This year’s long summer Sierra trip was a return to an area I sped through when I hiked the middle stretch of the John Muir Trail in 2006. At that time we came over Pinchot Pass, camped at Lake Marjorie, and then hike through Upper Basin and over Mather Pass the next day. I felt a bit rushed through Upper Basin, mainly because we were trying to outrun a horde of mosquitoes. But it still remained one of my favorite scenic stretches of the JMT and I was looking forward to a day where I could go back and explore.

That day came this summer. Sooz and I planned a nine day outing that would take us over Taboose Pass and down the old John Muir Trail to Cartridge Pass, eventually leading into Lake Basin where we would explore, fish, climb some peaks, and enjoy some Sierra solitude. Depending on the time we spent there we also tried to wedge in a couple of days to do Arrow Peak from Bench Lake and Split Mountain from Upper Basin. With this year’s late snow melt we went in with a flexible itinerary and the ability to change it around depending on how fast we moved and conditions we encountered. It turns out that this was a good plan – snow kept us from getting into Lake Basin and we were able to change plans mid-week.

Trip Report: Days 1 and 2, Taboose Pass Trailhead to Bench Lake

Starting up Taboose Pass

Starting up Taboose Pass

On the night of Friday, August 5 the three of us (me, Sooz, and David) met up at a pullout campsite in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We arrived after dark and as we drove north through Olancha and eventually Lone Pine all we smelled was smoke from a fire to the east and I was worried about how it would affect our trip. Our permit needed to be picked up on Saturday morning when the visitor’s center opened at 8, and we discovered that the Alabama Hills cafe opened at 7. We were there when they unlocked the doors. Because this is what you need sitting in your stomach when you’re about to climb 6000 ft to a pass.

Alabama Hills Cafe Humphrey Bogart Skillet

Alabama Hills Cafe Humphrey Bogart Skillet

After a relatively painless permit pick-up (pulled #6 from the lottery and were out in 20 mins) we headed north to the Taboose Pass Trailhead. This pass is in between Independence and Big Pine and is kind of a rite of passage for any Sierra backpacker. I was feeling a bit left out, never having done it before. I’ve heard horror stories of this pass told around many a campfire, and I just needed to experience it for myself. Here’s what I knew: it starts low, at 5500 ft in the desert conditions of Owen’s Valley. It is an interminable climb up ankle-twisting rocks where there is no shade and very few places to camp. It is a 6000 foot climb to the Pass which is desolate and windy. Sounds lovely. What I learned: yes, it starts low and hot. Yes, there is little shade. But the views are great, there are lovely places to take breaks and soak the feet, there are few campsites but we found a nice one just below the pass, and the grade of the climb was perfect enough to keep chugging along. I really enjoyed it far more than I expected. I’d do it again.

Taboose Pass: Not As Horrible As Reported

Taboose Pass: Not As Horrible As Reported

So, we finally got on the trail about 10 am in the mid-morning heat. Most people recommend starting very early but we simply weren’t able to since we had to pick up a permit in Lone Pine at 8. Just when the heat was starting to get to me we reached the first water crossing at 8000 ft. It was frigid and shaded so we spent a while cooling down. After that the ecology turns more High Sierra and less desert and I started to feel ‘at home’.

Fireweed at about 9500k

Fireweed at about 9500k

We climbed to about 10,500 ft, camping at the last campsite I knew of below the pass, tucked away behind some trees and a bit off trail. A steady breeze was blowing so we had no mosquito issues. Unfortunately the smoke we had smelled the previous night had put a damper on things and the whole day had been a bit hazy. It made for a nice sunset glow, however. 5000 ft of climbing in a little over six miles was definitely good enough for the first day and we zonked out early.

Starting out from camp, morning of Day 2

Starting out from camp, morning of Day 2

The next morning we packed up to clear un-smokey skies and we finished the climb to Taboose. Along the way we spied lots of sheep poop but never any bighorns. We did see several grouse (or mountain chickens, as I like to call them) and a few marmots. There were more snow fields as we climbed higher but never enough to lose the trail. At the pass we ended up crossing paths with Laura, our favorite Mountain Moose. She was heading out after a few days of playing in the mountains and it was great to chat and get some beta from her.

Descending Taboose. Arrow Peak dominates the horizon. Bench Lake in the distance.

Descending Taboose. Arrow Peak dominates the horizon. Bench Lake in the distance.

It was an easy hike along trail from the Pass to Bench Lake and we arrived there around 2:30 pm. After a bit of searching we chose a campsite on a small rise on the north side of the lake. It was slightly breezy which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Unfortunately as the day went on the breeze died and the mosquitoes came out in force. Still, it was a gorgeous spot with incredible views. David caught us some brown trout for dinner and we went to bed happy, dreaming about tomorrow’s hike of Arrow Peak.

Camp at Bench Lake

Camp at Bench Lake

Bench Lake Sunset

Bench Lake Sunset

Map and GPS Track

Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd

Mountain sports addict. Dog Mom. Craft beer drinker. Tech nerd. The best days are those spent above 10k ft. Meet me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google +


Ewa · September 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Thank you for this report. After doing JMT this July/Aug. I want so much to go back to the Sierras. Your hike sounds great! Now I want to do Taboose Pass too.
BTW, Humphrey Bogart Skillet looks sinful.

Karl · September 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm

If (when) I quit my job and do more backpacking, your great blog adventures had something to do with it…

Shane · March 24, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Nice report. How was the road condition on the dirt road to the trailhead? I heard low clearance vehicles are out of luck.

    calipidder · March 26, 2014 at 9:36 am

    When we drove in there we didn’t need 4WD but we did need the high clearance and good tires of our Trailblazer. There are a lot of sharp rocks. That said, there were some regular passenger cars parked at the trailhead that had clearly made the drive in. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that, my primary concern would be a flat tire or damage to the bottom of the vehicle due to the rocks.

    I think the road was damaged pretty bad during some of last year’s storms, but maybe that’s good. If they’ve fixed it since then it means it’s been recently graded. But I’d recommend calling to find out.

Rich Williams · August 13, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Hey Rebecca. Did you make it to Upper Basin and up Split? Just did Split last weekend from Northeast approach, and thought it might be fun to sometime do it from the other side. Certainly a lot easier on summit day to do it from Westside! Hike to base over Taboose is probably about the same slog as it is to Red Lake. Thanks! Rich

Ken · September 22, 2015 at 7:59 pm

We came down Taboose Pass three days ago. A relentless decline, but a wonderful creek filled with ice cold spring water saved the day. Best water on the JMT. There Re several excellent campsites on the route. We literally camped on the summit. Caught the evening sun and morning sun!

Dale Matson · July 7, 2016 at 4:40 am

Nice photographs and graphics. I did the whole climb in a single day . Until I did Baxter Pass last year, this was my most difficult pass. Kearsarge Pass is an expressway compared to these two passes.

Tom Pogue · July 23, 2016 at 7:34 pm

I did this pass with a few of the guys from my high school cross country team and our coach in 1968. We packed canned food, cast iron skillet, etc. Planned on catching fish for protein. No luck with that so for the last 3 days we lived off a watery soup made from the wild onions that grew over the pass down by the river. We were young, fit, and strong and that week just about killed us. We never saw another human being the whole 7 days. Don’t ask me why but I’ve had a dream of going up that pass again. I too remember camping on the East side of the pass. We got there about 3pm and everyone went to sleep, we were that “gassed”.

Donald Coffin · January 5, 2017 at 5:02 pm

I have been up it and down. I really dont mind the up but the down is so hard on every part of your body. I like to break it into 2 sections going up so I dont kill myself. I am going to be 49 this spring and plan on doing it again in August. Wish me luck. The beauty of this area makes all the pain worth it. If you havent done it you should just to get your man card. lol

Ravi Nagarajan · January 7, 2017 at 5:44 pm

Very nice blog! I wonder whether there is enough traffic on the road to Taboose to make hitching a reasonable possibility, or if it is better to pre-arrange a shuttle.

Jose Miramontes · April 4, 2017 at 10:40 pm

Planning on meeting some friends on the JMT. What is the mileage from Taboose Creek Trail Head to Bench Lake? Thanks

TButier · February 4, 2018 at 9:04 am

Very helpful report of Taboose Pass. My husband will be hiking it alone to meet our boys and I on the JMT this summer. Great to have the description and to know what to expect. Thank you.

james · July 24, 2018 at 7:29 pm

Hey, I am gonna do this hike in about 2 weeks. Are there any thing I can do to prevent altitude sickness?
Also, I am not an avid hiker, so I am a little worried about the hike. Any pointers?

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