August 29 - Sep 3, 2020

This High Sierra Loop Backpack covers one of the finest circuits in the Sierra Nevada Range. The route travels up an elegant cirque past spectacular peaks, visits lonely alpine lakes and soft-meadowed ponds, traces streams that now dash, now meander through green forests and open meadows, and climbs past treeline into desolate moonscapes. All who take this trip will come away with a sense of accomplishment and inner peace.

The Drive

We'll leave Tucson about mid-morning on Thursday, August 27th, heading for lovely North San Bernardino, California. This nearly-seven-hour, 461-mile drive gets us well over halfway to our ultimate destination. We'll stay overnight in San Bernardino at an inexpensive motel, having dinner somewhere in that desert town.

On Friday, we'll continue up the highway and make a shorter three hour drive, this time covering the 184 miles to Lone Pine. There, we'll stop at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to pick up our permit. We'll find some place to grab some lunch and maybe some ice cream. You can also pick up dinner in that little town before we head up the mountain. That will reduce the number of backpacking meals you'll need. From Lone Pine, we have another 25 miles to drive to get to the Horseshoe Meadow Campground and trailhead.

We'll spend Friday night at Horseshoe Meadow, acclimating to the 10,000-foot elevation before starting our trek on Saturday. It's incredibly difficult to breathe at 10,000 feet when you're not used to it. The relatively low atmospheric pressure at that altitude provides only about 2/3 of the amount of oxygen we have here in Tucson. You'll find yourself breathing hard just from putting up your tent.

The Plan

Saturday morning will undoubtedly dawn bright for us, as is typical for the Sierra Nevada. From our acclimation camp at Horseshoe Meadow, we'll pack up and walk over to the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead. From there, we have a relatively short hike up and over Cottonwood Pass to Chicken Spring Lake to our first on-trail campsite. I've been there a couple of times on previous trips. It's a lovely little lake in a beautiful circue. There are foxtail pines around the lake, too. 4.7 mi / +1,400' / -200'

A view along the trail. Sunday is going to be a great day. The hike is mostly level along the Pacific Crest Trail, climbing and falling just a couple hundred feet as we make our way north and west to Soldier Lake. Once we get camp set up, we can really relax, since we get to leave our camp set up for a second night's stay. 6.2 mi / +200' / -400'

We can sleep in a bit on Monday, since we're just day hiking. After breakfast, we'll clean up camp and set out for Sky Blue Lake. That's just three miles north of Soldier Lake. The short hike begins on a cross-country route with a 500-foot climb, however, so some effort will be required. To the east, The Major General will be blocking the sun for a few hours as we hike on through Miter Basin. There's another, smaller climb ahead just before we get to Sky Blue Lake. We'll walk around the lake and can climb up to one or more of the unnamed lakes perching just above the 12,000-foot level. We'll have lunch then return to our camp at Soldier Lake for the evening. 6.2 mi / +1,000' / -1,000'

On Tuesday, we've got a nice trek up and over New Army Pass, where we'll cross out of Sequoia National Park and into Inyo National Forest and the John Muir Wilderness. Getting to the pass involves a 4.5-mile trek, climbing 1,500' to 12,300 feet. After a pause at the pass to enjoy the views, we'll continue down the switchbacks on the steep side of the pass, walking past Long Lake and into the Cottonwood Lakes area. Here we have a decision to make. Namely, where do we want to spend the night? We can stay on the main trail and camp about another mile along the trail. Alternately, we can hike up between Lakes 4 and 3 and spend the night there. Finally, we can go just a bit further past those lakes and head to Muir Lake. That would be my choice. 8.8 mi / +1,700' / -1,700'

Wednesday will find us heading for the trailhead, which is just six miles away and mostly downhill. Our first mile will be fairly flat, then we have a 500-foot drop over the next three-quarters-of-a-mile until we reach the main Cottonwood Lakes Trail heading south. We can take our time this day, as the plan is to spend one might in Horseshoe Meadow Campground before we head out for home on Thursday. 6.0 mi / -1,200'

The Prep

I have a permit for five people for this trek, with two slots already spoken for. If we have a full complement, the cost per person is just $6.00 for the permit. With fewer people, the minimal cost will go up just a bit. We'll split the cost of the Horseshoe Meadows camps among the group.

As mentioned above, you'll need reservations at two motels. Use the Lodging Links section to the right. Once I've filled my permit, I'll pass out the names to everyone, in case you'd like to share hotel rooms. You can work out those arrangements among yourselves.

There will, of course, be additional shared costs for fuel, as well as individual costs for meals, hotels, etc., along the road. Plan on as much as $200.00 to $300.00 per person, including the costs of the motels. In most cases, credit cards will be fine. That's your call.

You'll need food for five or six breakfasts, five lunches, and five or six dinners *. Of those meals, five breakfasts, four lunches, and four dinners must fit in a bear canister. The extra meals — one or two breakfasts, one lunch, and one or two dinners — will either be consumed at the trailhead or in camp before we retire for the first evening. If you have a bit of extra room in your bear canister, please be generous with sharing that space (once we're in camp) with those whose food doesn't quite fit into their own bear canisters that first day or two.

The Elements

Although it's a bit late in the year and despite any possible drought, there should be water all over the place. Especially since we're mostly staying at lakes. I don't foresee any problems, since California has had adequate rains and snows over the winter.

The weather in the Sierra Nevada can be very nice at higher elevations. Daytime highs will be in the 60s and 70s with nighttime lows in the mid 40s and, perhaps, low 50s. There might be one or two nights of temps in the high 30s. Be prepared! Click the links for the different campsites below to get spot weather forecasts for that particular area. Remember that those forecasts will be for as much as a week into the future from when you're able to look at them. Even so, you will probably only need a cool weather sleeping bag for this trip. I'm hoping to be able to take my warmer weather 40° bag.

The Hike

day miles elev gain elev destination
Thu 460 mi driving - - - Motel 6, San Bernardino
Fri 180 mi driving 9950' Campsite at Horseshoe Meadow
Sat 0.0 / 0.0 0 ft / 0 ft 9950' Cottonwood Pass Trailhead; enter Golden Trout Wilderness
Sat 0.3 / 0.3 0 ft / 0 ft 9950' Trail Pass Trail Jct; continue ahead
Sat 0.7 / 1.0 50 ft / 50 ft 10000' Cottonwood Lakes Trail Jct; continue ahead
Sat 2.7 / 3.7 1160 ft / 1210 ft 11160' Cottonwood Pass; Pacific Crest Trail Jct; turn right
Sat 1.0 / 4.7 140 ft / 1350 ft 11300' Campsite at Chicken Spring Lake
Sun 3.8 / 8.5 200 ft / 1550 ft 11000' Enter Sequoia Nat'l Park; Siberian Pass Trail Jct; turn right
Sun 1.1 / 9.6 100 ft / 1650 ft 11000' Army Pass Trail Jct; continue ahead
Sun 0.7 / 10.3 -300 ft / 1650 ft 10800' Campsite at Lower Soldier Lake
Mon 1.3 / 11.6 500 ft / 2150 ft 11200' Route north to Rock Creek Trail Jct
Mon 1.7 / 13.3 400 ft / 2550 ft 11600' Sky Blue Lake
Mon 3.0 / 16.3 -900 ft / 2550 ft 10800' Campsite at Lower Soldier Lake
Tue 5.4 / 21.7 1250 ft / 3800 ft 11850' Old Army Pass Trail Jct; bear right
Tue 0.7 / 22.4 450 ft / 4250 ft 12300' New Army Pass; leave Sequoia Nat'l Park;
enter Inyo Nat'l Forest and John Muir Wilderness
Tue 2.7 / 25.1 -1250 ft / 4250 ft 11050' Cottonwood Lakes Cutoff Trail Jct; turn left
Tue 0.9 / 26.0 150 ft / 4400 ft 11100' Cottonwood Lakes Tour; Army Pass Trail Jct; turn right
Tue 1.0 / 27.0 100 ft / 4500 ft 11000' Cutoff Trail Jct; continue ahead
Tue 0.3 / 27.3 0 ft / 4500 ft 11000' Muir Lake Trail; turn left
Tue 0.8 / 28.1 200 ft / 4700 ft 11100' Campsite at Muir Lake
Wed 0.8 / 28.9 100 ft / 4800 ft 11000' Army Pass Trail Jct; continue ahead
Wed 0.9 / 29.8 -550 ft / 4800 ft 10450' Cottonwood Lakes Trail Jct; turn left
Wed 2.9 / 32.7 -400 ft / 4800 ft 10050' Crossover Trail Jct; continue ahead
Wed 1.4 / 34.1 200 ft / 5000 ft 10100' Cottonwood Lakes/Pass Connector Jct; bear right
Wed 0.3 / 34.4 -50 ft / 5000 ft 10000' Trail Pass Trail Jct; turn right
Wed 0.6 / 35.0 -150 ft / 5000 ft 9950' Cottonwood Pass Trail Jct; turn left
Wed 0.3 / 35.3 0 ft / 5000 ft 9950' Cottonwood Pass Trailhead; Campsite at Horseshoe Meadow
Thu 375 mi driving - - - Blythe, CA
Fri 280 mi driving - - - Tucson, AZ


The End

Once we reach the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead and Horseshoe Meadow Campground on Wednesday afternoon, we'll set up camp one last time and have a relaxing afternoon and evening in relative comfort, with fresh water and outhouses available. Lovely!

On Thursday morning, after a long restful night, have some coffee while we pack up one final time. After we get our gear in the Jeep, we'll head for Lone Pine. We'll spend a few hours in that little town, exploring and shopping and eating, then head out for Blythe. That town — a 375-mile, six-and-a-half-hour drive away — isn't anything but a stop along the way, but it's convenient.

We'll stay at the Motel 6 in Blythe before we tackle the 288-mile, four-and-a-half-hour drive back to Tucson on Friday morning.

* - The number of dinners depends on whether or not you picked up something in Lone Pine before heading up the mountain. The number of breakfasts depends on whether or not you wish to have breakfast in Horseshoe Meadow Campground on Thursday morning before we head to Lone Pine. You can have breakfast there. Remember, you have to carry that meal around the loop even though you're going to eat it in the campground.