Views from the Top: Precipice Lake via the High Sierra Trail
Contributed by Desiree Moore
This summer I had my eye on backpacking the High Sierra Trail from Sequoia National Park to Precipice Lake and back, a journey totaling in 38+ miles. It had been under snow for most of the summer and there had been trail damage due to a heavy winter, but as soon as the trails were clear, I got a 3-day backpacking trip on the books. Day 1: 15+ miles to Hamilton Lakes. Day 2: 12 miles to Precipice and back with an evening of camping at Buck Creek. Day 3: 10 miles out to Crescent Meadow. It was an aggressive route, but I love a good challenge.
The first nine miles went by really fast – there was only slight elevation gain, and we were able to quickly put one pole in front of the other at an accelerated rate. During the morning hike, we passed by a grove of giant sequoias and fern-covered meadows. The forest stayed mostly shaded, but occasionally epic views of the Great Western Divide popped out amidst the trees.
After the ninth mile, we had slowed down quite a bit and were ready to return to camp for our second night of sleep. Exhausted by a long day, we thought about stopping at Bear Claw camp, but after seeing a lackluster campsite and an encouraging "Hamilton Lakes - 4 miles" sign, we decided to carry out our original plan and go the distance.
Climbing up the last four miles was fairly difficult but we took our time and arrived at camp a couple of hours before sunset – just enough time to jump in the lake, pump water and set up camp. Once our site was set up, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset over the lake and glacial mountain range. We were tired but glad that we made the final push to be able to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Luckily, our sleeping pads with departmental air pouches were surprisingly easy to blow up, even at high elevations – I slept like a log.
The next morning, we organized our large backpacks and stored them in the bear bin. Then we filled our day packs full of snacks, water, trekking poles, and our Ultralight Packable High-Back Camp Chairs. We were faced with a steep climb that day, but with lighter loads, we went fairly quickly through switchbacks and up a steeply carved trail along the mountainside. Our carbon fiber poles allowed us to keep a steady foothold, mentally and physically, giving extra security and preventing us from falling down the canyon walls. The trail was very rugged and steep with cliffs on both sides. One part of the trail took us through a tunnel that was blown out of the cliff and another part was being repaired from the winter's damage… thank you to the U.S. Forest Service for your hard work!
After a lengthy hike with steep elevation gain, we finally arrived at our destination and were awed by the beautiful glacial Precipice Lake. The crisp water was clear, clean and cold! We took a dip, ate lunch and enjoyed the scenery before heading back down to our starting point. It was another long day of hiking, but after seeing both Precipice and Hamilton lake, we felt a huge sense of success – it was all worth it.
After departing the lake, we found our way back to the camp we had passed the day before, which was situated next to a running stream. At that elevation, we were able to build a campfire, enjoy some hot chocolate with whiskey and relax on our camp chairs after a long day’s hike.
In the morning, we woke up refreshed and got right back on the trail. With only ten miles to go that day, we felt ready to get back home to showers and clean clothes. We walked briskly over the same path to the car with thoughts of ice cream and cold beer propelling us forward.
As I was hiking and daydreaming, I suddenly heard the trampling of something large coming down the path. I looked back and saw a baby bear cub barreling up the trail towards me. I turned to yell "BEAR!" and run through the cliffed trail. In a panic, I turned again to see the momma bear also running behind me. It was carrying a marmot carcass in its mouth and trying to run in front of the cub in motherly protection. Instinctually, I kept running, but the trail finally broke into an area were the bears could run into the trees to eat their freshly caught meal. I knew that the bears weren’t trying to chase me and that they just wanted a nice place to enjoy a meal off the trail... I just happened to be in the way!
After that close encounter, I remained fairly on edge in consideration of what might have been lurking behind the next bend, but we only had two more miles left to go. We walked back laughing about the bears and thinking more and more about the beers that awaited us at the end of the trail. Upon returning, we were happy to see the car but ultimately wished we were still in the high country. I guess I'll have to plan for a longer excursion next year!