High Sierra Trail: Day Four, August 25

I hope you are enjoying this show-and-tell! Here’s how Day Four went…

As we got ready to hike out from Junction Meadow, I told Emily and Rene that I would continue hiking with them to Crabtree Meadow, a popular stop on the High Sierra Trail, John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikes. This was a change to my original plan to take a slight detour from the High Sierra Trail here in order to visit Lake South America in the Upper Kern Basin. As much as I wanted to explore the Upper Kern, I enjoyed hiking with my new friends and I was feeling a bit anxious about being alone on the trail again.

It was another beautiful, sunny morning in the Sierra and before we knew it we were at the junction to Lake South America. I think that seeing the actual sign (LAKE SOUTH AMERICA this way and CRABTREE MEADOW that way) brought me to a Robert Frost road-not-taken moment, and I decided at that moment that I would probably regret not following the spirit of adventure that led me there in the first place. So I told Emily and Rene that I wouldn’t be hiking with them to Crabtree after all. I got their contact info and we parted ways. Our schedules put us in the nearby town of Lone Pine on the same night three days later (August 28) so I hoped to run into them then.


Unnamed cascade on the Kern River.

Now I was on my own again, and more than a little nervous about it. I was leaving a heavily used trail for a more lightly used (and less well-marked) one. Pretty soon after I left my friends, the trail turned into this.

Where is the #%$@ trail?

There’s a trail under there. Somewhere.

Because of the abundance of snowmelt, the further up the Kern River I went, the more creeks I ran into, and some spots had so many creeks criss-crossing and zig-zagging every which way that the ferns and brush overgrew the trail and the ground was a muddy marsh. (Lots of mosquitoes, too.) Finding the trail was sometimes impossible.

Head net couture.

Me and my head net.

Luckily, most trails in the Sierra have some sort of “handrail”…an actual real-world surface feature that the trail follows, like a river or a valley or a mountain ridge. If you don’t see a trail, but you know that the trail follows the river north to its source, then you just follow the river north to its source and generally you’ll see a remnant of the trail somewhere along the way and you can pick it up again. In my case, the trail went north along the west bank of the Kern, but for much of the day I couldn’t see it. It took me a while (and several miles of hiking with wet feet along the muddy bank) to realize that what I thought was the Kern was actually the trail. There was so much water that the river spilled over into the trail and was trickling down it, too. Figuring this out didn’t save me from wet feet, but it could have saved me a lot of time worrying that I was going to get lost or something.

All in all, it was the most difficult day of hiking (more like bushwacking) on my trip so far, and by the time I got to Lake South America, I was a bit disheartened. The views fixed that real quick.

Alpine shooting-stars.

Alpine shooting-stars, Lake South America.

Lake South America.

It’s shaped like the continent, but you might not know from this photo.

I made camp on a sandy shelf about a quarter-mile below Lake South America, at about 11,900 feet elevation. It was a windy spot, and cold, but I was looking forward to spending the morning there. I had plans to get up early and perform a lhasang, so I ate a quick dinner and hit the sack.








High Sierra Trail: Day Three, August 24

I was looking forward to fishing at Moraine Lake, but it’s fishless as far as I could tell. And I’m not just saying that because I didn’t catch anything. I saw no fish rising at all, in the evening or morning hours when they usually would be feeding. It was very, very still. So, terrible fishing, but awesome for photos. The lake was like a giant mirror and I’m glad I was up to see the sunrise on the surrounding peaks.


First light on the Great Western Divide, view from Moraine Lake.

Today we met the Kern River. It was mostly downhill from Moraine Lake to Upper Funston Meadow, where the trail meets the Kern.

I was super excited to see the Kern River. I’ve kayaked parts of the Southern Kern, the part that goes through Kernville and further south to Lake Isabella. The Kern is the birthplace of the golden trout, California’s state fish and the most beautiful of our native trout, if you ask me.

From Upper Funston Meadow, the High Sierra Trail follows the Kern nine miles upstream along its banks. Just past Junction Meadow, the trail then turns east to start making its final approach to Mt. Whitney. My plan was to keep going straight at this junction, to trace the Kern all the way to its source and spend a day at Lake South America in the uppermost basin.

It was pretty thrilling when we got to this view of the Kern River Valley. I never really got used to seeing views like this, or the idea that I would be hiking all the way to the head of that valley and beyond.


Along the way to Junction Meadow, we had to ford many creeks feeding into the Kern. We were able to get across most of them without getting our feet wet, but there were a couple of wet crossings, including one that was the deepest one we’d had to cross yet. There was so much water in the creek that it started to spill over into the trail on the other side!

