High Routes: Backpacking’s Exciting Next Level

A high route is designed to be the finest backpacking experience available in a single mountain range, watershed, or canyon system, offering an unrivaled concentration of best-of features. When worthy terrain peters out, a high route terminates; it does not continue on for days or weeks through marginal landscapes before reaching another notable destination. Depending on your prior familiarity with an area, a high route can be a defining capstone course or an ambitious attempt at one-stop shopping.

High routes are not recognized by land managers, and they are not marked in the field. They are largely off-trail and do not hesitate in traveling across extensive talus, scrambling on class 3 slabs, or plunging through thick brush. Vertical relief is extreme.

The first in the U.S. was the 195-mile Sierra High Route, which is a more adventurous alternative to the John Muir Trail. Despite other opportunities, especially in the West, only recently have other options been formalized.

Guides are now available for the 97-mile Wind River High Route, 125-mile Kings Canyon High Basin Route, and 104-mile Southern Sierra High Route. Efforts are underway to develop a Glacier Divide Route and a Trinity Alps High Route. The concept is likely to expand, including to non-mountain wilderness areas like the Colorado Plateau.

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