Tuesday, October 13, 2009

John Muir Trail

I was lucky enough to spend 8 days with Riley (and 2 and a bit days with my dad) on the John Muir Trail just a few weeks ago. Riley and I did the North Lake - South Lake loop outside of Bishop. Here's the story and some photos.

Day 1:
The 3 of us leave from the trailhead at North Lake after spending the night sleeping out in below-freezing temperatures. Our route for the day takes us up and over Piute Pass into Humphreys Basin, passing Loch Leven, Piute Lake, and several smaller lakes along the way.

Our first view of Humphreys Basin and Summit Lake

After reaching Piute Pass and descending slightly into Humphreys Basin, we follow a recommended old trail and spend some time going cross-country before reaching Upper Golden Trout Lake. We are hoping that this will not be a well-visited lake, and we are wholly wrong. The shore is practically crawling with other people, and it takes us quite a while to find a halfway-suitable campsite.

Mt. Humphreys late in the afternoon

Day 2:
Our plan for today is to keep our camp at Upper Golden Trout Lake, explore some more of Humphreys Basin, and do some routefinding for the next day. We get to poke around Muriel Lake, the Wahoo Lakes, and Goethe Lake, the latter of which is well-guarded by gigantic boulders that necessitate some nimble scrambling and rock-hopping. Fun as that is, it is unfortunate as those boulders form a big section of our desired route for day 3.

We want to skip Piute Canyon and most of Evolution Valley by making our way over Alpine Col or the Keyhole and dropping straight into Darwin Bench and Evolution Basin, as this will give us a couple days of not moving camp and more time to explore beyond the immediate vicinity of the trail. The exposure of the approach to Alpine Col and the unknown terrain beyond gives us pause and leads us to the decision to go the long way 'round and not risk our necks.

One of the Wahoo Lakes

Unnamed lake guarding Muriel Peak; Alpine Col is around the right side of the peak

Back at camp after a tumble each and copious swearing thereafter, we enjoy another freeze-dried dinner and some chocolate, preparation for tomorrow's long(er) hike. We've managed to hike quite a bit today, just scrambling around and whatnot, and everybody's beat.

Morning dew in Humphreys Basin

Day 3:
We awake to another glorious morning in Humphreys Basin, do the photo thing while the light is good, and eat some oatmeal. Today is going to be the biggest mileage day of the trip at a modest 11 miles. You see, there's an ulterior motive...I'm packing a massive digital camera and 4 lenses, plus a tripod and all the associated goodies. And I'm the one with the light gear. Riley's got a 4x5 film camera, and while the camera itself is light, the requisite 100 sheets of film, 6 film holders, portable film changing tent are not. And he's got his tripod. And associated goodies. By virtue of lugging all this stuff around, we're adamant to not miss any opportunities, and we've vowed to maintain a pace that supports that attitude.

So while our decision to favor self-preservation and skip the cross-country-loose-granite-divide-crossing has put more miles on our platter, we're happy to see the scenery, and as it turns out, we would have done ourselves a massive disservice by skipping the next two days worth of terrain. We part ways with my dad after breakfast; he's spending another 3 days in Humphreys Basin and exiting where we started at North Lake.

Riley and I hike over the edge of Humphreys Basin and into Piute Canyon; The Pinnacles dominate our forward view as we descend back into the treeline. We've got Piute Creek alongside the trail the whole way, and after Hutchinson Meadow, the canyon walls steepen and the creek gets angrier. Thoroughly impressed by the bottom half of Piute Canyon, we finally join the John Muir Trail and turn left to make our approach to Evolution Valley. Now hiking upstream along the South Fork of the San Joaquin, we pitch camp riverside in Aspen Meadow as dusk falls.

Day 4:
Awake early to photograph the river in good light, we cook a poor version of huevos rancheros in the Jetboil (sorry, Jetboil, but it had to be done) and pack up.

S Fork San Joaquin at Aspen Meadow

S Fork San Joaquin at Aspen Meadow

Where Goddard Canyon and Evolution Valley meet, we turn left and make the climb up into Evolution. It's a fairly short climb and doesn't hurt too bad, even though we're still carrying a lot of food. The waterfalls along the way, however, are worth every bit of hurt as Evolution Creek goes cascading down into the San Joaquin.

Evolution Creek

We pass through Evolution Meadow after making a deepish creek crossing, then continue on to McClure Meadow, which is nearly beyond comprehension in its beauty: wide open and grassy with a meandering creek, it's framed on the upstream side by 12- and 13-thousand foot peaks. After chatting to a couple in McClure for a bit, we push on to Colby Meadow, which is the only reason that McClure is nearly beyond comprehension in its beauty; Colby has it beat! Coincidentally, Colby Meadow is just across the Glacier Divide from our first camp in Humphreys.

The Hermit reflected in Evolution Creek

Evolution Creek at Colby Meadow

Today's hike being much shorter than yesterday's, we've got the afternoon to spend napping in the sun, taking photos, and being generally awestruck by the views. Gleefully running back and forth between meadow and creek, we eventually watch the light die over Mt. Mendel, Mt. Darwin, and The Hermit before we cook dinner, make a fire in our little firepit, and call it a night.

Twilight in Colby Meadow (photo: Riley)

Day 5:
Mentally refreshed by the unbridled beauty we watched as it evolved the evening prior, we are eager to climb out of Evolution Valley and into Evolution Basin, one of the more revered sections of the entire 215-mile Muir Trail. As we make the climb, we pass the point at which we would have joined the trail if we'd popped over Alpine Col and realize just how much we would have missed if we'd gone that way. No regrets.

Riley overlooks the entirety of Evolution Lake

Evolution Lake is our first visit in the Basin, and it's quite long. And scenic. By this point in the trip, I've found myself without words so many times that I coin a word (well, not entirely...thanks, Google) to encompass the grunts I utter when my synapses reach sensory overload: semi-syllabic. And as we leave the shores of Evolution Lake for a few stairsteps up to Sapphire Lake, my semi-syllabatricity (take that, Google) reaches new heights.

Headwaters of Evolution Creek, split and rejoined

Riley prepares to photograph Sapphire Lake and Mt. Huxley

Mt. Huxley behind Sapphire Lake

It's clear as we approach Sapphire that this is a special place. We've already spent the morning walking 100 yards, stopping for half an hour for photos and video, then repeating the process, and we can tell it's only going to get worse.

Planning to pass Sapphire and camp at Wanda Lake, last big lake in Evolution Basin, we stay on course until we pass The Campsite. Like, seriously. A couple minutes up the trail, we convince ourselves that no matter what the view is like at Wanda, we want that campsite, perched high above Sapphire with Mt. Huxley as our campmate.

The view above Sapphire Lake

Evening reflections on Sapphire Lake

A very short day of hiking in the books, we once again have an entire afternoon to overload those synapses. We spend hours watching the light change on the lake and on Mt. Huxley with Mts. Haeckel and Wallace in the background.

Golden light on Mt. Huxley

Dusk at Sapphire Lake

Not a bad campsite (photo: Riley)

We've now settled into a nice routine of waiting 'til good photo light goes away, then quickly making dinner and tea to keep us warm. The sun has set a bit earlier than normal on us tonight as we're shoved up against the east side of a little peak, so it's a two cuppa tea night!

Twilight for Mt. Mendel and Mt. Darwin

Day 6:
As soon as we make our way to Wanda Lake, it's clear that we made the right choice for a campsite the night before. It's no slouch, but it's not got the vistas we were treated to. It's beautiful water, is flush with frogs, and has the austere Goddard Divide as a backdrop. And the water's cold. Yes, we swam, at 11 and a half thousand feet, in late September. You only live once.

Wanda Lake, just before Muir Pass

Saluting Goddard Divide (photo: Riley)

We cook lunch at Muir Pass, the second-highest point we'll reach on the trip and just a few feet behind Bishop Pass. The Sierra Club built a hut on the pass in the 1930s to shelter hikers during inclement weather...very cool construction.

