THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
PART FOUR: THE JOHN MUIR WILDERNESS
Vermillion Valley Resort to Muir Trail Ranch
“Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
The next section of our trip covered approximately 22 miles, as we traveled from the Vermillion Valley Resort on Lake Edison to our final resupply point at Muir Trail Ranch. We took three days to complete this section of trail, as we included our only rest day in this segment.
I was up at 6:30 the next morning, despite a mild hangover. I took advantage of another opportunity to use a flush toilet, although I had to sit in the dark because the generators weren’t running yet. I met Bob at the restaurant at 7am, right after they opened. I had an $8 omelet for breakfast, and it was fantastic! While eating, we were subjected to a television for the first time in several days. We tuned in just in time for an early morning newscast. Bob was excited about this, as he felt out of touch with what was going on in the world. The lead story that morning was about a series of shark attacks in Florida. I looked at Bob and said, “If the lead story is about shark attacks, we haven’t missed a thing.”
After breakfast, we broke camp and loaded back into the cargo van for the ride to the dock. The ride back was still uncomfortable, but at least the smell was more pleasant. We did notice that Joe and a few other folks that had been partying the night before missed the shuttle. We knew they’d be stuck at the resort until the afternoon, unless they found another way back to the trail.
It was a calm morning, and the ride back across Lake Edison was scenic but uneventful. We disembarked at 9:45, and walked back along the lakeshore to return to the trail. The side trail to Quail Meadows was tedious, as we slogged through several minor ups and downs and dealt with slippery rocks, mud, and bugs. As we hiked, we started to notice blood splashed across some of the rocks on the trail. This continued for several hundred yards, and it seemed like most of the rocks had some. As we walked, we wondered what the source of the blood was. It was a bit alarming, as whatever it was had lost a lot of blood. We could only hope that it wasn’t from a person. My guess is that it was a wounded animal, but we never found out.
We rejoined the JMT, and crossed a stout bridge over Mono Creek. Once on the other side, we began one of the JMT’s most notorious climbs. The trail ascends Bear Ridge for 4.6 miles, gaining 2000’ along the way. Dozens of switchbacks make the grade reasonable, but the climb does seem to go on forever. Early on, we were treated to another outrageous floral display. We passed through another wet, lush forest, and the flowers were nearly as nice as the ones we’d seen the day before. Eventually we moved into a dry forest of Lodgepole Pine that was less interesting. This part of the climb was boring, but it wasn’t terribly difficult. After a couple of hours, we finally reached the crest of Bear Ridge. A gentle stroll through the woods ensued, before we began a thousand foot descent towards Bear Creek. We stopped for lunch early on, in another glade of spectacular wildflowers. While we were eating, several of our new friends from the Vermillion Valley Resort passed by. This included Joe and his friend, who had missed the boat that morning. Rather than waiting until the afternoon, they had gotten a ride to the Bear Ridge Trail. This route is actually a little shorter, but it’s a tougher climb. Joe mentioned that the trail was poorly graded, and it featured several sections that were steeper than JMT standards.
After lunch, we endured an abrupt descent to Bear Creek. Once at the bottom, we followed Bear Creek upstream, passing lots of pools, rapids, and cascades. A bit later, we caught up to Joe and his friend fly fishing. They both admitted to having trouble passing up good trout streams, and this was clearly one of them. We watched them for a bit as they landed Golden and Brook Trout. Bob had expressed some interest in learning how to fly fish the previous night, and Joe actually offered Bob a free lesson. He took about 30 minutes to teach him the basics, and let him get some practice. Bob was thrilled that they had taken the time to do that. We wished them well on their journey, and resumed the hike.
By this point, clouds had begun to build again. Distant thunder got us moving, and the day turned chilly despite the uphill hike. Before long, a cold rain began to fall. We donned our rain gear and picked up our pace to generate some heat. A few minutes later, we reached a series of crossings of braided Hilgard Branch. These were some of the most difficult crossings of the whole trip. We managed to rock hop several of them, while one was crossed on a shaky log. It was nice to get across with dry feet, but that didn’t last long. We reached Upper Bear Creek Meadows a little later, where we had to ford Bear Creek. If the water had been a little lower, rock hopping may have been an option, but not today. We switched to our water shoes while fending off swarms of mosquitoes. Aside from the bugs, the crossing wasn’t bad. The water was knee deep, but it wasn’t terribly swift. We spent some time searching for a campsite on the far side. There were a number of possible sites, but most of them were plagued with swarms of mosquitoes and covered in horse crap. We decided to continue on, in hopes of finding a better spot. Originally I had planned on camping at Rosemarie Meadows, but I was afraid that the meadows would be buggy and exposed. With the ongoing thunderstorms, I was reluctant to camp there.
We climbed more switchbacks, away from the creek. This was pretty miserable, as we were both tired from the uphill hiking we’d endured that day. The swarms of bugs and pelting rain didn’t help, either. We continued searching for a campsite as we climbed. After quite a bit of hunting, Bob finally stumbled across a possible site among rock slabs near the West Fork of Bear Creek. We pitched our tents in the rain and jumped in to get out of the wet. The sound of the rain on the tent fly was soothing, and I quickly fell asleep. It wasn’t until that evening that we realized that we were camped in a dry creek bed. This wasn’t the best choice, particularly in a thunderstorm. By the time we realized our mistake, it was entirely too late to move. The good news is that it was dry, despite heavy rain over the past two days. My guess is that it only holds water during the spring snowmelt.
I woke from my nap a couple of hours later. It was still raining, but it was getting late. Due to the weather, I scrapped our original dinner plan, which had called for burritos. Instead, I whipped up a batch of instant mashed potatoes and heated up some freeze dried peas. This sounds awful, but it wasn’t really that bad. In fact, the mashed potatoes were quite filling and warmed us up despite the evening chill.
We had just finished eating when the rain finally stopped. Although it had stopped, everything was wet. We cleaned up and stashed our food barrels and went to bed early. It had been a long day, and I was ready for bed despite my earlier nap.
THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN
We were greeted with blue skies the next morning. This was a relief, as the rain of the last 2 days had gotten tedious. Plus, the morning sunshine enabled us to wash some clothes and dry out some of our gear. We enjoyed a leisurely morning, as we were taking the day off. We had wanted to take a layover day during the trip, and this had appeared to be a convenient place. The hike from Vermillion Valley Resort to Muir Trail Ranch (our last resupply point) is only 22 miles. By taking the layover day there, we could stretch that section out to 3 days. The rest day would also enable us to recharge our batteries before beginning the hardest part of the trail.
My other motive for selecting this location for a layover was the Three Island Lake Basin. This alpine lake basin is tucked below Mount Senger and The Pinnacles, a couple of miles east of the JMT. Our layover day would allow us the opportunity to explore that area without carrying heavy packs. After we finished breakfast and our morning chores, we set off on our dayhike.
We returned to the trail, and climbed up to a crossing of the West Fork of Bear Creek. The crossing was tricky, but we were able to cross using some fallen logs and conveniently placed rocks. Just beyond the crossing, we turned left onto a side trail towards Lou Beverly Lake. This lake is pretty, although it’s below treeline. We continued to the lake’s inlet, which I had to wade barefoot. The bugs were horrible here, and we hurried on up the trail, passing a cascading waterfall. A steep climb ensued, leading us to treeline. From there, we continued on to Sandpiper Lake. Here we had our first great view of the alpine country ahead. Dozens of lakes stretched away in every direction, separated by granite slabs and scattered clumps of stunted trees. The rugged peaks of the Seven Gables, Gemini, and the Pinnacles soared above.
Bob and I had no real agenda, giving us the freedom to roam at will. We drifted up past Sandpiper Lake to the end of the official trail. From there we continued cross country, making a short but steep climb over a minor divide. We found our way down the opposite side, and wandered among the Medley Lakes. The Medley Lakes consist of dozens of small lakes and tarns scattered throughout the broad basin. We continued south, towards Three Island Lake, but navigation was a challenge. Each time we thought we’d found a clear route, we’d find our path blocked by another pond. Finally we hopped across the inlet stream for the Medley Lakes and began a modest climb. A few minutes later, we crested a minor ridge, and Three Island Lake spread out before us. We walked down to the shore, where we relaxed in the sun and enjoyed an early lunch.
Mount Senger rose above us, and as we lounged, Bob noticed people up there. We watched them for a bit, and realized that they were descending from the summit. A few minutes later, we spotted a pair of hikers at the far end of Three Island Lake, heading our way. Those were the only other people we saw all day.
While we were spectating, we noticed building clouds beyond the peaks. After the storms of the previous two days, these looked particularly hostile. We were a long way from the nearest shelter, so we gathered our gear and started back towards camp. This time, we stayed east of the Medley Lakes, in an effort to make better time. This proved to be a significant shortcut, but by the time we reached Sandpiper Lake, storms were all around us. Thunder began rumbling among the peaks above us, spurring us on. We raced down the switchbacks towards Lou Beverly Lake, but in our haste we lost the trail. We found our own way down to Lou Beverly Lake. Now that we were in the relative safety of the woods, we relaxed our pace. At the inlet stream, I waded barefoot, while Bob dashed across in the crocs he had carried along. Once across, Bob elected to continue to camp in his crocs in order to save time. I had to put my boots back on, and Bob got ahead of me. I raced after him, as thunder continued to rumble all around us. At this point, I was no longer content with just being below treeline before the storm. I wanted to make it to my tent!
I caught up to Bob below Rosemarie Meadows, a short distance before camp. He was moving slow. It turns out that trying to hike fast in crocs isn’t a wise idea. Bob suffered from blisters for several days afterwards. We shuffled the rest of the way to camp, and collected the clothes we’d laid out to dry. We made it to our tents moments before the deluge let loose. The downpour lasted a good two hours. Rain lashed at my tent, while bolts of lightning illuminated the gloom. Violent peals of thunder continued to echo off the mountains surrounding us. Despite the fury of the storm, I dozed again. When the downpour finally subsided, we emerged from our tents refreshed and grateful we had picked this day for a layover.
The evening ended up being pleasant, even though everything was wet. Bob and I played cards for awhile, while rehydrating all of the ingredients for the evening’s meal. We dined on burritos, using the tortillas we had purchased at Vermillion Valley Resort. The burritos featured chicken, rice, beans, and salsa, all of which had been easy to dehydrate and rehydrate. Later that evening, we were treated to beautiful alpenglow on a distant peak. The alpenglow was accompanied by a brilliant rainbow that was the last remnant from the afternoon’s violent storms.
“Oh and it never
rains around here
It just comes pouring down”
From, “It Never Rains”, by Dire Straits
The rain resumed that night, and continued into the next morning. What the hell? The Sierras have a reputation for sunny, dry summer weather. Typically the only exception is the occasional afternoon thunderstorm. But rain at night, and in the morning? Unheard of. A friend of ours with numerous trips in the Sierra Nevada had been known to claim that “it never rains in the Sierras in the summer”. Apparently he’s had a lot better luck with the weather than we did.
We woke to pesky drizzle and made oatmeal. After breakfast, we endured one of life’s great miseries – breaking camp in the rain. We returned to the trail and endured a wet, uphill slog to Rosemarie Meadows. There the clouds finally began to break up, and the sun made its first appearance of the day. From there, we made a gradual climb to the Marie Lakes, which was one of the most beautiful spots of the whole trip. As we climbed above the lakes, the vista got even better. The alpine lakes unfolded below us, and fields of pink heather added to the beauty. From there, we continued up to Selden Pass, which is a narrow notch above the Marie Lakes. The views from here were rather limited, and we pressed on, continuing down to Heart Lake and then the Sallie Keys Lakes. The Sallie Keys Lakes are pleasant, subalpine tarns featuring some nice campsites. From there, we continued through Lodgepole Pine on an uneventful descent. Shortly after rock hopping Senger Creek, we began the final abrupt drop to the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. We received another burst of rain here, before partial clearing allowed us a foggy view of the valley far below.
We were descending switchbacks into the valley when we caught back up with Molly and Rosa. We had gotten ahead of them earlier, as they had taken a layover day at the Vermillion Valley Resort. However, they’d caught back up to us and passed us the next day, while we were lying over below Rosemarie Meadows. Now we had reunited once again for the hike down to Muir Trail Ranch, where we all had resupply packages to retrieve.
We continued down the trail, and met an interesting character heading the other way. He was an elderly Italian gentleman, thru-hiking the trail northbound. We paused for a brief chat, and Bob asked him what kind of food he was carrying. The hiker, whom I later named Super Mario, responded that he was subsisting entirely on oatmeal and gorp! He went on to explain that, “I came to the Sierra Nevada to hike, not to eat. If I want to eat, I’ll go back home to Italy!” We enjoyed a good laugh, as Super Mario resumed his slow but steady ascent out of the valley.
