Wright Lakes High Adventure

Spectacular views from Wright Lakes Basin looking toward the Great Western Divide.Photo: Ron Erskine

After a four-mile ride over a rough and tumble dirt road, we parked at the trailhead to Shepherd Pass above the small town of Independence on the east side of the Sierra. The sun had just begun to light the peaks 8,000 feet above us as we shouldered our packs. Temperatures in the Owens Valley had been warm, and we wanted to climb above the heat before it arrived.

Shepherd Pass is justly regarded as the most challenging pass across the Sierra crest. Most trailheads are at the end of roads that lift you a couple thousand feet above the valley, but not Shepherd Pass. Starting at just 6,300 feet on the valley floor, the trail twists 12 merciless miles to the 12,000-foot crest. As if that weren’t enough, most of the route is up a sun-beaten south-facing slope that at one point drops 500 feet—elevation a hiker has to gain again.

All of which raises the obvious question, why go?

I love to say that the greater the pain, the greater the reward. Shepherd Pass proves the point. At the top of the pass, a vast glaciated landscape gently slides away in stark contrast to the sheer topography behind you. You are in the heart of the highest Sierra, a location it would take days to reach by any other route. No trees, just glacier-polished granite for miles. All sense of scale is lost. That spot—right over there—is an hour and a half away.

From the top of Shepherd Pass, we set out toward another trailless pass in the distance. Once there, we were grateful for an end to the day’s climbing and gazed down into Wright Lakes Basin, our home for the next several days.

Here was mountain rambling at its finest. Every landmark was visible from virtually every location. Choose a compass point and go. Each cirque or recess suggested a hidden lake or some other dazzling surprise. The call from every corner was irresistible.

We chose a campsite at the edge of an open stand of foxtail pines, which stand bold and stout yet branch out in the most artistic ways—a striking blend of power and elegance.

For three days, we wandered up and down Wright Lakes Basin and even crossed over for a look into Wallace Lakes Basin next door. From the divide, we watched a mountain storm pound the Great Western Divide just out of reach, but miles away. Bright sunny skies and calm warmth, towering black-bottomed clouds and drenching rain, distant thunder, lakes, streams, forests and meadows; all in one scene stretching from our feet to the horizon.

I like to say that adventure is an event the prospect of which both scares you and excites you. The country beyond Shepherd Pass is a worthy adventure.

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