Like so many before us, my boyfriend and I watched “Wild”, the movie version of the book by Cheryl Strayed, starring Reese Witherspoon, and immediately became infatuated with the idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
However, being quite inexperienced hikers with only a couple of hikes under our belts (and also lacking Cheryl’s motivation from personal trauma as well as her quest for self-discovery and redemption), we soon realized that maybe we should start out with a slightly shorter hike than the entire PCT…
No permits for John Muir Trail for us
This lead us to discover John Muir Trail. We were soon in raptures over the vivid descriptions on the internet and were set on hiking JMT. But – like so many before us – we didn’t win in the grand JMT permit-lottery.
Thus we started looking for alternatives to the JMT. We soon found this wonderful website detailing a hike dubbed Big SEKI Loop, and decided to send an application for permits for this hike. We needed permits for hiking north from Road’s End Permit Station, along Copper Creek. We got them immediately! It was such a relief after all the anxious waiting we’d done for the JMT-permit!
… But no Big SEKI Loop either due to lack of path
So then, early one morning in late July, backpacks stuffed and ready to begin our hike, my boyfriend and I stood gaping at the ranger at Road’s End. He had just told us that there was no way we were going to hike Big SEKI Loop. Apparently a section of one of the Loop’s trails was pretty much gone due to a rockslide (at least I think it was a rockslide, but I’m not sure).
But, looking at our sad faces, the ranger kindly reminded us there were lots of other trails in the area, and that he would be happy to change our permits to accommodate a new route. We sat down with our map and, regularly consulting the ranger, decided on a new route, which I have drawn an extremely rough sketch of here:
Why I recommend this route:
First of all: Don’t be scared of the silly name – it’s just a joke because I had to use some Advils, we’re not trying to imply that this loop is particularly hard or anything! As our “Advil Loop” was very much based on Big SEKI Loop, it’s similar to that in difficulty. It’s maybe a little easier than JMT as it’s shorter, but otherwise it’s also similar to JMT.
The first reason I like this route is of course, that it’s easy to get permits for it! You need a permit for hiking out Woods Creek Trail from Road’s End, returning via Bubbs Creek Trail some 10-12 days later.
And just like with Big SEKI Loop, this one also takes you along some of the John Muir Trail, so you will still get to experience part of JMT.
Another reason: The route was so varied. I felt like we got to see many different sides of Sierra Nevada. Both with regard to landscapes and the feel of the hiking. For instance we met lots of people the first nine days, which was wonderful because everyone was extremely friendly. But then from Lodgepole untill we hit Bubbs Creek just before Road’s End, we only met one other hiker! That was also a fun change.
As first-timers in the region it all in all seemed to be a great introduction hike!
Also, being from Denmark, we really appreciated the more touristy attractions: Summiting the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, soaking in hot springs and visiting General Sherman as well as getting to see all of the other Giant Sequoias that we walked by descending to General Sherman, and which we had to ourselves because none of the tourists came that far up the mountain.
In general, I would recommend Sierra Nevada to most people who want to go hiking on their own (without a guide) but are not that experiences yet. Obviously you need to prepare yourself for all the kinds of situations and emergencies that can arise. You do have to take care of yourself, and Sierra Nevada’s backcountry is and will always be potentially dangerous. But I still find that it is a great place for beginner hikers. The trails are generally very clearly marked and very visible, and we met people at least once every five miles except for the last two days, so we never felt totally alone.
And not least: The weather is very mild for such high altitudes! We had one day with rain and some with grey skies, but most days were sunny and beautiful. This also makes Sierra Nevada a comparatively friendly hiking destination for sure!
What are the differences between The Advil Loop and Big SEKI Loop?
I know that many hikers again this year are going to need an alternative when they don’t get permits for John Muir Trail. So I wrote this piece because I want other hikers to consider this route as an alternative to JMT as well as Big SEKI Loop.
SEKI Loop and Advil Loop are really very similar, because obviously we based our route on Big SEKI Loop. So it’s basically just a modified version of Big SEKI Loop. However, because we enjoyed it so much, I wanted to do this description for others who might want to copy. The main differences between our route and Big SEKI Loop, is that our may be better for tourists who’d like to summit Mt. Whitney and see the Giant Sequoias, as these are not part of Big SEKI Loop. If on the other hand you’d rather stick to the backcountry and avoid meeting a bunch of day tourists by the giant sequoias, then Big SEKi Loop is probably more for you.
After getting a somewhat late start thanks to the route-change, we started out going northeast on Woods Creek Trail. We were not used to the altitude and walked much, much slower than our normal speed, so we camped after only about 9 miles/14 km, deciding that we were too tired to start crossing rivers – Our camp was just before we had to cross a river, which used to have a bridge, before the heavy amounts of water in spring 2017 had taken it out.
We enjoyed the evening immensely though we were disappointed with our slow progress – we bathed in the river and enjoyed the amazing weather and the fact that we were allowed to make a campfire in this relatively low altitude.
We crossed the river easily by way of a huge log that had gotten stuck, basically providing us with a sturdy and beautiful bridge.
We continued along the trail until it merged with JMT/PCT and went south along JMT/PCT. In the afternoon we had our first bad river-crossing – we had to wade across a wide stream that came up to our stomachs. But the current was weak, so luckily it didn’t pose a real danger of drowning, mostly just of tripping and becoming even more soaked than we were just from the wading. We camped at Rae Lakes.
