The John Muir Trail

The gem of the High Sierras of California

There are three hiking trails that transect our country from north to south, one in the east, the Appalachian Trail, one in the central Rockies, the Continental Divide Trail, and one in the west, the Pacific Crest Trail. In addition, there are a number of shorter “thru-hikes” on shorter point-to-point trails, the most famous, and arguably the most scenic, being the John Muir Trail of the high Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It runs from Yosemite National Park to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 United States. It runs for 210.5 miles up and down the passes and basins of the Sierras.

My good friend, Joe, his wife Sara, and I spent 9 days backpacking the most scenic (and I must add the most vertical) 65 miles of this trail during the first two weeks of September.

Looking west through an arch in the Alabama Hills toward Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states at over 14,500 feet.

Day 1 started west of the town of Bishop, CA, at the trailhead at 9800 feet elevation, then climbed up past Long Lake, Sadderock Lake, and up over Bishop Pass at 11,980 feet in a driving rain and sleet, hands frozen to our hiking poles, plodding through a river flowing down the trail with lightning dancing off the adjacent 14,000+ foot high peaks. A nice way to start the trip.

My first look at the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada front range from the upper end of South Lake on the climb up to Bishop Pass on day 1.
A waterfall drains the remaining snow fields of the High Sierra, left from a very high snow year with an estimated snowpack of 150%.
My companions, Sara and Joe, plod upwards through snowfields in a cold sleet and rain storm, struggling to gain the top of Bishop Pass at an elevation of 11,980 feet.

We made camp below the pass in the upper Dusy Basin at about 11,300 feet elevation. The rain and sleet cleared just before we made camp, and the aspenglow on the peaks was magical. Overnight temps held at about freezing, not too bad for this elevation.

Camp 1 in Dusy Basin, just below Bishop Pass.
Aspenglow against the wall of 14,000+ peaks that rise at the eastern end of Dusy Basin.
The Milky Way in all its glory after the storm clears and the stars appear.

On day 2 we drop down through the Dusy Basin drainage, headed for LeConte Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings River. We have a total descent of 3140 feet to our low elevation of 8700 feet at Grouse Meadows.

Sunrise just making its way onto the peak above a nameless lake in Dusy Basin.
The far walls and spires of LeConte Canyon.
A falls on Dusy Creek.
The peaks of LeConte Canyon.
We surprise two whitetail deer in Grouse Meadows, site of our camp for night 2.

After we set up camp at a campsite in Grouse Meadows, we are joined by two “thru-hikers,” a man from Akron, OH, with the trail name “Just Jeff,” who is finishing up the final 200 miles of his 2400 mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. His partner was Christina, a solo girl from Belgium doing a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail from south to north. Thru-hikers are characterized by light packs and no unnecessary gear, including food. They are always hungry and always ready to eat any and all extra leftovers.

Campsite in Grouse Meadows, with Just Jeff and Christina.
Afterflow of sunset below the parting storm clouds at Lower Palisade Lake.

Day 4 we climbed 1500 feet up and over Mather Pass from Lower Palisade Lake in a cold rain, then down 1100 feet into the upper basin below Mather Pass.

Cresting the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet, looking back down through rain clouds to the basin below.

Day 5 we break camp and head down the wide, beautiful basin, down about 1000 feet to the trail junction at the Middle Fork of the King’s River, then climb back up 1000 feet to Lake Marjorie for the next night.

Morning, looking back at Mather Pass from the upper basin campsite.
Hiking along the headwaters of the King’s River that drain the upper basin.
It’s Crocs only for crossing the Middle Fork of the Kings River. There was a fatality at this crossing last year involving a girl who did not cross with her backpack unbuckled and was swept away when she fell into the fast waters.
Campsite on Lake Marjorie at 11,050 feet altitude.

Day 6 we leave Lake Marjorie and climb 1080 feet up and over Pinchot Pass, then drop down 3670 feet to the beautiful Woods Creek Suspension Bridge for camp.

Yours Truly atop a spire at the crest of Pinchot Pass at 12,130 feet altitude.
Woods Creek Suspension Bridge (one hiker at a time, please).

Day 7 starts cold and early, leaving the low point of 8510 feet elevation and heading up over 2000 feet to the Rae Lakes at an elevation of 10,550 feet.

Confluence, Woods Creek & S. Baxter Creek.
One of the Rae Lakes, one of the most picturesque (and popular) lakes in the region.

Day 8 greets us with a beautiful reflection on upper Rae Lake, then it’s to work, climbing up 1430 feet to the summit of Glen Pass, then down over 1400 feet to the Kearsarge Pass trail junction, and back up past Bullfrog Lake to make camp.

