For burly hikers who like to push big miles with lots of elevation gain, Hamilton Lake is an incredible gem tucked away deep inside Sequoia National Park. The route to get there follows the High Sierra Trail, though it is not a popular overnight destination for thru-hikers due to the big push from Bearpaw Meadow to reach its rocky shores. This makes it a wonderful and pristine bit of alpine wilderness surrounded on all sides by massive rock faces reminiscent of Yosemite Valley, but at a much higher elevation.
To begin your overnight backpacking excursion, be sure to reserve a permit in advance for the High Sierra Trail or the Alta Trail. The latter of the two hits a junction that hikers can use to drop down to the High Sierra Trail and continue on toward Bearpaw Meadow and Hamilton Lake. The views are similar and striking from both trails.
The trek itself is full of true Sierra beauty in all of its forms. Massive waterfalls, rushing streams, huge cliff faces, and old-growth forests greet you along the 15-mile journey as you climb. Even the road to get to the trailhead offers some of the best of what Sequoia National Park has to offer – massive trees like something out of Jurassic Park tower all around as you park and begin your adventure.
The trail from Crescent Meadow starts out in a dense pine forest, carpeted by bright green ferns. Be on the lookout for bears in the first few miles of the hike because they are a common sight, especially in summer months. Pretty soon, the path spits hikers out of the forest and onto a steep slope with panoramic views of Castle Rocks, Moro Rock, and the Great Western Divide. From here the trail follows a gently graded slope for the first few miles, dipping in and out of tree cover and breathtaking views of the massive peaks of the Great Divide.
Along the trail there are many places to camp or filter water, as many prominent stream crossings lay along the way. The first of these is Mehrten Creek, 5 miles in, with its beautiful granite slabs and views of the middle fork of the Kaweah River. From here the trail continues ascending toward the rushing Buck Creek and its wooden bridge, climbing one final, steep set of switchbacks before arriving at Bearpaw Meadow.
A seasonal High Sierra Camp (and a camping area for backpackers with bear boxes) exists here at Bearpaw, and the kitchen tent will happily sell tired trekkers a beer, though it might be best to carry it in your pack until you reach camp! That’s because the next bit of the trail is the hardest yet, but the last push up to Hamilton Lake is well worth the effort. From Bearpaw Meadow, follow the trail down to Lone Pine Creek and across its large bridge that spans across a deep, rocky canyon. Then, head up a set of steep switchbacks that leads into the Great Western Divide. A 2,000-foot tall granite face named Valhalla soars overhead for the entirety of this climb, often obscured behind clouds due to the high elevation. The sheer magnitude of this feature is striking – it’s like El Capitan in Yosemite, only 4,000 feet higher up and far more secluded.
As you crest the last of the switchbacks, Upper Hamilton Lake will come into view with its sapphire-colored waters. The northwest corner of the lake features several designated campsites with wonderful views of the dramatic landscape. Sunsets at Hamilton are full of electric pinks and reds, so make sure to have your camera ready. The deer in this area are extremely friendly, and you might have to shoo them out of your campsite! Be sure to use the bear boxes to put away any uneaten food and toiletries before turning in for the night.
For energetic hikers who don’t mind an extra ascent, Precipice Lake and Kaweah Gap are excellent day hikes from Hamilton Lake that offer even more panoramic vistas of the Great Western Divide and her many peaks. When you’re ready to head home, simply turn around the way you came and follow the long trail back to Crescent Meadow. This overnight backpacking trip makes a great weekend away from neighboring big cities and is a haven for all the best stuff that Sequoia National Park has to offer.