July 21, 2016
Distance: 15 miles
Traveled: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
“The sculpture of the landscape is as striking in its main lines as in its lavish richness of detail; a grand congregation of massive heights with the river shining between, each carved into smooth, graceful folds without leaving a single rocky angle exposed, as if the delicate fluting and ridging fashioned out of metamorphic slates had been carefully sandpapered. The whole landscape showed design, like man’s noblest sculptures.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
I woke up near 5:30am and lay warm in my sleeping bag avoiding the need to pee, and instead relished in the comfort of the moment. With my eyes still closed, the world outside my tent was silent and peaceful.
Then, breaking the silence, a loud beautiful cry echoed across the lake. It was a familiar sound, but out of place at the same time.
I sat up in my tent to unzip my door for a look outside.
Caitlin heard my stirrings, and called over to me “Did you hear that?”
“I think it’s a loon, it’s been calling for a while now”
A loon. The beautiful cry of a loon, a sound that brought me back to growing up in New England. But in the Sierra? The thought of a Loon in the middle of the Sierra Nevada seemed so odd, as I had no idea they were found this far west. Once I was back home I did some research and found that though they are found at inland alpine lakes in the Sierra in the summer, it is quite rare – which made me appreciate our serenade that much more.
If you haven’t heard a loon before here’s a good video of their call:
We sat in silence for a few more minutes listening, but the loon had gone silent, so we jumped into action getting ready for the day. There were two things on my mind today – the fact that we were dropping down in elevation and it would likely be a hot, hot, day – and also that in a matter of hours we would be soaking our tired muscles in a hot spring! That was enough to put a spring in my step.
We were out of camp around 7:00 am. The temperature was incredibly reasonable and we were both feeling great. According to the map, today would be relatively easy (please note the “according to the map” part). Though we had 15 miles in front of us, most of the miles would be much less strenuous than the days before. We were starting off the day with about 4 miles of downhill into Kern Canyon, and from there, the remaining 11 miles would be a nearly straight shot up the canyon following the Kern River, to Junction Meadow to camp. No passes, no steep climbs.
Not long after leaving Moraine Lake the trail began to pass by some beautiful small meadows.
We were soon awed by the huge expanse of Sky Parlor Meadow to the north of the trail. A small herd of Mule Deer was watching us at the meadows edge, horses and mules from a pack train camped nearby were openly grazing on the grass, wildflowers were in bloom far into the distance, and Mt Kaweah loomed over the entire scene. Dreamy was a perfect description of the scene, and the name of Sky Parlor Meadow couldn’t have been more appropriate.
Shortly after passing the meadow we joined up again with the official High Sierra Trail route again. I would definitely encourage anyone thinking of hiking this trail to take this same detour. It was so worth it.
It wasn’t long before the day was starting to heat up. The dusty trail that was already exposed to the sun was beginning to bake under my feet. I stopped to shed my layers for the day.
From here it was a super steep downhill – we would lose about 2500’ of elevation over the next 3 miles. I would meet Caitlin at the bottom, because I wanted to fly. I love going downhill super-fast, and on this morning, I was looking forward to pushing myself as fast as my legs would take me.
The trail met up with Funston Creek right before its final plunge into the canyon. The creek had created the most beautiful, lush, garden around it. Wildflowers were glowing in the morning sun, and the birds and creek were singing. Ah! It was such a good morning!
After crossing Funston Creek, the first view into Kern Canyon opened up.
And what a view it was!
The 2000 foot walls of the canyon were impressive. Kern Canyon was formed not only by the work of the river, but primarily by ancient glaciers that plowed their way down from the mountains to the north eons ago. Its path was remarkably straight as it headed south.
The trail from here switchbacked down steeply, bumping up against the tumbling Funston Creek on its western side before switching back to the east.
Finally reaching the bottom, I happily took off my pack, plopped down to give my feet a break and eat a snack, and waited for Caitlin. Unfortunately, I also was unsuspectingly setting myself up to be a mosquito buffet. The only positive to this experience was that this was the second, and last time, we would encounter mosquitos on the trail – pretty surprising for Sierra in July!
Caitlin arrived, and we headed out for the last 1.8 miles to Kern Hot Spring.
Passing through the gate of a drift fence, we entered a beautiful forest carpeted with lush green ferns.
The trail then meandered to the western edge of the canyon to travel above some beautiful meadows below.
The trail then spit us out of the forest onto the dry, exposed, gravelly, canyon floor.
Holy crap it was hot.
I was immediately transported back to my backpacking trip along the Tuolumne River (the GCT) in Yosemite a couple years before, where I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion in the depths of the canyon. I knew from that experience how brutal the heat could be at the bottom of these Sierra canyons in the height of summer, and I realized then that today would not be nearly as easy as it appeared on the map.
I also knew from experience (and from others recent reports of people having just been down in Kern Canyon) that rattlesnakes thrive in this landscape. We were on high alert for the rest of the day as to where we were placing our feet. Fun fact: I have been bit by a rattlesnake before on my foot by carelessly stepping into bushes, and I survived to tell the tale (obviously) – nevertheless, it’s an experience I prefer to never relive. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, we had no encounters.
We crossed the Kern River on an impressive bridge (I’m continually in awe of the quality of bridges you’ll stumble upon in the middle of the Sierra wilderness – the Rockies need to get some lessons from whomever builds these bridges).
From there we were on the eastside of the Kern River, where we would stay for the rest of our long walk upstream.
Just a short 10 minutes later, we got our first peek at Kern Hot Spring. We were so excited to finally get there, yet the heat was making the idea of sitting in 115 degree water not entirely appetizing.
Minutes later we were dropping our packs and shedding our sweaty clothes for a chilly dip in the Kern River, and to give our sore legs a must-deserved break in the hot spring.
It was still early – only 10:45 when we arrived – not bad for already having knocked out nearly half of our miles for the day.
I had been warned that the hot spring can get crowded and is quite overused, but I actually didn’t see any sign of that, which was nice.
The spring came out from the ground and trickled into a partially fenced small concrete tub, and from there, flowed out into the river. The hot water poured into a natural river-side pool that was built-up with rocks, and the mixing of the hot spring water with the cold river water created a perfectly warm pool to relax in. However, if you wanted a truly hot soak, you could plug up the concrete tub and it would fill, stopping the flow to the river below.
We were both on the fence about soaking in the tub in the heat.
First, I decided to cool off in the river. It felt amazing – and quickly gave nice respite from the hot day.
While I was in the river, the two women that had also been camping at Moraine Lake the night before arrived at the spring.
We all hit it off, and ended up soaking in the river-side pool together and talking. It was great to have a small impromptu woman-only gathering at the hot spring. They were not hiking the High Sierra Trail, but actually doing a loop within Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon. Tomorrow they would turn off the HST and head up and over Colby Pass and loop back around.
I decided that it would be ridiculous to be at a hot spring, and not fully immerse myself in the hot, mineral-rich, water. So, I decided to plug up the concrete tub and let it fill up so I could enjoy a brief soak.
Despite the overhead sun beating down on us, and the temperature that was easily in the 90’s, I found the soak in the hot spring to be amazing and relaxing. The days of dirt and sweat washed away, and when I emerged I felt like a million bucks. I realized then that we had successfully soaked or swam every day so far, but none of them left me feeling more rejuvenated than that hot spring.
Here’s a little video I took while getting ready for my soak:
We talked and relaxed for over an hour. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we knew we needed to, the heat put neither of us in much of a mood to eat a real lunch. I picked at a bar, and that was as much as I could stomach.
I was starting to feel a bit of heat exhaustion from being in the sun, so I packed up and headed back to the cover of the trees near the trail to cool off. I laid back onto my pack and closed my eyes in the shade. It was near 12:30pm and the sun was at its highest point in the sky, and the heat was unbearable. I truly, fully, completely, had no desire to get up and walk again in this heat. I was so tired.
Caitlin and the other ladies packed up slowly while I sat in the shade, trying to squeeze in a five-minute nap.
Eventually Caitlin came and joined me in the shade, and we tried to motivate to start walking again. Neither of us were enthusiastic to get going. It was like being back on the climb up to Hamilton Lakes 2 days ago and wishing I could just close my eyes in the shade until sunset.
I don’t remember what finally motivated us – but by 1:00 we were moving again.
We had 8 miles left for the day, and plenty of daylight remaining, so fortunately I wasn’t feeling incredibly pressured to go very fast.
The Kern River was the one refreshing presence on this unbearably hot day.
Its constant roar beside us made it an impressive companion for the walk.
Though over the course of our 11 miles in the canyon today we would only gain a mere 1300 feet in elevation, the cumulative elevation gain must have been much more significant than that. Many times, the trail would climb steeply up a baking-hot slope above the river, only to drop back down again.
My umbrella went up, and stayed up, until the end of the day. The trail moved in and out of the forest, and whenever it would take its turn into the sun, the strength of the heat was so intense I felt it could knock me out (and that was with my umbrella up!). I felt so bad for Caitlin that she could not share in my travelling shade, she must have been dying.
Not too far into our walk Caitlin admitted she was feeling super nauseous. I gave her some ginger and antacid I had to see if she would feel better – but I felt horrible for her because the gross heat and nausea was a bad combination.
The one thing that made the last half of the day tolerable was our steady supply of hikers air-conditioning. It was the only thing that got us through. We dunked our long sleeve shirts, hats, and bandanas in the cold river at every opportunity. They were drying unbelievably fast in the hot, dry, air – but while they were still frigid and wet they were the next best thing to heaven.
There were many creek crossings that I happily walked straight through in my trail runners – giving my feet the welcome opportunity to cool off. Caitlin with her carefully bandaged blister had to avoid getting her feet wet, so her navigation of the stream crossings was a bit more careful.
Eventually, the lack of calories in my system caught up with me. I needed a break. I also needed some water. I stopped before a stream crossing in some deep shade and took off my shoes and sweaty hat for another break and waited for Caitlin to arrive.
I sat for quite awhile waiting and was mildly concerned. Finally she strolled up announcing that she had stopped a bit ago to throw up, and was feeling better since. I felt so horrible for her. At the time I was worried it was a parasite, or something she ate – but in retrospect I wonder if it was heat exhaustion or dehydration.
We sat down for a long rest in the shade together, ate a bit, and drink a full liter of water. We both started to feel much better. Surely we were both dehydrated from the heat and needed the extra water.
During the course of the day, Mt. Whitney had started to loom in my mind more and more. Having left the milestone of Kern Hot Spring behind us, we were now essentially on a straight march uphill to her summit. I was feeling nostalgic and a tad emotional knowing I would be at her feet again tomorrow. There was some requitement in this journey for me.
Tomorrow I would be reunited with the John Muir Trail – with my old friend. I was eager to walk that path again. Yet, the prospect of getting back on the JMT again was also emotionally complicated. The John Muir Trail was a beyond-incredible journey for me, but the last 24 hours of that trek was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. Because of both exhaustion, and complications from asthma, I didn’t make it to the summit of Mt Whitney on that trek and had to go up and over at Trail Crest, and it was devastating.
But on this trip I would get retribution. I would summit. My asthma was totally under control now, and my lungs were so much healthier. I would get payback. I would show her how much stronger I was now.
We started to talk about Whitney, and our plans for our remaining days on the trail – then the most marvelous idea hit me over the head like an iron skillet….summiting Whitney at sunrise. Could there be a better way to end the trip than by watching the sunrise from the highest point in the lower 48…with one of my favorite humans, and dearest friends, on the planet by my side? The thought gave me goosebumps.
I threw it out there to see what Caitlin thought and she was equally excited about the prospect.
Neither of us were 100% ready to commit to the idea yet – but it definitely felt right.
The break was long, but not nearly long enough. Knowing we only had about 4 miles left was our only motivation to get on our way. Hoisting our packs back on we begrudgingly set off back into the sun.
Finally we reached the crossing of Wallace Creek, and I knew we were close to camp.
Arriving at “Junction Meadow” I was surprised because not only was there no meadow…but there were people! Many of them! The two women we spent time with at the hot spring were the only people we had encountered since Hamilton Lakes, so it was weird to finally run into a traffic jam of hikers all gearing up to make their final push toward Whitney.
We found a spot to set up camp close to the river, and enjoyed the fact that we had gotten there early enough to make dinner and properly relax.
All of our neighbors that night were awesome. Our closest neighbor, Cormac, was out hiking the HST solo, and our other neighbors were a great group of 3 that were also finishing the HST. Our lady-friends passed us by as we made dinner and we wished them well on the rest of their adventure.
After the struggle with the heat today, our one goal for tomorrow was to get on the trail as early as possible to get as much time hiking in the early morning shade as we could…which meant getting to bed early.
We turned in before sunset, as did our neighbors. Everyone was exhausted.
As I lay in the comfort of my tent-home, trying to fall asleep, I realized that we only had one more full day on the trail, and I couldn’t believe it. This walk suddenly felt so short, and I felt like we had just started.
The end of this journey was clearly in sight…and I was starting to feel quite sad because I wasn’t nearly ready to be done.
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