The Californian High Sierra

29 Jul - 21 Aug 2008


All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2008. Not to be copied, duplicated or used for any purpose without permission.



Welcome to my Sierra Nevada trekking page! Here I have photos and a brief writeup of a 4 week hiking trip that I did in the Californian High Sierra in July and August 2008.

For a gallery of my favourite photos from this trek, click here!

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California is well known for its sprawling cities, economic wealth, ribbons of elevated motorways, Hollywood, LA, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. An alternative perspective on California is of a huge area of alpine wilderness, fully protected and encompassing dozens of peaks above 4000m, countless pristine alpine lakes and meadows, and an abundance of native fauna both large and small. It is this perspective of California that I came away with after my 2008 trip there, as this trip was entirely dedicated to an exploration of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain range that runs from north to south right through the eastern part of the state.

The Sierra Nevada is home to Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the mainland USA, as well as a host of other peaks above 14000 feet. These rocky peaks are a mecca for rockclimbers and trekkers alike, and I climbed four of these 14000 foot peaks on my trip there. But to me, it isn't the peaks but the alpine lakes and wildflowers that add so much to the beauty of this area. Add to this stable sunny weather throughout the summer months and an abundance of fascinating fauna and you have a pretty fantastic trekking destination.

The area I visited in mid-2008 encompassed three national parks, Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, and two designated wilderness areas, the Ansell Adams Wilderness and the John Muir Wilderness. From Tuoleme Meadows in Yosemite National Park in the north to Mt Langley in the south, these national parks and wilderness areas encompass an enormous pristine alpine area.

It is possible to hike through all these areas on established trails, and the John Muir Trail is a popular trail leading from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt Whitney. However it is my preference to trek away from popular trails, keeping above the treeline where possible, and exploring remoter and lesser visited areas high above the bear and mosquito infested valleys! Our route therefore took us over many high passes and our camp sites were usually near high lakes well above the timberline. We did three separate trips, each between 7 and 9 days long, thereby allowing us the opportunity to restock our food and supplies every week or so. In this we were greatly assisted by our friends Doug and Lizzy who live in Bishop, a small town conveniently located very close to the mountains on the eastern side of the Sierra range.

The parks and protected areas are subject to a quota system, meaning that a permit is needed for any overnight trip in the area. The rules and regulations surrounding the quota system are extensive, and I will make no attempt to document these here as they are well documented both online and in guide books. I have put some links at the bottom of this web page to relevant material on this subject. Suffice it to say all overnight visitors to the area are subject to the permit system and the regulations which go with them, which include the compulsory use of bear canisters for the storage of all food during the trek. Another important regulation is that it is not permitted to camp within 100 feet (30m) of lakes and streams during your trek. These and other regulations are aimed at protecting fragile alpine areas from being loved to death by humans, and it is largely owing to these regulations that the High Sierra is such a pristine and unspoilt wilderness area. Compliance with these regulations is not hard, and once you have a permit specifying your entry and exit trailhead and dates, you are pretty much free to roam the wilderness to your heart's content for the period covered by your permit. Camping is allowed almost anywhere (except within 100m of water sources) and you are free to walk or climb whereever takes your fancy. Thus a walk in the Californian High Sierra is truly an unforgettable wilderness experience.

The three trips that I did in August 2008 are listed below. Click on an image or one of the links to see more photos! Scroll further down this page for more information on maps, guidebooks and some useful links.

Trip 1 - Yosemite and Ansell Adams Wilderness

Tuoleme Meadows to Devils Postpile

29 Jul - 5 Aug 2008 (8 day trip)


Trip 2 - Mt Whitney region

Kearsarge Pass, Forester Pass, Lake South America, Wright Lakes, Mt Whitney, Discovery Pass, Mitre Basin, Mt Langley, Cottonwood Lakes

6 Aug - 12 Aug 2008 (7 day trip)

Trip 3 - Evolution/Palisades region

Lamarck Col, Darwin Bench, Wanda Lake, Ionian Basin, Amphitheatre Lake, Lake Basin, Upper Basin, Split Mountain, Mt Sill, Barrett Lakes, Bishop Pass.

13 Aug - 21 Aug 2008 (9 day trip)



Maps of the Sierra Nevada come in many varieties, shapes and sizes but I will mention only two series here, as these two series of topographic maps are all you need for planning and carrying out your trip.

Tom Harrison 1:63 360 shaded relief topo maps

The entire area described on this web page is covered by five sheets in this series. At a scale of one inch to the mile, these maps cover a large area and are good for a general overview and trip planning. This scale is more than adequate for trips that keep to walking trails and they are also useful for some off track walking. For serious off-track walking in rugged terrain, the scale is a bit too small and the USGS 1:24000 maps are better.

A disadvantage of these maps is that they come folded in a set way, and it is often necessary to open out the entire map to look at one section. The folding is not logical, and you can't just open out the sections you need.

The maps are made of waterproof and tear resistant material, a nice feature, but in the Californian High Sierra where the summer weather is so reliable, this is one mountain range where this feature isn't really needed.

The contour interval is 80 feet. You can order these maps online.

USGS 1:24 000 topographic maps (7.5 minute series)

These maps are produced by the US department of the interior. At a scale of 1:24000 and a contour interval of 40 feet or 20 metres, these maps provide excellent detail and are by far the best maps for off-track walking in rugged terrain.

Another advantage of these maps is that they are sold flat, so you can fold them yourself in a logical way so that only the section you actually need needs to be unfolded.

A disadvantage of this series is that each sheet covers only 7.5 minutes of latitude and longitude, meaning that often several sheets are needed to cover the entire area of your trip. Typically you would go from one sheet to another about every 2 days.

These maps are excellent in detail, extremely accurate and very easy to navigate with. These are the preferable maps for serious off track hiking. They are less appropriate for trail walking due to the larger distances covered and less need for such large scale maps when following trails.

You can order these maps online.

In truth, a combination of both the above series of maps is probably best.

Guide Books

The Sierra Nevada has been thoroughly documented and there are many guide books and reference books on the area. I will mention three only, as these three books were by themselves more than adequate for my needs.

The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes and Trails

by R. J. Secor

This is a very comprehensive and useful reference book detailing almost every known peak, pass and trail in the entire High Sierra. It is a rather large book due to its comprehensive coverage, too large in fact to be carried on your trip. It can be used as a reference book during trip planning and then you can photocopy the relevant sections that you need and just take those on your walk.

This is a "must have" reference book for any serious trip to the High Sierra.

Sierra High Route, Traversing Timberline Country

by Steve Roper

This book describes a high route through the entire Sierra, a route that aims to keep above the timberline and avoid major trails, travelling through alpine wilderness as far as physically possible. For anyone seeking a remote high level trip above the tree line, this is an excellent book. Whereas routes like the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest trail follow forested valleys for much of their length, this route keeps higher on average. The book also contains excellent descriptions of the region's history and wildlife.

John Muir Trail

by Elizabeth Wenk

The famous John Muir Trail goes from Mt Whitney in the south to Yosemite Valley in the north and passes through the heart of the High Sierra. Even if your trip, like mine was, is primarily an off-track high level route that errs in favour of wilder lesser travelled country rather than established trails, it is almost inevitable that your route will include parts of the John Muir Trail. This book describes this trail in detail from start to finish, in great detail. The book is clearly laid out, includes high quality maps, and information is easily accessible in tabular form. The book has many tables showing campsites, distances and so on. All the information you need for trip preparation and planning is available in this book in a readily accessible and easily referenced form.

Useful Links

Yosemite National Park Wilderness Permits

Inyo National Forest Wilderness Permits

Bear canister rental

Order topographic maps from Tom Harrison Maps

Order topographic maps from USGS

Bus service between Bishop and Reno




Web page created 22 Sep 2008, last updated 22 Sep 2008.

All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2008. Not to be copied, duplicated or used for any purpose without permission.