High Sierra Trail: Day 4 – Big Arroyo Junction to Kern Hot Spring
Distance: 13.25 miles point to point
Camping Elevation: 6,923 feet
Bear Box: Yes
Water Nearby: Yes
When to go: July through end of September
On the 4th day of the High Sierra Trail, we hiked out of the Big Arroyo and down to the Kern River. This was another hard day, especially after yesterday’s climb up and over the Great Western Divide.
We woke up chilly to frozen socks (I had an extra pair that did not freeze) and frozen shoes. I brought toe warmers with me and did jumping jacks to warm up while making breakfast and packing up. Once I started hiking, I warmed up about a mile in. I did not expect that night at Big Arroyo to get that cold and for it to freeze, especially since the previous two nights had been so pleasant. But that’s the thing about these mountains, you just never know. I brought layers to keep myself warm, but they also added to my overall pack weight, 45 lbs starting.
Once we left camp, the trail continues uphill for the first 3 miles with 1,000 ft of elevation gain. This part of the trail is covered by pine trees and isn’t exposed. There were not many water options along this stretch, so if you’re worried about running out, I suggest filling up at Big Arroyo before leaving. Once you reach the Chagoopa Plateau, the trail levels out for a couple of miles.
At around 7 miles into the day, you’ll see a right-hand trail that branches off to Moraine Lake. This adds another mile to the hike, but if you’re looking to fish, we heard from fellow HST hikers that they caught a good amount of dinner there. You can camp at Moraine Lake and there are bear boxes and you can have a fire there. We were exhausted and didn’t want to add more miles to the day so we skipped it.
Past the Moraine Lake junction, the trail starts to descends around 400 ft in elevation gradually over 2 miles. A fire rolled through parts of today’s section leaving the forest a mess with dead trees standing or fallen littering the forest floor with new vegetation growing around it.
At 9 miles the descent gets steeper as you drop 2,400 ft in elevation in 4 miles and hike down a series of rocky switchbacks to where the trail meets the Kern River Valley. This part sucks. I hate to say it, but it was honestly the worst part of the hike. By this point, my knees were hurting and I just wanted to get down to camp.
There is one water crossing on the switchbacks about halfway down, if you’re worried about water, there is a stream right before you reach the switchbacks, fill up there. Unlike the other sections of the HST, this one has some of the longest stretches without water. Fill up every chance you get in this section.
We were originally planning to camp at Upper Funston Meadow, which we thought was right at the bottom of the switchbacks, but nope. Once we got to the bottom, we saw there is nowhere to even pitch a tent. Upper Funston Meadow is less than a mile off of the HST. Once you reach the bottom, turn right to get to Upper Funston Meadow and turn left to continue on the HST to Kern Hot Springs. We were exhausted and the last thing we wanted to do was hike more in the wrong direction. So we pressed forward to Kern Hot Springs.
We camped .25 of a mile away from the hot springs at the first flat spot by water that we found. It was right before a large wooden bridge that takes you over the Kern River and to the hot springs. We just couldn’t keep pressing on to the hot springs that night. About .25 of a mile from our campsite, I had my one and only bear sighting on the trail! I was hiking and just thinking of putting one foot in front of the other when I saw the bear come out from the bushes and it was heading towards the trail, probably towards the river. It didn’t see me and I was so exhausted, I just shrieked. The bear made a 180 and ran back into the bushes. I was excited and terrified at the same time and a bit disappointed for not getting a photo. But the sun was setting, and my group mates were already at camp and I was straggling behind them just trying to get there.
The Black Bears (they come in different shades of brown) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are more scared of you than you are of them. Just make sure to follow proper backcountry protocols and store all food and scented items in a bear canister or in a bear box overnight and don’t leave food unattended.
The campground by Kern Hot Springs does have bear boxes and allow for fires. Where we camped, there were no bear boxes.
Once I got to camp, I cried from joy and exhaustion for about 10 minutes. Then got up, made dinner, set up camp, and soaked my feet in the river near camp. It was a hard day.