The High Sierra Trail: What, Why, How
This summer, my dad and I are headed back to California — where he grew up and where I lived for the first nine years of my adult life. High Sierra Trail, here we come!
The High Sierra Trail — stay with me here — is a trail in the High Sierra. It starts at Crescent Meadow, heads over Kaweah Gap, and eventually meets up with the John Muir Trail at a junction that goes to Mt Whitney. It’s not a particularly long trail, only about 72 miles from Crescent Meadow to Whitney Portal. While a lot of notable trails run north-south, the HST runs west to east across the Sierra; Kaweah Gap is where it crosses the Great Western Divide.
Now and then the High Sierra Trail is confused with the Sierra High Route (the HST Wikipedia page actually starts off with “Not to be confused with the Sierra High Route”). Although the HST crosses some rugged terrain, it is actually a trail, not a high route.
The trail is in Sequoia National Park. It got its start in 1928, when the park boundaries were being expanded and park officials had to figure out how to get from west to east across the Sierra. Over the next several years, the trail was carved out. According to Wikipedia, “it was the first Sierra trail built solely for recreational use.”
The High Sierra Trail is often compared to or at least mentioned alongside the more famous John Muir Trail. And there it is: the JMT is more famous. I do have the JMT on my trail bucket list, but for my return to the Sierra after a few years away I like the idea of doing a trail that isn’t quite as well known yet. The shorter distance also means a quicker trip, which is easier to wrangle around a job. I work in tech, which can be pretty hectic, so even a short trip away leads to an awful lot of catching up to do once I return.
I can’t take full credit for the idea; my dad has been in on this since the beginning and was actually the one who suggested the HST in the first place. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be with me for the hike later this year. He and I have done a fair bit of backpacking together, both as a duo and with various other family members along, so we’re both pretty stoked for this one. Our last trip together in the Sierra was several years ago, and neither of us has been out there in a while, so this feels long overdue.
From late May through late November, access to the High Sierra Trail is quota-limited. Some of the permits for each entry date can be reserved in advance, with a handful kept in reserve for walk-ups each day. Six months ahead of the entry date, that day’s reservable permits are released. Within a few minutes, they all get snatched up. The day I got ours, for a start date in mid-July, I logged in one minute after the opening time, and 80% of the day’s permits were already claimed.
We’ll probably take about a week to do the trail, which would allow for a fairly leisurely pace and/or some side explorations on the way without pressure to have super high-mileage days every day.
As with many trips, transportation to and from trailheads can pose an interesting challenge; Crescent Meadow and Whitney Portal are about a 5.5-hour drive apart. Neither my dad nor I live in California anymore, which means neither of our cars live there either. HST hikers cobble together all manner of ways to navigate the stretch between trailheads, including private shuttle services, public transportation, very very generous friends/family, and so on. TBD what our strategy will end up being — stay tuned!
Outmersive Films made a short documentary about the HST a few years back. It includes some beautiful footage from the trail, as well as background info about the trail’s origin and history — a fun bit to add to our trail research repertoire!
Feature image: Inyo National Forest, 2018 • photo by me • The High Sierra Trail doesn’t go past the Minarets, but the Sierra High Route — with which the HST is sometimes confused — does.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.