Backpacking the High Sierra Trail
The Sierra Nevada mountains have always had piece of my heart… and now, more than ever. Since I was a child, I’ve called these majestic mountains home. I grew up in Lake Tahoe, nestled in the northern part of the Sierra Nevada range. I’ve covered countless trails, explored many peaks, and camped under the stars. However, it wasn’t until I hiked the High Sierra Trail (HST) that I truly had an appreciation for everything that makes these mountains so magical. Not to mention, I promised the love of my life my hand in marriage from the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney, at the end of our trip!
The HST begins in Sequoia National Park, traverses from west to east, up and over the entire width of the Sierra Range, and ends on the summit of Mount Whitney. There are countless ascents and descents, stream crossings, mountain lakes, wildflowers, and surprises around every bend of the trail.
When I first stepped foot on the trail, I didn’t realize how much it was going to change me. I knew that I would come out the other end, 72.2. miles later, dirty and tired, but I had no idea how much it would open my eyes to wild and raw beauty and love. Not only that, but I didn’t know (okay, okay, I was kind of hoping ;)) that I would start with a boyfriend and end with a fiance! On this trail, we laughed, loved, lifted each other up when needed, and shared in the endless awe of the earth we were exploring. It’s moments like these that make you feel alive.
PREPARING FOR YOUR ADVENTURE
Securing Your Wilderness Permit
As with most backpacking trails, preparation begins with securing your wilderness permit. This has to be done well in advance and it’s a good idea to check when applications will start to be accepted to make sure you get yours in as soon as they open. For the year we went, it was March 1st. I set my alarm for midnight, emailed my scanned application, and secured my first choice for July 15-22, 2018. I got four permits and quickly invited my brother, John, and his girlfriend, Asia, to join the adventure.
Packing Your Gear
If you’ve ever backpacked before, you know the basics don’t change much from two nights to seven nights. Below is a list of the basics and brands I love, and some other items that I can’t live without:
- Osprey Aura AG 65L Backpack
- Marmot Tungsten 2P UL Tent
- Marmot sleeping bag
- Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad
- Black Diamond Trail Pro Shock Trekking poles
- Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp
- Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter
- Camelback reservoir (2 L)
- BearVault BV 500
- JetBoil Flash Cooking System and fuel
- Rain gear
- Down jacket
- Three pairs of socks
- Pants, shorts, tank top, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt
- Medical kit
- Toilet paper/wipes
- Basic toiletries
- And I may have brought a chair, but totally worth it. All the ultralighters are judging me right now.
Planning Your Meals
As for food, this was probably the area where we spent the most time planning. It is challenging to make sure you have enough, but not too much food, for an eight-day trip.
A couple of years ago, I purchased a dehydrator to make my own backpacking meals. I was sick of eating prepackaged meals that cost a fortune and contained who-knows-what. It took weeks of planning, cooking, and dehydrating to make enough dinners for the seven nights on the HST. I made chili, shepherd’s pie, chicken stir fry with rice, pesto pasta primavera, green chili turkey mac and cheese, and tacos, yes, tacos. Stay tuned for recipes!
For breakfast and lunches, we had prepackaged food, tortillas, almond butter, trail mix, Stinger honey chews, bars, beef sticks, and squeeze cheese. Food that was easy to eat on the go and required minimal prep and clean-up was ideal for early in the day.
We had close to the perfect amount of food, if not a little more than needed. However, one thing that I would change is the trail mix. It was way too sweet and after hiking miles and miles, all I wanted was something salty. Cue the Wheat Thins, Pringles, and peanut butter, please!
Getting There and Back
The last thing to do was figure out logistics. As with most thru-hikes, this was by far the trickiest. We had to get down to Visalia, stay in a hotel, take a shuttle to get our permits the next morning, take another shuttle to the trailhead, hike, get a shuttle from Whitney Portal to Lone Pine, stay in a hotel, get a shuttle back to Carson City, and find a way from Carson to Tahoe. Following is how we did it.
- Getting to Visalia: We took a rental car one way from Tahoe to Visalia. Note, rental car return places in Visalia have weird weekend hours, so be sure to check drop-off times in advance.
- Staying in Visalia: We stayed at the Wyndham Visalia, which had a shuttle pick-up for Sequoia National Park at 6:00 am the next morning. The hotel was nice, but nothing fancy.
- Getting from Visalia to the Lodgepole Visitor Center: The shuttle from the hotels in Visalia cost $10/person, and you can book yours here. The drive is a little less than three hours from the hotel to the Giant Forest Museum. From here, you’ll likely have to transfer to the in-park shuttle to go to the Lodgepole Visitor’s Center, which is where you will have to physically pick-up your permits. Our shuttle driver was cool though and took us all the way to the Lodgepole Visitor Center.
- Getting from the Lodgepole Visitor Center to the Trailhead at Crescent Meadow: After you get your permit, you are going to have to take the in-park shuttle back down the road to to the Crescent Meadow trailhead.
- Exiting at Whitney Portal and Getting From There to Lone Pine: At the end of the trail, you are going to have to arrange for a ride or hitch a ride from Whitney Portal into Lone Pine. It’s 10+ miles on pavement and you will definitely want a ride. There aren’t many options, but we went with East Side Sierra Shuttle. It wasn’t cheap ($155 for four of us) and he was over an hour late. We asked the employees at the Whitney Portal Store if we should worry, and they said that was pretty common for the East Side Sierra Shuttle. Luckily the Whitney Portal Store has pretty good burgers, fries, ice cream, and beer to enjoy while we waited.
- Staying in Lone Pine: We stayed at the Dow Villa Motel, which was reasonably priced and centrally located in Lone Pine. Just make sure that you select one of the newer rooms. The older ones don’t have A/C which can be miserable in the summer.
- Getting from Lone Pine to Home: The drive from Lone Pine to Carson City is about 4.5 hours one way and the thought of friends/family picking us up was highly unlikely. The Eastern Sierra Transit Authority was great and picked us up from the McDonald’s in Lone Pine at 6:15 am sharp and dropped us off at the Carson City Walmart at 12:30 pm. It was $176 for the four of us and a generally nice ride, although took longer than usual with all the bus stops and some construction. From Carson City, we took a good ol’ Uber to Lake Tahoe.
The total length of the trail from Crescent Meadows to Whitney Portal is 72.2 miles. You can do it faster or slower than what we did, but in my opinion eight days was just enough time to cover good ground without feeling like you were rushing or missing anything.
Day-by-Day Mileage and Elevation Gain (big descents are called-out, too)
- Day 1 – Crescent Meadows to 9-Mile Creek (8.8 miles, 1,410′ ascent)
- Day 2 – 9-Mile Creek to Hamilton Lake (6.9 miles, 1,760′ ascent)
- Day 3 – Hamilton Lake to Big Arroyo Junction (7.9 miles, 2,570′ ascent)
- Day 4 – Big Arroyo Junction to Kern Hot Springs (13.9 miles, 1,250′ ascent, 3,900′ descent)
- Day 5 – Kern Hot Springs to Wallace Creek (12.4 miles, 3,600′ ascent)
- Day 6 – Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake (6.8 miles, 1,530′ ascent)
- Day 7 – Guitar Lake to Outpost Camp (11.8 miles, 3,100′ ascent, 4,200′ descent)
- Day 8 – Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal (3.6 miles, 2,150′ descent)
Thanks to my brother at jmpeltier.com for keeping track of everything with his GPS, even if he did get sick of me constantly asking, “how many more miles do we have?”
TRAIL NOTES AND PHOTOS BY DAY
Day 1: Crescent Meadows to 9-Mile Creek (8.8 miles, 1,410′ ascent)
We started early enough that it was still cool as we set out, although the temps quickly rose. Good news, there was plenty of water. Bad news, there were some really exposed sections on this part of the trail.
After about 6 hours, we made it to camp at 9-Mile Creek. There were several campsites dispersed down the creek and even a bear locker to store any food overflowing from your bear canister. You try and fit 8 days of food in a bear canister! Luckily, we also found that there were bear lockers at most sites throughout the trip.
The creek here was beautiful with some nice swimming holes to jump in to, just what you needed after a hard day’s work.
Note: A camper here told us that the deer will eat your clothes if you leave them hanging in the trees. This is also true for all other campsites on the trail. Silly deer like the salty sweat on your clothes and hiking poles, too!
Day 2 – 9-Mile Creek to Hamilton Lake (6.9 miles, 1,760′ ascent)
We started the morning with some excitement as a bear cub rolled into the side of our tent. After springing up from our sleeping bags and sticking our heads out of the tent, we saw two cubs staring back at us from behind a log and a mama who was anxious to get them on their way. It was a special moment that I’ll never forget and words would never do justice.
