Adventures in Colorado and around the World

The Great Western Divide: Day 3 of the High Sierra Trail

The alarms sounded early on day 3. We all had big plans to make it to the Precipice Lake, made famous by Ansel Adams, for sunrise so we set our alarms for 4:00 am with a plan to be on the trail by 4:30. We had prepared the night before, so we were all packed up and hiking up the trail on time.

The trail immediately starts switchbacking up the north side of Hamilton Lake and it seemed like I was immediately stopping to strip off my layers. The trail seemed to go on forever and after about 30 minutes of hiking my back started bothering me. The slower I hiked, the colder I got, and I found myself replacing all the layers I had foolishly stripped off.

The sun rose when we were still pretty far from Precipice Lake, but our position was perfect for a beautiful view over Hamilton Lake and back towards our starting point. Soon after sunrise we made it to the infamous tunnel in the trail. When they were building the trail during the 1930s, they had originally installed a bridge over a gorge. The steel cables were too heavy for mules to carry, so men had to haul them 17 miles through the mountains. A couple years later an avalanche destroyed the bridge and the engineers realized they needed a better solution. Instead of building another bridge, they bore through the mountain. Now avalanches can continue on their natural path without destroying the trail. The remains of the bridge are still on the sides of the trail.

We split into natural pace groups for the last push up to Precipice Lake, with Jason and I taking up the rear. Normally that would drive me crazy, but my back was in too much pain for me to care. After what seemed like hours, but was closer to 30 minutes, we finally made it to Precipice Lake. I was so happy to take off my pack, make some breakfast and coffee, and just relax on a rock in the sun.

After relaxing for more than an hour, we decided to pack up our things, head over the pass, and check out the alternate route I’d devised through Nine Lakes Basin. The trail to the top of the Great Western Divide was gorgeous, with little tarns along the way to reflect the jagged granite peaks that surrounded us. Dropping into Nine Lakes Basin was equally as stunning.

My route went up over the Kaweah Ridge down into another drainage, eventually meeting up with the Colby Pass trail and rejoining the High Sierra Route near Junction Meadows. I’d read reports of people going over the ridge to circumnavigate Triple Divide Peak and knew my route avoided the cliffs on the north side of the ridge. The big question was whether the route would go from the Nine Lakes Basin side. Once over the Great Western Divide we stared hard at the route I had planned, eventually deciding to stick to the main trail instead of scrambling up loose scree with 40-60 pound packs on. I do want to go back and explore the Nine Lakes Basin and Kaweah range more thoroughly though.

Since we weren’t deviating from the route, we continued our hike down into the Big Arroyo basin. After some relaxed downhill hiking and a river crossing we quickly found ourselves at the Big Arroyo campground. It didn’t look very inspiring, and it was still pretty early in the day, so we decided to push on the extra 6.5 miles to Moraine Lake (which isn’t technically on the High Sierra Trail but is a worthwhile detour).

The trail almost immediately began going uphill. In the heat of the day it felt like it was going straight up, but looking back it was a relatively constant and reasonable 6% grade. After making it to the top, the trail went through a very dry, desert-like environment, complete with dry lake beds. It was a unique environment and helped distract me from the pain in my back, legs, and lungs.

We all regrouped at the junction of the High Sierra Trail and the trail to Moraine Lake. The sign said it was 2.2 miles to Moraine Lake, so after a brief rest we set off in pairs for the lake. Our consensus over dinner was that the sign must have been lying because it was the longest 2.2 miles we’d ever hiked. According to my watch, the sign was correct.

The camping around Moraine Lake was beautiful. The trees went almost all the way to the lake, so the camping was naturally in the trees, but it was quiet, clean, and peaceful. All things we needed after an almost 16 mile day!

The only mishap once we got to camp came while I was making dinner. I had successfully prepared my dinner and was waiting for it to cook so I decided to start on Jason’s (he was setting up our sleeping pads and bags). As I was pouring the boiling water into the bag with the freeze-dried food, my hand slipped and I poured the boiling water into my right thigh! Luckily I had a bottle of fresh water next to me that I could pour into my leg to stop the burning. It wasn’t how I wanted the day to end, but luckily I have tough skin and it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Overall it was a tough rollercoaster of a day, which was quickly becoming par for the High Sierra Trail.

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).