Saturday, July 25, 2020

JMT/SHT backpacking

Item #2 (of 2) that wasn't cancelled this summer!  Our permit for backpacking in the Sierras was still a "go", although we were short a couple friends (due to an unfortunate accident involving a chainsaw and a big toe - happily she is OK other than the toe!)

This was also supposed to be training/acclimation for the World Rogaine Championship, and it turns out that it is great training for that, so we're making plans for more backpacking in the Sierras next year.  Good thing there are still SO many places to go explore!

For our first foray into the area, I set up a figure-8 loop that would give us an introduction to both the John Muir Trail (JMT) and the Sierra High Route (SHR).  We drove up to Vermillion Valley, getting a close-up look at the narrow single-lane curvy road that goes on for mile after super-slow mile (wow...).  Then we took a ferry ride across Lake Edison because - why not!  We've walked around lakes before, let's have more time for the mountains instead.

We started north on the JMT, into the wilderness:

It's quite a climb up toward Silver Pass, good thing we had all day to start slowly and not exhaust ourselves right off the bat.

Yay for the "no campfires" zone!

It was a nice (warm) day, with frequent breaks to take in the scenery, happy to be back in the highlands.  We saw a grouse with a bunch of chicks - an excellent first wildlife sighting.

And an excellent trail:

I'm not sure this is common the whole length of the JMT, but there were plenty of times when the trail seemed to wind around for no particular reason, just meandering here and there.  Maybe so we could see as much as possible in all directions.

Silver Pass Lake, where we camped the first night, complete with a little beach and backed by beautiful rocks:

Nice campsite for night #1 - shady, flat, and up on a small knoll.  Shared with a little rodent that seemed annoyed when we stored all the food in the bear cans for the night.

Well, that is a lovely view from camp.  We both went for walks to explore around and above the lake.

We heard about the Iva Belle hot springs from a couple different people (and would continue to hear about it the next couple days), hmm, should we try to find it?  After much leafing through my various maps, I finally located it down the hill near Fish Creek, but we decided it was too far out of the way and way too far down the hill to make the detour worthwhile.  Stick with the plan.

Packs and poles are ready to walk the next morning.

After a short climb to the top of Silver Pass, we were treated with a nice view of the next set of lakes:

Chatting with southbound hikers, we got several warnings about the terrible mosquitos down toward the Fish Creek area, so we paused to "suit up" with mesh bug shirts and head nets.  That worked well, even if we occasionally got a funny look.  Crossing Fish Creek to start up the next climb:

The switchback climb out of Tully Hole was another warm one, but at least we found occasional shade where we could admire the view and try to figure out where we'd be going in a few days hence:

Virginia Lake looks lovely, the area back behind Purple Lake looks interesting (for future reference), and eventually we made it around the bend to climb to our destination - Duck Lake.  We saw a few sets of people here, probably because of the proximity to Mammoth Lakes on the other side of Duck Pass.  Still we were able to find a secluded campsite amid the rocks above the lake, very nice:

We tested out our new solar shower system, which ... sweet!  Warm(ish) water with a control valve on a bag hung from a tree.  I'll take that over a cold dip in the lake any day.

It was a quiet night, except John noticed a lot of condensation inside the tent and got up to put the fly on.  We were enjoying looking at the stars, but it was probably better not to soak ourselves in the process.

We started our "up early and start walking" pattern the next morning, hoping to get in our miles and still have time to wander around the Devil's Postpile later in the day.  That worked great, walking for a couple hours in the cool morning before everything started warming up.

Duck Lake, very still at sunrise:

The trail toward Duck Pass:

We veered onto a section of the SHR, one of the easier parts, a nice gentle introduction.  The route over to Deer Lakes actually has a trail now, although we decided to go off-trail instead just because it seemed more fun.  At least until the rocky drop to the lakes where the trail was definitely more prudent.

Pika sighting, yay!  We're getting better at noticing large piles of talus where they might live and then spotting the little creatures sitting on and running around the rocks.  California pikas are much quieter that the ones in the Rockies so we have to spot them without the "squeak" to alert us to look.

So pretty:

We sat for an hour and had oatmeal for breakfast.  Showing off the excellent camping mug we got from the RV Entrepreneur summit last year:

Back to trail, climbing up to the Mammoth Crest ridge where John found a throne...?

Awesome window down to the next valley, now that's a view to check out for sure:

Back on the west side of the crest, where I got to take a little break while John did some helpful trail work (thank you John!):

Pumice Plains, that's something different:

Enjoying our day of seeing a lot of new things:

So many volcanic features!  Cones, lava rocks, and we speculate possibly a huge caldera around Mammoth Lakes?  Well anyway, we really enjoyed the views from the crest.  Someone we met even pointed out that you can see Yosemite and Half Dome from there, what?  That's cool.  And in an unexpected direction.

This isn't a picture of Yo, but it does show some of the volcanic reds and blacks:

We were excited to meet a trio of hikers who were trekking south on the SHR.  One of them called the route "rugged!" but they looked like a strong group.  They seemed fairly nonchalant about the big climb they had just done from Red's Meadow up to the crest, which amazed us more when we found the huge pile of sand they had ascended.  It was an easy surf downhill, steep but loose and deep.  Hard to imagine clawing our way up this thing, especially with big packs on:

We took a slight detour to McCloud Lake for a water refill, then cut over to the trail that dropped many feet over several miles.  Welcome to Ansel Adams Wilderness!

Down in Red's Meadow, we found a nice site at the campground, happy that they are open again.  There are pluses and minuses to staying in a developed area, funnily enough we were most happy to have the large bear box to help organize our stuff overnight.  OK, the excellent cafe was also a check in the "plus" column.  Oh!  Also the showers.

Our spot in the shade:

Free from the pack weight, we set off to explore the Devil's Postpile.  We had been once previously but it is so cool that we wanted to check it out again.

Yep, still awesome!

The shapes and curves and strangeness of it all - so hard to explain:

Even more fascinating is standing on the top and imagining the tall pillars below:

In awe, again, every time:

Indiana Jones and Darth Vader:

So, a bit of a story.  We'd heard from a hiker that there were bears at Red's Meadow.  We didn't know there was one particular bear that understood the concept of bear boxes, at least until John looked up from our campsite picnic table to see a bear staring at him from over in the bushes.  Actually, the bear was staring at our open bear box full of food from the store.  I heard "Marcy, there's a bear" and popped out of the tent going "where, where, where" while spinning all around.  Oh, right over there, I see.

John considered walking away to avoid the large animal, while we both realized at the same time that the best first course of action would be to CLOSE the bear box.  I might have heard the bear sigh in disappointment.  There was a bit of yelling (go bear go!) and eventually the bear moved on.  Beautiful creature, possibly well-fed.  It prowled the campground, checking other bear boxes to see if someone else could be caught off guard.  Well then.

Part 2 of the story.  In the middle of the night we heard a car alarm and some "no, no, no!" shouting.  It stopped.  Then began again.  At least 5 times (with one "no bear no!" mixed in).  Finally someone else joined the anti-bear brigade with an air horn and what seemed like some chasing, lots of lights waving around, and talking.  I wondered if our tent might get lumbered over by a large animal, but no, it seems to know enough not to damage anything or hurt anyone.  Eventually everything went quiet again.

The next morning I strolled past the campsites near us and noticed a BBQ grill strapped on the bed of a pickup truck.  Hmm, just a guess, but perhaps that might have provided a bear seat and a tasty thing to lick?  We'll never know, but that's what I'm betting on.

We quietly got our packs together and walked up the road to the resort.  I took a closer look at the giant map on the wall of the store and found a trail going from Red's almost directly to the hot springs.  I took a picture, missing much of the actual trail but at least I had the important info in my brain.  And a fun portion of the map on the camera:

Originally this was planned to be a shorter day, just a climb up the JMT toward Deer Creek.  We'd heard that the camping around there wasn't great ("don't recommend it" according to one hiker) so we revised our plan to try to get higher and closer to Duck Lake again.

