Route: High Sierra Trail (CA)

California, US

The High Sierra Trail runs 49 miles from Crescent Meadow in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park to a trail junction with the John Muir Trail at Wallace Creek. From there the HST & JMT are the same trail to the summit of Mt Whitney. Hikers must continue another 11 miles from the summit to reach the trail head at Whitney Portal. So, as a practical matter, the HST is really 72 miles from Crescent Meadow to Whitney Portal. Reading most descriptions of the HST one gets the impression that it technically includes only the 49-mile section west of the JMT. However, the Mt Whitney summit plaque (below) suggests that the HST reaches the summit. Still, there are questions about the eastern endpoint of the trail, as discussed by Marcia Rasmussen on our old website. It seems most complete to consider the HST as running from TH-to-TH (Whitney Portal to Crescent Meadow), and including the summit of Mt Whitney. But, people should just be clear about what they have done, and provide intermediate splits so that times can be compared.  Also, it seems most sensible that those wishing to yo-yo the HST (for time) will start at Crescent Meadow and turn around on the summit of Whitney.

Most hikers travel in the HST in the west-to-east direction, which allows some time for acclimation to the higher terrain to the east. However, the higher altitude of Whitney Portal (8360') vs. Crescent Meadow (6700') argues for speed attempts to be done east-to-west. This is especially true since Mt Whitney, just 11 miles from Whitney Portal, is at an altitude of 14,500 feet, providing for a net loss of nearly 8000 feet from this point to Crescent Meadow. The permit process (below) also makes east-to-west trips more practical.

A note on permits: To do the HST in one push (without camping) one requires only a day-use permit for Mt Whitney. This page describes the procedure for obtaining permits. Basically, you can enter the lottery in February (by mail), or you can show up by 2PM the day before your hike at the Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine and try for (by another lottery) a walk-in permit. Walk-in permits are normally available, but definitely not guaranteed. Even if you have a permit reservation from the February lottery you must still pick it up at the Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine the day before your trip.

Despite the quality of the route & long history of this trail, speed trips on the HST are rare. Perhaps the 300-mile, 5.5-hour car shuttle for a 72 mile run has something to do with this! Also, the HST is a VERY committing route. Once you drop down off the west side of Whitney the bail outs are extremely long and will deposit you at remote trail heads a LONG way from your car.




Here's what Marcia Rasmussen has said about the route of the HST, which differs somewhat from what we propose above:

The truth is that there is a bit of disagreement over what actually constitutes the HST. After doing a little digging, I would submit that our best resource might be the Starr's Guide, written by Walter Starr, Jr. in 1948. Starr describes the HST as a trail that goes from the JMT (at Wallace Creek) down to Giant Forest. The Sequoia National Park website also gives this version of the HST. The plaque you picture is commemorative in nature, and not intended as a trail sign. It marks the completion of a trail network, which includes the JMT and HST, though the HST itself does not reach the point where the plaque is placed. The HST is a connector trail from the JMT to the trailhead at the west in Crescent Meadow. Of course, nobody hikes JUST the "official" HST, because it ends out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone wants to go either to Whitney summit or Whitney Portal trailhead, so it is generally done to include one or both of those trails.

About the plaque. I had all kinds of questions about this, the first of which is the 1930 completion date for the "John Muir Trail/High Sierra Trail." Neither of these trails was completed in 1930! So I called the Sequoia Park Historian to ask. His answer was that the
JMT and HST were considered one trail system during the time of construction. The whole system was actually called the "High Sierra Trail" in the beginning, before one particular line was named after John Muir. But, according to the Historian, the plaque was actually to commemorate the completion of the Mt. Whitney Trail--the switchbacks and the trail along the Crest, in particular. That explains the date, as well as the "highest trail in the United States" reference. So the plaque has very little to do with the present-day HST and JMT, except that all of those trails were considered to be one TRAIL SYSTEM at that time. The current designations came later.

This explains the plaque, but does very little to answer the question of where the HST actually goes. I have learned part of the answer, but not the part that matters in this context, regarding the eastern terminus. Meanwhile, I have become interested in the HST history for its own sake. The story is quite colorful. I will have the opportunity to speak with the retired Park Historian next week, and plan to pick his brain. He has delved into the HST history more than the current Historian. The current Historian offered to let me paw through the Park Archives, where he says there are "two boxes" of primary documents from the trail construction era. If I find enough material that is not widely available, I may write something. In any case, I'll check back here if I find any good answers.