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: