It’s been over a month since the meetup and I don’t have any more excuses as to why I haven’t compiled this report. I’ll try to keep from being to wordy, but that’s my tendency and I don’t apologize for being over-the-top while talking about such an over-the-top great trip.
I can’t help it from being picture heavy, so bear with me on that. 360 spherical panos are linked, as I have most of them readily available. Might update this to include a few more as I finish them and get them uploaded, notably Kaweah Gap, Horn Col, and the unnamed yet spectacular lake at the base of Picket Creek basin.
We left the smoggy valley we call home late on Tuesday night to arrive at the park under cover of darkness. A few hours sleep at the Dorst Creek campground and we headed over to Lodgepole to get a spot in line for our permits. I had a reservation, but hadn’t planned on having a hiking partner until the Monday before, when my friend Andrey informed me that his business trip was canceled. He, like me, needed some time in the high country to keep his sanity. Thankfully we had no issues securing a permit to enter the Lakes Trail and we set out shortly after toward Panther Gap.
Light rays heightened our already euphoric state to be back in the Sierra
Meeting the High Sierra Trail after Panther Gap was a reminiscent experience for me. My first steps in the Sierra were on this very trail after taking an interview more than two years ago, and the expansive views across the Kaweah up toward the Great Western Divide were what sold me on setting up a life in southern California. This summer I’ve focused more on eastern approaches so it was great getting back to this great western Sierra trailhead, complete with its varied vegetation and numerous running streams and cascades. Recent storms that others going to the meetup had to contend with had swelled the rivers in the area, giving a false sense that the severe drought was a farce.
Shortly after arriving at Bearpaw Meadow where we stopped for lunch, the weather started turning for the worse. By 2PM we were on the final slopes up toward Hamilton Lakes when the skies opened up and we were getting slammed by intense rain. Sprinting to the lake, we found a passable flat spot to set up our tent with the idea of riding out the storm temporarily, however daunting clouds from the trail above had us both apprehensive. So we instead enjoyed a nice evening lightening our packs of whiskey and admiring the spectacular glacial Hamilton bowl.
We woke up for day 2 to find much more pleasant conditions, and climbed out of the bowl through territory I’d never been to. Passing the famous tunnel was spectacular, but I was mostly anticipating the notable lake that was to follow.
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Clouds had cleared out by morning
Arriving at Precipice Lake was a borderline spiritual experience. I got to watch it as the sun crested over the ridgeline, then as clouds came in and partially obscured the light. The shifting nature of the color of the water combined with the aesthetic rock face descending into the glassy lake surface really made me appreciate why Ansel Adams and so many others have been inspired by this gem.
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After spending an inordinate yet unsatisfactory amount of time admiring Precipice Lake, we continued up to Kaweah Gap, passing another cross country traveler along the way, who had ventured for better than a week without seeing another person. He gave us some beta on Lion Rock Pass, which we intended to potentially use the following day after leaving the meetup. Turned out we wouldn’t need that beta.
Cresting Kaweah Gap
We left the trail shortly after the Gap to meander through pristine Nine Lakes basin. We had initially intended on camping near here the day prior, so needless to say we were behind schedule. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed moving cross country through ancient Foxtail Pines and the jewel-colored lakes en route to Pyra Queen Col.
We made our push up to the Col, sucking up our initial reservations after the first glace of the pass looked daunting. In the end the pass ended up staying class 2 to the top, with a certain amount of talus hopping and plowing up a scree slope. We also were closely monitoring forming clouds to our west, though thankfully nothing of note ever materialized.
Lake 11,682’ en route to Pyra Queen Col
Peering down into Kaweah Basin
Having made what we deemed to be the col, we were anxious to continue down into the basin that was our goal for the trip, and see who might have made it to “Island Lake” for the meetup. Our initial descent however we found to be a bit more sketchy than hoped, my standing theory is that we happened on the wrong col. Instead of electing to descend back and climb another shoulder to the south, we instead lowered our packs and executed a few easy class 3 moves down to the simple class 2 slopes below. No harm, no foul, though the elevated difficulty of this pass led us to reconsider later that night whether we wanted to tackle this pass again the very next day.
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Travel through the basin was nothing less than sublime. Initial talus fields levelled out to pristine alpine lakes set beneath some of the most rugged and remote peaks in the range, and we had it all to ourselves.
Descending into Kaweah Basin
Williamson, Tyndall, and others peaking out from across the Kern.
The basin eventually gave way to pleasant benches with myriad gentle streams and tarns scattered about, reflecting the alpenglow beginning to develop.
We finally made it to camp at Island Lake approaching 8PM, where we found the members of the meetup packing up for bed. Hobbes was first to greet us, hearing our steps as we approached and calling out “Jim?” apparently expecting Jimr to have made it up. We all chatted for a short while before agreeing to rendezvous more in the morning, and we set off to make camp. We found a pristine spot on the other side of the river, which gave close access to a beautiful rock for catching the reflection of the Kaweah peaks in the intense moonlight.
