There are four notorious steep, long, and difficult passes which allow access to the Sierra from the east. The four are Taboose, Shepherd, Sawmill and Baxter Passes. Each climbs roughly 6000 feet in more or less 8 miles.
This table provides the details, along with the relatively pleasant Bishop and Kearsarge Passes for comparison.
I include Lamarck Col just because I was curious.
I also include Trail Crest (on the way up Mt. Whitney) because many are familiar with it.
Mount Wrightson is in Arizona, but I put it here for comparison because it is a hike near my home that I do often as a day hike.
|Name||Trailhead||Summit||Gain||Miles to Pass||Miles to Muir Trail|
|Bishop Pass||9820 feet (2987m)||11972 feet (3642)||2152 feet (655m)||6.0 miles||12.6 miles|
|Kearsarge Pass||9185 feet (2800m)||11845 feet (3610m)||2660 feet (810m)||4.7 miles||7.1 miles|
|Lamarck Col||9380 feet (2859m)||12950 feet (3947m)||3570 feet (1088m)||4 miles||8 miles|
|Trail Crest||8340 feet (2542m)||13480 feet (4109m)||5140 feet (1567m)||8.5 miles||8.5 miles|
|Mount Wrightson||5400 feet||9453 feet||4053 feet||5 miles||-|
|Taboose Pass||5430 feet (1660m)||11360 feet (3480m)||5930 feet (1820m)||8 miles||12 miles|
|Shepherd Pass||6398 feet (1950m)||12041 feet (3670m)||5643 feet (1720m)||11.0 miles||15.2 miles|
|Sawmill Pass||4593 feet (1400m)||11348 feet (3459m)||6755 feet (2059m)||10.0 miles||13.6 miles|
|Baxter Pass||6037 feet (1840m)||12303 feet (3750)||6266 feet (1910m)||7.2 miles||12.2 miles|
All of these can be done by someone who is determined and in good shape. Some of them may require well developed routefinding skills as well as a willingness to do a bit of off-trail travel. All of them are in the same league as far as distance and effort. Unless you are somewhat of an athlete you will not get over the pass the first day; at least I never have. They all begin essentially in the floor of Owens Valley, and all follow streams. Perhaps it really boils down to what part of the Sierra you want access to.
They all are long hard hikes and they all have their unique virtues.
I have now done two trips via Taboose Pass (in 2004 and 2009). Both times I failed to get to the summit the first day (though I did do better the second time). The stream, the view from the top, and the feeling of accomplishment make the effort worthwhile.
Here is a description of a trip I made over Shepherd Pass in August of a very heavy snow year.
Most areas Baxter gives access to (Rae Lakes, Mount Clarence King) would probably more pleasant to access via Kearsarge and Glenn Passes.
Here is an account of an ambitious day hike (and climb of Acrodectes Peak via Baxter Pass.
Taboose Pass - It is an arduous pass, involving as it does, a vertical rise of 6000 feet.
Shepherd Pass - One of the more dreadful east-side approaches in the range. The ascent from desert to alpine zone is an interminable ordeal of dryness and steepness. A 500 foot descent midway is a classic destroyer of morale, regardless of the direction one is travelling.
Sawmill Pass - The elevation gain to the pass is 6700 feet, and the ten mile hike is an unmitigated horror of steep, dry terrain.
Baxter Pass - Another strenuous route, involving an elevation gain of 6300 feet in nine miles.
Tom's hiking pages / email@example.com