High in the Sierra Nevada nestled deep inside Sequoia National Park lies a stunning backcountry adventure for anyone interested in high-elevation peak bagging and alpine meadows. This weekend getaway traverses the Alta Peak Trail into the high country of the park, climbing up to 11,207 feet before descending into the breathtaking Alta Meadow. It’s a challenging and rewarding leg-buster of a trek, full of true alpine scenery, wildflowers and the opportunity to view large wildlife.
If you’re going to be hiking Alta Peak as an overnight backpacking trip, you’ll need to secure a permit by emailing the park’s wilderness office. Permits cost $10 each, plus $5 per person. There are three different options along the trail for backcountry camping — Panther Gap, Mehrten Meadow and Alta Meadow. The trailhead begins at the Wolverton parking lot, which has ample parking for this area’s many visitors.
The trail begins with a moderate incline leading out of Wolverton and through a heavily-wooded fir and pine forest. To your right, Wolverton Creek babbles enthusiastically as the trail opens up here and there to small meadows dappled with sunlight and full of striking wildflowers. Bears and deer are a common sight in this area, so keep your eyes peeled.
At 1.8 miles into the hike you’ll come across a junction with the Lakes Trail. Continue straight ahead and through the forest, eventually gaining the switchbacks up to your first panoramic vista — Panther Gap. The views facing south toward Castle Rocks and the Kaweah Canyon are amazing, so have your camera ready. There are numerous boulders here that you could scramble up to heighten the view, and this area makes an excellent lunch or snack break. Scattered around are a few level areas where you could drop a tent, if you’re inclined to summit Alta with a lighter load.
From here, the trail continues to a less-steep ascent, making its way along a ridge cut into a slope with sweeping views of the Great Western Divide. In late spring and summer, rapid snowmelt brings streams to life, and here and there along the path you’ll see bursts of Indian paintbrush, columbines, lupines and aster. The trail dips back into the fir forest for a moment, and you might notice a few clear spaces to your right. These are the Mehrten Meadow backcountry campsites, and they are a great option if you want easy access to water and the trail before ascending up to Alta Peak.
At the 5-mile mark you’ll come upon a towering rock face looming 2,000 feet above to your left. There will be a sign that designates the junction for the Alta Peak/Alta Meadow trails. Many hikers choose to stash their full packs behind a bush in this area and carry up only water, a snack and a light layer. If you do wish to stow your bag, be mindful that bears and marmots run rampant in this area, so carefully protect your food with a bear canister (available for rent at the ranger station for $5).
From here, the trail gets difficult. The next 2,000 feet of ascent are significantly steeper than anything so far, and it all takes place above 9,300 feet. Pace yourself and remember that you are at high altitude. As you start to climb, you’ll encounter better and better views of the Great Divide. The scenery also shifts rather suddenly from alpine forest to barren and rocky, with only a few hearty plants dotting the landscape. Ancientf foxtail pines (a relative of the bristlecone pine) line the final bit of trail as you make your summit push. Their gnarled, windswept bodies are a great reminder of the harsh conditions that cycle through these slopes each winter.
Once you reach the end of the trail, a simple Class 2 scramble to your right will reach the true summit. Look out for overly-friendly marmots trying to steal your snacks! Alta Peak is one of the best spots in Sequoia if you want a dynamic view of over half the park. You can make out prominent peaks in the Great Divide such as the Kaweah Range, Moint Eisen and Eagle Scout Peak. If you look closely, you might even see Mount Whitney peeking up from a gap in the range. Once you make your way down the summit block, you might want to stop off at a large outcropping of boulders on your right. From here, you can see a panoramic view of Emerald and Pear Lakes, with much of the Sierra high country extending beyond them.
When you’ve had enough of the summit’s thin air, make your way down the way you came and, in 2 miles, take a left at the trail junction if you’re continuing on to Alta Meadow. In about a mile, the trail will open up with a wide slope of forest ferns to the right and a gentle stream on your left. This is a special place, and one of the best spots to overnight backpack in the entire Sierra. It features breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, easy access to water, and the kind of awe-inspiring views that make you never want to go home. Because it sits above 9,000 feet, no campfires are allowed at Alta Meadow, which makes for a more peaceful, relaxed vibe. Soak in the scenery and watch the sun go down over some of the country’s tallest mountains.
When you’re ready to make your way home, follow the trail 6 miles back the way you came. Ignore the junction for the summit and head straight back through the forest, crossing several small streams along the way.
Backpacking Alta Peak to Alta Meadow is a Sequoia National Park classic and the kind of hike that digs into your heart and makes you understand what John Muir meant when he first wrote, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”