King's Canyon loop hike, 1968
High Sierra Trail to Little 5 Lakes
Day 1: Wolverton Meadows to Mehrton Meadows
Day 2: To trail camp, above Bearpaw Meadows, climb Alta Peak
Day 3: Past Hamilton lake, over Kaweah Gap, to Big Arroyo
Day 4: Thru 9 lakes basin to Little 5 Lakes
Day 5: Layover day
Day 6: Thru big 5 Lakes to Lost Canyon
Day 7: Past Columbine lake, climb Sawtooth peak, to camp at Timber Gap Creek
Day 8: camp near Bearpaw Meadows
Day 9: Hike out to cars at Wolverton Meadows
Day 1: We got a leisurely start, and got on the trail at 2:30 pm. We hiked to Mehrten Meadow at 7:00 PM. The camp Saturday night had a good water supply , although it was supposedly seasonal. It also had plenty of firewood, and good sleeping sites. The area was forested with large pines and some firs, and inhabited by very tame deer. We could come fairly close to them and had to be constantly on the lookout for any thievery. We were especially on guard after Dick’s hatband became a tasty tidbit for one deer and Ron’s sleeping bag was mistaken for a trampoline by another.
Day 2: We left for Trail Camp, about 7 miles deeper into the Sierra. A short ways from Mehrton Meadow most of the group left their packs and climbed Alta Peak by an easy trail. The view east into the Sierra was very spectacular. To the West lay the San Joaquin Valley, somewhere under all that filthy air. We had lunch near Alta Meadow and Jeanne left her cup there to commemorate the event. From there the trail vanished for a while but we found it a ways downhill. It led us through very shaded glens and eventually to the trail in Bearpaw Meadow. This trail was mostly in brushy country with many scattered scrubby trees. We had a fantastic view of from a bridge into a gorge and a large stream. We passed through Bearpaw Meadow in a cloud of trail dust and soon were on the side of a steep cliff. The cliffs continued most of the way to Trail Camp. Just below camp we had another view of a rocky gorge with a raging stream. Trail Camp had only two fireplaces but the twelve of us were able to camp there in comfort. There is abundant water, enough wood and sleeping ground. There are large pines in the area but the camp has an open view of the granite walls on three sides. We were also visited here by deer. Below: a 19 year old me, my first long backpack.
Day 3: We headed toward Hamilton Lakes and had lunch on Kaweah Gap. We camped in a big open valley called Big Arroyo. We shared a fire with Ron and cooked popcorn, having already eaten our supper. We sacked out immediately, with Mike, Jim and Jeanne sleeping on a point on the opposite side of the stream. We were in a grove of limber pine, some well shaped and some deformed and stunted by the elements. Bedding sites were good but there was very little wood. We were lucky that Dick was in our cook group. He could bring in armloads of wood where no one else could find anything. I slept near the stream, halfway under a stunted pine. There was a wind, and the tree was whipped all night by it. The stream reflecting the full moon was quite a sight, especially because the brightness of the moon lighted up the valley walls with a surprisingly bright gray light. I woke up at midnight and had to accustom my eyes to the bright moonlight as if it were the sun. My mattress of meadow grass gave me a good night’s rest.
4th day. By morning the wind had stopped and we had breakfast in the warm sun. Mike and I hoped to climb Black Kaweah that morning but since we were the only ones so inclined we had to settle for a morning of exploring. After breakfast we packed up and headed north, the direction we had come from last night. But instead of following the trail up the valley wall to Kaweah Gap we kept going straight to the 9 lakes Basin. At the first lake we saw many fish but we didn’t fish. We followed the stream to the second lake and had lunch on a warm rock. In this entire basin there wasn’t a single tree, just rocks and meadow and streams. As we ate lunch we saw that the mayflies were leaving their larval stage as water bugs and becoming airborne. As thousands of insects crawled out of the water onto the rocks many tiny birds would pick them off there or as they became airborne. Mike continued on to see the other lakes but I just lay in the sun on the rocks and slept.
When he returned we slowly went back to the camp of this morning and our packs. The camp was deserted except for our packs. We picked them up and started south. The trail kept close to the wide stream and passed through fields of wild flowers. As we were admiring them we heard a shout from across the stream and saw Mike, Jim, Jeanne, and Roger, and Mark. We joined them for a snack and found out that the fishermen had not been seen since breakfast and Dick had gone his way also. The topo showed that a trail was to start here but we were unable to find it. We went cross country through some good groves of trees and streams before we came to the decision that the trail was lost. We went to a knoll and took some compass bearings that said we were where the trail should be. We continued toward our destination, the little 5 Lakes Basin, by this cross country route and soon found the trail. It was steep and dusty and Jeanne was getting sick. We slowed our pace and took many breaks at streams and this seemed to help Jeanne. Soon we were going through a stand of widely spaced limber pines, really giants and well shaped, and below us we saw water and heard voices, which we recognized as the fishermen.