After that excitement, making breakfast, and breaking camp, we headed out. The forest was lush and beautiful and we eventually reached an exposed descent down to Buck Creek after about 1.5 miles. This would be another great option for camping the first night if 9-mile creek is too busy, and it also has a bear locker.
We ascended from Buck Creek to Bearpaw Meadow through a beautiful forest that was cool and damp. At Bearpaw, we took a quick snack break and stared at the view we would soon be ascending. There are several yurts at Bearpaw for people to hike into and stay at with a reservation.
After Bearpaw, the trail was mostly downhill until we reached a large gorge with a bridge spanning across. Don’t look down unless you want to see the former bridge that didn’t survive…
The next section of the trail was pretty much all uphill and exposed, crossing over the top of one of the most amazing waterfalls I have ever seen.
Then more up, up, and up with Valhalla dominating the skyline above us.
We eventually reached Hamilton Lake with Valhalla behind us and the Kaweah Gap (Great Western Divide) in front of us.
We got to camp a little after 1:00, swam in the beautiful lake, ate, and looked up at the trail we would tackle the next day.
Day 3 – Hamilton Lake to Big Arroyo Junction (7.9 miles, 2,570′ ascent)
After a long night of not sleeping because marmots were scurrying around and chirping all night, we woke up at 5:30 am to break camp and head out of the basin before the sun was blasting down. It is highly advised that you get an early start here to avoid the heat.
We immediately began our uphill climb and followed a deer up some switchbacks for little bit and then she pranced off into the cliffside. Before we knew it, we were over 1,000′ from where we slept the night before and the trail turned into pure magic. Don’t get me wrong, it was still all uphill, but it was cool and crisp, full of wildflowers, birds, marmots, and chinchillas, crazy rock engineering (including a cliffside tunnel), and many waterfall crossings.
After a 2,000′ vertical foot climb and about 3 miles, we reached the gem of the Kaweah Gap, Precipice Lake. There is a small glacier toward the back of the lake, icebergs bobbing around, birds catching bugs, water trickling down the green covered cliffs, and one of the most serene scenes I have ever witnessed.
After lunch at Precipice, we had about another 400′ climb and a little over a mile to cross the famous Keweah Gap. I was so relieved to finally reach the Gap and look down into the valley we would finally descend. The sun was overhead and beginning to take its toll.
A nice trail down to the valley soon lead to a beautiful meadow and stream. After a few more miles and some stream crossings (boots and all!), we made it to Big Arroyo.
Tip here: Pass the first campsite you come to at Big Arroyo and continue for about 10 more minutes until you reach a trail spur down to the creak and pass an old log cabin. There are some great sites here and since we were the first group, we scored a great site by the river.
The afternoon consisted of dunking in the creek, playing backgammon, swatting mosquitoes, and drying our boots by our fire. Yes, you can have fires here in established pits and there is also a bear locker if you still have more food than your Bearvault can handle.
Day 4 – Big Arroyo Junction to Kern Hot Springs (13.9 miles, 1,250′ ascent, 3,900′ descent)
We knew this was going to be one of our biggest days, and we we woke up at 6:00 am to hit the trail. The first part was a climb from the river up to the top of a ridge and then a long haul down through the forest and NEVER-ENDING switchbacks to the Kern River Valley.
After you reach the valley floor, you have about 2 miles to the hot springs.
We found a sweet little spot with a fire pit, bear locker, and pit toilet at the hot springs.
After we set-up camp, we made our way to the riverside and “hot springs.” It was a concrete tub for one and a half people, and really, really hot. Some people loved it, but my jam was soaking my feet in the cold river instead.
Day 5 – Kern Hot Springs to Wallace Creek (12.4 miles, 3,600′ ascent)
We started the day around 7:00 am to tackle the 12-something miles ahead of us. The first part of the hike was absolutely stunning. It was mellow and followed along the Kern River, which was a treat in itself. It was cool, lush, and beautiful.
There were several creek crossings, a couple of which ended up with some in the group having soggy boots. The first and worst was Whitney Creek, where both Brian and Asia ended up knee-high. It was an adventure to say the least.
About a mile after that, we came to Junction Meadow and had a nice long lunch while boots dried out. From here, it was several more miles and about 2,500′ vertical feet to our destination — Wallace Creek. This is where the JMT, HST, and PCT all collide, which naturally makes it a little busier.
We arrived at 3:30 and found a nice little spot by the river. We spent most of the afternoon in the tent avoiding the rain and playing backgammon. We were lucky enough for the storm to break long enough to make dinner.
There is also a bear locker here and plenty of campsites by the river.
Day 6 – Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake (6.8 miles, 1,530′ ascent)
From Wallace Creek, we immediately started ascending to Guitar Lake. This part of the trail goes up at first, meanders through a mix of forest and meadow, passes by a (mostly vacant) ranger station at Crabtree, and then climbs to Guitar Lake.
This may have been one of the most challenging days, in that, when we were making the final ascent to Guitar, the sky opened up and started growling in one of the most ominous ways I have ever heard.
We made it to Guitar right before the hard hail and lightening came striking down. For the first 15 minutes, we sat behind a rock and could do absolutely nothing but take the pain of the little balls of ice hitting our skin. There was a quick break in weather, just long enough for us to get the tent out, before another burst came upon us and all we could do was throw the tent over us.
It was like that through most of the afternoon, with short bursts of peacefulness followed by evil raining down from the sky. There were moments where we would lay in the tent and breathe a huge sigh of relief every time we saw a lightening flash and knew we were still alive. The storm broke before sunset and campers started to emerge from their tents to share stories of how that was one of the craziest things anyone had experienced.
When the stars came out, the clouds parted and gave a glimpse into the universe. We could see a shadow of the mountain looming above us that we would take on starting at 2:00 am the next day.
Day 7 – Guitar Lake to Outpost Camp (11.8 miles, 3,100′ ascent, 4,200′ descent)
Today was the coup de grace. We woke up at 2:00 am to break camp under the starry sky. After forcing some food down and packing everything up in the chill of the night, we began our final ascent of the trip, to conquer something I had been dreaming of for a long time, reaching the summit of Mt. Whitney. It was cool, but every step made my legs burn with tire. You would look up at the mountainside above you, and see the minuscule headlamp lights of those that left before you. There were so many times when I questioned what I was doing, but there were two things that kept me going: 1) the most magical meteor that I have ever seen paint the night sky and 2) my rock and the love of my life by my side.
Switchback after switchback, we made it to Trail Crest just after light broke and dropped our bags. At 13,645′, Trail Crest is the highest mountain pass in United States. With only 2 miles left to the summit, we brought the bare essentials (water AND an engagement ring to my surprise!) and made our way.
When we got to the summit, Brian took my hand and led me to the tippy top. I have a thing for making sure that I stand on the actual highest point of each peak I climb. After some fumbling through pockets, Brian got down on one knee, and I honestly can’t remember exactly what he said. Oxygen was thin and I was so focused on making sure I didn’t accidentally drop the ring between some rocks. The only thing I know is that I left that summit with an overflowing heart and a sense of excitement I never knew possible.
Heading back to Trail Crest and telling everyone we passed along the way that we were newly engaged, we soon began our descent down the infamous “99 switchbacks.” Now, I didn’t actually count the switchbacks, but it sure as hell felt like at least 99. I have so much respect for those that hike up and back down the 99 switchbacks in a single day.
We decided to stay at Outpost Camp that day, which is 3.6 miles from the trail terminus. We were glad we did though, as the same pattern of afternoon thunderstorms soon rolled in, and we were able to get our tent up and briefly dry out some clothes before the skies opened up again. We were a prisoner to our tent for the rest of the afternoon, but at least this time, we were below tree line and a little less concerned about being rattled in our tent by lightening.
Day 8 – Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal (3.6 miles, 2,150′ descent)
The easiest mileage day of the trip, ironically seemed like on the hardest. It was all down hill from Outpost Camp to the Portal, but not without some amazing views.
After what seemed like forever, we finally made it to the Portal. For being a small general store, I have to say that the burgers, fries, and beers were some of the best I’ve ever had. Either that, or I was just excited to eat “real” food after 8 days eating snacks and re-hydrated meals.
We made it to the end, have memories that will last a lifetime, and all have a sense of accomplishment for standing on top of the highest peak in the contiguous United States… and for me and Brian, the real adventure is just about to begin.
Have you done the High Sierra Trail before? What is your favorite memory? Leave a response below!