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There are more than 800 miles of trails in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. In fact, 80 percent of the parks is accessible only by foot trails. Whether day-hiking or planning an extended backcountry trip, there are sweeping views, picturesque peaks and passes, waterfalls and rivers, wildflower-filled meadows, sparkling lakes, and really, really BIG TREES!
The following hikes consist of easy day hikes, an extremely strenuous all-day hike, and a week-long backpacking trip, proving, once again, there's an outing for everybody when HIKING THE PARKS.
The High Sierra Trail
by Sarah Elliott
The High Sierra Trail is the southern Sierra Nevadas version of Highway 99, but much more scenic. Like a major freeway, backpackers can get on this trail and go, from start to finish, traveling en masse to the final destination, which is Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the Lower 48. And this was the goal of more than a dozen backpackers with which we shared this mass-transit route, that is, until we took a minor detour and, thus, quickly found solitude in a landscape rarely touched by hiking boots.
The first two days of this journey from Crescent Meadow to Hamilton Lakes have been written about several times in this series, so instead of a step-by-step description of the trail, this first installment reveals the personalities and places along the familiar route during this summer of 2002 trip.
* * *
Saturday, July 20: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw We have been on so many portions of the High Sierra Trail during our travels that last summer (July 2002) the goal of our trip was to explore yet another section. We began, most fittingly, at the beginning, as we have done many times: the High Sierra trailhead at Crescent Meadow (elevation 6,700 feet) in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park.
Our first day consisted of the familiar 11.5 miles to the High Sierra Camp at Bearpaw Meadow (elevation 7,800 feet). We have done this trip many times, and the kids (they were 12 and 13 at the time of this trip) have hoofed it out to Bearpaw almost annually since they were five and six years of age.
They, as do their parents, look forward to the hospitality of the staff, the unparalleled backcountry dayhiking and fishing, the delectable food and clean and comfortable tent-cabin facilities and, especially, meeting fellow guests, several of whom we now count among our dearest friends.
In previous years, Bearpaw has been the destination, meaning we traveled light, carrying just clothes and toiletries while the camp so graciously provided the gourmet meals, beds, and hot showers. This year, the mileage was more noticeable because we were all carrying fully loaded packs in preparation for an additional nine days in the backcountry.
The first day of any backpacking trip can be excruciating, and this High Sierra Trail initiation lived up to the expectations. Our packs were filled to maximum capacity, and this would be the highest-mileage day of the journey.
It wasnt long before our bodies were screaming, from shoulder blade to hipbone and to bones and muscles that anatomy would have never discovered if it werent for backpackers and their insane need to carry 40-plus pounds of earthly possessions with them into the mountains.
The trail from Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw has a mere 1,800 feet vertical elevation gain, which helps in a gradual acclimatization process, and the weather was warm, clear, and pleasant. Lunch, as is customary, was at the halfway point, conveniently, the water-polished granite benches alongside picturesque and refreshing Mehrten Creek.
We had seen relatively few people up until this point, but after the lunch break, we began being initiated to a kind of traveler that frequents this high-traffic Sierra thoroughfare. While we were enjoying the sights, sounds, and feel of the water at Nine Mile Creek, two men, who were making camp here asked us to keep a lookout for their buddy, who had been hiking ahead of them with instructions to stop at this locale.
We met this marathon man just before Buck Creek (about the 10.5 mile mark), where he had only just realized he had gone too far. This is where the phrase not a happy camper was discussed upon his departure.
As we approached the Buck Creek crossing, the established campsite here was occupied by a group of 20-something guys. As we were patting ourselves on the backs for reuniting the previous trio, one of the men in this group approached us and asked if we would keep an eye out for their tardy trailmate, who had fallen behind up the trail due to oozing blisters plaguing both feet.
We vowed on our moleskin and liner socks that we would point the hobbling hiker in the right direction. We never did see this fellow although we had lounged trailside on Bearpaws front porch with other guests till way past moonrise.
We, therefore, assumed he limped past our Bearpaw beds
as we were enjoying deep sleep, savoring every minute of mattress and
comforter. From experience, we knew it would be many nights on ground
and granite before we again felt the luxury of a bed.
Sunday, July 21, Bearpaw to Hamilton Lakes We took our time departing from Bearpaw since we would follow the High Sierra Trail for just 4.5 miles to upper Hamilton Lake (elevation 8,235 feet). This is a beautiful alpine lake and we have enjoyed many a day along its shores that always seemed too short. For that reason, we decided that we would spend a night here.
So did 22 other people. This was our initiation to the High Sierra Trail thru-hikers-to-Whitney clan.
When we arrived, there were eight men and boys who had already claimed three campsites out of the designated six. They were a loud, obnoxious bunch.
We heard them long before we saw them. As we crested the last knoll and descended to the lake, these wilderness wannabes were sitting on lawn chairs and playing Slap Jack on the food-storage box, laughing hysterically every time someone slammed their hand down, causing the metal container to reverberate loudly, the sound further amplified by the water and echoing off the surrounding granite cliffs.
Instead of the lakeview campsite that I had envisioned, we rolled our eyes at the clueless campers and chose a site farther away. As we were setting up camp, a guided trip of 12 arrived.
The savvy guides were able to coerce the eight-is-more-than-enough gang to relinquish one of their sites and they got busy setting up their village of tents in the last three available sites. By this time, we were swimming in the lake when we noticed another tent tucked into the trees near the outlet stream.
Although late in the day, these two men were breaking camp. Loving the lakeside vicinity and always willing to go great lengths for the perfect campsite, we laid claim on this spot the minute it was vacated.
Sure, we were pushing the 100-foot limit that is requested when camping by a water source, but it was a campsite, right? Wrong.
As we were carrying our already erected tent to its new home, our son decided to read the bulletin board located along a portion of trail we had previously bypassed in our beeline to the lake. It specifically showed the designated campsites and this lakeside one yep, we should have known better definitely wasnt one of them. We had taught our kids the rules of leave-no-trace backpacking way too well to even consider trying to get away with this infraction.
Back we went to the forest with the tent. And so much for quotas, because about this time a couple straggled in and whether or not they paid any attention to the bulletin board, there were no campsites left and they got the waterfront real estate.
In the late afternoon, as we were making preparations for supper, we took time to visit with our new neighbors and fellow High Sierra Trail hikers.
The late-arriving couple was from Ohio and had flown to California specifically to hike the High Sierra Trail to Mt. Whitney. They were struggling desperately with the altitude, new boots and blisters, and from carrying too much weight, including an oversized camera with a lens the size of a Volkswagen.
The group of 12 included nine first-time backpackers and three professional guides from a Fresno outfit. As the novice hikers were introducing themselves to the ancient backpacking ritual of soaking their sore feet in the lake, the guides were busy hydrating food for the evening meal.
As nightfall approached we bagged up our food and other scented items and put them in the bearproof food-storage box adjacent to our camp. Other campers had already done the same and we had another High Sierra Trail revelation.
Inside the bear-box was a virtual 7-11 convenience store of junk food. There were smelly hot dogs, mini-cans of pork-and-beans, 20-ounce bottles of Gatorade (thats more than a pound apiece), bags of potato chips that were blown up like pillows due to altitude and air pressure, melted chocolate bars, and a can of Pepsi, all of which were guaranteed to tempt the olfactory senses of any bear located on the continent of North America.
This type of backcountry camping loud, crowded, and virtually unaware is indicative of anywhere along a beaten path as sure as theres a McDonalds at every freeway offramp. Staying at Hamilton Lake verified our reasons why we walk long and far to avoid such accessible areas.
But we werent worried. Within a day, we would veer
just slightly off the main course and leave the rest of the human race
Monday, July 22: Hamilton Lake to Nine Lake Basin We smelled it first. The stench of smoke filled the tent and we awoke with dry throats and burning eyes. As we took our first look at the new day, it was an ominous sight.
Although it was 6 a.m. and well past daybreak, the sky was dark and eerie. The sun over the granite peaks that tower above Hamilton Lake was a ball of orange hidden behind a thick haze, barely able to lighten the landscape with its yellowish hue.
Our packs and tent were covered with a layer of white ash. We knew immediately that this was more than a neighboring camper building a morning cookfire, but we had no way of knowing what was burning or where.
We began packing, as were the 22 other campers nearby, with everyone wondering where the fire was that was causing so much smoke. With every breath, we inhaled the unmistakable tang of smoke.
This was discouraging because we would soon be ascending steeply on the trail, and our bodies would insist on mega-doses of oxygen that was going to be painful to obtain, especially in contrast to the crisp, clean mountain air that is a principal reason why we so enjoy our time in the high country. We would also be traveling along a very scenic portion of the High Sierra Trail and the views were now obscured.
Packing for a family of four takes longer than other types of backpacking groups because even though were early risers, we are usually the last to leave when having neighbors with whom to compare. Even though there were nearly two dozen campers at Hamilton Lakes, we were well behind the others as we rock-hopped across the outlet stream and began our days High Sierra Trail journey.
The first order of the day was to work our way up and out of the upper Hamilton Lake cirque. As we switchbacked up the north slope overlooking the lake, we had to stop often to brush ash off our packs and ourselves, drinking water to alleviate our burning throats.
Hamilton Lake, usually sparkling blue, was lost in a black, smoky haze. Heard more than seen on this day, the waterfall at the east end of Hamilton Lake was freefalling down the mountainside, landing loudly on the broken boulders below.
Although the calendar said late July, it was spring where we were traveling. Among the chinquapin, manzanita, and juniper, yellow columbine, pink shooting stars, lavender lupine, red Indian paintbrush, pink phlox, and many other wildflowers brightened the way, adding a carpet of color to complement the great walls of gray granite and the smoky sky.
Although we were the last to leave camp, we soon passed the Ohio couple sitting alongside the trail. They were facing another day of overloaded packs, new boots and blisters, and now the challenge of acclimating while inhaling smoke.
This couples absolute resolve of the previous evening to make the summit of Mt. Whitney was severely weakening on this 2,500-foot climb to Kaweah Gap. It was sad to see the discouragement in their eyes and, after we passed them, we never saw them again, but wonder if, and hope, they made their final destination.
In just under two miles, the trail, now heading east, reaches the dramatic Hamilton Gorge. This is a historic feat of trail engineering as the route is chiseled out of vertical rock walls and hikers pass through a tunnel of blasted-out granite as they circumnavigate the steep avalanche chute.
This narrow horseshoe section of ledge and tunnel is exciting and harrowing, yes, but not compared to its predecessor. In 1932, as part of the construction of the High Sierra Trail, a steel suspension bridge was erected by the Park Service from one side of the chasm to the other, hovering hundreds of feet above the gorge.
Being located in an avalanche chute determined the fate of this bridge. In the winter of 1937, an avalanche swept the bridge nearly 1,000 feet down to the edge of upper Hamilton Lake. The concrete foundations and some remnants of steel are all that remain of this first attempt at a crossing.
Today, hikers maneuver cliffside through a tunnel painstakingly blasted from solid rock by the CCCs (Civilian Conservation Corps). It was completed in the summer of 1938.
After leaving the tunnel behind, we continued southeast as the trail gradually ascended for another mile. We passed above an unnamed lake, climbed through snow over and around a rise of rock, and emerged at Precipice Lake (elevation 10,320 feet).
We settled in for lunch along the shore of this glass-like body of water that is a high-country optical illusion. The north ridge of Eagle Scout Peak plunges vertically into the south side of Precipice Lake.
The entire lakes surface is a reflection of this
wall of black, red, and yellow-gray ridges, making it difficult to discern
where the water ends and the mountain begins. A portion of the lake
was still frozen and snowbanks surrounded our picnic site as well, where
we were entertained by a playful pika, behaving otter-like in his antics
of slipping and sliding on the frozen slope.