Sunrise reflection on upper Rae Lakes.
A look back down from the 11,970 elevation of Glen Pass.
Campsite above Bullfrog Lake our final night on the trail.

The final climb: up and over Kearsarge Pass (11,835 feet) and down to the trailhead and the end of the trail.

A look back at the Kearsarge Lakes and the awesome spires of the Sierra, on the way up the switchbacks to the summit of Kearsarge Pass.
Joe, Sara and I having a “pass party” at the top of Kearsarge Pass 11,835 feet.
Farewell to the Sierras and the John Muir Trail.

This was a backpack trip I’ve always had on my “bucket list,” and it was definitely everything I expected, and more. There are many guide books available on the trail which include advice on access points, permits required, and all the other pertinent info you need to know in planning a hike on the John Muir Trail. Happy Trails.

BikePacking 101

Yes, you’re reading correctly…that’s BIKEpacking, not BACKpacking. A fairly recent phenomenon is emerging, and it’s called bikepacking…hitting the trails for overnight camping using a mountain bike. More and more trails systems are allowing mountain bikes on the trails, along with animals such as llamas and horses. One such system is found in my back yard, in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Here is a look at the trail system originating at the East Contraband Trailhead, and marked in yellow is the 8.5 mile long route I followed on my first bikepacking shakedown trip:

After checking in at the park headquarters at the Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas, TX, and obtaining the necessary permits for entry and overnight camping, I parked in the park maintenance area (for a better degree of protection for my Jeep than on the road at the trailhead) and hit the trail.

Here is a look at my basic bike setup…full-suspension mountain bike with a front handlebar pack and an under-seat pack for my tent:

The trail I followed is a the least technical route from this trailhead, not wanting to test my riding skills too quickly with an extra 10 pounds of gear on my bike, and a small backpack weighing in at about 15 pounds, due to the quantity of water needed for backpacking in the desert. In this case, I’m carrying 4 liters of water, which amounts to about 12 pounds of weight:

The trail is a combination of mining road and some sections of single-track which wind through the hills, climbing from about 2400′ elevation up to 2750′ where I made camp.

There is a lot of history in this area, some dating back to early paleo-indians of some 10,000 years ago, and more recent history, such as this candelilla, or wax, factory along a dry arroyo:

Buena Suerte trail climbs for some 7.5 miles up to an old mining area, which dates from the early 1900’s up until mid-20th. century. This is a private in-holding owned by the Lajitas Resort, so camping is not permitted on this property, but it’s an interesting site to explore if you’re very careful, as there is still a lot of derelict machinery here:

The trail splits to the left, or northeast, and becomes single-track before dropping into Fresno Creek at a major trail junction:

It was in Fresno Creek that I came upon the scourge of the desert: wild burros. These animals are remnants of early attempts at settling, mining, prospecting, wax making, plus invasives coming from Mexico. They are a menace to native plants and animals, and if I had a gun, I’d shoot every one:

Back to the task at hand, my campsite for the evening, with a warm glow of the setting sun off the nearby hills:

After a warm (50 degree) night, the morning sun was a welcome sight, along with views down the Fresno Creek drainage:

Shell fossils in the rocks are a reminder that this once was the bottom of a shallow inland sea:

The ride back to the trailhead was a “hoot” as it is mostly downhill. I made a detour down a more technical side loop to test my riding skills with the added weight and a backpack, and all went smoothly:

And so, if you’re new to bikepacking like myself, or a veteran of many technical trails, you can find a challenge to fit your taste here in Big Bend Ranch State Park. But keep in mind that this is very remote, rugged country which requires a level of expertise in self-rescue in the event of mechanical failure or an accident requiring medical attention. Also, plan to come here in late fall, winter, or early spring due to extreme, deadly heat other times of the year.

Late Summer on the South Rim

As fall approaches, so have the rains arrived in the Big Bend. And so, it’s time again to backpack up into the High Chisos trails and camp on the South Rim.  

You certainly don’t hear “fall” and “flowers” spoken in the same sentence, but then again, it’s a different place, the Big Bend. It was not long before the bloom brought on by a couple of weeks of soaking, and sometimes flooding, rains on the mountain put on a show:

IMG_0310 Flowers

P1080156 Flowers

P1080167 Flower

P1080224 Flowers

P1080172 Flower

P1080228 Flowers

P1080355 Flowers South Rim

P1080243 Elephant Tusk South Rim

P1080365 Flowers South Rim

P1080369 Flowers South Rim

In addition to a wonderful array of flowers, the critters were all on the move, enjoying the explosive availability of water throughout the high country. The del Carmen whitetail deer, found only on this mountain and across the Rio Grande River in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains, display a real lack of fear born from evolving on this protected mountain alongside human contact:

P1080189 Deer Chisos

A young buck in full velvet in preparation for the fall rut:

P1080200 Deer Chisos

A couple of smaller visitors:

P1080155 Butterfly

P1080160 Lizard

P1080256 Grasshopper

The desert 2000′ below the rim has turned green, nourished by the monsoon rains:

P1080248 Trail South Rim

Even mushrooms grow in the dry, cool protection of shady plants:

P1080223 Mushroom

Campsite on the South Rim is cozy, with all the desert running away to Mexico:

P1080233 Tent South Rim

Sunset is a beautiful time of the day up here, giving way to the moon and Venus, the first lights of the night:

P1080268 Sunset South Rim

P1080280 Sunset South Rim

P1080314 Sunset South Rim

Add Jupiter and Saturn, the bring on the Milky Way and Mars as its escort:

P1080324 Sunset South Rim

P1080331 Milky Way South Rim

Next morning, it’s time to head home, but one last visit from a setting of flowers, and an escort by another whitetail doe down the trail.

P1080354 Flowers South Rim

P1080377 Deer Laguna Trail

Rain is the lifeblood of the desert, and proves that there’s something to see year-round if you slow down and look. As I have often quoted from Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, “…crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”

 

Backpacking the Continental Divide

The Continental Divide. The backbone of our continent, where the waters running off the eastern slopes drain into the Atlantic and those going west drain into the Pacific Oceans. The location of our latest backpacking adventure.

My longtime climbing and backpacking partner Joe and his wife Sara met me in southern Colorado over the Fourth of July for a week in the “high country.” 

P1070813The Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, begins in southern New Mexico and runs across the top of the continental divide all the way to Canada. A small number of “through hikers” successfully backpack the entire length of the trail in one summer, while a much larger number of “section hikers” complete smaller sections of the CDT in small bites. We fall into the latter group. Our plan was to spend the better part of a week doing a loop in the vicinity of Pagosa Springs, CO. Our starting point was the famous Wolf Creek Pass, where we posed for a trailhead photo.

P1070816Wolf Creek Pass is at an elevation of 11,400 feet, so we picked up the CDT from the overlook parking area near the top of the continental divide. The ridge just above the trail is the actual continental divide.P1070826

P1070833

P1070844Whenever the trail dropped away from the high ridge above timberline, the proliferation of wildflowers did not disappoint. Here bluebells are mixed with several other species that I will not attempt to identify, other than recognize them for their beauty, and the familiar blue and white columbine was to be found in volume.

P1070847-48-49-50 Pan

P1070857Here the CDT winds west and then northward just below the high ridge towards our camp for the second night out on Archuleta Lake, just below the divide.

P1070864aP1070868Sunset below the divide gives way to the glow from fires burning north of Durango, which dropped ash on us like light snow after dark.

P1070891

Next morning an 800+ foot climb from Archuleta Lake to the top of the divide got the blood flowing. Amazing how flowers hang on at these altitudes above 12,000 feet.

P1070904P1070929The CDT is really exposed up on top…a place not to be caught by afternoon thunderstorms with their deadly lightning. We made camp after 6 miles on top at a small “pond,” our last chance for water for another 6 miles. This has been the driest year in memory for long-time hikers in this part of the Rockies, and we were thankful to find water at the actual source of all streams and rivers.

P1070913Evening showers treated us to a brief rainbow rising out of the top of the divide.

P1070944That night the Milky Way put on a show, with the bright Saturn shining through the band of stars rising in the southeast, here the brightest “star” just to the left of center.

P1070965P1070969

P1080001Next morning we climb over 1000 feet to a pass which is the high point of our trip at 12,800 feet. From here we follow the top of the divide along knife-edge ridges for another 6 miles before we make camp for the night. 

An even greater variety of wildflowers appear as we click off the miles.

P1080011Small ponds, our first substantial water in 3 days, reflect the ridgeline of the divide as the CDT drops through a pass between mountains.

P1080029P1080027P1080036“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” becomes our trail song next morning as we wind our way through a waists-high sea of flowers along the “Rainbow Trail” which follows the West Fork of the San Juan River from its source down the West Fork drainage.

P1080055The pine and spruce forests of the Rockies have been devastated by spruce beetles. Here the dead stands of trees proved to be excellent fuel for a fire that swept through this drainage in 2013. The deadfall from downed trees made for a nearly impassable trail through the steeper sections.

P1080070P1080074P1080060Campsite the last night along the West Fork of the San Juan. We were visited by several deer, here a couple of bucks with nubbin antlers in velvet just beginning to grow out make a leap over some deadfall trees with much more grace than we.

P1080093Last day on the trail, we pass hot springs, a favorite destination for day hikers.P1080101Fireweed, the first plant to thrive after a forest fire, lights up the trail in burn areas.

Butterflies and moths are everywhere, taking advantage of the bloom nectar.

P1080120P1080129And so, 6 days on the CDT comes to an end with majestic views of lofty escarpments that form the canyon of the West Fork. This is a short (30-mile) loop with easy access to trailheads. With so many of our western national forests closed due to fire danger, this is a gem waiting to be enjoyed. BEWARE…the Rainbow Trail through the West Fork drainage has some extremely difficult sections due to tree downfall on steep slopes. Be prepared for a lot of difficult scrambling to get over and around these blockages, especially through one 2-mile stretch. A challenge well worth the effort.

Wind Rivers Finale

My 6th. trip to the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming will probably be my last one into these mountains. During the past 25 years I and a few very close friends have made an annual pilgrimage to the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico to Montana, and all points in between, for extended (8-12 days) backpack excursions into the high country. The Wind Rivers are probably my favorite mountain range, primarily due to the high, craggy peaks, the many gorgeous, sweeping basins carved by the glacial movements of the last ice age, the many high, alpine lakes, and the vast expanses of off-trail trekking available above timberline. After 6 backpack trips into the Winds I think after this trip we’ll set our sights on other trails where we have not been before. This August our trip returned to a section of the southern Winds that we all love, and an area that we had not visited since 2010. This, a short photo-safari through Wyoming’s backbone, the Continental Divide, and the grizzly bear country of the Wind River Mountains:

Myself, Jason, Sara and Joe at the Scab Creek Trailhead ready to go:11We have a climb of 1700′ in the first two miles up the trail to the Wilderness boundary:14Some of the lower elevation lakes sport beautiful yellow lillies along the shoreline:22The delicate columbine flowers begin to appear as we reach higher elevations:32Campsite the first evening after a 9.5 mile hike, with the majestic peaks of Bonneville Basin, still some 8 miles away, looming in the background:44First night out we marvel at clear skies as a meteor from the Perseoid Meteor Shower crosses the Milky Way, and the ISS glides by low on the horizon:57Next morning we hit the trail, only to find a couple of log cabins, circa 1900, that were probably used by shepherds using the summer pastures along these drainages for grazing sheep:70After a couple of miles of “off-trail” hiking across high meadows with spectacular views and multiple crystal blue lakes, we intersect the Freemont Trail, a section of the Continental Divide Trail that runs the backbone of the Rockies from Canada to near Mexico:71Today’s hike of about 7 miles brings us to Bonneville Lake, at an elevation of about 9300′, which sits in the shadow of Bonneville Peak. The last time we were here we had just crossed Raid Pass in a rain/snow storm and descended a steep waterfall some 500′ to set up camp on this very spot in driving snow (in August), about 7 years ago:87Bonneville Lake:79Wildflowers and waterfall that connects Upper Bonneville Lake with Lower Bonneville Lake:107The view from atop the waterfall, looking back down to Lower Bonneville Lake:120Multi-colored lilac and white columbine near the upper waterfall:128A calm lake reflects the new snow that fell overnight, leaving an inch or more on our tents at camp, and much more at higher elevations:134Next morning, we break camp and head 8 miles up and across a pass and drop into another basin, Middle Fork Basin, and set up camp between Lee Lake and Middle Fork Lake:190Lee Lake is gorgeous, and is still holding lots of snow in its basin from heavier than normal winter snows:193The wildflowers around Lee Lake are spectacular, and the view across the lake reveals the waterfall that drops over 500′ from Bewmark Lake. We’ll be climbing this near-vertical route with our packs later in the day:220After our climb, the view from atop the waterfall, back across Middle Fork Lake, to Lee Lake and the vast Middle Fork Basin is just spectacular:236The view from our “camp kitchen” as Jason and I enjoy the lengthening shadows before cooking dinner:231We take a day hike across the snow fields to a smaller, upper unnamed lake still icy cold and clear from the remaining blanket of snow that won’t melt off this year:258Next morning we pack up, head over another high pass and drop down the Middle Fork Boulder Creek drainage, displaying beautiful cascades along the way, carrying snowmelt waters from two wonderful basins:287Our final night we return to the meadow on the approach to the high basins where we spent our first night a week ago, and watch the mountains turn from gray to red as the sun gives way to twilight:308As the skies darken, the Milky Way explodes across the southern sky and the occasional meteor gives us pause to applaud the splendor of the heavens:313RAnd so, eight days flew by as if only hours, and we were left to again be grateful for our time here. This is truly one of the best kept secrets in the Rockies, and are still full of places where solitude is king. One caveat…this is grizzly bear country, so you must be experienced in back country habits where these deadly critters are present. Bear spray (deterrent) is a must, as is a clean camp and spartan tents free of human food odors. But the rewards are worth it. 

