High Sierra Trail. 72.2 miles. 8 nights and 9 days. One of the most exhilarating and memorable backpacking trips that I have ever done happened this past August. It definitely was not a walk in the park. But, one thing is certain. I will not swap that experience with anything else. And I believe that backpacking the High Sierra Trail is one of the best ways to explore the wilderness in the Sequoia National Park. Oh, and catching the sunrise at Mt. Whitney summit was icing on the cake.
BACKPACKING HIGH SIERRA TRAIL
The High Sierra Trail is, as I wrote in my last HST backpacking ready blog, one of the longest backpacking trips that I’ve ever taken on. The trail runs from Crescent Meadow in the west side of the Sequoia National Park to Mt. Whitney in the Inyo National Forest. And it took us 8 nights/9 days.
We certainly could have done it in 6 nights/7 days in retrospect.
But why would I? this trip was about photography as much as being fully immersed in nature. I never wanted to rush through it. Of course, if you only have 7 days, you will have to finish it in 7 days. And many have done it in 7 days, or even less. (Read Day 5)
As for Mt. Whitney (14,505′), I day hiked the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. before, so it was not something that I was concerned about. However, I had never backpacked 70 plus miles for multiple days in the wilderness. So, as much excited about the trip as I was, part of me was slightly nervous about it.
Not because of the trail itself, but because of the bears.
As the start date got closer, it became very apparent that I was not able to cram all my food into the bear canister that I was taking with me. However, we also learned that there were the bear lockers at most of the campgrounds where we planned to spend the nights.
The exceptions were Precipice Lake and the campgrounds in the Whitney Zone, like Guitar Lake and Hitchcock Lakes. Since our food load would be almost gone by the time we’d reach the latter, I didn’t worry much about it. However, part of me knew that the second night could be a challenge in terms of storing the food in the canister.
NOTE: I was not the only one with the concern. We ran into a gentleman who started hiking from Lodgepole all the way to Five Lakes and back, and one of the reasons why he decided not to include Precipice Lake in his itinerary was because of lack of bear lockers there.
NOTE: This post was written for those who are interested in backpacking the High Sierra Trail. You may be a very experienced hiker/backpacker, or you may not. I just hope that some of the trip insights that I am sharing here are helpful for you when you prep your own trip. In this blog I am not going to touch on photography, and there’ll be a separate blog post for it. All the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone.
PREPPING FOR HIGH SIERRA TRAIL BACKPACKING TRIP
Since I’ve already discussed what I prepped for the trip in terms of base gear, food and camera gear in depth in my last blog, I am going to talk about the things here that I didn’t cover last time – itinerary, maps and logistics.
It was a 8 night/9 day backpacking trip. As anyone would, the first thing that I did was creating an itinerary to make sure that we were on track every day. How I broke it down solely depended on distance and elevation gains.
For instance, we hiked close to 11 miles, skipping the 9 or 10 mile junction, on the first day because I believed that we should get less mileage and that we must rest longer on the second day since the Great Western Divide was waiting for us the following morning.
NOTE: Of course, actual hiking doesn’t always go the way you plan it on your computer. As you may agree, there are many factors, such as terrain, weather, mental and/or physical conditions one is in, and etc. But, we make our best effort to come up with a good itinerary, don’t we? It turned out that going over the Kaweah Gap from Precipice Lake was easy peasy. But going down past Arroyo Junction all the way down to Moraine Lake was… long…
Our longest mileage day was to be Day 5, from Kern Hot Springs to Wallace Creek, and, in fact, it turned out to be the toughest day for both of us.
I’ll talk about that more later, but there was one thing that I definitely learned from that particular day. And that is I must read maps more closely in terms of elevation (although I must say those ‘dotted lines’ in, say, USGS Topo maps aren’t always accurate, especially when compared to the actual tracks recorded with GPS devices).
This is pretty much a self-explanatory itinerary. If you’re interested, open the CalTopo map as a reference. (See Maps below). It’ll definitely help you wrap your head around as to how the entire distance of 70 plus miles was broken down into 9 manageable chunks, including our layover day at Hitchcock Lakes.
NOTE: The temperatures in the itinerary was a guideline. I took a look at them when I was researching, which was still close to three weeks out. It was meant to give us an idea as to what to pack. The Mountain Forecast website was quite helpful for that.
I created the route using CalTopo Map. Obviously, I drew the lines following those dotted lines in the USGS Topo map (which, again, turned out that it wasn’t 100% accurate, but it gives you an idea while prepping).
If you have never used it, give it a go. It is an great tool, like NorCal Hiker praises. You can export the routes that you create as gpx files, which then you can download to any of your favorite smartphone apps as well as GPS devices, such as Garmin.
I always use the GaiaGPS app for the iPhone, with which I refer to the tracks recorded while hiking or backpacking.
NOTE: All the tracks that I included in this blog post were created with the app.
NOTE: Keep in mind that the USGS Topo maps (and other maps) and gpx files in your smartphone apps (or the GPS devices) aren’t everything. Even though any app will definitely help you locate yourself in terms of navigation when you are lost or miss a turnoff, it is always a smart thing to bring a paper map with you. You will never know what is going to happen to your inseparable electronic device while in the wilderness.
We brought a Kings Canyon High Country Trail Map (Tom Harrison Maps), recommended by a backpacker who finished his High Sierra Trail trip just a few days prior to our departure for the Long Pine CG.
It marked all the bear locker locations along the trail. Although the Sequoia National Park has its own separate downloadable map showing the locations of all the bear lockers, the Tom Harrison map was helpful in terms of seeing all the different trails that were intersecting the High Sierra Trail. Seriously, there’s no substitute for that.
And lastly, the backpacker stressed immensely the need of rain jackets because it rained almost every afternoon when he backpacked, according to him. I brought a poncho. However, not even a single drop of rain came. Obviously we didn’t know that there would be no rain whatsoever.
Our High Sierra Trail journey began from the Crescent Meadow Trailhead, where other small trails also start.
However, like they say, the most difficult part of doing multiple day backpacking trips, such as the HST and the JMT, which cross the entire mountain range of the Sierra Nevada, is how to get to the starting point and how to go home when it’s done.
Many backpackers hitch a ride to the trailheads (say, Happy Isles for the JMT) and back to somewhere they can hop on a Greyhound or the train. Some get rides from their family members and/or friends.
Also, you can use existing shuttle services. One of them is East Side Sierra Shuttle. It seems like many JMT’ers use their service. I spoke with Paul, the owner, about using their service, and actually he was the one who told me about parking one of our vehicles at the Lone Pine CG.
Our solution was bringing two cars with us. My friend Maddie and I had a Yosemite trip planned almost immediately after our High Sierra Trail trip, so it didn’t make sense to drive seven hours home for each of us and then drive back out to Yosemite in a few days again. Driving from Lone Pine CG to Crescent Meadow takes about 5 hours. (Of course, you have to factor in your vacation time…)
Our plan was to stick around in Sequoia once we are done with the High Sierra Trail trip and do some short day hikes there, and then head north to Yosemite. And Fresno became our ‘resupply’ town.
Our original plan was to park one of our vehicles at Whitney Portal (since we were going to exit Whitney Portal anyway).
But because of the construction at the portal this summer, backpackers could not park their vehicles any more than three days there, which I had verified with the Sequoia National Park Wilderness Office while still prepping.
Like Paul suggested it, we learned that we could park one of our vehicles at the Lone Pine CG (not the campground itself, but the overnight parking lot, where I saw many, many JMT’ers parked their cars. How do I know? They left a card, saying they were doing the JMT, on their dashboard).
So, I left a card on my dash saying we were doing the High Sierra Trail!
Maddie and I drove separately to Lone Pine Campground Overnight Parking Lot. Once finding a spot, I transferred my stuff to her vehicle.
And then we drove all the way to the opposite side of the southern Sierra – Lodgepole Campground, where we spent the next couple of nights before our backpacking journey began. The Lodgepole Visiter Center is a place where we picked up our permit.
NOTE: Lodgepole Campground is a wonderful campground. It’s a bit pricey in my opinion, but if a group of six (like a family and friends) is to spend a few days there, it’s worth the drive. Many trails start from the campground, and many attractions, such as the famous General Sherman Sequoia Tree and Moro Rock are in a short driving distance. Also, Tokopah Waterfalls trailhead is right at the foot of the campground, which is quite a short and yet pleasant trail to the waterfalls. (The amount of water falling can vary, depending on the season though.) Of course, you can turn it into a longer, rock scrambling hike beyond the waterfalls as well.
NOTE: You may want to pick up enough wag bags (for entering the Whitney Zone) at the visitor center while picking up your permit. Of course, you can pick up extra wag bags at the Crabtree junction where you will find a bin full of them if you want to. They say that those wag bags are for emergency though. It is up to you to decide.
DAY 1 – CRESCENT MEADOW TO BEARPAW
Our first day for the High Sierra Trail began at 8:12 am. From Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw Campground. The trail went through a lot of small uphills and downhills, but it was not difficult. In retrospect, we were more than glad that we didn’t stay at the 9 or 10 mile campground.
NOTE: Because I didn’t separate them, the track below shows the distance of the two days combined. As we planned it, our hike for the first day ended at Bearpaw Campground.
We took our ‘we are ready’ shots at the sign.
Hiking along the Kaweah River Valley provided great views. We often stopped and took photos.
What was always ahead of us for the first day (and the second) was the Great Western Divide. It seemed quite daunting to climb over, but it had to be dealt with. That was part of the beauty of backpacking the High Sierra Trail.
Bearpaw Campground is quite an interesting one. The campground itself is not any different from the campgrounds that one can spend a night at, but it has a huge ledge where an amazing view of the Great Western Divide is offered. (See the two photos below)
And there is Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp, which consists of tent cabins and a lodge providing full service. It has showers and serves breakfast and dinner at $150 plus per night (off season). What a luxurious way to enjoy the view!
When we were there, we chatted briefly with a couple of folks while them sitting on the deck and enjoying their beer!
Yes, money can buy comfort. But, the folks who were staying at the camp weren’t interested in backpacking the trail. I won’t say which is the better way to enjoy the Sequoia wilderness. (Some may not physically be able to do it anyway. We do what we can.)
As for me, I will never substitute my experience with anything else.
DAY 2 – BEARPAW TO PRECIPICE LAKE
Because we knew that there was a lot of elevation to gain to reach not only Hamilton Lake but also our destination Precipice Lake, we decided to start early. We also didn’t want to engage in the uphill battle in the heat. I certainly didn’t.
Our second day hike on the High Sierra Trail began just before 7 am.
One thing that we noticed before ending our hike for the day at Precipice Lake was that there were quite a few backpackers to whom we said hello. They were 2-3 day backpackers who mostly camped at Hamilton Lake or Precipice Lake. Of course, it made sense due to its close distance from Crescent Meadow as out and back.
In order for them to keep going though, they had to consider going over the Kaweah Gap, the lowest east-west pass through the Great Western Divide in Sequoia National Park, which in return would involve more days. So, it was natural for them to turn around at either Hamilton Lake or Precipice Lake.
Hamilton Lake was beautiful. No wonder why it is popular for sure.
While going up the trail after Hamilton Lake, we ran into two rangers who were coming down. We chatted a little bit and showed them our permit. One of the rangers told us that Moraine Lake, which we were heading the next day, was really nice. I was really looking forward to that.
What made this uphill climb a bit challenging was the heat. There weren’t many trees while going up the remainder of the trail to Precipice Lake. Although we were glad that we started our day early, it was inevitable to march up the hill in the heat.
The elevation gain when lugging so much pack weight wasn’t helping either. And I mismanaged my water consumption, so I got slightly dehydrated for the last mile or so before reaching the lake.
However, it was quite rewarding to witness how amazing Precipice Lake was. You really have to be there to see what I mean. The photo above doesn’t do justice.
The sheer drop of the cliff into the water wasn’t registering at first. How could it be?
The water was really cold. I was telling myself while going up the last stretch of the hill that I would jump into the lake as soon as I got there.
But once I did, I chickened out. There was even snow around the lake that hadn’t completely melted.
We talked to a few backpackers before dinner and learned that some backpackers had a visit from a bear night before.
One may wonder, “Really? At the elevation of 10,400 feet?”
The bear tried to mess with one of the bear canisters and eventually gave up and left, we were told.
As I noted earlier, my problem was that I was not able to fit all my food into my bear canister.
With that alerting news, Maddie and I diligently re-sorted our foods. She took some of my food in her canister (because she had a bit of room left) and then we kept all our toilet stuff, anything that had odor and even trash into her OPSack bag, separate from the foods. Then, we hid them under the slabs of rocks that we were able to pull and lean back against them (there was enough room not to squash them).
The coldest night on the High Sierra Trail came at Precipice Lake.
The elevation was one of the reasons, but also, because of its location, just about 400 feet below the Kaweah Gap, and because how the wind travels through the pass, it definitely was the chilly night.
I must say though that I was rather toasty inside my 15 degree Marmot sleeping bag. Getting out of it in the morning wasn’t fun.
DAY 3 – PRECIPICE LAKE TO MORAINE LAKE
Not only did we take our time to get the day started but also we ran into an old Australian couple who had backpacked the Sierra Nevada more than any of my backpacking friends ever did before reaching the top of the pass. They were wonderful folks who shared their backpacking experiences with us, including their experience with Zpacks backpacks and Ursack.
They said they had spent a couple of nights at Nine Lakes Basin, which is located at the opposite side of the Kaweah Gap. Later we saw the lakes on our way down the pass and talked about hoping to come back to check it out at another time.
I do not need a JMT t-shirt!
The lady almost wearily asserted, “I do not need a JMT t-shirt!” Their rather cynical view on the JMT was quite amusing, especially considering the fact that they actually did some parts of the Sierra High Route (SHR).
Our conversation about the SHR with them reinvigorated our thoughts, or at least, mine. As I am writing this blog, I am actually looking into the route for the next year. I was aware of it, but never thought that I’d consider doing it so soon. Of course, that is a topic for another blog, and I will certainly share my research and plans later.
I can say that till the last day of our High Sierra Trail backpacking, the SHR came up a few times every day in our conversation. Especially after the heavy traffic that we ran into at Wallace Creek Campground and onward, till we exited the Portal.
We made a quick stop at Big Arroyo Campground to filter some water. Our break was rather brief, and we decided to continue on.
After a while, we turned around and saw the Great Western Divide now far behind us. It was quite interesting to see that the divide that towered us so tall the day before now was gradually receding behind us.
Once we were the east side of the Great Western Divide, what we were seeing seemed rather not as dramatic.
And then we realized that what was actually laid before us was the Kern Canyon, of which the Kern River was flowing at the bottom.
But before reaching the Kern Canyon, we found a rather peaceful lake, quite nicely tucked in off the Chagoopa Plateau – Moraine Lake.
We set up our camp there and enjoyed the solitude. No one was around.
Literally, we kept the entire lake to ourselves.
DAY 4 – MORAINE LAKE TO KERN HOT SPRINGS
Next day, fully rested, I woke up early and walked around the lake to take some sunrise shots.
The lake was quite calm, and the reflections were wonderful. The sunrise at the lake was as good as the sunset the day before. The Sequoia National Park website describes that it is a slight detour, adding 0.8 extra miles or so, on your way to the Kern Hot Springs. Trust me. It is worth walking that extra miles for it (unless you want to camp elsewhere).
We started our hike to the Kern Hot Springs around 8 am.
Not really knowing what it looked like, to be honest, my anticipation for the hot springs grew by the mile. I had been told that this was the most remote hot springs one can reach in the U.S. by foot.
NOTE: Please, don’t quote me on this, as I haven’t done any research to verify that claim.
After a bit of elevation gain through a large patch of boulders, we finally reached the hot springs. The entire hike didn’t involve much of elevation gain. Rather, it was a pretty much downhill jaunt.
However, it didn’t help our toes. By this day, we had a few blisters in our feet. For me, the majority of them were in my right foot – all of them were in the toes, accompanied by mild skin irritations on both outer ends of the big toe and the pinky toe.
The springs tub was located right next to the Kern River. So if one desires, he/she could dip in the warm and then in the cool water next. The tub was rather small though. More like one person at a time small.
The warm water was quite soothing at first and then maybe it got too warm as I completely immersed in the water under the sun. But definitely a welcome treat for my right foot, scarred with the popped blisters in my toes.
It was a rather short day. And because we had a long day ahead of us the following day, we took it easy.
Little did we know, the hike next day turned out to be the most challenging uphill battle that we took on on this High Sierra Trail backpacking trip.
DAY 5 – KERN HOT SPRINGS TO WALLACE CREEK
It was still quite dark when I unzipped my tent and looked out. Definitely cool, but not cold. The starry sky was still hung over my head, gently stirring my barely woken up state of mind to want to reach for my Canon.
But I knew I didn’t have the time for it.
While mildly chastising myself for not waking up earlier, I half assured myself by saying, oh, well, maybe tonight.
I looked over at Maddie’s tent and it soon got lit up from inside as her tent light came on. It was time to get out of my sleeping bag.
Because of the distance as well as the elevation gain that we were expecting, Maddie and I decided the night before that we would start quite early. In fact, it was earlier than the time we started our hike from Bearpaw to Moraine Lake.
We started our hike for Day 5 at 6:33 am.
Because we were at the bottom of the Kern Canyon, it was great that we didn’t have much of morning sunlight shining on ourselves. However, not much long, we knew.
The sun was rising rapidly. But because we were still knocking the miles out at the bottom of the canyon, we didn’t worry about the temperature rising. However, of course, we knew we would eventually be out of the canyon as we were gaining elevation. Although it may have been gradual in terms of elevation gain toward Junction Meadow, we knew what was ahead of us.
Walking along the Kern River in the canyon was quite pleasant.
When we reached Junction Meadow, we felt pretty good about the pace. The campground was quite nicely located right by the Kern River, which was flowing quite nicely.
We refilled our water bottles here and enjoyed a snack break but didn’t want to linger there too long. We didn’t want to lose the momentum. The refreshing river water and the shaded campground were too inviting, though.
As I noted above, the elevation gain up to Junction Meadow was gradual. A gain is a gain, of course, but it was about over 1,400 feet over close to under 8 miles. How about a 2,300 feet elevation gain over less than 4 miles?
Maddie and I had tested our pack weights by hiking 7.6 miles with 4,000 plus feet in elevation in Mt. San Jacinto prior to our trip, so this wasn’t necessarily the worst hike we had ever done with our loads.
However, this is the part where we didn’t know where the Wallace Creek actually was flowing. It was at least 50 feet below the trail. And considering how exhausted and slightly dehydrated we were in the heat, we didn’t really feel like dropping our packs down in the middle of the trail and going down the slope to get water either.
We didn’t come across another water source till when we almost reached the Wallace Creek junction, where we realized that we started running into many backpackers. And they were all JMT’ers and PCT’ers.
Speaking of, we had met a few HST’ers, and some were quite fast backpackers. Three of them really stood out.
A tall (6′ 7), young backpacker was backpacking the High Sierra Trail as out and back in 5 days. Yes, 140 plus miles in 5 days.
We first met him soon after we left the Kern Hot Springs, where he camped too. He told us that he arrived at the campground really late and that the reason why he was doing the High Sierra Trail in 5 days because he couldn’t arrange the ride at Whitney Portal (and not much time, of course).
We ran into this young guy who had already done the JMT before again next day when he was already on his way back to Wallace Creek. It was a couple of miles prior for us to reach Guitar Lake. He had told us that he would be heading to Guitar Lake, hike Mt. Whitney early next day and head back to Wallace Creek the same day. That is fast.
Based on the pace that he was on, we had no doubt that he would have made it back to Crescent Meadow in 5 days. Unfortunately we never caught his name.
Another backpacker we ran into was Ben, with whom I am now Facebook friends. He was truly one of a kind traveler/backpacker/adventurer. He told us that he had been on the road for almost three years by then. He had been to 49 states (I didn’t ask which state was the one that he hadn’t visited) and to many countries abroad for mountain climbing.
Ben was pacing himself to finish the High Sierra Trail in 4 days. One way though. Still, it was extremely impressive. We had a great conversation with him. He told us that he would be heading to the Lost Coast Trail to backpack, which I have done – the southern section of the Lost Coast Trail. (If you’re interested in backpacking the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail, check out the SoCal Hiker’s trip.) Ben just climbed Mt. Olympus, which was still covered with heavy snow, as I am writing this blog post.
And, lastly, I didn’t get to talk to this guy for long because his stay at Precipice Lake was brief while he refilled his water bottle. But he was trail running the High Sierra Trail as out and back in 36 hours. He was barely carrying anything on him, and I couldn’t even fathom the idea how fast he had to run and hike.
One thing in common of the first two guys – the pack weight they were carrying was literally under 20 something lb. Of course, less food means less weight. Imagine the base gear weight though!
We were settled at a campsite really close to the water at Wallace Creek Campground.
Ksenya and Arielle, two female backpackers, whom I met back at the Kern Hot Springs Campground the night before while storing our foods in the bear locker also made to the campground that evening. And they actually joined us for a conversation. We had such a great conversation, and now they are our Facebook friends.
DAY 6 – WALLACE CREEK TO GUITAR LAKE
Next day’s hike wasn’t either a tough one nor a long one, which was quite a treat for our feet. Especially considering the fact that we had such a brutal, heat battling hike the previously day, we really wanted an easy one, and the hike from Wallace Creek to Crabtree and then to Guitar Lake was just that.
The mild uphills and downhills of the trail kept us just moving forward without much of strains on our legs and waists.
Once quite close to Crabtree, we started seeing the high mountains start rising ahead of us.
Crabtree was another hub with all the traffic.
This is the junction where the PCT’ers camp and head for Mt. Whitney as day hike before continuing on to either Rock Creek Crossing (if it is SOBO), or Lake South America Trail (if it is NOBO) via the Wallace Creek junction. If you’re interested in the Southern California part of the PCT, check out this book.