A man and his 15-year-old son joined us for awhile. They were from Yorkshire, England, and had traveled stateside to heres a surprise hike the High Sierra Trail to Mt. Whitney.
They were well-prepared and very experienced, having spent time hiking in the Pyrenees. They would have no problem reaching their destination of the highest point in the contiguous U.S.
They were also perplexed about the thick smoke. Nobody we had yet met knew where a fire was burning or why.
The father-son duo set off ahead of us and we, too, brushed ash off our packs and continued our upward trek toward Kaweah Gap. Shortly after leaving the lake, we met the guided group of 12 that had spent the night near us at Hamilton Lake. They had been to the gap where the leader made the decision to abandon their plan to hike an additional three miles to the Big Arroyo trail junction for the night.
The guide explained to us that upon reaching Kaweah Gap (elevation 10,700), there was so much smoke in the Big Arroyo canyon that he became worried that a fire was burning up the drainage. He was going to set up camp at Precipice Lake and actually considering abandoning the trip altogether.
By their looks, the guide was not inspiring confidence in his clientele. We, too, had discussed the possibility of a fire in Big Arroyo but ruled it out because we hadnt heard aircraft in association with such a blaze.
All of the High Sierra Trail thru-hikers we had met up until this point were aiming for the Big Arroyo trail junction, 11 miles from Hamilton Lake, to spend their second night. The smoke was severely hindering everyones ability to keep pace by squelching the enthusiastic urge to see whats over the next ridge or around the bend as well as making it difficult, even painful, to breathe.
As we reached Kaweah Gap, the low point between Mt. Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak, we met up with our English friends and realized what the guide had seen. Although its just a few hundred feet down to the head of the Big Arroyo canyon, the valley floor was obscured by thick, gray smoke.
We stayed on Kaweah Gap for awhile, where the view consisted of 360-degrees of smoke. Soon, we crossed over the Great Western Divide and descended a couple hundred feet on a trail that was still partially snow-covered. As the High Sierra Trail turned south toward Big Arroyoand Kern Canyon, we veered north to Nine Lake Basin.
We settled in at the lowest lake (elevation 10,500 feet) in the chain, which would be our home for the next two nights. We were well away from High Sierra Trail traffic now and wouldnt be seeing a person again for the next three days.
As for that pesky fire, while we were enjoying an evening happy hour of Gatorade, a southerly breeze came down the canyon and blew the smoke out in under an hour. From our perch in the rocks, we were now able to see straight down Big Arroyo and across Kern Canyon to where a huge plume of smoke was billowing skyward.
We finally knew where the fire was, and it was a big one. We would only learn upon returning to civilization six days later that this blaze, which began on the afternoon of July 21, had been dubbed the McNally Fire.
The fire, caused by a campfire started by Peri Van Brunt, 46, would ultimately burn 150,700 acres, making it the worst fire in Sequoia National Forest history. It destroyed three homes, five commercial properties, and cost $60 million to extinguish.
In the backcountry, wants and needs are very basic. As
the sun sank below the Great Western Divide, we were thankful there was
fresh air to breathe and scenic views to savor.
Tuesday, July 23: Nine Lake Basin We were now well off the High Sierra Trail after veering cross-country from the east side of Kaweah Gap the previous afternoon. We located a little piece of paradise and set up camp, then reclined on granite, watching the great plumes of smoke from the McNally Fire billow skyward well to the south and the sun disappear behind Mt. Stewart in a blazing ball of red.
The next day dawned amidst skies free from smoke. It was sunny and warm with intermittent clouds floating by slowly.
The first order of the day was to return to Kaweah Gap. When we arrived there the previous afternoon, smoke from the wildfire burning to the south, which started July 21, had obliterated the vistas from all perspectives.
There would be no lifting of heavy packs today, instead, we grabbed a water bottle and snacks and walked with little effort back to the pass to see what we had missed. We merged onto the High Sierra Trail from the south side of Nine Lake Basin and made the 200-foot climb back to the saddle.
