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More About The Trans-Sierra Pack Trip

Early this month (August 4-12, 2008) I completed a tran-Sierra pack trip with my talusdancers friends. I still plan to eventually post “the story” along with photos, but since the trip was two weeks ago and I still have work to do on the photographs I’m writing up a quick overview here with the day by day account to come later.

The broad outline of the trip was to travel the “High Sierra Trail” west to east from Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park (located very close to Moro Rock), over the Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap, up the Kern River canyon to Junction Meadow and the climb up Wallace Creek, down the John Muir Trail (JMT) to Crabtree Meadow, and then over the peak and out to Whitney Portal on the east side. I have been on sections of the trail several times, especially in the area in and to the east of the Kern, I followed the HS Trail out to the cutoff to Elizabeth Pass on my first solo trip many years ago, and my wife and I did the whole HS Trail many (many!) years ago. I was interested to see how much of the route would seem familiar to me.

The first challenge for a trans-Sierra trip is setting up the car shuttle, and it is a major issue on this trip. The drive between Whitney Portal (where we left two cars) and Three Rivers (where we stayed the night before the trip) takes about four and a half hours – and we would need to repeat it at the end of the trip in order to retrieve the cars left at Crescent Meadow. As far as I can tell, there is simply no good way to avoid this issue.

At Crescent Meadow the trail begins in relatively lush forest (by Sierra Nevada standards) with ferns beneath the trees in places, and then it quickly crosses a gap in the ridge after which the trail largely contours along the north side of the canyon of the Kaweah River as it heads toward its source on the Great Western Divide. The trail alternates forested sections with wide open sections affording expansive views of the canyon, the Great Western Divide, and the foothills of the Central Valley. We passed Mehrton Creek – where I camped on my first trip through here – and continued on to our camp at Nine Mile Creek.

On the next morning the first portion of the trail was not terribly different from what we had hiked on the first day – mixed forest and open terrain and at roughly the same elevation. After a short distance and a small climb we arrived at Bearpaw Meadow where there is a ranger station and a backcountry camp much like the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. We all stopped to enjoy the now close-up view of the peaks of the Great Western divide before continuing on. At this point the terrain began to change as the trail followed a rather “interesting” route along rocky cliff ledges above the increasingly steep valley below. After crossing a major creek on a new bridge (from which you could ponder the wreckage of the old bridge below) the trail began the climb into the basin holding Hamilton Lakes. The climb is not too bad, but at the end of the day it seemed somewhat hard. We soon arrived at popular Upper Hamilton Lakes, from which we could view the route for the next day’s hike to Kaweah Gap.

The next morning some of us started early in order to get a head start on the steep 2500′ climb to Kaweah Gap, while others got a later start. The trail climbs steadily across the headwall of this basin, and includes some quite impressive examples of trail engineering – including the only “trail tunnel” I’ve encountered in the Sierra. Near the top of the steeper section the trail crosses wildflower fields fed by many small stream, and soon after that it arrives at Precipice Lake. (You may know this lake from a very famous Ansel Adams image shot in 1932.) We paused here – and I tried to pay homage to Ansel with a few photos of my own – and then headed on up the rather alpine final section to the gap, passing by small tarns and alpine meadows before this high point. From here the view opened to the east to the Kaweahs and to the south down Big Arroyo, into which we descended to reach our camp site at the old cabin along the creek.

On day four we began the climb to Chagoopa plateau, the large flat area at the south end of the Kaweahs between Big Arroyo and the Kern. After reaching the plateau – and wondering about the gathering clouds – we walked another mile or so and then turned off on the loop to Moraine Lake, our next camp.

On the next morning we began by crossing the Chagoopa Plateau on a trail that went through meadows and forest (many of which showed sights of fire) and past expansive views of Kaweah Peak before rejoining the High Sierra Trail. After this junction the trail began the large descent into the Kern River Canyon, and we gave up all of the elevation we had gained up until this point and then some by the time we hit the canyon floor. We passed over a very rough section of “new” trail that bypasses the old route along the river as we headed upstream to the Kern Hot Springs – where anyone in their right mind would camp and soak in the riverside rock pool.

After considering the rest of our itinerary and realizing that we had to do at least one really tough day to finish according to our plan, we decided to make the next one our long day. We started early with the fairly easy 7.5 mile walk up the Kern to Junction Meadow, rising perhaps 1000′ or so in this distance. We took a long lunch break here and then started the real climb of a bit more than 2500′ to the JMT junction at Wallace Creek. I think we all know that this 13 mile day with a 3700′ climb would be tough, but we all managed to avoid mentioning it in conversation – which is one way to deal with a challenge like this. Suffice it to say that we were tired when we arrived at the JMT and set up camp in the late afternoon.

The following day’s hike wasn’t so tough. We started with the section of the JMT that rises south of Wallace Creek, crossing moraines, forests, meadows, and a few intermediate valleys on its way to Crabtree Meadow. This is the location of another backcountry ranger station and the last place that one doesn’t have to use “wag bags” (look it up…) so we had considered camping here. However, this would have increase the total climb to the summit of Whitney the next day by about 1000′ and by several miles – so we decided that it would make more sense to head on up to the traditional “last camp before Whitney” on the west side, Guitar Lake.

Finally, the next day was summit day. Most of the group intended to camp on the summit of Whitney, but I have some breathing issues at night that made me inclined to not join them. With this in mind I got a bit of an earlier start than most of the group. The hike up from Guitar Lake is somewhat serious business – in climbs very steadily and the elevation can take an increasing toll on speed and endurance as the trail rises to the trail crest. We all met up at the junction with the trail coming up from Whitney Portal before heading on to the summit, with me carrying only photo gear and a few other items and the rest of the group equipped for a night on the summit. After the inevitable summit photos, I left them to their high camp and headed back to pick up my pack and head over the crest and on down the east side. I passed by the “trail camp” at the base of the first section of steep switchbacks and kept going to Outpost Camp, where I joined a lot of other backpackers, most of whom were likely headed up the peak the next day.

There isn’t a lot to say about the final day since I was only perhaps three miles or so from the trailhead, a distance that I completed by mid-morning – with time left for a huge breakfast at the Whitney Portal store. (You have never seen a pancake as big as what they sell there. Really.) By midday the whole group had arrived – reporting that they had a good overnight on the summit – and it was time to put the reverse car shuttle in motion.

And that’s it for now… Photos later.


August 27, 2008 - Posted by | Sierra Nevada, Trails, Trips

1 Comment

  1. Dan,

    Thank you for this trail account. My friend Chris and I are planning a long hike next summer, and this really helps. We may be following your lead and doing this hike!

    Precipice Lake has fascinated me since I first saw pictures of it by Paige Falk on Flickr.

    You can see her stuff here: http://flickr.com/photos/paigefalk/2796041343/

    Comment by Ambitious Wench | August 27, 2008

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