Julie and I had been planning this trip for about a year after a similar, but shorter trip got canceled last year when we ran out of vacation time. Since securing the permits about six months ago we had come up with a few different routes, but they were all based around a loop starting on the High Sierra Trail (HST) at Crescent Meadow, taking that to the Colby Pass trail into Cloud Canyon, and looping back through Deadman Canyon and Elizabeth Pass. Then the Fish Fire broke out about a week before we were going to start the trip we were reading reports that it was putting a lot of smoke into the Kern Canyon, so we had to decide whether or not to alter the plan. We checked on the status daily and headed out to Lodgepole campground on Friday night planning to be flexible. After talking with the ranger about it when we picked up our permits on Saturday morning we decided to save the Kern Canyon portion of the trip for another time and explore some different areas instead. When the ranger asked if we knew where we planned on staying each night, I rattled off a few places I had in mind and it turned out to be a pretty decent route that we would use as a guideline for the trip. With the permits finally in hand, we grabbed some coffee and breakfast burritos at the nearby café and we were on our way to the Wolverton trailhead where we would leave our car and then take the free shuttle to Crescent Meadow.
The general plan for the first few days was to acclimate, check out the sequoia grove at Redwood Meadow, and make our way to Little Five Lakes via Blackrock pass. As we approached the trailhead a park volunteer was just beginning his hike out to Eagle View, so we walked along with him and he told us a little bit about the park, including the story of Tharp’s Log. Just before we got to Eagle View, the volunteer spotted a black bear ahead of us. When we rounded the bend there it was about 50 feet in front of us heading down the slope just below the trail. We watched it as it tore apart a bee’s nest and then came back up to the trail a few minutes later. Once on the trail it just stopped and looked at us and the volunteer commented that it was a little bit unusual so the three of us slowly backed away. It turns out we were pretty close to its trail up the slope and after we moved back the bear scrambled on up and we were on our way.
The views opened up a bit as we moved farther from the trailhead, but it was pretty hazy that day.
Since it was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the trail was relatively busy and we leapfrogged a few groups throughout the day. It seemed that many were heading for either Hamilton Lake or Bearpaw Meadow, so we decided to stop at Buck Creek and found a secluded spot set back from the trail a little bit. When we arrived there was a group taking a break near the creek and they pointed out a sow bear with two cubs working their way up the canyon.
The next morning we left the HST and headed towards Redwood Meadow, topping off our water bottles at Bearpaw Meadow before making the descent.
As we were leaving Redwood Meadow we realized that we didn’t plan our water situation very well. We were getting low, it was hot and the next convenient water source wasn’t until the trail came up along Cliff Creek a couple miles away. We rationed our remaining water through this stretch and took a nice long break when we got to Cliff Creek. After guzzling some water and eating lunch, we moved our stuff up the creek a little bit and continued our break by taking a dip in one of the many pools formed in the creek. I hadn’t slept well the past two nights and it was started to catch up with me, so I took a short nap while the sun dried me off.
We finally got moving again over an hour later and decided to camp at the junction of the trails to Timber Gap and Black Rock Pass where we found a tiny piece of real estate with a flat spot just big enough for our tent. In hindsight, I think it would have been better to hike a little further and camp near Pinto Lake. It was only about 3 more miles and we had plenty of daylight remaining, but at the time I just wanted to stop hiking and get to bed early – so we did just that.
We awoke early the next morning, had a quick snack and began the long climb up to Blackrock Pass – an ascent of roughly 4,500 feet over 7 miles. The plan was to hike up to Pinto Lake before stopping for coffee and a more substantial breakfast. I assumed we’d see the lake from the trail, but we ending up walking right past it. Then about 5 minutes later we stopped and realized our error and backtracked to the camping area near the lake for our break. The lake itself was hidden behind some bushes and we didn’t actually see it until later on when we were above it.
The rest of the climb up to Black Rock Pass was long, slow and exposed, but it provided some great views towards a trio of lakes – Spring, Cyclamen and Columbine from lowest to highest.
At the top it got even better, with Little Five Lakes, Big Five Lakes, the Kaweah Peaks, and much more in full view.
On the way down from the pass I spotted a small patch of trees near one of the upper Little Five Lakes, so we aimed for that area and found an excellent place to stay for the night. We joked that our backyard was the lake and our front yard overlooked another lake with the Kaweah Peaks dominating the view – not too bad!
While eating dinner in the front yard we could hear voices in the distance and I noticed a couple people coming over the saddle separating Little Five Lakes from Big Five Lakes. It was getting late in the day, so I assumed they were heading down to find a place to camp, but about 10 minutes later they were still up high and heading towards the pass. Not too long after that we heard some louder hootin’ and hollerin’ capped off with a “F-Yeah!” as their silhouettes were now on top of the pass.
