Around Thanksgiving 2014 Edith + Jolly's friends, Kelley and Peter, casually threw out an idea: to hike the John Muir Trail. The JMT travels 220 miles through some of the most rugged and stunning mountain scenery in the world, gaining and losing some 50,000 feet of elevation from iconic Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US (see previous Hooves on the Ground posts about exploring the Yosemite high country and Mt. Whitney). The JMT shares most of its route with the Pacific Crest Trail and is widely considered to be the most demanding and scenic portion of that much longer trail.
E+J were more than intrigued: they were up for the challenge. Months of preparation ensued. Permits were secured. Books were read. Maps were studied. The vast resources of the interweb were consulted. Gear was upgraded. Calories were counted. Resupply packages were assembled. Routes were planned. Bodies were trained. Minds were prepared.
And right there, in the short preceding paragraph, is the reason why, for the past months, all has been quiet on the dearantler blog and gallery front. Planning for this undertaking consumed E+J for many months, and the energy usually reserved for creative pursuits of the artistic sort was redirected toward this endeavor instead. While E+J are confident outdoor explorers and have countless hiking, camping and backpacking trips under their belts, they knew that a successful attempt to hike the John Muir Trail would require a great deal of preparation. This would be their first long-distance thru-hike, the first time they would be human-powered and subsist off what they could carry on their backs for an extended period. This wasn't going to be a long weekend in the mountains. This would be a temporary relocation into a wilderness they would call home for nearly 3 weeks.
Hikers on the JMT -- or on any thru-hike, for that matter -- emerge from the wilderness every few days to restock supplies. For the purposes of planning and execution, E+J approached their trek as four sequential segments, each divided by a resupply point. Each segment was four to six days long and ranged from 36 to 77 miles.
Below E recounts the story of 19 epic days on the John Muir Trail -- an adventure that presented literal and figurative high and low points alongside the opportunity to navigate these points with appreciation, mindfulness and a sense of wonder and awe at the world within and without. I hope you enjoy her storytelling.
May you always scratch that wanderlust itch,
Segment 1: Yosemite (Tuolumne Meadows) to Red's Meadow (36 miles)
Day 0, July 25
We left Los Angeles and met Kelley and Peter (who flew in from Minnesota earlier in the week), in Lone Pine. Kelley and Peter had recently relocated from California, and having secured jobs they wish to keep meant that they could only join us for a few days on the trail. They opted for this first segment due to the relative ease of traveling between points. After lunch at The Grill, we dropped off our car at Whitney Portal, the planned exit trailhead -- only slightly concerned that the car might roll down the mountain or become attractive to a bear. We took a deep, grounding breath at Whitney Portal while all the possible outcomes of this adventure flashed before us. We could be forced off the trail by injury or inclement weather. We could discover that 19 days on the trail is drastically more challenging than the shorter backpacking trips we usually take. We could encounter any number of unforeseen complications that could prevent us from finishing. Or we could make it.
With that last, hopeful thought in mind, we all piled into Kelley and Peter's car and headed north to June Lake, where we spent the night in a cozy cabin whimsically decorated with a stuffed teddy bear "rug" and "mounted" teddy bear head.
Day 1, July 26
Today was J's birthday and the first day of the hike. We walked about a mile to the YARTS bus stop -- a good mental exercise and reality check of the load we'd each soon carry in the wilderness. The YARTS bus took us to Tuolumne Meadows, where picked up the permit we had painstakingly secured almost 6 months prior through Yosemite's woefully outdated fax reservation system. At the backcountry office we slathered on sunscreen, turned on the GPS and began our hike.
The trail from Tuolumne Meadows travels along the relatively flat Lyell Canyon for several scenic miles. We learned over the next 200 miles that this is one of the only lengthy sections of the JMT that does not involve significant ascent or descent, thus allowing a hiker to look around and liberally take in the views without fear of tripping. We met a number of hikers, including a family who had set out to hike the JMT with two boys aged about 4 and 6. The youngest boy was in a mood of protest (against what was unclear) but we tried to engage him with praise and high-fives, which cheered him up. We don't know if they completed their trek but we were thoroughly humbled by what they had set out to accomplish, no matter how far they were going.
We found a quiet, sheltered spot to spend our first night, about a half mile before the popular Lyell Fork bridge area. Here we finally were. Months of planning and we were spending our first night on the JMT at last. After dinner, we celebrated J's birthday with a few birthday candles atop a delicious apple cobbler.
