John Muir Trail: Thousand Island Lake to Squaw Lake

September 14

(17; 0 side; 60 total, 151 to go)

A pre-dawn panorama from my campsite of Banner Peak and the surrounding area
A pre-dawn panorama from my campsite of Banner Peak and the surrounding area

As planned I wake up early enough to catch the tail end of darkness before sunrise; this being the middle of a fairly large valley, I should be able to see it unimpeded. Surprisingly, given last night, little wind blows past the lake, and it’s much more comfortable than it was or than I had expected it would be. The sunrise is excellent but blinding; my camera has some difficulty capturing both brightness of the sky and comparative darkness of the ground. Nevertheless, I take a few pictures as I huddle inside sleeping bag and bivy sack waiting for the sun to rise to provide warmth to leave them.

Hiking poles lean against a rock in the foreground, while in the background brightness limns the surrounding hills
The light, it burns!
Banner Peak in the lingering stages of dawn
Banner Peak greets the early-morning sunlight

Hiking begins relatively early today, in accord with rising for an early sunrise. The first several miles of trail wind around several lakes named for gems, climbing up and over and down ridges along the way. Today is the fourth day of hiking, and my ankles are beginning to adjust to the inclines and constant pounding through which I’m putting them. But for now, I’m far more engrossed in enjoying the thoroughly ridiculous scenery than in feeling any lingering pain.

Teal-blue Ruby Lake, ringed by cliffs and a gently sloping trail through trees
Ruby Lake
Reflections and color against the shallows of Ruby Lake; fallen trees and the occasional small rock are clearly visible against the soil floor
Reflections and color against the shallows of Ruby Lake

The largest of the precious-stone lakes, Garnet Lake, provides the greatest views. It dominates the landscape through its size, and its gently-rippling waters are a blurred mirror for the peaks in the distance behind it.

Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, seen over the rocky shore of Garnet Lake
Mount Ritter (left) and Banner Peak (right), seen over the rocky shore of Garnet Lake; curiously, Mount Ritter is the taller of the two — a matter of perspective

(Interestingly, my first picture of it and the mountains in the background is a near-exact copy of the cover of the guidebook I carried, even though I didn’t intend to precisely replicate the picture. [I probably aimed for the general idea — towering mountains above lake with some ground and trail in the foreground — but I didn’t notice the exact spot of that picture was mere steps away, even though I usually try to look for the settings of pictures in guidebooks I use.] The guidebook picture is obviously older, but beyond that the major difference is that my picture captures reflection in the lake while the guidebook doesn’t. I suspect it was deliberately airbrushed out of the picture to reduce busyness.)

Looking across the eastern expanse of Garnet Lake toward its outlet, crossed by a barely-visible wooden bridge
Looking across the eastern expanse of Garnet Lake toward its outlet, crossed by a barely-visible wooden bridge
Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, mirrored in Garnet Lake; the mirror effect progresses from near-perfect closest to the camera to significantly blurred in the distance, as slight ripples in the water accumulate to distort the reflection
Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, mirrored in Garnet Lake, from near the footbridge across its outlet

Past Garnet Lake the trail ascends out of Garnet’s bowl, then generally descends on the way toward Devils Postpile National Monument. I pass by more lakes, none of which strike me enough to merit a picture.

The start of the descent past Shadow Lake toward Devils Postpile; far in the distance lies the black Volcanic Ridge
This descent, covered in baseball-sized rocks as it is, reminded me of some of the worst stretches of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania *shudder*
Shadow Lake is surrounded by mountains, except for its outlet near a notch
Looking down toward Shadow Lake
Looking across Shadow Lake toward mountains within a few miles of it
Looking across Shadow Lake, with San Joaquin Mountain and Two Tears/Two Teats (web searches find both names: maybe it was bowdlerized?) in the distance

Just past one stream crossing I wander by another deer. Unlike previous deer on the JMT, this one cautiously watches me as I stop and take its picture, starting briefly at my experimental, abrupt move intended to gauge its reaction. Yet as with earlier deer, it generally ignores me. In the past I’ve considered this unnatural: wild animals should be afraid of humans, and they should retreat when humans approach. Yet this deer makes me reconsider. The primary problem with Shenandoah deer (often brazen beggars) was not their willingness to be near humans: it was their willingness to be near humans to beg. Proximity, and even some level of ease, is not inherently bad. The problem occurs when this is taken for granted: then, fearlessness and misguided beneficience produce a vicious cycle by which wildlife becomes no longer truly wild.

Shenandoah is too easily accessible for wildlife’s cautious acceptance of human presence to be workable. Throngs of visitors will to a sufficient extent ignore signs, act carelessly, and inexorably lead deer and other wildlife to mendicancy. In Shenandoah it really would be better for deer and other wildlife to be fearful of human presence to the point of fleeing it. (Bears in Shenandoah actually do this, mostly, I suspect, because SNP deals with problem bears much more aggressively than it deals with the vastly greater multitude of problem deer. Of course, bears being much more fearsome than deer also reduces interaction. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

But in many sections of the John Muir Trail, in the middle of remote wilderness, the deer that turns a wary eye in my direction yet continues about his business presents no problem. Nor does he induce any. Backpackers generally well-educated about interacting with wildlife (and usually not carrying food to spare!) won’t be much of an issue. Horseback visitors from nearby Devils Postpile are inherently hindered from over-close interaction, and they’re often supervised by informed guides. Less-educated day hikers are most problematic, but fewer of them will be here simply because it’s difficult to get to much of the JMT, severely blunting their ill effects. Complete lack of fear in wildlife is likely unworkable; it lowers barriers to interaction too far. But wildlife’s cautious acceptance along the JMT of human presence at a small distance, so long as the JMT remains remote, is a fragile yet stable equilibrium.

A deer eats of the grass and greens in front of it
The aforementioned deer

After much more descent I finally reach relatively flat ground: Devils Postpile National Monument is at hand. Devils Postpile’s main attraction is its bizarre natural rock formations: tall, regular hexagonal basalt columns (other sidedness less frequently) formed by volcanic action. The JMT passes through Devils Postpile’s periphery, so I’d have to detour to see the formations, partly contributing to my decision not to go see them. But more than the delay, I decide not to go because the monument feels like it’s a Pacific Crest Trail experience, not a JMT experience. If I’m not deliberately visiting Devils Postpile, I’m going to leave seeing it for when I thru-hike the PCT. (For the same reason you won’t find me hiking a section of the PCT to hike it, except as part of a thru-hike.)

Boundary sign for Devils Postpile National Monument, indicating the dividing line between it and Inyo National Forest
Now entering Devils Postpile National Monument
Trail sign: Muir Trail to left and straight ahead, Pacific Crest to left and to right
The trail north bifurcates as the JMT winds around several lakes while the PCT travels the crest

I follow the trail through Devils Postpile, guided mostly by a picture I took of the map at a trail junction shortly inside it. (The guidebook strangely foregoes a map to awkwardly describe it in prose, making it less useful and more confusing than one might hope.) It’s mostly deep sand, so the going is a bit slow. Finally, I reach the turnoff to visit Reds Meadow, a campground, store, and restaurant just off-trail where I hope (likely quixotically, given the wide variety of digital cameras and batteries) to find a replacement camera battery. The meter on my camera’s been declining much more quickly than I’d expected, so I’m worried about running out partway down the trail and thus missing the end. I’m not in luck: the store has nothing more than standard batteries and regular rolls of film. I consider eating dinner at the restaurant, but I propel myself southward in hope of reaching a camping spot with some daylight. It’s now 17:00, and if I move quickly I can reach Crater Meadow in daylight.

The San Joaquin Fork heads south to Rainbow Falls seen in late afternoon from a footbridge on the JMT
The San Joaquin Fork heads south to Rainbow Falls

Trail south of here turns a bit eerie as I pass through the remains of a forest fire eighteen years ago. Blackened trees are everywhere, but smaller growth abounds. The trail curves through the area before heading up into the mountains again, and I hit a solid pace as I push to the end of the day.

Numerous short (under twenty feet) denuded, burnt tree trunks cover the hillside; new tree growth is mostly limited to small (no taller than a person) conifers, amidst grass, shrubs, and other ground growth
The tree cemetery south of Devils Postpile, devastated by the 1992 Rainbow Fire
Reddish-yellow spiky berries surrounded by small green leaves
Edible (insides only ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) reddish-yellow gooseberries; if only I'd known what they were, and that they were edible, at the time...

The trail leaves the burned area and starts ascending, and I notice a few decent campsites. However, having noted Crater Meadow as a goal, I feel compelled not to stop until I reach it. It starts to get dusky as I finish out the day, but I make it to a campsite near a small river crossing with light to spare and call it a day. The site’s partially occupied by Michelle, another JMT thru-hiker (albeit one starting from Tuolumne Meadows due to scheduling mishaps, hiking the entire stretch without resupply — a very aggressive pace/load that’s still not inconceivable). She’s started a small campfire, which provides for a nice break from my usual habit of not having campfires while backpacking. I eat dinner and we talk off and on as night falls.

I’m still carrying that boxed wine, but there’s a lake roughly a day’s hike from here. Maybe I can break it out tomorrow night, cool it in the lake, and finally get rid of its weight with dinner.

September 15

(18.5; 0 side; 78.5 total, 132.5 to go)

It’s up and out around the usual time this morning. Michelle and I end up leaving about the same time, but I overtake her shortly as I move faster with much less food to carry. I speed through the first six-odd miles of the day: there’s some scenery but no water, so I have little reason to stop.

Mountains in the distance, framed by pine trees
Double Peck East, seen over Cascade Valley from the JMT as it carves across a mountainside near Mammoth Crest
The trail continues south at far left; panning right the view passes Double Peck East and other mountains before concluding in tall evergreen trees
A panorama of Double Peck East from the trail
Mountains in the distance after an evergreen-covered valley just below
A less-obscured view of Double Peck East

Duck Creek ends the drought, and even though it’s a little early in the day I take the opportunity and stop for lunch, Michelle passing me as I eat. Readily-available water is always good at mealtime, especially as tortillas with thick peanut butter or Nutella contain little water. I continue south again after lunch, curving around a small mountain before descending to Purple Lake. It looks like a nice camping spot, if I had reached it at the end of the day. I exchange pleasantries with a few people near the lake’s outlet, learning that Michelle is shortly ahead of me, and ascend again toward windswept Lake Virginia, passing Michelle along the way. Lake Virginia’s slopes are much flatter than those of other recent lakes, probably because it’s a larger lake.

The teal lake is surrounded by rocky slopes sprinkled with evergreens
An unnamed lake/pond south of Purple Lake
A small boulder-strewn depression just adjacent to the trail; the granite blocks remind me of toy blocks
A youthful giant's playpen

Past Lake Virginia the trail switchbacks steeply descending into Tully’s Hole, then follows a creek to a trail junction. It’s around 17:00 now, so if I move quickly and keep moving I should reach Squaw Lake a bit short of nearby Silver Pass with daylight to spare: just about perfect for lightening my pack of a liter of wine. I do so, arriving at the sublime Squaw Lake shortly after 18:00.

A massive wall of rock, dotted with pine trees, makes up the backdrop for Squaw Lake, in the foreground, as dusk approaches; the sun has set far enough that land before the lake is in shadows, while the lake and slope behind it are yet sunlit
Squaw Lake against the mammoth expanses of part of the Silver Divide, from the rocks where I stayed for the night; that's Michelle in the bottom right, with her tent just barely in view in the foreground in the bottom left

I scout around for some sort of decent campsite before settling for bare rock halfway between the lake and the trail proper. (Bivy sacks are versatile — and mine is certainly more versatile than my non-freestanding tent.) Michelle arrives and contemplates continuing to Pocket Meadow, which looks to be about five miles south (most of which she’d be traveling after dark) before deciding to stop here as well.

Dinner is scampi (Knorr pasta as always) with salmon and a splash of pinot grigio. I have no idea whether I’m significantly improving the taste, or if I’m adding the optimal amount at the correct time, but I figure I can’t go wrong (and in any case, there’s nothing wrong with the placebo effect ๐Ÿ™‚ ). I have more than I really need to drink, so it’s painless to experiment. Michelle also takes a splash in her dinner since I have so much.

I finish off dinner, then the remaining part of the liter, as darkness falls. But it’s not dark! Entirely by accident I have scheduled my hike to occur during the moon’s waxing phase, ending a couple days into its waning phase. (I don’t believe I could have timed my hike any better if I’d tried.) The moon is large and bright in the sky, enough so that I eventually turn off my flashlight as darkness falls; I really don’t need it to see as long as I don’t have to walk around much. Once I finally finish off the wine it’s off to sleep underneath stars and moon by an alpine lake. Can it get any better than this? I am extremely hard-pressed to think how.

…but, as has happened before, this is not the end of the day! Around 03:00 I wake up to the flashlights of two hikers passing from the north. They don’t stop, perhaps recognizing a campsite with sleeping hikers when they see it, and I’m in no mood to wake up and find out why they’re hiking now, so back to sleep I go.


John Muir Trail: Lyell Canyon to Thousand Island Lake

September 13

(13; 0 side; 43 total, 168 to go)

Deep in Lyell Canyon sunrise starts at its usual time, but direct sunlight doesn’t reach the floor until hours later. I eat my breakfast near the campfire with the other nearby backpackers, and we have some reasonable conversation as I eat my oatmeal. The fire provides a nice bit of warmth in the not-quite-sunlight. Once food’s finished it’s time to head back down the trail to wherever I end up today.

A grassy meadow near the southern end of Lyell Canyon, just before the ascent to Donahue Pass starts
The trail continues to wind through Lyell Canyon a little longer
Lyell Canyon and Lyell Fork running down it, with Kuna Crest in the background
Lyell Canyon, through which the serpentine Lyell Fork passes, seen shortly up the ascent toward Donahue Pass

My stumbling continues, but when the ascent out of the canyon starts it necessarily slows as the trail begins crawling up and over rocks. I pass by a couple also doing a thru-hike of the JMT at one point; they’ve been out since a little before me, and they plan to leisurely hike the trail into early October. We leapfrog a few times until I pass them for a final time after lunch today.

Lyell Fork, from a bridge partway up the ascent out of the canyon
Lyell Fork, from a bridge partway up the ascent out of the canyon
The majestic Lyell Canyon and the surrounding mountains
The majestic Lyell Canyon

The ascent continues past several tarns, mountain lakes fed by glacial runoff. The lakes are connected by the Lyell Fork, which is much smaller at this elevation than it was from even the earlier bridge (let alone the canyon itself). It’s also much smaller now than it was a couple months ago; this late in the season I can cross it on rocks without getting my feet wet.

Along the upper Lyell Fork toward Mount Lyell and Mount MacClure
Along the upper Lyell Fork toward Mount Lyell and Mount MacClure; I believe Lyell is the furthest-right peak in this picture
Panorama view just past a river crossing
Panorama view just past a river crossing, 1 of 3; note the camera's image-splicing glitch near center
Panorama view just past the river crossing
Panorama view just past a river crossing, part 2 of 3
Panorama view just past a river crossing
Panorama view just past a river crossing, part 3 of 3
Looking further up near one of the fords of the Lyell Fork
Looking further up near one of the "fords" of the Lyell Fork, which would be far more menacing earlier in the season

Just above the lip of rocks in the near foreground is a flat area with another tarn whose outlet the trail crosses. Now seems like a good time for a lunch break, and I stop and cool off my feet and swollen ankles in the water for a brief moment (this being snowmelt water after all) before I eat lunch. There’s another group of other hikers here already doing the same things I’m doing; they head off before I finish.

A hundred feet of shallow pond lie in front of me, flowing rightward to narrow and flow down; in front is an outcropping of rock, and somewhat to the left and back lie mountains with snow-covered flanks
Lunchtime scenery; yes, the whole John Muir Trail really is like this

After lunch the ascent resumes. It’s pretty gradual as ascents go, which also means it’s rather long. Donohue Pass may be a pass, but it’s not nearly the sight to see that later passes are, clearly occupying a narrow ridge between peaks. It’s more accurate to call it Donohue Plain or Donohue Plateau, I think.

A patch of watermelon-colored snow in Donohue Pass
Algae produce this snow's watermelon coloring and even smell; anecdotally, eating such snow is a good way to get sick, so it's unclear whether the snow tastes like watermelon
A desolate, late-summer alpine pool surrounded by granite rocks
A late-summer alpine pool
Atop Donohue Pass, covered in small granite rocks, looking south down the trail, as I recall
Atop Donohue Plain, er, I mean Pass

Donohue Pass marks the end of the first recreational area the JMT passes through, as I leave Yosemite National Park and enter Ansel Adams Wilderness, not surprisingly named for Ansel Adams, a noted black-and-white photographer of nature, most particularly Yosemite — try a web search to see his work.

A wooden sign marking the entry to Ansel Adams Wilderness and Inyo National Forest
Welcome to Ansel Adams Wilderness

From here south through the end of the day is mostly a blur. The scenery is impressive as always along the JMT, but it is not particularly more memorable than other sections, perhaps because the lakes being passed by are a bit smaller, peaks are further in the distance, and there aren’t many people out and about. My biggest recollection from this descent, and from some others, is of a marmot or two living at high elevation.

A marmot forages for food near ground-hugging alpine vegetation
A marmot forages for food just south of Donohue Pass
A marmot sniffs at a rock
I wonder if this rock is edible...
A marmot sits on a rock with its head perked up

The initial descent from Donohue Pass presents some nice views, and the gradual winding around lakes, over small streams, and through some trees makes for a comfortable, leisurely section. I have no particular goal for the day, but as I approach it Thousand Island Lake seems like a good stopping point: reasonable mileage for the day, going by my map, great views, plenty of space nearby for camping.

A large depression of dry soil, which would have been filled with water a few months ago
It is definitely late summer/early fall in the Sierra Nevadas
A signpost on the JMT and PCT; Island Pass where I'm heading is to the left, Donohue Pass from which I just came is to the right
A signpost on the JMT and PCT; the JMT and PCT follow the same path for around 175 miles, minus a stretch just south of here
An unusual-looking section of tree, clearly cut; the bark is gone, revealing slowly spiralling pencil-thin ridges of wood
An unusual-looking section of tree

I descend near Thousand Island Lake around 17:00, although the lake has been visible for awhile (Banner Peak behind it even moreso). I haven’t filled up on water in awhile, so I’m going to need to do that when I get to the lake, and by the time I reach wherever I end up staying near it the iodine I’ll add to it should have purified it.

Banner Peak towers over Thousand Island Lake
Banner Peak towers over Thousand Island Lake
Trail sign at Thousand Island Lake for the PCT/JMT split: the PCT heads straight toward the ridge, while the JMT continues to the right around half a dozen lakes
The PCT and JMT split at Thousand Island Lake for fifteen to twenty miles, the PCT taking a ridge and the JMT winding around lakes and up, over, and through smaller mountains

A handful of lakes in this section of the trail don’t permit camping within a quarter mile of their outlets. I pass by most of those lakes without stopping for the night, but Thousand Island Lake is the one exception. I attempt with partial success to follow the path around the lake past the edge of the no-camping zone, and I reach a flat, rocky area a short distance from the lake itself around 18:00. Daylight disappears as I cook dinner, made slightly more interesting by the constant wind blowing along the lake. Constant wind is the harbinger of a cold night, so I put on some long underwear. I can see more stars in the sky than I’ve seen in a long time, including all of the generally-too-faint-to-be-seen Little Dipper, as I head to sleep.

I took enough pictures this day and the next that each warrants its own post. These days are probably the most gorgeous of the whole trail, but the passes in the latter half of the trail are more breathtaking. (Literally.) This isn’t to say that either is more beautiful than the other but rather to say that they’re beautiful in different ways — about what I’d say if asked to compare the Appalachian Trail to the John Muir Trail. It’s apples to oranges as far as I’m concerned. (What if I really had to choose A.T. versus JMT, with no further distinction? 139 days versus 15 days is a no-brainer. But taken day by day, the JMT easily wins.)


John Muir Trail: Yosemite Valley to Lyell Canyon

After I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from June through October 2008, I began to consider which hike would follow it. For better or for worse, my sense of scale in backpacking is now irreparably skewed: any trip less than several hundred miles feels “short” to me. While “short” trips (most particularly weekend and extended-weekend trips) are all well and good, they’re too jaunty to really satisfy. Thus I started thinking about my next “long” trip that (ideally) would fit into a normal vacation from work. (Someday I’ll do an Appalachian Trail-length trip again, but I don’t feel compelled to do so immediately. I have other lengthy trips requiring much less vacation time that I want to take, and I’m happy to make those trips first if it simplifies vacation logistics.)

Originally I thought I’d save up and max out on vacation to bike across the United States, but The Gathering (a yearly conference for Appalachian Trail hikers, although its focus goes beyond the A.T. as a large number of attendees have already thru-hiked it) in 2009 sufficiently aggravated my wanderlust that I couldn’t stomach waiting an extra summer for such a bike ride. I had to do something longer than a weekend but shorter than a cross-country bike trip.

The John Muir Trail quickly beckoned. The JMT is a 211 mile western trail (partially coinciding with the Pacific Crest Trail) through the Sierra Nevadas which goes up and over Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. One of the workshops I attended at The Gathering discussed the details of thru-hiking the JMT; given its relatively close proximity to the Bay Area, its ideal distance for completion in a long (but not extended) vacation, and my newly-gained understanding of the logistics of the hike, I made it my next plan.

As with the A.T., the JMT requires surprisingly little pre-planning for a successful completion, if you’ve done a week-long backpacking trip or two before and know you’re capable of doing so again. There’s really nothing more to it than to acquire a permit (168 days in advance, note), provide for mid-hike resupply, prepare for the few quirks of hiking in the Sierras (mostly bear-proof storage for food, plus perhaps mountaineering gear if you hike early in the season), then to just do it. I might write up a post elaborating the steps to thru-hiking the JMT at some point, if I can find the time. But as for my effort before traveling to Yosemite to do the hike, it basically came down to this (spread over quite a bit of time, due to the rest of my schedule):

  1. Get a permit. (March 2010)
  2. Buy food for the second half of the trip, and mail it in a five-gallon bucket to the Muir Trail Ranch resupply point. (mid-August 2010)
  3. Buy an Amtrak ticket to get from the Bay Area to Yosemite Valley. (day before, September 2010)
  4. Buy food for the first half of the trip, and get stove fuel for the entire trip. (day before, September 2010)
  5. Pack and go!

I’ll note two last things before the actual account starts. The first concerns mileages: I didn’t carry a particularly accurate guidebook with precise mileage information, so all distances are little more than educated guesses based on a not-very-detailed profile of the JMT. The second concerns pictures: I carried a better camera with me on this trip than I did while hiking the A.T., and I passed through generally more spectacular scenery. I therefore took significantly more pictures each day on this hike than I did on the A.T.; the two hundred-plus pictures I took on the JMT in two weeks significantly outpaced the three-hundred-plus pictures I took on the A.T. in twenty weeks. So for the most part, you can expect my JMT days to be longer than my A.T. days space-wise — not because the JMT is superior to the A.T. (in some aspects it is, in others it isn’t), but rather because more pictures take up more space. (In the mark of the amateur, I usually post every picture of the relative few I take, excepting only duplicates and complete botches.)

September 9

Today’s an odd day, as my last day working before the JMT thru-hike and as my only day in Mountain View after returning last night from working remotely at my parents’ house in Michigan. I kick if off buying food for the first half of the trip — standard fare from the A.T. except that I swap off-brand Pop-Tarts for oatmeal. (Pop-Tarts don’t compress well in bear canisters, unfortunately.)

I then head into the office for a day of feverish work on all the big bugs on my plate, for which I hope to at least get patches posted which others can then carry across the finish line while I’m gone. These bugs are to implement Object.{preventExtensions,isExtensible}, Object.{seal,isSealed}, Object.{freeze,isFrozen}, and last but not least, proper support for this in ES5 strict mode. I get the patches for the first three finished except for responding to review comments, and I get the patch series for the last posted. All four bugs are picked up by jimb; he lands the first three soon after I depart, and he finishes up the fourth in mid-October.

Around mid-evening I take a break to run a couple last-minute errands. First I head to REI to pick up stove fuel and a guidebook or map of some sort. Recognizing the trail should be no problem, but intersections may not always be marked to indicate the JMT, so I’m looking for something to help with that and perhaps point out interesting side trails to hike. I end up selecting Day & Section Hikes along the John Muir Trail, which turns out to be suitable, but not well-suited, for thru-hiking. See my review of it if you’re interested in details, although odds are you’ll probably get the gist if you stick around for this entire series of JMT posts and my editorializing in them.

Next stop is Best Buy for a digital camera. I had intended for months to do some actual research into options before buying a new camera, but eventually I ran out of time, so I now have to just skim the options and pick one. (My old camera lacked image stabilization, decent resolution, and…really just about everything, given it was a Kodak EasyShare. Its original intended use was in just about the least demanding possible situation you could imagine, I should say, so it was capable of serving its original purpose. Beyond that it was woefully lacking, as I think many of my Appalachian Trail pictures generally demonstrate.) I go with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W370, and aside from a possible user error, it works reasonably well on the trip and is worlds better than my old camera. My only complaint is that extremely well-lit pictures (as many of mine on this trip will be) tend to be washed out, although some of this might be my misuse of the camera.

Those errands finished, it’s back to the apartment where I try to clear out my review queue so I’m not blocking anyone during my time away. Except for (maybe, memory hazy) one request I punt, and another I finish partially before realizing I lack both the time and lucidity to properly complete it, I get it all clear. But by then, it’s so late that between assembling gear, repackaging foodstuffs so I can fit nine-ish days of food into a bear canister (difficult but doable, requires careful selection, sometimes repackaging, and elbow grease to pull it off in the end), I must forego sleep.

As I walk out the door after hitting Publish on a goodbye post, my pack weighs 44 pounds, of which the fully filled bear canister is 19 pounds. This isn’t great, and it’s nowhere near what a true ultra-lighter would carry even for this distance, but it’s reasonable. Given that I used everything in my backpack at one point or another on the hike, I don’t know offhand what I’d remove to substantially reduce that weight. (Which is not to say I couldn’t easily cut weight by replacing a decent number of gear items with lighter versions, if I chose to spend the money. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s always possible to reduce weight by throwing money at lighter gear.)

September 10

I end up delaying a few minutes too long to catch the first Caltrain south to the Amtrak station in San Jose, turning a $4.25 train trip into a $47 taxi ride in order to make my first bus of the day. It’s a costly mistake, but it could be worse: it would be far costlier (in a different way) to be delayed seven hours through missing that bus. It occurs to me the time flexibility of stringing together disjoint public transit options is a nice benefit to that mode of travel, in terms of ability (if at some cost) to absorb minor delays and surprises.

Following the taxi ride is the first in three separate modes of travel to reach Yosemite Valley: bus to Stockton, train from Stockton to Merced, bus from Merced to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, at an overall cost of $44. (I think it would have been $37 if I’d bought the ticket earlier.) It’s roughly 13:30, and I have plenty of time to do just about anything I want. I begin with the wilderness permit office to get my permit. (I reserved the permit months ago, but I must show up day-before or day-of to claim it, else it’s made available to walk-ins.) Next, I pick up some sunscreen from a valley store for use during the hike. Apparently sunlight at high elevation is murderous, and even though I shouldn’t have much in the way of exposed skin amongst long pants, long sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses, it’s probably best to have it just to be safe. After that it’s mostly wandering around the valley, going into a few exhibits and galleries to look around and bide time.

Half Dome, seen from Ahwahnee Meadow
Half Dome, seen from Ahwahnee Meadow
Half Dome seen from Yosemite Valley
Half Dome seen from Yosemite Valley
Cliffs along Yosemite Valley through trees
Cliffs along Yosemite Valley through trees

It’s still early enough in the afternoon to take a quick hike, so I walk out to Lower Yosemite Falls to kill time. This late in the summer, so long after winter snows started melting in early summer, the waterfall isn’t much to behold, and the warning sign is mostly unnecessary.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls
Half Dome again, through some trees
Half Dome again, through some trees

Eventually it gets to be late afternoon, and I head to the backcountry campground where I can stay for $5 for the night before my hike. I run into a few other soon-to-be JMT thru-hikers as I eat dinner, but otherwise it’s a quiet wrapup to the day, and I head to sleep shortly after dark.

Notice board with bear information; one bullet reads, "So far this year there have been 400 bear incidents, with $89,290 of property damage."

September 11

(14; 4 side; 14 total, 197 to go)

I set my watch alarm to wake up shortly after 5:00 to get an early start to beat the crowds on a long day, but I don’t wake up to it and end up sleeping until just short of 6:00. No big deal; after breakfast and packing up I’m walking out of camp toward the trailhead at 7:05. And so it begins:

The John Muir Trail trailhead sign: 211 miles to Mount Whitney
The John Muir Trail trailhead sign: 211 miles to Mount Whitney

Yosemite Valley is at a relatively low elevation, and it’s mostly a constant climb from here through the first place I can stop for the day. My permit allows me to be in the backcountry from September 11 through September 27, and other than the first night I can camp pretty much anywhere, so long as the particular spot respects the usual Leave No Trace principles. For this first night, however, I have to camp past Little Yosemite Valley and Moraine Dome (the latter is not directly on the JMT). My map/guidebook tell me where Little Yosemite Valley is, but I’m not 100% certain where Moraine Dome is, except that it’s before Sunrise High Sierra Camp, so I’m mostly aiming to get to Sunrise for the night.

A view back toward Yosemite Valley shortly into the hike
A view back toward Yosemite Valley shortly into the hike

The trail starts out easy (paved, even!), gradually sloping upward and out of the valley. Just past views of Vernal Falls the JMT veers away from the beaten path most day hikers take to get to Half Dome, taking a more gradual (and much less wet, misty, and slippery, at least during some seasons) path through the valley toward Nevada Falls. With switchbacking the trail’s pretty easy as I ascend, with Half Dome and the falls gradually coming into view. With the switchbacking complete it’s a somewhat level cut across the side of the valley over to the falls.

The back side of Half Dome
The back side of Half Dome

Nevada Falls is reasonably impressive, at close to six hundred feet tall, and the JMT offers some nice views of it from a distance, where its full scale is more apparent. The guardrail-protected viewpoint just near the top also serves to put it in perspective, for those not prone to acrophobia.

Nevada Falls from the approach on the John Muir Trail, a short distance away and from a slightly higher elevation
Nevada Falls from the approach on the John Muir Trail
Nevada Falls, a hundred feet or so above it from the side
Nevada Falls, above and from the side
Nevada Falls, from the precipice, looking down over a guard rail at the water crashing down
At the precipice

Past the falls it’s a quick bit of hiking to the Half Dome side trail to commence a two-mile hike to the top. I begin to pass people (even large groups) looking for extra permits to hike to the top. I’m skeptical that such efforts are usually successful, but if it’s the only option, it might be worth the gamble.

A panorama view from just off-trail, shortly before real ascent starts (and well before the surreal ascent); the view is roughly level with the mountains surrounding Yosemite Valley
A panorama view from just off-trail, shortly before real ascent starts (and well before the surreal ascent)

Just before the start of the first notably steep section, I encounter the ranger on the trail who checks permits; given Half Dome’s popularity I half-expected to see a ranger. This ranger’s the only one who checks my permit (and he only examines the Half Dome permit, not the wilderness permit) the entire trip, and I only see two others the entire time, which suits me just fine.

The ascent now turns from gradual uphill to a steep, vaguely-defined rock stairway. Hiking poles in the hands of a practiced hiker really shine on steep downhills, but they provide a bit of a boost on steep uphills as well. On this stretch of trail, they come in handy during both ascent and descent (but most particularly on the descent). Soon the trail levels off for a few hundred feet, and I reach the base of the steepest part of the ascent.

The final 400 feet of ascent up Half Dome (covering a somewhat greater horizontal distance, at angles approaching 45 degrees) require use of installed cables and wooden bracing, up which hikers must pull themselves to reach the top; the descent requires the opposite effort
The final insane ascent up Half Dome; the cables (and pile of gloves found at the base, if you arrive early enough) are absolutely necessary
The final Half Dome ascent, from closer to it; it's a little less steep in this view as I'm more level with the base of the ascent
The final Half Dome ascent, from closer to it

Despite my later-than-intended departure, I’m still ahead of most people hiking up Half Dome, so there’s no wait to borrow a pair of gloves or to continue up the cables.

On the cables looking up Half Dome
On the cables looking back up Half Dome, during the descent

I could never forgive myself if I ditched my backpack somewhere rather than at least attempt to take it up with me, so my arms and legs have to deal with forty-odd pounds of weight up top for the ascent. It’s understandably tiring; as I say to someone heading down as I head up, I picked a bad week to quit smoking. (Unfortunately she doesn’t get the reference — maybe if I’d stepped it up to glue or amphetamines she’d have realized I wasn’t serious.) But eventually I do reach the top without real problems.

Panorama view atop the Half Dome plateau
Panorama view atop the Half Dome plateau
Yosemite Valley from the top of Half Dome
Yosemite Valley from the top of Half Dome; the roughly triangular grassy meadow on the right side is Ahwahnee Meadow, where I took two earlier Half Dome photos

I wander around the top a bit (it’s a lot larger than you’d think from just the classical view of Half Dome), walk over to a few of the edges (but not too close, since I still have the backpack on), then sit down and eat a lunch of half-shredded tortillas and Nutella. Mm…

A panorama near one of the sheerer cliffs of Half Dome
A panorama near one of the sheerer cliffs of Half Dome

Now it’s time to head back down and finish out the day. The ropes are much more crowded on the way down, and the line of descending hikers frequently comes to a standstill. A few people hop to the outside of the ropes to get down faster, but I’m not willing to consider this with a fully-loaded backpack. I bide my time by taking some pictures of the descent and of the views during it.

Near the top of the descent
Near the top of the descent
Another look down a littler later
Another look down a littler later; the people at the bottom look much smaller because the "bottom" in the previous picture was a plateau a bit higher than the start of the ropes
The surrounding mountains and valleys, facing forward during the descent of Half Dome
The surrounding mountains and valleys, facing forward during the descent of Half Dome

Once I’m past the ropes I descend much faster, well-aided by hiking poles and a quick step. (It’s actually too quick a couple times, as I roll each ankle several times these first several days, before they adjust to the demands I’m putting on them. I had intended to avoid this process by regularly ice skating in the weeks up to the trip, but multiple trips to relatives over the preceding months working remotely shot that plan all to pieces.) Once back on the JMT, I stop to refill on water at one point from a handy stream (climate this time of year is that of a desert, but strangely streams, lakes, ponds, and water in all forms is readily available almost all the time). The remaining hiking proceeds more slowly, and around 17:00 I feel tired enough to stop for an early dinner before hiking the remaining miles to Sunrise Camp.

