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The hike in was great—like, massive-gorges, snowcapped-peaks, knock-your-socks-off great. But it’s nothing—nothing—compared to the Hamilton Lakes basin. We crest the final set of switchbacks, and suddenly we stand before a blue jewel of a lake surrounded by thousand-foot-tall granite walls. This is Yosemite on steroids, a glacial cirque cut deep in the Great Western Divide. Each tick of the clock improves our already-awesome situation, as sunset turns the rock coral, then starlight begins to fleck the sky and, before I know it, I’ve got a front-row seat to the best dinner show in the Sierra. I don’t know how tomorrow could possibly be better, but I suspect it might be.
Turn-by-turn from the Crescent Meadow trailhead
1) Take the High Sierra Trail 10.6 miles east, threading together lodgepole pine forest, alpine meadows, and big views of the Great Western Divide high above the Middle Fork Kaweah River gorge, to Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp.
2) Next day, stay on the trail 1.6 miles.
3) Cross the wooden bridge over Lone Pine Creek and veer east to stay on the High Sierra Trail, which steadily climbs 900 feet in 1.9 miles to the Hamilton Lakes basin.
4) Retrace your steps 14.3 miles to the trailhead.
Campsite 1: Bearpaw Meadow
Pass the Bearpaw Meadow High Sierra Camp, a summer-staffed, rustic backcountry lodge, and descend .1 mile to the first-come, first-serve backpacking camp at mile 10.6, tucked in a grove of red firs and lodgepole pines. It lacks the views of the tent cabins next door, but it’s a lot cheaper. Good plan: Buy a sunset beer at the adjacent High Sierra Camp and toast all that money you saved.
Campsite 2: Hamilton Lakes
This hike’s pièce de résistance, the Hamilton Lakes basin at mile 14.3 is truly a can’t-go-wrong sort of heaven. Pick a granite shelf on the northwest corner of the bigger (eastern) of the two lakes for your tent, and skip the fly on a clear night. You just might feel like you’ve tiptoed into the living room of the mountain gods. Nature calling? Lucky you: Perhaps the world’s most scenic pit toilet is 100 yards northwest, facing 2,500-foot-tall Valhalla, an El Capitan look-alike.
Depending on snowpack, July is typically prime time for petal peeping at this elevation. A parade of summer blooms smears the meadows along this bit of the High Sierra Trail; look for purple and blue lupines, red Applegate’s paintbrushes, and unique crimson Western columbines.
DO IT Distance 28.6 miles Trailhead 36.5547, -118.7493; 25 miles northeast of Three Rivers on Crescent Meadow Rd. Season June to October Permit Required ($10 + $5/person); reservations recommended in high season.