A few minutes later, we reached the cut-off trail to the Muir Trail Ranch. The JMT continues ahead here, but we needed to make a detour to pick up our food for the last 10 days of the trip. We descended a steep, rocky path that was probably the worst section of trail on the whole hike. Needless to say, this shortcut isn’t up to the same standards as the JMT. In fact, Bob’s foot slipped on the descent, and he took a nasty fall. I was just ahead of him, and his tumble looked scary. I was afraid he had seriously injured himself, but he was ok except for some minor scrapes. This was a relief, and we finally reaching the bottom of the hill. From there, we followed signs for the Muir Trail Ranch through a network of trails. At the ranch, we were directed to a large shed that stores all of the hiker resupply boxes. There, we met a nice lady who gave us our packages. She also brought out a freshly baked cake, which was a wonderful treat. Even better, she gave us access to the “good” hiker box. There are several hiker boxes there full of junk, but she keeps the best one hidden. In it, I found a giant bag of Chex Mix, which I pounced on. Molly and Rosa arrived a few minutes later, and we all shared the salty snack, which really satisfied a major craving for me.
Our next challenge was packing our bear canisters. Our barrels are designed to carry 7 days worth of food, for one person. The problem we had is that we had 10 days worth of food. Getting all of it into our barrels wasn’t an option. Most JMT thru-hikers have to deal with this problem. Some carry a third canister, but that is unappealing due to the excess weight. Others hang the extra food for the first few days. This is risky, as bears in the Sierras are experts at retrieving food bags from the trees. This technique is also a violation of park rules. We opted for a third method. Bob borrowed a lightweight Ursack bag from a friend prior to the trip, and shipped it with his food to Muir Trail Ranch. Ursacks are designed to be bearproof; however, the National Park Service has not approved them for use. That means that technically, we would be in violation of park regulations. Despite this, it seemed like our best option.
We spent the next 30 minutes trying to get all of our food into two canisters and one Ursack. This proved to be somewhat challenging. I had to repack my canister once, and Bob had to redo his twice, before we were finally able to get everything in. Bob even managed to cut his hand on the side of his canister at one point. Once we finished, Bob had to try to figure out how to properly secure the Ursack. For some reason, he had neglected to do so prior to the trip. Luckily, two women with experience with Ursacks arrived a little later. They were nice enough to show him how to tie the appropriate knots. This took some time, but it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. Those young women were two of the more attractive thru-hikers we saw during our journey.
Once we had everything packed, we battled a chronic lack of motivation. Thunder continued to rumble all around us, although rain was not falling down at the ranch. Aside from the weather, I wasn’t looking forward to putting on my pack. Thru the first half of the trip, we never carried more than 3 days worth of food at a time. Now we each had 10 days worth of food, and actually I had more than that. I was carrying my canister, along with the Ursack. When I did finally hoist my pack, I visibly sank into the dusty ground! I’m guessing it was well over 60 pounds when we finally left Muir Trail Ranch.
Before we left we visited the Ranch store. We picked up a few minor supplies, and topped off our fuel bottles with denatured alcohol. We then gave in to temptation, and purchased 15 minutes of internet access for $10. The connection was slow, and this gave us just enough time to check our email and the weather forecast. We sent our wives messages telling them that all was well. Meanwhile, the weather forecast promised more rain that evening and the next day. Afterwards though, it looked like the pattern would return to normal. This was a huge relief, as we were all beginning to wonder if it was going to rain through the rest of the trip.
We left around 5pm, but briefly considered taking a side trip over to the hot springs. There are natural hot springs on the other side of the river near the ranch. Unfortunately, getting to them requires wading the river, which is dangerous when the water is up. It was still early in the season, and with all of the recent rain, the river was raging. The hot springs would’ve been a nice treat, but they weren’t worth risking our necks for them. We decided to save them for another trip and hiked on.
We walked about 3 easy miles along a connecting trail and then the JMT, moving roughly parallel to the river. Although the terrain was gentle, I was struggling with my monster load. When we found a side trail leading towards the river, I was more than willing to drop my pack and scout it out. It led a couple of hundred yards down to a large, open camping area near the river. Bob and I decided to camp there, and we invited Molly and Rosa to join us. They accepted, and it was nice to have some company that night. Bob and I dined on jambalaya with summer sausage. The meal was fantastic, and even better, it took that 1 pound sausage out of my pack! That night, we all played Spades, and Molly entertained us by reading ghost stores from the book Bob purchased at the ranch. We even enjoyed a campfire, which was a rare treat on this trip. We went to sleep a little late, shortly before the next batch of rain arrived.
Continue reading about our trip as we continue our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail through Kings Canyon National Park.
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