, and take lots of photos. Happy trails!

over 1 year ago

Added by Carl Schnitker

My name is Carl. I'm a student living in Southwest Colorado. I like to hike, bike, run, and climb rocks. I'm not the best at any of those things, but I usually try pretty hard.

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