Traverse the High Sierra.
Sometimes it's the pitch that gets you, the itinerary you can’t resist. Case in point: “How about we walk across the highest mountain range in the Lower 48?”
That’s the elevator speech for the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, a west-to-east traverse across California’s Sierra Nevada range. It’s an epic hike, gaining a cumulative (and jaw-dropping) 13,300 feet in elevation while zigzagging through some of the finest mountain scenery in North America — all craggy peaks, wildflower meadows, crystal-clear mountain lakes, and natural hot springs. And here’s the beauty part: The trail is only 72 miles long, so a fit team can knock it out in less than a week. In other words, you get the sense of accomplishment you’d derive from hiking the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails — without having to quit your job and say goodbye to your family to do it.
Starting among the giant sequoias of the western slope, the High Sierra Trail climbs the immense canyon of the Kaweah River, which crests a massive midrange ridge — the Great Western Divide. Then it plunges deep into the Kern River Canyon and heads up to the summit of Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 feet is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. After that, it’s a downhill cruise to your end point in the high desert of the Owens Valley.
A challenge in walking the High Sierra Trail is the same one that faces every hiker on a route that goes from point A to point B: getting a ride home. One option is to have a friend hike the route in the opposite direction, so you can meet in the middle and swap car keys. Or make your way to the town of Visalia in the foothills and catch the Sequoia Shuttle into Sequoia National Park. Then, when you’re done, catch a bus from Lone Pine, at the base of Mount Whitney, to Mammoth Yosemite airport, a couple of hours north, or to the Metrolink train station in Lancaster, a few hours south. (There’s also the option of a longer loop that takes you back to the start.)
The hike is arduous, so count on about six days to complete it (or 10 days for the loop). There’s plenty of water along the way, and you’re free to camp just about anywhere, but you do have to carry all your own food — with one exception. If you book far enough in advance, you can reserve a tent cabin for your first night in the backcountry at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, a bare-bones spot where you can get a hot dinner and breakfast, plus a boxed lunch to go.
After that, it’s pure wilderness and more than 3,500 feet of elevation gain — over precarious suspension bridges and through a tunnel blasted into a sheer cliff — to reach Kaweah Gap, gateway to the Great Western Divide, with sweeping views eastward to the nearly 14,000-foot peaks of the Sierra crest. The all-natural Kern Hot Springs comes on day four, way down in the immense U-shaped gorge of the raging Kern River. And you’ll want a soothing, long soak before the ascent through subalpine meadows and alpine boulder fields to the top of Mount Whitney. From that windy plateau, you can see way off east into Nevada, clear south toward the Mojave Desert, north up the entire spine of the Sierra Nevada, and west back over the entire route you just walked. –Daniel Duane
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