Segment 3: Muir Trail Ranch to Onion Valley (77 miles)
Day 9, Aug. 3
At MTR we once more found ourselves in the hubbub of resupply days, surrounded by dozens of other backpackers who were sucked in by the same gravitational pull. We had limited time to choose which resupply items to take and which to leave behind but had reached the halfway point of the JMT and were ready to get back on the trail. We departed MTR with our heaviest packs of the JMT, carrying six days' worth of food and damp (and thus heavier) articles of clothing that hadn't all dried overnight. At over 40 pounds each, our packs felt tremendously heavy against our small-framed bodies.
Leaving MTR, the trail remains at a fairly low elevation (around 8,000 feet) for a few dry miles, until it reaches the junction with Piute Creek. The bridged crossing marks the boundary between the John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park. Here we began a gentle ascent along the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, which, even in a drought year, cascaded turbulently down the canyon. The trail then crosses over the South Fork via a footbridge and heads east toward Evolution Valley and Evolution Basin (so named by explorer and original visionary of the JMT, Theodore Solomons).
Climbing up switchbacks and reaching once more above 9,000 feet we reached a deep gorge carved by Evolution Creek, foreshadowing some of the breathtaking scenery we would soon experience along this exquisite stretch of trail. We soon came to the second of two large stream crossings of the JMT, this one at Evolution Creek. Like the crossing at Bear Creek two days earlier, this one required us to change out of our boots into our creek-crossing/camp shoes and wade carefully across. During the crossing, J got distracted and slipped, immersing much of his body. Fortunately, he was not injured -- but his electronics got an unneeded bath. We still had more miles to make, but were both tired and wet, and we worried that we may have just lost all the photos J had taken so far. Morale was low but we pressed on, hiking with our tails between our legs.
In a poignant reversal of circumstances, we soon came to the edge of an intoxicatingly beautiful sight: warm afternoon light bathing idyllic McClure Meadow and meandering Evolution Creek, all flanked by a stunning, steep monolith known as the Hermit and several peaks standing 12,000 feet tall. This would be our home for the night. As we stopped to set up camp we were distracted by all the beauty around us. We watched deer grazing in the meadow and fish jumping out of the creek to catch dinner, and enjoyed a sunset that had us exclaiming "Wow! Look at the light now!" every two minutes.
Camp: McClure Meadow (37.1878, -118.746)
Day 10, Aug. 4
This was one of our favorites days on the trail. Entering into Evolution Basin brought us past some of the most indescribable beauty our eyes had ever seen. We left McClure Meadow (9,600') and followed Evolution Creek for a few picturesque miles, past Colby Meadow and under towering peaks known collectively as the Evolution Group and named (also by Solomons) after evolutionary scientists: Mt. Darwin, Mt. Spencer, Mt. Huxley, among others. Climbing toward Evolution Basin, we entered a 10-mile stretch above timberline where a painter's palette of gray-white granite, verdant alpine vegetation and cool blue lakes and streams comes together to create a sublime scene so timeless it seems untouched by humans. We were dwarfed by glaciated peaks even as we reached above 11,000 feet, passing Evolution and Sapphire Lakes first, and finally Wanda Lake (named after one of John Muir's daughters), a large body of water in a desolate and rocky land. From here we could see Muir Pass, still more than 2 miles away. As we continued, pikas sending a warning screech as we passed, we began to make out Muir Hut on the pass. The hut is a stone structure built in 1930 by the Sierra Club as a lightning shelter. We reached Muir Pass (11,980') under blue skies just before 5:00pm. We decided to try one of the tips we read about in Mike Clelland's Ultralight Backapackin' Tips: to cook and eat dinner on the trail and then get a few more miles of hiking in before dark. We fired up our stove in the hut and boiled enough water to get our dehydrated dinner cooking in the bag. In the meantime, two hikers arrived to the hut -- Evan and Steve, college buds who every couple of years set out to conquer a new epic adventure together. Last time it was riding bikes from coast to coast. This time it was the JMT. We took a couple of photos for them and then left them to let them enjoy the hut, descending the pass halfway to Helen Lake before choosing a spot to have our meal. After dinner we hiked another couple of miles, reaching an unnamed lake which we had all to ourselves for the evening (to be fair, we did share it with an abundance of mountain yellow-legged frogs, but not with any other humans). We set up camp under pink alpenglow, which soon turned to dark skies revealing the Milky Way.
Camp: Unnamed lake at 10,800', east of Helen Lake (37.1232, -118.642)
Day 11, Aug. 5
Sunrise was as gorgeous as the previous evening's sunset, with the rising sun casting deep orange light on the granite peaks above. The trail descended steeply into Le Conte Canyon, where we reached below tree line once more and hiked under the canopy of plentiful lodgepole pines. We caught up with Evan and Steve at a split rock known as "the Monster" (its "mouth" has been decorated with jagged rocks for teeth) and we hiked together for the rest of the morning, trading stories and tips. We had lunch along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, near the site of a bridge foundation that serves as a reminder of a powerful flood that washed out a footbridge.
