July 1-15, 2016
John Muir Trail northbound with daughter Sasha. 210.5 miles after the 10 mile approach through Whitney Portal. Epic landscape, mind-clearing solitude, and the occasional dusty PCT thru-hiker.
June 30 – Austin to Lone Pine CA (1,515 miles)
After a very generous shuttle by uncle Gary from Las Vegas to Lone Pine ranger station, we arrived in time to snatch up the last two walk-in backcountry permits departing Whitney Portal. Our fall back was Horseshoe Meadows permits we pulled months earlier. Happy to release those and start 24 miles closer.
July 1 – Whitney Portal to Trail Crest (8.8 miles)
We caught a ride to the trailhead from a local we met working at Elevation Sierra Adventure Essentials. Hit the trail at 8 am. Carrying 4 days of food and extra water in the Platypus, my pack weighed in at 25 lbs for the 8.8 mile 5,000′ climb up Whitney Portal. Sasha was at 21 lbs.
A forest fire below Outpost Camp closed the trail late morning but we were well above it and kept an eye on billowing smoke as we ascended. At Trail Camp, we left behind the dozen or so who were climbing Mt. Whitney overnight. We gazed longingly back at Trail Camp during the hours it took to scale the cliff to Trail Crest. I guess I stopped too much to lower the heart beat from my ears. Sasha decided she would lead the remainder of the trip.
We made Trail Crest at 8 pm. Boiled water, rehydrated supper, and crashed at the 13,500′ camp just below Mt. Whitney Trail junction. This was a solitary camp since the Crabtree Meadows ranger had closed it to PCT’ers. We were snug in our sacks in time for a spectacular sunset over Guitar Lake.
Maps show no water for 10 miles between Trail Camp and Guitar Lake, but we found plenty of snow melt. I still kept a liter reserve in the Platypus until we descended Mt. Whitney. For the rest of the JMT, we walked around with 1-2 liters each, except for a couple sections that showed unreliable sources. Even in these, we found enough to stay hydrated. But, I imagined them drying up within a few weeks. Trust the National Geographic guide and fellow hikers to identify the few dry sections. Otherwise, we found pristine sources practically every mile. The 2.5-ounce Sawyer Mini made short work of filtering. Sasha carried a backup. Count on the squeeze bag splitting near the spout after repeated use. This happened a few days into the trail on a bag I had used for a year.
Our itinerary had us summiting Mt. Whitney on day one and camping just below Trail Crest. That turned out too ambitious. We started day two with the two mile summit climb before even reaching the John Muir Trail.
July 2 – Trail Crest to Mt. Whitney to Wallace Creek (1.9 + 12.3 miles)
Trail Crest was our coldest night but we were plenty comfortable in 20 degree bags with a thermal ground pad and a second layer of clothing. Patagonia Nano Puff jackets were cut from our gear list at the last moment based on weather reports, and that turned out to be a good call, saving 12 oz each.
We warmed up with hot tea, oatmeal with flaxseed and walnuts. Threw on shells and caps for a third layer, left our gear in camp and departed for the summit at 7 am. Mt. Whitney is an easy 1.9 mile walk-up from Trail Crest. The path has an exhilarating few hundred yards of exposure that would be dicey if iced, but nothing technical.
We took someone else’s toe-holds through a small snow field. Finally arriving at the southern terminus of the JMT, vistas are breath-taking from the highest point in the lower 48. We met a few PCT’ers who had taken the side trip and a group of south-bounders who just finished the JMT. In celebration of America’s War of Independence, we reenacted Washington Crossing the Potomac at 14,494′ with a fish float and flag borrowed from silly college kids. Onward JMT!
We descended nearly 4,000′ in 8 miles to Crabtree, breaking for lunch and the open-air toilet. I visited the ranger’s cabin to let her know we were still alive and proceeding north. This is where you drop off unused waste disposal bags provided by NPS for Mt. Whitney zone. She wanted to know about the portal fire and warned us of a nuisance bear and Wallace Creek. She did not want to see the much coveted permits that we had buried deep in our packs.
We joined up with the Pacific Crest Trail at Crabtree. The trails overlap all the way to Tuolumne Meadows, except for about 13 miles between Red’s Meadow and Thousand Island Lake, which made us PCT section hikers. Going north from Crabtree, the few hikers who passed us were PCT thru-hikers, 800 miles into their trek. As it turns out, they are the tail-end of their PCT class and worried about making Canada. They all talk about the trials of the desert, where some were said to clock dozens of miles hiking at night and sleeping the hottest part of the day. We were reassured it would only take us two weeks to get our trail legs–which meant by the time we finished the JMT.
