It’s been over a year since the Mountain Fire consumed over 27,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest in Riverside County. As a result, some of the trails in the San Jacinto range and some of the Pacific Crest Trail are closed indefinitely. The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical equipment failure on private property. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Since last fall’s hike on Fuller Ridge, we haven’t been back in the San Jacinto area. We love to hike up here in the summer because you can usually escape the hotter temps in the valleys below.
Today, we would venture out on Devil’s Slide and hit Saddle Junction From there, we would see which trails were open. On the weekends, this is a popular trail so the recommendation is to come early or start late (around noon). Humber Park is a popular area to picnic and the Earnie Maxwell trail is a 2.6 mile one way shuttle hike for a nicer walk in the park. Parking in Humber Park requires an adventure pass. For the Devil’s Slide trail, you will need to pick up a permit at the ranger’s station in Idyllwild.
I usually check the weather forecast when we hike. Now, a tropical storm off the Baja Peninsula was pumping in moisture to the desert regions east with subsequent scattered thunderstorms in the mountains. One thing about hiking, the longer you do it, the better you get at understanding the weather. The cumulus clouds were definitely about, but were spread out and not building into thunder-cells.
The trail up Devil’s Slide is well maintained, wide – with a mix of dirt, granite and some sand and scree. It gains a steady 500 ft. or so for the first mile and then you get switchbacks that are around 700 ft. per mile. It’s a steady climb with nice views of Suicide Rock and Lily Rock, both favorites for local climbers. You can hear them calling out to each other as you head up.
Unfortunately, this has been a low snow year so the trail is totally dry. If you want to find water sources in the wilderness, watch for bees. They seek out moisture and will actually pull water out of moist dirt that usually has a water source underneath. They often will take the water back to the queen to cool her down. I love nature.
After 2.5 miles, we reached Saddle Junction and most of the trails were roped off by the USFS. The Mountain Fire did impact a large area, but many mature trees survived because the fire was not as intense. Some species of pines in this area have bark that is 3-5 inches thick. It’s like armor and protects the conifers from the heat.
We took one of two available trails toward Tahquitz Valley, hoping that we could work our way toward Law’s Camp a few miles away which has decent views of the desert. After a half mile or so, we would run into some volunteer ranger’s and I automatically gave them my permit. The people who volunteer are usually locals that love this area and are a big asset to the Forest Service. They check permits, clean up trash and seek out illegal campsites or fire rings. Often, they assist with search and rescue. We had a nice conversation with them and were on our way again. We came to another junction and unfortunately, the trails to the north were closed so we went into Tahquitz Valley toward Tahquitz Peak.
We were rewarded with a display of colorful ferns. Some were orange and yellow, probably due to the lack of rain, but it seemed like fall foliage to us. We had the trail to ourselves for the next few hours as most people stopped at the junction or went straight to the peak. The trail meandered through the forest passing a couple of remote campsites. These would be nice if there was water around. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring it in like a camel.
One of the volunteer rangers mentioned that thunderstorms were due in around 3 p.m. We pushed up the last 500 ft. just past the Tahquitz Peak junction and wandered out to an outcropping for views of Lily Rock and the valley where we would take a late lunch break. Good thing too, because I hit the classic wall where I was out of energy. Many long distance hikers experience this frequently where they just run out of steam. For them, trying to stay ahead of the calorie deficit is the key. For us occasional day hikers, it’s a matter of eating a decent breakfast and snacking along the way.
We heard one group pass on their way to the peak and then the first rumbles of thunder. I looked around to see the source and the cumulus clouds were gathering to our south and moving north towards us. We finished up and began a fairly quick retreat down the mountain. Unfortunately, the first mile or so was parallel to the storm so we didn’t make much headway, but ended up getting out of harms way fairly quickly. I found out later that the storm dumped several inches of rain with hundreds of lightning strikes to our south and east. Did you know lightning can strike 20+ miles away from a storm? We took the opportunity to talk about lightning safety and what actions we would take. Feel a tingling on the back of your neck or arms? Drop those poles and squat near the ground ASAP. Don’t touch the ground though.
Anyhow, hike long enough and you are bound to get wet and/or experience lightning. Be prepared and have a plan. Pack a rain-pancho or raincoat – you can get hypothermia even in the summer. Avoid peaks and summits in thunderstorm conditions around the noon to early afternoon hours.
In summary, the Devil’s Slide trail to Saddle Junction is fairly limited for the time being due to the fire, but take the loop to Tahquitz Peak as it is a worthwhile trek. The views from the peak and the Lily Rock canyon are stellar. You’ll log around 9.5-9.7 miles on this walkabout. Take at least 2-3 liters of water with you, there’s none to be found this time of year. Hike on……
Here’s the BLUF **on Glacier National Park: Add it to your bucket list of hiking. On our RV trip to Ontario, Canada we had the opportunity to enter the states through Montana and sample this amazing area. We stayed in a nice RV park just outside the main entrance to the park in St. Mary’s. It was a mostly overcast day and we walked in to the Visitor Center. By the way, cloudy days make for great landscape photography. Since we didn’t have our vehicle that we tow behind the RV, we would have to rely on the GNP shuttle system. The main thoroughfare – the “Going to the Sun Road” has a limit of 21 ft. All but the smallest of RVs are longer than that. Sadly, we would have only one day in this magnificent park.
Anyhow, not knowing which trails were the best, I asked the ranger which one would be a good day hike. He asked me great questions like “Is this your first time in the park, how far/how much elevation change do you want?” He pointed us to the Piegan Pass – Siyeh Pass trail, a 10+ mile with approx. 2,800 ft. of elevation gain. He mentioned that it provided the most bang for the buck for a single day in the park. Looking over my shoulder, my wife motioned that there was a shuttle loading, so we hustled over.
The shuttles vary from small 16-20 passenger ones to city-like busses. The first few miles of road were paved and then changed to gravel. Construction crews were making the most of the brief summers, so there are usually delays. Thirty minutes later, we were hopping off and noticed how low the clouds were. Oh well, we were prepared for most weather conditions. We usually pack our layers, warm jackets and rain gear.
The Piegan Pass trail started out following a rushing creek, elevation was around 5,400 ft. Going-To-The-Sun Mountain was shrouded by clouds which were hugging the peaks. Oh, did I mention that Glacier has grizzly bears? I’ve hiked for several years in different parts of the U.S., but grizzlies scare me. Most bears are dangerous, including blacks and browns, but the grizzly is just a massive creature that you don’t want to startle. We would be prepared though. I had the bear spray in a holster, my wife had a bell on her backpack and we made plenty of noise with our hiking poles. It helps to talk loudly too.
We were probably over-cautious, but in my mind – one of the worst things that you can do is surprise a grizzly feeding, or one with cubs. The trails in Glacier have plenty of bushes – and huckleberries. The trail was as awesome as the Park Ranger said it would be. He mentioned that we would pass through several eco-systems. It was very green here in a Riparian like zone. The lilies had already bloomed but there were many other wildflowers around. Saw our first bear grass, it really sticks out like the yucca plants in the desert. We entered a forest area with a significant canopy. I’m sure Glacier National Park is a botanist’s dream in the summer. There were so many varieties of plants with pines, firs and those quaking aspen trees. The mushrooms do well here with the moist climate around 6,000 ft. A light rain started, and the temps dipped into the 40’s so we put on our rain gear.
We took a lunch break under a stand of small pines near the Siyeh-Piegan junction and were joined by a few others. We met a nice German couple who were appreciating the American wilderness. They and another group decided that the cold, wind-driven rain was too much and turned back. We sized up the weather and pushed on, determined to follow the U.S. Postal Service’s old motto ” Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” ; well you get the gist.
Imagine if you had all the time you needed to just wander and appreciate the beauty of this area. You would learn many of the plant species and see so much wildlife. Wishing that I had more time, I was in awe of the land around me. It’s easy to let your mind wander as you walk along the trails in Glacier. The trail opened up into a valley that was crisscrossed with streams. The far off glacier was feeding the alpine lakes and tarns. The overflow from these would create little tributaries that would make their way down to St Mary Lake, the second largest in the park.
I could barely make out Siyeh Pass as it was partially obscured by clouds, but a couple of hikers 10 minutes ahead assured us that the switchbacks would take us over the top. The wind picked up as we passed 7,000 ft., and it began to sleet. Nothing too bad, but enough to second guess my decision. Actually, no hike is worth putting yourself in jeopardy. Weather conditions can change rapidly up here, so you have to be prepared to deal with it. We were almost to the summit, so we kept going. What came next? Snow, of course! Nothing too bad, flurries.
We hit the summit and the views were phenomenal. One can run out of adjectives trying to describe what the eyes behold. At Siyeh Pass, we saw several glaciers and a long, deep valley. Pushing on, time to go downslope. Oh, man the view looking south was sweet. The clouds parted, with an excellent view of St Mary Lake and a glacier to our right. The vegetation ceased awhile ago, probably because the winds up here can be fairly harsh. The rocks were colorful with red and purple hues.
There were more switchbacks on the Siyeh Pass side and the trail was full of scree and slow going. The clouds enveloped us again and visibility was reduced to around 100 ft. I saw something move ahead, off the trail and froze. Hoping that it wasn’t a bear, I raised my hand signaling my wife to stop. The mountain goat was passing from right to left and was curious. She maneuvered in an arc around us and climbed a rock and came to within 20 ft. My camera always at the ready, I snapped away and noticed a family of goats about 75 ft away. A small juvenile hung in the back and peered over a ledge at us. We watched them for the next 10 minutes and continued back down.
The clouds seemed to absorb some of the sound as we entered the brush and bear grass. We started making noise again, sometimes breaking out into a song or two. Ahead, there was fresh scat on the trail. Hmm, huckleberries. Bears love them. This bear was on the move because there were 4-5 splats on the trail in a few different areas. Maybe he heard us singing.
We sped up a bit, trying to make the next shuttle. I think the eastbound shuttles run every 30 minutes. The last couple of miles were long as we passed through brush along side a fast flowing creek.
We came out on the Follow-The-Sun Road about 100 yards from the shuttle stop. We logged about 10.7 miles with about 2,800 ft. of elevation gain and 3,500 ft. of loss. All in all, this trail ranks in our top 5 ever. Gotta come back to this place-so much to see. I think July and August are the best for hiking here.
** BLUF=Bottom Line Up Front
Ask any hiker that ventures into the backcountry what the hardest part of the experience is and many will say “the mental part.” Up until we logged hundreds of miles on the trail, I’m not sure if this would have made any sense. Our recent journey off the path reiterated the mental part. The fun began after we arrived at the Onion Valley Campground parking lot, fifteen miles or so from the tiny town of Independence.
The drive up from the town is an experience. The road starts with a gradual climb out of the valley and the 180 degree switchbacks made it an exciting ride in our old BMW. We saw mule deer along the way. Be careful of the occasional rock in the road, especially at night. The campground isn’t much in itself. It’s pretty much a tent-only camp tucked away in the small valley where summertime temps creep into the 80’s. At over 9,100 ft. Independence Creek flows nearby. We would park in the hiker’s lot and noticed a few hikers finishing their trek. It was mid-late afternoon and some were looking for rides into Independence or Bishop.
The parking lot has a double vault toilet and cool creek water through a spigot. In the summer, there is always someone coming or going here. We started up the path sans hiking poles and my wife found a nice wooden hiking stick that another kind soul left near the trail-head.
