Nov 04

Back to the JMT: North Lake South Lake “Evolution Loop”

Roaring waterfalls, swollen streams, sketchy snow bridges, fat marmots, green meadows, acres of snow fields, frozen lakes and everywhere you looked, a colorful array of wildflowers!  That pretty much sums ups my trek back to the JMT last July.  So if you are short on time just skip the text and scroll through the pics.  But if you have time (and the interest) for the back story, what follows is the setting and an overview of each day.

SETTING

Last year (summer of 2016) I had intended to hike the entire John Muir Trail (JMT) with a couple of friends.  The JMT is a 220 mile trail in the Sierra’s.  This is a short trail by through-hiker standards but it is epic when it comes to beauty.  About half way through our trip (mile 116) a member of our party sustained an injury so we hiked out and did not finish.  You can find that story and the pics to go with it here:   http://www.trailrunningpastor.com/category/john-muir-trail/  This year my goal was to go back and finish the trail.  The plan was for me to start the trek with my friend Sarah and her friend Rachel.  They had permits for the North Lake, South Lake Loop (also known as Evolution Loop).  On day six they were going to head home over Bishop Pass and I was going to continue down the JMT until I finished at Whitney.  I was hoping to finish the entire piece in about 12 days but I packed food for 13 days just in case.  I also packed my micro-spikes as I expected snow in the passes.   I should have looked at things a little more closely and prepared a little differently as it was a 200% snow pack year.  Let’s just say I could have used a little winter experience training despite it being July.  With all of my gear and food my pack weighed in at 46 lbs–never again!  If you are reading this and planning a trip of your own, pack food for 7 days and spend the extra time hiking out at Kearsarge to resupply your food or pay a mule pack to bring it to you.  My pack was way too heavy, especially considering the conditions and my size!

DAY ONE: NORTH LAKE TO LOWER GOLDEN TROUT LAKE

Having dropped my car at Whitney Portal the day before and Rachel’s car at South Lake, we drove Sarah’s car to our trailhead–North Lake.  The weather was perfect but it became apparent quite quickly that the trail conditions would be very different this year.  There was water everywhere!  We had packed water sandals for stream crossings but the stream crossings were too numerous to count and often the trail was under water.  So we saved our water sandals to wear as dry footwear at camp and hiked through all the stream crossings in our trail shoes.  I was concerned that having wet feet all day would lead to blisters but I didn’t have any problems with my feet the entire time I was out there.

One of the first of “too numerous to count” water crossings.

 It is five miles from North Lake to Piute Pass.  About half way up we encountered our first patch of snow so I put on my spikes.  The section was still icy and my spikes would not bite so I ended up sliding down a short section.  I was not injured but it was a wake-up call that perhaps I was not as prepared as I needed to be.

The summit was beautiful and after taking a break we hiked down 3-4 miles to our first camping spot not far from Lower Golden Trout Lake.  There were very few people in this section so we had our camp and a small stream all to ourselves.  We set up camp and soaked in the icy cold snow melt.

My tent! Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

DAY TWO: LOWER GOLDEN TROUT LAKE TO JMT

The next day we continued our trek to the JMT.  Water and wildflowers were in abundance.  We found it safer to do the deeper stream crossings by hiking farther upstream and crossing over the tributaries which were more narrow.

The rushing streams brought to mind the lyrics of an old Rich Mullins song, “and the streams were all swollen with winter, winter unfrozen free to run away now…”

We also came across evidence of how violent the winter storms had been as we climbed over fields of dead trees which had been snapped at their base by snow and rock avalanches.

The trail followed along the Piute which roared beside us and at one point disappeared under an epic snow bridge.

The picture doesn’t do this snow bridge justice–it was huge! The trees around it are at least 20 -30 feet tall!

The last mile of the trail was very technical and exhausting.  As we came around a corner a hiker met us going the other way.  After greeting him he asked if this was the way to get the mail.  At first it sounded ridiculous and then I realized he was looking for Muir Trail Ranch (a place where you can mail a resupply of food and pick it up while hiking).  Not only was he nowhere near it, he was on the wrong trail.  We escorted him back down the trail and I overheard him murmuring something about not being able to read the map and people telling him the wrong directions and being lost the last four days.  Once we connected with the JMT we sent him the right direction to MTR which was 3 miles away.  It was crazy to think someone would be out in the wilderness without proper navigation and without researching the route.

We crossed the bridge over the Piute and found a beautiful place to camp.  We quickly set up, bathed, ate dinner and, since we were under 10,000 feet and had a fire permit, we lit a campfire.  The cool thing was the previous campers had already gathered the wood and set it up.  All we had to do was light it.  A little trail magic!

Look close and you will see my little orange tent on the left. I like how it provides perspective to the size of the trees and breadth of the water.

DAY THREE: PIUTE BRIDGE TO MC CLURE MEADOW

This day was nostalgic as I had hiked the opening miles the previous year before doubling back and hiking out when my friend became injured.  I didn’t mind hiking it again though as it was stunning!  It was a relatively easy day as the trail followed the San Joaquin River for a couple of miles, crossing back over it on a bridge to the only real switchbacks of the day.

The switchbacks climbed along the side of Evolution Falls which roared past.  It became the perfect lunch spot.

 

About a mile past the Falls was the Evolution Creek crossing which, due to the snow run off was considered very dangerous this year.  Last year when we crossed here it was at mid-thigh height.  This year it would have been up to our neck so we hiked up river to a safer alternative crossing which was mellow with water just below our waist.

Rachel looking out at the regular crossing of Evolution Creek. It was chest to neck deep in the middle so we hiked up to the alternate crossing.

After another 1.5 miles we made it to McClure Meadows which was peaceful and serene.  It was only 2pm so we set up camp and had time to do our laundry and bathe.

My laundry log! 🙂

 

 At McClure Meadow we had some strange encounters with deer.  Apparently they were salt deprived and were attracted to the salt in our urine.  So when nature called so did the deer.  Honestly it was a bit unnerving as they seemed a bit impatient imposing on our privacy.  So be deer aware in deer country!  We ended the night with a campfire.

DAY 4: MCCLURE MEADOW TO SAPPHIRE LAKE

The hike through the remainder of Evolution Valley was stunning–especially the climb up to Evolution Lake!  WOW!  Words fail to express how beautiful it was!  Imagine a green carpet with numerous gently flowing streams all edged with a colorful array of wildflowers.

 

While eating lunch at Evolution Lake a group of five young men passed by with heavy backpacks filled with camera gear.  Apparently they were filming a documentary.  We watched for a while as a couple of them took turns diving off a cliff into ice cold (literally) Evolution Lake.  Their screams when they came up out of the water made it very clear the water was more than refreshing!  CRAZY!

As we rounded Evolution Lake we began to encounter large snow patches.

Our plan that day was to hike to Wanda Lake so we could be closer to Muir Pass in the morning.  But when we got to Sapphire Lake we found it still partially frozen (in the third week of July!).  We were also confronted with a huge snow field which would stay with us until the other side of Muir Pass.

We found one of the last snow free spots at Sapphire and set up camp.  A little while later a dad, his college age son and a young guy from the Mt Baldy area came up the trail.  Seeing the snow field ahead they decided to stop as well and became our neighbors.  It was nice to have company so we invited them to have dinner with us and from here on banded together as one big group.

That night was pretty cold.  Fires were prohibited in this section due to our elevation.  It was the only night during the trip when I slept in my wools and puffy’s.

DAY FIVE: SAPPHIRE LAKE TO PETE’S MEADOW

We waited long enough in the morning for the ice on the snow to melt and then we began the trek up and over Muir Pass which required traversing seven miles of snow!  It was beautiful!  The footpath took us though an expanse of sun cups and meandered along the edge of frozen lakes all while climbing to almost 13,000 feet..

Occasionally we scrambled over boulders and crossed fast-moving streams.  To avoid sunburn we did our best to cover our skin with clothing and slathered sunscreen on our face, neck and inside our nostrils.  That probably seems strange but the glare from the sun off the snow can come up and burn the inside of your nostrils–a situation we were all eager to avoid!

Rachel doing her best to keep her skin out of the sun!

I wore my micro-spikes which I had used before but never in conditions like this.  As long as I stayed in the boot path I was okay.  About half way up I stepped off the boot path and into a sun cup and fell.  I was not injured but my trekking pole had wedged into a rock buried in the snow and it broke.  I was shocked.  I had no idea a pole could break so easily.  In a normal year (aka not a 200% snow pack year) a broken pole would not be that big of a deal.  But since I was a novice in snow travel and I needed both poles for stream crossings I knew I was in trouble.

We finally made it to the Muir Hut at the top of the pass where we ate lunch.

Hanging out inside the Hut

 While there we tried to splint my pole using the broken piece, the long tube from my lighter, duct tape and zip ties but it would not hold.  Sarah and Rachel had far more experience on snow than I did so they took turns letting me use one of their poles.  Dell, the dad we had met the day before, worked with me on how to dig my heel into the snow which helped tremendously.  But now the snow was getting soft and mushy and holes were suddenly appearing revealing buried rocks and trees–a perfect place to break an ankle.

Sarah stayed with me on the steeper descents.  As we readied ourselves to go down the steepest one of the day we watched four trail runners come zipping past us.  They were wearing running gear and had day packs.  We were surprised to see them.  It turns out there is an elite running group in the Bishop area and they were running in one day what was taking us a week to backpack!  They were agile like mountain goats and floated down the descent, sometimes in a controlled slide.  It was amazing to watch and I was humbled!  Once they went past I slowly made my way down.  There was a sketchy spot with a menacing hole where I fell and accidentally did my first ever glissade (butt slide) down the hill.  Thanks to the soft snow I was able to dig in, stop and traverse back to the trail.

Eventually we made it out of the snow and alongside some beautiful streams while passing the rock monster.  That night we camped at Pete’s Meadow.

 

A little silliness on the trail. 🙂

Along the way we crossed a fast moving swollen stream and I tried to take it with just one pole but got stuck.  Rachel tossed me her pole and as I finally got myself out I realized I had a decision to make.  If I continued on to Whitney I would have four more passes higher than Muir Pass to cross plus swollen streams.  If I borrowed one of my friends poles it would leave them without a pole and in these conditions there was no way I was going to do that.  My left knee was swollen as the tendonitis I had been nursing all spring had flared up.  In the late afternoons my knee often felt like it could give out completely.  I also knew I did not have the winter skills I needed for the conditions.  I realized if I continued I would be a liability to myself and others so that evening I made the choice to hike out early at Bishop Pass.  I also committed to finding a winter skills course so I could get more training and return on another day to finish the JMT.

DAY SIX: PETE”S MEADOW TO DUSY BASIN

In the morning I let the others know of my decision to hike out.  The cool thing was Rachel had an open schedule and she had winter skills so we swapped permits and she continued on to Whitney and I headed out with Sarah toward the junction to Bishop Pass.  Our first couple of miles were flat with one unnerving snow bridge which we crossed carefully.  At the junction we began a very steep climb up to Dusy Basin.  The view was amazing and the waterfall was spectacular.

Dusy Basin was insanely beautiful!  The snow had just melted out and the meadows were a dazzling green with small streams meandering slowly as they made their way to the lake.  Everywhere you looked wildflowers were bursting forth in brilliant colors.  It was like walking through a resort but none of it manmade; all of it crafted by the hand of God.  We found a beautiful camp site and called it a day.

 

 

DAY SEVEN: DUSY BASIN TO SOUTH LAKE

The sunrise at our private little resort of Dusy Basin was peaceful and soothing to the soul.

We were on the trail by 8am with 1,000 feet to climb to the top of Bishop Pass which measures in at 11,980 feet.

Top of Bishop Pass.

The entire hike out was beautiful but then that was how this entire trip had been.  Thankfully the snow going over the pass was not too bad and the switchbacks were snow free.  There is no way I would ever want to do those switchbacks in snow!

Sarah looking back on some very steep switchbacks we had just descended. It is difficult to see them in the pic but they wound down the center outcrop of rock before skirting the snow.

 

Our feet stayed wet the entire day with continuous stream crossings.  One of the crossings was sketchy as we balanced on rocks that moved as we pushed off them.

 

We were very grateful we did not have to cross this snow bridge!

As we neared the end a storm was blowing in (the only one we encountered the entire week) and we raced it to the car.  We won, but barely.  As soon as we closed the door the rain began to fall but, other than our feet, we were dry.  And while we were tired we felt especially blessed for having spent a week in paradise.

Aug 29

Southbound on the John Muir Trail (JMT)

DSC00201

So it’s taken me a few weeks to put this together, not because I haven’t been excited to tell people about the trip. If we grabbed coffee I could monopolize the conversation by talking about the trip the entire time. My delay has more to do with accurately capturing the experience. Just as pictures don’t often do justice to what our eyes see, so also it is hard to capture what truly is the most beautiful place I have ever been with words. So what follows is a simple write-up with pics that give a general idea of the immense, unspoiled beauty of the John Muir Trail. And if by chance you like hiking I would say, “Go see it for yourself!” (By the way, you might want to read this on a computer as the pics look far better on a bigger screen than they do on a mobile device—just a thought!)

 

Hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) became a bucket list for me a few years ago so when my friend Amber asked if I would like to join her and her daughter Hannah and hike it this summer I jumped at the opportunity. We spent 10 months prepping for the trip as all three of us were green when it came to backpacking. Soon we were researching gear, attending REI Garage Sales, dehydrating our own food, taking a map and compass class, training with weight on our backs and incorporating some local overnight backpacking trips. I learned so much in preparation for the trip and thoroughly enjoyed the process.

 

For those who are not aware the JMT is ranked as one of the most beautiful trails in the US and the world. The trail begins in Yosemite Valley and ends on top of Mt Whitney—209 miles. Of course, you have to get down from Mt Whitney which adds another 11 miles bringing the total to 220 miles. Our plan was to tackle it in 17 days with a side-trip to Half Dome thrown in for an extra 4 miles.

 

Day 1: Happy Isle to Little Yosemite Valley—Mile 4

Our permit required us to stay in Little Yosemite Valley on the first night which meant we only hiked four miles the first day. Considering started, it was hot, there was a lot of elevation and we were getting accustomed to carrying a full pack, we were fine with the low mileage. The hike was gorgeous with great views of the falls. After we set up camp we spent the afternoon swimming in the river where a snake joined us—no joke, a snake swam right up to us! Crazy! Such a fun afternoon!

DSC00116

This is where we were swimming when a snake came swimming up to us. Never had that happen before!

DSC00108

DSC00128

DSC00127

Day 2: Little Yosemite Valley to Sunrise Camp—Mile 13.2 (plus a side trip of 4 miles to Half Dome)

We were on the trail by 7am and hiked 2 miles up to the Half Dome Junction where we detoured and hiked the 2 miles to Half Dome. We ditched our backpacks before the climbing got rough and took just the bare necessities up to the summit. It was beautiful and nice to be up there before the masses that would be coming later from the valley floor. After backtracking to the JMT we headed out to Sunrise passing through a really sad burn section in the heat of the day which we all agreed was “soul sucking”. We climbed most of Cathedral pass before calling it a day at Sunrise.

DSC00135

Half Dome! The little specks are people climbing up the cables.

DSC00139

A little yoga session on the top of Half Dome!

IMG_8390

Beautiful day with beautiful friends!

IMG_8523

The view going down the cables! The little specks down there are people!

IMG_8543

We called this the “soul sucking” section”. So sad to see it burned. Hiking it in the middle of the day in the heat made it worse.

Day 3: Sunrise to Vogelsang Trail Junction—Mile 29.4

What an amazingly beautiful day! We had some climbing and a technical downhill, but most of the day was spent hiking across flat and fast meadows filled with wildflowers, chipmunks, streams and lakes. Late in the morning we picked up our first re-supply in Tuolumne and filled our bear canisters with food. What didn’t fit in the canisters we gave to a group of teenage boys from the east coast who were more than happy to make extra space in their gear and pockets for our left over Snickers bars, etc. We headed back out to the JMT but we did not get far before the river began calling us. So we ditched our packs in favor of going for a swim. Eventually we finished up our day by camping at a great spot in view of the water where we encountered quite a few deer and a fawn. We fell asleep to the sound of the river in the background—so soothing!

IMG_8400

DSC00150

We stopped to swim here–so refreshing! Water was pretty cold!

DSC00157

DSC00154

One of my favorite pics! We camped about 100 feet from here. So beautiful!

IMG_8294

Look close and you will see the fawn hiding in the bush.

Day 4: Vogelsang Trail Junction to Thousand Island Lake—Mile 43

The first couple of miles were flat and beautiful as we followed the river. Then the trail began to ascend and we climbed Donahue Pass. It was our first big pass at over 11,000 feet and it was tough but it was also stunning! Imagine rushing streams, pools of water, green meadows, wildflowers, huge vistas, reflective lakes, jagged peaks… So beautiful! We popped over Island Pass as well and camped at Thousand Island Lake.

DSC00171

Another one of my favorite pics!

DSC00172

DSC00178

Meadow near the top of Donahue Pass.

DSC00180

Water crossing! 🙂

DSC00182

DSC00198

Evening shot of Thousand Island Lake…

DSC00206

First light shot of Thousand Island Lake…

 

DSC00214

Sunrise shot of Thousand Island Lake. I love how the colors changed between the three pics!

 

Day 5: Thousand Island lake to Red’s Meadow—Mile 59

Another amazing day filled with lakes and rushing streams! But what was really cool was we had reservations for a cabin at Red’s Meadow which meant we had a hot shower and a bed!

IMG_8460

Such a cool reflection!

Garnett Lake...what I love about this shot is, if you look close, the patchy reflectiveness in the water. I did not notice this until I looked at the pic later.

Garnett Lake. If you look closely you will see a patchy reflectiveness in the water. I did not notice this until I looked at the pic later.

DSC00218

DSC00220

 

Day 6: Red’s Meadow to McGee Pass Junction—Mile 76.8

We started with a relatively easy climb and quick pace and ended up startling a small bear which took off running the opposite direction on the trail in front of us. He was FAST! We were not sure if he was a cub so we slowed down just in case mama was around. We had planned on camping at Virginia Lake but it was too windy. We dropped down the other side and found a perfect camp site near water and without mosquitoes! Once again we fell asleep to the sound of a rushing stream.

 

IMG_8403

DSC00225

IMG_8393

Virginia Lake

Day 7: McGee Pass Junction to Verillion Valley Ranch Ferry Boat Launch—Mile 88

We had thought it was going to be an easy day but we quickly learned there are no easy days on the JMT. We climbed up Silver Pass and then made the trek down a hard, exposed and at times treacherous descent to the trail which would take us to the ferry boat launch which would deposit us at Vermillion Valley Ranch where we had made reservations to stay the night. Our philosophy was to take every opportunity we had to get a real bed and a shower! The ranch put me in an RV so I had the “Rambler” all to myself!

DSC00241

Small waterfall next to one of the crazy steep down hills.

DSC00244

The Rambler! My lodging for the night when we stayed at Vermillion. According to their staff it is one of the most coveted places on the ranch to stay. Lol!

 

DSC00243

My view from the Rambler!

Day 8: Vermillion Valley Ranch to Bear Creek—Mile 98

The ferry to get back across the trail didn’t leave until 9am so wanting to leave earlier we decided on a different route and took a car shuttle to what we thought was going to be the Bear Ridge Trailhead. However, we had misunderstood and had not researched the details and we ended up on the Bear Creek Trailhead. This trail led us to the JMT but it was three miles longer than we had planned which was a bit of a bummer. Hiking along the creek was beautiful and while most of it was pleasant there were some brutal climbs. Bear Creek was one of a couple of stream crossing where you had to get wet—there was no dry way to get across. We plunged into the water and then found a place to camp. It was the one night when we had a lot of mosquitoes so it was an early to the tent kind of night.

DSC00248

Bear Creek. The water in all of the lakes and streams was so clear you could see every rock and fish.

Day 9: Bear Creek to Muir Trail Ranch—Mile 107

If climbing a pass could be considered easy then climbing Seldon Pass would fit that description.  It  was also stunning as we passed through beautiful meadows with gurgling streams, clear mountain lakes, wildflowers, pine and fir trees. The only rough piece was the cut-off trail we took to Muir Trail Ranch where, you guessed it, we had a bed, shower, HOT SPRINGS and an amazing home cooked meal cooked by a gourmet chef waiting for us. Prime rib, veggies, black beans, salad, homemade bread with roasted garlic, dessert—it was awesome! As was soaking in the hot spring!

DSC00251

Marie Lake

DSC00239

IMG_8547

I LOVED this section! It was one of the few flat parts we encountered.

DSC00254

Cabins at Muir Trail Ranch. They may not look like much but they were luxurious compared to our tents.

DSC00258

Picking up our resupply. Hikers mail home depot buckets filled with food to this ranch and pick it up when they come through so they have food for the next section of their hike.

Hot Spring

HOT SPRINGS!!!

 

 

Day 10: Muir Trail Ranch to above Evolution Falls—Mile 117

The cook at MTR made breakfast in the morning as well (yay for not having to eat oatmeal again!)! We picked up our second resupply and my packed topped out at 43 lbs—way more than the 30lbs I was hoping to carry! We had a beautiful, fairly easy day hiking along the San Joaquin River. Eventually we crawled up a steep climb which brought us to Evolution Falls which, of course, was amazing! We crossed Evolution Creek up above the falls and found a camp site about a mile up the trail. It was at this point that we realized how bad the blisters were on one of our teammates feet. We had all had a couple of blisters but she had about 15 of them and they were raw and not healing. The next part of our trip would be taking us into some very remote country where getting medical treatment would be very difficult. An infection in your feet in the backcountry is a bad idea. Rather than chance it we decided the best thing to do would be to hike out and cut the trip short.

DSC00268

DSC00274

Evolution Falls

Day 11: Evolution Falls back to Muir Trail Ranch and then one mile toward Florence Lake

We had our only thunderstorm in the morning which we waited out in our tents. Then we headed back to MTR where we were able to get an email out to Amber’s husband that we were going to need a ride home. We hiked one more mile toward Florence Lake before setting up camp.

 

Day 12: Florence Lake

Our alarms went off at 4:30am and you have never seen a group of women move so fast. When we were focused on finishing the JMT we were fine with the whole camping, no shower thing. But as soon as we knew we were leaving early we were all about packing up and getting out and back to our real beds and showers. We hiked four miles to Florence Lake where we waited for a small ferry to come pick us up. Once we arrived on the other side of the lake we simply hung out while talking to a cool family from France and waited for our ride home. The ride home was long (8 hours) and a little concerning. The first 26 miles was on a single lane road, with sheer drop-offs and traffic going both ways! Glad I was not driving! Of course we had to make two stops on the way home. One for Mexican food and one for Starbucks! 🙂

IMG_8375

Waiting for the ferry to pick us up.

IMG_8371

Looking back at where we have come.

So we didn’t finish the JMT but it was the right decision.   The trail will always be there and being healthy and safe is first priority. What we saw and experienced in the first half was absolutely incredible!!! It was an amazing trip and I will be going back so watch for part two of the JMT post in the summer of 2017!

IMG_8404

They served me well! La Sportiva Bushidos!