Sequoia National Park, CA – Backpacking Alta Peak / Meadow

Alta Peak is in Sequoia National Park not far from the Giant Forest.  The particular trail we took allows for a showcase of grand sweeping panoramas, beautiful trees, and lakes. According to a variety of guide books and websites – the peak is a strenuous climb and the peak itself sits at about 11,208 ft (3,416 m). Some individuals will be subject to altitude sickness so please be prepared for this and be aware of your personal health when climbing this particular peak. 

At a high level, our plan involves the following:

  • Leaving work on a Friday afternoon and camping at a campsite
  • Picking up our permits early in the morning on Saturday morning
  • Hiking up to Alta Peak and then camping at Alta Meadow Saturday night
  • Packing up camp on Sunday morning and hiking out to return Sunday afternoon/evening – ready for work by Monday morning

Booking Campsites and Backpacking Permits

In order to backpack in Sequoia National Park, or for any national park for that matter, you will need to reserve a backpacking permit. Instructions on how to do that are located here. Please note that in recent years backpacking has been becoming more and more popular and permits have been notoriously hard to get, especially for highly trafficked trails. Be sure to reserve your permit early.

For Sequoia National Park in the year 2018, applications were accepted beginning March 1st at 12:01am Pacific Time – we made sure to get our permits on time.

Wilderness permits cost $10 plus $5 per person within the quota season.

We managed to get a 12 person permit for our requested dates. (12 people is the maximum amount of people who are allowed on a single permit). These permits need to be picked up in person before starting your hike – check the Sequoia NPS for opening hours as these vary between seasons.

In order to book a campsite we had to to book them directly on recreation.gov or be lucky enough to find a walk up campsite. We were able to reserve Potwisha Campground for Friday evening about two months before our backpacking trip – unfortunately we weren’t able to get the closest ones to the trailhead. Campsites do fill up quite quickly before the summer season. Please note that the maximum number of people per campsite is 6 and a maximum of 2 vehicles per campsite. We booked two campsites because we had planned for 12 people.

Each campsite costs $22 per night of camping.

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Map detail section from NPS

Getting There

Driving to the campsite from Los Angeles takes roughly 4 hours to get there without traffic. If you’re planning to go during rush hour or after work on a Friday night – plan for an additional 1  hour of driving time depending on traffic conditions. We also stopped on the way there to get dinner and there are many affordable options along the way. If you’re looking to save some cash on road trips check our other article here.

Google maps driving directions

Gear

According to trail condition reports the previous weekend we were told that there would be snow at the top of Alta Peak. We packed traction devices and trekking poles for this particular hike as well as cold weather gear. We later learned that much of the snow had melted and traction devices nor trekking poles would be required for this particular trip. However, it is still important to check trail conditions before going early in the season as snow melt is variable.

Some of our gear laid out before packing them into bags

You will most likely need a food storage container as well for your food during the evening. There is some conflicting information as to what’s listed on their website vs what the rangers will tell you in person. Their website indicates that a portable food storage container is recommended but not required while at the permit issue station they say it’s required. I would bring a food storage container just in case the rangers are not aware of what’s listed on their website. It’s $5 for 3 days to rent a Garcia Bear storage container from their visitor’s center.

Food storage areas – required according to NPS

Potwisha Campground

Site 16 is an excellent campsite that has room for two cars and up to five tents. It also has a small trail to the Marble Fork Kaweah River next to the campsite.

Enjoying the campsite and reading the park newspaper
Marble Fork Kaweah River next to the campsite
Enjoying the campfire at night

Backpacking

Find topo maps of the area from United States Geological Service here. USGS stopped updating their printed topos decades ago, some of these maps do not accurately reflect the current landscape.

We had originally planned to start from Wolverton Trailhead to Alta Peak to Moose Lake and back out on the Lakes Trail. However we were thwarted by high mountain passes and lack of time so we opted to stay at Alta Meadow and return back on the same trail.

