The Palisades

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | Other California trails
Pictures of the hikes

The Palisades region of the Sierra Nevada is located west of the town of Big Pine. It includes some of the highest mountains in California, including Thunderbolt Peak (4,267 m) with its subpeak Lightning Rod, North Palisade (4,341 m) with its subpeak Starlight Peak (4,328 m), Polemonium Peak (4,328 m), Mount Sill (4,316 m) and Mt Agassiz (4,234m).

There are three main approaches to the Palisades:

  • From the Seven-Lake trailhead west of Big Pine via Sam Mack Meadow.
  • From the South Lake trailhead west of Bishop via Bishop Pass.
  • From the South Fork trailhead west of Big Pine via either Scimitar Pass or Glacier Notch
For hiking i personally recommend the routes described below, none of which requires climbing equipment when free of snow/ice:

For Mt Sill click here. For Mt Winchell click here. For Mt Gayley click here.

From Big Pine's Seven-lake trailhead

In Big Pine, take the main road that goes west (right), Glacier Rd. The trailhead parking lot is almost at the end of the road (before Glacier Lodge). There is a campground about 200 meters before the trailhead.

From that campground drive up the road shortly and find the hiker's parking lot on your right-hand side (there are bear lockers right at the parking lot). The trailhead is behind the restrooms. The altitude here is about 2,000 meters.

This is the beginning of the North Fork route. And this is the popular "Seven Lake" trail.

The trail goes around a huge hill and coasts three of the lakes. It takes about 2 hours to the first lake. The second lake is at 3066m of altitude. About 1km after the third lake (3 hours into the hike, 3124m of altitude), turn left into the Glacier Trail (instead of continuing the Seven Lake loop).

The trail climbs up a canyon and reaches an enchanting place, Sam Mack Meadow (3280m), completely surrounded by mountains and waterfalls (3.5 hours into the hike, about 3200 m).

The trail turns left about halfway into the meadow, crosses the creek and ascends the ridge. As you ascend, you have a superb view of all the (eight) lakes. When the lakes are not visible anymore, the trail ends, and you simply ascend following cairns up boulders and slabs, until you reach the top of the ridge, which is actually the rim of the glacier. On your right, you have a view of the lake at the center of the glacier. In front of you the Palisades: North Palisade is the one in the middle (the third tallest mountain in California), Thunderbolt to the right and Mt Sill to the left (it looks like a closed fist). You are standing just below Mt Gayley.

The Palisade Glacier is not for the faint-hearted.

The route to climb North Palisade is via the U-notch, which requires ice axe and crampons. Beyond that it's serious climbing up the chimney.

If you want to reach Mt Sill, you have to walk around the eastern border of the glacier, which may be icy, a very tiring and trying experience. If you get to the chute between Mt Sill and Apex Peak, see the description from Glacier Notch.

In august 2003, the left side of the glacier was still too icy to walk without crampons (and dangerous even with crampons). In september 2004, there was still ice, but it was possible to work around it. In fact, the ice was holding the rocks firm (thus minimizing the danger of loose rocks). It was nonetheless a tedious exercise to get to the bottom of Mt Sill. It took two hours to reach the base of Glacier Notch from the moment i entered the glacier.
Glacier Notch from North Palisade in summer 2013, a very dry year:

There is a serious chance of falling rocks while you are walking inside the glacier.

From Bishop's South Lake trailhead (via Bishop Pass)

This trailhead is located near Lake Sabrina, which is reached by paved road from Bishop. On the road to Lake Sabrina, look for a left turn that leads to South Lake.

It takes about 3 hours hiking from the South Lake trailhead (2990m) to Bishop Pass (3645m, 12 kms) through a series of pretty lakes (notably Long Lake, the first one, with islands of vegetation, Saddlerock, which is the third major one, and Bishop Lake, the last major one).

Once you reach Bishop Pass (in about 2h 45'), Mt Agassiz is clearly visible to the south (left).

