Sierra High Route

by Dave Baker Monday, September 21st 2009

I love off-trail hiking. The mental and physical challenges of picking a way through unmarked wild country are very satisfying, in spite of the fact that off-trail travel is often slower and almost always leaves marks in the form of abraded skin and gear.

And I love the Sierra Nevada of California, especially the high alpine country in the southern portion of the range from Yosemite National Park down to Mt. Whitney. In summertime the Sierra high country dazzles with sparkling lakes, high peaks, and brilliant white snowfields. Summer weather is generally good; in fact one might almost characterize it as arid. However, for a desert rat like me water is seemingly everywhere, the result of melt from huge winter snow packs.

Sierra High Route -- Lake Basin

Evening light in Lake Basin

It was with great interest in the mid 1980’s that I first read about the Sierra High Route, a mostly off-trail route that runs along the spine of the Sierra Nevada for 195 miles, most of its length spent above 10,000 feet, near or above timberline. Conceived by climber and historian Steve Roper, the route is detailed in his book, Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country.

Over 20 years slipped by before I was able to get my act together to hike the Sierra High Route late this summer. I partnered up with my sister Brenda Baker (San Diego) for the trip. Unable to carve out enough time to walk the entire 195 miles, we decided to spend 8 or 9 days spanning late August and early September walking the southernmost portion of Roper’s cross country tour. This proved to be a great time to be out in the Sierra -- mosquitoes were absent, having politely retired for the season; and the high passes we crossed were mostly snow free, greatly simplifying travel through them.

Sierra High Route -- Palisade Lakes

Climbing above the Palisade Lakes

Brenda planned our eight and half day itinerary and applied for our wilderness permit. Rather than walk as far along the route in 8 days as we could, she created a more leisurely plan for a 54 mile trek from Kings Canyon, north to the South Lake trailhead outside the town of Bishop. This gave us time to make several side trips along the way, including ascents of two high peaks.

Using TOPO! software, and referring to Roper’s book, I marked our maps up with 40+ waypoints designating various lakes, passes, and other key landmarks along the route and printed them out for the trip. We decided not to carry the guide book with us, and though the maps provided enough information for relatively efficient navigation, we were left with plenty of enjoyable route finding puzzles to figure out on our own.

Map Example

It’s hard not to gush about the Sierra High Route. The 50+ miles we walked are absolutely superb, yielding a feast of challenging hiking in awe inspiring wilderness landscapes. Roper’s route is exceptionally elegant; climbing, traversing, dipping and weaving through a stunning array of peaks, lakes, ridges, cirques and passes. I can hardly wait to return to walk the next 150 miles.

Palisade crest seen from Mt Agassiz

The Palisade crest from the top of Mt Agassiz (13,893’)

Additional notes:

Our entry point was the Copper Creek trailhead in Kings Canyon National Park, so we used the Wilderness Permits & Reservations page for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on the NPS website to get permitting instructions.

The Sierra High Route passes through bear country. Learn more at Find specific bear resistant food container requirements for various National Forests and Parks along the route here.

If you pass through Bishop, take time to visit the good folks at Wilson’s Eastside Sports, one the country’s nicest outdoor specialty stores.


Community Maps for Garmin

by Dave Baker Wednesday, September 2nd 2009

Owners of Garmin GPS units will be interested to know about two web sites offering free map and trail software created by “community mappers”.

GPS File Depot is a rich resource worth checking out. Dozens of free topo maps and some street maps are available for download; with maps for Arizona, California, New Mexico, to name just a very few. I downloaded the Arizona Topo Map onto my PC and used Garmin MapSource® software to install the map onto the micro-SD card in my eTrex Vista® HCx. The 24k topo map software came up and displayed as expected. It will be interesting to put it to use in the field.

In addition to the map downloads at GPS File Depot, you will also find several interesting tutorials, including a series describing how to create your own Garmin compatible maps.


MapSource® screen shot of Arizona Topo Map


Also worth a visit is the web page for Southwest Trails, a fascinating project devoted to creating transparent trail overlays for Garmin GPS units. Quoting from the web site: “In short, Southwest Trails is a transparent map overlay that you can put on your map-enabled Garmin GPS receiver. This allows you to see, and follow, trails using whatever maps you normally would on your it topo maps, City Navigator, or any other sort of map that you have on your GPS.

Both sites hint at a tantalizing future in which users and enthusiasts not only create GPS-ready topo maps, but also fill them in with up-to-date trail detail that is otherwise very difficult to come by. Looks like this future has already arrived!

