Hiking Mt Winchell

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | Other California trails
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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 Winchell (4196m).

The best approach to Mt Winchell for a day hike is from Big Pine via the so called "north fork" route or "Seven-lake trail".

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.

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). 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 (in the right season) waterfalls (3.5 hours into the hike).

The trail turns left 50 meters into the meadow crossing the creek and ascending the ridge to the left. Ignore this crossing and continue on the same trail towards what appears to be an impassable wall. There are three notches in front of you: you want to climb to the middle one. The route to Mt Winchell is all cross-country and it begins here:

This leads you to a notch that enters the Palisades Glacier. In front of you are the North Palisade and Thunderbird, but keep following this canyon/creek uphill and you'll eventually see Mt Winchell's majestic tower.

This route works if there is little snow/ice beyond Sam Mack Meadow. Very often, however, there is way too much snow up those chutes. In that case you might be better off following the official route to the glacier: cross the creek where the "Trail" sign is and climb up the left ridge to the rim of the glacier. Then follow the rim (turn right) and find a safe way to cross it in its entire length. Needless to say, this is a much longer route, but usually one can find a way to bypass the snow and ice. Winchell will look like this if you are coming from the east:

The direct route from Sam Mack Meadow to the summit takes about 4 hours. The longer route takes easily an extra hour.

The direct route from Sam Mack Meadow to the chute of Winchell is not long but it is very demanding. There are two lakes along the way: the Trapezoidal lake and the Oblong lake. Ideally, stay between the two and away from either's shores (you have to stay high above them or you'll get stuck). If your route ends up being more from the northeast than from east, Winchell will look like this:

Ignore the chair-shaped chute with all the white stuff that is very visible from this direction. Climb towards the other chutes, to the left. When you get there, you'll realize that there are two chutes, and the correct one is the right-hand side chute.

Climb this chute to almost the very end. When it gets class-4, look to the left for a way to traverse into the adjacent chute, which is the summit chute. Once you climb over that ridge, you see the summit. There are brief sections that are steep enough to be borderline class-4. In particular, i could not find any easy way to cross over into the summit chute. Mark the route because coming back down is not trivial.

The views from Winchell are a mixed bag. It has the worst view of the Palisades themselves, but probably the best ones of Dusy Basin.

  • Lake 1: 2h
  • Sam Mack Meadow: 3h45'
  • Trapezoidal Lake: 5h
  • Oblong Lake: 6h15'
  • Chute: 7h30'
  • Summit: 8h
  • Back down to the parking lot: 14h


Pictures of the hikes
View from the top (video)
Hiking California