Then we found this fun set of arrows that included the words "Iva Belle hot springs, 13 miles" and I was like, 13 miles, that's a good distance.  We can do that.  Maybe we should?

Let's do it!  Even though we'd be off all of our maps for several miles, there shouldn't be any trail intersections (per the wall map) and we had a good USGS topo map for finding the actual hot springs once we made it to that area.

Plus we got to see Rainbow Falls, bonus!  It's impressive, glad we finally made it here:

Walking down the trail, we found another set of postpiles, cool!

Second day in a row of "breakfast break on the trail", in a wonderful spot on a large flat granite rock.  Near the creek (for water access) but with plenty of wind to blow the mosquitos away.  Shade and nice views, quite lovely.  Our oatmeal and coffee was delicious too, thank you John for cooking!

Neat trail across a big slab of rock:

I thought about bringing home a giant pinecone for Kip (even bigger than the ones that land on his roof occasionally) but decided a photo would be better:

And another postpile!  That magma lake must have been huge.

Eventually the trail dropped down to Fish Creek, crossed a bridge, and we started climbing toward the terrain on my topo map.  Looking for the confluence of Fish and Sharktooth, I noticed this large boulder (not quite at the confluence, but not far off):

The topo map was hugely helpful so we knew where to leave the trail and start wandering up the hillside.  For all the people that knew about this place, it's not trampled down or obvious from the trail.  Much more obvious once we got into the general area of the hot springs.  We met a couple people down low who were happy to chat, then climbed partway up to find these lovely (and perfectly warm!) pools:

With a marvelous view of the valley:

John explored higher, found more pools but with an occupant in the prime camping spot.  We snagged an excellent tent site close to "our" middle pool and called it good.

John can definitely sleep here!

The afternoon involved schlepping fresh water from the creek over yonder (even the cooler water running down through the springs tasted very soft to me) and then relaxing and enjoying a couple baths in the pools.  We did a decent job of staying clean this trip, even finding various sources of warm water.

Another early departure day, this time due to the large climb ahead of us (the biggest downside of the hot springs detour).  We would be taking our time, and lots of breaks, on that day.

So many pretty flowers, seems like a good time to throw in one of those photos:

Carefully following John down the hill so we could re-find the trail, climb UP to the little pass, and then DOWN the other side to rejoin Fish Creek:

Fish Creek had a lot of great sights for us that day.  So many shapes of cascades, trenches, water drops, it was a pleasure walking alongside it.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip!  I got lucky that I noticed John starting up the tree and then with the camera timing.  That's my man!

It was "creek crossing Thursday", with the Second Crossing marked on the map, another crossing further upstream, and a third once we got to McGee Pass trail.  This one had by far the clearest "here is where you cross" stream entry and exit spots:

And there were a couple additional creek crossings as we started doing SHR navigation from that point.  We needed to take a cross-country route up a spur but decided not to wade through a meadow to get there.  A couple more wet feet moments later and we were officially on our second SHR section of the trip.  Cool!

John led the way up the large rocks, finding interesting passages, climbing mostly-easy boulders.  Somewhere along these next couple days we decided that the motto of the Sierra's should be "(exclamation!), there's more!"  With the exclamation varying depending on the situation.

Nearing the top of the creek, the rain that had been threatening turned into an actual little thunderstorm, and we decided to wait it out amid the larger trees before going higher.  We dug out rain gear and covered the packs.  The chilly air was a welcome relief after all the warm afternoons.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, John could sleep here.  Just a little nap to let the storm pass:

I admired the scenery and enjoyed the drop in temperature:

OK!  Ready to move again, now dressed for rain, taking a walk around the beautiful Lake Izaak Walton:

Already I'm starting to understand the special quality of the Sierra High Route:

Climbing up above that lake toward our next set of lakes, excited to be back at higher altitudes:

Cotton Lake, so beautiful, and with a perfect flat rock for our tent site.  We were thrilled that we had already decided to stay two nights in one place, and this was the place I'd chosen for that.

The lake almost blending in with the sky:

I could wander all day around the many tiny lakes and ponds and rocks and trees and fun features of the plateau.  We had one day without backpacks, so we started with a pre-breakfast hike up the ridge above our campsite for more views:

Checking out the more-challenging ridge across the way (which includes Mount Izaak Walton, not in this photo):

Practicing a bit of canyoneering on the rocks (and I think there's a small scratch on the camera lens that occasionally shows up when there's glare, but I really wanted to include this picture because this isn't something I do every day):

John could NOT sleep here...

After a leisurely breakfast, we decided to set off toward McGee Pass.  First down to Tully Lake and then to locate the trail again.  On the horizon is Red Slate Mountain, an impressive (if not awfully tedious-looking) 13er that I have no wish to climb:

Another look at Red Slate.  The volcanic colors were rather mesmerizing as we trekked below and around it:

The trail continued on the other side of McGee Pass, going off who-knows-where (again, limited long-range views on my maps):

John decided he'd like to climb up to the top of the ridge next to the saddle if that was OK?  Sure, I'll take a break and watch!  Less than 10 minutes to the top, super impressive:

We were on a mosey pace back to Cotton Lake when dark clouds floated over the ridge and then thunder started rumbling.  Oops, I totally had not completely closed the rainfly on the tent.  That was dumb.  We hastened as much as we could, eventually getting wet with rain, happy to be down low during the brief lightening session.  We ran back to the tent, discovered nothing was getting overly wet (phew), secured everything, then crawled in for a nap.  Well, that was nice!

The sun came back and dried everything out almost as quickly as we could lay it out on the rocks.  Love that.  We met another trio of SHR hikers going south, and they were aiming for Laurel Lake.  I was a bit surprised at their ambitious plan rather late in the day, but there was plenty of light left for sure.  For once we weren't the ones getting the "wow, you hiked a long way today" reaction.

One more big day of hiking, this time "for real" with the SHR scrambling.  John led the way up the valley and we enjoyed walking up the easy rocks and finding more lakes and little streams.

Thank you, excellent camping area!  Also thank you to the pika we spotted carrying a huge wad of grass, that was so cool.

At the top of Shout of Relief Pass, surveying Rosy Finch Lake and the traverse around to Bighorn Pass.  I love the name "Shout of Relief", although it applied to people traveling northbound, so we wondered what we were about to get into.

Yep, lots of talus and boulders!  John picked his way, aiming for spots in the distance, and I focused on carefully following along.  Along the way we noticed these interesting rocks wedged in the skyline:

Technically, squeezing under was not required, but it was funny:

Slowly but steadily progressing along the traverse:

And there we are.  Overlooking the next gorgeous valley, including Laurel Lake just below.  We were headed down there (via a steep drop that John navigated well), then on a trail down the valley.  The SHR continued up to the next beautiful section in the distance, but we were turning right on Mono Creek Trail back toward Lake Edison.  Bummer.  Already scheming about how to get back...

Passing a "no fires" sign but going the wrong direction:

Over near the confluence of Mono Creek and its North Fork, we found a camp spot down off the trail and on the rocks, away from mosquitos and with a view of the Volcanic Knob.  That would be something to explore sometime:

One last excellent tent site:

The next morning we hiked down to the ferry for a return journey across the lake.  It was great to be back at Vermillion Valley Resort - wonderful people, so accommodating to hikers, and the avocado toast breakfast was superb.

We left most of the backpack gear in the truck at the trailhead and did a day hike up to the Devil's Bathtub, because anything named after the devil seems to be pretty awesome to look at.  This lake was indeed an excellent sight and a great way to end our Sierra journey.

Thank you Hiking Buddy, that was wonderful!  Let's do it again sometime.

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