In our original plan, we wanted to get to the branch off to Moraine lake on day 3. That was ambitious. Crossing Kaweah gap wiped us out of our energy. We stayed at Big Arroyo campground, which so happened to be the coldest night in our trip. To make things interesting, a caravan of stock decided to cross our campground at night. With bells. Lots of bells, that slowly moved in surround sound fashion for an hour through the trail. I didn't get much sleep that night.
The next morning, we woke up early and by sunrise, we starting hiking the HST. There is a sharp ascent right out of Big Arroyo and the sun lit the mountains.
There were a few water streams in the trail above Big Arroyo. If you are planning to stay at the Moraine lake branch off, there may be water available (check before you leave.
You hike through forests of willow and eventually, bristlecone pines make an appearance as well.
The higher you go, you can see the Great Western Divide to your right since you are now east of the GWD. After about a couple of miles of climbing, you are abruptly in a huge meadow in Chagoopa plateau. It takes your breath away. The scenery changes so rapidly within a mile or two.
We decided to take the turn off to view Moraine lake instead of continuing on the HST. A mile or so of nearly flat terrain later, we get to this vista point where you get a spectacular view of the GWD, above the five lakes basin. This is a spectacular spot which you will miss if you do not take the Moraine lake turnoff.
Moraine lake itself is clean and pristine, it probably sees only a few hundred passengers a year and is very calming.
After a relaxing lunch at Moraine lake, we continued our hike through Sky Parlor meadow.
A couple of miles later, you start a sharp descent towards kern river, you lose nearly 3,000 feet over a couple of miles. You are walking through a field of ferns. I was engrossed in listening to Jeffrey Archer's Nothing Ventured on bluetooth headphones, I was using it only on one ear, but I missed a rattlesnake rattling since I was engrossed in the book. I was given an earful by my hiking buddies and that was the last that headphones saw the light of day.
In the switchbacks going down, you cross Funston creek multiple times.
You start seeing the entirety of Kern Canyon as you look North and you realize that you would be walking this entire canyon towards North the next day.
Once you are near the bank of kern river, you have to walk a mile amidst talus and scree for a mile, which is brutal. Eventually you get to the bridge to cross the Kern river.
The river thunders below your feet.
We got very close to kern hot springs before the sun was completely out, but we got lost. AllTrails suggested that the kern hot springs was on the side of the creek we were on and we did not have to cross the creek, whereas the reality was we had to cross the creek. We wasted about 45 minutes bushwhacking to find our way, and eventually we traced back to our original path and found the trail after crossing the creek.
Massive relief that we pitched our tents and headed to the hot springs for a well deserved bath. The tub may be filled with algae, but the 95F water is what we needed. 17 miles is a long distance with backpacks in a day, but that warm bath refreshed us. A bit late dinner, we slept well that night to prepare for the next few days of the trail, which would be harder than anything we have done so far.