USA: Basking in the breathtaking beauty of the “Range of Light”; Trekking the John Muir Trail (Sept 16 to Oct 7, 2017)

A short 3 weeks after returning from our amazing road trip through Mexico and the western US (see previous posts), I rejoined Mathieu in Cassis, France, a lovely small city on the Mediterranean coast where he’d started a new job. I spent a wonderful summer with him and his family then flew back to the US for a 3-month visit to spend time with my family and friends, and to hike the John Muir Trail.

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 210-mi (338-km) trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains (“Range of Light”) that passes through the backcountry and wilderness areas of Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. Most of the trail lies above 8,000 ft (2400 m), with about a third of it lying above 10,000 ft (3000 m). Awesome! The majority of the JMT overlaps with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that extends from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. I’d hiked various sections of the JMT during previous backpacking trips throughout the Sierra with my brother, Jabal, and now wanted to take it on it one shot.       

In late April 2017, I messaged my friend Carrie, telling her I planned to hike the JMT that September and inviting her to join me. We met in 2015 in Ushuaia, Argentina, and had trekked together several times (see previous posts) so I knew she was an experienced trekker and would be a great trail partner. Exactly 51 minutes later, she responded “yes!” I almost fell off my chair! I knew she’d be willing but the chances she’d be able (due to work/life commitments) seemed slim. She’d just completed trekking the majority of the 2,200-mi (3500-km) Appalachian Trail in the eastern US and was in the process of moving from Washington State to Minnesota but apparently the timing was perfect. So, not only was she willing but she was able. And, it turned out that the JMT was on her bucket list. Perfect!

We planned our trek while I was on my road trip and she was in the midst of moving across the US. Then on September 13, I picked her up from the San Francisco airport. After spending 3 days at my parents’ house sorting and double checking our gear, it was time to hit the trail. With Carrie and I in Genevieve (my 4Runner) and Jabal in his car, we drove from San Francisco to Silver Lake (about 15 minutes south of Mono Lake, California). We’d been unable to get a permit to start the trek in Yosemite National Park, the northern terminus of the JMT, but were easily able to get a permit to join the JMT about 40 trail-miles south of Yosemite via the Rush Creek trailhead.  

After a fun but chilly night of camping at Silver Lake, Carrie and I said farewell to Jabal, who drove back to SF. He had planned to join us for the first 9 days of the trek but had to cancel due to work. However, since the logistics of our food resupply during the trek and transport after the trek had been elaborately planned based on him joining us, he generously offered to shuttle us from where we parked my truck at our second resupply stop to the starting trailhead. He would then meet us again in 9 days to bring us our first resupply of food. He’s an awesome brother!  

After a picture at the trailhead, Carrie and I started the trek. On Day 1, we hiked almost 10 mi (16 km) up the eastern side of the Sierra to join the JMT at 1,000 Island Lake. I was pleasantly surprised at how strong I felt hiking up the steep trail with my fully loaded pack. In addition to the usual backpacking gear (i. e., tent, sleeping bag, stove, warm clothes, rain gear, etc…), we were each also loaded with 9 days of food stuffed (mostly) into a bear canister, a 3.3-lbs thick plastic container required to be carried for food storage along this and most other trails in the Sierra. It was a bummer to carry the additional weight but along with keeping bears uninterested in human food (and toothpaste), and therefore out of trouble, it also saved our food from scavenging rodents and served as a camp chair. Bonus.  

Over the next 23 days, we trekked through the stunning alpine landscapes of the Sierra:  glacial-cut valleys, fast-flowing creeks and rivers, thick forest, lush meadows, crystal-clear lakes, and giant, jagged, snow-covered mountains. Each day, we got up around 7am, trekked from about 8am to 5pm, stopping every few hours to eat and/or to bask in the scenery, then found a campsite, cooked dinner, and crawled into our tents around 7:30pm or whenever it became too dark and/or cold to do anything else. Despite every day on the trail being similar, every day was truly wonderful. Really. Even on nights when I didn’t sleep well (due to the cold), I woke up every morning happy to be in the mountains. And while I want to keep this post short (finally!) and let the pictures do the talking, a few of the days were different from the others:

On the morning of Day 6, I woke up to what I thought was the sound of rain and with the roof of my tent almost touching my face. I opened the rain fly and discovered it was snowing! We went to sleep under a clear, star-filled sky and woke up in a beautiful winter wonderland partially buried under 6-8 in (15-20 cm) of snow. Wow! We waiting for the snow to stop then packed up and trekked on. Tricked by a warming period of blue sky and sun as we hiked, we decided to camp that night just below Selden Pass. Being at about 10,000 ft, we knew it would be cold but for some reason we hadn’t thought about the snowy weather returning. By 4:30pm, the clouds had swallowed the sun and there was a brutally cold wind coming off the mountains. We shared Carrie’s tent that night, hoping our combined body heat would keep us warmer. We climbed in the tent around 5:30pm and stayed there. We cooked dinner under the tent’s vestibule then laid in our sleeping bags making jokes about what they’d say when they found our frozen bodies. Ha! While we were well prepared for the cold, on this night, and a few others, even sleeping in my thermals, down jacket, rain pants, rain jacket, gloves, and beanie and swaddled tightly in my zero-degree down sleeping bag, I still had shivered. And despite being wrapped in a plastic bag under the foot of my sleeping bag all night, my hiking shoes were still frozen solid the next morning. I had to thaw them in the sun for a few hours before I could even untie the laces. Brrr!!

On Day 9 we met Jabal at the North Lake Campground to resupply our food. Our resupply required us to leave the JMT and hike 17 mi (27 km) over Piute Pass (11,423 ft; 3482 m) then down the eastern side of the Sierra to the campground, then back up the next day. We could have opted to resupply on the JMT by mailing the food to one of the few outposts along the trail for pickup or paying a service to deliver the food to us via mule but we decided to go with the much-cheaper DIY (do-it-yourself) approach. What’s a few more miles. Ha! And we got to hang out with Jabal for a few hours, chatting about our trek and eating the delicious snacks he’d brought us (chips and salsa!). After he left to drive back to SF, we spent the afternoon basking in the sun, preparing our newly-arrived food for the next 8-day section of the trek, and relaxing.

On Day 13 we enjoyed our first rest day. After all the miles we’d done to this point, my back and legs were finally sore. And after having hiked over the splendid Muir Pass (11,955 ft; 3656 m), my favorite of the 10 passes we hiked over during the trek, the day before, it felt great to lay around our creekside campsite, nap like lizards on a boulder in the sun, read, journal, clean and repair ourselves and our gear and to… NOT strap our packs on.

On Day 17 it was again time to leave the JMT to resuppy. This time we only had to hike 6 mi (10 km) over Kearsarge Pass (11,709 ft; 3569 m) then down the eastern side of the Sierra to the Onion Valley Campground where we’d parked my truck and stashed our resupply food in the bear lockers at the campground 18 days prior. That night, we drove down the mountain to Independence for a good meal, something we’d been fantasizing about. Unfortunately, the two restaurants in the tiny town were closed so we ended up eating bowls of chili and drinking beer at the gas station/casino at the edge of town. It was not exactly what we’d been dreaming about but the beer was good, the wifi was strong, and we were warm while we ate and drank. The next morning, after a leisurely morning in the sun preparing our newly-acquired food for the final 6-day section, we started the trek back up to the JMT.    

On Day 20 we enjoyed our second and final rest day. This time tho, instead of relaxing at camp all day, we did a nice 7-mi day hike. Hiking with just a bottle of water and snacks, I felt like I was hiking in zero gravity and almost floating along the trail. It was a fun day of effortless exploring.    

On Day 22 we summited Mount Whitney, the southern terminus of the JMT. And at 14,505 ft (4421 m), the highest peak in the lower 48 US states. Thankfully the smoke from a distant wildfire that had filled the valley the day before had dissipated overnight and we summited the peak under a clear sunny sky. This was my third time on Mt Whitney but was equally rewarding. We enjoyed the magnificent views along with our fellow trekkers then started the long, steep descent to Whitney Portal Campground and the end of our trek.

