High Sierra Cross-Country 101, Kings Canyon National Park and John Muir Wilderness, California
- Explore pristine High Sierra Wilderness
- Acquire cross-country backpacking skills
- Enjoy the benefits of a small group
- Detailed pre-trip guidance
- Fantastic, easy to prepare meals
- Experienced cross-country backpacking leadership
|Dates||Jul 26–Aug 2, 2014|
|Difficulty||4 (out of 5)|
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” - The Wilderness Act of 1964, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014
The ability to leave established trails and strike out cross-country opens a whole new world of exploration and adventure for the ambitious backpacker. This is where wilderness truly “untrammeled by man” is found. Not only are there no official trails, but often there is no sign of previous human visitation.
The mission of this trip is to provide an educational yet fun adventure in the High Sierra for those wishing to gain the experience and the skills necessary to safely and confidently travel cross-country. Our planned route circumnavigates the Glacier Divide along the north boundary of Kings Canyon National Park. It is designed to provide a gradual introduction to the rigors, challenges, and joys of cross-country exploration. We will start on well-maintained trails, move onto un-maintained trails, then head cross-country on relatively less difficult terrain before confronting our first section of talus -- those piles of loosely stacked, jagged boulders typically found in the glaciated terrain of the High Sierra. We conclude the trip with a grand finale, a fairly rigorous crossing of a high cross-country pass.
The icing on the cake is the spectacularly scenic area comprising the Glacier Divide and surrounding areas. Because we will be travelling cross-country, many of the places we will visit don’t have official names and show very little, if any, signs of human use. Much of our route traverses the so-called “Evolution Region” of the Kings Canyon National Park Wilderness, up along the lightly forested benches of the south side of the Glacier Divide. In 1895, the first documented explorer of this area was struck by the beauty he saw:
"As I photographed and sketched, I felt that here was a fraternity of Titans that in their naming should bear in common an august significance. And I could think of none more fitting to confer upon it than the great evolutionists, so at one in their devotion to the sublime in nature."
Thus Theodore Solomons, “father of the John Muir Trail,” bestowed names such as Darwin, Mendel, and Huxley to this cluster of peaks, many of which well exceed 13,000 feet in height. Subsequent map makers applied the “Evolution” moniker to the valley, basin, and “country.”
We will emphasize the “Plan Ahead and Prepare” principal of Leave No Trace with frequent pre-trip communications, providing instruction and guidance on gear selection, minimizing our impact, and ensuring group compatibility. A relatively unique feature of this trip will be a “hot water”-style commissary where field preparation entails adding hot water to home-cooked and dehydrated meals. This greatly reduces the weight of the food and cooking time, while increasing time to explore and enjoy our precious wilderness!
Due to the pristine nature of the alpine environment in the off-trail wilderness areas of the High Sierra, this trip is limited to a maximum group size of six participants and two leaders. While fewer participants increases the trip price, it also greatly minimizes our impact and maximizes cross-country efficiency. It also allows the staff to focus more on each individual in the group, important on an introductory-type trip.
Day 1: The trip will officially begin midday on Saturday at a private vacation residence in Aspendell, high above the town of Bishop. We will finish food packing and other trip preparations, review backcountry procedures, and share dinner.
Day 2: Starting from the North Lake Trailhead, we'll hike up and over the Sierra crest at Piute Pass. Mt. Humphreys, topping out at almost 14,000 feet, dominates the view as we head down Piute Canyon. We'll make camp at a pleasant creek side spot.
Day 3: We'll ascend a rough trail to its terminus at a subalpine lake, then climb cross-country over a broad saddle (11,170 feet). We'll make camp at sublime Ramona Lake.
Day 4: We'll continue cross-country toward our planned camp at a rarely visited timberline lake nestled hard against the Glacier Divide. While the distance traveled today is fairly short, we'll need to navigate our first extensive talus slope. After negotiating this challenging section, we should have plenty of time to soak in the charms of this remote jewel.
Day 5: We'll continue cross-country, wending our way around rocky lakes and scrambling up slabby terrain over a 11,700-foot crossing of the Divide, and descend a short, steep chute. We will traverse along the lightly forested benches occupying the south side of the Glacier Divide, and camp near a small lake at timberline.
Day 6: We continue along the south side of the Glacier Divide, enjoying views of Mt. McGee and Evolution Valley, and reach typically flower-bedecked Darwin Bench, complete with a stellar view of the Evolution group of tall peaks. We will either camp here or climb up to Darwin Canyon and camp there, depending on conditions.
Days 7-8: Two days are provided for our exit back to the North Lake Trailhead. Depending on the strength and desires of the group, we can select from three different cross-passes to cross over either the Glacier Divide then back over Piute Pass, or directly over the Sierra crest at 12,960-foot Lamarck Col. One option is to layover on day seven and exit over Lamarck Col on day eight -- definitely a bit long, but frequently done.
A detailed spreadsheet of the route's mileages and elevations, along with a profile graph, is available upon request from the trip leader.
The hamlet of Aspendell is located about 17 miles southwest of downtown Bishop, CA on paved State Route 168. The North Lake trailhead is about 3.5 miles away via a well maintained, partially gravel road. Bishop is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada on US Route 395. The nearest major airport is in Reno and is about a four-hour drive (200 miles) to the north. If there's no traffic (a rare occurrence), it's about a five-hour drive north of Los Angeles International Airport. Similarly, the Las Vegas Airport is also about five hours away. Forty miles north of Bishop is the Mammoth Lakes airport, which has seen an increase in scheduled air service recently. Eastern Sierra Transit offers bus service from the Reno airport to Mammoth and then onto Bishop, offering an attractive alternative to renting a car. A carpool shuttle from Bishop to Aspendell and onto the trailheads should be easy to arrange.
The leader will provide a trip roster with contact information to facilitate ride-sharing. Pre-trip communications will include detailed directions to the meeting point. In addition to flight schedules and fares, carpooling arrangements often dictate the best airport to fly into. Sometimes participants from the San Francisco or Los Angeles metro areas can provide a ride from the airports located there, or you may arrange to share a rental car. Due to the uncertainties inherent in a trip of this magnitude, return flight reservations should not be made for any earlier than the day after the trip ends.
Accommodations and Food
Our meeting place in Aspendell has kitchen, bathroom, and shower facilities. It can comfortably accommodate our entire group on beds and portable foam mattresses. We have the cabin for both Friday and Saturday nights, so participants are encouraged to arrive on Friday to assist with acclimatization and provide a travel contingency.
All meals, snacks, and drinks are included, from lunch in Aspendell on Saturday through lunch on the last day. Dinners on the trip will consist of home-cooked, home-dehydrated entrees with a soup and a small dessert. Breakfasts will consist primarily of hot cereals with a home-cooked, home-dehydrated recipe or two. Lunches will consist of trail mix-type ingredients, dried fruit, and energy bars. Participants will pack their own lunches in Aspendell using ingredients provided by the trip. Participants will be polled for their preferences, but not all requests can be granted. The menu will be ovo-lacto vegetarian. Because of the lead time necessary to prepare the meals, more restrictive diets will be extremely difficult to accommodate. Contact the leader prior to sign-up to determine if we can accommodate your specific needs without impacting the group.
Each member of the group will carry a bear-resistant canister containing both group meals and their trip-supplied individual lunches and snacks. Participants must not bring their own food supplies as all food must be stored in the canisters.
Participants are responsible to bring their own water treatment, whether chemical-, filter-, or UV-based. Additional information will be provided in pre-trip correspondence.
This trip difficulty is rated 4 per the Sierra Club rating system, which factors daily mileage, elevation gains and losses, terrain, and altitude for each hiking day and averages them. Breaking the trip down day by day, the first and last day are 4s while the other days are more in the 3 range. Backpackers like to say the “first day is the hardest” because the pack is heaviest, the hiker hasn’t acclimated to the rigors of backpacking or altitude, and typically long distances or steep climbs are required to reach desirable camping. While all on trail, the first day of this trip involves a climb of 2,100 feet and a distance of about 7.5 miles. We plan to cover relatively shorter distances over the next few days in order for the group to gain experience and confidence on the various terrain challenges we will encounter. The difficulty rating increases for the grand finale of the trip, but by then our packs will be lighter and we will be more accustomed to cross-country travel.
All of camps are planned for above 10,000 feet, in fact, our planned route dips below 10,000 feet only at the trailhead and for a short distance in Piute Canyon.
We will encounter short stretches of relatively difficult terrain on our cross-country route, including talus (some of which may be loose), scree (all of which may be loose), and a short, steep chute. Most of the cross-country, however, involves forested benches, gravelly passes, and stretches of granite slab. The leader has prepare a couple videos that attempt to visually demonstrate these terrain challenges. Links to these videos will be provided to those who sign up for the trip as part of the screening process.
The approval process will include an interview with the leader via phone (or better yet, Skype) after submission of the required participant forms. Approved participants are required to subscribe to the leader’s private, pre-trip blog as the main vehicle for disseminating information regarding the trip such as equipment recommendations, food details, transportation coordination, conditioning updates, etc. This interaction will greatly benefit our trip in the field.
Conditions in late-July/early-August can be highly variable depending on the previous winter’s snowpack. The last two years have had below normal precipitation so most of the snow, high water, and mosquitoes had disappeared by this time. However, after an above normal winter, all of these conditions can affect the intended route. Other circumstance on the trip may dictate an adjustment or complete overhaul of the route, so a flexible attitude is a must.
We’ve geared this trip for active, nimble novices. That said, you must be in excellent physical condition in order to enjoy this trip safely and not impact the group's success. Successful participants will have previous backpacking experience. Cross-country hiking demands not only good aerobic conditioning, but a good sense of balance and agility. Participation in sports or activities that require conditioning and agility is highly desirable. Participants should follow a regular fitness program that includes aerobic, strength, and balance training. In addition, we highly recommend supplementing your routine with hikes up and down hills (or staircases) using a loaded pack and wearing your boots for at least a month prior to the trip.
This is a group trip whose success relies upon the cheerful, active contribution of all participants. You'll assist with cooking, cleaning, sanitation, camp set-up and break-down, food storage, etc. We'll be following a Leave No Trace ethic in all aspects of our operations.
Equipment and Clothing
“Light is right!” A general equipment list can be found at:
The pre-trip blog will provide much more detailed elaboration on the range of equipment choices available, as there really is no one correct answer to a particular need. While not an “ultralight” trip per se, many of these concepts are applicable. Participants must commit to reducing their personal gear to the minimum necessary, as coached in the pre-trip blog in order for this trip to be successful.
The trip includes group equipment such as cooking pots and utensils, stoves, fuel, handwash station, commissary tarp, and bear canisters. Each trip participant will carry one loaded bear canister, along with a share of the other group items, bringing your total share of the commissary to about 12-14 pounds at the start of the trip.
The total weight of your personal gear, including pack must not exceed 25 pounds. This is important not just to increase your stamina, but also for safety. The leader will be providing tips and techniques for lowering pack weight via the pre-trip blog. Generally speaking, packs should have a capacity of at least 60 liters, but with scrupulous attention to weight reduction, some participants have been able to use slightly smaller packs.
Backpacking footwear has seen quite a revolution of late, with many choosing to use low-top hiking shoes. However, because of the sharp granite, deep sand, and snow typically encountered cross-country, high-topped durable hiking boots are highly advised. Footwear should be well broken in and tested while carrying a typical load well before the trip.
The High Sierra is renowned for its excellent summer weather. However, be prepared for extremes. Temperatures in late July, while typically in the high 60s, can reach the 80s in some spots, especially on sunny exposed slopes. Overnight low temperatures are typically in the low 40s but do fall below freezing often. Extended rain or snowstorms can occur at any time of the year, and this weather can have a significant impact on heat loss. The leader will keep participants posted on conditions during the weeks and months leading up to the trip via the pre-trip blog.
- Tom Harrison Cartography's "Bishop Pass North Lake-South Lake Loop" trail map provides the best overview. The U.S. Forest Service map of the John Muir Wilderness also covers the entire route.
- The entire route is contained on the “Mt. Darwin” and “Mt. Hilgard” USGS 7.5-minute series maps
- Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. The Mountaineers. The encyclopedia.
- Arnot, Phil, High Sierra: John Muir's Range of Light. Vivid descriptions of several places we plan to visit on this trip.
- Roper, Steve, Climber's Guide to the High Sierra. Describes peak climbing, cross-country routes, and provides other useful information.
- Eastern Sierra Transit – 395 bus routes: http://www.estransit.com/CMS/content/395-routes
Sierra Club Outings and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act
In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, plus the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. The Sierra Club’s outings program is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role, in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving vastly more designated wilderness since then.
California and Nevada are key states for Wilderness. In the original 1964 Act, California got more wilderness areas designated than any of the other 12 states with units in the new National Wilderness Preservation System (although Montana had somewhat more acreage.) Out of 54 wilderness areas designated in 1964, thirteen were in California—the largest being the John Muir wilderness. Today, California alone has 149 wilderness areas. And California is second only to Alaska in the percentage of its land area that is designated as Wilderness--Alaska has 16 percent, California nearly 15 percent. No other state even comes close. California is also one of few states that boasts its own state wilderness system, inspired by and modeled on the federal system. California State Parks will celebrate their 150th anniversary in 2014 and will highlight all 12 of the state wildernesses during the year.
The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy and participation in the goals of the Club. Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, Inyo National Forest, and Sierra National Forest.
On the trip, we'll spend a little time in the evening discussing the Sierra Club's Resilient Habitat campaign. Per the website, "Climate change is the largest threat that our natural heritage has ever faced. The effects of climate disruption are already being felt on even our most pristine landscapes. Setting aside areas where development is restricted is no longer enough -- we must now actively work to create resilient habitats where plants, animals, and people are able to survive and thrive on a warmer planet."
You can learn more by clicking on http://www.sierraclub.org/habitat/.
We'll learn and practice Leave No Trace principles in all aspects of trip operations. We'll take steps to mitigate impacts left behind by less knowledgeable visitors should we encounter them. Learn more at www.LNT.org.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra National Forest, and Inyo National Forest.
Notes for Sierra Club Outings
- Carbon Offsets
- Electronic Billing and Forms
- Electronic Devices
- How to Apply for a Trip
- Leader Gratuities
- Liability Release and Assumption of Risk
- Medical Issues
- Non-discrimination Statement
- Participant Approval
- Reservation and Cancellation Policy
- Seller of Travel Disclosure
- Travel Insurance
- Trip Feedback
- Trip Price
- Wilderness Manners