We were still walking in what felt like slowmotion due to the altitude, our very heavy backpacks and of course because we hadn’t found our hiking legs yet, and on our third day we had to cross our first pass – Glen Pass. We thought we’d never get to the top, being so slow, but we managed and were rewarded with beautiful views down towards Rae Lakes and towards the mountains all around us. We camped at an established campsite close to a river.
On this day we had to cross Forrester Pass at just over 4 kilometers! And lo and behold, this was also the first day we were able to walk at our normal pace. Seemed the altitude was no longer a problem, and our legs were finally getting used to the ordeal! Of course, our backpacks were also slowly but steadily getting lighter as we ate the food. We were, to be frank, almost ecstatic and started to enjoy the hike even more. We camped shortly after reaching the tree-line on the other side of Forrester Pass.
Our longest hiking day yet, we made it from our campsite and around 14 miles/22 km to our next campsite a couple of levels above Guitar Lake by Mt. Whitney – we pretty much set up tent just where the switchbacks up the steep shoulder of the mountain started. Our prettiest campsite yet:
We got up at 2:30 am to hike Mt. Whitney in the dark and watch the sunrise from the summit! Seeing the lights from many other hikers with the same idea snaking their way up the switchbacks was really a beautiful sight but also made you wonder exactly how out of our minds all of us hikers really are… Hiking a mountain in the middle of the night!
After a quick nap back in the tent at the foot of the switchbacks, we packed up and moved back down the path from Mt. Whitney. We then hiked back north on PCT/JMT untill we were back at Wallace Creek, which we had passed around noon the day before. This was the only time during our hike that we walked the same path twice, and it obviously wasn’t the most interesting part of the hike, but at least it was fast, since it was downhill. At Wallace Creek we turned left and walked west towards Kern Canyon, where we merged onto High Sierra Trail. We camped at Junction Meadow after a hiking day of almost 18 miles/29 km. We were truly back to our normal pace now – not that we think we’re particularly fast (we saw some seriously light and fast hikers out there!), but still.
On this day we walked south through Kern Canyon, which is at a much lower altitude than the landscapes we’d walked through the previous days. It was a fun change of scenery to go from high mountains with bare landscapes and snowclad passes to this lush, humid and warm canyon. In the early afternoon we hit Kern Hot Spring and took a much deserved warm bath. Heaven!
After our soak, we headed up from the canyon again, still following the High Sierra Trail. We camped at a very tranquil and beautiful Moraine Lake.
From Moraine Lake we followed High Sierra Trail to Kaweah Gap. Coming down from Kaweah Gap on the westside of the pass was the most beautiful hike I’ve ever done. There were gorgeous wildflowers all over the slopes, steep waterfalls and the path was so impressive – much of the time it was cut into the rocky sides of the mountains which gave you a completely unobstructed view down and out from the path. We camped at Bearpaw Meadow.
Unfortunately I had overstretched my achilles tendon when we were hiking in the dark on Mt. Whitney and I misstepped. I hadn’t paid it any attention, but on this day I suddenly realised that it was hurting more and more instead of less and less, and that it was slightly swollen and warm to the touch. Oops. I think maybe because we had some long hiking days after my little accident, I managed to irritate the tendon so much it became inflamed or something. The pain got worse all day, but luckily this was the day we had planned to go see the biggest tree in the world: General Sherman! Going to General Sherman meant lots of tourists, a supermarket and a restaurant. The area was called Lodgepole. We bought some Advils and a burger and camped nearby for the night. I took some Advils before sleep and early next morning and kept taking as many of them as it said on the package was ok all through the rest of the hike, which is surely not the advised way to deal with an inflammation in the achilles tendon, but it worked – I could walk at a good pace and sleep at night. And hence we dubbed our route “The Advil Loop”!
From Lodgepole we walked north on the Twin Lakes Trail, turning east and heading over Silliman Pass. On the other side of Silliman we joined Sugarloaf Trail. The forest here was very lush and at times seemed kind of like a jungle. And we saw our first and only bear on the entire hike! It bolted as soon as it saw us, so we didn’t get a picture, but it was absolutely awesome to actually see one after having carried the heavy bear cannisters for ten days!
We camped close to the cute little top called Sugarloaf, which gives the trail it’s name.
On this last day we headed to Roaring River Ranger Station and from there took Avalanche Pass Trail, crossing Avalanche Pass before descending back down to Road’s End and our car. And that was it!
Don’t hike with 12 days worth of food. We didn’t want to resupply, and we wanted some buffer days, so we packed for 12 days. Our backpacks were incredibly heavy! Not worth it – get a resupply point, I’d say for any hike longer than a week.
We had lots and lots and lots of water crossings. We were wearing rather heavy hiking boots with Gore-tex, because these are typically practical in for instance Norway, where a lot of the time the ground is soft and moist and you want your feet to stay dry. But these are not practical in the Sierra Nevada summer! We had to take them off every time we encountered water and cross barefoot, which is obviously not ideal, since it’s quite easy to slip and fall on slippery rocks with bare feet. Most other hikers were wearing hiking shoes or trail runners, that they just kept on when crossing and then they dried on their feet after. MUCH smarter!