2015 High Sierra Trail to Kaweah Basin

This trip was a meetup for members of a backpacking forum, many who had not met each other before. The location was a beautiful pristine lake, off the beaten path in the remote Kaweah Basin in the middle of Sequoia NP, requiring at least 3 days travel from the closest trailheads for most mortals.

Day 1: After a long drive from the Bay Area, my hike began in Crescent Meadows under partially cloudy skies. By about 2pm, occasional sprinkles fell and thunder rumbled in the distance. The clouds continued to build as the day progressed and rain became more frequent as I arrived at Buck Creek. After I set up my tent, the rain, lightning, and thunder escalated quickly and the creek flow suddenly turned torrential.

Day 2: I had underestimated the day’s hike and struggled up the grade in slow-motion with my full pack. The trail was overgrown in many areas. At Hamilton Lake, I could see that the trail led into the dense clouds/fog up the hill. The day was grey, wet, and dreary. Precipice Lake was enshrouded in fog so I wasn’t even able to see this lake that Ansel Adams immortalized. Rain fell steadily as I headed towards Kaweah Gap and I felt relieved when Nine Lakes became visible. I set up camp at the southern shore of the heart-shaped lake. I had planned to meet Oleander at this lake today but as the rain continued to fall, I decided to look for her in the morning.

Day 3: It was still raining when I woke at 5:30am. I came to the realization that these were not your typical summer thunderstorms that quickly come and go away, leaving clear skies in the morning. I contemplated staying inside the tent all day if it continued to rain. But the rain finally stopped at 6am. I found Oleander camped up the hill at the other side of the lake. Though our plan was to go over Pants Pass to get into the Picket Guard basin today, Oleander suggested rerouting down the High Sierra Trail to the lower Kern where we could enter the Kaweah basin from the east, thus avoiding the steep, slippery, unstable wet granite on Pants Pass. Even though this would require more miles, it would also get us to lower elevation and hopefully away from the storm. We traveled across the Chagoopa Plateau and down to the Kern, camping at Kern Hot Springs along with many others. I didn’t mind the ~19 mile day but was sad to lose the elevation I had worked so hard to gain, and will have to re-gain. The air was warm and humid in the valley and we did not encounter any more rain.

Early morning at Nine Lakes

Chagoopa Plateau

Great Western Divide

Kern Valley

Day 4: It was a luxury to be able to soak my sore muscles in the hot springs in the morning. After taking advantage of the first sunny morning to dry some of our items, we continued along the Kern, crossing many of its tributaries as we headed towards Junction Meadow. We could see dark clouds looming ominously over the higher basins to the west. As we got on the Colby trail, the rain intensified. Then the hail fell. We sped up the trail, stopped to seek shelter under some sparse trees and finally retreated back down the trail since the cold rain/hail did not relent. We quickly set up our tents on piles of pine needles under a tree. My pack and clothes were soaking wet again but I was finally drying off and warming up inside my tent. I did not fire up the stove that night and settled on trail mix for dinner.

Colby Pass Trail

Day 5: After another late start to dry off in the welcome morning sun, we made our second attempt up the Colby Pass trail. It was a beautiful trail, taking us up and around a knoll, weaving alongside the turquoise Kern-Kaweah River. Our goal was to eventually cross the river to make a southern-bound cross country ascent up to Picket Lake. At our target elevation, we checked the river a few times and found an easy rock hop crossing. This location also had the best views up and down the river so was the perfect place to rest and refuel. We later noticed a cairn indicating that others had also found this to be the ideal launch point for the Picket Creek basin. We followed the diagonal row of trees up in almost a straight line, resisting the temptation to deviate higher up to the peak, ending up at a small saddle which when crested brought us to the SE end of the beautiful Picket Lake. In my excitement on reaching this lake, I neglected to pull the strap of my Crocs over my heels while crossing the outlet stream and ended up watching my right sandal float down towards the Kern River. I was a little distressed at leaving behind an article in this pristine wilderness. We then crossed the inlet stream that cascaded into the lake and met Richlong8, who had arrived earlier this day.

Diagonal tree-line in the background up to Picket Creek

Kern-Kaweah River crossing to Picket Creek route

On the diagonal tree-line route to Picket Creek

Picket Lake (Last lake at end of Picket Creek)

Picket Lake  (Whitney in the far center)

Day 6: Our hike up Picket Creek to the Kaweah Basin was slow, as we stopped frequently to soak in the beauty and take photos. It was one of the most enchanting places I’ve been to, surrounded by miniature waterfalls, lush patches of grass, and cool streams flowing in various directions, and majestic mountain ranges at both ends. Further up the basin, it was an easy hike up to a saddle where we were rewarded with our first view of the Kaweah Basin. It contained more trees and vegetation than the rocky basin I had imagined. Gorges were cut by rivers leading down to Island Lake. We explored much of the lake, looking for an area with enough space for about 5-6 tents. At the east end of the lake, near the outlet, we discovered an empty tent and assumed it belonged to an HST forum member so decided to set up there as well. It turned out to be Gazelle’s tent, who arrived shortly afterwards with Hobbes. The five of us explored the eastern drop-off of the basin where the river flowed down the canyon to join the Kern while some discussions ensued about approach options to Island Lake. I was glad to have taken the easy saddle from the Picket Creek basin. Bluewater arrived as we sat around the communal dinner area and the group buzzed with conversations about gear, routes, and just general happiness at being at such a beautiful location. Oleander and I received some valuable intel from Gazelle since she had come in over Pyra Queen Col, the path we were taking out. She identified a nice tarn to camp at and warned us to stay away from below the snow fields due to the many rock falls she had seen. But mostly what stood out for me was “The rocks will show you the way”. Very simple and true. Or maybe complexly philosophical. Just as everyone was getting ready to tuck in for the night, MN2CAPisco and Andrey arrived, drawing admiration from all of us once we learned they had come in from Hamilton Lake over Pyra Queen Col, a massive amount of ground to cover in one day.

Dawn at Picket Lake

Inlet to Picket Lake

Picket Creek

Picket Creek

Kaweah Basin, Island Lake on left

Kaweah Basin

Island Lake

View east from Island Lake

Day 7: This was practically a layover day as Oleander and I had planned to just hike up to camp at the upper Kaweah Basin to stage an assault on the Pyra Queen Col the following day. Bluewater had also planned on exiting over PQC with us but he wanted to explore the Picket Creek basin first. We made plans to meet at the tarn Gazelle had identified. The hike up the basin was outstanding. The terrain of streams, trees, willow patches, slowly changed to granite and scattered metamorphic rock with the occasional tarn as we headed up the canyon while the Kaweah Crest remained steadfastly in the background. After hiking a bit more to catch a glimpse of the larger tarns at the western end of the basin, we backtracked to Gazelle’s tarn which we thought to be the best camping area in the upper basin and put out a beacon for Bluewater. He arrived around dinnertime just as he had predicted.

Dawn at Island Lake

Morning sun on Island Lake outlet

Panorama of Kaweah Basin

Lone pine in upper Kaweah Basin

Pyra Queen Col at upper left (Our exit from Kaweah Basin)

Beacon for Bluewater

Day 8: I didn’t know what to expect from Pyra Queen Col, but I was excited for the challenge. We (I) slowly made my way up the basin, over large talus blocks. PQC loomed over us and we could not identify the actual col yet. Gazelle’s advice was to go up closer to the right side, then start cutting left, even further left than you would expect, and then follow the path right. “The rocks will show you the way.” Oleander led the charge while Bluewater surveyed the terrain. As we were nearing the top, Bluewater and I heard a loud whoop from Oleander, who was standing at the top of the col, waving and cheering happily. Shortly after, all 3 of us were at the top, looking down the even steeper scree field on the west side of PQC. We took some moments at the top to rest and take photos before Oleander led the charge down the other end of the col. We maintained a sizeable distance between each other so that any rockfall created would not injure the person below. Coming down the top of the pass was more fun than frightening for me. But then as I continued to make my way down, it became more tedious. We made a wide zig zag down, avoiding the smooth granite, finally reaching one of the Nine Lakes at the bottom which was surrounded by more talus blocks. The hike along this lake and the next was slow as we still had to hop talus. However, as we traveled, the talus grew smaller and we saw more patches of grass. I was really impressed by the upper Nine Lakes basin area. It seemed so complex, with small hills and valleys and lakes and streams everywhere. Bluewater must have liked it too since he decided to stay at one of the lakes for the night. Oleander and I continued down to the lower lakes and were back on the High Sierra Trail over Kaweah Gap. We were headed to Hamilton Lake so that our hike out the next day would leave reasonable time to drive home. Since it was dark, rainy, and cloudy on my way in at the beginning of this trip, the trail looked completely new to me. I was finally able to appreciate this beautiful trail and even see Precipice Lake. Despite being on our feet with full packs for exactly 12 hours today, I was filled with energy from the excitement of the upper Kaweah basin, PQC, Nine Lakes, and a fresh look at the HST.

One of several tarns in upper Kaweah Basin

The larger tarns in the upper Kaweah Basin

Panorama of upper Kaweah Basin

Looking down the west side of Pyra Queen Col
West side of Pyra Queen Col. The actual col is the light colored chute on top.

Black Kaweah

Nine Lakes basin

Evening view from Hamilton Lake

Day 9: Hiked out to Crescent Meadows.  These 9 days were highlighted by pristine wilderness and meeting new friends who share similar interests. I cherished every moment, the cold wet hailstorm as much as that first glimpse of Picket Lake, because those are the moments that make you feel alive. 

Bonus Video
1:24 Picket Lake
3:07 Kaweah Basin
3:59 To Pyra Queen Col