For many, the 220-mile long John Muir Trail, which runs north to south across the Sierra Nevada, represents the quintessential backcountry hike. While this trail was on our radar, we thought the High Sierra Trail would be a good way to ease into the behemoth JMT. The shorter, 72-mile High Sierra Trail runs west to east across the Sierras and can be done in six to ten days.
DAY 1 on the High Sierra Trail
We planned the High Sierra Trail for a year. Getting permits in January was surprisingly easy — I requested three sets of dates and got the ones I wanted. We left in August. The kids came over at 5 am on a Monday with their packs, and we drove the four and a half hours to Sequoia. After some breakfast, we reached the ranger station in Lodgepole around 11 am. As always, it took a while to get through the ranger station. It was 2 pm when we were finally on the trail. I kissed Bec goodbye and she drove off, with the plan to pick us up on the other side of Mount Whitney.
Strong thunder greeted us just five minutes into the trail. Fortunately, the rain never got worse than a light drizzle. We had scheduled 11 miles for our first day. This was tough, given our late start. With no resupply on the High Sierra Trail, we had to carry all our food. My pack weighed in at over 50 pounds, with my big camera making up a big chunk of that. I think Wesley’s was about 45 pounds and Liz’s was 30.
A few miles in, I caught sight of Sawtooth Peak across the valley. Its telltale jagged ridge leads up to a pointy shark’s-tooth summit. My daughter Courtney and I came close to death on that mountain, and seeing it again gave me chills. We reached Bearpaw, our first campsite, just after sunset. Bearpaw was disappointing. Online forums had described this as a resort — one that served beer to weary hikers. There was no beer and the “resort” was a series of poorly maintained yurts. The hiker campsites we on even ground too close to one another. The whole area felt like a poorly maintained mobile home park in the middle of the wilderness. On the bright side, we all slept well that night, and I was more than happy to get on our way in the morning.
The Deep Granite Gorge
We got on the trail at about 9 am, and it was already getting warm. Regardless, it would prove to be one of the most amazing days on the High Sierra Trail. The Bearpaw to Hamilton Lake segment of the trail is absolutely beautiful, with sheer granite walls on both sides of a deep valley. The trail descends to a bridge that crosses Lone Pine Creek. The bridge spans a deep gorge where the water rages 100 feet below. The runoff was spectacular this year, something that would be a trademark of our entire trip. We snapped photos at the bridge, then got back on the trail.
As we ascended up the other side of the granite gorge past the creek, we saw a huge waterfall, which from a distance resembles a narrow strip of white snow. As we got closer we realized it was a huge waterfall, and the trail leads across the top of it. We grabbed a snake, filtered water, and took in the scenery for half an hour.
We encountered a small ice-covered lake next. The trail becomes granite slabs and opens up into a huge box canyon of granite walls towering 1,000 feet on three sides. Hamilton Lake is at the center of the canyon and, in the distance, waterfalls feed into the lake. It looks like a scene from Jurassic Park. The water was actually warm enough to swim in. I waded in a little. This is one of the hidden gems of the High Sierra Trail.
Lunch gave us time to check the map again. We figured we had enough steam left in us to press on to the Kaweah Gap, the highest point of the day. So we followed a granite bowl for a couple of hours toward Precipice Lake. Distance plays tricks on your mind when you hike. The hike out of the box canyon surrounding Hamilton Lake looked relatively easy. It wasn’t. It was long and tough. We literally hiked for hours. We could see Precipice Lake ahead, but it seemed like we were on a treadmill. We were moving forward, but we never seemed to get closer to the lake. Exasperated, we finally had to take a break.
We broke out some protein bars, and a minute later a marmot marched right up to Wes. He looked like he was going to snatch the protein bar right out of Wes’s hand. The standoff lasted at least 10 minutes. We offered him nuts and dried fruit, but he wouldn’t eat any of it. He only wanted that protein bar.
Precipice Lake was completely frozen over. We had talked about camping there earlier in the day, but that was not an option. It was steep, dark, and ominous. We had no choice but to keep moving higher. It was getting late in the day and we needed to pick up the pace. We could see what we thought was the Kaweah Gap, so we pressed on.
The Kaweah Gap and the Great Western Divide
The Kaweah Gap is this strange little corridor, past Precipice Lake, that leads to the Great Western Divide. The Great Western Divide is a mountain range that separates Sequoia from Kings Canyon. Within 100 yards of Precipice Lake, we went from snow to a narrow canyon with small lakes and a stream running through it. It was a marshy biome with all kinds of grasses and trees. It was quite beautiful. When we came to the end of this small canyon, we looked out across the vast valley of the Great Western Divide. On one side was the Kaweah mountain range and Nine Lakes Basin. On the other side was Sequoia. In the middle was a huge valley that leads down toward the Kern River Valley. From where we stood, we could see where the tree line started miles ahead of us. It started out sparse, then got progressively thicker the deeper you descended into the valley. It was one of the most majestic vistas I have ever seen.
Camping Short of our Objective
Our next campsite was Arroyo Junction, and we were losing light, so we moved as fast as we could downhill. The problem was that if we were going to reach our campsite, we would have to cross some big creeks, and it was already dark. It didn’t seem like the safest way forward, so we decided on camping on one side of a creek. We were short of Big Arroyo Junction by a few miles. It was downhill so we thought we would easily get back on schedule in the morning.
Sleeping near water is always fun, but in this case the volume of the creek was so intense it made it hard to get to sleep. Not the best sleep I’ve ever had, but the day’s hiking had provided some of the most incredible scenery I have ever experienced. It was a day I will never forget.
We woke up at a decent time, had breakfast, and set off towards our goal, which was Arroyo Junction. Crossing the creek didn’t end up being a big deal, but as soon as we hit the tree line the mosquitoes raged against us. We kept them off by hiking at a pretty fast pace.
Taking a Wrong Turn
At Arroyo Junction, the trail forked toward the High Sierra Trail. We followed a river trail instead that took us deep into marshy, mosquito-infested terrain. It was absolutely miserable! Wes got so many bites, he resorted to wearing rain gear to protect himself. The trail disappeared into a waterlogged meadow, and my GPS told me we had lost the trail completely.
Somehow we had gradually diverged from the High Sierra Trail. We had two choices — first, we could backtrack two miles, or second, we could try to move up a steep hill in a more direct route to the trail. We decided on the second option to try to catch the trail near the top.
The steep embankment just got steeper and steeper to the point we were walking in bursts of 100 feet at a time and then resting. My intuition told me we were still a long way off, and as I looked at the GPS, it seemed the embankment would just get steeper and near impassable without technical gear.
We held another team meeting. Wes wanted to press on. Liz was exhausted. I made the call — we needed to head back. One, the rest of the way up would have drained us too much, and two, we weren’t even sure the way ahead was passable even if we got there. Wes was disappointed but I think he knew it wasn’t practical. It ended up being the low point of the day and hike. Wes’s negative emotional state drove him to hike so fast I could barely keep up. He’s a cardio machine — unstoppable when determined.
Back on Track
After the steep canyon wall, we trudged through mud, water, marsh, and mosquitoes the two miles back to the campsite where we had taken the wrong turn. We were exhausted, demoralized, and bitten all over. A few protein bars helped us collect some strength, and we started back up the mountain. Although the grade was moderate, we were so tired it felt harder than it was. It was worth it when we came to the top of the mountain and discovered a plateau so serene it was like it had never been previously discovered.
The plateau was almost magical. The trees stood beautiful and tall. We walked about a mile and a half through the flat ground before arriving at our campsite. The site was terrific; we set up while it was still light. Right as we finished dinner it started raining, which was our cue to go to bed.
As we were walking into the campsite, we saw other people already camping. They were fishermen fishing the nearby lake, which was big and beautiful. And left on a big rock near the trail was a rattlesnake skin. It looked like the snake had used the rock to shed its skin. Liz has a terrible phobia of snakes, and she about came unglued. Little did we know this was foreshadowing things to come.
Around midnight, I got up to take care of business. I had to put on my headlamp because there was no moon. I had gone about 25 feet when I heard somebody; I wasn’t sure if I’d stumbled into a nearby campsite, so I went another 25 feet. I did what I came to do and started back toward my tent. Thirty feet later I realized I’d gone the wrong direction.
I’m not kidding, I spent 20 minutes in my underwear, barefoot, with a headlamp trying to find my tent. Everything looked the same and I began to feel the pinch of fear. “I could be standing around in my underwear for another four hours until the sun comes up”, I thought. I certainly wouldn’t die, but it would be a long uncomfortable night. Lesson learned: The stupidest little things can get us into danger if we are not careful.
The rain during the night made for a good night’s sleep. The rain sent melodic tones down the tent walls, lulling us to sleep. In the morning, we took in some views of Moraine Lake, had breakfast, and headed out. The plan was to make up some time and camp at Junction Meadow that night. Junction Meadow is right where the trail leads to Eastern Sierra high country — and ultimately to Mount Whitney.
We were headed into the Kern River Valley when Wes walked by a log that rangers had cut in two to form the trail. Liz always stayed behind Wes or me because of her fear of snakes, and what we didn’t realize is Wes had inadvertently stirred up a rattlesnake living in a log. As Wes moved ahead, the snake came out and coiled itself up, facing Liz. He was a big-ass snake. Liz lost it.
