The John Muir Trail

Last week, Tumblin’ Tan and I completed a trek along the beautiful John Muir Trail. How lucky we were to live almost three weeks immersed in the Range of Light, observing its daily cycles, plants and animals, and eons-long geological processes. It was a dream come true. Sharing a trip report, note on bears, and our transcribed trail journal!

Trip report

(Note: a version of this was posted to the JMT Facebook group.)

Tuolumne Meadows to Whitney Portal Tuesday, July 27 to Saturday, August 14 (19 days)

  • We took two detours: an out-and-back with overnight permit from Happy Isles to Illilouette Basin before we started (our JMT permit was for Lyell Canyon), and a stay at VVR via Goodale Pass and Bear Creek.
  • We spent one zero day, at VVR.
  • Max pack weight after MTR resupply (with one liter of water each): Buckaroo 36, Tan 30 lbs.
  • Bear sightings: 3 (detour to Illilouette Basin, Reds Meadow path to backpacker camp, VVR).
  • Highs: Following the headwaters, after a pass, down to the roaring creeks below; watching marmots; seeing LeConte Canyon for the first time; meeting the many great people who made our trip so enjoyable.
  • Lows: Hiking the burn zones and witnessing true and utter devastation; my poor food planning (both quality and quantity).
  • Gear that I didn’t find useful and probably won’t bring next time: pants, insect repellent, extra pair of socks.
  • Gear that I was thankful for: MSR Hubba Hubba NX, Enlightened Equipment two-person Accomplice quilt, and Exped Synmat Duo. It was like we were sleeping in a hotel.

A side note about bears

Many of my thoughts on the trail were about bears–those strange others out there, smart mammals like us, experiencing the “trail” in a very different way. How many are out here with us? How high near the passes do they venture? Has a bear ever caught a trout in Rae Lakes? Returning home, I searched in vain for a book on the natural history of the Ursus americanus. But I did find this excellent article from 2007, by Rachel Mazur (who was then a graduate student at UC Davis) and Yosemite researcher Victoria Seher. Their conclusion: black bear cubs likely learn to eat human food from their mothers, once they are themselves successful in obtaining a food reward by perusing the areas where we eat and set up camp. In other words, social learning, more than inherited traits or individual trial and error, shapes bears’ decisions to pursue human food. Their study also illustrates the sad fate of bears who are conditioned to eat human food: “Of the 46 cubs that were food conditioned as independents, 22 died before the end of their second year. Sixteen of these deaths are attributable to their association with developed areas: eight were hit by cars, one was killed inside a garbage truck, one was stoned by visitors, one drowned in a sewage pond and five were killed by park management for public safety.” I was happy to see that many of the notes left by rangers on signposts at trail junctions emphasized the fact that when bears are put down for safety concerns, it’s ultimately our fault, not the bears’. We inadvertently support the mechanism (i.e., social learning) whereby bears learn to pursue human food.

Transcribed trail journal (with author)

Tuesday, 7/27, Day 1: Test Run (by Buckaroo)

Mildly successful first day on the trail, which was harder and longer than we anticipated. Drought meant a creek we were counting on in the Illilouette Basin was bone dry, so we hiked about two miles further than we intended. Tan slipped and sprained her ankle but we think it’ll be okay. Saw a bear headed for our food around 6pm so we promptly decamped, moving a mile or so north to an established campsite with an awesome view of the Valley and Half Dome.

7/28 Tuolumne Meadows (by Tan, alternating until the last few day’s entries)

Made it back to the Valley. I had my ankle looked at; it’s a small fracture not so bad but not good news. We will carry on! A thunderstorm hit once we arrived at the meadows so we spent the afternoon huddled under a tarp with other hikers eating food from the grill/store. Met some characters: a meteorologist [and surfing instructor] and his girlfriend from the Philippines, a motorcyclist without a house, and two couples–Donna & Brad, Audrey & Alberto–who will join us on the JMT! We start tomorrow!!

7/29 Lyell Canyon

We awoke at the TM backpackers’ camp and had a lazy morning drying out our rain-soaked gear. From there, we headed south into Lyell Canyon, a gorgeous meadow with mule deer, prairie dog, a creek that Ruth Patrick would have been proud of [with dragonflies and all sorts of other insects crawling and buzzing around], and a cascading waterfall that evoked tears of joy. Then it started to rain. Luckily we stayed dry as we climbed toward the footbridge before Donahue Pass, camping on a nice ridge before the footbridge. We had dinner and filled up our water. Earlier we met a lovely couple from LA who urged us to take a “jacuzzi” bath at Shadow Lake.