The Kearsarge Pass trail is a steady climb, averaging approximately 600-700 ft. per mile. Well maintained, it gets a lot of traffic during the summer. About half are day-hikers and those fishing. The mild winter was kind to the trail and it was in good shape. Since this was a 3 day hike, we packed extra food and enough clothing to change out. Our packs were light compared to our previous JMT hike, but I might as well have been carrying a couch on my back-that’s how it felt after a couple of miles.
For me, hiking is one of those activities that demands everything you’ve got. Unless you are a thru hiker or able to do this every week, it pushes you. That’s part of the reason we do this – it is a mental and physical challenge. Do this, and you can handle anything life throws at you. My takeaway is “mind over matter”.
This hike starts out with typical scrub and manzanita. Expect a warm one in the summer unless you start early. Around 1.5 miles, you’ll pass next to a nice cascade fed from the lakes above. Within another mile, we passed a couple of lakes, teeming with trout. Experienced our first mosquitoes around 10,000 ft., but not too bad.
The terrain gradually changes into a sub-alpine with a mix of pine and deciduous trees. There is ample shade as you pass the 2-3 mile mark and the climb gets a bit harder with stepping-stones that test your endurance. The wind picked up and it started to feel cool. As long as we kept moving, it was ok. Stop too long and it got cold.
We pushed through and around 6:30, began looking for a campsite. The trail map showed a couple of more lakes within two hundred yards of the trail. Nice, or so I thought. The first one – Heart Lake was a disappointing 5-600 ft. descent so we passed it up. My goal is to almost always camp near a water source. Only one more lake on the map before the “summit” so this was it. I took a GPS reading and compared it to my Tom Harrison map. I confirmed there was a lake below when I asked a passing hiker. He was young and had his earphones in so, I asked a couple of times – “Hey is there a lake down there?” He nodded yes, so we began to look for a way in.
It was after 7 p.m, and getting colder so we began our way down crossing through a talus field of assorted boulders. About two hundred feet in, I spotted a primo campsite. Flat, sandy and large enough for our little Eureka tent. We settled in quickly and had dinner going within 20 minutes. At 11,400 ft., the air chilled as the sun settled behind Kearsarge Pass. I scrambled 200-300 ft. down the slopes of Big Pothole Lake to filter some much-needed water. Six liters later, I slowly climbed back to camp. Much of this water was for our base camp. We try to “tank-up” before hitting the trail because water is so heavy.
There was a strange phenomenon up here. Moths, thousands of them inhabited the little pines. At dusk, there were bats. They would swoop in, emitting their sonar like squeaks. It was quite the feast for them. Never knew there were bats this high.
It was a chilly night, windy with temps in the 40’s. Not bad, but the wind chill made it seem cooler. This close to the pass, a stiff breeze was inevitable. We snuggled into our sleeping bags, each of us with persistent headaches. The thought of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) was at the front of my mind. We were camping at the highest we’ve camped yet. A couple of motrin helped to knock the edge off. If the headaches persisted or other symptoms like nausea and dizziness occurred, we would have to descend. Neither of us slept well.
Next: Pillsbury Does a Handstand at Kearsarge Pass.
When I asked my wife of 32 years what she wanted to do for our anniversary, she said “a backcountry trip.” Men, I know many wives will want to be pampered on this special day, and rightfully so. Rare is the woman who will endure a trip into the wilderness to endure calf burning, boulder scrambling, fending off mosquitoes and chilly nights to celebrate a wedding anniversary with her husband.
Even with a 3 day trip, there is a lot of preparation. I pulled out the gear and checked everything out. The cats love it when I set up the tent in the living room. Five tough miles from your car is not the time to find out your water filter pump doesn’t work. Checklists are always great, but as you will see – not foolproof.
The eastern Sierras offer miles and miles of trails, most with ample supplies of water – even in the terrible drought that California is going through. I’ve heard of Onion Valley, one of the more popular entry/exit routes by PCT thru-hikers. Many will go through Kearsarge Pass to the Onion Valley Campground and hitch a ride into the little town of Independence to pick up a resupply, or catch a ride into Bishop.
The drive from San Diego County is around 4-5 hours through the pain-in-the-butt Riverside/San Bernardino area. Mostly a pain because of the weird road patterns and traffic congestion. Going up, we missed the Hwy 395 turnoff and kept going to take Hwy 58-E to Bakersfield. It was actually better; while longer in mileage, we missed the 395 construction and endless traffic lights in/around Victorville.
Oh, before I forget I’ve learned some tips on getting permits for your trail of choice. Many trails in the California wilderness require backcountry permits issued by the state or feds who manage the areas. After researching the general area you want to hike, you can go to www.recreation.gov and register for an account. Most decent trails have a quota system for overnight stays to minimize the environmental impact. Typically, the recreation.gov website will issue 60% of the permits online, the other 40% for walk-ins at one of many locations-depending on where you want to enter. Here’s the rub: If you reserve online, there is a $5 per person and $6 processing fee. If you do a walk-in it is free. Reserve early, the popular trails fill up quickly. I actually wanted to reserve Kearsarge Pass, but all the permits were issued so I applied for a nearby trail – Golden Trout. Once I paid the $16 fee, I confirmed the day prior and locked in the reservation. On the day of our arrival, I checked in at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center and asked if I could obtain a walk-in for Kearsarge Pass. Sure enough, there were permits available and the Forest Service ranger changed our permit-free of charge.
So, if you want to lock in a trail permit, do it online for a fee. Otherwise, if your plans are flexible, pick out a few trails ahead of time and do a walk-in. The visitor center in Lone Pine handles most of the permits for the Hwy 395 corridor. It is the busiest on Fridays during the summer. Arrive early to get your trail of choice. It’s a nice facility with tons of information and a nice touristy shop. They have decent trail maps, so stock up!
A little more on trip planning. Be prepared for a variety of weather when camping. In our 5th year of hiking, we’ve experienced snow in June. The puffy jacket, knit cap and gloves are worth the extra pack weight. Rain gear is good and will ward off hypothermia while hiking in the wilderness. Bear canisters are often mandatory in much of the Sierras. Sure, you can still hit the trail without one, but I’ve talked to many who have had their campsite visited by the wandering Yogi. You can try hanging your food bag from a tree, but it’s known that mother ursines teach their young how to knock down the yummy treats at an early age. Besides, the trees above 10,000 feet are pretty short.
So, preparation and some common sense backcountry lessons learned are key to an enjoyable trip. Oh, even using a checklist the hiking poles were hanging in the garage where I left them. My knees hate me.
Next: Kearsarge Pass – Mind Over Matter
We were thirty miles away from civilization. The lightning was getting closer and it started to rain. We were climbing out of Thousand Island Lakes, in the middle of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Our 65 mile section hike of the John Muir Trail had been uneventful and amazing thus far. Looking for a level spot to put our rain gear on I could hear the water rushing close by. Leveling out, I noticed a good place to drop our packs on the other side of a cascading creek. The only way across the watery chasm was on a 6 inch wide log.
There must have been a downpour upstream because the creek was running fast with a lot of sediment mixed in. This wasn’t our first water crossing on a log, but the logs seemed to be shrinking in width. It brought back memories as a kid crossing logs in the woods. The first one to fall off would be eaten by “gators”. Only now, we had 40lb. packs and the gator was a rushing current of frothy liquid.
The backcountry is where ones’ phobias can emerge. Acrophobia, aquaphobia, most of the phobias seem to start with “A”. The wilderness is where you go to deal with those fears. So, combining two of those fears – height and water is met by crossing streams on a log. The loud rushing water underneath you, the distance to the water and the dead weight on your back can be a recipe for disaster.
Enough of the melodrama, if you are really afraid of your shadow, then car camping may be a starting point. If all else fails, you can just lock yourself in the car.
In reality, the challenge really becomes mind over matter. The amazing scenery coupled with the experience of accomplishing something you’ve never done before makes it worthwhile. Sure, at the end of the day you will ache in places you didn’t know existed. You may even get wetter than Saturday’s laundry from a cloud burst, but chances are you will emerge unscathed. What I lacked in experience from my early wilderness trips was remedied by common sense. Barring any traumatic experiences of being swept away in a rushing torrent of ice water, you may come away with a love of the outdoors and a desire to share it with someone else.
Thinking back several years ago on my first backcountry trip, I estimated the nearly 25,000 steps I took one day. Picking my way over, under and around obstacles, I was really just putting one foot in front of the other.
Warning: This blog contains a brief section of violence. If this bothers you, skip this episode and read one of my more lighthearted stories. This is the second piece of a two-part story.
…. They shoved us through the brush, making sure that we were out of sight from the trail. Near a creek bed, they pushed us down and took our packs. These guys were probably “coyotes” who deal in human trafficking.
They took everything of value from us – cell phones, wallets. One of them, a short dumpy slug – found the 550 para-cord in my backpack and used it to bind our hands behind our backs and to the trunk of a large manzanita bush. We were beyond scared and prayed for deliverance knowing that when “el jefe” returned, we would be on our way south of the border to be held for ransom, or worse. Dusk was coming quickly as I made eye contact with my wife and gave her a wink.
I was able to make out some of the conversation. My knowledge of spanish is limited, even more limited when it is Mexican slang. I did hear one of them say “cinco horas”. We had “five hours” for something. Three of them departed and left one to guard us. He had some type of semi-auto pistol, couldn’t make out if it was a 9mm but he tucked it into his trousers and sat on a mound of grass about 20 ft. away. It was decision time.
I whispered to my wife that we’ll ok and the thug immediately shined his flashlight and yelled “cayete!” meaning shut up! He lit a small campfire to his left, enough to keep him warm as the coolness of this December night set in. Darkness came and I started feeling around behind my back. I didn’t have much mobility, but enough to feel the chunks of granite at the base of the manzanita. I found a sharp sliver of rock and slowly started to rub the rope across the surface. My eyes adjusted a bit to the darkness and a waning half-moon rose to our north-east. I estimated it was around 9-9:30. Within 30 minutes or so, I had cut through a strand and gradually worked my way out of the rope. It must have been another hour or so and I could hear our kidnapper snoring. I leaned over and whispered to my wife that I was free and that it would soon be time to act. I untied her and told her to stay put.
Three months earlier I had applied for and received my concealed carry permit. In California and particularly in San Diego County, you previously needed a “reason” to carry concealed. The 9th District Federal Court of Appeals ruled that law-abiding residents need only to show a desire for self-defense rather than proving they were confronted with a “clear and present danger.” As a result, in a state of over 38 million, the number of law-abiding citizens with permits doubled to 120,000 within a short time.
Crawling, I felt for any twigs that would snap and awaken him. It seemed like it took forever, inching my way over, now several feet away. I got into a prone position, chambered a round into my 32 cal semi-auto and released the slide. The campfire had him illuminated perfectly. I yelled at him twice “Ponga sus manos o usted es muerto!” My spanish was pretty bad and I probably told him to clap his hands or die. I meant to say put your hands up or you’re dead.
Instead, he reached for his weapon, and I placed 3 shots, center mass. A groan and he slumped over, almost landing in the fire. I retrieved his gun, held mine to his head while I checked for a pulse and remember a ringing in my ear. No pulse, I dragged him behind a bush and put out the fire.
You see, our kidnappers did a poor job of frisking me. I had dust gaiters on over my hiking pants. Under those, an ankle holster with a small pistol.