We joined them at the lakeshore and discovered that they hadn’t seen Dick all day either. My cook group made a fire and started supper without him, but he showed up before long.
The fishermen had been having real good luck with fishing, catching more than we could eat that night. We had to delay supper because Mike had disappeared. He came back with six nice sized fish which we hate. By this time a camp robber (a type of bird also called a gray jay) had established claims on the fish cleanings and became our garbage collector. It looked like rain that night so Mark and I got his tube tent all ready to string up before going to beg. We assembled about 1/8 of a mile away at Jim and Mike’s cook fire. About midnight we felt cold rain on our faces and someone bellowed “RAIN!” Mark and I scurried to fasten lines to two trees and string the tent. We fumbled at the lines in our shorts while we were freezing and getting wetter all the time. We got the tent up though, and after some adjustments crawled back into our warm bags. The rain lasted only fifteen minutes and then stopped. After all that work I wish it would have kept going.
5th day. It was decided in the morning after breakfast to stay here for a day of resting and fishing. As soon as breakfast was over we scatted to try our luck. I had brought about ten yards of monofilament line and some hooks, but no pole or reel. I used some cheese from a trail lunch on a hook, and played out the line from a coil wrapped around my fingers. In a stream half a mile above the main lake I would play my line out till it dropped into a pool, and as often as not a fish would take it. Then I would pull him in, and let him go. I caught seven in this way, all good sized ones, and I kept the biggest. To the west of me, at the second of the five lakes, a group of about thirty people on a Sierra Club outing were fishing. I later learned that they had tromped through Mike P’s camp. They had a few mules with them to carry their gear. All day the sky threatened to burst and in the afternoon it finally fulfilled its threat. I sat by the fire in my poncho for awhile then retreated to my tent to join Mark in a snooze. When it ceased I climbed the cliff on one side of the lake and sat on the top for a while. We learned from the Sierra Club hikers that their own main party was camped at the Big Five lakes Basin. It was composed of 50 campers and 60 mules. Wow, that was a different kind of trip!
6th day. We got up early to a bright sunshiny day and had fresh trout for breakfast. It had been decided to scatter and regroup at the Big Five lakes Basin for lunch, so after breakfast people began splitting off for the four mile trek. We had an enjoyable lunch in the warm sun and went wading in the shallows of the lake. The others joined us in small groups and we all ate on the rock. This area was where we had been told the Sierra Club main party was camped but all we saw were about five of them on a rock across the lake. Dick went farther up the basin and said the area was crawling with people and mules.
After lunch we went cross country to Lost Canyon. We planned to camp at the head of the canyon and were quite tired and were anxious to eat supper and sack out. We found our proposed camp area occupied with about 30 Sierra Club people. We found that they were a branch party from the ones camped at Big Five Lakes Basin and had backpacked in for a couple of days. We were near timberline so decided not to push on but camp on the opposite side of the canyon from them. The wind by this time was brisk and the boulders we camped among didn’t stop it. Dick suggested that our cook group move to a bench on the Sierra Clubbers side of the valley and we went to scout it. We found it heavily forested, with good bed sites, and lots of fire wood. We elected to camp here but the other cook group stayed where they were., in the cold wind, without wood. We had supper in our circle of light and feasted on biscuits with honey. The granite walls of the alley presented steep faces to us, made even more impressive in the moonlight. We went to bed eagerly and slept soundly on the pine needles.