Timeberline Lake is one of the jewels in the ‘Whitney Zone.’ It is quite a small lake, and the creek going up the hill behind it is quite lush. No backpackers are allowed to camp here, so naturally, Guitar Lake, which was the next one, is popular.
We took our time at Timberline Lake, where we struck a conversation with an old couple from Alaska, doing the JMT. We had started seeing them soon after leaving Wallace Creek and frog jumped each other for a bit. Eventually we were ahead of them, but they caught up with us at the lake.
They talked about Denali and also the amount of hours they usually get in summer vs. winter. I think they said they were from Fairbanks, which is northeast of Denali. 4-5 hours of daylight in winter seemed quite extreme even to ponder whether one would like it, but I unequivocally believed it when they asserted that they do their best to make most out of it.
How about almost 18-20 hours of daylight in summer?
We reached Guitar Lake, our destination for the day in the early afternoon and found a spot at the farthest end of the lake from Mt. Whitney. We were able to see the mountain better from there. Also, we were close to the end of the lake to catch the sunset.
While getting water, we also soaked our feet in the lake and enjoyed what was surrounding us. Especially Mt. Young left quite an impression on us, so we kept studying it while enjoying our solitude at that side of the lake.
The sun was setting. The intense orange and then red glow on Mt. Whitney was definitely one of the highlights on the High Sierra Trail (or the JMT, I am sure).
The night at Guitar Lake was surreal. We sat out on top of the ledge behind our campsite where we had one of the best views of the entire basin.
Because the moon was just over a night away from becoming a full moon, it was extremely bright. We could see what was surrounding us with our naked eye without help of our head lamps. While prepping, I had not known that we were going to have a full moon in the morning when we were hiking Mt. Whitney. And we did. I bet that even John Muir didn’t plan his hike this perfectly.
The spikes of Mt. Hitchcock started glowing in the moon light from the moment when it was rising behind Mt. Whitney ridge line.
Mt. Young flooded the entire basin with the deflected light when the moon eventually rose over the ridge line.
The reflection of the moon in Guitar Lake was just mesmerizing.
DAY 7 – GUITAR LAKE TO HITCHCOCK LAKES
Next day was our layover day.
When I started planning this trip, from the getgo I wanted to spend a night at Hitchcock Lakes. Since the moment I first day hiked Mt. Whitney and saw Hitchcock Lakes from Junction Crest, they never left my mind.
Guitar Lake is popular and more well known. Hitchcock Lakes were always left behind when the JMT is talked about. It is probably because 1. the lakes are located quite a bit of off the trail, and 2. not many want to spend an extra day at the lakes (or simply they don’t have enough time).
And I wanted to spend a day (and a night) there because of that reason. Not many backpackers spend their time there. It is an amazing part of the Whitney Zone, and it is way, I mean way better than Guitar Lake, in my humble opinion.
We took our time having breakfast and packing up. While heading up to Hitchcock Lakes, the view of Guitar Lake looked pretty darn good from where the photo below was taken, so we posed for a few shots.
Before reaching one of the Hitchcock Lakes (and we only went down to the lower lake), there were at least three small lakes that we hiked by. We eventually decided to camp at one of them to avoid any extra elevation gain next morning (and distance) when we have to hike back to the main trail.
It was around 2 pm when we were ready to explore the lakes. There wasn’t a whole lot of elevation losses to the lake or gains back to the camp. It was definitely a fun traversing, exploratory hike.
We were slightly surprised by a backpacker who had spent the night by the third small lake. He was having an extremely slow start for his late afternoon hike. We were not sure if he was backpacking the JMT. Or the High Sierra Trail for that matter.
Maddie and I kept walking down the hill to the lower Hitchcock Lake.
Can a desolate lake be this beautiful?
Not a single soul was around. We literally kept the entire lake to ourselves.
The lower lake was quite large as easily seen from the Junction Crest. However, what impressed us most was Mt. Hitchcock, which was towering over the lake. No one can see that from Junction Crest. One can admire it only when he/she is at the bottom of it.
Its sheer size of the mass was something that I will never forget. Besides the earlier Precipice Lake, Hitchcock Lakes were our favorite place to be during the entire High Sierra Trail trip.
Once back at our camp, we had early dinner and got our packs ready for the next day. We purposely didn’t even pitch our tents (and of course we didn’t expect rain at all).
Our alarm was to go off at midnight. To catch the sunrise at the top of Mt. Whitney.
We slid into our sleeping bags, hoping to fall asleep early, but it never happened. Especially when you know that the next day would be the biggest climb of all and that we had to get up so early.
