John Muir Trail
Ice & Fire: a wee wander on the John Muir Trail in two acts
I don’t recall the impetus for wanting to backpack the John Muir Trail (JMT). I’m guessing that it had to do with my love of the outdoors, going on an occasional backpacking trip, and naming my first son Muir. I do recall that my interest started to climb a couple of years ago as I realized that my younger son, Aras, might favorably mature by taking such a trip, as well as realizing that I wasn’t getting any younger.
Shortly after I started to ponder such a trip and the various logistics, I realized that my nephew, Vladas, might enjoy the trip. I mentioned this idea to my sister-in-law while we were traveling in Alaska and she thought that it was a good idea to consider. Shortly thereafter, Vladas was on board.
A few weeks later in September 2016, I mentioned to that first son, Muir, that I was looking to take Aras and Vladas on the JMT in the summer of 2017. Ten minutes later, Muir surprised me and said that he wanted to go, along with his (then) girlfriend. So, the logistics quickly magnified!
The fall and winter of 2016/2017 were spent studying and planning. Permits for five were obtained from Yosemite National Park in January, 2017 for a southbound adventure. The winter of 2016/2017 was one of the snowiest on record in the Sierra Nevada mountains and I was always monitoring the Sierra snowpack. We made a “go” decision in late spring 2017, knowing that snow would be an issue. The combination of everyone’s schedules allowed us a window from late June to the end of July. The permit that we received in the lottery was for a 25 June 2017 start, which seemed early given the historic Sierra snows (200% of average). But, we were unable to obtain a permit in the lottery for any later.
There was a lot of food dehydrating and vacuum sealing occurring during Spring 2017, as well as picking up additional gear from REI and eBay. The overwhelming snowfall the winter before meant that our hoped for first resupply at Tuolumne Meadows wouldn’t be available; we needed to make it to Reds Meadow to resupply. Buckets of food were shipped in June 2017.
We all flew to Fresno and the next day missed our bus to Yosemite Valley. Quick-thinking Muir found us an Uber to the Valley that was cheaper (I don’t know how the Uber driver made any substantial money). We picked up our permits and heard the warnings about bears and snow. Our last night in civilization was at Happy Isles campground.
On 25 June 2017 we made our start on the trail. After a few pictures, we were slogging the long, steep grade up Nevada Falls. We had to pack food for more than a week on the trail before our first resupply as well as gear that we’d need in the snow. All of this considerations lead to some heavy backpacks. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that my pack was in the range of 55-60 pounds and Vladas’ pack was likely heavier (but, he’s a much bigger and younger than me). Muir, Aras and the former girlfriend were likely carrying forty pounds or so. The first day to Little Yosemite Valley and beyond to Clouds Rest Junction were extremely difficult, especially for our first day at altitude. When we sighted a bear at Clouds Rest Junction, that was a good sign to enjoy our first stop. (Note: The geolocations I link here roughly came from my GPS.)
The second day, Aras, Vladas and the former girlfriend backtracked and summited Half Dome. This lead to a noon start on the trail. We first ran into snow when we reached an altitude of about 8500’, which was about ten miles into the trip. At that point the snow was instantly about four feet deep, when we could see bare soil/rock. From that point on, the trip was difficult. We were all tired from slipping and sliding, route finding (couldn’t see the trail under the snow) and navigating around tree wells (snow melted around trees to create “holes”). Our goal had been to make it to Sunrise to camp, but we ended up a mile or so short when we stopped about 8:00 pm. It was a rough night as we didn’t eat well and there wasn’t much water where we camped on a bald knoll.
We slept in the third morning which caused another late start (~10:00 am) and spent most of the day slipping on the snow and route finding. There was beautiful scenery but the hiking was brutal. Vladas postholed deep late in the afternoon and it took twenty minutes to extricate him. The goal was to make it to Tuolumne Meadows, but we were well short when we decided to stop near Cathedral Lakes.
We had a good discussion that evening and realized that we were in over our heads given the conditions. Our trail pace was much slower than we’d hoped and we’d likely run out of food before we made it to Reds Meadow (if we made it, since we still had a few thousand feet more to climb over some passes). While we were likely hiking at a rate of about ten miles/day, our trail mileage was maybe half that with all of the walking around the tree wells. And, we still weren’t hiking over the higher passes where the snow would be even worse. We decided to bail out at Tuolumne Meadows and figure out next steps from there.
