Hiking Kern Hot Springs High Sierra Trail: A Backpacker’s Guide


Jason is an adventure travel writer with a passion for exploring the world's most beautiful and remote destinations.

The High Sierra Trail is a breathtaking hike through Sequoia National Park, taking you into the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. 

On your hike, you’ll see crystal-clear lakes, lush meadows, and high granite walls that look like something out of a fantasy movie. 

But one of the most overlooked parts of this trail is the Kern Hot Springs. This oasis is one of the lesser-explored parts of Sequoia National Park but one of the most beautiful. 

If you want to take on the Kern Hot Springs High Sierra Trail, we’ll show you where to camp, what to pack, and give you some pro tips for a successful hike. 

About the High Sierra Trail

  • Distance: 72.2 miles
  • Time: 6-8 days
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 13,303 ft
  • Dogs allowed: No
  • When to go: July-Sept

Perhaps not as well-known as the famous John Muir Trail, the High Sierra Trail (HST) dates back to 1928 when Sequoia National Forest was expanded from the famous giant Sequoia Grove all the way to the Eastern Sierra and Mt Whitney. 

At the time, there were no trails or roads for the park officials, so the decision was made to create a trail. It was a massive five-year project that took incredible feats of engineering, and we’re now left with the iconic 72-mile trail that’s hiked by millions each year. 

The High Sierra Trail is known for two incredible ascents – over the Kaweah Gap and the Great Western Divide and over the Eastern Sierra and Trail Crest. There is so much to see on this hike, from Hamilton Lakes Basin and Precipice Lake to Big Arroyo and the Kern Hot Spring.

Who is the High Sierra Trail Suitable For?

a view of mountains from the High Sierra trail

Whether you’re hiking the Haute Route in Switzerland or climbing dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, it’s always important to know if the trail is suitable for your skill level. 

There are sections of the High Sierra Trail that are suitable for everyone. With plenty of options for camping, you could do sections of the trail and turn it into a much easier hike over just a couple of days. 

However, if you’re planning on taking on the entire trail, you’ll need to be an experienced hiker. It’s a strenuous hike that takes about a week to complete. There are a few challenging climbs, and the weather can be unpredictable at best. 

If you are planning on hiking this trail, it’s highly recommended to do some practice trails with your backpack to get used to carrying significant amounts of weight over long stretches. 

Physical fitness is key for this trail – you need to have good lung capacity to deal with the altitude and good leg strength to cope with miles of hiking up steep mountain passes. 

Where to Camp on the HST

Since the trail takes several days to complete, you’ll have a few options for camping as you go. Here are a few examples of sections of the trail you can do and where you’ll find places to camp overnight. 

Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw Meadow: 11.4 miles

The trail starts in a meadow but almost immediately moves to a dry, rocky landscape. At the start, you’ll get views of the famous Moro Rock, which is well worth stopping for. 

At about the 9-mile mark, you’ll have the option to camp at Nine Mile Creek, where that are several established campsites and flat spots for a tent. 

Bearpaw Meadow to Big Arroyo Junction: 11 miles (22.5 miles total)

This section is where you’ll take on a big climb into the Great Western Divide. Don’t forget to look for Angel Wings – the large granite wall that looms above. 

At the 16-mile marker, you’ll reach Big Hamilton Lake, where many people choose to camp overnight. Even if you don’t camp here, it’s a great spot to stop and swim. 

You can also climb up to Precipice Lake. It’s colder to camp there, but the views of the striped granite walls are out of this world, and you’ll be able to see Big Hamilton Lake below. 

Big Arroyo Junction to Upper Funston Meadow: 12 miles (34.5 miles total)

There aren’t any huge climbs in this section, so it’s a nice break for tired legs! The trail becomes flat at Chagoopa Plateau, and you’ll eventually reach a junction for Moraine Lake. The Moraine Lake Trail is a detour, but it only adds 0.8 miles to the trip. 

The more direct trail meets back up with the Moraine Lake Trail at mile marker 30.8, where you’ll find more options for camping. 

No matter where you are on the trail, you’ll find options to rest. It’s best to plan out your days in advance so you know how many miles you’ll be walking each day. 

Getting To The Kern Hot Springs 

a rocky trail in the High Sierra hiking trail

The High Sierra Trail starts at Crescent Meadow on the western edge of Sequoia National Park. The finishing point is Whitney Portal, which is a six-hour drive apart. 

You’ll hit the Kern Hot Springs along the halfway point of your trek at around mile 36. However, this isn’t the only way to visit the springs. 

For a shorter route, you can take a 20-mile hike (600 feet elevation gain) starting at Mineral King Ranger Station. This takes you over Franklyn Pass and descends along Rattlesnake Creek toward Kern River. 

It’s not easy to get to Kern Hot Springs, but it’s well worth the hike. It’s one of the lesser-explored areas of Sequoia National Park, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. 

When to Hike the High Sierra Trail

The high passes of the HST are blanketed in snow, often year-round. In the springtime, they become almost impossible and dangerous to trek. For the best weather, hike the Sierra Trail in July or August. If you’d prefer less crowds, you can also go in early September after school starts. 

What to Expect on the Trail

a marked path in the woods in the Kern Hot Springs High Sierra Trail

The High Sierra Trail is well-marked, so it’s easy to follow the route without getting lost. If you go during the summer, you’ll almost definitely be sharing the trail with crowds, so be prepared to deal with other hikers, especially over weekends. 

Camping and water points are also frequent and easy to find. Just make sure you plan your stops in advance so you know how far you have to go before taking a break. 

If you can handle ten miles a day, the trail will take a week to complete. However, many people factor in zero-mile days to hang out at a lake and soak in the scenery. 

Regulations to Follow

To keep the trail clean and safe for everyone, there are a few regulations you’re expected to follow while hiking the High Sierra Trail:

  • Carry a printed, signed copy of your permit at all times. 
  • Carry bear proof food canisters or use the permanent food storage boxes at campsites. 
  • Do not take dogs on the trail. 
  • Leave No Trace – take all your trash with you, including toilet paper. 
  • Groups are limited to 15 people or less. 
  • Weapons are prohibited, including bear spray. 
  • No fires above 9000 feet (which includes the Hamilton Lakes Basin). 
  • Don’t use soap at the Kern Hot Springs. 

It seems like a lot of strict rules, but they are in place to protect the wildlife and keep the trail clean for everyone to enjoy.  

Tips for Success

If this is your first time hiking Kern Hot Springs High Sierra Trail, here are a few pro tips to make it a success. 

Book Your Permits in Advance

You can reserve most of your permits in advance (a few are walk-in permits). They cost about $10 + $5 per person, and you can check the availability online before you go. 

You’ll need to pick up your actual permits at the Lodgepole Visitor Center the day before or the morning of your hike. 

Check the Weather

The weather on the HST is difficult to predict. In the summer months, you can expect warm days and cold nights, but afternoon thunderstorms are common. 

In the colder months, snowstorms are common, and the high ground is usually covered in snow, so you might need your microspikes or crampons.  

Whenever you plan on going, check the weather forecast in advance and plan accordingly. 

Hire a Pack Train

There is no resupply on the High Sierra Trail, but you can hire a pack train to bring you food if you plan on being on the trail for days at a time. This is something you’ll need to reserve in advance. 

Plan Water Stops

Water is plentiful in the early season because of melting snow runoff, so you’ll find streamlets everywhere. 

In the later season, on-trail water is only available about every three miles, so you’ll need to plan where you stop to replenish. 

Bearpaw Meadow, Big Arroyo Junction, Chagoopa Creek, and Junction Meadow are all good spots to get water on your hike. 

Final Thoughts on the High Sierra Trail

For experienced hikers, the Kern Hot Springs High Sierra Trail is a must-try. It’s a long, challenging hike, but the views are incredible, there is so much to do and see, and it feels like a real accomplishment when you reach the end. 

Whether you plan on taking on the full 72-mile High Sierra Trail or you’re going for the shorter route, don’t miss out on visiting Kern Hot Springs – they are a must-see. 

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