Following my long day up and down Brewer, I decided to sleep in on Tuesday, as I also had ambitious plans for the remainder of the week. When I woke up at 8 I was feeling fresh and didn’t want the day to go to waste so I promptly had breakfast and headed south towards the heart of Sequoia National Park with the intention of hiking to Hamilton Lake.
The route to Hamilton Lake follows the High Sierra Trail which traverses the Sierra Nevada latitudinally through the heart of the range, passing the Great Western Divide, the Kaweahs, and topping out at Mt Whitney before heading down towards the Owens Valley. The trail itself is supposed to be in great condition and Hamilton Lake, although still on the western side of the range, is supposed to be an incredible highlight of the journey, with the towering Valhalla rock formation above. In fact, it was this route that convinced me to start trail running, since the one way trip is 13 miles, though with little elevation gain — the 26 mile hike would take at least nine hours, but at a moderate running pace it could be done in five or six!
Owing to some tree maintenance along the Generals Highway, it took almost an hour and a half to make it to the Crescent Meadow trailhead, and I wasted no time getting my gear together and hitting the trail. Since I was planning on running the majority of the route, I opted to leave my camera in the car, as well as any jacket — it was a beautiful day and if I got cold for some reason, I could just run faster! By 11:30 I was on the trail, and unfortunately I didn’t realize until a mile later that I had left my headlamp in the car. I wasn’t too worried though, since I had about 8 hours to cover the 26 miles which seemed more than enough time.
After a mile of running through Crescent Meadow, I emerged on the north side of the Kaweah River Valley and was rewarded with a view back towards Moro Rock and endless ridges stretching out towards Central Valley, each more faint than the last. I was soon greeted by a disconcerting sign which read “Hamilton Lake: 13 miles.” I had expected the route to be 13 miles from the trailhead, but I had already run two miles which would make the round trip 30 miles — quite a bit further than I’d anticipated. I considered possibly changing my plan and heading either for Alta Peak or an old vista point marked on my map which might require some cross country travel. Ultimately I kept on running, hoping that this was an error in signage which would not be a first; the route from the Big Basin Ranger Station to Waddell Beach is very clearly signed as 13 miles, but by my measure, it was much closer to 11.
It was a beautiful day and despite the sun, it was never uncomfortably hot. A mass of granite spires rising sharply across the valley to the south kept my attention. I later learned that these were Castle Rocks and despite their visibility, they are infrequently climbed, owing both to their technical difficulty and the strenuous cross country travel required on the approach. Perhaps I’ll visit them sometime in the future!
Continuing along the trail the Great Western Divide became visible, and soon too, Little Blue Dome and Sugarbowl Dome. Looking up towards the divide, it was obvious that the unsettled weather we’d experienced Monday on Brewer was continuing and it seemed like rain was imminent in the range. Perhaps, I thought, if it indeed turned out that Hamilton Lake was 15 miles one way, or if it started raining, I could climb one of these domes instead. Thunder soon began to echo throughout the valley, though, and I decided that those domes were probably the two of the worst places to be in a thunderstorm.
There weren’t many people on the trail (I probably encountered 25 all day), but when I met with someone in passing I often stopped for a minute or two, to take a break from the running and to learn what route they were taking. I only encountered one party which had done the entire traverse from Whitney Portal. Most groups were hiking out and back to Hamilton Lake or Bearpaw Meadows. I stopped to fill water at a creek and chatted with two women doing the same, and I was curious as to what their plan was — one of them carried a 50 liter pack, but the other just had a small daypack. Apparently they were heading to Bearpaw Meadows which, I hadn’t realized, was a staffed camp including cooked meals, tents, and showers!
A mile later I encountered a pack train heading west along the trail (presumably packing out garbage from Bearpaw Madows) and I briefly chatted with the driver. Alas, he seemed fairly convinced that it would rain!
The next group I met with said they had come from Hamilton Lake that morning, and I asked how long the journey was. One answered “it’s pretty far,” and I tried to hide my annoyance when I followed up with “sure, but how far?” He answered “three hours” and I laughed to myself, turning to continue on when his buddy (who sounded like a Kiwi) guessed that it was probably 6 miles. “10 k?” I confirmed, thanking him and starting off, a bit skeptical that it could be 6 miles more in addition to the 10 I’d already run. He shouted for me to wait and pulled out his GPS “10k, exactly,” he said. Yikes.
I arrived at Bearpaw Meadows at 2:45 pm as it began to drizzle. A sign here indicated that it was only 1 mile to Hamilton Lake, which seemed to contradict the Kiwi’s data and the signs I’d seen all day. I had a seat at a picnic table outside camp next to a large pine which provided some shelter from the rain, and ate my lunch, hoping that I’d come to a decision on whether to turn around or continue by the time the rain passed.
But the rain only came down stronger and the thunder became more frequent. Eventually the tree was no longer adequate shelter and I headed over to the camp to see if they’d share their roof with me. I found a seat on the porch with a stunning view of the Great Western Divide, and after resting a moment went in to check out the camp. Inside, two chefs were at work in a kitchen preparing dinner. I filled my water bladder from a cooler (the garbage was for paying guests only, though). They even had cans of beer for sale — next time I’ll definitely bring along some cash!
I returned to my seat on the porch and chatted with a young couple for a while. They were heading out towards the Kaweahs and had been along this trail several times before. I asked them how far the trip was to Hamilton Lake and they seemed to agree with the 1 mile sign posted outside. In addition they told me that Precipice Lake was the lake I should go to, rather than Hamilton. In the now steady downpour, it seemed unlikely that I would make it to either. I wasn’t confident that I would be able to run the entire way back, and I certainly didn’t want to be out on the trail in the cold and dark without a headlamp.
We chatted a while longer, enjoying the rain and the thunder from the comfort of the porch. By 3:30, the rain started to let up and I decided I should turn around and head home. 26 miles was plenty of hiking for one day.
The journey back along the trail went quick as it was now mostly downhill. The stormy weather followed me for a bit, drizzling on and off. At one point I could hear a strong gust coming down the trail behind me, rustling the trees along the way, dead branches and pine cones falling like bombs around me. I picked up the pace, trying to outrun the wind and when I was inevitably caught, ducked off the trail and hugged a tall trunk, hoping that any debris would fall away from the trunk.
Slowly, the clouds began to disperse, and by the time I was back near Castle Rocks, it was once again a beautiful summer’s day, and the feature was especially striking in the light of the setting sun.
Soon I was jogging back through the towering redwoods of Crescent Meadow and arrived at the car just as the sun set. It was a great day on the trail, even if I didn’t make it where I had intended, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs were up to the challenge of a 26 mile trail run.
I headed back to my parking spot in Kings Canyon from the previous two nights and once again took a refreshing bath in the Kings, had some dinner, and quickly fell asleep.
- As mentioned, there is limited food (and beer!) that can be bought at Bearpaw Meadows, so it might be wise to bring some cash.
- I was worried that there might not be enough water along the route, but it turned out that all of the stream crossings were still running (although some were not running very well). This was pretty late in the year so I imagine that this wouldn’t be an issue except in extreme drought.
Elevation Gain: 6,800 ft