Glassy Island Lake
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That morning we all convened for while to talk all things Sierra. It was truly great to meet this group of folks who all share the same passion (some might say obsession) for these mountains. I guess anyone who is crazy enough to hoof it to such a remote place must be a great equalizer, we all seemed to have a mutual respect and admiration for the place and the necessary skills to be able to reach it.
The crew (L->R): richlong8, Myself, Andrey, Rockyroad, YubeRiver/Gazelle, oleander, Hobbes, Bluewater
After having discussed it the night prior, Andrey and I had decided to modify our route to avoid having to cross Pyra Queen Col again, and instead chose to follow richlong8 and Hobbes out over to Picket Creek where we’d intersect Colby Pass Trail. The traverse to Picket Creek was simple and quick, and we found the basin to be similarly pleasant to traverse as Kaweah Basin.
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Hobbes was great hiking company, and we eventually met up with richlong8 at the pristine lake at the bottom of the basin. After a quick lunch we made our way up to the ledge to the north of the lake, where we parted ways with Rich and Hobbes to continue on the ledge up the canyon toward Colby Pass. We found the going fairly simple for a ways, until the thickets got to be onerous and we decided to descend.
Glancing down the Kern-Kaweah river
Travel through the Kern-Kaweah was spectacular, through rolling meadows with streams snaking through. Gallats Lake was more like Gallats swamp, but the intense green offset with the craggy peaks above was altogether beautiful.
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Gallats Lake version of horseshoe bend
We debated finding our way up to Triple Divide Pass, but due to lack of beta instead chose to climb to Colby Pass. In the end I don’t at all regret this decision, given the beauty and remoteness of the area. Between saying goodbye to Hobbes and Rich, we didn’t see anyone again until Big Wet Meadow, more than 10 miles of pristine trailed country without another soul.
Even marmots enjoy the view back from Colby Pass
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Wildflowers, Big Wet Meadow, and Whaleback
The trek down to Roaring River got to be a bit more daunting. Toward the end we were certainly in “just get the miles in” territory, so we were happy to find a suitable campsite secluded from the masses right around dusk.
The next morning we set out up Deadman Canyon and got quickly got back into enjoyable travel. The views up toward the polished glacial slabs on each side of the canyon opened up quickly, and we made our way through lush meadows full of wildflowers.
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Wildflowers were in abundance throughout beautiful Deadman Canyon
We eventually made our way up to right below Elizabeth Pass before finding a spot to crest around to Horn Col, but decided with the short ascent instead to climb to the Pass first before coming back to traverse to the Col.
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Cresting Horn Col, we were surprised to see another pair of hikers having just made the top. We chatted for a bit before we traded photo-taking courtesies. They were a father-son duo from Quebec, and the father had been making trips to the Sierra every summer for the past 20 years or so. Once again I was delighted to see the passion from another for these mountains, it was doubly great to see someone from so far away making the journey out to enjoy the Sierra!
Standing atop Horn Col
We decided to head down to Lonely Lake rather than skirting around it, which ended up being a great decision. We thoroughly enjoyed relaxing on the lake shores where we soaked in some sunlight, and jumped in the lake for a frigid but exhilarating swim.
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More wildflowers on the way to Lonely Lake
We eventually left the lake to roam through another spectacular basin, which forms the headwaters of Buck Creek that we had crossed three days earlier on the High Sierra Trail. The views became more and more expansive while we reached Pterodactyl Pass, due to my inability to stop taking pictures and panoramas we likely spent an additional 30 minutes or so in reaching this point. I made no apologies, and looking back I don’t think Andrey would have wanted me to.
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Staring out over the expanses to the Great Western Divide
Travel from Pterodactyl Pass to Table Meadows was some of the most enjoyable cross country I can think of…simple, scenic, and serene, especially after cresting into the grassy benches and meandering streams and tarns of the Tableland. We briefly discussed continuing on and pushing to the car that night, but wisely decided not to and instead enjoyed one last peaceful night under the millions of stars. Andrey even taught me a basecamp game played on Everest trying to knock over stacked rocks with thrown pebbles. And so it can be catalogued here until the end of the internet, I won.
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Tarns scattered through the Tableland
The next day was our last, a short jaunt down the river to meet up with the Pear Lake ranger station. The crowded Lakes trail made us appreciate the solitude we had found the previous four days, while also providing a nice buffer for us before being thrust back into civilization.
Overall, it was a perfect trip to quell my need for the mountains for quite some time. I was even able to concentrate fully at work for a few days afterward until the longing started to come back. In the end, we traveled about 63 miles in five days, approximately 40% of which was off trail. I did record a track for the whole trip, PM me if you want a .kml or otherwise, I did upload to CalTopo if you want to view it online: