High Sierra Trail: Day 3 – Hamilton Lake to Big Arroyo Junction
Distance: 8 miles point to point
Camping Elevation: 9,560 feet
Bear Box: Yes
Water Nearby: Yes
When to go: July through end of September
From Hamilton Lake, we continued our ascend over the Great Western Divide. The hike begins with a series of switchbacks as you climb up the granite wall that overlooks Hamilton Lake.
The trail gets narrow as you get to the avalanche chute known as Hamilton Gorge. There used to be a suspension bridge that took you across the gorge, but in the winter of 1937 an avalanche tore the bridge down. You can still see where it was mounted in the rocks before the tunnel.
Now there is a tunnel that was blasted out of rock that takes you around the gorge. In winter conditions, when snow is blocking the tunnel or there is ice on the trail this section of the trail is impassable unless you are equipped for winter mountaineering.
There is a water crossing right past the tunnel (if you’re heading Eastbound). This water crossing was the scariest of all of them. The trail is very narrow and there are loose fallen rocks that are slippery from the water running off. There is no guard rail, and if you fall it’s a very steep drop into the gorge. Be very careful. Especially in early to mid summer conditions when there is a lot of snow melt.
Past Hamilton Gorge, the trail continues up to Precipice Lake. This lake sits in a granite bowl at around 10,300 feet entirely fed by snowmelt. It’s the last lake in the chain that feeds into Hamilton Lake and others. Even late in September, there was some snow lingering on the cliffs that overlook Precipice Lake. Eagle Scott Peak towers above the lake and the water is a dark blue color and is very cold. I suggest filling up water here before continuing to Kaweah Gap. At Precipice Lake you might find some flat spots to camp at, but if you’re looking to stop in that area for the night, I suggest heading up towards Kaweah Gap, there are more flat ground options there.
If you are worried about running out, fill up water before you leave Hamilton Lake and when you get to Precipice Lake. Although there are a few water crossings long the way, the easiest places to fill up are the two lakes until you get to the Big Arroyo Junction.
After your break at Precipice Lake, you climb the last 400 ft to the Kaweah Gap, the official pass over the Great Western Divide. And you have officially hiked 20 miles Eastbound on the High Sierra Trail!
From the Kaweah Gap, there is a gradual descent over the last 3 miles to the Big Arroyo Junction. This U-shaped valley was carved by glaciers as they plowed through. To the South, the valley opens up to an expansive view of the Golden Trout Wilderness. The vegetation in this area has a stunted growth because of the lack of rainfall. The Great Western Divide acts as a barrier for incoming storms and not leaving much precipitation for this valley.
Our day 3 hike on the HST was arguably the most beautiful stretch on this 72 mile journey. This section of the trail was very exposed and I suggest getting an early start to beat the heat!
There will be a sign once you get to Big Arroyo Junction. The campsites are more South and off the trail. Keep walking straight and you will see an old wooden ranger cabin, set up camp near there. There is easy access to the river to fill up water, wade in, and wash your clothes in. You will also see a communal bear box in that area.
I decided to wash my socks and a shirt in the river and hang them to dry overnight with my hiking buddies, but all of our wet laundry froze and I woke up to frozen socks. Luckily I had an additional pair. But this was the coldest night on the HST. I got frost on the inside of my tent, and even with a 20 degree bag and a sleeping bag liner to add another 15 degrees, I was still cold all night. Luckily my Camelbak didn’t freeze inside my tent.