Dan's Outside

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Crossing Shepherd Pass

For nearly two weeks now I’ve been meaning to start writing up the two longish Sierra Nevada pack trips I took earlier this summer, but life and the major task of describing two weeks of trail travel and putting together the photos have held me back. Rather than continuing to wait, I’ve decided to start with some shorter posts covering sections of the trips. This description of crossing Shepherd Pass is the first.

The second week-long pack trip, with the talusdancers gang, began on August 5 at Horseshoe Meadow in the eastern Sierra south of Mount Whitney. Basically we skirted the Whitney area to the west, coming over New Army and Crabtree Passes (the latter definitely being worthy of an upcoming post) and then heading north on the John Muir Trail (JMT) to Tyndall Creek where we headed east to exit the mountains.

This exit was via Shepherd Pass. I’ve read about this pass for years, and I know that it has a reputation as one of the most difficult trails across the Sierra Crest. Some people say it ties with Baxter Pass (which I’ve also crossed) for the title of second worst pass, behind Sawmill Pass – which seems to hold the undisputed title. Those who climb Shepherd from the east start in low altitude desert at the base of the Sierra and climb thousands of feet to the pass, a climb broken only by a 500 foot descent which is then made up with an extra 500 feet of climbing.

We, however, wisely approached the pass from the east.

We began at Tyndall Creek on the JMT where the last (or first, if you are descending from the north) campsites in timberline trees are located. We’ve camped here a number of times so it was familiar territory for us, though no less enjoyable for the familiarity. If you ever visit there, be sure to check out what Owen calls the “rock garden” where the creek passes near the campsites.

Near here the 3+ mile trail to Shepherd Pass begins, first briefly traversing through the upper reaches of the forest before emerging above timberline. If you like gentle but high, alpine scenery, this is the trail for you! The trail ascends quite gently, rising only a bit more than 1000′ over the distance to the pass, and traveling through alpine meadows and rock fields. There are striking views of high ridges in all directions; the Great Western Divide to the west and behind, the ridge between Tyndall and the Wright Lakes basin to the right, the high peaks at the north end of the Kern Plateau to the left and dominated by nearby Diamond Mesa, and the low saddle of the pass ahead.

Diamond Mesa and the Shepherd Pass Trail. Sierra Nevada, California. August 10, 2007. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell.

In a more normal year much of the path would probably be green – during this year of historic drought in the southern Sierra nearly everything was brown and the general appearance was more like September than August. There were some wetter places where the trail crosses the creek, but they were few and far between.

The pass is a very gentle one, with a very gradual slope continuing all the way to the crest. Although the pass appears to be just ahead, the distances are deceiving and there are a few more small ridges and valleys to cross near the top than you might expect.

Shepherd Pass – West Approach. Sierra Nevada, California. August 10, 2007. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell.

At the very top there is a small lake just before the pass; we stopped there for a lunch break and to filter water for the descent on the other side. (We did not have good information about the availability of water, so we went over the pass with more than we needed. It turned out that there was plenty of water.) The lake is quite barren and the water was a bit stagnant, though the setting is quite amazing. After finishing lunch we said goodbye to the Kern Plateau and headed over the pass.

Lunch, Near Shepherd Pass. Sierra Nevada, California. August 10, 2007. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell.

The east side of the pass is the yin to the yang of the west side. Where the west side was gentle and covered with alpine tundra, the east side is one of the rougher trails I have descended. It first traverses north along the upper canyon but then drops precipitously down a set of rough switchbacks into a gully that is filled with loose and slippery scree/talus. While a few of us were willing to descend at a good clip, the majority of the group was reduced to one careful step at a time; and even with this approach we had to deal with minor slips and slides. We could only be grateful that we were not coming up this steep and treacherous trail. (The following photo shows the purported trail descending from the saddle of the pass.)

Shepherd Pass, East Approach. Sierra Nevada, California. August 10, 2007. © Copyright G Dan Mitchell.

Once below the very steep upper section of the pass, the trail wound down to and through an area known as “The Pothole,” an astonishing jumble of glacial and/or landslide rocks filling the bottom of the canyon. I’m not sure whether it was harder to imagine how someone conceived a trail through such terrain, or how they actually constructed it – or why. As is common to east side trails, the descent continued without break for a great distance until we finally reached the first good campsites (we had passed usable campsites earlier) at Anvil Camp. (Perhaps in deference to the strains of climbing this this trail, one person we talked to kept referring to it as “Advil Camp.” ;-)

The next morning we continued our descent. The trail continued its steep downward trajectory, more or less following Shepherd Creek as it drops into a narrower and narrower canyon. Finally the trail could no longer follow this route, and the infamous 500 foot climb over the ridge to Symmes Creek canyon began. Frankly, it wasn’t all that bad, though there are a couple of false summits before the short climb actually ends. From the top of this ridge the trail once again resumes its steep and continuous descent, though the quality of the trail is quite decent and the hiking is not that hard… at least traveling in the downward direction as we were.

The trail reaches and crosses Symmes Creek and then follows it (crossing back and forth several times) through a narrow section beneath a cliff and then down the valley to the road end at what can only be described as the base of the Sierra.


August 27, 2007 - Posted by | Places, Trips


  1. […] you enjoy some of my Sierra Nevada photos, you might enjoy a story I just posted at one of my other blogs, dan’s […]

    Pingback by G Dan Mitchell | Photography » Shepherd Pass Story at My Other Blog | August 27, 2007

  2. […] I’ve posted some more stuff from our August “Big Trip” over at my dan’s outside blog, including this description of our crossing of Shepherd Pass. […]

    Pingback by talusdancers » More on the August Trip | August 30, 2007

  3. […] week I began recounting some of my Summer 2007 backpacking experiences with a description of Crossing Shepherd Pass. Here I’ll continue with another pass from the same trip, New Army […]

    Pingback by dan’s outside » Crossing New Army Pass | September 1, 2007

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