We retrieved our packs and made our way to the trail. The moon provided just enough light to make out the path, so we quietly made our way back to the gate at the trailhead. My jeep was gone, probably on the way to Mexico.
We walked along the road towards town planning to flag someone down. When a single vehicle approached, we hid, not knowing if it was our kidnappers. Within 15-20 minutes, we observed a couple of vehicles pulling trailers coming from the OHV area. We took a chance and flagged them down. Fortunately, they were some guys from Santee out for some fun with their dirt bikes. We told them that we needed to contact the police and they had us jump in their crew cab and high tailed it out of there.
As soon as they got a phone signal, they called 911 and were instructed to head to the Border Patrol checkpoint on I-8 about 10 minutes away. We gave the 911 dispatcher my vehicle description and my cell phone number, hoping that they could start tracking it down by the cellular signal.
Reaching the checkpoint, we went over our ordeal with the agents. We had survived our encounter with the coyotes.
Note to my readers: The previous blog Kidnapped on the Trail was partially fiction. We actually did hike this trail. Our encounter with “coyotes” was fiction. While I believe in the right of citizens to protect themselves in accordance with the 2nd Amendment, this is not a blog or statement condoning the use of guns or violence. Sadly, human trafficking/slavery is a serious problem in America and throughout the world.
…. He found the 550 para-cord in my backpack and used it to bind our hands behind our backs and to the trunk of a large manzanita bush. We were beyond scared and prayed for deliverance knowing that when “el jefe” returned, we would be on our way south of the border to be held for ransom, or worse. Dusk was coming quickly as I made eye contact with my wife and gave her a wink.
The Espinosa Trail is a well-known trek for locals in the greater San Diego area. The goal is normally Corte Madera Mountain, a distinct rock formation on a plateau in the southern Cleveland National Forest. I actually found the hike in our local guidebook while looking for something closer to home. Normally, we would head north toward the San Bernardino Mountains. Today would be a bit different with views of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.
We loaded up our packs with the typical days’ fare of 2-3 liters of water, a lunch and some extra snacks. With the microclimate in this area the temperatures can vary 40-50 degrees within 60 miles, so we took our layers of clothing.
Making our way out on the I-8 freeway, we passed El Cajon and a handful of smaller communities in eastern SD county. Zipping by the exit for Mt. Laguna, we noticed a Border Patrol checkpoint on the eastbound side. The exit to the Corte Madera Mtn trailhead came up and we headed south toward the small town of Campo. It’s well-known for the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The southern terminus of the PCT is very close to the Mexican-U.S. border. We turned down another road with a gravel washboard for a surface. It bounced the heck out of us until we came up on a military installation (Navy SEAL training base) behind a barb-wired topped fence. Of special note, we were behind a Border Patrol SUV. Hmm, that is interesting, but we are near the border. We also noticed that this road led to an Off-Highway-Vehicle (OHV) recreation area and noticed quite a few trucks pulling Jeeps and hauling dirt bikes. The road changed to a mostly one-lane black top as we drove the 4 miles to the trailhead.
The trailhead wasn’t labeled, but the gate to the private road was noted in the trail guidebook. There was a USDA placard describing how this area is subject to closure due to the mating season of the raptors. Like many trails, this one was diverse. Beginning as a dirt road, we exited at a handmade trail sign sitting on top of a trash can. “Espinosa Trail”, yes that’s the way. Starting our 1,800 ft. climb we emerged into a nondescript area of chaparral and scrub. Apparently, the Espinosa Creek was nearby, but there was no evidence of water. We could see a fire tower in the distance, one of the last remaining ones in the county. Emerging on a jeep trail, we took a right and proceeded up a winding dirt road to the next trail junction. Noticed our second set of hikers today, but this would be a fairly uncrowded trail. To the north was Hill 4588, as the Forest Service calls it on their maps. Topped with Coulter pines, it was our first objective. The trail narrowed and began a steep ascent. Scrambling over rocks, this became the hardest part of the hike. My wife – as nimble as a billy-goat going uphill, steadily traversed the path. I huffed and puffed while taking an occasional drink from my hydration pack.
The view from Hill 4588 was nice as we could see for miles in every direction. The trail was full of those senseless up-downs (SUDS) and we finally leveled out on a plateau. Now, we could see the cliff, a notable 300 ft. drop into the canyon below. We stopped, found a trail log and had our late lunch. The view was amazing. So this was Corte Madera! The Pacific to the west, Mexico to the south and the rest of Cleveland National Forest to our north. It was getting late as the days were getting short. I estimated that we had less than two hours of daylight left. We set a decent pace as our hiking poles helped us to skirt down the hill, the sun setting quickly behind the mountain. We entered the last leg near the jeep road and I was looking forward to a hot shower to knock of the trail dust.
They came out of the bushes to our right and shouted something unrecognizable in spanish. There were four of them, two with guns drawn. Shocked, we dropped our hiking poles and raised our hands. In broken english one of them pointed to the woods and said something like “go to there”. They herded us off the path about 50 yards or so into the woods.
I recommend these hiking poles. They are lightweight and fairly sturdy. Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
We use this Nikon camera forour treks: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case
A winter hiking trip to the Grand Canyon has been on my bucket list for some time. If you can hit it during mild weather, this year-round national park offers some beautiful scenery with fewer people than summer.
Last year on a return trip from visiting family back east, we carved out a couple of days to stop by here. However, temperatures around 0 deg F near Williams, Az. knocked out the hope of hiking as the water froze the RV pump.
This year we hit it at the right time. A winter storm had passed through before Christmas which we ran into while eastbound. During this visit, the temps were forecast to be in the 50’s during the day and high teens at night at our campground. Trailer village, one of the commercially run sites within the park was fairly empty and ended up being a nice place to stay.
The visitor center of Grand Canyon National Park is a busy place, but we needed to find out the trail conditions for our hike the next day. We planned for the South Kaibab, which was open and other than some ice near the top, showed good conditions.
The shuttle service along the South Rim is an awesome way to get around. We made our way to Mather Point to watch the sunset and walked along the Rim Trail. This is where most of the tourists hang out. It was a leisurely walk with amazing views. We talked about our hike the next day and noticed some lenticular clouds along the North Rim.
We’ve come to learn about cloud types and this type meant one thing – wind is coming. Oh well, as long as it wasn’t like the hurricane force winds we encountered in Anza-Borrego last spring.
As the sun went down, the temperature dropped dramatically. A stiff breeze brought the wind chill to around freezing. We made our way back to a warm RV and made a nice pot of coffee. Oh well, so much for roughing it.
By morning, the winds were gusty but overall a decent weather day. We made our way to the shuttle and missed it. While waiting for the next one, the sun made its way up, creeping over the trees and creating a sliver of sunlight. We stood in the light and amazingly it was a few degrees warmer.
Catching the shuttle to the South Kaibab is fairly easy; they don’t allow cars there in the winter. As we exited the warmth of the bus at the trailhead, it became obvious why we were the only ones that got off. The wind was gusting 35-40mph and it was chilly. We bundled up, found the trailhead and started down. It starts out at 7,200 ft. and gets a bit of snow. The dust swirled from every direction and we put our bandanas on to keep it out of our mouths and noses. Within a few minutes, the only exposed skin was the area between our sunglasses and bandanas.
There was spotty ice on the trail and we slowly made our way down. The wind was buffeting my wife as we descended. I hoped for a respite from the wind and within 5 minutes, we reached a protected area of the trail and adjusted our packs and clothing. The wind and subfreezing temps were going to make this a challenging hike. I estimated that it would warm as we went down and the winds should hopefully let up some.
The switchbacks near the top are frequent and fairly steep, but this is a well maintained and frequently traveled trail. Soon, we would be passed by a small pack mule train. While on the John Muir Trail last year, we saw over a dozen mule trains and it was usually easy to step aside and let them by. Today, we backed up against the wall and the mules passed inches away. The riders were friendly as they guided their train down a steep stair step that had been carved out of the canyon.
We made our way down to Ooh-Ah Point which was appropriately named.
The next stop was Cedar Ridge and this one had a composting toilet-nice! We started seeing more people and got back on the trail because it was still fairly cold here. The wind never really let up on this hike.
The colors are really amazing in this area. As the sun moves across the horizon, the canyon walls seem to change various hues. We also noticed how short the daylight was and determined that while we could probably handle the physical part of a hike to the river below, we would run out of light. The thought of trudging up as the temps dropped helped us to decide to stop at Skeleton Point. Some trail riders came up as we were taking a break and they looked tired. Must have been a rough night down there and the wind was taking its toll on them.
As I glanced up the return path, dust devils were sporadically dancing across the trail and off the cliffs. The hike back up was different in that it was 3 miles of uphill. This would be a tough one in the summer as the elevation change is roughly 700 ft. per mile. No water on this trail, so bring enough for an all day hike. Just because it was cool doesn’t mean you need less. We went through just over 2 liters each.
The wind never really let up on this hike. Admittedly, it was the windiest, dustiest hike we’ve been on. Still, it was awesome and is worth the visit. Next time, we may do Bright Angel and go all the way across.
After logging a few miles day hiking on various trails, we have come to understand why some people get into trouble while hiking. From wearing flip-flops on rocky trails to not having any water on a hot hike, many people think trails are a walk in the park. I wonder how many people who went out on a day hike ended up spending the night in the wilderness?
If you venture out more than a few miles on a day hike, it doesn’t hurt to bring along some “necessities”.
Here’s our short list:
- Hydration bladder or bottle
- A good pair of hiking shoes or boots
- Sock liners and merino wool socks
- Synthetic shirts and pants. Anything but 100% cotton
- A hat with a brim
- The Ten Essentials (listed below)
The Ten Essentials-A list created in the 1930s by The Mountaineers:
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Extra clothing
- First-aid supplies
- Extra food
Good to have:
- hiking poles
- large trashbag – makes good raincoat
- portable water filter or water purifier tablets
- toilet paper, antiseptic wipes. You never know.
- duct tape
Generally on day hikes, we take more than we need. More water, more snacks and a portable stove to brew that cup of celebratory tea at the summit. For those extended backcountry trips, every ounce counts so we use a checklist and carry only what we need with a few backup items like lighters, batteries and spare socks. Some gear buying tips-spend the money on shoes and a good pack. Research the gear on the web and read the reviews.
This is a nice GPS locator that I use: SPOT 2 Satellite GPS Messenger –
Bottom line, start with the ten essentials, you can’t go wrong.
Take it from this novice, if there are mistakes to be made in the backcountry, I will make them. Here are a some of the most obvious, take em’ or leave em’ but consider how the simplest oversight will change your backcountry experience.
– Not using a checklist. Oops, not enough toilet paper. (Leaves are single-ply though)
– Check available water sources ahead of time: Ranger station – Oh, sorry they’ve been furloughed! , online blogs.
– Check trail conditions at ranger station – Don’t forget the permit. You can be a renegade and stealth camp. That just sounds like fun.
– Bring a water filter or purification tablets. Results from failure to do so will take 7-10 days.
– Take the proper clothing. Cotton is almost always a no-no as it retains moisture.
– Bring a backpack cover or large trash bag for rain.
– Enough food and a 1-2 day backup supply
– pre-cooked bacon is like manna
– Bringing too much stuff – Setting your tent up on uneven ground or in a drainage area
– Not using a footprint under your tent and finding out there were sharp rocks there.