The best way to get ones bearings in the backcountry is to climb; the higher the better. As we looked down, we could see our previous days route from the headwaters of the Kaweah in the west to this relative low point in the Great Western Divide.
To the south is the aptly named Big Arroyo, where we would soon be traveling. Chagoopa Plateau is visible beyond, its high, forested plain abruptly halted by the deep furrow of the mighty Kern Canyon.
This trench was carved over millennia by the Kern River, heading due south in its unrelenting journey. This profound wrinkle in the earth is contrasted by the towering, sheer pinnacles of the Sierras easternmost escarpment.
The Kaweah Peaks stand sentry over Nine Lake Basin. Although it was midmorning, the 13,000-foot and higher peaks, black and red and scarred by many High Sierra storms, were still casting shadows on our camp.
Dominating the view to the north, and the source of these nine-plus lakes and ensuing water courses, is Triple Divide Peak. This 12,634-foot summit is so named because it determines to which drainage the rainfall and snowmelt will flow north to the Kings, west to the Kaweah, or east to the Kern.
The landscape here is bleak yet beautiful, with its monochromatic rock and sand contrasted by the color and artistry of the wind-sculpted and weather-abused whitebark pines. Except for the well-worn trail passing through, the only evidence that humans had discovered this area before us is a plaque mounted on the south side of Mt. Stewart, which reads:
Mount George Stewart
Named in honor of
Col. George W. Stewart
The founder of
Sequoia National Park
After pointing out the peaks, passes, lakes, and other landmarks, we descended to our hidden campsite and stayed busy puttering around camp. The chores are enjoyable and there are always innumerable things to do filter drinking water, wash all thats washable, organize gear and meals, repair buckles and straps, assemble fishing poles all the while stopping to watch a cloud sail lazily by in the intense blue sky, see birds flit about the rushing creek, listen to the wind in the tip-tops of the trees, watch a fish jump in the lake, or just daydream while looking up at the great snowy peaks.
Life becomes marvelously simple, but so luxurious. The day is not restful, but very relaxing.
And although we had worked hard to get to this point, the reward is tremendous. We could do exactly as much or as little as we pleased.
At lunchtime, we migrated to the base of one of the ancient pine specimens near the lower Nine Lakes outlet creek, where we dined on a table-like slab of sun-warmed granite, once again partaking in our favorite pastimes, basking on granite and watching the never-changing, yet always fascinating scenery. This layover day, with glorious weather and a world of wild, unsettled landscape all to ourselves, created a satisfaction that is not felt when in civilized places.
After lunch, we further explored the lakes basin, found a comfortable spot to settle in, and spent the afternoon fishing and swimming, returning to camp only when the shadows began to climb up the easterly canyon walls.
As twilight fell, the full moon rose over the surrounding peaks, illuminating the landscape so fully that the headlamps were put away.
During the nightly tent talk, we amused ourselves by speculating why, when darkness falls, the outside noises that would be indistinct in daylight are heard so clearly. We fell asleep listening to the rush of water, the whisper of the breeze, a restless owl in the distance and, every now and then, the suspicious snap of a twig.
Wednesday, July 24: Nine Lake Basin to Big Five Lakes The day was sunny but clouds were forming over the Kaweah Peaks ridge, these grand mountains being the perennial determinate of the regions weather.
We broke camp, hoisted our packs, and began our mostly downhill journey toward the Big Arroyo junction of the High Sierra Trail. We hadnt seen another human being for more than 36 hours now, and this phenomenon would continue throughout the day.
The trickle of snowmelt that was babbling brooks and streams in the upper reaches of Nine Lake Basin now conjoined to become a beautiful river that would keep us company all the way to the trail junction.
The trail descends gradually along the riverside through forests of lodgepole pine and fir and amidst wildflower-filled meadows. Within three miles and less than an hour, we reached the trail junction where we would be leaving the High Sierra Trail as it veers left to cross the north wall of Big Arroyo and travels across Chagoopa Plateau on its way to Kern Canyon.
