May 23, 2017

The Four Nasty Passes

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.

Taboose Pass

This might be the friendliest pass, following a nice stream all the way along. It is sunny and barren almost the entire way with virtually no forest, but the stream provides cheer. There are few places to camp along the way.

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.

Shepherd Pass

This leads you into the upper Kern area and provides access to climb Williamson or Tyndall. A section of the trail near the pass is gone (unless trail crews have reworked it since this writing) and the trail is often snow covered near the pass. Neither of these issues pose serious problems for the experienced mountaineer. Anvil camp provides a popular camp spot.

Here is a description of a trip I made over Shepherd Pass in August of a very heavy snow year.

Sawmill Pass

The first third of this hike are in desert and sagebrush, and will discourage many people. Once the trail crosses over into Sawmill Creek it enters forest and is quite nice. The trail is never a problem to follow, except beyond the pass in Woods Lake basin where following a trail is hardly a concern anyway. The trail passes beautiful Sawmill Lake.

Baxter Pass

This is hard to recommend and is really a different beast than the others. The trail has been abandoned, in practice if not officially and can be challenging to follow. The start of the hike can be quite hot, beginning at 6000 feet. The statement you read in some guidebooks that the first part of the hike is in the shade is no longer true, due to a fire that burned Oak Creek in July of 2007. On the other hand if you enjoy solitude and a bit of a challenge (and are an experienced and capable off trail hiker and route-finder) this could be just your thing.

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.

Roper's comments

The "little green book" (the Sierra Club "The Climbers Guide to the High Sierra" by Steve Roper, 1976) gives the following entertaining descriptions of these passes:

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.

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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