The Sierra High Route

An Early Scouting Trip

One feature of the High Route that I especially like is that hikers can travel wherever they wish, bypassing entire sections or turning lakes on their"wrong" sides. It would be so easy to forget an elemental truth: The High Route is not a trail. It is simply a recommendation about how and where to travel the length of the Sierra at timberline, in summertime.

Though it is impossible to describe the day-by-day itinerary of the High Route in a short article, I can accompany the prospective trekker northward, describing the general terrain, relating some anecdotes (sometimes moralistic!), and offering a few warnings and suggestions.

At the end of the Kings Canyon Road, at the embarrassingly low elevation of 5,000 feet, the High Route begins. When my wife, Kathy, and I embarked upon a 20-day scouting trip at this southern road head, we were in woeful shape — or, more likely, overburdened with gear. We tottered into our chosen campsite at Grouse Lake that first night with aching shoulders and legs. It was a sobering way to start a trip, but at least we had made it to 10,500 feet, an elevation much more to our liking.

The environs of Grouse Lake contain all the magical elements of timberline country. Two species of pine ring the lake: the ultra-common lodgepole and the whitebark, a conifer John Muir called the "tree-mountaineer that climbs highest and braves the coldest blast." Both species are dwarfed and twisted at this altitude, with the result that neither blocks the view across the lake, where acres of glacier-polished slabs spiral up a gentle incline enhanced by ancient, coppery snags. The silence is absolute; the air feels thin, light. One wants to sing. One should sing!

Retracing Some Old Footsteps

During the next several days we wandered below Cirque Crest, traipsing through meadowlands and over unnamed passes, encountering forested lakes and rockbound tarns, snowfields, and talus. We crossed a craggy notch early one morning, discovering a tobacco-can register — only one page, dating back half a century, was filled.

Another day we followed in the footsteps of a 1935 Sierra Club outing, 100 strong, whose members cheerfully traversed this wild and unknown country. We wondered how they were able to cajole pack animals over such rough talus and down narrow defiles. Detouring over to well-named Windy Point, we located the exact rock where in 1935 Ansel Adams memorialized the expedition overlooking the splendid gorge of the Middle Fork of the Kings River, 4,800 feet below. I took a snapshot also, a pathetic and depthless imitation.

It was late September and stags roamed timberline, their top-heavy racks reflecting the morning sun. Pikas gathered grasses for the upcoming winter, filling the air with two-toned alarm calls. We admired their perseverance and even got to use a nice clichi: "Make hay, friends, while the sun still shines." Most of the birds had fled the autumn chill, but Clark's nutcrackers worked noisily and comically to pry whitebark cones from their moorings. Once we even saw some fellow hikers, but we passed on different sides of a tarn with a simple wave, remembering with a start that we were not the only humans on earth.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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