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Hiking the High Sierra Trail – An Overview

Hiking the High Sierra Trail

Hiking the High Sierra Trail

Lesser known than the famous John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Trail (HST) is in many ways just as historically significant as it’s longer and more famous brother. In 1928, Sequoia National Park was expanded from the western section famous for the giant Sequoia Grove all the way to the Eastern Sierra and Mt. Whitney. At that point, park officials had to decide how to travel from West to East, as there were currently no trails or roads. The decision was made not to build roads, but instead to build a trail. This project – the High Sierra Trail – would be a grand five-year national project of incredible engineering and trail building…one of the last such projects ever.

It is incredibly well documented in a short video done by a retired Sequoia National Park Ranger:

If after watching this video, you don’t want to immediately go backpack this trail, watch it again!

Trail Details
Distance: 72.2 miles
Time: 6-8 days
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 13,303 ft
Dogs: No
When to go: July-Sept
The High Sierra Trail has two great ascents – the first one over Kaweah Gap and the Great Western Divide, and the second over the Eastern Sierra and Trail Crest at Mt. Whitney. From the grandeur of Hamilton Lakes Basin and Precipice Lake, to the awe inspiring Big Arroyo and Kern River Valley, the High Sierra Trail is some of the best that Sequoia National Park has to offer. Then, the big finish where the High Sierra Trail, JMT and PCT all connect on the route up from Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake and Mt. Whitney gives all of the backpacking community a chance to come together in one grand finale!

Why hike the High Sierra Trail? It’s a great way to get views like these!

Big Arroyo on the High Sierra Trail
Expansive Big Arroyo
Stunning alpine meadows on the High Sierra Trail
High Alpine Meadow
Camping under Mt Whitney
Guitar Lake
Near the summit of Mt Whitney on the High Sierra Trail
Climbing Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous 48 states.

High Sierra Trail Map & Elevation Profile

Here’s what the route looks like. You can click and zoom or expand the map to full-screen to see additional detail. You can download the GPX file for use with your GPS app.

Download file: HST Complete (Optimized).gpx

Getting to the Trail

As with all Sierra thru-hikes, the first challenge is figuring out transportation. With the High Sierra Trail, you start at Crescent Meadow on the Western edge of Sequoia National Park in the giant tree grove. You finish at Whitney Portal. The two locations are a six-hour drive apart.

Here was our solution:

  • Rent a car from Enterprise – one-way rental – to Visalia, CA airport.
  • Take the Sequoia Shuttle ($15 for two people/one-way) to Sequoia National Park.
  • Pickup our permits at the Lodgepole Visitor Center (open 7am to 3:30pm daily) and stay the night in Lodgepole Campground. Reservations are recommended and campsites run $22 per night.
  • Take the free in-park shuttle the next morning from Lodgepole to the trailhead at Crescent Meadow (the first shuttle leaves at 8 a.m.).
  • Use Eastern Sierra Shuttle to take us from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine hotel upon completion.
  • Get our son to come pick us up in Lone Pine and drive us home to Los Angeles (the KEY element).

We departed on a Friday, spending the night in Lodgepole. On Saturday morning at approximately 9 a.m.we began our 72-mile adventure to Mt. Whitney across the entire width of Sequoia National Park.

Eight Day Itinerary for the High Sierra Trail

The HST is the perfect length for a week-long trip with nine days (five weekdays and two weekends). Here is our itinerary:

Editor’s Note: Detailed photos, maps and narrative for each day will be published, one-per-day. As each day goes “live” the itinerary below will link to it. 

When to Hike the High Sierra Trail

The high passes on the High Sierra Trail hold snow sometimes even year round. In the spring, they can be practically impassable. Most HST trips are taken in July and August, but you’ll find smaller crowds in September after school starts.

Getting Permits for the HST

About 75% of the permits can be reserved in advance, with the remainder reserved for walk-in permits. You can check for permit availability here. Permits cost $10 plus $5 per person (so a permit for two people would cost $20). It’s important to remember that your permit reservation is not a permit. You’ll still need to pick it up at the Lodgepole Visitor Center either the day before you begin your hike (after 1:00 pm) or on the morning you begin your hike (before 10:00 am). To get a permit reservation, you will need to fax your application following these instructions.

High Sierra Trail Weather

Weather on the High Sierra Trail can be difficult to predict. If you’re hiking in the summer months, expect some cold nights and warm days. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Sierra Nevada, and you can even get a surprise snowstorm.

Your best bet is to check with the ranger before you pack for your trip for the latest forecast and conditions. For planning purposes, use Mountain Forecast. The high point on this trek is Mt. Whitney, so it’s a good reference point for the weather extremes.

Ready for More?

Next up: Day One on the High Sierra Trail.

Got questions about the High Sierra Trail? Join our HST discussion forum.

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