– Camping far from a water source
– Not bringing a mosquito net or bug repellant
– Not having adequate land navigation skills or maps makes for a longer hike
– Not having important spares like flashlights or matches
– Wearing shoes that fit just right and then finding out your feet swell another size and a half.
– Everyone smells bad after a few days in the backcountry
– Bees like Dr. Bronner’s lavender soap. Alot.
– Learned how important sock liners are. They cut down on moisture and abrasion.
– Permethrin sprayed on your clothing ahead of time repels bugs. This stuff works very well: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce
– Long sleeves, convertible pants and a headnet work better. Columbia Men’s Bahama II Long Sleeve Shirt
– Light-colored clothing makes it easier to see the ticks.
– Leave the perfume and cologne at home and off of your skin. Unless you want to attract bees, bears and moose’s in mating season.
– Take extra batteries. Lithium ones last the longest but are expensive
– Learn the international rescue signals in case you need to signal the rescuer. It would be bad if you needed help and gave the ok signal.
– Hiking poles save the knees These are highly rated: Pair of Pace Maker Flip Lock “Expedition” Trekking Poles with Vulcanized Rubber Feet and Attachments
– Rattlesnakes can blend in with the leaves. Use hiking poles, chances are a rattler may strike the pole instead of your leg.
– Slow down, stop and take it all in. You’ll be surprised what you can see and hear.
– Most wildlife doesn’t want anything to do with silly humans.
– I’m a tick magnet. (not chick)
– I don’t fear most bugs, except ticks.
– Ticks almost always end up near the groin.
– Always let someone know where you are hiking, and for how long.
– Consider getting an emergency beacon or GPS locator, especially if you do a bit of solo hiking. Read my blog “Bitten by a Rattler on the Pacific Crest Trail”
– If you have pets at home, especially cats – check your pack before you leave. They like to leave presents or hide inside things.
– Bear canisters can be hard to open when its cold or wet. Try opening one ahead of time for practice. When camping, turn them on the side to keep rain-water out.
– While in the backcountry, if you pack it in, you should always pack it out. Except for poop and used toilet paper, that’s where I draw the line. If you hike Mt. Whitney, take care of your “business” ahead of time or you must use the wag bag. Yuck.
– Campfires are great for morale. Sadly, many areas out west in the backcountry prohibit them due to the risk of wildfires.
Bottom line, life’s lessons are better learned from others’ mistakes.
So, this is the real McCoy. My previous blog was written for fun during my furlough.
If you hike long enough in the backcountry, you will inevitably have to do a water crossing. It may be on a log, stepping on rocks, or fording through it. Over the past several years, I have done quite a few crossings and learned a lot along the way.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the topic beforehand so I researched the Internet, read about it in my backpacking field guide and various articles in Backpacker magazine. I’ll share my experience crossing various bodies of water including an ocean inlet, streams, creeks, brooks and rivers. By no means am I an authority on water crossings – it’s mostly common sense. If crossing over or through water intimidates you, you are not alone – it’s very common. With a little planning and will power, you can conquer this.
My first real water crossings were on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This remote part of the Appalachian Trail has plenty of water. There were two of us and we used the buddy system on some crossings.
Methods for crossing (Fording the body of water)
Always – Put on your water shoes, roll up your pants. Loosen your backpack straps and unbuckle the sternum and waist strap. This may help if you slip. A pack can pull you under.
Solo – Facing upstream, use hiking poles. side step and try to keep three points in contact with the bottom at all times.
Two or more – Couple of methods here. You can face upstream, lock arms and side step your way across. You can also form a single file and face upstream. The person in the front forms a barrier. Place the weakest at the back of the line where there is less resistance to the current.
Swollen, fast current. This is a judgement call. My general rule is if the current is fast, I don’t usually cross if it’s higher than my waist. It’s difficult to keep your footing in a strong current with a slippery bottom.
Obstacles. Never cross upstream close to logs, tangles or debris in the water. If you slip, you may end up getting sucked under the obstacle.
Rapids, bends, waterfalls. Avoid crossing near these if possible. Water flows faster in curves and bends. Rapids are full of hidden hazards. Slip near a waterfall and well, you know…
Temperature. A cold mountain stream will numb your legs and feet within a couple of minutes. It can be shocking and cause you to panic. Move as quickly as possible to avoid cramps.
Some thoughts here. Did you know in Maine (other parts of New England as well) a brook is what most of us would call a stream or creek? A stream can be a large creek or what many out west would call a river.
Crossing over on a log
This is challenging if you are afraid of heights. The sound of rushing water just adds to the fear factor. I find it easiest to hold my poles out like a tightrope walker as it provides a bit more balance. One foot in front of the other and keep moving. If you are with others, it may help to carry the pack of the person who is struggling. That 30-40 lb pack lets you know that it’s there. Unbuckle the waist and sternum, loosen the shoulder straps. If you do fall, roll out of the pack to avoid getting pulled under.
Crossing on rocks, boulders
Choose your stones wisely. Most rock crossings are on shallow streams and creeks. I often use my poles for more stability and have slipped off many rocks. Your best tool here is a pair of hiking shoes with sticky soles like the Camp Four 5-10’s. Avoid moss-covered ones and test to see if the rocks are wobbly. Boulder hopping with a full pack is tricky. Lean to far and you’re going in. Believe me, I know.
While I’ve done a few, it’s a bit sketchy. Always use a headlamp and test the water depth with your hiking poles.
Equipment: You really don’t need much, but here are some ideas.
Water shoes – A good pair of waterproof shoes provides traction and forms a barrier between your feet and a rocky bottom. Hiking shoes with good soles for rock hopping.
Trekking poles – Gives you that third or fourth leg for added stability. Also can be used to pull you out if you fall.
Paracord – If you need to fasten it to your buddy, it can provide some assurance.
Extra socks – It’s no fun to hike in wet socks.
My hardest water crossing was an unplanned one. On a beach hike, my wife and I crossed a tidal inlet to a lagoon at low tide. On our return, the tide was rushing in and the 10 foot crossing at 1 foot deep became a 50 ft. wide crossing up to our shoulders. We put our daypacks above our heads, locked arms and barely made it across. Before and during the crossing, I briefed her what to do if we lost our footing. Fortunately, the current was coming into the lagoon. If the current had been going out, I doubt we would have risked it.
We’ve run across many solo hikers in the backcountry where there are an abundance of water crossings. It’s all the more important to understand the hazards when you are alone. Find the safest place to cross and never cross at night when you’re alone, it’s just not worth it.
Some final thoughts. Hike long enough and you will have to cross water. With the proper gear and techniques, it’s just mind over matter.
If you hike in the backcountry long enough you will eventually come across a brook, stream, creek, river or ginormous mud puddle. You will be faced with a decision. Do I cross it, go around or turn back?
I once came upon a large mud puddle filled with the smelliest black mud ever on the Appalachian Trail and noticed half of someone’s hiking pole. Wow, that was a run-on sentence. I wondered, where the other half was and if the person fell into the bog. Actually did meet the owner of the broken pole at a lean-to later. I did make it across the bog and learned how to do the splits that day. Now, I can sing tenor.
Most of you will cross the creek, especially if there is a bridge. I’m sure there are some out there that even have bridge phobias. Kind of like driving on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and realizing midway that 23 mile long bridges with little or no guard rails scare the crap out of you.
What if there isn’t a bridge when you come upon that creek that is swollen to twice its’ size due to the thunderstorm that just occurred? No fear, the purpose of my blog is to help you. Actually, blogging just gives me something to occupy my time during my government furlough and keeps me from writing angry letters to my representatives.
Let’s assume there are no bridges, logs or rocks to step on to cross this creek. You have many options, most require some prior preparation. Still, you always have options in life. Unless you are a congressional representative up for re-election that is.
Your first choice for crossing is this:
Of course this method requires rope or a homemade hemp vine found only where they grow marijuana in the national forests of California.
The next method still involves rope, but it must be fastened to something on both sides of the creek. Once, there was a rope strung across the Little Wilson Stream in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness, but it was too high to reach. Very funny.
Hiking with a friend certainly makes it easier to cross water, especially when you have to ford it.
The buddy system, while loads of fun when doing chicken fights in the neighborhood pool can be especially treacherous with 40 lb. packs. Always remember to loosen your straps and unbuckle those waist fasteners.
Sometimes, the body of water requires something more than rope and a friend. There are places in the middle of nowhere that require a boat ride to get to your resupply. Why do they always put it on the other shore? And why can’t you blow the horn more than once to get picked up?
I mean, really. Who gets off the trail to resupply at some resort? It’s only 40 miles to the next town.
So, there you have it. The most common ways to cross water. Why is it in Maine that a brook is bigger than a creek and a stream is wider than a river? Everywhere else it’s not that way. Well, maybe in other parts of New England. But, they were here first, so I guess they can call it what they want. Ayuh, that’s wicked cool.
P.S. – I must be passive aggressive because the WordPress grammar checker always underlines my writing and accuses me of “passive voice”.
Days 2-3 on the Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail…
Waking up the next morning, I noticed the condensation on the tent. The rainfall last night raised the humidity a bit and these single wall tents can build up moisture if not ventilated. I had closed the side flaps to keep the rain from bouncing into the tent.
As I went to the creek to filter some water, it was noticeable that the color was slightly turquoise and a bit cloudy. Earlier this year I replaced my sturdy 2-bag Sawyer filter and picked up a Katadyn model. We used it on the JMT and it is fast and effective. Later, I would find out why the water was this color.
After breakfast, I tried to dry the tent out by wiping it down but ended up packing it up wet. The forecast was for cooler temps and a lower chance of thunderstorms. Breaking camp, I noticed several hikers had already passed. Many of the day hikers stay in the campgrounds below and hit the trail early. Labor Day weekend would prove to be a busy time in this area.
The aspens and Jeffrey Pines gave way to firs and lodgepole pines mostly clustered near the north fork of Big Pine Creek. The creek has magnificent cascades and areas of slower, lazy currents as the terrain flattens out. Fishing looks good down there.
The trail enters an area where the vegetation comes up to the edge of the trail and you cross several brooks and streams that drain into the creek. I imagine that in late spring, early summer the water is fairly high through here. I took a break about 10 ft. off the trail and about fifteen day hikers passed by. Not that I was hiding, but none of them ever saw me. I’ve finally learned how to become one with the environment. Also learned that when hikers are exerting themselves, they can only see about three feet-straight ahead.
Around the three-mile mark, I reached a junction by a stream. The trail to the left was more popular and provided a more gradual climb. I watched a small pack-train and eight horseback riders take that trail. Most others were going that way too. I chose the path to Black Lake and began an immediate climb on an exposed slope, but was rewarded with some neat views of the turquoise glacier fed lakes below.
Passing 9,000 ft the chaparral gave way to conifers and the slope levels out as it approaches Black Lake. Appropriately named, the water was darker than the glacier fed lakes below. This area isn’t as popular as lakes 1-5, so if you are seeking solitude, it’s a great location. Finding a flat area for a tent far enough from the trail is a bit of a challenge, but I noticed several spots. I pressed on to 5th Lake for a late lunch.
I climbed a large granite rock and was rewarded with clouds passing nearby. Around 10,000 ft., the air was crisp and noticeably cooler. The trail passes by a small 6th Lake, as you make your way through tall grasses near the shore.
Eventually, I arrived at a junction. Bear right and you can go to 5th Lake, a popular lunch gathering for the day hikers. I found a nice sunny spot on an outcropping where I watched the anglers pull in rainbow trout. After a while, I felt like a lizard sunning itself on the rocks.
I met some people from the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club. They were probably in their 70’s and slowly made their way down the trail. It’s usually humbling for me to meet older people in the backcountry, especially when the trail is tough.
Making my way down, I came up on a junction where some people were taking a break. For some reason, I took a right and within 15 minutes knew that it was the wrong way. I was heading up to the glacier. While this would be a nice day hike, my full pack convinced me to turn around. This time, when I reached the junction, I noticed the trail sign indicating the Glacier Trail.
The trail starts dropping quickly with multiple short switchbacks. Much of the trail is exposed and it was warm. Descending, the turquoise lake came into view. The bank is steep but there are paths to the water. Most of the day hikers come here in the summer to take a dip in the milky-blue-green water.
I started looking for a campsite near the lake and/or creek but the trail for the most part is a hundred feet above the shore. Most of the choice campsites were taken so I trudged on. Almost picked a spot on top of a flat granite boulder, but the sheer drop into the creek convinced me otherwise. Yeah, I imagined getting up in the middle of the night when nature called…..
I ended up near the stream where the pack-train came through and filtered some water. A couple of ladies came by and one, with a Swedish accent said that she had been drinking unfiltered stream water for many years. She dunked her Nalgene in there and took a big swig. I went upstream a bit since I watched the mules pee in the same stream the day before. I’ll stick with the filtered water thank you. The Swedish woman told me the reason for the turquoise color in the lake was glacial ice. She was partially correct, the glacier creates the color as it grinds its’ way over the rock and makes the silty, glacial milk. During early spring, the melting snow dilutes the water and the color is not as distinct.
I backtracked and found a fairly flat area that appeared to be a vernal pond. Unpacking the wet tent, I placed it in the sun and opened it up to dry it out.
I would later see a picture of my last campsite under water. Seems that it is a vernal pond during the spring melt.
Making camp early gave me plenty of time to get some housekeeping done and explore the area. The chipmunks were having a field day in the surrounding trees. Kerplunk, kerplunk! as the green pine cones hit the ground. Their incessant chattering made me want to throw rocks at them but I resisted. After all, this is their neighborhood.
Sunset is amazing up here as the shadows on the craggy peaks provide a different perspective. The breeze picked up and I closed the flaps on the tent. Just after sunset, it started raining and I drug my belongings into the foyer of the tent. It was a steady rain. The distant waterfalls on Second Lake and the rain pushed me into an early sleep.
Dawn brought a nice Sierra sunrise, partially obscured by clouds and the surrounding peaks. I was on the trail before long, only 5 miles from the trailhead. The walk down was peaceful, coming across two fishermen and an early morning pack-train. This area has it all – moderate hiking, water, fishing, and enough scenery to satisfy the most avid photographer. I highly recommend this trail – just don’t do it on holiday weekends.
Check out my new blog at: http://mycaliforniadreamin.wordpress.com/
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
I shined my headlamp in the direction of the rustling sound. What I saw made the hair rise up on the back of my neck. Forty feet away, two yellow eyes were staring right at me. I yelled at the eyes but they only blinked and did not shift. This was now a chess game and it was my move…
It was late spring in southern California and I was hiking another 100 mile section of the PCT. I couldn’t take the five or six months off of work to hike it in its’ entirety; well that and my wife wouldn’t appreciate my extended absence. Thru-hikers that trek the entire 2600+ miles are special in the sense that they are driven to spend days of solitude, pain and hunger to accomplish the task. Me, I was content to eak out another section of this glorious trail. Emerging from the Mojave Desert, I felt like a beat up fender in an auto body shop. The sandblasting effectively removed one or two layers of skin. My tent survived the 50mph gusts, the ground-hog stakes worth every dime. Hiking at night, my encounters with scorpions were frequent and uneventful. The tent was zipped up tight to keep out those critters.
Eventually, crossing Hwy 58 in the early morning, I realized that I was technically entering the Sierras. It still looked like a desert, but with foothills. Eventually, there were some trees and shade. Taking a break near a stream that I had almost missed, I thought about not having seen anyone since the highway. Sometimes on the PCT, you can go all day without seeing another human. Not one to use a headset while hiking, I began to hum and sing to myself. Those good ol’ gospel tunes that were stuck in my head since childhood. As I was filtering some water, I sensed that something else was around but didn’t think much of it. If you hike solo long enough, you tend to not worry about the boogeyman. Besides, I often carry a “stinger” when in the backcountry. While the likelihood of being accosted out here is slim, my little pistol provided me with peace of mind.
Around the 12 mile mark, I started looking for a suitable campsite. Something near the trees, no widowmakers (big dead trees) and not in a gulley where a flash flood would wash me away. The wind had died down and it was quiet and calm. One of the first things to do is pitch the tent and get my bedding situated. I prepared my food about 50 ft away from my tent and the Ramien noodles cooked quickly. This is a great meal when you just don’t have an appetite, but need to eat. Add a little pita and it fills you up. As my daughter recently explained to me – Ramien means noodle in Korean. Why would we call it Noodle noodles? Hearing a branch snap got my attention and I thought that maybe another hiker was coming through. Most of the PCT thru hikers had passed through last week, but there were some stragglers that were taking advantage of the famous hospitality and trail magic in this area. After a few minutes and no hikers, I didn’t think anything of it and went about my camp chores.
Sunset was coming quickly; the colors from the desert would gradually change the cumulus clouds various hues of purple and pink as the horizon turned a darker shade of blue. I think that sunsets are more enjoyable – maybe because I’m awake. It’s hard for me to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise until I’ve had that first cup of coffee. No campfires tonight, most of this area is under a fire ban. Many of the wildfires around here are caused by campers and hunters who are careless with their fires. I carry two lights, one a portable LED lantern that hangs from the tent and my headlamp for when nature calls. At my age, nature calls often – especially when you drink several liters of water each day. Since I was entering into the Sequoia National Forest, I carried a bear canister for my food and stowed it 50 ft. away from camp.
When camping alone, I often hit the sack early. At home, seven hours of sleep is good. Here, eight or nine broken hours of sleep is ok. As I switched off the lantern, I heard a shuffling sound out in front of the tent. I listened intently. It was quiet, the crickets were the only other sound. I counted the cricket chirps for 14 seconds , ok 10 chirps, add 40 – that’s 50 degrees out. It’s an old trick that I read about, count a cricket’s chirp for 14 seconds, add 40 and you can estimate the temperature within a few degrees. I discounted the shuffling for some skunks or racoon and was almost asleep when I heard it again. Ok, have to see what this is. I put on my headlamp and unzipped the door on the tent. Not wanting to tick off a skunk, I stayed in the door of the tent and scanned the area nearby. I was in a small clearing, near some scrub brush. As my lamp scanned the forest, I froze when a pair of yellow eyes appeared about 40 ft. away. The eyes were about two feet off the ground. The first thing I did was to yell, like “Hey, get outta here!” It didn’t move. I grabbed my whistle from within the tent and blew on it. No good. Whatever it was didn’t move. I was thinking should I leave the relative safety of the tent to scare this away or should I stay here and make some noise?
I decided to confront whatever it was to show who was in charge here. Grabbing my hiking poles and cooking pot, I went out the front of my tent and banged the pot, raised the poles over my head and walked a few steps toward the creature. Adrenaline must have been surging through my body because my ears started ringing. I kept my distance, continuing to make noise and that’s when it became apparent who my visitor was. My headlamp illuminated the body of a mountain lion! It slid away in the brush with its’ long tail twitching on the end. This creature didn’t run from me, it just walked away. I had almost forgotten about the small pistol tucked within my waistband. Not in the mood for hunting a cougar, I retreated to my tent and turned on the lamp.
Within 10-15 minutes, there was shuffling outside the tent. This time it was to the left. Oh boy, this was going to be a long night. I banged on my pot and blew the whistle for a bit and waited. Now, the crunching sound was behind my tent. This critter was circling my tent trying to reconnoiter its’ prey. Knowing that I couldn’t go to sleep with a predator stalking me and the thin-walled tent would not provide protection, I decided to go on the offensive. I got my camera with the flash ready and in the other hand my pistol. I really didn’t want to shoot the big cat but needed to scare it away. Emerging from my tent, I turned my headlamp on to the brightest setting. The light caught the yellow eyes and I pointed my camera in the general direction and started taking a few night pics. After a few flashes, it took off and I could hear the shuffling grow fainter. Here’s what I saw:
It was a long night after that. Like a little kid, I left the light on and laid there listening. Chirp, chirp, chirp…… At one point, I remember thinking about my GPS locator. Normally, it’s used to send my position with an OK message to my family and friends. However, underneath a protective flap is the SOS button. If I was in dire straits or hurt then I would press it. I can hear it now: “You pressed the SOS button for a big kitty? Come on man!!!” The thought did cross my mind though.
Not really being able to sleep, I would cat-nap until sunrise. After eating some oatmeal, I checked out the area and must have flushed out some quail which scared me more than the mountain lion. I ended up going back to my tent to catch a few hours rest. I was awakened by the scream of a wild cat ripping into my tent. Sitting up in my sleeping bag, I struggled to unzip it to reach for my gun.
Within a few seconds, I realized that I had been dreaming. My tent was intact and there was no cougar attacking me. I decided to pack up and hit the trail. After all, there was 53 miles of trail to cover. 🙂
If you haven’t figured out by now, this is one of my fictional blogs. While there are mountain lions in the western most sixteen states and Florida, encounters with humans are rare. However, this past summer an Australian PCT thru-hiker was harassed by a mountain lion all night in the Sierras. She actually did a video of her incident and pressed the SOS button on her SPOT 3 Satellite GPS Messenger – Orange messenger. The cat never attacked, but it took over six hours for rescuers to show up. While it is unusual for these big cats to stalk humans, they are predators and can view us as prey. In daylight, your best defense is to appear as large as possible and raise hiking poles or sticks over your head and make a lot of noise. Never run or crouch down as this may trigger their instinct to attack. When hiking with children in mountain lion country, it’s best to keep them close by. To my knowledge, mountain lions have never attacked humans in a tent.
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
The title should really have peaked your interest. How does a husband convince their wife to do anything? As we say in the military – here’s the Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF): It takes time.
Most things worthwhile take some effort. Typical of our manly ways, we tend to go for the gusto – straight away. Backcountry, or multi-day hikes take a bit of planning especially for someone who has never been. Specifically on the backcountry hiking, it’s easier when you live in an area that is conducive to camping and hiking. Either that or you have enough time and money to vacation in beautiful wilderness areas.
Living in southern California, we are within a days’ drive of the High Sierras which has made it uber-easy to do this outdoor activity. However, every state in the union has locations for hiking. From the Appalachian to the Continental Divide to the Pacific Crest Trails, including the national and state forests – there are many areas where you can get off the beaten path. Imagine Denali in amazing Alaska, or Waimea State Park on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
For me, I was determined to do an outdoor activity with my wife that we could enjoy together. We started by day hiking. I bought a book on trails within San Diego County and we began going out on Saturdays. We would pack a lunch and make a day of it. The more secluded, the better. Eventually, the hikes got longer with more elevation change. While flat terrain is a good break, the challenge of a good cardio workout made it more than a walk in the woods.
