This would be our hardest day, stumbling into camp around sunset, completely exhausted.
But, the start of the day is great. We set off early, climbing through thick forest along the gentle trail covered with soft forest litter. Soon, we arrive at Bearpaw Meadow. The luxury of staying there for $350 per night doesn’t seem worth the price. Mark gets water while Wayne and Mickey check out the restaurant. The chef is willing to make us pancakes.
From the restaurant porch, we catch a glimpse of Kaweah Gap. We will be hiking over this pass, gaining 5,000 feet over 3 short miles. From here, it looks towering and daunting.
Beyond Bearpaw Meadow, we descend through mixed forest as the trail skirts areas of exposed granite slabs. At the bottom of the river valley, we cross over a well-maintained footbridge over Lone Pine Creek, just above where it joins the Middle Fork Kaweah River. Now, right at 10:00, we apply sunscreen and rest before the long hike up to Hamilton Lake.
Our group spreads out on this overwhelming hike. Mickey finds respite at the ford of Hamilton Creek just below Valhalla. Mark and I have peanut butter pretzels, and Mike shares some goji berries covered in dark chocolate. They are amazingly good. Wayne marches on ahead to the lake.
Upon passing Upper Hamilton Lake’s outlet, Mark and I find Wayne waiting in the shade on the opposite bank. We continue on to find a beautiful covered spot by the lake’s northwestern shore. Here, we have lunch. The one luxury item to complement today’s meal is fresh dill to top the crackers, cream cheese, and wild salmon. Mark thinks this is really good, at least for now, until later in the day, when he will be burping dill flavor during the tough climb to Kaweah Gap.
The Great Western Divide’s skyline dominates our views. Suddenly, the moon appears, rising above the Gap as if beckoning us higher. I get out my long zoom lens, and by the end of the trip, it would have been only the first of two times that I use it.
We marvel at the engineering feat that went into trail construction. This entire section, from Hamilton Lake to Precipice Lake, was seemingly blasted out of vertical cliff faces. The thousand-foot drop-offs are better appreciated when viewed on profile. On the way up these relentless switchbacks, Mark tells me that he now dislikes dill, having been burping up lunch this whole way.
Precipice Lake is a deep beauty, transparent like a blue sapphire tucked comfortably against sheer jagged cliffs. Mark and I refill our water before heading out, and Mickey naps at the shallow ended. At this point, there’s almost no energy to continue across the Gap.
Knowing that the setting sun will soon disappear behind the Great Western Divide once we reach Nine Lake Basin, Mark and I take off for Kaweah Gap. From there, the view of the Big Arroyo is breathtaking. We cross over, scramble cross-country, and pick a campsite on the east side of the lower lake’s outlet, hoping to savor as much sunlight as possible.
By last light, bathing is done, and we’re completely bundled up. After doing laundry, we wave down Wayne as he cross the Gap to join us. Next, Mike makes it to camp. Mickey misses the turn-off but later finds us. We’re all dehydrated and exhausted.
It’s dinner time. Mark makes the kale salad with olive oil, pine nuts, Romano cheese, and lemon. He starts the tortilla soup, and I get the black bean quinoa going. Unfortunately, I do most of the eating, since Mark is feeling too sick to eat. Instead, he drinks some hot chocolate and replenishes with mini Oreo cookies.
Based on pre-trip planning, this would be the only night that would give us the best shot of the Milky Way. The moon, being in Libra, is just west enough of galaxy center; and over the next few nights, it will be moving into Ophiuchus and Sagittarius, thereby obscuring all possibilities of getting good pictures of the steamed milk rising from the teapot’s spout. I experiment through a few shots with the moon framed outside the view, and I wake up again to take more pictures after the moon had dropped behind the Divide. I think Mark is irritated that I’m giving him too many directions on how to light up the tent for the picture. The tripod, camera, and crazy instructions—they’re worth it.