Up until this point we had stuck with the itinerary I left with the ranger, but the next day we decided to head over to Moraine Lake instead of looping back to Hamilton Lake. A short walk from camp lead us back to the trail where we passed some of the other Little Five Lakes.
After a break at the Big Arroyo Junction, we rejoined the HST and gradually ascended up to the Chagoopa Plateau. It rained and hailed on and off for the remainder of the day, but hiking through the Chagoopa Plateau was quite pleasant nonetheless, maintaining a fairly gentle grade while hiking through perfectly spaced trees and catching occasional glimpses of Mt Kaweah.
Nobody was at Moraine Lake when we arrived and we found a perfect beachfront place to set up camp. We got there early and enjoyed the solitude for a couple hours before another group trickled in.
We were only a few miles from Kern Canyon and hadn’t noticed any smoke, so we considered reverting back to our original plan. We were a day behind that original schedule though, so we ultimately decided that we didn't want to rush through anything and possibly still deal with smoke in Kern Canyon -- we would save that section for a future trip. With that decision made, we looped back through the morning mist to the HST via Sky Parlor Meadow.
After lunch back at the Big Arroyo Junction, we continued on the HST towards Kaweah Gap.
The scenery was outstanding in this area and we considered camping in Nine Lakes Basin, but ultimately decided to continue on to the popular Hamilton Lake. On the way we passed Precipice Lake, just below Eagle Scout Peak.
There was nobody camping there, so we considered staying there as well, but again decided to continue on to Hamilton Lake. We had hoped that being a Wednesday night sort of late in the season would be a good time to stay at the lake without the usual hordes of people. A few different hikers we passed that had been at the lake earlier confirmed that there weren’t many people there and there were a lot of places to camp, so we felt pretty good about our chances. Unfortunately, when we arrived a few more groups must have just got there and it was crawling with people. We claimed a spot that was away from the crowds, but it was exposed and didn’t have much of a view, so we checked around to see if we could find a hidden gem. It turns the only other spots with better views were way too close to other people, so we ended up staying at the exposed spot we originally claimed. If we had to do it again we would have stayed at Precipice, but we tried to make the best of it and had a nice dinner on the eastern shore of the lake before going to bed early. Later we would comment that while the lake was quite scenic, we’d probably only rate it an 8 out of 10 and it would need to be a 10 out of 10 to make dealing with that many other people in the backcountry worthwhile.
The exposed campsite
The next morning we packed up quickly and headed towards Big Bird Lake via Elizabeth Pass. We were both pretty cranky that morning, but that started to turn around when we finally stopped for our morning coffee where the trail crossed Lone Pine Creek.
After the break we were back on the trail on our way to the pass. As we approached the trail to Tamarack Lake we were presented with a beautiful view up the canyon and suddenly had another decision to make.
We did not intend to go to Tamarack Lake, but we had a few days left and no solid plan for those days. We discussed our options briefly and then we were on our way there. It was still quite early when we arrived (maybe 1pm?), so we spent a leisurely afternoon swimming, relaxing and doing a bit of laundry. It was a great decision and spending several hours enjoying this idyllic setting turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
The next morning we were on our way to Big Bird Lake for real. It wasn’t very far, but it turned out to be a long hike up to Elizabeth pass under the blazing sun. There was an unexpected water source fairly close to the top, so I grabbed an extra 2 liters of water and we had lunch at the pass without needing to ration the meager water supply we previously had. As we crossed over the pass we left Sequoia National Park and entered Kings Canyon National Park for the first time on this trip.
After lunch we began the descent down into Deadman Canyon with Glacier Ridge in full view.
When we got to the bottom of the canyon we followed the trail along a stream before finally heading off trail to get to Big Bird Lake. A short climb put us just south of the outlet of the lake, which we crossed over to find a campsite near the northern end of the lake. Once again, we had the lake all to ourselves.
On our final morning we would head up and over the ridge west of the southern end of Big Bird Lake. We crossed over into Tablelands right where the tiny lake is on top. The views up there were tremendous – the type of views that make you want to yell, “F-Yeah!”
From there, we headed southwest towards Moose Lake where we would stop for an early lunch.
After about an hour at Moose Lake we retraced our steps to the top of the ridge on the north end of the lake and then contoured around to the ridge just south of Table Meadows.
From there we descended to Table Meadows and followed the Marble Fork Kaweah River towards Pear Lake Ranger Station where we would connect with the trail back to the Wolverton trailhead. On the way we decided to take a ‘shortcut’ up and over the hill west of Table Meadows rather than following the river around. I’m not sure if it saved us any time as descending the talus slope was slow going, but it was definitely more fun.
Once we got back to the trail we took a short break and then it was all business. I’m not sure I’ve ever hiked that fast in my life. We were back at the car in no time and about five hours later we were home. It was a great trip to a part of the Sierra that we hadn't been yet and it seems we only got to see a small portion of what the area has to offer. I can’t wait to go back for more!
A few video clips: Video Playlist