Hiking High: Mammoth Crest to the Silver Divide, John Muir Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14132A, Backpacking


  • Enjoy the camaraderie of a five-day adventure with fellow Club members
  • Cross the Sierra crest to hike a high and spectacular segment of the John Muir Trail
  • Venture from camp to explore the high country off the beaten path


  • Great meals for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike
  • Shared group cooking gear and commissary equipment
  • Pre-trip campsite


DatesAug 1–5, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffBill Flower

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Trip Overview

The Trip

If you’ve always wanted to backpack the Sierra Nevada, but you can’t afford to spend a full week doing it, then this could be the trip you are looking for.  We’ll be moving every day, packing 30 miles of spectacular scenery and adventure into a five-day extended weekend of backpacking the Sierra high country.  It’s not a forced march, though -- we do want time to enjoy the places we reach.  Our goal is to be in camp by mid-afternoon -- say 3 or 3:30 -- most days to give time before dinner to explore or swim or maybe even to just find a quiet place to relax and take in the scenery.  We plan to camp each evening near a pristine alpine lake, each above 10,000 feet and each with a wondrous view. 

Our hike starts at a trailhead at 9,100 feet elevation near the town of Mammoth Lakes, CA, which can be reached by public transit from the Reno, NV airport. Scenic highlights include two trail crossings of the Sierra Crest -- one at nearly 12,000 feet -- where we’ll enjoy awe-inspiring views of the Silver Divide and the purples, crimsons, tans, and browns of neighboring metamorphic peaks.  Combined, this is some of the most colorful country in all of the Sierra Nevada. 

Join us if you seek the adventure and wonder of hiking a high, mostly-on-trail route through some truly spectacular scenery.


Day 1: Our trip officially starts at 7 a.m. on Friday, August 1, when we will meet at a campground near Mammoth Lakes, California. (Participants arriving on Thursday may also spend the night at this campsite if they choose.) We will serve a group breakfast, shuttle a few cars to our exit trailhead, and drive a few miles to the Cold Water Creek entry trailhead, where we start our trek.

How far we get each day and where we camp depends on how we feel, the weather, and other factors outside of our control. Flexibility is important.  The itinerary described here should be taken as a general plan -- the actual camps and schedule may depart from this plan.

The first day we plan to hike about 5.5 miles and climb nearly 1,700 feet, crossing 10,800-foot Duck Pass, where we obtain our first view of the Silver Divide. Our first camp is about a mile beyond the pass at Pika Lake, nestled beneath the Sierra Crest at 10,600 feet. We will have our heaviest packs of the trip this day, and we won’t be fully acclimated to the altitude -- good conditioning will be important from the start. 

Day 2: We’ll hike past Duck Lake and descend a short distance to the John Muir Trail, where we’ll turn south.  We’ll continue past Purple Lake to Lake Virginia, where we will spend the second night. We expect to make camp early enough -- probably by 2:30 or 3:00 -- that participants can enjoy a swim or explore around the lake before dinner.

Day 3: We resume our hike on the Muir Trail, descending some 1,500 feet to Tully Hole. Here we meet the McGee Pass Trail, which leads eventually to our exit.  This day we remain on the McGee Pass Trail for just two miles before cutting off on an unmaintained trail to Tully Lake and then heading off trail for the final half mile to a camp at secluded Cotton Lake.  Again, we should make camp by mid-afternoon, allowing time to explore or to enjoy the lake. 

Day 4: On our fourth day, we will return to the McGee Pass Trail by a different off-trail route, then make a steady climb to McGee Pass, which at just shy of 12,000 feet is the highest point on our planned route.  Ambitious hikers who want to gain another thousand or so feet may choose to drop packs here and climb 13,163-foot Red Slate Mountain. The climb is not trivial -- it will take two to three hours round-trip -- but the effort is well worth it.  The views from the summit are spectacular. 

From the pass we descend 1,500 feet to Big McGee Lake and our final camp, which sits at the edge of a bowl beneath the Sierra Crest.

Day 5: On our final day we hike steadily downward, generally following McGee Creek in one of the most beautiful valleys in the eastern Sierra.  Altogether, we’ll hike about 7.5 miles and descend 2,600 feet. We expect to reach our cars by mid-afternoon.



Getting There

Our hike starts at the Cold Water Creek trailhead and finishes at the McGee Creek trailhead, both near the town of Mammoth Lakes on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. Mammoth Lakes is about 160 miles from Reno, 250 miles from San Francisco, and 310 miles from either Las Vegas or Los Angeles.

Trip members arriving from other parts of the country should explore the option of flying to one of these major cities and sharing a rental car or arranging a ride. Alternatively, Eastern Sierra Transit (www.estransit.com) operates bus service from the Reno airport to Mammoth Lakes several afternoons per week. (Reservations are recommended.) 

We will send a trip roster to all participants well before the trip in order to help facilitate ride-sharing. Specific driving directions will also be sent before departure.

Accommodations and Food

We will plan a diverse and appealing menu to accommodate both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Responsibility for cooking will be shared among the trip members. The first meal that is provided will be a campground breakfast on the day we start hiking, and our last meal will be lunch on the final day.

Trip Difficulty

The overall difficulty of the trip is rated 3 on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 denotes the least difficult and 5 the most difficult trips. A disciplined training and conditioning program will be necessary to achieve the very good level of physical fitness that is required for the trip.  Very good aerobic conditioning is also essential. 

Our days will be relatively short in terms of distance covered -- four to five miles on three of the travel days and a little over six miles on the other two moving days. However, we will gain significant elevation on all days but one, which will add to the difficulty of the hike. 

Our greatest elevation gain will be the first day, when we will ascend nearly 1,700 feet. Elevation gains on all other hiking days but one will be greater than 1,000 feet. The sole exception is the final day, when we will descend 2,400 feet in about seven and a half miles.

Altogether, we will hike a total of about 27 miles, and the total elevation gain summed over five planned moving days will be about 5,600 feet. 

The high elevation of this hike also contributes to the overall difficulty. We will reach an elevation of 10,000 feet on the morning of the first day, and, except for one brief segment on the third day, we will remain above 10,000 feet until the final day.  In years with high snowfall, late-melting snow on the high passes may also make hiking more difficult.

Equipment and Clothing

A list of suggested personal equipment will be sent to all participants. If you would like the list before signing up, let the leader know and he will send you a copy. Each person should keep the weight of personal gear below 25 pounds so that, with the addition of approximately 15 pounds of commissary supplies, total pack weight will be less than about 40 pounds at the start.

We will provide all food and cooking equipment, but you must bring your own cup, bowl, and eating utensils. Some of the group equipment is relatively bulky, particularly pot sets and bear canisters.  Your pack should be sufficiently large to carry an item about the size of a full paper grocery bag (alternatively, four or five one-gallon milk jugs) in addition to your personal gear.

Although Sierra summers are generally relatively dry, you still must be prepared for rain. For shelter, tents are strongly encouraged, and lightweight waterproof tarps are the required minimum.  Where possible, we will help participants contact other trip members who want to share shelters. For clothing, you should bring a waterproof jacket and rain pants rather than a poncho.



Please plan on bringing your own map and compass.  Not only is this a matter of safety, but you will have a better appreciation of where we are going and where we have been.

Maps covering our route include:

  • Four USGS 7.5-minute quadrangles: Bloody Mountain, Graveyard Peak, Mt. Abbot, and Convict Lake. You may find it easier to print your own map, either using personal computer software such as Topo! or by using map-printing facilities that can be found online or at outdoor stores.
  • The combined Mammoth High Country and Mono Divide High Country maps published by Tom Harrison Maps (www.tomharrisonmaps.com). 
  • The two-sheet map set for the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia/Kings Canyon Wilderness published by the U.S.Forest Service.


  • Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. The Mountaineers. An excellent general reference to trails, cross-country routes, and climbing routes in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Roper, Steve, Sierra High Route – Traversing Timberline Country. The Mountaineers. Includes a guide to a portion of our planned route.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. Heyday Books. An excellent field guide to the plants and wildlife of the Sierra.  


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.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines “wilderness” as “an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor.” This important act first established the National Wilderness Preservation System, originally protecting nine million acres of national forest lands. Today some 106 million acres are encompassed by the system, including the John Muir Wilderness, where we will be “visitors” for all the days of our hike.

The magnificent wildlands of the Eastern Sierra are home to over 35% of California’s native species, 200 endemic plants and unique animals, and some of the most spectacular scenery and recreational opportunities in the world. Upwards of 90% of the land in the Eastern Sierra is public land managed either by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service. However, although much of the high and mountainous portion of the Eastern Sierra, such as the region we visit on our trip, has been designated as Wilderness, the vast majority of these Eastern Sierra public lands still do not have Wilderness designation. This land where the desert meets the mountains deserves diligent protection.

Although we seek to minimize human impact on the wilderness, clearly we do have an effect on the environment. Our trip provides a good opportunity to consider our own impact upon the land.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings 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 more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from Inyo and Sierra National Forests.



Bill Flower was born in the East but moved with his family to Arizona when he was ten. Bill took his first backpack trip – in the Grand Canyon – when he was 11 and his first trip in the Sierra Nevada when he was 12. He has been hiking in California and the West – as well as in other parts of the world – ever since. A real highlight of his summer for over 20 years has been participating in Sierra Club National Outing trips, both as a trip member and as a leader. Bill has led or assisted more than 40 National Outings, primarily in California’s Sierra Nevada, but also including trips in the Colorado Rockies and in the canyons of southern Utah.

Assistant Leader:

Mark Nelson has been hiking and backpacking for many years and is a lifetime member of the Sierra Club. He enjoys helping others explore the beauty of backcountry areas and learn about the importance of preserving them. When not exploring the great outdoors, Mark is active on not-for-profit boards and the VT Sierra Club Exec Committee, and is a volunteer for the local fire and rescue. In addition to backpacking, Mark enjoys biking, cross-country skiing, and listening to many types of music.

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