Thinking of doing the High Sierra Trail yourself? See my trip-planning guide.
I was fatigued. My mouth was dry, my left knee hurt, and my right calf was cramped. My fingers were cold, wet, and shriveled. But I wasn’t going to stop hiking. Not yet. Neither was Elizabeth, who was right behind me. We still had over a thousand feet to descend to reach tree line, but the storm showed no signs of weakening. I’d worried about a lot of things before this trip — stream crossings, snowfields, pack weight — but a thunderstorm above tree line hadn’t been one of them.
I’d wanted to hike the High Sierra Trail, a west-to-east traverse of the southern Sierra Nevada, for over a year. This spring, I secured a permit to hike it in late July, but as the permit date approached, the unusually deep snowpack was blocking trails, swelling streams, and endangering hikers. Right up to the start of the trip, I was not convinced we could safely complete it.
Although many people expressed interest in the trip, only one showed up. Lawrence — a school teacher, avid photographer, and experienced backpacker — committed to the trip and met us in Lone Pine. After debating whether we could safely complete the trail and considering alternative trips, we all decided to go for it.
Day 1. Crescent Meadow to Nine Mile Creek. 9.4 miles. 8:50 AM to 5:35 PM.
We spent the night at Lodgepole campground, then pick up our permit and drive to Crescent Meadow. The weather is auspicious — sunny and clear.
We start hiking at 6,700 feet, in an old-growth, middle-elevation forest that has a few fine specimens of giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). We gawk at them, but the grove is small and we’re quickly out of it. The snow has melted from this area only recently, and the wildflowers are abundant.
The creeks on this stretch of trail were swollen by melting snow into dangerous torrents just weeks ago, but they are tame now and we skip over them without getting our feet wet.
The trail has an excellent view down Kaweah Canyon and we can see the Central Valley to the west and the Great Western Divide — which we plan to cross on day three — to the east. The view, unfortunately, is obscured by smoke from the Lion Fire, which is being allowed to burn wild to our south.
In the late afternoon, we see a dark animal lumber across the trail: a bear. I yell at it to try to scare it away — as I’m supposed to — but the bear is no stranger to hikers and knows I won’t back up my threats. It climbs onto a rotting log next to the trail and cracks it open to look for bugs, ignoring us.
Later, we arrive at Nine Mile Creek, finding the campsite next to it empty. We set up camp. Some hikers pass by in the evening, but none of them stay, and we have the site to ourselves.
Day 2. Nine Mile Creek to Hamilton Lake. 7.3 miles. 8:15 AM to 1:35 PM.
We wake up and start climbing gradually through a beautiful, ancient forest of white fir (Abies concolor). The weather is cool and clear.
We stop at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp and admire the view. The wildfire smoke from the previous evening has cleared and we look at the high, snowy peaks of the Great Western Divide, which we will cross tomorrow.
This section of the High Sierra Trail is blasted directly into granite cliffs and alternates between hot stark rock and cool green areas where the trail is crossed by little rivulets and the plants and flowers grow like weeds.
We cross the dramatic granite chasm of Lone Pine Creek over a bridge, then climb again.
We arrive at Hamilton Creek. We can ford it, but the creek is deep and we are just feet from the precipice of a waterfall. Instead, we cross on a large fallen log.
To our side are the immense granite spires of Angel Wings.
We hike to the campsites around Hamilton Lake and I immediately realize why the permit quota from Crescent Meadow is met so quickly: the lake is spectacular. We set up our tent near some bare granite where we have a front-row view. The lake rests in a giant, steep-walled granite cirque and is fed by five waterfalls, each hundreds of feet long. Their roar echo across the lake. Beyond the cirque are the jagged peaks of the Great Western Divide.
The lake is at 8,240 feet, but Kaweah Gap, where we will cross the Great Western Divide tomorrow, is at 10,700 feet. As I go to sleep, I wonder how much snow we’ll have to hike through over the gap, and, if there is a lot of snow, what that will mean for the creek crossings that follow.
Day 3. Hamilton Lake to Moraine Lake. 14.3 miles. 7:00 AM to 6:40 PM.
We wake up at six in the morning so we can climb out of the Hamilton Lake cirque in the cool shade before the sun rises over the the edge.
As we climb, we walk through beautiful hillside meadows filled with wildflowers and crossed by streams draining the melting snow. Higher, the meadows give way to dirt and sprouts. Climbing is taking us back in time through the seasons.
Higher still, we reach solid snow. The snow is firm and the hiking is easy. Precipice Lake, whose dark water and stark cliffs were made famous by Ansel Adams’s Frozen Lake and Cliffs, is still completely frozen and covered in snow.
We hike around Precipice Lake and toward Kaweah Gap. The snow is continuous. It is streaked with pink from algae, and later we find that the pink has stained our shoes, socks, and feet.
We reach Kaweah Gap and stand on top of the Great Western Divide. In front of us is Big Arroyo, a long, wide glaciated valley lined by tall peaks. The sky is sunny and clear except for a streak of smoke from the Lion Fire drifting to the northeast.
We hike down into Big Arroyo, frequently losing the trail in snowfields before we reach Big Arroyo Creek, at 9,500 feet.
I’d been worried about the Big Arroyo Creek crossing, which is often difficult early in the season, but it is only shin-deep and we make it across easily.
On the other side of Big Arroyo, we climb again, toward the Chagoopa Plateau. The climb is much longer than any of us expect. The Chagoopa Plateau is fantastic: broad and sandy with huge foxtail (Pinus balfouriana) and lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta). The trees are sparse and leave excellent views of the Kaweah Peaks. But we don’t enjoy it. We are tired, and the place is swarming with the worst mosquitoes we’ve encountered yet.
We are exhausted when we get to Moraine Lake. It’s at 9,300 feet, but its water is much warmer than we expect for the altitude. We all hurry to swim and rinse ourselves off before the sun sets. We are far from any road, and no one else shows up at camp. We spend a silent night at the lake.
Day 4. Moraine Lake to Kern Hot Spring. 7.5 miles. 8:30 AM to 2:10 PM.
After yesterday’s long hike to Moraine Lake, we all look forward to a short hike down to Kern Canyon and Kern Hot Spring.
We hike away from Moraine Lake and descend from the Chagoopa Plateau. Through the trees, we make out three high peaks to the northeast. We check our map, and they are what we suspect: mounts Young, Hale, and Whitney. This is our first view of Mount Whitney, but we are still three days away from standing on top of it.
As we descend, the air becomes warmer and the vegetation comes to resemble that of the western foothills where we started. We pass by black oaks (Quercus kelloggii) and canyon oaks (Quercus chrysolepis). Other hikers report rattlesnakes under the ferns at the bottom of the canyon.
Near the Kern River, we reach the lowest point of the High Sierra Trail at 6,700 feet. We walk through a prehistoric forest beneath granite walls thousands of feet high. The air is warm and humid, and puddles and mud cover the trail. The trees are enormous and the understory is lush with bushes and ferns.
Before the hot spring we cross the south fork of Rock Creek. It is knee-deep and fast and we all cross with care. This is the last crossing today, but tomorrow there will be several more.
We are hugely disappointed when we get to Kern Hot Spring. It is a small cement tub next to the Kern River, empty, with a trickle of warm water dripping into it. We dismiss it immediately and hike ahead and set up our tents at the nearby camp.
Later, I return to the hot spring, where I spot some Sierra lilies (Lilium kelleyanum) and some very showy stream orchids (Epipactis gigantea) near the tub. Investigating the tub itself, I realize that it has two plugs: one for the drain and one for the spout. I plug the drain and unplug the spout. A torrent of fresh hot water fills the tub in seconds. The hot spring doesn’t seem so bad anymore! I go back to camp and tell everyone about my discovery and we take turns soaking next to the Kern River while the sun sets.
Day 5. Kern Hot Spring to Upper Kern Valley. 8.7 miles. 6:45 AM to 2:45 PM.
Today is the day we cross the Kern Canyon and the many streams that flow into it.
The first is the stream draining Guyot Flat. It is easy, which gives us confidence for the others.
The next is Whitney Creek. It is fast and deep and, although we are nervous, Elizabeth and I prepare to cross it. Then Lawrence decides to check upstream for an easier crossing. Several minutes later, he returns, reporting that there is an easy log crossing uphill. We all go over the logs and cross the stream safely.
Wallace Creek, the last significant crossing of the day, is wide and fast. Elizabeth and Lawrence cross it on a long narrow log, but I can’t stay balanced on it. I try, back off, and try again. I don’t have any choice but to ford the creek. I put on my technical sandals and get in. It is fast and thigh-deep, but I hold on to the log and cross without a problem. Today’s stream crossings are done.
Above Junction Meadow, we stop for a break among huge, silent Jeffrey pines (Pinus jeffreyi), then continue toward Upper Kern Valley. There, beyond the Wallace Creek trail junction, we find a good campsite next to an old cabin. The mosquitoes force us to dine in our tents. No one else shows up at camp. The only sound comes from the river.
Day 6. Upper Kern to Guitar Lake. 10 miles. 6:55 AM to 3:45 PM.
We start hiking the Wallace Creek trail, toward the last significant creek crossing of the trip: Wright Creek. We reach the creek, and it is spectacular. We are near tree line, on a stretch of trail overlooking the Kaweah Peaks. The water comes down over red granite, swirling for a second in a pool that covers the trail, then tumbling over boulders into the canyon before disappearing into the forest. But it is not intimidating. We put on our technical sandals and cross it without any serious difficulties.
The sky is remarkably clear. The wind has changed direction and the smoke from the previous days is completely gone. As the day goes on, small puffy clouds appear for the first time during the trip, indicating that the air has become more moist.
We hike a short section of the John Muir Trail, where we get some classic Sierra Nevada hiking. The air is cool and clear, the mosquitoes are gone, and we are surrounded by gnarled foxtail pines and granite peaks.
We meet ranger Rob Pilewski and he tells us that he hasn’t seen too many people come through on the High Sierra Trail this season. We give him all the trail condition information we can.
I ask him about the weather and he tells us that, yes, there’s been a change, and that there’s a 20% chance of afternoon storms tomorrow, a boilerplate summer forecast for the eastern Sierra Nevada.
“Nothing too dire.”
We continue to Guitar Lake, where we find an excellent campsite. We are at 11,500 feet and there are no trees, only granite, grass, and wildflowers. We are on the back side of Mount Whitney and surrounded by mountains whose summits easily clear thirteen and fourteen thousand feet.
After dinner, we hear a helicopter. Even as the sound of its blades gets louder, we look for it without success. Suddenly, it clears the ridge to our west and flies right over us. After a week in the wilderness without seeing a road, building, or motorized vehicle, the helicopter is a completely unexpected intrusion. We stare at it as if we’re some uncontacted tribe in the Amazon.
The helicopter lands on the other side of Guitar Lake and carries a hiker away on a stretcher. We later find out that someone with a replacement hip had dislocated it but was unable to pop it back into place: a much less serious injury than we had feared.
We go to sleep at dusk, excited to climb Mount Whitney and finish our hike tomorrow.
Day 7. Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal. 17.1 miles. 5:45 AM to 3:30 PM.
The night does not get cold, with temperatures staying above 45. More disturbingly, the clouds from the day before do not go away. Puffy clouds are gliding over the Sierra Crest when we wake up at five in the morning.
By six, we are climbing the switchbacks on the west side of Mount Whitney. We watch the sunrise over the Kaweahs and all the terrain we’ve traversed in the last week.
At the Mount Whitney Trail junction (13,480 feet), we drop our heavy backpacks and put on daypacks for the hike to the summit. We are acclimated to high elevation and move quickly, reaching the summit (14,505 feet) at 9:30.
By now, the clouds’ tops are getting taller and their bases are getting flat and dark. I know we have to descend more than six thousand feet over the course of eleven miles to get back to our car and I’m sure a storm will develop before we’re done. We take some pictures and I rush Elizabeth and Lawrence off the summit.
Before we get to our backpacks, some light rain has started to fall. All three of us put on our rain gear. Dayhikers stream toward the summit, some of them unprepared for bad weather, and most of them oblivious of the impending storm.
We reach the trail junction, put on our packs, and then hike to Trail Crest (13,700 feet).
There, a woman coming up the trail says she is on her annual Mount Whitney hike and plans on continuing to the summit.
“The clouds don’t look too ominous”, she says.
I want to believe her, but we rush down from Trail Crest. There are dozens of people above us on the mountain, many of them still going up.
We start the 99 switchbacks that descend the steep talus slope below from Trail Crest. Elizabeth counts them off. We hear thunder after the first one.
More thunder and lightning follow. Getting hit by lightning is a real risk amid the treeless landscape, and the shelter of canyons and trees is thousands of feet below us. There is nothing for us to do but hike steadily and carefully until we reach safety.
A few switchbacks later, we start getting pelted with pea-size hail. It comes down hard, covering the trail. We keep hiking.
The hail turns to rain as we reach the bottom of the switchbacks and Trail Camp. I turn back toward Mount Whitney and see it enveloped in dark, swirling clouds. I take my last photo of the day.
When we reach trees, I feel safer from the lightning. Then I notice that they are foxtails and lodgepoles, which grow around 10,000 feet. That means we still have some 2,000 feet to descend to the safety of Whitney Portal and our car.
We keep hiking through the rain. We hear what sounds like loud thunder, but look up to find we are instead listening to the sound of a rock slide over Bighorn Park. House-size boulders tumble down thousands of feet in slow motion, releasing huge clouds of dust. I don’t know if the trail will pass below the rock slide area. With each minute, I relinquish more control of my fate to the mountain. I keep hiking as quickly as I can.
The rain and lightning never let up. Elizabeth and I arrive at Whitney Portal at 3:30. Safety at last. We are exhausted, cold, and soaked. We worry about Lawrence, whom we haven’t seen since the 99 switchbacks, but he bounds down the trail a few minutes later. The rain has gotten harder and the wind has started blowing. We go into the Whitney Portal Store where Elizabeth and I sit on the floor among a throng of soaked hikers. We order cheeseburgers and fries and savor every bite. The power in the store flickers on and off.
When we get out to leave, water and debris are streaming over the road. The patio outside the store is flooded with six inches of water, soaking the backpacks left outside. The rain comes down cliffs in waterfalls thousands of feet long. Lightning bounces off the peaks.
As we drive away, a small creek has turned black and overflowed its culvert, pouring over the road. The pond across from the store is overflowing and flooding the road. We weave our car around boulders that have tumbled onto Whitney Portal Road.
As we approach Lone Pine, we roll down our windows and take in the warm, dry desert air. We are safe at last.
In town, we trade stories with other hikers who were on the mountain. We read more stories online. It was one of the worst summer storms to hit Mount Whitney in years. Things got much worse after we left. Flash floods swelled the rivers and washed out sections of trail. Creek crossings that were easy for us became impassable. Rock slides continued. Hikers were stranded on the trail overnight. One group of campers decided they’d had enough and abandoned their tents, leaving their sleeping bags and wallets behind. No one was killed or seriously injured.