The Sierra High Route

Hikes along the High Route: Kings Canyon to the Second Recess

Few hikers will want to make the entire, month-long journey to northern Yosemite. Fortunately, the High Route often passes fairly close to roads, and one can enter or exit with relative ease. (Note, however, that a car shuttle or detailed advance planning is mandatory unless one makes a loop trip.) For the backpacker heading north from Kings Canyon, the first feasible exit point is lovely Dusy Basin, 35 miles into the journey. Six High Route miles equate to about 10 trail miles, so one might plan on six days of walking for this leg. From Dusy an excellent trail leads across Bishop Pass to the road at South Lake, a five-hour jaunt.

North of Dusy, the High Route follows established trails, including the John Muir Trail for 20 miles, since the terrain closer to the crest is so jagged. This is no hardship, however, for this stretch of the Muir Trail passes through LeConte Canyon, the high-country equivalent of Yosemite Valley, and the Evolution Country, a starkly beautiful area long favored by mountaineers.

Since the Muir Trail drops into the forested lowlands beyond Evolution Lake, the High Route, contrary by nature, heads cross-country once again. Soon one stands astride Snow-Tongue Pass, a saddle on Glacier Divide — the northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park.

From this 12,300-foot notch a startling view unfolds. Vast Humphreys Basin, teeming with lakes but nearly devoid of trees, is dominated by Mount Humphreys, the immense landmark of the central Sierra. This peak, 13,986 feet high, will become a familiar friend, its shape ever-changing as one arcs around it during the next several days.

Watch Your Step

The descent from Snow-Tongue Pass is perhaps the most demanding section of the entire High Route. Steep talus, crazily tilted at times, and a year-round snowfield make for a most unpleasant half hour. It is probably best not to stare at the precipice too long. Simply start down, one person at a time, and be extra cautious about loose rock.

North of Humphreys Basin, the terrain is much more moderate. Backpackers with little previous cross-country experience might find it best to join the High Route at this point, reached via the Piute Pass Trail in about four hours from the road at North Lake. For the next 50 or 60 miles one is frequently walking either through vast, tundralike meadowlands or on"Sierra sidewalks," those ramps of varnished granite that seem to appear hourly.

Feather and Gabbot Passes, with their lovely intervening basins, are soon crossed, and the hiker then descends into the lush valley known as the Second Recess. Glaciers have sculpted four gargantuan, U-shape hanging valleys into the south side of the Mono Creek canyon. The Second Recess, with its level floor and burbling brook, is the very definition of peaceful. Aspens line the creek, and huge red firs touch the sky, their latticework needles presenting a psychedelic moiri effect in the afternoon breeze. Walking among these colossal trees, I remembered Joseph Conrad's famous description: "Vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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