With a sabbatical on the horizon this summer, I had been thinking about a major hiking objective. After being regaled with photos and stories of the High Sierra Trail, a 72 mile route which traverses Sequoia National Park from Giant Forest to Mount Whitney, I had got it in my mind that this would be my summer epic. And it definitely was. I talked my friend Jon “Baristopheles” Chewning into hiking with me… spent months working out logistics, including trailhead tranpsortation (the beginning and ending of the trek are hundreds of miles apart)… ordering food… oh, and trying to get in a little training too!
Day 0, Tuesday, August 10 – My good friend Frank “Tiocampo” Farmer graciously offered to drive us to the beginning of the hike. We drove to Sequoia National Park, picked up our wilderness permit, and headed to the Dorst Creek campground. We managed to get in a little warm-up hike, heading out to the Muir Grove of Giant Sequoias, an enjoyable four mile hike right out of the campground.
The Muir Grove is a lovely small stand of Giant Sequoias, quiet and worth the effort. It’s always awe inspiring to be among these ancient giants.
Day 1, Wednesday, August 11 (Wolverton TH to Buck Creek) – Though the official start of the HST (High Sierra Trail) is at Crescent Meadow, many hikers start on the Alta Trail from Wolverton, which is generally considered more scenic, and about the same mileage (with a little extra climbing at the beginning). Frank drove us to the trailhead… we snapped photos… and were off. Frank hiked with us for the first half of our day. During this first section from Wolverton, we encountered probably a hundred or so high schoolers who were participating in a running camp. They were all very fit and very polite, and made me feel old.
After the forested climb, the trail broke out into “bigness.” That’s the only way to describe it. The Southern Sierra is just so big… much more vast and rugged than in the Northern/Tahoe region. We had a good hiking day, finishing up at about 10 miles out, spending our first night at the Buck Creek campsite.
Day 2 – Thursday, August 12 (Buck Creek to Upper Hamilton Lake) – As we did every morning, we started the day with Jon’s freshly ground coffee. Luxurious, yes… but it certainly made the trip more enjoyable!! After breaking camp, we started our morning of climbing through lovely shady forest, and hit our first destination, Bearpaw Meadow. Bearpaw is the site of a backcountry tent cabin lodge, complete with dining hall, and astonishing views of the Great Western Divide. After hanging out here for a few minutes, we continued as our hike went into more open country. The views again were just incredible… the huge Kaweah River Valley and Great Western Divide for company. Every time the trail turned a corner the view became more astonishing. As we climbed up towards Hamilton Lakes, my pack started to feel really heavy. I was carrying a lot of stuff… just the food for seven days is pretty hefty… and I started to get the idea of what I was in for during the coming days.
As you approach Hamilton Lakes, the big granite wall “Valhalla” comes into view, and you are in sight of it all the way to the lakes. I kept thinking that Tolkein’s “Nazgul” would come flying over the top at any moment, to swallow up any Hobbit backpackers. We finally made it to Upper Hamilton Lake, a large alpine lake surrounded by granite on three sides. We settled in for a wonderful evening of relaxation, alpenglow, bats, and the iPod with Bach cranked up. And the best dinner of the week (Packit Gourmet “Southwestern Black Bean & Corn Salad). Aaahhh.
Day 3, Friday the 13th (Hamilton Lakes to Moraine Lake) – There’s a scene in Rocky III, where Rocky is preparing to fight “Clubber” Lang (brilliantly played by Mr T). A reporter asks Clubber his prediction for the day. His simple reply… “PAIN!” Clubber would be my companion on this day of hiking, and several consecutive days as well. I knew this would be the hardest day so far. There’s a 2500′ climb from Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap, over just a few miles. Along the way we would pass some iconic Sierra scenery, including Precipice Lake, site of a famous photograph by Ansel Adams. We started early to avoid the heat on the slope climbing away from Hamilton. Switchback after switchback carried us higher as we moved towards Kaweah Gap, in and out of a number of gorges along the way. Notable, is a steep rocky gorge, where a large bridge has been destroyed by avalanche/rockfall. The trail now traverses the gorge, with the aid of a tunnel blasted into the rock. Recent rockfall had blocked the trail here, so it was a bit scary.
We finally made our way to Precipice Lake…. what a spot it is. The lake’s water is a glacial green color, and the rock cliffs behind it really set it off. At this altitude, there’s still a fair amount of snow on the ground, and the mosquitos were humming. We didn’t stay too long, as we still had a long way to go. We pushed on through beautiful high alpine meadows, until we finally arrived at Kaweah Gap, 10,700′. The view here was outstanding… looking down into Nine Lakes Basin, to the left, Big Arroyo, a classic u-shaped glacial valley. At this point, I was on sensory overload… so much incredible scenery packed into a few hours of hiking.
After luncheon, our trail headed down into Big Arroyo. This was very pleasant walking through meadow and forest. And after this point, we hardly saw another person until we reached our camp. We hadn’t read the topo map very carefully, and it had escaped us that we had another stiff climb ahead. This is where Clubber came in. I found the rest of this section of the trail to be a hot, dry, unappealing slog… really my least favorite part of the HST. It just seemed to go on forever… my feet hurt… I was thirsty… and it was just really slow going… and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. By the time we got to Moraine Lake, we’d been on the trail for eleven hours, having hiked sixteen miles. I was tired, hungry, and grumpy. We started to set up camp and some curious horses from a packer who was camped nearby, decided I was their new best friend… one of them even stepping on my tent as I was trying to set it up. I was in a really bad mood, and had a near meltdown at this point. What the heck have I gotten myself into?? What made me think I could do this?? I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro… why does this seem so much harder?? I rode my bike for 2-4 hours every day… why am I in such bad shape?? I just want to be home right now, sitting by the pool. I finally got set up, dinner made and eaten, and went right to sleep… Clubber by my side… being eaten up by self-doubt.
Day 4 – Saturday, August 14 (Moraine Lake to Kern Hot Springs) – I knew today would be an easier day than Friday the 13th, which was a good thing. It was mostly downhill as we dropped down into the Kern River Canyon. We hiked through a extensive burned out area, including a part of the trail sometimes known as “rattlesnake alley,” after the friendly creatures who inhabit it. Fortunately, they seemed to be ignoring us today, and after an uneventful morning of hiking we arrived a the bridge near Chagoopa Falls, and crossed the Kern. We’d heard that the Kern Hot Springs campsite could be pretty crowded, so we’d planned to camp here at the crossing. Jon went ahead to the Hot Springs to scout it out, and came back to report that it was virtually empty, and a great spot. So we hiked another mile or so to finish our day. Aaaahhh… the hot spring. Someone has constructed a crude cement tub… you pull the plug on the inlet pipe and fill it up with hot water… and another plug at the bottom drains it into the river. This was a oasis for us… we spent probably an hour soaking in the tub, and it probably saved the trip for me.
One of the problems I was having, was with foot pain. I have many foot issues… over-pronator (flat arches), bunions, narrow heel/wide forefoot. Though the Vasque boots I have are the most comfortable I’ve ever owned, I was having some heel pain from dry/cracked skin, and my toes were getting hammered on every down hill section. So each morning before departure was spent taping toenails and putting Glacier Gel pads on the heels.
Day 5… to be continued! (click the link at the bottom righ of the page for part 2) Complete trip photos here.