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!