7/30 Garnet Lake

Today we crossed Donahue Pass. It was beautiful and especially the lakes that came before the pass. In the afternoon it started to rain and we hid under a tree for over an hour. Mt Ritter looked like a demon! Once the rain cleared we made it to Garnet Lake and had a lovely evening with Alberto & Audrey.

7/31 Day 5, The Push to Reds

We started the day with a glorious climb out from Garnet Lake. We hiked through waterfalls leading to Shadow Lake, looking for the legendary “jacuzzi.” Although unsuccessful, we fit in a lovely swim from a little secluded beach on Shadow Lake. Then switchbacks! Then we walked to Gladys Lake to fill water. Ducks dabbled. A very long stroll through pine forest (Mt Ritter still visible) brought us to Devil’s Postpile. We were tired, but finally found our way to Reds Meadow for a burger and milkshake, having hiked about 15 miles.

8/1 Duck Creek

We woke up at Reds and considered staying there all day but decided to push on! We had a bit of trouble with our resupply, stuffing way too much food, making it hard to hike! But we continued on and made it 10 miles to Duck Creek, a creek surrounded by mountains on all sides. We stuffed ourselves with pasta to make room in our buckets for tomorrow. We are tired!

8/2 Squaw Lake

We hiked from Duck Creek to Purple Lake but did not stop until Virginia Lake, where we swam and had peanut butter and jelly in tortillas. A bunch of switchbacks took us down to Fish Creek and its wonderful forest. [We hiked for a while with Kathrin (Mule) from Munich.] The highlight of the day was arriving at Squaw Lake, nestled in a kind of mountain nook, and seeing the sun set over a distant mountain range that reminded Buck of Tolkien and the mythical stories of his childhood.

8/3 VVR

We hiked over Goodale Pass to VVR. Everyone coming in the opposite direction talked about how wonderful the food was. This made the hike even harder! It was wonderful, with streams and meadows until we hit the burn zone from the Creek Fire. This devastation was hard to bear. I had never walked through a burn zone; it was depressing, hot, and a long slog. It really is much different than reading about the fires and it is a true reminder that this land is not a given, ever.

8/4 Zero Day

The fantastic idea to stay at VVR for the day occurred to us right as we awoke, and we happily got up and onto the breakfast line. We napped and read on the hammock, made some couscous, called Bob, and hung out with our friends Alberto & Audrey, Rachel & Ben, on the store’s front porch. Watchin the Tokyo Olympics and chatting through dinner, we retired early, feeling refreshed from a day off the trail. Tomorrow we catch the 8am shuttle to the next trailhead.

8/5 Day 10, Marie Lake

Refreshed from our day off, we climbed Bear Creek Trail to rejoin the JMT, swimming once in the cold creek water. Once we rejoined the JMT we ran into O Positive, who was trying to make it to Marie Lake. The three of us pushed on until 6pm, stopping occasionally for photos, especially of Rosemarie Meadow. Marie Lake is like a larger Squaw Lake, surrounded by mountains that look like we could be in Egypt! Tomorrow we head to the Muir Trail Ranch for our last resupply.

8/6 MTR and Piute Canyon

Took a slow morning–sun entered our tent–and went over Selden Pass into a wet valley past some lakes. As we approached our resupply point at Muir Trail Ranch, we began to see some day hikers. A mule caravan passed, led by a woman with a friendly wolf dog that came by to say hi. Down big switchbacks in the sun. The resupply was fun and we did much better this time, setting up next to Leave-no-Tracy and her family from Alaska. After a quick visit to the hot springs across the creek, we hiked 2.5 lovely evening miles and camped by a footbridge with our new friends Maddie & Michael.

8/7 McClure Meadow

We only hiked 9 miles today into the wide open McClure Meadow. It was a very social day including hiking with Mike from Maryland, a long lunch with Maddie & Michael and dinner with Zack. In the early evening we spent sometime sitting in the meadow, watching the golden leaves rustle in the wind. It was hypnotizing and calming. We went to bed early in anticipation of a 5am wake-up to tackle Evolution Basin!

8/8 LeConte Canyon

This was a long and very fun day. Hiking out of the meadow, we had coffee and breakfast on a rock that overlooked where we had hiked.

Then we reached the stunning Evolution Lake, where Maddie & Michael had camped–fish jumping and a great waterfall.

Through the relatively treeless basin and past the lakes, we climbed to Muir Hut and looked back–bleak and beautiful. Two marmots at top. [Tan adds: The terrain past Muir Pass was otherworldly! Rock of all colors made it look like we were literally in the middle of the earth. It was both scary and awe-inspiring. I’ve never seen anything like it before!] Going down all the way to LeConte Canyon with great views of an L-shaped valley, we followed the creek from its headwaters to meadow, stopping around 3pm to put our heads under a waterfall.

