Southern Sierra High Route
(2019 Backpacking Trip Report)
The Southern Sierra High Route (SSHR) was developed by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson in 2014. It is 100 miles long and the majority is off-trail travel mixed with sections on the JMT. Elevation loss and gain are high and the going is hard.
Backpacking the Southern Sierra High Route was comparably difficult with the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. Although we found it slightly easier and with less “sketchiness”. It is superb.
This trip report covers my hike of the Southern Sierra High Route. Because of the nature of our 2019 trip we started and finished at the town of Bishop. For more background on the route click here.
This is part 3 of 4 that covers my summer 2019 hike through the High Sierra.
Myself and two friends hiked these routes back to back in August/September 2019. In total we covered 400+ miles over the course of thirty-six days.
These trip reports are taken from my daily journaling whilst backpacking the Southern Sierra High Route and the other routes. They are not intended to be a “how-to” guides but give valuable insight into these high routes through the Sierra. I provide some background info on each of the routes/trails and insert appropriate links to further reading.
Our start date for the trip was the 18th of August. The decision was made to start late in August for a couple of reasons. One, with record snowfall in the High Sierra the previous winter we wanted to give the snow as much time to melt as possible. Two, one of our hiking group Sonic had a serious injury skiing in the early spring. She wanted to give herself as much time to recover as possible.
The timing of the trip was quite good. We hit mosquitoes the first few weeks but they went away when the temperatures dropped. There was strong sun exposure/heat at the start but adjusted quickly. Temperatures did drop dramatically in the middle of the trip. We experienced some snowfall and plenty of below-freezing nights and frost. I would recommend starting a little earlier than this if it is a normal snow year to avoid colder temps.
Let’s dive in..
Start of the Southern Sierra High Route
Day 20 (Day 1 backpacking the Southern Sierra High Route) – Bishop to Barrett Lakes
We ate breakfast and got a decent start out of town. An easy hitchhike saw us at the South Lake trailhead again and headed up and over Bishop pass, again. We had a quick lunch in the beautiful Dusy Basin and watched as dark clouds formed around us. We left the trail, following the GPS track east for the Southern Sierra High Route.
Me and Cheesebeard got up and over Knapsack Pass but Sonic took a while to catch up. She was feeling rough and had been moving slowly. She was eager to head back to town but we made the decision to camp at nearby Barrett Lakes. Hoping a good night’s sleep would help and she’d feel better the next day. We set up our shelters and not long afterward the clouds rolled in and it started raining, thankfully no thunder.
After dinner In the tent, it was time for some zzzzz’s.
Day 21 – Barrett Lakes to the base of Pinchot Pass
Luckily there was no major rain in the night but condensation was real bad. Luckily Sonic felt better and we made the climb up and through Potluck Pass. A little ass-kicker that delivered excellent views.
Around lunchtime, we met up with a couple of other hikers. We lunched together and dried out wet gear from the night before. The afternoons’ activities were the fairly easy but scenic Mather Pass. Followed by a long walk through Upper Basin.
We climbed up to Marjorie Lake, just before Pinchot Pass for the end of the day.
Day 22 – The base of Pinchot Pass to Dollar lake
After a cold night’s sleep well below freezing, we made the climb up and over Pinchot Pass. The morning sun took a while to warm us and there was definitely a chattering of teeth. We had decided to take the Baxter Summit alternate, and it was totally worth it.We followed a light use trail for a while before it ended and we started to scramble up the talus. To reach the ridge above, we had to climb a shoot that required hands and keen concentration.
The ridge was windy and exposed and we had more class four terrain to get us up and onto Baxter Peak. It was the best view we’d had thus far in the Sierra. A challenging/scary/fun climb that reaped big rewards.
Unfortunately, the descent on the other side was miserable. Very loose and dangerous talus that took time and concentration. Cheesebeard called out for help when his foot got stuck under a fallen boulder. It scared us all bad but we managed to lift the boulder and he freed his foot from the shoe. We then dug and scrambled to get his shoe from under the rock. We carefully descended but all of us slammed hard a few times after boulders gave way under our feet.
Eventually, it was over.
At the bottom of the talus field, we continued on. After much following of barely-there trails we found our spot for the night, Dollar Lake.
Day 23 – Dollar lake to Golden Bear Lake
Another below freezing night. It resulted in frozen condensation on all our sleeping bags as we had cowboy camped. Sonic left as soon as she was packed up and me and cheesy lazed and made some hot coffee. Eventually packing up our frozen, wet gear and leaving.
Some miles down the JMT/PCT/SSHR we passed through Rae Lakes again and climbed over Glenn Pass again. Both were equally as pretty as the first time around. We’d miscalculated and thought we had two short days of hiking to line us up for our ascent of Mt Whitney on the third day. We were wrong. We did a short day and realized the following one would have to be a pretty long one to line us up correctly.
We couldn’t push further due to a lack of decent camping (read talus), so we stopped early. We chatted and tried to stay warm by layering up and sitting in the sunshine. The sun set, the mist surrounded us and we called it a night.
Day 24 – Golden Bear Lake to Wallace Creek
A drier, warmer night but I didn’t sleep well. Hot coffee with breakfast helped but we were all cold leaving camp. We immediately started climbing up and over Junction Pass. The climb was long but there was a clear trail to follow and the climb warmed us up. It was fun to look over and see people climbing Forester Pass. Knowing I would be doing it myself on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2020.
The descent down from Junction Pass wasn’t bad and we had a quick lunch in the valley below. Cold winds and harsh sunshine battered us (all day).
We then approached the steep and sketchy looking (from a distance) Shephard Pass. It had looked as though we may have to cross a huge snowfield. But there were solid switchbacks all the way up the climb that avoided the snow. Until one easy to cross stretch at the end.
The valley on the other side was windy but easy going. We then hopped up over the unnamed pass into the Wright Lakes area. A beautiful spot with old gnarled pine trees dotting the valley. A gradual long downhill found us on the unnamed, light use trail following Wallace Creek. We camped before Wallace lake to ensure good camping with some trees for shelter.
Next day Mt Whitney!
Day 25 – Wallace Creek to Mt Whitney Portal Campgrounds – End of the Southern Sierra High Route
We started early and hiked uphill all the way to Tulainyo Lake. We clambered up what seemed from a distance a near-vertical wall. But was, in fact, a challenging, ledgy, talus field. Over the other side, we could see our big goal of the day, Mt Whitney.
We had to descend 2000 feet and then make our way up to Iceberg lake. We ate lunch and started the 2000 foot climb up the steep Mountaineers Route of Whitney. All in all, it was ok, plenty of hand over foot climbing on ledges and a good amount of loose, sketchy scree. It was a fun way to get up the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
The long, arduous descent down the Whitney Portal Trail went on forever. Over 9 miles and 6000 feet of descent. We arrived at the Whitney Portal Campgrounds well after dark and there was no chance of a ride into Lone Pine so we set up camp.
A long 19-mile day with a huge amount of elevation loss and gain!
That was the Southern Sierra High Route!
Backpacking the Southern Sierra High Route in 6 days was manageable, especially with our modified route. Hopefully this trip report gives you some insight into this beautiful, challenging hike.
Now I’d like to turn it over to you:
Did I miss some important information? Or do you have a question about the gear I used? Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below right now.
Use these links to head to the other trip reports: