Having bitten off a little extra mileage than we planned on our first day out on the High Sierra Trail, we began our second day with a nice, leisurely breakfast before finally breaking camp somewhere around the crack of 10.
In under a quarter mile, we quickly found ourselves at the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp, a wilderness lodge (glamping) perched on a cliffside high atop a 7,800′ granite saddle overlooking the Great Western Divide. We had already been hiking for a whopping 10-minutes so we decided to take a much-deserved break and indulge in another coffee and enjoy the view from the front porch for a little while.
East of Bearpaw, was when scenery went from pretty awesome to just just f*cking epic…
The trail hugged the cliff side, slowly descending to 7,200 at Lone Pine Creek and after crossing a bridge over the steep ravine, it continued east as the ascent up the Great Western Divide began. We trudged up a long series of switchbacks and in the shadow of Angel Wings (also known as ‘Valhalla’), a sheer granite wall to the north, we eventually crossed Hamilton Creek just above Lower Hamilton Falls. The trail then flanked little Hamilton Lake before leveling out for the last quarter mile.
Looking back at the entirety of my two weeks exploring the Sierras, there were two moments that made my jaw drop – Stepping through the tree line and seeing Hamilton Lake for the first time was one of those moments. The lake is nestled in an absolutely stunning circular glacial basin surrounded by sheer cliffs, prominent 12,000′ peaks, pinnacles, and minarets, and Hamilton Creek spills over the eastern wall creating cascading waterfalls.
When I backpack, I usually seek out alpine lakes, but the impressive dramatic backdrop surrounding the sparkling, oval-shaped lake made for one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever experienced. So needless to say, camping at Hamilton Lake was easily a highlight of the High Sierra Trail for me. Especially at sunset when the alpenglow hit to the east and the sky exploded to the west…
Tips for this Section of Trail:
- Fill up on water before leaving the High Sierra Camp as I don’t remember any water sources for about 4 miles or so, including a good-sized climb once you pass Lone Pine Creek. (Being in a giant ravine, that creek was inaccessible for fill-ups.)
- Plan to get to Hamilton early not only to claim the best camp spots, but to be able to just spend the day relaxing there.
- Always a good idea when your backpacking in case of emergencies, but make sure you have a little extra cash on you for some treats (coffee or beer) at Bearpaw High Sierra Camp. Even though most backpackers will probably hit it on only their second day out, it might be re-energizing.
Hamilton Lake Backpacker Camp:
- Camping at Hamilton Lake is incredibly popular and therefore, the park’s service has implemented a one-night camping limit for all backpackers.
- There were tons of amazing camping spots, both right next to the lake as well as nestled in the trees by the creek
- Bear Lockers: Plenty. I spotted 3-4 scattered throughout so you don’t necessarily need a bear can here.
- It’s important to note that the local deer are salt-deficient and to supplement their diet, they go after sweaty (salty) clothes. Make sure to bring everything into your tent or keep it in the bear lockers. We were chasing deer off minutes after laying some stuff out.
- Sweet pit toilet with stunning views of Valhalla… seriously.
You cannot go wrong shooting here.
- Continuing up the HST for another 5 minutes will put you above Hamilton Lake, as the trail quickly gains some elevation. This also gets you views back down valley and overlooking Valhalla. (Where my last shot above was taken.)
- If you’ve got it in you, climb for an hour or so and the views back west were unreal.
- Even if the lake’s choppy from wind, there are small reflection pools located on the west side where Hamilton Creek exits the lake.
- Double-back on the HST to shoot above Lower Hamilton Lake and Valhalla. There’s clear views to the west so this could be great if east doesn’t look promising.
General Information & Planning:
- The History of the High Sierra Trail
- Planning for the High Sierra Trail
- Packing List & Tips
- Photography Spots & Tips
- Day 1: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw
- Day 2: Bearpaw to Hamilton Lake
- Day 3 (Part 1): Hamilton Lake to Kaweah Gap
- Day 3 (Part 2): Kaweah Gap to Moraine Lake
- Day 4: Moraine Lake to Junction Meadow
- Day 5: Junction Meadow to Crabtree Ranger Station
- Day 6: Crabtree Ranger Station to Guitar Lake
- Mt Whitney: The Tallest Peak in the Lower US
- Day 7: Guitar Lake, up Mount Whitney, and out to Whitney Portal