High Sierra Trail Day 3 (Part 2) – Kaweah Gap to Moraine Lake
Sequoia National Park, California
The longest 2.2 miles ever…
From Kaweah Gap, the High Sierra Trail began a long, gradual descent through drastically different terrain going from the the barren alpine zone to a flourishing tundra. During the last few ice ages, a massive glacier plowed through the ramparts of the Great Western Divide and Kaweah Peaks Ridge carving out a clean, U-shaped valley with the Big Arroyo River running through the middle.
After joining the creek, the trail continued down nearly 3 miles where the small woodlands of whitebank and lodgepole pine signaled a return to the subalpine zone. Then, not too long after crossing Big Arroyo, the trail entered a much drier forest of lodgepole and scattered foxtail pines before arriving at the backpacker camp (bear lockers) and trail junction; right went towards Little Five Lakes and Black Rock Pass and left would take us up the Chagoopa Plateau and on to Moraine Lake.
Our original itinerary had us camping at Big Arroyo for the night, but after staying at one of the most beautiful campsites any of us had ever seen the night before at Hamilton Lake, the idea of staying in the middle of a dried-out forest didn’t get us too excited. Despite feeling the affects of the mid-day head, it was still fairly early in the day and in thinking that the final 6-ish miles (turned out to be 8+…) to Moraine Lake wouldn’t be “too bad,” we decided to carry on.
Heading left at the junction, the trail immediately began to climb the Chagoopa Plateau through the incredibly dry forest; That composition and dryness caused by the rain shadowing of the Great Western Divide. This geographic barrier stalls incoming Pacific storms causing them to drop the majority of their moisture west of the divide so once the storm is beyond the divide, it contains relatively little moisture to drop and nourish plant life.
As we continued to climb, views back west over the forested valley at the Great Western Divide were stunning, but unfortunately this section marked my low-point of the entire trail. We had already gone pretty far that day, including racing up to Precipice Lake to catch the early morning light, and the climb up the Chagoopa Plateau was a steady, long, and monotonous ascent. I put in my headphones on and for the rest of the tedious miles, just put my head down and trudged along.
Eventually the trail leveled off and came to a junction where the High Sierra Trail actually went left, following a more direct route across the plateau. We took a right, heading for to Moraine Lake. Now I’m not saying it’s wrong, but if the sign at that junction was correct and Moraine Lake was in fact 2.2 miles in, it was easily the longest 2.2 miles ever created. I was ready to just drop by the time I got to camp.
Tips for this Section of Trail:
- Fill up on water as you cross Big Arroyo. The section of trail between that crossing and the top of the plateau was the driest hottest we saw all week. A lot of creeks had dried up (Aug 31st).
- The ascent up the Chagoopa Plateau was deceivingly tough. Don’t underestimate it.
Moraine Lake Backpacker Camp:
- Located in a heavily wooded area
- Lots of nice, flat, soft tent spots
- Multiple bear lockers for storage
- No pit toilet… bury it and pack out your paper!!
- Fire rings available (Check for restrictions!)
- I didn’t look around the Big Arroyo camp too much and although it was nice, it seemed “meh” for photo ops. It seemed like it was just entrenched in trees.
- The whole Big Arroyo valley was pretty stunning, at least above tree line.
- Climbing up Chagoopa had some great views back towards the Great Western Divide. If you stay at Big Arroyo, try hiking another 30-ish minutes or so past camp (left at the junction) and you could get some amazing views west at sunset. This would be a big effort to capture in golden light if you’re camping at Moraine.
- Moraine Lake was beautiful, both sunrise and sunset. The best part was the lake was literally steps from my tent.
- If you have the energy when you’re at Moraine Lake, continue on trail a little ways and you’ll find some pretty beautiful meadows looking north towards Mt Kaweah
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