High Sierra Trail, Day 3: Kern Canyon

Kern Canyon


The High Sierra Trail runs between Crescent Meadow in Giant Forest and the summit of Mt. Whitney. This trail traverses the high country of the Southern Sierra protected by Sequoia National Park. Highlights include Giant Forest, Bearpaw Meadow and the High Sierra Camp, Hamilton Lake, Kaweah Gap and the Great Western Divide, Big Arroyo Creek, Moraine Lake, Kern Canyon, Wallace Creek, Guitar Lake, and Mt. Whitney.

Distance: 14.3
Elevation Gained: 1,400
Time: 10:00
Critters: Four mule deer, two rattlesnakes 

Details:

Day 3 saw another early morning wake-up call at 4:30 am. People often think I’m nuts for waking up so early, but the advantage is that I’m out during the coolest, most comfortable part of the day while enjoying some of the best light. There are always more animals about at dawn, and there’s a stillness and silence about the outdoors at this time that can’t be beat.

 

Right about where I lost the trail

However, 4:30 am, or at least by the time I got going at 5:15, is a terrible time for getting lost. My big plan for the day was to pack up, breeze by Sky Parlor Meadow, drop down into Kern Canyon, wash off three days of filth at Kern Hot Springs, and make my way up to Junction Meadow for an “easy” day with plenty of time to spare.

Skirting the edge of the second meadow

Not at all how it happened. I made it about .25 of a mile before the trail dropped down into the grassy edge of a large meadow, which I assumed to be Sky Parlor Meadow. After about 20 yards, the path vanished into a large swath of burned trees with a thick understory of ceanothus. I backtracked and scoped the area out. Same story; no trail. I wandered back up the trail to nearly the starting point, and I could find absolutely no trace of any other trail going in any direction. By all appearances, the High Sierra Trail had run into an obstacle of dead trees and had decided to call it quits.

Sky Parlor Meadow

Of course, that is not what the map indicated. It indicated a nice straight line just south of a pair of meadows that fed Sky Parlor Meadow, which I correctly deduced (a little late) was another .25 mile down the trail. The old hiking adage is “the trail is not the map,” which I re-learned once again. I was now stuck at the bottom of an unnamed meadow with the only sure path leading back to where I started. My options were to try to cut through a densely vegetated recovering forest, with the high probability of getting more lost. Or, I could cut across the meadow in the hopes that I could find dry, unburnt forest that would lead me more or less in the direction of the trail.

I took about 45 minutes to completely exhaust my options before concluding that the only way to move forward would be to break one of the cardinal rules of protecting mountain ecosystems: I would have to cut across the meadow.  Here was one of those moments when I would have to rely on my ability to route-find in twilight. By entering the forest off trail, I could get turned around and head in the wrong direction. By staying where I was, I would reduce my options towards going home. I had been thinking along those lines for most of the previous day, but the irony about an obstacle like this is that I now felt determined not to let something like this be the thing that defeated me.

Found it!

Initially, I intended to follow the creek (which was dry) through the meadow and use that as my guide to get to Sky Parlor. I reasoned that if I could reach Sky Parlor, I could cross through the center of the meadow and through a patch of trees, at which point I would re-join the High Sierra Trail and be back on a sure thing. The creek ultimately turned out to be a bad idea, as it meandered in the wrong direction and led into the grove of burnt trees. I backtracked and decided to cut north through the meadow and then east toward the trees on the end. Cutting through the meadow made me feel lousy, as meadows are among the most fragile habitats in any forest. The strategy worked though, and I was soon back in a dry forest.

Beginning the descent into Junction Meadow

I knew with a dry slope rising on my right and the first of three meadows at my back, I could travel in roughly a straight line before reaching the second meadow and then ultimately the third. I came out over the north side of the meadow and corrected my course by bending to the south a bit. 20 minutes of careful wandering later, I was standing at the edge of Sky Parlor Meadow, which is absolutely massive. That’s another challenge with relying too much on the map; it is very difficult to correlate the actual size of a thing with a small blip indicating a nearly half-mile wide meadow. As planned, I walked across Sky Parlor, doing my best to tread lightly. I entered the edge of the forest on the eastern side, and within 15 minutes of careful exploring, I found myself a few hundred yards south of the junction between the two branches of the High Sierra Trail. Found.

So, the first half mile of the day took about 2 hours to navigate. It was now 7 am, and I knew I still had at least 11.3 miles (although that would end up being more like 13.3 miles since trail maps and actual distances are often at odds with each other). Things had not worked out as I planned, which would ultimately become an enduring theme/lesson on this trip. I began the long descent from the Chagoopa Plateau down into Kern Canyon. I was sort of glad to see the plateau go, as it is easily the least interesting portion of the High Sierra Trail. I was looking forward to the long, linear gash of the Kern, with nothing more enticing than the hot springs I would encounter halfway through.

 

The descent into Kern Canyon is a fairly enjoyable affair, although certain sections of the trail are plague by rattlesnakes. The first section dropped down through a dense lodgepole forest before it transitioned into dry Jeffrey pine and manzanita woodlands more reminiscent of Southern California’s mountain terrain. A wild fire had cut through this area recently, and the trail passed in and out of the burn zone. Soon, the trail joined up with a creek and began to switchback down through a steep side canyon. The first of the views down the Kern opened up, and they would steadily improve until eventually reaching the bottom of the canyon’s floor.

