A key aspect I’ve highlighted (part 3) about hiking alone on the John Muir Trail (JMT), or traveling alone in general, is that you are not really alone. You end up meeting new friends at places you camp or major stopping points like Red’s Meadow, Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR), and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). You may end up hiking with them or see them multiple times over the course of your hike, forming trail families (tramilies). When traveling, you end up at hostels where everyone shares your attitude of explore the city or town so it’s easy to make new friends and explore together.
While that social component is very much present on the JMT, there is still plenty of solitude you will experience at part of your hike. This solitude for many of us gives us the opportunity to reflect and gain that aspect of self awareness that we may not have the chance or time to do in our busy and noise everyday lives. Nothing like the sound of your feet crunching the trail mixed in with nature’s soundtrack of rushing water and singing birds to allow you to get lost in your own mind. It can also literally get you lost on the trail when you are so in the zone that you miss trail markers, which may have happened in an early part of this trip. Solitude is a huge part why I hike and I’d say a beneficial quality of hiking. With the uncertainty of my career during this later portion of my graduate studentship, solitude and reflection was something I looked forward to. This is also why I don’t typically listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and music when I go out for a hike and I’d recommend that everyone start off hiking without those either.
However, feeling lonely is also common as a solo hiker with so many more days on the JMT and other thru-hikes than a typical backpacking trip. Even though I looked forward to the solitude of are part of this hike, I also reached that point of loneliness. For me, this is part of the reason I can never see myself doing any of the long distance thru-hikes such as the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and Appalachian Trail (AT). Of course, the point that we feel lonely and the aspect of how each of us deal with it is different. Commonly, this is where the audiobooks, music, and podcasts are a welcome distraction.
My solution these past 7 years is, of course, Meg. This was the first hiking-centric or backpacking trip I had taken in a long time without her due to circumstances out of our control. That unpleasant loneliness served as a reminder of what is truly important in my life. And within that, I learned the axiom to help guide me through this uncertain point in my life.
This is part 5 of my JMT trip report series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
|1 decision & planning|
|2 trip report day 0-4: getting in & Yosemite National Park warm up|
|3 trip report day 5-8: Lyell Canyon/Tuolumne Meadows to Red’s Meadow Resort|
|4 trip report day 8-12: Red’s Meadow Resort to Muir Trail Ranch|
|5 trip report day 12-16: Muir Trail Ranch to Onion Valley Trailhead|
|5.1 trip report|
|5.1.1 day 12 – Muir Trail Ranch to McClure Meadows (C.07.30)|
|5.1.2 day 13 – McClure Meadows (C.07.30) to LeConte Ranger Station (C.08.19)|
|5.1.3 day 14 – LeConte Ranger Station (C.08.19) to Upper Palisade Lake (C.08.39)|
|5.1.4 day 15 – Upper Palisade Lake (C.08.39) to Woods Creek (C.10.07)|
|5.1.5 day 16 – Woods Creek (C.10.07) to Onion Valley Trailhead|
|5.2 impressions – Muir Trail Ranch to Onion Valley Trailhead|
|6 trip report day 17-19: Onion Valley trailhead to Whitney Portal|
|7 getting out|
|8 final impressions|
We pick up my JMT adventures the afternoon of my 12th day on my hike, where I just finished raiding the hiker box at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR). This was also the only time I ever weighted my pack since the scale was right there at the entrance. My pack sat at 42 pounds with about 6 days of food and no water loaded. It was no wonder I had some mid-back pains a few times throughout the day, though sitting on a rock with the pack weigh off for a couple of minutes always seemed alleviate the pains. Otherwise, I was feeling pretty good typical knee and ankle sores and my usual blisters from my big and index toe fighting each other. My aggressive use of hiking sticks helped with the knee and ankles, more on how the hiking sticks held up from that will be discussed at a later point. My clown shoes (Altra Lone Peak 3.5 – Amazon affiliate link) were better than anything else I tried to minimize the damage in the war of the toes, there is only so much you can do with super wide feet.
In term of my hiking timeline, I was on a good pace for my meetup with Meg on day 17 and I expected her arrive at Onion Valley Trailhead sometime during the afternoon. I had about 5 full days to hike roughly 77 miles, which was slightly less then my averages for the last couple days. Our plans were purely preset since I’ve had no cell phone reception and means of communication. The last time I did have cell service was at the Red Cones after Red’s Meadow and I wouldn’t have any cell signal until Kearsarge pass just above Onion Valley Trailhead. So, I had a good motivation to get there as early as possible in case Meg had issues with any of her travels and driving, especially having to go through Death Valley. I can’t help but to worry more about Meg than my entire hike despite Meg being
a highly most intelligent person I know.
My adventure so far consisted of a four day backpacking trip with my California friends within Yosemite up Illilouette Creek and exiting the the Myst Trail to Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley (see part 2), followed by my official JMT permit start from Tuolumne Meadows to Red’s Meadow Resort (see part 3), and the continuing through the Sierra National Forest from Red’s to MTR (see part 4).
It was just after noon on day 12 when I left MTR. I was aiming for McClure Meadows in Evolution Valley of King’s Canyon National Park, which was said to be one of the best views in Evolution Valley and Evolution Basin. This was a stretch I was greatly looking forward to since watching Joey Coconato’ video covering it as part of the South Lake/North Lake Loop on his Youtube channel My Own Frontier. This specific video was a key motivation piece to drive me to apply for the JMT SOBO permit on a whim, it’s not a coincidence that the publication date of his video was the same date I faxed in my application. More immediately, I was told by NOBO hikers that the scenery would be much different on this southern portion and I’d love it based on what I had enjoyed so far.
The last couple of days on the less maintained, poop covered, and forested trails of Sierra National Forest was the other factor I was looking forward to King’s Canyon National Park. Better regulations and infrastructure of national park trails, thank god! I mean to be political when I say we need more money going into our public lands.
- Muir Trail Ranch to McClure Meadows (C.07.30)
- distance: 11.2 miles
- elevation change: 2490 ft ascent & 542 ft descent
- time: 6:05 hours with breaks (4:30 hours moving time)
With my bear can reloaded with food from raiding the MTR hiker’s box, I begrudgingly got back on the trail. It can be hard to pull yourself away from a social environment like the gathering at MTR with you are solo hiking. There is always the inclination to stick around and see who’s around or wait to see if someone you know will drop by.
Out of MTR, it was retracing my steps uphills and then turning left at the junction for the hot springs. The next junction is where I differed from my previous footsteps by taking the right at the MTR cutoff junction
and meeting the JMT a little bit further south then I had left it.
From MTR it was a hot and uninteresting 3.5 miles with a minor uphill slope to finish out the trails in Sierra National Forest. While there were some trees early on, most of it was without cover over a trail consisting of small to medium sized round rocks that make it easy for you to twist your ankle and one of my least favorite trail makeups. I found several different hikers taking their siesta underneath trees off the trail in this section.