The end of that trip was bittersweet. We “failed” on the trip that we had hoped to make and for which we’d planned so hard. But, we were safe and humbled. We spent a couple of weeks bumming around the Sierras and San Francisco as our “backup” plan.
Not completing a goal like this – especially one where you’ve invested so much time and effort in planning and training – sticks in your craw. In the early fall of 2017, I told my wife that I’d like to try the JMT again and she was agreeable. When I told Aras that I wanted to make a second attempt, his response was on the order of “UGH!” But, we planned the trip, carefully, for the two of us during the winter of 2017/2018, starting from Tuolumne Meadows (where we’d ended). Again because of schedules, we had a similar window for going on the JMT. Unfortunately, we were not able to win a permit in the lottery to backpack the traditional JMT over Donohue Pass. But, we scored a permit to leave Yosemite over Parker/Koip Pass. The other good news is that the Sierra snowpack during the winter of 2017/2018 was about 20% of normal!
We took a bit more time to acclimate this time around by spending a couple of nights in Mammoth. We also significantly reduced our pack weights. I’m guessing that Aras started at less than 25 lbs and I was just under 30 lbs (better planning and paring, and less snow gear). We also started a few days later than the year before – 29 June.
We enjoyed one last civilized snack at Tuolumne Meadows and hitched our way to a late morning start at the Parker/Mono Pass Trailhead. The trail to Parker Pass was smooth and gently sloped. But, I thought that I’d lose Aras as we climbed the side of Parker Peak to get to Koip Pass – the altitude and effort got to him that first day (but, never again!). When we topped out on Koip Pass and could see Alger Lakes, we were pretty excited! We set up camp near Alger Lakes in the waning light, later than we wanted, but very satisfied with our first day’s effort.
The second day started with frost and quickly warmed. The hike to the JMT from Alger Lakes was longer than I calculated, which was not encouraging. We made it to Thousand Island Lake for a late lunch and over to very crowded Garnet Lake for the night. (Day3) Our first resupply was at Reds Meadow the next day, but it was a slightly smoky hike there. The food at Reds was quite welcome as well as the shower.
It was on the second day that Aras and I had our favorite discovery of the whole trip – Rona & Jason, Oscar and Ron. I’m an introvert, so thinking of interacting with other people is not something that was on my radar when I was planning our JMT trips. We met many nice, wonderful, interesting people on the trip who made it fun. But, meeting Rona, Oscar and Ron on the trail late on the second day was the best thing that happened to us for many reasons. It turns out that Rona is originally a Midwesterner and went to college right here at the University of Wisconsin – Madison! And, her son, Oscar, is the same age as Aras, and they became fast friends on the trail. “Ron” is a very sweet Korean woman who surprised me with her strength and stamina. But, for most of the rest of the trip, we camped and ate together, cajoled each other and enjoyed each other’s company. Rona traded out with her husband, Jason, about half way through the trek, and I certainly appreciated Jason’s company, especially when I needed a break from Aras.
(Day4) The smoke from the Lions Fire near Reds Meadow the next morning still obscured our views but didn’t affect our breathing. We made it to Purple Lake for the night. I had hoped that we might make it Lake Virginia, as I’d heard it was beautiful, but a late start from Reds nixed that goal, and the smoke from the Lions Fire made for a hazy view at Lake Virginia as we found out the next day. (Day5) Tully Hole was as mosquito infested as reported. The trail over Silver Pass was spectacular – one of my favorites! The ferry to Vermilion Valley Resort was waiting to leave when Rona & I arrived at Lake Thomas Edison. Vermilion Valley Resort was a wonderful stop. We enjoyed the food and especially enjoyed the company. Sitting around the bonfire there and listening to Pacific Crest Trail hikers tell their stories was wonderful.
(Day 6) Leaving VVR on the Fourth of July was tough – a bit of civility and comfort is difficult to let go. But, we slogged on in a bit of heat and made it to the west side of Bear Creek. (Day7) Marie Lake and the north side of Selden Pass were as spectacular as Silver Pass. When Aras & Oscar reached Sallie Keyes Lake, they decided it was a good time to jump in! At Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) we had to hustle to resupply (our last!) our bear canisters before MTR closed for the evening. Rona headed home the next morning and Jason started with fresh legs and a heavy load. Video: Aras jumping into Sallie Keyes Lake
(Day8) After some searching we found John Muir Rock the next day. Our first night with Jason was at beautiful, but mosquito-filled, McClure Meadows, and supper on a boulder in the middle of Evolution Creek. (Day9) Next up was a beautiful hike around Evolution Lakes and then into the rocky alpine zones above before topping out on Muir Pass and its stone hut, before camping along the Middle Fork of the Kings River. (Day10) The following day had an easy morning but a warm afternoon climbing up Palisade Valley. At lunch, I slipped into Paradise Creek and dropped my water bottle and our primary water filter into the raging stream. I quickly decided that it was best to let them go and not chase them; fortune had it that an eddy brought them back to me! Oscar lead us up the Golden Staircase to the most beautiful campsite of our trip with a view over the valley.
