Hiking Mt Sill

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 Mt Sill (4316 m) with its subpeak Apex.

There are four main approaches to Mt Sill for a day hike:

  • From Big Pine's North Fork trailhead (elevation 2400m) west of Big Pine via Sam Mack Meadow, Glacier Notch and the L-chute
  • From Big Pine's South Fork trailhead (elevation 2400m) west of Big Pine via Willow Lake, Glacier Notch and the L-chute
  • From Big Pine's South Fork trailhead (elevation 2400m) west of Big Pine via Scimitar Pass
  • From the South Lake trailhead (elevation 3000m) west of Bishop via Bishop Pass

The shorter ones are not necessarily better than the longer ones. The L-chute is almost always full of ice and it ends with a short but hair-rising class-4 section. Glacier Notch is difficult to reach from Sam Mack Meadow (from the North Fork route) because it requires coasting the Palisades glacier, often a deadly idea, and then climbing a class-3 chute that frequently has ice (another deadly idea). The South Fork route involves some serious bouldering. The Scimitar Pass pass route involes some serious bouldering AND a massive elevation loss after the pass. The route via Bishop Pass is not only long but also involves the worst bouldering of the Eastern Sierra between Thunderbold Pass and the Polemonium-Sill glacier (the glacier itself is usually not an issue in the summer).

From Big Pine's Seven-lake trailhead (North Fork route)

Big Pine is located ten minutes south of Bishop. In Big Pine, take the only 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. Beware that the water here is contaminated by all the mules and horses that are allowed to ride (and defecate on) the trails.

The North Fork trail goes around a huge hill and coasts three of the lakes.

(Note: one can also drive to the end of the road and take the South Fork trail for a while and then follow the signs to connect with the North Fork trail. This may sound like a faster way, but the way to go from the South Fork trail to the North Fork trail is so convoluted that i discourage it. On the way back it is also difficult to find the way down to the South Fork trailhead, especially in the dark).

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). Careful: this sign is easy to miss.

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).

The trail turns left 50 meters 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 fourth highest 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. 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, and then climb the steep chute to Glacier Notch, the saddle between Sill and Gayley: that too usually has ice and snow year-round. These pictures were taken (from Mt Winchell) in mid september of one of the driest years ever:

That's the only case in which you can hike up Glacier Notch. In a normal year the glacier extends over a much greater area making it impossible to reach Glacier Notch without crampons, ropes, etc. If you manage to get to the chute between Mt Sill and Apex Peak, see the description of the route from the South Fork that goes through the same Glacier Notch.

  • North Fork parking lot (2300m)
  • First lake 1h45'
  • Sam Mack meadow (3280m) 3h30'
  • Entering the glacier 5h
  • Glacier Notch 7h
  • Top of L-chute 8h
  • Mt Sill summit 9h

From Big Pine's South Fork to Mt Sill

This is my favorite way, although it involves route finding, bushwhacking, boulder hopping, creek crossings, etc. If you don't wear crampons, this route is more likely to get you to the top because it is more snow-free than the northern route.

The southwest face of Mt Sill can be reached from Big Pine also by hiking the South Fork (not the North Fork). This South Fork trail starts at the Glacier Lodge (2300m) and reaches Willow Lake in 6.5 km at 2900m of elevation. At the beginning you walk between the river and a residential area. Then pay attention to signs that direct you to the South Fork trail, and memorize these trail signs because on the way back one can easily make the wrong turn. The trail initially gains little elevation. Note that soon (in less than one hour) you have to cross a creek that may be impassable after a rain or in early summer when a lot of snow is melting. (The national forest has money to hire rangers to check your permits but doesn't have money to place a couple of logs on this creek). The trail then climbs a steep wall to reach a pass, from which you have a perfect view of Mt Sill and neighboring mountains (N37.10020,W118.45646). Then it goes down for about 1 km to a fork (37.09817,118.45744): straight you go to Brainerd Lake, right to Willow Lake. Go right and leave the trail, heading in the general west direction, following the South Fork creek that comes down from Mt Gayley. You should not go to Willow Lake, and in fact never even see it.

A few minutes after leaving the trail, as you walk up west towards Mt Sill, you have to cross three tributaries coming down from the southern peaks (an easy place to cross the first creek is at 37.09784,118.46004; for the second crossing try 37.09798,118.46105 or 37.09769,118.46140; and for the third 37.09770,118.46416). Use-trails appear and disappear on this southern side. The northern side of the Gayley creek is all boulders, but the route is easier to follow (so probably the best option in the dark). You can cross over to the northern side at several points, usually marked with cairns. If you choose to remain on the southern side, at the second you reach a little pond and then a vast meadow. This is another good place to cross over to the northern side of the creek.

There are three main ways to summit Sill from this direction: via Glacier Notch, via Scimitar Pass and via the Eastern Couloir.

