Hike long enough in the Sierras and you inevitably notice the FedEx and UPS carriers of the mountain trails. There are around 16 commercial outfitters or packers in the Sierras. Most often, you will see evidence of their passing littering the trail. Initially, you complain about the smell and of the doodles, but then you realize that it’s just part of the experience hiking in one of the most amazing places ever.
The pack or mule trains in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are the primary way of supplying the remote camps throughout the region. Thru-hikers on the JMT definitely appreciate the deliveries of their supplies to the Muir Trail Ranch. Without the mules, people would be exiting the trail for resupply or carrying much more weight.
These sure-footed creatures usually weigh in around 600-800 lbs and can carry around 20% of their body weight. The trains are as short as four mules or big as ten. They are fairly docile and move along at a steady pace of 3-5 mph. As you may know, all mules are sterile, the result of a male donkey and a female horse. The scientific name of the species is Equus asinus x Equus caballus (donkey x horse).
Our first encounter with pack mules was on the John Muir Trail. They were on their way to a High Sierra camp and were loaded down with supplies for the “glampers”. The train drivers are usually cowboy types and almost always friendly.
Trail etiquette: Always give the pack trains the right of way. When you see them coming, find a safe area to stand or on the uphill side if you are on a narrow part of the trail. Generally, they are not skittish, but it’s best to be quiet. If you take pics, ensure your flash is off!
Lessons learned: When getting your water refilled, do it on the upstream side of the trail. Once, I was taking a break next to a creek near the Palisades Glacier. A pack train passed by and several of the mules did their business as they passed over the stream. Ten minutes later a couple of hikers came by and one of them started drinking right out of the stream. I was actually filtering some water upstream. I mentioned that a pack train just came through and well, you know. The hiker continued to drink water and mentioned that she has been drinking out of the streams for over 20 years and hasn’t gotten sick yet. Well, if it wasn’t for her Swedish accent, I would have thought she was a direct descendant of John Muir. Even John would have gotten his water upstream. 🙂
These are awesome light-weight trekking poles:
Each year around Memorial day, an event named Bishop Mule Days Celebration http://www.muledays.org/ is held to commemorate the impact that the mules have had in the Sierras. The town of Bishop, located on Highway 395 in the eastern Sierras puts on a spectacular event that showcases these hard working equines. Looks like fun.
The pack trains of the Sierras. Yet another part of an awesome experience.
“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) chapter 2.
I use this type of camera on the trail and am very pleased with it: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case
The hike today had been a long one. The John Muir Trail was all that we had expected and more. Imagine Ansel Adams pictures in living color.
Rounding Emerald Lake, I proceeded down toward Thousand Island Lake to look for a suitable camp. To the left, a solid granite landscape rose up but appeared to level out after a few hundred feet. It looked promising so I climbed it with my pack. Reaching the top, it was mostly rocky with a few areas where one could pitch a tent. It was almost a caldera like depression, but the car-sized boulders made it obvious that this area was formed by ancient glaciers.
Dropping my pack, I retreated down the face of a granite hill to see how my wife and brother were doing. The final push toward Thousand Island Lake had been a hard one and my brother was experiencing a bit of acute mountain sickness (AMS). We had to find a place to make camp soon.
I took out our JMT maps and discovered the area up the hill was off-limits. It wasn’t worth getting caught by the ranger, so I went back to retrieve my pack. Starting up the granite escarpment, I noticed something moving in the area where I had left my pack. Marmots! Those sneaky pests found my pack and were checking it out.
I yelled “Hey, get outta here!” and one of them perked up like a meerkat. Still far off, I looked for rocks to throw, but they were too big. Continuing to climb, it was difficult to scale the rock and yell. Kinda like chewing bubble gum and walking. Anyhow, I did find some rocks and started slinging them at the vermin but my shots all fell short. I think one of them snickered something to the other one and they didn’t budge.
It seemed like it took forever to reach my pack and I was worried now that they ripped it open trying to get to my food. Most of it was in a bear canister, but I did keep some snacks in the outer pockets for easy access. As I got to within 20 feet, the two burglars scattered and disappeared down a hole. Man, they’re like Orcs living underground.
Checking my pack out, everything was intact and I was able to meet my wife and brother back on the trail. We ended up camping on the north shore of the lake with Banner Peak as our backdrop.
The yellow-bellied marmot, a ground squirrel – a fat one mind you, is an omnivore that eats anything including stuff in your backpack if left unattended. They hibernate and are generally fattest in the fall. They can live up to 15 years and are nicknamed “whistle pigs” because of the sound they make when predators are near. To me, they look like groundhogs or beavers without the tail. Don’t let their cuteness fool you. They are sneaky and will steal your lunch.
Lesson learned: Never trust a marmot.
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)
It was a quiet night in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Saxton Camp filled up with a Boy Scout troop, so we retreated a few hundred feet downhill in relatively flat clearing . Leary of camping near big groups, they actually were well-behaved and turned in at a respectable time. Surrounded by conifers, our home for the evening was barely visible from the trail. This would serve as our base camp for our hike up to the tallest peak in Southern California. We stowed our bear canisters and hung our packs from nearby trees, unzipping the pockets so the little vermin didn’t chew through them. Settling in for a decent sleep, I was awakened by a bright light shining into the side of the tent. What the heck? Thinking that someone was wandering around our site, I listened for the footsteps. Nothing. The light continued to shine, barely moving. Maybe I left a flashlight in my pack and it came on. A few minutes later, I gathered enough courage to unzip the door and peek out. The fullness of the moon lit up our tent as it crested the mountain to our east.
Terrain matters when it comes to pitching your tent. Setting it up in the wrong spot could be the difference between life and death. That beautiful spot near the lake could be where the water drains during a downpour.
If you are on a multi-day trip on an established trail, chances are you have a trail guidebook or maybe you’ve read a blog that provided mile markers and campsites. Those are valuable resources. Prior to our section hike of the JMT last year, I picked up John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail. It is an awesome resource. I was able to set waypoints on my Garmin 401 and get fairly close. Or you can live life on the edge, just hike until it’s dark and plop down near the trail.
Many locations in the national forest and parks require you to camp at least 100 ft. from the trail and 200 ft. from water sources. Most of us make half-hearted attempts at this rule. I mean, the sound of rushing water makes for a great night of sleep. Hikers are generally good stewards of the land and really try to minimize the impact. You do this by camping on established sites and avoid vegetation like grass. Rules vary in each area, so check online or with the local ranger if appropriate. Camp too close to water and the mosquitoes will torment you.
Once, I was solo hiking in the eastern Sierras and started looking for a site. I found a granite slab that was 25 ft. from a cliff that dropped off about 200 ft. into a lively creek. The view was amazing, but then I thought about getting up in the middle of the night when nature called and stepping off into the abyss. So, rocks are not a good idea for a tent unless it is far away from drop-offs and you have a way to stake the tent down. Rocks also are good lightning conductors!
When looking for a site, envision what it would look like in a raging downpour. Will the water funnel through your site like a drainage ditch? Will that Fiat sized boulder up the hill come loose and roll over you like a bowling ball? In the Sierras, those granite covered slopes shed water quickly during rain and can create flash flood conditions.
Widow-makers: Those dead trees that are still standing. Pitch your tent under those when a strong wind hits and you won’t know what hit you. If you do pick a site under trees, make sure it’s not under the tallest group of trees, nor the shortest. Go for the medium stand, you will be less likely to get struck by lightning.
Common sense, but find a site that is relatively flat without roots or rocks. A good sleeping pad helps knock the edge of those little rocks that feel like boulders at night. If you must sleep on an incline, your head should be at the highest point. Even the slightest hill may cause you to gravitate toward your tent-mate in the middle of the night. That may be good, or bad. If you have to pitch your tent on a hill, have your door on the downhill side so water doesn’t come rushing in.
Some other tips:
Don’t cook or eat within 50-100 ft. of your tent. Stow the bear canister or bag the same distance. If not you may get some late night company looking for food.
Align your tent so the smallest surface area is facing the prevailing wind. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a square tent. 🙂 At a minimum, place your opening away from the wind to avoid the parachute effect.
For backcountry camping, shop around and spend the money on a quality tent. The $20 one in the discount store will not hold up during a gusher. Use a tent footprint. It’s like a light weight tarp that fits under your tent. It is slightly larger than the floor of your tent and will protect the floor from damage due to rocks and roots. I know, if you are a thru-hiker, ounces count.
Invest in a good set of tent stakes. Most low-end tents come with lousy stakes that bend easily. There are a couple of brands like MSR GroundHog Stake Kit that are light weight and sturdy. These are virtually indestructible. I usually find a rock and bang them in. I also carry extras in case they get damaged or if it’s really windy. Carry some extra para-cord or nylon line in your tent bag in case you need to tie on some extra guy lines.
Klingers: People who camp right next to you, even though there are other places to camp. Don’t be a Klinger.
Lightning: No tent can protect you from 150,000 volts, but it can keep you dry. During bad thunderstorms, you can do the following: If you believe in God, pray and minimize your body contact with the ground or sit on your pad, sleeping bag or backpack. If you are an atheist or agnostic, just curl up in the fetal position, put your headset in, crank up the volume and close your eyes.
In the morning, the tent may be wet from dew or the overnight shower. If you don’t have time to dry it out before hitting the trail, use your camp towel to wipe it down. If you are camping in Washington or Oregon, just resign yourself to the fact that it will never get dry. Never stow a wet tent at the end of your trip. It is guaranteed to ruin it with mold and mildew. It’s a good idea to vacuum out a tent and wipe it down with a mild soap. I treat mine along the seams with a waterproof sealant that I got here: Gear Aid Tent Sure floor sealant with foam brush, 8-Ounce.
I like positioning the door of our tent for easy access if you have to get up during the night. Hey, you’ll understand when you get old. But the most important thing is a site with a view. You will know it when you see it.
Do you have some tips or lessons learned about setting up your tent? Please share them in the comments! Most importantly, don’t be a Klinger.
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 alike. John Muir, The Yosemite (1912)
Thank you Abraham Lincoln for signing the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. This laid the foundation for others to preserve the beauty and sanctity of Yosemite National Park, which was established in 1872.
I think Yosemite is the crown jewel of the Sierras. It is a land of majesty, iconic mountains, with ancient forests, waterfalls and endless vistas. In Yosemite Valley one can experience the four seasons. In spring, the melting snow makes the water burst from the mountains with a roaring thunder that resonates in your bones. In summer, the ground floor of the valley is bustling with flowers and tourists seeking views of Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and the Mist Trail. Fall in the valley provides a glorious display of the deciduous flora in its fullness. Winter is a quieter time where you can take leisurely strolls while catching glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the distance.
John Muir captured the essence of this land through his writings. After visiting the park a couple of times, I read My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite. Walking through Tuolumne Meadows, dipping my feet in the Merced River and experiencing the enveloping mist of Nevada Falls – this is where he walked. Awakening to the sun cresting behind Cathedral, drifting through the moraine fields near Lembert Dome and listening to the gurgling Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River are but a few memories that I will take with me. It is a respite that you will cherish long after you go home. While at work, my mind drifts to thepanorama of the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir and how it must have looked 100 years ago before they built the O’Shaughnessy Dam.
I see the Almighty’s handiwork in the granite sentinels surrounding the valley. They beckon me to venture higher and explore further the miles of trails. Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)
I am blessed to live within a day’s drive of Yosemite. If you ever make it to California, this should be the first stop on your list of destinations. Venture into the valley, wade in the Merced River and drive the Tioga Road where the views at Olmsted Point will make you want to linger. Stroll down to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and notice the Steller’s Jays as they follow you along the path, flitting from tree to tree. Savor the waving blue lupines hanging on the edge of a precipice near Yosemite Falls. Is it strange to fall in love with a place? Spend some time here and you may come away with a desire to write poetry. 🙂
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. – John Muir, Our National Parks, (1901)
I’m thankful for John Muir and the love he held for The Yosemite. He was a true visionary who inspired others to cherish and become good stewards of this national treasure. Come see for yourself and experience this gem.
Sometimes there are not enough words to describe Yosemite. It is a land of enchantment, meaning one will fall in love with it. Today, we had another opportunity to venture out near the Tioga Road and explore. We actually stayed in a hotel in Bishop and drove in to the park through the east gate. I am jealous of fellow blogger http://califraven.wordpress.com/ who lives nearby. Her blog is refreshing and provides a neat perspective on this beautiful area.
It was a chilly 19 degrees F when we pulled into Tuolumne Meadows. Our plan was to hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake and poke around. No one else was silly enough to hike this early but we were prepared. Bundled up with a couple of layers, we hit the trail crunching through the old snow. The snow was from a storm last November. Unfortunately, it has been a light snow year in the Sierras. It was New Years Day 2012 and a great way to start the year.
After 20 minutes of hiking through snow, we had to peel off a layer of clothing. Funny, because the temps were still in the low 20’s. As long as we were walking, it was warm. Stop for too long and the cold sets in. We hit the main junction going up to Cathedral and the elevation change was around 600-700 ft. per mile. In the spring/summer, this is a very popular trail.
As we ascended, the silence of the forest enveloped us. Sometimes the only sounds were my labored breathing and crunch of the snow under my feet. As the sun broke through the clouds, it began to warm up some. A Steller’s Jay followed us, watching us from a distance. They are curious birds and like to observe humans.
The trail comes to a junction where the JMT keeps straight and the path to Lower Cathedral Lake breaks right. There were multiple frozen streams to cross and it was difficult to follow the trail. While it was a low snow year up here, the temperatures are still below freezing each night. The creeks appeared to be frozen instantly in time. It was an amazing sight to see.
I so wanted to slide down the frozen creek, but wisdom prevailed. We picked our way around the icy streams and managed to follow the trail where it emerged in a meadow. By following the frozen streams, we made it to the lake. A strange sound emanated from the shore. It sounded like humpback whales clicking and groaning. It was an awesome experience. By now, the temps were around 40 and the sun was out. The granite slabs that surrounded the shore were flat and warm.
We observed a few brave (if not foolish) souls venturing out on the lake about a half mile away. We had lunch and took plenty of pics and listened to the sounds of the ice as it shifted and bumped against the granite shore. I imagined how the glaciers of long ago formed this area. This wonderful landscape has a way of capturing your soul. For me, it reminded me that places like this were created for our enjoyment. I wanted to linger, but knew that the days were short and the trip down could be slippery. Some spots were steep with ice that melted and refroze.
The wooded area near the lake looked the same from the shoreline. Fortunately, I set a waypoint on the GPS and used it to follow our course in reverse. We came across a few more people and pointed them in the direction of the lake. The descent was a little challenging as we tried to keep our balance. After this trip, I would get us some microspikes that slip over the boots. Found some good ones here: Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System
This hike was quite the adventure. If you have the opportunity to make it to Yosemite in the winter, see if the Tioga Road is open. The trek to Lower Cathedral Lake is one that you shouldn’t pass up. It’s not far from the Tuolumne Visitor Center which is closed during the winter. You can park along the road. Bonus: If you enter through the east gate on (Tioga Road) in the winter, you don’t pay the $20 park fee because no one staffs the entrance gate. Round trip on Lower Cathedral Lake trail is approximately 7-8 miles from the trailhead.
Hike in the backcountry long enough and you will understand the saying “I’m being eaten alive”. Eaten by mosquitoes that is. Some of the most beautiful vistas in the U.S. are also the most infested by those pests. Actually, you may find mosquitoes anywhere there is an abundance of water and mild-hot temperatures. From sea level to over 10,000 ft. they will find you. While the risk of West Nile and chikungunya viruses is there, those illnesses will not kill you. Chiki-what? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chikungunya To my knowledge, yellow fever and malaria aren’t that common in America.
I remember the time we met a family near Devil’s Postpile, on the John Muir Trail. They had passed through Lyle Canyon and bore the bites of many, many mosquitoes. It was a bit scary to see their skin covered in itchy, red bumps. They all had shorts, short sleeve shirts and no headnets. Ok, I could end this blog on bugs right here. One could probably eliminate 75% of bug bites by wearing a headnet, long sleeves and long pants.
Do some research on why mosquitoes in particular are attracted to humans and you will see that it has to do with our movement, carbon dioxide that we exhale, body odor and body chemistry. According to one researcher “One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes,” reports Jerry Butler, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Florida. That might explain why some are eaten alive and others barely get bitten. When hiking, it’s hard to avoid the attractants mentioned above.
However, any good mosquito abatement plan has multiple layers. This will even work for other bugs like gnats and flies. Let’s start with your clothing. When on an extended trip in the backcountry, less is better. The less weight you carry, the better off you will be. Make your clothes count. Bring convertible pants that zip off at the knees and long sleeve shirts that can be rolled up and fastened. Layer your top with a t-shirt that wicks sweat. I’ve been bitten by mosquitos through a t-shirt, so layering may help.
Prior to your trip, consider treating your clothing with a bug repellant like Permethrin. It works amazingly well and may last for 5 or 6 washings. It dries within a few hours and is not known to irritate the skin. It is highly toxic to cats, so be aware and apply outside or in a well ventilated area. In my opinion, Permethrin is more effective than spray on repellents and less of an irritant. It is effective on most other bugs including ticks and flies. This is a good brand that I use: Sawyer Products Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce
Do spray on repellents work? I believe they do, but will only last for so long. If you sweat, it tends to wash away the repellant. It also can get into your eyes and on your food. We carry it, but use it sparingly. DEET is still a common chemical and very effective, but in higher concentrations it can melt plastic like sunglasses and synthetic clothing. Scary, huh? Here is a lotion that works very well, but be careful around the eyes: 3M Ultrathon Insect Repellent Lotion, 2-Ounce
When camping, mosquitoes are the worst, especially if you are near water. Set up your tent quickly and zip the screen closed. Wind is your friend when it comes to these insects. It’s harder for them to fly and find their prey. Set up your tent where there is a breeze if possible. Many a camper has pitched their tent near a beautiful lake or stream and are forced to eat dinner inside their tent because of the swarms. At night, minimize the use of bright lights or use the red lens if your lamp is equipped with one.
This might seem a bit extreme, but when nature calls and you are in an infested area, it may be a good idea to put some bug repellant on your backside. You are an easy target during this time and it might prevent you from toppling over because you were swatting them.
The $5 I spent on our head nets was probably the best money spent. You can even run your hydration tube underneath the net. The nets are not fashionable, but it’s only a matter of time before someone invents some that are. When not in buggy areas, I usually roll mine up and over my trail hat. I can pull it down when they start to bite. This inexpensive one has served us well: Coleman Insect Head Net
Some last thoughts. According to the same researcher mentioned above, female mosquitoes do the biting. They need your blood to fertilize their eggs. Supposedly there are new inventions coming to aid in the battle including pills and wearable patches. I’ll try anything once – as long as it’s safe. So friends, don’t let those Culicidae keep you from venturing into the backcountry – hike on! Any ideas for repelling mosquitoes? Please mention them in your comments.
This is the second half of a two-part story. Part I is here: https://thelatebloomerhiker.com/2014/10/03/wildfire-in-yosemite-part-i/
No time to panic here, first find out where we are at and then determine our options. Getting the GPS and our map, we determined that we were about three or four miles east of Little Yosemite Valley and the Merced River. It was hard to tell how far we were from the actual fire at this point, but knew that it was generally to our east around Babcock or Merced Lake. Our options were limited because the other paths out were both uphill which would slow us down. We just descended 800 ft. and there sure was a lot of timber fuel back there. Our only real choice was to head west.
We picked up the pace when the first chopper flew in front of us – about 1/2 mile or so. It had a bucket hanging underneath. Well, at least the calvary was arriving. As we came across a saddle, we saw a horrifying sight. The fire was crossing a canyon to our left and climbing the mountain. Was it moving east or south? It was hard to tell. At this point, we kept going but discussed what we would do if we were boxed in by fire. One option was to find rocky terrain or a meadow with little or no fuel. Another was to find a creek or body of water, but the nearest was the Merced River.
A few minutes later, another helicopter was circling less than a mile away. We heard a loudspeaker but were unable to make out what they were saying. Two more mule deer ran across the trail about fifty feet behind us. They were heading in a northerly direction. The helicopter was making concentric circles and came within 500 feet of us. This time we clearly heard the loudspeaker as it blared: “There is a wildfire burning to the east and heading this direction. Make your way to Little Yosemite Valley immediately!”
We were around 30-40 minutest from the rally point. Would they evacuate us from there? We kept pushing and noticed that smoke was starting to appear in front of us. Up ahead there was a clearing with a person. As we got closer it became apparent that it was two people. One was laying down and the other was frantically waving at us. It was a woman waving and a guy was laying down. I asked what happened and she said they were running when he collapsed. I checked for a pulse and breathing and found both. He seemed to have passed out, but it was hard to tell if he had suffered a heart attack. He started to come around and we propped his head up on the pack. He was delirious and then I noticed that he wasn’t sweating. I asked the woman if she had any water to give him and she told me they ran out about an hour ago. At this point I guessed that he was suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I gave him a small amount of water and moved him into the shade of a big lodgepole pine.
I told my wife and brother to continue on to Little Yosemite Valley and that I would stay behind with these two. I gave them our GPS coordinates to pass to the rescue personnel. I also activated my SPOT GPS locator. I told the woman to gradually give her friend some water and I would attempt to signal the helicopter. It was still making circles making announcements but did not see us. Getting my signal mirror out, I started aiming at the chopper. One, two-three times. Wait…..one, two-three. After 10-15 minutes the pilot turned in our direction and descended. I immediately laid down on my back with my hands extending out – the international signal for distress-“need medical attention” The clearing was large enough for them to land. A rescue crewman jumped out and checked out the downed hiker. We helped carry him to the helicopter in a stretcher and there was enough room for all of us.
Lifting off, I had a brief flashback from my time as a naval aircrewman going through survival training. Only this time, I was the one being rescued. Flying by Half Dome, you could see a crowd of people waiting to be rescued. We landed in a staging area near the Ahwahnee Hotel where the hiker was taken by ambulance to the medical center. We would later find out that he suffered from heat stroke but would recover. Now, concerned for my family, I tried to find out what they were doing to evacuate the people in Little Yosemite Valley. Within minutes, another helicopter landed and four people emerged. I asked one of them where they came from. They said that they were picked up in Little Yosemite Valley and that there were over 50 people left. I prayed again for my family’s safety and another chopper landed with four more people. You could see the smoke plumes from behind Half Dome as they went straight up to about 9-10,000 ft. and then blew in a westerly direction.
The landing zone for the helicopters was cordoned off by the park rangers, so I dropped my pack and waited as close as possible to the boundary. Several more landed and finally by wife and brother emerged. Hugging them both, the first thing out of my brothers’ mouth was “Where can we get a hamburger?” Yep, that’s how it ends.
While this story was fiction, a wildfire caused by lightning did occur in Yosemite National Park east of Half Dome in September 2014. The “Meadow Fire” consumed almost 5,000 acres and took several weeks to contain. Over 100 hikers were evacuated from Half Dome and the area around Little Yosemite Valley. The National Park Service led an orderly evacuation. Fire is one of many hazards that one can encounter in the backcountry. Always let someone know where you will be hiking and discuss events like flash floods, lightning and fire.
We were finishing up a section hike of the John Muir Trail in early September. The trip from Mammoth into Yosemite was filled with the most amazing views. In Devil’s Postpile Campground, it was nice to gather around the fire to talk about our upcoming adventure. During our hike, we observed that most of the terrain around the JMT was pristine. There was an area near Devil’s Postpile that had recently burned. It was apparently caused by lightning. The weather was perfect as we skirted thunderstorms for the past couple of days. Late August or Early September is a good time to do backcountry in the Sierras. Much later and the chance of snow really increases. The mosquitoes are not as bad and stream crossings are usually a bit easier. We met some southbound hikers before Donohue Pass that mentioned how they were pummeled by a storm, hail and all. Noticed the first bit of snow at Donohue and made the transition from Ansel Adams Wilderness to Yosemite NP. The trek through Lyle Canyon was at a fast pace as the storm seemed to be on our heels. For most of the week, we went without a campfire since the USFS had a ban in place.
We passed through Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed some non-dehydrated food. Next was a glorious day spent near Lower Cathedral Lake where we made camp near the shore. What a magical place. The thunder continued to rumble around us through late afternoon, but it never rained. The next day we pressed on for 11-12 miles. We were fortunate enough to nab a site with decent views of Half Dome which appeared a couple of miles away. In Yosemite, below 9,000 ft. campfires were still allowed. We gathered up loose firewood and proceeded to make a nice fire. The site we picked already had a fire pit and we reinforced the edge with some additional rocks.
Before dusk, we went down to the creek to filter some water. The water flow here was poor and the mosquitoes were swarming. I pumped my water filter faster than ever before while swatting those pesky critters. All week, we evaded them and wore long sleeves and our head-nets. Tonight, I was bitten more while filtering than the previous six nights combined. Oh well, we needed the water for dinner and some extra to put out the campfire.
After dinner, we noticed the skies had clouded up a bit. We were spared from the rain one more night. I thought about a previous camping trip where the rain serenaded me to sleep. Next to a rushing stream, a light rain is the perfect sleep machine. Sometime during the night, we did hear thunder as well as see the lightning as it lit up our tents. It sounded like it was 10-15 miles away. Our site was in a good spot and not in a flash flood prone area.
By dawn, the far away storm had subsided. We noticed the campers above us had packed up early. They were going to Half Dome. We ate a light breakfast, packed up and were on our way to finish our trip. Today would be approximately 7 miles as we would pass the dome, Little Yosemite Valley, Nevada and Vernal Falls.
As we got back on the trail, we passed a small group heading back from a 3 day stay at one of the High Sierra Camps. They were chatting how “glamping” was the way to go. Glamping or glamour-camping is luxury camping. You stay in a yurt, or cabin and receive room service or have your meals prepared for you. Hmm, sounds nice after all. At this point, we started talking about real food again. While it had only been a few days since the cheeseburger in Tuolumne Meadows, the idea of fast-food still sounded good.
Eventually, we emerged from the canopy with Half Dome to our west and Vogelsang Peak to our east. Suddenly, there was a thrashing sound to our left and a group of 4-5 deer bolted out of the forest in front of us. What the heck? Then we saw why they were running. A white billowing cloud covered half of the horizon to the east. Was it a cumulus cloud – or smoke? The three of us stopped to get a better look. Within a few minutes, it started snowing. Except this was not regular snow, it was ash. Now it hit us – forest fire!
Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route. We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before. Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.
After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass. A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going. The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly. The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go. We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike. The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.
Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy. There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista. The views to the west were beautiful. In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery. There were several lakes below; one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake. We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply. Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food. We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.
We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way. Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way. We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes. The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain. A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily. We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes. We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.
Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area. The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake. It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet. The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake. We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water. After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching. Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like. It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet. The trout were jumping every few seconds. The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named. We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area. I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.
After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail. The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack. We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle. It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it. As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind. I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity. She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail. She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who (as always) is ahead of me. They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass. Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb. Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.
The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail. PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies. Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana. Her trail-name was Pillsbury, and she was quite the character. Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon. He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit. Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.
Pillsbury wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera. She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands. The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished. She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go. While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground. We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.
We had time to enjoy our camp this time. It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner. The Black Bart Chili tasted great. It’s one of our favorites. As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night. Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent. Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.
No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated. Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning. Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake. We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling. Not sure that it was a wise choice. A fall here would have hurt.
Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice. The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing. The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different. Still lots of jumping trout though. We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.
This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year. The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass. Mt. Whitney, here we come.
Some lessons learned on this trip:
– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night. Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest. While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft. Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft. Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate. Recommendation: When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.
– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude. In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.
– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers. You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life. Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail. You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.
– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water. Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂
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.
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.
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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
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)
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
The big day was here. Anyone who has ever hiked in the Sierras can tell you the allure of these mountains. The vistas are like fuel for the soul. This trip was planned about six months ago. We decided to do a south-north section hike of the JMT starting in the Mammoth Lakes area and ending up in Yosemite Valley. 90% of hikers do the north-south route and finish at Mt. Whitney. While that fourteener is on the list, this trip was meant to enjoy a seven-day trek up the legendary trail.
My friend obtained the permit through the recreation.gov website ahead of time. He couldn’t make it, but listed me as an alternate group leader which made picking up the permit easier. I will not go into detail, but if you don’t need to climb Whitney or Half Dome, obtaining the permit is very easy online. Overall, the fee for four people online was $26, which included a processing fee. At the Wilderness Centers or ranger stations, it is around $5 per person. There is no guarantee of trail availability for walk-ins, so plan accordingly.
Since my friend could not make it, I asked my trusty hiking partner – aka my wife to go. She reluctantly said yes! We also asked my older brother who said that it was on his bucket list. Early morning, June 29th we left suburban San Diego heading toward Mammoth Lakes. Today was a hot one, with forecasts putting the temps between 100-110 degrees in the Owens Valley area. Mammoth was projected to be in the 90’s. Whew!
We picked up our permit at the Mammoth Visitor Center and spoiled ourselves with a burger at a local tourist trap before heading to Mammoth Lakes Inn to catch the Reds Meadow Shuttle. The shuttle was $7 and would drop us at our choice of campgrounds. We chose to stay at Devils PostPile Campground. At $14, it was a good bargain and had nice sites located close to the San Joaquin River. We pitched our tents and settled in for a leisurely night before our first hiking day. The camp has bathrooms, potable water, picnic tables and fire rings. This was luxury camping to us compared to the rest of the week. You can tent or RV camp.
We would try out our first dehydrated dinner at the camp. It was an Alpineaire Black Bart Chili. Yummm. We hung out by the river, my brother trying his hand at fly fishing. Discussing tomorrow’s itinerary, we would rest well with the sound of the cascading San Joaquin River 100 ft. away.
Temps are forecast to be in the 80’s tomorrow. Hopefully, as we climb out the temps will drop between 3-5 degrees for each 1,000 ft. Oh well, at least there is plenty of water up here.
Next: Section Hike of the JMT – Day 1
After much preparation, our section hike of the JMT commenced. Our plan was to do a 60+ mile section from south-north. We would start around Devils Postpile and finish in Yosemite Valley. There are a lot of logistics that go into an extended backcountry trip. From clothing, food, transportation – the options are numerous.
How much will it cost? It will vary widely depending on your choices for transportation, gear and food. Don’t go cheap on essential hiking gear. You get what you pay for. The $25 tent is not a good idea for a High Sierra backcountry trip.
It started with choosing a time of year to do it. In the Sierras, the previous winter has a lot of impact on trail conditions. This year was a low snow year, so the streams were not very high. Since there was less snow, that usually means less standing water so mosquitos should not be as bad. Well, that’s debatable. To some, any mosquitos are bad. Ensure that you don’t have problems fording streams or walking across logs over rushing water. Late June/early July worked for us. I hear late August/early September is a good time.
Next choice was the distance to hike. This is where you need to know what your limits are. Can you hike 8-10 miles per day with a full pack at high altitude in 80 degree temps? I can tell you as an avid day hiker, there is a lot of difference between hiking 10 miles with a daypack and with a 40 lb. pack. It’s not pleasant to do a forced march just to make your mileage.
Clothing was another choice. What to wear? Best advice I can give is to check blogs and user groups to see what others are doing. Yahoo has a great JMT user group with relevant info. Due to a forecast of high temps, we would take synthetic short and long sleeve shirts, convertible pants and rain/wind jackets. Still, conditions in the Sierras vary widely, so an extra layer or two is a good idea. Those light weight hiking shoes may not provide enough support on a multi-day hike with a full pack. Test it out first.
Food was next. Dehydrated meals are the easiest and they’ve come a long way. Test some out ahead of time and read the reviews for each. There is some amazing innovation in the area of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Ensure they you have plenty of snacks like energy bars, trail mix, beef sticks and fruits like apples. My wife found healthy alternatives in the form of grass fed beef sticks and even some gluten free snacks. It’s amazing how many calories you can burn in 6-8 hours of hiking, so do the math. Bear canisters are mandatory in most areas on the JMT, so plan to rent or bring your own.
Transportation. Since we were doing a section hike, we chose to leave our car in Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle to the trail and for the return leg, catch public transportation (YARTS) back to Mammoth. It ended up working out great. Have a backup plan in case you miss your ride.
Research and planning was everything on this trip which helped make it successful. I learned so much reading others’ blogs and experiences.
NEXT: John Muir Trail Section Hike – Day 0
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
Memorial Day weekend 2012 got off to a rough start for those in Yosemite. A spring storm was in the forecast with snow above 5,000 ft. and temps dropping below freezing in the valley at night. The original plan for us was to hike Yosemite Falls on Friday and leave Saturday. My friends (the smart ones) decided to pack it up and head south after lunch. I had other plans and wanted to get another hike in. The thought of hiking in the snow alone was exciting. Having arrived in the valley a few days prior, I got my first glances of Yosemite Falls. Fed entirely by snowmelt, the dual falls were around their peak flow.
In the valley, temps were in the low 50s, perfect for hiking. I packed enough food, snacks for an overnighter and hit the trail. Today, I would give my new SPOT GPS messenger a try and do this one solo. This is a well-traveled trail and I expected to run across a lot of people.
The trail starts out fairly mild and changes to a moderate climb with about 60 short, steep switchbacks from the valley base of 4,000 ft. Not much of a view at this level as the tree cover was about 90%. My pace on the trail is slow and steady. It usually helps to have my hiking partner (and love of my life) setting the pace for me. Today, I would take more breaks and focused on making it to the top. Passing 5,000 ft. the air quickly got colder and the wind picked up. Within 30 minutes, the occasional flurry drifted through the trees. Views of the valley below and Sentinel became more frequent.
The flurries turned to small ice pellets and I broke out the jacket. For some reason, I doubted the distance on the trail marker. It seems like when you have to pick your way around rocks it adds another 10-20% to the length of a hike. Another thing I noticed was how unprepared people are on the trail. Many of them were in shorts, t-shirts with sandals or walking shoes. Most didn’t carry enough water or were prepared for the snow that was now coming down at a steady pace. I’m at the other end of the spectrum. A daypack with almost a gallon of water, food, cold/wet weather gear, 1st aid kit, survival kit – I know overkill, but always prepared – never a Boy Scout. Oh well, one day it will come in handy. Actually, the heavier day pack is part preparation for the upcoming long distance hike.
The light snow continued as I broke out of the woods near the falls. A deer near a fallen log, ignored me until I got within 20 ft. or so and magically disappeared. It was quiet up here and noticed two other hikers making their way up to Yosemite Point. The creek that supplied the falls was steadily flowing; crossing the bridge it would suddenly end into the abyss that makes Yosemite Falls. I decided to continue another 8/10 mile to Yosemite Point. The trail was very wet and hard to make out at times as it crossed the massive granite slabs. Eventually, I would enter a section of a small forest and the snow was quietly drifting down through the pines. A Stellar Jay was playing hide and seek with me as I made my way through the trees. They seem to be comfortable around people, probably because of the food. A spider web was dusted in snow as the peacefulness enveloped me. Solo hiking in this area is simply cool. Temps up here dropped about 16-18 degrees and it was a nice 34 degrees.
Coming out of the woods, the sky opened up and the clouds were partially covering the valley. 3,000 ft. below, the complex of Yosemite Village seemed to sprawl over the lush green valley floor as the Merced River wound its way west. I got up to the railing which was on the precipice hoping for a view of the falls, but was not able to from this angle. Venturing out, I took advantage of my camera remote and snapped a few silly shots.
After hanging out for a while, I bundled up and started my way down. The snow was starting to come down at a steady pace and changed into large, fluffy flakes. By the time I reached the bridge at Yosemite Creek, it had a good dusting. The trail was harder due to the wet, slippery granite chunks. My 5-10 shoes clung to the wet rock like glue – these things are amazing. They definitely are not waterproof, but are great for scrambling over wet rocks and scree. My hiking poles were priceless too, helping me to “spider” down the trail. Earlier, once the snow started, many hikers turned around and now the trail was empty.
Descending, the snow would continue. Reaching 4,500 ft it changed over to a light rain. I was glad, not wanting to try and make it out of the park on snowy roads. Wanting to get home and see my wife, I started home – a 7-8 hr. drive ahead of me. I know, after hiking 11 miles, making a long drive is no fun. Nothing a Red Bull or two couldn’t fix. Making my way to San Diego County, I would cut left at Bakersfield and head east through the desert to avoid the LA traffic. As dusk fell on Hwy 58, I found myself passing through a strong group of storm cells and the rain came down in torrents. I can’t remember the last time seeing it rain this hard in California, but the Lord took care of me as I scooted through and went by Mojave. The rest of the trip was uneventful and the energy drink did its job.
If you were to ask me which season is best in Yosemite, I would have to say all of them. Each is different, all of them displaying the grandeur of a beautiful landscape. If you do go to see the waterfalls in the spring, I would recommend between May 15-30, when they are at the full Monty.