Week Long Backpacking Trip in the High Sierras Completed
In early August, my wife, in-laws, and a family friend (who had never done an overnight trip before!) went on a week-long, ~60-mile backpacking trip in the High Sierras in the Inyo and Sierra National Forests and in Kings Canyon National Park. The trip included about 25 miles on the famous John Muir Trail (JMT) through a particularly impressive section known as Evolution Valley; this portion of the JMT is commonly referred to as the “Classic Sierra Hike.” For those familiar with the region, we hiked from the North Lake campground to the South Lake campground.
On Friday we headed up to LA to meet up with the in-laws, do a final run through of our pack lists, weigh in (my pack weighed 49 pounds), and enjoy our final chance to shower! Very early on Saturday morning (4:30 AM), we left for the trailhead, which is up near Bishop, California.
Day 1: North Lake Trailhead to Loch Leven
After picking up our permits, enjoying our last non-dehydrated meal for a week, and heading to the trailhead, we got hiking at 1:00pm. Our intent for this first day was to just acclimate to the altitude - nothing too strenuous. We started at 9,350 ft. at the North Lake trailhead and on our first day trekked a short three miles up to Loch Leven (elevation 10,750 ft).
Day 2: North Lake Trailhead to Loch Leven
Between Loch Leven and our next campsite stood Piute Pass at 11,425 ft, after which we had a gradual 2,000 ft. descent into Hutchinson's Meadow. On the trek up to the pass we saw our first snow of the trip, about a 100 yard stretch of easily-to-walk snow leading up to the top.
Day 3: Hutchinson's Meadow to the Base of Evolution Valley
From Hutchinson's Meadow, we dropped another 1,500 ft. and met up with the John Muir Trail. Following that, we climbed about another 500 feet up to our campsite for the night. Up until today, all of our stream crossings had been on foot. Most streams are pretty tame and only a few feet deep at most, and have a plethora of rocks and logs to use to cross. In Hutchinson's Meadow, there were a slew of streams that lacked such natural aids that we had to don our watershoes and wade through the streams. Today, however, we followed the growing Piute Stream and met up with the San Joaquin river. Fortunately, there were actual steel bridges for crossing these rapids!
We ended up camping at the base of Evolution Valley, going to bed knowing that a 1,000 foot incline greeted us first thing!
Day 4: Base of Evolution Valley to Evolution Lake
We started our day with a climb from 8,500 ft. to 9,500 ft. within a short two miles. The hike wasn't too bad, actually. In fact, mornings are the best time to hike - you're fresh from a night's sleep and full of warm food. It's the evenings that are the hardest, naturally. After climbing up to Evolution Valley, we walked along the meadows there and waded across Evolution Stream, a calm stream that was about 2.5 feet deep and 25 yards across, but full of water that had to be around 40 degrees. Very, very cold. After marching through Evolution Valley, we capped our day off with a hard 1,250 ft. climb up to Evolution Lake.
Day 5: Evolution Lake to Big Pete Meadow
Our morning started with a climb from Evolution Lake (10,800 ft.) up to Muir Pass (11, 950 ft.) and down to Big Pete Meadow (9,500 ft.). This stretch is one of the most spectacular of the entire 200+ mile John Muir Trail, and was quite awe-inspiring. The hike over Muir Pass was hard, with the thin air and rocky trail, but the trip down was more challenging. For the first several miles there was a fair amount of snow, which impeded our progress. The elevation loss was precipitable, too, and over rocky terrain, which makes for a slow and hard hike. (Ideally, the trails are level with a dirt or light grass terrain... going up or down rocks is hard on the knees and time consuming.) This was probably the hardest day of the trip both physically and mentally.
Day 6: Big Pete Meadow to Dusy Basin
From Big Pete Meadow we quickly traveled down another 750 ft. through Little Pete Meadow to the LeConte Canyon Ranger Station. This was the ideal terrain - slightly downhill over a mossy dirt. We made great time, reaching the ranger station by 9:00 AM. The rest of the day was spent climbing up to Dusy Basin. At 9:00 AM we were at 8,750 ft. By 3:30 PM we were at 11,400 ft.
Day 7: Dusy Basin to South Lake Trailhead
Last night was cooooold. At 5:30, when we awoke, it was a shade below 35 degrees in the tent, probably another 10-15 degrees cooler outside. Our final portion involved ascending to Bishop Pass (11,975 ft.) and then down to the Southlake Trailhead (9,800 ft.). We made it to the pass with ease, it being only 600 ft. up and about 1.25 miles away. The rest of the trip we probably averaged double our usual speed, as it was straight downhill and the prospect of good food, showers, and sleeping quarters more than two inches from the ground danced in our heads!
No pictures for Day 7 - by today, both digital cameras brought on this trip had broken!
Most backpacking trips can be broken down into a couple of phases. The first phase, right when you start out, is one of abundant energy. You're clean, well-rested, and full. You've not spend ceaseless hours trudging through the wilderness lugging around a 49 pound pack on your back. And to boot, in high elevations, the first day is typically a very light day in order to aid with altitude acclimation.
This “walking on air“ phase quickly gives way after the first night of sleep in a tent. After the first night of having to dig a hole in the ground to go to the bathroom. After the first morning of waking up at 5:30 am and not being able to take a shower. But there's still some energy left over from the previous day. For most hikers, the third day is the real test. It's the borderline between the, “I am used to the comforts of modern living“ and “My brain is numb and my body has returned to Mother Earth.“ In the third day, you're sore and tired and dirty, but a large part of your brain still remembers what it was like to shower, the feeling of a matress, or the tastiness of greasy food.
For me, this switchover didn't really happen until after the fourth day. It was on days 5, 6, and 7 where I was most accustomed to being in the wild (although Day 5 was the most challenging for me). To put it into context, on nights 1, 2, and 3, I don't think I got more than an hour or two of continuous sleep. By the last night, I slept for close to seven hours straight. On the third day, I smelled a noxious odor and it took me a while to realize that that smell was me. By the fifth day, those smells no longer registered. Over the first few days, doing a twosie into a hole in the ground is hard work. Let's just say there are a lot of false starts (and false starts are no fun considering that you get to contend with mosquitos on your rear each time you make an effort). But by day 4 or 5, you're as regular as you are back home.
I'm glad we went on the trip. It was a challenging endeavor, but everyone made it through safely and there was no infighting or sniping or bickering among any of our party members the entire trip. A good group of folks who were able to stay kind and keep a smile on their face even after having spent days going on just a handful of hours of sleep each night and days of pooing in holes in the ground. My wife's now itching to do the entire John Muir Trail sometime in the next year or two (the 200+ miles from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney)!!
And the JMT is nothing for the serious hiker. I mean, there's the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada! Or the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia......!!!!