Camp: Lyell Fork (37.7809, -119.263)
Day 2, July 27
The day began with an ascent toward Donahue Pass (11,056'), which marks the boundary between Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The pass -- the first of 12 on our route -- is a vast, treeless granite field overlooking rocky basins on either side. We stopped for lunch alongside a meadow south of the pass, where we saw hikers with three pack llamas. This was a surreal sight -- we had never seen llamas in the Sierra but had heard that some hikers prefer them to horses or mules because they do well in higher elevations, are docile and subsist easily off grazing, requiring little to no supplemental food. At the meadow we also encountered a group of California Conservation Corps youth workers, the first of several we would see performing trail maintenance along many sections of the JMT. We thanked them for their good work and proceeded to enjoy the benefits of a well-maintaned trail as we walked on.
That evening we camped in the Rush Creek Forks area, between two stream crossings: one had carved a narrow, deep gorge into the rock where the stream plummeted into a waterfall; the other was wide, shallow and inviting. We enjoyed the presence of water in all its many forms -- forceful and dramatic, calm and soothing. We ate heartily and slept like babies.
Camp: Rush Creek Junction (37.7444, -119.2124)
Day 3, July 28
An easy climb led us to lovely Island Pass (10,205'), where a beautiful, placid tarn (a small mountain lake) reflects prominent Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter to the south. The peaks, first photographed by JMT visionary Theodore Solomons, contrast dramatically against the surrounding landscape. They are part of the Ritter Range, composed of dark volcanic rock exposed during a caldera collapse millions of years ago. At the tarn we saw several mountain yellow-legged frogs patiently seeking an insect-based meal by the shore. We continued toward majestic Thousand Island Lake, so called because of its many rocky, vegetated islets. We had lunch at Garnet Lake and then continued toward Shadow Lake, ending our day with an ascent to Rosalie Lake, where we took a short, energizing dip before dinner.
Camp: Rosalie Lake (37.6884, -119.1217)
Day 4, July 29
From Rosalie Lake we had a short ascent up to the day's highest point around Gladys Lake before beginning several miles of descent into Devil's Postpile National Monument and that night's destination, Red's Meadow. We passed countless large, mature trees that had been felled by the powerful Devils Windstorm of 2011. The windstorm brought sustained winds of up to 150 mph and toppled some 10,000 trees over a large part of the Sierra. Over the course of the following days, we would pass through more of the impacted area and see hundreds of massive trees that had had fallen over like dominoes, roots and all.
We arrived at Red's Meadow ahead of schedule and hurried to secure one of the last available campsites at the campground. It was still early afternoon, early enough for Kelley and Peter to catch a bus back to June Lake to pick up their car before heading to Southern California to visit friends and family. We said our goodbyes quickly as the bus driver waited. We picked up our resupply package and proceeded to take the last real shower we would take until Onion Valley, 10 days and nearly 130 trail miles away. We also did laundry, charged electronics, called family and enjoyed a cold beer from the store.
As J and I then readied ourselves for the next segment, we temporarily enjoyed the comforts of civilization while also experiencing what we would soon learn is a special sort of stress that occurs on resupply days. For me, as for many who are called to the outdoors, it's second nature to slip into that sacred rhythm of the wilderness. There's something deeply ingrained in our DNA that allows us to leave modernity behind in favor of a more elemental way of being. On resupply days, that sacred rhythm is temporarily disrupted by the hustle and bustle of cars, people and clocks -- a price many thru-hikers happily pay in order to enjoy that cold beer and hot shower.
Camp: Red's Meadow Campground (37.6194, -119.0733)
Segment 1 Photos
Segment 2: Red's Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch (50 miles)
Day 5, July 30
We took the free shuttle from the campground to road's end, at Red's Meadow Resort, and were eager to once more pick up the JMT. The Rainbow Fire of 1992 devastated the area around Devil's Postpile National Monument, and its scars on the landscape were immediately evident. Owing to this lack of tree cover, the trail affords great views of distant landscapes and has an other-worldy sense of desolation -- despite being one of the more accessible, and thus populated, parts of the JMT.
