Note: This is the first in a series of five posts describing the John Muir Trail (JMT), a scintillating, multi-week hike through California’s Sierra Nevada that extends more than 200 miles from Yosemite National Park in the north to Mount Whitney and Sequoia National Park in the south. This post (and those that follow) assumes a northbound journey, beginning southeast of Mount Whitney at Horseshoe Meadow in Inyo National Forest, culminating at Happy Isles in Yosemite. The JMT is an arduous, multi-week backpacking trip that requires careful planning, preparation, and an official backcountry permit that can be quite difficult to obtain. Hikers typically complete the entire trail, including detours for food resupplies, in about 2-3 weeks. Later posts describe the route in detail, while this post focused on preparation and logistics.
Stretching more than 200 miles from California’s Yosemite National Park in the north to Sequoia National Park and Mount Whitney in the south, the John Muir Trail (JMT) is one of the finest multi-week backpacking trips in the country. The iconic trail, which doubles as a section of the longer Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for much of its length, covers vast stretches of sublime alpine and subalpine wilderness in one of the most beautiful stretches of the Sierra Nevada. Along the way, the difficult but well-established route passes jagged granite peaks, serene alpine lakes, cascading streams, and panoramic vistas, including a strenuous climb to the summit of Mount Whitney (14,505’), the highest point in the contiguous United States. The lengthy trip—upwards of 220 miles with more than 40,000 feet of elevation gain—generally requires around 2-3 weeks to complete.
Multi-week hikes such as this require a good deal of advance planning, so this post serves as a brief guide to preparing for the JMT, including resources and advice on obtaining backpacking permits, planning an itinerary, arranging food resupply, and assembling and packing gear, concluding with a brief “Do’s and Don’ts of the John Muir Trail.”
How do I obtain a permit?
There was perhaps once a time when hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) was something one could do rather spontaneously. Those days are over. With the rising popularity of the JMT, Yosemite National Park and Inyo National Forest—the two most common entry points—have imposed strict permit quotas to limit overnight use on the trail. Southbound JMT trips typically start at Happy Isles or Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, but the probability of winning the rolling lottery (held six months prior to one’s proposed start date) is in the single digits. The ideal northbound option, beginning at Whitney Portal in Inyo National Forest, also requires winning a lottery that is nearly as difficult to achieve. (Note: This assumes you want to hike during peak season—June through August—as hiking in the spring or fall brings chilly temperatures and a higher likelihood of snowfall.)
Where does this leave prospective JMT hikers? In short, I suggest picking up a permit for Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes in Inyo National Forest’s Horseshoe Meadow area. How to do this? Fortunately, Inyo NF has teamed up with Recreation.gov to create an online portal where hikers can check availability and reserve a permit. As of 2021, 60% of quota reservations are released six months ahead of the proposed start date (so permits for August 1 are released around February 1), while 40% are held for “walk-up” permits, which are released two weeks prior to the trip start date. (Note: While walk-up permits have always been a thing, Covid caused the Forest Service to change the procedures such that these reservations can only be obtained online.) The daily hiker quota for Cottonwood Pass is 40 (24 reserved, 16 walk-up), while the quota for Cottonwood Lakes is 60 (36 reserved, 24 walk-up).
While considerably easier to obtain than the two lottery permits, Cottonwood reservations remain competitive. As the traditional options become more and more of a pipe dream, backpackers are increasingly using Cottonwood Pass/Lakes as an alternative; moreover, the many scenic lakes and vistas of the area attract many non-JMT thru-hikers for shorter overnight trips. When I was trying to obtain a reservation for a late July start from Cottonwood Pass in March 2021, there were no non-walk-up spots available; however, keeping an eye on the permit portal throughout the spring, I was eventually able to scoop up a cancellation. (Note: It is also important to note that, even with a reservation, hikers have to check-in—either in person, over the phone, or via email—within two weeks of the start date to obtain the actual permit.)
The downside of this approach, of course, is that starting from Cottonwood adds roughly 20 miles (usually two days) to the overall hike. But this is increasingly becoming the new norm and is a worthy price to pay for the opportunity to complete the JMT. On the bright side, there are several distinct advantages of starting at Cottonwood Pass/Lakes, at least over Whitney Portal. First, rather than taking on a crushing, 6,000-foot gain (to the Whitney summit) in the first two days, the route from Cottonwood Pass to Crabtree Meadow and Mount Whitney offers a considerably more leisurely ascent, allowing more time for hikers to acclimate to the high altitude. (Note: Northbound hikers should not underestimate the risks of altitude sickness, given that much of the early JMT is above 10,000 feet.) Second, starting from Cottonwood Pass/Lakes allows hikers to tackle Mount Whitney as an out-and-back day hike from Crabtree Meadows or Guitar Lake—rather than a slog from Whitney Portal with heavy packs—on Day 3 or 4 of the trip. Finally, the scenery along the way from Horseshoe Meadow is also terrific, with sweeping views of the southern Sierras.
(Note: See this useful resource for a full set of options for obtaining permits for the JMT, as well as this 9-step guide to preparing for the JMT.)
How long does it take? What should be my itinerary?
Assuming a start from Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes, hikers are committed to tackling the JMT in the northbound (often called “NoBo”) direction. While southbound has become the traditionally preferred option, heading northbound has some nice perks (beyond greater permit availability). NoBo hikers will cover the hardest and highest-elevation terrain at the start of the trip, with resupply locations and creature comforts (showers, beer, etc.) becoming more frequent in the latter half of the journey. Heading north also means having the sun at your back, rather than in your eyes, for much of the trip.
The pace of travel will vary widely from person to person, group to group, with length of time on trail generally ranging anywhere from 10 days to a full month. Yours truly covered the JMT (plus the additional two days from Cottonwood Pass) in 24 days, including two full rest days (one scheduled and one unanticipated). This seems about average, covering roughly 10-11 miles per day. On four separate occasions, we covered 15+ miles; on some other days, we hiked less than ten. Flexibility is the name of the game, as shifts in weather, injuries, and other unexpected surprises may alter one’s schedule. Generally, while I found my body held up better than expected (no injuries, repeated pain, or even blisters)—and there were days we probably could have pushed farther—I had no regrets about our itinerary. Some spots—such as Evolution Lake, Marie Lake, or Upper Lyell Canyon—are simply too spectacular to pass by without spending at least some of the daylight hours, and—despite subtle pressures to keep pace with other hikers we met along the way—it was critical to remember why we were on this journey to begin with: to enjoy the spectacular scenery to its fullest.
Below was our itinerary for the 24-day hike:
LEG 1: Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley (66 miles)
Day 1: Horseshoe Meadow to Rock Creek via Cottonwood Pass (13 miles) ^
Day 2: Rock Creek to Crabtree via Guyot Pass (8 miles) ^
Day 3: Crabtree to Mount Whitney (out-and-back day hike) (15 miles)
Day 4: Crabtree to Tyndall Creek (9 miles)
Day 5: Tyndall Creek to Lower Vidette Meadow via Forester Pass (12.5 miles)
Day 6: Lower Vidette Meadow to Onion Valley via Kearsarge Pass (8.5 miles) ^*
LEG 2: Onion Valley to Muir Trail Ranch (80 miles)
Day 7: Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake (8 miles) ^
Day 8: Charlotte Lake to Woods Creek Jct. via Glen Pass (12 miles) ^
Day 9: Woods Creek Jct. to Bench Lake Jct. via Pinchot Pass (9.5 miles)
Day 10: Bench Lake Jct. to Deer Meadow via Mather Pass (15 miles)
Day 11: Deer Meadow to Below Muir Pass (10.5 miles)
Day 12: Below Muir Pass to Evolution Lake via Muir Pass (10 miles)
Day 13: Evolution Lake to Muir Trail Ranch/Blayney Hot Springs (15 miles) ^*
LEG 3: Muir Trail Ranch to Red’s Meadow (49.5 miles)
Day 14: Muir Trail Ranch/Blayney Hot Springs to Marie Lake via Selden Pass (8 miles) ^
Day 15: Marie Lake to Mono Creek (13 miles)
Day 16: REST DAY at Mono Creek (unplanned, due to my hiking partner’s injury) (0 miles)
Day 17: Mono Creek to Lake Virginia via Silver Pass (13 miles)
Day 18: Lake Virginia to Red’s Meadow (15.5 miles) ^
LEG 4: Red’s Meadow to Happy Isles (58.5 miles)
Day 19: REST DAY at Red’s Meadow (0 miles) *
Day 20: Red’s Meadow to Garnet Lake (14 miles)
Day 21: Garnet Lake to Upper Lyell Canyon via Donohue Pass (11 miles)
Day 22: Upper Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows Campground (11.5 miles)
Day 23: Tuolumne Meadows Campground to Sunrise Creek (13 miles)
Day 24: Sunrise Creek to Happy Isles (9 miles)
^denotes some off-JMT hiking
With the side trips—including the Cottonwood Pass addition and detours for resupply—the entire journey was around 254 miles. Not including the two zero days, this amounted to around 11.5 miles per day. It is often said on the trail that things get easier as the journey wears on: hikers get their “trail legs,” gaining strength and confidence to push farther each day. That said, the terrain is no joke, with most days covering thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss. The most difficult stretches, aside from the climb to Mount Whitney, tend to be the 14 mountain passes. Each JMT hiker has their own opinion—and the passes take on different difficulties depending on time of day and whether one is going NoBo or SoBo—but I would rate the passes as follows, from easiest to hardest:*
Island Pass (10,200’) (Day 21)
Cathedral Pass (9,700’) (Day 23)
Mather Pass (12,100’) (Day 10)
Cottonwood Pass (11,130’) (Day 1)
Guyot Pass (10,930’) (Day 2)
Forester Pass (13,110’) (Day 5)
Silver Pass (10,740’) (Day 17)
Muir Pass (11,980’) (Day 12)
Selden Pass (10,900’) (Day 14)
Kearsarge Pass (eastbound) (11,790’) (Day 6)
Kearsarge Pass (westbound) (11,790’) (Day 7)
Donohue Pass (11,060’) (Day 21)
Glen Pass (11,970’) (Day 8)
Pinchot Pass (12,130’) (Day 9)
Trail Crest/Mount Whitney (14,505’) (Day 3)
*elevations taken from Guthook app and Elizabeth Wenk, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail, 5th Edition (Wilderness Press, 2014).
There are also some challenging stretches without official passes, including nasty climbs up to Bighorn Plateau in Sequoia National Park, Bear Ridge and Tully Hole in the John Muir Wilderness, and from Red’s Meadow to Garnet Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Fortunately, if heading northbound, there are more descents than ascents—and hikers avoid some brutal SoBo climbs (e.g., out of Yosemite Valley and Mono Creek drainage and up the Golden Staircase). In sum, however, take the elevation gain seriously—15 miles of High Sierra up-and-down feels like 20-25 miles of flat walking, making for some very long days.
How and where do I resupply?
Another consideration for planning your itinerary will be determining where to resupply. All but the speediest hikers will have to divert off-trail at some point to grab a new bear canister’s worth of food. There are resupply services—in which food is brought to hikers by horse or mule train—but most will opt for a more economical option: either shipping or buying meals and snacks at a series of pickup locations.