I ran through my water quickly during this stretch and was happy to see the bridge crossing Piute Creek into Kings Canyon National Park. This was a nice spot for a 15 minute break as I refilled my water next to the fast moving creek. Here was where I met the first section backpackers since Red’s coming down from Piute Pass. Apparently the unusual heavy rains I experienced earlier in the trip had lead to a land slide blocking the North Lake parking lot.
It was just after 2pm and still very hot under the sun overhead as I continued into Kings Canyon National Park that afternoon. However, the rushing waters of the South Fork San Joaquin River running under the trail and the canyons around changed the feel of the hike completely.
It was a pretty easy walk with a slight uphill as the JMT continued to follow the crystal blue river upstream. There were plenty of nice camping spots along the way (Wenk book campsites: C.07.13-17). At times the trail would climb to a bluff overlooking a series of cascades
or a slot canyon.
The rocky canyon terrain gave away to a forested one further upstream as the canyon widened. In about a hour and half into Kings Canyon National Park, I reached a bridge crossing the river with a campsite (C.07.18). I was tempted to jump into the river here, but I knew I’d be crossing it again before the aggressive climb into Evolution Valley started. So I would have another chance there.
The trail continued away from the river into the uninteresting woods for the next mile before reaching the last crossing of the South Fork San Joaquin River. There is a junction here before the bridge with a separate trail continuing upstream with the South Fork San Joaquin River, but the JMT crosses the bridge. There was a large camping area here (Wenk: C.07.21) and an access to the river below some rocks. I felt this was as good as any to jump into the river to cool off from the hot day.
I also took the chance to wash my shorts and shirt in the river here. My plan for the climb into Evolution Valley to start with my shirt wet. No, I wasn’t in a wet t-shirt contest to everyone’s disappointment, rather a wet shirt would cool me down as it dried on my climb up. This turned out to be a brilliant suggestion from a veteran on the JMT who was hiking with his wife and 2 kids and I had bumped into several times on my hike already, the last time was at MTR where he gave me the idea.
After about a half hour break, I started hiking again with my dampened shirt and pants. The trail curve north briefly before the switch-backing climbs begin. The grunt of the climb was within a mile at about a 11.8% grade. It felt like a relatively easy climb with views of the valley below.
The mile would have only taken me about a half hour, but I took a 15 minute excursion off the trail near the top of the climb. It was the point where the trail straightens out a little bit and you can get a few glimpse of a cascading Evolution Creek down the side of the mountain. However, you really never got a good view of it from the trail, so I went exploring a little bit.
Scrambling around the bluff above Evolution Creek being forced through a slot canyon was a little nerve wrecking. The powerful sound as it tumbled down the mountain side into the South Fork San Joaquin was pretty awe inspiring. A fall into that and there would be no coming back.
After my excursion, I continued on the trail as it flattened out after reaching Evolution Valley and started following Evolution Creek upstream. Looking up the valley, there were some unwelcoming clouds that made me a little nervous.
About 0.5 miles into Evolution Valley came the second of two major water crossing hazards on the JMT that are known to sweep hikers away. This time, it was crossing Evolution Creek. Again, I switched into my Chacos (Amazon affiliate link) for the crossing. While it was a low snow year, in the middle of peak hiking season, and it looked relatively calm, I could still feel the force of the creek as I crossed it. My hiking poles were definitely helpful in stabilizing me again the swift current. A reminder to unbuckled your hip belt so as to be able to escape your pack if you are swept away.
As noted here, if the waters a too swift here, there maybe better and wider crossing options further upstream around Evolution Meadows. The sign from the other direction indicating the alternative crossing area is show here.
With the storm clouds up the valley, I was ok at dropping camp at any point after the crossing if I felt any rain. Of course my stretch goal was McClure Meadows, so I continued on. The rain never did come, but the mosquitoes were out in force here. I wasn’t too bothered by it as it wasn’t as bad as the descent from Bear Ridge. It did keep me moving and motivated to reach my goal.
The next 2.5 miles into Evolution Valley at a slight incline of 3.4% grade wasn’t too interesting from the trail as it was many through wooded areas a little bit away from the creek. I started to get the feeling that to really explore the beauty of the valley, you had to get off a trail a little. The campsites here were indeed off the trail toward the creek itself. My feelings were confirmed as I reached my destination of McClure Meadows Campsite (Wenk: C.07.30), the view as I stepped off the trail into the camping areas made me speechless. If you were just walking on the trail, you’d never see this view.
It was about 7:45pm when I reached camp,
so I set up my tent an elevated area nestled among the trees and boulders. There was a fire ring here and a little bit less mosquitoes. I did set up my rain fly this time to block out the bright moon that kept me up the night before. Then I put on my rain jacket as a layer of mosquito protection and cooked my dinner of 3 bean chili with dehydrated veggies that I rescued from the hiker box at MTR.
It was an amazing dinner, which may have been enhanced by one of my favorite views on the trail complete with a perfect alpenglow upon Mt. Darwin on the left and The Hermit on the right.
I had this perfect 5 star campsite all to myself. But on that bluff with the most perfect view was where I first felt that loneliness that comes with hiking and traveling myself. Specifically, part of what makes these aesthetically pleasing grand views so wonderful is being able to share the experience with others. For the last 7 years, I’ve had Meg to share all the amazing views of our adventures, but this was the first time in a long time that I was by myself. I couldn’t help myself wishing she was there with me right then or stop myself from tearing up from that thought.
It was moments like this that can truly point out priorities in one’s life. The heart stabbing feelings of missing someone and not being able to do anything about it is sobering. These feelings don’t come up as we go through our busy lives and other things like work, career, and being an adult demanding our moment to moment attention. We are also spoiled by the advances in technology so that we are able to contact each other with a few clicks on our phones even though we could be different cities. So it is easy to underestimate how much people can mean to you in everyday life. For me, it took the complete isolation of the backcountry to bring those emotions to the forefront reminding me of who matters most to me and that was Meg.
At no other time on this trip did I wish I had a satellite messenger like in reach to contact Meg. But it was that inability to do so that allowed me to reflect. Regardless, missing Meg was a powerful motivation for me through the rest of this section as I looked forward to have her join me at the end of my hike.
I did end up getting a better night of sleep here at McClure Meadows, albeit a lonely one. I always feel like sleeping next to a rushing creek or river always made my nights better. My morning ritual of drying everything out took place once again, but this time it was mainly the rain fly that I had on the tent. There was still plenty of condensation buildup on the inside of the tent. My breakfast as I waited for everything to dry out was Mexican rice and beans from Cindy with added beef jerky and some vacuum sealed meat I found at MTR.
I enjoyed my breakfast in the peaceful setting here at McClure Meadows. I was in a subdued mood still from the previous night.
I did have an ambitious day ahead of me as I planned to climb out of Evolution Valley into Evolution Basin and over Muir Pass. After Muir Pass there are a series of campsites that would allow for great views as the trail drops into LeConte Canyon (C.08.03-14) that I would be happy to stay at.