8/9 Lower Palisades Lake

We hiked 10 miles through the LeConte Canyon to the Golden Staircase, a difficult incline up to the Palisades Lakes. While it was hot and we were tired, we made it by 3:30 and we were able to swim (feeling cleaner than we’ve felt in days), to take inventory of our food, and to relax, all with a breathtaking view of the Palisades Mountains. We both feel tired but comfortable and are looking forward to Mather Pass tomorrow!

8/10 Day 15, “Double Pass” Day, camping above Twin Lake (Buck)

We awoke at beautiful Lower Palisades Lake and climbed Mather Pass, which was not too hard [for Buck, at least, who was propelled by some weird, senseless anger that always wells up inside him when he climbs passes–a pattern he only noticed during this trip]. The basin on the other side was treeless but still filled with life. The hike through the valley was short and easy except for a climb up to Bench Lake. We passed O Positive around Marjorie Lake and we all decided to push on over Pinchot Pass in the late afternoon [when Buck’s dumb anger was briefly directed at no greater deity than the Sun]. We camped on a gentle meadow on the other side.

8/11 Rae Lakes (Tan)

We woke up in the meadow with the sun hitting our camp site, making it a bit warmer! We hiked most of the day with Jerry (O Positive), going downhill for what felt like forever and then climbing up to Rae Lakes. Tan had a tough day, feeling tired all day! When we first saw Fin’s Dome, it was like a burst of inspiration to keep going.

Rae Lakes was fun to wander through and the Painted Lady lives up to her name in every way!

8/12 Below Forester Pass (Tan)

We woke up at Rae Lakes today and said goodbye to our friend Jerry. Then we climbed up Glen Pass, which was challenging and had a very narrow area at the top. It was crazy to look up and see people at the top, knowing that we were headed there. The rest of the day we made our way towards Forester Pass, through a valley with an apparently very active bear [who we didn’t ever see] and then a 3-mile climb next to the majestic Bubbs Creek. We are currently 3 miles and 2,000 feet below Forester. Tomorrow will be an adventure. It is 6:45pm and we are in our tent as a thunderstorm is rolling in…

8/13 Crabtree Meadow (Tan and Buck)

Tan: I had a horrible dream last night that made me think I couldn’t climb Forester, so I woke up with lots of nervous energy. Forester was hard, beautiful. [While Buck was fuming, as he usually does going up passes, at the whole idea of a “Fastest Known Time”–as if the trail was, rather than a dynamic ecosystem worthy of our utmost respect, instead just one big race track for the pursuit of our meager feats of strength–] Tan was singing Amazing Grace and thinking of everyone we’ve lost in these last couple of years. There was a group at the top that cheered when we made it up, which was awesome! The rest of the day was equally special, with signs to Mt Whitney (16.1 miles!) and the Bighorn Plateau! with panoramic views of the mountains surrounding us. We made it to Crabtree Meadow around 6pm, saw our friend Justin, dealt with a bit of rain before it cleared up to give us a beautiful sight of Mt Whitney, which we climb tomorrow!

Buck: We awoke and had a nice climb to Forester Pass, apparently missing a golden eagle right above us. It was hazy from forest fire smoke so we didn’t see that far but the view was still breathtaking. We hiked down into the basin with Zack, parting ways at the creek crossing, where Tan and I shared a Ramen soup for lunch. Rain clouds to the west. Bighorn Plateau was highly unusual and gorgeous, with our first views of Mt Whitney. The next few miles past the High Sierra Trail were a real slog. (We passed some mules out to pasture, one of whom had a bell collar.) But arriving in Crabtree was our reward, as we camped near Justin and above the meadow with views of Whitney. It hailed and rained for about a half hour. The next day’s hike starts at 6am, and I’m looking forward to a 12-hour hike up Whitney and out the portal.

8/14 Day 19 Whitney Portal and Lone Pine (Tan)

Wow! What an ending. Mt Whitney was terrifying, both going up and coming down. I’m grateful to have done it, but won’t be back anytime soon! There were lots of people and a few very scary spots. At the top we took pics and called Buck’s parents.

The hike down to the portal is all so green and vibrant with many beautiful spots. A ranger checked our permit and we got to celebrate the end of our big journey. A group of nice guys who had hiked from the portal at 2:30am that morning drove us to Lone Pine, where we showered and ate a huge pasta meal! We are tired and grateful for each moment of this experience!

Written on August 22, 2021