Introduction to the High Sierra Nevada

“I have sometimes been asked what charm there can be in the higher levels of the Sierra, when the forests are gone and nothing remains that is not dead and forbidding, a bare crags and snow-fields. To such a question the surest answer would be an evening spent in such a camp as we had that night. Such a scene! – wild, desolate, forbidding. White granite for miles, black shadows in the canyons and clefts glistening show, and tiny lakes sparkling in the moonlight: jagged, fantastic peaks and pinnacles with alpine intensity of light and shadow, and masses of ice and snow clinging to the gentler slopes. And withal the intense quiet and loneliness of the place, a seeming new world where man and his works are nothing. The thrill of it all comes even now, though months have passed, and will remain through the years to come.”

— Lincoln Hutchinson, 1903

Welcome to my logbook à la picture album. Here you will find my collection of hikes through the High Sierra Nevada. The tables in this document indicate of the one way trail length, and accumulated ascend and descend. Sorry, most of the logs are still in Dutch, since I have not gotten around to to translate them.

‘though this may help you planning your trip, it should by no means be your only source. Always consult official forest service maps!
Mountaineering doesn’t have much purpose but much meaning

Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake (CA)

This is still on my wish list. Description, elevation and map.

This trail is characterized by the many lakes it touches. Initially it climbs up to Kearsarge Pass (3607 m). The view from the pass looks promising on the map. The trail then leaves the bear territory (take canisters) as it leads down into another basin dotted with little lakes. Leave early to avoid the crowds, as the first basin is within easy reach of day hikers. The Onion Valley (2804 m) trail head. Go west from Independence 15 miles to the road-end parking lot.

16 miles round trip. Best season mid to late. Strenuous when done with only one overnight stay.

Accumulated elevation gain

elevation ascend/day descend/day trail backpack
Onion Valley 9,186′
1. Charlotte Lake 10,427′ 3,215′ 2,000′ 7.3 mi 5:30
2. Onion Valley 9,186′ 2,000′ 3,215′ 7.3 mi 5:00

Description from the trail guide “Sierra South” (pg. 66+67)

The trail leaves the road a few yards north of the Onion Valley camp ground and switchbacks up a dry, manzanita-covered slope. Switchbacks always seem to come in bunches, and this ascend is no exception. The first set of switchbacks is relatively open and exposed, offering fine views back onto Onion Valley and south to the heavily diked summit of Independence Peak. After about .5 mile there is a short level stretch where one may study the distinctive shapes of the large foxtail pines nearby. Found only at high altitudes in the mountains of California, fixtail pines have distinctive dark purple cones that take two years to mature. The densely needled (in clusters of five) branches do look like tails and do look inviting to touch – but you’ll probably get sticky fingers if you do. Then the trail enters John Muir Wilderness and switchbacks steadily again, until after a mile it comes close enough to tumbling Independence Creek that only a few steps are needed to reach the wild flower-lined stream bank and slake one’s thirst.

After this draught, on a more gradual slope, our path crosses many runoff rills in early and mid season, where a neophyte botanist may identify specimens of Queen Anne’s lace, paintbrush, wallflower, tiger lily, columbine, shooting star and whorled penstemon. At the top of this gently grade is Little Pothole Lake, not much for camping but boasting two beautiful, willow-lined cascades pouring into its south and west bays.

After another set of rocky switchbacks, the trail levels off in a slightly ascending groove across glacial moraine and then reaches small, round Gilbert Lake (3175 m). Poor-from-overuse camp sites dot the shores of this fine swimming lake, and fishing for rainbow and brook trout is good in early season. This small lake absorbs much of the day-hiking impact from people camping at Onion Valley, as does Flower Lake, at the top of the next set of switchbacks. There are many highly used camp sites along the north and east sides of this shallow lake (3110 m). Less used and more scenic are Matlock and Bench lakes, the first reached by an unmarked trail that leads south from the east side of Flower Lake, and the second, cross country west from the first.

From Flower Lake the Kearsage Pass Trail turns north and ascends steeply to a viewpoint overlooking Heart Lake. Now the trail switchbacks up to another overlook – this time the lake is the nearly perfect blue oval of Bit Pothole Lake. From the trail high above the water, the lake, with its backgrounding granite finger, is particularly photogenic. Continuing, the trail rises above timber, except for a few hardy white bark specimens, and then makes two long-legged traverses across an exposed slope to the low saddle of Kearsage Pass (3604 m). To the west, the impressive view encompasses the Kearsage Lakes, Bullfrog Lake and the serrated spires of the Kearsage Pinnacles.

On the west side of the pass our route descends easily on a traverse high above the basin holding the Kearsage and Bullfrog lakes. After passing a spur trail branching left to the Kearsage Lakes (on-night stay limit) and Bullfrog lake (no camping), the route continues westward on a gently descent into sparse timber. Crossing several small run-off streams in early season, the rocky-sandy trail contours high on the view full slopes above Bullfrog Lake. Now descending steadily through sparse-to-moderate white bark and foxtail pine, the trail offers fine views south to Center Peak and Junction Peak. On this view full slope we reach a fork whose branches go to the John Muir Trail. We take the left fork south west. Our route descends gently onto a sandy flat in a broad saddle overlooking Charlotte Lake, where at an X junction (not shown on the t.5 topo) a short mile to Charlotte Lake (3161 m). Good camp sites line the north shore. Emergency services are perhaps available from the resident summer ranger on the north shore.


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Lake Sabrina to Midnight Lake (CA)

This strenuous trip lets you explore a large number of lovely lakes against a Sierra Crest backdrop, some 750 meters above. Those who can not get enough of it, may go and explore the many surrounding lakes during the afternoon.

Accumulated elevation gain

elevation ascend/day descend/day trail backpack
Lake Sabrina 2780 m
1. Midnight Lake 3350 m 920 m 330 m 9.0 km 5:00
2. Lake Sabrina 2780 m 390 m 985 m 9.7 km 4:00

Description from the trail guide “Sierra South” (page 21+22)

Go 18 miles south west from Bishop on highway 168 to the backpackers’ parking below the lake, at the North Lake turn off. Your route follows the road .5 mile to the trail head, on the left about 100 yards below the dam. From here we follow the trail markers to Blue Lake, to begin a long traverse of the slope above the blue expanses of Lake Sabrina. The route is initially through lush greenery and over small streams, but it soon strikes out across the dry, sunny hillside above the lake, where there is a sparse cover of aspen, pine and mountain mahogany. Where the dusty trail crosses talus, you encounter many aspen, indicating a plentiful underground water supply. View from here are excellent, expending all the way to the Sierra Crest.

From halfway the lake the trail switchbacks steeply through a moderate cover of lodgepole pine, crosses a small stream, climbs onto a ridge north of Blue lake and swings south. The remaining ascent to Blue Lake is a quiet ravine that heads just above the lake’s north shore. A short descend through over-used camp sites brings you to the outlet of picturesque Blue Lake (3166 m). This spot is a photographers delight, with weather beaten lodgepoles along the uneven shoreline and rugged Thompson Ridge towering above the clear waters of the lake.

From the rock-hop ford of the outlet, the trail winds through granite outcrops on the west side of the lake. About midway along this side is a trail junction, where going straight would head to Donkey Lake. Our route turns right towards Dingleberry Lake. The winding trail passes over a low saddle, down across a rocky slope and back up granite ledges into a grassy valley spotted with pines. Soon you reach the shade outlet of the lowest of the Emerald Lakes. Although these lakes are close in size to ponds, they are indeed little gems. The trail then curves toward the Sierra Crest. The trail ascends gently to a saddle, where you can look down on lovely Dingleberry Lake, to which the trail shortly descends. The south side of Dingleberry Lake is swampy and beloved by mosquitoes.

Your route continues south west on the main trail. Soon you pass an unsigned spur trail to the left that leads to Pee Wee and Topsy Turvy lakes. A few moderate switchbacks carry you up past the signed trail to Hungry Packer lake. Almost immediately you cross the outflow creek from Hell Diver Lakes, which are nestled about 200 m above you to the west. Soon you come to a small lake; from here you climb easily over granite shelves and quickly reach Midnight Lake (3350 m). The lake lies at tree line in a granite bowl with sheer sides stretching upward to the Sierra Crest. A 90 m waterfall courses down to its western shore. Excellent camping begins at the small lake and continues among the lodgepole pines that end at the lake’s outlet.

From a Midnight Lake camp site, you can follow the almost level trail to start Hungry Packer Lake. As you return, detour to Moonlight Lake – you will pass by waterfalls and pools to play in. A further relatively easy 175 m ascent cross-country brings you above timber line to Echo Lake. Or, if you prefer a more challenging ascent cross-country, Blue Heaven Lake and Hell Divers Lakes can be reached by a clamber up the west side of Midnight lake’s bowl.

On the second day, you back trace your steps, with a detour to Topsy Turvy Lake, a little cross-country to Pee-Wee Lake.


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North Lake to Humphreys Basin (CA)

Easy Facts: 14 miles round trip. Best season mid to late. Strenuous when done with only one overnight stay. Starts at North Lake. Ends at Upper Golden Trout Lake.

Humphreys Basin offers excellent cross-country day hiking to dozens of lakes. From huge, barren Desolation Lake to lightly forested, turquoise Packsaddle Lake. The intricate, twisting beauty of the basin’s many stream channels surpasses any human design. You can easily spend a day rambling up and down one. There are peaks to bag, ranging from difficult Mt Humphreys (Class 4 by the easiest route) to gentle, unnamed knobs. A base camp there give you access to countless high-country delights. The trail is easy. Away from it, be ready for cross-country hiking that grades from easy off-trail to enjoyable but demanding boulder scrambling. Continue reading “North Lake to Humphreys Basin (CA)”

Silver Divide Timberline (CA)

Mosquito Flat to Ruby Lake (CA)

South Lake to Dusy Basin (CA)

Edison Lake to Graveyard Lake (CA)