At 8,030 feet, this would be our lowest elevation for the rest of JMT. This low point also marked the beginning of an 11-mile ascent up to Mather Pass. We parted ways with Evan and Steve and hiked another four miles to Deer Meadow, where we found a spacious and secluded site near Palisade Creek and under forest cover. This was day 11 and we hadn't taken a shower or washed our matted hair since day 4 -- and it was definitely time. We opted to end our day on the early side to allow us to take a "trail shower" well before sunset. We used a 3-liter hydration bladder and took turns dispensing water through the hose down to our shivering hiking partner, resulting in much frantic scrubbing and rinsing. Campfires are allowed at these lower, warmer elevations, which allowed us to dry off and warm up after our cold showers. When we were done we had shed about a pound of sweat, grime and dust -- and we felt halfway to human.
Camp: Deer Meadow/Palisade Creek (37.0545, -118.5166)
Day 12, Aug. 6
We started the day at the base of the Golden Staircase, a series of switchbacks and walls completed in 1938 that make the ensuing 1,500-foot climb possible. Along this stretch we encountered another group of California Conservation Corps members wielding sledge hammers and trail-maintenance tools. As they descended to reach that day's work site, we exchanged hellos and thanked them for their work. (As I researched the CCC while writing this post, I came across the CCC motto and laughed so hard I nearly got tears in my eyes: "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions...and more!" Indeed.)
From the top of the Staircase the views into Le Conte Canyon were stunning. We came to appreciate this fact even more when we subsequently learned that Le Conte Canyon would later be deeply impacted by wildfire smoke from the Rough Fire. The fire was already burning at this time and some smoke occasionally blew our direction, but the fire wouldn't reach its peak until later in the summer. In the days and weeks following our JMT trek, many hikers were forced to change their route or abandon their hikes due to impacts from the fire.
We reached lovely Palisades Lakes, nestled between granite walls, and eventually arrived at Mather Pass (12,100'), named for conservationist and first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather. The views south into Upper Basin and toward Pinchot Pass go on for miles -- and, as it turns out, so did the trail we would cover that day. We descended to about 10,000 feet to cross the South Fork of the Kings River before ascending toward the Bench Lake junction, where one of the several Sierra backcountry ranger stations is located.
We pushed on under gray skies that threatened rain, passing Lake Marjorie (11,132') and finding a secluded campsite among the krummholz (stunted trees growing near timberline), about 150 feet above the lake. The sky began to clear, but some cloud cover persisted through sunset, making for a fantastic show of oranges, pinks and purples against the clouds. We found a sandy nook above our campsite where we rested against the rocks and enjoyed one of the most memorable dinners we have shared in our 15 years together. In this quiet, secluded spot, with no other campers in sight or within earshot, overlooking the lake and its colorful reflections in the crisp air, we were treated to what J described as an "orchestra of light." This evening perfectly encapsulated the reason our wanderlust is never depleted.
Camp: Lake Marjorie (36.9445, -118.4273)
Day 13, Aug. 7
We had positioned ourselves to reach Pinchot Pass (12,130') early in the day, which we did in time to have a second breakfast. On the ascent we saw an incredible variety of flowering plants, including pinkish-red mountain sorrel, periwinkle-colored sky pilot, alpine gold sunflower and lavender-colored dwarf daisies. We couldn't stay long to admire the flowers and the views, though. We had a big day ahead of us: after our 1,000-foot ascent, we would descend nearly 4,000 feet to Woods Creek junction and then climb over 2,000 feet to Rae Lakes, for a total of about 15 miles.
The weather was good and the views wonderful as we hiked 7.5 miles to the day's lowest point, where we broke for lunch after crossing the exceedingly bouncy (and quite fun) suspension bridge across Woods Creek. Here we joined dozens of other backpackers, including several PCTers taking a day to do laundry, rest and commune with other hikers. The heat began to beat down on the dusty trail, making for a long and challenging ascent that eventually led to several pretty stream crossings and our first views into prominent features of the Rae Lakes area, including Fin Dome and the Painted Lady.
We reached Dollar Lake and Arrowhead Lake, 2 miles shy of our destination, when I began experiencing a sharp tearing sensation behind my right knee. We stopped so I could put on a knee brace, take pain killers and transfer some of my pack weight into J's pack. Even with those measures the remaining miles were covered in a painful limping waddle. We reached Middle Rae Lake, set up camp and had dinner, but I was deeply worried that this excruciating injury was serious. The next day we were to hike over two passes toward Onion Valley to meet friends and family, pick up our last resupply and get ready for the final, epic segment, which we were to hike friends. This was the plan -- but tonight it seemed a distinct possibility that I wouldn't be able to hike out the next day, let alone embark on the final 60-mile segment which includes 13,000-foot Forester Pass and summiting Mt. Whitney. It didn't help that this was also the coldest night we had spent yet on the JMT, with the mercury dropping below freezing. J kept a positive attitude and did everything possible to lift my spirits, trying to balance out the dark night of the soul I was wallowing in. For me, this was the lowest of the low points -- a trial I didn't expect, and definitely didn't welcome.
Camp: Middle Rae Lake (36.8064, -118.3991)
Day 14, Aug. 8
And therein lies one of the lessons of the trail, and indeed of life. No matter how shitty you feel one day, the next day can be filled with so much awe and wonder that you end up feeling like a million bucks. Though I continued to be concerned about my knee, with a knee brace on and under the numbing haze of painkillers, the pain only came back a couple of times that day. This was a very good thing: this was the only day on the JMT when we would climb two passes, Glen Pass (11,978') and Kearsarge Pass (11,845'). The hike out of Rae Lakes included idyllic views of the lakes and the mountains around us. We made it to Glen Pass by around 9:00am and took a good break to give my knee a chance to rest.
We then hiked another couple of miles before taking another snack and knee break, at the junction to Kearsarge Pass, where we would leave the JMT for our rendezvous with friends and family at Onion Valley. We were delayed while breaking at the junction, as a number of JMTers we had met during the previous days caught up and we stayed to chat. They were all continuing south to Mt. Whitney, without another resupply. First there was Lauren and her roommate Masha (Cal Tech students living in Pasadena), who were running low on food and sunscreen. We, on the other hand, had consistently consumed about a quarter less calories than we anticipated. We took the bear canisters out of our packs and offered them a variety of food options as well as our remaining sunscreen, as we had more waiting for us in Onion Valley. Just as we finished repacking and saying our goodbyes, a solo hiker from Brazil approached us. Trail gossip had reached his ears and he had heard we had extra food. He too was running low. Once more, we took our bear canisters out and offered what we had to give. Many thanks later, we were finally ready to start our hike up to Kearsarge Pass when a hiker we had leap-frogged with many times over the previous week caught up -- Robert, who had come from Düsseldorf, Germany to hike the JMT alone. When he found out we were hiking over Kearsarge Pass he asked to hike out with us. We learned that four days earlier he had leaned into a stream to refill his water bottle while wearing his heavy pack and that the weight on his ribs had caused a dislocation or fracture. He had not been able to sleep in four nights and he needed medical attention.
With Robert hiking with us, we made it to Kearsarge Pass -- the border between Kings Canyon National Park and the John Muir Wilderness -- around lunchtime, an hour or two after we had hoped. But we were soon reminded that sometimes letting go of control and allowing things to unfold unplanned is a good thing. Just minutes after we arrived, as we were breaking at the pass, our good friend and hiking buddy Rosanne appeared before us! She had come all the way from Los Angeles to surprise us and had hiked up from Onion Valley. She too had been delayed, on the other side of the mountain -- but serendipitously we had landed at the pass at the same time. A few minutes behind Rosanne were our friends Reuben (Rosanne's husband) and Julie. It was a beautifully surreal moment to be reunited with friends at nearly 12,000 feet. They showered us with compliments, dark chocolate and fresh tangerines. Our spirits were high as could be as we hiked together toward Onion Valley.
We flew down the mountain toward the trailhead, where my parents met us. After a happy reunion complete with hugs and kisses (despite our smelly state), they drove us and our giant packs down the mountain to Upper Gray's Meadow Campground, halfway between Onion Valley and the town of Independence in Owens Valley. This was where our trail angels, Robert and Mary Wright (my brother-in-law's parents and big campers/adventurers in their own right), were hosting us, our friends and our family for the evening. We showered, changed into the fresh clothes we had packed in our resupply box, and relaxed as members of our welcoming committee gathered. In all, more than a dozen of us were gathered to celebrate on what we'll always remember as a very special night. There were Robert and Mary, my parents, Robert from Düsseldorf, Rosanne, Reuben and Julie. We were also joined by the "last-leg crew" -- friends who were going to hike the last segment with us: Torin, a friend and co-worker; Genevieve, a French girl we had befriended in New Zealand in 2012, who we hadn't seen since; and her two friends, Jean (from Paris) and Anya (from Ukraine). We ate like gluttons, drank cold beer, roasted marshmallows and I played guitar. Happiness and appreciation oozed from our pores.
Camp: Upper Gray's Meadow (36.7809, -118.2888)
Segment 3 Photos