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
Have you ever crossed a rushing stream or creek? I’ve read many a tale from hikers crossing rain-swollen streams up to their chests in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. Obviously, they survived to tell about it but was it worth the risk? This could be a very short blog and I could say – use common sense. If you hike in the backcountry long enough, water crossings are inevitable. Most of the time, it will be safe to cross to the trail on the other side. Sometimes, the choice could be the difference between life or death.
I’ve crossed streams, creeks, and rivers and have never been swept away. Crossed frozen creeks and have never fallen through. But, what would you do if you got swept under, fell off the log or broke through the ice? Here are some ideas.
– Assess water hazards. Most well-established trails cross water at a location that is fairly safe. However, rainstorms and snowmelt can turn any crossing into a treacherous ordeal. Never cross:
1. In front of or immediately after a waterfall. Only a Darwin Award contender would do this.
2. Where there is debris, logs, branches that you could get entangled in. The water pressure can force you under the debris.
3. Rapid water above your thighs or waist. Even if it is below your knees, fast-moving water can trip you up. Assess the risk and look for a safer location.
4. Where there is a sharp bend in the creek or river. The water speed varies greatly here and it may be hard to climb out.
5. Where the bank is steep. You may not be able to climb out.
– Night crossings are not recommended unless you are familiar with the crossing and the water is very shallow. Do you know if there is a waterfall or some other water hazard downstream?
– Remove your socks and boots, strap them to your pack. I tie the socks in a knot. I carry a carabiner, tie my shoes in a knot and clip them in.
– If you have trekking poles, extend them to where the handles are above your waist to account for holes in the creek bed.
– Loosen the various harnesses on your pack. Unbuckle the sternum and waist straps. This allows for a way to shed the pack if it pulls you under. Often, the weight of the pack will pull you head first going downstream which is bad.
– Ziploc or waterproof bags should have been on your supply list. Put all electronics in those and stow in your backpack lid or high up in your pack. Depending on the depth of the water, might be a good idea to move your sleeping bag and strap it to the top. Same with your food supplies.
– If you have two or more people, face upstream and link arms. As an alternative, you can face upstream and form a conga line with the strongest person in the front. Hold on to the person’s waist in front of you. Shuffle feet sideways as you cross.
– If you perform the crossing alone or one at a time, use your hiking poles and face upstream. Always have three points in contact with the bottom. Shuffle or take small side-steps. Some crossings have rope or guy lines. If you feel comfortable with those, grab on and shuffle across.
– If hiking in a group, there may be someone who has a fear of being pulled under. Offer to make an extra trip and carry their pack. The extra weight of a pack while crossing a log or in the water unnerves some people. You can also tie a rope to their waist in case they trip or fall in.
– Cold water. Find a shallow spot. Icy cold water can cause you to lose feeling in your feet and legs and possibly cause debilitating muscle cramps. Cross as quickly as possible. Use a safety line if you are with someone.
– River shoes or water shoes with a thick rubber sole. Some people use waterproof sandals or clogs. Most waterproof hiking boots still allow water in over the top. If your hiking shoes get wet, you are just inviting blisters.
– Trekking or hiking poles provide you with additional stability. Put your hands through the straps in case you drop it.
– If you have convertible hiking pants, unzip the legs and stow them in your pack. If you are wearing cotton, you might want to cross in your tighty-whities or swimming trunks. It’s not great to hike in wet clothes.
– Carabiners, rope or paracord to tie loose items or as a safety line.
These work great and are lightweight: Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – gray, one size and strong paracord – Military 550 Paracord from Our School Spirit – Made in the USA (Black)
– Waterproof gear bags, bear canisters for food and ziploc baggies.
What to do if you fall in:
– In rushing water: If you followed the previous instructions about unbuckling the backpack harnesses before crossing, and it begins to drag you under, roll out of your pack and point your feet downstream to protect your head from rocks and debris. Try to navigate to the creek or river bank and grab on to overhead branches or anything along the bank.
– Once you crawl out of the water, assess your situation. If it is daylight, look for your pack downstream. You may see it washed up on some rocks or caught up in a tree root. Be careful when pulling it out., it would suck to fall back in. If a friend has a carabiner and rope, someone can attach it and pull it out.
– Falling through the ice: If your pack pulls you under, roll out of it. Frog kick and try to propel yourself onto the ice. If you are with someone and still have your hiking poles, extend one so they can pull you out. A rope and a branch can come in handy here too. Once out on the ice, spread your body out to increase the surface area and crawl toward the bank. Don’t stand up until you are at the bank. If you have a change of clothes, it would be a good idea to get some dry ones. Hypothermia is the real enemy now.
Do you have any tips for water crossing based on your experience or something you’ve read? Please share them with us in the comments section.
A great guide for backpackers: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
I like this guide in paperback form, but is also available in Kindle format.
Lastly, a true story and lesson learned from one of my crossings: Hiking on a southern California beach with my wife, we crossed a 10 foot inlet where the Pacific fed a lagoon. Up to our shins, it was easy. On the return leg 4 hours later, the inlet was 60 ft. wide and ultimately up to our shoulders as the tide rushed in to the lagoon. We made it, but it was scary. The salt water also caused a chemical reaction with my magnesium fire stick and almost caught my pack on fire. Whew!
Good, affordable trekking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is for informational use only. There is no guarantee that following the recommendations will protect you from harm. Use common sense when hiking. Most seasoned hikers are not competing for the Darwin Award.
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)
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.
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. 🙂
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
As we prepare for our section hike of the JMT, I am enjoying watching my wife pack, unpack the bear canister. Her frustration mounting, I assure her that it will all fit or we will hang the non-essentials from a tree. Hopefully, by the time we hit Yosemite where bears come to feast, we will have mostly empty bear cans. Whoever created the saying it’s like packing 10 pounds of “stuff” in a 5 pound bag must have invented the bear canister.
The logistics of a section hike in the backcountry are significant. Permits, transportation, food, clothing, checklists, on and on…. Watching her pack, it’s obvious that organized people can get more in their canisters than the rest of us. If you’ve ever crammed a bear canister into an ultralight backpack, you realize that you may be wearing the same clothing all week because it’s either food or clothing.
Keep in mind the pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule. While I agree that we should be good stewards and not leave our trash in the wilderness, it literally stinks to carry your garbage around for a week. I would advise that you rinse out those foil tuna packs after you empty them or your apples will smell like Chicken-of-the-Sea by day three.
Should you pack your bear can with each day’s meals? Like day 5 on the bottom, day 4 above that and so on. I guess if you are OCD then yes. Otherwise, it’s fun finding your food, kind of like the treat in the bottom of a Crackerjack box.
When I got our bear cans, by the way I picked two different types, a Garcia and a Bearvault, I got some reflective tape and made smiley face designs on them. That way, if we need to find a bear can in the dark after Yogi rolls it away, it will be smiling back at us. Along with my phone number, I added a little graffiti like “eat me” and “sorry Yogi” on the reflective tape with a Sharpie. If I have to use those darn things, I will make the best of it.
The old standby canister used by the Park Service: Backpackers’ Cache – Bear Proof Container
BearVault BV500 Bear Proof Container Bear Vault – This one is my favorite, roomy and you can see your stuff.
Always stow your bear canisters between 50-100 ft. away from your tent and wedge them between rocks or trees. Never place them around a cliff or near water unless you plan on fasting for a few days. Enjoy packing them, practice or watch others pack a bear can for cheap entertainment. It’s better than watching Duck Dynasty.
It’s funny how much time you waste piddling around the campsite. By the time we loaded up, it was almost 9 a.m. We had a 7 mile descent ahead. Other than the difficulty of carrying a full load uphill, going down is harder. You tend to slip more and your toes feel like they’re coming out the front of your shoe. The talus was steep and the trail angled, which caused us to compensate by putting more weight on the uphill foot. It was slow going but we were ready to finish this. The focus required to maintain footing was intense. When you think about every step on this terrain being calculated, your brain gets a real workout too.
The volunteer trail crews have done an amazing job out here. On a previous scouting hike of Momyer Creek Trail, I counted no less than 10 blow-downs blocking the trail. By Memorial Day, they had cleared them all. Sometimes, I will make a note on the position of a trail issue and report it back to the ranger station on the way out. The hiking community is tight-knit and are good stewards of the trail. By noon, the exposed areas on the trail were heating up. It was a blessing to go in and out of the forest as the temps would drop 5-10 degrees in the shade.
Toward the end, we started to run into day-hikers and people who seemed to be out for a stroll. As we neared Mill Creek, we heard groups of people and lots of kids. We passed a family heading uphill, their daughter asking us “where the river was?” “River? Oh, you mean Alger Creek, it’s 3.7 miles that-a-way.” I doubt they made it that far as they towed an elderly woman who was inching along. They also had their sodas and snacks in a clear trash bag. Please don’t take me wrong, I don’t mean to make fun of them, it’s the contrast between a few days away from society and being thrust into an urban picnic. We came across another family and after we told them about our 27 mile hike, the daughter asked to take our picture. Of course, we agreed. Wow, we were puffed up now!
We entered Mill Creek Wash and the atmosphere was that of a park, with people gathered around the creek, umbrellas, blankets and picnic supplies. It was too much for us – as in culture shock too much. Civilization smacked us right in the face. What we saw as a simple wash with a creek running through it became a beach front resort to the people of metro San Bernardino.
After getting back to the car, we laughed for a long time about what we just witnessed. Imagine, going into the backcountry for a few days without having time to acclimate to society. We still giggle about it. In the end, our trip to Gorgonio was hard, but great practice for the JMT. Time spent together as a couple was primo. Taking the bear canisters gave Mary an idea what it was like to pack everything (including trash) in a can. One more hike up San Jacinto and we will be ready for one of the best treks in the country.
The scene at Mill Creek showed us one thing – people love to get out and away from the city. Imagine how much more fun it is to venture a few miles out. I encourage you to go higher and farther. Amazing times await you…
Day hiking is definitely a good way to warm up for section hiking. Just like car camping is a good way to warm up for wilderness camping. At least that’s how we approach it.
The first day up Momyer Creek Trail was a challenge. With 3,000 ft. of elevation gain and difficult terrain, we were ready for a quiet night. Our first task after getting camp set up was to get water for dinner and the next day’s trek. I’ve had a Sawyer 2-bag water filtration system for a few years now and it is dependable, albeit a bit bulky for two people. It does require an adequate water source and doesn’t work well in small puddles. The gravity feed from the dirty bag to the clean bag through the filter is slow and takes awhile to filter 6-7 liters.
Dinner consisted of dehydrated meals. Mountain House makes some decent ones that are fairly palatable. We use the portable Pocket Rocket stove with propane-butane fuel. Also found a MSR knockoff stove to use as a backup.
We settled in for the night into our tent as the temperature dropped quickly. After a full day of hiking, it’s amazing how fast you can go to sleep. The first night takes some getting used to, kinda of like sleeping in a strange room or hotel. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. At first, the sound of the helicopter was distant as we heard it pass through nearby canyons. Suddenly, the sound of the blades were overhead, followed by a bright searchlight. I was like, what the heck? I unzipped the door to the tent to see what was going on when the searchlight illuminated me like a Sci-Fi movie where the spaceship beams you up. The pilot announced through his speaker that they were looking for a lost hiker. I shook my head no, and the pilot proceeded a couple of hundred yards uphill where he lit up the camp were the boy scouts were. This continued for about 10 more minutes and then it was gone. That was midnight. The rest of the evening was uneventful. We never did find out who was lost.
Morning was brisk and breakfast consisted of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Crystallized eggs, sounds yucky huh? Actually it is one of the best inventions in a long time when it comes to freeze-dried type food. I don’t know how they do it, but when mixed with water and cooked in a skillet, it is exactly like scrambled eggs. Well, they are eggs. The pre-cooked bacon was also near normal taste and texture. Overall, a tasty breakfast with hot tea. Maybe coffee next time.
Today, we would hike from our base camp at 8,400 ft. to the summit at 11,500. I had Mary drop her main pack and carry a Camelbak hydration pack that I use for mountain biking. I dumped most of the stuff out of my backpack and used it to carry our days’ supplies. We hit the trail and continued through a sub-alpine forest before emerging on the edge of a meadow. Another small stream a mile away provided the last water until our return leg. Crossing above Plummer’s Meadow, we would see the first of many awesome views that day. The switchbacks up to Dollar Lake Saddle junction were steady and steep. This portion of the trail gained about 700 ft. per mile.
At the junction, we ran into a group of boy scouts trying to melt some snow. They had quite the quandary as they did not bring adequate water with them for the summit. It takes a lot of fuel to melt snow and in the end, I believe they failed to make the top that day. Planning, especially water – is everything on this mountain.
As we continued, the elevation ticked off, 9,000, 10,000… No altitude sickness today. It helped that we camped above 8,000 ft. last night to get acclimated. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is nothing to mess with. It could begin with a persistent headache, nausea or dizziness and can affect the healthiest of people. Don’t confuse it with a hangover because the symptoms are the same! For a mild case, often hydrating and a couple of ibuprofen help. For persistent or worse symptoms, the only cure is to descend.
We could see Mt. Baldy on one of the switchbacks and the views only got better. We passed through the last trail camp and the tree-line was around 10,700. Up the next switchback, Mt. San Jacinto came into view. The closest of the Three Sisters, its’ majestic peak stands out as a sentinel to the sprawling desert below. Streaks of snow remain at her higher elevations. The trail intersected with Vivian Creek Trail, the shortest-steepest route to the summit. We began to see more people as the trails converged on the summit like freeway ramps.
There are several false summits along the way. Unless you’ve been there before, each view to a taller hill appears to be the top. It’s only when you see people nestled in the boulders like eagles on their nests do you realize you are there. We would take our pics, write in the journal, text our families and have lunch right there – only feet away from people you’ve never met before. The summit had a celebratory atmosphere to it, with everyone smiling and quietly chatting.
You could see for miles or as far as the L.A. smog would let you see to the west. It actually wasn’t that bad today. Big Bear Lake to the north, the high desert to the east and the Peninsular Mountain chain farther south. By the time we left, there were over 100 people up there. Oh well, it is Memorial Day weekend.
The six-mile trip down was pleasant as we would run in to a few more people making their way up to camp at the top. We did not see anyone else after two miles. The constant downhill was harder on the feet and we took a “foot break” at Dollar Lake Saddle. There was a cool breeze as we aired out our socks. The pounding takes a toll on your arches and toes.
By the time we got to camp, we had logged 12 miles and were ready to eat dinner and crash. After filling up our reservoirs at the creek, we had a spicy Mountain House chili meal. It was actually pretty good and one bag was enough for two people. Well, one hungry dude could probably eat the whole thing. After cleaning up, we nestled into the tent around 8:00 with the intent to relax and read a bit. By 8:30 we were in la-la land.
I would be awakened some time later by a bright light next to my head on the outside of the tent. “What is that?” Mary was like – “huh?” I said “that light, what is it?” The flashlight in my backpack pocket must be on I thought. I unzipped the tent and stepped out into the chilly night air. The full moon in all its’ glory had crested the ridge and lit up our tent like the spotlight from the rescue chopper. We laughed and went back to bed.
The wind picked up a bit that night and made a soothing sound as it passed through the conifers on the exposed ridges. Soothing, but a bit eerie as the pitch would vary. Our campsite was on a downhill slope and not affected by the wind. Eventually, we would drift off only to be awakened by the woodland birds at dawn. Most were pleasant to listen to, except for the woodpecker.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio – A Three Day Journey – Day 3: Talus Is Hard To Walk On.
As part of our workup to a section hike of the John Muir Trail this summer, Mary and I decided to do a 3 day practice hike to the summit of Mt San Gorgonio via the Momyer Creek Trail. The tallest of the Three Sisters (San Antonio, San Jacinto, San Gorgonio) it stands out at 11,503 ft. Southern California isn’t necessarily known for its’ majestic mountains, but these peaks are often used to warm up for longer backcountry trips into the Sierras, especially Mt. Whitney.
It’s always good to check in with the rangers to get the latest on trail conditions. Also, get an update on the water flows at the creeks and streams. The office is often staffed with volunteers who are a wealth of knowledge. Having obtained the backcountry permit several weeks prior at the Mill Creek Ranger station, we arrived at the Momyer Creek Trail parking area around 0900 on what we expected to be a busy Memorial Day weekend. Altitude at the trailhead is approx. 5,450 ft.
This was Mary’s first time out with her new Gregory 60 liter pack, complete with a few days worth of food in a bear canister. While the canisters are not mandatory here, I suggested it to get used to our next backcountry on the JMT where they are required. She has the BearVault 500, and I picked up the Garcia canister. Both are highly rated, and I’ve rented the Garcia type in Yosemite. They are cumbersome and take up a lot of space in the pack, but we just dealt with it. My wife is an amazing hiking partner. She really kicks it on the trail and doesn’t complain a bit.
We began our trek by crossing the Mill Creek Wash, which has two sections of the creek that are fairly easy to cross. The terrain gradually changes from the rocky, sandy wash to a single track laced with chaparral. We passed through several wooded areas before breaking out into the open. You want to hit this section of the trail early because it does get hot by midmorning during spring and summer.
The trail begins a gradual climb (around 400-500ft. per mile) with a few switchbacks and moves in and out of deciduous forests. The acorns from the oak trees are among the largest I’ve ever seen. Due to the weight of our packs, we would stop every mile or two for a break.
The first water source on Momyer is Alger Creek, about 3.8 miles up. We climbed to 7,300 ft. before dropping into the canyon at Alger Creek Camp at 7,000 ft. Prior to the creek, I noticed a brightly colored snake on the switchback below. Knowing that it wasn’t a rattler and not poisonous, I slowly approached it. It didn’t budge, so I gently coaxed it with my trekking pole and it slithered away. Come to find out, it was a California King Snake. The water flow was decent with several cascades nearby. We dropped our packs, pulled our lunches out and enjoyed a break at one of the cascades. Taking our shoes off, we dipped them into the stream and laughed at how cold it was. We would also spend some time doing our couples devotion. It was time well spent.
We noticed a Boy Scout troop pass by. We would see them many more times throughout the weekend. We packed up and began a steep climb out of Alger to the next checkpoint – Dobbs Camp junction. We passed through an area of many fallen trees and a 500 yd. gauntlet of thorn bushes. Long pants are advisable through here.
The trail changed from dirt to decomposed granite and became even more narrow as it passed through areas of talus and scree. We encountered a volunteer trail crew pushing blow-downs off the trail. The trail crew leader politely asked for our permit and I obliged. Once he knew we were frequent hikers, he tried to recruit us. We are thinking about doing some type of volunteer work for the Forest Service, but trail maintenance is tough. 🙂 The one bit of bad news they provided was that the large Boy Scout troop was heading to the camp we were shooting for. Man, I wasn’t looking forward to camping near a bunch of kids, but knew that we could find another site in the forest. It was slow going as we passed Dobbs Camp junction but the views of Little San Gorgonio and Mill Creek Canyon were getting better. Momyer isn’t the most scenic of the trails around here, but is definitely less crowded.
We crossed another trickle of a stream before crossing a larger stream near our destination. It ended up being 300-400 yards before our site. As we neared Saxton Camp, I saw a clearing in the woods downhill. We bushwhacked to the area and found a semi-level location. There were some smaller widow-makers nearby, but the weather forecast was looking good, so it was a risk I was willing to take. We pitched our tent and set up for the night after hiking 6-7 hours. It was a long 7 miles today.
Next: Mount San Gorgonio- A Three Day Journey – Day 2: Lost Hiker!