We were also in Wyoming during the total solar eclipse. This was no accident, as we have been planning this for over a year:Eclipse ProgressionIMG_4746R

A pretty spectacular way to finish another marvelous trip to the high country!

High Uintas Wilderness

The Uinta Mountains are the highest east-west oriented mountain range in the U.S.  They are located in the extreme northeast corner of Utah, and extend into Wyoming, and are a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains.  They contain the highest peak in Utah, Kings Peak, at 13,528 feet.  I last backpacked in these mountains in 2004, and once previously in 1993, so I was anxious to visit them again.  Thus, the setting for my latest adventure to the high country, the second week of August, this year.

I was joined by long-time backpacking partners and friends Joe and Mike, along with Joe’s fiance Sarah, and friend Ken and his grandson Alec.  We appear fresh at the trailhead:P1040064Just one of the creek crossings we navigate along the trail:P1040098On Day 1 we hiked 7 miles, with an altitude gain of 1200 feet, and made camp just below Squaw Pass:P1040126We have missed the peak bloom season, even at this altitude, but here we find a few lone columbine blooming in the shade of a fir tree:P1040108Squaw Pass was a formidable climb, but we topped out around lunch time and descended into a wide basin and set up camp 2:P1040149P1040182Afternoon thunderstorms rolled in from the west and created a wonderful play of light on the mountains against the dark, foreboding clouds of the storms:P1040208These mountains are sedimentary, remnants of an ancient sea floor, so the banding in the rock layers is colorful with many contrasting variations:P1040213Storms cleared, and the night sky was spectacular, with the Milky Way rising above the mountaintops:P1040225Next morning, we faced the daunting task of going up and over Porcupine Pass, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle as we make our approach:P1040231A look down at the basin from atop Porcupine Pass, an altitude of 12,200 feet:P1040256Heading down the other side of the pass into another basin, we head off-trail and surprise a huge muley buck, airborne as graceful as if weightless:P1040277Our campsite was spectacular, surrounded by mountains, with a gurgling stream to lull you to sleep:P1040286Third night out, the Milky Way made another grand appearance:P1040328Next morning it was up and over Tungsten Pass, with a look back at Tungsten Lake from atop the pass:P1040357As we enter yet another basin, we see Kings Peak, highest point in Utah, rising before us:P1040372Our camp for the next two nights will sit in the shadow of these, the highest peaks in this mountain range:P1040395As we make dinner, several local residents approach our camp, apparently disturbed by our presence in their favorite shelter trees where they bed down:P1040459P1040461Not far from camp, a beautiful waterfall (which we first admired on our 1993 trip to this basin) flows from the remaining snow fields, clear and cold:P1040434After the ascent of Kings Peak, next morning we break camp and head over Smyth Fork Pass, in the direction of Red Castle Peak and Lower Red Castle Lake, seen here through an unexpected snow storm that hit us coming down the north side of the pass:P1040488Trying to pump water in the snow is chilly business:P1040490We reach lower Red Castle Lake and set up camp with snow clouds still swirling overhead:P1040504And almost as quickly as the snow appeared, it is gone to reveal a spectacular view of Red Castle and Smyth Fork Creek:P1040533That night is the peak of the Perseoid Meteor Shower, and we spot a couple of spectacular meteors, some with long, bright ion trails visible even in twilight. Here, a smaller meteor is captured by my camera after midnight:P1040551Next morning we set off on a day hike up to Red Castle Lake, a 7-mile hike with an altitude gain of about 1000 feet, but well worth the effort:P1040591P1040604Next day, we make the 1400-feet climb up and over Bald Mountain.  Below, Bald Mountain Lake sits awaiting the remaining snow melt for its icy waters:P1040720From atop Bald Mountain you can see 360 degrees in all directions, and the views of the peaks is spectacular.  In 1993 Joe and I were chased across this high plateau by storms and lightening, and couldn’t enjoy its beauty.  This day is much different:P1040704Some of the blooming beauty that we spot on the way down, on our last day:P1040724P1040731P1040732A trail-weary crew: 8 days, 55 miles, 8900-feet elevation gain, and wonderful friendship…the right combination for another fantastic voyage through God’s creation.P1040734