USA - Sierra Grand Traverse

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Comparison: Sierra High Route and Sierra Grand Traverse
Sirre Grand Traverse cover
Our suggestion for the ultimate Sierra Range high adventure, a mainly off-track traverse of most of the range which passes close to all of the highest peaks. We returned in 2019 and walked most of our new route as described below, a couple of short sections we had done on our previous trip. We returned in 2022 and re-walked some sections of our route to gain more photos and improve the notes, a second proof read in the field can help improve any text. We have written a guide to the traverse, Sierra Grand Traverse and this is being published by The Mountaineers. There are some significant similarities and differences between our route and the Sierra High Route and they have been described on this page.

In 2015, we enjoyed a great walk along most of Ropers Sierra High Route, SHR. However, we found some deficiences with the SHR, the 6000 foot climb from Kings Canyon is not an ideal way to start any walk and the route misses the highest part of the range around Mt Whitney. It also starts on the western side of the range while most of the resupply points are on the east making logistics awkward. Because of logistics, many start from the east and do a 2 day walk crossing Kearsarge Pass to get to the start. Roper deliberately avoided making his route go over Mt Whitney as it would have essentially followed a very long section of the John Muir Trail and hence would be mainly a track walk which is not what he was seeking. Also he assumed that most who would attempt the Sierra High Route would have already completed the John Muir Trail hence, where possible, he kept off that trail. With the knowledge of the 1970s the Sierra High Route was a good choice for a mostly off-track route in the northern section of the range. However, forty years later, more exploration of the high passes and basins has been done and there are now several other suggested high routes that criss-cross each other. It is now possible to walk the entire range passing Mt Whitney with about the same amount of track walking that is followed on the original Sierra High Route.

The first is the Southern Sierra High Route (SSHR).This was designed as an extension of Ropers route to include Mt Whitney. It follows Ropers High Route from Bishop Pass to Upper Basin then follows a long section of the John Muir Trail (JMT) to just past Vidette Meadows (following the JMT was the very thing Roper was trying to avoid) then goes mostly off-track and follows a series of high passes and basins past Mt Whitney. The southern half is a good mainly off-track route, only problem is that much of the northern half follows the John Muir Trail. Logistics are good as all access points are on one side of the range, the east side. One problem for through hikers on this route is it passes through the restricted Mt Whitney zone for which it is hard to obtain permits. By using a variation and following trails to the west of Mt Whitney for one extra day, a special permit for the Mt Whitney zone is not needed.

The other new high route is by Andrew Skurka which he has named the Kings Canyon Basin High Route (KCBHR). Essentially it starts from the west side of the range at Lodgepole and follows some high ridges and passes to meet the SSHR and JMT at Vidette Meadows. There is a brief section on the John Muir Trail then it goes off-track over Gardiner, Arrow and Lake Basins then descends and follows a long section of the John Muir Trail through Le Conte Canyon to Muir Pass. It then heads south into Ionian Basin, descends the very rough Enchanted Gorge and finishes with a huge climb over Monarch Divide to join the SHR with a long descent to Roads End in Kings Canyon. The centre section over the basins is very attractive but the end includes includes some rough walking with long descents and climbs which are really just a way of getting back to the roads to the west (this is admitted in the description). While Skurkas guide states that logistics are good as the start and end are close to each other on the west side, the reality is that logistics are poorly thought out for average walkers. All the possible intermediate resupply points are on the east side of the range requiring a very long drive. Unless you can do all of this walk without resupply by either by going as fast as Skurka does (he is a renowned athlete) or carrying 20 days plus of food or are prepared to pay packers to resupply you by horse or mule (expensive!) this is not an easy route to organise resupply.

Ideally any long distance off-track traverse of the range should include a potential ascent of Mt Whitney and also be easy to organise food drops. It should be completely based on either the east or west of the range but not both as it can take most of a day to drive from one side of the range to the other. Because of the almost level valley on the east side that is the more practical side to base a trip from. By combining the major parts of all three existing routes along with some new sections, we have created what must be close to being the ultimate high level route in the range for experienced backpackers, we named it the Sierra Grand Traverse as it traverses the grandest part of the range. We expect someone must already have done a similar trip at some stage but never publicised it.

