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California Hiking in the High Sierras

Backpacking On Mount Whitney


My backpacking trip in the Mount Whitney area reminded me of the song "It Never Rains in California." I was hiking in the southern Sierras, and I didn't see one cloud in five days. This is common in September, they tell me.

I went to California on a Greyhound bus, which can be an adventure itself. (This was back when Greyhound still went down highway 395, on the eastern side of the Sierras.) Arriving in the town of Independence later than I wanted, I put out my thumb and caught a ride to the trail head by early evening. Sometime after dark I laid out my bag, laid down, and then changed my mind. It was too beautiful to quit for the night.

Desert had become pine forest, and then higher up, the forest gave way to bushes. At some point there was a bear moving in those bushes, or at least something large. I never did figure out what it was, and I just kept moving.

Tundra Hiking in California

Then there was only tundra. I arrived at 12,000-foot Shepherd Pass by moonlight, which may have been the most beautiful way to arrive in any case. Gray peaks rose up around me, and I had a little lake all to myself. That's classic California hiking in the high Sierras.

Actually, I had a lake to myself every night, and the trails to myself almost the entire time. I explored isolated hanging valleys, with lakes all over at different levels. I swam in ice water and laid in the sun. I slept early and got up every night or early morning to hike by moonlight. I ate wild currants and watched the trout scatter as I walked alongside small lakes. And I never saw a cloud.

The fourth morning I woke up at four to a beautiful California moon, and I began hiking by it's light. I summited Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental U.S. just before dawn. Sitting and watching the sunrise, my feet dangled over a thousand-foot precipice. From the top I could look fifty miles in any direction, and see nothing but mountains. Then the crowds came, but despite the traffic on the Whitney Portal Trail, there was still a lake of my own to camp at that night.

Keeping It Light

On my last day I met a man limping along in great pain. He had been left behind by his friends after blowing out his knee(some friends). I made a walking stick for him. Later I realized how much weight many of these backpackers were carrying. Enough to cause a knee to go out on that steep trail.

I had been thinking about reducing my own pack weight at the time, and thought the 33 pounds on my back was light. I feel silly looking back on it now. I even had a separate day pack that weighed a pound, just for going to the summit. I had hiking boots on too, and of course, had a few blisters to show for them. If I am in California hiking again, it will be with half the weight.

Shortly after the trip I bought a GoLite Breeze backpack (13 ounces compared to my 5-pound, 10-ounce pack). It's lighter than the day pack I had brought to take to the summit of Mount Whitney. I bought a Western Mountaineering HiLite sleeping bag that only weighs 17 ounces, and despite my worries, I've never been cold in it. A 9-ounce Black Diamond Winter Bivy Sack could have been nice as a back-up. As it was, I just slept under the stars every night on a two-ounce piece of plastic.

I'll be in California hiking in lightweight running shoes next time, instead of clunky hiking boots. That was my last backpacking trip with hiking boots and with more than 20 pounds on my back. It was also the last time I had a blister on my feet (no coincidence).

The Sierras Nevada Mountains (in September, in south-central California), by the way, is the most perfect place I have been for hiking and ultralight backpacking.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | California Hiking in the High Sierras