PCT: Cottonwood Pass to Crabtree Meadow

Miles 750.2-767 of the northbound PCT, and the end of CA Section G: Forging higher into the Sierra and joining with the John Muir Trail near Mount Whitney.

Hiking Moderate

Distance
26 km
Ascent
861 m
Descent
972 m
Duration
6-7 hrs
Low Point
2.9 km
High Point
3.5 km
Gradient
VIEW ON MAP
PCT: Cottonwood Pass to Crabtree Meadow Map

Description

The Pacific Crest Trail finishes CA Section G by rising even higher into the Sierra, where it joins with the John Muir Trail and thus links with the approach to Mount Whitney––highest mountain in the US outside of Alaska. Section hikers can begin this stretch from Horseshoe Meadow outside of Lone Pine, by hiking to Cottonwood Pass or one of the passes farther south. Northbound distance hikers will delight in finally having an abundance of water on trail, though it may come with lingering snow in early season. Setting off on this section also requires preparation for the even higher and potentially snowier terrain farther north.

Beginning the segment northward from Cottonwood Pass, the trail crosses the outlet stream of Chicken Spring Lake (NB mile 750.8). This is the first alpine lake encountered on the northbound PCT, and it’s a fine specimen––a pool of blue resting near the timberline, ringed by bare rock in a cliff-lined cirque. The lake is actually a brief detour from the PCT, but well worth it for the spectacle and a great place to camp.

From there the trail quickly climbs to about 11,500 feet above sea level, and thus approaches the limit of tree cover in the Sierra Nevada. But the ones that grow here are especially attractive: Foxtail pines with robust, red trunks that occupy spacious groves, rooted in crushed white granite where not much else can grow.

On a gradual descent from this highpoint, other types of pines return and the forest gets denser. Trickling streams are generally plentiful, as are comfortable spots to camp. A sign marks the entry to Sequoia National Park (NB mile 753.8), which is a major milestone on the trail. It’s the first national park along the northbound PCT, and this boundary means the highest elevations of the trail are nearly within reach.

These few miles of descent end at Rock Creek (NB mile 760.5), which takes a rock hop or log walk to cross. The ascent that follows is a tough one, but it comes in two parts. An initial set of switchbacks leads to flat ground, followed by a water source in Guyot Creek (NB mile 761.8). The second set climbs over the shoulder of Mount Guyot. From there it’s a brief downhill to a gentle traverse, then a hop over a seemingly minor ridge. On the other side, however, is a grand view which typifies the High Sierra: A long valley, with slopes textured by granite blocks and swaths of trees, frames a gunsight view to the vertical spire of Mount Russell, and a ridge of Mount Whitney a bit closer at hand.

Next, continue on the edge of green meadows and skip across Whitney Creek, then go just uphill to reach the convergence with the John Muir Trail (JMT). To the east, the JMT makes its approach to Mount Whitney. Many long-distance hikers set up camp in this vicinity, in order to tackle the summit of Whitney as a day hike. This trail junction also marks the end of California Section G, and Section H continues along the JMT to the north.

Note: Upon entering Sequoia National Park, bear canisters or other approved containers are required for camping. Some backcountry sites have storage boxes provided, but these aren’t guaranteed to be usable so carrying your own is recommended.

Permits: This segment begins in the Golden Trout Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, where a wilderness permit is required for overnight use. The trail soon enters Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, which accepts permits issued by Inyo National Forest as long as the itinerary is properly stated in advance. These may be subject to quotas, so it’s best to arrange well in advance. Note that the wilderness permit can be replaced, however, with a PCT Long-distance Permit instead. Additionally, the California Fire Permit may be required for use of a fire or camp stove anywhere on the trail.

Mount Whitney: This is a significant detour from the PCT, but summiting the highest mountain in the Lower 48 is considered a rite of passage for many thru hikers. Inyo National Forest administers permits for Whitney, which are separate from any PCT permits. PCT hikers are allowed to do Whitney without one of these, however, with the caveat that camping is not allowed anywhere east of the PCT at Crabtree Meadow. Therefore, the side hike of nearly 16 roundtrip miles and 4000 feet of gain must be done in one day.

Sources: https://pctmap.net/trail-notes/ https://pctwater.com/ https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/inyo/passes-permits/recreation https://www.nps.gov/seki/planyourvisit/bearbc.htm

Difficulty

Moderate

Hiking along trails with some uneven terrain and small hills. Small rocks and roots may be present.

Medium Exposure

2 out of 4

The trail contains some obstacles such as outcroppings and rock which could cause injury.

Remoteness

3 out of 4

Little chance of being seen or helped in case of an accident.

Best time to visit

May, June, July, August, September, October, November

Features

  • Wildlife
  • Historical
  • Picturesque
  • Dog friendly
  • Wild flowers
  • Water features
  • Family friendly
  • Forestry or heavy vegetation

Guidebooks in this area