THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
PART THREE: THE JOHN MUIR WILDERNESS
Reds Meadow to the Vermillion Valley Resort
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
The next section of our trip lasted three days, as Bob and I hiked 31 miles from Reds Meadow to our next resupply point at the Vermillion Valley Resort on Lake Edison.
We got up early the next morning, and had the breakfast buffet at the hotel. The food was expensive and a little disappointing, but at least the room was free. Afterwards, Christy packed up and I walked with her a couple of blocks to the Shiloh Inn. After a bit of wandering around, we eventually found the boarding place for the YARTS bus to Yosemite Valley. It turns out that the bus doesn’t pull into either parking lot. It only stops on Main Street adjacent to the inn. We hung out for a bit in the morning chill, and by the time the bus arrived, there was a small crowd there. Christy paid the driver and boarded the bus, bound for Yosemite Valley. From there, she would take the rental car to her Uncle’s ranch, where she would spend a couple of days. Afterwards, she would return to San Francisco for her flight to Mexico, where she was taking a two-week course to learn to teach yoga. I kissed her goodbye, and headed back to the hotel to find Bob.
I met Bob in the lobby. We checked out, and set off to resume our journey. This required getting back to the trailhead at Reds Meadow, which proved to be one of the bigger challenges of the trip. We needed to get over to The Village, to pick up the mountain bikers shuttle bus. The town of Mammoth Lakes has a free bus that runs all over town. Unfortunately, it didn’t start running for another hour or so. We were eager to get back on the trail, so we shouldered our packs and walked over to The Village. Once there, we eventually found where we could board the mountain bikers shuttle bus back to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. We waited a few minutes, before the first bus of the day arrived at 9am. Before we could board, the driver informed us that we were welcome to ride, if space was available. We stood aside, as a procession of armor-clad teenagers boarded the bus. Finally the stream of mountain bikers slowed to a trickle. Luckily, there were still a few open seats. We boarded, along with a solo backpacker, also named Bob.
For the next ten minutes, we were subjected to a blaring mixture of heavy metal and gangster rap music. I endured that misery, but I was ready for some peace and quiet by the time we reached the ski resort. There, I picked up some cold medicine at the gift shop, as I’d been battling some unpleasant sinus problems for the past few days. Then we boarded the National Park Service shuttle bound for Reds Meadow. We had paid for the round trip the previous afternoon, so we only had to show our receipts to the driver. This bus, which was the first of the day, was also quite crowded. Bob and I ended up sitting next to the hiker we’d met briefly on the earlier bus. This Bob wasn’t hiking the JMT – he was doing a longer hike covering a sizeable chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail.
During the ride, we got to know Bob a little. Bob’s approach to a long hike was a little different from ours. He was keeping a much faster pace than we were, and all of his planning seemed to revolve around speed. Virtually the only food he carried on the trail was peanut butter and crackers. Can you imagine eating peanut butter and crackers three times a day for two months? Not me. His most interesting idea related to his method of water treatment. Instead of carrying a filter or iodine pills, he brought only a tiny bottle of bleach. He added 2 drops of bleach to every quart of water to disinfect it. He told us that his pre-trip research had indicated that this method was both safe and effective. I fought with my water filter off and on for the whole trip, so his approach was certainly intriguing.
Later, we again met up with Molly and Rosa, who had also hiked with him for awhile. They had nicknamed him Crazy Bob based on some of his more revolutionary ideas and his annoying habit of sharing them with everyone he met.
Aside from chatting with Bob, we were entertained by our bus driver, who provided a litany of information about the local flora and fauna along with a ceaseless stream of corny jokes. The driver’s voice sounded just like Mr. Obvious from the syndicated Bob and Tom radio show. We also took in some fine scenery along the way. Unfortunately, thick smoke from nearby forest fires limited the views. It seemed like we had managed to stay one step ahead of the smoke through the first week of the trip, but now our luck was running out.
