High Sierra Trail: Day 6 – Junction Meadow to Guitar Lake
Distance: 11 miles point to point
Camping Elevation: 11,400 ft
Bear Box: No
Water Nearby: Yes
When to go: July through end of September
The first 4 miles of the trail once you leave camp at Junction meadow gain 2,400 ft and are exposed. I wanted to get past the hardest part of the day in the dark and while it was still cool out.
Unfortunately, my group didn’t want to start hiking at 4am, but I rallied someone from a different group who we had been leap-frogging with throughout the HST hike and was also camping at Junction Meadow. He agreed to get up early and hike at 4am with me so I wouldn’t have to go at it solo (shout out to Mark).
I prefer to knock out the hardest part of the day in the dark. First, because my head doesn’t register what I’m doing and just goes without getting tired. And second, it’s much cooler and easier without the hot sun beating down on your head on exposed switchbacks.
We had a waning gibbous moon that helped with visibility and our headlamps. Although I’m sure I missed some stunning views as we climbed out of the Kern Canyon, we experienced some of it under a bright not-so full moon. There is limited water on this stretch up the switchbacks.
When sunrise started, we had just made it to the top of the switchbacks and watched it rise over the Great Western Divide and the Kaweah Peaks we hiked over a few days ago to the West.
There is one water crossing that at the time we went wasn’t bad to cross but it was wide. In the early summer months, it might be flowing more rapidly. The first water crossing in the stretch since Junction Meadow about .5 a mile from Wallace Creek. As we continued our ascend to Wallace Creek we saw two deer and their mama on the trail.
Wallace Creek is where the HST meets the PCT and the JMT. Although the NOBO (Northbound) PCTers are long gone, we ran into a handful traveling SOBO (Southbound) to the border of Mexico. There weren’t as many JMT hikers this late in the season, but we met a few. Even more JMT hikers traveling NOBO instead of the more popular SOBO.
There are campsites at Wallace Creek and bear boxes, but no fires are allowed. Wallace Creek sits at 10,400 ft and from here on, until your descent to Whitney Portal, you will not be below 10,000 ft. Being at this elevation is great to acclimate for the push to Mt. Whitney at 14,505 tomorrow.
If you are running low on water, fill up at Wallace Creek because there will not be another water source until the Crabtree Ranger Station and campground 5 miles away.
The vegetation continues to change, the heavy forests we saw, in the beginning, ended after going over Kaweah Gap a few days ago, are long gone. In the 5 mile stretch to Crabtree, the trail continually goes up a few hundred feet and then descends a few hundred feet. This section was hard on my knees.
The rest of the trail until you get to Outpost Camp on the way down to Whitney Portal are very exposed and in the middle of the day can get very hot. I quickly changed out of the layers I put on that morning for our 4am start time and back into my tank top and sun hat.
You can camp at Crabtree, but we decided to push on the last 2 miles to Guitar Lake because we wanted to save those 2 miles in the morning and to acclimate at a higher elevation. Guitar Lake sits at 11,400 ft and I have a history with altitude sickness. So to increase my chances of summiting Mt. Whitney, I decided now that I was well acclimated away from sea-level, I’ll sleep higher to continue the higher altitude acclimation process. For most of the trail, we followed the hike high, sleep low principle.
If you did not pick up your WAG Bags at Lodgepole or the Whitney Ranger Station before leaving, pick them up at Crabtree. You are now in the Mt. Whitney Zone and all human waste needs to be packed out in a WAG Bag. Do not bury it and leave it here. Also for the entire trail, all TP and other trash need to be packed out. Follow Leave No Trace Principles.
From Crabtree, it’s a 2 mile push to Guitar Lake. There is minimal water available on this stretch too.
We finally made it to Guitar Lake, it’s really shaped like a Guitar. I filled up water, soaked my feet, set up camp and prepared myself for the summit hike tomorrow.
When we started hiking 6 days ago, I told my group mates and the other groups that I wanted to hike to Mt. Whitney in the dark to see the sunrise. Everyone thought it was a crazy idea. By the time we all got to Guitar Lake, we were one massive group, enjoying the evenings with the other hikers we had been leap-frogging with along the way, laughing, sharing stories, and everyone was rallied to start hiking towards Mt. Whitney at 1am.
We saw the most amazing sunset of the entire trip. Our camp lit up in pink tones and so did the peaks around us. Unfortunately, from the trail both from the West and the East, you can’t see Mt. Whitney. She hides behind other peaks.
I went to bed excited and very nervous, I was so close to completing the HST and summiting Mt. Whitney, I couldn’t believe it.