Miter Basin and More Beneath the Whitney Crest, John Muir Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14136A, Backpacking


  • Hike a challenging cross-country route
  • Travel lightly in a small group
  • Explore or relax on two planned layover days


  • Great meals for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike
  • Group cooking gear and equipment, including bear-safe food storage canisters
  • Pre-trip campsite and permit fees


DatesAug 7–16, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffNancy Mathison

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Trip Overview

The Trip

We begin our adventure by crossing the eastern Sierra Crest and exploring Miter Basin, the first of four isolated alpine lake basins we will visit on our journey through the high peaks and sparkling lakes surrounding Mt. Whitney. Our route will wind northward along the western flank of the Sierra Crest beneath the two highest peaks in the Sierra Nevada: Mt. Williamson and Mt. Whitney. Along the way we will explore lake basins that lie at the foot of a multitude of peaks that tower over 13,000 and 14,000 feet. Perched high among these peaks at 12,800 feet is Lake Tulainyo, the highest lake in the Sierra Nevada, which we may choose to explore on a planned layover day. This is some of the highest, most rugged and spectacular country on the continent.

The vast majority of visitors to this spectacular region are drawn to the summit of Mt. Whitney. We will avoid Whitney and, instead, explore the surrounding peaks and basins, an area of equally striking beauty without the overwhelming crowds of Mt. Whitney.

We will travel lightly in a group of six participants, plus two leaders -- fewer than is typical for High Sierra trips. Most trips have 10 to 13 participants in addition to the leaders.

Our trip follows a high and challenging route -- part off-trail and part on-trail -- that traverses the rugged alpine terrain immediately beneath the dramatic peaks of the Whitney Crest. From Miter Basin, we cross a rugged 12,600-foot cross-country pass to Crabtree Lakes Basin and continue northward to explore the Wallace Lakes and Wright Lakes basins. A highlight of our trip is two planned layover days, one in Miter Basin and one near Wallace Lake, which will provide excellent opportunities for climbing peaks, exploring peaceful secluded lakes, or relaxing in the exquisite beauty of the High Sierra.

Nine days and 53 miles after we begin our adventure, we will follow a lightly used trail over Shepherd Pass and leave the alpine beauty of the High Sierra to descend steeply into the Owens Valley.

Although we start and finish our trip on major trails, over a third of our mileage will be on cross-country routes or unmaintained trails. The off-trail hiking and scrambling is not technically difficult, but there will be enough challenging sections to add some adventure. Altogether our route includes two cross-country passes and two high trail passes. All camps, but one, will be above 11,000 feet.


Day 1: The trip will begin with a potluck dinner on Thursday, August 7 at a campground near Lone Pine, CA, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada (elevation 10,000 feet). The evening will be a great time for us to meet our backpacking companions and relax over a meal together before beginning our adventure. We will also go over trip procedures, give ourselves one more night to acclimate to the high elevation, and finish preparations for our journey.

Although the trip starts Thursday evening, participants are encouraged to arrive a day or two early to start acclimatizing to the very high elevations we will encounter at the beginning of the trip. Giving your body an extra couple of days to adjust to the high elevation can often make a big difference between enjoying the trip, or merely just enduring it.

Day 2: Early Friday morning we will serve breakfast at the campground and begin hiking from the Cottonwood Creek trailhead. We plan to cover about seven miles and climb about 1,000 feet to camp near Long Lake. We will be carrying our heaviest loads of the trip -- all of our supplies for nine days -- and excellent pre-trip conditioning will be required in order to enjoy this first day of hiking.

Day 3: We cross the Sierra Crest at New Army Pass, descend the west side to Rock Creek, and leave the maintained trail. We follow a faint trail up Rock Creek into Miter Basin. Here we plan to camp above 11,000 feet in the shadow of The Miter, The Major General, and Mt. Langley, the southernmost 14,000-foot peak in the Sierra. A half dozen “minor” 13,000-foot peaks surround us. Our hike for this day will be approximately eight miles in length and up over 1,500 feet.

Day 4: We will take a layover day to enjoy beautiful Miter Basin. Ambitious hikers may elect to scale a peak or climb to secluded lakes high above Rock Creek -- the choices are abundant.

Day 5: This will be one of our hardest days. Hiking completely off-trail, we climb past Sky Blue Lake and a higher unnamed lake at 12,125 feet on our way to Crabtree Pass, the high point of our trip at 12,560 feet. We then descend the northwest side of the pass and follow Crabtree Creek to the Crabtree Lakes at 11,300 feet. Hiking distance for the day will be about seven miles (mostly off-trail) with more than 1,600 feet of elevation gain.

Day 6: We continue down Crabtree Creek, eventually reaching a maintained trail near Crabtree Meadow. We will follow the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail north for about four or five miles to Wallace Creek, where we will turn east on the trail that follows the creek upstream. We will camp along the creek below Wallace Lake. 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks will again surround us. We will hike approximately 11 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation gain for the day.

Day 7: Our second planned layover day. This is a great place to climb a major peak (Mt. Barnard is ten feet shy of 14,000 feet), explore spectacular Wallace and Wales Lakes, or, if feeling particularly ambitious, hike to the highest lake in the Sierra, 12,800-foot Tulainyo Lake.

Day 8: We resume our trek by hiking back down Wallace Creek. We leave the creek before reaching the Muir Trail and head cross-country around the west ridge of Mt. Barnard and north into Wright Lakes Basin. We will make camp high in the basin, just south of an unnamed 13,540-foot “foothill” of 14,000-foot Mt. Tyndall. Seven miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain will be our challenge for the day.

Day 9: We continue hiking off-trail, climbing 800 feet to easily cross 12,000-foot Rockwell Pass, and then descend 500 feet to the Shepherd Pass Trail. We will climb 500 feet on this trail to the summit of Shepherd Pass. Although we will be on trail for the rest of the trip as we descend into the Owens Valley, the upper part of this trail is very steep and has very loose footing. We will be thankful we are heading down this rough trail rather than up. Our final night at Anvil Camp is 1,800 feet below Shepherd Pass, where we will enjoy fine views of the Owens Valley below.

Day 10: We hike down into the high desert. Our descent is rudely interrupted by a 500-foot climb, but mainly we just go down, down, down -- descending 4,400 feet in six miles to finish our trip at the Symmes Creek trailhead.

Our hiking schedule is not rigid -- how far we get each day and where we camp depends on how we feel, the weather, and other factors outside our control. Likewise, our precise route has not been rigidly set since we will be hiking off-trail during sections of the trip. There may be portions of the route that were not scouted by the leaders before the trip -- some scouting will be required during the trip, and flexibility is important. The itinerary described here should be taken as a general plan, and the actual route and schedule may depart from it.



Getting There

Our trip starts at a campground near Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, about 210 miles from Los Angeles, 230 miles from Las Vegas, 260 miles from Reno, and 340 miles from San Francisco/Oakland. 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. We will send a trip roster to all participants well before the trip to help facilitate ride sharing. Specific driving directions will also be sent before departure.

Accommodations and Food

All on-trip meals are included in the trip fee, beginning with breakfast on our first hiking day (Friday, August 8) and including lunch on our last day (Saturday, August 17). The leader enjoys planning meals that are flavorful, diverse and, at times, atypical of usual backpacking fare. We will provide a menu that appeals to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. It is our goal to feed you well so that you are well-fueled for strenuous days of hiking. All cooking gear and stoves are provided. Trip members will be divided into cook crews to assist with preparing our meals and washing the pots and pans afterward.  All participants will assist with packing and weighing the group gear on our hiking days.

Trip Difficulty

The overall trip is rated 4 (on a scale of 1 for our least difficult trips to 5 for our most difficult trips).  Altogether we will hike about 53 miles, of which about 20 will be off-trail. Off-trail sections of the trip include some relatively easy walking, and also some hiking on rough terrain with loose footing. These sections are not technically difficult, but can be tiring and demanding. Cross-country hiking requires good stamina, patience, good balance, and a positive attitude. We plan to hike seven to ten miles on travel days, and we intend to take two layover days. We will go over one high cross-country pass and one lower cross-country ridge. We also cross the Sierra Crest once on a major trail and once on a lightly maintained trail.

Our elevation gains on moving days will be greater than 1,000 feet on all days, except for one, and the maximum daily gain will be 2,000 feet. The total elevation gain summed over seven planned moving days will be nearly 8,000 feet. Our greatest elevation loss will be on the final day, when we descend 4,400 feet to the lowlands of the Owens Valley. All, but one, of our planned camps are above 11,000 feet.