We ran into a dozen or so JMT hikers, which became typical. During the entire trip, we only met a few going in our direction, NOBO. The vast majority are SOBO–south-bound. We wondered about that and decided we were happy north-bound. We would take the highest elevations and passes early.
The camp on Wallace Creek was beautiful but popular with hikers and mosquitos. Mosquitos laugh off anything short of 100 DEET and head nets. We shuffled across the fast flowing creek with our trail runners on, then climbed a half mile before stopping. Our day-2 itinerary had us making 16.6 miles to Shepherd Pass Trail, but we pitched tent four miles short. Another hot meal and in the sack by 9 pm.
July 3 – Wallace Creek to Forester Pass to Bubbs Creek Trail (14.9 miles)
Sasha had a half-dozen blisters. She used Body Glide but it was washed off with creek crossings. I applied blister pads and she moved on with a pair of dry socks.
We made the gradual ascent to Bighorn Plateau finally getting off map 1 of our 17 page guidebook. Having come close to a mule deer buck, we dropped from the plateau thinking we must see bighorn sheep. Turns out they like a jagged precipice more than flat plateau. By mid-morning, we stopped for a snack at Shepherd Pass Trail junction, where we were supposed to have camped the night before. We crossed Tyndall Creek at 10,903′ and started a 2,300′ climb to Forester Pass.
On the approach, we passed a heavily burdened Asian man, his hefty pack only slightly balanced by a large chest bag. He turned out to be a Chinese national making JMT north-bound. His stride was no more than 12” as he inched through the upper basin, yet he was as steady as the turtle.
We would later figure that Asians seem to make up 10-15 percent of hikers, the second most represented group. There were many hikers from all over the world. The most prevalent demographic looked to be twenty to thirty-something year old Americans, pretty evenly split between male and female.
At 13,160′, Forester is the highest pass on the JMT. To get there, we took a more or less gradual ascent on mostly good ground (gravel/sand/soil) from Tyndall Creek to an upper basin about 700′ beneath the pass. This is typical of many approaches. Also like many other passes, the crux of the climb is the last 500-700′, gained through tight switch backs of scree and boulders. Large blocks lay diagonally to channel water from the path. Blocks, slabs and boulders of all shapes and size form many hundreds of thigh burning steps. 10″ – 18″ rise would not be unusual; many are cruelly higher. We watched the path 8′ ahead to anticipate foot fall and avoid turning an ankle. Sometimes we took a standing break for 30-60 seconds to bring down our heart-rates. Other times, we took a couple minute sitting break to hydrate and recharge.
We measured progress up the switch backs on my watch’s altimeter, sometimes to the point of obsession. On the final 500′ up Forester and many other JMT passes, the routine had one of us swearing an oath or declaring “No way.” Yet, these were words to steel ourselves, not surrender. The truth is going back would not offer a reprieve–any exit is a day or more away.
To hike a long trail is an exercise in peace. It clears your mind of every tension. Endorphins are released. The physical exertion is an ultimate escape. There is nothing like moving quickly through new terrain in the zone of a long trek.
Thirty feet below the pass, we crossed a steep snow chute. It is one of those rare features on the JMT that would be deadly in a fall. We reached the narrow notch of the pass and peered through. The far off range burst into view. The north-bound approach is rewarded.
Resting in the notch, we met two forty-something year-old PCT thru-hikers who had met a month earlier in the desert. I missed their trail names. The woman was on her second thru-hike. She wore an AT necklace from her Appalachian Trail expedition. She looked doubtful as the man explained they were engaged. I told Sasha I won’t believe they are trail betrothed until they toss one of the two tents they had hauled 800+ miles.
We ran into one thru-hiker who we had already met in queue at the Crabtree open-air commode the day before. She was solo. We pondered that and decided Wild was good for girl-power on the trail. (But, domorewithlessfilm.com is much better.) By the end, it seemed like half the hikers were female, many of them solo or pairs. Great examples for 16 year old Sasha.
The north slope of Forester Pass was half covered in snow, hiding switchbacks and tempting a glissade. Due to the sharp gradient, we stayed on our feet. We lost the track under snow as we approached a cliff but found it again after scrambling back up 20 ft.
