Palisades High Country, Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14139A, Backpacking


  • Hike a challenging cross-country route
  • Travel lightly with a smaller-than-usual group size
  • Climb a peak or relax on layover days


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


DatesAug 15–23, 2014
Difficulty5 (out of 5)
StaffBill Flower

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Thunderbolt, North Palisade, Polemonium, Middle Palisade, Sill, and Split. These six dramatic 14,000-foot peaks are the high points of the Sierra Crest in the Palisade Region. Our trip traverses the rugged alpine terrain immediately beneath these 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 of them over 12,000 feet.  The off-trail hiking and scrambling is not technically difficult, but there will be enough challenging sections to add some adventure.

Our complete route also includes three high trail passes, two of them on the Sierra Crest, in addition to the off-trail 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 leaders 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 7 a.m. on Friday, August 15, when we will serve breakfast at a campground not far from our entry trailhead at South Lake (9,755 feet). Campsites will be provided for those who arrive the previous evening, which is encouraged in order to help acclimate to the altitude.  Following breakfast, we will make final preparations for our hike before driving the short distance to the trailhead. 

We’ll also want to station a couple of cars at the exit trailhead before hiking. Usually this can be done the previous day, if some participants arrive early.

For much of this first day, we’ll ascend past a series of lakes along Bishop Creek.  Eventually, we’ll climb more steeply to Bishop Pass, where we cross the Sierra Crest into 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 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 2: 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, with magnificent views of the neighboring Palisades. Others might hike off-trail to Rainbow Lakes or find a viewpoint overlooking Le Conte Canyon.

Day 3: For the next two days, we will be hiking off-trail in some of the most rugged and spectacular country in the Sierra. We start this third day by crossing Knapsack Pass into Palisade Basin, where the 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).  Here we cross into the Glacier Creek drainage, where we plan to make camp. Two more 14,000-foot peaks, Middle Palisade and Mt. Sill, are our neighbors.

Day 4: 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 5: At Palisade Lakes we join the John Muir Trail, which we 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 not easily reached. Thus it receives fewer casual visitors than the more easily accessible sections of the trail, and we expect to encounter other hikers in fewer numbers than in those accessible sections. 

Our trail climbs south through magnificent scenery at the head of the Palisade Lakes to reach 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. The Palisades Group dominates the view to the north, and to the south is the vast granite bowl of Upper Basin, which contains the headwaters of the Kings South Fork, less than a half mile ahead. We descend into the basin and make camp well off the trail near a high, barren lake at the foot of Split Mountain. 

Day 6: We plan to spend a second layover day in Upper Basin. Split Mountain -- one of the more easily climbable 14,000-foot Sierra peaks -- provides a spectacular view of the Palisades and Kings Canyon high country. Other possible layover-day destinations include any of the many small lakes that dot Upper Basin.

Day 7: We rejoin the John Muir Trail and continue south along the Kings River, which starts as a small creek, but gains flow and speed as we hike downstream. Eventually the trail departs from the river.  Not far past this point we’ll leave the Muir Trail on a spur trail that leads to Bench Lake. The view of 12,950-foot Arrow Peak beyond the head of Bench Lake is among the most well known and magnificent in the Sierra.

Day 8: 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 the lake.

Day 9: We start our final day by backtracking to the Muir Trail, which we follow only briefly before reaching the unmaintained Taboose Pass Trail.  We’ll hike over relatively gentle alpine terrain to the pass (11,400 feet), where we’ll pause to enjoy the expansive views back to the South Fork of the Kings and Arrow Peak. Our trip concludes with a major descent to the Taboose Creek trailhead in the high desert of the Owens Valley. 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.  The trip leaders 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. 

Altogether, we will hike about 42 miles, of which about 12 miles are off trail. We plan to hike four to 12 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.

Maps covering our route include:

  • 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 (published by 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 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.

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 Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park and Inyo National Forest.



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:

Larry Watkins lives, works, and plays in Tacoma, Washington. An avid backpacker and cyclist, he has been hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada, Cascade, and Appalachian Mountains for over 20 years. A participant and staffer in both local and national Sierra Club outings, he enjoys sharing his passion for the wilderness with others of all ages. "Nothing finer than a summer adventure in the Sierras!"

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