(Day11) The next morning was tough for me with the long slow climb to Mather Pass. The afternoon was mostly downhill with a last climb to another beautiful campsite at an unnamed lake just below Lake Marjorie. Near the Bench Lake Range Station, we started to hear that there was a forest fire near our planned exit at Whitney Portal that might cause us to change our plans. That evening we lost our knife between the boulders in the lake while trying to wash it – whoops! (Day12) It was an overcast morning climbing Pinchot Pass and beyond that gave way to nice camping weather at Arrowhead Lake. (Day13) Our brief time in the vicinity of Rae Lakes was overcast and the steep climb over Glen Pass may have been the most difficult for me. That night was spent at one of our higher campsites in the upper reaches of the Bubbs Creek Valley. (Day14) The next morning was a long, slow slog (for me) to get over Forrester Pass. The weather descending Forrester was overcast and cool and I worried about lightning as well as the mild rain. But, the cooler day was a blessing as I was able to hike more easily. We made it to Crabtree Meadows after a sixteen-mile day – our longest day of the trip! This is also where we collected our wag bags!!
As our trip was winding down we were talking of when and how to summit Mt. Whitney. We’d been worried about the possible difficulties of exiting at Whitney Portal because of the nearby fire and maybe needing to hike further south to Cottonwood. Fortunately, Whitney Portal opened a day or two before we arrived. We thought about camping high on Mount Muir at the Trail Crest site, but we would need to take lots of water with us. But, the benefit would have been arising early for a pre-dawn hike to enjoy sunrise on Mt. Whitney.
(Day15) In the end, we decided to get an earlier than usual start and hope to summit Mt. Whitney by noon or so, which we did (actually, a bit after noon). There was no real view on Mt. Whitney as it was socked in by the clouds, but we certainly enjoyed our accomplishment. I cried a bit when I was up there, happy and proud of our accomplishment, especially over two seasons. After a long, slippery and tough-on-the-knees downhill hike, we made it Whitney Portal about 5:00 pm. Of course, Aras and Oscar were waiting on me – Slow Poke – as usual. I was too tired to really eat much of anything and about as sore as I’d ever been. Our last day was about 4000 feet up, 7000 feet down and 19 miles. That night, we enjoyed our first real immersion into civilization in more than two weeks at a hotel in Lone Pine, along with a nice, hot shower!
In Act II we hiked about 200 miles over the fifteen days. This was one of the most meaningful and difficult accomplishments of my life, at least over a couple of weeks. I’d do it again, but I’d take my wife with me. As I write this now, five months later, I’ve regained most of the weight that I lost and I reminisce many times every day about this grand adventure – the ups and downs, and the wonderful people, especially Aras!
I wish that I’d lost some weight prior to the trip. I was in generally good shape except I was carrying a few more pounds than I wish. The heat on the trail wasn’t that great, but the exertion and intense sun left me drenched in sweat. As often as I could I was wetting my shirt and hat to help me cool. I was the slowest person in our group which lead Aras to give me the trail nickname of Slow Poke.
I’m glad we pared our packweight between the two trips. It would have been a slower, more difficult trip carrying ten to twenty more pounds in Act II.
I’m glad that we went earlier in the season as the trail was relatively clean. I’ve heard stories about folks who went later in the season and found more human trail scat than they appreciated.
I heard about Rock Tape a couple of weeks before we left for Act II and it was wonderful! I highly recommend it for managing blisters and raw spots on feet and fingers.
I hope that you enjoy your own backpacking trips, whether on the JMT or elsewhere. These kind of trips are wonderful for cleansing the soul and humbling us in these modern times.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” ~~ John Muir
Lastly, here’s slidewho of about 300 photographs from along the trail – enjoy! You’ll likely enjoy it more if you view full screen.