My friend and I got onto a yarn about places we've been in the Sierra that surprised us in one direction or the other. Either they exceeded our expectations by a mile; or they were a disappointment, compared to what they had been built up to be.
What are yours?
Some off the top of my head: (My main criteria is just plain scenery)
1. Mineral King. I'd developed into a snob for the east side, and simply did not expect MK's grandeur.
2. McGee Pass: An eastside pass that is freaking gorgeous, from start to finish, top to bottom, both sides. Sunset from above Tully Lake. I delayed going to McGee Pass for years, because I had never heard anyone at all talk about it.
3. North Fork Big Pine Creek, to Palisade Glacier. There are not enough superlatives to describe this otherworldly trip. The Sam Mack Meadow, viewed from above, is the most beautiful meadow I've ever been to in the Sierra. And that is just one feature along this walk. Yes, you do hear this is a pretty hike, but backpackers talk about it a lot less than places like, say, Thousand Island Lake. (Why is that? Maybe because Palisade Glacier is associated more with climbers than with backpackers?). I think Palisade Glacier is one of the top 3-4 trailed hikes in all the Sierra; certainly in the category of trips lasting just 2-4 days.
4. Baxter Pass. Going down that pass is just such a thrill. From the top peering down the east side, it's like you're topping a roller coaster, about to smash down the downhill side at 100 miles per hour. (I have a friend who saw, from that same perch, a helicopter flying directly BELOW her.) People have described it as a grind, but I just get a happy-kid grin when I recall it.
5. Bonnie Lake, and surrounding lakes, border of northern Yosemite. Maybe not quite as big-pop-WOW as the above four. But I bring it up as a nice example of a random place that surprises you when you encounter it, just because nobody ever seemed to mention it.
1. Tahoe Rim Trail, eastern section. This was talked up to me as a sterling stretch of the TRT, I guess mostly because it has Harlan Point, which is admittedly pretty. But this 24-mile section of trail did nothing for me. I seem to not get along with Tahoe, in general (with the exception of a few specific places in Desolation Wilderness.)
2. The JMT between Forester Pass and Guitar Lake. I like Forester itself, and like everybody I love the Bighorn Plateau. But I admit I was disappointed in this section overall, especially directly following the striking grandeur of the JMT through the entirely of Kings Canyon NP.
3. The trail to Pear Lake (Sequoia NP). I loved the Tablelands beyond Pear Lake. But I don't get why the trails to Pear Lake have been described as superlative; it's okay but nothing memorable. (Well, okay, the exposure at the Watchtower is something I remember!) I'll bet it's more interesting as a ski trip, though.
4. Kennedy Meadows Resort, the trail south from there into Emigrant Wilderness. That was just horsepoopville, and it took just about all day to reach anything interesting. (The other Emigrant trailheads have all been much better, for me.)
5. The main trail to Ten Lakes, and the trail to Ostrander Lake, in Yosemite. Westside Yosemite at the 8000-foot level and I do not get along, unless I can see directly down from the trail into Yosemite Valley. I'm remembering hot, exposed ridge slogs, lacking in the kinds of views that can get me excited. The lakes themselves were also completely unmemorable, except I do remember extreme skeeterz. I encountered a backpacker on the way to Ten Lakes who told me he returns there every year as his one single annual backpacking trip. I wanted to ask WHY?? but didn't want to be rude or undermine his experience. I do want to ski to Ostrander Hut in the winter, some day.
Hmmm, I guess my examples are all on-trail ones. But feel free to mention some of your off-trail surprises, too.