We would mix up mountain hiking with desert treks as the seasons allowed. We developed a love of the outdoors and an appreciation for the creation. As believers, we observed God’s handiwork in the land and His animals. We also enjoyed each others’ company as we took breaks and drove to/from our hikes. The time in the car is a great time to talk about your marriage – and life.
You really don’t have to be equals as far as physical conditioning. In our case, she kicks my butt on the trail. However, consider the physical condition of your spouse. Start out with easy, short hikes and make a date out of it. It helps to start out with a trek that has awesome scenery. End with a sunset and/or dinner at a new café. We’ve discovered some decent eateries while out on the road. We also established a tradition of celebrating with a cup of hot tea after reaching each summit.
There were times when I pushed us too hard or it was too hot, but we learned from our mistakes. Once, we were almost swept into a lagoon in a rushing tidal inlet. We often share that story with others and always laugh. Another time, we got off track on a snow-covered mountain in the Sierras and bushwhacked for a couple of hours. Every year, there are new stories to share.
Day hiking presented an opportunity to do some camping. We eventually combined car camping with some hikes. If your spouse hasn’t camped before, car camping is a great intro. It allows for conveniences like coolers, chairs and bathrooms. If your kids are grown, go to campgrounds when school is in session. Much less crowded….
During this time, we also visited epic locations like Yosemite. Some places just leave you yearning for more. The Sierras are this way. I imagine the Rockies and so many other areas are similar. Eventually, we did a 3 day backcountry trip to the highest peak in our area – San Gorgonio. It was difficult, but rewarding. It really proved that she could hike in the backcountry with a full pack and sleep in the wilderness. We still laugh about being awakened at midnight by the spotlight of a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s helicopter looking for a lost hiker. Wilderness hiking builds memories.
I won’t exaggerate, it took a few years to get my wife into the backcountry on an extended trip. We worked up to it. I made sure that her needs were taken care of and that she felt safe. I gradually built up trust and gained some knowledge on our wilderness treks. Over the years, We’ve been lost a few times, but a handy GPS and some map skills would get us back on track.
I really could have made this blog a lot shorter by stating that backcountry hiking with your spouse (or significant other) isn’t going to happen quickly. Start out with day hikes, progress to car camping and do a short backcountry trip that has awesome scenery. “Now you’re cooking with peanut oil” Phil Robertson-Duck Dynasty, A&E.
Tucked away on a mountain road near the eastern Sierra town of Big Pine is the entrance to one of the most amazing getaways. The Big Pine Creek collection of campgrounds, lakes and trails are magnificent.
This trip was a last-minute adventure. My wife was back east helping out with a new grandchild and I knew that I didn’t want to sit around over the long Labor Day weekend. The Sierras are only 4-5 hours away from San Diego, so I packed up my gear and headed toward the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center in Lone Pine to get my backcountry permit. I researched a few areas to hike and was prepared to “settle” for whatever was available. Normally, this holiday weekend is one of the busiest up here. You should especially avoid Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne unless your plans are very flexible. One could write a blog on the best ways to get backcountry permits. The trails in the various areas are under the jurisdiction of the USFS or National Parks and traffic is controlled through the use of permits. About 40% of permits are reserved for walk-ins, the rest can be reserved through recreation.gov for a small fee.
The visitor center was actually not that busy and I was able to easily obtain the permit for the Pine Creek North Fork trail. Another 40 minutes and I was in Big Pine. The sign on the road that takes you to the trail is fairly obscure and starts out as Crocker Rd. The road passes through a neighborhood and gradually climbs several thousand feet. The rocky, desert landscape starts to change as you approach the sub-alpine area where the campgrounds are. The aspen and Jeffrey Pines are abundant in the lower elevations and I imagine that this is even more beautiful as the deciduous trees change in the fall.
The overnight parking lot for the hikers comes up on the right. There is plenty of room, but I found out that the trailhead is almost a mile away. Oh well, I needed to loosen up a bit. I passed the pack-train corral and noticed signs for the various campgrounds and Glacier Lodge. It was fairly busy in the camps as people were getting in their last bit of summer vacation. The trailhead is well marked at the end of the road. There is limited day use parking at the end and I recommend to drop off your gear if there are two or more hikers.
The trail wastes no time in elevation change as the steep, short switchbacks get the heart beating. You cross the first footbridge and the creek is rapidly descending through cascades and waterfalls. Normally, this time of year many of the creeks in the Sierras are dry. Not here, the Palisade Glacier ensures a year-round flow. The trail meanders through the forest but stays close to the creek. The rushing water provides the assurance that you can follow it all the way up to its’ source.
After the second footbridge, the trail gradually climbs the canyon and then flattens out for a bit. The riparian environment changes to a desert landscape with some cactus hiding under the chaparral. The trail diverges from the creek, but never far enough to lose sight or sound. Occasionally, the sound of the cascading water is an indicator that you will be climbing again. The louder the water, the steeper the incline. I’m a simple guy, so I tend to associate simple things you know.
One of the things I love about hiking in the Sierras is the change in eco-systems as you ascend the trails. You can start out in an arid desert and pass through riparian areas to sub-alpine forests with deciduous trees, followed by alpine forests and end up in snow-covered peaks above the tree line. It’s so cool to see the flora change while you hike. This trail appears to dead-end in a canyon and one knows there is only one way out – and that is up. The path diverges from the creek and the long switchbacks quickly take you above 8,500 ft. Evidence of the pack trains litters the trail where their path emerges from the corral. Fortunately, the trail is wide enough to step around the mule doodles. The trail is well maintained with many man-made steps carved from the granite. You round the corner near a significant cascade and the view is impressive. Temple Crag comes into sight and the trail rises above the creek. During the afternoon, the wildlife was missing but imagine that this is a place where deer would hang out.
Due to my late start and occasional thunder, I started looking for a campsite. 100 ft. from water and trail, that makes it a bit harder. Well, that and a flat spot for the tent that isn’t in a wash or drainage area. I found a suitable spot under some fir trees and set up the tent quickly. The two-person Eureka tent has been a good one. Lightweight and easy to set up. The bugs were almost non-existent. Mosquitoes are bad here in early summer, but this was perfect. Dinner was a Mountain Home chicken and noodle- too much for one person. The housekeeping routine when you camp solo is a bit different. Normally, you split chores like setting up the tent, getting water and cooking but tonight it was all mine. Within 45 minutes, it started sprinkling and by 7 p.m. a steady rain ensued. Fortunately, the lightning was distant and the trees seemed to reduce the impact of the rain.
Combined with the drive and a couple of hours of hiking, the rain was a natural sleep machine. The pitter-patter on the tent was peaceful and the rushing creek was a great combination. I was asleep by 8:30.
Next: This place has it all
We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics. An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)
U.S.D.A. Identifier: Icehouse Canyon
Type of trail: As hiked – a modified loop
Distance as hiked: 7.5 miles
Approximate elevation: Trailhead-5,400 ft., Top of trail-7,234 ft.
Temps: 75-85 degrees
Trail Composition: dirt, rock, scree
Fees: Day use fee or Adventure Pass
Due to recent fire in San Jacinto area, we ventured back to the Mt. Baldy area. We haven’t been there since last summer and there are tons of trails to explore. Today, we picked Icehouse Canyon. My blogging buddy “Hiking Angeles Forest” knows this area well and has written extensively on the San Gabriels.
Be sure to pick up your permit at the Visitor Center in Baldy Village. The volunteer on duty was friendly and we were on our way in minutes. The trailhead is approximately 1.5 miles up the road with a well marked sign on the right. The parking lot for the trail is large, mainly because this is a busy trail. Too busy for my liking, but it is a summer weekend and there is water near the trail.
The path is well marked as you navigate your way around boulders. Going up, a canyon wall is on the left and there are old cabins along the trail next to a creek. This creek appears to run year-round with several nice cascades. We would take the Chapman Trail on the left around the one mile mark. Most of the people were continuing on Icehouse Canyon. Actually most of the lowlanders were hanging around the creek. The Chapman trail was less crowded and provided decent solitude – even for a Saturday afternoon.
We stopped for lunch at Cedar Glen Camp, a relatively flat area with – you guessed it – cedars. It was a bit buggy for this late July day, the gnats were annoying, but at least they weren’t mosquitos. After lunch, we began a gradual climb, emerged from the woods and entered an area of chaparral. You could see where parts of the area burned and the new growth appeared to be between 7-10 years old.
The trail broke out as we hiked through talus and slides. We trekked along a cliff with drop offs that were 500 ft. or more. If you are afraid of heights, this is not the trail for you. Heck, if you are afraid of heights, you probably shouldn’t be hiking. It was exciting and the views to the west were great.
Hitting the junction to Icehouse Canyon Saddle, we took a right and began a quick descent. I can imagine that this would be a fun climb in the winter and envisioned what it was like to snowshoe up here. Haven’t done that yet, but we are planning to try out some snowshoe day hikes this winter. The Chapman trail would actually be sketchy in the winter unless you had some crampons and an ice axe.
The path from the Chapman Trail junction down would wind its’ way along a mostly dry creek and would criss-cross the canyon several times. We were keeping our eye on a helicopter that was flying circles about 3-4 miles to our west toward Mt. Baldy. Soon, we saw smoke near the helicopter’s path. We picked up the pace a bit just in case. We still had two miles to go. I took the opportunity to discuss how we would handle a fire if it breached the hill. Canyons are not the best place to be in a fire as they tend to concentrate the flames. I pointed out areas of scree and talus on the slopes to the east where there was less fuel. Not ideal, but our choices would be limited. We could also soak our neckerchiefs with water and place them over our mouths/noses if needed.
After 20-30 minutes, the smoke diminished so whatever it was appeared to be under control. Hike with us and you are assured to have an adventure. Nearing the trailhead, we laughed at the sign warning the fishermen.
All in all, Icehouse Canyon – Chapman Trail is a nice hike. Best done during the week or late on the weekend. It was good to review some wilderness skills like wildfire procedures. I’ve learned so much by reading other blogs and resources on the Internet. If you are old fashioned like me and enjoy the feel of a book, then The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills by Rick Curtis is an excellent resource. Enjoy your hike friends, and take someone with you to enjoy the beauty of this great land.
Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.
John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra
The last day was bittersweet. Ready to finish our week on the trail, we broke camp after a light breakfast. We filtered water at the creek last night and the flow was just a trickle, full of water bugs. The mosquitoes were relentless at the creek and we were glad that we didn’t camp near there. Generally, it’s not a great idea to pitch your tent near calm or stagnant water. 🙂
The John Muir trail guide was very helpful as it listed plenty of campsites – all were spot on. Today, as we made our way toward the Half Dome spur we met a large group on their way back to their base camp. Seems that the area we stayed in is often used by those who climb the dome. This group must have left camp around 4 in the morning to climb the rock. I’m sure Half Dome is a neat experience, it just wasn’t on our itinerary. Remember, as they say on the A.T. – “hike your own hike”.
As we passed the spur trail to Half Dome, we started seeing a lot of people. Alas, the splendor and solitude of the JMT started to fade. Within the next 30-45 minutes, we would come across more people than we had seen all week. It’s probably the main reason we don’t do the main attractions, too many people.
Continuing through Little Yosemite Valley, it seemed like a decent place to camp, but looked crowded. We have enjoyed the ability to pick out our own campsite on the JMT. The Merced River came up beside the trail and the smell of jasmine filled the air. Well, I thought it was jasmine, but they were probably fragrant mountain dogwoods with beautiful white flowers.