Unless you have a very large bear canister (or are a packing wizard), chances are you will want a resupply within every seven days. Heading northbound from Cottonwood Pass, the most common first resupply comes after the first 66-mile (6-7 day) leg, when hikers will exit the JMT at Kearsarge Pass and make their way down to Onion Valley. From here, arrange a pickup or hitchhike down to the town of Independence in Owens Valley. Some will mail their buckets to the local post office, while others opt for a resupply service at the Mount Williamson Hotel or other nearby establishments. From here, you’ll have to make your way back to Onion Valley (there are some shuttle services) to continue the hike. (Note: We were lucky enough to have my girlfriend pick us up at Onion Valley—there is spotty cell service on the way down from Kearsarge Pass—and bring us our pre-arranged resupply for Leg 2.)
The next option for most NoBos will be Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), conveniently located just off the JMT at the end of Leg 2. While the ranch luxuries (showers, etc.) are off-limits to backpackers, there is a small shop and staging location where hikers can access their resupply buckets. The shop offers a surprising number of items for sale—from liters to water bottles to hats—and there is (except during Covid) a hiker’s box where backpackers dump their extra food for others to scrounge through. (Note: We scored some excellent home-cooked freeze-dried meals from here!) The price of sending a bucket—$85 plus shipping costs—is steep, but the location is very convenient.
Another resupply option, about two days past MTR, is the Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR), often a backpackers’ favorite due to its hiker-friendly atmosphere (a free beer is presented upon one’s arrival!) and free camping options. However, VVR is a half-day’s walk from the JMT across hot and dusty terrain, and with MTR so close, many hikers will opt to skip this spot.
Next is Red’s Meadow Resort, the end of Leg 3, where hikers can also ship their food buckets or purchase items at the small store. There is also a decent outdoor restaurant, good beer, showers/laundry, and a generous hiker’s box at the resort, with the Red’s Meadow Campground about ¼ mile walk away. This is most northbound hikers’ final resupply spot, with just 5-6 days of hiking remaining until Yosemite Valley.
One last option is Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, more often used for SoBo resupply than NoBo, given it is only two days’ walk from the end of the trail at Happy Isles. But there is a decent store and café here, an easy walk from the backpacker’s campground at Tuolumne Meadows.
Each resupply location (if shipping) has slightly different rules and regulations. Be sure to read the instructions closely, and plan ahead—you’ll want to ship your food at least 2-3 weeks prior to your expected arrival.
(Note: All told, we utilized three resupply locations—Independence, MTR, and Red’s Meadow—for our journey. At Independence and MTR, we picked up our pre-arranged food, while at Red’s Meadow, we were able to resupply for our last five days of hiking entirely off the hefty hiker’s box.)
What food and gear should I bring?
Before arranging your resupply boxes, of course, you’ll need to decide on what food items to bring. This decision is highly variable depending on dietary restrictions, food preferences, etc. The name of the game in all cases, however, efficiently packing as many calories as possible into a small container (like a Bear Vault BV500 bear canister). In the end, as someone who wasn’t picky about repetition, I packed the following for seven days, prioritizing breakfast and dinner:
This was generally enough to keep me going. Others are muchmoreparticular about meticulously counting calorie intake or creating food calendars to ensure they have enough. I took the strategy of generally ensuring I had seven days’ worth of food but not worrying too much about the details. It paid off, and I had a little bit of snack food left after each leg. We also picked up extra meals at the hiker’s boxes, which gave us some more variety.
In the end, food and water end up making up much of the weight one has to carry, so trimming down the rest of one’s gear to just the bare essentials is wise. Yes, going ultralight is an option—if you’re willing to shell out thousands of dollars. For yours truly, some lightweight stuff was nice, but I willingly carried some extra pounds to cut costs. Much of my gear (especially my backpack and sleeping bag) was far from state-of-the-art, but it got the job done with little to no issues.
Here was my gear list:
1 70L backpack (Eastern Mountain Sports)
1 2-lb tent (Nemo Hornet 1p)
1 20-degree sleeping bag (Teton Sports)
1 cotton sleeping bag liner (Teton Sports) (didn’t need, would not bring again)
1 sleeping pad (Klymit Static V)
1 blow-up pillow (from Decathlon)
2 water filters (LifeStraw gravity bag and Sawyer Squeeze)
3 Nalgene water bottles (we frequently refilled)
1 bear canister (Bear Vault 450 – the old version, which is the same size as the 500)
1 cooking pot
1 cook stove (MSR Pocket Rocket)
Fuel cans (don’t remember how many – 1 small MSR can lasted me almost all of Leg 1; 1 medium and 1 small MSR can lasted the rest of the trip)
Aluminum foil (for wind screen)
1 cup (for coffee)
1 sharp knife
Matches (didn’t need – but brought for backup)
1 pair of hiking pants
2 lightweight shirts
2 fleece jackets (could have subbed in a down jacket)
3 pairs of hiking socks (could have done with 1 fewer)
1 pair of hiking boots (Merrill Moabs)
1 fanny pack (by far the most useful item)
1 pair of pajamas
1 pair of gloves
1 pair of long underwear
3 pairs of underwear
1 cheap pair of sunglasses
1 pair of camp shoes (Crocs)
1 mosquito head net (didn’t need, but a necessity if hiking in June/early July)
1 baseball cap
2 trekking poles (from Decathlon)
1 rain jacket (Columbia)
1 rain pack cover (Frelaxy)
1 camp towel
1 cheap trowel (I can’t believe some people spend $50 on these…)
Bandages/first aid/blister care
1 small roll duct tape
1 roll of toilet paper
1 small toothbrush
1 small toothpaste
1 hand sanitizer
1 pair of glasses/case
1 lip balm
1 sunscreen tube
3 trash bags
Several Ziploc bags
1 compass (didn’t need)
1 all-weather outdoor journal
1 alarm clock
1 deck of playing cards
1 camera (Sony Nex)/charger/extra battery
1 Guthook app
5 maps (Trails Illustrated): Sequoia & Kings Canyon; Mammoth Lakes & Mono Divide; Yosemite SE; Yosemite NE; Yosemite SW (yes, there is a consolidated one for the John Muir Trail, but I like maps…)
Again, some people are much more into gear—in fact, some are so obsessed it seems the whole reason they do the JMT is to test their gear—so look elsewhere for better guides for going ultralight, etc. But the above list was sufficient to get me through the trip. We were also able to share some items (toothpaste, a couple meals, etc.), but it was good that everyone in the group had enough to be self-sufficient if need be.
Do’s and Don’ts of the John Muir Trail
Finally, a brief word about some do’s and don’ts for the JMT.
First, do follow wilderness regulations. As California is increasingly prone to wildfire, having fires is generally a no-no; even in the wet season, fires above 9-10,000 feet (depending on the park) are prohibited year-round. Moreover, expect to see black bears (we saw five), and plan accordingly: all food and scented items (including sunscreen, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, etc.) must be stored in an approved bear canister, which should then be placed at least 50-100 feet from your sleeping area. (Note: There are some bear boxes along the way, but it’s best not to rely on them.) Also, pack out everything you pack in—yes, that includes your used toilet paper. Camp in previously disturbed sites—there are plenty—to avoid trampling healthy grasses, plants, etc. and do not camp within 100 feet of a water source. See your permit for more regulations.
Second, do bring rain gear—and sun protection. The High Sierra is generally blessed with some of the nicest summertime mountain weather in the country—temperatures are generally mild, and rain is somewhat rare. However, if hiking during the monsoon season (late July-August), expect to encounter afternoon thunderstorms, some of which bring nasty hail and lightning. This is no joke—someone died of a lightning strike near Muir Trail Ranch while we were on the trail. Be prepared with rain gear, and seek shelter immediately in the event of lightning. Most times, however, the biggest problem is sun—much of the trail is exposed, above treeline, with nothing protecting you from the sun’s rays; so pack a hat and liberally apply sunscreen to avoid over-exposure.
Third, don’t race. It is tempting, when you meet other hikers on the JMT, to try to keep up with them, pushing yourselves beyond your abilities. The pressure is subtle but often present. Remember, however, that—unless you plan to break the record of 81 hours—there are no prizes for completing the JMT at a quicker pace than others, and that the whole point of being out here is to enjoy it. Even speedy hikers who you will encounter on the trail will often have a way of slowing down eventually, with most backpackers finishing only a couple days above or below the average (about 3 weeks).
Finally, do be social. With the increased popularity of the JMT, crowds are inevitable. Rarely an hour goes by without passing several hiking parties on the trail (especially in the Yosemite and Sequoia sections). The common experience—of sweat and toil—tends to bring total strangers together, producing sometimes strong friendships that endure beyond the completion of then trail. Embrace the social nature of the JMT; you never know who you will meet and the stories you’ll hear. Fellow hikers can also be a good source of information—on bear sightings, good campsites, etc.
Stay tuned for a blow-by-blow description of the John Muir Trail in its entirety, with detailed accounts of each leg in turn, complete with tips and tricks on epic campsites, side trips, etc.
Desolation Wilderness spans around 64,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada in northern California’s Eldorado National Forest, including dozens of alpine lakes, towering granite peaks, and glacial streams. The wilderness, due to its close proximity to Lake Tahoe, is known today as perhaps the state’s most popular backpacking area, but there are also several rewarding day hikes, including a 7-mile out-and-back trek to Twin Lakes, Boomerang Lake, and Island Lake. Together these four alpine lakes pack a spectacular punch, each nestled against the backdrop of the craggy granite slopes of the Crystal Range. The moderately difficult hike is relatively easily accessed from Placerville and the Sacramento area to the west and South Lake Tahoe to the east. (Note: Although easily done as a day hike, this hike is also a popular overnight backpack as well.)
The hike to Twin Lakes, Boomerang Lake, and Island Lake begins and ends at the Twin Lakes Trailhead in the Wrights Lake area of Eldorado National Forest, accessed by way of Highway 50 and the paved Wrights Lake Road on the west side of the Sierra Nevada. (Note: The Twin Lakes Trailhead, situated just beyond a series of summer/vacation homes at the east end of Wrights Lake, is notoriously small, so hikers may have to park instead at the Wrights Lake parking area about one mile back to the southwest. From here one can follow the Wrights Lake Trail along the lakeshore to the Twin Lakes Trailhead.)
Wrights Lake and the Twin Lakes Trailhead are situated in a marshy floodplain at the base of the Crystal Range, an area teeming with wildflowers and tall grasses during much of the summer season. From the parking area, head down the graveled road bearing northwest, then bear right on the Twin Lakes Trail, a well-trafficked single-track which provides access to the wilderness area.
Take the path to the south bank of a marshy stream, where there is a bulletin board and four-way junction. One can head straight across the bridge known as Chapel Crossing, but the quickest route toward Desolation Wilderness heads right, skirting the creek and passing wet meadows on the left. The trail crosses a short bridge over a tributary and then courses northward to a junction at the base of the hike’s first prominent granite outcrop.
Bear right and, shortly after the fork, begin the first significant uphill of the hike, climbing stairs to mount a boulder field and edge closer to the alpine tundra. Traversing dirt and slickrock, the trail provides a brief respite from the ascent at about ¾ mile, then proceeds to climb again, mounting a scrubby hill line with decent views of the surrounding area.
After more climbing through largely wooded terrain, the trail comes streamside at about 1.25 miles. Quickly thereafter, the Twin Lakes Trail enters Desolation Wilderness and then rises steadily, reaching a trail junction at 1.5 miles. Another popular hike leads right to Grouse, Hemlock, and Smith Lakes, while the featured trail continues left. From here the trail to Twin Lakes makes its way northward toward a granitic ridge, traversing a series of minor drainages and slickrock slopes (marked by rock cairns).
