Hamilton Lakes Backpack: June 25-28, 2020

Hamilton Lakes Backpack: June 25-28, 2020

The Hamilton Lakes in-and-out trail in Sequoia National Park begins at the Crescent Meadow Trailhead and follows the first 15 miles of the High Sierra trail, where it winds its way through towering old-growth forests, over streams of glacial runoff, and up into the ice-carved peaks that surround Hamilton Lake. The trail delighted us with its picturesque views of the snow-capped peaks along the Great Western Divide, relief from the Summer sun thanks to a canopy of pines, numerous multicolored wildflowers and iridescent succulents, a surprisingly warm Lake Hamilton perfect for a midday swim, and of course, the tranquility of the Sierra backcountry we love so much.

Our initial plans for this hike were slightly altered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but thanks to quick thinking by our fantastic trip leader, Chris Fava, the hike was able to continue as planned. 

As most of the trailhead camping grounds were closed in Sequoia National Park, in order to maintain social distancing guidelines, our group met at the Crescent Meadow Trailhead Thursday evening and prepared to spend the night in our cars in order to acclimate ourselves to a higher elevation. Before dinner, on a walk around the trailhead to stretch our legs, we ran into a mother bear and her two cubs who seemed unbothered by our presence while scavenging for yummy termites. Later we enjoyed our dinner surrounded by three curious deer, interested in our meals, before nodding off in the back of our cars under the starry sky.

Friday morning, the fourth member of our group joined up with us at the trailhead and we set off through the dense forest of ferns and gargantuan ancient conifers. Past the meadows and undergrowth, the trail jutted out along the side of the Middle Fork Kaweah River valley with panoramic views of the Great Western Divide and Castle Rocks in front of us. Continuing on we dipped in and out of pine-filled forests and rocky paths adorned with wildflowers until we stopped at _________ River for lunch - one of the numerous streams we crossed that you can filter water from. Feeling refueled we traveled onwards towards Buck Creek, the first potential stop for camp, but upon finding the campsite full we decided to push up the set of switchbacks that lead to Bearpaw Meadow. 

During a normal Summer, Bearpaw Meadow offers hikers a reprieve from the 11-mile day with beer and grub, but given the state of the world, the small restaurant was closed as well as most of the water spigots around the campsite. However, thanks to a tip provided by a friendly hiker we found a small stream running through camp along with some pesky mosquitoes. After settling in and lighting a fire (Bearpaw camp allows small campfires) the mosquitos left us alone for the evening as we prepared for the uphill trek the following day.

Saturday morning we broke camp early and set out onwards down the small descent towards Lone Pine Creek. At the creek, we crossed a large wooden bridge spanning the rocky canyon, where the old steel bridge, washed away in a flood many years ago, lies mangled on the rocks below. After a short break, we began the four-mile ascent towards the lakes, passing over the top of the Hamilton Creek waterfall that joins with Lone Pine Creek deep in the valley below us. As we entered the hanging valley formed by glaciers over two million years ago (which makes this a young valley, geologically speaking) it was almost as if we had entered a stadium carved into the rock itself, as we were surrounded on all sides by lofty peaks spanning towards the sky. On the right, the 2,000-foot high granite face called Valhalla towered over us, while the peaks of the Great Western Divide, including Mount Stewart (12,205 ft) and Eagle Scout Peak (12,005 ft), stood in front of us and flanked our right. After gawking at the dramatic landscape we set up our tents and took a dip in the surprisingly warm lake, washing away the dirt from the day's hikes. Since we arrived early in the morning, we had plenty of time to laze around and enjoy our evening, snacking, napping, and reading under the peaks of the Range of Light. We made our dinner by lakeside and watched the sunset as it cast the whole valley in soft pink light.

Sunday morning we packed up camp as multiple groups of hikers, on the full 70-mile trek to Mount Whitney, slowly climbed the switchbacks up the granite surrounding us. After leaving the lakes and reaching the waterfall overlooking the Middle Fork Kaweah River Valley, a clear morning allowed us to see into the Central Valley and beyond to the foothills of the Coastal Range nearly 100 miles away. With a drive back to Southern California at the front of our minds, we hustled back to the trailhead, taking in the backcountry as long as we could on our final day. We arrived back at the trailhead at 4:30 pm and said our goodbyes and returned back to quarantine in our respective cities. 

While Hamilton Lakes was a bit crowded in the evening on the weekend, as thru-hikers poured in to make the long trek to Whitney, most of the hike offers the seclusion of the wilderness most backpackers are seeking. It also showcases the gentle beauty of the Western Sierra and a glimpse of the drama of the Eastern Sierra. Thanks to a wonderful leader and an equally wonderful group, this trip was the perfect way to wipe away the stay-at-home blues. 

-Peter Rossi

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