Photo: Mt. Whitney California Sierras Hiking

A climber makes tracks to the Mountaineer's Route on Mount Whitney in California's Sierras.

Photograph by Scott Cramer

By Jim Gorman and Robert Earle Howells

If the Sierra’s original pathbreaker and solitude lover, John Muir, were alive today, it’s a fair bet he’d hike the Sierra High Route instead of the trail that bears his name. The High Route, arguably the best kept wilderness secret in the lower 48, shadows the John Muir Trail as the two traverse the remarkable kingdom of granite that lies between Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. But whatever the JMT does, the High Route does it higher, harder, and more spectacularly.

The route is the brainchild of mountaineer Steve Roper, who sought an alternative to the heavily pounded JMT. With a taste for glacier-polished slab (or what he calls "Sierra sidewalk"), wind-warped whitebark pine, and lonely lake basins encircled by shark-toothed peaks, Roper pioneered a route that hews as closely as possible to the 10,000-foot (3,048-meter) contour in the narrow zone between timberline and talus summit. A portion of its 195 miles (314 kilometers) piggybacks on existing trail, but mostly the High Route sends hikers off trail to pick their way up jumbled passes and across high-mountain streams. No paint blazes and few cairns mark the way.

Don’t have the month required to hike the whole thing? Then spend a week on Roper’s favorite section between Merriam Lake (accessed via Paiute Trailhead west of Bishop) and Duck Lake, just south of Mammoth Lakes. As you clamber down from lonesome 12,400-foot (3,780-meter) Italy Pass, look west. Way down below you might catch a glimpse of the JMT.

Need to Know: Sierra High Route, by Steve Roper, is a must-read for off-trail hikers (The Mountaineers Books, $17).

Originally published in the March/April 2009 edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine


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