 

After a handful of rattlesnake encounters and some dusty, rocky trail, I reached the bottom to be greeted by a flotilla of mosquitos. I still cling to the hope that Pixar may one day make a film from a mosquitos point-of-view. I imagine that a swarm of mosquitos attacking a moving human being while dodging the swatting hands and flailing limbs could make for an excellent action sequence, particularly if set to “Flight of the Valkyries.” It might be too tragic and bloody an affair for a Pixar movie, though, as I thoroughly destroyed at least one squadron of hungry mosquitos before applying some of my wife’s homemade bug spray.

 

The Kern River canyon is a relatively dry, but beautiful highlight of the High Sierra Trail. Even in a dry year, the Kern River has a robust flow, as it is fed by both the eastern side of the Great Western Divide, plus all of the high peaks south of Forester Pass. When not walking over or along the river, which is always within earshot, the trail passes through dry, open stretches of forest with an understory of manzanita. Waterfalls tumble down over hanging valleys emptying into the upper reaches of the canyon, creating dense patches of ferns, grasses, and wildflowers to break up the monotony. The overall effect is quite pleasant.

As the Kern is at a lower elevation, the temp would soon start getting warmer and warmer. I reached Kern Hot Springs around 11:30, just in time to strip down a bit and wash off. The hot spring is contained in a small concrete “tub” that is just big enough to hold about one person. When I got there, I found the site already occupied by a troupe of Boy Scouts who were happily enjoying both the springs and the nearby river. I got into a conversation with the scout leader, Elizabeth, and found myself enjoying the first conversation in nearly three days of hiking. Turns out she is from the L.A. area, was familiar with Modern Hiker, and was happy to discuss some ideas about how to get more girls out on the trail (the ratio of people is skewed heavily toward men). It was a blessed relief to engage with other human beings, and I was able to get out of my head for a bit and enjoy somebody else’s musings for a bit.

 

Twenty minutes of conversation was quite the balm for the morale issues of the previous day. Soon, the Scouts packed up and set off up the Kern to their next destination, and I briefly had the springs to myself. I found the spring to be a little too hot for my taste, and instead spent most of the time down to my waste in the river, much to the delight of my muscles and joints. I remained here until the Frenchman and the Philipino gentleman from the previous day at Moraine Lake arrived and stripped down to nothing before getting into the spring. Now, I have no judgment against folks who like to get naked on trail, but I took this as my cue to pack up and start hiking.

 

The rest of the way up the Kern would be relatively uneventful. I arrived at my target destination – Junction Meadow – around 5 pm, and I set up shop before sticking my feet back into the river and diving back into another chapter of Siddartha. Other folks began to arrive, including the Frenchman and the Philipino, as well as trio of backpackers whom I had briefly met at Moraine Lake the night before (they showed up right before I turned in). More conversation ensued, and the previous days bad morale and wishes to go home to my baby were almost forgotten. I even started to get big ideas about the next day, which originally was intended to stop at Tyndall Creek after a “mere” 8.5 miles of hiking. The problem with that meant that I would have to cross Forester Pass before coming to a reasonable camping spot, which would ultimately mean 16 miles of hiking at about 5,500′ feet of gain.

In the meantime, I simply enjoyed where I was. As lovely as lakes are, I think I ultimately prefer rivers. There’s a constant movement, as well as a continually changing but ever-constant sound that is both reassuring and invigorating. Lakes are peaceful and tranquil, but rivers seem to have a story to tell. At the time, heavily influenced by Siddartha, it seemed to me as the river was talking about an endless, infinite cycle through which the water would return to the sea before being brought back up into the sky before being dropped back down onto the mountains as snow, before melting and running off back to the sea. The thought also occurred that this water was ancient, given that the amount of water on the planet has not changed for billions of years. The water flowing past me had likely been part of people, animals, plants, trees, icebergs, glaciers, lakes, oceans, and clouds. It had probably passed through every part of the globe several times over, and it would probably continue to do so until the planet dies. The same water would freeze and evaporate, become polluted and clean, leave and return, become consumed and eliminated, and nourish and rot for seemingly forever.

Kern River from my campsite

As a human being who loves metaphors, I saw plenty of applications for the image of an infinitely recycling and recreating substance that has been anywhere and everywhere. Different states, like ice, salinity, vapor, pollution, or inclusion into animal or plant matter are all simply states of change. However, the more things change, the more thing stay the same, as the same water molecule that had been all of those things would become all of those things many thousands of times over. The same can be said for life, and I wondered whether the life inside all things functioned in the same way. In that way, life and death would be transitory illusions that would come and go as surely as the clouds and the glaciers. Nothing to hold onto and nothing to let go of.

Near the junction to the JMT

I tucked into bed with that in mind the implications for what this means about the comings and goings of transitory human animals, as well as the notions of time and the illusions of perception before I eventually drifted off to sleep rattling around in my brain. That night would also bring the first dreams on the trail, although I can’t remember them anymore. The natural world is full of surprises, but among those most peculiar are the places to which one’s mind might wander. It seems fitting that one’s mind, divorced from the usual habits and expectations of daily life and severed completely from the electronic world might start tentatively straying into avenues as diverse and unusual as the mountains itself. I wasn’t thinking any grand, profound, or particularly original thought, but it was a place my mind doesn’t often wander, and I found the experience as as refreshing as an icy lake.

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