Day hikes are a great way to experience the Sierra Nevada, but they only take you so far. To really immerse yourself, shoulder a backpack and head out for a few nights.
Yes, backpacking requires physical exertion. However, with the proper planning and equipment, it doesn't have to be a death march. Not if you plan short hiking days and don't carry the world on your back. (Today's lightweight gear is wonderful in that regard.)
Ideally, everyone's first trip should be an overnighter. Hike to your destination, set up camp and return the next day. But if you're ready to take the next step, consider these five multi-day loops.
Each follows established, well-marked trails. But even with today's GPS devices and personal locator beacons, never head into the backcountry without a map and compass — as well as the knowledge of how to use them.
SILLIMAN CREST LOOP
This delightful loop visits numerous small lakes in the Jennie Lakes Wilderness and Sequoia National Park, and the climbing throughout is fairly gradual.
Starting from the Rowell Meadow Trailhead, spend your first night at Seville Lake. On Day 2, hike to either Ranger Lake or Beville Lake or keep going over 10,100-foot Silliman Pass and spend the night at popular Twin Lakes. You can hike out on Day 3 over JO Pass, or take a little detour for a final night at granite-encircled Jennie Lake.
Trailhead: Rowell Meadow (Sequoia National Forest)
Length: 23 miles
Time: 3-4 days
Maps: USGS, Muir Grove and Mount Silliman; Tom Harrison Maps, Mt. Whitney High Country
Permits: Reservations can be made by mail up to two weeks in advance of hike. Walk-up permits available at Grant Grove Ranger Station from 1 p.m. on day prior to departure.
Details: fs.usda.gov/main/sequoia or (559) 338-2251
RAE LAKES LOOP
Want a taste of the John Muir Trail? This popular loop through the heart of Kings Canyon National Park provides more than a spoonful. It's also extremely popular, so plan ahead to ensure a permit.
Starting from Roads End, most hike the loop in a clockwise direction because the climbing is more gradual. That means spending the first night in Paradise Valley and the second in the Rae Lakes basin, where camping is limited to two nights. (If you have time, be sure to take a side trip to Sixty Lakes Basin.) Just be sure to tackle 11,978-foot Glen Pass early in the day while you're fresh. It's literally all downhill from there. Spend your final night at Charlotte Lake or Junction Meadow.
Trailhead: Roads End (Kings Canyon National Park)
Length: 46 miles
Time: 3-5 days
Maps: USGS, The Sphinx and Mt. Clarence King. Tom Harrison, Kings Canyon High Country
Permits: Reservations must be made by mail up to two weeks in advance. Walk-up permits available at Roads End Permit Station from 1 p.m. on day before departure.
Details: nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit or (559) 565-3341
Either way, you'll have your choice of delightful campsites, and the return trip over Silver Pass (elev. 10,895) offers some of the Sierra's finest views. It's also possible to trim some mileage on the way back by taking the Edison Lake ferry.
Trailhead: Mono Creek (Sierra National Forest)
Length: 27 miles
Time: 3-4 days
Maps: USGS, Sharktooth Peak and Graveyard Peak; Tom Harrison, Mono Divide High Country
Permits: Reservations can be made by mail up to three weeks in advance and picked up 48 hours before hike. Walk-up permits available 24 hours prior to planned departure at High Sierra Ranger District Office in Prather or summer ranger station on Kaiser Pass Road.
Details: fs.usda.gov/detail/sierra or (559) 855-5355
POST PEAK LOOP
Trailhead: Clover Meadow (Sierra National Forest)
Length: 31 miles (shorter if you shuttle between trailheads)
Time: 3-4 days
Maps: USGS, Timber Knob and Mt. Lyell; Sierra National Forest
Permits: Reservations can be made by mail up to three weeks in advance and picked up 48 hours before hike. Walk-up permits available 24 hours prior to planned departure at Bass Lake Ranger District office in North Fork or summer ranger station at Clover Meadow.
Details: fs.usda.gov/detail/sierra or (559) 877-2218
Some of Yosemite National Park's finest backcountry lies along the Cathedral Range south of Tuolumne Meadows. On Day 1, follow the Rafferty Creek Trail up and over Tuolumne Pass to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp (reservations only) before continuing on to excellent campsites at Vogelsang Lake.
Then retrace your steps to the HSC and continue on to Evelyn Lake. Ireland Lake, about 2.5 miles off the trail, makes a great spot for the second night. From there, it's less than 10 miles back to your car.
Trailhead: Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite National Park)
Length: 21 miles
Time: 2-4 days
Maps: USGS, Tioga Pass and Vogelsang Peak; Tom Harrison, Yosemite High Country
Permits: Difficult to obtain if not reserved in advance (March 1-May 31 only). Some walk-up permits available 24 hours before start of hike from booth at trailhead parking lot and other locations.
Details: nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit or (209) 372-0310
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.