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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The final climb: up and over Kearsarge Pass (11,835 feet) and down to the trailhead and the end of the 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.
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.
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:
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:
A young buck in full velvet in preparation for the fall rut:
A couple of smaller visitors:
The desert 2000′ below the rim has turned green, nourished by the monsoon rains:
Even mushrooms grow in the dry, cool protection of shady plants:
Campsite on the South Rim is cozy, with all the desert running away to Mexico:
Sunset is a beautiful time of the day up here, giving way to the moon and Venus, the first lights of the night:
Add Jupiter and Saturn, the bring on the Milky Way and Mars as its escort:
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.
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.”
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.”
The 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.
Wolf 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.
Whenever 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.
Here 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.
Sunset below the divide gives way to the glow from fires burning north of Durango, which dropped ash on us like light snow after dark.
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.
The 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.
Evening showers treated us to a brief rainbow rising out of the top of the divide.
That 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.
Next 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.
Small ponds, our first substantial water in 3 days, reflect the ridgeline of the divide as the CDT drops through a pass between mountains.
“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.
The 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.
Campsite 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.
Last day on the trail, we pass hot springs, a favorite destination for day hikers.Fireweed, 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.
And 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.