And who really wants to fall alseep before the gorgeous sunset…
It was rather chilly at the elevation of 11,700 plus feet once the sun disappeared behind the mountains, but neither of us had a problem staying warm inside our sleeping bags. We believed that the temperature dropped below 30ºF, but it didn’t bother us. We were more stressed out by not being able to fall asleep that night. We barely slept that night.
DAY 8 – HITCHCOCK LAKES TO MT. WHITNEY AND THEN TO TRAIL CAMP
The alarm went off at midnight. No one got out of the sleeping bag for the first few minutes. But we knew it was time to get up.
We got out of our warm and cosy sleeping bags and started packing up in silence. We didn’t feel like making small talks that early…
We didn’t even eat anything because it was only 12:34 am when we were ready to leave Hitchcock Lakes behind.
First, we reached the main trail.
And then the switchbacks.
Did I say that it was a full moon?
As of 2 am, it became a full moon.
Did I say that it was very bright?
Literally we didn’t have to use our head lamps. But I did. I was ahead of Maddie, and I wanted her to know where I was. Later she joked that she thought the headlamp light was a sparkling star when she looked up to find me up there.
We could’ve slept for at least another hour…
We reached the Junction Crest quite earlier than we thought. It was way earlier in fact. It was 2:35 am, and I thought to myself, ‘we could’ve slept for at least another hour…’
We saw no backpacks or bear canisters laying around at the junction.
We sort of ‘repacked’ our stuff there for the hike and continued our hike with a light load. The rest was all left behind at the junction. One of the key items that we brought with us was the sleeping bags.
It was rather amusing to see all the backpacks literally congesting the junction when we came back down. I wondered to myself if John Muir ever foresaw this or even could’ve fathomed the idea if someone time travelled and told him about this.
It was 4:11 am when I reached the summit hut. I wondered if that extra hour might’ve well served if I took it…
We signed in and hurried inside the hut. There we found two JMT’ers and their resupply carrier friend (how nice) who just started packing up. We chatted while they were packing to get ready for their descent.
The sky was getting brighter out the window. We stepped out into the still freezing cold temperature. It was quite windy. Once we found a spot near the cliff edge, we bundled up in our sleeping bags.
As the sun rose, we were able to ditch our sleeping bags. It was still windy but a clearest day that one could hope for arrived. There was a thick layer of clouds brooding just over the horizon, so the sunrise was a tad bit delayed. But the clouds certainly added extra element for the spectacular sunrise that we were anticipating.
Mt. Russell, which turned gold, looked gorgeous in the sunlight, and even Tunnabora Peak played a peekaboo from behind Mt. Russell.
Mt. Williamson and Trojan Peak behind Mt. Russell also looked very cool at the nippy daybreak.
We realized that there were 30 plus hikers and backpackers at the summit, catching the sunrise as well. Some slept at the summit, out in the cold (because the summit hut was taken) but many hiked from Guitar Lake.
We had seen an intermittently spread out headlamps in a string, slowly moving toward Mt. Whitney all the way from Guitar Lake, while going up the switchbacks. And now they were all there!
We were glad though that we started from Hitchcock Lakes. Maybe just over a mile in distance but over 600 feet elevation gain? Rather do that during day.
NOTE: My phone battery died after using it quite intensively at the summit (where you actually get cell signal), and somehow I missed that the RavePower charger that I brought was completely out of juice. So I was not able to recharge my phone till we reached Trail Camp later, where we had been originally going to spend a night at. I am missing the track for the part where we descended Mt. Whitney to Trail Camp, where the 99 switchbacks lie.
Below is the remainder of the track that I created once my phone was charged.
We descended Mt. Whitney at around 9 am. When reaching Trail Camp, we were not impressed by its lake nor the crowded campground. Besides, it was only 2 pm.
Yes, by then, we had been already up for over 12 hours, but we weren’t tired. The adrenaline was still rushing through our bodies. So, we decided to keep going. Of course, we weren’t going to exit the Portal that day. We just wanted to spend the night elsewhere.
We found ourselves a spot between Trail Camp and Outpost Camp, kind of close to Mirror Lake, but the elevation was still high enough to look out through the canyon, including Lone Pine Lake at the bottom of it, into the view of Lone Pine and the mountains in Death Valley. It was perfect.
The little waterfalls in the Lone Pine Creek by our campsite was not bad either.
We were so glad that we were pretty much done with our wag bags by then. Since we entered the Whitney Zone, it was something that we, and any backpackers would, had to juggle with the remainder of the foods that we had in our canisters.
