Day 5: Wallace Creek to Kern Canyon

We officially started hiking on the High Sierra Trail, from east to west, from Wallace Creek and the John Muir Trail, continuing west down into Kern Canyon, getting great views the entire way, eventually setting up camp at Whitney Creek, two miles south of Junction Meadow.

Me, drinking my morning coffee in the chill dawn air of the Wallace Creek campsite on the PCT-JMT-HST
Me, drinking my morning coffee in the chill dawn air of the Wallace Creek campsite on the PCT-JMT-HST

We woke at first light and began getting ready.  We ate a normal freeze-dried breakfast and drank our coffee.  There was no big rush as today was all downhill, 2600 feet, heading deep into the “Kern Trench.”  Vicki was truly looking forward to it.  We decided not to speak about the subsequent climb two days later to get out of the trench, but it was always in the back of our minds.  We’d climb that hill when we came to it.

Vicki getting ready to hike down Wallace Creek on the High Sierra Trail - it was all downhill so we started late, at 8am
Vicki getting ready to hike down Wallace Creek on the High Sierra Trail – we started late, at 8am

It was a beautiful day, the sky replete with puffy clouds, which meant that there would be opportunities for truly great photos.  The weather report via satellite from my InReach mentioned thunderstorm chances for the next few days, and the clouds that were already forming so early in the morning made it seem likely.  Still, we would be heading west, away from the Sierra Crest, so I thought that we might escape the worst of the storms later that afternoon.  Meanwhile, the weather was great, and we started off down the trail, which paralleled Wallace Creek most of the way down into the canyon.  Luckily for us, it stayed high on the northern slope, and we were treated to spectacular views the entire way.

Great views west greeted us as we hiked down Wallace Creek on the High Sierra Trail
Great views to the west greeted us as we hiked down Wallace Creek

Video of Wallace Creek as it cascaded down into Kern Canyon

 

Zoomed-in view of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge from the High Sierra Trail at Wallace Creek
Zoomed-in view of the Kaweah Peaks Ridge
Vicki is having a great day as we continue down Wallace Creek on the High Sierra Trail
Vicki was having a great day as we continued down Wallace Creek
Me, posing on the High Sierra Trail as we continued downhill into Kern Canyon along Wallace Creek
Me, posing on the HST as we headed downhill into Kern Canyon
Looking back east up the canyon at Wallace Creek from the High Sierra Trail
Looking back east up the canyon as Wallace Creek cascaded down
Red Spur (left), Red Kaweah, Black Kaweah, Kaweah Queen, and Picket Guard from Wallace Creek on the HST
Red Spur (left), Red Kaweah, Black Kaweah, Kaweah Queen, and Picket Guard

After two miles, the creek dropped down steeply while the trail stayed up high, descending gradually, eventually turning north along the side of Kern Canyon.  We were then able to look both north and south, from a superb vantage point.  The Kaweah Range to the west vanished from view as we got lower, until only the high walls of the canyon remained visible.

Looking across Kern Canyon from the High Sierra Trail along Wallace Creek
Looking across Kern Canyon – it’s a long way down
Picket Guard and Kern Point dominate the view to the northwest as we descend into Kern Canyon on the HST
Picket Guard and Kern Point dominate the view to the northwest as we descended along the side of Kern Canyon
Panorama view of Kern Canyon from the High Sierra Trail north of Wallace Creek
Panorama view of Kern Canyon
Looking south down Kern Canyon from the High Sierra Trail
Looking south down Kern Canyon – we’d be camping down there soon

We reached the trail junction, just above the Kern River, and turned north (the wrong way) as there were some tall pines up that way.  We wanted to take a break and have some lunch in the shade.  And we found a really nice spot to camp next to the river.  We took off our shoes and relaxed for a while.  It was mellow.  But there was no doubt that the temperature was higher down there in the canyon, 2500 feet lower than yesterday.  So much for the comfortable High Sierra weather that we’d been getting used to!

The High Sierra Trail heads down into Kern Canyon, with the Upper Kern River on the right
The High Sierra Trail headed down into Kern Canyon, with the Upper Kern River on the right
We found a nice camping spot in the shade and had lunch next to the Kern River just north of the trail junction
We found a nice camping spot in the shade and had lunch next to the Kern River just north of the trail junction

Eventually, we had no choice but to face the heat, so we hiked south, deeper into the canyon.  We reached Junction Meadow in the early afternoon.  It was a large camp, under tall pines, and there were several groups already there.  Our original plan was to camp at Junction Meadow, but Vicki was feeling strong, and she wanted to continue onward a bit further.  We had over ten miles to hike the next day, so shaving a couple off by hiking further today made a lot of sense.  Onward!

Panorama view southwest from the High Sierra Trail as we head downhill toward Junction Meadow
Panorama view southwest as we headed downhill toward Junction Meadow
We finally reached the tall trees in the bottom of Kern Canyon on the High Sierra Trail
We finally reached the tall trees in the bottom of Kern Canyon
We met with some stock animals and horses on the High Sierra Trail at Junction Meadow
We met with some stock animals and horses on the High Sierra Trail at Junction Meadow – the first we’d seen in 2020

We continued downhill, although really the trail was quite flat.  We crossed Wallace Creek and finally needed to use our water shoes, as there were no convenient logs nearby.  We probably could have searched upstream to find a dry crossing but decided that cooling our feet in the icy water was exactly what the doctor ordered.  After that, the trail meandered along, occasionally getting close to the Kern River, which was quite low in August of 2020, a dry year.  We’d be crossing it tomorrow, on a wooden bridge, because it was normally too dangerous to attempt on foot.

Lots of tall, beautiful pine trees in Kern Canyon along the High Sierra Trail
Lots of tall, beautiful conifers in Kern Canyon

GoPro video of me crossing Wallace Creek

 

The Kern River was at a fairly low level this late in the dry year of 2020, but we didn't have to cross it
The Kern River was at a fairly low level this late in the year, but we didn’t have to ford it, either

The clouds had been gradually increasing overhead all day, and it came as no surprise when a few small drops began to land on our hands, and make tapping sounds as they struck our hats and backpacks.  Oh boy!  We knew that you only get a few minute’s warning when a thunderstorm approaches, so we stopped and put on our pack covers.  We also got out the super-cheap plastic ponchos we’d packed, rather than our gore-tex rain gear.  Over the years, we’ve determined that the gore-tex stuff wasn’t anywhere near as waterproof as they claim (and as you’d expect given its high cost) after it got older.   We’d found out the hard way that it fully wetted-out and allowed water to wick through it, completely soaking both ourselves and our clothing.  Utterly Useless, in other words, except to keep the wind from freezing us to death.  Hence the cheap ponchos.  And they worked great!  Too bad the rain let up this time, before we could fully test them.  But that was OK by us, as wet shoes weren’t all that much fun either.  So I bunched up the poncho and stuffed it in my pocket, but left the pack cover on.

The clouds began to sprinkle a bit of rain so we covered our packs and wore cheap ponchos to stay dry
The clouds began to sprinkle, so we covered our packs and wore cheap ponchos to stay dry
There are some truly large pine trees down in the Kern Canyon on the High Sierra Trail
There are some truly large trees down in the bottom of Kern Canyon

It was getting close to 4pm by the time we neared Whitney Creek.  It felt good to know we’d lopped two miles off tomorrow’s hike, but meanwhile where were we going to camp around here?  Everything looked bad, either too much slope or too rocky or too brushy.  So we took off our shoes and crossed Whitney Creek, then put them back on, but we didn’t put on our packs.  We needed a decent camping spot.  By the time I got my shoes on, Vicki had already found a likely spot.  Yes, it had some slope, but at least it was smooth.  It even had a bit of a view.  And others had camped there before, so the Leave No Trace guidelines were satisfied.  After we scuffed the dirt a bit, the slope was acceptable, and we began to get out the tent.

Vicki wearing her crocs in the waters of Whitney Creek, cooling her feet after a long day hiking on the High Sierra Trail
Vicki wearing her crocs in the waters of Whitney Creek, cooling her feet after a long day hiking

Video of Vicki Crossing Whitney Creek

 

We found one small campsite south of Whitney Creek, just uphill from the High Sierra Trail
We found one small campsite south of Whitney Creek, just uphill from the High Sierra Trail

And that’s when it decided to rain again!  So we left the tent in its bag, re-covered the pack, and donned our ponchos once more.  And we were lucky.  The rain was light, it didn’t last too long, and the sun came out to visit.  Sun shower!  There were plenty of big clouds drifting overhead, and we knew that time might be short, so as soon as the rain stopped we whipped out the tent and got it all set up.  Then we were safe, and could take our time getting everything else ready.

Video of an afternoon sun shower from our campsite before we could get the tent set up

 

The rain didn't last very long, so we got out the tent and set it up before it could rain again
The rain didn’t last very long, so we got out the tent and set it up before it could rain again
Our tent and campsite down in Kern Canyon near Whitney Creek on the High Sierra Trail
Our tent and campsite down in Kern Canyon near Whitney Creek on the HST
Rain-filled cumulus clouds drifted by above our campsite in Kern Canyon near Whitney Creek on the High Sierra Trail
Rain-filled cumulus clouds drifted by above our campsite for the rest of the afternoon

Once our camp was ready, we filtered some water from Whitney Creek.  We wondered if maybe some of the water that we saw flowing in Crabtree Meadow two days ago was flowing past us once again.  It was theoretically possible, at least.  And then we had some dinner and enjoyed our private little campsite down in Kern Canyon.  We were glad that we’d hiked on past Junction Meadow.  We got out the map and realized that we still had almost eight miles to hike tomorrow, most of it downhill, albeit on the relatively flat canyon bottom, and down at this elevation, we knew that it was going to be really hot.  We decided to get up early the next day, to start hiking before dawn, so we could get as far as possible before the sun made its way deep into the canyon.

All in all, it had been a really great day of hiking.  It was all downhill, and we had awesome views the entire way down Wallace Creek.  We even got to enjoy a few sprinkles of afternoon rain without the unpleasantness of getting drenched.  Life was good.

 

 

For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page

For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page

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