Great Western Divide Traverse

Great Western Divide Traverse

Page Type Page Type: Route
Location Lat/Lon: 36.66200°N / 118.474°W
Additional Information Route Type: Scrambling
Seasons Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Additional Information Time Required: One to two days
Additional Information Difficulty: Class 3, with class 4 summit blocks
Sign the Climber's Log


I inherited this page from Dave K in September 2013 and wanted to give my thanks to him for creating this page and giving me the chance to build on it. I've since expanded it from the Midway/Milestone traverse to cover much of the Great Western Divide.

The Great Western Divide is one of the highest and longest sub-ranges in the Sierra Nevada that stands completely separated from the Sierra Crest, and simultaneously it remains one of the most remote and least accessible along much of its length. For over forty-two miles the divide twists and turns in a general north/south direction through the western Sierra and is punctuated by dozens of twelve and thirteen thousand foot peaks. The range is bounded by Cross Mountain and North Guard to the north and continues through Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park to Trout Meadows at the base of Angora Mountain in Sequoia National Forest to the south.

Approaches towards many of the major peaks in the range, especially the northern and central areas, can involve extensive travel of fifteen miles or more. The long approaches make combinations of the peaks desirable to many travelers. This page overviews what is likely the quickest and most realistic traverse of those most remote and sought after summits on the northern end of the range beginning with North Guard in the north and covering seven major summits to Milestone Mountain just six air miles to the south.

Where individual route pages are available and provide good information I have referenced those pages in the writeup rather are repeating every detail unnecessarily. Most of what is outlined here is information on how these routes can be linked up to complete the traverse.

For most portions, or if doing this in its entirety, I would recommend doing the traverse as described from north to south. More often than not this will take advantage of sandy, looser terrain on the descent and more solid ground on the ascent.

The Kaweahs and Great Western Divide from Table Mountain


North Guard from the SouthNorth Guard from the South
Route Map for Great Western Divide TraverseRoute Map

Depending on where you live and whether you are seeking to do the entire traverse described here or just a specific portion of it, most parties will likely start in either the western Sierra at Roads End in Kings Canyon National Park or in the eastern Sierra at Shepherd Pass trailhead in Inyo National Forest. Other approaches are possible, including Horse Corral Meadow in Sequoia National Forest to Cloud Canyon, or Kearsarge Pass in Inyo National Forest to East Creek.

If doing the complete route from North Guard to Milestone Mountain the loop is best completed using Mills Foot Pass, Lucys Foot Pass, or Harrison Pass (all to the east) regardless of whether you begin at Roads End or Shepherd Pass.

See the individual mountain pages available for complete approach descriptions.

North Guard to Mount Brewer to South Guard

Sunset from Mount BrewerSunset from below Mount Brewer

Trip statistics between North Guard and South Guard via Mount Brewer:
1.9 miles one-way, 1800 feet total elevation gain
Class 3 up and down North Guard, otherwise mostly class 2

When doing smaller groups of peaks this trio of North Guard, Mount Brewer, and South Guard is a fairly popular option and is usually accessed from Roads Ends although Kearsarge Pass is a decent alternative if beginning on the eastern side of the Sierra. This is a fairly straightforward and intuitive portion of the traverse and probably does not need a lengthy description here.

The route begins with an ascent of North Guard which is usually climbed via the South Face and West Ridge (this is most easily approached from Roads End). Refer to the route page for a complete description of the ascent/decent route which has good class 3 scrambling and a wicked looking summit block at the end. Most rate the block as class 4, but it is actually quite easy and doesn’t really involve a class 4 move… just very exposed feeling class 3 (it isn’t even really as exposed as it feels).

Descend North Guard via the same route to the south and as soon as the slope eases and becomes class 2 traverse at about the 12700 foot (3850 meters) level towards the Northwest Slope of Mount Brewer. This ascent is comparatively easy, mostly class 2 and a bit more solid and interesting if you stay closer to the ridgeline to the east. Again, refer to the route page for more details. At the top of Mount Brewer a class 3 summit block awaits… completely inconsequential if you were successful on North Guard.

From Mount Brewer decend the South Slope directly towards the lakes sitting in the cirque 400 meters below. This is about as easy as it gets (if you chose to follow this north to south) as the slope turns to deep sand shortly after leaving the summit. You can pound your way down in just minutes.

Ascend South Guard by first climbing the gentle ridge extending to the south of the lakes below Mount Brewer. Once at the 3780 meter elevation traverse further south and climb the wide chute up to the shallow saddle north of the South Guard summit. This is initially scree and soon turns into slabs as it approaches the summit plateau. From the plateau it is an easy walk to the summit blocks. As an alternative, the South Ridge of Brewer can be connected to the North Ridge of South Guard and is reportedly class 2-3, but I don't suspect any faster or better.

If climbing only these three northern peaks to complete the trip from South Guard it is an easy descent to Longley Pass and hike out to Roads End via Lake Reflection. Otherwise the route continues to Thunder Mountain.

South Guard to Thunder Mountain

Thunder MountainThunder Mountain

Trip statistics between South Guard and Thunder Mountain:
2.5 miles one-way, 2400 feet total elevation gain
Class 2 for the traverse with class 4 on the summit of Thunder Mountain

This section in its entirety is probably not frequently done as it would most frequently apply to anyone doing all seven peaks mentioned here together. Picking it up at its midpoint, however, is a logical jumping on point for those traversing Thunder Mountain to Milestone Mountain via Roads End/Lake Reflection. It doesn’t really apply if approaching the southern bit of the traverse from Shepherd Pass.

From South Guard make an easy (and usually quick) decent down sandy slopes to Longley Pass and down more sand (or snow in early season) from Longley Pass towards Lake 3496. Bypass the lake on large talus blocks on the southwestern shoreline until you reach the wide chute to the ridge south of the lake. Climb the ridge staying in the lowpoint of this chute, drop down to Lake 3620 immediately northeast of Thunder Mountain, and climb Thunder Col (just east of Thunder Mountain). Near the top an ice ax may be useful in early season. Otherwise the upper few hundred feet of the col can be quite steep, loose, and extremely tedious. From the col it is easy class 2 (class 3 as desired) to the south summit of Thunder Mountain.

Thunder Mountain to Table Mountain to Midway Mountain

Thunder Mountain East RidgeTraverse to the Summit of Thunder Mountain

Trip statistics between Thunder Mountain and Midway Mountain via Table Mountain:
3.9 miles one-way, 3000 feet total elevation gain
Class 3 on Table Mountain and class 4 on the summit of Thunder Mountain

One challenge in completing the traverse from Thunder Mountain to Midway Mountain is getting around the west and east ridges of Table Mountain in between. The east ridge is long, steep, and has a cliff along much of the north side. Consequently the traverse is best accomplished by dropping to the west of Table Mountain.

The route begins by returning from the class 4 summit of Thunder Mountain, which I found to be quite spicy in approaching (partly because I was off-route, see photo to the left). The route to the summit of Thunder Mountain is described on its East Ridge page.

From Thunder Mountain return to the southeast slope and drop west to Table Creek at the first prominent notch just below 4000 meters. The gully here is exceedingly loose and steep, and would probably be considered treacherous if multiple people were attempting it at the same time. Best to go it alone or stick very close to your partners. When the slope lessens you have a choice between the North Side or South Side of the West Ridge (both are overviewed on the Table Mountain page). The former is shorter but class 4 and it wasn’t apparent to me where the correct chute began, so I recommend wrapping around the base of the west ridge at 3700 meters and entering the cirque southwest of Table Mountain. From the end of the cirque enter the last chute on the left and take the left branch initially, then fork to the right as it nears the crest of the west ridge (still 300 feet below the plateau). About 100 feet below the crest of the west ridge drop slightly into a chute on the right that drives straight up to the plateau (unless you already managed to be in this chute). Again see the Table Mountain page for more detail. Follow the plateau to the summit.

Table Mountain is descended via the Left Side of the Southeast Face. Cairns make the entrance to the initial chute near the southern end of the plateau where it narrows appreciably. Follow the gully 100-200 feet to the chockstone, crawl beneath it, and follow more ducks down ramps as described on the Table Mountain page.

As you exit the Southeast Face of Table Mountain and turn south Lake 3780 comes into view 0.4 miles northeast of Midway Mountain. Make a descending traverse to aforementioned Lake 3780, cross the outlet, and climb the class 2 East Ridge of Midway Mountain to a prominent, narrow notch at 3860 meters. Easy class 2 boulders lead to the summit.

Midway Mountain to Milestone Mountain

Northeast Chute of Milestone MountainNortheast Chute of Milestone Mountain

Trip statistics between Midway Mountain and Milestone Mountain:
1.2 miles one-way, 1100 feet total elevation gain
Class 2, with Class 3 near the summit of Milestone

The route between Midway Mountain and Milestone Mountain is relatively short and takes only 2-3 hours to complete even at a moderate pace.

Though Secor’s guidebook suggests connecting Midway Mountain and Milestone Mountain by descending the West Slope of Midway Mountain and following with an ascent of the Northwest Face of Milestone Mountain, the route is far more straightforward with less elevation gain and loss if completed on the east side.

From the summit of Midway Mountain, descend the easy class 2 slope to a very prominent but narrow notch in the east ridge (this notch can be gained on either the north or south side of the ridge when first approaching Midway from the east). From the notch a small tarn is visible to the southwest at around 12,500 feet elevation (the lake is not shown on maps). Descend as needed to easier terrain from the notch and traverse southwest to the tarn.

From the tarn NNE of Milestone Mountain, ascend a short but shallow chute and cross a snowfield to the open talus slope of the northeast face. Ascend the talus to an obvious chute northeast of Milestone Mountain’s summit pillar. Near the top of the chute reach a headwall just below the crest where the first bit of class 3 is encountered. Climb the first portion of the headwall on the right side a short distance. When it becomes difficult, traverse left on a narrow ledge. The ledge is only 6-12 inches wide in places, but has excellent handholds and less than 20 feet of exposure.

Following the headwall at the top of the Northeast Chute on Milestone Mountain, ascend the final few feet to the north ridge. Drop down the west side on talus and sand 70-100 feet, then cross left over a rib to the next chute (should be a cairn here). Ascend from here to the summit… there is a good bit of class 3 but no significant exposure. Many options are available to ascend the slabs, but easiest to first cross to the far right, slowly work back to the left as you climb, then back to the right again and up slabs to the summit. Big area for a nice rest and view!

Essential Gear

None needed!



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