We took the right fork that within a few steps took us to the historic Big Arroyo Patrol Cabin and another trail junction. Here, one trail continues south down Big Arroyo and another, which we would take, turns west, crossing the river we had followed that morning.
Because my grandparents had spent their honeymoon here in 1921, we, too, had to stay awhile. Its a beautiful site and a popular overnight stop for High Sierra through-traffic, but since it was midmorning, the previous nights guests had departed and the next wave of travelers had not yet checked in.
Soon, we forded the creek and began the steep ascent of Big Arroyos south ridge, planning to make Little Five Lakes by lunchtime. The trail switchbacks up the ridge that afforded us views of Big Arroyo, the Kaweah Peaks, the patrol cabin below, and Nine Lake Basin.
In about a half mile, the trail relents to a more gradual, but constant ascent into the Little Five Lakes basin. We passed the first lake and headed toward the biggest lake in the Little Five chain and ate lunch at the lakeshore near where we had camped three years before.
We were joined by the backcountry ranger who spends his summer living in a yurt by the lake when hes not out patrolling. Except for Ranger Pilewski, who was the first person wed seen in two days, there were no other people in the area.
After our meal and visiting, we continued to our destination of Big Five Lakes. We were determined to camp at this chain of lakes since that had been our goal three years earlier, but were stopped at Little Five by a thunderstorm.
In just under two miles, we reached a trail junction that provides access to the Big Five Lakes. The main trail would take us to the lowest and most accessible lake in the chain where there is also a bear-proof food-storage box.
After some discussion, we opted to add some extra mileage and take the spur trail that leads to the upper lakes. We skirted the second lake and finally decided on settling in at the halfway point, the third and largest lake (elevation 10,192 feet).
Thursday, July 25: Big Five Lakes— It’s what we walk dozens of miles and thousands of vertical feet to enjoy — a layover day.
It’s one day where we can hang up our hiking boots and lounge around camp and do nothing. We could, but we don’t.
After all, we had two more lakes in the Big Five chain to visit. So after a wonderful night of peaceful, outdoorsy sleep, we shared a spinach-cheese omelet and a side of dried fruit, tidied up camp, packed one backpack with fishing gear and stuffed another with lunch and every morsel of the rest of our food (gotta keep the bears honest, you know), and departed our scenic, solitary camp on the northeast shore of number three and headed west toward Big Five numbers four and five.
It is an easy lake-hop that took us along the shore of number three, which, at elevation 10,192 feet, is the largest lake in the chain. Past the west end of this lake, the trail stays along the fourth lake’s outlet stream until reaching its shores.
Again, there was not another person to be found as we settled in on our granite perches along the lake and the anglers among us staked out their spots. Lake number four — at an elevation of 10,214 feet, just 22 feet higher and so close to lake number three — is so different. The third lake is more forested, whereas lake number four has less trees and is lined with meadows on the north and a massive granite bench on the south side.
The lake — a beautiful, turquoise jewel — is nestled at the
base of the steep eastern slope of the Great Western Divide. Looking
in this direction, one has vistas of the sheer, glacial-sculpted peaks
that form this impressive ridgeline.
As I lay there with shadows of the mountains
brilliantly photographed upon its still surface,
I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.
—Mark Twain, 1861
It is from here that experienced cross-country hikers may access a pass that, although unnamed on our topo map, has become known as Hands and Knees Pass. When looking at this saddle from directly below, it is obvious to see why.
Although this would be a difficult journey for those with fully-loaded backpacks, Hands and Knees Pass, in conjunction with Glacier Pass to the west, offers a shorter, yet mostly off-trail, route from Mineral King to the Big Five Lakes and Little Five Lakes basins.
Looking away from the divide from our vantage point at lake number four, the view from this high bench is wide open to the Sierra’s eastern escarpment. On this clear, sunny day, it was like looking through a telescope as we peered beyond the canyon walls beneath which these lakes collected, past Big Arroyo, across the forested plain of the Chagoopa Plateau, and over the deep Kern Canyon trench to see a giant row of mountains with their summits soaring into the sky.