Most of the other passengers disembarked at the stop for Devil’s Postpile. This included Crazy Bob, who wanted to see the Devil’s Postpile before resuming his journey. The previous day, he had hiked the PCT to Agnew Meadows, where he had picked up the bus into town. Today, after visiting the Postpile, he was planning on catching the next bus to Reds Meadow to rejoin the PCT there. In essence, he was skipping a healthy piece of the trail in order to shave a day or so off the hike. I found it puzzling that he would choose to spend 2 months hiking, but would be so eager to take every available shortcut. Then again, he seemed puzzled that we had hiked all the way to Reds Meadow the previous day, rather than taking a short cut by leaving the trail at the Devil’s Postpile. It really blew his mind when I mentioned that I had taken the side trip down to Rainbow Falls. When I suggested that he check it out, he asked if there was any elevation change involved. I responded that I thought there was a climb of about 100’. He laughed and shook his head, stating that he’d never tack on a side trip, unless it was flat!
We finally arrived at Reds Meadow at 11am. It had taken us almost all morning to get from Mammoth Lakes back to the trail. At the resort, we picked up some fresh fruit and a bit of stove fuel before resuming the journey. Shortly before we got on the trail, Bob noticed that the screen on his camera was cracked. He had left his camera in his pack in the luggage compartment of the shuttle bus during the ride. It seems that it had gotten damaged on en route. The camera still worked, but there was no way for Bob to compose or view his photos.
We rejoined the JMT and hiked through the remains of a severe forest fire. There wasn’t a hint of shade on this stretch of trail, and we were lucky that the clouds and smoke were blotting out the sun. Otherwise, we would’ve roasted on the uphill hike out of Reds Meadow. The forest fire did provide us with some nice views back to the Ritter Range and over to the bald summit of Mammoth Mountain. It had also resulted in an outrageous display of wildflowers. The views and flowers helped us keep our minds off the grueling climb.
Somewhere along here Crazy Bob caught up with us, and he accompanied us for most of the rest of the day. I noticed that he was carrying a giant bag of Fritos in a side pocket of his pack, so I guess he wasn’t subsisting exclusively on peanut butter and crackers. A bit later we caught up with Molly and Rosa. They had spent the previous night camping at Reds Meadow. We then passed the Red Cones – two formerly volcanic cinder cones. The Mammoth Mountain area is technically still volcanically active, although the most recent significant eruption was hundreds of years ago. I had intended to take a side trip to the summit of one of the cones, but I missed the point where I should’ve left the trail. By the time I realized it, I didn’t want to backtrack to it.
We marched on to Deer Creek, where we had a mid-afternoon break despite some pesky mosquitoes. We rock hopped the creek, and walked another 6 miles towards Duck Creek. This stretch of trail was a fairly easy traverse high above Cascade Valley. Unfortunately, there aren’t any reliable water sources along this part of the trail, so we were committed to reaching Duck Creek for the night.
We reached the creek late that afternoon. By the time we arrived, the area was already crowded with campers. Crazy Bob decided to set up camp in the middle of a large group of tents. That didn’t look appealing to me, so Bob and I continued on and rock hopped the creek. We found several decent campsites on the far side, and all of them were vacant. We selected one on a bench high above the creek, away from the mosquitoes. We were treated to cooler weather that night, and I slept much better than I had over the last several nights.
I was up at 6am the next morning, as usual. Over the past few days, I had fallen into that routine. For some reason, every morning at that hour I felt inspired to wander away from the tents and dig a hole. This actually had a couple of advantages. First, the mosquitoes usually weren’t up at 6am. There’s nothing worse than doing your early morning squatting exercises while trying to defend your private parts from a swarm of biting demons. Second, Bob was on the same schedule. As a result, we were usually able to get on the trail fairly early.
On this particular morning, I had just finished digging a particularly impressive hole. I looked down, and noticed that I’d blown the crotch out of my underwear. How did that happen? Regardless, they were completely beyond repair. I’d have to finish the last 15 days of the trip with a single pair.
I hadn’t even started cooking breakfast when I began smelling smoke. Was something on fire? It wasn’t until I was eating my oatmeal that I realized that the sky wasn’t brightening, despite the rising sun. It wasn’t until later, after we hiked out of the trees, that we noticed that the entire Cascade Creek Valley was full of smoke. Apparently the wind had shifted, and the smoke from a nearby fire was blowing in. I was a bit grumpy about this as we packed up and resumed the hike.