Clouds had been gradually building up over the past couple of days, which in the Sierra generally means one thing: a storm is coming in the next day or two. By afternoon, clouds covered most of the sky and the humidity was palpable. And soon enough, the rain began. We had planned to camp at Lake Virginia, but we had already covered 13.5 miles by the time we reached Purple Lake, which we decided would make a great home for the evening. We found a lovely site tucked away beneath forest cover above Purple Creek, the lake's outlet. It continued to rain lightly much of the evening.
In researching JMT camping locations, I had read that Purple Lake is more often crowded and not as scenic as nearby Lake Virginia. But once at Purple Lake, I realized that these comments likely came from backpackers camping right at the lake, as many do. J and I tend to search for sites not immediately by lakes: proximity to larger water bodies brings increased condensation and colder nighttime temperatures -- two things we try to avoid. Seclusion is another wonderful benefit of scouting sites a few dozen or hundred feet away from the larger water bodies. This was an attribute we enjoyed in our sheltered little nook above the lake. And for the record, Purple Lake really was purple in the twilight.
Camp: Purple Creek (37.5265, -118.9495)
Day 6, July 31
If, in the Sierra, consecutive afternoons of increased cloud cover mean a storm is coming, light rain generally means you haven't seen all the precipitation that a storm will bring. The previous day had brought some rain, but not enough to drench us. The next two days took care of that.
After ascending to Lake Virginia, we descended steeply into Tully Hole, an idyllic meadow nestled in a verdant valley. Hiking along Fish Creek, we soon began the ascent toward Silver Pass (10,895'), passing Squaw Lake, surrounded by beautiful alpine meadows and granite slopes. With less than a mile of ascent to the pass, we began to hear thunder in the distance.
The rule of thumb for lightning safety is 30-30: if you hear a thunderclap within 30 seconds of seeing lighting, you're within striking distance. You should take shelter until 30 minutes have passed. In the outdoors "taking shelter" is not an option. The best you can do is not find yourself in the most susceptible places -- say, in an open field, near a body of water...or on top of a mountain pass! The thunderclouds were still fairly distant and it wasn't yet raining, but as we proceeded quickly toward the pass the sky darkened and the thunder got louder and more frequent. We reached the pass and pressed on rapidly and without stopping to take in the views or take pictures, feeling fortunate to not have gotten stranded on the wrong side of the mountain.
As we descended into safety, rain began to fall steadily. While stopped to put on our rain gear, we saw a group of hikers headed up toward Silver Pass, warned them of the dangers of proceeding and wished them luck when they decided to continue. We hiked a few more miles under rain, thunder and lightning -- even though lightning is, without question, my foremost fear in the backcountry. In past trips to the Sierra, summer thunderstorms have had me nearly paralyzed with fear. But this time I sang my heart out in an attempt to "whistle past the graveyard," so to speak. It worked beautifully. We found our home for the night along Silver Pass Creek, in a tiny spot beneath forest cover near the junction to Mott Lake.
Camp: Silver Pass Creek (37.4382, -118.9071)
Day 7, Aug. 1
After a night of intermittent rain, we hiked through Pocket Meadow and toward a well-traveled section of the JMT. We were near the junction to Lake Thomas Edison and the popular resupply destination at Vermilion Valley Resort, about a five-mile hike (or a short ferry ride) to the other side of the lake. We had sent our resupply package to Muir Trail Ranch -- it's very close to the JMT and is at roughly the mid-point of the 220 miles, so we pressed on without a visit to VVR.
From the junction, we had about 2,000 feet of elevation gain to cover over a couple of miles. By mid-afternoon, heavy clouds had accumulated and it started raining, first lightly and then quite heavily. We were near Bear Ridge Trail junction when it began to pour. We knew that the first of the two largest creek crossings on the JMT was coming up shortly, so we opted to set up camp early, hoping for a less dangerous passage the following day. Hail began falling just as we started to set up camp around 4:00pm, the earliest time we would would finish our daily hiking on the JMT. Soon we had marble-sized hail coming down on us, complemented by thunder and lightning just above us.
Lightning is something you simply can't control (I tend to think that if it's my time, well...it's just my time), but we felt relatively safe because we chose a site sheltered under trees. What we didn't anticipate is that Bear Creek, not far from our campsite, swelled in size as it accepted muddy runoff from a large upstream drainage. For a little while, the evening's real estate got significantly more "beach-front" as the creek rose and widened, nearly prompting us to move our camp. Eventually the storm died down, the creek subsided and we were able to get a good night's rest.
Camp: Bear Creek (37.3615, -118.8827)
Day 8, Aug. 2
Stopping short of our mileage goal the previous day meant we had some miles to make up today. Our goal was to make it to Muir Trail Ranch before 5:00pm to pick up our resupply package. We had heard from other JMTers that the folks at MTR are strict about their hours and don't like to bend the rules for backpackers, so arriving well before 5:00 seemed like a good idea.
We had our biggest day yet ahead of us: more than 15 miles to cover, including a climb over Selden Pass (10,880'). We woke up extra early, packed up quickly and took only short breaks. This was a very pretty day of hiking, passing through some of the most jaw-dropping scenery we had seen yet: Upper Bear Creek Meadows, Marie Lake, Selden Pass and Sallie Keys Lakes were individually so stunning that we could have easily spent a full day at each. But even here in the wilderness, where clocks and calendars shouldn't reign, we had a schedule to keep. Our friends and family were meeting us on August 8 to deliver our final resupply at Onion Valley, more than 90 miles away. We were determined not to miss a home-cooked meal, warm shower and the infusion of energy and high spirits that we anticipated would come from spending time with loved ones and sharing tales of our recent adventures. We made it to MTR around 4:30 and picked up the resupply bucket we had sent a month earlier. Sadly, we confirmed the reputation for rudeness of MTR employees when we dealt with two curt and abrasive staffers (and left perplexed at how anyone working in such a beautiful setting could be so sour).
We camped between MTR and Blayney Hot Springs that night. We did laundry using one of our rented Bearikade canisters as a wash bucket, and were amazed at just how many articles of clothing we had hanging on our clothesline made of tied-together shoelaces. After dinner we left our homestead and waded across the San Joaquin to reach the hot springs. Though wide, the river was fairly shallow and surprisingly warm compared to the other water bodies we had passed on this trip. We reached the hot springs at twilight and had them all to ourselves under a clear and starry sky.
Camp: San Joaquin River, near Muir Trail Ranch (37.2347, -118.8803)
Segment 2 Photos
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
Segment 4: Onion Valley to Whitney Portal (60 miles)
Day 15, Aug. 9
Being among friends and family, with all of civilization's comforts within arm's reach, meant we stayed up much too late the previous night and were therefore in no hurry to get up at dawn. When we finally emerged from our tent, Mary handed us each a tall cup of hot coffee and made us a breakfast to remember, which we enjoyed tremendously in the company of our trail angels and my parents.
It was now time to pack and decide what we would leave behind -- which we did ruthlessly so as to cut as much weight as possible on this last segment. We had consistently consumed fewer calories than expected, so took only as much food as we knew we would eat (about one-third less than we sent in our resupply). We left our guidebook hard copy behind (relying on a map and compass, GPS unit, and e-versions of the book on two phones instead). We left our solar charger behind. We left our sketchbooks behind (we had been too busy covering miles and too tired to do much writing or sketching on the previous segments). And with the benefit of accessing a 5-day forecast that called for no rain, we left our rain gear behind, too. Our packs were finally in the lightweight category (base weight below 20 lbs), though still a long way from ultra-light (base weight below 10 lbs). At this point in the hike, our bodies were their strongest -- and now we had the lightest packs of the trek. We were happy.
After a grateful exchange and tearful farewell, we left the luxurious abode we had lovingly dubbed "The City" and the "Ritz Trailer." My parents drove us to Onion Valley campground, where the "last-leg crew" had spent the night at elevation in order to help them acclimate. After a final gear check and a group photo, we were finally back on the trail. It was late morning and already quite warm. We had five fairly steep miles to cover to Kearsarge Pass -- only this time we were joined by four hikers who had just come from sea level and hadn't yet gotten their "trail legs." We took it slowly, partly by design, and partly because Anya took a wrong turn in the first hour of the hike, causing a delay and earning her the trail name "Lost and Found."
We stopped at Gilbert Lake for lunch and arrived to the Kearsarge Pass by mid-afternoon. At the pass, we had a small ceremony for our friend Kevin Owen, who passed away unexpectedly almost exactly a year before. Kevin was an amateur naturalist and loved the Sierra, particularly this area. He and his wife, Melinda, introduced me to camping when I was a teenager and helped foster my love of the outdoors. Onion Valley was the first place they ever took me camping, and more than 15 years later, was the place J and I were camping the night Kevin died in July 2014, though we wouldn't know of his passing until we returned home a few days later.
