The High Sierra Trail (HST), a 72 mile trail in Sequoia National Park, is a major undertaking. There are a few roads on the eastern side of the park that lead to the popular Lodgepole Visitor Center and the Giant Sequoias, but there are no roads that go through the park so there is no place to re-supply. We wanted to take our time and enjoy the trail, but for every day we added that meant we had to carry more food. We decided on nine days for the trail that many do in seven days. That allowed for extra time at the Kern Hot Springs, which sounded very appealing, and an extra half or whole day of rest before tackling Mt. Whitney.
When I completed my permit application I had to note the places we planned to camp. As it turned out, we hardly camped at any of the expected places on the first half of the trip and got ahead of ourselves in the second half so that we ended up completing the trail in eight days (seven nights). Our friend who was picking us up wasn’t scheduled until a day later so we spent a pleasant 24 hours at the Whitney Portal Hiker’s Campground (no reservations required), resting, eating and socializing with Doug Thompson, the owner and chef at the Whitney Portal Store, and other hikers who were ending or beginning their adventure. Both the store and hiker’s campground are located within a few steps of the end of the trail.
Eight day itinerary and trip report:
Start-Crescent Meadow (Elevation: 6,693 feet)
We enjoyed a buffet dinner at the Montecito Sequoia Lodge, located on the Generals Highways in the park, and were happy to not have to break out our kitchen to cook the night before starting our hike. We expected the Lodgepole Campground to be full, and it was, so we stayed at the Dorst Campground, backtracking a few miles back down the road. Car camping has its merits but we were flanked by one large group who chattered until midnight and a family whose toddler was up at daybreak chirping with the birds. After catching just a few winks of sleep we were ready for the backcountry. The permit office opened at 7 a.m. and though we are not usually morning people we were there by 8 a.m.
Day 1-Crescent Meadow (6,693 feet) to Buck Canyon (7,236 feet)-10.5 miles
After passing three bears we parked our car at the large lot at Crescent Meadow, where it sat undisturbed for a week. The trail started with a pleasant forested walk with a fairly gradual ascent. We were worried about a heat wave that had pushed temperatures well above in Fresno, but the shade of the trees kept us cool. A few hours in we saw a large rattlesnake resting in the middle of the trail, which we skirted carefully around.
We were startled to hear the high pitched whine of speedy jets overhead, but recalled that Edwards Air Force Base was nearby, and on a previous trip had experienced the same thing. We figured that we’d hear them the first few days and that it might taper off the further into the wilderness we got. It was hard to reconcile stepping into the wilderness with fighter jets tracing white chalky lines in the sky but it’s a reminder that we were still adjacent to civilization.
We had planned to stay at Nine Mile Creek but when we pulled in at around 2 p.m., it was dim and unappealing due to the thick canopy of trees. The campsites all seemed to be on an angle and we dropped our packs to look around, just like you’re not supposed to do.
We checked out a couple of other campsites and on the approach back Steve grabbed my arm and pointed at a huge bear sniffing around our packs, stuttering, “Go away.” That reinforced the lesson to never leave packs unattended, even for a minute. We shouted more convincingly and she or he bounded away but we decided we should move on and sleep somewhere else. We took about an hour to swim in a wonderful swimming hole at Nine Mile and, refreshed, we walked a little further to Buck Canyon. The sun was shining and though it offered just a few campsites, the open sky was welcoming, as was the nearby stream that flowed over flat granite warmed by the afternoon sun. The gorge is dramatic and there’s no mystery as to why it’s prone to avalanches in the winter.
Day 2-Buck Canyon (7,236 feet) to Precipice Lake (10,380 feet)-8.5 miles
We walked one strenuous mile to the High Sierra Campat Bearpaw and checked out the tent cabins. The site is beautiful, on top of a plateau that looks over a plunging abyss against the backdrop of the Great Western Divide, but there’s a steep charge for this slice of splendor ($416, which includes two meals). The scenery on this entire day was dramatic at every turn as we got closer and closer to the gigantic peaks of the Great Western Divide, until finally we were in them. It was a warm day and though there were some trees there were also some exposed sections on the trail. We stopped for lunch on a flat promontory that formed the top of a waterfall, and there was just enough room to slip into a small pool to cool off. It was a gorgeous spot, like a cathedral in the sky with gray granite peaks soaring all around us.
I could have lounged there like a lizard for hours but we knew there was still a lot of hiking before us. The ascent was unrelenting and, it being early in the trip, painful.
We got to Hamilton Lake and I looked way, way up at a small snowfield melting to form a slender waterfall that dropped thousands of feet into the lake but was already so tired I didn’t take a picture thinking we’d go around a bend and never see it again. Wrong! A hugely long series of switchbacks zig-zagged above the beautiful lake and we beheld that body of water from every possible angle until we were both sick of looking at it. Steve said, “I don’t care if I never see that lake again.” I was shocked to find that at the end of the day we were camped right under that snowfield that looked so far away in the afternoon.
The fighter jet training was intense on this day, with frequent sorties overhead. We got better at spotting the tiny jets as they swarmed overhead and fantasized that we were being tracked by enemy combatants. “Do you think they have our coordinates?” I asked jokingly.
