Why the History of the High Sierra Trail Makes it Come to Life

Article by Jason Lewandowski

Why the History of the High Sierra Trail Makes it Come to Life

We haven’t really planned it...

...But my wife and I have backpacked with friends at least every other year since we have been together. From the Tetons to the North Cascades, each trip has been unique, incredibly beautiful, and challenging. More importantly though, each trip has brought both longtime and new friends closer together. This summer we hiked the 72.2 mile High Sierra Trail (HST).

Started out from a Sequoia grove

We started in a grove of towering giant Sequoia trees, climbed through granite cliffed basins, dropped down into a canyon deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon, and then finished by summiting the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. As a result of a strict permit system, we saw only a handful of people each day. It felt so remote and wild, which sometimes can be hard to find while in a National Park these days.

Stunning views from the start

The beautiful views and vast landscapes were just as impressive as the history of the trail. I cannot count how many times I stopped in my tracks in awe and wondered how the heck they built what we were walking on.

Still using pack horses on the trail

In 1928, when America’s second National Park, Sequoia National Park, expanded from the famous giant Sequoia Grove to the Eastern Sierra and infamous Mt. Whitney, park officials had to decide how visitors would travel as there we no roads or trails. The decision was made to keep the area wild and build trails instead of roads and parking lots. Along with that, they sought to create a trail with manageable walking grades while not scarring the landscape. It would be no easy task.

One of many alpine lakes

A few years later during the Great Depression, crews were still hard at work at each end of the trail while leaving the hardest 10 miles in the middle. During one summer, only 6/10ths of a mile of trail was built; the work was incredibly hard and slow. The rugged mountains, steep cliffs and tough granite rock required dragging a 1,000 pound air compressor to jackhammer and move massive boulders.

A history rich trail

After 5 long years, only one gap remained to climb up and over the Great Western Divide: Hamilton Gorge — a nearly vertical granite walled avalanche chute with cliffs over 200 feet high. A suspension bridge spanning 125 feet was slowly constructed. Over 40,000 pounds of steel were hauled in by mules over 20 miles. The steel cables were far too heavy and had to be walked out by long lines of men.

That is what I call a view from your tent

This bridge completed the High Sierra Trail in 1932 — the last time the Parks service would build out a long distance trail of this scale. The steel bridge unfortunately only lasted 5 years until being taken out by an avalanche. Today, the trail no longer spans the gorge just to be taken out by another avalanche. Instead, it cuts into the rock and tunnels along the granite cliffs. This was a truly remarkable section of trail with some parts being only a few feet wide between sheer cliffs.

Many workers made this section possible
After an avalanche took out the bridge, engineers decided to build the trail right into the side of sheer cliff — a truly stunning section to experience.

Along the way we swam in countless freezing high alpine lakes and rivers which were easily some of our highlights. It felt so refreshing to take a dip and I think it helped our muscles recover faster too. We even relaxed like king and queens at Kern Hot Springs, a natural spring along Kern river.

For seven days, we were without cell service and the daily distractions of life we have all come to accept. Along the trail we’d either tell hilarious Dad jokes, talk about life, think of genius inventions, retell old stories, or enjoy sections alone while taking in nature around us.

Mt. Whitney Windows ascent
Ascending Mt. Whitney through the Windows section was surreal.

Together we shared the easy and tough miles of the trail. We pushed each other to crush a few 15 mile days and climb up high mountain passes. When not one but two water purifiers broke, we shared and worked as a team.

Sharing my GoodTo-Go
I let Wade enjoy a couple precious bites of my Good To-Go dinner, but he regretted it when he had to finish the food he brought.

Adventures like these are the type of experiences I cherish most in life. In the moment, you are enjoying the highs and hating the lows of the trip, but also twenty years later — you get to enjoy sitting at a bar with friends or family, retelling all of the stories ...

“Remember when we woke up at 4am at Hamilton Lake to get an early start? Jason, your headlamp was broken and we came across those two bears on trail. I think Mike scared them away with his beautiful singing.”

Maybe one person remembers things a little differently than you, but you both feed the story and share something that can never be taken away. These adventures are what make the memorable moments in life.

Reflecting on reflections We enjoyed our time in the wild together, but made sure to take some moments to ourselves.
Knowing the history of the High Sierra Trail beforehand really made me appreciate the experience and all of the hard work to complete it.
To this day the area has remained wild. No roads connect the two sides of the park requiring you to drive 300+ miles or the better option: enjoy the 72 mile trail.
Alpine lakes are stunning These mountains inspired and were a favorite to both John Muir and Ansel Adams for good reason. We climbed the mountains and felt their good tidings!
Infamous 99 Switchbacks
A quick moment before heading down the infamous 99 Switchbacks.
NEMO camp setup My wife, Sam — one happy camper.


My life hiking partner

Essential Gear

  • Dragonfly™ 2P - Easily my favorite backpacking tent I have ever used! It sits at the perfect spot between practical 2 person space and ultralight weight. The large vestibule also came in handy with our large packs.

  • Riff™ 15° - There were absolutely no concerns of staying warm even below Mt. Whitney at 11,500ft.

  • Tensor™ Insulated - Tensor is incredibly light, comfortable and packs down to the size of a water bottle. The new valves are genius!

  • Fillo™ Elite - This has been my go-to pillow for years. It took up no space at all since I compressed it in my Riff.

  • Good To-Go™ - From Herbed Mushroom Risotto to Indian Vegetable Korma, the poor souls with other food always looked forward to stealing a bite!

  • Camp Mug - I surprised everyone with their own NEMO camp mug for the trip. From coffee and breakfast granola to Skratch mix… these things were awesome and are super tough!

The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it. Jason Lewandowski is NEMO's new Business Applications Manager, enjoys backpacking with his wife, Sam, and their dog Moose, and being behind the lens when surrounded by beautiful landscapes.