An hour of fairly easy walking brought us to Purple Lake. Purple Lake is pretty, but the smoky haze detracted from the scenery. From there, we climbed to a minor saddle before descending to Lake Virginia. This spot really would’ve been spectacular in better conditions. Today though, you could barely make out the mountains in the distance beyond the lake. The lakeshore featured profuse blooms of Indian Paintbrush. Unfortunately, it was a little early for the peak of color. I would love to return there a bit later in the season to see the flowers at their peak.
We took a break at Lake Virginia. While we were there, we met a hiker that was hiking a piece of the JMT, from Reds Meadow to Lake Edison and the Vermillion Valley Resort. When we met him, we noticed that he seemed to be in the middle of a swarm of mosquitoes. He asked us if we’d had problems with bugs. We told him that we’d experienced a couple of miserable nights early in the trip, but conditions had improved since then. He told us that he had been tormented since the beginning of his trip. It was a bit of a relief when he wandered off, as he took all of the mosquitoes with him, like some warped version of the Pied Piper. As he walked away with a cloud following him, I noticed that he looked just like Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoons. We saw Pigpen on the trail that afternoon, and sure enough, he was still covered in mosquitoes. I felt sorry for him. Aside from the obvious misery, I’ll bet the people he met along the trail didn’t appreciate his company!
After a short climb, we began a long, switchbacking descent into lush Tully Hole. At the bottom we joined Fish Creek, and continued the hike downstream. Parts of the trail were a bit overgrown through here. After a brief break for lunch, we continued downstream. Eventually we reached the upper end of Cascade Valley. If we had continued downstream from here, we could’ve returned to Reds Meadow in a couple of days. Instead, we stayed on the JMT and crossed a high bridge before beginning the climb out of the jungle. After a moderate ascent, we reached lovely Squaw Lake near treeline. From here, we had some fine views of the Silver Divide and Mount Izaak Walton ahead. We had originally planned to camp there, but it was only 3pm. We did take a break there, and I even had a nap in the sun. Luckily, it seemed that we had left the smoke behind as we traveled south.
After our break, we made one final climb. We reached the next bench, and passed the junction with the trail to Goodale Pass. From there, we wandered through alpine country to an overlook of Chief Lake. From here, there is one final climb up to Silver Pass. I didn’t want to attempt the pass until the next morning, so we began searching for a campsite. I wandered off the trail to the right, through a talus field. This was a little tedious, but it paid off. A few minutes later, the talus ended in a long, flat sweep of sand. With views of Chief Lake and the high peaks of the Silver Divide, this was five-star camping at its best.
We set up camp, and I set out to explore. My efforts were quickly rewarded, as I wandered down to the shore of Chief Lake. Here I found a breathtaking expanse of pink heather in full bloom. Between the calm waters, the soaring peaks, and the thousands of pink blossoms, the scenery was staggering. I spent an hour or so taking photos, experimenting with dozens of possible compositions.
I eventually drifted back to camp, and joined Bob there for a dinner of pasta, chicken, sundried tomatoes, and artichokes. Afterwards, we were treated to a spectacular sunset. The brilliant red orb dropped down through a band of smoky haze to the west, creating a surreal scene. Later that night, I left the tent to answer the call of nature. My timing was great, as I caught the full moon setting through the same band of smoke. The haze created an eerie atmosphere as I walked through the moonscape above Chief Lake. It was a little spooky even, and it was a relief to crawl back into the tent.
VERMILLION SATURDAY NIGHT
We got up early the next morning, as we needed to be on the shore of Lake Edison to catch the ferry to the Vermillion Valley Resort at 4pm. We broke camp and made the scenic climb beyond Chief Lake. Along the way, we were treated to a nice view of Warrior Lake far below. We climbed above the actual pass, as the pass was blocked by sheer cliffs. We followed the trail down through rocks and snow and reached the shore of lovely Silver Pass Lake. We inadvertently wandered off course here, following an unofficial trail close to the lake shore. We eventually realized our error, but continued ahead to rejoin the official route. From there, we hiked downstream across a series of open granite slabs above Silver Pass Creek. This was a neat area, and occasional clumps of trees only added to its beauty. Before long we rock hopped the creek and reached the edge of an impressive cliff. From there, we descended steeply on tight switchbacks carved out of the wall of the gorge. On the way down, I spotted an airy boulder perched above the trail. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to check it out. I scrambled up on it, and was rewarded with a fine view up the valley of the North Fork of Mono Creek.
We resumed the descent, and reached the base of a high series of cascades. We rock hopped the creek again here, and I slipped near the end and dunked a boot. The descent continued from there, and we arrived at a ford of the North Fork of Mono Creek a bit later. When we reached the creek, some northbound hikers were attempting to rock hop. They made it, but it had been quite an athletic achievement. Since I had already wetted one boot on a much easier crossing, I decided to wade. I changed into my water shoes, and eased into the creek. The water was cold, but it was actually soothing on my overheated feet. Once on the other side, we descended along the North Fork, passing more granite slabs and raging cascades. We stopped for lunch at one of these spots, and relaxed listening to the creek rush by.
We met Grant while we were there. Grant caught my eye, because he was carrying the biggest pack I’d ever seen. Through the first week of the trip, we had primarily encountered JMT and PCT thru-hikers. Most of those hikers were carrying packs ranging from small to tiny. Grant was certainly an exception! His pack, which actually had two smaller packs attached to it, weighed approximately 100 pounds. Grant was working as an intern with the forest service on a volunteer trail crew. He was in charge of food preparation, and was apparently also the group’s Sherpa. We chatted for a bit before Grant headed off down the trail, also bound for Lake Edison.
While we were eating, we noticed building clouds above us. We’d made it through the first eight days of the trip without a drop of rain, but it looked like our luck was about to run out. Distant rumbles of thunder got us moving, and we continued downstream, at times following the creek, and on other occasions descending on switchbacks. The floral display along this stretch was amazing. Wild Columbines, Columbia Lilies, and Paintbrush were prominent, but the Purple Monkeyflowers stole the show. At one point, we passed a glade full of red, white, and blue flowers. The foot-pounding descent eventually ended, and we reached another creek crossing. We waded again, and before long we reached Quail Meadows and a junction with the side trail to the ferry dock on Lake Edison.
We headed that way, passing through Aspen groves, massive Jeffrey Pines, and stunning wildflowers. Before long, we caught up to Grant, who was struggling down the trail under his monster load. We were running ahead of schedule, and I felt sorry for Grant. In a moment of sympathy, I asked him if we could give him a hand. His face lit up, and the next thing I knew, I was carrying the daypack he’d strapped to the outside of his pack. Meanwhile, Bob was toting his chair. This proved to be more demanding than I expected. It was a good mile and half to the original location of the ferry landing, and the trail was rocky, wet, and uneven. When we reached the original ferry location, we realized we still had some walking to do. Because of years of drought, the lake was still some distance away. We walked along the rocky shore, as thunder rumbled through the hills above us. The wind really began to whip as we left the cover of the trees. A few minutes later, the first raindrops began to pelt us. We hurried to the relative shelter of a large rock, which at least blocked the wind. It didn’t help with the rain, but the heaviest rainfall seemed to be above us, on Bear Ridge. There was also quite a bit of thunder and lightning up there, and I was a little nervous being out in the open in the middle of a thunderstorm. By now though, the wind was really howling, and we didn’t want to leave our shelter to make a run for it.
We were two hours early for the ferry, but Grant had a two-way radio. He called his boss, who was at the other end of the lake, to see if they could send a boat over early. Unfortunately, they had halted all boat traffic due to the thunderstorms. This worried me, because there was no telling how long the storms would persist. We had to get to the Vermillion Valley Resort, because our resupply package with our food for the next three days was waiting for us there. Our only other option was a 5 mile hike along the northwest shore of Lake Edison, which we really didn’t want to do. So, we settled in to wait. Luckily the rain moved away from us, although the storm was still out over the reservoir.
It wasn’t long before other hikers began to show up. The first to arrive were Joe and his friend. They were in the middle of an extended trip, doing most of the JMT. They seemed like fun guys. Minutes after arriving, they had invented a game throwing rocks at pine cones. Most people would think that sitting in the rain for a couple of hours waiting for a boat would be miserable, but they found a way to make it fun. I’m guessing that they are fully capable of making the most out of any situation.