On the way down, we talked a lot about what we’d eat when we got to town later that day. The topic of food had become increasingly dominant in our conversations over the past two weeks. At times, it took all of my self control not to devour my next day’s ration. Despite our dreams of real food, we were both a bit sad at the thought of the trek being over so decided to camp one more night on the trail. We wanted one more night to breath in the fresh air and contemplate our journey.   

On Day 23 we hiked the last 4 mi (6 km) of the trek. We enjoyed a delicious celebratory beer from the small campground store then hitched a ride down the hill to Lone Pine. To our delight, we arrived just before the start of an annual parade celebrating the town’s fame as a movie location for old Westerns. We had a beer at Jake’s Saloon and watched the small-town parade. It was great.  

About an hour later, our friend Candice and her mom, Linda, arrived. Candice had offered to drive about 4-hours from the Los Angeles area to shuttle us back to my truck and to camp with us for the night. Long-time friends Carrie and Candice had been traveling together (along with their friend Don) when I met the trio in Argentina. I hadn’t seen her since our two-day adventure hitchhiking from Bariloche to Buenos Aires (Argentina) so it was great to see her again! And it was wonderful to meet her super cute, energetic mom. They brought us delicious food and snacks including beautiful fresh fruit and veggies that tasted amazing after 23 days of eating dried foods. We sat around the fire at the Onion Valley Campground, eating well, sipping the bottle of sake they’d also brought, and sharing stories. It was a wonderful end to our JMT adventure.

The next day, we returned to my parents house where they fed us tons of delicious food (all plant-based). We (or maybe just me) ate heartily. After all, we had to regain some of the weight  lost on the trail. Ha! Carrie left several days later and I spent the next few days laying in my warm bed watching movies and sifting through the hundreds of pictures I’d taken, savoring the many memories.

In total, Carrie and I trekked about 250 mi (402 km), hiked over ten mountain passes above 10,000 ft (3048 m), going over two of them twice, and summited Mount Whitney. We didn’t see any bears but we did see fresh bear poop! We also heard coyotes and saw bald eagles, deer, trout in the many lakes, lots of lizards, lots of fuzzy little critters, including marmots, chipmunks, and squirrels (a few of whom chewed through my snack food bag and chewed the straps of my trekking poles), and one very photogenic pika.

Along with critters, we also shared the trail with other hikers. But, while the few sections of the trail close to facilities were a bit crowded, on most days we crossed only a few hikers, mostly other JMTers and a few PCTers. All of the PCTers we met had been forced to skip this high Sierra section of the trail that June due to very high snow levels and had returned to complete the 2,659-mi (4279 km) PCT. It was cool hearing about their adventures during their 5 to 6-month epic trek.

We also had pretty good weather most of the trek. While it was damn cold, with daytime highs in the 50s-60s and nighttime lows at or near freezing, and we were snowed on twice, it didn’t rain. And when the sun was shining, it felt glorious, and provided just enough warmth for a very quick bath in an icy lake (which only happened three times during the entire trek. Ha!)  

For me, trekking the JMT was an opportunity to be fully immersed in my favorite type of landscape everyday for 23 days. It was a magical experience. As John Muir, the environmentalist after which the trail is named, said “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” So true John, so true. And sharing this experience with my wonderful friend Carrie made it even more memorable. I look forward to our next hiking adventure together. Maybe the PCT? Hmmm……

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album of pictures and videos:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/1PRvN7r9COZS9i6W2 

Enjoy!                  

[Next post:  Motorcycling around the French island of Corsica. Stay tuned.]

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Day 1, let’s do this!

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Snow day!

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One of many stunning glacial-cut valleys we trekked through.

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Evolution Valley, one of my favorite areas. Amazing!

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Carrie pumping water on the way to Piute Pass. What an amazing water stop!

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Lunch on the trail.

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One of our many beautiful campsites along the trail.

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Being devoured by the “man-eating rock” in LeConte Canyon.

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Happy to be at Muir Pass, one of my favorite passes. Stunning!

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The photogenic pika.

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Enjoying the view from Mt Whitney (14,505 ft), the highest mountain in the lower 48 states and the official southern terminus of the JMT.

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