Back in Kings Canyon National Park, we rejoined the JMT and hiked a couple miles south until we reached Lower Vidette Meadow, where we found a spacious site near Bubbs Creek with a gorgeous view of East Vidette, a stunning arête (a sharp mountain ridge) that seems to have been lifted from the logo of a Toblerone chocolate bar. We built a campfire in the existing fire pit and quickly readjusted to being back in the wilderness.
Camp: Lower Vidette Meadow (36.7589, -118.4057)
Day 16, Aug. 10
We rose with the sun, excited to be on the trail once more, while slightly apprehensive that today we would scale the last and highest pass of the JMT -- Forester Pass, 13,180 feet above sea level. After breakfast, Genevieve's friend Anya emerged from her tent to tell us that she and Jean would not be continuing, and would instead head back to Onion Valley over the next few days. The previous day's hike was an eye-opener for them: this was their first backpacking experience (a small but significant detail we didn't learn until we met them), and the climb over and beyond the pass was physically exhausting for them. We made sure they had proper food and shelter to get them through the next couple of nights and then the four of us -- J, Genevieve, Torin and I -- began the 7-mile ascent toward the pass.
Along our hike to Forester Pass we encountered an ultralight runner named Kurt Achtenhagen who was attempting to break the speed record for an unsupported JMT hike, aiming for three to four days of total trail time. We chatted with him for a couple of minutes and wished him luck, humbled by his friendliness and his willingness to spend precious time connecting with strangers. We later learned that he exited the trail early due to unexpected physical issues but is optimistic about trying again soon.
We resumed our climb, leaving the lodgepole pine forest and entering the sub-alpine and then alpine zone, with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain spent above timberline. Even here, where the main ingredients comprising the landscape are granite and water, several hardy plant species grow in opportune spots, making for surprisingly green views. A dirt trail gave way to talus (a sloping deposit of loose rock), with the occasional underground stream audible a foot or two beneath the rock. This was the headwaters of the much larger Bubbs Creek we had camped by the previous night.
We made it to Forester Pass by mid-afternoon. We all felt great -- no signs of altitude sickness, no exhaustion, and we had incredible views for miles in each direction. During our break at the pass, Genevieve (one of the most outgoing people we've ever met) rewarded a male solo hiker who came up after us with a big kiss on the cheek, putting a huge smile (and a distinct pinkish hue) on his face. She then took an unmarked plastic bag out of her pack and pulled out home-made dried fruit strips to share. This plastic bag and the untold variety of treats it contained would come out a number of times over the course of the subsequent days, earning Genevieve the trail name "Mary Poppins." Several other hikers made it to the pass while we were breaking there, and we greeted each of them with applause and cheer. A northbound solo female hiker took her last steps up to the pass smiling from ear to ear. She thanked us for making her day.
We began our descent around 4:30pm, and the wind was really picking up, causing a million ripples in the tarns and lakes below to shine in the afternoon sun. We had four miles to go before we would get below tree line at Tyndall Creek, past the Lake South America junction. This had been a trying day and the waning energy of the group was palpable. The four of us had established a good hiking rapport over the previous couple of days, making decisions together and checking in frequently to make sure everyone was doing well. We all agreed that Tyndall Creek was an optimal destination despite our low energy, so we pressed on. Along the way, J took a nasty fall -- the third of the trip and a reminder for us of how he earned his trail nickname "Timber Timber" (he doesn't just fall...he falls slowly and dramatically, calling not just for one cry of "timber" but two). At Tyndall Creek we were surprised to find two or three dozen campers in the area. We continued further downstream and spied a spacious and fairly secluded site. We were tired but happy. We had conquered Forester Pass and tomorrow would be a pass-free day.
Camp: Tyndall Creek (36.6422, -118.3882)
Day 17, Aug. 11
Our day began with a gentle climb, first through lodgepole and foxtail pine forest, then into a desolate sandy flat revealing views toward distant ridges of the Great Western Divide, which forms the boundary between Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. The landscape became increasingly barren -- we were now in the sparsely-vegetated expanse of Bighorn Plateau. Continuing south, we crossed a pleasant meadow being enjoyed by several rotund marmots. We took a lunch and laundry break near Wallace Creek, then began the ascent toward Crabtree Meadow. Along this ascent we encountered several seasonal streams that were bone-dry, a stark reminder of the drought. We crossed Sandy Meadow, where we stood quietly for a few minutes, watching a deer gracefully grazing.
The JMT then turns east, separating from the Pacific Crest Trail, which continues south toward Mexico. We passed the Crabtree junction and then began the day's last ascent, a few switchbacks up toward Timberline Lake. While most Whitney-bound backpackers approaching from the east choose Guitar Lake as their base camp, we decided Timberline Lake would be our destination for the evening. We hoped to avoid the crowds at Guitar Lake, which we had been warned about by northbound hikers, while enjoying the privacy and wind protection that being below timberline would bring. We were all very pleased with our decision. We crossed the creek south of the trail and found a secluded spot at the foot of Mt. Hitchcock (13,184'), bordered by a creek, lake and meadow, with a miniature network of pristine water features -- a tiny waterfall falling through carved rock and flowing into chiseled granite channels and shallow pools. With beautiful views toward Mt. Whitney and the lake all to ourselves, this was easily our favorite campsite of the last JMT segment.
After a short and chilly attempt at a dip in the lake, we ate dinner by the lake and watched the sun set. Once darkness fell, we bundled up, laid down on the rocks and looked up at the clear sky: this was the night that the Perseid meteor shower would be peaking. We saw a few impressive meteors, though not exactly a shower. We decided we'd get up before dawn to try our luck at catching a better show of the meteor shower in a few hours and we turned in early.
Camp: Timberline Lake (36.5677, -118.3279)
Day 18, Aug. 12
We woke up around 4:30am, dragged ourselves and our sleeping bags out of the tent and onto the rock, and did our best to keep our weary eyes open to watch the meteor shower. The sky began to lighten about an hour later and sunrise arrived just after 6:00.
While we originally planned to summit Mt. Whitney (14,505') in time to watch the sun rise on our 19th and final day of the trek, we left enough wiggle room in our itinerary to let us make the best decision based on how we actually felt on the trail. Summiting at sunrise is a popular way to complete the JMT, and for good reason: it's a poignant (if not downright transcendent) experience to witness the day's first rays of sunlight bathe the landscape from atop the highest point in the contiguous US. It's an opportunity to reflect on the literal and figurative highs and lows of a challenging and deeply rewarding endeavor. It's all of those things, but it's all of these things, too: cold, dark, exposed, windy and potentially dangerous. We were not prepared to spend the night in sub-zero temperatures on the summit, so we would have to begin our day around 1:00am and hike the most strenuous 5.5 miles of the JMT on a dark, moonless night. The thing is, we actually wanted to see the trail and views, and we wanted to do so well-rested -- so we opted to break up the final 17 or so miles of the hike in a relatively more leisurely manner. We would summit in the daylight and then hike halfway down to Whitney Portal and spend our final night between Trail Camp and Outpost Camp. And so we did.
J and I had summited Mt. Whitney once before, as a day hike from Whitney Portal, but now we were getting to hike through the rocky landscape we had seen from the Whitney Trail, along Hitchcock Lakes and up, up, up the switchbacks to Trail Crest. It was slow-going, but we were savoring this last big challenge and weren't in a hurry. One of the lessons of the trail is that time spent on the trail isn't split into a dichotomy of "good moments" and "bad moments." If a "good" moment for you is when you are on a flat stretch of trail with beautiful views under sunny skies, an opposite moment (say, on a steep, viewless uphill section during a downpour) isn't necessarily "bad." Sometimes a moment just is. So here, on the last strenuous part of the JMT with our packs somehow feeling heavier in the thinning air, we were busy savoring the remaining moments of our three-week walking meditation.
We left most of our pack contents at Trail Crest (13,484'), the beginning of the 4-mile out-and-back roundtrip to Mt. Whitney. We summited in time for lunch and were pleased to find the wind calm enough for us to take a real break. Genevieve fired up her Jetboil and we all enjoyed some much-deserved miso and lentil soup, at which time she re-confirmed the appropriateness of her trail name. Out came her now-famous plastic bag and from it "Mary Poppins" pulled out thinly-sliced prosciutto, which she somehow managed to keep unopened and untouched since purchasing it at a deli days prior. This wasn't the only lunchtime surprise. While we were relishing the moment, a group of climbers hiking the mountaineers' route emerged out of nowhere from the steep rock face just feet from where we were sitting.
