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High Sierra Trail
The High Sierra Trail leads from Crescent Meadow up the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, crossing the Great Western Divide by the 10,700' (3261 meters) pass known as Kaweah Gap. It descends into Big Arroyo, then climbs up to the Chagoopa Plateau, and drops down again into the Kern River Canyon. After running up the bottom of the Kern Canyon, it turns east, climbing parallel to Wallace Creek up to the junction with the John Muir Trail, 49 miles (79 km) from the starting point. You can then follow the John Muir Trail about 13 more miles (21 km) to the summit of Mount Whitney. Stock travelers will find some restrictions on their trip, both natural and those imposed by the park to preserve the natural beauty we come to enjoy. Backpackers should encounter no difficulties, if reasonable distances are taken each day. The campsites suggested in the following description are for hikers with a minimum amount of time to make the trek to Mt. Whitney. For hikers with more time, a summary of distances between the alternate campsites mentioned is given at the end of this description.
Day 1 - to Bearpaw Meadow (11.4 miles/18.2 km):The trail leaves from Crescent Meadow on the southeast edge of the Giant Forest. For the first half-mile, the trail travels through shady, well-watered terrain covered with dense forests of red and white fir, sugar pines, and occasional giant sequoias. The trail then emerges onto a warm, south-facing slope at Eagle View. From here, you can see back to Moro Rock to the west, down to the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River, and ahead to the glaciated peaks of the Great Western Divide. The nearly-level trail then passes through part of the area burned by the Buckeye Fire in 1980. Spring-fed streams cross the trail late into the season. Creek crossings may be hazardous early in the summer. Be sure to check conditions when you pick up your permit.
Beyond the junction with the Seven Mile Hill Trail, which connects the High Sierra and Alta Trails, the trail crosses the steep slopes and bluffs of the south side of Alta Meadow and Alta Peak. During 1930, a trail crew working with an air compressor and rock drills spent nearly the entire summer blasting a 1-mile (1.6 km) stretch of trail through this area.
Hikers taking a more leisurely trek to Mt. Whitney may wish to camp along one of the two forks of Nine Mile Creek (8.8 miles/14.1 km). After passing Nine Mile Creek, the trail descends to Buck Canyon, a spectacular canyon well-known for floods, avalanches and rockslides. After crossing Buck Creek, the trail climbs some 500' in slightly over a mile (152 meters in 1.6 km), arriving at the Bearpaw Meadow area 11.4 miles (18.2 km) from the trailhead. In addition to camp sites, this is the location of the Bearpaw Meadow Camp, a simple tent hotel run by the park concessionaire (reservations required).
Day 2 - to Big Arroyo Junction (11 miles/17.6 km): East of Bearpaw, you begin your ascent into the Great Western Divide. After passing some nice campsites at Lone Pine Creek (13.1 miles/21.0 km from the trailhead), the trail follows a long series of switchbacks, overshadowed by the Angel Wings, a sheer granite wall to the north of the trail. The route crosses Hamilton Creek just above the lower Hamilton Falls and climbs another series of switchbacks to Big Hamilton Lake (16.6 miles/26.6 km). The popular campsites here offer outstanding views and fair to good fishing for brook, rainbow and golden trout.
Beyond Big Hamilton Lake, there is nowhere to go but up! The climb begins with a series of sweeping switchbacks across the bluffs to the north of the lake, before turning east towards the sheer-walled avalanche chute known as Hamilton Gorge. In 1932, Park Service engineers erected a steel suspension bridge across the Gorge, but in the winter of 1937, a massive avalanche tore the bridge from its moorings and swept its twisted wreckage down to the shores of Big Hamilton Lake. You can still see the bridge's concrete foundations and a few scrap metal remains, but the trail now uses a ledge and tunnel that were blasted by the Civilian Conservation Corps the next summer.