We then descended rapidly into the narrow valley drained by Bubbs Creek. In a camp at 10,000′, a half dozen thru-hikers had built a fire. Campfires were prohibited above 10,000′. We found a couple we had run into at Wallace Creek, plus Crabtree commode girl. I figured Sasha would really enjoy PCT culture … in a few years. We moved on another couple miles and camped under Kearsarge Pinnacles.
By now, we were in the rhythm of the hike. To complete the JMT in two weeks, we were to cross a major pass pretty much each day—Trail Crest, Forester, Glen, Pinchot, Mather, Muir, Selden, Silver, Island, Donahue, and Cathedral–allowing for a night each at Muir Trail Ranch and Red’s Meadow. Our goal was to wake up at the bottom of a river valley, climb the pass by mid-day, then descend to the bottom of the next river valley for camp. This worked out well because we started most climbs fresh in the morning, and descended mid-afternoons when tired. It gave us definite geographic goals.
July 4 – Bubbs Creek Trail to Glen Pass to Woods Creek Trail (13.7 miles)
After a short hike through Vidette Meadows, we climbed a steep 1,200′ to the Kearsarge Pass Trail junction. It looked like a rain forest with moss, ferns, verdant cover, dense forest, and water everywhere.
One of our strategies for lightweight backpacking was to carry only 3-4 days of food. This required two full resupplies–Kearsarge Pass Trail junction and Muir Trail Ranch–and a few snacks and hot meals at Muir Trail Ranch, Red’s and Tuolumne Meadows.
July 4th was a resupply day. A pack train came up over Kearsarge Pass for the Charlotte Lake ranger station. We paid to have four days of food and a fuel canister on a pack mule for noon rendezvous at Kearsarge Pass Trail junction. We arrived two hours early, snacked and snoozed. An early-50’s solo PCT’er walked past with a bright pink T-shirt and scalded head. We later learned this was Trail Pop.
The pack train was on time but no fuel can. This meant we would go four days without hot meals. Our daily schedule had us hiking 10-12 hours. We were too beat to tend a wood fire long enough to boil water. We were calorie starved. Meal planning was our biggest lesson on this trip.
On the climb to Glen Pass, Trail Pop waved us over and asked if we had an extra hat. We did not. He left his by a creek the day before. He was burned and desperate. I told him to wet his ADZPCTKO (Annual Day Zero PCT Kick Off) bandana and cover his head.
We reached Glen Pass and the startling blue of Rae Lakes. Trail Pop came up behind with a wet bandana on his head. He asked us again for a hat. Poor guy was so delirious he did not recognize us.
The north slope of Glen Pass had snow fields in the sweet spot for glissading. Before shoving off, we reviewed line, position, and braking. Weighed the risk of a sprain or broken leg. Took a line others had carved. It was a risky but thrilling success.
Rae Lakes is a natural wonder. There are two sharp peninsulas that point to a 15′ drainage between upper and lower Rae Lake. A log was thrown over for traverse. We forded creeks and skirted shorelines for miles. Wishing we had a pole for abundant trout. They were so close to shore I thought we could grab them.
Sasha had recharged her phone with our Sun Tactics solar panel on the south approach to Glen Pass, and now she was racing downhill in the zone with tunes. I dragged after her. We camped at the suspension bridge over Woods Creek. Arriving after 7 pm, it was filled with tents, our first experience in a crowded site. We squeezed in between a hammock and steel bear box. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered about sleeping next to bear bait.
July 5 -Wood Creek Trail to Pinchot Pass to South Fork Kings River (12.9 miles)
I woke up with Achilles tendonitis from the race down Glen Pass. Sasha’s feet were sore and not just from blisters. After multiple Ibuprofen and a half hour hobbling around, we were good to go.
When we left Wood Creek, half the camp was empty but the guy in the hammock next to us was sound asleep. We later learned it was solo thru-hiker Stitch. Three hours later, he passed us on the 3,500′ climb to Pinchot Pass. The first half of the 7.7 mile climb was brutal. No energy. Scant tree cover. Steep switch backs. It was warm and still. Mosquitos everywhere.
Spectacular falls raced down Woods Creek. It reminded me of a water slide but it was as deadly as Nevada Falls. Ultimate freedom is walking up to a roaring cascade to refill your water bottle without a warning sign.
After mid-morning snack, we caught a bead on Mt. Perkins and were happy for easier grade. Distance flew by as I recalled our Grand Tetons vacation years before with the Perkins family. On that trip, we had spotted a brown bear warily treading a narrow path between a bison herd on one side and a long line of tourists no more than 15 meters away on the other. No bears found on Pinchot Pass.