Gear | News

The Butterfly Trail

by Dave Baker Thursday, August 20th 2009

An hour’s drive or so out of Tucson near the top of Mt Lemmon, the Butterfly Trail has long been a popular hike. Is the Butterfly Trail nice? Well, here are quotes from the National Forest web page about the trail:

“This is a delightful trail that passes through an area of such diverse biology that part of it has been designated a Research Natural Area. … You’ll be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable outdoor classroom than this. … Along the trailside, a variety of trees are mixed and matched in diverse communities that include ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir and southwestern white pine in the high, cool areas; Arizona madrone, box elder and bigtooth maple in the more moderate areas; and alligator juniper, various species of oak and yuccas in drier, more exposed areas. Moist ravines are decorated with columbine and butterfly weed, while south facing slopes provide an appropriate habitat for prickly pear and hedgehog cactus. … Views along this trail are as diverse as the biology …”

“Diverse biology” along the Butterfly Trail

Yep, the Butterfly Trail is surely nice. I love how quiet it is along the Butterfly, and since the trail is on higher, north facing slopes, this trip is a good choice during the warm months of the year.

An unusual attraction along the trail is the wreckage of an F-86 fighter jet that crashed in 1957, in the canyon bottom upstream from Novio Falls. The Butterfly Trail enters this canyon from the west just above Novio falls, and leaves the canyon bottom a quarter of mile upstream as it begins to climb towards Mt Bigelow. Just as the Butterfly leaves the canyon bottom towards Bigelow, a beat-in hiker’s path leaves the trail, heading up-canyon another tenth of a mile to the crash site. (This junction is at approximately 32.42549 N, 110.71816 W, WGS84.)

F-86 Wreckage

There are many ways to construct an enjoyable hike along the Butterfly, depending upon how ambitious and fit you are feeling. Two trailheads just off the Mt Lemmon Highway serve the trail: one across the road from the Palisade Ranger Station and the second near Soldier Camp.

One of the easiest ways to enjoy the area is to walk the Butterfly for about a mile and a quarter from the Soldier Camp trailhead and then return the way you came.

Or, arrange to have two cars, one parked at each trailhead, and you can hike the trail 5.7 miles end to end. Hiking from Soldier Camp to Palisade is the hardest direction to go, with 1,920 feet of elevation gain, compared to about 1,280 feet of gain when you travel in the opposite direction.

An in-and-out hike from one trailhead to the other and then back again, is about 11.5 miles. I have also created a nine mile loop by walking dirt Forest Service roads that snake from Mt Bigelow down towards Soldier Camp (this requires walking a half mile beside the Mt Lemmon Highway to close the loop).


Hikers climb towards Mt Bigelow

From Tucson, drive the Mt Lemmon Highway towards the little town of Summerhaven. The first of the two trailheads for the Butterfly Trail is at the Palisade Ranger Station (32.41105 N, 110.71525 W, WGS84), and the second is further up the Mt Lemmon Highway at a trailhead parking lot in the Soldiers Camp area (32.42736 N, 110.7408 W, WGS84).

Season: Spring, summer and fall. Snow obscures many sections of the trail during winter cold spells. This hike can be warm in the lower elevation portion.

Water: As always, bring plenty of your own. Water is usually present near Novio Falls, though the flow can slow or cease in the driest months of the year. If you do collect water, purification is recommended before using.

Difficulty: From easy, to moderate, to hard; depending on how you plan the hike. Popular choices include an easy in-and-out trip from the Soldiers Camp trailhead, for a 2.5 mile round trip with a 500 foot elevation gain; a 5.7 mile end-to-end trip; or an 11+ mile back and forth trip with a 3,200 foot elevation gain.

Notes: This is a Forest Service fee area.

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions Santa Catalina Mountains, Green Trails Maps Santa Catalina Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.


Click Map for larger image

Trails | Trails

An Arizona Trail Horse Expedition

by Dave Baker Thursday, August 13th 2009

One of the quiet success stories in the history of the Arizona Trail is the way that three distinct groups of outdoor enthusiasts came together and pooled their efforts to make the Trail the wonderful reality it is today. Those three main groups are hikers and backpackers, trail bikers and equestrians. Dave Hicks, Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association, has told me that without this energetic collaboration, the Arizona Trail may never have come into existence.

During my walk of the Trail I came into contact with trail users from all these groups, and enjoyed hearing their perspectives on what the Trail meant to them. I ran into a man attempting an equestrian thru-trip and was very impressed when I learned how challenging it is to handle the problem of re-supply on long horse trips. Apparently, horses require a lot of water, food, and surprising to me, rest. I was told that a fit human thru-hiker generally requires far fewer rest days to complete the trip than horses do. Figuring out how to accommodate these needs, especially at remote and hard to reach trailheads can be a logistical nightmare. Another significant challenge for horses is navigating those sections of the Trail where deadfall from large forest fires can be stacked like giant pick-up-sticks, greatly impeding progress.

This fall there are plans afoot at Prescott College to traverse the Arizona Trail using horses and mules. Read about it here. This will be an interesting expedition to follow.


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!