  • Glacier Notch (by far my favorite). Glacier Notch is the saddle between Mt Sill and Mt Gayley. Head west all the way coasting the creek to the north (staying to the right of the creek). This involves climbing a steep sandy section towards a waterfall, then a rocky section to another waterfall, each waterfall leading to a meadow. From the highest meadow, take the chute (usually dry in the summer) to the left of the one that has roaring rapids. From this chute continue heading straight towards Sill. You have to climb down and up a couple of moraines, but nothing too terrible. When you have Glacier Notch (the saddle between Mt Sill and Mt Gayley) in front of you, move right towards Gayley and you should find a sandy use-trail that takes you to the bottom of Glacier Notch.

    Glacier notch from the east:

    The general route:

    Follow the diagonal groove and then find a class-2 way to zigzag to the top of Glacier Notch:

    If you climb above the diagonal line, you enter the very first chimney, which is borderline class-4 but takes you to the top of Glacier Notch in five minutes.

    If you don't like steep walls, there is an easier way to get to the top of Glacier Notch: before you reach Glacier Notch on the sandy use-trail, several of the chutes to the right of the use-trail lead to the base of Mt Gayley, and from there it is trivial to walk to Glacier Notch and to the "L-chute" of Mt Sill.

    These chutes are particularly helpful on the way down: getting down from Glacier Notch through its slippery chimneys is not fun.

    Once on top of Glacier Notch, head south (left, uphill) to the (very visible) "L-chute" between Apex Peak and Mt Sill (the north couloir). This chute is three things in one: solid class-2 rock to the left, loose scree to the right, and ice in the middle. Pick your favorite. I went up the solid rock to the left and came down the scree on the right. Alas, in most years you can't avoid the ice/snow because it fills the whole chute (yes, also in the summer). Brave hikers can bypass the ice/snow of the chute by climbing Apex Peak almost to the top and then traversing into the chute at the higher point where the ice/snow can be bypassed.
    At the top of this chute (stunning views of the Palisades glacier), look at your left: there is a little notch that allows you to head towards the south face of Mt Sill. You walk down and then up over a safe ledge for a minute or so until you reach a 20-meter wall. That wall leads to the southwestern crest of Mt Sill, ten minutes from the summit. Climbing this wall is not as difficult as advertised. It is rated class 4 but there are so many handholds and footholds that you have plenty of options on how to bypass the steepest sections... except one. Many people get intimidated by one overhanging boulder that cannot by bypassed from either side.

    The chute from Glacier Notch:

    The notch at the top of the chute:

    The class-4 wall to the crest:

    The chute and Glacier Notch from the summit:

    When you get to the crest, the summit is slightly to your right. Finding the route to the top is not trivial because you are on a crest made of very big boulders. It is not obvious which one is the real summit until you find the summit register. I found no USGS marker.

    • South Fork trailhead
    • Creek crossing 45'
    • Beginning of switchbacks: 55'
    • Pass: 1h 45'
    • Brainerd Lake sign: 2h
    • Meadow: 3h30'
    • Moraine: 3h 45'
    • Top of first waterfalls: 4h20'
    • Upper meadow: 4h 35'
    • Top of second waterfalls and highest meadow: 4h 50'
    • Entering the glacier: 5h50'
    • Top of Glacier Notch: 7h
    • Top of L-chute: 8h
    • Summit: 8h30'
  • East Couloir. Most people seem to prefer the route via Elinor Lake, although it is not the most direct. Turn left (south) into the third canyon from Willow Lake (just before the waterfall) to reach Elinor Lake (3350m). As the condor flies, Elinor Lake is about 3km from Willow Lake. From Elinor Lake hike the ledges to the west onto the Sill Glacier, which is roughly to the left before Glacier Notch. Whichever way you came, you have to cross the glacier and head for the East Couloir. This entails some hair-rising scramble over snow/ice. The only safe way is to make quite a detour north in order to find a safe place to cross the bergschrund, and then traverse back south on dry rock. This is time-consuming and dangerous. When you finally enter the couloir, you will probably feel that the bergschrund was not so bad after all: the couloir is a lot steeper than it is rated in famous books, definitely class 4 in several spots, and the loose rock is treacherous in those spots. Chances of rolling down for 10-20 meters are not negligible. The only good news is that (on a normal year) you are unlikely to be stopped by ice inside the couloir in late summer. The couloir leads to the southern side of Mt Sill (to the Polemonium-Sill glacier, which is usually dry in the summer at this height). Then follow the instructions for climbing the southern side as if you were coming from Bishop Pass.

  • Scimitar Pass. This is sometimes described as the "easy" way to summit Mt Sill. In reality it is one of the most devastating day hikes one can possibly think of. Saying that you can hike Mt Sill from Scimitar Pass is like saying that you can travel from New York to London via Brazil.

