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High Sierra Trail Permits and Planning

In September 2018 I hiked the High Sierra Trail, a 72-mile trail that runs from the Crescent Meadows trailhead in Sequoia National Park to Whitney Portal. It was my first long-distance trek since hiking part of the John Muir Trail in 2017. After hiking the JMT I was itching to spend more time in the Sierras and I jumped at the opportunity to hike the HST when a woman posted on a Facebook hiking group.

A bunch of other women also jumped at the chance to hike the trail and before I knew it I was part of a group of 15 strangers who committed to hike the trail together. During the six months of planning most of the women in the group dropped out, so when the day came to meet everyone in Lone Pine there were only three of us left standing!

The High Sierra Trail is so stunning I re-hiked a portion of the trail in 2020 during my 13-day trek of the Big SEKI Loop. I can’t believe that I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of my favorite spThe Big

Me on my High Sierra Trail backpacking trip in September 2018.

Even though I had watched a few YouTube videos before I set off on the hike, I was shocked by how many beautiful spots are on this trail! (Check out the day-by-day trail guides below for more details about my favorite spots on the trail.) While dispersed camping is allowed, most of the scenic spots have established campsites with bear boxes. While we hiked the trail in seven days the abundance of camps with bear boxes makes it easy to take your time and meander– which makes this a great long-distance trail for newer backpackers.

High Sierra Trail Map and Elevation

The High Sierra Trail cuts across the Sierra Nevada mountains. Most hikers backpack the trail from the west to the east, starting in Sequoia National Park and ending at Mount Whitney. This is simply because the initial hike from the Crescent Meadow Trailhead is an easier hike than summiting Mt. Whitney on the first day of the trek. Beginning at Crescent Meadow Trailhead also allows your body time to acclimate to the elevation changes while you’re hiking.

As you can see from the elevation profile below, this trail is full of ups and downs. You’ll hike an accumulated total of over 15,000 feet of elevation gain and over 13,000 feet of elevation loss. To examine the map more closely, you can download my GPS tracks from Caltopo.

Map and elevation profile for the entire High Sierra Trail

Best Time to Hike the High Sierra Trail

The best time to hike is usually Mid-June to early-October. But, with all backpacking trips into the Sierras, and other high elevation locations, the ideal hiking times can change based on snowfall and weather patterns. Some hikers may be comfortable hiking on snow and may choose to start earlier in the season. If you’re like me, I prefer to wait until late in the season to avoid the early-season snow melt and the hoards of mosquitoes that it brings.

Precipice Lake and the peaks that surround it.

In June there may still be some snow on the trail in the higher elevations. The highest point on the High Sierra Trail is Mount Whitney (over 14,000 feet), but the section of trail near Precipice Lake and the Kaweah Gap is over 10,000 feet and can be snowy well into July. In July you’ll have to deal with mosquitos, but there will probably be some beautiful wildflowers. Come August and September you’ll have less mosquitos, but the exposed sections of the trail will be very hot. If you hike in October you’ll have the trail all to yourself and you will be able to see the magnificent Fall colors. However, beginning in late-September there is a greater chance of early season snowstorms and all of the backcountry ranger stations have closed up shop for the season. Unless you are an experienced hiker and are prepared for possible inclement weather I don’t recommend starting your hike after October 15th.

Reserving Your High Sierra Trail Permits

This is a popular trail and getting a wilderness permit can be a challenge. For 2021 permit quotas are in effect from May 28th-September 18th. During this time the park only allows 30 hikers to start the hike each day. The park sets aside 10 permits each day for walk-ups, and the other 20 permits are available for advance reservation.

In 2021 you can start submitting permit requests at 7am PST on February 9th. Permits can be reserved online through Recreation.gov. The permit costs $15 plus an additional $5 for each person. Permits are non-transferrable and the entry date and location can’t be modified, so make sure that the person reserving the permit will be hiking with your group and you know your itinerary in advance.

If you are hiking outside of the quota season you can self-register for a permit without applying online. Hikers are still required to pay the permit fees, even if self-registering.

Check out the Sequoia and Kings Canyon Wilderness Trip Planner for more details about permitting and park restrictions.

An aerial view of Hamilton Lake in Sequoia National Park

Transportation and High Sierra Trail Shuttles

Arranging transportation to and from the trail is probably the most challenging part of the planning process. You’ll be walking from one side of the Sierra mountains to the other: Crescent Meadows (Sequoia National Park, west side of the Sierras) to Whitney Portal (east side of the Sierras). It is a 5.5 hour drive from your start point at Crescent Meadow to your end point at Whitney Portal.