I won’t get into that much.
DAY 9 – TRAIL CAMP TO WHITNEY PORTAL
Last day of the High Sierra Trail backpacking trip arrived.
We couldn’t believe it. Not only were we exiting the Whitney Portal that day, but also hiking Mt. Whitney in the full moon and catching the once-in-a-lifetime sunrise at the summit already came and went. Now they are memories.
Maybe this is why we all say it is all about making beautiful memories. A fact of matter is that being in the moment or being in the present means nothing. The future seems like always a day or even a year away, and yet in the blink of an eye, it shows up right at the door. Now it is the past.
Sometimes spontaneity is beyond awesome.
Checking out Lone Pine Lake never occurred to us, even when we spent the night at the campsite where we saw it. Although we had hiked by it when we day hiked Mt. Whitney before, Maddie and I never checked it out in the past.
That day we decided to take a break there.
The lake is super close to the Portal with not much of elevation gain, so it is actually perfect for families with kids. Also, one still needs permit to camp here, but it turned out that the lake was popular for fishing. We ran into at least three groups heading up to the lake for fishing.
While there, we started talking with a group of three Chinese day hikers nearby. And we happened to leave the lake around the same time, so we kept talking. Since we were having a conversation, why not asking them for a ride?
So, I asked them if they could give us a ride to the Lone Pine Campground on their way out of the Portal. They said yes and we were so grateful that they didn’t mind at all.
Weili, one of the Chinese guys, and I are Facebook friends now.
At the Whitney Portal, we took our ‘We just finished our High Sierra Trail’ shot.
Once again, it didn’t register with us. We really finished it? There’s no more distance left?
Maybe we were too excited to throw away our wag bags.
It felt quite surreal.
NOTE: We didn’t think that it would’ve been very difficult to hitch a ride to the Lone Pine Campground Overnight Parking Lot. The worst case scenario would’ve been me hiking another 4 miles to fetch my car at the parking lot. But we were so glad that it was Weili and his friends who gave us a ride.
Once we got back to the parking lot, we drove to Long Pine, where the Whitney Hostel is located. If you heard about it but never took a shower there, it is pretty good. Apparently they raised the price from $5 to $7 recently (because I always thought it was $5 since I first heard about it 2 1/2 years ago), but it is well worth spending that money.
Then we headed over to the next door – the Chinese restaurant, most well known restaurant in Lone Pine, but it was not yet open. We had been wanting to have the Chinese food for days, so we were a bit disappointed. Well, when you don’t want to take a chance on other restaurants and don’t have a whole lot of time searching for one, there’s always McDonalds.
We had a long drive to do. Once done with our quick meals, we hopped back in my car and started driving south on US 395.
The High Sierra Trail is one of the longest, multi-day backpacking trips that I have ever taken on.
My trip consisted of two key elements – geographic and human elements. As you may expect to hear, it was a great, short journey which I learned a lot about myself, my friend Maddie (and some folks whom I purposely omitted) and backpacking itself.
And honestly I can confidently say that I can do the John Muir Trail easily. With a well thought-out plan, like I did on this High Sierra Trail trip, and with great company, no multi-day backpacking trip is going to be difficult. Yes, it demands mental and physical strength when the elevation gain is more than what one can handle or when the heat or the cold is more than what one can endure.
However, it is all about having fun and making beautiful memories.
And I am more than glad that I did this, and I can’t wait to do another. Another backpacking trip. Of course, as I am writing this, the summer is almost over, which meant that the temperature is dropping and the days are getting shorter. In fact, the fall foliage season is approaching. So, prepping for a trip in the fall would be a bit different from this one.
I am very interested in the Sierra High Route that I mentioned above. It could be my epic backpacking trip for the next year. I’ve already begun reading about it.
After running into so many PCT’ers and JMT’ers, I am slightly turned off on doing the JMT. Don’t get me wrong. I am sure it’ll be amazing. But, reflecting on what the lady of the old Aussie couple said, I couldn’t agree more on the aspect of backpacking somewhere I would be enjoying solitude.
Met great people on the trail and the campgrounds and many are Facebook friends now. But also, I know how precious the time that I spent at Hitchcock Lakes when no one was around was. Maybe balancing it is the key to making beautiful memories.
Let’s see how my next adventure unfolds.
Did you like this post? What is your favorite part? Have you backpacked the High Sierra Trail? Have you done the JMT? How was it? If not, are you interested in doing the High Sierra Trail? What other trips have you done?
Thanks for reading.