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2015 Sept Sierra Hike to Kaweah Basin

High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadow, then off trail over Pyra Queen Col. Kaweah Basin, Red Spur Bench, Kaweah Pass, Chagoopa Plateau, then return via High Sierra Trail

This is a work in progress

Sept 2015 Kaweah Basin Hike
15.Sept.2015 -- 25.Sept.2015


The Red Spur Bench is the rocky plateau on the far side of the Red Spur Ridge. It is accessible over a small hill at the east end of the Kaweah Basin. It is about a five day hike from the trailhead in Crescent Meadow.

I had wanted to return to the Red Spur bench for some time. I had initially explored the Picket Creek, Kaweah Basin, and the Red Spur bench in 2004. On that trip I had entered the backcountry over Pants Pass from the Nine Lakes basin. It had been my first solo trip of any lenght; it was quite a thrill. I tried to return in 2011 but a pulled muscle at Bearpaw meadow made me too cautious to attempt it. This trip was possible because I had retired two months earlier. The free time gave me the option of taking some extra extended trips.

This time I planned to enter the Kaweah basin over Pyra Queen Col. I had visited the pass from the Kaweah basin during my 2004 trip, but couldn't find the way over (east to west). I had to turn around and exit via Kaweah Pass. This time I read up on the experiences of others. I also had Google Earth to help me this time. I planned a west to east traverse on my fourth hiking day.

2015 Sept 034
Precipice Lake on the High Sierra Trail

Day 0, Lodgepole Campground

15.Sept.2015. My Official Weight 167 pounds (76 kg) was a bit high. My frame backpack came to 47# (27kg) including five pounds of water. It was Tuesday, so there was a lot of LA traffic to get through going on up to Sequoia NP.. I was able to grab my permit at the Lodgepole visitor center just before they closed.

I had prepared all my camp food beforehand, and then froze it. I thawed the chicken pot pie for dinner on my Coleman stove. Easy and delicious. S'mores for dessert.

S'more heated over the fire on coathanger spits: 2015 Sept 016

Day 1, Lone Pine Creek

16.Sept.2015. First hiking day. I was up just after 4AM. Breakfast was bottled coffee, pancakes, syrup, bacon, all prepared beforehand; just reheat. The early start enabled me to get past Bearpaw Meadow. I camped up along Lone Pine Creek. Further up the creek from the trail there is a old concrete bridge that is mostly washed away. I found a tiny area up from that crossing that was big enough for a sleeping bag. There is another flat area along the trail, but it is a long hike to water.

My pet tree atop a bluff between Bearpaw and Lone Pine Creek. I take its picture whenever I pass: 2015 Sept 024

Day 2, Kaweah Gap and Nine Lakes Basin

17.Sept.2015. Up at 6:12 started on the trail at 7:41. It is a tough climb today, more than 1000m. When I got to Hamilton falls I scouted for a campsite. There were a couple of places, one of which I used on the way back. The switchbacks just keep going up above Hamilton lake. Precipice Lake was unusually beautiful this year. Very colorful. Sometimes there are ice floes even late in the year. I was really dragging the last couple of hundred feet to Kaweah Gap. Crested at about 4:30. I was down in the basin with my tent up and dinner done by 6:30. It was a relatively warm 54.5 (12.5 C) degrees at bedtime.

2015 Sept 037
Reflections in Precipice Lake. The colors were stunning this year
2015 Sept 039
Nine Lakes basin from Kaweah Gap. Campsite 2 was down by the Lake Outlet.
2015 Sept 047
Lake at 11619 feet. This is a very rocky valley

Day 3, Lake 11682 below Black Kaweah

18.Sept.2015. Up at 6:18 started on the trail at 8:15. Overnight low was 33.5 ( 1 C). I climbed up through the trees past campsite 2 then circled around into the valley to the right. I was surprised to find a faint use trail. Just past the lowest lake at 11427 I ran into a steep part. Next time go higher along the ridge to the right. Once I crested I could see the turquoise waters of lake 11619. It is slow going because of all the rocks. Passed a nice campsite about 1:30. I tried going on a bit because it was so early, but saw I couldn't make it to another level campsite before dark. Went back to an early campsite 3 nestled amongst the boulders. See the leftmost marker in the campsite map below.

2015 Sept 051
Camp 3 by large sandy area at midpoint of lake 11682.

Kaweah Basin Campsites

2015 Sept Kaweah Campsites
Entrance to Kaweah Basin via Pyra Queen Col. Exit over Kaweah Pass

Day 4, Over Pyra Queen Col

19.Sept.2015. This was the most interesting day so far. I had been wanting to get over Pyra Queen Col for years. This was the day I finally did. It took a bit longer than I expected. I tried going high on the left side going up, but ended up coming down to get around the rocks. Took almost 7 hours from campsite to crest. Sightsee for two hours and then another three hours down to a level spot to camp. Tent was up at dusk. It had flattened out, so I could have safely gone further by flashlight.

Next time I will probably try from east to west. The east side is rocky, but not slippery. Going down the west side scree might even be fun.