- McClure Meadows (C.07.30) to LeConte Ranger Station (C.08.19)
- distance: 18.2 miles
- elevation change: 2884 ft ascent & 3817 ft descent
- time: 11:22 hours with breaks (8:40 hours moving time)
I broke camp at 7:40am and continued up Evolution Valley at a brisk pace for the first 2.5 miles at an easy 2.5% grade. The trail first curved around McClure Meadows passing another camping area in the middle of the meadows (Wenk: C.07.31) and went near the Evolution Creek here and there. However as I found out the day before, you had to go into the camping areas or off the trail a little bit above the bluffs to get a good look at the river and its cascades.
After McClure Meadows was Colby Meadows (Wenk: C.07.33), where I found a deer hanging out in the morning sun.
After about 1:20 hours, around 9am, I reached the end of Evolution Valley marked by a couple tricky stream crossings, if you didn’t want to get your feet wet. The JMT then climbed out of the valley into Evolution Basin over a 1.3 mile stretch about a 11.3% grade. It wasn’t too bad as it was mostly under the cover of trees. There were a couple of openings where you’ll get a view of Evolution Valley below.
The climb ends after a stream crossing and it was a short walk passing a green pond before the beautiful Evolution Lake comes into view.
I reached the lake around 10 am, but I ended up spending a half hour chatting with the many hikers hanging around the lake. Some were having their breakfast, some were packing up their camp, and others were just enjoying the beautiful day on the lake side. I might have been eager to talk about the wonderful views here and below in Evolution Valley. The word about the campsites here (Wenk: C.07.36) consisted of an amazing alpenglow over the lake.
After filling up on water, the trail continued on along the eastern bank of the lake and over some more rocky terrain. At times, the trail consisted of jagged small rocks held together by large ones on the outside. I found it easier just to walk on the large rocks on the outside then on the small ones. These were some of my least favorite trails on the JMT.
The elevation change wasn’t too bad as I continued past a hill that made Evolution Lake oddly shaped and then around the rest of Evolution Lake. From here, you can see the peak of Mount Spencer in front of Mount Huxley.
Near the end of the lake, there seemed to separate trails, one along the shores of the lake and another that rises a bit further up. Both will end up at the same place it seems, but the lower one might be muddier.
Afterwards, there is a crossing of the wide Evolution Creek flowing into Evolution Lake consisting of hoping many large rocks. It was 11am when reached the end of Evolution Lake and about 1.4 miles from the northern drainage of the lake.
The trail then follows Evolution Creek upstream at a very mild incline as the terrain is starting to change from grassy flats to granite slabs. Maybe it was all the granite around, but I felt like it was very bright throughout Evolution Basin with many of the colors washed out by that brightness. Perhaps it was all the granite around.
The next lake that the trail passes is appropriately named Sapphire Lake.
The JMT continues on the western side of Sapphire Lake and increases its steepness to climb to the next bench in about 2 miles from Evolution Creek crossing
where a small unnamed lake with clear water.
The JMT continues it’s mild ascent as the trail turns more rocky and crosses Evolution Creek once again just above the unnamed lake. In 0.5 miles from the unnamed lake, I reached another bench with the large Wanda Lake. Muir Pass with the Muir hut can also be seen from the lake.
I was starting to get hungry at this point but I wanted to save my lunch for Muir Pass. Plus the trail up to the pass so far has only been a gradual incline, though it did seems like a long distance (about 4.5 miles from the beginning of Evolution Lake to Wanda Lake) under the sun. I resorted to my peach rings to power me up the last stretch.
The last lake before the pass was Lake McDermand and the JMT crosses the stream at its outlet just before the final push to the pass. I was informed there is no water at the pass, I refilled up on water here.
I did end encountering some water on the uphill to Muir Pass, but it was unappealing and annoying as part of the trail itself.
The final push up to Muir Pass wasn’t all that bad with about a 9.7% grade over 0.8 miles, but it seemed very punishing to me since it was a long distance up from Evolution Valley and the contrast of the grade in comparison to what I’d been hiking over for most of the morning made it seem steeper than it was. I was also starving on this last approach.
I finally reached Muir Pass and Muir hut at 1:47pm, a very long morning. The hut was pretty cool as an icon on the JMT sitting at 11972 feet. It wasn’t too windy, though the sun started to hid behind overcast clouds. It didn’t look like thunderclouds, so I took my time at the pass and cooked my much looked forward to luner. I ate my fried rice, kimchi, shrimp, anchovies, and veggie mix that I rescued from MTR. It was one of my favorite meals on my entire hike.
There are a few marmots here that have made the pass their home and are not shy about attaching packs and food, so definitely keep an eye out on your bear containers.
Muir Pass was a popular lunch spot for hikers, so I didn’t start up again until 2:52pm. Among the conversations were regarding the trail ahead of me, specifically the Golden Staircase that were said to be one of the tougher ascents on the JMT. I would be climbing it tomorrow and it was recommended to be climbed in the morning since it was completely open without any cover. For that to happen, I would have to cover majority of LeConte Canyon ahead of me today meaning I’d have to push further than I originally planned. So I would play it by ear.
The rocky terrain continued on the other side of Muir Pass with an initial descent at about 10.9% grade on a few switchbacks down to a few unnamed lakes over a half mile.
The trail from here can become a little bit unclear with the shifting rocks and water running over the trail. It continues down on a shallower descent down to the large Helen Lake.
Unlike the path up to Muir Pass from Evolution Basin, the JMT starts a long -10% grade descent from Helen Lake all the way down into LeConte Canyon. The trail crosses the Middle Fork Kings River draining Helen Lake first before following it steeply downhill.
You’ll have to pay attention a little more to the trail as the rocky terrain may make it a little difficult. This is especially so as the trail and river may be indistinguishable at certain points.
The color of the next few unnamed lake were some of my favorite views of the JMT. While I appreciate the desolate nature of the granite peaks, they can appear bland without the contrast of turquoise lakes or other features.
On the way down to that unnamed turquoise lake was the only snow crossing I encountered the entire trip. It wasn’t the only patch of snow still lingering in this drainage, so I can only imagine the snow pack early in the season or during a high snow year.
When I reached the lake, the trail was a bit flooded out and required some skipping along the stones sticking out.
From one vivid lake among rugged peaks, the JMT continues to drop into another bench. Along the trail here, I passed the first of the campsites I had listed as possible stopping points. (Wenk: C08.02). It was a single spot surrounded by whitebark pine, but it was already occupied when I passed. So I continued down crossing a couple streams in the process.
The view from the next unnamed lake was equally amazing. There is a campsite listed here (Wenk: C.08.03), however signs here indicate that it is closed for restoration.
The next drop on the trail is into LeConte Canyon by rounding the mountain and crossing Middle Fork Kings River again.
I filled up water here and continued into the beautiful LeConte Canyon with Mount Black Giant looming over a few snow fields and unnamed lush green pond. There are a few different campsites here that with great views (Wenk: C.08.06-8), but the popularity of the area was clear as they were occupied and full by the time I passed them between 4:30-5pm.
