Early one summer day in 1973, I was firmly ensconced on the summit of a Sierra Nevada peak, thoroughly enjoying the sensation and view. Looking towards the northwest, I noticed a large group of backpackers, all in a nice, long line, descending on the trail. What came instantly to mind were tourists, following one another along the beaten path to their pre-planned destinations.
A few minutes later, to the east, I saw three mountaineers picking their way through the talus towards a low pass on a ridge. The word freedom immediately suggested itself, along with a sense of history.
Watching these two groups also reminded me of my thoughts whenever I reach a fork in a Sierra trail. I recite to myself the words of Robert Frost when, in 1915, he described a place where “two roads diverged” and his decision to take “the one less traveled by,” which “made all the difference.”
The direct result of this episode was that I decided to leave the trail altogether and, in that way, take the road “less traveled by.” In this way, I could, as closely as possible, experience what it must have been like to be in the Sierra during the time of early exploration. For both me and what I have called the Sierra Crest Route, that decision has “made all the difference.”
In the beginning, my cross-country travels consisted mainly of taking shortcuts between two points. It then occurred to me that it might be possible to put all these short cuts together into a continuous route. At that moment, in my own small way, I began to understand how Theodore Solomons, the originator of the concept of a Sierra crest-parallel route, must have felt when, in 1894 at the age of fourteen in an alfalfa field near Fresno, he was sitting on his “ unsaddled bronco facing the east and gazing in utter fascination at the most beautiful and the most mysterious sight (he) had ever seen.” Solomons continued,
Between 1895 and 1908, Solomons, along with several other notable early Sierra explorers most notably Joseph N. LeConte, James Hutchinson, and others of the newly organized Sierra Club, would mount many Sierra expeditions with the idea of making “that journey” a reality. In 1911, the California Legislature appropriated money for the trail's construction, but it would be 1938 before the John Muir Trail—the first Sierra Nevada crest-parallel trail—was finally completed.
In 1982, Steve Roper created the second Sierra crest-parallel route, his “Timberline Country,” which in a 1997 revision he called the “ Sierra High Route .” It generally follows the timberline from Mount Whitney to Yosemite maintaining an altitude of between 9,500 and 11,000 feet. Almost half of this route is cross country, while the rest utilizes existing trails. This route is probably a more accurate representation of Solomons' original dream than the Muir because the Sierra High Route would be “just below the white.”
I n 1987, Dennis Gagnon developed what he called the “ Theodore Solomons Trail .” This is also a “crest-parallel” trail that connects the Mount Whitney and Yosemite areas, but the entire route is on trails. Further, its position far to the west of the Sierra Crest means that it remains well below the timberline for its entire length.
The Sierra Crest Route described in this book is the next evolutionary step. It is presently a 225-mile, cross-country route that parallels the Sierra Crest from Haiwee Pass, west of Haiwee Reservoir, to the Sawtooth Ridge, southwest of Bridgeport, never straying more than one mile from the Sierra Crest. Indeed, most of the route is on or well within one half mile of the Crest. The objective difficulty does not exceed class 3 , and the altitude averages between 11,000 and 14,462 feet. This Route provides a stimulating and challenging cross-country backpacking and mountaineering experience, as well as access to hundreds of routes on virtually every peak on or near the Crest.
What makes the Sierra Crest Route new, different, and provocative is that it is the first time to my knowledge that a cross-country route of this length, complexity, and difficulty has ever been created. It might be argued that a route like this was put together during the original explorations for the John Muir Trail almost one hundred years ago, but the original Muir trail route was in fact created for pack animals and the possibilities for the route were limited to their capabilities. Early Sierra explorers were, therefore, confined to the easiest possible routes; Crest Route travelers are not.
To complete this route, travelers must possess a highly developed sense of adventure. Too many Sierra guidebook authors seem to feel the need to carefully “shepherd” the traveler by giving exact directions as to where to go, the best way to get there, how long it's going to take, what will be seen, and, in some cases, what to think and feel about it all. Instead, travelers on this route will be given the opportunity to, for the most part, utilize their own initiative, skills, and knowledge to complete a difficult and sometimes dangerous route with a minimum of outside guidance. Whenever a traveler crests a ridge or peak, everything seen, thought, and sensed will be brand new, just like it was for the early explorers.
The Crest Route and its alternatives are described in sufficient detail that an experienced Sierra mountaineer who is familiar with cross-country travel and the proper use of a map and compass should have no problem following them. No distances are included except the overall distance of the route, and there are no photographs or route maps. Only the eight major points on a compass are utilized to tell general direction, and only the altitude, objective difficulty, and general location of the various features along the Route and its alternatives are given.
Specific directions are only given for a south to north trek. The advantages of going this way are, (1) there are directions, (2) the snow melts sooner, and (3) the sun is behind the traveler. Travelers with an advanced sense of adventure, however, may decide to follow the route from north to south, as there is no specific description for this direction. Traveling in this direction also allows the saving of a small amount of altitude gain because the route will start at a higher altitude than it will finish.
Travelers who utilize this guide will also acquire a sense of Sierra history. This route will expose each of them to the true concept of wilderness. It will be quite possible to traverse the entire route without seeing another person, just like it was in the early days of Sierra exploration. Further, with the exception of areas where trails are crossed, there will be virtually no sign of human presence, beyond the occasional summit register.
Also included are over a thousand miles of “other routes less traveled.” These alternative routes are virtually all cross country and can be utilized to explore the remainder of the High Sierra. They also give access to virtually every major peak in the Range.
The Sierra Crest Route described here is not the end of the story by any means. The second edition of this guide will ideally extend this route from Walker Pass in the south to Mount Lassen in the north. It will be the complete Sierra Crest Route.
Even this, however, is only part of my dream, which I call the Pacific Crest Route. It will ideally, at some future date, connect the Sierra Madre, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade Crests and provide a cross-country crest route from Mexico to Canada.
I believe John Muir was thinking of a route like this when he wrote,
For those who accept the challenge, enjoy! And, if you have some time afterwards, drop me a line and tell me how it went. I'm especially interested in any alternatives other travelers might discover.
If the John Muir Trail is for the masses, Roper's Sierra High Route is more of a mountaineer's journey. Your Sierra Crest Route takes it to the next level.
I was definitely impressed with the concept and the research.
It was fun and a pleasure reading your route descriptions as I have placed my feet in a vast majority of the locations you describe. Your route descriptions are very accurate and scholarly, that is to say they are complete and tirelessly researched.
One trend I have noticed in the High Sierra in recent years is the increasing number of cross-country hikers in some of the darkest parts of the range, far from any established trail. Sierra Crest Route will be welcomed by those hikers.
If I were 30 years younger and your guide was then extant, I most certainly would have taken your route.