At about 1.8 miles, the hike reaches its first prominent views back over the moraine to Wrights Lake, with blankets of conifers and the Sierra foothills beyond. A nice overlook at around this point makes for a decent place to stop for lunch or a snack.
Beyond, the trail crests a ridgeline and then descends to another drainage, this one fed by Twin Lakes, which still remain out of view. After passing a roughly 10- to 12-foot cascade on the left, the trail rises to the edge of a narrow flume at about 2.4 miles, where the creek tumbles down a sharp waterfall wedged between granite slabs.
From here the onward route rises to a vista overlooking a bowl of granite ahead, after which the trail drops to streamside again, traversing a coniferous moraine that includes meadows, marshes, and small pools from the seasonal snowmelt.
At around 2.8 miles, the trail emerges at the shores of Twin Lakes—Lower Twin Lake to be precise. This broad and majestic lake is rimmed by thin smatterings of trees and an imposing ridge to the east, with the peaks of the Crystal Range beyond. In spring and early summer, a stunning waterfall carries a large volume of water down the flank to the east, pouring into Upper Twin Lake (which is just out of view).
Some hikers may choose to turn around here, but there are more fine lakes and vistas to be seen, so onward travelers should proceed to the mouth of Lower Twin Lake, where a stream crossing is required. After traversing the stream via rock- and log-hopping, the trail skirts an inlet and then climbs a modest hill to clear a notch at about 3.1 miles.
Just beyond, the trail descends to the shores of Boomerang Lake, a modest but beautiful pool nestled amid the granite. The trail drops to hug the shoreline of the lake, one of the hike’s highlights.
After Boomerang, the trail becomes a little harder to follow, with social trails heading off in different directions, although the main track continues northeast, passing between Boomerang and an unnamed lake with a view east toward Upper Twin Lake and the waterfall. Stay left at the next two pools after Boomerang Lake, descending to a marshy plain before rising again in the final push up to the shelf overlooking Island Lake.
Island Lake is the largest lake (besides Wrights Lake) visited on the hike and is named for its various islets scattered across the water. The lake’s eastern shores signal the end of the trail, with onward passage obstructed by high walls and scree fields. This lake is situated deep in the Crystal Range, surrounding on three sides by towering peaks and knobs rising to nearly 9,500 feet above sea level. Although still relatively low elevation by Sierra Nevada standards, this looks and feels like high alpine terrain.
After enjoying Island Lake, return the way you came, retracing your steps back past the other bodies of water. Continue as the trail descends back toward Wrights Lake, eventually returning to the Twin Lakes Trailhead, completing the 7-mile round-trip hike. All told, this hike can be done as an overnight backpacking trip but also as a day hike lasting about 3-5 hours.
Becoming increasingly well-known as a lesser-traveled alternative to the popular John Muir Trail – Pacific Crest Trail corridor, the roughly 50- to 60-mile backpacking circuit known as the Deadman Canyon Loop (a.k.a. Elizabeth Pass Loop) traverses spectacular terrain spanning both Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the south-central Sierra Nevada. Over the course of four to seven days, the scenic circuit climbs from Lodgepole Campground, on the western flank of the Sierras, to Twin Lakes and Silliman Pass (10,160’), then drops into Sugarloaf Valley and the Roaring River drainage before ascending the namesake Deadman Canyon to Elizabeth Pass (11,371’). From here, a spectacular descent with views of craggy granite leads south to Lone Pine Creek and Bearpaw Meadow, followed by a westward jaunt through Sequoia National Park on the High Sierra Trail. Climb Panther Gap and descend back to Lodgepole, or continue southwest to Crescent Meadow and the Giant Forest for sequoia views and to pick up a shuttle that takes one back to Lodgepole.
While the shortest trip traces about a 48-mile loop, the following hike description adds several worthy side trips to Beville, Ranger, Lost, Seville, and Tamarack Lakes and ends at Crescent Meadow, avoiding a perhaps unnecessary 1,500-foot climb on the final day (via Panther Gap) and instead taking the shuttle (operating seasonally) back to Lodgepole. All told, with a group of three in decent shape but taking long lunch/photo breaks, the circuit with all the aforementioned detours took us 6.5 days—but others (especially if willing to forgo the side trips) may be able to complete the hike in as little as four or five. The full 7-day itinerary is as follows: (1) Lodgepole to Twin Lakes (6.8 miles; 2,700’ net gain); (2) Twin Lakes to Seville Lake (including Beville, Ranger, & Lost Lakes) (8.5 miles; 1,600’ gain, 2,700’ loss); (3) Seville Lake to Roaring River (10.1 miles; 400’ gain, 1,800’ loss); (4) Roaring River to Upper Deadman Canyon (6.75 miles; 1,900’ net gain); (5) Upper Deadman Canyon to Tamarack Lake (via Elizabeth Pass) (8.7 miles; 3,100’ gain, 3,200’ loss); (6) Tamarack Lake to Mehrten Creek (9.0 miles; 900’ gain, 2,600’ loss); and (7) Mehrten Creek to Crescent Meadow (5.6 miles; 1,000’ net loss).
(Note: A “speedier” alternative that skips the detours but finishes in five days could be as follows: (1) Lodgepole to Twin Lakes; (2) Twin Lakes to Sugarloaf Meadow; (3) Sugarloaf Meadow to Upper Deadman Canyon; (4) Upper Deadman Canyon to Bearpaw Meadow; (5) Bearpaw Meadow to Crescent Meadow/Lodgepole. If bear boxes for food storage are important to you, they are available (as of June 2021) at the following sites: Clover Creek, Twin Lakes, Ranger Lake, Lost Lake, Seville Lake, Comanche Meadow, Sugarloaf Meadow, Roaring River, Bearpaw Meadow, Buck Canyon, Nine Mile Creek, and Mehrten Creek.)
Preparation and logistics
While more strenuous and logistically-demanding backpacking trips can be had elsewhere, completing the Deadman Canyon Loop nonetheless requires a good deal of advance planning. The terrain covered is mostly remote, with far fewer visitors than many nearby destinations (such as the Mount Whitney area or Yosemite). Be prepared to carry all of your food, lodging, etc. for 4-7 days, with heavy packs rendering the elevation gain and loss considerably more difficult than day hiking. The hike also rises to high altitudes (10,479 feet at Silliman Pass and 11,371 feet at Elizabeth Pass), so acclimating ahead of time and/or taking a slower pace is advised. While afternoon thunderstorms are slightly more infrequent than the High Sierras further east, hikers should plan to crest the high passes in the morning if possible. Bear boxes are available along the hike, but it is wise to carry a certified bear-resistant canister (there are no bear boxes between Roaring River and Bearpaw Meadow, roughly 15 miles). Camp at least 100 feet from water, and, of course, pack out everything you brought in.
Given the rising popularity of Sequoia/Kings Canyon, wilderness permits are also now subject to a quota/reservation system; reservations can be made here for the “Twin Lakes” entry point (if following the hike in a clockwise direction, as this description does). (Note: While much of the Deadman Canyon Loop is sparsely-travelled, the up-and-back to Twin Lakes is relatively popular, so booking at least a few weeks in advance is advised. There are also walk-up permits available at the Lodgepole Visitor Center or, if closed, the Giant Forest Museum.)
After acquiring your permit at the nearest issuing station (Lodgepole Visitor Center or Giant Forest Museum), make your way to Lodgepole Campground and park in the large lot next to the shuttle stop. (Note: There is also a bear locker for food storage in case you brought too much food; don’t leave it in your car!) The Twin Lakes Trail begins a couple minutes up the road.
DAY 1: Lodgepole to Twin Lakes (6.8 miles)
The multi-day journey begins at the Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia National Park, a mega-camp with more than 200 individual sites sprawled out across Tokopah Valley, which was carved by the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. From the shuttle stop and large overnight parking area, make your way east along the paved road, then take the first left, following a road leading to sites 151-214. The road crosses the rumbling river and quickly intersects with two trails in quick succession. The first, the Tokopah Falls Trail, is a popular day hike to a cascading waterfall. The second is the Twin Lakes Trail, marked with a wooden sign at the base of a granite knoll, the first of many such rock outcrops one will encounter on the hike. This is your entry point into the wilderness that beckons.
The Twin Lakes Trail begins with an immediate wake-up call for backpackers carrying heavy loads, gaining around 450 feet in elevation gain in less than a mile. After rising above Lodgepole Campground, the sounds of human commotion gradually dissipate, and the wide and easy-to-follow path ascends through thick conifer forest, aiming for a woody notch carved by Silliman Creek. At about 9/10 mile, the trail flattens out briefly and bends northward, cutting through an unhealthy forest dotted with weathered and dead pines (not because of fire but seemingly due to competition amid the densely-packed trees over soil and water).
At about 1.3 miles, the Twin Lakes Trail reaches its first junction. (Note: The sign says it is 1.6 miles from Lodgepole, but this seems to be an overestimate.) Heading left returns down into the valley, culminating at Wuksachi Village. Heading right, the Twin Lakes Trail continues, coming within reach of Willow Meadows, a modest grassy patch on the right. After crossing a small (and often dry) wash, the path courses northward, eventually reaching a set of stony switchbacks and then a sudden drop to Silliman Creek, the first of several perennial streams encountered on the hike.
After traversing the creek, the trails enters a short but very steep stretch before easing again as the onward path bends westward, and then north again, to reach Cahoon Meadow. This broad carpet of greens and yellows is a favorite for mosquitoes but lovely outside of bloodsucker season (better by late July-August). To the north, a set of granite knobs rises to more than 9,200 feet, while another steep slope leads to outcrops off to the west that are more than 450 feet above the meadow. Cahoon Meadow makes for a decent snack/lunch break; hikers have gained nearly 1,000 feet in elevation by this point. (Note: There are a handful of campsites near the meadow.)
Past Cahoon Meadow, the Twin Lakes Trail enters another steady ascent at a moderate incline, eventually rising to a point with dramatic views looking back at the meadow, surrounded by pines. Tokopah Valley lurks beyond. From here it is another persistent climb to Cahoon Gap (8,645’), a vista-less pass between the Silliman and Clover Creek drainages that is located about four miles into the hike.
Beyond the gap, the trail sheds more than 200 feet in elevation as it drops to clear a usually-flowing tributary stream and then climbs again, reaching another trail junction at about the five-mile mark. Here a trail servicing JO Pass (9,414’) and the Jennie Lakes Wilderness comes in from the left; stay right, beginning to turn east toward Twin Lakes and the Silliman Crest, keeping the East Fork of Clover Creek off to the left. After fording the (often dry) creek, the Twin Lakes Trail continues a steady climb through dense tree cover, reaching a rocky bend at about 5.5 miles, where the trail approaches—but does not cross—a cascading drainage. This is the East Fork of Clover Creek again and, surprisingly, holds less water than the flowing tributary encountered just 30 minutes earlier. The lack of flow (especially in late summer) reveals a stair-step chute of granite, which forms the bedrock of the stream.
Beyond this point, the trail still has 700 feet in elevation gain to go before reaching Twin Lakes, and thus the grade steepens as the path ascends rocky switchbacks. This final grind covers the remaining gain in the course of just over a mile, at last emerging in a beautiful cirque nestled in the side of the Kings-Kaweah Divide, composed largely of chalky granodiorite rock.