We got to Kern Hot Springs at just the right time…no one else was there, no line for the tub. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos there. I was way too busy enjoying the hot spring. There’s a gallery of photos by calipidder, located here…I know it doesn’t look like much, but trust me, it’s AWESOME. The water is super hot, so hot you have to cool it down with buckets of river water. And the valley it sits in is I didn’t get any photos at Junction Meadow either but there really isn’t much to see there. Lots of flat campsites though. Oh, and decent fishing but I didn’t catch anything. On Day Three I still felt really green with my Tenkara setup…I was still getting line tangles, tree snags, badly tied knots, lost flies. Most importantly, I was still really attached to the catching part when I should have been enjoying the fishing. One of our camp neighbors came over to ask me how the fishing was going, he had caught a few trout and was trying to make suggestions to me. I was annoyed by the whole conversation so I just gave up for the night. Ha ha!


BONUS: Emily and Rene on a cool log crossing

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Trail Food: Black and Blue Granola

Backpacking food can get boring fast, especially on a thru-hike. I never get tired of granola though. It’s easy to carry and you can change it up. You can have it cold with milk, you can add water and boil it to make a hot cereal, or you can eat it as is. You can use whatever grains, nuts and/or dried fruit that you enjoy. You can use flavored oils or unusual sweeteners. It’s a practical and perfect trail food.

I’m a huge fan of Christine and Tim Conners’ cookbook Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’. Their recipe for “Black and Blue Granola” caught my attention because it uses black raspberry jelly as the sweetener. I’ve never tried using jelly to sweeten granola, and I had doubts that it would set correctly. I’m here to confirm that it works really well!


Granola in action. Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park.

I like clumps in my granola, and there’s a trick to getting crunchy clumps. You take half of the oats called for in any granola recipe and you grind them to a coarse flour in a food processor. In my tweak to the Conners’ recipe, the flour and the jelly make a “glue” that binds the whole oats together into clumps. It really works, try it!


(Adapted from Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’)


  • 1/4 C sunflower oil
  • 1 18-ounce jar of blackberry jelly
  • 2 C slivered almonds
  • 5 oz rolled oats
  • 5 oz oat flour (or rolled oats coarsely ground in food processor)
  • 5 oz Grape Nuts cereal
  • 1 C shredded coconut (unsweetened)
  • 3 oz dried blueberries



  1. Warm the oil and jelly in a saucepan over low heat, stirring.
  2. Add almonds, cereal and coconut to the jelly mixture. Stir until everything is coated.
  3. Spread granola evenly in a jelly roll pan.
  4. Bake granola at 225° F until it’s nicely browned and dry, about 2 hours. Stir periodically to keep from baking unevenly. (If you’re looking for clumps, it’s important NOT to stir too much in the beginning, while the mixture is drying out.)
  5. Set aside to cool completely, add dried blueberries, stir. (If you’re eating this at home and you don’t think it’ll last longer than a week, add blueberries now. If you’re packing this for the trail, I suggest packing the blueberries separately and adding them when you eat it. The moisture from the blueberries will take some of the crunch away from your granola.)
  6. Divide granola mixture evenly among 12 (1-pint) ziplock bags.
  7. Pack optional dry milk for the trail.

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High Sierra Trail: Day Two, August 23

I was excited for my first full day of being out there, away from roads and campgrounds and amenities, so I was up early. (Or, I thought I was. By the time I hiked out of Upper Hamilton Lake, I think there was only one group left breaking down their camp. Early for Los Angeles, let’s say.)

Getting up early, before the sun comes up, has its advantages on a thru-hike. You get to have the trail to yourself for a while. You get to enjoy the sunrise. The wildlife are up before the sun comes up, or rise with the sun…birds in particular will start singing when the sun comes over the horizon, like clockwork. Better and more reliable than your iPhone alarm if you ask me.


Morning light reflected in Upper Hamilton Lake.

The climb out of Upper Hamilton Lake is steeper than the climb getting to it from Bearpaw Meadow, that’s for sure.  The High Sierra Trail here crosses the Great Western Divide, a large north-south mountain range that is part of the Sierra Nevada. The Great Western Divide separates the drainages of the Kaweah, Kern and Kings Rivers. West of this Divide, all creeks drain into the Kaweah River, which used to end in Tulare Lake in the Central Valley of California. Most of the water from the Kaweah is now diverted for Central Valley farmland irrigation…very little if any ends up in Tulare. East of the Divide, creeks either end up in the Kings River or the Kern River. (The Kings-Kern Divide, another sub-range of the Sierra Nevada, determines which creeks go where) The trail crosses the Great Western Divide at Kaweah Gap at 10,700 feet elevation. Upper Hamilton Lake is at 8,235 feet elevation. Long story short, I had a lot of climbing to do today.

Thankfully, you get to look down on the lake as you go, enjoying the reflections of light on the rocks and trees. The Sierra juniper (juniperus occidnetalis) is predominant here.


I love this tree, and it has a long and honored tradition of use as an offering in Shambhala Buddhism. It seems able to grow anywhere. Like a climber on El Capitan, it clings to the most impossible and precarious cliffs. In fact, it seems perfectly happy and comfortable there.


Junipers on Valhalla.

I’ll have more to say about them later, but I slow down when I pass through their neighborhoods. They’re awesome.


Juniperus occidentalis, “Sierra Juniper”.

The trail switchbacks (zig-zags) up the steep Valhalla ridge before continuing east toward the Kaweah Gap. At one point it goes around a very steep gully via a man-made (dynamited) tunnel through the mountainside. It’s pretty unique for a national park. We try not blow things up nowadays.


The tunnel on High Sierra Trail.

Just before Kaweah Gap is Precipice Lake, probably most famous from the Ansel Adams photograph. It’s a highlight on High Sierra Trail, for sure.


“Frozen Lake and Cliffs”, Ansel Adams

In this record snow year, however, Precipice Lake looks very different from the Ansel Adams photo.


(Actually, I guess it doesn’t look all that different.)

The lake was completely snowbound on all sides…it would have been very difficult and risky to walk to its shore. There was still, at the end of August, quite a lot of frozen ice on the surface. I had intended to take a dip after having breakfast next to the lake; as it was, I couldn’t even dip my toes in.

Emily and Rene, a couple of hikers I had seen at Upper Hamilton Lake the night before, were sitting there contemplating the snow when I got to Precipice Lake. The trail continued to climb on the northern (left) side of the lake, where the trail seemed to disappear under some snow. I ate my granola and pretended I knew how I was going to get around the snow and/or figure out where the trail was. (This strategy works for me in general. Eat your granola and someone will come along to tell you where the trail is, how to get across the snow, how to get across the creek, etc.)


Trail goes over the hill on the left, under that snow. I think.

Emily took charge, hiking through the drift and locating the trail, kicking in steps that Rene and I could follow. It was nice hiking with these two. On my own, I can be lazy and easily distracted. It was good to keep up with someone else’s schedule for a couple of days.

More snow means more water, which means more wildflowers. We saw lots of wildflowers on the way to Kaweah Gap.


Lilium kelleyanum, “Kelley’s Lily”. Likes creeksides. I didn’t see many of these on my trip.

I decided to hike with Emily and Rene to Moraine Lake. By the time we got there, we were pretty tired, having hiked about 12 miles in total, and quite a bit of it uphill.


Emily and Rene, just past the Kaweah Gap.


High Sierra Trail: Day One, August 22

My first day on the High Sierra Trail I hiked about 14 miles. Not bad for a start! With seven days of food (the most I could possibly stuff into my bear canister) my total pack weight was coming in at almost exactly 35 pounds. Heavier than I’m used to carrying, but lighter than most folks on the trail I think. For me, the greatest contributor to pack weight on the High Sierra Trail/John Muir Trail was food…I would usually go seven days without a resupply so at the most I would carry a week of food, and you have to figure in the weight of the bear canister, which is required on both trails. My bear canister with seven days of food weighs about 10 pounds.

And I actually couldn’t fit seven days of food into the bear can…only five. I would need to eat all of my food from Day One and either hang my food for Day Two in a tree or find a bear box.  Luckily, finding bear boxes on the High Sierra Trail isn’t an issue…seems like they are EVERYWHERE.

John joined me for the first 6 miles or so. We took a photo at the trailhead.


The trailhead is in Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park, and as far as I know the High Sierra Trail is the only long trail where you start out surrounded by sequoia gigantea, the giant sequoia. Not for long though…I think you exit the sequoia grove before you’ve even gone a mile. Once you leave the giant sequoias behind, the forest is dominated by tall lodgepole pines.

The first ten miles of trail are easy. You ascend gradually along a valley wall, following the course of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River which lies so far below you can’t really see or hear it.

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I passed a bunch of ripe thimbleberry bushes. Thimbleberries are similar to raspberries in look and taste. I hope I left enough for the bears to enjoy…they were so good I couldn’t resist stopping and sampling every time I saw one of these.

Before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye to John. I got really nervous then. It was scary, knowing that I was now going to be on my own in the wilderness for over a month. See you back in Los Angeles, John! (As it turns out, I would see him again before then. That story later.)


2_2_BearpawAt right around the ten-mile mark, the trail passes through Bearpaw Meadow and the High Sierra Camp there. There are nine High Sierra Camps…seven of them are in Yosemite and two (including Bearpaw) are in Sequoia. If you’re not in the mood to pack in your own food and shelter, these camps provide meals and comfortable lodging. Some of them (particularly the ones in Yosemite) are so popular that you have to enter a lottery months in advance to snag a reservation. Bearpaw has a reservation system, but it’s almost as popular as the ones in Yosemite. As I passed through camp, I met a bunch of hikers headed to Hamilton Lakes, where I planned to make my first camp. I asked about the food and accomodations at Bearpaw, and everyone was really happy with both. I’m staying there someday for sure.

After Bearpaw Meadow, the trail gets down to business. It’s six more miles to Upper Hamilton Lake, and the first 1.5 miles of that are downhill. Then you climb 800 feet in 4.5 miles. Not severe, but for reference the first ten miles of trail climb 1000 miles. I definitely felt every foot of gain…I had to stop quite a bit and by the time I got to Upper Hamilton Lake the sun was already going down. I made camp quickly, ate my dinner and found a bear box to store my food. Got to do some fishing too…caught a couple of fat rainbow trout before I hit the sack.

Camping in Sequoia National Park, August 20-21

I had originally planned to rent a car into Sequoia National Park for my High Sierra Trail thru-hike, but good buddy John offered to join me with his truck and teardrop trailer. He loves that trailer, he’ll take any opportunity to spend time in the outdoors with it. I’m surprised he hasn’t given it a name yet. Any ideas?


We got to Lodgepole Campground on Sunday, August 20th after a bit of a SNAFU with the trailer…we tried taking it through the south park entrance but you can’t take that steep road with any vehicles longer than 22 feet. We had to take a huge detour, backtracking all the way through Three Rivers to get to the west park entrance. (Take note, all you folks with trailers and RVs and such.)

My plan was to pick up a walk-in permit on Monday to start the High Sierra Trail on Tuesday…besides that I had no plans and a whole day to explore. I was happy to have John along with me, and Lodgepole Campground makes a great base camp for any Sequoia adventure. It has a store, a grill, showers, laundry…you name it. I got to enjoy civilization for a few hours longer.

I also got to fine tune the pitch of my new tent, the Sierra Designs High Route FL1. Designed by Andrew Skurka, it utilizes hiking poles as support.  Not the ultralightest tent out there, but I got a deal on it and it looked like an easy setup.


Sierra Designs High Route FL1.

I couldn’t pick up my permit till 1:00 PM Monday afternoon, so John and I did the short hike to Tokopah Falls in the morning. This is a very pretty hike on a nicely maintained trail that starts in the Lodgepole Campground. If you’re camping there, it’s something you should do.

At the end of the hike you’re surrounded by steep walls with the falls cascading down from above. Very pretty, like I said.

We headed back to camp to pick up my wilderness permit. Did I mention that Lodgepole Campground also has a wilderness permit station and a post office? It really does have it all.

Getting a permit was no problem. (It helped that I was starting on a weekday.) With that out of the way, I was able to relax and let go of the planning stage. I suggested we tour Crystal Cave, a beautiful system of caverns that’s part of Sequoia.


Crystal Cave, Sequoia National Park.

The tour is about an hour long and the cave is a stunner! I was hoping to see a bat or two, but I didn’t see any.

Our cave tour done, we headed back to camp for dinner. We grilled steaks and John prepped a salad and some steamed vegetables on the side. It would be my last real food for over a week so I enjoyed the heck out of it.


After dinner, I spent some time writing in my journal and checking/re-checking my gear. Tomorrow I would be starting my hike! This was a long time coming. My stomach was all butterflies.

Ready or not…


Me, on the way down Mt. Whitney Trail, looking toward Lone Pine.

Mt. Whitney Dayhike, August 11

In August, my buddy John invited me to join him and new friends Alex and Bartho on a dayhike to the summit of Mt. Whitney, via the Mt. Whitney Trail. I’ve attempted to summit Mt. Whitney before but bad weather turned me around, so I jumped at the chance to try again. It would be a good warm-up for my High Sierra/John Muir Trail trip, set to begin two weeks later. It would also be an opportunity to see if I could avoid any symptoms of altitude sickness by taking prescribed medication.

I get sick pretty consistently at elevations over 10,000 feet if I don’t have 24 hours to acclimate and sleep. We would be driving up to Lone Pine on a Thursday night, camping at Whitney Portal (elev. 8,374 feet) and summitting the next day. You can avoid getting sick by sleeping at or above 10,000 feet, so a night at Whitney Portal doesn’t quite do the job. My doctor agreed to give me a prescription for Diamox, a medication that is often given to patients who need to work or visit high-altitude locations for work or vacation on short notice. It needs to be taken 24 hours before exposure to high-altitude so I started taking it on Thursday morning before I left Los Angeles.

When John and I got to Whitney Portal, Alex was already there setting up his tent. Bartho got there a bit later. We planned to start hiking by 4 AM…Mt. Whitney Trail is mostly unshaded, so it’s good to do as much of it as possible before sunrise. Sun can get pretty hot in the southeastern Sierra Nevada. Since it was already around 7pm when we finished making camp we didn’t socialize much before bed. There would be plenty of time to get to know each other on our all-day hike anyway.

In the morning, we packed up quickly and headed out.  As I was pulling the last of my food from the bear box, Alex called out, “Hey Ed, do you realize there’s a bear standing right behind you?” I turned to see a young-ish bear cub on all fours looking at me and waiting patiently for me to leave my food for an unguarded moment. I shooed him away by banging my hiking poles on the bear box. I probably woke up the rest of Whitney Portal Campground in the process.

Primula Jeffreyi (Sierra Shootingstar)

Primula Jeffreyi (Sierra Shootingstar)

We made good time getting to Trail Camp, which sits at around 12,000 feet elevation and halfway to the summit in terms of mileage. Bartho was definitely the fastest hiker, then Alex, then John and I.  I’m not necessarily a slow hiker, but I am easily distracted by my camera, by trees, flowers, rocks…I tend to stop and savor.  There was lots of snowmelt so water was not a problem. Luckily for me, that means lots of wildflowers too.

I felt pretty good going up the “99 Switchbacks”.  (Supposedly there are 99 of them. I tried counting them on the way down but got to more than 99.) At the top of those is Trail Crest, a low saddle on the Mt. Whitney Ridge. This is where the trail enters Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park and where many people drop their heavy packs to make the last 1.8 miles or so to the summit a little easier. I still didn’t feel any symptoms from the altitude (now at over 13,000 feet) but I was definitely feeling the lack of oxygen.

View of Trail Camp from the “99 Switchbacks”

I slowly picked my way through the rocky trail to the Whitney Summit, having to take lots of breaks. At this point, you’re on the “backside” of Mt. Whitney…I hadn’t seen the view to the west before, and it was beautiful, so that kept me going. But still, it was probably one of the most difficult trail sections I’ve done. I was beat, and by the time the Mount Whitney Hut became visible (officially, it’s called the Smithsonian Institution Shelter) I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude as well.

John approaching the Mt. Whitney summit.

John approaching the Mt. Whitney summit.

John and I did most of the hike together and by this time Alex and Bartho had already been at the top for a few minutes.  (In fact, John and I ran into Bartho already descending when we were making our final ascent…that guy is fast!)  John and Alex wanted to hang out at the summit, take photos for a bit.  I just wanted to lay down and shut my eyes and hope for the creeping nausea and headache to abate.  I did get a pic though.

Me at the hut on Mt. Whitney, trying not to look sick.

Me at the hut on Mt. Whitney, trying not to look sick.

I do think the Diamox helped, but it couldn’t get rid of all of the symptoms of altitude sickness…at least, not in my case. At any rate, I’m certain I would have been in worse shape if I hadn’t taken anything at all. Acclimation is strongest when you sleep at or above 10,000 feet the night before a hike, and/or when you exercise at altitude the day before.  I did neither, but was still able to summit.  Credit the Diamox.

It was sunny and warm at the summit. I found a flat rock large enough for me to lay down and spread out. I covered my face with my hat and rested. When John and Alex called out that they were ready to descend, I felt better. I was looking forward to 8 miles of downhill.

Alex and John at the top.

Alex and John at the top.

About Alex: having extra permits, he invited John and I to join him and Bartho on this trip. He had been preparing and training for this hike for months, and I’m glad I got to meet him.  He’s a strong hiker.

The way back down to Whitney Portal is just the reverse of the way up. So, not much more to say about the second half of this hike except that it went a lot quicker going down. And of course the sunlight was different and I was looking east instead of west so I saw things differently and took photographs of views I didn’t notice before.  This lesson would come up again on my High Sierra/John Muir Trail trip…it’s important to stop and look behind you once in a while.  You don’t want to miss anything.

Me, on the way down Mt. Whitney Trail, looking toward Lone Pine.

Me, on the way down Mt. Whitney Trail, looking toward Lone Pine.

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