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General Approach to High Sierra Miles and Elevations | High Sierra Backpacker

General Approach to High Sierra Miles and Elevations

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 31 May 2012

Over the years I have been amused, confused, and even exhausted by the constantly changing distances of various trails as cited by various sources.
Confused by the variety of miles figures I can find, amused by the same, and exhausted when a source radically underestimates a key mileage figure.

Most amusing is the apparent ignorance of the fact that the overwhelming power of nature and the relentless hand of man are constantly altering the actual trail distances out from under the figures posted at the trailheads, on the trail junction posts, measured on maps, or cited by guide books.

The bottom line explanation for all of these disparities is that the Sierra Nevada Mountains and its trails between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney are in constant motion, in a constant state of flux.
It seems a bit self-pretentious if not downright futile to assign fixed distances to constantly changing trail section distances. Doubly-so when we understand these changes are being driven by the forces of Nature themselves, by these forces acting at many levels.
Though we can get a pretty clear picture of trail miles, mileages are nonetheless a snapshot of trail and terrain configurations at a particular point in time.

Natural Forces of Change
Long term climate and seasonal weather patterns along with the forces of gravity and erosion combined with geological activity present a constant background pressure of change on the terrain. These forces asssure a basic rate of change.
 When these constant forces are combined or magnified by regularly-occuring "catastrophic" events like winds, floods, thaws, or fires we will see big changes happen rapidly to the trails through the affected zones.

We have constant slow change and the occassional blowouts affecting mileage.

Human Forces of Change
Every year I hike I note many small changes in trail routes, mostly trail crew repairs of Spring Thaw damages that are not much on their own, but when they are all added up over just a few short years these small changes significantly alter the length of the trail.

Variable Rates of Change
One year parts of the trail will be different from the next year, and over ten years time significant rerouting will have slowly occured, incrementally changing the location and distance of the trail.

Other segments of trail show few signs of change over many lifetimes, even centuries. Rock solid trail that will only "reroute" in the next earthquake or avalanche!

Consistancy in a Sea of Change
Independent of the rate at which any particular segment of  trail changes, the basic route the trail follows through the terrain  remains the same. 

Despite the ability of the Sierra to demonstrate rapid violent change and remarkable consistancy, everything remains essentially the same.

Today's rivers are flowing down the same canyons that glacial flows cut ten thousand years ago, the same mountains divide these canyons, and we hike over, through, and around the same basic terrain features established thousands of years ago, if not much, much further in the past.

What changes radically is our specifc trail along Nature's basic route through the terrain.

The specifics of the  trail between two distant mountain passes may change  from season to season or not at all, but the basic route the trail follows between mountain passes remains fundamentall the same. Just a bit longer... haha...

Trails Under Assault
Most trails are challenged to find their way through the unceasing power of the changing seasons. Just ask any experienced Trail Crew.
 The seasonal rhythm of rain, wind, snow, horse and foot traffic, and the Spring Thaw feeding the renewal of surging life pounds on the terrain and the trail with its unceasing power. Over and over again.

Almost timless geological forces have determined the character of the terrain, and these forces have determined where the optimal route through it will pass, but contemporatry factors determine the current location of the trail

Trail crew reroutes trail around and through this constantly changing harshness, constantly redefining the best place for our trail along the  natural route through the terrain.

The interplay between these forces of man (trails) and nature (routes) are constantly altering trail distances between well-known points along High Sierra trails.

Cummulative Changes
Though many of these changes are slow and cumulative, almost below the speed of human perception, they become significant over time. At the same time the basic route through the terrain does not change, only the specific trail finding the route changes. And they are significantly changed over time.

Check the Starr's Guide from the 1930's. I once calculated food for miles quoted in my treasured 1970 edition, which left me very hungry for a very long section of the John Muir Trail. A priceless experience I could have gotten nowhere else.

Two points: check the date of any guide you employ, and carefully note its divergence from the reality of the situation since the time it was authored. Tahoe to Whitney can help you with that. We publish all the maps for the trails covered, and note as many divergences between the maps and the reality on the ground as possible.

Below each map we have notes about the trail route changes both noted and not noted on each map. I measure miles along the observed trail rather than the trail as depicted on the maps if I have enough information.
If not, I note the trail's divergence from the map route and ask for more input to nail down the current distances.

At the very least this allows us to produce very accurate estimates of the actual mileage of our trails.

Since we understand the natue of these changing distances, how I measure these trail distances,  and especially when I made these observations, and how they are reviewed and updated is very important. 


Mileages Notes

I am recording miles measured at a high degree of magnification, generally 150X to 200X, on the free USGS 7.5 topo maps displayed on the free Adobe Reader. I use the Terrago geo tool to measure topo map distances, available for free from the USGS Store.

Both the Terrago tool and the maps have problems, but are generally reliable if you watch them.

The map measurements called out on the TahoetoWhitney trail guide originate with my measurements of the most recent observed route on the USGS topo maps (which significantly differes from the depicted routes), and these figures are then compared and contrasted with trail sign miles, the National Forest mileage maps, and discussed with Backpackers, Trail Crew, Professional Horsepackers, Rangers, and input from the backpacking public through the guide and forum.

I am measuring the trail routes marked on the most current USGS maps except when the actual trail route varies from the marked route, which is quite often. This kills me. I spend a lot of time standing with map in hand pondering route changes, saying to myself, "What the F?."

Welcome to my world. Trail routes, and therefore trail miles, are a moving target. My map routes and miles figures for the Tahoe to Whitney Trails are current as of 2009, with verifications of tralil sections up through the Summer of 2012. To the best of my ability.

I have at least 15 points along the trails between Tahoe and Whitney which have shifted out from under the maps and my defined miles figures, but I cannot accurately express the new route or distance. But I'm pretty damn close...

I am planning a 2012 trip (done) to verify route changes, the related mileage alterations, and terrain identifications.

The most current USGS maps are mostly dated from the 1970s to the 1990s. Many do not depict current trail routes, or have long lengths of inaccuratly depicted trails. All of my maps and miles reflect this century's trail routes.

Any input you have on trail alterations is welcome. That's the whole point of this forum.

Miles: Snapshot of a Moving Target
The mileages on the trailhead signs, posted on the trail junction markers and posts, and noted on the various trail guides are a snapshot of distances at the particular point in time they were installed. For most of these markers and guides that time long ago passed.

My observations of these routes spans noted changes from 1997 to 2012, with my last full Tahoe to Whitney and Tahoe to Yosemite trips executed in 2009, 2010, and 2012, respectively.

Okay, now that we know the basics, the real purpose of this High Sierra Distances forum is to create a way for feedback and reports to maintain current information for trail distances between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney.

 At this point in time (November 2014) I am still building and stitching together the various website parts to make this happen, and finishing a big edit of the completed 300+ miles of the North High Sierra... Think this ends? The trail never ends.

 Those who walk it change, the trail changes, the weather and seasons change, but the route remains basically the same...

 Stay tuned to both the trail guide and forum for a good view of current distances on the trails between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney.

Post it up, Backpacker...
Post up your questions, comments, experiences, estimates, disputes, input and feedback about High Sierra Trail Mileage here, or in the forums linked to each segment of the trail guide.

Trail Guide Miles and Elevations Index

Happy Trails!


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