My next camping options required a further drop down another set of switchbacks further down in LeConte Canyon toward Big Pete Meadows.
The trail followed the Middle Fork Kings River rushing down the granite canyon.
As part of the switchbacks, the trail crossed a section created by blasting into a granite face.
Afterwards the trail crosses a rocky section that looked like there may have been a past rock slide before entering the woods, where there were more campsites.
The campsites (Wenk: C.08.09-18) in the next section through Big Pete Meadows & Little Pete Meadows seems to be all decent, but nothing special. Though I did find plenty of deer scavenging the the campgrounds. More specifically, every empty campsites had deer. I suspect this may be novice hikers leaving food behind and I did find plenty of novice hikers doing different loops and sections here with Bishop Pass and Puite Pass from South Lake and North Lake trailheads respectively allowing easier access.
Along the way, there were a few openings with views of the peaks around, such as Langille Peak seen here. The granite peaks here reminded me of the peaks in Yosemite I saw at the beginning of my trip.
I was looking for a few things in a campsite at this point. The first was as far into LeConte Canyon as possible to set up for a morning hike up the Golden Staircase, which is the initial climb toward Mather Pass.
The other was looking to alleviate the loneliness I had been feeling for the last day or so. Specifically, I was looking for some company that would welcome hanging out. There were plenty of hikers in this section, but again many were not JMT hikers and seemed to seek the solitude of the wilderness. I didn’t want to intrude in that regards so I was mainly looking for other JMT hikers, who were typically more open to company as to the social nature of the hike (as I described in part 3). The second aspect to that I was secretly wishing to meet up with someone that had a satellite messenger like an Inreach or SPOT. JMTers I saw on the trail more often than not were hiking with one. I felt that a brief message to Meg would do wonders for my state of mind both in sharing my feelings of missing her and checking in to let her know I was doing well and on schedule to meet up.
So my plan was to hike as far as I can unless I met some friendly folks to hang out with, which I found at the campsite (Wenk: C.08.19) shortly after the junction with Bishop Pass and before the Dusy Fork bridge.
Here I camped with a father and son duo, John and Alex (his instagram). They were on the JMT with a very personal reason. We also hung out with an elderly couple from the Netherlands, Guido and Therese, at the campsite a few feet back toward the junction.
Not only was I very happy to hangout with everyone, but was ecstatic that John had an inreach and graciously allowed me to send out a message to Meg. I had to fight back tears as I wrote out my message. It is hard to describe how much just a simple message meant to me and I am forever grateful to John. I celebrated the night by sharing the Chocolate Cheesecake I rescued from MTR.
I had a short day planned for day 14 with the goal of climbing up the Golden Staircase.
I had a pretty good night sleep with the rushing sounds from both Rainbow Creek and Middle Fork Kings River. The condensation wasn’t too bad this morning as I had my rain fly on my tent for privacy. My breakfast consisted of rescued instant noodles with kimchi, anchovies, shrimp, and veggies from MTR. I had wished made more of these at MTR.
Again, you have to keep an eye out on your food as deer wandered into our camp without fear looking for it.
- LeConte Ranger Station (C.08.19) to Upper Palisade Lake (C.08.39)
- distance: 11.5 miles
- elevation change: 3079 ft ascent & 999 ft descent
- time: 7:41 hours with breaks (5:13 hours moving time)
I set off at 7:55am after saying farewell to John and Alex. They have a zero planned that day as they are waiting for their resupply from a pack horse in from Bishop Pass. The JMT continued at a gentle descent, about -3.7% grade, for the next 3.3 miles further down LeConte Canyon. It was mostly uneventful walk among the forest and next to the Middle Fork Kings River. I did have an interesting conversation with a local backpacker of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that described their trip off trail into the true wilderness and of the hidden beauty that’s there away from the trails, more on that in my final impressions.
Along the way on my morning stroll, I passed Grouse Meadows, which had several campsites with open views (Wenk: C.08.24-26).
It was about 9:10am when I reached the end of my descent and the junction for the trail continuing down the Middle Fork Kings River toward Devils Washbowl and Simpson Meadow branching off to the right/south.
I continued on the JMT, which turned up the Palisades Creek drainage at about a 4% grade over the next 4 miles. It was mostly among the forest and routing next to Palisade creek at points, so the trail itself wasn’t too interesting.
However, this is where I ran into a bear. As I was coming up a incline, there he was in the middle of the trail directly ahead of me. He didn’t seem to care for me much and headed off the trail toward the creek.
Further up the drainage, the trees started to become more sparse allowing me to feel the heat that would be in store for me on my climb up the Golden Staircase. It would seem my timing wasn’t so great after all since it was nearing 11am when I neared the climb. My plan for the climb would once again involve soaking my cloth once again before the climb and allow evaporation cooling to combat the heat. I figured it worked well climbing into Evolution Valley, so why not here.
I stopped by a series of four water crossings of Glacier Creek just before Wenk campsite C.08.34 to prepare for my climb. NOBO hikers had informed me this was probably the last spot before the uphills for water. It was 11am and I was feeling hungry already, so I decided to cook my second big meal of the day while refilling my water and cleaning/soaking my cloth.
My lunch was actually my Backpacker Pantry Lasagna (Amazon affiliate link), which was hearty and perfect with some sriracha. If was great for the energy intensive portion I was looking for with the long climb ahead of me. I was finally eating the food from the package for that I had been cooking all my meals in since Red’s.
I started again at 12:19pm and from the creek, it was another half mile to the start of the Golden Staircase. I started the climb at 12:33pm.
The brunt of the Golden Staircase climbed at about a 15.3% grade over 1.43 miles. There is a last water source as the switchbacks come near Palisade Creek about 0.3 miles into the climb. Though it’s not the easiest water to get to since it is rushing down a granite slab.
Further up in the climb, the switchbacks become more shorter and more frequent as the trail cuts into a small gap.
The trail continues to switchback through the left/east side of the canyon.
My evaporation cooling plan seemed to work excellently as I cruised up the staircase pushing through the final switchbacks and looking back into the Palisade Creek drainage. I was through the main switchbacks around 1:51pm, about 1:20 hours after starting up the Golden Staircase.
From here the trail climbs up toward Lower Palisade Lake at a less intimating grade about 7.5% over just under a mile. Middle Palisade, Disappointment Peak, and Norman Clyde Peak came into view at this point.
I reached the outlet of Lower Palisade Lake around 2:30pm. The water here was extremely clear, it was very easy to see all the fish swimming in the lake. The campsites here at the outlet (Wenk: C.08.36-37) are some among the most popular and crowded of the JMT. Anger flareups from overcrowding were among some of the stories I heard about these campsites.
I decided to continue on since it was still early and I had planned to finish at Upper Palisade Lake. The trail continues along the northern bank of Lower Palisade Lake before starting to climb upon the granite bluff above the lake.
It was hard not to stop every few minutes to gawk at the different shades of green, blue, and brown of the lake.
After passing Lower Palisade Lake, the Upper Palisade Lake came into view under Mather Pass.
It was still early, 3:30pm, when I reached my planned campsite (Wenk: C.08.39-40) above Upper Palisade Lake and near a cascading stream. There was a little bit of breeze, so I set up my tent among some trees above the stream.
I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t an easy access to the lake itself and I was looking forward to jumping into that clear water. However, along with a couple of guys that also decided to camp here, we bushwhacked down to the lake. The water was freezing cold, but I did feel refreshed after jumping in. On the way down to the lake, I did find a few other camping areas among some boulders. If you are looking for a more private spot closer to the lake, they would serve you well.
The group of guys (I forgot their names) I hung out with were from the bay area doing a NOBO section hike, completing the JMT as a whole over a few years. A couple others rolled in later on. The first was named Steel, who was a SOBO JMT ultralight hiker hiking the entire trail in 11 days. It was the only leave time he had from the navy. The other was a NOBO hiker (I also forgot her name – I’m really bad at names) who just finished a double pass day (Pinchot and Mather). She was exhausted and turned in early. However, it put the notion of the double pass day in my mind.
We hung out for the rest of the evening while everyone made their dinners. I already ate my second major meal of the day earlier, so I ended up devouring the rest of my trail mix I had from MTR. I think it was more of nothing else to do rather than hunger. However, I didn’t turn down leftover food from one of the guys.
I was a little disappointed at the alpenglow upon the Mount Bolten Brown as the sun set behind the mountains on the opposite side of the lakes early on, but it was a good evening overall with good company.
I had another good night sleep with the rushing stream and hollowing wind providing for some nice white noise. The latter also kept condensation from forming in my tent, so packing up was easy.
However my initial plans wasn’t a terribly long day with the aim to camp under Pinchot Pass. This would allow me to get to the Rae Lakes the following day. And then I’d have a double pass day with Glenn and Kearsarge on the day Meg would fly in. She would meet me at Onion Valley trailhead sometime in the afternoon.
With that plan, I wasn’t in rush to break camp. For breakfast I had my rescued eggs mixed with dehydrate veggies and meat from MTR. Steel was already on his way by the time I came out of my tent, so I eat breakfast with the rest of the guys. I started on my way at almost exactly 8:00am.
- Upper Palisade Lake (C.08.39) to Woods Creek (C.10.07)
- distance: 19.8 miles
- elevation change: 3899 ft ascent & 5783 ft descent
- time: 11:42 hours with breaks (8:41 hours moving time)
From where I was, it was pretty much a straight climb to Mather Pass. It was be about 2.1 miles at about 14.3% grade. I was still in the shade as I begin my climb.
After a couple of stream crossings, the grassy landscape gave away quickly to a barren and rocky one. It was around when the switchbacks started.
My pace was brisk as I remained in the shade for most of the way up. Near the top of the hike, I met my first ranger on the trail. She was based out of LeConte Stations and I later found out, she had hiked over to the Bench Lake station to replace her broke radio. I thought she would be checking permits, but she didn’t.
I reached Mather Pass at 9:27am.
Mather Pass sits at 12096 feet. it wasn’t really my favorite pass as it looked very barren with mostly granite rocks and no contrast. Perhaps it was still early in the morning, but the lakes seems to be reflecting the drab granite colors rather than showing the blues and greens I was use to.
Either way, I was feeling good and making great time, so the idea of the double pass started to play out in my mind. A double pass day would put me almost a full day ahead since the passes are what typically limits the distance I would be able to walk. A day ahead means I’d be able to get in contact with Meg before she flew out and made sure there was no problems. Missing Meg would become a huge driving factor over the next two days for me. I didn’t mind a day earlier of civilization and real food a day earlier neither.
After a short 15 minute break taking photos, I started down the switchbacks on the other side. It was an initial sharp descent at about -10% grade in the first half mile of switchbacks
before a more steady descent at about -6.4% grade over the next 5 miles all the way down the South Fork Kings River drainage. The first couple of miles traverse down the Upper Basin, where there are a few ponds and creek crossings. This forms the headwaters of the South Fork Kings River. This is an exposed area with no cover and more than once did I hear NOBO hikers complain about being cooked by the hot sun during this stretch. The marmots didn’t seem to mind as they ran around among the rocks.
About four miles from the pass, the trail starts to enter a more forested area before bottoming out at a tricky crossing of the South Fork Kings River around noon. I was able to jump and maneuver among a couple of logs without getting my feet wet, but a ford is probably needed usually.
I learned later that this crossing was an especially dangerous one during the 2017 high snow year leading to the fatality of a hiker.
There is a cutoff here that is recommended further upstream that can be accessed by a use trail (an unofficial trail). The southern end can be seen starting away from the trail behind the sign below.
There is a camping area by the crossing (Wenk: C.09.06) and I stopped to refill my water. I debated eating lunch here, but opted for eating a couple bars and snacks. I thought that if I ended my day before Pinchot, I’d be pretty close to finishing my day, so might as well wait to eat for when I set up camp. If I pushed past Pinchot, I can take a break further up for the final push to the pass.
It was here I met another ranger, this time from the Bench Lake Station and he was checking permits. It wasn’t too much of an annoyance since my bag was open already. A convenient thing to do is to have a picture of your permit on your phone.
After a 30 minute break and soaking my shirt again, I started my climb out of the South Fork Kings River drainage. Hurray for another afternoon climb. The first climb up onto the bench crossed another stream before starting to switchback at about a 11% grade over 1.2 miles. It was a pretty boring and hot climb among wooded trees, but not thick enough to provide much cover, especially further uphill. At the top of the climb was the Taboose Pass Trail junction branching off to the left. Then came the Bench Lake Trail junction branching off to the right. The Bench Lake ranger station is also in this area north of the trail.
There isn’t too many trees as you continue on the JMT allowing for a view back at Mather Pass.
The next couple of miles ascends at a milder 4.7% grade first passing a green lake to the west of the trail,
a small blue lake to the east,
and then Lake Marjorie. The best campsite I found among the lakes was among the rocky boulders on Lake Marjorie (Wenk: C.09.12). I was 2:20 when I reached that spot, but I just didn’t feel like stopping. Being the only one here probably made stopping less appealing for me as I had preferred not to camp alone. The idea of the double pass day became the reality.
The trail continues along the eastern bank of Lake Marjorie with its gradual climb. I stopped to fill up on water at a stream with a view of another small lake making it’s appearance.
Shortly after that, I can see the smog starting to blanket the mountains around me.
There was no turning back now as I started on the final mile approach to Pinchot Pass at about a 13.4% grade. The trail first climbs straight for the pass raising over another unnamed blue lake.
The rest of the approach consists of switchbacks made of loose gravel, making for slippery footing. This last mile was a bit of a struggle for me through the smog, making it harder to breath and a hotter affair. The thought of being able to talk to Meg earlier motivated me to push forward here and would continue to do so the next day. I would only be one day away from talking to her at this pace.