A Yosemite backcountry trail sign, marking Sunrise Trail, made of rusted metal with lettering cut through it, followed by a long midafternoon shadow, in which the gaps of the sign's letters are visible
Yosemite's backcountry trail signs have a certain elegance
Echo Peaks and Matthes Crest, with a sunset glow
Echo Peaks and Matthes Crest

Sunrise High Sierra Camp is run similarly to a White Mountains hut, and it’s one of a number of High Sierra Camps in Yosemite, albeit the only one directly on the JMT. Amazingly its pricing is even worse than that of the White Mountains huts. On the other hand, this camp has a free backpacker campground (no amenities except bear boxes and a pit toilet), so at least backpackers (whether thru-hiking or not) who don’t want to be gouged have a real choice. (If you weren’t an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, and you were hiking in the White Mountains, I’m not actually sure where you’d stay in some parts of it if you didn’t want to overpay to stay in a hut.) I arrive at Sunrise just early enough to be able to nearly walk to the backpacker’s campground there without needing to ask for directions through twilight darkness. I walk through trying to find the extent of the campsites, and eventually I stumble to the end, find a rock ledge with a view over Long Meadow toward the east, and quickly head to sleep.

September 12

(16; 2 side; 30 total, 181 to go)

Mountains to the east of Long Meadow at sunrise
Mountains to the east of Long Meadow at sunrise, from my overnight camping spot

I’ve set my watch to wake me up sometime before sunrise, and I wake up on time today. As one would expect, the sunrise at Sunrise is very nice, if quite bright. After a breakfast eaten sitting on the rock ledge, it’s back on the trail heading trail-south but geographically north, hiking even before 8:00, surprisingly early for me.

Brownish grass surrounds patches of ground-hugging plants with reddish leaves, all covered in frost from the night
Morning frost on the Long Meadow flora indicates just how cold the night was, although it was fairly nice inside a thirty-degree bag
A trailside view
A trailside view
A less-impeded trailside view
A less-impeded trailside view
Cathedral Peak framed by trees
Cathedral Peak framed by trees

Today’s hiking is pretty easy. After some meandering through Long Meadow, it’s a short bit of hiking up, then some mountainside wandering, then passing through some valleys with assorted lakes and ponds, then a long, gradual descent down to Tuolumne Meadows and something vaguely like civilization. I don’t need to stop by Tuolumne Meadows, but the trail passes close to a road along which lies a grill and small store. I’m feeling hungry, and I could use some Gold Bond powder if I can find it in the store, so I hop off the trail and road-walk the mile to it. Lunch is a cheeseburger with fries and all the condiments I can get; I even eat the dill pickle that comes with it (only because I know I can use the energy). The store doesn’t have Gold Bond power, alas, but it does have something as magical: boxed win! Er, I mean, boxed wine! (I hear snobby readers saying “Quelle horreur!” as I type this. You know who you are.) I couldn’t have fit it in my bear canister a couple days ago, but I now have the space to make it work with a little effort, so I get a half liter of pinot grigio before heading back to the trail.

Tuolumne Meadow, surrounded by low-lying hills and mountains
Tuolumne Meadow
A mother mule deer and her white-spotted fawn, seen through trees near Lyell Fork
A mother mule deer and her fawn, near Lyell Fork

For whatever reason I find that I’m dragging a bit when I hit the trail again. It doesn’t help that the guidebook and signs are a bit unclear as to how to return to, and continue upon, the JMT. Nor does it help that my ankles are (both) in considerable pain from stumbling; I would likely be in trouble now if I didn’t have hiking poles to arrest my falls. I take it somewhat slowly heading south to enter Lyell Canyon, which isn’t a sheer canyon but rather four miles of essentially level trail along Lyell Fork toward the ascents and passes beyond. It’s getting late in the afternoon, but there’s no camping in the first four miles of the canyon, so I keep hiking to the trail junction just past the four mile limit.

Looking north along the gentle Lyell Fork past various boulders submerged in it
Lyell Fork to the north as I collect and purify water
South down Lyell Canyon as I gather and purify water, viewing Kuna Crest
South down Lyell Canyon as I gather and purify water
An eight-point buck who should consider himself lucky to be in a national park
This buck shouldn't be this unconcerned about me, but at least he's not begging

The junction is a well-frequented camping area, and there are at least a couple dozen people around. I pick a spot near a few backpackers and their fire ring, eat dinner (chipotle-flavored salmon and Mexican rice, most excellent — because I’m just weird, the rather-heavy wine will wait until I arrive early enough somewhere to attempt to cool it before dinner), and shortly head to sleep.

…and that wraps up the first of several posts covering the entire JMT. With the number of pictures I’m taking, it’s clear the fewer days I batch up at a time, the better, as far as keeping post “height” reasonable goes. Thus you can expect at least four or five more of these posts to cover the roughly two weeks that remain of the trip and hike. Until next time…


It’s 211 miles to Mount Whitney, I’ve got a full bear canister of half my food, the remaining half is staged halfway down-trail, it’s dark, and I’m wearing sunglasses

All work and no play makes Jeff a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jeff a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jeff a dull boy.

So goodbye Internets, goodbye Mozilla, goodbye cruel world: I’m off to thru-hike the John Muir Trail. I should be back on approximately September 28, depending on how my transportation connections match up on the way back from the other side of Mount Whitney. (And yes, Mozillians who will be in Mountain View for the platform work week next week, I’ll miss it — a regrettable peril of needing to schedule a vacation 168 days in advance.)