Alta Peak a rewarding test for hikers

The word alta means "tall" or "high" in Spanish, so it's easy to assume Alta Peak is aptly named.

And while Alta Peak is indeed quite tall and high, one glimpse from its 11,204-foot summit proves there are dozens of peaks up and down the Sierra Nevada more alta than Alta.

Which does nothing whatsoever to detract from the view -- or the effort required to enjoy it. It's just a fact is all.

What distinguishes Alta Peak from so many others in Sequoia National Park is the established trail that leads to its summit -- no mountaineering or special route-finding skills required. And because the peak sits off the Sierra Crest and its main dividing ridges, views from the top of Alta are unobstructed. (Those views work both ways: Alta Peak is prominent from Three Rivers and on a clear day can be seen from the Valley floor.)

Of course, nothing this rewarding comes without a price. In this case, that means 4,000 feet of climbing from the trailhead. Gulp.

The hike begins in the dense fir forests around Wolverton, starting on the same trail that leads to Pear Lake. At 1.8 miles the trail splits. Those bound for Alta Peak take the right fork toward Panther Gap, which is reached after ascending a dusty bowl.

The scenery at Panther Gap is sublime: eye-popping views of the Middle Fork Kaweah River drainage, the Great Western Divide and Castle Rocks, a striking formation directly across the canyon.

The trail continues east along the ridge until ducking into Mehrten Meadow, a popular camping spot. Keep going. At 4.8 miles the trail splits again. If you have the energy, veer left toward Alta Peak. If not, the right fork heads one level mile to wildflower-lined Alta Meadow, a nice consolation prize.

Until now, the ascent has been mostly gradual. Not anymore. The final 2.1 miles to Alta Peak involve some 2,000 feet of climbing, enough to buckle even the sturdiest legs.

Towering above is a striking rock formation called Tharp's Rock, which hides Alta Peak from this angle. Fortunately, you'll cross a few streams and rocky outcrops that make for good rest stops.

The trail winds around the mountain's east flank before veering steeply toward the summit. Wind-blown foxtail pines stand guard below the final summit slopes, which become more rocky and sandy the higher you go. Once the trail peters out, follow stacked rock markers called cairns along the most obvious route.

Reaching the actual summit requires a short rock scramble. If you have any remaining breath, the view is sure to take it away. Countless jagged peaks line the eastern horizon, even the unmistakable hulk of Mount Whitney. Views to the south are equally impressive, including the 6,000-foot-deep Kaweah River drainage. To the north sit more peaks and shimmering Pear Lake directly below.

Take time to soak in the view, but not too much. It's a long way back to the parking lot. Most parties, even strong ones, need a total of 7-9 hours to complete this butt-kicker of a hike.