7th day: We awoke late to a bright morning and had a leisurely breakfast. I discovered my camera missing and searched frantically for it. I jogged a few miles down the trail but still didn’t’ find it. By the time I jogged back to camp most of the others had already left to climb Sawtooth Pass, part of our route for the day. We were to assemble at Columbine lake before lunch to discuss plans and routes, so Mike and I headed out. While still in Lost Canyon we were walking beside a stream in a meadow when we came upon an elderly woman on hands and knees creeping up to the stream. We were directly behind her and just watched her stalk the stream with her fishing pole till she turned and saw us. She got up and walked away, saying “hi” as she passed. Farther up the stream, Ron had come upon a woman bathing in the stream. When he walked up to the bank and she noticed him she suggested that there was a better place to cross farther up. After our encounter with these Sierra Clubbers we began the climb of steep Sawtooth Pass. The trail was poor, of decomposed granite, and the sun got very hot. Mike and I really ripped up the trail, passing Sierra Clubbers bound for Columbine, and also some of our own people. But the view of Columbine Lake and the giant spire of Sawtooth Peak were awesome. We joined the others in a midmorning snack. Several people wanted to climb Sawtooth Peak but most decided to follow the stream from Columbine lake down to our camp site. This would involve a hike of about 15 miles total. The group that tired for Sawtooth Peak would go by a different route and meet at the same point for camp. We split and eight of us started for the peak. We would not climb the vertical wall presented to the north-east but would attack from the rear. We did some easy but tiring boulder hopping, a difficult task with full packs. At the shoulder we left our packs and began a traverse of the back side. This became tricky at points because of the rotten condition of the boulders and the granite pebbles which made our footing even more dangerous. We reached the peak about noon and ate lunch there. The view down to Columbine lake was spectacular. We threw rocks but they became lost to sight before they reached the water. The dropoff of a couple of thousand feet was really dizzying, especially because of the near vertical face below us.
We reluctantly left and retraced our route to the packs. By this time we were all pretty tired. We traversed in the opposite direction from the peak till we found a break in the ridge, and the beginning of a trail to the valley below us. But after a few feet the trail petered out and we descended an unconsolidated talus slope. This was very dangerous because when a person stepped on a rock it would often turn or roll. We had some rocks bouncing down or rolling but luckily no one was hit. We finally got past this area and found ourselves on sloping slabs of granite. This didn’t help our tired ankles because we had to walk with tiny steps, facing down. My leg muscles were screaming in pain by the time we got off these slabs. Then came some waist high brush that slapped our knees and stung like fire. And to top it off we had about two miles of rocky trail to go before meeting with the others. This trail went steeply down and was bad because of the medium sized rocks that turned ankles and made walking generally miserable. I don’t know how the Lowry’s survived it wearing only cross-country shoes. Most of us had mountaineering boots, which added a good deal of support and rigidity. At the foot of this trail was a pleasant meadow being devoured my mules from a mule packing outfit.
We rendezvoused with our main party here and deduced we had many miles to go and it was already late in the afternoon. So after a long rest, on we cruised, but this time everyone stayed pretty much together. Apparently the other party was just as exhausted as we, and a soft bed would have felt good that night. Soon we began to string out and as we passed a very long series of waterfalls, at least 500 ft, we began to really haul. Mark and I were tired of hiking and anxious for the food so we were really cruising along. But the exhaustion of the day was taking effect on me. At one point in the trail was a boulder in a steep section of trail. I was jogging at that point, and leaping over boulders like that. Over that particular boulder I didn’t lift my foot high enough and it tripped me. I went sailing forward, and hit the trail in a heap. Mark was right there and helped me get up. My forearms were scratched up and one leg was bloody and in pain. I limped down to a stream crossing and washed off the dust and blood. Feeling better, I continued on with Mark, walking very slowly and with pain in my leg and from the scratched forearms. My arms hurt worse than my leg, but a later x ray showed that I had cracked the fibula of my leg, but it never separated.
A few hours before sunset we reached the proposed campsite, in a steep valley by a large stream, but the campsite was filled with people. About three tents took up all the space available. We decided to continue down the stream until we found a place to camp, but this proved difficult because of the wide area of rounded stream boulders on either side of the stream. Just as darkness approached and we were all nearly dead from exhaustion a wide place in the valley was found. This was below the junction of Cliff and Timber Gap Creeks. We dropped our packs, washed our tired feet in the stream, and everyone took a well earned bath. We had covered 17 miles that day, no mean feat over that terrain. Strangely enough, no one was very hungry for a while, but we finally ate as the sky turned pink from the sunset.
About this time someone noticed several bats overhead. As we watched we saw that they were catching insects and would come out of the trees and buzz the valley in their search. When chasing an insect they would perform amazing acrobatics: wingovers, backward summersaults, dive bombing swoops, inside loops, outside loops, stopping in mid flight, and combinations of all of these. Someone in our cook group suggested that they might mistake pebbles we threw for insects so we had a ball fooling their sonar. We would throw a pebble behind a bat and he would immediately reverse flights and pursue the pebble up, or chase it to within feet of the ground. We treated ourselves to popcorn and shortly went to bed. I remember my tiredness and the calming sound of the stream that night.
8th Day: Today we were in full charge, already smelling fresh food and hot baths. All thoughts were on home, and every step took us closer to home. After breakfast we began what was to be an even more exhausting day, but with a goal in sight. We passed through very impressive groves of redwoods. One tree had three gigantic trunks grown together at the base and had been partially burned out to form a cave-like cavity. Mike said he heard termites in the bark when sitting in the tree, because the silence was so profound in the blackened hollow.
Some of us got together on the South Fork of the Kaweah River and enjoyed lunch. We were at low enough elevation now that we enjoyed sitting in the shade rather than the sun. We had decided to meet about five miles from where we were, at Bearpaw meadow, and start off for camp together. Dick and I hiked together to Bearpaw and had a good discussion on mule packers. Our opinions were confirmed when out of the forest came the sound of tramping hooves and laughing voices. We stopped, listened, and tried to figure it out. Our questions were soon answered when three or four young people burst out of the woods and bore down on us on horseback. We of course got off the trail and they galloped by. Perhaps they didn’t even see us. We continued in silence to Bearpaw Meadow. The only good think about this tramped over area is the outhouses. Real, square, solid outhouses. With seats and everything. After using the facilities and talking to an old man on his way to Whitney, we started our trip to camp, about seven long dusty miles from Bearpaw Meadow.
The trail was the same one we had traveled on our trip in, and took us into lower and lower elevations. We crossed the bridge over the torrent and along the way passed many groups of young boy scouts and their leaders, all asking with pleading eyes, “How far to Bearpaw Meadow? Is it uphill?” It is really sad to see these little kids doing such a hard hike only to get to a dusty rat hole like Bearpaw Meadows. I’m afraid any enjoyment they could have gotten from wilderness and nature would be spoiled by the stupidity of their leaders. They plan to hike 10 miles in one day, with bad trails, cheap packs, boots that give blisters, and their only reward is a one day camp in an overrun, dusty, pack station.
We passed at least 30 young hikers as we approached our destination. But at our proposed camp we found too many people and not enough flat area for beds. Although we were very tired we continued another four miles as sunset approached. In one gently sloping valley we decided to make do on the apparently uniformly sloping area. We were graciously invited to share a fire with a man and his two children. I’m sure he thought from our looks (beards, dirt, sweat, cuts, and bruises) that if he didn’t we would simply pitch him and his kids off the ledge. Perhaps we would have been tempted to, but there is generally a high level of courtesy among backcountry campers, thankfully. Our people climbed the rock outcropping above camp and one group decided to make a cook fire on top of it. Our group found a good place under the ledge of the same outcropping and Dick found wood where no one else could. Next came the problem of bedding sites. People laid out their bags in every niche we could find. Dick slept between two tree roots, in a tight little depression. Mike and I slept on a sloping slag of rock, and I am told that Mike P. slept on the rock outcropping, literally curled around the fire. Before supper I went to the nearby stream and descended over smooth rocks about 20 feet below the trail. There I found a quite pool ringed with moss and carpet like grass. I took a swim and felt 100% better. Then I dressed I put on tennis shoes instead of my climbing boots and began the near vertical climb up. But since I was so accustomed to climbing up rocks with boots, I slipped about 10 feet below the trail, and landed in a heap on a rock by my pool. After a time I tried again and succeeded in reaching the trail, but found I had damaged my leg even further when it smashed against a rock during my fall. I was a little shaken because below my pool was a 20 foot dropoff to a ledge. A fall of that distance might have been serious.
For supper we devoured all of our spare food: soups, candy, cocoa, everything we could get. For desert we had apple pie, made by Conrad and myself. I would not be exaggerating to say that it was delicious. We retired early from an exhausting day.
9th Day. Thoughts of home woke us early and inspired an early start. We had only a short trip ahead of us, and hoped to reach the cars before noon. The trip out was uneventful, but we saw the first lowlanders in more than a week. All during that time we and stopped and talked with everyone we passed, or at least said “hi” as we passed on the trail. But we began meeting people who did not respond with even a “hi,” but just stared at us. In one peaceful valley ringed by silence and tranquility, we saw about 30 explorer scouts approaching at almost a run. Five or six were actually running abreast, racing to see who would lead the pack. We said nothing as they flowed around us. We descended more and more, still passing hordes of all kinds of people. The older people seemed more human than the younger ones. Some hippies innocently asked “how far is it to Alta Peak?” They had no idea how far that peak lay ahead, and we knew they would never make it.