Thursday, March 12, 2015

The High Sierra Trail - Sequoia National Park to Inyo National Forest

The High Sierra Trail traverses the Great Western Divide from West to East. Officially, the trail starts from the front country of Sequoia National Park at Crescent Meadow and ends at the summit of Mount Whitney, about some odd 60 miles. Officially. Then connect the trail to the Whitney Trail and add about 11 miles to exit on the east, at Whitney Portal. Making this trip a total of 71 miles (we logged in about 74.3 miles).

I don't remember the exact moment that the High Sierra Trail came across my radar. It was some-some years ago stumbling on a colored picture in the intarwebs of this beautifully multi colored lake. The photo was not labeled but thank you, Google Image! It was the esteemed Precipice Lake. Ironically, made famous by a black and white photograph by Ansel Adams, (Frozen Lake and Cliffs, The Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park, California 1932).

Armed by my ever reliable map of the entire Sequoia nad Kings Canyon National Park, I zeroed in on Precipice Lake. Tracing the trail to get there, I hovered further past the lake and noticed to be following a high lighted trail labeled as the High Sierra Trail. Eyes widened when my finger arrived at the end of the trail, an opportunity to summit the highest peak in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney! A beautiful lake, a well known peak and undoubtedly a potentially gorgeous hike.. and be able to make it in one swoop of a trip. Yes, I'd like a piece of that!

High Sierra Trail, why do it?

Want to summit Mount Whitney but the permit lottery system just doesn't appeal to you?

Permit lottery system stresses me out, haha. Probably why this hiker still has not gone to Half Dome. I know, I know.. it is an iconic hiking thing. I like hiking for its simplicity. And the lottery system is not. But I guess it is a necessary evil to control the wilderness traffic in certain areas.

The HST provides an entry (there are lots!) to access to the Whitney Zone without going through the Whitney lottery.

You've ogled at photos, seen Mile.. Mile And A Half repeatedly, squinted at blogs.. but taking 3 weeks to take on a John Muir Trail thru-hike is just not feasible anytime soon?

If you have a regular day job (like me!), taking 3 weeks off is not easy (plus add more days for logistics, pick up, drop off, acclimating, etc.). There are lots to consider before embarking on such time away from work, including paid time offs. I've read somewhere once; "The time you don't work during your trip is the most expensive part of the trip". Plus that's time away from family. Unless, they're your JMT hike buddies!

Depending on how you want to stretch your own HST trip, this can be done in 8 days, 7 nights. If you have a Monday-Friday work schedule, here's a quick itinerary fix:Take Saturday to acclimate, Sunday as jump off day and the following Sunday to end a trip. This way you technically loose just 5 days of work.

Or maybe because it is just there. Calling you. Beckoning you.

Maybe you're just looking for an epic trip. Then.. ta-dah! This is it! Lakes, hot springs, meadows, peaks.. you can't go wrong on this trip!

Permit Application

Scouring the internet with information and trip reports for the High Sierra Trail gave the impression of its unpopularity. But that was deceiving. The official starting point does receive its quota.

The HST officially (and popularly) starts at Crescent Meadow (High Sierra on the drop down menu on the permit application) located in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park.

But an alternative starting point, if your dates are not flexible, is at the Alta Trailhead in the Wolverton Area. Excellent opportunity to do a side trip on the Lakes Trail or Alta Peak before meeting up with the High Sierra Trail.

Starting at either point does not differ much in terms of elevation or mileage, nor your permit pick up. Both starting points' permit pick up is at the Lodgepole Visitor Center. The Wilderness desk there opens at 7:00 a.m. till 3:30 p.m. Permits can be picked up the day before your entry date at 1:00 p.m. or the same day before 9:00 a.m. Make sure to let the wilderness office know if you're picking up after 9:00 a.m. of your entry date, or else it is tagged as a "no-show" and will be available for walk-ins.

Select Whitney Portal for the exit trail (unless you're doing this as an out-and-back.. hmm next trip, maybe?!) and you'll be good to go and summit Mount Whitney on this trip. No extra permit application for the summit.

Fill up the permit from the NPS website, follow the instructions and mail or fax it along with your check or credit/debit card payment of $15.00 for the permit (number of days and persons included in fee). Your confirmation will be sent via email. Yes, it's email now. I was constantly checking our mailbox waiting for that lovely envelope from NPS only to find out that my inbox has been babysitting it and probably snickering at me, too!


Prepare for any weather changes. Check the weather even up to the last minute of your trip, before you leave your home, before you lose that last cell phone signal, and ask the wilderness desk when you pick up your permit.

Generally, best time to visit is in the Summer months. However, on some good snow years, high elevations would still have snow as late as July. We went during one of California's drought year, first week of August 2014. We didn't see any patches of snow, but we got rain and hail.

Here's a link via NOAA's website for the weather in the Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow area: HST Weather.

Food Storage

Most of the camp sites we picked for our trip itinerary has bear boxes or food lockers. The ranger issuing us the permit even told us that we may opt to leave our bear canisters to save weight. However, having our own food storage gives us the freedom to not rely camping on where the food lockers are located (such as what happened on Day 5!).

If you do not own one (yet!), bear canisters can be rented at the Lodgepole Visitor Center, your local REI or Bearikade rents their product on their website.

Getting There and Logistics

The High Sierra Trail starts in the front country of Sequoia National Park, California. There are 2 entrances to the park. From Southern California the Ash Mountain Entrance coming from the city of Visalia comes up first via SR-198. The other entrance is the Big Stump Entrance from the city of Fresno via SR-180, which can take you to Kings Canyon National Park (left at the "Y") and Sequoia National Park (right at the "Y") upon entering and paying your park dues.

Park dues are $20.00 per (private) vehicle, all passengers included and it is valid for 7 days upon your entrance. Annual Sequoia and Kings Canyon Park fees are at $30.00. or if you are a National Park junkie (like us!), America the Beautiful Pass is $80.00 valid for a year in all National Parks. Still cheaper than a Disneyland Pass!

The tricky part of a thru-hike is the logistics, since you will be starting from one end and finishing in another. Coordinating skills, trust in soliciting free rides or big $$$ to rent shuttles play in part here.

We opted for soliciting free rides. We were dropped off at our starting point with bribes of a good time, camp fires and a 5 billion star stay. Yeah, thank goodness he was family enough to accept such bribes! And we coordinated a pick up at the end with bribes of love and affection. Yup, family, too!

During the Summer peak season, the road to Moro Rock/Crescent Meadow is closed to private vehicles, only accessible by the park's free shuttle that stops at the Giant Forest Museum.

Our Itinerary

** For reference on the photos on the state of the trail: Our trip was on August 3-10, 2014.

HST Day Zero and 1 - Lodgepole to Wolverton to Buck Creek Crossing

HST Day 2 - Buck Creek Crossing to Big Hamilton Lake

HST Day 3 - Big Hamilton Lake to Big Arroyo Junction

HST Day 4 - Big Arroyo Junction to Kern Hot Springs

HST Day 5 - Kern Hot Springs to Wallace Creek

 HST Day 6 - Wallace Creek to Guitar Lake

HST Day 7 - Whitney Summit Day! Guitar Lake to Trail Camp

HST Day 8 - Trail Camp to Whitney Portal

PANTHER GAP8,5200.9450
PRECIPICE LAKE10,2003.31,960
MORAINE LAKE** side trip9,3008.0-260BEAR BOX
KERN HOT SPRING6,8802.3-420X14.3-420BEAR BOX
GUITAR LAKE11,4603.5760X7.73,380TIP: LEAVE AT 5 AM
MOUNT WHITNEY SUMMIT 14,5052.01,0551,055
TRAIL CAMP12,0402.2-1,410X10.7
OUTPOST CAMP10,6002.5-1,440
LONE PINE LAKE9,9901.0-610
WHITNEY PORTAL8,3402.5-1,650END!6.0-1,650END!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

High Sierra Trail Part 8 - Trail Camp to Whitney Portal

Day 8: (Last Day!) Trail Camp to Whitney Portal - 6 miles and 3,700 feet elevation loss

Top o' tha mawnin', to yah! Seems an appropriate greeting enough coming from 12K feet and about to head down to 8K feet elevation.

Wish we can say we've had an undisturbed night's rest and only waking up to the sunshine trying to penetrate through our tents.

Sleep was intermittent for most of us. The busyness of Trail Camp does not end when light disappears, nor does it start when day light starts.

Clocked in the first hikers to startle at 3:00 a.m., with everyone's headlamps pointed at our tent. At first I thought it was a cause for alarm, but the moment I made the act to zip open the tent to see what's up, they finally found what they were looking for.. the pond to refill their water supply. Luckily, going back to sleep was never a problem for me. But take heed for the light sleepers!

IF you aren't being chased by pelting rain/hail to pitch your tent, strategize your camp spot. Keep clear from the only water source, unless you don't mind crunching footsteps constantly by your ear as you lay in your sleeping bag. Be wary for already existing spots declared by others as the bathroom - safe to say more than enough people are using the spot for you to be able to just ignore it. Signs of civilization is becoming apparent, means we're close to the end!

It was only 6 miles to go and all going downhill, we took our time to have breakfast and dry out our tents completely before packing everything. Then we started the trek down. Much as my knees hates it, I really do love going downhill. Suffice it to say, I'm looking forward to our hike.

The trail is easy to follow despite that it is basically made up of rocks that.. just. Look. Alike. If you tend to be on lalaland while hiking (but then you shouldn't be anyways unless you don't mind rolling an ankle 'cause of a wrong footing) and by some unknown force feel like you've lost the trail, don't worry. The trail has enough foot traffic in both directions that other hikers can be used as landmarks!

To say the trail is steep is an understatement. We're just glad we're not the ones climbing up on it today. The trail is quite rocky or gravelly so, again, best to keep a presence of mind on where you step, safety first!

Continuing on coming down, a small patch of a meadow comes into view with a stream flowing in the middle. Such a picturesque scene that epitomizes water is life.

The trail is completely exposed from Trail Camp but trees started to appear as it approaches Mirror Lake. There is no camping at Mirror Lake, though it looked so inviting to make a quick jump in it, but I only took a few pictures and carried on. For the first time in a week, we had a set time that we needed to be somewhere: Whitney Portal, where Kari, if I know her all these years, would already be waiting for us long before our agreed meet up time (for which I'm glad so I won't have to wait for since 1 week away from her is my quota! Not a minute more than necessary!).

Not long after passing Mirror Lake, the trail leads to Outpost Camp, another area along the Whitney Trail where established camp sites are concentrated in. There were several campers breaking up camp when we passed, including the Italian couple we met since Precipice Lake (5 days ago!).

The trail has more shade now, crosses a couple of small streams and then a mile more later, finally took us out of the Whitney Zone, a.k.a. The No Wag Bag Zone!

The spur trail to Lone Pine Lake follows the Whitney Zone sign immediately. Our original plan from before we started this trip was to spend our last night at this lake, another lake to add to my "Lake List". But as all plans do, they change. Noting to self to make just a special trip just for this lake!

Continuing the trek down, the trail reaches the junction to the North Fork Lone Pine Creek Trail, or also known as the the Mountaineers Route to Mount Whitney. We're close to the end of our trip!

We reached Whitney Portal with Kari sitting by one of the rocks just off of the trellis covered area where a weighing scale is hanging, waiting patiently for us. Happy tears were had (as always - trips like these are awesome, but I still do get to miss her) and loads of happy hugs! 

We commemorated the day with ginormous bacon cheeseburgers and beers from the Whitney Portal Store before wrapping up and scoring a hot shower down by an RV Park in Olancha. We scoured for public showers that are open in Lone Pine after lunch, and failed.