Pacific Crest Trail Section Profile: Sierra Nevada
While each section of the PCT boasts its own beauty, the High Sierra is commonly thought of as the most grandiose. This section spans 390.25 miles and has total elevation gain of 57,888 feet. It passes through multiple national parks and national forests, including Sequoia, Yosemite, and Kings Canyon. Management agencies for all these regions can be found here.
All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit – the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine. – John Muir
Terrain and Climate
The highest point in the High Sierra (and the entire PCT) is Forester Pass, which reaches 13,153 feet. Early and late in the season, conditions are difficult to traverse without mountaineering expertise and gear. Generally, thru-hikers heading northbound enter the Sierra starting in July, and SOBOs try to exit the Sierra no later than mid-October (entry date is more flexible for SOBOs). In both 2017 and 2019, high snow conditions have provided significant risks for NOBO hikers. High snow levels make navigation difficult, and river crossings in the spring melt are made much more dangerous. You can keep track of snow conditions here.
Note: Fires are not permitted above 10,000 feet / 3,048 m
The best approach to mountain passes is to summit in the morning—the earlier, the better. Later in the day, increasing temperatures can make for worse footing in the snow, making it more slippery and more likely to posthole. There are seven main mountain passes to be traversed in the Sierra.
In order from south to north:
- Forester Pass (13,153 ft / 4,009 m)
- Glen Pass (11,926 ft / 3,635 m)
- Kearsarge Pass (11,709 ft / 3,569 m)
- Pinchot Pass (12,107 ft / 3,690 m)
- Mather Pass (12,100 ft / 3,688 m)
- Muir Pass (11,955 ft / 3,644 m)
- Sonora Pass (9,624 feet / 2,933 m)
Flora and Fauna
There is a drastic change in flora and fauna as you pass from the desert to stark granite peaks. The alpine zone sits above 10,000 feet, which is above the treeline and boasts limited plant life other than grasses and lichen. Below treeline, you will find a variety of tree species, including pines, firs, and even giant sequoias. There tends to be plenty of water in this section, but with that will come bugs.
The lizards and scorpions of the desert fade away as well, replaced with marmots, squirrels, and bears. Because of the prevalence of bears in this region, you must carry a bear can between mile 750 and mile 1,018.3 (Bridgeport, CA). Simply hanging food is not acceptable; you must use a certified bear-proof container. Rangers will issue tickets for those traveling without a bear can. Many thru-hikers use a BV500, but there are alternatives. Most ship them to either Kennedy Meadows or Lone Pine; you can slap a shipping label right on one and send it through USPS. Lone Pine is a more difficult resupply location because you need to hitch about an hour out of Horseshoe Meadows, but that’s 50 miles fewer that you don’t need to carry a bear can, and resupplying in Lone Pine can be cheaper than doing it at the Kennedy Meadows General Store.
Resupplying in the Sierra is a little more complicated in some areas because you need to hitch farther into towns like Lone Pine, Independence, and Bishop. However, there are other options such as Reds Meadow Resort Resort, Kennedy Meadows South and North, and Tuolumne Meadows post office, where you can mail resupply boxes right to facilities much closer to the trail. There are often additional fees for picking up at these locations. More details about these fees and distances of resupplied from the trail can be found here.
Kennedy Meadows South | Mile 702.8
KM South is a landmark of the PCT; crossing that threshold marks the end of the desert and the beginning of the Sierra. Home to the legendary General Store, Grumpy Bear’s killer breakfast, and Yogi’s store.
John Muir Trail
The JMT spans 211 miles from Whitney Portal to Yosemite and covers most of the Sierra section of the PCT. The JMT and PCT overlap for about 170 miles, diverging at Red’s Meadow. Although permits are required to hike the JMT, a PCT thru-hiking permit is accepted as a substitute. PCT thru-hikers are no longer needed to get a separate Mount Whitney permit so long as you access Whitney from the PCT and return to the PCT after your summit. More frequently asked questions about hiking the JMT can be found here. One of the highlights of this region is taking a side trip up Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US. Mount Whitney is not far from Death Valley, home to the lowest point in the contiguous US.
Muir Pass | Mile 838.6
The hut at Muir Pass was commissioned by the Sierra Club in honor of John Muir in 1930. That’s right, this structure is almost 100 years old. Few structures can be found at such elevations, let alone somewhere so remote at the High Sierra. It can serve as an emergency shelter for hikers if necessary.
Yosemite National Park | Mile 947.3
Yosemite is a national treasure (OK, all national parks are, but this one is HUGE!). The PCT/JMT pass right through this 748,436 acres of preserved wilderness area, featuring magnificent peaks, sequoias, and beautiful meadows. It’s considered one of the most beautiful places in the US, with good reason. If you’re interested in spending more time in Yosemite, it is known for rock climbing (especially famous peaks including Half Dome and El Capitan), camping, and hiking within the national park. As a bonus, hikers can find on-trail resupply at the idyllic Tuolumne Meadows.
Lake Tahoe | Mile 1093.0
The PCT follows Lake Tahoe for 50 miles. If you’re interested in a short backpacking trip, or a side trip from your thru-hike, the Tahoe Rim Trail is a great choice. It’s a 170-mile loop around Lake Tahoe, with two resupply options in Tahoe City and South Tahoe.
Sonora Pass | Mile 1016.9
Not long after the end of the JMT, hikers climb Sonora Pass and begin a slow descent out of the High Sierra. It gives a phenomenal last look at the scenery of the Sierra before NOBOs descend into an entirely new section of the trail—NorCal. This is also where—rejoice!—you can shed your cumbersome bear can.
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