Adventures in Colorado and around the World

Into the Canyon: Day 4 on the High Sierra Trail

We woke to the soft light of dawn filtering through the trees onto our tent and the sound of birdsong. Unfortunately my back was killing me! We had plans for another long 15+ mile day, but I wasn’t sure if my body could handle it. Luckily we were a day ahead of schedule so I wasn’t too worried. The burns on my leg from dinner the previous night were painful so I lathered up my leg with sunscreen. I didn’t want to get sunburn on top of my hot water burn! I also put on my light shorts so I wouldn’t have any clothes pressing or rubbing against the burn.

The trail back to the High Sierra Trail was relatively easy and was the perfect warm up for the day. It passed by a lovely meadow that turned into a field of dried grass. But the sun was shining, the moon was out, and we were seeing a new angle of the Kaweah peaks.

Once on the High Sierra Trail, the grade took a sharp turn downwards. We spent the next four miles dropping down 2000+ feet into the Kern River Canyon and praying our knees would survive the beating.

The Kern River has its headwaters near Mount Whitney, cascades 5,000 feet down into the north-south Kern River Canyon, before making a turn west to irrigate the fields of California’s Central Valley. It used to reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean, passing through a series of lakes. The lakes are now all dry and used for agriculture and the water is completely used up before reaching the Pacific. The Kern River Canyon is longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon, although it is a little less grand.

After reaching the canyon floor, the trail meanders through redwood forests, up scree slopes (where Brendan and Wade saw a rattlesnake), and, in a dry year like 2018, across dry, sandy creek and pond beds.

The two miles along the canyon bottom passed quickly and we soon found ourselves stripping down to our skivvies for a dip in the Kern Hot Springs. The hot springs are a little piece of backcountry luxury. There is a concrete area that you can close the outlet pipe to fill into a piping hot bathtub. There is also a ladle if you don’t want to use the tub. From the concrete bathtub, the water flows into a little eddy in the river. It’s the perfect balance between the very hot bathtub and the freezing river. We also met a solo hiker named Jim, who would be our semi-shadow for the rest of the trip. He even was staying at the same hostel as us! After finishing the High Sierra Trail, he took a couple days off and then set off to complete the John Muir Trail.

After a reset at the hot springs, we packed up for the last 7 miles to the Junction Meadows camping area. We all anticipated a flat trail, but there were a surprising number of pointless ups and downs (PUDs). Most of them were pointless, but a couple revealed beautiful views ahead and behind us.
The hot springs must have reset everything for me because I suddenly felt amazing. The miles clicked on effortlessly and I had finally reached the beloved state of flow. I quickly found myself pulling ahead of the rest of the group, lost in thoughts about running ultras and exploring mountains free of the burdens of adult life. I only stopped when I reached the creek crossings (there were 7-8 of them between the hot springs and camp) to wait for everyone else to catch up.

Camp that night was under a canopy of towering pines. A small branch of the Kern River flowed through thick green grass and a huge rock 50 yards away allowed us to store our bear canisters in a safe spot. The camp area was completely empty when we got there, so we were able to secure a spot away from all the other fire rings. We didn’t have great views but it was very peaceful.

I started the day questioning how I was going to make it 15+ miles. I finished the day feeling like I was floating on clouds. Although I really want to explore the other side of the Kaweah Peaks, I’m glad I was able to finally find my flow while hiking along the Kern River!

To view the route, click here (you will need to create a free Suunto Movescount account to download the route or email me and I’ll send you the files).