2015 Sept 053
Pyra Queen Col
The ascent to the pass is characterized by masses of silky slippery scree. A prominent cliff blocks the a direct central assult.
2015 Sept 057
Start of climb
I followed the lake shore until it got cliffy. This is the point at which I headed up. The rocks higher up looked firmer than the loose scree, so I headed up to them
2015 Sept 064
Side view of cliff
Two hours of climbing brought me even with the central cliff.
2015 Sept 065
Slit in the rock is the Pass
I continued on up and over for another hour. Here you can see the sunlight shining through a crack in the pass. This is the destination, so I was headed to it. Unfortunately, the mountain did not cooperate. I found that the hard rock was too much to climb over, so I had to go down and circle around the rocks to the right then up again. The rocks there have an interesting faint purple hue. Interesting or not, they are very loose. Take a step and a whole sheet of them will move.
2015 Sept 071
Orphan water bottle
I found this bottle on the last part going up. I took the cap off, emptied the water and tucked it in my shirt with the intention of packing it out. However, hiking later with my backpack off allowed it to slip out. It bounced a couple of times and then did a header over a cliff, never to be seen again. I carried the cap out.
2015 Sept 072
Lake 11682. It is half a mile long (800m)
Final rest before pushing over the pass. The last part up the slot was steep but the rocky side walls gave me firm hand and foot holds. It went by quickly.
2015 Sept 076
View From Pyra Queen Col
The views of the Kaweah Basin were impressive from the pass. Over about a quarter the way from the left you can see Mount Whitney on the skyline. On the right Kaweah Pass is almost in the shadows at the first dip in the ridgeline.
2015 Sept 103
Getting Dark coming down
6:30 and getting dark. You can see the lakes ahead. I will find a flat spot with water near them. Coming down over all the rocks was quite exhausting. I got the tent up, but needed to hang a flashlight in the tent when I went to get water. That way I could find it in the dark as I was coming back. I didn't start supper until after 7:30 and was up till 9:30. It was a long but very satisfying day.
2015 Sept 073
View back down Pyra Queen Col
2015 Sept 074
Another view showing the dramatic sides and sharp peaks at Pyra Queen Col

2015 Sept 087
Log book is a shirt-pocket sized spiral notebook inside an old metal Band-Aid can

Pyra Queen Col Log Book

Before I came down from the pass I had one more item to attend to. One of my goals on this hike was to revisit the Log Book. It was over at the false pass protected from the elements under a rock out of sight; so you had to know it was there. Bill Schuler, Andy Smatko, Ellen Siegal, and Frank Yates were the pioneer hikers who visited here in 1967. My first entry in it was from Sept 2004. Bill Finch has three entries spanning 1991 to 1994. His accounts on his web page gave me the incentive and courage to try making the hike on my own. Thus, I made my second entry in the log book eleven years after the first (Sept 2015). I turned 68 in Oct 2015; so I was quite pleased and thankful that I could still hike.

2015 Sept 089
Initial entry in the book from July 2-3, 1967

Day 5, Red Spur Bench

20.Sept.2015. This was another interesting day. I remember a large white marble rock with a beautiful rose colored swirling star from my last trip. It was out on the bench. I was so impressed with its beauty I wanted to get a picture of it. In addition I had buried an engraved medallion (coin) and I wanted to revisit it.

Well, there are a lot of red and white marble rocks there, some fairly pretty. But none were as beautiful and large as I remember. The coin I did find; and I added a second to the cache. So, here is how the day went.

2015 Sept 109
Kaweah's in the morning. It was dark when I chose my campsite. The morning rays lit up the whole glorious range.
2015 Sept 116
I like this scene of the Kaweah's over a small lake. There is usually a reflection in the lake of the majesty beyond .
2015 Sept 119
The Kaweah basin gets greener as you go further down. I hiked down until I got to the first ridge and then started contouring. There was more up and down than I would have liked. A final hill blocks an easy entry to the Red Spur Bench.
2015 Sept 125
Red Spur Bench. Past the bench the land drops steeply about 3000 feet (1000m) to the Kern river. It then climbs to over 14K feet at Mt. Whitney seen on the right horizon. I made camp at my favourtie spot by a lake just down the hill.
2015 Sept 127
I took off out on the bench at about 3:30 to find my medallion. I remember that there were portions here that seemed to be the worst hiking I had ever seen. Boulders, Boulders, Boulders. That thought occured to me again. The destination is the large rock in the center of the picture. It is all the way to the right in the map above.
2015 Sept 137
I had buried an engraved quarter near the big rock in a 35mm film cannister in 2004. I was able to retrieve it, took a picture and added a second quarter to the cache. This one is a John Muir California quarter. I thought it was appropriate. I looked for the rose star rock on the way back, but did not see any candidates.

Day 6, Back up to Central Kaweah Basin

21.Sept.2015. I had touched all the goals of my trip. Now it was time to return home.

2015 Sept 157
Early morning at camp 5 next to the lake on the Red Spur Bench. Mount Whitney peeks over the trees on the far side of the lake. The rocks seem to float in the calm water. Being so close to the lake I can keep track of its different moods. At night the stars waltz on the surface in time with the waves. A light breeze bursts those points of light into a swarm of fireflies. The clear skies here allow one to see stars all the way down to the horizon.
I left the lake at camp five at about 9AM. I hiked all the way up to campsite 6 arriving before 5PM. It was rocky and a bit windy. Later, there was thunder and some rain, but nothing serious.
2015 Sept 164
The basin is loaded with old red skags, perhaps left over from an ancient fire. Red wood against a clear blue sky is an eye-pleasing contrast
2015 Sept 167
This one fell over. The colorful swirling roots create the impression of a blazing camp fire

Day 7, Over Kaweah Pass to Lookout Creek

2015 Sept 170
Early morning at camp 6. I had closed up the tent because of the rain last night so there was condensation inside. I opened it up now to a clear sky. I am using a Double Rainbow Tarptent. Sleeps two and less than three pounds including stakes. I like it.
2015 Sept 174e
Kaweah Pass on right, harder Alternate Pass on the left
22.Sept.2015 Kaweah Pass is very steep. It is not technically difficult or dangerous, but you have to be patient lest you slide down. It was not unusual to to kick a rock and have a sheet of rocks move extending up to your head. So, grabbing onto a large boulder, I would always wonder what would happen if it came loose on me. At one point climbing up out of the basin I stepped in an area of larger rocks and heard them grumble as they shifted. Not unusual. What caught my attention was how they 'clicked' and ticked for awhile afterwards as the whole field adjusted and readjusted. That was scary. I moved laterally away from such an area. I didnt remember it clicking the last time.

The scariest part was the last chute. I had done this before, but took the wrong chute this time and ended in what looked like a dead end. I started up the chute 50 to 100 feet to the left of where I should have been. I was thinking left because I zigged to the left the last time I went up. See the yellow tracks in the picture. At about 50 feet from the crest of the alternate pass I chickend out. It was getting too dangerous. I looked down. That was scary too. I looked at my watch. Perhaps it would take till 1:00 to get down the chute? and how long to get over to the correct path. At this point I did not know how far off I was. Would I have to go all the way down and start over? Would this delay me so I would have to spend another day in the basin. I started back down. I went 5 to 10 feet along an easy ledge. But then it got really scary. Do I really have to do this?

I turned around and looked back up. Yes it looked bad. But, let's think a bit. I walked my eyes through a plan to cover the last bit up. Yes it was doable. The separation between safe handholds was greater than I usually attempt, but seemed reasonable. I walked carefully back the few feet and started up to the first hand/foot rest. I remember I had to put my knee on it, it was too far for my foot. I got by the first ledge, the rest was easier. It worked. I always had solid footing and/or a good hand hold. But I think this was a class 3 stretch. It was a mistake to put myself into that situation.

2015 Sept 177
Smiling broadly at Kaweah Pass; no doubt because I was glad to get through a difficult part. It is all downhill to civilization from here. The bite out of the ridgeline across the basin is Pyra Queen Col
2015 Sept 183
Rocky Lakeshore at Kaweah Pass. Took about an hour to get past the lake. My long hiking pole was very useful for bracing me on the downhill side of the contour.
2015 Sept 184
Past the lake there are just rocks and boulders as far as you can see. At least I am going downhill
2015 Sept 186
It takes a while to get down from the pass. Lots of rocks. Here it is just beginning to open up. It was about three hours from the pass to this point.
2015 Sept 189
I enjoy seeing the red frames of trees living and long gone.
2015 Sept 193
I followed Chagoopa creek for awhile then veered west to another drainage. I stumbled upon this lookout tower. There was a nice fire pit and plenty of flat area for a tent. So I stopped. This is camp 7 on 'Lookout' Creek

Day 8, Hamilton Falls

I had been on all no-cook food until now. To celebrate my return to civilization I broke out my butane stove and had hot coffee with breakfast. It is a short hike to the High Sierra Trail from camp 7. I made it all the way over Kaweah Gap and down past Precipice Lake and Hamilton Lake. I played tag with a group of hikers from San Diego the whole way. They stopped at the lake, I wanted to get home. I stopped a bit further at Hamilton Falls where I found a flat space behind some trees. It is pretty and comfortable, but I do not recommend it because it is not an official campsite. But late in the year it was quiet, no one walked by, so there was no one to say otherwise.
2015 Sept 199
Early morning at camp 7 taken from the lookout tower. I just had to climb it.
2015 Sept 203
Excellent evening views about 50 feet from Hamilton falls.

Day 9, Trailhead

I got an early start. Up by 5 8:33 Bearpaw, 9:17 Buck Creek, 11:46 Alta trail, 12:01 Mherten Creek, 1:39 Wolverton cutoff, 2:57 Trailhead. Got to Apple Annie's in Tulare about 5:30. It was getting late so I stayed overnight at the Red Roof Inn across the parking lot

Day 10, Home

Friday Sept 25, 2015
7:29 leaving Tulare
12:07 Home.
2015 Sept 210
Mule train along the trail.
2015 Sept 215

©2017, 2018 Tom Judd.
Carlsbad, CA