Palisades High Country, Kings Canyon National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13147A, Backpack


  • Hike a challenging cross-country route
  • Enjoy striking views of the Palisade Crest
  • Travel lightly with a smaller-than-usual group size


  • Planning and permits for a shared 10-day adventure
  • Great meals for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike
  • Shared group cooking gear and commissary equipment


DatesAug 24–Sep 2, 2013
Difficulty5 (out of 5)
StaffDave Simon

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Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.


The Trip

Thunderbolt, North Palisade, Polemonium, Middle Palisade, Sill, and Split. These six dramatic 14,000-foot peaks punctuate the Sierra Crest in the Palisade Region. Our trip traverses the rugged alpine terrain immediately beneath the peaks. Although we start and finish our trip on major trails, much of our time in between will be spent off-trail.

We’ll be travelling lightly in a group of no more than six participants, plus two leaders. This is fewer than is typical for these trips, many of which have up to 12 or 13 participants in addition to leaders.

We start our trek at one of the Sierra's highest and most scenic trailheads, entering the high country over Bishop Pass. Nine days and 45 miles later, we conclude with a steep descent from the alpine beauty of the High Sierra to the high-desert of the Owens Valley.

A highlight of the trip is the dramatic cross-country route from Dusy Basin to Palisade Lakes, which crosses three high, trail-less passes (two over 12,000 feet) along the way. The off-trail hiking and scrambling is not technically difficult, but there will be enough challenging sections to add some adventure.

Our complete route includes three high trail passes, two of which cross the Sierra Crest, in addition to the three cross-country passes.  Most of the time we will be above 11,000 feet elevation, and all of our camps will be above 10,500 feet.

Join us if you’re looking for the adventure of hiking a challenging route -- both on- and off-trail -- through some spectacular scenery.  Please don’t hesitate to contact the leader if you have additional questions after reading the full trip description.


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 of our control. Flexibility is important. The itinerary described here should be taken as a general plan -- the actual route and schedule may depart from this plan.

Day 1: Our trip officially starts at 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 24, when we will meet at a campground not far from our entry trailhead at South Lake. A campground dinner will be served this evening, and campsites will be provided for the night.

Day 2: We will serve breakfast, make final preparations for hiking, and then drive the short distance to South Lake (9,755 feet), where we begin our hike. For much of the day, we’ll be ascending past a series of lakes in the valley that contains Bishop Creek. Eventually, we’ll climb more steeply to Bishop Pass, where we cross the Sierra Crest and enter Dusy Basin. Here we’ll enjoy panoramic views of surrounding peaks and -- in the distance -- the Black Divide. We’ll spend our next two nights nearby in the basin.

This first hiking day we will cover a total of about seven miles and climb about 2,200 feet. We will have our heaviest packs of the trip and we won’t be fully acclimated to the altitude, which will make this one of the more difficult days.   

Day 3: We’ll spend a layover day in Dusy Basin, which offers many opportunities to explore peaks, passes, or lakes. Some may choose to climb 13,000-foot Mt. Agassiz, which offers magnificent views of the neighboring Palisades. Others might hike off-trail to Rainbow Lakes, or find an overlook with a fine view into Le Conte Canyon.

Day 4: For the next two days, we will be hiking completely off-trail in some of the most rugged and spectacular country in the Sierra. We start the fourth day by crossing Knapsack Pass into Palisade Basin. Here, striking 14,000-foot peaks of the Palisades group form a dramatic backdrop to the Barrett Lakes. We wind our way through rough terrain beneath the peaks and climb to Potluck Pass (12,120 feet). At this pass we cross into the Glacier Creek drainage, where we plan to make camp on the fourth day. Two more 14,000-foot peaks, Middle Palisade and Mt. Sill, are our neighbors.

Day 5: We cross 12,000-foot Cirque Pass and work our way down through complex terrain to the Palisade Lakes. Our camp near Palisade Lakes will be our first below 11,000 feet, though only by a couple of hundred feet.

Day 6: At Palisade Lakes we join the John Muir Trail, which we will follow southward for the next couple of days. Although the Muir Trail has the reputation of being crowded with backpackers, this section of the trail is remote from major trailheads and is not easily reached. Thus it receives fewer casual visitors than the more easily accessible sections of the trail, and we can expect to encounter other hikers in far fewer numbers than in those accessible sections. 

Our trail climbs south through more wonderful scenery at the head of the Palisade Lakes, eventually reaching our fourth 12,000-foot crossing, Mather Pass. Here we stand a mile west of the Sierra Crest on the divide separating the Middle and South Forks of the Kings River. We’ll take a last glimpse north to the Palisades Group and look south to the vast granite bowl of Upper Basin. The headwaters of the Kings South Fork are just below us, less than a half mile ahead. We descend into Upper Basin, where we make our next camp near a high, barren lake that lies at the foot of Split Mountain. 

Day 7: Our plan is to spend a second layover day in Upper Basin. Split Mountain, one of the more climbable 14,000-foot Sierra peaks, beckons. Other possible layover-day destinations include any of the many small lakes that dot Upper Basin, or one may choose to relax by the small creek that is the start of the Kings River South Fork.

Day 8: We step back onto the John Muir Trail and continue south along the Kings River. Eventually the trail departs from the river, and not far past this point we’ll leave the Muir Trail on a spur trail that leads to lovely Bench Lake. Here we enjoy spectacular views of 12,950-foot Arrow Peak to the southwest and the Cirque Crest to the north and west.

Day 9: If we have made good progress, we’ll have time for a third layover day at Bench Lake. Optional activities include exploring the valley leading toward Arrow and Explorer passes, or just relaxing by Bench Lake.

Day 10: Our final day is reasonably long. We backtrack to the Muir Trail, which we follow only briefly before finding the unmaintained Taboose Pass Trail. We follow this thin path over gentle alpine terrain to 11,400-foot Taboose Pass. Here we’ll stop to enjoy the expansive views back toward the South Fork of the Kings River and Arrow Peak before descending into the high desert and the Taboose Creek trailhead. This final day we’ll hike a total of 11.5 miles and descend some 6,000 feet.



Getting There

Our trip starts at a campground near the South Lake trailhead, which is located about 20 miles west of Bishop on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. We finish at the Taboose Creek trailhead, about 53 miles away by road.

The closest major airport is in Reno, about 230 miles to the north. Airports in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas are about 330 miles and 300 miles from South Lake, respectively. Trip members flying from other parts of the country should consider sharing a rental car or arranging rides from one of these airports. We will provide a trip roster with contact information to help facilitate shared travel arrangements.

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. Our first meal will be dinner on the day we meet, and our last meal will be lunch on the final day.

Trip Difficulty

The overall difficulty of the trip is rated 5 on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 denotes the least difficult and 5 the most difficult trips. 

Note that in recent years we have changed the method of determining overall difficulty ratings so that the rating now is based only on the days that we are hiking with full packs. That is, layover days are no longer averaged in, as was done previously and which in the past lowered the overall difficulty rating of the trip. We believe that the revised procedure more accurately characterizes the overall difficulty that participants will experience on the hiking days.

Altogether, we will hike about 42 miles, of which about 12 miles are off trail. We plan to hike four to twelve miles on travel days, and we intend to take two or three layover days, depending on our progress. We cross the Sierra Crest twice on trails, and we cross three high passes off trail.

Our greatest elevation gain comes on the first day, when we climb 2,200 feet to Bishop Pass. Expected elevation gains on all other days should be less than about 1,500 feet, and the total elevation gain summed over all moving days will be about 7,500 feet. On the final day of the trip we will descend 6,000 feet from the Sierra Crest to the floor of the Owens Valley. 

All of our planned camps are above 10,000 feet, and five nights will be spent above 11,300 feet.

Off-trail sections of the trip include some relatively easy walking, but also some hiking on rough, rocky terrain with loose footing. While not technically difficult, these portions of the hike can be very tiring and demanding. Cross-country hiking requires good balance, stamina, and a patient, tolerant attitude -- all of which are requirements for the trip.

Participation in this outing requires that you be experienced, be in shape, and have reasonable expectations for the trip. Recent backpacking experience and very good aerobic conditioning are essential. 

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. 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 to 18 pounds of commissary supplies, total pack weight will be less than 40 to 45 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.


Any of the following sets of maps provides coverage of our complete route:

  • Four USGS 7.5-minute quadrangles cover all but the last few miles of the exit trail -- Mt.Thompson, North Palisade, Split Mountain, and Mt. Pinchot.
  • The combined Mono Divide High Country and Kings Canyon High Country maps published by Tom Harrison Maps ( (The first of these -- Mono Divide High Country -- would be used only for the first few miles on trail the first day; a photocopy of this section of trail would likely suffice.)
  • 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 much 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. We will bring a copy of this guide for use by the group.


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 and the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Wilderness, where we will be “visitors” for all the days of our hike.

Although this wilderness is now protected from logging and mining activities, this has not always been the case. In fact, until the 1960s, storage reservoirs were planned that would have drowned valleys near our route. Furthermore, much of the surrounding public lands still do not receive the same level of protection. We will examine and consider the level of protection that wilderness designation provides, appreciate how this land compares with other types of “protected” areas we are familiar with, and discuss how we should protect these areas for future generations. 

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

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



Dave Simon has been enjoying High Sierra backpacking for over 20 years. This is the ninth time he has been a leader or assistant leader. Dave enjoys backpacking with his wife, two kids and the numerous friends they have introduced to the wonders of the backcountry. He also runs, bikes, plays soccer, and watches his kids play various sports.

Assistant Leader:

Chris Franchuk

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