Here lies the two Twin Lakes, each with their distinct differences. Big Twin Lake, off to the right, is by far the largest of the two and is fronted by a granite slide to the east, interrupting the marshy banks. Little Twin Lake, though smaller, is arguably prettier due to its location below the imposing Twin Peaks, another granitic feature rising more than 1,000 feet above the subalpine lakes.
Situated between the two lakes is a large, oft-used camping area with a bear box and several fire rings. More secluded sites are situated off-trail to the right or left, nearer to the lakeshores. A pit toilet (a toilet seat with two walls for at least some privacy) can be found by following a relatively long access trail off to west of Little Twin Lake. Many travelers will end Day 1 here, choosing to camp before tackling the challenging ascent to Silliman Pass on the next morning.
DAY 2: Twin Lakes to Seville Lake (via Silliman Pass, Beville Lake, Ranger Lake, and Lost Lake) (8.5 miles)
The second day of the hike brings one up and over Silliman Pass and into Kings Canyon National Park, encountering four stunning sub-alpine lakes along the way: Beville, Ranger, Lost, and Seville. Waking up at Twin Lakes, hikers should collect and filter water for the ascent to come, then prepare to climb more than 700 feet in the course of the next mile.
After leaving Twin Lakes behind, the climb begins in earnest, with the switchbacks crisscrossing a spring-fed stream that seemingly flows year-round. The stiff climb affords some limited and sporadic views back down the Clover Creek drainage to Twin Lakes, with the distant Central Valley (usually pretty hazy) eventually emerging into the picture on the horizon. After passing the 10,000-foot mark, the trail passes under the striated outcrops of Twin Peaks, then finally levels off and crests Silliman Pass (10,160’), one of just three trail-serviced gaps offering passage over the Kings-Kaweah Divide.
East of the pass, the Kings River watershed unfolds, revealing a breathtaking landscape of undulating granite, deep canyons, and towering peaks. Off to the south is Mount Silliman (11,188’), an imposing summit that is a somewhat popular off-trail destination. Beyond Mount Silliman is a series of granite bowls and canyons, each separated by a sharp divide. More than 1,000 feet down, the diminutive Beville Lake is visible at the base of granite slabs. On the horizon to the east is the Great Western Divide, concealing views of the even higher Sierra Crest (including Mount Whitney) beyond.
Off to the northeast, Sugarloaf Valley gives way to Kings Canyon proper, a deep incision at the heart of the park, with more imposing ranges beyond, including the Monarch Divide, Cirque Crest, and Sphinx Crest. This is the most wide-ranging view of the entire hike and previews much of the terrain to come: although tucked just out of view, the upper reaches of Deadman Canyon and Elizabeth Pass are just over the ruffles of granite to the southeast. (Note: The best, unobstructed views from Silliman Pass are situated a couple minutes’ walk off-trail to the south.)
From the pass, the onward route follows a downhill course that sheds more than 1,000 feet in about 1.5 miles. At first, the slope is partly wooded, with sporadic views of the unfolding granite landscape of Upper Crowley Canyon. Pay close attention to the trail in this section, as it grows relatively faint at some points, although never entirely indiscernible.
About ¾ mile from the pass, the trail winds around a right-hand bend, skirting a granite slope with expansive views, including of the protruding knob known as Ball Dome (9,435’) to the north and, more prominently, the turquoise-tinged Ranger Lake directly below to the east.
After coursing back to the south, returning briefly to the trees, hikers are faced with a steep descent, switchbacking down staircases carved into the granite en route to the moraine below. At last, after about 1.4 miles (2.4 miles from Twin Lakes), the path bottoms out and reenters the dense thicket of pines and brush. Within minutes, a small sign indicates the first of several worthy detours: a short spur to the shores of Beville Lake.
This first tarn is surrounded by marsh, making access to the lakeshore difficult, but nearby rocks offer a nice vantage point of the beautiful body of water with Mount Silliman towering above. (Note: There is no bear box available at Beville Lake, and campsites are a little harder to find than at other nearby lakes.)
Beville Lake is often overshadowed by its nearby cousin, Ranger Lake, which is reached by returning to the main trail, walking about 1/10 mile further north, then bearing left on the spur trail leading to the lake’s eastern shore. The spur trail parallels the lake before ending at a campsite with a bear box. Aside from the deep mud along the banks, swimming is a lovely activity at this large lake, which features a handful of reachable islands.
Ranger Lake is also more distant than Beville from Mount Silliman, but the surrounding granite scenery is no less scintillating. A granite slide directly west leads steadily down from Twin Peaks to the western shore. By now, hikers may want to stop for lunch, or at least a break, before moving on to the additional destinations in the late morning/early afternoon.
Returning to the main trail, bear left and follow the path as it descends gradually and passes a few nice platforms with open views to the east. Beyond, the trail dips down into the conifer forest, dropping to clear a drainage at about the day’s four-mile mark (including the Beville and Ranger Lakes spurs). The trail then rises another 150 feet to clear a wooded ridgeline and descends again, reaching a junction with the spur trail to Lost Lake at 4.5 miles.
By now, hikers may be tired and put off by the 250-foot climb to Lost Lake. Resist the temptation to skip this turn. The spur to Lost Lake is one of the highlights of the entire loop and well worth the detour (1/2 mile each way). The route to Lost Lake is a steady ascent, loosely following a drainage on the left, culminating at a nice camping area and the shores of the lake, easily the most spectacular of the cluster found around the Silliman Crest.
In addition to viewing the backside of Twin Peaks, a jagged, sawtooth ridge rises high above the lake, giving the water a memorable backdrop. Social trails lead around parts of the lake, but a large stony outcrop blocks passage at one point.
It’s hard to steal yourself away from Lost Lake, but when ready, make your way back down the ½-mile spur trail and rejoin the main thoroughfare, turning left to continue northward. The subsequent two miles involve a mild ascent, with a couple of brief steep sections, to clear a ridge below Ball Dome (not visible from the trail here), followed by a steady descent into mostly wooded Belle Canyon.
At about 7.3 miles on the day, the trail crosses the main drainage through the canyon—Sugarloaf Creek—and then quickly reaches another junction. Bear left to continue on the spur to Seville Lake, the longest detour of the four lakes. A minute later, cross a side drainage and then bear left at another fork (heading right leads up toward Rowell Meadow in Jennie Lakes Wilderness). Then cross the drainage again and ascend a short staircase before settling in for a mild jaunt through dense forest for about 1.2 miles, ending at Seville Lake.
After seeing several other beautiful lakes earlier in the day, it’s possible that Seville Lake—lacking Beville’s views of Mount Silliman, Ranger’s pretty islands, or Lost Lake’s stunning granite crags—will disappoint. But the quiet moraine lake is still quite pretty, set in a bowl-shaped valley bounded by granite walls.
There are two main camping areas at Seville Lake that make most sense. The first, just to the left of the trail (across the trail from the bear box), there is a wooded area with a nice fire pit and lots of space for tents. The second, further on, requires following a well-trodden trail around the west side of the lake, reaching another spacious site that is closer to the water, about 1/10 mile from the first site. In either case, boulders or fallen trees hanging out over the water offer perches for watching the sun set over the lake, capping a roughly 8.5-mile day.
DAY 3: Seville Lake to Roaring River (10.1 miles)
The third day of the hike, which traverses less dramatic terrain, connects the Silliman Crest area with the entry to Deadman Canyon and is perhaps the mildest day in terms of elevation loss and gain. Starting from Seville Lake, make your way back down the spur trail, crossing a drainage at around 1.1 miles and then passing the turn for the route to Rowell Meadow on the left. Bear right and cross the wash again, just before a second junction. This time head left, in the direction of Sugarloaf and Roaring River.
Much of this day involves walking through heavily-vegetated pine forest, and the understory becomes increasingly crowded as the Sugarloaf Trail continues northeast through lower Belle Canyon. About a mile from the junction, the path comes within close range of Sugarloaf Creek on the right before moving away from the stream again and traversing a woody ridgeline. Around 2.75 miles into the day’s walk, hikers encounter another junction, with trails leading left toward Jennie Lakes Wilderness.
Bear right, coming quickly to Comanche Meadow on the left within about ¼ mile. This narrow inlet of verdant fields is surrounded by conifers and quaking aspens, with distant views of Mitchell Peak (10,365’) off to the northwest. From here the trail drops to cross a tributary stream, followed by a spur to a campsite with a bear box on the right. This is followed by a bigger stream crossing, leading to a pleasant stand of healthy ponderosa pines.
More than 1/3 mile past Comanche Meadow, the trail begins an abrupt and steep descent, switchbacking briefly to descend one level as the Sugarloaf Creek drainage carves a deeper cut in the bedrock. Off to the right, hikers get fleeting views up Crowley Canyon toward the Mount Silliman area, but the trail continues left, dropping some 250 feet before reaching a wire gate. Pass through the gate, noticing the change in topography as scrubby manzanitas begin to dot the landscape.
After settling into a level floodplain again, hikers approach Sugarloaf Meadow on the left, indicated by the presence of another campsite with a bear box. (Note: The meadow is not easily visible from the trail but can be seen by following the spur path left past the campsite.) Ahead, the prominent granite dome towering above is Sugarloaf (7,995’), one of the more interesting features of the day’s hike.
Continuing to roughly parallel Sugarloaf Creek on the right, the trail dips to cross the wide stream at just short of the six-mile mark for the day. This is a nice place to take a rest and get your feet wet, and there are a couple nice campsites along the south bank.
Beyond, the trail leaves Sugarloaf Creek behind and does the first sustained climbing of the day, ascending partway up the forested slope, with Sugarloaf Valley unfolding off to the left. After passing another small tributary, the trail reaches lovely Ferguson Creek at 7.3 miles, where there is also a nice set of campsites.
Traversing Ferguson Creek ushers in another steady climb, this one gaining nearly 400 feet in about 7/10 mile. As the sounds of the creek gradually fade away, hikers are greeted upon cresting the moraine with great views of the Roaring River drainage, with the peaks of the Great Western Divide beyond. Among them is Palmer Mountain (11,254’) (the closest tall peak), which gives way to the granitic Sphinx Crest, Mount Brewer (13,570’) and Thunder Mountain (13,588’). Cloud Canyon—and Deadman Canyon—are situated off to the right, mostly concealed by the sharp, forested slopes.
Enthused by the new scenery, hikers should glide down the trail as it gradually approaches Roaring River, a thundering watercourse encountered first at around 9.5 miles. Amid a set of rock clusters above the river, the trail passes through another gate and then descends to the river’s bank as the water squeezes through a narrow gap. After a steep hill, the trail skirts a wire fence and, set slightly back from the water, passes a series of granite outcrops on the right. After another climb, the path levels off and approaches the JR Pasture, which is fenced off. From here it is a minute’s walk to the Roaring River Ranger Station, where hikers will find another trail fork and trail register.
A crudely-drawn map at the trail register shows the various intersecting trails, with most of the camping options across the river to the east. Pass over the sturdy bridge to find a nice campsite alongside the river on the left; further on, taking a left leads to Scaffold Meadows, a popular spot for large pack groups and also suitable for camping (although more buggy). There is also a historic cabin at Lackey Pasture, although it is off-limits to hikers. The Colby Pass Trail through Cloud Canyon bears right (southeast) around here, while the Avalanche Pass Trail heads off to the left (north). The route to Deadman Canyon is back on the south side of the river, past the ranger station. Hikers can press on or set up camp here after a 10-mile day.