Mt Agassiz is a two-hour scramble from Bishop Pass. The mountain has three summits: the northern (real) summit, the middle summit and the southern summit. Leave the trail after the rocky switchbacks, when it makes a long curve west and enters the southern side of Bishop Pass. Head for any of the chutes of Mt Agassiz. Coming from South Lake, the choice is usually between the northern chutes and the western chutes. Your reference point is the lake west of Agassiz, Lake Who, which has a permanent snow patch (in the unlikely event that you stumble into them, ignore the smaller lakes that are just little ponds). If you leave the trail before Bishop Pass and head left for the chutes of Mt Agassiz, you are heading for Lake Who. If you pass Lake Who, you went too far. The northern chute (the first steep chute visible from the trail) splits into chutes 1A and 1B: 1A heads straight for the summit, whereas 1B heads for the saddle between the real summit and the middle summit. Both these chutes have much scree, and 1A is also extremely steep. A better choice is chute 2A, the left branch of the western chute that starts just to the left of Lake Who. This chute is flanked by two monoliths and dead-ends into a massive headwall. When you reach this wall, you can easily cross over to your right into the widest of all chutes, chute 2B, that comes up straight from Lake Who.

For a while the best strategy is to stay in the middle of 2B. When it shrinks, move to the left and climb the ridge. From the ridge you will see the summit to your left. If you stay on the ridge, you reach the middle summit, not the real summit. However a saddle connects this summit to the higher summit to its left (north).
You can also reach the summit directly by climbing a notch in the left side of the headwall.
Note that (in late summer) from the saddle it is possible to walk down into the Palisades Glacier, cross the Palisades Glacier to the bottom of Mt Gayley and then head down for the Sam Mack Meadow and the Seven-Lake trail to Big Pine. So one could organize a one-way hike from South Lake to Big Pine.
If you want to see the other Palisades, leave the trail before Bishop Pass (that continues down towards Dusy Basin) and make a sharp 90 degree turn south, coasting Mt Agassiz. You should be coasting to the left a small lake (Lake Who) and a permanent snow patch (which, incidentally, might be the last chance for water you can get). After the lake, Thunderbolt Pass is clearly visible to the southeast. If you don't want to lose elevation, keep walking straight towards the pass, but it is a tedious and tiring exercise to walk on big talus rock and scree.

Be aware that the hike from Bishop Pass to Thunderbolt Pass is one of the worst heaps of rubble in the entire state of California. All sizes and shapes of boulders are represented in as chaotic a fashion as possible. It is impossible to get it right. Most people try to stay as high as possible, but then end up staying too high and having to do the worst possible bouldering. On the way back virtually nobody finds the same way they came unless they use a GPS. An absolute torture. There is no water at the pass. On the western side (Bishop Pass side) there is a small patch of ice about 500 meters before the pass. On the eastern side the only way to get water is to walk down to the Barrett Lakes, an exhausting loss of elevation. To get back up to the pass, you will probably use all the water you get at the lakes.

Alternatively, walk down to the lake east of Isosceles Peak and then up into the moraine that comes down from Thunderbolt Pass. The mountain next to Agassiz is Winchell (actually just peaklets southwest of Winchell). You don't want to climb Mt Winchell from here: Mt Winchell is best climbed from the other (northeastern) side via Sam Mac Meadow. After the Winchell peaklets there is a small unnamed peak and then the southwestern face of Thunderbolt. Once you reach Thunderbolt Pass (3800m), you enter the Palisade Basin.


The chute immediately (20 meters) to the left of Thunderbolt Pass is the "Southwest Chute" to Thunderbolt Peak.

This is the only mountain of the Palisades whose summit block is off limits to hikers who don't carry rope and gear. The chute is first very rocky and then very sandy/slippery. About one third of the way, the chute is blocked by a chockstone. To your right there is a relatively easy ramp to get up the a slippery gravely ridge that you can't see. Follow this ridge until it rejoins the chute (make sure to leave markers here because on the way down it is not trivial to find this route) and then keep to the right of the chute as it splits. There's another brief class-3 section but mostly you reenter the chute with no hair-raising moves. The chute dead-ends at another chockstone, except that this time you can easily squeeze under the chockstone.

Now you are at the edge with a majestic view of the Palisades Glacier underneath. Lightning Rod is very visible to your left. Alas, Thunderbolt Peak is right above your head to the right and there is no safe way to summit it. You can descend to the other glacier side for about 10 meters and then climb the spine, but obviously without a rope you have slim chances of surviving a fall. If you climb the class-4 wall to the right of the chockstone you get straight to the summit block. Again, a fall can be fatal here. In any event, the summit block is class-5, so it may be pointless to risk your life on the last 20 meters only to fail anyway 20 meters later. The very summit, in fact, is a 5-meter pinnacle that cannot be climbed with bare hands.

My 2007 time (with a detour to Dusy Basin):

  • South Lake (2990m):
  • Second junction: 30'
  • Third junction: 50'
  • Bishop Lake and beginning of the switchbacks (3450m): 2h 15'
  • Bishop Pass (3645m, 12km): 3h
  • West Isosceles Lake: 4h 30'
  • East Isosceles Lake (3350m, 14km): 5h
  • Thunderbolt Pass and Southwest Chute 1 (3800m, 17km): 6h 30'
  • First chockstone: 7h 45'
  • Chute split: 8h 30'
  • Second chockstone and top of chute (4267m, 18km): 9h30'
  • Thunderbolt Pass (3800m): 11h
  • Bishop Pass (3645m): 13h 30'
  • South Lake (2990m): 15h 45'
If you ignore the chute to Thunderbolt Pass and continue eastward (the Barrett lakes are clearly visible down to the southwest), you reach the chute to climb North Palisade (it takes about one hour from Thunderbolt Pass to the mouth of this chute, so about 5-6 hours from South Lake).

This route involves massive bouldering and scree. Several hikers prefer to drop down a bit from Thunderbolt Pass and take the ledges that rise up more gently towards the North Palisade. Most books talk about three white cliffs that create two chutes.

The right and wider chute leads to the U-Notch (4100m), getting wider as you ascend. If the chute gets narrow right away, it is not the right one. The right one comes right after a very visible granite slope. The granite is your best reference point, especially if you are hiking right next to the wall and you can't really figure out the white cliffs.
The white granite slabs as you arrive from Thunderbolt Pass:
The chute from the bottom:

The route:

This chute leads to the U Notch. Be forewarned that the chute is full of scree and will reach class-3 grade. At some point the chute widens and the scree is replaced by steep granite slabs. Stay on the right of the granite or you'll hit an impassable chockstone (there's a rock formation in the middle that splits the chute in two). At the very beginning of this granite section you have three choices: continue up the chute bearing right; climb to your right onto the ridge; continue along the granite until the end and then climb to your right to the ridge. I recommend that you climb the ridge at the beginning (you might end up doing it even if you are not planning to). Continue up the ridge until it hits the vertical wall of the "church". That's when you have to climb back into the chute. Look left and you'll see an easy way to do so (still marked with a big cairn in 2012). Walk up into the chute about 60 meters and you will see the "steps" on your left that lead to the ledges. You are about 200 meters from (below) the U-Notch (top of the chute).

If you don't see the cairn, pay attention where the chute suddenly narrows: on the left you can climb easily. That's the beginning of the steps. (If you go further up almost to the U-Notch, you will find another place where you can do the same thing, but it's class-4). You are about 1.5 hour from the summit block.
The steps lead gently to a ledge that moves left. The exposure is dramatic but the handhold is always excellent. There are three sharp corners with gaps that will not be popular with people who are afraid of heights. The second one is definitely dangerous. Every now and then you have to climb up, and usually these sections are clearly marked by cairns. The total length of these ledges is about 100 meters. It dead ends in a broad area that is the bottom of the main chute. Ignore cairns on the other side that mark a route for climbers. Turn right up into this chute. Now the summit is right above your head.

After about 50 meters of steep ascent you reach the chockstone. It can easily (well, relatively speaking) be bypassed both on the left and on the right. Continue up and the chute gets wider and becomes the "bowl". Now it's up to you to pick the route that suits you best.
This is a very frustrating mountain because the whole approach from Thunderbolt Pass to the summit is much easier than it seems if you follow the correct route, but the very last summit block is virtually unreachable (without ropes and gear). The only route that takes you near the summit block is all the way to the right.

Move all the way to the right of the bowl until you see a stream of white stones (not visible down below when you enter the bowl). Walk there and follow the white stones.

When you can, turn right and ascend in the other direction. Now find a way to climb big boulders until you see a overhanging rock. That's a good reference point.

Near it there's a little tunnel. Sneak into it and up the other side. You are very close to the summit. Unfortunately, whichever way you try, you always end up having to do a class-4 or class-5 move in conditions that are close to impossible in order to climb the very last boulder.

(Frank Renwick wrote that he followed my notes but i think he found a better way so i quote his email: "Around to the right (north) from the overhanging triangular rock (maybe 25 feet) there is an overhanging block with anchors on top where people rappel from. A bit further right than that is a steep wall with a tunnel. I went through the tunnel and then I did a short narrow chimney section to a mantle that put me on a large square block. The left side of my body was jammed into this gap while I made my way up and 'mantled' onto the top of the block. There was quite a bit of exposure to my right (the east, toward the glacier), while I did this. Not an immediate drop off, but fairly close to the edge of a dramatic drop off. That was the crux. I can't remember what I did from this square block to the actual summit block, but it was not hard."

  • South Lake (2990m):
  • Junction to Treasure Lakes 20'
  • Junction to Marie Louise Lakes 40'
  • Junction to Chocolate Lakes 50'
  • First creek crossing 60'
  • Junction to Ruwau Lake 1h10'
  • Second creek crossing 1h35'
  • Third creek crossing 2h
  • Rocky switchbacks 2h10'
  • Leave the trail before Bishop Pass (3645m, 12km): 2h 30'
  • Lake Who/ Agassiz Lake 2h50'
  • Thunderbolt Pass (3800m, 17km): 5h 30'
  • North Palisade Southwest Chute 2: 6h 30'
  • Granite slabs: 7h30'
  • Steps/ledges: 8h 30'
  • Summit: 9h 30'
Videos: Video of the ledges and From the bowl to the top

If you also ignore the chute to North Palisade and continue southeast, you reach the very visible Potluck Pass with an upper ramp that looks like an unpaved road, beyond which is the lake that one sees from Scimitar Pass (south of Mt Jepson). This is the southern route to Barrett Peak and Mt Sill.

(Viewed from the Middle Palisade)

If you are heading for Barrett or Sill, i.e. for Potluck Pass, you are in for some of the worst bouldering in the entire Sierra. It may be better (if not faster) to take a lower route from the Barrett lakes than to coast the various chutes of the Palisades.

Barrett Peak looks like this:

Route to the top:

And then cross over into the other side (the Mt Sill side) where class-2 and easy class-3 moves take you to the real summit (not visible in these pictures because hidden by the fortress-like false summit).

See also:


Pictures of the hikes
Hiking in California
Sierra mountains
Palisades Weather
Video from the top of Agassiz
Camping at South Lake
For day hikers who just need to sleep a few hours before an early start, the choices are grim. Camping is conveniently not allowed at the trailhead, although i have seen people pitch their tent in the parking lot (the environmentally friendliest way to camp because you are on asphalt and don't disturb nature). I guess if you arrive late enough there are no rangers to send you away. There is also a picnic area that is conveniently closed to camping (the one place where it would make sense to pitch tents since it is heavily used by humans anyway). The nearest campground is down the road and it's ridiculously expensive for those who only need to sleep a few hours and don't care about facilities. The cheap campgrounds (as of 2010) have conveniently been shut down. The expensive campgrounds not only suck but they are also full in the high season.
If you drive down the road, just next to the Willow campground on your left handside (right if you are driving up) you will see a broad parking lot for the Tyee Lakes trailhead. Walk up the trail for five minutes and you'll get to the John Muir Wilderness sign. That's a flat area and it's unlikely that rangers will come to kick you out. If you have one day to waste and want to be a bit more legal, go to the Bishop ranger station and get an overnight permit for the Tyee lakes. Once you get the permit, you are also required to have a bear canister to store your food. However, there is a bear locker at the trailhead so you don't need a bear canister. Rules and regulations for overnight hikes change (typically increase) every year, so good luck reading the long list that the ranger station will hand you.
The trailheads at nearby Lake Sabrina and North Lake are equally cursed with "Don't" signs. North Lake's campground is your best bet.
Regardless of what the laws say (not even a professional lawyer can keep track of them), i encourage you to camp in environmentally friendly ways. In my humble opinion, you don't disturb nature if you: 1. sleep in the car, 2. pitch your tent on asphalt, 3. pitch your tent in a picnic area, 4. pitch your tent right on a trail, 5. get a site in a campground. Whether these are allowed under the current laws when you read this is beyond my ability to doublecheck. The law is often friendlier to greedy private business and to incompetent government bureaucracy than to the environment.