I didn’t even realize what was happening until she backed into me. The snake was at least four feet long. We took the long way around the snake to rejoin the trail. Liz was visibly shaken, but she got herself together surprisingly well.
We moved down, down, down into the Kern River Valley. The river was to our right, and the way the valley opened up let us see for miles. Maybe five miles to the left we could see where the river disappeared into the headwaters of the high country.
The bridge of the Kern River gave us a space to take some photos. The water was higher than I’d ever seen, and that’s saying something, given that I’ve been in California my whole life and seen the Kern River often since I was a child. The path followed the Kern River into the high country towards Mount Whitney, so we hiked the whole day. Our goal was to stop at a campsite right at the junction before getting to high altitude.
We knew this was going to be a tough day of uphill hiking, and we were not disappointed. After breakfast, we broke camp and crossed Whitney Creek, as the water had dropped considerably. We soon passed Junction Meadow, our intended destination the day before, and started the steady uphill climb to Whitney high country.
The hard start was made easier with views like the Kern River to our left — the river came down steep angles from the high country. We were literally hiking near the headwaters of the beautiful Kern River.
The morning went much like this: hiking, breaks, hiking, creek crossings, hiking, breaks, hiking. At the junction of the John Muir Trail, or the PCT, and the High Sierra Trail, we found a meadow where we were going to camp. The goal was to reach Guitar Lake that night, which would have been the perfect spot for us to summit Mount Whitney the next day. The weather had other ideas, and we weren’t sure Guitar Lake was going to be the best option if there was any chance of a lightning storm. There was consistent thunder throughout the afternoon and Guitar Lake is 12,000+ feet and completely exposed – the perfect place to get killed in a lightning storm. We ended up finding a makeshift campsite just within the tree line. It got us closer to Mount Whitney, but we still had a little protection from the weather if we needed it.
I retreated to my tent to read on my Kindle after dinner. All of a sudden, the tent walls went bright orange; I jumped out of my tent with my camera in time to see the sun hitting the red walls of the mountain range. I yelled for Wes and Liz to come out too, and we all marveled at the sight. All of the bad weather had cleared out and the sunset on the surrounding granite walls left us all oohing and aahing.
We went to bed that night with the plan to arise at 3 am. We wanted to get to Whitney first thing in the morning before any thunderstorms rolled in. If there were thunderstorms when we crossed Trail Crest, we would probably head straight down to Whitney Portal and exit the trail, but our hopes were focused on the summit.
We were up before our alarm went off at 3 am, but we all sat in our tents waiting to hear it. It was a clear night, giving us a view of every star in the sky. This gave us some encouragement, but we knew the weather could change on a dime. We hoped the clear sky was an indication we would summit Mount Whitney without any problems.
We had some route-finding challenges as we started out. We lost the trail a couple of times in the dark, but managed to backtrack and find it without too much difficulty. Other people who had camped at Guitar Lake were starting up the trail as we approached the lake. We could already see the headlamps of hikers on the summit ridge coming from Whitney Portal.
Hiking the steep switchbacks toward Trail Crest with a 55-pound pack wasn’t easy. It was pure suffering. I had to go to another place in my head to endure it. Coupled with the altitude gain, we had to stop a few times. Even Wes, who had set the pace most of the week, started to fall behind. He had a touch of altitude sickness as we approached 13,000 feet. At Trail Crest, we dropped our packs and put on some light day packs with water, snacks, and a camera. We watched some questionable weather rolling in so we picked up the pace.
I felt like Superman with only a 2-pound day pack. People coming up Whitney from the other side clearly hadn’t yet acclimatized. I practically jogged past people on my way up. In fact, in my haste, I twisted my ankle a bit. The injury haunted me for at least the next month. Still, we reached the summit of Mount Whitney, a truly magical place. We hung out for 15 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the view.
The weather still looked iffy. There were plenty of other people on the summit, but I’ve always been more cautious about the weather than other hikers. We started back as the clouds consolidated. We picked up our packs at Trail Crest and started the arduous grind down the trail. Something about the trail after the summit affects your mind, body, and soul, warning you of the mindless monotony. Those last nine miles actually felt worse than the trek up. Liz had almost completely run out of energy when we got to the last few miles near Whitney Portal. She was suffering badly.
I pushed on ahead and met Bec at the trailhead. It felt so good to be off the trail. In Lone Pine, we had dinner at a really cruddy barbecue place with great food but terrible atmosphere, even for smelly hikers. That speaks volumes. We were home by early evening. A hot shower and a comfortable bed never felt so good.