|John Muir Trail - First 65 miles, CA|| |
John Muir Trail - First 65 miles, CA
|Backpack||59.00 Miles||6 Days |
|8,915 ft AEG|
|My good hiking buddy, Tiffani, moved to California last year and got it into her head that she was going to tackle the John Muir Trail. When she invited me to come along for a piece, I was thrilled...not only was it a big boost to my ego that she thought I'd be a competent and capable partner to help her ease into through hiking, but it was cool that she thought we could stand to hike with each other for like 7 days straight!
We worked out a plan that involved me taking a train out to meet her in Santa Barbara, then driving together through Oakland to drop off her stuff (she'd be moving the day she got off the trail pretty much) to Yosemite to start the hike. From there, I'd go with her as far as the Devil's Postpile NM where my DH would be waiting to pick me up and transport me back to the land of cacti and sand while Tiffani continued hiking through the Sierra majesty. She'd then hike by herself for the next 7 days until she met up with her boyfriend who would finish the trip with her all the way to the summit of Whitney. All in all, her trip would span 21 days. Which is why, when I would tell people I was hiking the first 60 miles with her, it was "only" 60. I think in any other circumstance, I'd be proud to be covering that kind of distance!
We spent the night before the hike at the Yosemite Bug - which has evolved from a very crunchy hostel to a moderately rustic ecolodge...but retains its fun character. Our tent cabin was warm and toasty and we had a nice, big carb loading meal (more because we wanted to than because we needed to).
Day 1: Valley floor to Little Yosemite Valley
The first day and the last are the only days on your JMT permit that REALLY matter where you camp. Although Tiffani wanted to get further on day 1, the only permit she could get was for the LYV, so we had an easy first day. Since we only had 4.4 miles, much of it paved, we had some fun on the valley floor (shopping, sight seeing, touristing) - even stopping for an ice cream cone just before we started the hike. We'd also both done this part of the hike before, so we weren't in that state of dumb awe that can happen at the foot of the majestic waterfalls and granite domes. There were plenty of people to contend with - both day hikers and backpackers - and so we didn't get stopped much by folks wondering where we were headed. That would come later.
We took a long lunch break (i.e.. nap) at the top of Nevada Fall so that we wouldn't pull into the camp too early. Nothing quite as boring as sitting in the dense forest at Little Yosemite Valley with nothing to do. Even still, we had picked out our site in LYV by 5:45 with 3.5 hours of light left. We headed down to the beach on the Merced and took a little swim (it was much warmer than I'd anticipated). Even Tiffani, who in the past has had a bit of an issue with getting "into" strange wild bodies of water was tempted in by the crystal clear waters. If only there hadn't been such a crowd, it might've been fun to get REAL natural...but we were certainly never alone in LYV.
As I was hanging my hammock, someone approached our campsite. It turned out to be another ABC Hiker, Katie, who was hiking in the Sierras with her mom! Someone from my own hiking club, right in the next campsite! AmAZing! We had a wonderful visit, some very good dinner and a lovely evening in the very long, lingering twilight. And then, of course, there was the glory of the hammock just waiting for me...
Day 2: LYV to Sunrise High Sierra Camp
The southern part of the JMT is a little like the "hiking from hut to hut" that Europeans talk about. From the very civilized campground at LYV, it was our original plan to get just past Sunrise High Sierra Camp. However, the drought situation that summer was severe (by Sierra standards), and we weren't certain that we would find water at the more distant camp, so we decided to shoot for the HSC instead. As it turned out, we needn't have worried. The drought panic that the rangers and PCTers were so rabid about was really nothing to a couple of seasoned Arizona hikers. We never walked more than about 4 miles between acceptable water sources, and never once worried about water at a camp. Just because it wasn't shooting out of the ground into our mouths didn't mean there wasn't perfectly fine drinking water nearly everywhere.
The hike from LYV was pleasant - not nearly as tough as the climb yesterday had been. We were treated to the whole back side of Half Dome as we walked - and we ran into a fair number of folks who were headed for the infamous peak on a long day hike. Tiffani had attempted it the year before, and I had made my try about 10 years before, and we both agreed that there were far better ways for us to spend our energy (which meant that we both are afraid of heights enough to not even consider the cables). It was fun to see the tiny specs on the granite face, though, and to watch the dome change shapes as we circumnavigated it.
I think one of the reasons the Sierras make such a perfect hiking destination is that while there are massive trees and lush forests, there are also ample views and a plenty of places where everything feels open and wild. The first part of this day had us following the path of the Merced River several thousand feet above its canyon. The amazing views across the canyon and to the exposed granite domes on the far side are spectacular. It makes one feel very small and very glad to have such a well marked, well traveled trail. That granite wilderness seems endless!
Then the trail turns north and begins to follow Sunrise Creek up to its mouth near the Sunrise HSC. To the east are views of Vogelsang Peak - one of the most stunning peaks in the range. Add that to my list of "must explore more of"... By now we had left most of the dayhikers behind and we were in backpacker/through-hiker territory. Familiar territory, that is. Everyone we passed stopped for a brief visit, passing on advice for water sources and camps or asking about conditions in the outside world. We saw a few other JMTers who were just starting out and already having foot or pack problems, and we wished them the best. Ah, if only I'd known then! (note my clever use of foreshadowing)
We didn't hike fast, it was too pretty for that. The last climb up to Sunrise is a bit of a monster...mostly because you START the climb at about 8000' and gain almost 1300' from there. It steals your breath away in the most literal manner possible, but then takes a little more away in the figurative: it's a beautiful hill covered with ancient, gnarled trees and massive potato-shaped boulders. Step step, breathe, picture, step, step...and on up.
Then you reach true alpine meadows above 9000' ...and in the glory of the afternoon light, you just stop and sigh.
Since our plans had changed, we peeked our heads into the High Sierra Camp lodge to see if we might partake in dinner. The meal would be $36, and the most the host would give us in terms of menu details was "chicken" (and they'd come up with something for Tiffani the vegetarian). $36 mystery chicken dish vs eating the (delicious) backpacking meal I'd have to carry out otherwise... Clear winner there, and with the amazing views from near our camp, I don't think we missed a thing. Once again we had a camp with toilets, water spigots and a community feel. We even ran into some of the same folks we'd been talking to on the Valley floor.
Another glorious night in the hammock...and could life possibly get any better?
Day 3: Sunrise HSC to Tuolumne Meadows HSC
We thought the day would be pretty easy: mostly downhill, lots of lakes to see, and reservations for dinner at the Tuolumne Lodge for dinner. I suppose in many ways it was easy, but it was also the beginning of my foot trouble.
You see, I'd decided to wear my waterproof hiking boots because my previous trips to the Sierras had always involved trekking through deep mud, across freezing cold wet streams and over snow fields. I thought I was being SO clever beating the conditions like that.
You know what mother nature does when you're being cocky, right???
So, turns out these shoes - which were fine for 11 days of trekking in India and a number of shorter dayhikes in Tucson - do NOT do well under the weight of a backpack for days on end...particularly downhill. So, while most of Day 3 I still felt okay, by the end of it my feet were beginning to be grumpy. Quite grumpy.
The hike to Tuolumne was - you guessed it - beautiful. Granite domes, glacially carved peaks, babbling streams, blah blah blah. One of the highlights of the day was the Cathedral Lakes area - alpine meadows with crystal clear lakes surrounded by jagged, sharp peaks which reached over 10,000'. Ptarmigans and marmots and hemlocks...oh my!
We read the signs that there was a re-vegetation project near the shores of Cathedral Lake, and stayed on the path high above to avoid adding our footfalls to the problem. Of course, we were probably the only ones and we felt a little silly eating our lunch 300' above shore when about a half dozen others were basking next to the water, but that's the price of the moral (and literal) high ground.
Below the Cathedral junction, the trail dropped quickly to the Meadows, switch-backing down through a thick forest which afforded fewer of the the stunning views we'd seen in the first part of the hike. I was more or less mentally done by the time we got to the junction with Bud Creek, which was a strategic mistake on my part. There were still several miles to go to get to the campground, including some road walking (back in the land of the gas-belching beasts), line-standing (gotta get french fries at the grill) and more walking into the campground (and back, and back, and back). My feet were losing patience.
Tiffani was ALSO having feet (foot?) trouble, but it felt much more urgent for her to address it as she still had like 19 days of hiking ahead of her. We stopped into the gear shop to buy her some new Superfeet inserts for her shoes, only to find out that they were sold out of her size. We sat outside on the bench and debated options, evidently more loudly than we thought. When Gary picked me up at the Postpile, he would be able to drop off a new pair (traded for a pair of shoe insoles...ah the travesty) but that was still miles away. And we weren't exactly at the center of a retail Mecca. The shop attendant (who must've overheard us) came out and made a surprising offer...he'd GIVE Tiffani his old Superfeet insoles to try out. That at least gave her something for her feet to get her through the next few days, and would help her know if the Superfeet were really going to help (or if something else might be needed). We found this sort of generosity and sense of community everywhere in Tuolumne - it really is a through-hiker haven. Half of the people in line at the cafe are through hikers, and the other half wish they were. It's great.
We walked the 2 miles to the lodge early enough to shower before dinner (I am not to proud to steal a shower, even if I've only been out for 3 days), and then enjoyed a delicious craft beer in the lodge as we waited (only $1.75!). Dinner at Tuolumne is served at family-style tables of 8, so we shared our meal with 6 strangers, all of whom were a delight. There was the couple from Ireland (great tales), the retirees who were seeing the world at long last and the newly-weds from California who turned out to be actual Hollywood types (she had just finished up filming 2 seasons of a TV show and he's a producer/director type). They were SO fascinated with our adventure that they offered us a ride back to our campground in their (very) nice Mercedes. It was especially kind given that it had gotten quite late, dark and my feet were in full revolt. I was tempted to switch my camp to their leather bench seat, but something told me there'd be limits to their generosity.
So it was another night in the hammock, worried about the bears (thanks to signs EVERYWHERE in the campground), though slightly more worried about drunk/high backpackers who were having a VERY good time all night...
Day 4: Tuolumne Meadows HSC to (finally) the middle of nowhere near Donahue Pass
I woke up with sore feet, and that's always a bad sign. I had a couple of blisters forming on my toes, which hasn't happened in years. I was so under-prepared that I had to borrow some blister supplies from Tiffani, which was embarrassing considering that I was supposed to be the low maintenance one. Tiffani wanted to get our breakfast from the cafe, so once again we got a later start. The long days and relatively cool temps meant that this was never really a problem, but it certainly felt like we were being lazy. In AZ in July, this totally would have kicked us in the pumpkin.
The majority of the hike on day 4 was through Lyell Canyon. This is a spectacular destination, so I was surprised that we saw basically zero dayhikers once we were past the lodge. The canyon is totally unlike the rugged Arizona canyons I'm used to... It's broad and U-shaped, with a gentle, meandering stream and huge stands of trees. Several times I thought I'd stumbled into a scene from Middle-Earth or Bierstadt's imagination. It gave me something to think about besides my aching, swelling feet.
Midway through the canyon we ran into a group that was backpacking with kids. I mean young kids. These 3 adults were escorting 4 junior hikers, ages 4-8, on a 4 night backpacking trip. I was in awe. The packs carried by the adults were immense, and the ability of these folks to walk under that weight AND entertain a 4 year old was impressive. We were stopped as we passed the first woman and her easily distracted young charge. She asked us to take the hat dangling from the back of her pack on ahead to the older girl hiking with her Grandfather. We quickly passed the other group and as we chatted, we learned that the woman who'd given us the hat was none other than Elizabeth Wenk. We'd been using Ms. Wenk's book "John Muir Trail: The essential guide..." like our bible! We were disappointed that we'd not realized who we were speaking to earlier, but we were happy to have been of service to the troupe and that we got to see Ms. Wenk doing what she clearly does best. That concluded our celebrity sightings for the trip.
The pictures tell more than words ever could on this passage. It really is absurdly beautiful. Toward the back of the canyon, it doesn't so much narrow as get shallower and rougher - with fewer meadows and more boulders to contend with, tighter meanders (that look like U turns) and dense little forest glades. We originally aimed to camp just below Donahue Pass on the shore of a beautiful lake. However, my feet simply didn't make it that far, and we camped at Lyell Forks instead - about 3 miles short. It was a beautiful camp in its own right, though, and I gave my feet a good cold soak in Lyell Creek. We enjoyed the beer we'd carried from Tuolomne and a small fire (which we later learned was illegal...oops). Sleeping is much easier when it doesn't get dark until almost 10pm...
Day 5: Lyell Forks to Garnet Lake
We knew we had to make up the miles from yesterday sometime... Afterall, we had a date with a cabin, shower and soft bed at Red's Meadow in the Devil's Postpile the evening of day 6. Though we'd prepared Mr.Wendy with the thought that we might not arrive until early on day 7, neither of us were really ready to do that. It only meant 12 miles on day 5, but that included getting our butts up and over Donahue pass - our highest point so far at 11056'.
We started the day with a 1500' climb. It sounded daunting at first...but as Elizabeth Wenk described in her book, it's well graded with plenty of drop-dead-amazing views to keep you distracted. This was probably the busiest part of trail we'd been on since the Yosemite Valley - I guess the backpackers all stack themselves up near the summit of the pass traveling in either direction then tackle it together in the morning. Though it was busy, everyone was very friendly and we had some nice chats (including one with a Yosemite ranger from whom we learned of the illegality of our campfire without giving ourselves away). We also learned that the water of the tarns (high pass lakes which are essentially melted snow trapped on the flat pass) is actually warmer than many of the streams, since it is constantly in the sun. We decided to skip the swim just the same. Warmer hardly means warm, especially when you can step in the snow that created that same puddle!
The pass itself is above the tree line, barren and rocky, with incredible views down into Lyell Canyon (which would be better for photos later in the day). It is also the boundary line between Yosemite National Park and Inyo National Forest - so several rules change right on that rough patch of land. While fires were allowed in Yosemite (below 9500'), the drought had caused the national forests to ban campfires all together. For the rest of her hike, Tiffani would need to go without a toasty warm fire at night.
The pass is also an east-west boundary for an ecosystem. The landscape on the Yosemite side tended to be drier than the Inyo, and the wildflowers on the east of the pass were far superior. For the first time we started seeing the spectacular display of flowers and smaller shrubs I'd been hoping for in my dreams of the Sierra summers. White mountain heather was among my favorites, and we got to spend our lunch break with our feet in melting snow from the pass and our shoulders resting on a thick bed of heather and grass. Perfect!
My feet turned out to far prefer uphill to the down, so the first climb of the morning I was hopeful that I was in recovery. However, as we came down the far side of the pass I was hurtin'. Luckily, the day was all about alternating ups and downs, so I just gritted my teeth through the bad parts and tried to take in the amazing, changing scenery.
The rocks begin changing here as well, as the granite has come into contact with volcanic activity (Mammoth Mountain complex). As we crossed over Island Pass (a lush paradise of small lakes and wet bogs), the granite began to take on a dark, sinister character to it -most evident in the black, stark slopes of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. These peaks tower over Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes, two of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.
You'll have to check out the photos of these two lakes, dotted with granite islands and bits of forest that seem to float on their surface like bubbles. Unfortunately, we were getting short on time at Thousand Island Lake...it was after 6:30 pm and it was still 3 miles to Garnet where we wanted to camp. We took some pics from a viewpoint above the lake, then crossed quickly at it's mouth. Then was up out of the Thousand Island glacial basin, down into Emerald Lake's basin, up and out again then down again into Ruby Lake, then one last climb and descent to the stunning Garnet Lake. If we'd have been moving faster, I might have gotten a little dizzy!
It was 8pm when we finally got to the junction of the use trail at Garnet described in our guide which we hoped would take us to some ideal camping spots along the shore of the lake. The, it was nearly 9:30 before we finally settled on a spot. The lake is in a steep glacial cirque, and there really aren't many places for camping that satisfy both a tent and a hammock - in reality, there aren't many campsites at all once you leave the first 1000' feet of use trail. We finally settled on a flat spot between piles of boulders and I resigned to sleeping on the ground. I'd brought my new Big Agnes for just this reason - it's warm enough to use in the hammock and soft enough to sleep with on the earth. Still...my last night and I had to keep the hammock packed. I pouted a little bit, but soon was snoring away regardless of where my bum was.
Day 6: Garnet Lake to Devil's Post Pile NM
Another lousy day in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Wake up to a glass-smooth, crystal blue glacial lake with a towering black granite peak at it's head. Really, how much of this must I endure? The mosquitoes finally caught up with us...they'd been suspiciously absent for the first part of the trip. However, that's what the Deet is for, and we didn't use it sparingly. Dope up and start hiking girl - your man is waiting at the far side (woo hoo!)
The character of the landscape is now completely changed from the Yosemite area. The lakes we've been visiting are perched on a shoulder of Ritter Range, where the east bound glaciers parked and waited to merge with the much larger south bound glacier that has become the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River. These lakes hang as much as 1000' feet above the river level below - their outlet streams do a crazy swan dive down the sides of the valley. The route of these swan dives sometimes accompany trails - and the PCT takes one of these down from the Thousand Island inlet to follow the river trail far below. The JMT, being more about the super-intensified Sierras experience, follows the high road and continues to drop into and climb out of lake basins and creek drainages for miles. Shadow Lake is one of the more scenic, and it is within easy dayhike range for visitors to the Post Pile and Mammoth - so we began to see many more folks on the trail with tiny packs and 16oz water bottles.
Did I mention yet that my feet hurt? I was trying crazy stuff, like hiking in Tiffani's sandals and even in my foam camp shoes just to give my feet a change in pressure points. At this point, I'm just hiking through the pain, and though there are moments when I just want to sit down and whine like a child, I think I'm doing pretty well. I suppose you get to a point where it just doesn't really matter any more...and that's a good place to be. On the large climb out of Shadow Lake, I actually felt great and kept ahead of several other backpackers and hikers who were laboring up the switchbacks. I felt like if I could just keep climbing for the rest of the trip, I'd be golden (and we all know that I NEVER think like that!)
We hiked past views of the Minarets, which are actually some of the best examples of glacial arete that you'll find in North America. If you can imagine licking at your ice cream cone from both sides alternately until you end up with a point on the top and two U-shaped valleys on the sides, you've just made an arete. Glaciers do this to granite over thousands of years. I think that's pretty blinking impressive, really, and I wished that there'd been less haze (or was it smoke, we never knew) so that I'd have been able to photo them a little better. Glaciers are an impressive force of nature, and I'm very nervous that I won't be able to experience many before they're all gone in this latest warm spell. I'll just have to chase the remaining few and make sure I enjoy them thoroughly before they become drinking water.
So it's lake, lake, marsh, then a loooooonnnnggg descent down to the shores of the San Joaquin near Reds Meadow. By now we have cell reception, and we're in touch with Mr. Wendy, who has Mr. Wendy's mom in tow (who by the way thinks her daughter-in-law is simultaneously amazing and crazy). We're all surprised at how quickly today has gone. Though the mileage was similar to the day before, we managed to make it WELL before dark - in fact, we made it by dinner time! Woo hoo for a meal at a table with soda and ice cream!
At the end of the day, as I curled up with Mr. Wendy in a bed, I realized that I was actually jealous that Tiffani got to keep hiking and I would be getting into a car and returning to Arizona. In spite of my aching feet and smelly clothes, I wanted to keep going.
I suppose that's the through-hiking bug getting its bite in. How can you stop with so much beauty and great people still ahead of you? That trail keeps going...don't you want to see where?
Well, I do. As I waved goodbye to Tiffani the next afternoon (after laundry and shopping in Mammoth), I felt a little nervous for her on her first solo backpacking nights and more than a little envious that it wasn't me with the pack and the poles. Maybe that's why it took so long to write this trip log. I'm not REALLY done with the trip yet...I'm just on a long, long break.
So, who's up for Devil's Postpile to Muir Trail Ranch next year???
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.- Barack Obama