High Sierra Trail Day 3 (Part 1) – Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap
Sequoia National Park, California
“Well, okay. This is life now.”
The third day on the High Sierra Trail was easily the most memorable day and the highlight of the entire trail for me, both for good and bad. It was the day marked with some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever witnessed (over Kaweah Gap), but it was also by far the toughest day, mentally and physically.
Leaving Hamilton Lake, not only did we know that we would start the day with some of the steepest sections of the entire trail, but we also knew the iconic Precipice Lake was nestled somewhere in the cirque above us. On top of that, it was also a day where we had some flexibility in where we would camp for the night so we knew it was either going to be an extremely short day or an excruciatingly long one. Because of all hose factors, we decided that a pre-dawn start was in order to not only get a jump on the day, but to try and make it to the Precipice Lake to shoot some of the the early-morning light.
As I heaved my pack back onto my sore shoulders under the 4 a.m. moonlight, I’m pretty sure my body finally just begrudgingly accepted ‘Well, okay. This is life now.’
Right from camp, the trail crossed Hamilton Creek and quickly started switch-backing along the side of the northern wall of Hamilton Lake’s basin. I was hiking mostly under the moonlight, but as I rounded one of the corners, I flicked my headlight on at a particularly shadowed and dark section… 2 sets of yellow eyes stared back at me some 50 yards up trail. Now after seeing many harmless mule deer around Hamilton Lake the day before, I knew the only logical conclusion was these eyes had to belong to a very large black bear who was out for some morning grub with his BFF, a mountain lion. With bear spray in hand, we nervously continued on, naturally with no other signs of the threatening beasts.
My initial hope was to actually be at Precipice Lake for sunrise, but switch-backing up a couple thousand feet was slower-going than we anticipated. It was just past dawn that we made it only to the famed Hamilton Gorge, a nearly-vertical walled avalanche chute with 60-70° slopes and 200′ walls. During the trail’s original construction in 1932, 40,000 pounds of steel and cable needed to be dragged out 20 miles from the nearest road in order to create a suspension bridge and complete the trail over this gorge. Four years after that, in 1937, the bridge was destroyed by an avalanche and the High Sierra Trail is now burrowed into the cliff side, including a short tunnel, before wrapping round the other side of the chute. Cement pads and pieces of cable still remain on each rim, remnants of the original bridge.
Just east of Hamilton Gorge, the trail entered the alpine zone of the Sierras, a region where the short growing season, avalanches, and lack of soil make life impossible for plants other than herbs and low shrubs. After another mile and a couple torturous switchbacks later, just as the views of Hamilton Lake disappeared, we passed a beautiful tarn, before the final quarter mile push up to Precipice Lake.
Precipice Lake sits at 10,300 feet nestled beneath the north wall of Eagle Scout Peak (12,014′) where a dwindling ice sheet feeds the lake via rivulets falling down the sheer granite cliff on the lake’s southern edge. These rivulets leave black streaks down the cliff wall while also nurturing pockets of cliff-side vegetation and give the crystal clear water a unique emerald and blue gradient. Precipice was first made famous by an image ‘Frozen Lakes & Cliffs,’ created by Ansel Adams during a trip with the Sierra Club in 1932. The ice of the lake was glaring and since he hadn’t yet developed his Zone system, he couldn’t precisely measure the light. He made an educated guest for the exposure and “hoped for the best.” Luckily for me, I just spent an hour taking a couple hundred [bracketed] exposures throughout the early morning…
After a very leisurely breakfast and a lot of coffee, we had a little more climbing before the trail leveled out and meandered through a lush alpine wonderland containing smaller glacial ponds. Only 3.4 miles after leaving Hamilton Lake, but several thousand feet later, we reached Kaweah Gap on the top of the Great Western Divide. (Now 20 miles from Crescent Meadow.)
From the gap, we had a couple of options we were considering. We had initially wanted try to completely bypass the official trail through this section by following the route as it was originally envisioned by John Deal. He had designed the High Sierra Trail to track into Nine Lakes Basin, switchback up the back wall and Triple Divide Pass, and then drop into the Kern-Kaweah watershed to rejoin the HST back at Junction Meadow. Unfortunately funding for this section was pulled once the Great Depression hit and that section of the trail was never built. We knew following that track would be tough, but it would cut off a ton of mileage. However, talking to a ranger and being told that plan involved class-4 scrambling, we decided that was not our smartest move with 50-lb packs and only a loose idea of where to go.
Our next thought was to maybe just head into Nine Lakes Basin and simply camp for the night, but then coming over the gap, the basin was closer than expected and we knew we’d be setting up camp by 11 a.m. and just hanging out the whole day. It looked like a beautiful basin and it would have been a great spot to chill, but with 50+ miles left on trail, it didn’t seem like the most productive move. Plus, we had done just that at Hamilton the afternoon before…
So after crossing Kaweah Gap, we decided to press on towards bypass Big Arroyo and then most likely on to Moraine Lake for the night, now essentially shaving a day off our schedule.
We went from potentially one of the shortest days of the trip to the longest and arguably most miserable…
Tips for this Section of Trail:
- I do not remember any water between Hamilton Lake and the tarn below Precipice Lake. It’s a good climb so make sure to fill water before leaving Hamilton, especially if you find yourself in this section during the mid-day heat.
- From my understanding, camping is not allowed at Precipice Lake anymore (2018). There were some tent sites and we did see one woman cowboy camping, but definitely no bear lockers.
Holy hell. Anything and everything. I think we spent the better part of 14 hours (total) on trail this day, but it’s because we couldn’t take more than 10 steps without stopping for more pictures throughout the morning.
- Anywhere from the trail above Hamilton Lake looking back down valley.
- The trail passes and climbs above a lower lake before you get to Precipice. The early morning light over that was unreal.
- Precipice Lake, naturally. Don’t rush by this lake either – if the weather seems like it might cooperate, chill and wait for some reflection shots. It’s nice and trippy.
- There are a bunch of small glacial ponds above Precipice as you climb the pass that provide some great opportunities for reflection shots.
- Kaweah Gap – Great views northeast towards Nine Lakes Basin as well as back at Lone Eagle Peak.
General Information & Planning:
- The History of the High Sierra Trail
- Planning for the High Sierra Trail
- Packing List & Tips
- Photography Spots & Tips
- Day 1: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw
- Day 2: Bearpaw to Hamilton Lake
- Day 3 (Part 1): Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap
- Day 3 (Part 2): Kaweah Gap to Moraine Lake
- Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
- Day 5: Junction Meadow to Crabtree Ranger Station
- Day 6: Crabtree Ranger Station to Guitar Lake
- Mt Whitney: The Tallest Peak in the Lower US
- Day 7: Guitar Lake, up Mount Whitney, and out to Whitney Portal