Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal in 19 days during July of 2016
08 Aug 2016
It was a week before I was planning on leaving my job when my friend John called. "Hey dude I heard you're gonna have some free time, want to hike the John Muir Trail with me?" he asked. I had always wanted to hike the JMT. It has been a life goal of mine since I was a Boy Scout. "Yes! When are you thinking of leaving?" I replied. "Monday" he responded, "After the mountain rave." So thats how it happened. I quickly shipped out my resupply box and headed down to Southern California for the 5 Points Music festival on top of Mt Baldy. A couple days after that I was in Yosemite Valley about to depart on the best hike of my life.
The graph below shows the mileage and elevation at different points along the trail. As you scroll a red dot will move along the graph showing you where on my journey each section corresponds to. If you mouse over the dot it will show you the name, elevation and mileage from the beginning of the trail, for that location. If you click on a point it will scroll the narrative to that location in my journey. Lastly, you can click on any of the images to view the full resolution version on Flickr.
We woke at 4:30am and almost burnt the house down trying to make coffee. It turns out the kettle, which in my defense looked just like a normal kettle, was actually an electric kettle with a plastic bottom designed for a charging station not a stove. Despite the rough start we got out of our friends apartment in El Portal unscathed and parked the car in the backpackers lot sometime before 6. From there we made it up the steep 2k elevation gain to Little Yosemite Valley pretty quickly. We left before the sun came up in hopes of avoiding the ranger because our permit was dodgy but it had the nice side effect of making the hard climb more bearable. Vernal and Nevada falls were amazing.
We were so exhausted from waking up early, adjusting to the elevation, talking our way past the ranger and the hard morning climb that we ended up taking a lunch time nap in a burnt out part of the forest. This was second nature for John, my hiking partner, who was a Hot Shot fire fighter. I think he actually mentioned he felt more comfortable sleeping in the ash. Anyway this had the consequence of making it look like we had been on the trail for a month by the time we got to Tolumne the next day.
The bill of John's hat had "STOKED" written on it really big which encouraged a lot of people to stop and talk to us. This was great because we found out that our intended destination Sunrise Meadows was full of mosquitoes. So we decided to stay on a bluff near a stream before the final part of the climb into the meadow. We heard Clouds Rest is a great place to stop especially if you are doing a trip from Tolumne to the Valley but it was too far out of our way on this trip. The weather was perfect all day.
Sunrise Meadow was beautiful but we had to almost run through it because the mosquitoes were as bad as promised. I felt bad for the people staying at the High Sierra camp.
We ate lunch overlooking a giant granite valley where we made some new friends; Martin and Adele from the Czech Republic. Martin is the CTO of Social Bakers, a social analytics company where Adele also works. We were honored to be the first people to find out of their new engagement which happened just days before. They had just finished doing the JMT from Whitney to Tolumne and were now going from Yosemite Valley to Lake Tahoe.
Cathedral Lake looked beautiful, there were a lot of people doing day hikes out there from Tolumne Meadows.
After enough people called John "Stoked", it was clear that should be his trail name.
We made it to Tolumne Meadows despite being confused by the signs which made us think it was at first closer, than later farther then we thought. The store ended up being about 1.5 miles from the parking lot with the sign that says 3.5 miles to the High Sierra camp. The grill closed at 5pm but the store, which sells beer and other essentials, was open until 8pm. A "Trail Angel" was making a free spaghetti dinner for PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) hikers, which we were easily mistaken for (our nap in the burnt forest made us just as dirty as the PCT hikers who had been on the trail for months), but we opted for cooking sausages from the store over the fire instead. We ended up camping with our newly engaged Czech friends Martin and Adele and a guy we called Uncle Mike and his son who were doing a fishing trip out to Thousand Island Lake. Uncle Mike only drank non-alcoholic beer which worked out perfectly for him because Martin and Adele bought some St Pauli Girl from the store expecting a nice German import not realizing it was non-alcoholic.
We camped near the top of the Donahue Pass just above an alpine lake that drained into a waterfall. Our site sat on the edge of the ridge with a perfect view of Lyle Canyon below. Sunset was amazing and there were tons of stars out at night. I think this was the best campsite I've ever had.
This is also where we met Larz and Steph, a couple from Prescott, Arizona who we ended up hiking most of the rest of the trail with.
We started seeing a lot of people with dogs on this part of the trail. I guess dogs are allowed from Reds Meadow up to Thousand Island Lake since it's outside of the National Park.
We found a perfect campsite on the north shore of Garnette Lake under a leaning tree between the lake and the trail. We ate lunch and considered fishing but ended up taking a nap instead.
We hiked with our new friends Larz and Steph down to Shadow Lake where they stopped. There were too many mosquitos there for us so we decided to try Rosalie Lake which was up on top of some switch backs.
Caught and ate our first trout at Rosalie Lake at a fishing spot John used to fish at with his Dad when he was a kid. We heard a bear harass every other campsite around the lake except for ours that night. Perhaps because ours was more in the open and harder for the bear to sneak into than the others or maybe they were scared of our pile of rocks and booby traps.
I had my first blister pop on the hike down to Reds Meadow which made it a pretty painful trek, luckily I still had a little whiskey left.
Devils Postpile was cool. Apparently the strange curving square rods formed from a giant lake of lava that filled Reds Meadow after a volcanic eruption. Reds Meadow now has a store which sells beer and is open until 7pm.
We decided to take a "zero day" (trail slang for taking the day off) so that we could get some new supplies in Mammoth. The tram ride to Mammoth from Reds Meadows cost $7, takes about 45 minutes and requires 3 different buses to get anywhere useful. In town we lucked into watching Portugal beat France in the Euro Cup Championship match. I also got a new pack, the Osprey Volt 60L, to replace the old external frame I had been using that was requiring more and more repairs each day. It was sad to have to let my old pack go because it was given to me by one of my old friend's father who has since passed away. But, I was happy that it's last run was on the John Muir Trail. I was also happy that the trail name "Broke-pack Mountain", that John had come up with for me, was no longer applicable.
That night we had a big fire at the backpacking camp where we met some cool people including a 23 year old girl doing the PCT by herself named Little Beast who inspired us all. We also encountered our first "Trail Troll", a term John came up with to describe guys who hang around camp all day attempting to extract a toll from everyone coming through. This particular troll claimed to have been hiking the PCT and AT for the last 3 years living off whatever he could find in the hiker boxes and kept asking us if we wanted to buy any weed.
The trail out of Reds Meadows didn't have the best views but was a great hiking trail. It was uphill, which I greatly prefer to downhill because its easier on the joints and you get a good workout; dirt, which is so much easier on the feet than granite; and had ample shade.
There is every color wildflower imaginable along the trail!
We took a break at Purple Lake with Larz and Steph and our new friends Jeff and Dan. Jeff went to high school with John. We randomly ran into him camping next to us at Reds Meadows. Jeff's trail name is "Chef" because he brought the most delicious dehydrated dinners which he made himself. I think he got the recipes from this site. The apricot macadamia nut chicken couscous was amazing.
I went for a swim in the lake and Larz caught a fish.
We camped at Virgina lake, which is one of the most picturesque lakes I've ever seen. The way the sunset lit up the mountains around the lake was incredible. Once the sun goes down at this elevation though it starts to get cold quickly which is part of the reason we started heading to bed at "hiker midnight" aka 9pm.
We took the "ferry", a small 5 person metal fishing boat with a 9 hp outboard motor, to Vermillion Valley Resort. Here we picked up the resupply boxes we had sent ourselves, took a shower and got a hard earned brew. John lost his removable tooth which he finally found after raking the entire campsite for 5 hours. Like most things at VVR, dinner was too expensive. But breakfast was reasonably priced so we chowed down on that before leaving the next morning.
Instead of dealing with the ferry ride again we decided to take the Bear Ridge Trail out of VVR back to the JMT. This trail was not well maintained and had few switchbacks despite its steepness, which made it a slog to get to the top.
However, once back on the JMT the switchbacks on the way down to the Bear Creek Junction were some of the most beautiful I've been on. They went through groves of Aspen and were lined with tons of wildflowers including lilies and Alpine Shooting Star. Larz saw a flock of baby quail following its mother across the trail. We had lunch and went swimming on top of a small waterfall after passing the junction.
We camped with Steph, Larz, Jeff and Dan a little ways past the Italy Pass Trail junction. The campsite was next to a creek where we went fishing off of a big rock into some rapids. We caught some small Brook Trout which we released.