I reached Pinchot Pass, sitting at 12119 feet, at 3:44 pm and celebrated with one of my remaining two Snickers.
It was a smoggy view toward both side of the pass, the most it had been since my first few days hiking in Yosemite. Talking to other hikers, it may have been a controlled burn at Road’s End that lead to this smog.
After an half hour break on Pinchot pass enjoying my Snickers and talking to a few NOBO hikers, I started down the smoggy valley after one last look back at the pass with the desolate looking Mount Pinchot and Mount Wynne looming over. The initial descent is about a -11% grade switchbacking over a mile
before flattening out and continuing on a bench overlooking the lush green headwaters of Woods Creek drainage below on the left for 3/4 of a mile.
Once the JMT turn the corner to the right, it starts a steady 5.6 mile descent at about -9.4% grade down to the Wood Creek crossing. There were a few campsite during this area, the first is among the woods to the left of the trail above an unnamed pond to the right (Wenk: C.10.02).
And another (C.10.03) at the drainage of the Twin Lakes to the left of the trail.
I thought about stopping here, but decided to push on to get as far as I could. This was partially because of the intense smog at this point turning everything orange creating a post-apocalyptic scene among the granite terrain and shadowy peaks. It was a bit of eerie feeling, which made me desire even more for a camp with some friendly people to hang out with. Secondly, not wanting to waste the cool morning on a downhill was also desirable.
About 3.5 miles from the pass at just about 5:50pm, I reached the junction for Sawmill Pass branching off to the left toward the south.
After a few more switchbacks, I passed an empty campsite (Wenk: 10.05) before the trail came close to Woods Creek. I was glad to be able to fill up on water as I’d been taking the downhill at a pretty fast pace trying to beat sundown.
The trail then elevated above Wood Creek, but still continues downhills on a ledge on a more rocky section. The reason for this was soon clear as I passed a small waterfall that can be seen looking back upstream.
It was just before 7pm when I reached the next campsite in a flat area below a couple of trees (Wenk: C.10.06), but the sight of a women crying in the arms of a guy informed me continue on. It was the right decision as the guy gave me a nod as I sped walked by. The JMT or any thru-hike can indeed be an emotion process as I can a test to based on my last couple of days.
I tried to maintained my fast pace as the trail continued above Woods Creek toward the next campsite at the swing bridge across Woods Creek. The views of the Creek here continuing into the drainage provided a nice view to what I hoped the end of the day.
Pretty soon the view of the Rae Lake basin comes into view, the direction I would head up tomorrow.
As I continued to sped downhills toward, I thought I heard a growl behind me uphill. This lead me to turn around quickly and thus shifting all my weight onto one of my trekking poles. I was using the infamous super cheap Costco fiber glass poles and were happy with them to this point. In fact, I had see many others with the same poles, so much so it was like a club. Unfortunately, all that shattered like the pole itself and I fell flat on my butt. If it was indeed a mountain lion that was growling at me, it would have found an easy prey and probably be disappointed due to the lack of a challenge.
After finding myself still alive, I picked myself up and practically ran down the rest of the way to the Road’s End junction, which continues down the Woods Creek drainage.
A couple more feet and I’ve reached the swing bridge across Woods Creek.
On the other side of the creek, I finally reached my home for the night at Wenk campsite (C.10.07) at 7:40pm. It was the longest day by distance that I would hike on the JMT and I was exhausted.
This was a large campsite with bear boxes and packed when I rolled in. Many of the hikers here were not on the JMT, but rather part one of the several backpacking itineraries such as the Rae Lake Loop. The increased accessibility comes from Road’s End to the west or Kearsarge Pass to the South East. Again, most on these shorter itineraries tend to stick to their groups and are not as motivated to socialize with other hikers. There is nothing wrong with that at all, but I was looking for people who wanted to hangout after my long day of hiking. So I continued further along the trail toward more camping areas further back.
For the first time in days, I saw the same person again! It was Steel from the previous night who was on his 11 day thru-hike of the JMT. Both he and I were surprised we met up with each other again as neither of us thought I’d end here for the day. I was happy to see a familiar face. He had been in camp for a bit, but that was good for me since he had a fire going. Camping with him here was a mother and daughter duo, Jean and Mallory (you can read about her take on the JMT here – Medium.com).
The three of them were great company as I set up my tent and prepared my dinner. I had less than an hour of light left, so I was happy that instant mash potatoes with beef jerky cooked so fast. It is not my favorite backcountry meal, unlike Meg, but they are pretty much ready when you add hot water to them. Also, it was the only kind of food I had left.
Before going to bed, I took a short walk back to Woods Creek where I soaked myself in the cold water to clean up a bit. I had found that I slept better when my legs were not so sticky from sweat and dirt I’d accumulate through the day. I also took the trip to refill up on drinking water and water to douse the fire.
Last thing I did before bed was to figure out my electronics. I haven’t talked much about that until now since I had my process down. This was the first time that I had to get creative with it. My phone, gps, and camera, which were all about dead. My 10000 mhz battery was out at this point and I had found my solar panel broke 3-5 days ago. It broke most likely due being on my pack and hitting the ground first when I took off my pack. There were a few scratches on it, but I didn’t know if that was the cause. I would need one more day of charge as I should be able to reach civilization the next day. My last resort was to use my backup AA batteries for my Steripen via the Goal Zero 21005 Guide 10, which allowed using charging and discharging of AA batteries. However, I had been on the same set of batteries in my Steripen for the entire trip so far and unbeknownst to me at the time, they would die the next day. Fortunately for me, the better option was that 2 pound fully charged laptop I had lugged around the entire hike, which was capable of serving as a USD$600 external battery. Chew on that ultralight backpackers. But seriously, the lesson from this is just bring more external battery capacity.
It wasn’t just a goal for day 16’s hike, it was what I had to get done. The task was a two pass day over Glenn and Kearsarge Passes. It was getting back to civilization and Meg day.
I was ready to leave camp early on this momentous day, a full 17 minutes earlier than normal at 7:43am that is. My tent is still a bit wet, but who cares as it’s in town for a zero tomorrow. I just stuffed it on my outside pocket and was ready to go. My only meals left were 2 instant mash potatoes with beef jerky, so mash potatoes for breakfast it was. At least it was fast! After fixing duct taping the broken end of my hiking pole, I was on my way!
Steele, Mallory, and Jean were all already gone by that time… so I was last out of the group again, sigh.
- Woods Creek (C.10.07) to Onion Valley Trailhead
- distance: 18.3 miles
- elevation change: 4970 ft ascent & 4313 ft descent
- time: 9:56 hours with breaks (8:09 hours moving time)
Directly out of camp, it was a 3.7 mile climb at about 8.2% grade following the South Fork Woods Creek up the Rae Lakes drainage. The initial portion had some cover from trees, but they thinned out as I ascended. There were stretches that crossed rock fields were the worst under the scorching sun, however there were several stream crossings.
