How to Plan Transportation for the High Sierra Trail

Since the High Sierra Trail is a one way hike crossing over two mountain ranges, planning out the logistics of transportation and shuttles can be a little tricky. The trail starts at Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park and ends at Whitney Portal near Lone Pine, CA.

You have a couple options depending on your budget, how flexible you are, where you are coming from, and the time of year.

 

Options

1. Drive two cars

This is the option we ended up going with. If you're lucky enough, you'll be able to find a group where two people will be willing to drive their cars and leave them at the start and finish of the trail for about a week.

Since we were hiking from West to East, we took an entire day before the trip to set up our car shuttle. On Saturday morning, we drove 7.5 hours from the Bay Area, CA to Whitney Portal, dropped off one car there, and then drove 4 hours to our hotel in Visalia for the night.

The next day, the day we would be hiking in, we drove an hour and 40 minutes to the Crescent Meadow trailhead and left our second car there while we started our backpacking trip.

Pros:

  • Guaranteed car right when you finish your trip
  • Allows for flexibility - you can start and finish at any time and change your plans if necessary, which was useful since we finished a whole two days earlier than expected

Cons:

  • Requires a LOT of redundant back and forth on windy mountainous roads
  • Need to have two cars and two drivers

 

2. Book shuttles and buses

Because we went so late in the season (second to last week in September), the Sequoia Shuttle had already stopped running for the season, so we decided to set up a car shuttle even though it would mean more driving on our part.

 

Getting In

If you want to shuttle it, what you would do is leave your car in Visalia and take the Sequoia Shuttle. You can even stay at certain hotels to leave your car overnight while you are gone (more info here), and the shuttle comes as early as 6AM. Reservations are required and round trip tickets are $15 per person (includes the $25 cost of entrance into the park). You can even opt to stay in a town closer to the park to reduce the drive in on your hike in day.

The Sequoia Shuttle would take you as far as the Giant Forest Museum, where you would have to get off and catch the free Sequoia National Park shuttle (green line) to the Lodgepole Visitor Center to pick up your permit. Once doing so, you'd then hop back on the green line back to Giant Forest Museum, where you can switch to the Sequoia National Park shuttle grey line to finally get to your trailhead, Crescent Meadow. These shuttles run from 8AM-6:30PM, but be sure to check the departure times to plan accordingly.

 

Getting Out

When you find yourself at Whitney Portal at the end of your trip, you can either hitchhike or hire a shuttle to get from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine, which is about a 20 minute drive down the mountain. For example, the East Side Sierra Shuttle would have been $35 per person if we booked with the three of us, and that cost would go down the more people in your group.

Once in Lone Pine, the Eastern Sierra Transit Bus runs from Lone Pine to Mojave ($22 per person), and then the Greyhound bus offers routes from Mojave back to Visalia, CA ($20 per person).

Pros:

  • Saves time - no need to drive the same roads back and forth
  • Can sleep on the buses and shuttles while someone else drives

Cons:

  • No flexibility - you're tied to set pickups and rigid bus schedules that you reserved in advance
  • You have a long series of bus rides to get back to your trip, not the number one thing people want to do when they finish a week long backpacking trip

 

3. Get dropped off

Not much more to explain here. Beg and bribe your friends and family, because pretty sure this is every backpacker's number one option.

Pros

  • SOOO convenient for you

Cons

  • SOOO inconvenient for them

 

4. Key Swap

Another solution that is commonly recommended for through-hikers is to set up a key swap. This means coordinating with another group that is hiking the trail the opposite way. In our case the group would have to be hiking in from Mt. Whitney in the East and exiting Crescent Meadow. When you pass each other on the trail, you swap keys to drive the other group's car upon exiting and then plan to reunite at a predetermined meeting spot to swap back cars.

Obviously this game plan relies on you placing a whole lot of faith in the other group following through and entrusting them with your car, so ideally they are another group of friends you are familiar with, or an acquaintance from online forums like High Sierra Topix or Backpacking Light.

Pros

  • The option with the least amount of repetitive driving
  • No need for two cars
  • You have a car right waiting for you at the finish

Cons

  • Requires relying on another group to show up and fulfill their end of the deal, otherwise you're hitch hiking back to your car at the start
  • Requires entrusting your car to the other person or group

 

5. Hitchhiking

Not an option I personally considered for this trip, since I prefer having set plans for one less thing for me to worry about, but it is definitely a viable option if you're up for an adventure.

We actually did see a hitchhiker walking southbound on the 395, so it happens!

Pros

  • No need to worry about booking transportation and following scheduled pickups
  • It's freeeee

Cons

  • Requires relying on the kindness of a passing stranger
  • Potentially a lot of extra walking
 

My Recommended Method

Looking back on the trip, if I were to hike the High Sierra Trail again, I would opt for a combination of driving two cars and utilizing the available shuttles:

1. Drop off one car at Whitney Portal and drive to Visalia.

2. Stay the night in Visalia at a hotel that approves longterm overnight parking. The next day catch the first Sequoia Shuttle ($15) and use the free in park shuttles to pick up your permit from Lodgepole Visitor Center before starting your hike.

3. Upon hiking out, start heading back to the Bay Area and pick up the other car in Visalia on the way.

This method is ideal for those coming from the Bay Area, CA and backpacking the High Sierra Trail in season (between May and Sep) when the shuttles are running. 

This transportation plan reduces the amount of redundant driving on the same roads, allows for plans to change by having your own car at the trail end, and is cost efficient. 

 

Final Tips

  • Leave an extra change of clothes and shoes in your finishing car to change into for the long drive out. A few unscented baby wipes can also do wonders in making the drive more comfortable. Although you can't leave food, at least leave a jug of water for the car ride out.
  • Consider getting an annual National Park Pass for $80, so you don't need to pay $50 in entrance fees for two cars to enter Sequoia National Park.
  • Don't forget to hike with your wallet and cash in case plans change, you don't want to be cashless and stranded on the opposite of the mountain!