After missing my week in the Sierra last year due to injury, I couldn’t wait to get on the trail this year! The plan was to hike in over Kearsarge Pass and head south along the John Muir Trail, then off-trail to explore Wright Lakes Basin and the 14ers of the Shepherd Pass region (Tyndall and Williamson).
We drove out on Friday night and met up with Pavla at Whoa Nellie. Then we headed south to a decent campsite about a mile off of 395 that would get us some sleep above 7k to help with acclimation. In the morning we headed south to Bishop to fuel up at Jack’s with a big breakfast, then picked up our permit after the White Mountain Ranger District office opened at 8 am.
A couple more stops delayed us a bit, most important was Pavla’s search for packets of spam singles. They weren’t at her normal spot but the Bishop K-Mart delivered! David also picked up a pair of socks at Wilsons. Finally we were on our way to the trailhead at Onion Valley.
April is a somewhat unpredictable time of year in terms of weather in Yosemite, so when I made campground reservations a few months ago I had no idea if I’d be snowshoeing or hiking. April is about the latest I’ll go to the Valley since I prefer to avoid it during the busy summer season, and this year it ended up being perfect timing. It has turned out to be a dry winter and with clear skies and forecasted highs around 70, I planned a couple of great Yosemite Valley hikes that would get us to some classic sights as well as away from the crowds. On Saturday we hiked the northeast gully of Liberty Cap to the summit, and on Sunday we hiked the Rockslides, the Old Big Oak Flat road that used to be the only road into the Valley.
This was the day with the biggest number of unknowns. The beginning of the day started off without concern, following the trail back to the John Muir Trail (JMT) and then down to the South Fork of the Kings River crossing. With this year’s high water that would be the first obstacle. From there we needed to find where the old JMT forks off of the current JMT, then follow it approximately a mile and a half down river. We would then have to find the point where the old trail turns northwest and switchbacks up the steep canyon walls to the lakes below Cartridge Pass. Followed by more climbing to the Pass itself through rocky terrain.
I had some good beta and GPS waypoints but still wasn’t sure how much time it would take us to hike this stretch. The old JMT hasn’t been maintained in eighty years, and that amount of time allows for lots of rockslides, fallen trees, washouts, and plant growth. Would we be able to follow the old trail? How much time would we spend route finding? Would it even be worth finding the old trail or should we just go cross-country and figure our own way? The information I had ahead of time seemed to vary from “it’s a piece of cake” to “it took me all day to go a mile!” So we really didn’t know how far we would make it and where we would end up for the night. Our ultimate goal was to get over Cartridge Pass and camp in Lake Basin that night, but we were open to the possibility of not making it that far.
We cruised down from Bench Lake that morning and made it down the South Fork Kings River pretty quickly. The crossing wasn’t nearly as bad as we had anticipated, though we did switch to our water crossing shoes and waded through a wide spot that was about knee-deep. We didn’t have far to go once we crossed – I had a waypoint in my GPS for the junction of the old JMT and it was a few hundred feet in front of us. As we approached the waypoint I could see the old trail clearly – in fact, it is so obvious that lots of sticks and logs have been placed across the junction so that people don’t go the wrong way when hiking the current JMT.
Relieved, we hiked for quite a while on the old trail. As we got further from the main trail it did get a bit faded and overgrown in spots but it was always easy to follow. Before we knew it we had knocked off almost a mile of the 1.5 miles along the river. Then we hit the first of the three rockslides. The rockslides aren’t that bad – pretty low angle, straightforward talus hopping that is still pretty easy with a pack. But there were some marshy, overgrown stretches in between them that had us spending some time looking for the best route through.
When we crossed the third and final rock slide I knew it was the point where we had to look for where the old trail started switchbacking up the canyon wall. I had a waypoint for the bottom of the switchbacks but as I stood there (next to a nicely built cairn), I simply couldn’t make out a trail. Everything in the forest duff looked like a switchback, so eventually we just started working our way up and hoped we’d find the trail eventually. And that’s exactly what happened.
The old trail was not built with the sophistication of current trail engineering. Each switchback was incredibly steep and had washed out in many places. It was still easy to follow (once we found it) and we slowly picked our way up the canyon wall. There is one point where it flattens out and contours along the wall for a short distance and we lost it there for a while – a large fallen tree blocked the view of the trail to our left, so we kept looking for a non-existent trail above us. I scrambled up the hillside and looked back down, and only then the trail was clear on the other side of the fallen tree. I scrambled back down and we continued up to the big lake below Cartridge Pass. This little detour of mine is clear on the GPS track (see Map tab) and labeled as waypoint 107 right around 10,300 ft.
The lake was beautiful and we had it all to ourselves. From here we could see Cartridge Pass and the snowfield running next to it had me a bit concerned. But we continued along the use trail around the lake and followed a nicely sloped ramp (with remants of trail) up to the small lake below the pass. From here I could clearly make out a trail angling up to the pass. With no trees or bushes to grow over it the trail is obvious and clear all the way between this small lake and the pass.
We reached Cartridge Pass at 6 pm and were all pretty much running out of gas. The first view into Lake Basin took my breath away. On second look a wave of disappointment fell over me. There was a lot of snow on the north side of the pass. We couldn’t see the entire route, and the part we couldn’t see was the steepest. We hadn’t carried crampons or ice axes, hoping that our route would be free enough of snow to let us pass. The snow was in the shade and already icing over for the night. We were tired and prone to making those end-of-day mistakes. It is quite possible we would have been able to find a route down through the snow. But we discussed the situation and given the pros and cons we decided to turn back. It was not a happy decision to make, but the Basin will still be there for us to go back some other day.
So we returned to the gorgeous large lake below the pass. Finding a campsite perched on a nice bench to the north of the lake, we ended the day frustrated yet still delighted to have an amazing spot all to ourselves. It’s really hard to be disappointed in that as a consolation prize!
We deferred making a decision about the rest of the trip until the morning so we could have a night to think about it and weigh the options. The next morning was spent at a leisurely pace, slowly packing up as David fished and fried up a breakfast of some trout. Finally we decided to head into Upper Basin and climb Split Mountain, a new 14er for me and David.
We left camp late, around 10:30, but due to our new familiarity with it the return trip down the old JMT was pretty quick and we were back at the junction with the current JMT at 1 pm. As we sat at the South Fork Kings crossing and soaked our feet we saw the first people since the previous day at the same spot. I love getting off the beaten track!
Hiking north along the JMT through Upper Basin is a really enjoyable experience. The views are among the best on the trail and the grade is a steady but easy climb. South of Mather Pass we left the JMT and cross-countried over to Lake 3535, a large round lake below Mt Prater and Split. Along the way we saw several bucks lounging around a smaller lake.
We settled in to a campsite at the lake and contemplated a snow field we could just barely see near the summit of Split. I was worried it may cause us trouble tomorrow, but for now it didn’t matter – we thoroughly enjoyed watching the moon rise over the peak and enjoyed our beautiful surroundings. Tomorrow: another 14er to add to the list!
This year’s long summer Sierra trip was a return to an area I sped through when I hiked the middle stretch of the John Muir Trail in 2006. At that time we came over Pinchot Pass, camped at Lake Marjorie, and then hike through Upper Basin and over Mather Pass the next day. I felt a bit rushed through Upper Basin, mainly because we were trying to outrun a horde of mosquitoes. But it still remained one of my favorite scenic stretches of the JMT and I was looking forward to a day where I could go back and explore.
That day came this summer. Sooz and I planned a nine day outing that would take us over Taboose Pass and down the old John Muir Trail to Cartridge Pass, eventually leading into Lake Basin where we would explore, fish, climb some peaks, and enjoy some Sierra solitude. Depending on the time we spent there we also tried to wedge in a couple of days to do Arrow Peak from Bench Lake and Split Mountain from Upper Basin. With this year’s late snow melt we went in with a flexible itinerary and the ability to change it around depending on how fast we moved and conditions we encountered. It turns out that this was a good plan – snow kept us from getting into Lake Basin and we were able to change plans mid-week.
On the night of Friday, August 5 the three of us (me, Sooz, and David) met up at a pullout campsite in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine. We arrived after dark and as we drove north through Olancha and eventually Lone Pine all we smelled was smoke from a fire to the east and I was worried about how it would affect our trip. Our permit needed to be picked up on Saturday morning when the visitor’s center opened at 8, and we discovered that the Alabama Hills cafe opened at 7. We were there when they unlocked the doors. Because this is what you need sitting in your stomach when you’re about to climb 6000 ft to a pass.
After a relatively painless permit pick-up (pulled #6 from the lottery and were out in 20 mins) we headed north to the Taboose Pass Trailhead. This pass is in between Independence and Big Pine and is kind of a rite of passage for any Sierra backpacker. I was feeling a bit left out, never having done it before. I’ve heard horror stories of this pass told around many a campfire, and I just needed to experience it for myself. Here’s what I knew: it starts low, at 5500 ft in the desert conditions of Owen’s Valley. It is an interminable climb up ankle-twisting rocks where there is no shade and very few places to camp. It is a 6000 foot climb to the Pass which is desolate and windy. Sounds lovely. What I learned: yes, it starts low and hot. Yes, there is little shade. But the views are great, there are lovely places to take breaks and soak the feet, there are few campsites but we found a nice one just below the pass, and the grade of the climb was perfect enough to keep chugging along. I really enjoyed it far more than I expected. I’d do it again.
So, we finally got on the trail about 10 am in the mid-morning heat. Most people recommend starting very early but we simply weren’t able to since we had to pick up a permit in Lone Pine at 8. Just when the heat was starting to get to me we reached the first water crossing at 8000 ft. It was frigid and shaded so we spent a while cooling down. After that the ecology turns more High Sierra and less desert and I started to feel ‘at home’.
