High Sierra Trail Day 4 – Kern Canyon: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
Sequoia National Park, California
After a strenuous 14-mile day and based on how I felt at dinner the night before, I was expecting to barely be able to walk on our fourth day on the High Sierra Trail. But as my body had seemed to simply accept the prior morning – ‘Well, okay. This is just life now.’ I was actually feeling pretty good, which considering we had another 13+ miles to go that day, was a very good thing.
Leaving camp at Moraine Lake, the trail meandered east, south of Funston Creek and after a quick mile or so, we crossed the creek and rejoined the official High Sierra Trail at Sky Parlor Meadow. From there, the trail took a long, arching switchback through recovering forest as it transitioned from dense lodgepole into open Jeffrey Pine Forest. In the 4 miles between Sky Parlor and the top of the Chagoopa Plateau down into Kern Canyon and Kern River, the trail dropped an intense, but beautiful, 2,375 feet. It was moderate at first, but the last section was a series of tedious steep, rocky switchbacks.
The High Sierra Trail continued north (bang a left at the intersection) as it dropped into a marshy area beyond the junction and made its way along the rocky scree fields through a forest of Jeffrey Pine and incense-cedar.
We had read to be aware of rattlesnakes throughout the canyon, particularly during the mid-morning warm-up leading into the afternoon’s heat… the exact time of day we began making our way up the canyon. Within our first 10-minutes as the trail crossed the first rocky scree field, we heard a ‘rattle.’ We never actually saw any snakes, but there’s nothing like hearing one real close by to put you on edge for a little while…
1.8 miles up Kern Canyon, we got to Kern Hot Springs, a 115° natural spring, where a crude cement bathtub was constructed to catch the water. We were looking forward to this point all morning, but upon arrival, we quickly realized that when hiking through what felt to be 100° heat, a 115° bath was far pretty from tempting. Luckily, there’s a natural pool along the Kern River that mixes the icy-cold river water with the spring runoff, creating a perfect warm bathtub to sooth those aching muscles. There are campsites right at the hot spring, but it was still too early in the day to stop.
Kern Canyon runs almost due north and south for about 25 miles along the Kern Canyon fault and for the remaining 8.2 miles from the hot springs to camp at Junction Meadow, the trail covered a variety of terrain as it continued up the glaciated valley along the eastern bank of the river. Slowing gaining 1,335, we traveled over soft sand along the river bed, rocky scree fields, flooded marshes, and sunny forests of Lodgepole Pines and occasional Western Junipers. Even though this section was relatively flat, in the blistering mid-day heat it was still tough and after the final creek crossing at Wallace Creek, camp at Junction Meadow was an incredibly welcomed sight.
Not much of a write-up because to be honest, this section was a little “meh” to me. It was pretty for sure, but it was a long day and this section seemed more like a means to an end.
Tips for this Section of Trail:
- There are plenty of creek crossings the whole way so water shouldn’t be much of a concern.
- Backpacker camps are available at both Upper Funston Meadow and the hot springs. I did not see Upper Funston (but I read mosquitoes can be real bad), but the hot springs looked nice with bear lockers and a pit toilet. That could be a real nice stopping point if you find yourself there at the right time of day as the additional 8 miles to Junction Meadow are pretty monotonous.
Junction Meadow Backpacker Camp:
- Very forested among the Jeffery Pines
- 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 fire restrictions!)
- If you get an early-morning start from Moraine Lake, you’ll quickly find yourself in some beautiful meadows looking north towards Mt Kaweah, which could be stunning in the early-morning light. It’s a tough decision… the meadows could be beautiful at sunrise, but so was Moraine Lake.
- There are some amazing overlooks of the southern end of Kern Canyon as you drop into the switchbacks after Sky Parlor.
- With Junction Meadow, heavily wooded, I didn’t see too many opportunities to shoot right from camp (so I didn’t…), but I regret not heading up trail another 10-minutes or so. After the junction with Colby Pass, the HST starts climbing and gives way pretty quickly to some beautiful views back to Kaweah peaks Ridge.
- Junction Meadow is also right on the Kern River so I’m sure there are some opportunities there… I opted to sit at camp though.
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