Hamilton Lake

Kaweah Mile 72 to Hamilton Lake to Middle Fork Trailhead
(19 miles, +5,000/-8,000 feet).


Just wow.

Today was one of the most epic days of hiking I have ever experienced.

I’m not sure I want to repeat some parts of it, but I feel really psyched to have achieved a crazy-hard goal and to have seen the extreme beauty of the spring Sierra.

After an hour of bushwhacking last night I set up camp and collapsed.

I had no idea what was coming!

The next morning the eastern sky brightened over my objective: the High Sierra Trail where it crosses the Kaweah just above some beautiful falls.  I still was not sure how I was going to get up there, so I was eager to get some open views.

Looking towards the falls

Ultimately it took me 3.5 hours to travel about 1.5 miles.  That’s about 5 times slower than my normal trail pace!

The willows got even thicker and increasingly I had no choice but to wade through them.  Add to that the steepening walls, and you get a recipe for slow.

My nemesis

I was grateful for the occasional boulder or snow field where I made much better time.

My friend

I stayed pretty high on the southern wall of the canyon.  Sometimes I would look down at the floor near the river and it seemed like it might be open down there.  But the brownish-red tint usually meant willows, and if anything they seemed to be more difficult on flatter terrain.

I know it looks better down there but who knows?
Lone Pine Creek
Trying to stay at the top of the willow field
The High Sierra Trail is that line through the middle
Alta peeks over Point 10,600+

As I neared the falls it became increasingly apparent that climbing up on the south side of the Kaweah was not in my skillset.  I could not see anything that looked easier than class 4.

I would have to cross the Kaweah.

And without a bridge!

I decided to make for the top of a lower set of falls where I hoped to find a calm flat part.

One more set of willows to cross before the lower falls
On top of the lower falls

I started bouldering up next to the river, checking every 100 feet or so to see if I could find a place to cross.

Then finally I found a place, not far below the upper falls.  A log got me halfway across and the next ten feet were clear, not too fast, and only thigh deep.

View from my crossing point
A very helpful log
Not too bad at all!

When I got to the other side, I found someone else’s lost water bottle.  In the name of making amends with the universe for my own unintended wilderness plastic deposit, I picked it up and packed it out.  (Now if only I could find someone’s peanut butter jar!)

Point 9745 on the south side of the Middle Fork
My route was mainly above treeline to the left

A series of ledges and slabs took me most of the way up to the High Sierra Trail.  At one point I did a class 3 move to avoid another 40 feet of willows.  And then before I knew it I was done.

Beautiful, gorgeous, willow-free trail

Before sitting down to take a break I wanted to make sure I could cross the Kaweah yet again above the upper falls.  But this part was easy.  Two logs even helped me to keep from getting my feet wet again.

Kaweah log crossing on the High Sierra Trail

I took a much needed break a few feet past the crossing, munching on Triscuits and beholding Valhalla.

A beautiful place to rest

After my break I continued on the trail up towards Hamilton Lake.  By about 7900 feet the trail was completely covered in snow.

Heading up to lower Hamilton Lake

One thing I really love about walking in the snow is that it gives you the impression that no one has ever been here before.  A smooth white canvas waiting for a solitary line of footprints.

Just me
The inlet of Lower Hamilton Lake

The hike from the first to the second lake traverses on a very steep slope.  I did not take any pictures because I was concentrating on taking careful steps.  In hindsight I probably should have put my crampons on (I definitely put them on for the descent!), but there were only two spots icy enough to make it seem necessary and I managed those in my trail runners.

When I arrived at Hamilton Lake proper, I began to cry.

I just can’t believe it
Swtichbacks of the High Sierra Trail above the lake
A full panorama

Once I regained my composure I realized I should probably get going.  The sun was strong and I had already noticed an increase in postholing on the way up.  As I made my way back down I took in the fantastic Valhalla towers that loomed above.

Ok you on the left
Now you on the right
Now one both together
One more for good measure!

With crampons on my feet I felt more confident on the way down and I was able to snap photos.

Looking back on my traverse
Winding down past the lower lake outlet

By the time I got back to the falls my feet were soaked, so I skipped the log and just waded across.

Easy if your feet are already wet

My next objective was Bearpaw Meadow.  I was a little worried about lingering snow on the trail, but it was fine.  The toughest spots were a steep couloir that had plenty of runout if I slipped down about 20 feet or so and some snow on trail down to the Lone Pine bridge.  But the snow was soft and it was easy to plunge step in just my trail runners.

The steep couloir
View down valley
Looking back on the falls
Water everywhere!
A panorama with the falls
A lovely tree on the brink
Points 10,600+ and 11,225 loom above Lone Pine valley
Sketchy snow section on trail
Another view down the Middle Fork valley
The Lone Pine bridge
View up from the bridge
Last view of the falls
OK, I lied — this is the last view of the falls!

By 1:30pm I was in Bearpaw Meadow, a High Sierra Camp that was closed for the season.

All boarded up
A bowling-ball-sized Bearpaw fungus

At this point I had to decide what I wanted to do.  I had about 6 hours until sundown and it was about 14 miles back to the car.  That’s faster than my normal pace, but a lot of it is downhill so I decided to go for it.

Snow stayed with me on and off down to Little Bearpaw Meadow.

Easy snow sections
Little Bearpaw Meadow
Cliff Creek watershed 
Transition back to chaparral
Alta Peak

It got very hot and very muggy as I descended.  Add to that the absence of any breeze whatsoever and you get swarms of thirsty gnats who enjoy spending time with you (even if you don’t enjoy spending time with them!).  So for the last five miles I donned my headnet, put some tunes on my headphones, and picked up the pace.

A gnatty escape
Bye Sierra, see you soon!
Last view of Castle Rocks

By 7pm I was back at the car and by 12:30am back at home in San Diego.

It was a really quick trip but I really liked the challenge.  I don’t think I would plan to bushwhack through willows again, but I’m really happy I tried it (though my battered shins aren’t!).  At least now I know what it’s like if I ever find myself in a situation where it’s necessary I’ll be able to do it.  And it was a real confidence builder to be able to routefind my way up to the HST, do some class 3 moves, and use my snow equipment to traverse steep slopes, all while traveling solo and trying to minimize risk.

I can’t wait for my next adventure!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. susieant says:

    I was gonna ask if you did any guided trips. But after this last post I think I’ll live vicariously through your hikes. Gorgeous pics. Great write up. Been following your adventures for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arthur Kleven says:


    Liked by 1 person

    1. JimmyJam says:

      It was! Can’t wait for our July trip!


  3. “The sun was strong and I had already noticed an increase in postholing on the way up.” What is “postholing”?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JimmyJam says:

      Postholing happens in snow that is melting. Your foot punches through the upper surface to a cavity below that can be 1 inch to ?? feet deep depending on the depth of the snow pack and your location. It’s especially likely near rocks and fallen logs where the melting happens faster and creates more cavities below. It can be dangerous if you posthole onto a sharp branch or just fall hard enough to hurt your leg. But it can also be helpful if the postholing is only a few inches because it allows you to easily create steps in the snow when you are traversing a steep slope.


  4. Jawbone says:

    FABULOUS POST! One of my favorites so far. Wonderful photos and stories!

    Liked by 1 person

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