Coming down Pinchot Pass, we walked a very brisk pace but still managed to be passed a second time by Stitch. We passed a half mile from the ranger’s cabin tent at Bench Lake. In the steep switch backs under Bench Lake, we were passed by American flag guy, who we decided was a Brit with an ironic affinity for Independence Day. We came up on the South Fork Kings river and briefly debated whether to walk 50 meters up for a dry crossing. Sasha had waded halfway across before I could make the case for dry feet. That was unfortunate because our shoes were frozen the next morning.
We forded and quickly pitched tent. Our Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 is a 2 lb. free-standing tent that goes up in under five minutes. Two south-bound JMT’ers were in hammocks. Another meal of cold bars and gels. Sasha could not believe she had hiked 50 miles.
July 6 – South Fork Kings River to Mather Pass to Middle Fork Kings River (16.5 miles)
I woke up barely able to walk. Trail Pop passed by our camp very early without a hat. I took more Ibuprofen and hobbled around on poles to warm up my now severely swollen ankles. A half-hour into the hike, I had full range of motion. Just outside camp, we walked up on a young mule deer and stopped. It continued toward us and slowly ambled off 10 feet away, never alarmed. We continued the 2,100’ climb to Mather Pass.
In the upper basin, three young women were breaking camp. Sasha was astounded one took pains to brush out her hair. Sasha had her hair in bun, no brush. We passed Trail Pop. He finally had a hat. When we mounted Mather Pass, Stitch was there and the three girls sunbathing. Trail Pop came up next and knew everyone there.
There were snow covered switch backs on the north slope. We glissaded a small slope, locking our legs out against a boulder to stop. A woman behind me crashed into the boulder. Stitch took a better line and passed us. Once we cleared snow, we overtook the three girls and noticed we were gaining on Stitch. Only, we were not. He was falling back. I told Sasha to watch as he eased back to the blonde. A half-hour later, he blazed past us again.
When you’re tired and in pain, you despise loss of elevation, realizing every foot will be reclimbed the next morning. But, we were once again thankful to be north-bound as we descended the Golden Staircase. We ran into several south-bounders baking in the sun on their interminable steps up.
We dropped 4,000’ over 11 miles to the Middle Fork Kings River and dragged into camp. Jim Warnock and his friend Bob were already relaxed around a cooking fire. He shared the fire, and we had our first hot meal in three days. They were south on JMT, traveling with a group from Arkansas. Lifelong outdoorsmen with extensive experience in the Ozarks. Bob had a wavy gray beard that reached his belly. Warnock had a kind serenity. Mountain hiking does that for a man. Take a look at his spectacular photography and great Ozark tales at OzarkMountainHiker.com.
Stitch arrived in camp within minutes after us. He found two trees and hung his hammock. While I went to refill water, Stitch figured out Sasha’s feet were in pain. By the time I returned, she had him wrapping her feet and charging her dead iPhone off his battery pack.
I quizzed him up on functionality of his hammock. How do you rig in the desert? Can you sleep on your stomach? It seemed like a great lightweight system but he had a mound of webbing and hardware to attach to whatever rock or tree configuration he found. I wasn’t sure about the weight saving but he sure looked comfortable.
We lost Stitch the next day when he took Bishop Pass for resupply. In fact, between Kearsarge Pass and Bishop Pass, we lost pretty much all the thru-hikers who had been flowing with us.
July 7 – Middle Fork Kings River to Muir Pass to McClure Meadow (20.9 miles)
I woke up unable to walk. Limped around camp on rigid tendons. Warnock looked at me sympathetically as he and Bob quickly broke camp. Once again, three Ibuprofen and a half hour hiking loosened my ankles. But, every time we stopped five minutes, the pain and tightness quickly returned. I considered whether the tendon might snap. It didn’t.
We had an epic day over Muir Pass. The trail climbs nearly 4,000’ over 11.4 miles through tranquil lower meadows, past the Le Conte ranger cabin, then sharp inclines along falls to lake-dotted basins. A father and his teenage daughter passed us on their way south.
Middle Fork Kings River is so cold and crystal clear that we were tempted to scoop water directly into our mouths. We didn’t. Above 11,000’ there were massive snow fields flooding seemingly pristine headwaters. But, in one alpine lake, a yellow-legged frog sat a rock pad surrounded by a thousand tadpoles. Thank you Sawyer mini-filter!
There was more snow on the south approach to Muir Pass than any other place on the JMT. The trail disappeared into bloated lakes, wide flows of runoff, and steep stretches of snow. There was lots of trail finding, some over ice tunnels. We judged the snow bridges carefully. They could collapse at any moment. It was electrifying. We passed the false summit and found deep snow for much of the last mile up the pass. We kicked toe-holds and climbed straight for Muir Hut at nearly 12,000’. We sat in the hut, warmed and snacked, then came out to gaze over Evolution Basin.
The Basin is massive scale in a broad valley holding snow and large bodies of water. We skirted the shoreline of Wanda Lake then took canyon heights above Sapphire and Evolution lakes.
Post-card views for nine miles down to McClure Meadows. This was our longest day on the JMT through a stunning wonderland of almost every type of habitat and geologic zone the High Sierras have to offer.
We passed a camp with a solo female thru-hiker and quick marched another mile near dark, driven to reach Muir Trail Ranch tomorrow. We were a half mile short of the ranger cabin with only ten minutes of dusk remaining. We pitched tent on a flat slab just feet from the trail with headlamps on, ate a couple bars and crashed in minutes.
I am an extremely light sleeper. I woke to the sound of an animal snapping sticks. Our food was in a bear canister away from camp. But I grabbed my Benchmade fixed blade knife waiting for a snout to come through the fly. It didn’t. At midnight, I was startled by noise from the trail. Someone with a lamp flashed our tent, lingering seconds too long. My senses alerted. I grabbed my knife and listened for a threat. There was none. Later, I figured it could have been the McClure Meadows ranger patrolling and wondering why we were not in a designated camp. It was really the only disquieting night on the trail. Sasha slept through it all.
July 8 – McClure Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch (12.8 miles)
This was a happy day. We would make Muir Trail Ranch by noon and enjoy almost 24 hours of hot meals, hot springs, and relaxation. I woke up with less tendon pain. Somehow, the 21 mile day over Muir Pass had helped. Maybe it was the hours of intermittent heating and cooling through snow melt and easier grade to Evolution Basin.
We traversed Evolution Meadow early and were quickly at the ford. The creek was slow, clear and a lot deeper than it looks. A cold start to the day. Mule deer grazed nearby. After the meadow, Evolution Creek soon becomes fast and unpassable. We followed the torrent down to where it dropped to South Fork San Joaquin River. On the steep switch backs into Goddard Canyon, we ran into a woman with tools on her back for trail maintenance.
Near the bottom, two female thru-hikers passed us. We crossed a footbridge near the trail crew’s camp. I wandered off into the woods looking for the men’s room. Right when I thought I had the right spot, I looked up startled to see one of the thru-hikers had already claimed the spot not 15 meters away. I quickly moved the opposite direction another 50 meters into the forest for privacy.
We followed the San Joaquin River gorge, through Aspen Meadow and another footbridge into the John Muir Wilderness. Two miles down, we took the cutoff to MTR. Hungry and obsessed with Jim Warnock’s tales of food, we made a beeline for the kitchen. It was closed. Staff was cutting fresh apples for dinner pies. We guzzled fresh lemonade and emptied half a bowl of plums, apples, and oranges.
We had reserved a tent but upgraded to log cabin on arrival. After dropping packs, we picked up our resupply bucket. A couple dozen thru-hikers had massed for the hiker boxes—5 gallon buckets lined up under a canopy. We deposited some excess food and found sunscreen, toilet paper, band-aids and duct tape. I bought a large fuel can and DEET at the camp store. I logged onto the camp store’s laptop and let Beverly know we were half-way through.
MTR has hot springs emptying into Japanese-style spas. Each are private enclosures, open air and filled with ferns, flowering shrubs, river rocks, and tree cover. Very refreshing. It took a while to remove a week of trail dirt. I hand washed our clothes in a drum, rung them between hand crank rollers, and pinned them to dry in the sun on a gentle breeze. We slept a couple hours and collected clean, dry clothing before dinner.
Dinner was excellent. Steak, potatoes, fresh veggies, salad, bread and homemade apple pie. They made grilled eggplant for vegetarian Sasha. It was one of the most appreciated meals I have ever had.