The easiest way to get to and from the trail is to enlist an extremely nice friend or family member (or someone who owes you a big favor!) to drop you off and pick you up. Unfortunately, none of my friends volunteered to make the 8+ hour trek from the Bay Area to chauffeur me to and from the trailhead. So, as a group we brainstormed and put together a list of other options to get us there.

1. One-way car rental: This is possibly the most expensive option and it only works if you have multiple drivers. Since we were coming from the Bay Area we would either rent a second car near home or drive to Sacramento and rent a second car there. From Sacramento we would drive to Lone Pine and stash the non-rental car at a long-term parking area ($25 per week at the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce) or at the Whitney Portal parking lot. Then, we would drive the rental car to Visalia and turn it in. From Visalia you can then take the Sequoia Shuttle into the park. Once you’re in the park you can take the park’s internal shuttle to pick-up your permit and get to the trailhead. At the end of the hike you will grab your car from Whitney Portal or hitch from the portal into Lone Pine to claim your car.

2. Take Public Transportation. This is the most affordable, but also the most time consuming option. Public transportation in the area is seasonal, and the routes and times often change. Since we were outside of peak tourist season we didn’t have many public transportation options available to us. But in peak months you can take the Eastern Sierra Transit and connect with other bus lines. Check out all of the available public transit options here. If you’re serious about taking public transportation and want to learn more about your options I highly recommend joining the High Sierra Trail Facebook group. The group organizer has created a very detailed Google Doc about the public transportation options and he updates the doc each year so it always has the latest information on route availability and schedules. If you don’t use Facebook you can tap into Steve Herr’s well-researched Public Transportation for Sierra Hikers (this is great for JMT hikers too!) documents with this Google Drive link.

3. Hire a private shuttle service. This is the option we ended up going with. It cost about $80 per person, but it was totally worth it. We ended up hiring a shuttle through East Side Sierra Shuttle and they were great. See a quick overview on the available High Sierra Trail shuttle options below.

Hikers pass Hamilton Lake on their way to Precipice Lake along the High Sierra Trail

High Sierra Trail Shuttle Services

There are several options for hikers looking for High Sierra Trail shuttle services to bring them from one end of the trail to the other.

East Side Sierra Shuttle is great if you have a group of hikers. The shuttle service charges $800 to transport up to 5 hikers from Whitney Portal to Crescent Meadow or Lodgepole. (A sixth hiker can be added to the shuttle for an additional $80.)

Sierra Shuttle Service primarily operates on the east side of the mountains, but they can arrange special shuttle services upon request.

Eastern Sierra Shuttle Service is well-known within the hiking community, but the business doesn’t have a website. Hikers can call Bob Ennis at 760-876-1915 to inquire about the shuttle schedule, current availability, and pricing.

If you have a big group you may want to check out MAWS Transportation (also known as Mammoth All Weather Shuttle). MAWS charges a flat fee of about $1300 for a 7 passenger SUV, but they also have a 14 passenger van for larger groups.

Drawing of High Sierra Trail sicker.
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The Trailhead

The trail takes you from one side of the Sierras to the other! Starting on the West side of the Sierras you will pass by Bearpaw High Sierra Camp before starting your climb over the first big peaks. On your ascent you'll be treated to several glacial lakes before crossing the magical Great Western Divide and dropping into a river valley. In the valley you'll get a brief respite from the elevation and climbing and you can soak your weary muscles in the hot spring. Your time in the valley is short lived and soon you'll find yourself ascending the Eastern side of the Sierras. You'll continue climbing until you summit Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the lower 48!

The Route

We hiked this in 7-days, but the availability of bear boxes at almost every camp make it easy to take your time and spend more time on the trail. My suggested itinerary for a 7-day hike is at the end of this post.

Other Details

Suggested Itinerary and Additional Trail Guides

Day 1: Crescent Meadows to Nine-Mile Creek (8.8 miles)

Day 2: Nine-Mile Creek to Hamilton Lake (7.8 miles)

Day 3: Hamilton Lake to Big Arroyo Junction (5.9 miles)

Day 4: Big Arroyo Junction to Kern Hot Spring via Moraine Lake (15.1 miles)

Day 5: Kern Hot Springs to Junction Meadow (7.4 miles)

Day 6: Wallace Creek Junction to Guitar Lake (12.4 miles)

Day 7: Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal (15.6 miles)

Trail Safety

Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.If you want to know what I carry in my pack during backpacking trips check out my blog post with a packing list for beginner backpackers.

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Tara Verlee
2 years ago

This sounds like an amazing experience. Definitely something my husband and I would consider doing. Thanks so much for all the tips and information.

Lindsay @ Wineinger Farms

Your planning skills are AWESOME! Sounds like a ton of fun!