The end of the initial climb ends with a junction for Baxter Pass, branching off to the left. The JMT flattens out here and comes to the first lake,
Dollar Lake. Fin Dome can be seen sticking out on the ridge ahead. There are a couple campsites (Wenk: C.10.09) here, but the ones on the shore of the lake is currently close to restoration (Wenk: C.10.10). There is also a bushwhacking route here called Mount Cedric Wright High Route climbing to the right and will intersect the Sixty Lakes Basin trail.
Above Dollar Lake, there is a nice view of the marshy meadows ahead and the South Fork Woods Creek that the trail crosses from the right bank to the left.
The JMT continues on the eastern side of Arrowhead Lake passing a campsite (Wenk: C.10.11), however the trail stays above and away from the lake.
5.35 miles into my day and 1.7 miles from Dollar Lake, I arrive at the first of the well regarded Rae Lakes at 10:30am. There are several camping areas here at Lower Rae Lake which sits under Fin Dome, the first when you reach the lake initially (Wenk: C.10.12).
The second campsite has the Rae Lake North bear box with several shaded spots (Wenk: C.10.13).
The trail gains a little elevation as it continues toward Middle Rae Lake, providing a more elevated view. From here, you can see the entire ridge line consisting of Mount Gould, Mount Rixford, Painted Lady, and Glenn Pass from left to right.
The campsite (Wenk: C.10.16) along Middle Rae Lake is further along past the Ranger Station. You can find it by following the sign for the Rae Lake South Bear Box.
At the end of Middle Rae Lake, there is a junction toward Dragon Lake branching off to the left and west.
While the Middle and Lower Rae Lakes are beautiful and have some nice camping areas, my jaw hit the floor when I arrived at Upper Rae Lake. The Painted Lady with her green and turquoises dress was absolutely stunning.
There is no camping here as marked by a restoration sign, however I did see a few campers among the trees and on the boulders on the strip of land separating the Upper and Middle Rae Lakes. The trail itself continues along the Upper Rae Lake Shore. There is a water crossing where the Upper Rae Lake drains into the Middle Rae Lake.
I stopped here to refill water and eat a snack before the making my push toward Glenn Pass. Seeing how it was 11:30am and I had perfectly timed a pass at the hottest part of the day once again, I went to my strategy of soaking my shirt before heading up.
Just after the crossing is the junction for Sixty Lake Basin branching off to the right. It is here that Wenk notes a campsite with a few spots (C.10.17).
From here my climb up toward Glenn Pass starts. The first portion of the climb is just over a mile at a grade around 13.9%. It first starts to gain the rock face above the lake with views out toward Black Mountain and Diamond Peak.
Then works behind the Painted Lady to the east with over a gravel terrain with a few small ponds to the west. I hit the uphills with plenty of energy and felling pretty good. I powered through the first mile in 50 minutes.
Then the real fun begins with a 19.1% grade switchbacks over a stretch of 0.6 miles. The clouds start to gather when I start up the switchbacks damping the colors of the small ponds to the west. The vivid Rae Lakes seemed very small now under Painted Lady, Black Mountain, and Diamond Peak.
The shear steepness of the climb makes it almost impossible to pick out the pass as I looked up.
Despite the steep incline, I made it to Glenn Pass in 1:16 hours from Rae Lake at 12:46pm. Glenn Pass isn’t the tallest at 11942 feet, but it had the steepest final approach thus far. I celebrated with my last Snickers Bar looking back into Rae Lakes Basin.
On the other side, Glenn Pass Lake and Lower Glenn Pass Lake can be seen. However what caught my attention more was the ominous clouds overhead.
I only lingered at the pass for about 10 minutes and I was on my way down the steep switchbacks toward Glenn Lakes at about 1pm. The first stretch of the down hill from the pass to the Lower Glenn Lake was about 0.7 miles at a knee breaking -17.7% grade. The loose dirt and gravel make up the the trail wasn’t fun either.
I was past Lower Glenn Lake after 20 minutes. On a better day, these lakes may look pretty. But not it is merely part of the drab granite rocks without and contrast. Some light thunder rumblings started taking place, which added to my giddy up.
The JMT then curves around the mountain on a ledge continuing to drop at a more manageable -8.6% grade for the next mile. We get a peak here and there at the Charlotte Lake drainage.
I encountered some NOBO hikers as I continued downhills who nervously asked about the trail ahead and the weather. The difference in experience levels of these hikers still at the beginning hike compared to those I passed a few days ago at Muir Pass was almost immeasurable. I think it’s one of the more interesting and entertaining aspects of the JMT to see hikers going the opposite direction grow and progress in reverse.
I reached the Kearsarge Pass trail junction at 2pm. This trail stays higher up on the ledge toward the Pass and a more direct route for SOBO hikers. On my way back, I would take the lower Bull frog trail that connects with the JMT further south.
While I was consuming some gummies at the junction for a sugar boost, I met up with Andy and Diego on their way out from their trip. They are veterans of the Sierra Nevada mountains having explore many of the valley off trail. While exploring, they focus on professional level still photography. You can check their respective Instagrams out here: Diego & Andy. I was grateful that they were willing to give me a ride to town from Onion Valley.
Real bed and food tonight!
The Kearsarge Pass Trail starts to climb away from the JMT at a gradual 4.1% grade for about 2.5 miles. It was a sandy at parts and rocky at others, but the terrain seemed to be much dryer here. This seemed contrary to the storm clouds that hang over us as we continued along the ledge with views of Bullfrog Lake.
Continuing on, the wind started to pick up and I felt some drizzling by the time we reach a view of the Kearsarge Lakes under the Kearsarge Pinnacles.
After the junction with the Bullfrog Trail, the final push to Kearsarge Pass begins. The loose dirt and the 17.5% grade made the last 0.4 miles almost seemed impossible. But communication with Meg was only a few more steps away.
We reached the windy Kearsarge Pass at 3:41pm or 1:41 hours from the Kearsarge Pass Trail junction with the JMT. Kearsarge Pass sits at 11795 feet. The weather seemed to change completely at the pass and on the other side.
Famously, it is know as the place know for it’s cell reception. However, my Google Fi on the T-Mobile network did not have reception. I would have to be a little more patient.
The terrain on the other side of Kearsarge seemed like a completely different planet, a dry arid planet. Big Pothole Lake looks more like a crater filled in with water. This was my first time entering Owens Valley it was shocking how much it differed from the valleys in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The 5.5 miles down from Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley Trailhead descended at an almost even -10% grade the entire way. I finally got some sort of reception after I passed Big Pothole Lake. It wasn’t good enough for a call, so texting it was.
Meg was all set with her travel plans and equipment to bring (I will discuss our preparations in the next section). She would be heading to bed early since she was on eastern time and her flight was very early. But it was good just to talk to her briefly and knowing she’ll be able to reach me whenever at this point.
Though this process, I proceeded to stumble down the next few miles like a phone zombie, but at least I was a happy zombie.
