Jim Ranks the Big Passes!

Many factors come together to make this list, so like most rankings it's a balancing act (kind of like Hopkins Pass !-).
Hopefully the explanations do their part to make my opinions clear. The more passes I visit, the more difficult this page becomes!
I've included Wind River and even the short Ruby Mts. as well.

Here is the chronological order for the high passes I've crossed (or visited):

Big Sandy/Jackass'Lizard Head' * Washakie
TaboosePinchotGlenForesterTrail Crest
Italy* SeldenPine Creek
Mono - Rock Cr.SilverMcGeeHopkins**Mono II
Big Sandy/Jackass II 'Lizard Head' II *Hailey Fremont trail pass 10650'
Taboose IICartridge *Dumbbell ** Cataract **MuirLamarck Col *
PiuteLamarck II *
Crownv. Mantle**v. Blue Canyon** v. Valor**Crown againChuck
Mono -YosemiteKuna Crest**Lost Lakes** IslandLake Catherine**Blue Lake**
'Pear-Moose Divide'** 'Moose-LonePine Divide'**
BishopKnapsack**v. Potluck**
Wind River & Ruby passes have beige background - all others Sierra Nevada
* denotes marginal trail; ** is true cross-country. 'v. ' indicates "just visiting" = not crossed with a full pack.
Roman numeral indicates multiple crossings.

Valor (11,900 feet) dayhike - 2001
An unspeakably raw and wild place! Part of Valor Pass' allure is its remote location, well away from any developed paths on either side of the LeConte Divide. The original plan for 2001 was to carry a full pack over several big passes (Mantle, Blue Canyon, Reinstein, Valor), but foul weather slowed us early on and converted the easternmost part of the trip into two dayhikes. Coming at Valor from the west (our Pearl Lake camp) is an amazing ramble, up and down past several lakes and minimal greenery. In bad weather this route would be highly exposed, but in good weather it's heavenly. The view of Mt. Goddard above, and Martha Lake below, is breathtaking and unearthly.

Cartridge (11,700 feet) - 1999
Part of the original John Muir Trail, this part of the famous trail was rerouted over Mather Pass in the late '30s. The path can still be followed up the south side, and pops in and out in Lake Basin where a clear path isn't really necessary. It was a strong workout, but no worse than Glen Pass; the north side is a loose scree-slope but requires little more than patience to get through. The view south from the pass is fantastic, with Pyramid and Arrow peaks framing the Mt. Brewer massif, and the larger lake is a beauty. Lake Basin also is unspeakably gorgeous.

Silver (10,900 feet) - 1997
This pass is hard to beat for many reasons. The trail is pleasant, views in all directions are wonderful, a bit of greenery breaks the granite monotony at the pass, and high lakes are visible on either side. I was charmed by the unnamed 'peak 11428' just west of the pass, but the view south to Gemini, Seven Gables and the area around Selden Pass (from which I first saw this area, a year before) is exceptional. The view north reaches to Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak along with the high peaks of southern Yosemite Park; the Minarets are seen edge-on, so their ragged profile is not seen well from here. It was a great spot, and we took our time leaving here; in fact, other people were there before us and when we left they hadn't moved. I wish we had found the time to visit Goodale Pass on the far side of peak 11428, but our timetable was too tight.

Big Sandy / Jackass Pass(es) (11,000) - 1979 [and 1988]
The view of the Cirque of the Towers justifies Big Sandy's (10,900) status in my mind. Let's be honest, though: this was my first serious high-elevation pass of my lifetime, and that is never easy to downplay! The trail takes a most circuitous route to the pass, and two actual crests are crossed before dropping to Lonesome Lake, and maps and books disagree on the names for the pass or passes as well! Once you've reached the top(s), though, you see what all the fuss is about. While it's no match for the major Sierra passes in fame or elevation, the view is undeniably spectacular. It can neither be described nor photographed.
1998 note: it was not much easier even with experience, but at least I knew when and where it would end! Bugs and rain followed us right to the pass. The scenery is still unbeatable, though!

Taboose (11,500) - 1989
My first Sierra pass, and what a way to start! Bone-dry for the first few miles, with a roaring stream just out of reach at times. Up a steep series of benches, then the amazing beauty of the pass itself. The immense South Fork canyon, Arrow Peak and Bench Lake with a blur of trees surrounding it, the Cirque Crest with Mt. Ruskin... I still have no recollection of hiking from the pass to the Muir Trail (of course, I wasn't finding much oxygen up there). It was not the highest I had been in my lifetime (see Lizard Head), but it beat out Oregon's highest point by 250 feet. It was exhilirating!
1999 notes - The road was worse, but the trail was better; a new rest-stop was cut from the willows to provide shade and water part way up. Even so, we climbed no further this time than in '89; still a beautiful climb.

Mono/Yosemite (10,500 feet) - 2002
Only two things made this one challenging: it was day one of a long hike, and we were off the trail within five minutes of starting. That first half-hour was far harder than it should be! A buggy night at the lower Sardine Lake was followed by pretty scenery among the red rock of Bloody Canyon.

Kuna Crest (11,800 feet) - 2002
This was real work, but also quite rewarding. The passage above Helen Lake was winding and at times a bit spooky among huge, steep talus - but at the crest mounts Lyell and Maclure slap you in the face. That was a very pretty campsite between this pass and the next..

Lost Lakes (11,400 feet) - 2002
A nice alternative to Donohue (I think.. I haven't been to that one yet!), with the Ritter-Banner combo awaiting just over the crest. The lakes looked like a nice though Spartan place to camp; our route south and east was not an easy one, but we managed.

Island (11,500 feet) - 2002
No wonder this one gets raves. Easy climbing on the Muir Trail leads to tarns and an unspeakably fine view of Banner Peak. Our views only improved as we headed toward the next pass, but that one is clearly on the JMT highlight reel!

Lake Catherine / N. Glacier (10,100 feet) - 2002
This one comes in two parts. The first is a straightforward walk that culminates at Lake Catherine and the narrow glacier that separates Ritter and Banner. This is spectacular, but only half the fun. Once one skirts the lake and a smaller pond below it, one reaches the edge of the world, which falls away in a torrent of falling water: welcome to the North Fork San Joaquin! Our semi-random path to Twin Island Lakes worked very well, all class two - and probably the single most mentally wearying strolls I have ever taken.

Blue Lakes (11,250 feet) - 2002
Once one reaches upper Bench Valley one has already accomplished a great deal.. but the pass awaits. A bit of work was done here, since we took a route too far to the north - but we arrived in midafternoon to enjoy farewell views of Ritter and the Minarets, and welcome visions of the Clark Range. The descent was also tough and tiring, and camp felt mighty good that night!

Ruby Mts 2003
A fine set of mountains, seen on a trip cut short by June snow. Plenty on the ground in advance too, but the trek to 10450' Liberty Pass was enjoyable. The second day's view from the unnamed second (10100) pass convinced us to retreat rather than challenge Wines Peak in building clouds - a wise decision. I must return here to finish the job some day.

Cataract (11,500 feet) - 1999
This one was easier than Dumbbell Pass the previous day on its south side, but again was a mental and physical workout on the north face. The Palisades were even more spectacular, but one's eyes were drawn to the near-vertical descent to a half-hidden Amphitheater Lake. Our choice of routes worked well, though, and two hours later we were looking up, wondering what lunatic first decided to cross this spot from the north.
While it's not strictly part of the pass crossing, I must mention the long, hard route that takes one from Amphitheater Lake to Deer Meadow. This was grueling work, and we knew we had accomplished a great feat when we stepped out of Palisade Creek on its north shore.

Lizard Head and Cathedral passes (11,800) - 1979 [and 1998]
This is an unforgettable trail. In '79 it traveled through the Popo Agie Primitive Area, back when "Primitive" was a legal term that implied an area that was less developed than a "Wilderness" area! Despite the 'upgrade' to wilderness, the trail had changed little in '98. The steep trail gave wonderful views west to the infamous Cirque and south to an imposing spire known as the Monolith before leveling out well above my home state of Oregon. The view from here was most peculiar: other than a few nearby peaks I appeared to be standing on top of the world, looking down at the mountains! No place in the Sierra has produced the same feeling, since fault-block ranges just don't have high plateaus like the one I walked on the rest of that magical day. The trail heads slowly downhill then regains nearly all its elevation at Cathedral Pass, where the view opens up below and to the northwest. I've been higher up in the Sierras several times, but I've never felt higher.
1998 note: a thunderstorm chased us the entire distance from Lizard Head to Cathedral passes with loud rumbles of thunder,snow pellets and heavy rain at times. The views were amazing under the clouds, but no time was available to let it sink in. Thankfully, the trail was easier to follow than in 1979 despite the rivulets crossing the path nearly everywhere.

autumn 2002 divides near Moose Lake
These two passes are uniquely tough to place, as they are my first two solo passes AND on my first off-season jaunt. The views were spectacular, the weather amazing, the solitude intense. The routefinding was straightforward and entertaining, and the pride I felt in crossing these passes alone, in early October, is unmatched.

Blue Canyon (11,300 feet) dayhike - 2001
Another wild, remote pass dividing nowhere from nowhere else. The upper reaches of Blue Canyon are definitive Sierra wilderness, with patches of green in the lowest spots and only granite up high. From the pass, the wild lands of Goddard Creek appear directly below, with the incredibly rough east ridge of Finger Peak looming to the west. While not an expansive view like Valor Pass, you're seeing country here that few people visit, and that's ample reward for the trek.

Hopkins (11,400) - 1997
Our first view from the slopes above McGee Lakes was an ominous view of a steep slope topped by a large cornice of last winter's snow. We immediately began thinking of alternate routes to Mono Creek; sadly, the only decent alternative involves hitchhiking. We worked our way up to the small pond from which we would pick our route up to the pass and found it to be icebound, with decent crevasses radiating from it. After one unsuccessful try for the top, we found a better route that required only about twenty steps to be carved into the hard snowpack. Larry found a successful route around the cornice, so we worked for a good half-hour making and improving steps before we shouldered our packs and climbed up the slope to the top. We took photos and partied for a while, then descended into the Hopkins Creek valley, which we had all to ourselves.
The pass itself has a nice view north of the McGee valley culminating in dramatic Red-and-White Mountain. Mts. Crocker and Hopkins block the view east, but Hopkins Valley is a peaceful view that leads the eyes into the Second Recess of Mono Creek, with Mt. Mills standing guard behind. A great place to stand after conquering a mean pass - I would not like to do this south to north!

Dumbbell (11,700 feet) - 1999
Perhaps the most schizophrenic pass I've seen. The south side was uncomplicated, and the pass is narrow but level with perfectly-framed views of Marion Peak and the North Palisade group at each end. The descent on the north side was spooky in general, terrifying for a few brief moments, and timeless in its tedium as the uppermost lake twists itself to check all moves to get around its west shore. On the other hand, we saw no one between Marion Lake and the Muir Trail at Deer Meadow, and the Dumbbell Lakes valley was a beautiful spot to keep to oneself.

Bishop/Columbine (12,950) - 2004
After years of skipping past, three of us finally surmounted this popular pass.. where were the crowds, the debris, the worn-out Dusy Basin? It was pretty and decently pristine, at least where we hung out the first night. Then it was over Columbine, which we did directly up the slot.. something tells me that isn't the easy way! Palisade Basin was quite nice, the view at Potluck appalling - so we stayed in the Basin an extra day before re-planning the trip. Very pretty!

Lamarck Col (12,880) - 1990, 2000
After years of wishing, Scott finally reached this goal, and I fulfilled my promise not to stop him as I had with my '96 leg injury. This was the climax of a huge trip, and it was a full day's work from our 11300-foot camp. We found our way through the vague areas with good success, and this route is pretty well ground in despite being an unmaintained route. We were worn out at the end of this day, and my tired knee was wrapped well before the end.
2000 - We started about two miles and 1500 feet lower this time, and our routefinding didn't live up to my expectations. The lower camp made for an obscenely long day, and we took over twelve hours to reach the road this time. My leg was fit this time, and I was still dragging at the end!

Mantle (10,800 feet) dayhike - 2001
An easy pass that is nowhere near a trailhead, or for that matter a trail! Crown Basin on the west is highly underrated for its scenery, and Blue Canyon to the east is wonderfully desolate. From Hummingbird Lake camp we crossed this pass in short order and circled the adjacent lake; since many birds were cheerfully chirping here I informally named it Songbird Lake. It takes a while to get anywhere in particular from the top of the pass, but the country around it is worth seeing.

Piute (11,550) - 2000
I sure wish I had felt better here. Long regarded as a fairly simple pass over the crest, it was a beautiful backdrop to our first camp. The altitude struck back overnight, and our final climb was hampered by our poor night's rest. The view to the west was prettiest just before the pass, and the view north isn't so hot until after the pass; still, it's a pretty spot. It was more popular than many, so we had to share the views. It certainly isn't a steep pass, with gentle slopes on both sides of the crest, and the weather was ideal.

Forester (13,200) - 1989
Even with an early start this took a long time to reach. The pattern was becoming familiar: long winding trails on the north side of passes, steep drops on the south side. [That seemed odd in a mountain range where north faces are distinctly steeper than south faces, and later Sierra trips show the reverse to be true most often.] As the smaller peaks dropped below me and the Palisades re-emerged, I found that I was getting used to no trees and no oxygen. The view at the top caught what remained of my breath: the Kaweah Peaks show off nicely from Forester Pass, and several of my photos fail to capture that ragged wall the way I remember it. (Sadly, my unfamiliarity with the area was showing; I did not actually know those were the Kaweahs at the time.) This amazing elevation would be my personal best for nearly 26 hours!

Hailey Pass (11,200) - 1998
Another early-start day took us to the crest of Hailey Pass by 9AM. A classic pass with narrow yet spectacular views, and the Twin Lakes near the crest on the south side. The view from the pass is less amazing than the trail past Grave Lake and Mt. Hooker that one must take to get there; I'm glad that we came from the east to this pass so the scenery was in front of us the entire time!

Crown (10,200 feet) - 2001
Both our visits here were hindered somewhat by clouds. Day two was disturbed by thunderstorms shortly after the pass, and day eight found clear skies overhead but limited Sierra views north and south. Even so, peaks from Yosemite to the Kings-Kern Divide were barely discernable, and the nearby peaks around Blackcap Basin and Bench Canyon were also rewarding.

Selden (10,900) - 1996
Now this is the way to lay out a pass! Just at the upper fringe of timberline, adjacent to our camp at beautiful Marie Lake, we crossed this pass before we were fully awake. The photogenic view north to the Silver Divide and Red Slate Mountain kindled my interest, and the next year I explored the peaks and passes of that part of the Sierra. The view south from Selden is pretty but unspectacular, since the main peaks of the Sierra are blocked from view by Mt. Senger.

Pine Creek (11,100) - 1996
This pass had escaped me for several years. I had come this way in 1993 but turned back with severe altitude sickness, and we chose Italy Pass over this a week before (ouch). It was personally satisfying to finally reach the top of this pass, and I took several photos of myself smiling by the sign. (Too bad the camera was malfunctioning... my images came out deeply underexposed, but the miracle of digital retouching nearly makes me recognizable as I sit by an illegible sign.) It's a very pretty pass as well, with Mt. Humphreys to the south and Bear Creek Spire north. The south side is a beautiful high meadow with granite boulders erratically placed for dramatic effect by a long-lost glacier. Our trip was supposed to last a few more days, but my ankle wasn't interested; the fact that I was leaving early may have diminished my enjoyment of the view.

McGee (11,900) - 1997
The views west from this trail are as pretty as anywhere, even though I knew the name of only one peak (Mt. Isaak Walton). The Silver Divide is extremely photogenic from the uppermost reaches of Fish Creek. I was truly surprised to find that Red Slate Mountain is made of red slate! I knew just little enough about the Sierra to believe that it was all granite with a touch of the volcanic in places; the thought of slate as something other than thin exfoliated granite surprised me greatly. The pass itself has no view of note to the east, but after several switchbacks the view southeast opens up nicely. It showed us a lot of the area that we had already covered in the Mono Creek area. It also showed us the next big challenge: Hopkins Pass.

Trail Crest (13,600) - 1989
Passes just don't come any higher than this - not on actual trails, at least! This trail is up a sheer wall on both sides, and the east side looks like a decent earthquake would force trail crews to start from scratch. My energy level was fading fast at the Mt. Whitney junction, so I amazed my companions by skipping the highest point in all states but Alaska and continuing to the car at Whitney Portal. The view from the pass is spectacular, but human contact was inescapable (it was Sunday on Labor Day weekend), and I was out of practice, so I moved on after only a short time absorbing the view.