DAY 4: Roaring River to Upper Deadman Canyon (6.75 miles)
The Roaring River Ranger Station acts as a gateway to the high country, with trails leading off in three directions for various mountain passes, including Avalanche Pass (10,040’), Colby Pass (12,000’), and Elizabeth Pass (11,371’). On Day 4, hikers should head south on the Elizabeth Pass Trail into Deadman Canyon, the loop’s namesake and key highlight of the multi-day hike.
From the ranger station, the route into Deadman Canyon heads south, immediately moving away from the river and gaining elevation, rising to a shelf with partial views of the Great Western Divide and Cloud Canyon. After a stout ascent of about 200 feet, the trail enters the Deadman Creek drainage and skirts the flowing creek on the left at about ¾ mile.
After passing through a wooden gate, the mostly-shaded Elizabeth Pass Trail drops to cross Deadman Creek, requiring a lengthy rock-hop to clear the stream. Following the crossing, the path rises to a granite slab and continues to ascend mildly into the canyon. After nearly another mile of walking, the trail finally emerges from the woods and cuts left, switchbacking up a scrubby slope, revealing the first great views of Deadman Canyon. The unnamed peak on the right boasts a wall of granite rivaling that of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Off to the left, the canyon is bounded by the high slopes of Glacier Ridge.
After bounding up the switchbacking slope, hikers reenter the forest again, but the ascent continues, reaching another wooden gate in about 1/3 mile. Beyond, as the trail skirts the winding creek, beautiful views can be had of the high walls to the west, rising more than 1,000 feet above the canyon floor.
Soon enough, hikers reach the legend beyond the canyon name: the grave of a deceased shepherd, very faded and weathered, on the left. The wooden headstone reads: “HERE REPOSES ALFRED MONIERE, SHEEPHERDER, MOUNTAIN MAN, 18—TO 1887.”
Shortly thereafter, the Elizabeth Pass Trail crosses back to the west side of Deadman Creek, where the path will remain for the next 2.5 miles. A beautiful meadow adorned with corn lilies lies off to the left, serving as a nice streamside lunch/snack spot. Beyond this point, the trail briefly becomes more difficult to discern due to the overgrown vegetation. The onward path comes up to the creek but does not cross it, making way toward a tree-lined crest ahead.
At about four miles on the day, the ever-ascending trail reaches the base of a long and broad granite slide, with Deadman Creek racing down the slope toward the lower canyon. An open rock field offers nice views looking back to the north.
Upon reaching the top of the slide, the trail cuts through another thicket of conifers and brush, briefly following a branch of the main stream where the creek seems to split in two, forming a highly vegetated island in the middle.
Finally, at about 4.7 miles, the Elizabeth Pass Trail crests an uphill and the trees wither away, revealing a broad and dramatic expanse with a stunning landscape beyond. This is Ranger Meadow, an absolutely picturesque spot and one of the best destinations on the entire hike. (Note: Believe it or not, the striking, multi-knobbed peak has no official name but rises to around 11,600 feet, forming part of the Kings-Kaweah Divide.)
The onward path skirts the west flank of Ranger Meadow, offering excellent views for the next mile. After briefly cutting through the trees, the path rises to another open platform with a couple nice campsites but more distant from the water, now rushing through cascades some 50 feet below.
Nearing closer to the dramatic peak (11,600’), the trail reenters the thick pine forest again, rising again for a stretch and then ascending a wildflower-dotted slope and crossing Deadman Creek once more. At about 6.75 miles on the day, hikers reach the end of the trees, with open meadows—and a view of Upper Deadman Canyon—ahead. (Note: Off to the right is a notch leading up to Big Bird Lake, though this requires a rigorous, off-trail hike.)
It is around here that hikers may look to set up camp for the night, cashing in on a short but scenic day. There are a couple campsites right at the edge of treeline and some flat and weathered spots on the plain about 1/10 mile farther up the trail.
DAY 5: Upper Deadman Canyon to Tamarack Lake via Elizabeth Pass (8.7 miles)
Day 5 is arguably the hike’s most spectacular day—but also the most difficult, requiring a more than 2,000-foot ascent to Elizabeth Pass, followed by a relentless downhill shedding 3,000 feet, and capping off the day with a laborious 1,000-foot climb to reach Tamarack Lake. (Note: Again, hikers may choose to skip the Tamarack Lake detour, saving two miles each way, in which case one should continue on toward Bearpaw Meadow to the southwest.)
The morning begins in Upper Deadman Canyon, where the sun takes awhile to shine over the U-shaped valley, blocked by the high peaks of Glacier Ridge to the east. Eventually the shadows recede as hikers make their way up into the alpine bowl nestled in the Kings-Kaweah Divide. With the flowing waters of Deadman Creek off to the right, the path leaves the woods behind and traverses a pair of rock fields, followed by a bustling meadow that is a favorite of cheeping marmots.
Gradually gaining ground, the narrow single-track passes more open meadows with low scrub before finally starting to switchback up a west-facing slope at around 1.6 miles. Ahead, the trail moves toward what looks at first like an impenetrable funnel of granite. By 1.8 miles, however, it becomes clear that there is a small, brushy notch on the left flank of the canyon bowl that offers onward passage. This section is no joke, however, boasting perhaps the hike’s steepest stairstep climbs, made more difficult by melting snowmelt and muddy puddles. Take your time with this section, eventually emerging above the notch and onto a shelf with excellent views looking back down canyon.
From here it is a short walk to the final crossing of Deadman Creek, just above a 200-foot cascade. Take a break here to catch your breath before readying for the slow and somewhat monotonous ascent through a chalky boulder field, constituting much of the remaining ascent to Elizabeth Pass.
The ascent continues steadily, skirting the scrubby tundra with good views east to Copper Mine Pass (12,345’), one of the taller peaks in the area. By about 2.5 miles on the day, hikers have already gained more than 1,200 feet, a welcome thought that makes the subsequent switchbacks slightly easier.
As hikers enter the desolate boulder field, the trail underfoot is packed with chunky gravel stones, which serve to stabilize the trail but make for awkward footing. The next mile requires seemingly endless, long switchbacks, before finally the trail crests a slope and the notch of Elizabeth Pass comes into view. After skirting a perched outcrop with large, iron-tinged blocks, the trail briefly levels off before embarking on the final, brutal ascent to Elizabeth Pass. One short section reaches a very arduous grade, after which a quartet of switchbacks leads at last over the crest of the pass, nearly 11,400 feet above sea level and more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor.
The views from Elizabeth Pass, though well bounded by the high crags to the north and south, are nonetheless still excellent. Looking back down Deadman Canyon, one can see north to the Monarch Divide and Sierra Crest of upper Kings Canyon National Park. Peering south into Sequoia National Park, the slope gives way to two towering knobs in the foreground, with the broad Kaweah River drainage and Castle Rocks beyond. Amid the gray granodiorite of the Tablelands to the west, one can make out the faint outlines of a blue lake: this is Moose Lake, accessed only by off-trail scrambling.
After the relentless uphill to Elizabeth Pass, a downhill section is welcome, although the subsequent descent back into Sequoia National Park can be a knee-buster as the trail sheds more than 3,000 feet in elevation in just three miles. The initial switchbacks from the pass are rough and challenging, dropping down blocky stairs that require careful footing. After this initial stretch, boulders are interspersed among windswept shrubs and seasonal streams trickle in and out of the trail.
As the route proceeds, the Elizabeth Pass Trail becomes more difficult to discern. About 3/10 mile below the pass, hikers enter a rocky, culvert-like drainage which briefly doubles as the trail before the route leads up and out to the right. Follow the small cairns as the trail continues downward, swinging back and forth amid the rubble, with excellent views of the sheer granite cliff to the north, again competing with the likes of the towering walls of Yosemite Valley.
About one mile from the pass, the trail has already dropped around 1,300 feet and swings relatively far to the right, allowing for a better look down into the various drainages of the Kaweah River watershed, where a spectacular landscape of granitic knobs unfolds. The most dramatic features are the high crags of Valhalla, a popular backpacking destination in its own right. The high summits of the Great Western Divide eventually also come into view, including Mount Stewart (12,025’), Eagle Scout Peak (12,040’), Lippincott Mountain (12,265’), and Mount Eisen (12,160’). This stretch of peaks effectively bisects Sequoia National Park, with the Kern River drainage and even higher Sierra Crest beyond to the east.
After coursing westward for a good distance, the trail bends south and follows a scenic ridgeline between two drainages and then drops and crosses a beautiful stream fed by Lonely Lake, situated in the top of the valley to the north, some 1,300 feet above. Here the flowing stream tumbles down a series of cascades and slivers through a narrow notch with several small reflecting pools.
It’s hard to believe given the terrific views from up on this high shelf, but the best is yet to come as the trail edges southwest, bypassing some impassable granite slides en route to a more forgiving slope. The valley below is the Lone Pine Creek drainage, culminating at the base of Mount Stewart and Lion Rock to the east. This area hosts Tamarack Lake, the destination for tonight’s camp.
At around six miles on the day, the trail begins its final descent, capping off the 3,000-foot descent with 16 scenic switchbacks. This section is simply magnificent, descending from the subalpine scrub down into the montane forest and finally a layer of manzanitas, with excellent vistas along the way. At about switchback 11, there is a particularly twisted and photogenic incense cedar tree, towering high above the valley. At last, with about 6.8 miles in the books, hikers reach a trail junction, set in an open paddock.
Here hikers have a choice, either to head left and climb the Tamarack Lake Trail to its namesake, or head right to skip this detour and continue onward toward the High Sierra Trail and Bearpaw Meadow.
The eastward hike toward Tamarack Lake begins with a pleasant descent through the montane scrub, culminating at the edge of the trees, where there are two nice campsites. From here, the ascent begins, skirting the banks of Lone Pine Creek, which tumbles amid cracks in the bedrock down a series of pleasant cascades. As the trail continues, the shrubs around the trail grow thicker (pants recommended!), and the path rises—now in the open sun—to clear a second, higher set of cascades.
Above, on the south side of the canyon, lurks an imposing spire on the backside of Valhalla; off to the north, cream-colored pinnacles rise out of the granite hulk, including the two knobs visible from Elizabeth Pass hours prior.
About two-thirds of the way up the spur trail, the Tamarack Lake Trail approaches Lone Pine Meadow, a verdant spot set at the base of a rock slide to the south. Here, streams of water flood the landscape, and hikers will be required to make at least three creek crossings.
Beyond is what feels like a never-ending hill, finally culminating in the final bowl in which Tamarack Lake sits. There is no bear box or campfires at the lakeshore, but several camping sites can be found along the west banks, in addition to a lovely swimming hole at the base of a small cascade near the lake’s outlet.
The lake itself is situated in a picturesque, glacier-fed depression below Mount Stewart (12,025’), fed by snowmelt and Lone Pine Creek, which continues upstream toward Lion Lake (not visible) to the northeast.
DAY 6: Tamarack Lake to Mehrten Creek via Bearpaw Meadow and High Sierra Trail (9.0 miles)
After five days in the wilderness, it’s time to start making one’s way back toward civilization and the start of the hike. Day 6 brings hikers from remote Tamarack Lake toward the final destination of Crescent Meadow and the Giant Forest via popular Bearpaw Meadow and the renowned High Sierra Trail. This entire stretch would a be a long haul for one day, however, so it is split into two days.
From Tamarack Lake, hikers should retrace their steps from the day before, hiking roughly two miles and descending 1,100 feet back to the junction with the Elizabeth Pass Trail in the Lone Pine Creek drainage. At the junction, turn left, descending a wildflower-studded slope to the banks of Lone Pine Creek, which is now tumbling steadily down a narrow chute, producing modest cascades.
Follow the signs for Bearpaw (right), embarking on a two-mile stretch that climbs partway up a forested slope and then drops to Bearpaw Meadow. This section is surprisingly steep, beginning with a set of very sharp climbs to clear a granite slab and dry drainage. After a brief rest, the ascent continues in earnest, ascending to clear a second drainage and dropoff, rising to a shady, wooded slope.
After a brief walk through the coniferous forest, the path emerges at one of the most remarkable vista points on the hike: a magnificent eastward view of the Great Western Divide, including a look up the gut of the Hamilton Creek drainage toward Valhalla, Hamilton Lakes, and Kaweah Gap. To the south, the drainage forms the deep, forested River Valley, which in turn feeds the broad canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River.
Following the awesome viewpoint, the views somewhat diminish as hikers take on one more uphill stretch before the trail levels off and descends through thick brush, then scattered pines. After clearing a set of switchbacks down, the trail forks at about the day’s four-mile mark. Head left to check out the Bearpaw Meadow Ranger Station and High Sierra Camp, where there are decent views of the valley and Great Western Divide. Or continue right to bypass this detour, bearing west on the High Sierra Trail in the direction of Crescent Meadow and Generals Highway. There is another junction soon after the first, with a steep path leading south to a relatively unattractive but popular campground, which offers a water spigot in case hikers need to fill up.
Beyond this second junction, the High Sierra Trail descends mildly, gradually clearing a set of long switchbacks notable for their relative absence of obstacles (rocks, steps, etc.), making for easy and welcome walking. The path descends into Buck Canyon, a prominent side drainage, and crosses a footbridge over Buck Creek, where there are again some campsites and a bear locker.
On the other side of the creek, the trail climbs again and settles into its westward course, spending most of its time in the trees. One prominent outcrop offers nice views of Sugarbowl Dome (7,881’) to the south, after which the path descends to clear the first of two forks of the Nine Mile Creek drainage.
After a second drainage, the trail ascends again, with occasional views of the valley below. At about seven miles, hikers cross another side drainage below Alta Meadow, and then gives way to a climb to a viewpoint overlooking Little Blue Dome (7,725’), another granite protrusion. Shortly thereafter, the High Sierra Trail reaches one of its most iconic sections: a series of exposed ledges, carved into the high walls, with expansive views across the Kaweah River drainage. To the south, the landscape is dominated by the oft-seen but rarely-explored Castle Rocks (9,081’), with the Mineral King area beyond. To the west, the Great Western Divide remains visible, although ever more distant.
The trail is a magnificent feat of construction, with the near-vertical walls interrupted by a 4- to 5-foot wide flat where the trail resides. Hikers with a fear of heights will not like this section, although the exposed ledges pass relatively quickly.
After the initial cliff section, the trail returns to more forested terrain and a sustained uphill before embarking on a second set of ledges. Upon rounding a corner heading north, hikers get a good view of Moro Rock in the distance to the west, as well as the Mehrten Creek drainage, the destination for tonight. Mehrten Creek drops rapidly down a series of cascades, crossing the trail at about the day’s nine-mile mark, coming just after a junction with the path to Panther Gap and the Alta Trail. (Note: Turn right here to complete the “proper” loop up and over Panther Gap to Lodgepole, or stay left to continue toward Crescent Meadow.)
Mehrten Creek has a very faded map indicating the presence of a bear locker and campsites. To find these sites, ignore the map, which is relatively unhelpful, and continue upstream, hugging the left flank until one can climb up to the outcrop west of the stream, where one will find the bear locker and a couple of flat campsites with decent, partly obstructed views of the Kaweah River Valley.
DAY 7: Mehrten Creek to Crescent Meadow (5.6 miles)
The final day involves only a few hours of hiking, extending west from Mehrten Creek to the popular Crescent Meadow Trailhead at the southern end of the Giant Forest. Hikers can take the shuttle bus (if it is running) from Crescent Meadow back to Lodgepole or the Giant Forest Museum.
From Mehrten Creek, the High Sierra Trail continues westward, largely downhill, to Sevenmile Hill, a woody finger that juts out into the Kaweah Valley. A mild incline leads north from here to a series of stream crossings: the various forks of Panther Creek, which fan out around a broad, wooded gap that takes more than two miles to traverse.
After about three miles of walking on the day, the trail splits, with a spur trail heading right toward the Giant Forest and General Sherman Tree. Stay left, continuing toward Crescent Meadow by way of an undulating, up-and-down path heading southwest. At about four miles, the trail abruptly descends a set of short switchbacks and then makes headway toward Eagle View, an unmarked viewpoint overlooking the Kaweah Valley, Eagle Rocks, and Moro Rock.
By now, the day hikers start trickling in, and the trail soon reaches a junction at the southern fringes of the Giant Forest, the world’s largest collection of giant sequoia trees. While there are multiple routes to Crescent Meadow from here, the shortest and most efficient way is to continue on the High Sierra Trail, which courses west, passing the so-called Burial Tree on the right and then descending mildly to the vicinity of Crescent Meadow, passing junctions for Log Meadow, Tharp’s Log, and the Trail of the Sequoias. At last, at about 5.5 miles, the trail drops to meet a paved path, which skirts Crescent Meadow and ends at the bustling trailhead, where day hikers, picnickers, and backpackers converge. Here there is a shuttle bus which connects with Lodgepole and Giant Forest Museum. (Note: As of 2021, due to Covid-19, this bus was not stopping at Crescent Meadow, requiring us to add about 2.5-3 miles through the sequoias to get to Giant Forest Museum, where the bus was running to Lodgepole as normal.)
And so ends the multi-day journey across Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, one of the area’s finest hikes that nonetheless remains relatively undiscovered. Allot 4-7 days for this hike, depending on pace and appetite for the various spur trails.
Truly unobstructed panoramas with views in all directions are a relative rarity in the Berkeley Hills of California’s East Bay, but Wildcat Peak in Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park offers one of them with excellent vistas of the San Francisco Bay, the Carquinez Strait, the Briones Hills, Mount Diablo, and more. At 1,211 feet, Wildcat Peak is not the highest point in the Berkeley Hills (that distinction is held by nearby Vollmer Peak (1,905’)), but it is a popular destination in perhaps the East Bay’s most well-known regional park. The following description traces a 3.25-mile circuit, ascending shady Laurel Canyon before emerging out into the open atop windy Wildcat Peak, then returning via a switchbacking route and the very modestly-sized Jewel Lake.
The hike begins in the Tilden Nature Area, one of the most popular sections of Tilden Regional Park because of its so-called “Little Farm,” petting zoo, and nature center. The large parking area is often full on weekends but relatively lesser-travelled during the week, which is the ideal time for hiking in Tilden. Unlike other parts of the park, dogs are not allowed in the nature area, but the place is often crawling with families and school buses full of kiddos. After leaving the parking lot, crossing a short bridge over Wildcat Creek, and passing the Environmental Education Center on your left, however, the crowds tend to dissipate considerably.
To reach the Laurel Canyon Trail, cross the grassy field behind the visitor center and look for a sign marking the start of the trail leading into the oak/bay woodlands. The dirt track quickly enters the woods, passes a small structure on the right, and then ascends to a junction with the wide Service Road. Bear left briefly, then follow the continuation of the Laurel Canyon Trail as it veers right, entering a grove of tall eucalyptus trees.
These fragrant trees are ubiquitous to the Bay Area but technically an invasive species, brought to the area during the Gold Rush and known for their strikingly fast growth. As further research revealed that eucalyptus bark had a tendency to crack when dried, the trees disappointed those seeking to get rich off lumber, but the trees remained, rising to towering heights and scattered across the area. Today, Bay Area residents have a love-hate relationship with eucalyptus trees: even as they are invasive, they have become an iconic part of the landscape.
As hikers make their way northeast, the eucalyptus gradually decline in number, and hikers drop down a staircase to clear a pretty ravine at about ¼ mile. After a mild uphill, the trail forks again, reaching an intersection with the Loop Road. Bear left briefly on the wide track, then right again, catching the onward path. From here the Laurel Canyon Trail begins a steadier ascent, at one point ascending a set of sharp bends. The route crests 700 feet at about 0.65 miles, reaching a junction with the Pine Tree Trail that comes in from the right.
Stay left, descending to clear two short bridges, then follow the trail as it rises again to a shaded fork. Head left, following the signs for Laurel Canyon Road. The trail beyond descends sharply to a scenic crossing of Laurel Creek. From here the trail ascends a set of steep switchbacks, culminating at Laurel Canyon Road at 9/10 mile. Bear right on this wide track, continuing to climb, although more mildly, to another trail junction at about the 1-mile mark. Hikers should bear left here, following signs of the Peak Trail, which—you guessed it—leads toward Wildcat Peak.
As the bay/oak woodlands gradually turn to scrubby chapparal, the singletrack trail rises to views of Wildcat Canyon and the westward hills beyond. Stay left at the next fork, by which most of the elevation gain has been completed. Bearing west, the trail passes the Berkeley Rotary Peace Grove and curls around to the south side of Wildcat Peak, reaching a final junction before the summit at 1.5 miles. Follow this spur (right) to the top of Wildcat Peak, marked by a long, circular stone bench.
As promised, the panoramas (at least on a clear day) are terrific. Off to the west are San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the North Bay, Angel Island, Mount Tamalpais, and the Marin Peninsula. Northward, one can see across San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait to the Napa/Sonoma area, while Mount Diablo—across San Pablo Reservoir and the Briones Hills—is the most prominent peak to the east. The Berkeley Hills stretch southward, with onward views blocked by Vollmer Peak and Grizzly Peak, two of the highest mountains in the range.
Once ready, return down the spur to the main Wildcat Peak Trail, which continues right en route to Jewel Lake, nearly 700 feet below. The views keep coming as the narrow path winds west and then south, passing wily oak and bay trees before returning to the odiferous eucalyptus. The subsequent junction is easy to miss; about one mile from the summit, look for a well-trodden path heading right; it quickly leads to a trail marker. Take this track as the Wildcat Peak Trail becomes the Sylvan Trail, which in turn drops to a second junction minutes later. Take a right, descending again amid the eucalyptus to the base of Wildcat Canyon and a junction with the Wildcat Creek Trail.
Straight ahead is Jewel Lake, a modestly-sized pond often frequented by turtles and waterfowl but often nearly dry in late summer and fall. The lake itself is dammed, and hikers can continue to the south side of the pond for some nice waterside picnic spots. The quickest return route is to the follow the wide Wildcat Creek Trail southeast, across level terrain, for nearly a half-mile. The path returns soon enough to Little Farm, the visitor center, and the parking area, completing the roughly 3.25-mile circuit hike.
Climbing partway up the sandstone cliffs of Canaan Mountain, this short hike—located just over the Utah border from Colorado City, Arizona—ascends rocky and sandy terrain to a beautiful perennial waterfall, short slot, and bowl-shaped narrows resembling “The Subway” in nearby Zion National Park. Water Canyon is notable for its year-round stream, which gives life to dense vegetation in an otherwise very dry, desert environment. Ambitious hikers can continue on to the hightops of Canaan Mountain, but most visitors will turn around at the waterfall/slot situated about 1.1 miles from the trailhead.
Water Canyon Trailhead offers access to the BLM-managed Canaan Mountain Wilderness, which protects a 44,500-acre tract of public space covering similar terrain as nearby Zion National Park. As visitors drive Water Canyon Road—a gravel track—north from Colorado City, Arizona and neighboring Hildale, Utah—the cliffs of thick Navajo sandstone begin to envelop the surroundings and rise nearly 2,000 feet above the canyon floor. Water Canyon Road first passes a series of residences and commercial “glamping” options, then continues past the Squirrel Canyon Trailhead on the right. The road ends with a set of two parking areas, separated by a stagnant pond. The far parking lot, closest to the start of the hike, is preferable but often fills up by mid-morning, requiring travelers to instead find a spot at the secondary lot about ¼ mile back. There are restrooms and a map at the trailhead.
The sandy Water Canyon Trail begins just beyond the restrooms and information board, immediately following a flowing stream on the right. The first ¼ mile sees the main path split into a series of forks, although most use trails tend to reconnect further upstream after a brief divergence. Amid the dense vegetation of oaks, junipers, pinyon pines, and others, numerous spurs lead down to the stream’s banks. The main track continues uphill, however, keeping the water largely just out of sight on the right. At ¼ mile, the path crosses a side stream with dense thicket.
At around 0.35 mile, an unmarked junction serves to confuse hikers; stay right, dropping to cross a second tributary before climbing steeply up the sandy bank to an open, sun-soaked hill. From here, the wide trail continues to rise, gradually and then sharply, as the sand gives way to larger rocks that require some careful footing to surmount. A myriad of different paths seems to lead in all directions; generally, one should stay straight and up, never quite descending to creek level but paralleling the ever-steeper drainage.
At ½ mile, the trail crests a hill and drops for a brief stretch; one can see minor cascades in the creek down below. The next stretch is somewhat level with brief ups and downs before ascending a rocky patch again and passes a batch of small, green ferns and thorny bushes. From atop a scrubby, sunny hilltop at 7/10 mile, one can see the dark, narrowing canyon ahead, as well as Water Canyon Arch—a high archway situated near the top of the Navajo sandstone cliff to the east.
After passing a graffitied rock slab on the left at ¾ mile, the trail continues to rise before dropping to skirt a beautiful, moss-laden alcove. From here it is a short walk—and steep descent—down to the scenic subway section, where desert varnish forms vertical streaks in the bulging walls, and the water feeds monkeyflower and other plants lining the sides of the bowl-shaped drainage. This unique sight is an easy rival to Zion—with far fewer crowds.
At the far end of the subway is a lovely, multi-tiered cascade that could pass as a waterfall, a highlight of the hike. (Note: At higher elevations, there may be additional waterfalls, depending on recent rains/snowmelt, but this is the most reliable.)
Onward passage requires ascending the throat of the falls or climbing a thin notch just off to the left; both lead up to a beautiful, fluted chamber surrounded by high walls. Here the sandstone splits into parallel chunks, each harboring some vegetation; some are passable partway before rising to near-vertical heights. A use path hugs a sandy slope on the left, doubling back to the south briefly before rising to the next level up. From here one can scramble across partly exposed ledges to a final slot—narrowing to a few feet across—which ends quickly at a murky pool. (Note: This sometimes hosts a beautiful waterfall, but it was not present as of mid-May 2021.)
The trail continues onward from here, offering access to additional narrows and eventually Top Rock, White Domes, and the summit of Canaan Mountain. However, most will turn around at this point, retracing one’s steps back down 1.1 miles to the start. This shortened version is moderately difficult, with some steep sections, requiring about 2-3 hours to complete.
The striated sandstone formation known as “The Wave” attracts flocks of photographers and sightseers to southern Utah each day, and—given its popularity—is now limited by a permit lottery that is next-to-impossible to win. Fortunately, the characteristic undulating Navajo sandstone knobs and ruddy gulches of the Wave/North Coyote Buttes area are relatively ubiquitous across the region, offering other opportunities to witness similar—although perhaps not as iconic—formations up close without need for a day use permit. One such alternative, which has become known as “The New Wave,” is easily accessible from Page, Arizona and is situated just inside the boundary of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area around Glen Canyon Dam. A short, 1.25-mile hike forms a circuit around a clutch of sandstone buttes and spires, culminating with a walk up through a notch between two “Wave”-like knobs for which the hike is named. While generally poorly-advertised outside of a fewInternetposts, the New Wave hike is impeccably-marked, lined with stones that guide hikers across the slickrock.
The New Wave Loop (see Google location here) begins and ends at a small dirt parking area just south of the Beehive Campground, a popular but primitive RV destination situated just off Highway 89 (the first left turn west of the Carl Hayden Visitor Center). (Note: There has been discussion of collecting entrance fees at this location, but, as of spring 2021, the status of this project was unclear and may only apply to the campground.) The hike is located within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but there are no signs or directions for the trail. Nonetheless, from the parking area, one can easily spot the path leading up into the slickrock to the west. (Note: There is also a dirt road leading south from the parking lot; this is NOT the New Wave hike but rather provides access to the extremely difficult Ropes Trail leading down to Glen Canyon and the Colorado River.)
The New Wave Loop is demarcated the entire way by neatly-placed rocks on either side, offering passage across the barren slickrock slopes where footsteps or other markers would be nearly impossible to follow. The path begins by ascending westward and skirting a scrubby drainage on the right, with views back to the north toward Beehive Campground, Wahweap, and Lake Powell.
At 1/10 mile, the route forks, marking the start of the loop portion. While both directions are fine, heading right and completing the hike in a counter-clockwise direction saves the “New Wave” formation for near the end of the walk. Heading in this direction, the path skirts north to clear an initial set of sandstone buttes, striated with nice examples of crossbedding.
After clearing this initial set of outcrops, the trail descends and then rises again to parallel a second, larger collection of knobs and buttes at around ¼ mile. Here the orange-hued formations peer down over a sweeping valley with a wash that eventually drains into the Colorado River, near Ferry Swale Canyon to the south.
At about 6/10 mile, the route rounds a bend to the west, cutting around the sandstone chunks, revealing another ridge—known as Radio Tower Rock—to the east. From here the path hugs the east flank of the New Wave area outcrops, never descending to the wash floor below.
At a point nearly one mile into the hike, the path rises gently to the park’s featured highlight: The New Wave, where deep red and orange colors, streaked with attractive stripes, illuminate the two exposed knobs. Photographers seeking the best light here may want to visit in mid to later afternoon, or perhaps sunrise. At other times, the most attractive streaks are cast partly in shadow, although still beautiful in their own right. This scenic notch is certainly not as impressive as the real Wave, but it’s a not-so-shabby backup.
From The New Wave, the trail drops steadily and encounters a junction at about the one-mile mark. (Note: This spur trail heads right toward Radio Tower Rock.) Stay left on the main track, following photogenic knobs and slickrock slopes back to the initial junction. Head right at the final fork and descend back to the start of the hike, capping off a 1.25-mile journey.
Highly weathered and rimmed with chalky hoodoos, natural arches, and tafoni, Wiregrass Canyon is an intriguing side drainage in southern Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The relatively-accessible canyon eventually empties into Glen Canyon and (what’s left of) the reservoir at Lake Powell. Those wishing to shorten the lengthier three miles each way to the waterline, however, can instead opt for a shorter alternative: a 1.6-mile out-and-back to the first of two natural bridges in the canyon, a terrific sight where floods have gradually whittled a hole between two sandy washes in close proximity. This report describes a moderately-difficult round-trip to and from the natural bridge, which should take between 1-2 hours.
Like manyattractions in the area, reaching Wiregrass Canyon requires traversing a gravel road for several miles, although the Smoky Mountain Road leading east from Big Water, Utah is usually well-graded and accessible to two-wheel drive vehicles. (Note: There is one ford required to clear Wahweap Creek, but it should be shallow most of the year. Check at the Big Water Visitor Center for latest conditions.) Once across Wahweap Creek, the road rises to a level plateau below the Mancos shale cliffs of Nipple Bench, itself a branch of broader Smoky Mountain, for which the road is named. After entering Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the road passes several minor drainages and bends northeast. About 4.5 miles from Big Water, the drive dips to a small parking area on the right, where a sign indicating “Wiregrass Trail” marks the start of the hike.
Park here, and be sure to apply sunscreen/sun protection, as this area is highly exposed with little shade. When ready, follow a narrow but well-trodden path that leads down into a minor drainage on the right, dropping to the wash before continuing partway up the other (south) side. This dry arroyo quickly meets a larger drainage coming in from the left, and the trail eventually drops to wash level. Follow the dry and dusty wash downstream until reaching a short pouroff, relatively easily bypassed via a use trail on the left.
Now heading south, a tributary drainage comes in from the right at around 3/10 mile. Stay left, following the main wash down-canyon, finally reaching some more interesting terrain at about ½ mile. A bathtub-shaped hoodoo on the right is followed by a thin, duck-head turret, which signals the start of a more rugged wash.
The drainage quickly drops down a series of smooth pouroffs, many of which will be impassable to hikers (but possible for decent down-climbers). Down-canyon travel therefore requires climbing an unmarked but well-trodden bypass route leading up the left bank, climbing steeply to a four-way junction atop a gooseneck ridge. From here, one can head right to reach the duck-shaped spire and peer down into the slot canyon below. But eventually one will head straight, descending sharply back toward the canyon floor. The path leads into a sheltered side drainage, where hikers can relatively easily skirt the walls and drop down a series of minor dryfalls to return to the main wash.
Before continuing down-canyon, first head right for a brief moment to explore the narrows/slot section. This is the finest scenery of the hike, featuring tall hoodoos, narrow and shady passages, and honeycombed walls. Follow the wash until reaching a high pouroff that is at least ten feet tall and difficult to ascend. Turn around here and continue down-canyon.
Beyond the end of the bypass route, the canyon deepens, with high, ghostly walls towering above. Amid the deep incisions and spooky landforms, Wiregrass Canyon gradually widens. Finally, all of a sudden, as the wash takes a hard right, the Wiregrass Natural Bridge appears on the left. This small archway was formed when the adjacent drainage (visible through the bridge) whittled away at the canyon wall, producing a shortcut to the wash in which one stands.
From here, hikers can continue for another two miles downstream to reach the shores of Lake Powell, encountering deep alcoves, ever-taller walls, and another natural bridge along the way. But for many, the first bridge is the natural turnaround point. Retrace your steps, up and over the bypass route and through the initial wash, back to the trailhead. All told, this hike takes about 1.5-2 hours depending on pace and comfort with minor scrambling.
There once was a time when Horseshoe Bend—an entrenched meander along the Colorado River—was a relatively sleepy destination, known largely only to locals living in northern Arizona. But today, thanks to social media (and its high propensity for showing up as a Windows desktop background), the hairpin turn in Glen Canyon has become one of the most popular attractions in the Page, Arizona area. To be sure, Horseshoe Bend is a spectacular feat of geology in which the Colorado traces a 270-degree course through the ruddy sandstone. However, the Disneyland-like crowds and hefty parking fees ($10/vehicle) make this one of the most over-hyped destinations in the area. The newly-renovated trail to the Horseshoe Bend Overlook is wide, well-graded, and deemed ADA-accessible, but steady inclines could make wheelchair access difficult.
The Horseshoe Bend Trail in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is situated about 1.6 miles down Highway 89 from its junction with Route 98, just southwest of Page, Arizona. The well-marked turnoff leads to an entrance station, where visitors must pay a $10 parking fee. The massive parking lot beyond often hosts dozens and dozens of tour buses and private vehicles.