A bit later we were joined by Rob and Laura. They were PCT thru-hikers, heading north. They mentioned that they were probably at the back of the thru-hiker pack, but they didn’t seem a bit concerned about it. Unlike many thru-hikers I’ve met, they seemed far more interested in enjoying the hike than simply finishing it. On their way north, they had taken a couple of extra days to summit Mount Whitney. Later on, they were considering hiking down to Yosemite Valley and climbing Half Dome. I found their attitude refreshing in a place where most conversations seemed to revolve around pack weight and daily mileage goals.
A little later Carling and Scott arrived. They were medical school students doing a study on backcountry water quality and the effect of pack animals on it. They admitted that they had come up with the subject of their study because it would give them an excuse to do an extended backpacking trip. I liked their way of thinking, as well.
The storm finally cleared, and the “ferry” arrived at 4:40. Actually, calling it a ferry is an overstatement. What actually showed up were three small motorboats. Apparently someone had run the ferry into a submerged boulder a few days earlier. As a result, the ride across the lake would take 40 minutes, instead of 15. We all boarded the boats and headed for the resort. As we pulled away, Bob and I wondered where Molly and Rosa were. We had last seen them before Duck Creek, and we were certain they were still behind us. We were concerned that they had fallen behind, and had missed the boat.
At the other end of the lake we disembarked and loaded into a large cargo van. The ferry used to take its passengers all the way to the resort, but that was no longer possible due to the low water level. Packing everyone into the van was a challenge, and the only seats were old milk crates. Once inside, the odor was overpowering. It was unbelievably hot in there, which didn’t help the smell. As we pulled away from the lake, someone quietly joked, “well, we think we’re going to a resort”. Nervous chuckles ensued. So I chipped in with a hearty, “welcome to the Army, everybody”. That got a few laughs. Someone else then announced a new reality TV show – “We put 13 filthy hikers in a small cargo van. Who will survive?”
The ride was allegedly a Ľ mile, but it lasted at least five painful minutes. It was a huge relief when we finally arrived.
At the (rustic) resort, we all met the owner for a brief orientation. Unfortunately their bunkhouses were all full, but there was plenty of free camping available. I picked up a bag of potato chips and a beer. At the Vermillion Valley Resort, the first beer is free for thru-hikers. Most people would think that the key word in the previous sentence is “free”. Actually, in this case, the key word is “first”, because first implies a second, and a third, and possibly more. When I reached the cooler, I was ecstatic to discover that they had my all-time favorite beer – Dead Guy Ale. I knew this might be trouble, since we had a tough hike the next morning, but I decided I wasn’t worried about it.
I pitched my tent under the pines in front of the store, and enjoyed a hot $6 shower. While I was at it, I took advantage of the opportunity to use a flush toilet. Very nice! Bob and I then picked up our resupply packages, and we purchased a couple of giant tortillas from the restaurant to use in our upcoming meals. We also topped off our fuel bottles. I perused the contents of the resort’s hiker box, and was delighted to find the map that Christy had lost. I didn’t need that map for the hike, but I took it anyway so I’d have the complete set.
After finishing our chores, Bob and I went to the restaurant for dinner. Our timing was excellent, as Saturday is BBQ night at the resort. Dinner was outstanding, as we feasted on ribs, chicken, pork loin, and more. The prices were actually reasonable, and Bob and I forced ourselves to eat pie, even though we were already stuffed.
We ran into Molly and Rosa after dinner. It turns out they had gotten ahead of us. They had left camp early Saturday morning, and had passed us while we had been camped off-trail. They had managed an aggressive pace, and had caught an earlier boat shuttle. It was good to see them, and I was relieved to find out that they hadn’t been left behind. That evening, we hung out with all of our new friends, and I downed a few more Dead Guy Ales. At last call, Joe bought the last 6-pack of Dead Guy, and shared them with everyone that was still standing. By the time Bob and I staggered off to our tents, I was wondering if we’d be able to hike in the morning!
Continue reading about our trip as we continue our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail from the Vermillion Valley Resort to Muir Trail Ranch.
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