Dawn came quickly at Bearpaw camp, but since we were only planning on hiking 5.2 miles from Bearpaw Meadows to Big Hamilton Lake, we relaxed in the early morning light. We finally motivated ourselves to strap on our backpacks and rejoin the High Sierra Trail around 10:15 am, and we were surprisingly not the last people to leave!
The map said that there was a ranger station at the High Sierra Camp, just 0.25 miles from the Bearpaw Meadows campground. However, when we came to the junction with the Tamarack Lake trail, there was a small sign saying the Ranger Station was ~2 miles up that trail. We were playing with the idea of cutting out the section of the High Sierra Trail that follows the Big Arroyo down to the Kern Canyon. Instead we thought we could leave the High Sierra Trail at Nine Lakes Basin, cross the Kaweah Divide, and use the Colby Pass trail to rejoin the High Sierra Trail near Junction Meadows. This would cut a significant section of “boring” trail off the trip, but it was hard to find information about the feasibility of my route.
We decided to skip going to the ranger station, which turned out to be a good idea because almost immediately afterwards we ran into two guys who said the route we wanted to take was steep class 3/4 scrambling. Considering we had two people with iffy backs on the trip, we thought it was best to stick the actual trail. I guess I’ll just have to come back to see if my route will “go”!
After a whopping 21 minutes of hiking, including the time we spent debating a visit to the ranger station, we made it to the High Sierra Camp. Since this was an “easy” day, we decided to enjoy the hot coffee and expansive views from their porch. For an entire hour! By the time we left the High Sierra Camp, it was 11:30 and the temperatures were nearly roasting.
The trail from High Sierra Camp to Big Hamilton Lake is absolutely spectacular. It’s carved into sheer granite cliffs, and in some places is only wide enough for a single person to pass. We quickly hiked down from High Sierra Camp to the spectacular bridge over the Lone Pine Creek Canyon. The water cascaded approximately 50 feet below us in a series of small waterfalls and we took the opportunity to stop and really soak in the scenery.
From the bridge over Long Pine Creek, the trail steeply ascends through a series of switchbacks. It seemed to go straight up all the way to Hamilton Lake, although looking back on the GPS track, it clearly went downhill in a couple of sections. We climbed the exposed switchbacks in the heat of midday and I felt every single degree as the temperature climbed higher and higher. I felt like I was moving at a glacial pace and, despite the amazing scenery all around me, I started to get quite grumpy.
I was moving so slowly that everyone except Tasha slowly pulled ahead of me, saying we would stop when we “got to the tunnel on the trail”. I’ve never prayed so hard for a tunnel in a trail! Luckily they stopped a little before the Hamilton Creek crossing, because the tunnel was actually above Hamilton Lake and we wouldn’t see it until the following day! We found some shade, took a lunch break, and just stared at the sheer granite cliffs that surrounded us.
After our lunch break, we descended slightly to cross Hamilton Creek in the flat water section between two waterfalls. The crystal clear, delightfully cold water was a welcome respite from the burning sun. After a quick stop at the creek crossing, we continued our upward momentum towards Big Hamilton Lake. Unfortunately, I felt so terrible on this section from a combination of the heat, dehydration, and what I later learned was most likely a newly herniated lumbar disc, I wasn’t able to appreciate the beauty of little Hamilton Lake. Luckily Brendan took a photo which you can find here.
We finally arrived at Big Hamilton Lake, set up camp, and immediately stripped down to hop into the lake. The water immediately refreshed me and I was able to regroup enough to realize I desperately needed to filter and chug water to replace all I had lost in the heat of the day. We spent the afternoon doing camp chores, like rinsing out our clothes and shoes, and exploring the area surrounding the lake. It was peaceful and homey and I could I see why the National Park imposes a strict two night camping limit at the lake.
All the struggles of the day were rewarded, when the sun started to set and the mountains surrounding the lake were highlighted with the most perfect, intense alpenglow I have ever seen in my entire life. Our route for the next day was bathed in blood red and made us anxious to see those peaks in finer detail.
As if the alpenglow wasn’t spectacular enough, the sky exploded in deep pinks, purples, and reds down valley as the sun finally set and the stars came out to watch over us as we slept. I wasn’t able to get to a good photo point for the actual sunset, but once again Brendan was able to capture the lightshow.
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).