The Merced at this point was leveling out prior to the leap over Nevada Fall, and it was deceitfully calm. Clear with a slight green tint, this water has traveled many miles from its’ snowy origin. We passed the junction to Vernal Falls and the Mist Trail and emerged on solid granite. Dropping our packs, we removed our shoes and dipped our feet in the cool waters. Some adventurous souls were wading out into the river. We were probably two hundred yards from the precipice, but it still unnerved me to see people in the water. Almost every year, someone gets too close and is swept over the edge. On the other side of the Merced River, a foreign tourist had climbed down and was within 6 feet of the edge. This was surely a Darwin Award candidate so I took his picture.
We filtered some more water as the day hikers watched. One gentleman asked me if it was safe to drink. I explained that if it was filtered, yes. After a while, my brother and I ventured over and took some pics. The whirling cascade just puts you in awe of the power. John Muir captured this with eloquence:
The Nevada is white from its first appearance as it leaps out into the freedom of the air. At the head it presents a twisted appearance, by an overfolding of the current from striking on the side of its channel just before the first free out-bounding leap is made. About two thirds of the way down, the hurrying throng of comet-shaped masses glance on an inclined part of the face of the precipice and are beaten into yet whiter foam, greatly expanded, and sent bounding outward, making an indescribably glorious show, especially when the afternoon sunshine is pouring into it.
Ready to complete our journey, we got back on the trail and began the longest stretch to the valley floor below. I’m not sure why it seemed long, maybe because we were mentally finished. The stretch from Nevada to the valley was tough on our tired feet.
The scene at Vernal Fall bridge was chaotic. People, like ants milled about seemingly without direction. At least ants have a purpose. We just wanted to get through the throngs of people so we trudged on. I am sure that we looked haggard after a week on the trail, but it felt good to be near the end.
The asphalt sidewalk on the Mist Trail was another reminder that we were back in civilization. It felt awkward to walk on it with our poles clacking about. “Move over people, make a hole, real hikers coming through!” I wanted to say that, but my subconscious did not prevail.
At the end, the sign that lists the various trails was our last photo-op. While the sign showed 211 miles for the JMT, we actually only did our 68 mile section. It still felt good and I was proud of my wife and brother for completing it.
The shuttle ride from Happy Isles to the Visitor Center was tough. Throngs of people made their way on the shuttle and we were separated from my brother. We eventually found each other and enjoyed a good sandwich from the deli. The YARTS bus stop is across from the Visitor Center. In the summer, it leaves once daily at 5 p.m. from the valley and makes multiple stops on the way to Mammoth Lakes. For $18, it was a wonderful ride, comfortable with amazing scenery. Google YARTS and you will find the various schedules.
For the next few weeks, the memories of the trip would resurface and we would laugh about things that happened. It was an amazing journey and one that created great memories. I did push my brother and wife hard on this trip, but they persevered and made it through. It doesn’t take an athlete to do backcountry hiking. It takes a desire to explore and the ability to push yourself a bit beyond your limits.
YouTube slide show of our trip:
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)
The day at Lower Cathedral was most enjoyable. While my brother determined that there were no brook or rainbow trout in this part of the lake, we enjoyed watching the sky as clouds would form and morph into a variety of shapes. One could spend hours lying on their back watching the afternoon cumulus formations come and go.
Alas, we had a goal in mind. Another 20 or so miles to go between today and tomorrow. At 9,400 feet and heading into Yosemite Valley it is mostly downhill for us. A climb out of Cathedral and up to Long Meadow and then our toes would be in for a beating.
As we neared Upper Cathedral, a sign detoured us away from the meadow near the lake. Years of overuse and erosion had taken its’ toll on this area. Am pretty sure you can camp here, but the JMT was rerouted a quarter-half mile to the east.
A neat thing about hiking is that depending on the direction you are going, the views can be drastically different. Occasionally, we would look over our shoulders to catch a glimpse of where we have been. Cathedral Peak and the upper lake were prominent as we climbed Cathedral Pass. Farther to the north, we caught glimpses of Pettit Peak and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
We entered Long Meadow and were rewarded with a nice respite of flatness and views of the surrounding peaks. Man, the vistas just never stop here. If you only have 2-3 days, I would recommend the area between Cathedral and Sunrise Camp. If you have 4-5 days, a loop including Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camp looks awesome.
A last climb and we would see the rest of the Cathedral Range including Vogelsang and Amelia Earhart Peaks. We saw our first of what would be many mule trains around the Columbia Finger. As they passed, we quietly watched and snapped some pics. Most of the mules today were en route to one of the three local High Sierra camps including Sunrise, Merced and Vogelsang. These beasts of burden carried between 150-200 lbs of cargo. Sure footed, they followed their leader at a steady pace. It’s cool that this is still the primary means of resupply for the remote camps.
As we made our way south, the view of the Cathedral Range opened up.
We stopped for lunch near Sunrise Camp and filtered some water. During this backcountry trip, we typically carried two liters since there was plenty of water. As we passed through the meadow near Sunrise, we began a gradual descent through a burned area and saw Half Dome for the first time. Entering a thickly wooded area, the downhill was steeper and the views diminished. Several southbound hikers asked about available water. It’s important to have maps that show the various creeks and streams. While water was generally abundant, there were many areas where the vernal streams were dry.
Using an excerpt from the JMT guide that showed potential campsites, I started scanning for a suitable location. I saw movement to my right and initially thought that it was another deer. It was big and moving slowly. Hey, a bear! It was about 75-100 ft. away and rooting around a log. Glancing over its’ shoulder at us, the bruin ignored us and continued to dig. It appeared to be an old brown bear around 300 lbs. We snapped a few photos and moved on.
Within 10 minutes, we located a site to camp with a view of Half Dome. This was a busy area, mainly used by campers as a staging area for climbing the rock. Most of the other campers were out of sight, but you could hear them as well as see the smoke from various campfires.
This had been a long day and we had one last dinner on the trail. We started a small fire and enjoyed the peacefulness.
Sadly, tomorrow would be the end of our seven-day trek. I was getting used to this camping stuff, but looked forward to a real shower. Well, that and maybe a cheeseburger.
Links to a slide show of the hike:
“Going to the mountains is going home.”
― John Muir
On July 4th, we decided to take a pseudo-zero day and hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake where we would relax. We passed by the Tuolumne Grill in the a.m. and got a wonderful bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. A quick shuttle to the Cathedral trailhead and we began the relatively short 3.5 mile hike to Lower Cathedral Lake. Short yes, easy no. (I left out the part where I almost took out a tourist’ eye on the shuttle with my hiking pole.) Lesson learned: When getting on the shuttles/buses, wear your pack, don’t try to carry it.
This is probably the most popular trail with day hikers in the Tuolumne area. As you near the lake you enter into a meadow and are in the shadow of Cathedral Peak. There are several creeks feeding the lake. Most day hikers stop on the eastern shore; we would continue on the north side of the lake and head west to the far end. We were rewarded with a lakefront campsite and plenty of solitude. Tip – get there early in the day for your choice of sites.
After setting up our camp and eating lunch, we did chores. My brother took one of his waterproof clothing bags and filtered some lake water. Oila, a washing machine! Dump the dirty water at least 100 ft. away from the lake and fill the bag with clean filtered water for rinsing. It was labor intensive, but the clothes came out smelling clean. We used Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable Magic Soap and it was great. I’ve used the peppermint soap in the past which can be used for bathing too. A clothesline between two dead trees and we were set. One biohazard Mary discovered was that the bees liked the aroma of the lavender soap on the clothes while they dried. I had some insect bite/sting paste in my 1st aid kit that does wonders for those stings.
At the far end of Lower Cathedral Lake, the water is warmer in the shallows of the shore. No fish in this lake that we could see. We ventured to the western edge where the lake’s outlet is and viewed Tenaya Lake 1,300 ft. below. The flows from Cathedral are one of many that make their way to the glacier made Tenaya. The Yosemite Indians actually called it Pywiack, meaning shining rock. The white man renamed it Tenaya after the Indian chief who fled here from soldiers one spring.
We would enjoy the remainder of our day at Lower Cathedral. Our Independence Day celebration concluded with fireworks presented by God. The sky to the west of the lake was most spectacular. I highly recommend spending the night here. Bring mosquito head nets and some bug repellant, as it can get a bit buggy.
Tomorrow, we are determined to put in some mileage. Tonight, we would sleep soundly in the quiet surroundings of another lake.
Links to a slide show of the hike:
John says it best: ….Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 438.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
― John Muir
This day should have been called “The Race to Tuolumne”. It was July 3rd and we were trying to make it to the Tuolumne post office to retrieve our resupply package before it closed at 4. While a stop in Tuolumne Meadows would be nice, we didn’t want to spend the holiday on the 4th waiting around for a package.
Tuolumne Meadows is a great place to hang out, but a zero day around the Cathedral Lakes would be ideal. Getting our usual late start, we were on the trail and looking forward to the flat paths of Lyell Canyon. We had to drop around 500 ft. and enjoyed the relative shade of the pines as we followed the river.
We noticed a large deer grazing in the distance. It was a pregnant doe who kept one eye on us, but wasn’t very concerned. These creatures have few predators in Yosemite.
As the terrain flattened out, we picked up the pace and the sun was beaming down. It was hot as the path meandered in and out of the forest. To our left, Amelia Earhart Peak loomed over us. We would see this ridge from another angle as the trail would do a horseshoe after Tuolumne. Distant rumblings of early afternoon thunderstorms were behind and to the west of us. We passed an area where day hikers from Tuolumne had gathered around a nice area on the river. The number of people increased as we closed in on Tioga Road.
As we neared Tuolumne, the thunder was more frequent and louder. A fairly close crack of thunder prompted us to spread out a bit as we picked up the pace. Occasional large splatters of rain filtered down through the pines. We crossed a couple of foot-bridges where the Lyell Fork neared the main branch of the Tuolumne River. We emerged in the parking lot near the lodge and started walking down the road. It was strange to be in civilization after days on the trail.
A local worker from the Tuolumne Meadows store graciously gave us a ride to the post office. As we pulled into the parking area, the scene was chaotic. Tourists and hikers were like ants swarming around the store. It took a few minutes to absorb the busy surroundings. Near the road was a collection of picnic tables where thru-hikers lounged around. A family sat at one of the tables listening to a PCT hiker expound on his trail life. It was like storytime at the preschool. Other hikers were going through their resupply packages.
We would get some refreshments and pick up our packages at the window. The post office here was a small room with a window on the outside of the store. The clerk was friendly and politely asked if we could open our packages over where the thru-hikers were. We obliged, and noticed the grill. The thought of cheeseburgers and fries was too much. We gave in to our cravings and enjoyed the greasy goodness. Mmmmm.
We made our way to the backpackers camp. It’s first come first serve and $5 per camper. We found out how many hikers are moochers and “stealth camp”. You know the ones who are too cheap to pay the fee. Bathrooms are at a premium here – only one within walking distance of the camp and it was uber-busy. Bring a flashlight, no electricity in these rustic restrooms.
At 8:00 p.m. a ranger hosts a campfire in the amphitheater near the backpacker’s camp. Ranger Sally provided an excellent presentation of Yosemite history and we learned a lot about owls. We really enjoyed hanging out and laughing at other campers who participated in the campfire.
Even though Tuolumne Meadows was much lower in altitude than our previous campsites, it was the coolest night yet. Temps dipped into the 40’s as we snuggled deep in our sleeping bags. Tomorrow, we would head up to Cathedral and enjoy some downtime.
For a slideshow of the part 1 of the hike, you can go here:
First half slideshow of our hike:
The continuing story of our northbound JMT section hike…..
By day 3, we all had our trail legs. You know what I mean, the steadiness that you get after a few days of stepping on, around and over stuff. Backpacks have a way of changing your center of gravity. Bend over a bit too far to smell those lupines and you’ll see how blue they really are. The night at Thousand Island Lake was amazing. The sound of the distant snow-fed waterfall created a peaceful nights’ rest.
At Thousand Island, it was a bit difficult to find a private place to do your business. Sorry for bringing it up, but it’s just one of those things that you have to do. One could write an entire blog about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that sometimes you have to venture out to find that secluded spot and hope that the nearest trail is out of view. It is arguably one of the most challenging yet natural chores in the backcountry. Mosquitoes present a significant challenge with this, so you may need to apply some repellant where the “sun don’t shine”. The cathole shovel, tp and antiseptic wipes are essential gear. However, in a pinch so are a stick, leaves and some handfuls of dirt. Let’s leave it at that.
We admired the view from our campsite and did the usual tasks. Filtering water, making breakfast, tearing down camp and repacking those packs. The last task was usually the biggest pain. Packing around those bear canisters is like emptying a sardine can and then stuffing them back in. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake was steady and hot. The views over our shoulders of Banner Peak were ever-changing and dramatic. As we rounded a ledge, a fat marmot sat perched on a rock and it looked like a good place to stop. This is their territory and the scat is enough to prove it. Pausing occasionally to catch our breath, we would hunch over to shift the weight of the pack and lean on our poles. It was a funny sight for sure. Island Pass was like something out of a movie. Little archipelagos of grass seemingly floated around us. Birds were abundant here as were so many varieties of flowers. This area made me regret that we had to cover 10 miles today.
We descended into an area near Wough Lake and heard rumblings of thunderstorms. The skies to the north were menacing and I kept an eye on the direction it was moving. We discussed what our plan would be for inclement weather, especially if caught out in the open. Things like avoiding meadows, tall trees and shallow caves if lightning is nearby. Lightning is a strange and dangerous occurrence and you should have a plan whether you are alone or hiking in a group. In a group, it’s a good idea to spread out so a stray bolt doesn’t take everyone out. If possible, find a clump of medium-sized trees for shelter. The tallest and shortest trees are not advisable. The position for protection is simple. Sit on your backpack or sleeping pad with your two feet touching the ground or pad. Don’t lay or stand up if possible. If in a tent, do the same and don’t touch your tent frame. Enough of the morbidity, you can do some research on hiking and lightning. It is “enlightening”.
We would cross several streams over single logs perched 6-8 feet above rushing streams and creeks. It requires a sense of balance with a pack and if you are unsteady should consider having a mate take your pack across for you. Something about a skinny log, sights and sounds of roaring water can unnerve almost anyone.
We passed through a canyon and ran into a large group from Tennessee. They proceeded to tell us how they were pummeled by hail and rain for 1 1/2 hours. I must say, God protected our little group because we avoided bad weather all week. Either way, be prepared. We started the steady climb up Donahue Pass and a 80% cloud cover made it much more comfortable as we were totally exposed. The trail is well-defined and there are plenty of boulders to take breaks on. We ran across a couple of SoBo’s (southbounders) who provided upcoming trail conditions. We did the same. It’s very common to briefly stop and chat to discuss weather, trail conditions and experiences. People who are out here most often share our appreciation for the outdoors and generally are friendly with good attitudes. While I still scratch my head when we come across solo female hikers, they are safer out here than in their urban neighborhoods.
We would also run across a PCT thru-hiker who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to walk 30 miles today. Man, I thought we were doing good at 10 miles per day.
Reaching the Pass, we would tread across the last remnants of snow fields and cross into Yosemite territory.
The trail becomes a bit hard to follow on the north side of Donahue as you cross more snow. Some cairns indicated the general direction.
We quickly descended into the beginnings of Lyell Canyon. The landscape, ever-changing was devoid of all but the hardiest of vegetation. The hiking poles made the descent easier as we snaked our way down. Forty five minutes later, we reached a wide creek and realized that we would have to ford it. Two hundred feet downstream was a waterfall and cascade, so no crossing there. We put on our water shoes and stepped in the cold creek that would become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Here, underneath the snow of Donahue Pass, the water was a chili 40-45 degrees.
I crossed without incident, my wife mentioned that her feet were getting numb within 30-45 seconds. When fording water, it’s best to unbuckle your pack in case you fall since it can absorb water and drag you under. It took a bit to warm up from the creek as I imagined what it would have been like if there had been a heavy snow year.
We would cross countless tributaries to this creek as we ventured further in the valley. Some streams were cutting across the trail on a ledge that was five feet wide. Rock hopping was common and we definitely got better at it. We would also cross the creek twice more before finding a campsite. At the last crossing, we did it in our hiking shoes. My shoes, while excellent on the trail, were not waterproof.
We made camp around 100 ft. from the water in a beautiful stand of pines within earshot of the cascades. The sun was setting quickly as we ended a tough day on the trail. Dinner was spicy beef stew. We slept like hibernating bears. Tomorrow, July 3rd would be a race to Tuolumne Post Office to retrieve our supplies.
Link to YouTube slideshow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfTmobpnlmg
If you’ve ever camped near rushing water you may understand that it’s like taking a sleeping pill. In the Sierras near Mammoth, the San Joaquin River is small as rivers go, but grows as it makes its way west. It is born at Thousand Island Lake where we would camp on day 2. As the San Joaquin descends into Devils Postpile, the cascades provide some character to the little river branch before it provides vital nourishment to the California Central Valley.
We were awakened by the dawn light as it filtered through the trees in the campground. Breakfast would be scrambled eggs and bacon. Food is a priority for me in the backcountry. I found out about these crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon from Backpackers magazine. The eggs are real, in powdered form and when mixed with water – come to life when heat is applied. These aren’t the old-school powdered eggs, they are the real deal. The bacon is real and just reheated. Put two checks in the protein box for today. Only thing missing was toast, but that’s ok. We would have to get our carbs from the pita bread and snack bars.
We packed up our site and headed toward the Devils Postpile Monument less than a half mile up the trail. Afterward, we would hit the JMT and head north. We would be one of the odd 10% of JMT hikers that go north. It just worked out that way mainly for logistics. Devils Postpile is an amazing display of a geologic formation of lava that cooled in long geometric columns. Definitely worth a side visit. We would run into a family that was hiking the JMT from north to south and they proceeded to tell us about the onslaught of mosquitos. A couple of the younger women had 50 or 60 bites – on their arms. Hmmm, either bug repellant wasn’t applied, or these are mosquitos from Hades. They also told us how a bear tore into their non-food bags that were hanging from trees in Lyell Canyon. I wasn’t fazed by these tales of woe, thanked them for the info and looked forward to meeting the challenge (and our dementors) head on.
We made our way up the hill several hundred yards before I realized we were going south. Oops, the morning sun was on my left – that’s not right. I flipped my map around, apologized and asked everyone if they were warmed up yet. I felt like Dr Lazarus in the movie Galaxy Quest, when he was reading his tricorder thingy backwards. We found the JMT junction and crossed the San Joaquin on a nice footbridge. My brother and I brought our DSLR cameras on this trip, the extra 2 pounds worth it since we knew about the vistas that lay ahead. The trail wasted no time increasing elevation as we left the river and the mid-morning heat was on. We peeled off a layer and unzipped the legs off our pants. A bit of sunscreen and bug repellant and we were on our way. Much of this area was devastated by a freak windstorm last year and required much trail maintenance to clear the blow-downs. I was impressed at the amount of work done to restore the trail. Kudos to the Forest Service employees and their army of volunteers.
Our packs were heavy with our full complement of food. We would carry 2 liters of water and a spare .75 liter bottle. Prior to hitting the trail, we would tank up – drinking as much as was comfortable. Hydration is everything when you hike, especially when your body is working hard at altitude with a heavy load. Pulling my Tom Harrison map out, I would occasionally check our position and compare the various landmarks. Eventually, the JMT and PCT split and we would go left to follow the JMT toward a land of lakes.
The trail was fairly steep at 400-500 ft per mile and came with an array of SUDS (senseless up-downs). In a hikers’ mind, you should go up or down, not both. We could hear the cascades of the river below and see waterfalls in the distance. We cinched the shoulder harnesses and load balancers to bring the packs closer to our shoulders as the incline seemed relentless. With a full pack, comfort is not really an option. You shift the load from hips to shoulders and move the pain points around. General rule is uphill-bring the load in close to your shoulders, downhill-shift it to your hips. Always a good idea to play around with waist-shoulder-sternum-load balancer straps as you hike. All good quality backpacks have those adjustments. It takes practice to adjust those while holding hiking poles, sipping water and keeping your eye on the trail.
As the GPS altimeter continued to click up, I glanced again at the maps. The Harrison maps have great detail, but man it was hard to make out those contour lines. As we approached 10,000 ft later in the day, we realized that we should look for a camp near a water source. That wouldn’t be too hard since there was water everywhere. I knew enough to avoid ponds since their still waters are just breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I had cut out select pages of the John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail, which listed elevation profiles and campsite coördinates along the JMT. It is an invaluable guide and highly recommended.
The guide recommended an area near the Rosalie Lake outlet and it was spot on. There was evidence of a previous camp close by a stream. Too bad we couldn’t make use of the fire ring since there is a moratorium on campfires in the Inyo National Forest.
The campsite was full of those big black carpenter ants. They are pretty harmless from what I remember unless you get close to their colony. They are persistent and get into everything that isn’t sealed up. We learned to co-exist with these critters. One thing, you can’t be afraid of bugs in the backcountry. In the Sierras, most are harmless and bug repellant with 33% Deet works ok. Be careful with the 100% Deet, it melts most plastics. Another thing worth mentioning is that prior to our trip I sprayed our outer garments with Permethrin. I’ve used this on the A.T. and it works great as most bugs will bounce off your clothes-especially ticks. It also is effective for up to six washings. It can be applied to your tent or tarp too.
Dinner was a Mountain Home Chicken & Mashed Potatoes. It’s a good one, four stars. We would wind down our day chatting about how hard the first day was. I told everyone how well they did on the trail and that it would eventually get easier. It didn’t get easier until the last day…
The mosquitos were definitely in charge here, but our headnets and long sleeves/pants kept them at bay. As the night cooled and the breeze picked up, their numbers diminished. The heat of the day was gone and the coolness of Rosalie Lake wafted over our campsite. Temps would drop into the low 50’s at 9,500 ft. The lake outlet was a babbling brook which made it so easy to sleep. If at all possible, seek out those streams, they are nature’s sleep machine.
Late at night, we would see flashes of light through our tent. Why do strange things happen late at night? I was concerned about a forest fire, so I unzipped the tent to watch the sky. To the south – southeast, it appeared to be fireworks. It was only June 30th, but some town must have gotten an early start. Maybe there was something going on in Mammoth Lakes.
Gear we recommend:
shoes/boots –Five Ten Men’s Camp Four Hiking Shoe
hiking pants – Columbia Men’s Silver Ridge Cargo Short
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle