August 25, 2020

15 Days on the John Muir Trail

On August 7th, 2020, I woke up in San Francisco, drove to Yosemite Valley and set off on foot southbound on the John Muir Trail, intending to hike the length of the trail through to Mt. Whitney. This page describes my journey over the next 15 days and 220 miles, including a handful of journal entries written while on trail, photos taken during the trip, and notes that I wrote after returning home.

Day 1 (8/7): Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley Camp (Mile 4.2)

Stepping onto the trail around 2 PM, this first day didn’t involve many miles of hiking, but it did involve quite a bit of climbing, as well as navigating the crowds on the Mist Trail.

Day 2 (8/8): Little Yosemite Valley Camp to Cathedral Lakes (Mile 17.5)

This stretch involved hiking through multiple miles of dry, burned out forest, as well as about five dry miles prior to arriving at Cathedral Lakes during some light rain and thunder. My energy level varied quite a lot throughout the day as I began to adapt to life on trail.

Day 3 (8/9): Cathedral Lakes to Lyell Fork (Mile 34.4)

6:30 PM - I seem to have left my pen in the car, or at least haven’t seen it since I left there. Typing on my phone isn’t quite the same but it’ll do for now. I’m finding myself with a few free minutes as I need to baby-sit my dinner while it rehydrated to protect it from bears. I’m still yet to run into a bear personally.

Today was a great day on trail - I covered about 17 miles and am at about mile 34 from start. I hiked from Cathedral Lake to Tuolomne Meadows, through Lyell Canyon and up just about 1000 feet of elevation shy of Donahue Pass.

The first two days weren’t so many miles, but I found them quite challenging. Although I’ve had this trip in mind for a few years now, the actual planning of it happened on quite short notice. After getting laid off earlier this year I wasn’t sure whether it would happen, and that’s before even getting into all of the rest of the new complexities affecting everyone as of late.

Between all of that, a slightly heavier set of gear than would be ideal, along with many other factors that I’m not sure I could fully tease out if I tried (although doing so is exactly the sort of shadow work that I really should dive into), I found myself quite tired at Cathedral Lake yesterday and I was not feeling particularly confident that I was physically for spiritually prepared for this journey.

Today, I felt better. I think a few of my struggles may have been attributable to other typical challenges associated with backpacking, such as getting in enough to eat and drink during the day and adjusting to the altitude.

It was also yesterday afternoon that I realized that after Red’s Meadow, there really is no easy way off trail for me for over 120 miles and a ride to Independence, so if I’m going to continue I’d better be damn sure I’m prepared. I know that’s a decision for another day, but in this moment I feel quite well. Okay, time for dinner!

Day 4 (8/10): Lyell Fork to Rosalie Lake (Mile 50.7)

Today was the first day that I ran into storms significant enough that they impacted by travel plans. Coming into the canyon before the climb up to Rosalie Lake, there was a thunderstorm significant enough that I hid out for about 15 minutes sitting beneath the trees in the forest. Prior to this, I'd been very focused on the walking, and of the mind that if I just kept pushing, I could get to where I wanted to be. The storm didn't last long and never overwhelmed, but it served as a gentle reminder that our futures depend in many ways on things outside our control. After sheltering for a short while and recognizing that the thunder strikes were becoming more distant I continued on. I was happy to run into and befriend a couple of other folks headed in the same direction that evening and chat for a while over dinner and lakeside fishing, which was much appreciated after not only minimal conversation on trail so far, but also a far lower than normal level of social interaction all spring and summer due to the pandemic.

Day 5 (8/11): Rosalie Lake through Red’s Meadow to Deer Creek (mile 65)

My original itinerary called for getting a ride to Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence from the Onion Valley Campground on the 23rd, 7 miles down a side trail near mile 180. Hiking faster than originally anticipated, on this day I outlined a new itinerary that had me moving that date up to the 21st.

7:33 PM - Overall I am still feeling about as well as I think I could reasonably expect to after five days on the trail. The trail itself is incredible, which definitely helps. I’m quite happy with the pace that I’ve been able to keep, and I think based on the new itinerary I’ve just outlined that I should be able to move my motel pickup date up two days.

I’ll be fully confident in that change if I make Marie Lake as scheduled, since those are the longest two days that I have planned.

The logistics around this are a bit tricky - I want to make sure there’s a room for me, while also opting for distances that are at least somewhat challenging but not overwhelmingly so, while also hitting as many amazing campsites as possible. With this trail, that last piece may not be too difficult to pull off since it has so much to offer. It’s been incredible passing through this beautiful country in the daytime and spending each night aside pristine lakes and creeks.

Day 6 (8/12): Deer Creek to creek south of Silver Pass (mile 84.3)

By late morning on this day I arrived at Purple Lake, and just past midday at Lake Virginia. Arriving there to a pristine lake with both the sun and moon in the sky, I felt myself drawn toward its shores. Swimming in those clearest of waters, feeling the warmth of the sun as I sat on its shores, everything in my world melted away into waves of gratitude and feelings of clarity. Time slowed as a slight breeze slowly grew into a more powerful wind before slowly fading back to a perfect calm and I was filled with a remembrance of the ineffable infinite that would carry me through the heat of the rest of the day.

Heading down from Lake Virginia into and back out of a canyon and over Silver Pass, the skies were really clear for miles back and I was able to clearly see the mountains that had been just behind Thousand Island Lakes in the distance. Being able to clearly see where you've been in this way is something that I always appreciate - a physical manifestation of a past memory still vividly accessible as part of the present moment.

Day 7 (8/13): Creek south of Silver Pass to Marie Lake (101.1)

With Marie Lake quite a ways down trail, I’d initially thought I might camp near the Bear Creek crossing a few miles and a good bit of climbing prior, but I arrived there fairly early in the afternoon and was able to press on without much issue.

Day 8 (8/14): Marie Lake through Muir Trail Ranch to Piute Creek (mile 111.6)

Muir Trail Ranch marks the halfway point of the trail. It was also my second resupply point. Still having a day or so’s worth of food upon arriving here, I realized that if I were to keep a similar pace from here to the end of the trail, I might be able to skip my third resupply in Independence entirely and skip a side trip off trail and into town. Not having had cell service since near Red’s Meadow, and having heard that there might not be much if any until Whitney, I decided to pay the MTR folks to use their laptop and send an e-mail to the Mt Williamson Motel, cancelling my reservation. Skipping this side trip would mean 110 miles without resupply and completing the entire JMT without any nights off trail.

Day 9 (8/15): Piute Creek to Evolution Lake (mile 124.2)

3:56 PM - Am currently hiding out in my Skyscape Scout at evolution Lake during a loud thunderstorm. Fully exposed at over 11000’, this is definitely the most I’ve ever asked from the little guy. All is well so far, although it is not particularly windy out here at the moment. Hopefully this passes soon.

Prior to the storm, today had been a fairly straightforward 13 mile hike, albeit one with quite a lot of climbing, beginning alongside a creek just a few miles past Muir Trail Ranch.

I still feel mostly good about my plan to skip the side trip to Independence and go straight through to Whitney within 8 days, although I’ll feel better about it once this storm passes!

4:13 PM - Last ten minutes very frightening, I could see a nearby lightning bolt strike from through my tent, nearby enough that image seemed to come simultaneously with extremely loud thunder that I felt throughout every part of my body.

4:39 - Still raining a bit but storm seems to have mostly passed. Sleeping bad is a bit damp as didn’t manage to maintain clearance between gear and lower right tent wall. I think I want to get one of the more expensive lightweight, freestanding tents and avoid this issue going forward. This tent has its nice aspects, but it’s definitely not the best shelter from the storm. Also want to be very careful re: storms the rest of the way. This one was a bit too close for comfort. It’s a hard problem though, some of these exposed sections are quite long and the storms can come on quickly.

Day 10 (8/16): Evolution Lake to Palisade Creek (mile 143.2)

Day 11 (8/17): Palisade Creek to Lake Marjorie (mile 159.5)

5:17 PM - Currently camped out at Lake Marjorie, waiting out what is so far and will hopefully continue to be a minor rainstorm. Today we started at a campsite near Palisade Creek, climbed up and over Mather Pass, down back into the forest, and back up another 1100’ - about 4400’ of climbing in total, which I think is the most of any day so far.

We woke up at 5 AM this morning to get an early start going over the pass in an attempt to avoid storms. It looked like one was brewing when we went over, but all was clear when we arrived at the top, and a well earned break taking in the view was much appreciated.

Avoiding storms both in general and especially when going over the passes is starting to become a recurring theme.

My body continues to hold up more or well well with the weak point continuing to be my feet, which are constantly sore from the repeated impact and often erupting with new blisters.

The current plan is to hike 16 miles to Rae Lakes tomorrow and then take a much needed break the next day, do some swimming, probably wash clothes, and then head about six miles to a bit beyond Glen Pass, which will bring the average over the next two days down to a more comfortable 12 before camping near Guitar Lake and gunning for Whitney.

Day 12 (8/18): Lake Marjorie to Rae Lakes (mile 175)

As many other days on this trek, by the final miles and climb I was quite tired. The skies were grey, again, but arriving at these lakes that I'd been looking forward to visiting for a couple of years now was incredible. I instantly recognized the shapes of the hills just to the south from so many photos, those images soon replaced in my mind's eye with something far grander.

Day 13 (8/19): Rae Lakes to stream north of Forrester Pass (mile 185.5)

6:36 AM - Hikes yesterday from Lake Marjorie to Rae Lakes, starting the day with Mather Pass and ending with another long climb from the suspension bridge at Paradise Valley Junction. The last couple of valleys haven’t had as much of a floor as the earlier ones, instead simply dropping down steadily to the riverbed before immediately climbing back up. The trail has gotten rockier as well; these two things in combination have meant that the trail has gotten a bit more difficult than it was in earlier days.

We’ve also been hit by thunderstorms for at least a short while for each of the past four days, with the weather changing rapidly and skies gray for many hours with thunder threatening.

There seems to be at least somewhat of a pattern to the storms, in that they typically begin to form in the late morning, and then the afternoon and evening is anyone’s guess but often involving more storms.

In an attempt to avoid these, we’ve been waking up at 5 AM the last couple of days to try and make it over the passes without getting caught out in rain and lightning. This has mostly worked (although there was a bit of rain threatening on Muir Pass even at about 10:30 AM a couple of days ago), but it’s been somewhat of a drag on spirits facing the threat of storms all day long after waking up early and in the dark to rush over the passes.

Throughout this, we’ve been considering whether we’d complete the second half (from MTR) in seven days or eight. I’d had the idea that it might be nice to take a near zero day after camping at Rae Lakes to swim, enjoy the sun, wash clothes, etc. This would have meant an eight rather than seven day section. Unfortunately, this seems like less of a good idea in light of the daily thunderstorms, and that the prudent thing to do is instead to again leave at least by mid-morning to head over Glen Pass, despite its not being a particularly long climb.

So, with sunny midday hangouts and a late afternoon start seeming impractical, more time on trail seeming less appealing due to the daily storms, and out being only thirty miles from Guitar Lake, this brought the idea of getting to Whitney Portal in three days back to the table. Of course, this would have been quite challenging since it would have meant two additional long-is days on top of the several in a row we’ve just had leading immediately up to an early start for the final day on Whitney.

After inspecting the remaining route more closely, I’m realizing that in order to accomplish this we’d actually need to climb not only Glen Pass this morning, but also Forrester Pass in the afternoon, which is quite high at over 13,000’, not ideal to attempt in the afternoon due to storms, and also 14.5 miles from here, and so probably requiring another 17-18 mile day before having descended enough beyond it to find a comfortable place to camp. All of that combined with simply not wanting another early morning wake up has made answering the original question quite easy at this point: we’ll be taking eight days to finish the section and sixteen to complete the trail in total. I’m looking forward to a bit of physical recovery as a result of the shorter next three days, hopefully leading to a better day on Whitney.

7:07 PM - Made it to a tentrite fairly high up along the canyon wall. At 11.3 miles, this was a relatively short day, but the weather once again was uninspirigin, with a bit of rain atop Glen Pass, and light showers off and on the rest of the day with thunder in the distance. Fortunately, things seem relatively clear at the moment. We’re camping in a slightly tight, off kilter spot as there are a few other groups in the area. The trail quickly dried out after climbing away from Bubbs Creek; fortunately after climbing a ways there turned out to be a perfect little brook in ah high alpine meadow at around 11,200’.

Tomorrow we’re planning on 12.5 miles to Wallace Creek, which will leave us just 7.1 miles from the Whitney summit.

Day 14 (8/20): North of Forrester Pass to Guitar Lake (mile 205.8)

Forrester Pass turned out to be a fairly straightforward climb, and the terrain beyond it much gentler than a lot of the last few dozen miles. As mentioned in the previous day’s entry, our plan had been to split the section from last night’s camp to Guitar Lake into two days, as 19.5 miles in a single day (the longest of the entire trip!) immediately before a 3:30 AM wake-up to get up, over and down Mt. Whitney sounded very aggressive, and so instead we’d to 12.5 miles to Wallace Creek before a short 7 to Guitar Lake the next day. At the same time, we were running a bit light on food, having to ration snacks, etc. somewhat, growing a bit tired of the constant storms and simply weary generally, so getting off a day earlier if possible sounded attractive. Arriving at Wallace Creek fairly early, hiking the 12.5 miles in about 5 hours, we pushed to Guitar Lake after all, setting ourselves up for a seven day second half and fifteen day total.

Day 15 (8/21): Guitar Lake to Mt. Whitney Summit (mile 210.4) to Whitney Portal (~11 more miles)