    Follow the South Fork route up to the second canyon, i.e. to the large swampy meadow, and turn left into this canyon. (Backpackers prefer to take the third canyon, the one that leads to Elinor Lake, where they can spend the night, and then from there head to the "notch" below Scimitar Pass). Beware of mosquitoes in the meadow (better coast it higher up taking a sort of short cut into the canyon). Walk up this canyon, staying wherever the terrain is friendlier. The canyon is wide enough that you should be able to find a route with no ice. If you hit snow, you can climb the ridge to the right, otherwise you can just continue walking up this canyon, which is broad enough to give you multiple choices on how to go up. Beware that it gets steeper and steeper. If you climb the ridge to the right, keep moving towards Scimitar Pass and eventually you'll see the notch used for the Elinor Lake route. Go through the notch and you'll reenter the same canyon. If you instead keep going up the canyon itself, at some point you'll see the notch to your right and from there you will have a view of Elinor Lake down below. If you stay in the canyon, you'll have to climb up three waterfalls, which can be done on the right of each one (on the way down this is not for the faint of heart). After the notch, the slope gets steeper and get used to it: it's called "scimitar" because it goes up like the curve of a scimitar. When you can, climb to the ridgeline. First of all, you'll have fabulous views of the Sill glacier. Secondly, the boulders are more stable. The route now opens up and becomes a very broad face. You have plenty of choice where to climb (class 2 routes are easily found, but class 3 routes are faster). Scimitar Pass (4019m) is not really a pass, just the only climbable part of the wall around Elinor Lake. As the condor flies, Scimitar Pass is only 2 km from Elinor Lake, but the elevation gain is significant. If you are familiar with the territory, it takes 8 hours to Scimitar Pass

    Scimitar Pass leads (northwest) into a saddle created by Scimitar Pass itself and Mt Jepson (4081m). You cannot reach Mt Sill directly through this saddle because the northwestern face of Mt Jepson (the face that faces Mt Sill) is a steep wall of rock. You have to descend the saddle to the southeast losing a ton of elevation. First you descend from Scimitar Pass to this saddle (from which Jepson can easily be climbed) and then turn left and get down towards the lake. Just before the lake, turn right around the base of the Jepson ridge and ascend the canyon that is basically parallel to the way you just came down. When you are at the end of the canyon, hike the wall to your left that takes you into the Sill-Polemonium glacier. This is even steeper. Once into the glacier the slope is much milder. It is virtually impossible to tell which one is the top of Sill because Sill looks like a very long ridge with no clear summits.

    As the condor flies, Scimitar Pass (4019m) is about 2km from Elinor Lake (3350m) plus elevation gain, and Mt Sill another 5km plus elevation loss/gain.

    • Bridge: 30'
    • Pass to Willow Lake: 1h30'
    • Entering the second canyon (the Palisade Crest drainage) at the meadow: 2h45'
    • Notch from/to Elinor Lake: 5h30'
    • Scimitar Pass (4019m): 8h
    • Saddle: 8h30'
    • Mt Jepson (4081m): 9h
    • Rounding the ridge almost to the lake: 9h30'
    • Base of Mt Sill: 11h
    • Summit Sill: 12h30'

    From South Lake to Bishop Pass to Mt Sill

    Mt Sill is frequently described as "easy" from the south. Nothing could be more misleading. The approach from the nearest trailhead (South Lake, trail for Bishop Pass) is enough to discourage all but the most hardcore and stubborn hiker. You don't even see your destination until the very end.

    See the description to Bishop Pass and Thunderbolt Pass. From Bishop Pass to Thunderbolt Pass to Potluck Pass the route is a parade of colossal boulders. If you think you've done bouldering before, think again. An infinite number of canyons/moraines make the route a test of will. The route contours the southern side of the Palisades. After passing the North Palisade's main chute, you see a high pass in front of you, Potluck Pass, the pass that appears to be an unpaved road.

    As soon as you can, start climbing up north (left). You are climbing the southeastern ridge of an unnamed peak (also known as Barrett Peak, 4,256m). You can head right as you go up so that you can reach the western ridge and get an idea of where you stand. If you see Scimitar Pass and Mt Jepson, you are still too low and too west: move to the left and much higher. Eventually, you will see Mt Sill appear on the northern side of the glacier.

    Find a way to get down and cross the glacier trying not to lose too much elevation. Usually this means that you have to descend the northern side of Barrett Peak heading left. In august the glacier is usually small enough that there is no snow/ice where you cross it: just boulders. Aim for the central chute of Sill. If you take the wrong chute, you might fail or even die. All the other chutes end in odd places that require exposed steep moves. (The widely-publicized southwest ridge looks deadly to me, incidentally). This central chute requires some difficult moves towards the end but is the fastest and safest way to reach the summit.

    The route from Potluck Pass to Barrett Peak to the Sill-Polemonium Glacier:

    The South Fork routes:

    • South Lake
    • Bishop Pass 2h 40'
    • Thunderbolt Pass 4h 30'
    • U-Notch chute 5h 30'
    • Start coasting the Peak 6h 15'
    • Polemonium glacier 8h
    • Mt Sill summit 10h

    View from Mt Sill (video)
    View from Mt Sill (2021 video)


Pictures of the hikes
View from Mt Sill
Mt Sill Weather
Hiking California