Mono [Rock Creek] (12,050) - 1997
The scenery on either side of this pass is outstanding! The actual view from the pass, however, is rather odd - a high wasteland with Summit Lake sitting alone in a barren bowl. The elevation gain from the trailhead is minimal, and Little Lakes Valley is exceptionally photogenic. Bear Creek Spire dominates the view (its south face was a fine view from Pine Creek Pass), and the little lakes and meadows make for a colorful foreground. Just south of the pass, the view down Mono Creek's canyon, Red-and-White and Red Slate mountains and Mt. Baldwin is lovely.

Italy (12,350) - 1996
While I look back with pride on crossing this pass, it took a toll on the rest of the trip that we had planned in 1996. For reasons unclear to any of us, it took several hours to hike the four miles to the top, and thunderstorms were poised to greet us at the summit. Views of Mt. Humphreys in the south and Seven Gables in the west were great, but we didn't enjoy our victory long before heading for Lake Italy. The evil talus at Jumble Lake depleted our energy levels, and the snow slopes that slid into Lake Italy were nearly too much for our depleted bodies and fragile psyches. We stumbled into camp very late that afternoon, and we slept late to purge ourselves of the weariness that Italy Pass had dropped on us. Later reading makes me wonder if we made things worse than they needed to be; various authors were closer to the lakes in Granite Park, and much farther from Jumble Lake, than we were on our route.

'Pass 10650' - 1998
The guidebook didn't quite get my attention with this high point on the Fremont Trail. I expected a fairly relaxed pace to flatten out around timberline, offering a few views but nothing spectacular. The trail dipped to 9800' before the climb, which added to the grade, and the crest was well above timberline for views of all the high peaks to the east. North was blocked by Mt. Geike, but a few minutes further on a beautiful new view opened up to the northwest. I had chosen this route to avoid the relative monotony of the Highline Trail north of Big Sandy trailhead; the route was difficult, and equally monotonous at times, to Scab Creek, but this view and the Cross Lake camp were worth it.
The wind was strong!

Washakie Pass (11,100) - 1979
This pass could not match the spectacle of the previous passes in the Wind Rivers. While the hike up was pleasant and scenic, the actual pass confronted us with a strong west wind and grey clouds. The views were limited in all directions but east and west, and the west view was of low foothills. Later views of the East Fork Valley and the west side of the Cirque of the Towers were pretty, but the pass itself was a letdown.
1998: my brother and his wife crossed here, and he recently mentioned this pass as one of the highlights of the trip, so he thought better of it than I did.. but this note should be on his page of favorite passes, not mine!

Pinchot (12,100) - 1989
A long zigzag on the north side, the emerging view of the Palisades kept my interest up, but having visited Taboose the day before left me relatively disappointed here. It's also where my companions let me know that our trip needed to be shortened by a day, so that disconcerting bit of news probably tarnished the view a bit as I pondered how to coax a few more miles out of my inexperienced body in the upcoming days. Another day, another high-elevation record for me; this one would last for nearly three days.

Glen (11,950) - 1989
Halfway up Glen Pass I was able to look back fondly on Pinchot. The north side of this pass is a grueling grind, with steepness AND switchbacks (hey, aren't switchbacks supposed to lessen the hiking grade??) slowing me down to a virtual crawl. My companions reached the top, ate a bit, put on sweaters and read a few chapters from books before I arrived. Another nice view of the Palisades north, and Mt. Brewer and the Kings-Kern Divide were fantastic yet foreboding: somewhere up there was another pass that needed crossing.

Put another way, here are the 'top three' by category. Even this is difficult!

Best Full 360 View: Lizard HeadKuna CrestValor
Best 180 View: Big Sandy (Jackass)TabooseForester
Best Narrow View: Lake CatherineDumbbellLost Lakes
Easiest: SeldenSilverPine Creek
Hardest (true x-c):Lake CatherineCataractDumbbell
Hardest (trail?):CartridgeItalyLizard Head
Most Relaxing: SilverPine CreekHailey
Wildest: ValorLake Catherine*Cataract
Big Sandy, Jackass, Lizard Head (79 and 98)
Taboose (89 and 99)
Lamarck Col (99 and 00)
*more precisely, that little gap about 2/3 of the way down from Lake Catherine to Twin Island Lakes - can wilderness possibly get any wilder and more remote than that?