The John Muir Hut atop Muir Pass

Group portrait; last view of Evolution Basin

We say goodbye to Evolution Basin. And then we drop off the other side of Muir Pass. Semi-syllabic again. Damn.

East from Muir Pass and overlooking Helen Lake

Barren and wasteland spring easily to mind, but that's not fair. There's too much personality by virtue of tortuous glaciation to revert to those words. And as we leave that upper basin and drop off the shoulder of the Black Divide into LeConte Canyon, the waterways spring to life and push all thoughts of barren-ness away.

Hidden headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings

LeConte Canyon is just stupid in its grandeur. And we're eminently glad that we're descending through it instead of climbing it...it's steep and long, and our packs are still heavy. The headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings do amazing things as they tumble down the jagged canyon walls, and we're beyond words. Determined to make it to Big Pete Meadow, we pass a campsite in the shadow of Black Giant that I will return to someday: it features its own meadow, lake, and waterfall.

Safely camped in Big Pete, we see our first mosquitoes of the trip while pumping water, but we scare them away from our campsite with a roaring fire as we gorge ourselves on some surplus food.

Day 7:
The trip tangibly nearing its end with every meal that we remove from our packs, we're prepared for the climb up into Dusy Basin. After we pass Little Pete Meadow and leave LeConte for good, we're treated to increasingly good views of the Black Divide. This is a biggish climb, but it's broken up into two parts, so it doesn't seem too bad. The Dusy Branch ain't bad to look at, either.

Wispy fall on the Dusy Branch

Along the Dusy Branch

Looking down into LeConte Canyon

The Black Divide above LeConte Canyon

A tiny corner of the Dusy Branch

As we approach 10000' and one of our many creek crossings, I surprise a garter snake in the dust near the creek. And this garter snake, while decently-sized, is doing something I've never seen a snake do...it's eating a trout. Disappearing under a rock with his meal(s), the snake doesn't want to be bothered, but we can't resist. I'm ready for the photo as Riley engages him in a game of tug-of-war.

Riley does battle with the snake

We knock out the last little climb into Dusy Basin and find ourselves a sweet campsite on a little island in the unnamed lake. Again finding ourselves with a few hours until sundown, we snack and nap in a sunny spot sheltered from the cold high-altitude wind and wait for the light to become favorable for photos. I end up covering a lot of ground near sunset and get to see the other lakes in Dusy Basin while Riley sticks closer to camp with the 4x5.

We're also treated to the first moon we've seen since Humphreys Basin as it's been in it's new phase; a nice bonus for the evening. We're camped close to Bishop Pass at about 11500', so it gets cold quickly after dark, but we've got another hot meal in us to make it tolerable.

Last light in Dusy Basin

Moonset in Dusy

Day 8:
Well, it's here. The last day. We've got a decent amount of ground to cover, attaining Bishop Pass and making the long descent into South Lake. Up early, we break camp after a Clif Bar brekky and a few photos.

Dawn approaches Mt. Agassiz and Mount Winchell in Dusy Basin

We make quick work of Bishop Pass and, unfortunately for the scenery, but fortunately for our desire to make Reno before the end of the day, it's not that pretty going down the other side. We're at South Lake at something like 11am...not bad for a couple of tired kids! We've already run shuttle, so Riley only has to catch a quick ride from the day-use parking area down to where he's parked, and we're off. Of course, we stop at Schat's Bakery and the famous Mobil Station, but we make good time as we make our tortuous return to civilization.

All said and done, we only covered about 64 or 65 miles in 8 days, but that was entirely by design. We kept a pace that would have driven all but the most patient of monks to the brink of lunacy, but it was perfect for our goal of experiencing this country for all its worth. And 88 GB of photos and videos later, I'm glad to be able to share a few with you.

This is country that I feel spectacularly lucky to have witnessed (before winter hit, too), and it's worth it if you can make it there yourself someday. Finding myself beyond words at every turn of the trail, I'd be remiss to throw any more words at it now. If my words and photos aren't adequate, it's because it's a place that's simply that hard to do any justice.

Past Detritus