Day Two on the High Sierra Trail is an epic adventure that includes some of the most legendary sights and sounds of Sequoia National Park. It’s a solid 12-13 mile journey, but worth every single step.
Time: 6-7 hours
Elevation gain: 3,654 ft
When to go: July-Sept.
The HST drops down a set of switchbacks to a crazy bridge over Lone Pine Creek that gets you to the other side of the canyon. Below the bridge are the ruins of a previous bridge long since washed out via an avalanche.
Once across Lone Pine Creek, then you begin the long ascent over the Great Western Divide.
The first target is the Hamilton Lakes basin – a gorgeous lake surrounded by the mountains of the GWD. Crystal clear water and incredible scenery make this first ascent very worth it! On the way hike along several waterfalls and water crossings – some reasonably large. It’s good stream-crossing practice for more to come later.
Big Hamilton Lake is a great place for a quick rest – and even a swim if you’re so inclined. The campground there is quite popular – both for HSTs on a slower schedule or folks who are just doing an out-and-back from Crescent Meadow. Just simply a gorgeous alpine lake!
After a brief rest and photos, the time had come to ascend the Great Western Divide – our target, Precipice Lake followed by the Kaweah Gap at 10,700 feet. The next 2,000 vertical feet would be challenging and awesome! First, switchbacks up the Northern side of Hamilton Lake – very well constructed and very fair in their ascent degrees.
The first epic landmark on the ascent is the Hamilton Gorge – an incredibly steep gorge that runs down into Hamilton Lake. From the YouTube documentary on the HST overview, we were looking for the left over steel cable and cement pedestals that once held a crazy suspension bridge.
Today, a tunnel is blasted through solid rock and a thin single track leads you around the gorge. We were lucky that all the snow and ice had melted off just a few weeks before – as this gorge is impassable if the ice is still covering the trail–unless you are equipped for mountaineering.
Once across the gorge, the trail heads east and up, up, up…until you finally reach the epic Precipice Lake. This lake – made famous in Ansel Adams photos – sits at about 10,400 feet and creates an incredible two-way reflection.
On our day, a few clouds and remaining ice/snow didn’t give us the “Adams” view, but it was still gorgeous and a perfect lunch spot. And it was fun to navigate through some snow that covered parts of the trail – soft enough to not need microspikes but deep enough to warrant just a bit of caution while navigating. We even got to see some melting ice over the lake drop off and explode into the water!
After lunch and a break, we ascended the last 300 or so vertical feet to Kaweah Gap – the official pass over the Great Western Divide. That last bit of trail included quite a bit of water-on-trail runoff and another nice snow field. We even encountered three trail runners who had left Whitney Portal the night before and were already 50 miles in to a 40 hour HST East to West run – WOW!
When we reached the gap, it was truly one of the most epic views in all of Sequoia National Park – and perhaps the Sierras! The Big Arroyo opens up to this incredible view to the South – like something out of a grand Western Hollywood film. On the base of Mt. Stewart to the North is a plaque commemorating the first director of Sequoia National Park and the driving force behind the creation of the HST.
From Kaweah Gap the trail gently descends through the Big Arroyo for approximately 3 miles – one of the most beautiful descents of the entire trip. Nothing but gorgeous scenery, grass, rocks and trees in every direction – with an incredible stream and beautiful water features all the way down. There are several small crossings, but as you get close to the Big Arroyo campground, there was one large crossing – one where we simply couldn’t figure out a safe place to cross. It was deep, there were few rocks to step on, and the water was moving pretty rapidly. So, we headed down stream another 50-100 yards or so and found a much flatter, calmer flat rock area to cross – where by simply taking off our shoes and switching to sandals we could shuffle across safely and rejoin the trail on the other side.
From there, it was a short hike to Big Arroyo campground – a nice spot next to the river with a bear box, near an old ranger cabin that has been preserved as a historical landmark.
A northern wind dropped the temperature down to below freezing that night – so we got a bit of frost on the rain fly and our backpack drinking reservoirs froze up! But in the tent we were warm and toasty.