The McNally Fire, a wildfire to the east of the Kern Canyon that had ignited just days before and impacted us with smoke at various intervals, was not a factor on this day and our view was unimpeded. It had been smoky when we first surveyed the day from our tent, but the smoke soon dissipated and we were treated to the bluest sky of the entire trip.
Fish were caught, and mostly released, except for two decent-sized golden trout that would be seasoned with mountain sage and wild onion and baked in coals for supper. A lunch of re-hydrated pasta salad, a special meal reserved only for layover days, was also embellished with wild onion and devoured.
After lunch, we walked to the end of lake number four and took a peek at number five. This last lake in the chain is so close to the ridge of the Great Western Divide that it has been the victim of regular rockslides and avalanches over the years, so it is more a series of puddles interrupted by boulders than a pool.
Back at the inlet stream to lake four, we found a picturesque spot to sit and filter water. Following this task, there was just one thing left to do before heading back to camp.
Swim! Where the inlet stream enters the lake is an inviting sandbar that offers easy walking and shallow, warmer water near the shore with a gradual slope that leads to a deeper, and colder, pool.
It was required that everyone immerse themselves in this pool, no matter how frigid. After all, we were a family of four sharing a three-person tent.
It’s always an unknown as to who will be the first to dunk themselves. On some days, an individual’s tolerance to snowmelt is higher than others.
The entire process of getting four people wet from toe to head in chilly waters can take quite awhile but, then again, our swim time was only dictated by the sun, which was a couple hours away from setting. Becoming quite accustomed to not having other people around, each dip into the depths of the lake was followed by loud hoots, hollers, and yelps as each one of us came up for air and inhaled the pristine mountain air into our constricted throats.
Afterward, while basking in the sun to defrost our limbs, all agreed that diving under water in a high-elevation lake is a rejuvenating, if not heart-stopping, experience and a cure-all for anything that ails a body, from sore muscles to aching feet to sunburn to mosquito bites.
We were so comfortable that we wondered if we should have camped here. The location was much more remote, guaranteeing absolute solitude.
Interspersed with sandy beaches, this lake has meadows, willows, and other vegetation growing right up to the shore. It is also much more protected from wind than lake number three.
All this seems to make for the optimal campsite, right? Nope.
This equation adds up to one thing — mosquitoes! They’re the scourge of every camper’s otherwise perfect outing.
The insects hatch in the wet meadows and woodland areas where the snowmelt pools as it drains to streams and rivers. Hmmm… sounds like the place just described in detail.
Mosquitoes don’t bite as much on cool or windy days, but they became very persistent on this warm, calm afternoon.
As the sun threatened to set behind the Great Western Divide, we gathered our gear for the short jaunt back down the trail to our campsite. It was sunny for a while longer at this lake but there was a constant breeze. Our campsite, located between two large boulders along a sheltered cove, kept us well protected from the winds and free from mosquitoes.
Just another day in paradise.
Friday, July 26: Big Five Lakes to Columbine Lake, 6.5 miles— We embarked on the last leg of our journey after spending two nights at Big Five Lake number three. We were about a mile off the main trail so we backtracked until we met up with the route that links the Little Five and Big Five lakes.
Although our destination was Columbine Lake to the west, the Sierra mountains don’t accommodate a direct route, so we headed east in a round-about attempt to get around the massive ridge to the south and into the canyon on its other side.
Big Five Lake number one is seen first from this direction well below the trail. The views are spectacular, and we descended nearly 600 feet through the forest until we arrived at lakeside, the most visited of the five lakes due to its proximity to the main trail and the metal, bear-proof food-storage container located here.
There was a couple in the process of packing up their camp as we passed by on our way to the crossing at the lake’s outlet stream. Reaching the other side of this good-sized stream is accomplished via a series of fallen trees.
We each selected our own route across, and were about midstream when we noticed two men in hard hats come out of the woods, who appeared to be waiting for us.
They were. We were informed that they were from a trail crew and then radioed ahead that we were coming through.
