The Sierra High Route

Scouting the High Route

I was lucky enough to be awakened to the splendor of timberline country as a young boy on Sierra Club outings, and during those early explorations I became entranced with the austere country close to the main crest. And it was because of this affinity that I"discovered" the High Route.

Twelve years ago, while gazing at an untrammeled pond at 10,000 feet, I had a sudden thought — almost a vision. Three of us had just finished our fourth day of cross-country timberline walking. We had seen lovely scenery and, though it was August, hardly any people. I blurted out, "Wouldn't it be something if we could hike along the 10,000-foot level like this for weeks all the way to Yosemite?"

Back home, after studying maps and reading yellowed journals, I outlined a continuous passage from the south end of the range to the north — a timberline traverse. Why did I fixate on this austere world? Simple. One can hike in forests nearly anywhere, and too much talus is tedious. But that narrow band bordering the 10,000-foot level in the Sierra is unique. Writers like Muir and David Brower have glorified this world of the granite slab and the whitebark pine. And, for nearly a century, photographers like Joseph N. LeConte, Ansel Adams, Richard Kaufmann, and Galen Rowell have splendidly captured the magical qualities of timberline light.

Over two summers I explored my Sierra High Route, gathering notes for a guidebook and wearing out boots and partners in my quest for the ideal passage. Certain notches that appeared feasible on the map seemed, in situ, too sheer and loose for most backpackers. And since the High Route was never intended as a technical climbing route — no ropes are needed — I devised alternate ways. I had lots of fun — and lots of trouble explaining to my friends that the project constituted a "real job."

Finally, I was finished. The High Route stretched 195 miles from Kings Canyon National Park to just beyond the northern edge of Yosemite National Park. In between the two parks the route wandered through several National Forest Wilderness Areas, including two that bear the names of Sierra notables: John Muir and Ansel Adams. Most of the route traversed that resplendent belt between 9,500 and 11,000 feet, and it was trailless for some 100 miles.

High Route Vignettes

When I scouted the region north of the Ritter Range, I was guessing about where to go. I knew a Sierra Club party had been in the vicinity in 1907, but their published account was tantalizingly vague. So too was a brief description in a 1934 guidebook that ended with the phrase, "This is a fairly rough but short and spectacular route for knapsackers."

Short it wasn't. Rough and spectacular it was. I can still see Kathy wading the North Fork, waist deep, a look of intense concern on her face as she contemplated the frothing gorge below. I can easily take myself back to that alpine meadow in Bench Canyon, where perhaps a million wildflowers, of ten species, covered acres of slope.

What memories! The startling view from Blue Lake Pass, on the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. The vigorous cascade at Florence Creek, a display of water unequaled on the High Route. The top part of Half Dome, far in the distance and simultaneously marveled at by thousands of tourists — from the exact opposite direction.

A few days to the north lies the Tioga Pass Highway and civilization. At Tuolumne Meadows, that sublime expanse of green surrounded by the greatest proliferation of granitic domes on earth, one can find a store and showers. Only the most zealous High Route travelers will be able to bypass such luxuries.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »