The Escalante Overland Route is arguably the most exciting high route in the lower-48! It is certainly the most beautiful and challenging trip we’ve done. The beauty of its remote desert canyons and mesas are equal to the best the planet has to offer, Grand Canyon included. Breathtaking views of red rock and the southwestern desert appear around every bend of the Escalante River. 

The Escalante Overland Route (OLR) traverses the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, arguably the best, true wilderness in the lower 48. Compared to the millions who visit the Grand Canyon each year, the vast expanse of the Monument below Highway 12 has no trails and few people. Many of the canyons only see a few visitors a year, if any. You are unlikely to see another person on the route. It is the perfect setting for a bona fide adventure filled with jaw dropping beauty.

Just to be clear, this is Steve Allen’s route. He describes an “Overland Route” in a few terse paragraphs at the end of a 1997 guide book. He presents it more of a challenge than a guide. In the ensuing 20 years it’s remained off the radar, with almost no known completions. In this sense, the OLR is closer to a “revived” route than a new one. Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I hope that this trip report will inspire more people to experience the wonders of the Escalante.

Lead photo: Author on dawn climb to Scorpion Bench. Andrew Skurka is next up. (Photo Don Wilson)

Alan’s photos: Sony a6000 with various Sony lenses (more on my camera setup here)
Don’s photos: Canon 5d with Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens


What is the Escalante Overland Route?

Escalante Overland Route

While millions gawk a the Grand Canyon each year, only a fortunate few will see this dawn view from a remote side canyon on the Escalante Overland Route.

The Escalante Overland Route is a stunning,  “desert canyon high route.” In many ways, it is better or equal to the Grand Canyon and it certainly has fewer people. For about 100 miles, the OLR stays high above the Escalante River Canyon, holding close to the rim. And counterintuitively, following the rim above the canyon is far more challenging than walking down the canyon bottom. The upside is the amazing view when perched on the edge of the rim a thousand feet above the canyon.

The Escalante was the last river of its size to be discovered in the lower 48 states and the area was the last to be mapped in the lower 48. (So recent that the maps have a 1000 meter grid and UTM coordinates!) Today, only a few canyons such as Coyote Gulch and Neon Canyon see regular use. And some of the side canyons are so remote and inaccessible, that people only go there about once every 5 to 10 years.

Escalante Overland Route

What’s our next move? Don checking out maps high above the Escalante. Navigation is critical & at times beyond challenging.

Stats and Route Info

Escalante Overland Route

CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE: The 100 mile Escalante Overland Route Follows above the Escalante River all the way from the town of Escalante to where it enters Lake Powell. (The traditional OLR is in blue. The new addition is in Red.)

Location: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in Utah
Season: Spring (April to mid-May) and Fall (mid-Sept thru mid-Nov)
Duration  7 to 12 days.
Distance: 100 miles (including the new addition)

  • 80 miles Steve Allen’s traditional route (6 to 10 days)
  • +20 additional miles from town of Escalante to Allen’s route start (1.5 to 2 days)
Navigation: About as hard as it gets. It will confuse the heck out of you unless you are an expert navigating canyon country.  And even then…
Physical: Strenuous. No trails. Long walking on sand, uneven/broken terrain of all sorts, bushwhacking, unavoidable poison ivy, and a lot of scrambling/climbing. Expect low mileage days.
Technical: Semi-technical: For experienced canyoneers that are also rock climbers. Somebody needs to be capable of leading a few of the climbing sections without protection.
Gear: Sand-resistant shoes with tons of grip on rock. Lots of capacity to carry water. Climbing rope, harness, hardware and webbing to form anchors. (Depending on the time of year temperatures can vary from below freezing to 90s °F with intense sun.)
A light pack is key to moving quickly and safely: Here’s a list of the 9 lbs of gear I took
Reference: Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. The Overland Route description starts on page 306.

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The Escalante Overland Route has risk. Some climbing is un-protectable on the smooth slick-rock. Author, free climbing in wet shoes over a pour-off (an overhanging cliff that blocks a canyon). A light pack is critical here! [photo Don Wilson]

Why is this a Trip Report and not a Comprehensive Guide?

While it’s exciting and beautiful, the Escalante Overland Route (OLR) may also be the most demanding high route in the lower-48.  You have to earn the views and the solitude. This challenging terrain demands 100% of your attention. It also requires your absolute best physical, navigational, and scrambling/climbing abilities. It is not a route to be taken lightly.

The original intent was to publish a Guide and Mapset for the Escalante Overland Route. In 2015, Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka and I did the first half of the OLR. In 2016, Don Wilson and I went back and completed the route (Andrew had a schedule conflict). Don and I also scouted the last difficult sections of the new addition—crossing Sandy Creek and Calf Creek.

But in the end Don, Andrew and I agree with Steve Allen. The route is too challenging and dangerous for us, in clear conscience, to publish a comprehensive guide. In fact, a guide would ruin the intent of the OLR—a challenging and complex route to be relished and puzzled out on your own. So we opted for this Trip Report and Photo Essay.

That being said, we certainly don’t want to deter competent canyoneers from doing all or part of the route. People who are interested should read through the Challenges and Cautions for the Route section to assess whether this is something they want to undertake. If not, consider the easier, Non-technical Canyon Backpacking option below. But by all means get out into the canyons!

An Easy Introduction to the Wonders of Canyoneering

Many beautiful canyons are low risk – One can simply walk in and walk out. So, if you are interested in canyoneering but don’t know how, you might want to read my Non-technical Canyon Backpacking in Utah – a how to guide for getting started. There are a number of spectacular, but not difficult canyon systems waiting for you to explore.


Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

Dawn near scorpion Gulch.

History of the Escalante Overland Route

The original “Overland Route” was proposed in 1997 by Steve Allen in a few terse paragraphs in the very back of his Canyoneering 3: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante. He does not say that he’s done the route in any intentional way, although he certainly could have. And it’s almost 100% certain that Steve has done all portions of the OLR at one time or another on various trips.

But I’ve done a bunch of Google Searching and can find only a few mentions of using short sections of the OLR to connect-up a bit of terrain for another trip. As for the the complete OLR, I’ve found no records or trip reports or mentions, let alone a record or mention of someone successfully completing it. The only person I know who has done the complete OLR is Bill Wolverton and that was a number of years back. Bill recently retired, but he worked for the BLM in Escalante for many years. He is something of a local canyoneering expert and legend. According to Bill, he knows a few people who attempted the OLR, but is not aware of anybody completing it. They could have, but never reported back one way or the other.

midday-shade-1200

Water is scarce above the Escalante but sunlight and heat are plentiful. Don taking a break in the shade at a welcome opportunity to resupply our diminished water supply.

Brief Description

Allen’s Traditional Overland Route

The traditional 80 mile OLR (Steve Allen’s) starts on Route 12 near Calf Creek Falls and finally leaves the Escalante River Canyon just before Lake Powell. In between, it aggressively navigates across/around 10 major side canyons (and numerous smaller side canyons) as quickly as possible—many times with difficult-to-locate and challenging technical entrances and exits. It’s certainly the most difficult navigation that we’ve done.

New Extension – Start in the Town of Escalante

I’ve added a 20 mile extension to the traditional OLR. The extension starts on the historic Boulder Mail Trail (BMT) on the outskirts of the town of Escalante, Utah. This trail delivered mail by mule to Boulder, Utah until 1935—one of the last mule mail delivery routes in the US. The extension crosses the famous Box Death Hollow, before leaving the BMT to cross the major canyons of Sandy Creek, and Calf Creek. It joins Allen’s traditional OLR on Rt 12 about 2 miles south of the Calf Creek Falls Viewpoint. (Note: there are some more elegant and challenging ways to cross Box Death Hollow vs. the Boulder Mail Trail!)

Challenges and Cautions for the Route

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Andrew Skurka down climbs a 5th class section of the route. (We had lowered packs using our rope.) [photo Don Wilson]

Steve Allen, the originator of the Overland Route, may have ratings that some consider a bit conservative, but they still bear serious consideration for people contemplating the route. Allen describes the challenges of the “Overland Route” (OLR) as follows:

“It is not intended to be done in one push, although that would be an incredible accomplishment. [The Overland Route is] meant for those looking for remote and seldom-explored country… Most sections of the OLR are appropriate only for hardcore canyoneers that are also experienced rock climbers. Difficult climbing on steep walls, demanding route-finding problems, long distances between known water sources, and other assorted perils await the bold explorer…

The leader must be experienced with belay techniques and capable of leading the climbing sections without protection. Often the route descriptions are brief [or terse and vague to the point confusing and/or downright misleading]. You must be well versed in map reading and not be intimidated by long stretches of complex and convoluted terrain. You will not find the OLR marked on maps in this guide. The dedicated and adventurous will be forced to assemble the puzzle on their own… Warning: Do not take the OLR lightly. It is intricate, at times trying, and without a doubt dangerous.

What We Did

All that being said, we managed the route without a belay. We only used our rope once, and that that was to lower packs so we could do a 5th class down climb without them (photo above). Others might have a very different take on risk and what to do. But Allen is exactly right on on two points:

  1. There are sections where somebody is going to need to climb class 4+ or low 5th class slick-rock without protection. This is usually down climbing which is less pleasant.
  2. The navigation is exceptionally hard.

A Few Parting Photos from the Route

Here are a few more photos to give you an impression of the Escalante Overland Route

overlook-1600

What the world looks like from the rim of the canyon. To give you a sense of scale, those tiny green dots in the canyon bottom are full sized cottonwood trees.

A typical slick rock camp. This is an extermely remote canyon. (We just put quilts down on the slcikrock to sleep.)

Dinner at typical camp in an extremely remote canyon. Practicing leave not trace, we just put down quilts down on the slick rock to sleep. Nobody will ever know if we were there.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable. Don in our final exit canyon from the Escalante River.

Even in the desert getting wet is sometimes unavoidable.

Tarps are perfect for the desert with its low chance of rain. They are a great way to save weight. Don and I only set ours up when there was a chance of rain, otherwise it stayed in the pack. See: Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante

Dawn silhouette above the Escalante.

Thanks

And of course many thanks and gratitude to Don Wilson, Andrew Skurka for being great partners in this adventure. -alan

It’s like Machu Picchu, but remote and not overrun by tourists. So definitely put La Ciudad Perdida (the Lost City) near the top of your travel list!  La Ciudad Perdida is a vast, ancient city in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada mountains on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It is believed to have been built by the Tairona culture around 800 CE, about 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. Researchers estimate it housed between 2,000 to 8,000 people. La Ciudad Perdida can only be accessed via a two-day trek on foot into the coastal jungle of Colombia. As such, it has nowhere near the crowds, and “touristy feel” of Machu Picchu. The following is a Guide to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek, which has all the information to plan a successful and rewarding trip to this incredible site.

Pictures with: Sony a6000 camera, Sony 10-18mm F4 OSS Lens & Sony 18-105mm f/4 G OSS Lens; iPhone 6+.

Top 5 Reasons to Go on Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida Trek

  1. La Ciudad Perdida is on par with Machu Picchu, but without the mass of humanity. Alison and I were on the site for almost an hour before seeing another person.
  2. La Ciudad Perdida Trek is crazy cheap (only $230 USD for four days, food, accommodation, guiding and fees!) and faster/easier to access compared to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. And at only 1200 meters there are no altitude acclimatization issues.
  3. You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. You literally trek through indigenous villages and lands of the descendants who built and lived in the city. It’s far from an overrun tourist trap!
  4. The walk through the jungle is amazing— some of it is virgin jungle. We know of few multi-day treks in the jungle. Swimming in the cool jungle rivers was one of the trip highlights.
  5. A culturally sensitive eco tour. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. The Wiwa fought to protect the Ciudad Perdida historic site from mining and other commercial atrocities. In other words, your tourists dollars go to indigenous guides who contribute to preserving and protecting the Ciudad Perdida historic site and its indigenous communities against climate impacts, vegetation loss, neglect, looting, and unsustainable tourism.
Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

This is what a section of La Ciudad Perdida looks like in full sunlight. It’s perched at 1150 meters elevation on a ridge in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above the Buritaca River. (The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world.)

Note that the “Lost” City of the Teyuna was never actually lost. Local indigenous groups, descendants of the Tairona who built the city knew of the city and traveled through it. It was only “lost” to the outside/non-native world. It was “found” in the early 1970s by local treasure hunters/looters and artifacts started showing up on the black market. Since then, there have been great efforts to preserve and protect the site. La Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. Archaeological work is still ongoing.

Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Lost City Trek

Quick Links to: A Step by Step Planner for Your La Ciudad Perdida Trek
Basic Trek Info (below) Top 5 Things to Know Packing List, Gear for the Trek
Clothing for Insects & Disease What Camps Are Like (sleeping) Food and Water
Quick Links to General Information: Maps, Guides, and Transportation
Map, Daily Itineraries, Distances
(and Elevation Profiles)
Transportation, Getting to Trip Start Guiding Companies

Basic Trek Info

  • Time to go: Colombia is equatorial so you can do this trek year-round. The best time is December to March which is the dry season and a few degrees cooler. Even so, afternoon rain is common in the mountains and should be expected. People from northern climates may appreciate taking a warm weather trip in the middle of winter.
  • Guiding: You can only do the trek with a guiding company (remember: you are an invited guest into sacred tribal lands).
  • Climate: This is a hot and humid trek through tropical jungle, with all that it entails.
  • Difficulty: Moderate intensity hiking with some up and down on sometimes muddy/slippery jungle trails.
  • Distance: About 44 km (28 miles) out and back, with 2,700 m (9,000 ft) of elevation gain and loss.
  • Duration: The Trek is usually done in 4 days (a half-day, two full days, and a final half-day).
  • Altitude: Maximum elevation is at La Ciudad Perdida itself at 1,150 meters, around 3,800 feet. So you will have no altitude issues.
  • Safety: The area has been safe for over 10 years. The Colombian army actively patrols the area and you will be on a guided trip. In 2016, Colombia’s president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace agreement with leftist rebel groups.
La Ciudad Perdida is about 30 km from Columbia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4 hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

La Ciudad Perdida is about 30 km from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4 hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

Top 5 things to know

  1. Climate and terrain: This is the jungle. It is hot much of the time and humid all the time. It will likely rain. You will get wet and muddy either from the rain and/or your own sweat. Your clothes will not dry overnight. You need to dress and pack appropriately. See our Gear and Packing List…
  2. Accommodations: This is far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal with open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. They have netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks), cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), while other camps have no electricity.
  3. Food: Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.
  4. Water: We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in the camps. And between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!
  5. Insects and disease: This is third world, tropical trekking in the jungle. The US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines and/or medicines you may need. More on Disease Prevention, Insects & Clothing…
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You are a guest in indigenous lands at their sacred site. On your trek, you walk through indigenous villages and lands of the decedents of the people that built and lived in La Ciudad Perdida.

Crossing the the Buritaca River with the help of a steel cable.

Crossing the the Buritaca River with the help of a steel cable.

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

After crossing the the Buritaca River you immediately ascend over 1350 stone stairs to La Ciudad Perdida. They can be quite slippery when wet. It’s a steep climb — about 300 meters vertical in 0.9 km (1000 ft in just 1/2 mile).

Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Touring La Ciudad Perdida with our Wiwa guides in traditional white clothing. Our group had almost two hours on site without seeing another group. (There were 4 groups of around 12 people each, the day we went. But the guides coordinated visits so that groups did not overlap. Fantastic!)

Morning mist clearing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This isolated mountain range separated from the Andes chain that runs through Colombia. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world's highest coastal range.

Morning mist clearing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Reaching an altitude of 5,700 m (18,700 ft) just 42 km (26 mi) from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range. (La Ciudad Perdida is nestled in its foothills at 1,150 meters.)

A boulder with carved markings, believed to be a map of the Tairona world.

A refreshing swim in a jungle river after a hot and humid hike.

A refreshing swim in a jungle river after a hot and humid hike was one of the trip highlights.

Drying laundry on the suspension bridge at Adan Camp and nativle commuinty looks like prayer flags.

Drying clothing on the suspension bridge at Adan Camp looks more like prayer flags than laundry.

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Our Wiwa guide, Celso, with his poporo, a gourd used for carrying crushed seashells (lime).

Abel, our Wiwa guide in traditional all-white, Wiwa clothing, including a white shoulder bag. He’s holding his poporo, a sacred gourd used for carrying lime which activates the cocoa leaves they chew.

Packing List for La Ciudad Perdida

  • A heavy pack will make uphill hiking hot and unpleasant. We recommend a small pack with minimal gear — less than 4 kilos (8 pounds) per person — under 3 kilos is even better.  See our gear packing list below for ideas to save weight.
  • It’s not advertised, but you can have gear carried between camps by mule. [All food and supplies go in and out on mule. So the mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!] It’s around 20,000 Colombia peso (COP) per bag for each leg (about $7 USD). Our strategy was to put most our gear (for the two of us) into a single pack to be carried on the mule. We then shared a single 20-liter pack between us to carry our minimal gear while trekking during the day.
  • A simple and inexpensive 10-20 liter daypack works just fine — you probably own one. A mesh/vented back panel is desirable as you’ll be sweating tons hiking uphill in the heat. While not cheap, we found our Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20, with its breathable mesh back and numerous pockets ideal.
  • We strongly recommend a few light dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. And these dry bags should have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing.
  • Trekking poles make it much easier to negotiate sections of muddy/slippery trail and river crossings. They are far lighter and more functional than the single wooden staff most trekkers use. We took these inexpensive but excellent carbon fiber trekking poles. They are ideal for travel as they compact to fit into carry-on luggage.
  • You’ll want a good headlamp. It gets dark at 18:00 and most areas of camp are unlit.

Finally, this is a trip to take pictures!

  • If you are serious about photography, you’ll want to bring a very good camera, and have a strategy that allows you to shoot in light or intermittent rain.
Guide to Colombia's La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Hiking up the main road/path to the highest point in La Ciudad Perdida.

Gear for La Ciudad Perdida Trek

Item Description Oz Comments
Clothing  and insect repellents See Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing below for our clothing list and strategy for avoiding mosquito and other bug bites
Day Pack Just about any 10-20 liter pack If you are sending most of your gear on a mule: We shared an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 20
Backpack for all your gear 30 to 40+ liter backpack If you are carrying ALL your gear (NO mule): See Recommended Lightweight Backpacks. Since food and bed are provided you can get by with a smaller/lighter pack.
Dry bags  These inexpensive dry bags to keep gear in your pack dry — especially, cameras, electronics and important documents like your passport, etc. and these dry bags have a valve-free air expelling design for compact packing
Trek poles Cascade Mountain Tech Carbon 15.2 Help on muddy/slippery trails. Pers favorites. 1/3 price but equal to the best poles
Water bottle SoftBottle Water Bottle One liter is fine. Can use standard commercial bottle. Or  collapsable ones like these
Camera Camera Equipment  You’ll want a good one. See Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras
Earplugs Foam Earplugs NRR 33 If sensitive to noise. Tight sleeping quarters.
Charging EasyAcc USB Battery (5.4) Charge iPhone 6s ~3x, iPhone 6s Plus or Samsung Galaxy s6 ~2x (5,500 mAh, actual!)
Electronics An excellent kit for travel See “Best Lightweight Travel/Backpacking Electronics Gear” for both on and off trail use
Headlamp Black Diamond Ion (54g) 1.9 Light and bright. Use around camp and in unlit sleeping areas. It gets dark at 18:00.
Headlamp Black Diamond Iota Weather sealed. Bright 150 lumens. Can be recharged in the field! E.g the EasyAcc battery pack. Reduce battery waste, and see better!
Toilet paper In waterproof Ziplock bag TP not always at toilets in camp.
Sanitizer Travel size alcohol sanitizer For use when water/soap not available
Soap Dr. Bronners 0.5 Dr. Bronner’s – repackaged into small bottle
Towel PackTowl Personal Towel Fast drying. Get one less than 100g (3 oz)
Sunscreen small plastic tube about 1/2 full 0.5 for face & hands: most of body covered—large hat
Sunglasses mostly not needed in shaded jungle
Lip balm Bert’s Bees or similar 0.2 Minimal wt for dedicated lip balm
First Aid Kit Meds, wound/injury, foot care 3.0 A small personal kit
Headnet Sea to Summit Head Net (1.2) Mosquito netting – don’t take on most trips
Insect repell. Sawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin 0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion
Knife/scissors Wescott blunt tip school scissors 0.9 More useful than knife – OK for plane carryon
Knife Gerber L.S.T. Drop Point (1.2 oz) Can cut bread and salami – very light for 2.6″ blade
Repair Tenacious patch, duct tape, glue  0.2 Also consider Aquaseal and a NeoAir patch kit
All food and supplies go in and out on mule. There is an inexpensive option to have all your non-dayhiking gear transpoted to the next camp on a mule. The mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!

All food and supplies go in and out on mule. There is an inexpensive option to have all your non-day-hiking gear transported to the next camp on a mule. The mule is going anyway and you are supporting the local economy!

Disease Prevention, Insects and Clothing

This is third world trekking in the tropical jungle with possible exposure to a number of diseases.  The CDC recommends visiting your travel doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need. As of this writing the CDC was recommending for the La Ciudad Perdida area, vaccinations/medicines for Hepatitis A, Yellow Fever, Typhoid and Malaria, in addition to “routine travel vaccines.” (Zika is also present in Colombia. As of 2016, it cannot be prevented by medications or vaccines.)

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Our strategy for insect/disease protection: Long sleeve shirt and full-length pants (going down over shoes), both are factory-treated with insect repellent. Then insect repellent applied to the unprotected areas of hands, neck and face. Note that all the natives of the area always wear long sleeve shirt and full-length pants! [I removed my hat for the photo]

And this is the back of a group member that insisted on hiking uphill with his shirt off.

And this is the back of a group member that insisted on hiking uphill with his shirt off.

Your first and best strategy for not contracting insect transmitted diseases is not to get bitten in the first place

Per the CDC’s section for travelers onMaximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks:”

  • We chose to wear long sleeve shirts and full-length pants factory-treated with insect repellent (permethrin). Pre treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing  treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). You can also treat your own clothing with a Permethrin spray (Sawyer)  which lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
  • You’ll want a change of dry clothing reserved for camp use only*. We recommend long sleeve shirts and full-leg insect treated pants as insects are active in camp.
  • Some may also choose to wear insect repellent treated socks, altho in our case our pants draped sufficiently over our shoes.
  • To complete the insect repellent treatment for 100% of our body, we applied insect repellent to the unprotected areas of our hands, neck and face; DEET (or the newer  Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics).  We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. And as always, follow the product’s directions!
  • Per the CDC apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
  • Washing clothes: There’s a great swimming hole at camp Wiwah. You don’t really need a swimsuit. Alan swam in his hiking shorts commando. Alison swam in her running bra and underwear (very close to matching). It was a great way to rise out/wash hiking clothes. It’s a great way to rinse sweat and salt off your body and out of your hiking clothes. Otherwise you can wash clothes in the camp in the evening.

* Note: We took two set of insect repellent pants and shirts — one pair exclusively for hiking, and one pair reserved for dry/camp use only. The reason is that hiking clothes will get wet with rain and/or sweat during the day and will not dry completely overnight. In the morning we just put on our damp hiking clothes (they will be dry in 30-60 minutes from your body heat), and put our dry camp clothes back in our packs. That way we always had dry camp clothes to change into. Bliss!

Clothing and Insect Protection (a light set that won’t weigh you down)

Item Description Oz Comments
Shirt hiking RailRiders Men’s Journeyman Shirt w Insect Shield & Women’s Oasis 10.0 Our favorite: Light, cool, sun protection AND continuous insect repellent. Nice pockets.
Shirt (camp) Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s Also good, widely available via Amazon and other retailers like REI Continuous insect repellent.
Pants (hiking or camp) RailRiders Men’s Eco-Mesh Pant with Insect Shield  10.0 RailRiders pants have huge side vent on legs for cooling. Continuous insect repellent.
Pants hiking ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s 16.0 Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Continuous insect repellent.
Insect repellent Sawyer Picaridin or DEET for skin 0.5 oz pump is airline OK, small, pocketable, and easily applied in field. Picardin also in lotion
Insect repellent Sawyer Permethrin, treat clothing Allows you to treat your current clothing. Lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
 Rain Jacket* Outdoor Research Helium II
or inexpensive REI Coop
 6.4 Great for staying dry when in camp.  Likely too hot to wear hiking except downhill.
 Fleece shirt North Face TKA 100 1/4-Zip  7.9  Light and compact travel garment. For warmth in camp at night and sleeping. Good pillow!
Underwear Patagonia briefs Mens
Patagonia briefs Women’s
2.0 Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days
Bra Patagonia Active spots bra Alison’s favorite
Hat insect Exofficio Bugsaway Hat Sun and additional insect protection for head
Hat regular Outdoor Research Sun Runner Hat 2.5 Removable sun cape. Adaptable to most situations
Shoes hiking  Lightweight trail running shoes Boots not desirable! Most non-Goretex trail running shoes that fit. You probably own a pair.
Shoes sugg.  Altra Superior Trail-Running
(or Lone Peaks)
 18.0  Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Shoes sugg. Inov-8 ROCLITE 295 (20oz) Another favorite. Light, sticky rubber, durable.
Shoessugg. Brooks Cascadia (25 oz) Popular trail shoe, available many stores
camp footwear  Sandals for showering/camp Put insect repellent on your feet after showering or use with socks to wear around camp
Socks Inexpensive cotton M’s and W’s
(bring 3 to 4 pairs)
Socks get dirty & stinky fast in the muddy jungle. Best to wear cheap ones & use as rags after the trip. [Can treat with Permethrin if you want.]
Gaiters Dirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)  1.2 Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.
Swimsuit If you don’t want to swim in your clothes. See washing clothes above.

*Note: You don’t absolutely need a rain jacket. But it’s nice for getting around camp when it’s raining. Or when you are hiking long downhills in torrential rain. Otherwise it’s too hot and the rain is refreshing.

View of the Sierra Nevada. The Lost City is perched on top of a ridge somewhere up “there.”

Guiding Options

As noted earlier we chose to go with an indigenous tour company. Our guiding company, Wiwa Tour is owned and operated by the Wiwa indigenous group, descendants of the Tairona who built the city. Other tour companies are below. All tour companies operate out of Santa Marta.

  1. Wiwa Tour
  2. Expotur-Eco
  3. Magic Tours
  4. Guias y Baquianos
  5. Turcol

Note that many of these tours will be in Spanish. You may need to make arrangement for an English language tour or an interpreter

Transportation, Getting to Trip Start

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La Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) is about 30 km from Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Treks start in Santa Marta at your guiding companies offices. Most people will fly into Cartagena. From there it is 4-hour bus ride to Santa Marta. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

  • NOTE as of 2020: There are now direct flights from Bogota into Santa Marta. You can arrange pick up at the airport with the guides.
  • From the US, it’s easiest to fly into Cartagena.
  • At the airport (as long as it is before about 8:00pm), you can take a taxi to one of several buses that will take you to Santa Marta. The information desk at the airport can assist in getting a taxi to bus services. (Alternatively, stay a few days in Cartagena and get used to the hot weather.)
  • It’s about a 4-hour drive to Santa Marta and the roads can be busy at any time of day. You’ll go through the city of Barranquilla (Colombia’s 4th largest) and will experience heavy traffic there unless it’s off-peak.
  • The most attractive options we found were buses leaving from near the airport: Marsol for COP 30,000/pp and has a set schedule leaving about 5-6 times per day. Last bus at 4pm. Berlinas, which has good WiFi on-board (COP 40,000/pp) and seems to leave about every 30 minutes from 5am ish to 8pm ish–the Marbella Office is 10 minutes from the Airport.
  • If you go to the Main Bus Terminal in Cartagena, you will find the cheapest buses to Santa Marta. But it will take a lot more time to get to Santa Marta.  It’s a long way from the airport to the Main Terminal and the cheapest buses make more stops.
  • The trek starts in Santa Marta. Most treks start between 8-9am from the trekking company’s office.
  • At that point, any unpaid balance is paid and then trekkers are loaded up in the back of a jeep for a 3-hour drive. The jeep’s not very comfortable and packs go on top of the car (our driver covered packs with garbage bags when it started to rain).
  • The jeep then leaves the main road and begins an hour long ascent to El Mamey on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. At El Mamey, after lunch, the hike begins.
  • As noted, at this point if you’d like to use the mules to carry your gear, let the guides know and they can help to organize that for you (it was about $20,000 COP/day).
A typical 4wd vehicle used to transport up to 10 clients and their gear to the trip start.

A typical 4wd vehicle used to transport up to 10 clients and their gear to the trip start.

What Camps Are Like (sleeping)

NOTE as of 2020: Reports are that camps have been completely overhauled and now are, in fact, very nice. Its not what we found but hope that this is indeed the case.

This far from a luxury trip. Camps are minimal. Open walled shelters–many with dirt floors. Netted sleeping bunks (or hammocks). Cold showers and flush toilets. Some camps have very limited electricity (lighting and a few outlets for the whole camp), and other camps have no electricity. See Best Backpacking and Travel electronics Gear to keep your electronics charged and running whether there is electricity or not. Sleeping quarters are tight and you may want to wear earplugs at night.

Note: Although we did not have problems, we did hear a report of insect bites (fleas? bedbugs?) in the bunks at Camp 2 (Wiwa).

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Evening at Adán camp (first night on trek), which is also a small native community. Note the suspension bridge across the river.

Basic accommodations: bunks covered with mosquito netting.

Basic accommodations: bunks covered with mosquito netting. An open air shelter with dirt floors is common at most camps.

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Some camps have an option of sleeping in a hammock covered with mosquito netting. An open air shelter with dirt floors is common.

Some camps have an option of sleeping in a hammock covered with mosquito netting.

Food and Water

Simple, local food is served on the trek. You get breakfast, lunch and dinner in camps and there are two fruit/snack stops during the day. Portion sizes are about right. Food is prepared in a very basic, outdoor cooking area. We ate and drank what they gave us and did fine with no problems.

Typical outdoor eating area. And forget the bare skinned crazies posing as mosquito feeding stations!

Typical outdoor eating area. And please forget the bare skinned crazies posing as mosquito feeding stations! That is certainly not us.

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A typical plate of food [lunch on day 3].

We did not need to treat water. There is free purified water in all the camps housed in large containers (but ask before just to make sure it has been purified!).

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Between camps, if you run out of water there were stands at a few places along the route with snacks, beverages, and bottled water for sale. Even fresh squeezed orange juice if you are lucky!

Detailed Daily Itinerary and Map (4 Day Tour)

The trail can be steep and deeply rutted in sections

The trail can be steep and deeply rutted in sections

The Trail

While daily hiking distances are modest, this is not a flat trek with easy trails. The tropical heat and humidity make the days seem longer and harder. Most folks in our group managed fine, but some sections of the trail are steeply up and down. Some sections are deeply eroded, rutted, and wet. There are more than a few muddy, slippery or rocky sections. There are a number of river crossings. And note that wet rocks (and stairs) can be insane slippery!

Note: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.

The Map

Overall of Ciudad Perdida Trek. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE AS A PDF.

Daily Itinerary for 4 Day Tour

Note 1: most days we woke before dawn, breakfasted and start hiking around daylight (about 6 am). This was to avoid hiking in the heat of the day and to hopefully arrive in camp before the afternoon/evening rain.

Note 2: Guides set the schedule of when you arrive and leave rest stops and camps. As such, your personal hiking speeds/times are likely not relevant. However, we did not hike as one group. The faster hikers arrived at the rest stops earlier, and left the rest stops before the slower hikers were ready to leave.

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Waterfall on Day 2

Day 1 – ½ day hiking to Adán – 7.6 km (4.7 mi) 1,900 ft ascent, 900 ft descent

day1-profile

Text descriptions below are adapted from Wiwa Tour and we’ve left some obvious grammatical errors. Our notes/corrections are in [] brackets.

We start from the oldest city in Colombia, Santa Marta at 8:30 am in a heated [I think they mean air conditioned] van to the sector Aguacatera, there perform transshipment to a 4 × 4 vehicle [No transfer. We took a single 4×4 vehicle all the way from Santa Marta to El Mamey. No A/C in the vehicle but not really needed.] that will lead us towards the sector mamey (Machete Pelao) in there we will have lunch. After lunch we start a walk of 7.6 km to the first camp (Adan hut, peasant community) where we spend the night. We will also make a stop in a crystal clear river for a refreshing bath. Some people complete the walk in 3 hours, others in 5, all depends on your physical condition. During the night, the Indian guide will talk about the history and customs of their community and the region.

[It is full sun and can be very hot hiking steeply uphill in the first afternoon. But there is strong sun is only the first ½ day and last ½ day (Mamey to Adan section). Otherwise you are in the jungle and could get by without a hat or sunglasses depending on your preference.]

It can rain very hard at times flooding the trail and making for slow/slippery going.

It can rain very hard at times flooding the trail and making for slow/slippery going.

Day 2 – to Paradise Camp – 14.7 km (9.1 mi)  3500 ft ascent, 2000 ft descent

day2-profile-copy

Begin a walk of about 8 hours, halfway visit the indigenous community of Mutanzhi and we interact with them, then get to the cabin 3. (Paradise cabin Teyuna, indigenous community). Located at an altitude of 830 meters above sea level, here we are at the foot of Teizhuna (Teyuna), the holy city of the Tayrona. On this tour we will appreciate much of the fauna and flora of our Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In the afternoon we can relax and take a bath in the river. At night the guide will tell you more about Lost City and its sacred meaning for the natives of the Sierra.

Some sections of the trail are quite muddy, although you can usually find a path around to miss most of it.

Some sections of the trail are quite muddy, although you can usually find a path around to miss most of it.

Day 3 – to the Lost City, then return to Wiwa camp – 12 km (7.5 miles) 1800 ft ascent, 3500 ft descent

day3-profile

After breakfast we depart at 7 a.m. to Lost City. To reach the holy city will go up by 1200 steps built by the ancient Tayrona. After about an hour we reach the city and take a journey through the different sacred sites of this. There, the Mamo (Indian spiritual leader) sacred stories tell us and give us advice for life. At 11 a.m. back to the cabin 3 for lunch. After lunch we start down 5 to 6 hours to camp 2 (cabin Mumake, indigenous community [actually Camp Wiwa]) where we spend the night.

Day 4 – ½ day hiking to El Mamey, Return to Santa Marta – 12.7 km (7.9 mi) 2200 ft ascent, 3000 ft descent

day4-profile

In hours of the morning to the Mamey (Machete Pelao), in the way we visit a small natural waterfall to freshen up and take a bath. Arriving at the mamey take lunch, then we collect the vehicle that will take us to the avocado industry [no avocado tour], we will take a heated van that will take us back to Santa Marta. arrival at approximately 4:00 pm.

La Ciudad Perdida site consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE.

La Ciudad Perdida site consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside, a net of tiled roads and several small circular plazas. CLICK ON SITE MAP TO ENLARGE

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The Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) is a superb alternative to the JMT for the adventurous traveler. Compared to the John Muir Trail (JMT), the SoSHR is higher and more remote. It avoids the JMT crowds, the landscape is more spectacular, and the travel more challenging. The increased solitude of the SoSHR intensifies your high-country experience. The SoSHR is significantly higher & more rugged than the JMT with 14 passes over 11,000 ft vs. 4 for the JMT and crosses the Sierra Crest 8 times vs. the JMT’s single crossing.

The SoSHR can be done as an elegant route in its own right—about 100 miles of hiking from end to end. Or it can be appended to the SHR to create a route paralleling the best of the Sierra – a spectacular ~270 mile route stretching from Twin Lakes in the north to Cottonwood Lakes in the south.

Revised in 2016: Includes new/validated route over the Baxter/Acrodectes Ridge. This route:

  • Bypasses an additional 13 miles of the John Muir Trail
  • Avoids the crowded Rae Lakes Basin (via another beautiful lake basin)
  • Keeps the route continuously over 10,000 ft (by avoiding the drop into “Woods Hole”)
  • Most of the 100 miles are off-trail or on unmaintained/decommissioned trails (only 20 mile on JMT)

Lead photo: Dawn view of Mt. Whitney. We summited with Full Packs via the Mountaineer’s route. But rather than exiting at the traditional Whitney Portal we traversed the Whitney Crest and continued south to exit the high peaks near the shoulder of Mt. Langley 14,026′ (4,275 m), the southernmost 14er in the Sierras. [photo Don Wilson]

Overview of the Southern Sierra High Route

by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson

To put it plainly, Roper’s Sierra High Route completely misses the highest and grandest part of the Sierra Mountains. This glorious 40 miles of the Southern Sierra Crest includes Mt. Whitney the highest peak in the lower 48 and the traditional finishing point of the JMT. It’s a must for an aficionado of the High Sierra.

In 2014 Don Wilson and I decided to see if we could put a line together that extended the SHR to the south, traversing near the Sierra crest to Mount Whitney and beyond. A good look at the maps revealed a beautiful line that weaves across the Sierra crest numerous times, maintaining the spirit of the SHR, and offers hiking as good or better than any portion of the SHR. Our Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) extends south from Upper Basin, where the SHR turns west and goes toward lower terrain. It traverses the highest part of the range, mixing travel on the JMT with many miles of superb off trail hiking.

Southern Sierra High Route

Don Wilson on Russell Carillon Col en-route to the Mountaineer’s Route for Mt. Whitney.

The SoSHR is a route in keeping with the spirit of the original SHR, and a route we believe would be close to John Muir’s heart. It starts high in the Palisades, the most rugged sub-range in the Sierra, and offers a summit of Mt Sill 14,154′ (4,314 m). According to R.J. Secor in his must-have book The High Sierra, “Mount Sill has the best summit view of any peak in the Sierra.” The route also includes an ascent of the Mountaineer’s Route up Mt. Whitney 14,505′ (4,421 m) and a traverse across its summit, before continuing on to exit the high peaks near the shoulder of Mt. Langley 14,026′ (4,275 m), the southernmost 14er in the Sierra.

Like Roper with the SHR, we do not claim to be the first or even hundredth people to hike any portion of this route. We stand on the shoulders of many generations of rugged and adventurous travelers in the Range of Light. We simply chained together existing high passes, summits, and trails pioneered by others to create a much longer route.

Resources for the SoSHR

First light approach to climb the Mountaineer’s Route on Mt Whitney.

Southern Sierra High Route Overview Map

Southern Sierra High Route

Where the Sierra High Route goes low and ends in Kings Canyon, the SoSHR continues south along the highest part of the Sierra for another 80 miles. [Click on overview map image to enlarge]

SoSHR vs. JMT — Basic stats from LeConte Canyon to Whitney Portal

2016-soshr-stats

From LeConte Canyon to its the southern terminus, the SoSHR stays closer to the Sierra crest and significantly higher than the JMT.

Don explores the shoreline of beautiful Golden Bear Lake. The lake lies at 11,171 feet in pristine Center Basin, on the way to Junction Pass. Lots of solitude here as it is on a portion of the old JMT that has been “decommissioned” for years.

Permits, Logistics and Other Particulars

Permits
Hiking this route requires a wilderness permit from Inyo National Forest. The entry point at South Lake trailhead is quite popular, so it is best to reserve your permit in advance. As of 2014, permits can be reserved up to 6 months in advance.

When you apply for your permit, it is crucial that you indicate that you will be traveling cross country through the Mount Whitney Zone, which will require an extra fee. After applying online, you will receive a confirmation of your reservation, but you must still pick up your actual permit on the day before your trip begins.  Permits can be picked up at the forest service offices in either Lone Pine or Bishop.  You can arrange to pick up your permit after hours, or on the day your trip begins by calling the forest service office.

Be aware that travel near Mount Whitney is regulated more tightly than in other areas of the range. By entering the area near from the north, you will not need to compete via the lottery for a permit, and your permit from South Lake will be all you need (be sure to choose the option to travel through the Whitney Zone!). Once you enter the area known as the Mount Whitney Zone, special regulations apply. Most notable among these regulations is the requirement to pack out your human waste. Numerous options are available for wag bags that are made for this purpose.

Alan on the upper part of the talus approach, below the steep class 3 section, on the climb to 13,300 foot Russell-Carillon Col. Tulainyo Lake lies below. Tulainyo Lake is the highest lake of its size in North America. The route enters near the upper left corner of the photo, crosses the snow field and traverses along the shore before starting up the talus. [photo Don Wilson]

Entry
The obvious point to access the northern start of SoSHR is Bishop Pass via the South Lake Trailhead. This popular trailhead is just outside of the town of Bishop California. Some may choose to stay overnight in either Bishop or Lone Pine to get an early morning start.

Another option, and one that we used, is to start in late in the day, hike a few miles to a convenient place, such as Long Lake, and make camp for the night. This allows you one night to acclimatize at over 10,000 feet, and gives you a dawn jumpstart the next morning, with a few miles and a thousand feet of climbing under your belt—advantageous if you plan on making it to Palisade Lakes that day. This also saves a vacation day as you can fly, even from the East Coast, and be hiking in the Sierras the same day. I.e. you can do what Alan did and fly to LAS or LAX early in the morning, rent a car, dive to Lone Pine, meet your shuttle and be at the South Lake trailhead by mid-late afternoon. There is no taxi or public bus service from the town of Bishop to the South Lake Trailhead. You’ll need to arrange a private shuttle or hitch from town.

Exit
The route terminates at Cottonwood Lakes trailhead near Horseshoe Meadows. If you opt to leave your car in the town of Lone Pine, you can easily hitch back to town from Cottonwood Lakes. By leaving your car in Lone Pine the logistics are also easier should you end up leaving the route at an earlier trailhead (Whitney Portal, for example) due to weather, slow progress or other reasons. We arranged to leave our car at the Comfort Inn, at the southern end of town.

Duration
We spent about 5½  days on the route. We had 5 full days of hiking, plus very short days on entry and exit.  This included a half day of rest at Upper Boy Scout Lake, where we arrived about noon and spent the rest of the day exploring and relaxing. We did not take the option to climb Mount Sill on this trip, since we had climbed it on a previous trip. Climbing Mount Sill would add between a half and full day to the trip, depending on your climbing speed and the arrival time to start the route.

Airports
The Eastern Sierra trailheads and entry towns of Lone Pine and Bishop are approximately equidistant from the airports in Las Vegas (LAS) and Los Angeles (LAX) —LAS is four hours to Lone Pine (but a stunning drive through Death Valley National Park!), and LAX about three-and-quarter hours to Lone Pine (but susceptible to traffic problems).

From the airports you can either rent a car to get to Lone Pine, or get a shuttle bus from LAX (see East Side Sierra Shuttle). The shuttle from LAX is a bit pricey and might best be a shared expense when traveling with others. There are other private shuttle options from LAX to Lone Pine.

Shuttles
The following shuttle and bus services are available in the area. We opted to leave our car in the town of Lone Pine and take a shuttle straight to the trailhead at South Lake.

  • East Side Sierra Shuttle http://www.eastsidesierrashuttle.com/
    This operates in the southern end of the Sierras out of Independence. You can get shuttled between Bishop and Lone Pine trailheads, or get picked up at LAX and driven to trailhead.
  • Mammoth Shuttle http://originalmammothshuttle.com/
    A bit further from SoSHR trailheads (i.e. a bit more expensive) this operates in the more northern portion of the Sierras out of Mammoth Lakes CA.
  • Eastern Sierra Transit  http://www.estransit.com/CMS/content/395-routes
    A bus service that operates along Highway 395 on the eastern side of the Sierras and connecting the towns of Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes

Bear Canisters
No way around it, a bear canister is required for this trip. The trip passes through Dusy Basin and Rae Lakes, well known hot spots for bear activity as well as the Mt. Whitney area which also requires bear canisters.

Depending on how fast you travel it may be a challenge to fit all your food into a single canister. We just barely fit our food into a Bear Vault BV500 (Don) and a Bearikade Weekender (Alan). There are no easy re-supply points for this trip, so you may need to be creative (but obviously comply with all regulations) if you have more than a canister’s worth of food—possibly sharing a smaller third canister (~300 to 400 in3) with a partner. Here’s another useful reference for bear canisters

Snow Conditions
As a high country route, snow conditions play a significant role in how quickly and safely the route can be completed. While almost all of the route will hold snow early in the season, portions of the route that are most susceptible to holding late snow include Mather Pass, Grasshopper Pass, some parts of the Wallace Creek Valley, Tulainyo Lake, Russell-Carillon Col and the upper part of the Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney. It is up to you to determine the proper gear based on the time of year, snow levels, and your own experience. The route is most easily done when it is nearly snow free. On our trip, it had recently snowed on Mt. Whitney with an ensuing melt and freeze cycle, leaving the final 300 ft of the Mountaineer’s Route icy and more challenging.

ROUTE DESCRIPTION

We describe the SoSHR from north to south, but it can obviously be hiked in either direction. By hiking from north to south you will save the highest and best parts of the route for the last days, when your pack is lighter and your body more acclimatized to the altitude. The route enters at Bishop Pass, joins the SHR in Dusy Basin, and then winds through lovely and complex Palisade Basin. Once over Mather Pass the SoSHR and SHR part ways. The SoSHR heads south toward the high peaks of the Southern Sierra while the SHR heads away from the Sierra Crest towards the lower terrain of the Monarch Divide and Kings Canyon. From Mather Pass, the SoSHR follows the JMT for about 11 miles to the far side of Pinchot Pass. There the SoSHR leaves the JMT and stays mostly off-trail and off of the JMT for the next 60 miles.

SECTION 1: SOUTH LAKE TO UPPER BASIN

The Southern Sierra High Route (SoSHR) starts at the South Lake trailhead, west of Bishop, CA. This popular trailhead allows fast access to the beautiful high country terrain that we seek. In this section we cross the Sierra crest for the first time, and then descend to join Roper’s Sierra High Route (SHR) near Dusy Basin. We will follow the Sierra High Route to Upper Basin, just south of Mather Pass, where our route will head south to higher country as Roper’s route heads west, toward King’s Canyon and lower terrain.

The route stays on trail for its initial miles and climbs over popular Bishop Pass. From Bishop Pass you will see rugged Mount Agassiz (13,899 feet), with its summit less than a mile to the east. Mount Agassiz is the northernmost peak in the Palisades – a fitting place to enter the high country. The Palisades are generally considered the most rugged sub-range in the Sierra, and we will get a close up view of numerous peaks as we traverse just west of the crest all the way to Upper Basin.

Leaving Bishop Pass, head south on the trail for about a mile and a half. The trail descends gradually towards lush Dusy Basin. Just below 11,000 feet the trail makes an abrupt right turn to the west. Leave the trail here and descend cross country to the south, and slightly east. It is only about 5 miles of cross country terrain from this point until you reach the John Muir Trail (JMT) at Lower Palisade Lake. While not technically difficult, much of the terrain in this section is complex and the travel is slow. Expect to spend 5 to 8 hours working your way from Dusy Basin to Lower Palisade Lake.

Your first goal is to traverse toward the head of Dusy Basin at the bottom of Knapsack Pass. Travel is mostly easy through this section and you may pick up an occasional use trail. Upon reaching the head of the canyon, look for a weakness and small gully system below the pass. Ascend this gully system past occasional cairns up to the pass. From the top of the pass you will not drop directly down, but instead head left (east) toward Barrett Lakes. You can drop diagonally down and left, or you can stay high (nearly the height of the pass) along a use trail for some distance before dropping. Either way, your objective is to reach the outlet of the westernmost of the Barrett Lakes (Lake 11428 on your map). Traverse along the south side of this lake and then along a use trail on the north side of the larger Barrett Lake. Your next objective is to climb up to a non-obvious saddle located just northeast of point 12,085. After reaching this saddle, an obvious and easy half mile traverse will take you to Potluck Pass.

Alan hops across rocks near Barrett Lakes, in Palisade Basin. Crossing Palisade Basin involves climbing three passes and some complex terrain. [photo Don Wilson]

From the top of Potluck Pass you need to connect to ramps off to the right (south). Head directly right, looking for ramps that go further right, then slightly down, then right again. Follow these to where the ramps end and you join a steep scree slope. Descend this slope via obvious use trails. Continue southeast to reach the outlet of the large lake between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass.

At this point you have the option (highly recommended) to summit Mount Sill. Mount Sill (14,162 feet) is a classic climb and one of the most beautiful peaks in the Sierra. According to R.J. Secor in his highly recommended book The High Sierra, “Mount Sill has the best summit view of any peak in the Sierra.” Head to the north end of the lake between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass. Then continue north up slabs and talus into the cirque between Polemonium Peak and Mount Sill. Stay north of the snowfields in this cirque if possible and head to the obvious west ridge of Mount Sill. Once on the ridge, the rock improves dramatically. Ascend steep but good rock to the summit. We encountered several class 3+ boulders on the west ridge below the summit. With careful route finding you may be able to keep the difficulty at the class 2-3 grade reported by Secor. For more route information, see the description of the Southwest Slope route (The High Sierra, page 245, 3rd edition). You can expect to spend about 5-6 hours to ascend and descend this climb. By taking the option to climb Mount Sill, you will have climbed a superb 3rd class 14K peak at the beginning of the trip to match another great 3rd class 14K summit at the southern end of the trip; Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route.

We highly recommend summiting Mount Sill. At (14,162 feet) it is a classic climb and one of the most beautiful peaks in the Sierra. According to R.J. Secor in his highly recommended book The High Sierra, “Mount Sill has the best summit view of any peak in the Sierra.” [photo Don Wilson]

Mount Sill, in the center of the photo, taken from the outlet of Lake 11,680, between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass.

Ascending a late season snowfield en-route to summiting Mt. Sill. [photo Don Wilson]

Descending from the summit of Mt. Sill. The route to the summit is the ridge behind Alan and continues up and to the right in this photo. [photo Don Wilson]

Looking north back at Potluck Pass from the vicinity of Cirque Pass. North Palisade and Thunderbolt peak in the background. Unnamed lake at 11,680 spreads out below. Mt Sill is out of the picture to the right.

From the outlet of the large lake between Potluck Pass and Cirque Pass, head southeast up slabs, then turn left when you hit obvious ramps that head up toward the pass. Follow the ramps up to an obvious narrow slot about 6 feet wide. Hike up through this slot and then head left up more ramps and ledges to the summit.

Once on Cirque Pass you have only one more descent remaining before you reach the comfort of the JMT for a number of miles. Expect the terrain to slow you down, as many ledges and slab systems complicate the initial part of the descent. Stay right as you start to hike down, connecting ramp systems and grassy small meadows. The terrain eases up after several hundred feet of descent. As Lower Palisade Lake comes into view, do not head directly toward its outlet. Instead, stay more right heading almost directly south and carefully looking for ledge systems that will connect you to the Palisade Lakes basin below. The further left you go in this final section of the descent, the steeper the terrain will be. You should reach the John Muir Trail in nearly flat terrain west of Lower Palisade Lake. There are popular campsites at the lake’s outlet, but even better sites near the trail about a mile farther along toward Mather Pass. The route ascends the John Muir Trail over 12,100 foot Mather Pass, and then drops into pristine Upper Basin. As the trail levels off and reaches the uppermost lakes in Upper Basin, we reach the end of our first section. Here Roper’s SHR heads to the southwest and Frozen Lake Pass. Our route continues south along the JMT, heading for Pinchot Pass and the highest peaks in the Sierra.

Mount Bolton Brown at sunset, taken from near Palisade Lakes.

SECTION 2: UPPER BASIN TO VIDETTE MEADOW

New for 2016: There are two options for the route between Pinchot Pass and Glen Pass

Note: The new B route is courtesy of our friends Jim Yurchenco and Amy Lauterbach who traversed/scouted it in September 2016 (see their Baxter Pass article). Thanks a million!

  1. This version follows the JMT all the way from Pinchot Pass to Glen Pass. It has the advantage of being on-trail, easy to follow and with little risk. It’s disadvantages are the usual hiker traffic on the JMT and especially in the Rae Lakes Basin. Also, it is the only point on the route that drops below 10,000 feet into “Woods Hole,” at 8,500 ft. (if you take Option B the entire SoSHR will be over 10K.)
  2. *This version leaves the JMT and takes a higher off-trail route. After going over Pinchot Pass it goes off-trail to the Woods Lake Basin. Then summits Mt. Baxter to gain access to Baxter Lakes Basin. From there the route briefly regains the JMT before going southwest at Arrowhead Lake to bypass Rae Lakes via 60 Lakes Basin. It regains the JMT at the base of Glen Pass. The advantages of this route is that it avoids some of the highest JMT traffic areas including Rae Lakes. It it is a much higher route (keeping your entire SoSHR hike above 10,000 feet), with superb views. There’s the option of an easy and fine summit of Mt. Cotter from 60 Lakes Basin. Downsides are challenging navigation, strenuous hiking, and some risk crossing between Woods Lake and Baxter Lakes.

SECTION 2: The Start (for both Options A and B) – Upper Basin and over Pinchot Pass

From Upper Basin the route follows the John Muir Trail for about 11 miles to the 3400m contour on the far (east) side of Pinchot Pass. The first few miles through Upper Basin are some of the most beautiful miles of the JMT, filled with alpine grasses, many small creeks and surrounded by the 14,000 foot crest containing Split Mountain and Cardinal mountain to the east, and the clean granite spires of Vennacher Needle and Mount Ruskin to the west. Descend gradually through Upper Basin, crossing many small creeklets and an infinite selection of beautiful campsites. After about 5 miles the trail reaches the valley bottom, where four creeks come together to form the South Fork of the Kings River. The crossing here can be exciting in early season, but there are frequently good log crossings. Look both upstream and downstream if the water is high. From the crossing, stay on the John Muir Trail, climbing rapidly out of the forest and into the basin below Pinchot Pass. Follow the trail up to 12,100 foot Pinchot Pass, passing several large lakes in cirques below the pass. From the top of the pass there is a beautiful view to the south. Here one can spot Grasshopper Pass in an obvious notch a little less than 6 miles distant as the crow flies. Grasshopper Pass lies at a bearing of 155 degrees (true) from Pinchot Pass. Just to the left of Grasshopper Pass is Mt. Baxter which is the route from Woods Lake Basin into Baxter Lakes basin for Route Option B.

SECTION 2: Option A – Take the JMT from Pinchot Pass to Glen Pass

Red markers on map: Stay on the JMT to the Sawmill Pass Trail junction. [Note: that there is an option to take the Sawmill Pass Trail and join the Option B route].  Go past the SPT Junction and continue on the JMT dropping gradually and following Woods Creek on its west side. After descending all the way to 8,500 feet, you reach a junction where the JMT turns southeast and crosses Woods Creek on an impressive suspension bridge. A heavily used campsite with bear boxes lies on the far side of the bridge. From this low point on the trail the route climbs steadily to the beautiful Rae Lakes which has many campsites, some with bear boxes. Note: The Option A and Option B Routes converge on the JMT above Rae Lakes at el. 3460; just before the main switchbacks at the base of Glen Pass (west of “Painted Lady”).

If you opt for the higher, non-JMT alternate route (SECTION 2: Option B) you’ll enter the beautiful Woods Lake Basin. Here due to the long closure for bighorn sheep, and now low-use as an “unmaintained” trail, we found an abundance of wildlife in this basin. It is highly recommended as an overnight (side trip, 3-4 miles total, out and back) off of the JMT even if you decide not to go over Mt Baxter and into Baxter Lakes Basin.

SECTION 2: Option B – Leave the JMT and take a higher route over Mt Baxter

Purple markers on the map: A mostly non-JMT route exists between Pinchot and Glen Passes.  In no place does the route exceed class 2 in difficulty, although some short sections are quite loose and require caution to cross safely.  It is assumed that the hiker has previous off-trail experience, good navigational skills and appropriate judgment.

Southern Sierra High Route

Picture [click on image to enlarge] showing the key points for the ascent of the north ridge of Mt. Baxter (from near Stocking Lake). A more detailed route description is below. [Photo Jim Yurchenco]

Go over Pinchot Pass and leave the JMT around the 3400m contour and head southeast into the drainage east of Twin Lakes. Contour south and climb to the saddle between Mt. Cedric Wright and Coliseum Mtn. This is Coliseum Col. (From here it is an easy class 1 ascent of Coliseum Mountain.)

Drop down the south side of the Col to the old Sawmill Pass Trail. Cross the trail and continue cross-country to Lake 3331. [Note: see below for an alternate route to here using the Sawmill Pass Trail – green markers on map.]  Skirt the lake on its right side, cross the inlet creek and ascend a series of ramps and benches on the east side of the Stocking Lake drainage. Heading south, your target is a large scree slope and low point east of the mid point of Stocking Lake. South of this low point is the prominent north ridge of Mt. Baxter.

To gain the scree slopes below the crest of the ridge, a prominent chute at the 3700-meter level is climbed. This chute shows as a distinct notch on the USGS topo immediately west of the word CO in “FRESNO CO” on the map. The chute is maybe 40 to 60 meters in length and is loose but not horrible. Ascend the chute and continue up the scree to the Baxter north ridge.

The ridge is solid and easy to ascend. On ridge’s west side and at its top will be another short chute leading to just west of the Baxter summit. Once on top of Baxter, descend southwest to the lake at 3600 (see note below*) and then to the larger Baxter Lake at 3390. Here you will find remnants of the old Baxter Pass Trail. This trail heads west and appears, disappears, and reappears again as it travels down canyon. Follow this trail for something over 3.6 miles to its junction with the JMT near Dollar Lake.

Take the JMT south for a short distance to where it crosses the main drainage from the Rae Lakes. From here, head southwest cross-country to Basin Notch. Climb Basin Notch and enter the 60 Lakes Basin. Use paths and an old trail lead to the lakes at 3300. Here the trail heads east towards Rae Lakes. Leave the trail near the north end of Lake 3304 if you want to climb Mt. Cotter via the south ridge (blue markers on map – Class 2/3, Secor 3rd ed., pg. 166). This is a very pleasant climb to a peak with fine views.

Otherwise, continue on the old trail for another half mile or so and then head south off-trail to lake 3353. From here continue south cross-country over the pass at 3560 and descend the other side to the lakes just west of the JMT. Regain the JMT just below the switchbacks leading to Glen Pass. [Note there is also the option to continue on the 60LB trail to meet the JMT a bit sooner at Rae Lake “3213.” green markers on map]

* Note: Some travelers have advised to be careful when descending to the lake at 3600 as a number of the chutes to the lake have loose rock and debris. Pay close attention to the route on the map, and pick your route carefully. Note that the route holds the ridge/county line until almost reaching “PARK” before descending SW towards the lake. Be sure to take your time to find the best and most solid footing on the way down.

Alternate route into Woods Lake basin to connect with SECTION 2: Option B

Green markers on the map: From the 3400m contour hike the JMT about 1.5 mils to the Sawmill Pass Trail Junction. Take the SPT southeast and immediately cross Woods Creek. The sometimes faint trail then climbs slowly and turns east, traversing along the northern boundary of several lakes. To the south, you will get occasional views of enormous Woods Lake. Your objective is to leave the trail about two miles after the Sawmill Pass junction and head to an L shaped lake at 10,930 feet. This lake is labelled as Lake 3331T on the USGS Quad. You will now join the “SECTION 2: Option B” route and headed over Mt. Baxter.

Southern Sierra High Route

View of Acrodectes Peak from the summit of Mt. Baxter. Grasshopper “pass” is hidden behind the near pile of talus. [Photo Jim Yurchenco]

SECTION 2: The End (for both Options A and B) – Glen Pass to Vedette Meadow

The Option A and Option B Routes converge on the JMT above Rae Lakes at el. 3460; just before the main switchbacks at the base of Glen Pass (west of “Painted Lady”). From here the JMT climbs steeply via switchbacks to 11,930 foot Glen Pass. Follow the trail down from the pass for several miles, where you will encounter several junctions with trails heading down from Kearsarge Pass. Look at your map carefully. After crossing a sandy flat basin below the trail junctions, you will drop more steeply toward Vidette Meadow. Finally reaching the valley floor near Bubbs Creek, you come upon a junction where you will turn east and traverse along the nearly level Lower Vidette Meadow. There is little that resembles a meadow here. The terrain is heavily forested, with a few small glimpses of grass. There is reason to celebrate your arrival here. You’ve completed a long section on the SoSHR, and the route ahead gets much more challenging. It contains some of the best and highest cross country travel in the Sierra.

SECTION 3: VIDETTE MEADOW TO UPPER BOY SCOUT LAKE

Leaving the junction at 9500 feet, you travel east on the JMT through thick pines and past numerous campsites. The trail stays fairly level for a little over a mile, then begins a gradual climb. Just before reaching 10,000 feet the trail enters a sandy flat section with open forest. For the next mile and a half the trail stays close along the east side of Bubbs Creek. Good campsites abound again from about 9900 feet to 10,200 feet.

Finally departing slightly from Bubbs Creek, the trail climbs more steeply. When you reach 10,650 feet, a faint trail cuts off to your left, heading east where the JMT turns south. This junction is difficult to find. There is no sign and not much evidence of travel (there has obviously been a dedicated effort to conceal the turn-off to this “decommissioned” trail). After the hard to find junction, the trail will level off and drop slightly to a small creek at 10,600 feet. If you missed the trail junction (we missed it), leave the JMT at this creek and begin a gradual climb to the east through the forest. When you encounter steeper rocky terrain ahead, bear diagonally left and you will eventually cross the faint trail heading up to Golden Bear Lake. Stay on the trail, winding around some meadows and boggy terrain, reaching sublime Golden Bear Lake at 11,175 feet. Continue on this faint trail, which is the former route of the JMT, heading upward toward Junction Pass. You will pass above two lakes and climb onto a ridge at 12,600 feet. From this ridge a great view of Forester Pass and the JMT opens up before you as the JMT climbs toward the dramatic notch of Forester Pass. You can be a voyeur here and watch tiny backpacker ants slowly toil up to the pass. Continue up to the Sierra crest at 13,320 foot Junction Pass and admire the view of Junction Peak, just to your south. Get a good rest here, as the route ahead will require your full attention.

Early morning reflections on Golden Bear Lake. [photo Don Wilson]

to-junction pass

Alan hikes along the 12,600 foot ridge approaching Junction Pass. This ridge has spectacular views of Junction Peak, Forrester Pass and the JMT. You can be a voyeur here and watch tiny backpacker ants slowly toil up Forester pass. [photo Don Wilson]

When you drop off Junction Pass you will likely find footprints and a faint sign of a trail that heads southeast from the pass. The terrain here is not too steep and the sandy footing makes for easy walking and obvious footprints. At about 12,900 feet, the route turns back to the southwest and begins a drop into the drainage that lies south of Junction Pass. Your objective is to reach the head of this canyon at about 12,400 feet. On the drop into this canyon, the trail will disappear and you will descend on loose, nasty talus and all manner of crud all the way down. Proceed slowly and with caution. The footing is loose and perilous. We both had a couple of slips on this section and we were being careful. Many routes down the slope are possible. When in doubt, stay right and head towards the upper end of the canyon bottom. About 150 vertical feet above the canyon floor, you may see some evidence of the old JMT. Only a few small sections remain. Nearly all the old trail has been obliterated by the loose crumbing terrain above–possibly a reason the trail was abandoned.

The descent from Junction Pass starts with easy walking and then degrades into steep, loose talus. Here Alan looks back uphill part way down the loose descent. [photo Don Wilson]

As you get near the bottom, turn again to the southeast and begin a mile long traverse across a seemingly infinite slope of scree and talus. At some point you will drop to the bottom of the canyon and continue on the almost flat canyon bottom on more scree and huge talus. After a long mile, you will reach terrain which becomes more easily walkable, and a few sections of grass appear. A small stream emerges from the talus here too. At this point, stay south of the stream and look for evidence of a faint trail turning south and down across a hillside. Follow this past several switchbacks as it drops toward The Pothole, which can be seen below. The much more heavily used trail up to Shepherd Pass can be seen to the south and east, coming up from the canyon below. At approximately 11,200 feet, the trail levels out and continues across a flatish basin. The trail is difficult to follow in this basin. We decided to leave the trail here and traverse directly south at approximately 11,100 feet, heading toward the visible Shepherd Pass trail a half mile away. This traverse is fairly easy, and avoids a further drop of 300 vertical feet into The Pothole. Once on the Shepherd Pass trail, take a break and rest up for the steep climb above.

The climb up to Shepherd Pass is steep, but the trail is fairly good and the climb goes easily. Once on Shepherd Pass (just over 12,000 feet), you enter a long section of excellent travel across high basins and passes. Follow the trail down from Shepherd Pass for about 1.5 miles on mostly low angle terrain. At about 11,500 feet, turn directly south, heading for an obvious notch, which we call Wright Lakes Pass. Easy class 2 hiking leads up to the 12,040 foot pass. Descend south toward Wright Lakes on easy terrain and begin a beautiful 2.5 mile long walk past Wright Lakes across a high basin dotted with ancient dead pines. South of Wright Lakes, you will begin to pass through some trees and meadows, heading toward Wallace Creek.


Alan on the approach to Wright Lakes Pass. Shepherd Pass lies in the notch at the right side of the photo. [photo Don Wilson]

pines-wallace basin

Ancient pines dot the 11,500 foot plateau south of Wright Lakes. Easy walking and great views abound along the two miles south of Wright Lakes Pass, heading toward Wallace Creek.

As you near Wallace Creek you will encounter increasingly rocky terrain. Depending on your location, you will likely need to climb slightly up, and then drop several hundred feet before encountering the faint trail that lies north of the creek. You should aim to hit the trail following Wallace Creek at about 10,800 feet, crossing the ridge north of Wallace Creek at around 11,000 feet or a bit lower. (Note: don’t succumb to the urge to cross too soon and too directly into Wallace Creek. The ridge north of the creek is rocky, and there are a steep sets of cliff bands descending into Wallace creek that are hard to navigate).

The southern shore of Wallace Lake makes for easy walking on the approach to Russell-Carillon Col. The lake lies on the left of the photo. Mount Russell is the furthest peak that can be seen on the right. [photo Don Wilson]

Once on Wallace Creek, turn east when you hit the trail and begin the climb up toward Wallace Lake. The faint trail up to the lake is unmaintained and fades out in places. You can expect to lose it now and again. Beyond the lake, all signs of a trail quickly disappear. At 11,480 feet, Wallace Lake is a huge azure gem, with spectacular walls to its north and inviting flat terrain along its south side. Continue past the lake to a steep looking headwall southeast of the lake. The best way up this headwall is to directly attack its center, where the drainage from the basin above empties down the slope heading for Wallace Lake. This 500 foot climb involves a lot of large talus and some class 2 scrambling.

Above the headwall, a welcome and inviting walk of just over a mile leads toward Tulainyo Lake. This lake is the highest lake of its size in the lower 48 states. It has no inlet or outlet, instead it is tucked away in a bowl just below 13,000 feet, where few people get the pleasure of seeing it. Take another rest at the lake and get your bearings. Your next objective is the Russell-Carillon Col. This pass will be located far off to your right as you initially encounter the lake, and is not fully visible when you first see the lake. Drop down to the lakeshore, probably crossing large snowfields that are nearly permanent, and traverse along the southwest shore. The Russell-Carillon Col will now become obvious and somewhat intimidating. It is easier than it appears. As you near the southern tip of the lake, begin the climb up on the talus, heading for a point directly below the low point of the pass. At the top of the talus you will encounter a point where the rock suddenly gets steeper and scrambling is required. This climb of about 250 feet is moderate class 3, and is broken up by numerous large ledges. Some hikers may want a hand in a few places, or may want to pass up their packs for a move or two. The ledges make this climb quite safe, with the most significant danger being loose rock dislodged by your own party. We suggest you alternate climbing and use the large ledges to keep your party clear of the fall line from your highest members at all times. In a few fun minutes you will emerge again onto the Sierra crest at 13,300 feet on the Russell-Carillon Col.

Don checks out the blue depths of Tulainyo Lake from the top of Russell-Carillon Col.

Alan begins the descent from Russell-Carillon Col down to Upper Boy Scout Lake. The col is at far right, Mount Russell is directly behind Alan. Mount Whitney is the highest (rightmost) peak of the three peaks on the left. [photo Don Wilson]

From the col, the famous east ridge of Mount Russell lies to the west. This steep and airy climb is known as one of the best class 3 climbs in North America (and would make a spectacular side-trip/peak bag). Because of the popularity of this climb, there is a use trail that heads up to the col from Upper Boy Scout Lake. You will follow this use trail down to the lake. The terrain down to the lake is mostly loose sand and scree. While this makes for some fun walking, you can expect to fill up your shoes with plenty of souvenirs. As you begin the descent, follow obvious paths to the southeast, eventually turning more east and traveling through a vague notch. Continue east, following a mesh of paths and occasional cairns. As you approach steeper terrain, several large cairns may appear, marking potential points to drop onto steeper terrain. There are numerous options that will become clear when you can see onto the steeper terrain below. Work your way down these quite slippery and steep slopes, heading towards the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. When several hundred feet above the creek, at about 11500 feet, a use trail will fork off to the right and head directly toward Upper Boy Scout Lake (which is not visible from above). If you miss this fork, you can descend to the creek and then climb back toward Upper Boy Scout Lake. The lake lies at nearly 11,400 feet and will be a welcome site to your dusty feet and rock filled shoes. This is a good place to bivy prior to ascending Mount Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route. (Or if you have time, you could hump up to Iceberg Lake and save yourself a bit of distance and elevation when climbing Whitney the next day.)

SECTION 4: UPPER BOY SCOUT LAKE TO HORSESHOE MEADOWS

It just keeps getting better. This section is the highest bit of off trail hiking that either of us has done in the US. It contains a full traverse of Mount Whitney, a walk along the highest mountain ridge in the lower 48, an enormous and fun scree slope, challenging and intricate navigation, and several large and lonely alpine lakes. It’s worth a reminder that you will be in the Mount Whitney Zone, with its regulations regarding human waste, from the time you cross the Russell-Carillon Col until you summit Mount Whitney.

Our first downtime of the trip. Don reading some Rilke at Upper Boy Scout Lake. We arrived here mid-afternoon and had a relaxing and restorative afternoon before climbing Mt. Whitney the next morning.

Alan at our bivy site along the shores of Upper Boy Scout Lake. [photo Don Wilson]

Morning light on the east face of Mount Whitney. Keeler Needle rises in the center of the photo, left of Mount Whitney.

Leaving Upper Boy Scout Lake, head south across its outlet and scramble up slabs until you join the informal climber’s trail that heads east up and over a headwall. If you hike this section in the early morning you will be granted spectacular views of the east face of Mount Whitney as the sun lights up the peaks. Continue east up fairly easy to follow trails until you begin to traverse along a south facing slope which is south of Iceberg Lake. There are many possible routes to reach Iceberg Lake, all of them requiring an eventual turn to the north up steep slopes. There are numerous seeps in this area which can make the slabs slippery, especially if temperatures are near or below freezing. At 12,700 feet you will climb over a final rise and come to the south shore of Iceberg Lake. Isolated and cold, the lake is nestled snugly in a steep cirque between Mount Whitney and Mount Russell. There are numerous bivy sites along the south shore, most with level camping and stone walls to provide some protection on windy nights. This is a good place to rest, get a drink and refill your water supplies. There is no water, other than possible snowmelt, for the next 5 hours or so of hiking (until you reach the uppermost Crabtree Lake, below Crabtree Pass).

Your next objective is an ascent of Mount Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route. This route is not at all difficult in good conditions, but if the route holds significant snow or ice it can quickly become more serious, requiring a rope and crampons for most people. It’s a popular route, so a little searching on the internet can usually provide good info on current route conditions before you leave home. In most years the route is in good shape by early July and remains so until mid September.

to-whitney-2

Alan slogs his way of steep, loose scree on the Mountaineer’s Route. The climb of Whitney and traverse across its southern ridge is a highlight of the SoSHR.

From Iceberg Lake, head almost directly east up slabs and boulders, aiming for the north side of the east buttress. The notch that is your eventual objective is obvious on the skyline at 14,000 feet, some 1,300 feet above Iceberg Lake. By staying left of the scree you can hike and scramble to the base of the east buttress on mostly good rock. As you reach the base of the east buttress you will be forced to the right into the main gully of the Mountaineer’s Route. Continue up the gully, staying on the most stable rock you can find (usually on the left). Eventually you will be forced to head directly up a long section of loose scree. This can be a lot of work, as you climb up and slide down with each step. But it is not difficult, and your position alongside the east buttress is simply spectacular. Clean, golden granite surrounds you, and the vistas to the north and east more than make up for the loose conditions of the climb. After a long grunt, you arrive at the notch, just above 14,000 feet. From here you will climb the most technical section of the route in the final push to the summit.

to-whitney-final-300

The final Class 3 portion of the Mountaineer’s Route to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It had snowed on Mt. Whitney the week before with an ensuing melt and freeze cycle. This left the final 300 ft of the Mountaineer’s Route quite icy and a bit more entertaining. The easier route up the notch (to the left of Alan in the photo) is completely covered in a sheet of ice (verglas). This forced us up on steeper and more difficult rock. Fortunately we were able to find non-icy rock and did not need any traction devices. [photo Don Wilson]

Drop down onto the west side of the notch, losing only 20 or 30 vertical feet. After this very short drop, to your left (north) an obvious gully will head directly north towards the summit. This first gully on the west side of the ridge is your route. The gully lies well above 14,000 feet and is nearly always in the shade. It may be cold, and will hold snow or ice when other parts of the route are balmy. The very first move up this gully is generally considered the most difficult obstacle between you and the summit. Scramble up and left from the base, then wander up the gully past rolling ledges and slabs over class 3 terrain. On our ascent a recent storm had left considerable ice in the gully, and it limited our options on the way up. But we were still able for the most part to stay on good, ice-free rock all the way up. As you near the top of the gully you may be able to head right (into the warm sun!) to easier terrain. After about 400 feet of climbing, you emerge rather suddenly onto the summit plateau of Mount Whitney. Wander over to the summit and enjoy the perfect flat slabs that are abundant on the highest point in the continental US.

Alan looks off to the northeast from the summit of Mount Whitney. [photo Don Wilson]

From the summit you will join the Mount Whitney trail that heads initially west and then south from the summit. For the next 2.5 miles you will stay on this trail, walking just west of the spectacular ridge that heads south of Whitney, past Keeler Needle and Mount Muir, both 14,000+ summits. Although this trail is crowded with Mount Whitney hikers, the position is spectacular and the walking and views are thoroughly enjoyable. After about two miles you will reach a trail junction where the JMT comes up from the west. Stay left here, and climb up to the crest. Cross the crest (this location is known at Trail Crest) on the trail and staying on the trail, begin a traverse to the east, the start of the drop toward Whitney Portal. About a quarter mile past Trail Crest, you reach the first switchback, where the trail turns left and continues a long series of switchbacks down a steep slope.

Look back uphill at this switchback and you will see a very faint use trail that heads directly up on talus and scree, back towards the crest. Leave the trail here knowing you are heading into a challenging section of hiking. Head south, climbing directly uphill until you reach the crest and a low angle plateau at 13,600 feet. Once on the crest, begin dropping to the south, slowly at first, and then with an ever increasing angle on sandy scree. Your objective is to reach the upper end of the lake that lies just west of Crabtree Pass. As you drop, look for ledge systems that allow you to traverse east toward relatively flat terrain above the upper end of the lake. Then turn south to reach a small grassy haven on the east shore. This is the first reliable water since you left Iceberg Lake.

Taking a rest at the uppermost Crabtree Lake, just west of Crabtree Pass. At 12,119 feet, this isolated lake is the first water source since Iceberg Lake (i.e. summiting Mt. Whitney and traversing the Whitney Crest). It has a small patch of grass on its eastern shore. The lake is a welcome respite after the dusty 1500 foot descent from the crest. [photo Don Wilson]

From the lake, head directly up class 2 scrambling to the lowest point on Crabtree Pass. Here you enter a section of complicated terrain and navigation that will occupy you until you arrive at Sky Blue Lake. Along this entire section the terrain will force you to make many small detours. Sky Blue Lake will not be visible until you are nearly upon it and past all the difficulties.

sky-blue-lake-crabtree pass

Sky Blue Lake, looking north towards Crabtree Pass from near the lake’s outlet. (Pass not visible in the photo but in the vicinity of the larger of the two white cloulds on the right horizon.) The obvious cliff bands above and right of the lake force a roundabout descent to the west (on the left in the photo) from Crabtree Pass. Neither the cliff bands nor the lake can be seen for most of the descent.

Drop down from the pass, heading slightly right (south) of the direct fall line, aiming for the northwest corner of Lake 3697. Upon nearly reaching the shore of this lake, turn more west and go over a rise and through a faint notch, heading toward the smaller lake west of Lake 3697. You may be able to follow occasional cairns along this section (although not all are to be trusted). Continue traversing to the southeast shore of this lake, then turning south down slabs. About a half mile directly south of this lake the terrain flattens out. Head toward these flat sections and turn east, joining inlet streams that head down to Sky Blue Lake (still not visible). Hike east along these streams through narrow valleys, finally emerging onto slopes that provide a grand view of awesome Sky Blue Lake. Hike directly toward the north shore of the lake, where you can pick up use trails that circle the lake on its north and east sides. Cross the lakes’ outlet stream and scramble down slopes on the west side of the stream toward an obvious flatter valley below. Once on the valley floor, head south along Rock Creek, staying on the west side of the creek most of the way down. Intermittent use trails may appear, but much of the upper valley is devoid of trails. High, steep granite walls rise on both sides of the upper canyon. Use trails become more obvious as you get near 11,000 feet in elevation, and eventually the route becomes a good trail which you can follow all the way to a junction at 10,460 feet. Here you come upon a large meadow with a good trail that runs nearly perpendicular to your line of travel. There is good camping here. You have completed all the off trail travel and only pleasant trails separate you from the trailhead near Horseshoe Meadows.

Turn east (left) when you hit the trail and climb several hundred feet to another junction at 10,800 feet. Here you can take a short walk to Soldier Lake (not named on the map). Your route turns south (right) at this junction and begins a gradual climb toward New Army Pass. At 10,950 feet pass another junction where you turn east (left) toward New Army Pass. Hike up your final climb through alpine terrain. The climb up to New Army Pass does not cross the crest at its low point (huge cliffs on the far side), and instead the pass lies south of the low point, much higher up the crest at 12,300 feet. From the top of the pass you leave the Sierra crest for the last time and head down a series of impressive switchbacks past High Lake and Long Lake, and on popular trails along Cottonwood Creek. About 7 miles beyond New Army Pass you arrive at the Cottonwood Lakes trailhead, where a thrilling car ride down the steep and exposed road leads to the town of Lone Pine. This is a very popular trailhead – hitching a ride down to Lone Pine should be a simple affair.

Surveying the vast and trailess expanse of the Wrights Lake Basin. [photo Don Wilson]

Other Published References (books, maps, etc.)

john-muir-wilderness-mapset
John Muir Wilderness/SEKI map set” Forest Service Publication; 3 map set at 1:63k
Long Name: A Guide to the John Muir Wilderness and Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. Inyo and Sierra National Forests, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks ISBN: 978-1-59351-417-4   (Possibly no longer in print?) and very hard to find. It may still be in stock at above link.

This large 3 map set shows the entire Sierra south of Mammoth Lakes. Three very large maps not really suitable for use in the field, but the ultimate reference for planning off trail trips. We used this mapset to lay out the initial line of the SoSHR. Published by the Forest Service and difficult to find online. Available in outdoor shops and ranger stations in Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Lone Pine.

Death Valley

If you get the chance, it’s certianly worth tagging on a trip to Death Valley to either end of this trip. After climbing Mt. Whitney the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet you can go to Badwater, the lowest point in North America, −282 feet (−86 m). If you are traveling from Las Vegas, you will literally drive through Death Valley on your way to and from the Trip.


Badwater, the lowest point in North America, −282 feet (−86 m).

sanddunes 2

Take the train to the AT—low carbon, low stress. No car, no complicated shuttles. Just great hiking! This AT section hike has it all—an ideal blend of natural beauty, history, small towns, great local parks, and meeting interesting people. It’s a perfect example of what makes hiking on the AT a unique and special experience—why people come from all over the world to hike the trail.

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Route Overview Map: click image for larger view

Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT

  1. The variety of hiking:  A mix of everything — high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, rolling farm fields and wildflowers. And in the summer it’s cool & shaded; 90% of the time no hats /sunglasses needed.
  2. Lots of History: Harpers Ferry (historic town & national park), the C&O Canal, Mason Dixon Line, Galthand, Washington Monument, Pine Grove Furnace, the Cumberland Valley and the historic towns of Boiling Springs and Duncannon PA on the shore of the Susquehanna River.
  3. Hike in 4 of the 13 original states
  4. Some of the nicest shelters on the AT: Well-maintained, many with nice camping options around them. E.g. the new, two-story Raven Rock  Shelter, Quarry Gap Shelters, & Tumbling Run Shelters.
  5. Pennsylvania State Parks: Pennsylvania spent the time and money to do their state parks right. In picturesque settings with lovely shaded picnic areas, good camping, (food in season), lakes to swim in, nice bathrooms, and even some free showers. Pine Grove Furnace and Caledonia State Parks are standouts among a number of great parks.
Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

The hike starts in historic Harpers Ferry, WV and it’s well worth an overnight stay and exploration before hiking. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

Note this is installment one of a series of Low Carbon Section Hikes

Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…

Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train

This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

$13 Train: This hike is quickly accessible via train (Amtrak) from most major Mid-Atlantic and Northeast cities. For us, it only took $13 and 2 hours on public transportation from our front door to hiking on the AT! And that was on Memorial Day weekend! We missed all the heinous holiday traffic, serenely traveling on the train.

Overview

This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,

  1. Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train from much of the Northeast US.
  2. Lighten your load: The gear (link) and  food (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
  3. And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.

Make your trip even more enjoyable…

Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List will lighten your load and put a spring in your step. So if you want a light pack but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.Light pack & easy hiking: Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge from White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain.

 

What’s in this Trip Guide

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After many miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley. Alison is carrying less than 10 pounds on her back. Using this Gear our light packs made hiking a breeze.


Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

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Mountain laurels along the trail near Raven Rock, the highest point of the AT in Maryland.


Guide Resources

Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train

The trip takes between 5 to 9 days

  • 0 mile – trip start in historic Harpers Ferry, WV
  • 98 miles to first logical exit, historic mill town of Boiling Springs, PA
  • 124 miles to trip end in Duncannon, PA, near Harrisburg PA

Transportation Time

  • 1.5 hrs from Washington Union Station to start in historic Harper’s Ferry VA (via train)
  • 4-5 hrs from trip end in Duncannon PA back to Washington Union Station (via Uber/Taxi and train)
    and shorter if you are just heading to Philadelphia, PA – Amtrak 30th Street Station (PHL)

Waypoint and Mileage Table

The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet

Maps and Guides

The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”

We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps

The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It's a one hour train ride form here to the trip start in Harpers Ferry WV.

Trip Start: The recently renovated main hall of Union Station in Washington DC. It’s a one hour train ride from here to Harpers Ferry WV. [We just walked on to the train in our hiking clothes and with our backpacks on.]

Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV

  1. You can walk right off the train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill).
  2. Or, you can stay overnight in a B&B, get a nice dinner and enjoy Harpers Ferry for the evening. Then you can get up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and start your hike.
  3. If you have the time, consider spending a day or 1/2 day exploring the historic town and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For a stunning view we highly recommend the hike to Maryland Heights. (The lead picture for this article was taken from Maryland Heights.)
  4. If you want to make this a 4 state trip by adding a short side trip to Virginia see Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights for more detail.
  5. For those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast the veteran owned Guide Shack Cafe opens at 5:00 am and has the best coffee in town.

Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay

This section hike has it all—high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, historic towns and parks, and rolling farmlands. Between Harpers Ferry WV and Harrisburg PA, it follows the Appalachian Ridge for over 100 miles going through over dozen parks, vast forests, and other public lands. In all, it travels through four states (if you take a short side trip to Virginia).

The trip starts in Harpers Ferry, WV where it crosses over the Potomac River to Maryland and covers all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in MD. In Pennsylvania it continues another 83 miles on the AT, much of it in the vast Michaux Forest. It ends at the mighty Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA.

On a historic note, the hike crosses the Mason Dixon Line, two historic and one actual midpoint markers of the Appalachian Trail, and a number of historic places like Washington Monument PA, Pine Grove Furnace, the old mill town of Boiling Springs, the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley, and the historic river town of Duncannon PA on the banks of the Susquehanna.

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John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. “Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (NHP) is considered one of the best walking parks in America. The views are sublime, the history compelling, the restored town a work of historical art.” (from the National Park Service Website)

The trip starts as you pass by John Brown’s Fort (click for precise map) to pickup the Appalachian Trail at the WV side of the footbridge crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Once in Maryland the AT turns right and heads east along the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park).

Note: You can walk right off the early evening train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill). Or, and the option many will choose, is to stay overnight and enjoy Harpers Ferry. If you start early the next morning you can make it to Crampton Gap (10 miles) or Rocky Run Shelters (16 miles)

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Footpath along the railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry WV into Maryland and to the towpath on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park)

Make it a 4 state trip!

Note: If you want to make this a four state trip (fun!), you’ll want to make a brief side-trip into Virginia. Hike west on the AT to the 340 bridge and follow the AT across the bridge south onto the Virginia bank of the Shenandoah River. Link to Map showing both trip start across the Potomac River into Maryland to the C&O Canal towpath, and the side trip into Virginia across the Rt. 340 bridge.

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Turtles in the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal goes 184 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland Maryland.

After about 3 miles of fast and level walking on the C&O Canal Towpath, the AT turns left, crosses the train tracks and heads steeply uphill to the Junction with the side trail to the Ed Garvey Shelter.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Ferns along the AT in a lush stream valley.

Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park

Gathland State Park is a good place to collect some spigot water and use a restroom. The spring at Crampton Gap shelter is intermittent (worst mid-summer).

Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park are worth at least a brief look. Built in the late 1800’s, Gathland was the mountain home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. A few of this unique collection buildings and structures, designed and constructed by Townsend, were partially restored in the 1950’s.

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Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park: The War Correspondents Memorial Arch, constructed in 1896, is a National historic monument. Photo by By Antony-22 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge.

View from the White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain – mile 11 – between Crampton Gap and Rock Run Shelters.

Washington Monument State Park

Washington Monument State Park is a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table and use a restroom. The Monument is worth visiting both for its history and for a great view of the Cumberland Valley.

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Washington Monument State Park: The original 1827 tower was the first monument dedicated to George Washington. The more famous Washington Monument in the District of Columbia was not completed until 1885, over 50 years later!

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the cumberland valley and the Potomac River.

View from the top of the Washington Monument, looking west across the Cumberland Valley and the Potomac River.

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The impressive and functional, if not aesthetic footbridge across I-70. It gets the job done!

Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters

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The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it.

The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it. There are some large campsites near the shelter. To regain the AT northbound take the shortcut (rather than retracing your steps).

Good water source between Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell shelters:
There’s a nice piped spring a few 100 yds west of the AT (downhill) from Pogo Memorial Campsite.

If possible, avoid camping at Ensign Crowell Shelter. It’s not the nicest shelter. It’s very near a road, often crowded, and has an iffy water source mid-summer.

“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge problem, will definitely slow your walking pace to a crawl in sections.

The rocky trails of PA, while not a huge safety issue, will definitely slow your walking pace in sections.

This section of intermittently rocky trail actually starts in Maryland about 5-10 miles before you enter Pennsylvania. “The Rocks of Pennsylvania” are not as bad their reputation. Care and patience will get the job safely done. The hardest and rockiest section of trail is on the descent off the ridge down to Pen Mar County Park near the MD/PA border.

Raven Rock Shelter

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The new 2-story Raven Rock shelter replaces the old Devil’s Racecourse shelter (many guides still refer to the older shelter). The flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. Photo: HIKERS OF TWC

Raven Rock Shelter (mile 36) is one of the nicer shelters of the trip. In addition, the flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. The only downside is that there’s no water at Raven Rock Shelter. It’s a fairly long round trip downhill get water. (Alternatively you can collect water from the stream at MD 491/Raven Rock Hollow, before hiking about 1 mile uphill to the shelter).

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Pen Mar County Park and Mason Dixon Line

Pen Mar County Park has nice views. It’s a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table/pavilion and use a restroom. There are vending services in season. Just a few minutes past the park is marker for where the AT crosses the historic Mason Dixon Line.

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The AT where it crossed the Mason Dixon line.

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The AT crosses a few farm fields before ascending back up to the Appalachian ridge in the distance.

Deerlick Shelters are nothing to get excited about. But there’s a a really nice spring about 0.2 miles walk from the shelters. And there are some nice campsites along the trail to the spring (and at a comfortable/quit distance from the shelters).

Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park

This is one of the nicer portions of the hike. But it is rocky and has a fair amount of elevation change. At 10 miles long it is also a dry and long section. Best to fill up on water from the nice piped spring across the creek from the Tumbling Run shelters. And the shelters have nice shaded picnic tables.

The only water mid-route is at Rocky Mountain shelters. Unfortunately, they are a 1 mile round trip downhill from the ridge. Unless you are camping there, you might not want to walk all the way down just for water.

Caledonia State Park is an unqualified delight. We arrived at the Park in the late afternoon, overheated, grimy and sweaty from a very long day hiking on an unusually hot and humid spring day. We had an ice cream sandwich and a large cold drink from the snack bar, then followed that with a sublime dip in the vast and cold outdoor swimming pool. We emerged an hour later, freshly showered and blessedly cool and comfortable. Needless to say, it was one of highlights of the trip. In addition to the snack bar and pool, the park has a beautiful stream running through it, large shaded picnic areas with many pavilions, and excellent bathrooms.

From Caledonia State Park, it’s only a 30-45 minute walk uphill to Quarry Gap Shelters. These shelters are new and carefully tended and maintained. The picnic shelter had flower pots hanging from the eaves. There was a camp host to guide hikers to camping areas and otherwise help out and make things run smoothly.

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In season, make sure you take a sublimely cooling dip in the vast outdoor public pool at Caledonia State Park. [also in season, there’s food and ice cream at the pool’s concession]

Quarry Run Shelters

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Rhododendron tunnel on the way to Quarry Run Shelters.

Birch Run Shelter

Birch Run is a nice shelter with grassy camping around it. There is small stream in front of the shelter and the larger stream, Birch Run itself, is only a few hundred feet further down trail. There is also a nice camp on the other side of Birch Run.

Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)

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The historic or traditional mid-point on the AT is just a few miles before you enter Pine Grove Furnace.

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The exact mid-point of the AT varies from year to year due to re-routing and other trail changes. You need to pay attention to not miss this much smaller sign. (It’s generally south of the historic marker in the photo above.)

Pine Grove Furnace

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

The Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. It’s in a 200 year old grist mill.

Pine Grove Furnace is an excellent stopping point on the AT. It has:

  • The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, which has limited food, groceries & camping supplies; and a short-order counter serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice-cream, shakes, etc.
  • The store is where thru-hikers traditionally celebrate “1/2 and 1/2,” reaching the halfway point on the AT and by attempting to eat a half gallon of ice cream.
  • Lodging at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
  • A pleasant campground (fee) with excellent facilities
  • A public swimming lake (in season) with free showers.
  • Historic site/remains of the Pine Grove Iron Works/Pine Grove Furnace. In operation 1764 to 1895.
  • The Appalachian Trail Museum housed in a 200 year old grist mill.

James Fry Shelter

Cozily hanging in out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. Waiting for the full force tropical storm Bonnie to hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning.=!

The James Fry Shelter located between Pine Grove Furnace and the Cumberland Valley: Cozily hanging out in our hammocks with light rain pattering on our huge hex tarps. The full force of tropical storm Bonnie would hit sometime overnight. We woke up happy and dry the next morning

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The start of two fun “rock mazes” along the ridges just before you drop into the Cumberland Valley.

Entering the Cumberland Valley

Note: After the Alec Kennedy Shelter there are no official AT Shelters until the Darlington Shelter 18 miles down the trail.

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After after almost 100 miles hiking along ridges and through woods you break out into the idyllic farmlands of the Cumberland Valley.

Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train

Boiling Springs is a lovely, historic mill town surrounding a large mill pond (now “Children’s Lake”). At mile 98 it is the first obvious opportunity to take an Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. Cost of ride is approx. $25 to $35 and around 30 minutes.

There are a number of lodgings, a couple of food stores and a few restaurants in Boiling Springs. There is also a free campground. There’s a nice public pool in town with showers (get $3 off admission at the ATC HQ Office).

The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is along the shore of the lake. It’s definitely worth a visit—it has a lovely porch for sitting in the shade, trail needs, maps, and fuel.

The AT goes over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

The AT crosses over this bridge into the historic mill town of Boiling Springs.

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The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is a great place to stop and rest on their shaded porch. There’s water and a nice store inside.

Crossing the Cumberland Valley

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The fertile farmlands of the Cumberland Valley run along both sides of the AT.

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There are a number of fun fence stiles like this in the Cumberland Valley.

Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike

Pre-civil war graveyard alongside the AT in the Cumberland Valley. Many where buried 20-30 years before the Gettysburg campaign.

Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA

This section Starts with lots of walking through bucolic farm fields and hedge rows. Then you exit the valley by climbing the two ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain before dropping into Duncannon PA.

  • From Boilings Springs to Duncannon PA, pretty much every crossing of a major road is a potential place to Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. See trip logistics section.
  • There is no camping along the AT for this section.
  • Spring water is much harder to find. And we were less happy about getting water from streams running through farmland and moderately populated areas. Altho there are some options to get spigot water along the way.
  • Darlington and Cove Mountain Shelters are the last two AT Shelters of the trip: These shelters are respectively at the top of the last two ridges of the trip, Blue and Cove Mountains.

Hawk Rock

This rocky promontory offers superb views of the Duncannon area.  It’s a stop on the Audubon’s Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, and a famous rest stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

Duncannon PA – the end of the trip

Uber to the Harrisburg Train Station is approx. $20-$30 and about 20 minutes. Duncannon PA is a very hiker friendly town. Their is a riverfront campground in Duncannon for a modest cost. There are also number of lodging options, food stores, restaurants and even an ice cream store.

Note: Duncannon is a historic river town on the Banks of the Susquehanna River just outside the Harrisburg metropolitan area. Duncannon is just downstream from the Juniatta-Susquehanna River confluence at Clarks Ferry and sits below the impressive the Kittatinny Ridge.  The town had historic impact as a trading crossroads in Pennsylvania’s colonial era.  From Conestoga freight wagons to canals, railroads, and highways, the Duncannon was a major influence on the region’s transportation.


Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end

Trip Start: getting to Harpers Ferry, WV from Washington, DC

Harpers Ferry is easily accessed from Union Station in Washington DC. The first train of the day arrives in Harpers Ferry just after 5:00 pm. The $13 Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited: 4:05 pm “Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)” to 5:16 pm “Harpers Ferry, WV (HFY).” Other options are the MARC Brunswick Line commuter trains arriving at 6:05pm, 7:18pm, and 7:54pm, and 9:00pm (weekdays only), see MARC train schedule.

Need to Start from another city in the North East or Mid-Atlantic?

Amtrak’s DC Union Stations is accessible by train from most of the East Coast. See Amtrak trip planner.

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Rail yard at Washington DC Union Station

Trip End: from Boiling Springs, PA or Duncannon, PA back to Washington DC

Trip end to the Harrisburg, PA Amtrak Train Station (HAR)

To Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It's a xx hour ride to the NE train hub of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

Bording the train in Harrisburg PA. It’s a short 1.5 hour ride to the Northeast train hub of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.


Lodging in Harpers Ferry

If you decide to stay overnight in Harpers Ferry, it’s best to book well ahead. Trip Advisor is a good place find a room. The historic town and National Historical Park are popular destinations. Even for mid-week reservations many B&Bs are booked weeks, even a month or more in advance (many with 2 night minimums on weekends).

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The lower, historic section of Harpers Ferry. The upper portion of the town is up and to the right of the train station (lower right of the photo at the end of the train trestle). This view is from Maryland Heights. The hike up here is highly recommended.

The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry

The town of Harpers Ferry is in two sections. 1) The small lower historic section by the river and the National Historical Park and 2) the larger upper section, about 10-20 minutes walk uphill. In the lower section, lodging is limited and competitive. There are a just few nice B&Bs in the lower section and they tend to be fully booked weeks or even month’s in advance. The Town’s Inn is a traditional place for Appalachian Trail hikers to stay. In addition to rooms, it has a small hostel, a cafe, a bistro and a small store with a good selection of trail food and supplies. Be forewarned, it was recently featured in the reality TV series, Hotel Hell (an amusing watch).

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town's Inn, in the historic lower section of Harper's Ferry.

Rocking chair on the porch of the Town’s Inn, in the historic lower section of Harpers Ferry.

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The Town’s Inn (featured on Hotel Hell) in Harpers Ferry has a good supply of food for hiker re-supply, a few camping supplies, and a cafe.

Lodging options are more plentiful in the upper section of the town, but there are fewer attractions and restaurants—altho the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters are here and also the best coffee shop in town, the Guide Shack Cafe which opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start with coffee/breakfast. Many lodgings in the upper section provide free shuttle to and from the lower section. Some will even meet your train. We stayed at the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed it.

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper xx

The Jackson Rose B&B is one of many nice lodging options in the upper section of town.


Fun things to do in Harpers Ferry besides the National Park

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Adventure Alan under the sign for Adventure and as always finding the best coffee in town! The Guide Shack Cafe is veteran owned, veteran operated and sources it’s coffee and food from veteran owned Co’s! It opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast.

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Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters is a fun place to stop. There’s a great relief map of the entire AT, a well stocked bookstore, some camping supplies, an AT hiker lounge where you can check Web/email. There’s friendly and helpful staff and of course, AT hikers milling around.

That’s the total weight of everything in my backpack—gear, food, water, and stove fuel. I used that 10 pound backpack to hike 100 miles (plus a few more) of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. No fair weather hiking, it was more late winter than early spring conditions—rain, sleet, light snow and hard freezes at night. I think I am very close to dialing in a Light Pack that is also supremely efficient at covering long trail miles*.

But more important, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was warm, happy and comfortably cruising along one of the most spectacular ridge lines on the east. The kooky weather made for great entertainment and some spectacular views. (Scan through the photos below for a few of them.)

* Anyone can adopt the techniques I used to reduce wasted time and become a more efficient hiker. Even if long trail miles is not your goal, this gives you more time to enjoy the great views, take photographs, fish, or get some extra swimming in a lake rather than fiddling with your gear.

 

And just to be clear: My 34 miles/day average on the AT through Shenandoah National Park is far from super speedy. The fabulous Heather (Anish) Anderson averaged 42 miles per day on her record setting, unsupported AT through-hike last year. And my guess is that each year, more than a few hardy through-hikers cover the Park in 3 days as well. Nonetheless, I’m happy with my hike given the unusually cool and wet weather and short daylight hours of early April.

This a three part series:

  1. My 2007 attempt to section hike the 102 miles of the AT Trail through Shenandoah National Park in three days (I came up short)
  2. My March 2016 plans: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail to use better gear and techniques
  3. And this April 2016 report of my successful completion of the 102 miles of the AT in SNP in three days.
10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

Lots of kooky weather created some spectacular views. That’s the Shenandoah Valley almost 3,000 feet below me.

Why it Worked this Time – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

In previous posts, I’ve discussed coming up short in my 2007 attempt to section hike the 102 miles and 22,000 feet of elevation gain of the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in 3 days. So what were the keys to succeed this time even though the weather was more challenging:

  • Focus on efficiency—no wasting time: Running out of daylight was the major reason why I came up short in 2007. Minutes matter. Less wasted time equals more time to hike in the limited daylight of early spring. Just a few minutes wasted per hour adds up to 10 miles over 3 days.
  • Gear: I chose practical but light gear, with a focus on zero fiddle-factor (= no time wasting).
    For a full discussion of this as well as the gear list see: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail
  • In this post I discuss two major gear choices, my 11 oz backpack and my 2.8 lb sleep system, and how they contributed to the efficiency (lack of time wasting) of my hike.
  • Adjustments for crap weather: As they say, “when we make plans Nature laughs.” Here’s the last minute gear adjustments I made for unusually wet and cold trip weather: Major Adjustments for Cold Weather
  • Shakedown trip: Two weekends prior, Alison and I did a 3 day Early Spring Backpacking Trip in cold and wet conditions with the gear I intended to use on the hike. On that trip we put in a hard and fast 22 mile day. In addition, in previous winters I tested my very cold weather hammock gear at 12°F (-11°C) so I had a tried and true light winter hammock quilt system ready to go.
  • Food: I used my usual 3-day-trip strategy—bring a small amount of very high calorie and nutritious food. I ate a huge breakfast before I started hiking on day 1, and a huge dinner when I came out on day 3. To save time, I ate much of my food while walking. See: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly
  • Water: I drank when thirsty following current advice from experts in the field of sports hydration. The AT with its frequent springs and streams lends itself to a drink at source and not carry water strategy. I was not thirsty between water sources. But more important, I spent less time collecting/purifying water and making fewer side trips to springs (= more time to hike). I felt healthy and fine and woke each day ready to hike another 34 miles. See: Drink When Thirsty – Myths and Facts about Hydration.
  • Training: Listed next to last, but certainly among the most important contributors to trip success. It was critical to be in good hiking shape from the get-go; I didn’t have the luxury of hiking 850 trail miles to season-up, like North Bound through-hikers that started at Springer Mountain, GA.  I followed my own 2 day a week training schedule, Quick and Efficient Training for Backpacking. I couldn’t, in training, match my longest expected day (36 miles with 15,000 feet of elevation change). I did my best with a a few fast and hilly 20+ mile hikes pre trip.
  • Fun: And last but certainly most important is enjoying the trip. Yes, I had fun. Sometimes more “fun” than I wanted, but for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Blue Ridge put on a spectacular show with weather fronts rolling through. With more time, I would have happily picked up food in Waynesboro and kept on heading south.
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Rain sometimes brings dramatic views. A late evening squall passes over me, heading east towards Washington DC. It’s nowhere near as warm as it looks. Much of the squall was horizontal sleet.

Efficiency – No Time Wasting

Running out of daylight was the major reason why I came up short in 2007. While you can hike in the dark under headlamp it is neither as fast nor as efficient as hiking in daylight. Rather, you have to slow down to miss rocks and other irregularities in the trail. In addition, it is much harder to follow the trail after dark. It is also easy to loose the trail—and re-finding the trail is a huge loss of time. That’s why all the speed records on the AT are done in the middle of the summer with the most daylight.

Minutes matter. This overarching goal trumps everything else. Less wasted time equals more time to hike in the limited daylight of early spring. Just a few minutes wasted per hour can add up to 10 miles over 3 days. So I did whatever I could do with gear choices and technique to be hiking as much as possible during each hour, and spending the least amount of time stopped or fiddling with things.

Note: time wasting has far more universal impacts than just trying to make trail miles. For instance, if you’ve just spent a lot of money and your precious vacation time to take a big trip, wouldn’t you rather spend your time enjoying the great views, taking photographs, fishing, or getting some extra swimming in a lake rather than fiddling with your gear? I will cover this topic, “Backpacking Time Wasters and Time Savers” in an upcoming post.

10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

Gear – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

This is not a fringe gear list. I want to be safe. I hate being wet, cold and uncomfortable. I want a good night’s sleep. This gear list does all of that. In fact I’d wager that I am warmer, more comfortable, have more living area, and sleep better than most campers. For a complete discussion on gear selection and a Complete Gear List see my previous post: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail.

Each minute of daylight hiking time is precious and once squandered cannot be recovered. As such I chose practical but light gear, with a focus on zero fiddle-factor (time wasting). If gear was lighter but took away from my hiking time (or sleeping time) it was out. I’ll use my backpack and sleep system selection rationale as examples.

Backpack

  • The Mountain Laurel Designs Burn Backpack’s Cuben Fiber construction is plenty durable. I don’t have to waste time trying to handle it gently, or to not scrape it against brush or rocks. (vs. the single rear pocket, no hipbelt, 3.8 ounce spinnaker fabric pack I used in 2007)
  • The Burn’s numerous pockets save time as I rarely need to take the pack off to get what I need. Most often, I can do this while continuing to walk. From the two side pockets and two shoulder strap pockets, I can instantly access my most-used-gear and all of my day’s food. Rainwear is in the rear pocket and accessible in less than 10 seconds. Most days I don’t need to go into the main pack-bag during the day—which is good since that’s a lot of time wasted.
  • The Cuben Fiber main pack-bag with a roll top closure is virtually waterproof. Combine that with stowing my quilts and down jacket in Cuben Fiber stuff sacks and I don’t need to do anything different when it rains, just keep hiking. So my backpack is always packed the same, regardless of weather. No messing around taking on and off pack covers (imperfect rain protection anyway) or fussing with pack liners, both of which are a pain and waste time.
  • It has a simple and light hipbelt capable of supporting at least 15 to 20 pounds.
10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

Fortunately, in previous winter trips I had tested my very cold weather hammock gear down to 12°F (-11°C). So I had a solid and very light winter hammock quilt system ready to go. One I had complete confidence would give me a great night’s sleep.

Sleeping System

  • Getting a good night’s sleep was essential to putting in back to back long days on the trail. My body needed rest to recover and get up and do it all over again the next day. Any impediment to getting my recovery was “time wasted.” This was arguably more important than wasted hiking time.
  • I need a light sleep system that I know will give me great sleep every night! One that I will relax and start to doze off minutes after I lie down and know that I will sleep soundly for the rest of the night.
  • For me on the AT this is clearly an 8 oz hammock paired with warm down quilts and a cuben fiber tarp. Read more here: Hammock camping article. Hammock Camping Part I: Advantages & disadvantages versus ground systems
  • Another advantage of a hammock on the AT, hammock camping equates to more miles hiked at the end of the day vs. sleeping on the ground.
  • Why? Sleeping in a hammock dramatically increases suitable campsites on the AT. With a hammock all I need to camp is two trees—the ground below is largely irrelevant. That means I can hike until dusk without the risk of being in un-campable terrain. (Since much of the AT is sloped and rocky it’s not suitable for ground camping.)
  • So if I were ground sleeping I would likely need to stop hiking sooner than dusk to camp. I.e. I need to stop at the last shelter or campground that I could comfortably make before dark. Thus I might miss an hour or more of available daylight to hike.
Blue rRdge at dawn. The name is self-explanatory.

Blue Ridge at dawn

Adjustments for Challenging Weather – when we make plans Nature laughs

I was hoping for pleasant spring conditions—sunny and in the 60s during the day with crisp sleeping temps in the 40s at night. Unfortunately, this was the weather I got. It would be even colder than this at higher elevations along the Blue Ridge in the park with temperatures likely dropping into the low 20s and rain becoming wind-blown sleet. Life is like that sometimes.

Wx report-600

My major changes were:

  1. do the hike in 3 vs. 4 days
  2. take warmer, +20F hammock quilts but with trimmer dimensions to save weight
  3. take a bit warmer clothes; a down jacket vs. down vest, and to add a light fleece shirt that I wore the whole  hike.

Click here to see Major Changes for Winter Wx full page, as a Google Sheet

5lb-lightweight-winter-change-AT

Click on table image above to see it full page with working links.

Mostly rain and mist all day along the ridge

Mostly rain and mist all day along the ridge

Original (non winter modified) Practical Light Gear List

For a complete discussion on gear selection and a Complete Gear List see my previous post: Practical Light Gear List Appalachian Trail.

Original (non winter modified)5 Pound Practical Light Gear List
Click here see it full page, as a Google Sheet

5-lb-practical lighweight

. Click on gear list table image to see full gear list sheet

Another stunning sunrise on the Blue Ridge

Another stunning sunrise on the Blue Ridge.

Water – Drink to Thirst

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Drink to Thirst: Collecting water from springs right by the trail saves time. Drinking at the source with a Sawyer Filter means that I don’t have to carry water. I found I could easily hike to the next trailside water source without becoming thirsty.

Shakedown Trip – test out gear and legs

Shakedown trip: Two weekends before Alison and I did a 3 day trip in cold and wet spring conditions with the gear I intended to use on the hike. We got 35 degree rain, and hard freezes at night. My gear performed well and I made only a few adjustment prior to the Shenandoah. We also did one hard and fast 22 mile day to see test fitness, leg strength and endurance.

Backpacking Spring Training

Gear testing on a shakedown trip: Warm and snug in our hammocks sheltered in grove of pines. It was 35 degrees spitting rain when we went to bed and dropped to 25 degrees by the next morning. My hammock setup is on the left: Dutchware Netless Hammock with Dutchware suspension/hardware, Hammock Gear (HG) top & bottom quilts, and HG Cuben Hex Tarp.

Parting Shot – 10 Pound Backpack to Hike 100 Miles

And yes, there was some sunshine on this trip.

And yes, there was sunshine on this trip.

We believe this is the best guide to the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek, in-print or online. This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for trekking in Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were missing essential information, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. Here is the information gathered from our recent Circuit Trek in Torres de Paine.

June 2018: It appears that C. Torres (área de acampar Torres) is closed for the 18-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek (and some for the Circuit Trek as well), but there is a hack. See more below…

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (this Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the second largest non-polar ice shelf). Glacier Grey’s origin from the Heilo Sur is at the upper right of the photo between the snow covered mountains of the Southern Andes. If you only do the W Trek you’ll miss walking along this incredible river of ice. It was our favorite part of the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek. Alison’s ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack is probably carrying less than 11 lb (5 kg) at this point in the trip.

This is a companion piece to an overall guide to Trekking the Torres de Paine. The main post: Torres del Paine Trekking – Quick and Easy Guide to Essential Trip Planning has gear lists, food lists, information on campsite reservations, busses and ferries, park maps, GPX files, and other essential information to plan your trip.

IMPORTANT – Latest and Best Information for Trekking in Torres de Paine

CONAF continues to make logistical changes to this trek over time. Check this grey box for the latest important changes. Below are the top informational items to note for your trek for the 2018-2019 season.

Campamento Torres (área de acampar Torres) will be closed for the 2018-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek, As a backup until this resolves, you could consider booking Campamento Chileno (Área de acampar Chileno) with Fantastico Sur. It’s plus an hour or a bit longer hike up to the Torres de Paine (vs. C. Torres), but still doable. Because they have the monopoly, last year they only booked hikers who paid for full meals. Expect the same for the 2018-2019 season.

In January, 2017 CONAF instituted quotas which will continue in 2018-2019 for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek

  1. Advance Reservations are Required for All Your Campsites (W and Circuit)

You need to have all your campsite reservations in place before you enter the park. “You need to show reservations at each campsite in order to stay. This is being enforced. There are limited campsites so making your reservation is essential. (Overcrowding last year caused camp latrines to collapse and many people got sick. Due to this, multiple campsites are now permanently closed.)”

  1. There is an 80 Person Per Day Limit on the Circuit Trek (and it can only be done counterclockwise).

There is a 80 person per day limit for the “Backside” (non-W portion) of the Circuit Trek. This is passively regulated by the campsite reservation system (that is, if you have all your campsite reservations you are part of the 80 people per day allowed). This is being strictly enforced! There is a guard house (Guardería Coirón) on the backside operated by CONAF and and you’ll be asked to show proof of your reservations to proceed. Note: We have received reports of trekkers without reservations being sent back. [see Official 2017 Park Trekking Map]

  1. Reservations for the free Park (CONAF) Campsites Fill up Well in Advance
    Note: As of Sept 2018 CONAF is now charging the entrance fee when you book their free campsites. In addition, the process is now more complicated. Below we give you detailed guidance on how to best book your reservations.

Per CONAF:If you are unable to book in all the camps you want to visit, you must adapt your itinerary according to the camps you could get. Consider that there are two other camping and shelter providers where you can book:Fantastico Sur* and Vertice*. We remind you that if you do not have the corresponding reservations you will not be able to access the mountain trails and you should plan other visit options, as there will be control points where you must show the voucher or confirmation email of your reservation.

*Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.

  1. There are now cutoff/closing times for most trails

The back page of the Official 2017 Park Trekking Map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. This map will still get you everything you need for the trek.

WHEN CAN I BOOK MY RESERVATIONS?

Fantastico Sur:  is now open for 2018/2019 reservations and their rates are online.  Use this button for their website FIRST

Below are three additional buttons—one has the rates for the 2018/2019 season, one is the booking form (you can email the form to make a reservation — may take a while), and the last is their policies including cancellation info. For the 2018-2019 season, their refugios in the W are open Sept 2-April 30, and in the Circuit November 1-March 31.

    

Vertice: Has their 2018-2019 dates posted already and it looks like they are booking reservations . Their W refugios are open September 1-April 30, Circuit November 1-March 30. Check their website for latest prices. 

CONAF: ****IS NOW OPEN**** But you still cannot book more than six months in advance (180 days before you go) for their sites of Italiano (open October-April) and Paso (open November-April). 

NEW INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE CONAF SITE: Scroll down to the “RESERVAR CAMPING CONAF” click on that link; next, you will see the entrance fees for the park. The campsites are still free. However, CONAF is now charging you the entrance fee when you book these free campsites so get ready to pay. Click on “comprar entradas.”  Now you will need to set up an account with CONAF. Use the “pasaporte” user access  (‘RUT’ is for Chilean residents). Once registered, follow the instructions to book the dates you need for each of the campsites (Italiano and/or Paso). CONAF will automatically charge you the $21,000 CLP entrance fee in addition to booking your sites when you check out.

Note: this is a trip guide. We are not a booking agency and have no special access to Vertice, Fantastico Sur & CONAF. As such, your best strategy is to deal directly with V, FS & CONAF yourself. Wishing you a great trek and we will continue to post information as we receive it. Warmest, -Alan and Alison

WHEN DOES THE PARK REALLY OPEN? Over the years we have received reports of some confusion and disarray in TdP, particularly around opening dates. So, keep in mind that the required booking system is still somewhat new to the park and clearly causing a lot more work for Fantastico and Vertice employees. As such, there is bound to be a difficult transition from the older, more free flowing system to this new stricter one. Our advice would be to continue to try and keep the communication lines open by contacting all parties, CONAF, Fantastico, and Vertice using all email addresses, Facebook, and phone. Also keep in mind that all three of these agencies are distinct and most likely do not communicate amongst themselves. You are the only thing they have in common which puts the burden on you to figure out what is going on.

“OFF SEASON” April 30 to sometime in November: Most Refugios and Private Campamentos close during the off season. Backside of O/Circuit guided only.

As of April 30 Most, most Refugios/Private Campamentos (Fantastico Sur and Vertice) are closed for the season. You can still camp on the W but obviously there will be far fewer resources. The “Backside” of the O or Circuit Trek (Serón, Dickson, Los Perros, Paso John Garner, etc.) is closed unless with an official guide. They will re-open to general use/travel at the start of the High Season, usually sometime in November.


Two Alternative World Class Treks in Patagonia

Looking for Something to do after Torres del Paine? Or are you finding reservations difficult and/or campsites booked? Then checkout out our guides to these two incredible off the beaten path Patagonia Treks  — Chile’s exciting New Patagonia National Park Trek Guide and the Cerro Castillo Trek Guide. No reservations required and you’ll see far fewer people.

Chile’s New Patagonia National Park may well become the “Yellowstone of South America” due to its rich diversity. The new Park has it all — the high glaciated peaks of the Southern Andes, wide valleys with ice cold glacial rivers, forests of southern beech hanging with moss, and startlingly green glacial lakes. Fairly unique to the park is its expansive grasslands supporting a vast array of wildlife. It’s easy to see herds of guanacos, condors, flamingos, armadillos and much more…

Cerro Castillo Trek Guide

The Cerro Castillo Trek is nearby and equally stunning. When, combined with the New Patagonia National Park Trek you have almost two weeks of fantastic trekking in a much less traveled but exciting region of Patagonia.

Torres del Paine Circuit Trek in 5 to 6 days from Puerto Natales and Back

The Torres del Paine Circuit Trek or ‘O’ Trek does all of the W Trek, then continues around the back of the Torres del Paine to complete a full loop. We believe many backpackers can easily do the Circuit in 5 to 6 days. (We comfortably did it in 4.5 hiking days). We prefer the Circuit Trek. The “backside,” non-W part of the Circuit Trek ias every bit as beautiful as the W Trek but with fewer people and you see a lot more of the park, which is more varied than just the W Trek. For instance, you walk for miles above Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest non-polar ice shelf). This was our favorite part of the trek. And finally, the Circuit Trek gives you more time to enjoy this stunning park! [The tricky part of the Circuit is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]

Glacier Frances from near Mirador Frances. It's typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in mid to late afternoon.

Glacier Frances from near Mirador Frances. It’s typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in mid to late afternoon.

Day 0 – Prep day before the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek
Our recommendation is to start at Refugio Paine Grande, head east (counterclockwise) to end at Refugio Paine Grande. See Hiking Times and Distances for Torres del Paine

  • Same as for the W Trek with the following exceptions
    • You will be taking the catamaran both to and from Refugio Paine Grande, so buy a round trip ticket on your ferry ride out to Refugio Paine Grande.
    • You will be taking the bus back from Pudeto on Lago Pehoé (not the Hotel) to return to Puerto Natales
  • Check the bus and ferry schedules to get the most current info (see Transportation).
  • It makes sense to stay overnight in Puerto Natales so you can easily catch the morning’s 7:30 am Bus Gomez (or potentially another bus co.) to the Park. (Make your bus reservation and buy a round-trip ticket to the Park the night before. This is easiest to do when you get off the bus from Punta Arenas.)
  • When you get to P. Natales go directly to CONAF (Park) office (Closed Sat & Sunday) and make campsite reservations for free campamentos (Italiano and Torres fill quickly).
  • Check in at Basecamp/Erratic Rock for 3:00 talk. (Worth listening to!) You can rent gear at Basecamp and they make a decent pizza.
  • Provision food at the Unimarc in Puerto Natales. Long lines! (Better to provision in Punta Arenas if you have the chance. Way more options including a natural foods store, Patachmama, with lots of nuts & dried fruit.)
  • Outdoors stores, hardware stores are well supplied with hiking items. Fuel canisters are everywhere in Punta Arenas and P. Natales
  • Alcohol fuel is available at Cruz Verde pharmacias in plastic bottles.
Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Floor of Valle Encantado with wildflowers in full bloom (at least when we were there). One of the highlights of the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek.

Day 1 – Getting to trek start (Refugio Paine Grande) via bus, catamaran – Valle Frances and Campamento Italiano

4 to 5 hours and 12 km, 7.5 miles (to Mirador Frances). This is a half day starting around noon. Hiking on good trails (and with just a daypack to Miradors [viewpoints] in Valle Frances).

Get to the bus station early for the 7:30 am bus. First come first serve and the bus fills quickly. [Late comers for our bus did not get on the exact bus they had reserved. e.g. a ticket and reservation does not guarantee you a seat. No worries tho. They will put you on the next bus.]

  • Be first off the bus at Laguna Amarga Entrance stop (around 9:30 am). Pay entrance fee & get permit. If you didn’t make campsite reservations for free campamentos do it now. The free campsites on the W like Campamento Italiano & Torres fill fast. If you can’t get a reservation at C. Italiano, for a small fee camping at R. Frances is quieter and nicer.
  • Get back on bus to and arrive approx. 10:30a the Pudeto ferry dock (Catamaran on Lago Pehoé). Ferry leaves at 12:00 or 6:00 for Paine Grande. (Realistically in high season it may be going back and forth almost hourly). We got a “10:45” ferry and got to R. Paine Grande around 11:15 am. You pay your fee on the ferry–no advance reservations taken. Buy a round trip ticket since you’ll be taking the ferry back at the end of the Circuit.
  • Pickup your pack and head off to the free camping at Campamento Italiano (if you have a reservation) or possibly camping at Refugio Frances. One way stats to C. Italiano: approx. 7.5 km, 4.8 miles and 2.0 hours from RPG.
  • No matter where you are camping, drop your pack at Campamento Italiano (very safe everybody does it) and kit yourself out for day-hiking. Hike to at least Mirador Frances for a stunning view of the hanging Glacier Frances. We were less inspired by the hike up Valle Frances to the Mirador Britanico which is a lot more trekking for a nice view of a high cirque. If you are short on time and energy M. Frances is the bigger bang for the buck. Round trip stats for M. Frances: approx. 4 km, 2.6 miles and 2.0 to 2.5 hours. Round trip to M. Britanico 11 km, 6.9 miles and 4.0 hours.
  • 2017 update: Please note that the trail to Mirador Britanico now closes at 3.00pm/15.00 and is strictly enforced. As such, it’s tight to make it to C. Italiano off of the 10.45am Catamaran (arrives at Paine Grande around 11.40am) in time to trek to M. Frances. To make it work: be the first off the ferry, don’t stop long or at all at R. Paine Grande, and instead hike quickly to C. Italiano. Once there, drop your packs and hike briskly up to M. Frances to beat the closing time.
  • Once back down, get packs and if you have a reservation pitch your tent at C. Italiano. We camped 1/2 hour further down the trail from C. Italiano at the new and nice R Frances. Good tent platforms. Best hot showers and bathrooms of the trip by far. Small store and they serve meals if you have reservations (we managed to talk them into seating us for dinner day-0f but it was very tight).

Mirador Britanico in Valley Frances. Not all days are sunny in Patagonia, especially later in the day when the mountains are likely to cloud in. A waterproof pack like this HMG 2400 Southwest is nice on days that are threatening rain. (Early starts are best, especially if you want to see the mountains unobstructed by clouds.)

Day 2 – C. Italiano to Campamento Torres (with an evening peek at the Torres themselves)

7.5 to 9 hours and 28 km, 17.5 miles to Campamento Torres and a trip up to M Torres. This is a very pleasant alpine walk along the shore of Lago Nordenskjöld to R. Cuernos. After R. Cuernos take the cutoff trail (well marked) to R. Chileno (very nice store!). And then hike up to C. Torres. This camp has minimal facilities (dirt sites, no showers, basic cooking shelter, no tables). Not so great bathrooms. Your alternative is to camp at R. Chileno but that adds an extra hour each way for the hike to the Mirador las Torres, making it a 3.5 hour round trip hike vs. the 1.5 hours from C. las Torres.

  • C. Italiano to R Los Curenos – 1.5 to 2.0 hours, and 5 km, 3.1 miles.
  • R. Los Cuernos to C Torres – 2.5 to 3.0 hours
Park Tails are well signed. It is almost impossible to get off-route or lost.

The shortcut to Refugio Chileno  is about 40 to 60 minutes hiking from R Los Cuernos.

  • If you have time (you should) and the Torres are clear of clouds, consider hiking the 45 minutes up the steep trail to Mirador las Torres to see the famous Torres del Paine. It is also beneficial to familiarize yourself with the steep trail if you will hike it in the dark the next morning to catch the Torres at dawn. Round trip – 1.5 to 2.0 hours and 2 km, 1.3 miles.
tdp-couple

We arrived early enough at C. Torres to hike up for an evening photo at the Torres Del Paine. While not clouded in, the late day overcast did not make for the best of photos.

Torres de Paine W Trek

The pictures at dawn the next morning were much better although I needed to hike in the dark to get them.

Day 3 – Dawn photos of Las Torres, hike to Campamento Serón

7 to 9.5 hours and 23.5 km, 15 miles to Campamento Serón. This day is fast hiking on excellent trails. (A pre-dawn hike to the mirador is included)

Note that we have reports of bugs from Serón to Grey. We use the following on areas not protected by clothing: DEET (or the newer  Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics).  We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field.  Alternatively, for around $6 USD you can get spray at Cruz Verde Pharmacies in Puerto Natales.

Alison dropping down to Rio Paine and Valley Encantado (backside of the Circuit Trek).

Alison dropping down to the Rio Paine in Valle Encantado on the way to Campamento Serón (backside of the Circuit Trek). All the almost white, flat ground in the distance is actually blanketed by wildflowers.

  • (Optional) For those that want the best chance for a photo of Las Torres del Paine: Get up 2.0 hours before sunrise to hike in the dark up to the Mirador to hopefully catch the Torres at first light. You want to be there ready at the mirador with your camera positioned at least 30 minutes before sunrise. This is your best chance to get a clear view of the Torres as they often mist/cloud in later in the day. If you are lucky you may see them in the splendid red light of dawn but it’s not a sure thing. Bring warm clothes for the wait in the dark for photos. After shooting photos hike back down to camp, have breakfast and pack up. [Round trip – 1.5 to 2.0 hours and 2 km, 1.3 miles.]
  • From C Torres hit the trail at approx. 8:00 am or earlier. Hike to Hotel Torres. Be prepared for droves of day hikers heading up from the Hotel. The earlier you get down the fewer hikers you’ll have to dodge around on you way to the hotel. Best food store of the trip is the Kiosk in parking lot of Hotel. Also there is a nice cafe at Refugio Torres. Beautiful views from cafe tables. One way stats from C. Torres to the Hotel/Refugio Torres: approx. 2.0 to 3.0 hours,and 8.5 km, 5.5 miles.
Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

A peek at the Southern Andes and the Vast Southern Ice Field. Nearing the end of Valle Encantado on the way to Refugio Dickson. Backside of the Circuit Trek.

  • Hike along private wooded pastures and meadows to Campamento Serón. There is some cattle pasturing here and we were careful to treat our water. The hike is superbly beautiful once you drop off the hill and down into the aptly named Valle Encantado (enchanted valley). We arrived in time for fields of wildflowers for miles and miles. 3.5 to 4.5 hours and 13km, 8.1 miles
  • Arrive Campamento Serón. Nice cooking on a covered porch. We ate our best sit-down dinner of the trip here. Sketchy hot showers. Decent store with wine and beer. Serón has fairly exposed campsites. (We saw a tent snapped and crushed here by the wind.) If windy, the best tent locations are right up against the fence at the base of the hill. You can even tie a few guylines to the fence.

Day 4 – Campamento Serón to Campamento Los Perros

7.5 to 9.5 hours and 29 km, 18 miles to Campamento Serón. This was one of our favorite hiking days—spectacular scenery. Another day of fast hiking on excellent trails. Beautiful views of the head of Valle Frances, then Lago Dickson and Glacier Dickson, and finally Glacier Perros, and Lago Los Perros.

Logo Dickson from near Refugio Dickson (backside of the Circuit Trek).

Lago Dickson with Glacier Dickson pouring down from the Southern Ice Field. (From Refugio Dickson, backside of the Circuit Trek)

  • Day starts with a long walk through superb alpine meadows to R Dickson. Incredible wildflowers when in bloom! Also, we got our first views of Heilo Sur. One very steep, but short climb in the first hour of hiking. You will need to register at Ranger Station after you leave private land and reenter the park (no payment needed). 4.5 to 5.5 hours and 18 km, 11.2 miles to R. Dickson.
    • Refugio Dickson has great views from their camp site (views of Heilo Sur and surrounding mountains in all directions). Lago Dickson is picturesque with Glacier Dickson flowing into it. Campsite has significant mosquitoes if wind is calm. Relatively unprotected cooking area (picnic tables) if wind is strong. Some camping in woods. Camping in field out of woods is quite unprotected. Nice, well stocked store.

    Lago Perros and Glacier Perros. You exit a long stretch of woods and see this about 10 minutes before reaching Campamento Los Perros.

    Lago Perros and Glacier Perros. You exit a long stretch of woods and get this exquisite view 10 minutes before reaching Campamento Los Perros.

  • From R. Dickson, it is a very pleasant walk through a lovely forest to Campamento los Perros. Steady but moderate climb on good trail. Keep on the lookout for Magellanic Woodpeckers with their neon red heads. You get an incredible view of Glacier Perros and Lago Perros from top of the terminal moraine just before reaching C. Perros. (You can always drop your pack at camp and come back). 3.0 to 4.0 hours and 11 km, 6.9 miles.
image

Super nice Marmot tents, already setup with ground pads inside can be rented for around $12, allowing for a fast start in the morning (they set up the tent for you, you just leave it and go in the morning).

  • Register with Rangers at Los Perros. Most hikers leave in groups to go over Paso John Gardner around 7:00 or 8:00 am the next morning. This is encouraged by the Rangers as they feel it is safer for hikers to travel in groups. Rangers have say on go, no-go for attempting Paso John Gardner. Both strong wind and white-out are reasons for them close the pass. PJG is notorious for extremely high winds coming off of Glacier Grey and the Heilo Sur. An earlier start is almost always better.
  • Dirt campsites at Los Perros but well protected. Super nice tents can be rented for around $12, allowing for a fast start in the morning. Nice store. Best cooking area of trip. Large room with lots of windows and lighted at night.

Day 5 – Over Paso John Gardner and down to R. Paine Grande – catamaran and bus to P. Natales

9 to 12 hours and 29 km, 18.1 miles to catch the last catamaran from R. Paine Grande. This is admittedly a very long day. Many may chose to break this into a full day into Refugio Grey with a following short day to Refugio Paine Grande. [The tricky part is is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]

Paso-John-Gardner

Alison fights a strong headwind for the final push over Paso John Gardner. When we woke at 5:30 am. at our camp below the Pass the wind was already blowing 25-30 mph. We quickly packed up and got the hell out of dodge before the Rangers were around to close the pass (which they had done the previous day). It was windy on the way up but not horrible. We could still walk/weave a bit over the actual pass which had the strongest winds.

  • 2 to 3 hours and 4 km, 2.5 miles to Paso John Gardner
    • On our trip Alison and I left Campamento Los Perros around 6:30 am as wind was already blowing 25-30 mph in camp. It’s a boggy and rocky hike up to the pass, but well marked. About half the hike is in the woods protected from wind. Other portions are rocky, exposed and can be quite windy. We had to hike through a few small snowfields at the top, which were a bit slippery in the early morning. Final 100m vertical to the actual pass was quite windy. We were buffeted by the wind and weaving a bit as we crossed the actual summit. Fortunately, the trail quickly descends (down and to the left) into protected woods on other side.
    • The most incredible views of the trip unfold as you go over the pass. Glacier Grey, a 4.5 mile wide river of ice flowing down from Heilo Sur (the great Southern Ice Shelf) and the Southern Andes completely covered in ice and snow. The tip of Glacier Grey many miles below you is calving icebergs into Lago Grey.
glacier-grey-2

Hiking right along the side of Glacier Grey on the way down from Paso John Garner. You’ll get views that few in the park get of this massive river of ice.

  • 1.5 to 2 hours and 4 km, 2.5 miles to Campamento Paso
    • It is a very steep descent in woods on a decent well-maintained trail with many stairs and even some handrails. In short, you are descending from the pass along the ice river until you reach R. Grey. The views are incredible the whole way down. It doesn’t take long to reach Campamento Paso. This not the best campsite on the circuit by a long shot. It is small, unattractive and offers virtually no amenities. C Paso’s redeeming features are that it is well protected in the woods, and is in a key location in relation to Paso John Garner.
  • 3.0 to 3.5 hours and 10 km, 6.5 miles to Refugio Grey
    • More steep downward trail hiking takes you to R. Grey. (The closer you get the Refugio the more crowded the day hiker scene becomes. These are mostly W trekkers making the hike up from the Refugio Grey to miradors of the Glacier.) There are two new Indiana Jones worthy suspension bridges (not for acrophobes) that span nasty gullies. These bridges are tons of fun! There is also one sketchy steel ladder (ala Indiana Jones—sections tied together with cord).
    image

    Not for acrophobes! The park recently added two Indiana Jones worthy suspension bridges between Campamento Paso and Refugio Grey. They speed crossing two deep gullies full of loose rock. The bridges are quite high, long and swing a bunch when you are in the middle.

    • Make sure you stop at the Mirador about ½ mile above R Gray (well marked). Great views of the glacier as it goes into Lago Grey. You are right above the tip of the glacier as it feeds into the lake.
    • R Grey has tons of services meals, food stores. Dirt camping in woods and in a grassy meadow.
  • 2.5 to 3.5 hours and 11 km, 6.3 miles to Refugio Paine Grande
    • From R. Grey, its a non-trivial hike to Paine Grande with a fair amount of up and down along the shore of Lago Grey (or it could be that we were getting tired at this point). It can be very windy. Lots of hikers with both W Trek backpackers and hordes of day hikers coming from Refugio Paine Grande to miradors of Glacier Grey. We found it difficult at times to get around groups of hikers.
    • Paine Grande is a stopping point for day hikers (those staying overnight at RPG, and day trippers from the ferry). Pretty big campsite in back (but very unprotected from wind) and nice Refugio with all services including mini-mart and cafeteria. Nice bathrooms/showers for the campsite. This Refugio gets a lot of traffic since it is the stopping point for the Catamaran so people coming/going all day long.
    • We caught the 5:00pm catamaran back to Pudeto. Last boat of the day leaves at 6:00pm. Buses leave Pudeto (last stop at end of day), at 7:00pm or when the last catamaran gets in. So there’s no premium to getting to the catamaran stop early. Although there’s a decent cafe with sandwiches and good views of the Lago if you do get to Pudeto early.
View from Third mirador (Mirador-Grey-03 on my map): The massive, 4.5 mile wide Glacier Grey as it feeds into Lago Grey. On Day 1 – you’ll hike as far as you have time or energy to get views of the Glacier. The closer you get to the Glacier the better the views, but rest assured there are no bad views!

View from the Third Mirador (Mirador-Grey-03 on my map) where you can see Glacier Grey calve icebergs into Lago Grey. It’s only a short walk from here to Refugio Grey.

Day 6 – Optional extra day + some extra hiking time contingency for bad weather

We realize that day 5 may be a bit longer than some hikers prefer. In this version, Day 6  is a very short day—approx. 3 hours hiking time. This gives you almost a full day (3/4 of a day or more) of contingency hiking time in case of bad weather on the trip and to still make the last catamaran of the day out of R Paine Grande on Day 6.

  • Shorten day 5 and hike only to Refugio Grey. There’s a nice campground here and plenty of amenities. Better yet, there’s a very nice Mirador of Glacier Grey where you can watch icebergs calve into Lago Grey. 6.5 to 8.5 hours and 18 km, 11.5 miles
  • On day 6 hike to Refugio Paine Grande in time to catch the catamaran to Pudeto where you can catch the bus to Puerto Natales. 2.5 to 3.5 hours and 11 km, 6.3 miles.

Hiking Times and Distances for Torres del Paine

C= campamento (camp)   R= refugio (more facilities, meals and beds in addition to camping)

  • This table is just a starting point for planning. You will need to estimate your own hiking pace based on your abilities and pack weight.
  • Times in above table are for Alison and I on our recent trek which we averaged about 2 miles per hour (3.4 km/hr). We are reasonably fit and experienced hikers and carried packs under 18 pounds (under 8 kilos). See our gear list in main post for details. But we are both over 50 years old and by no means speed hikers. And during our trek, Alison was recovering from influenza.
  • Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. Our hiking times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, snapping a quick photo, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. They do not include stoppage or breaks longer than 2-3 minutes. We averaged 2 miles/hour the entire trek.
  • Hiking faster than expected can be just as problematic as slower. See below…
  • Hiking times on Park Maps and in most guide books are conservative (based on an “average” hiker traveling with a heavy pack and not intending on setting any speed records). If you are reasonably fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. We believe with an early start and decent to OK weather, most backpackers could probably do two stages in a day. You have 17 hours of daylight in January!
  • So chances are that you’ll take less time to get from place to place than their estimates. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow. The major complaint we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon. e.g. they could have easily hiked another stage that day to the next campamento/refugio.
  • We suggest you get an early start and hike far when the weather is good. You may get bad weather later in the trip. There is a lot of daylight in the summer hiking season. The key to making miles is to keep a steady pace and minimize time lost on long stops.

The Torres del Paine W Trek is the classic. We believe that most trekkers can do it a day less than the the traditional 5 days and still have plenty of time to take photos and fully enjoy the views. Day 2 of the three-day version this trek is a long day, and most suited to fit hikers with light packs. Many may consider breaking Day 2 into two days for a total of four days for a more leisurely W Trek. Our recommendation is to start at Refugio Paine Grande (the west) and work your way back to Hotel Torres (the east). Lead Photo: The Torres Del Paine, the gem of the Trek. Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche (Aonikenk) language and torres is tower in Spanish. So Towers of Blue.

Torres del Paine W Trek Itinerary for 3-4 Days

Note this is a companion piece to an overall guide to Trekking the Torres de Paine. The main post: Torres del Paine Trekking – Quick and Easy Guide to Essential Trip Planning has gear lists, food lists, information on campsite reservations, busses and ferries, park maps, GPX files, and other essential information to plan your trip.

Day 0 – Prep day before the trek

  • Check the bus and ferry schedules to get the most current info (see Transportation).
  • It makes sense to stay overnight in Puerto Natales so you can easily catch the morning’s 7:00am Bus Sur (or whichever) to the Park. (Make your bus reservation and buy a round-trip ticket to the Park the night before. This is easiest to do when you get off the bus from Punta Arenas. Note: you will be taking the bus to the Pudeto Ferry on the way out but taking the bus back from the Laguna Amarga Entrance)
  • Check in at Basecamp/Erratic Rock for 3:00 talk. (Worth listening to!) You can rent gear at Basecamp and they make a decent pizza.
  • Provision food at the Unimarc in Puerto Natales. Long lines! (Better to provision in Punta Arenas if you have the chance. Way more options including a natural foods store, Patachmama, with lots of nuts & dried fruit.)
  • Outdoors stores, hardware stores are well supplied with hiking items. Fuel canisters are everywhere in Punta Arenas and P. Natales
  • Alcohol fuel is available at Cruz Verde pharmacias in plastic bottles.
The start of the W Trek. Heading from Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano and Valle Frances.

The start of the W Trek. Heading from Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano and Valle Frances. At trip start Alison ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack is carrying less than 15 pounds (under 7 kg)

Day 1 – Torres del Paine W Trek start (Refugio Paine Grande) via bus, catamaran – Glacier Grey Views, Campamento Italiano

5 to 6 hours* and 18.5 km, 11.8 miles (mostly with a day pack on easy trails) – to first Mirador
Today you’ll do a round trip day hike from Refugio Paine Grande (RPG) as far as you can for a good view of Glacier Grey. Back at RPG you’ll don your full pack and trek over to Campamento Italiano or Refugio Frances (to setup for day hiking up Valle Frances the next morning).

*Note 1: Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. Our hiking times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, snapping a quick photo, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. They do not include stoppage or breaks longer than 2 minutes.
Note 2: don’t forget that it doesn’t get dark until almost 23:00, 11:00 pm in peak hiking season. You have almost 18 hours of daylight!

  • Get to the bus station early for the 7:30 am 7:00am bus. First come, first serve and the bus fills quickly. [Late comers for our bus did not get on the exact bus they had reserved. e.g. a ticket and reservation does not guarantee you a seat. No worries tho. They will put you on the next bus.]
  • Be first off the bus at Laguna Amarga Entrance stop (around 9:30 am). Pay entrance fee & get permit. If you didn’t make campsite reservations for free campamentos do it now. The free campsites on the W — Campamento Italiano & Torres fill fast. If you can’t get a reservation at C. Italiano, for a small fee camping at the nearby R. Frances is quieter and nicer.
  • Get back on bus and arrive approx. 10:30a at the Pudeto ferry dock (Catamaran on Lago Pehoé). Ferry leaves at 12:00 or 6:00 for Paine Grande. (Realistically in high season it may be going back and forth almost hourly). We got a “10:45” ferry and got to R. Paine Grande around 11:15 am. You pay your fee on the ferry–no advance reservations taken.
The massive Glacier Grey as it feeds into Lago Grey.

View from Third mirador (Mirador-Grey-03 on my map): The massive, 4.5 mile wide Glacier Grey as it feeds into Lago Grey. On Day 1 – you’ll hike as far as you have time or energy to get views of the Glacier. The closer you get to the Glacier the better the views, but rest assured there are no bad views!

  • Hike to one of the viewpoints for Glacier Grey: Drop your pack at Refugio Paine Grande (RPG) and setup your day-hiking kit to do a round trip hike to one of the many miradors (viewpoints) for Glacier Grey. Essentially you’ll hike as far as you have time or energy. The closer you get to the Glacier the better the views, but rest assured there are no bad views!
    • First mirador (Mirador-Grey-01 on my map), is on a high bluff overlooking Lago Grey. One way stats: approx. 5.5 km, 3.5 miles and 1.5 to 2.0 hours from RPG.
    • Second mirador (Mirador-Grey-02 on my map) is the mirador for the classic ‘W.’ It is at Refugio Grey, on the shore of Lago Grey looking up at the Glacier. There are many food options at the Refugio. One way stats: approx. 11 km, 6.9 miles and 2.5 to 3.5 hours from RPG.
    • If you hike quite fast you can go to the Third mirador (Mirador-Grey-03 on my map). It is above the end of Glacier Grey and you can look down and see the glacier calving icebergs into Lago Grey. One way stats (additional from Refugio Grey): approx. 3.6 km, 2.3 miles and 1.0 to 1.5 hours (from Refugio Grey!)
  • Hike back to Refugio Paine Grande from whatever mirador you stopped at.
  • Pickup your pack and head off to the free camping at Campamento Italiano (if you have a reservation) or possibly camping at Refugio Frances. One way stats to C. Italiano: approx. 7.5 km, 4.8 miles and 2.0 hours from RPG.
    • The new and very nice R Frances about ½ hour down the trail from C. Italiano has nice camping and good tent platforms. Best hot showers and bathrooms of the trip by far. Small store and they serve meals if you have reservations.
    • If you have extra time and the mountains are clear, you might consider hiking up to one of the miradors for views of Glacier Frances.
Fair warning, not all days are sunny in Patagonia, but that doesn't mean the Torres del Paine is any less beautiful. Clouds and mists swirling around the high peaks are every bit as stunning as a sunny day. Glacier Frances (a hanging glacier) from near Mirador Frances. The summit of Paine Grande the highest mountain in the park at 3,050 m (10,000 ft) is is already obscured by clouds mid-afternoon. It's typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in later in the day, even in good weather. Early starts are best if you want unobstructed views of the peaks.

Fair warning, not all days are sunny in Patagonia, but that doesn’t mean the Torres del Paine is any less beautiful. Clouds and mists swirling around the high peaks are every bit as stunning as a sunny day. Glacier Frances (a hanging glacier) from near Mirador Frances. The summit of Paine Grande the highest mountain in the park at 3,050 m (10,000 ft) is is already obscured by clouds mid-afternoon. It’s typical in Patagonia for peaks to cloud in later in the day, even in good weather. Early starts are best if you want unobstructed views of the peaks.

Day 2 – C. Italiano to Mirador Frances to Refugio Chileno (possibly an evening peek at the Torres themselves)

8 to 10.5 hours* and 30 km, 18.5 miles (good trails, some hiking with just a daypack to M Frances)
This is a long day and one might consider an early start (or breaking it into two days – see 4-day itinerary below). An early start has the added benefit of getting to Mirador Frances with the clearest views since the mountains tend to cloud in as the day progresses, and possibly allowing you time at the end of the day to hike up to see the Torres del Paine.

  • Leave your pack in camp and day hike to at least Mirador Frances for a stunning view of the hanging Glacier Frances. We were less inspired by the hike up Valle Frances to the Mirador Britanico which is a lot more trekking for a nice view of a high cirque. If you are short on time and energy, Mirador Frances is the bigger bang for the buck. Round trip stats for M. Frances: approx. 4 km, 2.6 miles and 2.0 to 2.5 hours.
Valley frances approaching mirador Britanico and getting views of the Cirque at the end of the Valley

Valley Frances: approaching mirador Britanico and getting views of the Cirque at the end of the Valley

  • Back at camp, grab your pack and take a very pleasant alpine walk along the shore of Lago Nordenskjöld to Refugio Los Cuernos. One way stats from C. Italiano to R. Cuernos: approx. 5 km, 3.1 miles and 1.5 to 2.0 hours.
  • From  R. Cuernos take the cutoff trail to Refugio Chileno (well marked at around 8 km, 5 miles from R Cueros). Refugio Chileno has a very nice store! One way stats from R Cuernos to R Chileno: approx. 18 km, 11.3 miles and 4.0 to 5.0 hours to R. Chileno. Camp here as CONAF’s Campamento Torres is closed to camping.
Hiking along the shores of Lago Norgenskjold. (W Trek)

Hiking along the shores of Lago Norgenskjold. (W Trek)

to the mirador to see the Torres del Paine.

Los Cuernos to Refugio Chileno: Wildflowers in front of the massive Almirante Nieto mountain. On our way to see the Torres del Paine later in the day.

  • Hike to Mirador las Torres. to see the famous Torres del Paine. It is also beneficial to familiarize yourself with the steep trail if you hike it in the dark the next morning to catch the Torres at dawn. One way stats from R. Chileno: approx. 3 km, 2 miles and 1.0 hours to C. Torres.
Alan's HyperLite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest Pack is carrying less than 12 pounds (6 kg) at this point in the trip.

We had enough time on Day 2 to head up to the mirador to see the Torres del Paine for an evening view. We dropped most of our stuff in Campameto Torres and headed up with day gear. It was a bit overcast so the light is not photo perfect but we got an unobscured view. [We used Alan’s HMG 2400 Southwest Pack as a day-pack, loading it with our rain gear, warm jackets, and a bit of food.]

Day 3 – Dawn photos of Torres del Paine, hike to Hotel Las Torres, bus back to Puerto Natales

10 km, 6 miles and 3.5 to 5.0 hours (Campamento Torres to Hotel Las Torres)
A quick hike to see the Torres at dawn. Then an easy downhill hike to Hotel Torres to catch buses back to Puerto Natales.

  • For those that want the best photo of Las Torres del Paine: Get up 1.5 to 2.0 hours before sunrise to hike in the dark up to the Mirador to catch the Torres at first light. You want to be there ready at the mirador with your camera positioned at least 30 minutes before sunrise. This is your best chance to get a clear view of the Torres as they often mist/cloud in later in the day. If you are lucky you may see them in the splendid red light of dawn but it’s not a sure thing. Bring warm clothes for the wait in the dark for photos. Some even bring their sleeping bag to snuggle up in. Round trip stats: approx. 2 km, 1.2 miles and 1.5 to 2.0 hours
  • Have breakfast pack up and hit the trail at approx. 9:00 am. Hike to Hotel Torres. Be prepared for droves of day hikers heading up from the Hotel. The earlier you get down, the fewer hikers you’ll have to dodge around on you way to the hotel. One way stats from C. Torres to the Hotel: approx. 8 km, 5 miles and 2.0 to 3.0 hours
  • From Hotel las Torres take the 2:00 (approx. time) park shuttle bus back to the Laguna Amarga Entrance Station. From there you can catch a 2:30 Bus Gomez back to Puerto Natales.

4 Day Version – Split “Day 2” into two shorter days

This turns Day 2 from a long hard day into two far more leisurely days. It also makes hiking all the way up Valle Frances to Mirador Britanico a far more attractive option.

  • Day 1: Same as Day 1 above.
    • On Day 1 you also have the option of camping at Refugio Paine Grande since the next day is not a killer day. This a) allows your more time to day hike up to miradors for Glacier Grey, or b) makes Day 1 hiking about 2 hours shorter. If camping at RPG make sure to pitch your tent close to the base of the hill to get some shelter from the strong winds that commonly blow in the area.
  • Day 2: Hike as far as you want up Valle Frances (even to Mirador Britanico). Then pickup your pack and hike to camp at Refugio Los Cuernos.
  • Day 3: Hike to R. Chileno and possibly hike up to Mirador Las Torres for an evening view.
  • Day 4: Dawn hike to Mirador Las Torres. Hike to Hotel Las Torres and take buses back to Puerto Natales.

Hiking Times and Distances for Torres del Paine W Trek

Torres del Paine Trekking Guide

C= campamento (camp)   R= refugio (more facilities, meals and beds in addition to camping)

  • This table is a just starting point for planning. You will need to estimate your own hiking pace based on your abilities and pack weight.
  • Times in above table are for Alison and I on our recent trek which we averaged about 2 miles per hour (3.4 km/hr). We are reasonably fit and experienced hikers and carried packs under 18 pounds (under 8 kilos). See our gear list in main post for details. But we are both over 50 years old and by no means speed hikers. And during our trek, Alison was recovering from influenza.
  • Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. Our hiking times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, snapping a quick photo, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. They do not include stoppage or breaks longer than 2-3 minutes. We averaged 2 miles/hour the entire trek.
  • Hiking faster than expected can be just as problematic as slower. See below…
  • Hiking times on Park Maps and in most guide books are conservative (based on an “average” hiker traveling with a heavy pack and not intending on setting any speed records). If you are reasonably fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. We believe with an early start and decent to OK weather, most backpackers could probably do two stages in a day. You have 17 hours of daylight in January!
  • So chances are that you’ll take less time to get from place to place than their estimates. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow. The major complaint we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon. e.g. they could have easily hiked another stage that day to the next campamento/refugio.
  • We suggest you get an early start and hike far when the weather is good. You may get bad weather later in the trip. There is a lot of daylight in the summer hiking season. The key to making miles is to keep a steady pace and minimize time lost on long stops.

wildflower-bridge

The Wind River High Route is in our opinion, mile for mile, the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America. It stays close to the crest of the Continental Divide in one of the most rugged and glaciated mountain ranges in the lower 48. The route is thrilling and the scenery spectacular.
by Alan Dixon and Don Wilson

Revised Jan 2016:

  1. The WRHR is a solid route after two seasons of successful trips.
    Nonetheless, I’ve added new field data on variants to the route (some easier).
  2. A fully revised Gear List, and
  3. A cool Google Earth Flyover Video of the route (Thanks Erin!).

A Wind River High Route Virtual FLYOVER Tour courtesy of Erin Saver of “Walking with Wired

wind-river-flyover

Click on image to play flyover video in a new tab

Wind River High Route — Overview

wind-river-video

Click on image to play a trip highlights video in a new tab

Alan hiking up to Knapsack Col carrying all his junk in a trim ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack.

The Wind River High Route (WRHR) is similar in concept to the Sierra High Route (SHR) but Don and I feel that the WRHR is more spectacular and thrilling. Just as the SHR loosely follows the famous John Muir Trail (JMT) but spends much of its time off-trail, more closely following the Sierra crest, the WRHR in a comparable manner loosely follows the Highline Trail, many times going off-trail to stay higher and closer to the Continental Divide—a more elegant line in high glaciated terrain. When the WRHR uses trails they are higher trails, closer to the crest. It is a more challenging and more rewarding route than the Highline Trail.

The WRHR starts in the north at the Green River Lakes Trailhead and the headwaters of the Green River. It heads generally southeast to follow the Continental Divide, crossing it four times. After passing through the legendary Cirque of the Towers, it ends at the Big Sandy Trailhead. The WRHR is approximately 80 miles of off-trail and on-trail travel with about 20,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. There are nine passes between 12,200 ft and 11,500 ft—six off-trail and three on-trail. Some of the off-trail passes have a fair amount of talus. There are few short sections of Class 3/4 travel and one glacier crossing. The recommended hiking season is late summer. This gives time for the high snowfields to melt out and reduces mosquito pressure. By mid September their is a decent chance of snow.

Our Criteria for Planning the Wind River High Route

  • An elegant line closely following the crest of the Continental Divide along the finest section of the Wind River Range.
  • A fit hiker should be able to do the route in seven hiking days (we did it in 5½ days). This allows busy people to fit it into a standard “one-week” vacation including travel days (two weekends
    and the five weekdays in between = 9 days total).
  • A non-technical hiking route. No class 5 terrain. Short sections of class 3/4 terrain ok. Don and Alan did the trip in trail running shoes and trekking poles. [Late season only. Early season snow would significantly change the technical nature of the trip.]
  • Route stays high but without being inefficient, or taking unnecessary risks to force a higher line.
  • Uses convenient trail heads with an easy shuttle.

Resources for the Wind River High Route

Route Description – Wind River High Route

The impressive Mt. Bonneville. A massive talus field is spread out below. This is fairly typical terrain for off-trail passes along the route.

Section 1: Green River Lakes Trailhead to Upper Indian Basin

Trail along the eastern shore of the turquoise colored Green River Lakes.

Trail along the eastern shore of the turquoise colored Green River Lakes.

The hike starts with the gentlest of introductions. A mellow wander up the flat and scenic drainage of the Green River for the first few hours, with excellent views of Squaretop Mountain. From the Green River Lakes trailhead, take the trail that heads along the eastern shore of the two turquoise colored Green River Lakes. This trail is marked as both the Highline Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. After passing the two lakes, the trail begins a very gradual climb toward Three Forks Park, which is reached after several hours of hiking. At Three Forks Park the trail turns abruptly west and you begin your ascent into the high country, climbing to just above 10000 feet and over Vista Pass. A slight drop and then a climb into a rocky basin towards Cube Rock Pass will bring you above 10000 feet once again. The High Route will stay above 10000 feet for the next 5 or 6 days, not dropping below this barrier until the final hike out to the car, just a few miles from the Big Sandy Trailhead.

 

Wildflowers on the trail to Cube Rock Pass

Wildflowers on the trail to Cube Rock Pass

From Cube Rock Pass continue on the trail toward Peak Lake. There is decent camping on the west side of Peak Lake, but even better camping in the basin just east of the lake. From the outlet of Peak Lake, curve around its north shore, passing through a large talus slide that drops all the way to the shore. Then wander east toward Knapsack Col. Use trails can be found sporadically along parts of this valley. As you near the Col, look for use trails that descend directly down from the pass. High on the south side of the basin as you approach the pass is the Stroud Glacier. This glacier is commonly identified as the source of one of the largest rivers in the western United States, the Green River. The river drops north out of the Wind River range, then turns south and winds its way through Wyoming and Utah, traversing some of the finest canyons in the world. Eventually it merges with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, before heading onward through the Grand Canyon and down to Mexico.

Unusual red alpenglow at our camp near Peak Lake

Unusual red alpenglow at our camp near Peak Lake

 

The approach to Knapsack Col from the west

The approach to Knapsack Col from the west

 

Alan descending the east side of Knapsack Col

Alan descending the east side of Knapsack Col

 

Alan descending from Knapsack Col, looking into the upper Titcomb Basin. The lower portion of the Twins Glacier can be seen on the right. Considerable ice lies hidden below the talus and made the lower portion of this descent more interesting than we expected.

Alan descending from Knapsack Col, looking into the upper Titcomb Basin. The lower portion of the Twins Glacier can be seen on the right. Considerable ice lies hidden below the talus and made the lower portion of this descent more interesting than we expected.

From Knapsack Col (about 12200 feet) you are treated to one of the finest views on the entire Wind River High Route. The alpine cirque at the head of Titcomb Basin becomes suddenly visible to the east, while the view to the west reveals the far off ranges of western Wyoming.

The east side of Knapsack Col holds far more snow than the west side, and in most years the descent down the east side will require crossing moderate snow slopes. On our recent hike in the late summer of 2013, we were able to descend directly down the east side, crossing only a few small snow and ice patches. Leaving the pass going east, if you see snow below head off to the left, avoiding the steep slope directly below the pass. Continue down and left across talus and then head back to the right as you near the bottom of the initial headwall about 250 vertical feet below the pass.

Wildflowers in upper Indian Basin.

Wildflowers in upper Indian Basin.

Descend the obvious drainage just north of the Twins Glacier, dropping over its terminal moraine to the bottom of the Titcomb Basin. Turn south toward the highest of the Titcomb Lakes, where you will join a trail that traverses the eastern shore of the Titcomb Lakes. Easy hiking along this trail will take you in a couple of hours to the junction with the Indian Pass trail. Turn east at this junction and climb up into beautiful alpine terrain in Indian Basin, where there is excellent camping and good views of the southwest slopes of massive Fremont Peak. At 11500 feet you will encounter a flat basin holding the last small lakes before Indian Pass. There is good camping here just below the final climb to Indian Pass. [We chose to cook a pleasant late afternoon dinner here and rest a bit. We then headed over Indian Pass and crossed Knife Point Glacier while it was still sun-warmed and soft allowing us better traction for our crampon-less trail runners.]

Section 2: Indian Pass to Golden Lake

The route from Indian Pass to Camp Lake is the highlight of the trip. It passes through the most rugged and impressive terrain of our Wind River High Route. It traverses across the massive Knife Point Glacier, the southernmost glacier in of a chain of glaciers on the east side of the Divide extending all the way from Gannet Peak (WY highpoint) and the enormous Dinwoody Glaciers that surround the peak.

This section also contains the most challenging navigation of the trip and the only class 3/4 terrain (although it may be possible with a bit of extra trekking and scouting to avoid anything over class 2). This entire section may be avoided with an alternate off-trail route*.

Starting from the small lakes at the end of Indian Basin ascend a use trail east towards Indian Pass. We lost the trail a few times but the Pass is obvious. The view from the Pass is stunning. Rugged and seldom visited canyons of the eastern range spread out before you. To the north extends crest of the continental divide with a chain of glaciers flanking its eastern slope. This is an excellent spot for lunch or a snack break. Looking east you can see the obvious saddle of Alpine Lakes Pass above the easternmost extension of Knifepoint Glacier.

To gain access to the flatter and more walkable portion of Knife Point Glacier, descend NNE from the Pass and along the right base of the 11,840 promontory just west of “Point” on the map. Some of the talus dropping down to the glacier is a bit unstable. Actually much of the talus adjacent to the glacier is unstable due to climate change. This talus was until very recently part of the glacier and covered with ice. Since being exposed it has not had time to adequately settle, lock-up and become the usual more stable version of talus. So, beware of your footing on any talus near the glacier.

Once on the glacier, traverse SE on the flatter area of the glacier between the 11,720 and 11,600 contours to stay above the steeper terminal slope. (By August on our trip the glacier had receded to around 11,560-11,520). The goal is to attain a lower angle rock strewn ramp of the glacier at around 11,660, NE of ‘G’ of Glacier. We descended off the glacier at this point using the rocks for traction. Head NE across a talus field (quite unstable in sections) to the base of Alpine Col. The only place to camp in this area are two man-cleared bivy sites as noted on the map and in the waypoints table. Bivy sacks only. Do not expect to pitch a tarp or tent here. There is small lakelet with good water.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Approaching Knife Point Glacier from below Indian Pass. Our bivy site noted in the photo.

Camp in the talus below Knife Point Glacier. Indian Pass lies in the obvious notch left of the setting sun.

The ascent of the north side of Alpine Lakes Pass is straightforward. Good views from the top show the talus strewn, cliffy and deeply glacier-scoured valley that holds the brilliant gems of the Alpine Lakes. Be prepared for slow going in the Alpine Lakes Basin. It is filled with large and plentiful talus and the hiking involves negotiating around cliffs that drop directly into lakes and other route challenges will make for tedious progress in sections.

Dawn, Alpine Lakes Pass. Smoke from a small forest fire in the northern part of the range adds some color to the sunrise.

Dawn, Alpine Lakes Pass. Smoke from a small forest fire in the northern part of the range adds some color to the sunrise.

Descending the south side of Alpine Lakes Pass. 2013 was a very low snow year. You can expect this pass to contain considerably more snow than shown here.

Descending the south side of Alpine Lakes Pass. 2013 was a very low snow year. You can expect this pass to contain considerably more snow than shown here.

Hike along the west shore of Lake 11,335, staying above the shore initially along talus filled ridges. The cliffs about 2/3 of the way along the shore appear impassable but “go.” Not visible from a distance is a short class 3 ramp system (climb up and down) near the lakeshore that allows passage to a flatter section near the outlet.

Easy walking takes you down to the middle Alpine Lake (Lake 10,988), where you will have a pleasant stroll along its west side and down more talus to Lake 10,895. Here you will face a decision. We passed Lake 10,895 on the north side. It is plain sailing along the shore until you are almost to the outlet where a 50-100 foot section of cliffs ruin the party. We climbed a class 3/4 crack system above a stand of white pines (handing packs up in a few places) for approximately 75 feet to gain flatter ground above the cliffs. We then descended gentle ramps to the outlet. Views from outlet of this lake are stupendous. It would make an excellent lunch spot or campsite.

Alpine Lakes Basin and the middle Alpine Lake (Lake 10,988). We saw no one as we passed by the upper and middle Alpine Lakes.

Alpine Lakes Basin and the middle Alpine Lake (Lake 10,988). We saw no one as we passed by the upper and middle Alpine Lakes.

Revised 2016: Your alternative route is along the south shore of Lake 10,895. While longer and more time consuming, this would probably be a class 2 route to the outlet. In fact, Henry Shires (and others who have hiked the route) confirm that the south shore of Lake 10895 is the safer option. This avoids the Class 4 exit crack on the north shore near the outlet.

Henry writes "I concur that the south end of the lowest Alpine Lake is the way to go. I posted a small section of map with the regular (red) route and the alternate (green) route we took here. Much safer and easier route."

Henry writes: “I concur that the south end of the lowest Alpine Lake is the way to go. I posted a small section of map with the regular (red) route and the alternate (green) route we took here. Much safer and easier route.”

From the furthest east projection of Lake 10,895 we headed ESE and dropped into a shallow drainage that feeds an unnamed lake adjacent and south of Lake 10,239. Use ramps and gullies to make your way between cliff bands and steeper rock on the approach to the lake. There is a use trail from this unnamed lake to Camp Lake although it is easy to lose. The marked trail from Camp Lake to Lake 10,787 is not frequently traveled and is no more than a use trail in sections. We lost it a few times but easily re-found it. The route to Lake 10,787 is obvious, but the trail when you can find it is faster and is less effort. The trail from Lake 10,787 to Golden Lake is more established. For the most part it is easy to follow although it can braid into multiple trails around the Golden Lakes.

Revised 2016: Shortcut from Lake 10895 south to Lake 10787: The pass between “Peak 12314” and Douglas Peak goes. You can regain the trail to Golden Lakes on the south side of Lake 10787.

Camp-lake-bypass

Camp Lake Bypass: The pass between “Peak 12314” and Douglas Peak goes for a slightly more elegant line

* Section 2 can be completely bypassed by skipping Indian Basin in one of two ways. Caveat Emptor: Neither of us have traveled either of these alternate routes but have been told by two experienced Wind River hikers and climbers that they “work without serious difficulty.”

  1. Heading to Island Lake and then to Wall Lake and over the divide east of Tiny Glacier and down to Upper Golden Trout Lake.
  2. Revised 2016: Brendan Leonard of www.semi-rad.com hiked the Angel Pass Variant to bypass Indian Basin/Knifepoint Glacier: It goes from Island Lake to Wall Lake then heads south from Wall Lake to Dennis Lake via Angel Pass. He provides the following along with the route track below “we pretty much followed your blue line [PDF map of WRHR] for the alternate route, going north of Spider Lake, then up a right-angling gully, cutting back left to ramps over Angel Pass. On the other side of the pass, we went north of the first lake (seemed easier). Then getting down to Dennis Lake wasn’t that straightforward—we avoided following the drainage straight down to the lake, and traversed north, but finally realized we were going to get cliffed out, so cut back south and found a passage with one 3rd/4th class downclimb move to get us down to a gully that led to the trail around Dennis Lake.”
Click on image to enlarge:

Click on map image to enlarge: Brendan Leonard of www.semi-rad.com hiked the Angel Pass route variant and provides this route info map.

Section 3: Golden Lake to Lee Lake

Alan enjoys dinner along the shore of Golden Lake before the climb to Hay Pass.

Alan enjoys dinner along the shore of Golden Lake before the climb to Hay Pass.

At the southern tip of Golden Lake a small inlet stream is the last good water source before Hay Pass. We ate dinner here on the shady, cool gravel next to the lake. A bald eagle soared over the water that evening, scouring for trout. Ascend the trail to shallow and picturesque Hay Pass, crossing to the west side of the continental divide. From the pass, a trail descends gradually to the west, passing along the eastern side of Lake 10,756. At about 10,600 feet leave the trail and head toward the obvious basin to the southeast. After arriving at the first major lake in this basin, continue along a very flat and grassy (and frequently boggy) valley floor toward the southwest shore of Lake 10555. We found a poor campsite in the low pines along this shore. Camp somewhere else if your schedule allows. The warm water from this lake tasted distinctly unpleasant and tannic.

 

hay pass south

Hiking toward Lake 10555 near sunset, with Hay Pass and the Continental Divide in the background.

The basin will likely continue to be and boggy wet until you begin to rise toward a low pass before Lake 10,683 (sometimes called Long Lake). Hike along the eastern shore of this remote lake. The going gets rougher as you get near the west end of the lake, where you negotiate a few ramps and plenty of talus without significant difficulty. Continue over a small rise and drop into isolated Europe Canyon. Here you will join a trail and head southwest for a short while (probably less than a half mile, depending on where you merge with the trail) until you can cut directly to the eastern shore of Lake 10,542. This easily passible shoreline takes the most direct line to a slope on the far side of the lake. Climb about 300 feet over a small pass, and along the north side of Lake 10,806.

Long Lake (Lake 10,683). The route follows the shore and slope on the left (eastern) side of the lake. The going gets harder at the far end of the lake.

Long Lake (Lake 10,683). The route follows the shore and slope on the left (eastern) side of the lake. The going gets harder at the far end of the lake.

Now begins an intricate traverse toward the outlet stream on the southwest side of enormous Hall’s Lake. Expect plenty of zig zagging through brush and trees, and many small drops, climbs, bogs, and lakelets. Finally arriving at Hall’s Lake, turn to the south and pass a couple of small lakes. Continue to the south around Peak 11586. As you pass this peak, head east toward your next landmark, the outlet of Middle Fork Lake. This section is marked by beautiful and pleasant walking past many small ponds filled with plenty of big fish.

Lakelet and bog between Hall's Lake and Middle Fork Lake.

Lakelet and bog between Hall’s Lake and Middle Fork Lake.

Section 4: Lee Lake to Texas Lake

Looking north toward Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake from near the base of Pronghorn Peak.

Looking north toward Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake from near the base of Pronghorn Peak.

Moonrise over our campsite at Bonneville Lakes.

Your next goal is the pass between Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak. From Lake 10,521 do not ascend directly up the steep and heinous route up the lake’s inlet stream on the SE corner of the lake. Instead, follow a lower gradient route SW of the inlet stream. Don’t turn left and up into the shallower portion of the inlet stream drainage basin until you have reached flatter terrain (just above the red ‘2’ on the map). The ascent to the pass is straightforward. To confuse things, there are numerous use and game trails that seem appear and disappear without reason.

Alan gazes at impressive Mount Bonneville before beginning the descent through the massive talus field below the pass.

Looking into the East Fork Valley and the rising sun from the pass between Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak

Looking into the East Fork Valley and the rising sun from the pass between Mount Bonneville and Raid Peak

There is a long stretch of size Large to XL talus as you descend the east side of the pass and make your way to small lake directly east and above Lake 10,566. To avoid the steep terrain north of Lake 10,566, head east or southeast towards the prominent south-pointing nose of the 11,000 ft contour. Use a small ramp system just southeast of the nose to reach flatter terrain below 11,000. The outlet of the small lake makes an excellent rest stop with good water and superb views.

Don descending below Raid Peak

Don descending below Raid Peak

Early morning snack stop overlooking Lake 10,566 and the extensive ridgeline extending south from Raid Peak.

Early morning snack stop overlooking Lake 10,566 and the extensive ridgeline extending south from Raid Peak.

From the lake take a leisurely a stroll along the excellent bench that contours at 10,800 ft. Hang a left for Pyramid Lake around the south shore of a small lake north of peak 11,172. Go to the lake’s outlet to pick up a well-used trail. [Alternatively you can stay off trail for a bit longer. Drop down to Lake 10,566 and follow the East Fork River and pick up the same trail (from Pyramid Lake) further down at Skull Lake.]

The route from here is straightforward trail walking to Texas Lake. Hike the trail from Pyramid Lake to Washakie Creek. Cross to the south side of the creek and head upstream (east) towards Shadow Lake. Here there are superb views of the backside of the ridge forming the Cirque of the towers. It is an excellent spot for lunch.

Shadow Lake: Storm clouds brewing over the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. This storm shut us down for the day before we could cross Texas Pass and make our way into the Cirque of the Towers.

Shadow Lake: Storm clouds brewing over the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. This storm shut us down for the day before we could cross Texas Pass and make our way into the Cirque of the Towers.

Follow a use trail (we lost it a few times) to the small lake below Texas Pass (the pass between peak 11,925 and peak 12,537). This lake is locally known as Texas Lake. There is excellent camping in the meadow on the west side of the lake.

A long and violent afternoon T-storm with wind, hail and sleet forced us to hunker down in the late afternoon on the shores of Texas Lake. We waited out periods of sleet sliding in large sheets off of our Cuben Tarp (our only shelter for the trip). By dusk the storm had not sufficiently cleared. We gave up on our plans to camp in the Cirque of the Towers and settled down for the night. There are much worse places to camp!

Storm showing signs of clearing in the late evening below the north side of Texas Pass.

The trip over Texas Pass and into the Cirque of the Towers is second in splendour only to the Indian Pass to Camp Lake Section. Needless to say the Cirque is legendary for both its stunning beauty and as hallowed ground for some of the best alpine rock climbing in North America. It should be on every backpacker’s bucket list.

While there is no official trail over Texas Pass the use trail was in better condition and easier to follow than some of the official “trails” we traveled in less visited portions of the Range—it’s a veritable “use-trail freeway.” The trail starts from the SE corner of Texas Lake and ascends on mostly solid ground between scree and talus. The views are sublime as you descend form the pass in to the Cirque and Lonesome Lake. A quintessential “Sound of Music walk.”

The view into the Cirque of the Towers from near the top of Texas Pass.

The view into the Cirque of the Towers from near the top of Texas Pass.

From the Texas Pass the use trail loosely follows the NE branch of the inlet stream for Lonesome Lake, passing through a stand of pines around 10,400 before reaching the grassy lakeside. We had a cup of morning coffee on the lakeshore while watching climbers ascend Pingora. Alan got his rod out, selected a beautiful native cutthroat trout, landed it and gently put it back. Sated with the beauty and serenity of the Cirque, we felt it was time to leave.

Lonesome Lake and Pingora in the Cirque of the Towers.

Lonesome Lake and Pingora in the Cirque of the Towers.

If you plan to stay the night in the Cirque: There is excellent camping in the basin below Pylon Peaks and Warrior Peaks.

We traversed off-trail around the eastern side of Lonesome Lake and acquired the official trail to Jackass pass around 10,400 ft. The route out to Big Sandy Campground from Jackass pass is a major trail with tons of traffic and the usual deeply eroded and braided trail sections. Nonetheless, Big Sandy Lake is a gem and a lunch or snack stop on its shores is a must. And on the final leg of the trip don’t forget to look back now and then to appreciate the lovely Big Sandy River and the mountains behind.

Big Sandy River below Big Sandy Lake

Big Sandy River below Big Sandy Lake

Parting Shot

Until our next adventure...

Until our next adventure…

Resources for the Wind River High Route

Recommended season

Late Summer. Gives time for high snow fields to melt out. Less mosquito pressure. By mid-Sept there’s a chance of early snowstorms. See Climbing and Hiking the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey for more information on weather and other objective hazards in the Wind River Range.

Detailed Mapset of the Wind River High Route

maps thumb
Detailed MapSet of the Wind River High Route. [PDF – Eight 11×17 sheets + one overview sheet]

Notes about maps

  • There are a few alternate routes on the maps in addition to our main route. They are colored blue.
  • The most difficult section of the WRHR, Indian Pass, Knifepoint Glacier, and Alpine Lakes can be bypassed by an easier but still off-trail section. While we have been assured by at least two people knowledgeable about the Wind River that this route does go and is easier, Don and Alan have not hiked this route and cannot guarantee the accuracy of the route or its level of
    difficulty.

Hiking Times and Waypoints Table

The following table should be of use to estimate hiking times for the route. Obviously you’ll need to calibrate your personal hiking pace to the speed that Don and I walked. The table also includes the location of a few tricky sections of the route. It should save you some scouting time and/or prevent you from hiking a long ways along a bad route choice. Finally, the table does not include hiking mileage, since for the most part it is not a relevant piece of information. For some hikers, a few sections like Alpine Lakes Basin may require a two hours or more to cover a mile.

mileage table
Hiking Times and Waypoints Table [PDF]

A few notes about the table

  • The route is approximately 80+ miles of on-trail and off-trail travel with about 20,000 ft of vertical gain.
  • Times are for Alan and Don who are reasonably fit hikers. You will need to estimate your pace from our hiking times.
  • We are not G-d’s gift to high speed through hiking. We are over 50 years old, and did no altitude acclimatization before the trip. At trip start we went from sea level to over 12,000 ft in about 24 hours.
  • While we traveled light, we weren’t super light. Alan’s pack was 27 pounds with a small camera, a SPOT and Satphone and Don’s was 30 pounds with a Canon 5D full-sized DSLR carried for HQ photos & video.
  • Daily time is the total time from leaving camp in the morning to arriving at our next camp in the evening. This includes all stopped time, e.g. for lunch, rests at scenic spots, complicated route finding and scouting forays, longer photo/video sessions, a late afternoon dinner and rest before hiking a few more hours in the early evening
  • Even though the goal was to hike at a steady but sane pace, for a long time, with a limited number of stops, we still ended up with 1 to 2 hours per day of non-moving time.
  • *Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. These times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. We carried a SPOT tracker for the trip, and any stopped time over 5-10minutes was not included in hiking time.

Car Shuttle

A local shop in Pinedale, The Great Outdoors, will shuttle your car from one trailhead to another. Their service was excellent and the convenience of a shuttle made the logistics of the trip much easier.

Gear for the Wind River High Route

Revised 2016: Below is a comprehensive list of Gear for the WRHR.

My pack was 27 pounds with food, a small camera (Sony a6000 kit 1.8 pounds), a SPOT (now I would take the far better inReach SE 6.9 oz), and an Iridium 9555 SatPhone 9.7 oz. Obviously I could have saved a few pounds with less camera and electronics (but we were intent on fully documenting the trip).

I took most of the gear on the list except as noted:

Gear List for the Wind River High Route 

Or to see the full gear can click on this link: 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List (original table).

9-lb-gear

Click on image of table to see full gear list

Food List for Wind River High Route (Alan’s)

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Detailed FOOD list for the Wind River Hight Route. [PDF file]

Other Published References

Books. If you don’t have a copy of Climbing and Hiking the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey, you simply must get a copy. The book is an obvious labor of love, and has a ton of great information.

Wind River Trail Maps. Earthwalk Press publishes two Wind River Range overview maps (one for the northern part of the range, and another for the southern portion). These are handy for seeing the entire range, possible alternate routes or emergency exit points.

Some Potential Additions to the Route

  • Our route skips Gannet Peak & the Dinwoody Glaciers. A superb addition if you want. But difficult, time consuming, and potentially technical, requiring at a minimum ice axes and crampons. And for all but the fittest alpine travelers, adding this section would put the route beyond a weeks vacation. Less convenient trail heads? No easy shuttle?
  • One could go higher and stay closer to the divide in some sections. E.g. the alpine lakes section detours around douglass peak via Camp Lake and the route also skirts around Mt Bonneville.


Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry

Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry: Mt. Conness – West Ridge. The third peak of our trip and one of the finest alpine routes in the Sierra Backcountry. The route follows the obvious ridge which forms the sun/shade line.

Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry Part 1

The first of a three part series – Alan Dixon and Don Wilson

This summer, after years of “no-rope trips” together, we switched gears to do some technical alpine climbs in the Yosemite Backcountry. We decided to do two Tuolumne alpine classics, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak and the West Ridge of Mt. Conness. Our last alpine summit was Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park (more later on the reasons for choosing Mt. Lyell).

Fun: All of these peaks are moderate technical climbs. Our goal was to not stress out—just enjoy being in the Sierras on some of the finest alpine climbing in the world!

Three part series

This trip report of our climb of the Cathedral Peak’s Southeast Buttress, is the first of the series.

  1. Cathedral Peak – Southeast Buttress. “One of the [finest] most aesthetic routes in Tuolumne.”A Sierra backcountry classic on “an outstanding granite pinnacle”
  2. Mt. Lyell. Highest Peak in Yosemite. It “stands at the triple divide between two great Sierra rivers (the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers) and Rush Creek (which feeds Mono Lake).”
  3. Mt. Conness – West Ridge. “Peter Croft called it the best route he had done in the Sierra backcountry…” “perhaps the best moderate alpine climb in Tuolumne.” “great fun, like two Cathedral Peaks stacked on top of each other.”
cathedral-a01

Summit view from Cathedral Peak. Beautiful yes. But that’s also incoming weather…

We had a simple plan for each peak

  • Stage each trip out of the Tuolumne Meadows campground
  • One day approach hike in to the base of the peak
    Assess the route that evening and prep for the climb
  • Next day a pre-dawn summit attempt to avoid nasty, unstable and violent weather in the area
  • Hike out the same day as the climb
Technical Peak Climbing Yosemite Backcountry

It’s good to switch it up. Do different things. Take an alternate approach. After years of traversing the Sierras without a rope, Don and I carried some hardware with us to so some technical climbing. Fun!

Jump to: Gear We Used on this Trip

Unstable weather

lyell-bad-summit-wx-1200

Weather was a major success factor for all our climbs. A storm could (and did) blow in anytime day or night. [Mountain Laurel Designs Supermid shelter mid-afternoon, base of Mt Lyell]

Weather was a major factor for all our climbs. The Sierras had entered into a long-term pattern of unstable and violent weather a few weeks prior to our trip. Rain was so heavy the week before that a huge landslide closed one of the major roads into Yosemite. Almost 3 weeks later, it had yet to be dug out.

hail

When you get hail this big pinging off your helmet you know you are in for some serious sh-t!

Part 1 – Cathedral Peak

Jump to: Gear We Used on this Trip

Cathedral - 1

Alan on our evening approach to Cathedral Peak. Humping everything in a 28 oz Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400 pack. The forecast called for strong storms starting very early the next day, so we planned to bivy at the base of the route and try to complete the route before 8 am, when storms were predicted. [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

We already had cloudy skies and spitting rain the afternoon we hiked in to Cathedral Peak. The serious rain was supposed to start around daylight the morning of our climb. We did everything we could to get started as early as we could and summit as fast as we could. That evening we climbed the first pitch before dark and fixed a rope.

cathedral-a03

A look up at the bottom face of Cathedral Peak. That evening we climbed the first pitch before dark and fixed a rope to make a faster start the next morning.

We settled into our bivy sacks a bit after dark. We slept fitfully worrying about the weather. During the night the sky continued to get darker and more threatening. About 4am raindrops on our face woke us—a light rain shower passing over. We looked at each other and said “Screw this! lets get go climb.” It only took us about 10 minutes to suit up, pack up, and hang our backpacks in the trees away from marmots (no food in our packs!).

cathedral-a02-2

Little room on a ledge below the climb. Getting ready for a cramped and rocky bivy. All our gear is laid out to put on in the dark. We both used MLD Superlight Bivy sacks, I used a Hammock Gear Burrow +30 Quilt. And we both shared a MLD Grace Duo Tarp in Cuben Fiber in case of overnight rain.

We were grateful for a fast start after fixing the first pitch the evening before. We quickly hit a rhythm, and climbing in the dark under headlamps knocked off the first 2 pitches before light began to seep through the clouds. As stated above, the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak is an incredibly classic line.  Perfect rock, good protection, moderate 5.6-5.7 climbing, face, cracks, chimneys – it’s got it all.

Cathedral - 3

Alan following the 4th pitch after exiting a short chimney and getting onto the beautiful upper part of the buttress. The weather looked dicey, so we moved as quickly as we could. [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

Cathedral - 9

Incoming weather as forecast. Time to pick up the pace! [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

Cathedral - 7

Alan celebrates arrival on the exposed summit ridge. Photo taken from atop the summit block. We reached the summit soon after 7 am. [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

Cathedral - 5

Mission accomplished: We had a crap-load of fun on a beautiful climb! [Photo: Don Wilson – talusfield.net]

As with many alpine climbs, an early start paid off. It started to rain as we descended off the peak. At the base of the climb we met another party sheltered under some pines. That had humped all their stuff in early in the morning. And unfortunately, they were getting ready to hump it all back out without climbing.

cathedral-a04

Alan just below the summit at the beginning of the descent. Gorgeous Eichorn Pinnacle and Lower Cathedral Lake in the background. As we descended, the storm enveloped the peak.  We met a couple of other climbers huddled at the base, defeated by the weather. Chalk one up for an early start. We packed up and headed back to the campground for eggs and muffins and best of all, hot coffee.

Gear Used

Most of the gear used for the trip is in my Standard Gear List

Select gear variations for this trip

Item Oz Comments
Main Pack Hyperlite Mountain Gear SW 2400
 (some may prefer larger 3400)
 28.0 Used this pack to haul everything to all 3 climbs.
Light, super durable, (waterproof, seam sealed bag), great frame/carrying capacity, good pockets.
Climbing pack I used on trip Black Diamond Shot (discont.)
Black Diamond Bullet (current)
14 Like the low weight and low cost of BD Shot. A bit too small and got shredded a some climbing in chimneys.
Climbing pack I wish I had Hyperlite Mountain Gear Daybreak Pack 19 Larger and more durable than the BD shot pack. (Pack not yet released when I was climbing)
 Warm Jacket Sierra Designs Elite DriDown Hooded Jacket  10.0 Given the wet weather all trip. I wanted a jacket with water resistant down and a very water resistant shell.
Tent/Shelter MLD Grace Duo Tarp Silnylon (15) Cuben (7.8)  7.8 Shared tarp at bivy site in case of rain. Huge coverage. Low weight. Great ventilation and views.
Sleeping bag or Quilt Hammock Gear Burrow Quilt “+30”  14.9 Pers fave. Great value! (with 2 oz over fill = “+30F”)
Bivy MLD Superlight Bivy (7.0) Perfect for bivying on a ledge. Protection from light rain gives time to setup tarp.
Bear canister Bear Vault BV500 (41) or Wild-Ideas Weekender (31) (Alan used) Wild-Ideas lighter but pricy
Bear Vault is a better value (Don used)

Old Trip Reports Archives

Old trip reports, Scotland 2008: sudden opening in the clouds illuminates a lone tree and a small outcrop overlooking Loch Marie in Wester Ross. The summit of Slioch (left) is still shrouded in mist at midday. [Handheld with Olympus E-520 and stock 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Zuiko ED Zoom lens.]

Looking for old trip reports? They’re likely here.
We just launched an entirely new site. Most of the older trip reports (2008 and earlier) haven’t made it over yet. Scan through the list below and what you were looking for is probably there.

And if you opened this post out of curiosity.
Take a peek at some of these old trip reports. There are some great trips in there!

Old Trip Reports Archives