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Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

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Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby acvdmlac » Sun Apr 07, 2013 8:33 pm

Hi! I'm a level 3 backpacker, planning to lead a couple of Level 2 but physically fit friends on a week + trek around first week of September 2013. Thinking of going up one of Taboose, Sawmill, Baxter or Shepherd Passes, heading north or south along the JMT, and going down another one of the 4 butt-kickers. I'm curious to hear from hikers who have gone over all four how they compare: aesthetics on the way up/down, views from the top, trail condition, up vs. down difficulty, shade vs. sun, access to drinking water, campsites, exposure (one of us has Meuniere's disease which makes him vertiginous, and had a hard time last summer w/south side of Forester Pass)--in sum, what I think of as the slog-to-stoke ratio. How would you do such a trip? Last summer we accessed the JMT via Kearsarge, found that too much of an easy, crowded freeway. I've day-hiked half-way up Shepherd and loved it, and want to explore these more challenging and less crowded passes some further. We're fine with physical challenge but none of us has crampon/ice ax/self-arrest or rock climbing skills/gear. Thanks for any experience and suggestions! :)



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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby Ska-T » Mon Apr 08, 2013 12:23 pm

I've been on all four of those passes but too many years have passed for me to recall the details and answer all your questions. I leave that to others. I've been up Taboose and Baxter most recently and, IIRC, Taboose is the most pleasant accent of the four. Shepherd has the most sun exposure.

That said, I found that doing the high desert passes is much more enjoyable with a sun umbrella like the GoLite Chrome Dome. Hike without trekking poles (or lash them to your pack) so you can switch hands frequently. That keeps your arms from getting tired of holding the umbrella and allows you to position the umbrella for optimal shade. With the umbrella you can also remove your hat for more air flow.

I may be wrong, but it sounds like your group will take more than one day to reach the top of the pass, so you may want to consider which pass has scenic places to camp below the pass.

-Scott Henderson
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby maverick » Mon Apr 08, 2013 4:22 pm

Taboose Pass, 11,400', 8 mi from the trailhead at 5,400' - 6,000' gain.
Sawmill Pass, 11,347', 10.5 mi from trailhead at 4,660' - 6,687' gain.
Baxter Pass, 12,320', 8 mi from trailhead at 6,000' - 6,320' gain.
Shepherd Pass, 12,000', 12 mi from trailhead at ~ 5,700' - ~ 6,300' gain.

Taboose is one of the shortest mileage wise and has the least elevation gain of the 4
but don't let the numbers fool you. You must get an early start otherwise your toast.
There are some campsite a few miles in and then the last one at around 9600 ft.
The views back towards Owens from the top are great, and the ones west towards
Arrow Peak are sublime. Water is not an issue, though early season crossing can
be difficult. Upper part of the trail is rocky and a little unstable.

Sawmill has the pretty Woods Lakes going for it, but one needs to hike a good
distance to get to the first water source. Plus it starts at the lowest elevation which
punctuates the necessity of getting a very early start.

Baxter Pass was done decades ago, and though Baxter Lakes were pretty it is at
the bottom of the list of the 4 eastern stair climbers.

Shepherd Pass is the most technical, especially if there is a lot of snow at
the top, which can require the usage of ice axe and/or crampons. There is a drop
of elevation while ascending that frustrates a lot of folks. Anvil Camp
is the usual first night campsite, and the views are outstanding looking west from
the top.

Also keep in mind the roads are not the best to the trailheads, for example the
Taboose trailhead road is pretty rugged, and takes some time to get to.

I do not know how to recommend a plan keeping your friends Meuniere's in
consideration especially since you mentioned the southern side of Forester gave
him difficulties, and all of these passes from the east are more difficult, unless you
shorten your days and give him ample time to rest.
A start from Shepherd to either Sawmill or Taboose would be my recommend trip
but this would also include Forester, and your friend had problems with doing
Forester alone. You could do Baxter to Sawmill or Taboose, just be aware Baxter
is a little hard to follow on its western side. There would be plenty of places to
stay along this route which would make your days shorter allowing your friend to
recover. You could stay at Sawmill Lake or the campsites at 9600 ft on the Taboose
Trail for your last night so you could beat the heat on the way to the trailhead the
next morning.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby KathyW » Tue Apr 09, 2013 6:51 am

It can be pretty hot on those trails in the summer. Last summer one evening it was 89 degrees at 11 pm at night at the Sawmill Pass Trailhead - even in the dark, that is hot.

The trails on the east side of the passes are easy to follow, but on the west side of Sawmill and Baxter Pass the trails that go from the passes to the JMT are not so easy to follow in places. The lack of maintenance makes it more of an adventure and also makes it a more pleasant experience because you won't be traveling on an overly engineered mess like the Kearsarge Pass Trail or the JMT.

I'd rather go up the Taboose Pass Trail than down it. I'd rather go down the Sawmill Pass Trail than up it.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby richlong8 » Tue Apr 09, 2013 8:28 am

Logistic issue: If you are going to cross any one of the passes to the west side, you will be in SEKI National Park, which means you have to pick up your permit in person. Pain in the neck for planning early morning starts, unless you live in the area. For my trip over Shepherd this year, which is the only one of the 4 passes I have not done, I will burn a few extra hours of precious vacation so I can be in Lone Pine no later than 4pm to pick up my permit for the following day. But an early morning start, no later than sunrise, makes a huge difference.
Baxter Pass used to a "nice" canyon to walk up, but since the fire several years ago, I hear it got hit very hard. I don't think Baxter lake basin gets many visitors though. I like Sawmill because there is a good lake to camp the first night before tackling the pass in the morning, but Woods Lake basin is a mosquito inferno until later in the season when things dry out. Taboose puts you right in the middle of some nice country, but it is a big rockslide up high, and seemed longer to me than the stated mileage. The first few miles are pure desert. Is the pain worth the gain on these passes? Depends on your priorities.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby thegib » Thu Apr 11, 2013 10:13 am

I've actually convinced myself I like going up Shepherd pass. Anvil camp is pretty nice and the top-out is spectacular. Before the snow's gone, (maybe even after), the top of the pass may cause your friend trouble. Taboose is a lot of desert walking, nothing remotely vertiginous, and awfully pretty on top. Sawmill I remember as lacking switchbacks, which sounds great until the reality sets in. I don't find Sawmill lake a worthwhile payback, and I can get to anywhere it takes me in two days from the west and enjoy myself more.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby BigMan » Thu Apr 11, 2013 1:25 pm

Is it fairly likely that the top of Shepherd will be snow-free come mid-August? Is it technical without snow? Thanks.

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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby maverick » Thu Apr 11, 2013 1:55 pm

BigMan wrote:
Is it fairly likely that the top of Shepherd will be snow-free come mid-August? Is it
technical without snow? Thanks.


No, it will most likely be snow free or only a small patch. Near the top of the pass
one goes thru some glacial moraines and then up a 600' steep head wall of very loose
scree on a unmaintained set of switchbacks that can be unnerving to those not used
to hiking over rough terrain with a big pack. The descent on this top section may be
worse for most people.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby acvdmlac » Thu Apr 11, 2013 9:13 pm

Thanks y'all for the responses! It's been hard to find much info on these passes, I guess for the obvious reason that they aren't very popular because they are so demanding. We're coming from sea level, so planning to camp at least one night below summit to avoid likely altitude sickness at the top if we try to go all the way in one day. It sounds like they all have campable sites in the 9-10'000' zone, which would be about right to avoid AMS and limit day 1 to a doable gain in the 3,500-5,000' range. BTW, Meuniere's is an innner-ear disease that causes dizziness but doesn't affect stamina so it sounds like only the top of Shepherd might present problems for my afflicted friend...keep the info coming! I really appreciate this forum.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby canukyea » Fri Apr 12, 2013 12:37 am

I guess I would ask why not consider Bishop or Old/New Army or maybe a West side approach. Seems like less work. But if you insist on these 4, it can be a good trip as well, with an early start.

Baxter: Haven't done yet, looks like it is minimal on the switchbacks from maps.

Shepherd: The scenery is consistently good but the trail design could be better. The top headwall is steep and sort of loose but nothing hiking poles can't handle. Anvil Camp has water, Mahogany Flat is not as convenient.

Taboose: Very consistent grade, bottom part isn't that interesting, but views expand as you get higher. Rockier than most trails and therefore slower as a descent. Campsites are more scattered along the trail but you will find them.

Sawmill: Starts off as a slog, pretty middle with a deep canyon, nice meadow, and a lake (none of the others have this), ends with a slog. This is the only place where I saw bighorn sheep at the top, so that was a nice reward.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby richlong8 » Fri Apr 12, 2013 7:05 am

acvdmlac wrote:Thanks y'all for the responses! It's been hard to find much info on these passes, I guess for the obvious reason that they aren't very popular because they are so demanding.


These books have adequate info on the passes: Sierra South, Kings Canyon National Park by Mike White, and any of the older Wilderness Press trail guides.
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Re: Taboose vs. Sawmill vs. Baxter vs. Shepherd Passes

Postby oleander » Fri Apr 12, 2013 11:09 am

I absolutely love Baxter Pass, though it is not for everyone.

It has not been maintained for years, so some short sections of trail are washed out. You end up walking on use-trails through talus or meadow. If losing the trail sounds intimidating, this pass may not be for your group.

It is pretty steep as a hike, but not exposed. A friend of mine that gets vertigo/fear descending the south side of Forrester Pass does not have a problem with Baxter.

We looked pretty assiduously for campsites. They are impossible to find, as the whole canyon is steeply sloped. The only adequate campsite we found is at about 8000 feet, immediately adjacent to (south side of) trail, under some trees. It is very obvious (you don't have to go looking for it). I'm told you might find some spots at 10,000 feet. We looked and did not find. If I were hiking that canyon again I absolutely would not count on finding any camping other than the one at 8k, unless maybe I was hiking alone with a very small tent or bivy.

I would much rather go down it than up. Looking down that canyon the whole way is the thrilling part.

- Elizabeth
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