Having thru-hiked the 72 mile High Sierra Trail from Giant Forest to Mount Whitney four years ago, I was anxious to visit this stunning high country in Sequoia National Park again. This time out I worked out a loop which utilized the first third or so of the trail, and then looped back to Crescent Meadow via Blackrock Pass in Mineral King.
I was feeling pretty good about my preparations. But on the Saturday before I began the trip, while trying my pack on, I managed to do something to my back, and was having a lot of pain. I was hoping it would clear up before the hike started, which it did a little bit. But in the end, the back pain would dominate the long-awaited trip.
Day 1 – Sequoia National Park/3.4 miles to the summit of Little Baldy My hiking partner Jon “Baristopheles” and I arrived at the park and picked up our wilderness permit before heading to Dorst campground for our first night in the park. We were lectured by a very serious young ranger at the wilderness desk about food storage, waste, campfires, etc. I thought I saw her crack a smile for a moment, but may have imagined it. After dinner we made an evening acclimatization hike up to the granite dome of Little Baldy, to watch the sunset. It was a awesome start to our trip, and is highly recommended.
Day 2 – Crescent Meadow/High Sierra trailhead to Buck Canyon camp: 10 miles Having done a variant of this trail four years ago, we had an idea what it would be like. After heading out from the official HST trailhead, the trail skirts the stunning middle-fork Kaweah River Canyon. Because it is a south facing trail, it was pretty hot all day, and the NOAA forecast for 5-10 mph winds did not come to fruition. The scenery here is increasingly stunning as you hike east and more and more high country comes into view. While my back was a little tight today, it wasn’t bad for a ten mile hike with a large pack. We descended into the small campsite at Buck Creek Canyon in late afternoon, and enjoyed soaking in the cold mountain water. The next day was a big one, so we were off to sleep quickly.
Day 3 – Buck Canyon camp to Precipice Lake: 10 miles This was to be a long day with lots of steep climbing over 13 miles, so we got an early start. We began the day with a stiff climb heading out of the canyon up to Bearpaw Meadow… location of a luxurious high sierra camp, and backpackers campground. After this the trail continues east, and then climbs up to beautiful Hamilton Lake. We stopped for lunch, and my back was starting to really hurt. I took some ibuprofen, tanked up our water supplies, and continued up the sunny switchbacking ascent to Kaweah Gap. Our goal was to make Big Arroyo junction, where we would head over to Mineral King for the second part of our trip.
One of the most iconic and stunning parts of the High Sierra Trail is Hamilton Gorge. One can see the substantial remnants of a bridge, which obviously didn’t survive. So instead, a trail and tunnel were literally blasted of the walls of the gorge to enable one to get through it.
This is the point where it all went off. I was really having a LOT of back pain which had spread to my hips, and I was getting very dehydrated. Despite having drank three liters of water during the morning hike up to Hamilton Lake, and another three in the afternoon, I hadn’t pee’d in over six hours (those of you who know me well, know how unusual this is). I struggled to make it up to Precipice Lake, just a half mile or so shy of Kaweah Gap, and decided that was all I could do.
So we created a plan “B,” which was to spend the night at Precipice Lake, and then head back out the same way we came. This was not all bad… Precipice Lake is a stunning spot, and one of the most amazing campsites I’ve ever experienced. We were treated to a remarkable alpenglow show, before crawling into sleeping bags, high in the land of granite and stars.
Day 4 – Precipice Lake to Bearpaw Camp: 9 miles We had a rather leisurely morning getting up and packed today. Though the route is generally downhill, there are few parts of the High Sierra Trail which are actually just up or down. And the air temps were getting hotter by the hour, and I knew I was going have to work hard to stay hydrated. We stopped for a break at Upper Hamilton Lake for a food/water break, and chatted with a guy who had brought a group of scouts up. This lake is a very popular campsite, and tends to be overrun. There were already at least a dozen folks camped there, and on the way out we encountered at least another twenty or so who said that was their destination. It was going to be a very crowded camping experience that night! Along the way, we also ran into a guy doing a run from Crescent Meadow to Kaweah Gap and back, in one day. This is the distance it took us to hike over four days, and involves a lot of climbing up and down. Chapeau to this gentleman!
After a long warm day, we wandered through the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra camp, and made our way down to the backpacker’s campground. This shady (and buggy) resting place includes designated campsites, a water spigot, and vault toilets. We were joined by two young women who had just finished the first day of their High Sierra Trail thru-hike (only seventy miles to go!).
Day 5 – Bearpaw Camp to Crescent Meadow; 11 miles It’s our last morning in the backcountry, with a substantial day of hiking ahead. At 8 am it’s already warm, so the plan is to drink lots of fluids and just keep walking. Mid-morning, the conversation switches to tacos and beer. And beer and tacos. At the Mehrten Creek crossing, the last major water source before the day, I re-filled my hydration bladder and electrolyte bottle. It was a hot day… not only from the direct sun, but from its reflection off of the granite. Soon we were running into day hikers taking a short stroll on the HST. The last family we met mentioned that they had seen a mama bear with three cubs near Crescent Meadow, and to keep an eye out. Sure enough, they were all taking a nap next to a footbridge, just a few hundred yards from the parking lot.
And suddenly, as we hit the parking lot, it was as if we’d been thrown from the wilderness into some kind of Disneylandish nightmare. Cranky screaming kids, bad drivers, tourists of the worse kind. The difference in crowds between a Monday and a Friday was incredible, and we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We headed towards Lodgepole for a cold drink and a shower, and then down the hill for home.
So, while the trip wasn’t what we had planned, and some aspects of it weren’t overly enjoyable, there were some genuine “ahh” moments that you can only get by standing on the precipice, looking at the infinite night sky.
Complete photos here: