The Sierra High Route

A Journey at Timberline
Laurel Lake, 9 a.m.
Welcome to the high country

The most spectacular long-distance mountain walk in North America is so little known that only a few hikers have made the trek in its entirety. During nearly 200 miles, the backpacker will cross only one road, see only a few buildings, and walk on established trails less than half the time. And, as a bonus, almost all of the route traverses timberline, that marvelous landscape sandwiched between forest and talus.

Where is this unknown walk? The Brooks Range? The Canadian Rockies? Surely it couldn't be in California! Yet there indeed it lies, deep in the Sierra Nevada, within an easy day's drive of 20 million people. For aficionados of rough cross-country backpacking, the Sierra High Route offers bounteous rewards.

Because the trailless portions of the High Route are too rugged for pack animals, much of the terrain remains as unblemished as it was when the glaciers slipped back toward Canada 10,000 years ago. The legendary white granite still soars into the immaculate sky, and the lakes, thousands of them, nestle like gems in their tight cirques. Trout flash like exhibitionists during their momentary venture into the ether, and streams cascade down iron-stained slabs on their mad rush to the agrarian Central Valley.

The Damage Done

Not all is well in other regions of John Muir's "Range of Light." Tangibly trampled meadows, rutted trails, and heavily abused campsites are of less long-term ecological significance than, say, acid rain, but such disruption can be so visible and annoying that it's no wonder some think of the Sierra as a place to avoid.

A typical place to behold such damage is the famed John Muir Trail. This long path, stretching from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley, sometimes looks like a jeep track—or several parallel jeep tracks. It has been traveled by tens of thousands of hikers and pack animals, and popular areas have a distinctly bedraggled look.

During the past two decades, the various authorities that regulate backcountry Sierra travel have done an admirable job trying to reverse the damage—and they are to be congratulated. Permits are now required for overnight travel, quotas have been established, fires and grazing are prohibited in fragile areas, and camping is banned altogether at the most abused sites.

Thus, at least as far as visible damage is concerned, the once-ailing Sierra is healing. If, however, backpackers wish to see the range the way it was before the gold rush, then they should head for the High Route.

Article and Photo © Steve Roper, 2000

Steve Roper is the author of the classic Fifty Classic Climbs of North America (with Allen Steck) and Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber. The longtime editor of Ascent, he has written many other books and his work has appeared in Summit, Backpacker, Rock 1pma1 Ice, and many other magazines. Steve's articles on Yosemite's high country, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Zion's hidden gems, and El Capitan have been featured on GORP.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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