With our hearts and bellies full, we signed the register, exchanged high-fives and took some photos before beginning our descent. The trail was ice- and snow-free and in good shape, but we were more than dismayed to find WAG bags and trash strewn about, particularly along the 99 switchbacks and around Trail Camp. (For the uninitiated, Waste, Alleviation and Gelling bags are poop bags required within the Whitney Zone. They are used in order to protect water quality in a heavily-impacted area that has little available soil and conditions not conducive to breaking down waste. You'd be surprised how many folks use said bags and then simply deposit them on the trail for someone else to deal with.)
We were about 4.5 miles from the trailhead and just below 11,000' when we decided to stop for the night. It was windy that evening and we huddled around a sandy flat sheltered by rocks, reflecting on an epic adventure that was coming to an end. I asked everyone to compose a haiku about the experience, which were shared over dinner. With no other campers around we were treated to a colorful sunset over Owens Valley, where within a few hours we would indulge in the comforts of modernity.
Camp: Whitney Trail, halfway between Trail Camp and Outpost Camp (36.5672, -118.2674)
Day 19, Aug. 13
After a relentlessly windy night of little sleep we broke down camp, had a light breakfast and hit the trail. We were motivated by the prospect of enjoying a real breakfast in Lone Pine. We arrived at Whitney Portal before 10:30am, bought some cold drinks and a JMT patch at the portal store and were pleasantly surprised to find our cars in good shape, where we left them.
We had a hearty breakfast in Lone Pine at the Alabama Hills Cafe, called family and with much of the day still remaining, we all piled into one car and drove north to soak in hot springs near Mammoth Lakes. On our way north on Highway 395, wildfire smoke began to spill into Owens Valley, eventually covering the sky in a reddish-brown blanket. This wasn't wispy smoke; it was a heavy covering. We had narrowly dodged wildfire impacts that led many to change their plans or abandon the JMT over the subsequent days and weeks.
We picked up cold beer and snacks in Bishop and headed to Crowley's (a.k.a. Wild Willy's) hot springs, where we proceeded to enjoy the vices of sloth and gluttony in great measure for much of the afternoon. By this time we were back in touch with Anya and Jean, with whom we had parted on the trail three days before. We met them in the town of Mammoth Lakes for dinner and exchanged stories of what the past days had brought. We parted with Genevieve and her friends, who headed back to San Francisco that night, and then dropped Torin back in Lone Pine to pick up his car.
LA-bound, we were filled with new memories that will surely be among our most cherished. We were transformed by previously unimaginable experiences, filled with a sense of awe and appreciation for having completed what we set out to do -- and really looking forward to a good night's sleep in our bed.
Segment 4 Photos
For planning and navigation we used:
- Sierra Mapper: this free interactive mapping tool, created by kindhearted tech whiz Adam White, lets you create customized routes that include trail mileage and elevation gain/loss. Easy to use and immensely helpful for planning daily mileage.
- JMT Yahoo! Group: the many relevant files available on this site make it the best online depository of information on the JMT. Discussions are moderated by knowledgeable and passionate folks, and topics tend to be thoughtful and informative.
- Tom Harrison's JMT map pack: 13 individual light-weight weatherproof maps printed on letter-sized paper
- Elizabeth Wenk's John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America's most famous trail: we had the book both in hard copy and as an e-book. We sent the hard copy home with our last resupply and relied on the e-book, which we had on two phones.
- Guthook's JMT Hiker app (for iPhone): indispensable to help identify reliable water sources during this drought year. Also helpful for quick navigation, finding campsites and planning breaks. We also had Halfmile's PCT app, but found Guthook's to suit our needs.
- Garmin e-Trex 30 GPS: we uploaded waypoints (for various trail features, and more importantly, campsites) from the Wenk book onto our Garmin. The waypoints made finding campsites much easier, which we appreciated at the end of longer or more challenging days. We had the unit on whenever we were on the move and recorded virtually the entire trek (except a few miles when the batteries ran out). The recorded data is shown on this map of our hike.
- DeLorme InReach Explorer: we borrowed this 2-way satellite communicator from our trail angels, Mary and Robert, which allowed us to send free pre-set messages to family and to auto-post on Facebook. We were also able to get a weather forecast for our GPS location on demand through this free service (incoming message fees still apply).