Meanwhile the trail passed over Heart Lake and Flower Lake in the distance. There was a nice camping area among the trees with a water source off trail toward Flower Lake. The most stunning of the lakes was next, Gilbert Lake with its perfectly still surface and view out toward Owens Valley and the Inyo Mountains on the other side.
The rest of the way down to Onion Valley Trailhead felt like death by a billion switchbacks. It was very frustrating to see how close the parking lot was but to be still so far away. This would not be the last time I would hate switchbacks in California. At least this time, I had a great conversation with Diego about his PCT thru-hike and photography.
We reached the parking lot and Andy’s van at 5:40pm. We celebrated with a beer, and I was indeed tipsy after that 1 beer.
Andy and Diego would be heading north from Onion Valley Trailhead, so I asked to be dropped off in the larger city of Bishop rather than the small town of Independence. This would provide me with more hotel options and the bigger grocery store.
They dropped me off in front of Amigos Mexican Restaurant (tripadvisor) where my first priority was a California Burrito with unlimited refills of Horchata. This allowed me to recharge my phone and book a room my hotel for the night. I ended up booking a night at Travelodge in the Wyndham Hotel group for USD$98.96. It was around 10 dollars more than the cheapest option, but it came with a free breakfast. Furthermore, I was able to take advantage of Wyndham’s Mastercard promotion (drofcredit) to receive 7500 extra points for a stay, equivalent to a half the cost of a reward stay.
After a long long long shower, I was happy to be in a real bed. Even better, I would see Meg the next day.
The area between Muir Trail Ranch and Kearsarge Pass is the fourth uniquely distinguishable section on the JMT and it is mostly in Kings Canyon National Park. I was very happy to be out of the Sierra National Forest with all horse poop and flies that defined that section. Overall, Kings Canyon National Park was my favorite section as it crossed into higher elevations with granite mountains and colorful lakes. Even when I was hiking in lower areas, there was always a cool stream or creek making for a pleasant walk.
For the typical backpacker, there are so many possible options to experience this section. The North Lake & South Lake loop captured by Joey Coconato from My Own Frontier (YouTube) was the last straw that pushed me to apply for the JMT permit on a whim is one of the many options here. Another popular loop would be the Rae Lakes loop (NPS), with multiple entry points such as Road’s End entering from the west. There are also many pass from the Owens Valley that can get you into the area from the east such as the popular Bishop, Kearsarge, and Piute Passes. For those with more experience, additional passes from the east include Taboose, Sawmill, and Baxter.
It was also in this section that I had multiple conversations with local veteran backpackers that really emphasized how much beauty is hidden away off trail in the many untouched valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Should you have the experience and skills, there is almost endless possibilities here.
The amazing aesthetics in this section also brought to the forefront the loneliness that comes with solo hiking. As I discussed earlier, it made me realize that part enjoying the all encapsulating views is to be able to share it with others. It was the spark that reminded me of what matters most to me and that was sharing these trips with Meg. Furthermore, that reminder also was able to bring clarity to other uncertain aspects of my life.
The total distance that I covered between MTR and Onion Valley Trailhead was 79.2 miles with 17319 ft ascent and 15535 ft descent. At the end of this section, my trip total was 204.7 miles with 39843 feet gain and 41344 feet loss in elevation.
views: 4. The high barren granite terrain and passes dominated the most memorable views of this section. However, not all passes were fully aesthetically pleasing. The most memorable ones had something to contrast the otherwise bleak and dreary color of the granite. My favorite was Upper Rae Lake that brings all that’s around it to life.
There were plenty of other instances of that including the Palisade Lakes before Mather Pass,
the unnamed lakes in LeConte Canyon after Muir Pass,
and Sapphire Lake in Evolution Basin.
Also worth mentioning is the Kearsarge Lake drainage and I’d imagine the Woods Creek headwaters right after Pinchot Pass when there isn’t complete smog.
My favorite campsite wasn’t in the high country however, but rather the idyllic McClure meadows and full on alpenglow.
The entirely of Evolution Valley and Basin were indeed spectacular. I heard that camping by Wanda Lake not only provided a nice alpenglow, but also a moon rise just over Muir Hut.
If you are looking for wildlife, I saw plenty of deer in LeConte Canyon and also my only black bear on the JMT.
I guess that pretty much covered most of the trail in this section. That is why this was my favorite stretch on the JMT.
difficulty: 2. On the five full days of hiking, I was averaging about 17 miles with 3 days over 18. The total elevation gain when I didn’t have a double pass day was between 2500-3000 and was about 4000 and 5000 on my double pass days. Again, I was pushing my pace on these sections and you should walk at your pace. I don’t take my fatigue from the longer days into my difficulty rating since that is a personal choice.
The most difficult aspect regarding this section was the among of exposure to the sun. It can be draining and part of the main reason I think people would consider the Golden Staircase very difficult. I personally didn’t think it was too bad, but I found the strategy of soaking the shirt I’m wearing and a towel or another shirt to put on the back of my neck kept me cool during the climbs. I was grateful for that tip since I ended up doing majority of my climbs in the hot afternoon.
In terms of the steepness, the Golden Staircase wasn’t the steepest uphill I encountered. Both the final approach to Glenn and Kearsarge Passes were steeper and more difficult. The park rangers and trail builders really did a good job in maintaining and keeping majority of the trails at an decent incline with switchbacks.
None of the downhills were particularly bad either, just very long in some cases such as from Pinchot Pass to Woods Creek swing bridge. Overall, my knees were in pretty good shape.
I didn’t find flies a problem at all on this section, mainly because the National Park regulate pack animals better so there isn’t much horse poop on the trail. There were areas that mosquitoes can be a bother, such as Evolution Valley. However they pale in comparison to the previous section.
I was lucky in that I didn’t encounter much rain or storm, save a tiny bit on my final approach to Kearsarge Pass. However, there was smog encompassing around Pinchot Pass and Woods Creek. I was pretty fortunate overall. Again, environmental issues such as heavy snow year, storms, or smog can easily boost the difficulty rating up to a 3 or higher. But I would say this is a 2 typically.
technical: 1. Again, the JMT is well marked and traveled. Navigation wise, the only part that might be a bit unclear is the trail north of Muir Pass since the Middle Fork Kings River and side streams run over the rocky trail at points making it indistinguishable from the river. I’d recommend have a trail map on your phone at least or Guthooks. There are alternatives as part of the Sierra High Route or other backcountry routes you can take here, but that’s not part of the main JMT so I won’t discuss that in this score.
In term of technical skills, there is a major ford of Evolution Creek that is pretty easy during the typical hiking season. It is one of the two large fords on the JMT with some danger in high snow year or early in the season. So good judgement is needed in those situations. However, in a typical year and later in the season, no additional technical skills are needed beyond general backpacking and wilderness skills and knowledge unless it is a late snow year or you are attempting this early. In an heavy snow year, the crossing of South Fork Kings River at the low point between Mather and Pinchot Passes may become dangerous, so consult park rangers should you be there early in the season.