There is now basically only one official trail leading from the parking area: the path to Horseshoe Bend skirts a modest hill on the left, with broad views across the scrubby escarpment north to Lake Powell and Page, with the Vermilion Cliffs off to the northwest. There is little shade on this highly sun-exposed trail, save for two man-made overhangs, the first of which is encountered on the right after 2/10 mile.
After clearing the initial hill, the route officially enters Glen Canyon NRA and then passes a second overhang at about 1/3 mile. From here the trail begins a steady and winding descent, wrapping down to the ever-popular overlook after about 6/10 mile of “hiking.”
While the main viewing area has a fence for protection, much of the surrounding rim is entirely exposed, with the vertical cliffs of the Navajo sandstone dropping precipitously to the Colorado River. Having encountered a particularly resistant chunk of the bedrock, the river here instead goes around it, forming the incised, or entrenched, meander visible today. Beyond Horseshoe Bend to the west, the flat plateau gives way to the higher cliffs of the Paria Canyon area and the Vermilion Cliffs, formed by older Jurassic period rocks.
After wrestling a place to snap a few photos at this scenic but immensely tourist-mobbed destination, return the way you came. All told, this short walk should occupy no more than 1-1.5 hours of your day, leaving plenty of time to explore some of the area’s more spectacular and lesser-visited hikes.
Appearing modest from the trailhead, Cathedral Wash quickly deepens into a spectacular canyon that cuts through the Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation in northern Arizona’s Glen Canyon area, ending at the Colorado River and a narrow sliver of Grand Canyon National Park. Don’t be fooled by the hike’s short distance: this is a trail-less adventure, requiring route-finding and mild scrambling to overcome several obstacles, including nasty pouroffs, muddy pools, and exposed ledges. That said, this is not a technical slot canyon, and—given that it is somewhat well-advertised by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area—it is a relatively popular hike for hikers of all ages, a fun half-day adventure in the area around Lee’s Ferry. (Note: As with all slot canyons, conditions vary widely; on some days, muddy pools are hard to avoid, while on other days—like during my visit in May 2021—avoiding wet feet is relatively straightforward. Due to flash flood danger, don’t enter when there is rain in the forecast!)
The entry to Cathedral Wash lies just within the pay area for Lee’s Ferry, just north of the “town” of Marble Canyon on the west flank of the Colorado, near the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center. While the Colorado River itself remains within the jurisdiction of Grand Canyon National Park, the bulk of the hike lies within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a massive tract best known for nearby Lake Powell, a dammed reservoir located upstream.
As visitors bear north on the road toward Lee’s Ferry, the drive takes one across a broad and crumbly shelf, with the multihued Vermilion Cliffs towering above to the west and the deep incision of Marble Canyon off to the east, obscured from view. The trailhead for Cathedral Wash lies 1.4 miles down Lee’s Ferry Road, with a long, paved pull-off on the left. From here, a wayside sign details the geology of the Vermilion Cliffs, and a second sign, indicating the start of the Cathedral Wash hike, guides the way into the wash. (Note: Technically one can continue up the wash, toward the Vermilion Cliffs, into Upper Cathedral Wash, but it is Lower Cathedral Wash—east from the trailhead—that packs the more spectacular views.)
From the trail sign, follow the sidewalk east-northeast to its end, after which the path turns to dirt and drops down into Cathedral Wash. Bear right and pass through a culvert under Lee’s Ferry Road, carefully following deep concrete steps on the other side to drop back to the natural wash, now on the east side of the road.
While the Vermilion Cliffs are primarily composed of “newer,” Jurassic-period rocks, the hike begins in the reddish Moenkopi Formation, a rock layer dating to the Triassic period (240-250 million years ago). This crumbly layer is ubiquitous across the Colorado Plateau, especially in nearby Utah, forming the base of tall geologic formations in places such as Zion and Capitol Reef National Park.
The Moenkopi sits atop the harder and even older Kaibab Limestone layer, which quickly comes into view as hikers make their way down into Cathedral Wash. After about ¼ mile of easy walking through the gradually-deepening canyon, the bedrock turns to a ghostly, speckled, cream-colored layer, marking the transition into the Kaibab Limestone. It is relatively unusual to find narrows and slot canyons in this layer (and the subsequent Toroweap Formation), but the gradual weathering of Cathedral Wash has revealed a weakness in the rock, allowing seasonal floods to cut ever deeper into the stony shelf en route to the Colorado River below.
Over the course of the next quarter-mile, the route drops down three minor pouroffs that are very short and easy to negotiate, after which the canyon briefly opens up, revealing ever-higher walls on both sides. Soon enough, the gorge narrows again, and hikers must bypass a boulder choke and drop by following the flat shelves on either the right or left.
After dropping back to the wash level, hikers encounter another minor obstacle minutes later: a set of three potholes, often filled with water. If dry, one can easy head right down the throat of the canyon, but most will want to again follow ledges on either side to bypass the puddles.
After this point, the canyon widens again, revealing chimneys of stacked limestone and Moenkopi high above. At 8/10 mile, a side drainage comes in from the left, although a tall dryfall makes access quite difficult.
By now, hikers are around halfway to the Colorado, but the fun is only beginning, as the route in the latter half of the hike is considerably more challenging and slow-going. At 9/10 mile, hikers suddenly stumble upon a tall pouroff of 30 to 40 feet, impossible to handle head on without a rope or serious down-climbing experience. Fortunately, a shelf system off to the right offers safe passage, although the route requires some careful footing and use of handholds to descend. Rock cairns guide the way right, leading to a chute where it is possible to descend safely to the next level down. This is perhaps the most difficult scramble of the hike but should be passable to most hikers with some patience and perhaps some help from your fellow hiking companions.
Once down a level, hikers should resist continuing straight down to the wash. Rather, follow the ledge as it approaches an overhang, then duck your head and follow the passage until it reemerges back into the open. Continue until reaching a small clutch of boulders, and again resist the temptation to descend to wash level, instead paralleling the right-hand wall. Here a straightforward, sandy path gently courses down to the next level.
Keep skirting the right flank as you encounter a second nasty pouroff at 1.1 miles, this one guarded by a massive chockstone with a relatively deep, year-round pool below. Again the shelf system on the right is your friend, with natural stairsteps leading down easily to the wash, having put the pool behind you. Much of this is likely to be cairned, but continue to use careful footing and make good decisions – if following the path of least resistance, nothing resembling exposed “climbing” should be required.
The walking thereafter is generally easier than this latest stretch, now behind you, and by now the canyon walls rise more than 100 feet. The sun and shadows reveal wild colors: beautiful reds, oranges, and even purples make for a picturesque setting.
After an ever-so-brief time in the wash bed, hikers will want to divert again—left this time—to avoid a muddy splash as the floor drops down a narrow chute. Bypass two drop-offs, staying left for around for around 150 yards, after which it is safe to descend to the wash bed. After following cairns to the right flank, the route drops back to wash level again and continues up and across a reasonable bypass on the left, avoiding a set of shallow pools.
By 1.3 miles, the canyon has opened up considerably, marking the final stretch to the Colorado. With the roaring river within earshot, the path is easy work until a final boulder choke at about 1.5 miles, which requires either a controlled jump or rocky bypass on the left in order to clear. By now the walls on either side are as high as 300 feet above the canyon floor.
At last, around 1.7 miles from the start, hikers emerge from the lush riparian vegetation and set their sights on the majestic Colorado River. As it snakes through Marble Canyon, the natural sculptor passes over a set of rumbling rapids; it is not uncommon to spot river rafters, having started at Lee’s Ferry earlier in the day, making their way through this early warm-up riffle (called Cathedral Wash Rapid), a teaser of what’s to come downstream.
Off to the north, the canyon bends right, and the high Navajo sandstone of Johnson Point (3,792’) is visible above the gorge. To the south, beyond the rapids, the river also rounds a right-hand bend en route to Navajo Bridge and the rest of the Grand Canyon.
After stopping for a snack and dipping your feet in the chilly waters, return the way you came. With the sun shifting position and the canyon views different on the way up, there is plenty to enjoy despite retracing previously-trodden ground. The return journey will also test your memory, having to complete the route-finding and scrambling in reverse. Once you have cleared the initial 30- to 40-foot pouroff, it is smooth sailing for a little less than a mile back to the car.
Travel times will vary wildly depending on condition and comfort with the scrambling required, but it is wise perhaps to devote an entire morning to handling this spectacularly scenic slot.
Situated at the far southern fringe of the Walhalla Plateau along the North Rim, Cape Royal is one of Grand Canyon National Park’s finest viewpoints. From here the epic canyon unfolds to the south and east, revealing stunning colors, deep gorges, and towering buttes. An added bonus is the nearby Angel’s Window, a picturesque arch high on the limestone wall that beautifully frames the Colorado River—the canyon’s main sculptor—in the distance. Both Cape Royal and Angel’s Window can be seen on an easy, mile-long walk that covers several viewpoints, offering different vantage points of the grandest of all the world’s canyons.
The Cape Royal Trail begins from the parking area situated at the end of Cape Royal Road, 23 miles from the North Rim Visitor Center in Grand Canyon National Park. Though well away from the crowded area around the Visitor Center, Grand Canyon Lodge, and Bright Angel Point, Cape Royal is a popular spot as well – with good reason, perhaps, as this is one of the finest viewpoints in the park.
The paved trail begins by crossing a level stretch of land dotted with the area’s ubiquitous pinyon pines and junipers, as well as sagebrush, cliffrose, and currant. Interpretive signs offer detail on the local flora, while the views begin to open up at around 1/10 mile. Here, off to the left, is a terrific initial overlook, where hikers can get an excellent view of Angel’s Window, the triangle-shaped natural arch which captures the blue-green Colorado River in its frame. This wonder is the product of freezing and thawing, which accelerated erosion of the Kaibab limestone along the North Rim.
From this vista, hikers can continue on for another 1/10 mile, arriving at a junction with a spur leading left to another viewpoint, this one out across Angel’s Window. After reaching an initial viewing area, the trail drops down a series of rocky steps and ends at a windy outcrop high above the canyon. Railings shield hikers from a fall of more than 1,000 feet into the Unkar Creek drainage area.
Visitors get great views of several prominent features, including Freya Castle (7,299’), Vishnu Temple (7,529’), and Krishna Shrine (6,115’), as well as one of the best views from the rim of the Colorado River, visible (and sometimes audible) in the distance. Beyond the reddish-grey basin of the Colorado, the walls rise some 3,000 feet to the East Rim, with Cedar Mountain (7,053’) beyond. To the north, one can also see Cape Final (7,916’), Jupiter Temple (7,081’), and the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers beyond.
Returning to the main trail, bear left and continue south for 2/10 mile to Cape Royal, stopping at an unofficial (and unfenced!) viewpoint on the left, which sports great views of Vishnu Temple. The paved trail ends by curling around to a railed-in viewpoint and a smattering of interpretive signs. Dominating the landscape to the southwest is massive Wotans Throne, an iconic fixture of the northern half of the Grand Canyon. Beyond, one can spot Horseshoe Mesa and the Grandview area of the South Rim in the distance. Off to the southeast is Vishnu Temple again.
Cape Royal is truly one of the most exceptional viewpoints at the Grand Canyon and well worth the lengthy drive and short walk. After walking to both the Cape Royal and Angel’s Window vistas, return to the trailhead, capping off a one-mile jaunt.