Participation in this outing requires that you have recent backpacking experience, be in shape, and have reasonable expectations for the trip. Recent backpacking experience, very good aerobic conditioning, and lots of pre-trip training that includes steep hill climbs are essential. Experience in cross-country backpacking is not required, but hiking on rough, rocky terrain does require good balance and a patient, tolerant attitude, both of which are requirements for the trip. The conditions we encounter may require a change in route or itinerary and the positive attitude of our trip participants is infectious, which determines the quality of experience for the entire group. Our objectives are to enjoy some spectacular country and to complete the trip safely as a group.

Equipment and Clothing

A list of suggested personal equipment will be sent to all participants when they sign up for the trip. If you would like to see the list before signing up, let the leader know and she will send you a copy. Each person should keep the weight of his/her personal gear as far below 25 pounds as is safely possible, including backpack. We will give you approximately 16 to 20 pounds of commissary equipment and food at the beginning of the trip. With that, plus 2.5 pounds for 2 liters of water, your total pack weight should be less than 45 pounds at the beginning of the trip.

We will provide all food and cooking equipment, though you must bring your own 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 in addition to your personal gear. We recommend that your pack have at least 4,000 cubic inches, or 65 liters, of carrying capacity. The leader will send detailed equipment recommendations to participants well in advance of the trip. More information regarding personal gear may be found at the following link:

Although Sierra summers are relatively dry, we could have rain at any time. 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 rain gear, 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.


  • The USGS 7.5-minute "Cirque Peak," "Johnson Peak," "Mt. Whitney," and "Mt. Williamson" quadrangles together cover our planned route.
  • The Mount Whitney High Country map published by Tom Harrison Maps ( covers the complete trip and, while not providing as much details as the 7.5 minute maps is a good general map of the area.

Maps may be purchased online:


  • Secor, R.J., The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. Published by The Mountaineers. An excellent general reference to climbing routes, cross-country routes, and trails in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Laws, John Muir, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada. Published by the California Academy of Sciences. A general reference to Sierra life. It covers trees, wildflowers, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, and other life in the mountains. 


Do something for wildness. – John Muir

The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and the 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.

If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it. – President Lyndon B. Johnson

We will venture off-trail into pristine alpine lake basins, which appear today much as they must have to the early mountaineers of the 19th century. We will share the mountaineers' stories and their visions for ensuring the preservation of this treasured wilderness for many generations to come. As a group we will diligently observe Leave No Trace principles, and invite discussion of current efforts to protect our wilderness lands.

In 2014, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Our route for this trip lies almost entirely within designated wilderness areas. The Wilderness Act defines "wilderness" as "an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor." This important act 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 and the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Wilderness, where we will be "visitors" for all nine days of our hike.

While the area we're visiting has been protected, it continues to be threatened by outside forces, such as climate change and pollution. Many of the surrounding areas are unprotected and face additional threats, such as logging and poorly planned development. We'll have an opportunity on our outing to discuss such threats, the importance of large protected areas for habitat resilience, and what we can do to support work on these issues. Participants are also encouraged to share information about other environmental issues such as those in their local communities.

Visitors like us have an effect on the wilderness. Our trip will provide a good opportunity to consider why it’s important that we minimize this effect and how to do so. We may also discuss how wilderness practices have changed over the years and how they can be further improved while at the same time allowing for a special experience.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest.



Nancy Mathison took her first wilderness trip to the High Sierra in 1972, and has returned to its spectacular landscape to backpack and cross-country ski every year since then. She began participating in the Sierra Club National Outings Program in 2001 to venture off the beaten path with other backpackers who share her love for adventure and the wild, pristine beauty of the Sierra. She is a certified Wilderness First Responder and has led 25 trips for Sierra Club National Outings. She has backpacked throughout the western United States and Alaska, and has hiked in Switzerland and Italy. In her other life back down at sea level, Nancy is a professional clarinetist and teaches instrumental music in the public schools. She enjoys weekly hikes in the mountains near Santa Barbara, and has recently begun to dabble with organic urban farming.

Assistant Leader:

Bert Fingerhut has extensive experience with outdoor wilderness medicine (past wilderness EMT) and wilderness search and rescue (a member of Mt Rescue Aspen for close to 20 years). He also served as a director of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He has been active in conservation issues around the Colorado Plateau for much of his adult life and is a past Board member of several national and regional conservation organizations. Bert currently lives in Palo Alto, California.

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