East of Hamilton Gorge, the trail enters the alpine life zone of the Sierras, a region where the short growing season, avalanches and lack of soil make life impossible for plants other than herbs and low shrubs. Precipice Lake, which is nestled beneath the north wall of Eagle Scout Peak, often stays frozen into mid-summer. Beyond the lake, the route passes a series of shallow glacial ponds, to finally arrive at Kaweah Gap on the Great Western Divide (20 miles/32 km). From this pass at 10,700' (3261 meters) it is only a few hundred vertical feet down to the open valley of the Big Arroyo. The trail continues a steady to moderate descent to the campsites at Big Arroyo Junction (22.5 miles/36 km).
Day 3 - to Moraine Lake (8 miles/12.8 km) or Upper Funston Meadow (12 miles/19.2 km): After 2 strenuous days of hiking, the journey from Big Arroyo to Moraine Lake is relatively easy. If you have a tighter schedule, you may wish to bypass Moraine Lake, an extra .8 miles (1.3 km), and proceed directly to Upper Funston Meadow, at the bottom of the Kern Trench.
After leaving Big Arroyo Junction, the trail makes a moderate ascent up the north wall of the Big Arroyo, providing views of the east side of the Great Western Divide. Once it reaches the Chagoopa Plateau, the trail levels off, and soon reaches a junction on a tributary of Chagoopa Creek. The right-hand trail branches off from the main High Sierra Trail to Moraine Lake (30 miles/48 km from Crescent Meadow). The left-hand trail follows a more direct route across the Chagoopa Plateau, rejoining the Moraine Lake Trail at Sky Parlor Meadow (30.8 miles/49.3 km). From here, it descends to the bottom of the Kern Trench. The drop is moderate at first, but concludes with a series of steep, rocky switchbacks. This stretch of the trail can be long and dry, so be sure to fill your water bottles at Sky Parlor Meadow. To reach Upper Funston Meadow (34.5 miles/55.2 km), turn south (right) upon reaching the bottom of the canyon.
Day 4 - to Junction Meadow (13.7 miles/21.9 km from Moraine Lake/9.7 miles; 15.5 km from Upper Funston): If you are coming from Moraine Lake, continue about 1 mile (1.6 km) beyond the lake to rejoin the High Sierra Trail at Sky Parlor Meadow. Descend into the Kern Trench, but turn north (left) upon reaching the bottom. If you are coming from Upper Funston, retrace your steps to the junction with the trail from the Chagoopa plateau, and continue north along the bottom of the canyon.
The Kern River Trail drops into a marshy area beyond the junction, then leads through a forest of Jeffrey pine and incense-cedar. Keep an eye through the trees to the west to catch a glimpse of Chagoopa Falls tumbling down from the rim of the canyon. At 36.8 miles/58.9 km from the trailhead (excluding the side-trip to Moraine Lake), you will arrive at Kern Hot Springs, complete with a crude cement bathtub in which to soak your aching muscles. The water from the spring is 115 degree F (46 degrees C). The tub is only a few feet from the cold, rushing Kern River, and runoff from the tub mixes with river water to create a warm pool, allowing you your choice of temperatures for bathing. (Please, no soap in the river or tub.) If your schedule allows, you may wish to camp here, but you must stay in the designated camp sites, which are often heavily used.
Beyond Kern Hot Spring, the trail continues along the bottom of the glaciated valley of the Kern River. This canyon runs almost due north and south for about 25 miles (40 km) along the Kern Canyon fault. The trail ascends steadily to Junction Meadow (42 miles/67.2 km). Hiking along the bottom of the canyon can be hot and dry during the middle of the day. If you have camped at Kern Hot Springs, however, remember that cold air from the surrounding peaks flows down the canyon at night, and that the sun will not clear the 2000 to 5000' (610 to 1524 meter) high canyon walls until relatively late in the morning.
Day 5 - to Crabtree Meadow (8.9 miles/14.2 km): Leave the park-like Jeffrey pines of Junction Meadow and cross a steep, rocky slope covered with manzanita and currant. Soon, the trail begins to climb out of the Kern Canyon, offering increasingly impressive views of the canyon to the south, and west to the Kaweah Peaks, which were to the east of you three days ago when you came over Kaweah Gap. At 48.9 miles from the trailhead (78.2 km), you will reach the junction with the John Muir Trail, which runs from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney. There are campsites here, as well as at Crabtree Meadow (53.1 miles/85 km). Guitar Lake (56.6 miles/90.6 km) is the last campsite with water before the summit of Mt. Whitney.
Day 6 - to the summit of Mt. Whitney: If you have arranged for transportation from Whitney Portal and this is the last day of your trip, this will be a long day (19.1 miles/30.6 km). You may also camp at Trail Camp (65.7 miles/105.1 km from the trailhead) or Outpost Camp (68.7 miles/109.9 km) on the east side. If you are hiking back to Giant Forest, plan to return to Crabtree Meadow (round trip to the summit, 16.8 miles/26.8 km).
The final climb begins with a moderate traverse along the "back" side of Mt. Whitney; then the trail begins its switchbacking climb to Trail Crest, the divide between the west and east sides of the Sierras. Fill your water bottles before starting on this climb; there is no reliable water supply between Guitar Lake and Trail Camp on the east side. A hundred yards (91 meters) below Trail Crest, you will find the 2.4 mile (3.8 km) spur trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney. If you wish to leave your backpack at this junction while you make the climb to the summit, be sure your food is secure from the hungry marmots who frequent this area. The trail to the summit follows an open, rocky route along the west side of the Sierra crest.
The windswept, barren summit of Mt. Whitney is home to hardy flocks of rosy finches. When not looking for handouts from hikers (please remember that feeding animals in a National Park is illegal), these tame little brown and pink birds eat, among other things, insects that have been blown upslope from lower elevations and have become trapped in melting ice or frozen on the surface of snow fields.
The Mount Whitney Hut was built at the summit in 1909 as a station for meteorological observations. The metal roof of this hut attracts lightning which can be conducted through the building to individuals inside. Do not seek shelter here during a storm. It is unsafe to be anywhere on top of the mountain or any exposed high place during a thunderstorm. Check the weather conditions before beginning the hike to the summit.
After returning to Trail Crest, hikers heading out to Whitney Portal will descend 100 switchbacks to Trail Camp, a popular camping area for hikers coming from the east side. Although often crowded, this site offers an impressive early morning view of the rising sun's light striking Mt. Whitney. If you camp here, however, be aware that the sun drops behind the crest of the Sierras fairly early in the evening, and at 12,000' (3658 meters), the air cools down quickly. If you keep going, the rocky trail follows Lone Pine Creek down to Mirror Lake, a glacial cirque that is closed to camping, then continues along the creek to Outpost Camp, the last camping before Whitney Portal.
Day 7 (if returning to Giant Forest) - to Kern Hot Springs (14.5 miles/23.2 km) or Upper Funston Meadow (18.5 mi./29.6 km): Retrace your previous route.
Day 8 - to Big Arroyo (12 miles/19.2 km from Kern Hot Springs; 8 miles/12.8 km from Upper Funston): Retrace your previous route.
Day 9 - Explore Nine Lakes Basin and return via Kaweah Gap to Hamilton Lakes (4.8 miles/7.7 km plus side trip): An unmarked trail leaves the High Sierra Trail at the point where it turns west and begins the climb up the east side of Kaweah Gap. Follow this unmarked trail north if you wish to take a side trip to the Nine Lakes Basin. If you plan to hike in this or any off-trail area, always carry a topo map and compass, and be sure you know how to use them.
Day 10 - to Crescent Meadow via the High Sierra Trail (15.5 miles/25 km): Retrace your previous route.
* If you take the side trip to Moraine Lake, add .8 miles (1.3 km) to all subsequent distances.
** From Big Arroyo Junction, excluding the trip to Moraine Lake
*** The climb to the summit includes a 2.4-mile (each way) spur trail. These distances include the 4.8 mile side trip to the summit.
Did You Know?
When first set aside, what is now Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks were less than one-ninth of their present size. Over the last century, Congress has made seven major additions to the parks — the last being the Mineral King area in 1978.