July 9 – Muir Trail Ranch to Selden Pass to Bear Creek Trail (12.2 miles)
We gorged ourselves with hot breakfast and made sack lunches. I packed one of the best chicken salad sandwiches ever tasted, sun chips, several pounds of fruit, gummy bears, and juice carton. We were flush with fruit for days. We left MTR at 10 am and started the 3,000’ slog up Selden Pass. That’s harder than you might think, weighed down with full bellies and re-provisioned packs.
The first mile up Sallie Key Cutoff is very steep and despiriting after departure from MTR. The forest was still and warm. Solo thru-hiker Spoon passed us on the sun-exposed switchbacks above. We ran into him at Senger Creek. He is from the West Texas desert. Got his nickname in the Southern California desert after warning another hiker not to sleep too close.
At Selden Pass, we ran into a young couple who were on track for an 8-day JMT. They were doing 25 mile days and had come over their second pass of the day. Amazing athletes.
The second half of the JMT, Sasha was trail-conditioned and fast. I had spent nine months trailing running and training for this trip, and years climbing 14’ers. It was demoralizing that my 16 year-old could literally roll out of bed with no preparation and outpace me on this mileage.
July 10 – Bear Creek Trail to Silver Pass to Fish Creek (15.4 miles)
Shortly after breaking camp, we caught a view down Vermillion Valley. It was the only time we found cell service in the back country. National Geographic Guide warned of no water for 6 miles, so we filled the Platypus. It turned out there were several creeks still flowing along Bear Ridge.
Mid-morning, we descended the steep Volcanic Knob to Mono Creek. Tight switchbacks dropped 2,000’ in pumice. We ran into a dozen south-bounders, several struggling under the weight of huge packs. One young women was head-down, bent nearly 45 degrees at the waist and resting what had to be a 40 lb. pack on her back as she made the tortured climb up a dozen switchbacks on Volcanic Knob.
We made the 2,800’ ascent to Silver Pass. Half-way up, the trail skirts falls below Silver Pass Lake. A great flat slab eases into the surge. Freedom is soaking your feet in an icy torrent without guard rails.
At the 10,754’ pass, we watched a quarter mile below as a man hiked up the north approach. We noticed him turn back and descend behind rocks before remerging towards the pass again. As we started down, the man made his last few steps up with two large packs, one on his back and one strung over his arm. I assumed he was carrying his wife’s pack but did not see her anywhere. I told him he was heroic. He gave a strained smile, “someone is having a bad day.” A quarter mile below we ran into wife and another woman, both holding only a water bottle. We figured the man had hauled both of their 40+ lb packs up the final approach. We never saw his pack. It was sad. The women stared sheepishly at the ground. Both were very fit 30-something year olds in no apparent distress, having shed their heavy packs. They were at mile 81 of 210 with far more difficult climbs ahead. Sasha whispered, “There is no way they are going to make it.” I figured this guy had two options–bail at Vermillion Valley or bury half their stuff.
We made our way down to Fish Creek for camp. An ultra-trail runner passed us with a cheerful grin. We came up on a family camping with children. Some older hikers. Most looked to be overnighters out of Mammoth. The camps were still largely solitary.
July 11 – Fish Creek to Duck Pass Trail to Red’s Meadow (17.9 miles)
On paper, this looked to be an easy day but it turned out to be much more up and down than the map reveals. The climb out of Fish Creek gorge is breathtaking. Above Tully Hole, creek spray formed icicles in tall grass. There was a long string of day-hikers with young children slowing the passage around Lake Virginia. At Duck Pass Trail, our map showed no water source for five miles. We filled the Platypus and set out across the ridge. It turned out that there were several water sources but they could have easily been dry, and likely would be in a couple weeks.
As we passed under Red Cones, we saw the massive 1992 Rainbow Fire devastation below Red’s Meadow. We descended a few long switch backs in volcanic rock and made our way to burned pine hulks that looked like scattered pixie sticks from afar. We were beat as we entered the Ansel Adams Wilderness. We decided on an A-frame lodge at Red’s over tent camping. Dinner at the diner was warm and satisfying. The waitress sold us “two scoops” of ice-cream but served four in what had to be the largest sundae I’ve ever eaten. We gorged ourselves but still lost 15 lbs. on this trip.
July 12 – Red’s Meadow to Shadow Creek Trail (12.4 miles)
We were at the diner again for breakfast. There was a couple with six year old girl heading south on JMT. I’ve had six year olds. At some point, they just stop. I admired this family’s sense of adventure, but figured dad would be carrying the girl like an extra backpack over Silver Pass.
From Red’s we crossed Devil’s Post Pile and began the climb to Rosalie Lake. The PCT separated for a crest running parallel a mile east. At Johnston Creek, a dozen guided seniors were headed south. Some well into their 70’s. I helped one work her Katadyn filter as her husband of 40 years left her in the dust. None flinched at the double log crossing. Hope that’s what I’m doing in my 70’s.
Rosalie and Shadow Lakes fill hidden basins closely ringed by mountains, some still holding snow. As typical in this section, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the lakes from above, dropped into the basin, circumnavigated the lake to its outlet, climbed up and out of the basin, then made our way to the next. The whole area is accessible by overnight campers. Kids jumped off rocks into frigid Shadow Lake and ran back howling to a large family encampment at the outlet. We continued a mile up to a quieter camp at Shadow Creek Trail junction. Or so we thought. At midnight, some teenager let out a yowl followed by laughter that must of woke up four tents. As you go north, what you gain in scenery, you lose in solitary peace.
July 13 – Shadow Creek Trail to Donahue Pass to Maclure Creek Footbridge (14.5 miles)
We climbed back above 10,000’ before dropping down to Garnet Lake. Another post-card view into hidden alpine basin. We rounded the lake and crossed a footbridge over falls at the outlet. I stepped down a few boulders and looked back through the outlet, across the flat lake at eye-level.
We hiked up and out of the basin on our way to Thousand Island Lake. Another footbridge at the drainage and the PCT rejoins. A dozen thru-hikers doze by the lake. Granite slabs line the shore. Shoes off. Feet soaking at lunch. We napped a half-hour before climbing out of the basin to Island Pass, then Donahue Pass.
You might think that after a 170 miles, all rocks and trees look alike. Not so. We imagined trees, trunks, boulders and blocks in a Rorschach test. Branches spread as a dragon, a squat trunk that could be a bear, snake-like roots, a peak with a headress, a fish face crowning Half Dome, and a fiat-sized boulder shaped as a pig.
We crossed Donahue Pass at 4 pm and figured we’d make Lyell Canyon before nightfall. We didn’t. 11,073’ Donahue Pass is an easy approach from the south, but tricky down the snow covered north slope. The trail was hidden for hundreds of yards. After following a thru-hiker and well-trodden steps through the snow, there was no trail to be found. We didn’t know at the time, but we had missed the exit from the snow field by a hundred yards. Hard to see with no cairns—which are pretty much non-existent anywhere on the JMT.
The thru-hiker stayed north but looked to be approaching a cliff. We left him, veered northeast and picked our way down an easy slope looking for switch backs. Never found them. We were way off-map when we arrived at a cliff 500’ above the valley. Looking a half mile west, I could see the trail dropping down the opposite side of the valley. We took the cliff. It was a steep boulder field, but close enough to the Keyhole descent on Long’s Peak that we were confident. Car-size boulders, some precariously balanced on edge, made it the sketchiest part of our trip. We could see signs others had made our mistake.
We arrived unscathed at the headwaters of Lyell Fork in time to greet the astray thru-hiker. After losing an hour off-trail, we had to settle short of Lyell Canyon. We crossed a footbridge and pitched tent just north of Maclure Creek.
July 14 – Maclure Creek Footbridge to Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake (16.4 miles)
We quickly descended to flat Lyell Canyon and walked the edge of the forest along Lyell Fork meadow.
During the first 175 trail miles before entering Yosemite National Park, we were in seclusion, rarely seeing more than a dozen hikers a day, except around Mammoth Lakes. Thru-hikers appear sketchy but only because they look like drifters. Really, they are a great group of kindred spirits. Nobody sets out on a 2,650 mile journey to harm others. So, except for midnight flashlight guy back a McClure Meadow, I never really felt alarmed.
It was still early morning when we approached a man who looked completely out of place. Dressed in street clothes. No pack. Using two four foot long 2” thick branches as walking sticks–who does that? Way too early for a day-hiker. I check that my Benchmade sheath was accessible and closed distance with Sasha. I nodded a greeting. He asked if we had come over the pass. We moved on quickly and picked up pace. I couldn’t stop thinking about National Park Service warnings of armed growers in Yosemite back-country.
I could have overreacted but it’s what dads do. I don’t recommend young people go Cheryl Strayed on the trail, but I think it can be done safely in pairs with good preparation and fixed blade steel–wear it outside your pants for all the honest world to feel.
Beneath Ireland Lake Trail, we stopped on the creek. Lyell Fork was wide and shallow here. Solid smooth river rock line the bank. We met Walkie-Talkie, a frequent section hiker of the PCT. He was down to shorts bathing in the middle of the creek and he talked—a lot. He was on his 5th trek through the JMT. He started 200 miles north, traveling south to greet the 2016 PCT class. North of Sonora Pass (80 miles from us), he had run into Mama Lion and nine-year old Daniel Boone, reported to be the youngest to attempt the entire 2,650 mile journey. (The PCT Finisher’s list shows he made it.)
We talked about the hikers we had flowed with. Walkie-Talkie shook his head, certain that anyone who had not already made Sonora Pass could not make Canada before winter. We had hiked with the tail end of the 2016 class. They were only a third way through with almost half the season gone. I guessed he was right. But it saddened us to realize that everyone we had met were destined to end short.
I took a dip in the creek and put on a fresh shirt for lunch a Tuolumne Meadows. We thought we would get hot table service at the lodge but it was closed for lunch. We moved on to the general store and found massing hordes, including three dozen thru-hikers. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the hamburger stand and picked up fresh snacks for our last trail day. Two hours later, we were headed to Cathedral Lakes. The PCT departs north to Canada while the JMT hooks to the west.
The trail to Cathedral Lakes was teeming with day-hikers. We marveled at finding many miles up Cathedral Peak with nothing but a water bottle. By late-afternoon, there was still a trickle who seemed unlikely to make it out by dark.
Upper Cathedral Lakes is just below the pass. We camped on the north shore, pitching our tent on flat slab. The sunset over Cathedral Peak cast rays through pines, horizontally across the meadow. The lake was warm and quiet.
July 15 – Cathedral Lake to Cathedral Pass to Happy Isles (17.7 miles)
We woke up looking forward to the downhill and anxious to get to our next restaurant meal. It’s a 5,700’ drop from Cathedral Pass to Happy Isles, the northern terminus of the JMT. That part made me a happy NOBO.
As we made our way down, we hit Sunrise camp just as a pack of scouts were turned loose ahead of us. After a quarter mile of noisy teenage prattle, I told Sasha there is no way I can hike behind that pack. We accelerated and easily overtook them but immediately started to climb Sunrise Mountain. I regretted our poorly timed maneuver as the boys gained on us. We passed and repassed this group all the way down. Fortunately, they grew silent as the mountain stole wind from there sails. Peace again.
After a steep descent of Sunrise Mountain, the Moraine Dome appeared across the deep valley. Quarter and Half Domes rise west. The valley was burned. Sunrise Creek fed flowering new growth through thousands of charred pine trunks.
Above Half Dome, we ran into a ranger. The first I had seen since Crabtree. He asked if we saw a bear on the trail above. We had not. He had a bear reported an hour earlier. I looked at his weapon and asked, “Is that a paint ball gun?” “Yes. We shoot them in the butt for negative conditioning.”
We made our way down to Half Dome Trail. The ranger’s partner was there monitoring traffic. She explained that the paint ball guns use mineral oil, not paint, and only if shouting doesn’t work. They don’t shoot cubs or teenagers. At Half Dome Trail, there was a steady stream of humanity coming up. They were well guarded from bears. I was astounded to see many carrying only a water bottle 3,000’ up and six miles into the back-country.
We descended Little Yosemite Valley to Nevada Falls, where the Merced River spills into Yosemite Valley. There is a footbridge over the river at the top of the falls. It is a breath-taking view—surrounded by a couple thousand hikers.
No swimming is permitted in the river, lest you are swept over the falls. In fact, it is guarded by rails, signs and rangers. As soon as we arrived at the falls, we heard a ranger at the bridge shouting 30 meters up stream to a couple standing ten feet from the water. “Get back!” The couple were not in a fenced off area. They looked at the ranger quizzically and stayed for their photo. The ranger yelled again across a hundred tourist heads as he stomped toward them. They were on flat ground nowhere near falling in, but apparently beyond a boulder cordon. We were back in the clutches of the nanny state.
We descended the final few miles with a herd of park tourists rivaling the exit ramp of DKR–Texas Memorial Stadium at half-time. The 2,000’ descent from Nevada Falls to Yosemite Valley is one of the great American outdoor experiences, enjoyed by millions—most of whom were apparently there on July 15th. We hardly knew we were at the northern terminus except for a bridge sign reading “Happy Isle.”
Copyright 2016 Michael S. Wilson