We began climbing out of the lake bottom on an ascent that becomes ever steeper. And this was the mission of the trail crew at this locale.
They were applying their talents to rerouting the trail around a major rockslide and adding a switchback or two to lessen the trail’s grade. This was fine for future backpackers, but what we were privileged to see was how they went about such a monumental task.
They had the blasting lines all in place for their next earth-moving phase, and we were personally guided over and around these wires. It was about an hour later, as we were several miles away, that we heard the explosion, then its echo reverberating off the steep canyon walls.
Leaving the trail work behind, we topped the ridge. The trail continues about a half-mile on a plateau and skirts the east end of a small, unnamed lake.
Then it’s down the other side, where the trail ends at its junction with the Lost Canyon Trail (there are campsites and another food-storage box here). As tempting as it was to continue southeast into the Big Arroyo, we instead took the west fork, forded Lost Canyon Creek, and began the gradual, yet steady ascent into Lost Canyon.
The trail follows fairly close to the creek, even crossing it another time, in this heavily forested section. Soon, however, the trail levels and enters Lost Canyon, a picturesque high-country valley.
The scene is surreal in its beauty. The creek meanders peacefully through a long, narrow meadow, a green carpet highlighted by the pink, yellow, purple, and orange hues of a dozen species of wildflowers.
Although this canyon is nearly two miles in length from east to west, it is less than a quarter mile wide. It is fenced in on three sides — the north, south, and west — by vertical cliffs of white granite, some of which tower more than 12,000 feet above sea level.
We found a sandy spot above the trail to stop for lunch and watch the timeless Lost Canyon scene. We lazed in the sun for as long as we could, then filtered water and refilled our water bottles at the creek.
We were about halfway up the canyon and still had an ascent of nearly 1,000 feet to reach our destination of Columbine Lake that day. It was so close, yet so far, so we reluctantly hoisted our packs and began our journey up and out of the canyon.
It’s hard to recall when we first got an inkling that we would be camping with not one backpacker, not two, but a party of 15 that night. The trail that surmounts the ridge on the east side of Columbine Lake is steep with a lot of switchbacks and, for awhile, doesn’t afford much in the way of a view on the uphill side.
Besides, the expansive views were behind us, back into and over Lost Canyon, which is where we focused at each rest stop and water break. While trudging up the trail, perhaps we did so with our heads down, because sometimes it takes a lot of resolve and mental strength to get up and over such a mountain.
We maybe saw a hiker or two disappear over the ridge, but we never realized the magnitude of this boisterous group until we, ourselves, crested the top and began the short descent to the lakeshore and its few campsites on the north end.
They were celebrating, they were complaining, they were exuberant over their accomplishment, they were in pain. There were many emotions, and we heard them all.
We squeezed by them on this narrow shoreline where they had established residency by dropping their packs and continued over and down a rock bench to a flat well away from the group and out of sight of the lake.
As dusk settled upon the lake, we set out for higher ground to watch one of the most amazing sunsets we had ever seen. The smoke of the now-infamous McNally Fire of 2002 had settled into the Central Valley and from our vantage point and western exposure, we watched the sun turn the entire sky into a blaze of bright orange and pink.
This caught the attention of all backpackers in the vicinity and soon their silhouettes were outlined by the setting sun on various rock outcrops and ridges. The sight was both ominous — a horde of people in this remote place with smoke from a wildland fire that we suspected, but did not yet know, had been human-caused — and spectacular — that Mother Nature can take such unnatural events and create such beauty.
Friday, July 26: Columbine Lake to Mineral King, 6.5 miles— We lounged around camp for most of the morning, allowing the other travelers a lengthy head start before we started up and over Sawtooth Pass.
The route from Columbine Lake to Mineral King via Sawtooth Pass has been described in this series before, so I will end this journey here. The blue water was sparkling in the sunlight, mighty Sawtooth Peak and Needham Mountain towered above, and we watched as a golden eagle circled near the rocky ledges that divide the two pinnacles.