Planning for the High Sierra Trail
Sequoia National Park, California
I would argue that planning for the High Sierra Trail was more difficult than the hike itself…
First off, permits are absolutely required for the High Sierra Trail and although they’re said to be easier to obtain than permits for the John Muir Trail, they’re still tough to get and done through a lottery.
Honestly, this part was actually super easy for me because I didn’t actually have any part in obtaining permits at all… I heard it was a real pain in the butt! So since I don’t know anything about this aspect, hit up the Sequoia National Park’s permits page.
(Bear in mind, the permit must be picked up in person at the visitor center so you’ll want to consider that when figuring out your transportation…)
Being a thru-hike, west-to-east, through a mountain range with no roads makes getting to and from trailheads one of the biggest challenges in hiking the High Sierra Trail.
There may be other options, but from what I saw, you can:
- Have Awesome, Local Friends – Having someone drop you off at Crescent Meadow and pick you up at Whitney Portal is definitely the best way to go and will make your life much easier. However, it will most likely be huge burden on your friend.
- Drive Two Cars – If you don’t have awesome, local friends, driving two cars seems to be the next best option. The biggest challenge to this method is the nearly 6-hour drive time between Whitney Portal (exit point) and Crescent Meadow. (And that’s without construction or traffic!) Depending on where you’re home-point is, doing this will really add to your overall drive time and even add on a couple days to your trip. On top of that, if you’re flying into California, you’ll be renting cars only to leave them parked and unused for a week.
- Buses – There are public bus options to get around (Greyhound), but I didn’t dive too far into the specifics. It’s worth a look if the first two options don’t work for you.
- Hitchhike – Not my style. Good luck.
We had a lot of moving parts with our crew, but essentially:
- Start – We dropped one car at Whitney Portal and then drove a second car down to Mojave, which is about 2 hours south and on the Greyhound route from Lone Pine. We then got picked up by the other part of our group in a third (rental) car coming up from LA before driving all the way to the Lodgepole Visitor Center to pick up our permit. After the permit, we drove back to Visalia and got rid of the rental car. All in, I think I was in a car for nearly 11 hours that day!!
- Hike – We got picked up at the hotels in Visalia by Sequoia Shuttle (reservations required), which got us to Giant Forest inside the park. We then had to hop a final in-park shuttle from Giant Forest to Crescent Meadow where the trail begins.
- *Hike for a week….*
- End – My car was at Whitney Portal so we piled in and I got everyone down to Lone Pine where we stayed at some hostel (not too bad!!) for the night. I then went north to Yosemite while the rest of the crew hopped a Greyhound to Mojave. Some hopped off in Mojave and grabbed the second car to head for Vegas; The others continued on the bus to Los Angeles for flights out of LAX.
From everything I read and researched, life is just easier if you live in the Bay Area and have two cars.
Whitney Portal & Car Break-ins…
If you’re leaving a car at Whitney Portal, there is apparently some concern of break-ins… by bears. According to everyone I talked to “theft” is not an issue, but bears have been known to destroy cars to get at food.
I called a ranger and I was advised to:
- DO NOT leave anything what-so-ever in my that had any sort of scent, including something as small as chapstick.
- DO NOT leave a clean / empty cooler or propane stove because no matter how clean you think it is, there is still a scent to it.
- DO NOT even leave a clean / empty water bottle because the bears have been trained that those visually represent potential food.
- DO NOT even leave one of those blue 8-gallon water jugs because it’s too visually similar to a cooler. Coolers = Food.
- This also includes not leaving anything in a hard trunk.
Now all that might be overly dramatic, but it was something that I was not going to mess around with. I can’t even imagine coming off trail after a week to find a totaled car because a bear thought my chapstick was a meal… My car was so clean, it looked like it just came off the lot.
Bear Lockers: If you have to leave food or scented items at Whitney Portal, there are a bunch of bear lockers all around the parking lots. Before storing anything in the lockers, just make sure to label everything you leave with your name and expected return date.
The nice thing about my High Sierra trip is that the person who grabbed the permits also did a lot of research as to where to camp and how to break up the trip. No matter what though, there were a ton of sites, many of which included bear lockers and pit toilets.
*I’ll eventually get a bunch more posts up with more specifics on campsites.*
I have found that whether I’m heading into the backcountry for one night or for seven nights, I bring the same stuff regardless. (With the exception of food.) I wish I was one of those people that could go ultralight by cowboy camping and not lugging around legit camera gear, but that’s just not my style. Mentally, I just need my luxuries.
Personally, I had three huge points of stress for packing:
- Food – I needed eight-days-worth of food while making sure not to overpack (extra weight) or underpack (no energy). I’m 5’11”, 165 lbs and I ended up settling for 3,000 calories/day which included freeze dried meals for both breakfast and dinner, a trailmix that is just incredibly high in calories, and a lot of bars, gels, and nut butter. (It’s the only time in my life where I’ve walked around the grocery store looking at things saying, “Shit, I need more calories!”) Looking back, 3,000 calories was pretty perfect for me. I ate a little less a couple of days, but then a little more on the harder ones. I dropped some weight on trail, but I was never hungry at any time.
- Camera Gear – A potentially once-in-a-lifetime trip is always a stress point for a photographer. What gear to bring? What gear not to bring? Do I have enough memory cards? Will I have enough juice in my batteries? ect… Again… I don’t want to bring too much (weigh), but not have something I end up needing. You can find my packing list here, but I ended up with my camera, 2 lenses, tripod, 2 batteries, solar charger, and every memory card I had.
- Weight – Both food and camera gear is heavy and when initially all put together, my pack was just south of 60lbs. Before hitting trail, I was able to get that down to 53lbs, which I felt was more respectable given that I had 10lbs of camera gear alone on top of eight days worth of food. In the end, it worked out, but I was still incredibly nervous. Even getting off-trail, my pack was still 45lbs!
Looking back though, I used everything that I brought with me and I still don’t see what I could have shed. I did end up having some extra food, but that was a given since we got off trail a day early. I also did not use an ace bandage or a patch kit, but I would argue that was a good thing.
Click here for my full packing and food list.
The High Sierra Trail was logistically a total pain in the ass to plan… And worth every single headache.
General Information & Planning:
- The History of the High Sierra Trail
- Planning for the High Sierra Trail
- Packing List & Tips
- Photography Spots & Tips
- Day 1: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw
- Day 2: Bearpaw to Hamilton Lake
- Day 3 (Part 1): Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap
- Day 3 (Part 2): Kaweah Gap to Moraine Lake
- Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
- Day 5: Junction Meadow to Crabtree Ranger Station
- Day 6: Crabtree Ranger Station to Guitar Lake
- Mt Whitney: The Tallest Peak in the Lower US
- Day 7: Guitar Lake, up Mount Whitney, and out to Whitney Portal