We got an early start to the day and woke up around 5:45 to leave our camp by 6:15 to arrive at Lodgepole Visitor’s center by 7:00. We managed to pick up our permits quite easily and found that there were many walk in backpacking permits available. We also enjoyed some breakfast outside the Visitor’s center before driving over to the Wolverton trail head and beginning our hike.

Enjoying breakfast at the visitor’s center
Starting our hike on the Lake’s trail

The hike initially started in the Giant Forest so most of this was shaded and continued with a very gradual incline. Once we approached the top of Panther Gap a nice vista emerged! I can’t emphasize how amazing this view is and you’ll just have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate the beauty of it.

A nice break spot on Panther Gap
Panorama of Panther Gap vista

After reaching Panther Gap we continued for about a mile and enjoyed these vistas for a while until we were back in the forest.

Enjoying the sweeping vistas

Once the trail split to ascend Alta Peak, the grade increased significantly . The difficulty of this portion of the trail is harder than normal due to the thin air at this altitude.  One of the members of our group started experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness which can be common at higher elevations. We also found marmots at this altitude. Be sure to watch out for these guys and don’t leave your pack unattended – they’ll be sure to tear right through your bag to get to your food.

Hiking poles make an ascent easier
Vicious marmots

As we continued ascending closer and closer to the tree line the terrain more closely resembled high alpine terrain. On our ascent we saw a lot of thick snow – in some places the cover reached about 2 feet.

Ascending Alta Peak

The ascent does involve some bouldering and rock hopping since we had to work around some of the thick snow. We found the climb to the geological marker can also be a little nerve wracking due to the sheer dropoff on the other side of the marker.

Big climb up some rocks
Ascending the boulders
Panoramic view on the top of Alta Peak
At the top with the USGS marker.

On the way down we experienced similar views that were seen at Panther Gap. It’s quite amazing and you’ll definitely want to stop and take it all in before moving on.

On our way down from Alta Peak

Once we reached Alta Meadow we attempted to go cross country and ascend the ridge to Moose Lake. However, due to time constraints we decided to turn around and attempt the ascent another day.

Continuing cross country

We turned around to Alta Meadow and set up camp there for the evening. The campsite there is really spacious and practically empty during the early season. There is also a water source close by if you head back about 1/4 of a mile back onto the trail towards the trail head. We found the water to be flow to be quite strong and suitable for our needs.

Camping at Alta Meadow for the evening
Sunset across the Great Western Divide
Sunset is really nice

We had a very nice dinner filled with Mountain House ( Italian Style Pepper Steak & Lasagna ) and other goodies. Mountain House is very easy to prepare and a quick option but they are more expensive and do take up more space in your pack. 

Mixing up our dinner

In the evening we were even visited by a few deer – be sure to keep your food in a bear can for the evening!

Deer at camp – high ISO screen grab
GPS Tracks for Day 1
Elevation profile for Day 1

The following morning we got to sleep in as it would be quite a relatively easy day to get out of camp. We found that the evening temperatures, at an elevation of just under 9000 feet, was not that cold and quite bearable.

Getting the morning started right
A pleasant hike out makes for an easy day

It took us about 2 hike out from our campsite to the trail head. We made excellent time as it was downhill and easy going.

GPS Tracks for Day 2
Elevation Profile for Day 2

Post Hike

Following our hike we decided to visit Sequoia Brewing Company in Visalia, CA. They have a variety of interestingly named themed beers such as: The General Sherman IPA, Mount Whitney Pale Ale, Half Dome, and many others. Their food was quite deliciously as well and very affordable depending on what you decide to get. 

Big Stump Burger

Budget

This one was fairly affordable and can also be done cheaper by cutting out the dining options or by preparing your own backpacker meals.

Description Cost
Gas $75
Camping Food $20 Backpacker Meals

$20 Other Food Items

Stop in Delano on the way up $10
Stop in Visalia on the way back $20
Campsite + Permits $22 + $10
Entrance Fee Free with NPS Annual Pass
Total Approximate Cost Per Person $ 127

Video of the Trip

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