The Sierra Grand Traverse route

From south to north, the initial suggested route from our 2016 to 2018 research was as follows. It began by following much of the the Southern Sierra High Route from Cottonwood Creek past Mt Whitney to Vidette Meadows (in detail, Cottonwood Lakes to Soldier Lake, off-trail north over Crabtree Pass then Discovery Pass to the south side of Mt Whitney, sidetrip to summit then west to Guitar Lake, west to Sandy Hollow then north up JMT to Bighorn Plateau, off-trail to Wright Lakes, over Rockwell Pass then Shepherd Pass, down to The Pothole (possible supply point on Shepherd Pass Trail) over Shepherd Pass to Golden Bear Lake then join the JMT near Vidette Meadows), briefly follow the John Muir Trail over Glen Pass, then cross over Rae Col or follow the marked track into Sixty Lake Basin. Go over Sixty Lake Pass into Gardiner Basin to join the KCBHR. An alternative is to follow the KCBHR over Gardiner Pass but this approach skips the lovely Sixty Lakes Basin. Continue north over King Col (a difficult pass) and descend to Woods Creek. A couple of hours east on trails then off-track again and up a creek then over White Fork Saddle to White Fork Creek or up the next creek (White Fork Creek) then  climb over White Fork Pass to Bench Lake (for its classic view) then down to the base of Cartridge Pass. Alternative is to follow the KCBHR over Arrow Col then down to the river below Cartridge Pass. Climb Cartridge Pass to Lake Basin and include a short sidetrip to Marion Lake (this visits the main feature of the first basin on the SHR without the 6000 feet climb!). Then head over Dumbbell Lakes Pass then leave the KCBHR and go north over Amphitheatre Pass to Palisade Creek (Skurka has updated his KCBHR to now take this route) then descend to the JMT. Turn east and follow the John Muir Trail for a few hours climbing the Golden Stairs to Palisade Lake. (An alternative from Lake Basin is to follow the Sierra High Route over Frozen Lake Pass then along the John Muir Trail to Palisade Lakes but that involves more track walking) From Palisade Lakes following the Sierra High Route all the way to its end at Twin Lakes is one possible route. We have explored a higher amd much scenic alternative from Thousand Island Lake through to Tuolumne Meadows but it does require some navigation skills.

By 2019, we decided our initial route could be improved further. Some of the possible changes could only be proven by trying them out. The major oone was an alternative route for the section from The Minaret area through to Toulumne Meadows that was almost entirely off-track and is much more in line with what was originally envisaged by Steve Roper. The route essentially crossed Vernon, Sluggo and Russell Passes plus some smaller unmaned passes. We also followed a more direct route from Golden Bear Lake to Kearsarge Lakes over University Shoulder that avoided the JMT plus a few other changes. After our return we started to write up our route as a traverse of the range. We have completed the writeup, as a result of our 2019 trip we have made a few improvements to the suggested route that's outlined above and the resulting guide book, Sierra Grand Traverse is being published by The Mountaineers.

 In 2022 we returned to the Sierras and spent another 42 days walking in the highest sections of the range. We repeated some of our traverse, mainly areas where we had either poor weather or smoke haze which had reduced the quality of images. The trip was successful in obtaining many more excellent images along with some minor last minute updates for the upcoming guide book.


To be practical, resupply points should be within 1/2 tro 1 days walk each way from the main route. Drops could be delivered by mules to the route. Which sites you use would depend on how fast you walk and how many days food you want to carry. They are all on the east side of the range, Whitney Portal (special permit needed to use this as a resupply), Kearsarge Pass, Taboose Pass, Bishop South Lake (Bishop Pass), Bishop North Lake (Piute Pass), Pine Creek, Mammoth Lakes and Toulumne Meadows are all suitable. The start/end and all resupply points are readily accessed from the east making stocking reupply points and transport to and from the trail ends fairly easy to organise. Overall, for normal backpackers walking for 5 to 7 hours a day, I would expect this to be a 35 to 45 day walk and would suggest starting in mid-July and finish around mid-September. For runners, judging from the fastest known time for other routes (FKT), 7 to 9 days might be possible. Some friends of ours have used our base plan above and walked about 2/3rds of this route plus added some extra sidetrips over 35 days which included some 10 to 12 hour days, it all depends on what sort of trip you desire. In 2019 we returned and walked sections of the Grand Traverse. We made some significant variations to the original planned route that straightened and improved it. We found and crossed some minor passes that had not been described by others.

Which way to walk

There are pluses and minuses for each direction, we have done significant sections of our traverse in both directions.
North to south
Pluses are the range is not quite as high in the north so acclimitization is slightly easier. Also the northern side of the passes tend to have more scree and be steeper so it is easier from this direction to plot the safest route up passes as you can see most of the climb to a pass. Also, in a high snow year, if there is snow left it is normally on the north side, it is safer to climb up steep snow than descend. Take micro-spikes and maybe an ice axe or suitable step cutting tool if it's a high snow year. Another plus of north to south is that Mt Whitney is a significant highlight and is climbed near the end of the trip. If weather or fitness dictate there is no ascent of Whitney, then another much easier 14,000 footer, Mt Langley can be climbed for an alternative highlight.
Minuses are that as you would often start the traverse in early to mid-summer, snow can be expected on some of the more northern passes making them more difficult. While the southern slopes of the passes are generally easier, for the few passes that have rough terrain on the southern side, it can be harder to pick out the easiest route when descending.
South to North
Pluses are that you are less likely to encounter snow in the passes and the sun is mainly on your back.
A big minus is that the northern side of the most passes are much steeper than the southern sides and it can be difficult to choose the easiest route when descending as it can be difficult to see what's below. Another minus is that after climbing Mt Whitney, for those who are not excited by lakes, the rest of the traverse might be an anti-climax.


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Last updated : January 31st  2023