We were hoping to get up and over the Kaweah Gap to stay in the Nine Lakes Basin but we were exhausted by the climb. At 5 p.m. the wispy clouds that had been gathering all afternoon turned ominously dark, and when the sprinkles turned to rain and claps of thunder rumbled around us we ducked under the overhang of a huge boulder to reconnoiter.
Finding that we were both drained we decided to find a water source and hunker down. The small pond we had just passed would do but we had a mental block against backtracking even a short distance. After a few minutes we found ourselves at Precipice Lake. What a campsite it was. A gorgeous, stark scene lay before us—a moonscape of boulders scattered around a small plateau left barely any room for a tiny tent, sitting above a small lake with a backdrop of theatrical curtains made from granite striped black from spring waterfalls. The ascent from Hamilton Lake was brutal but the sunset was worth it after we wedged our tent in. The air from the San Joaquin Valley, polluted though it was, was spectacularly rosy, streaking the canvas of sky with horizontal bands of color across the chasm we had ascended, while the changing light played across the arena of the lake. I hung my head out of the tent, too tired to pick up the camera, but luckily Steve had a surge of energy and managed to click the button to capture the scene.
Day 3-Precipice Lake (10,380 feet) to Sky Parlor Meadow (9,174 feet)-11.5 miles
The next morning we finally did top out over the Kaweah Gap for that section of the trail and reveled in the moment briefly before walking down Big Arroyo. I knew we were losing all the hard-won elevation gained over the last two days was lost, but I didn’t care. It was so lovely to be walking downhill and we were still propelling ourselves forward. We gazed up at the backside of Eagle Scout Peak which had towered over us the night before, then turned our attention to the easy trail in the broad, open drainage. After a couple of delightful hours of walking we stood looking at the trail. “Does that look like it goes up?” I asked. “Yup,” said laconic Steve. So up we trudged again, wishing our reprieve could have been longer. As we ascended up the Chagoopa Plateau, back up to 9,200 feet, we noticed that the flora was starting to look different. Though we were walking through a high alpine pine forest the barren peaks in the background had a decidedly drier, more Eastern Sierra look to them.
The jets seemed to be less frequent today but with each flyover we made up stories that were to become more elaborate with each passing day, tales that starred us as spies sneaking across enemy lines in Bond-like escapades. The daily intrusion wove its way into our experience and started to feel almost commonplace.
When we were close to the end of our day we took a side jaunt to Sky Parlor Meadow, 0.2 miles off the main trail. The huge meadow framed a spectacular view of a large peak behind it. We passed one tiny stream and after walking for about another 30 minutes realized we were circling the meadow and that there was probably only the one stream. We backtracked and made our camp right where the best view was, but the stream was barely adequate.
After we had set up camp and were attending to a few chores we heard some noises in the meadow and were startled to see two young men playing Frisbee, seemingly appearing from nowhere, with no evidence of packs or other gear. Thinking it was a bit odd we eventually lost interest and they faded from view. Then felt a rumbling in the earth that had us on high alert—maybe we’d entertained too many spy stories. We heard some thrashing in the brush and while we were craning our necks we beheld the most fantastic sight—horses and mules galloping free, manes swinging in the wind, whinnying with apparent joy as they stampeded into the open meadow, vanishing into the forest on the right side. It was like a scene from the Wild West, only these weren’t untamed horses. “What the heck…?” said Steve. After consulting the map we identified a nearby camp and determined that the livestock were returning home for the night on a well-trod trail, turned loose by the camp cowboys who moseyed along later, meeting up with the Frisbee boys. It all made some kind of sense then.
Day 4-Sky Parlor Meadow (9,174 feet) to Kern Hot Springs (6,886 feet)-5.5 miles
Finally we had a truly easy day—five and a half flat or downhill miles to the beautiful Kern River, which bubbled over smooth rocks as it made its way down the mountain, flanked by tall trees in a deep canyon that stretches for 30 miles. Not only was the easy hike joyous, but the hot springs were unbelievable. We spied the abbreviated wooden fence by the river and clambered down to it. A mossy spring oozed from the side of the hill where, long ago, a chilled homesteader or shepherd placed pipes and concrete to drain the hot water into a small tub.
Drains on either side of the tub were outfitted with large wooden plugs so the water could be drained into the river and refilled from the spring. There was a bit of algae on the bottom of the tub but that didn’t stop us from easing our aching bodies in for a long soak. It was heavenly—no spa ever felt so good. Previous visitors had arranged stones in the creek to form a shallow, cold pool, which I didn’t avail myself of, wanting to preserve every bit of warmth and coziness.
We had arrived at the hot springs at mid-day, so we soaked, ate, napped, soaked some more and generally relaxed. I found that at 6,000 feet I slept like a baby, catching up on a sleep deficit from mild effects of the altitude up higher. Having the place to ourselves all afternoon we re-visited the springs several times but were happy to socialize with other campers who started trickling into the popular spot later in the day, mostly coming from the east.
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All photos by Inga Aksamit and Steve Mullen.