We climbed to about 10,500 ft, camping at the last campsite I knew of below the pass, tucked away behind some trees and a bit off trail. A steady breeze was blowing so we had no mosquito issues. Unfortunately the smoke we had smelled the previous night had put a damper on things and the whole day had been a bit hazy. It made for a nice sunset glow, however. 5000 ft of climbing in a little over six miles was definitely good enough for the first day and we zonked out early.
The next morning we packed up to clear un-smokey skies and we finished the climb to Taboose. Along the way we spied lots of sheep poop but never any bighorns. We did see several grouse (or mountain chickens, as I like to call them) and a few marmots. There were more snow fields as we climbed higher but never enough to lose the trail. At the pass we ended up crossing paths with Laura, our favorite Mountain Moose. She was heading out after a few days of playing in the mountains and it was great to chat and get some beta from her.
It was an easy hike along trail from the Pass to Bench Lake and we arrived there around 2:30 pm. After a bit of searching we chose a campsite on a small rise on the north side of the lake. It was slightly breezy which kept the mosquitoes at bay. Unfortunately as the day went on the breeze died and the mosquitoes came out in force. Still, it was a gorgeous spot with incredible views. David caught us some brown trout for dinner and we went to bed happy, dreaming about tomorrow’s hike of Arrow Peak.
Sierra Point is a viewpoint on the eastern end of Yosemite Valley from which you can see four waterfalls: Yosemite Falls, Illilouette Falls, Vernal Falls, and Nevada Falls. This old map shows a trail to Sierra Point from Happy Isles (look between Happy Isles and Grizzly Peak). However, this trail was closed back in the 1970s due to rock slides.
It is still possible to hike to Sierra Point but it is not a nice and easy trail like the others you’ll find out of Yosemite Valley. I personally found the route pretty straightforward and easy using detailed instructions and GPS waypoints given to me by a friend (and readily available via some googling), but I hate to gauge difficulty since it is so subjective. People inexperienced with off-trail travel (especially on steep terrain) and routefinding might find this to be very difficult. So the typical caveat applies: Only you know your skills, comfort level, and abilities so it is up to you to make the call when out there.
Finally, an easy day! Today was the day when our plans diverted from the original itinerary. Our original plan was to go offtrail from Sapphire Lake and head over McGee Pass and into McGee Lakes. Solitude and fishing in a beautiful location was the goal, but the weather and effort to get over Lamarck had worn us down a bit, and the snow/ice that had fallen in the higher terrain the previous day had us a bit concerned about any boulder-hopping and cross-country travel.
Instead, we decided to stick to trail and take it easy for the rest of the trip. We followed the John Muir Trail through Evolution Valley, down to the valley containing the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. Following the river gorge for a few miles, we found a nice campsite along the river (and before the crowds near the bridge where it joins Piute Canyon).
This entirely uneventful day only resulted in one real story. During our time in Evolution Basin we had encountered two different groups of JMT hikers who had complained about the same experience in Evolution Valley. The Valley is popular with packers, and both of these backpackers had experienced wandering, untied stock horses coming through their camps in the middle of the night. While at first that may not sound too bad, these horses had cow bells clanging noisily at 3 am, they tripped over tents, and crapped right in front of one guy’s tent. Not cool. So as we wandered through the Valley what did we hear? The clanging of cowbells. Sure enough, we came across a herd of stock horses wandering loose. To be fair, the horses looked far happier than they do when I encounter them with riders and hauling gear, but packers aren’t earning any bonus points with backpackers when causing that kind of trouble.
On Day 3 we awoke to cloudy skies, but fortunately it made for a wonderful sunrise over Darwin Bench and The Hermit. Our day included a lot of mileage, but less than two miles with a full pack on our back. After sunrise, breakfast, and packing up, we picked our way down the John Muir Trail, a mere few hundred feet and short scramble/use trail trek below our campsite. Upon connecting with the JMT Freeway we turned south towards Evolution Lake.
At Evolution Lake, we made our way to my favorite campsite area and set up under clearing blue skies. It was warm and sunny and the campsite was perfect, overlooking Evolution Valley. I’ve stayed here before and knew what we had ahead of us come sunset. After setting up an enjoying a break we reorganized ourselves for a long dayhike and took off for Muir Pass.
Muir Pass is at the head of Evolution Basin, about six miles from our campsite. It’s a nice and gentle hike through the Basin, and I was looking forward to going through in this direction having come through in the opposite direction in 2006. Above us, clouds and sun battled for dominance, but nothing looked especially threatening as we climbed – most of the clouds were too thin to turn into any kind of storms in a short period of time. My Sierra experience told me we had plenty of time to make the pass and get back towards camp before anything really happened. Yeah, I should have listened to that one little voice in the back of my head that said, “hey, it’s the Sierra, stupid. Anything can happen.”