The History of the High Sierra Trail
Sequoia National Park, California
History of the High Sierra Trail – The High Sierra Trail is a spectacular 72 mile trek across the famed Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, arguably the finest mountain scenery in the United States. It passes right through the heart of Sequoia National Park allowing users to experience some of the most pristine wilderness in existence; Colossal mountains, jagged peaks and ridges, crystal clear alpine lakes, magnificent lush forests, stunning meadows, towering waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife.
Sequoia National Park was established in 1890 in order to protect the giant sequoias located on the western edge of today’s existing park. However, after a decade of political controversy, in 1928 the park more than tripled in size across the Great Western Divide and onto the western slope of Mount Whitney, some 50 miles east.
The additional protections were welcomed, but created a problem in that is was unknown how everything was to be connected across the rugged, difficult landscape. In 1928, John White, the park’s superintendent, made it his goal to connect the new section with the old. He concluded this would not only be done with a trail instead of roads, but he decided that no road would ever be built in the expansion; Something that still holds true to this day.
Without a specific blueprint, White put trail crews to work that year in Crescent Meadow with just a generally idea of where they were going. Construction at that point was relatively fast until they came across the first major hurdle – Kaweah Canyon, a vast canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River which is both wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon.
It wasn’t until that fall when they got a crew on the ground to survey. They concluded that there were two different route options for the trail – a higher route consisting of a big climb into Lone Pine Creek Canyon to Tamarack Lake, over to Lion Lake, and finally over the summit of the Great Western Divide; And a lower route that contoured Bearpaw, climbed to Hamilton Lake, over the gap into Nine Lakes Basin, and then switchbacked up the back wall of the basin over Triple Divide Pass.
By the summer of 1929, a National Parks Service highway engineer named John Deal (spelling?) took over direction of the project with the belief that trails should be designed like highways. In preparing a new report on the project, he concluded that the lower route via Hamilton Lake was the better option, knowing it both was a full 1,000 feet lower at the gap as well as connected better to other existing trails. Although slight adjustments were made over time to ensure not to permanently scar the natural landscape, Deal’s ideas and vision became the blueprint on how to move forward. After climbing to Kaweah Gap, the trail would cross Nine Lakes Basin and switchback up the back wall to the summit at Triple Divide Pass before dropping into the Kern-Kaweah watershed and joining with existing trails at Junction Meadow and then on to Mount Whitney.
That fall, on October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, laying the foundation for the Great Depression. Despite the financial turmoil the country was in, the project was somehow still not put aside. However, in looking at the project and the potential expenses in the declining economy, John White decided that the whole trail didn’t need to be built at that time. They would build sections of it to be connected to those existing trails with the full vision to be built at a later time.
By that first summer of the Great Depression the High Sierra Trail crew actually grew in size and managers got even more aggressive. Multiple crews were working on different sections at the same time near Bearpaw, Kern Canyon, and the west side of Mount Whitney.
After slowly growing the trail, section-by-section, by 1932 John Deal knew they had to finish or he wouldn’t get another year. They were still working within 20-miles of where they had started and the crew of 80 men got a late start due to a wet winter. Even so, but late that summer, they were nearly done with one exception – Hamilton Gorge, a nearly-vertical walled avalanche chute with 60-70° slopes and 200′ walls.
It was decided to build a suspension bridge 200′ off the ground, which was easy to engineer, but much tougher to build in the backcountry. 40,000lbs of steel and cable needed to be dragged by man and mule out 20 miles from the nearest road. Despite that difficulty, by October 1932, the bridge was completed, fully connecting Crescent Meadows to Kaweah Gap and on to Mount Whitney.
Over the years, only small modifications have been made to the High Sierra Trail. In 1934, the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp was built 11-miles in from Crescent Meadow, allowing guests relatively easy access to wilderness lodging (‘glamping’). And in 1937, the Hamilton Gorge Bridge was destroyed by an avalanche so a new route was burrowed into the cliffside and around the gorge.
The middle section of trail that John White deferred has never been built and no trail crosses Great Western Divide where it was proposed. (That section is now an off-trail scramble.) Overall, the High Sierra Trail is still largely intact in its original form and to this day, it is still the largest and most ambitious point-to-point trail project in the National Park’s history.