Marie Lake was crystal clear. We took the flower lined trail along side of it as approached Seldon Pass.
On the other side of the pass, a lake that looked like an infinity pool had a stream running down from it. The stream was crystal clear and brimming with trout that were making a journey upstream.
Stopped at Muir Trail Ranch for the night and I contemplated leaving with Jeffs friend Dan because my feet and knees were so sore and tired I was concerned I would be saddled with an injury out on the trail. I slept on the idea and the next morning decided to see it through. Plus we had heard this trail term; HYOH, which stands for "Hike Your Own Hike". I decided this was good advice and told John I needed to take more breaks and go at a slower pace than him. The remainder of the trip had us mostly hiking separately while meeting up for lunch breaks and camping along the trail. Muir Trail Ranch had by far the best hiker buckets but the staff was rude to backpackers. It might be a nice place to stay if you had a small group to split the $250 price tag and booked ahead of time, so you could get a bucket of beers, some real food and a shower. It's 4 miles from Florence Lake which would make it a nice place to stay for a short trip. However we camped for free along the river near the hot springs with Jeff and Dan and had a fire.
We had to take our shoes off to cross the river before entering Evolution Valley. The water was nice and warm after meandering its way through the valley all day.
We would later meet a women who was hiking with a shoe on her left foot and a sandal taped onto her right. It turned out she lost her shoe on this crossing by attempting to throw it over the river to her husband, a big mistake. We saw her on our last day at Whitney Portal and told her she was one of our heroes for completing the trail.
At this crossing, we also heard about a group of 4 women we had past earlier. We were told they all had terminal cancer and were doing the trail together. After hearing this inspirational story I decided I had no excuse to not finish the trail and was determined to do so despite any pain in my feet.
Evolution Valley looks directly west making for an incredible sunset that lights up the sky and surrounding granite mountains.
We camped on a small bluff overlooking Colby Meadow and had a fire.
We did the climb up to Evolution Basin early in the morning. The lakes in the basin were full of perfectly clear water that reflected the granite mountains that surrounded them.
Muir Pass looked like another planet. There's a stone hut at the top that was built by the Sierra Club in 1930.
On the way down there was enough snow for some sledding on our butts and a snowball fight. There were hundreds of giant tadpoles in the alpine lakes we passed on our way to camp. This is a good sign because we had been hearing the alpine toads are endangered due to overstocking of trout which eat the tadpoles.
We camped a little passed Helen Lake at a campsite on the Middle Fork of the Kings River next to a waterfall.
We stopped at the ranger station and got some extra Cliff bars and dehydrated food from some friendly Canadians we had met who were leaving out of Bishop pass and were happy to lighten their load. There was a group of people extremely fascinated by the unoccupied wooden ranger station (it seemed as though this was the destination of their backpacking trip).
The valley leading up to the Golden Staircase is full awesome cascading waterfalls, which were second in grandeur only to those found in Yosemite Valley itself.
I soaked my feet in the creek during lunch. There's nothing more rejuvenating than sticking sore feet in a creek full of fresh snow melt.
The Golden Staircase had a lot of false peeks that kept tricking us into thinking we were almost at the top. If I were to rename this climb I would call it "Fake-out Staircase" - others had much less nice names for it.
We were "Tits Up", as John would say, once we finally reached the top so we grabbed the first campsite we found next to Placer Lake, which luckily happened to be one of the nicest ones. The moon came out early and was almost full.
I got up early, packed up and made my way to Mather Pass before anyone else was up. The basin on the way to the pass was especially beautiful as the mountains reflected perfectly off the still wildflower lined lakes at this early hour.
The other side of the pass was a very high desert that dropped down into a lush valley. There was a creek at the bottom of the valley where we all met up. While at the creek we met two travelers named Ross and Emma who we ended up hiking with for the remainder of the trip.
We camped next to Lake Marjorie which is the bluest lake I've ever seen. We had a drum circle there where we came up with trail names for our new friends: Ross-Ta-Far-Hike and Purple Haze (everything she owned was some shade of purple). Behind the lake is a huge, red, iron mountain. That night before bed we heard a rock slide that lasted for what seemed like minutes and echoed off the mountains all around us.
Woke up early and did Pinchot Pass.
Stayed at Rae Lakes and caught tons of fish; the lake is full of trout. We ate a bunch of them for dinner. I went swimming in the lake twice. It was surprisingly warm for fresh snow melt. The mountains here have colorful red, white and grey veins of minerals running through them which give them a unique striped pattern.
That night I jotted down "Full moon tonight. It's the brightest I've ever seen it. It hurts my eyes to look at it because it's so bright."
The views of Rae Lakes as we went up Glen Pass were amazing. These lakes were one of my favorite places on this trip and someplace I definitely hope to visit again.
We camped up at 11,300 feet in a granite bowl before the pass. There was an epic waterfall that spilled out of the sheer granite wall, into a stream, lined with some of the only greenery around. We could hear this waterfall roaring through the basin from our campsite miles away which made me feel like we were camping in Mordor in the presence of Mt Doom.
Forester Pass is the second highest climb on the trail, second only to Whitney. It certainly feels like a strange world at that elevation. The pass itself wasn't as hard as it was built up to be; we had been hearing people say it was the hardest pass of the trip.
I listened to the audio book version of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Philip K. Dick on the way down, through what felt like an alien world at times. Lots of granite high desert and sparse trees at first until we dove into a forest of Sequoia trees.
There was a beautiful mesa on the way to Crabtree Meadows with 360 degree views and lots of marmots just asking to be photographed.
We did 16.6 miles total to get to Crabtree Meadows Ranger station which included the climb over Forester Pass. Boy was I tired, and my feet were hurting too. This was the first I really noticed some redness and swelling spreading through the top of my foot. This redness later turned out to be a bad Staph infection. I concluded it must have started from one of my many blisters that had popped.
We had talked to many people who were planning on getting up to Mt Whitney for sunrise but we decided to buck the trend and do sunset instead. This meant we could get a late start and do a late lunch at Guitar Lake while we waited for the heat of the day to die down.
By this point in the trip my muscles had so much conditioning that the climb up to Mt Whitney was physically a peace of cake. However the infection in my foot made a wrongly placed step extremely painful.
Our decision to watch sunset turned out to be a good one. We had the whole summit to ourselves to watch the most spectacular 360 degree sunset I have ever seen! We left most of our gear at the cutoff for the climb up. However, we brought the Jet Boil so we were able to make tea at the top. This was a welcome luxury once it started getting cold from the sun setting. While we were up there John announced our crew had finally decided on a new trail name for me since retiring "Broke-pack Mountain". I was honored the crew decided I earned the name "Iron Heart" for persevering through a difficult journey.
We left before it was completely dark but still much of our hike down required using headlamps. This wasn't too bad and we actually passed a number of people on their way up for sunrise the next day. As an aside, someone we talked to later said sunrise was so crowded that people were stepping on his sleeping bag while he was trying to sleep because space was so limited at the summit. We camped just on the other side of the pass as we came down switchbacks that were covered in water.
We didn't get much sleep because we had to sleep so close to the trail and there was a steady stream of people passing us to go up the mountain.
Coming down was pretty slow and painful because my foot was totally red and swollen at this point.
The last few miles were hot and had very little water; this was probably the driest section of the whole trip.
We past many day hikers going up to Whitney or Lone Pine Lake. However coming up from Whitney Portal to one of those destinations in the heat of the day seemed extremely difficult as there was little relief from the constant elevation gain.
At Whitney Portal I discovered the gang eating a pancake that was the size of a pizza. This was it we had made it! We hiked all 220 miles of the John Muir Trail and lived to tell the tail! I was exhausted, in pain and glad to be done. But I also knew I would miss the trail and was already thinking about what the next adventure would be.
Many people say they have a spiritual epiphany while hiking the JMT and I can see why. Here's mine: As much as I believe in technology and the ability of man to create great things, given all of mankind, for all of human existence, we could never create something as beautiful and perfectly balanced as the Sierra Nevada. For this reason hiking the JMT is like being in the presence of a perfection created by something greater than we could ever imagine. Some may call this God, others the laws of nature, whatever we call it it exists in the Sierra Nevada.
Thanks to John and his parents, all the great friends who we met along the trail, and thanks to my family who helped me heal when I got home.