Arizona: Grand Canyon- South Kaibab Trail- South Rim to Cedar Ridge

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South Kaibab Trail- South Rim to Cedar Ridge

Total Mileage- 3.8 miles

Total Elevation Gain- 1307 feet

Total Elevation Loss- 1307 feet

Grand Canyon- South Kaibab RouteSouth Kaibab Trail

In the last three years I have been to the Grand Canyon four times and hiked each time I have been there.

The most extensive hike was the famed Escalante Route, a 33-mile backcountry bucket list trip that we did over 3 nights and four days, in 2014.  I have also been able to swing up to the Grand Canyon each of the last three years as I finished some house building missions in Mexico.

Last year my oldest daughter and I hiked from Grandview Point to Horseshoe Mesa and back, which was also the last leg of the Escalante Route trek.

This year as we left Mexico my two daughter along with three other adults and three kids made our way to Grand Canyon National Park to do a day hike from the South Rim along South Kaibab Trail down 1300 feet to Cedar Grove and then back out.

Being that this particular group ranged in age from 8 to 42 and also had a variety of strength, stamina, and hiking experience, we pretty much allotted five hours for the trek. While I started the GPS at the very beginning of the South Kaibab Trail, we parked at the Visitor’s Center and walked to the trailhead which was about 2.5 miles one way on the Greenway Trail. By the end of our time we had hiked about eight miles total (5 from Visitor Center to South Kaibab Trailhead and back and then Trailhead to Cedar Grove and back). If you want to take a nice stroll along the south rim I would suggest parking at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and following the Greenway Trail to the trailhead. It has really nice views and provides a leisurely walk over paved trail. Of course I always recommend going beyond the rim. Rim shots are nice but there is nothing like jumping into the canyon.

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The late March weather was perfect. At the rim it was about 55 degrees F and only got up to just above 60 degrees at Cedar Ridge. The skies were crystal clear and magnificent blue. With us being between 7200 feet and 5900 feet, the UV radiation levels were higher than what we are accustomed to in Indiana. I have read reports that indicate for every 3000 feet of elevation change there is a little over 10% gain in UV radiation. That put us at about 20% more than what we are used to and, as a result, several of us ended up with red ears, noses, and faces. Note to self, remember the sunscreen next time. img_0548

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The trail itself is fine and powdery with a lot of wear.  Compared to Grandview Trail, South Kaibab is significantly more friendly to the casual hiker and for younger kids.  This trail should be no problem for younger kids or older adults, just have a pace that works for you, take plenty of breaks, and drink plenty of water.  Also, if you attempt any trail in the Grand Canyon, please understand that in the summer months the temperatures can be sweltering.  You can expect that for every 1000 feet you descend, the temperature will increase about 5 degree F.  Make sure you take plenty of water with you, but don’t be tempted to drink the majority of it on the way down because you will need it more on the way up.

When weighing whether we should hike South Kaibab or Bright Angel we decided that, while Bright Angel was a bit more shaded, South Kaibab had better views.  It was a great trade-off because we started early enough that our entire trek down the switchbacks was in the shade.  Even at that, I still recommend using some sunscreen.  The two most notable spots on South Kaibab is Ooh-Aah Point and Cedar Ridge.  The hike one-way to Ooh-Aah point and Cedar Ridge is 0.9 miles and 1.5 miles, respectively.

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Ooh-Aah Point is the point along South Kaibab where you get your first wide view of the canyon and it is spectacular.  It certainly beats the views from the road.  Even if you have no intention on going further into the canyon, it would be worth your while to at least hike down to this point for the view.

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Cedar Ridge, for me, is a point along Kaibab where I feel like you are starting to get into the heart of the canyon.  The most prominent landmark feature in this area is O’Neill Butte.  After taking restroom breaks we hiked to a wonder point where we sat down for about 45 minutes and had a snack and a great view of the Butte.  There were quite a few people in the Cedar Ridge area, as this is a relatively easy hike for casual and day hikers, but most of the day hikers, it seemed, stayed closer to the restrooms and Cedar Ridge signage, which allowed us to have a bit more solitude while taking in the view.   If you had a late start or if you are hiking in the summer, an attempt to the river and back out is not advised.  The Cedar Ridge area also has toilet facilities.

The hike out for us went extraordinarily well.  We averaged 1.7 mph on our way down, and a shocking 1.9 mph on the way out.  The kids completely rocked it!  With that being said, don’t plan on the hike out being easy.  If you are a beginner or casual hiker, I would plan twice as much time for coming out as I had for going in.  So if it took you 1.5 hours to get to Cedar Ridge, I would plan 3 hours to get out.  This is a really, really liberal number… but I really think you should take it seriously.  Understand that you will be between 5900 and 7200 feet above sea level and the oxygen level is about a quarter less than at sea level.  You will be out of breath hiking out and you will stop frequently to catch your breath and take a water break.  But listen, it is worth it!  You get a chance to hike INTO THE GRAND CANYON!  And 99% of people NEVER take the opportunity to do that.  So embrace it and enjoy it!

California: John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal- Day 8

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John Muir Trail- Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal

Mileage- 14.0 miles

Elevation Gain- 4022 feet

Elevation Loss- 7159 feet

Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit 1Guitar Lake to Whitney Summit

Our eighth, and last, day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Guitar Lake to the Mt. Whitney Summit and then to a Whitney Portal exit… and this day was nothing short of a MONSTER. We knew this day was going to be long and grueling. Mentally we had been preparing for days, but I had never put in 14 miles with a pack nor had I ever tackled over 4000 feet of elevation (especially at the altitude…remember I am from 650 feet above sea level in INDIANA!) in a single hike. I am in above average physical condition and in pretty good hiking shape, but I am also over 40 and I recognize that 40 is a bit different than my 20’s and 30’s. I knew that I would be able pull of this day with no problem, but in the back of my mind I wondered how long it might take me. Once we had our gear prepped and everything in it’s place, we went to bed. We wouldn’t be summiting Whitney early enough to see the sunrise (and we were all cool with that), but we were awake and geared up before sunrise using our headlamps to guide our path.

The first half mile from Guitar Lake is harmless; it’s just positioning you for a series of twelve-ish switchbacks over a couple of miles. While the cool morning air at altitude was crisp and refreshing, it didn’t take long for the perspiration to make it’s first appearance. To be really honest, I don’t like elevation to start my day (hahaha). I prefer to have my morning coffee, which I didn’t get to have on this morning, and to begin with a nice leisurely hike. Anyway, this is not leisurely. It’s five miles of up. Five miles of up to the highest point in the lower 48, at that. But man, the views as the sun came up were something else. It was cool to look down on Guitar Lake and see how it got it’s name. The skies, again, were clear and a marvelous blue.

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At the top of the switchbacks is Discovery Pinnacle, which is the highest rock formation above the switchbacks.  It is close to this location where one can drop some gear and begin the final 1.9 mile climb to Whitney summit.  I took a few heavier items out of my pack (i.e. bear can, etc.) and left them at this location.  I still carried my pack with everything else in it.  I didn’t feel comfortable leaving all of my gear and pack at this location.  There were just so many people passing that a person could potentially pick through your pack.  I didn’t think, however, that they would be interested in my heavier junk so I left that stuff there.  The trail hugs a ridge line with impressive views both eastward and westward.  The jutting rocks formations and the perfectly placed Tetris rocks were equally awe inspiring.

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It is a beautiful sight when the Survey Hut comes into view. This is where you can sign the Mt. Whitney trail registry. The other guys were ahead of us and Ryan and I were a bit winded. We decided to chuck the packs at this point behind some rocks. Our logic was that if someone wanted to steal our heavy packs and lug them all the way out, they could have them. We picked up the pace and headed to the top. My watch had been calculating the oxygen level throughout the previous days and I was really curious to see how it would register as we approached 14,500. You can see the picture below… 57% of the oxygen level that a person would have at sea level. I could feel it for sure.

When I got to the top it was a really emotional experience that I am not sure I can adequately put into words. All of the months of days prepping, studying, and working out. The long, strenuous days that tried us physically, mentally, and emotionally. The inability to see or speak to our families for eight days. The beauty of this glorious creation day after day that left me in awe and completely speechless. The accomplishment, the achievement, of fighting through adversity to top Mt. Whitney. The view from the highest point in the lower 48 with great friends. And then for my phone to hit a signal… and texts and voicemails from my family to begin pouring in… telling me that they miss me… and love me. My God, it all came together and I cried. What a beautiful, wonderful life. I don’t take any of it for granted.

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And as much as I wish our trip ended on top of Mt. Whitney, the reality was that we had close to ten more miles of hiking down over 7100 feet. Did you get that? Do you understand that? 7100 feet! When we hiked Grand Canyon… that was close to a mile (5200 feet) down. This was a gargantuan dive. In fact, there is a series of switchbacks that I called “Death by a Million Switchbacks,” because they never end. I promise you have never done that many switchbacks in your life. All I can tell you is that we got in a zone and just went for it. I took a few pictures, but I was so focused on getting to the parking lot at Whitney Portal I didn’t take any time for anything (except pumping water one time where the trail crosses Lone Pine Creek). If you don’t have an opportunity to hike the entire John Muir Trail, let me recommend this eight or nine day hike from Bishop to LeConte to Whitney Summit. Make it a bucket list trip and resolve to do it while you have the legs. You won’t regret it.

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California: John Muir Trail- Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake- Day 7

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John Muir Trail- Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake

Mileage- 10.7 miles

Elevation Gain- 2477 feet

Elevation Loss- 2036 feet

Tyndall Creek to Guitar LakeTyndall Creek to Guitar Lake Elevation

Our seventh day on the John Muir Trail in California was supposed to be our “light” day, as our itinerary had us traveling from Tyndall Creek to Crabtree Meadow and only covering 8.6 miles and just under 1600 feet of elevation. But, ever the group to ALWAYS finish our trips a day (or two) early, we recalculated and decided to make our final destination for the day Guitar Lake. By going to Guitar Lake we were making the decision to summit Whitney the next morning and hike out in the same day, which would make our last day close to sixteen miles. But we were feeling grizzled and chiseled and felt confident in our ability to travel 27 miles and conquer 6500 feet of altitude two days! Ha! There were certainly many pros and cons to this idea, but as a group we believed the pros certainly outweighed the cons. And it is a really funny thing how not being able to talk to family for eight days motivates a person. We each had tried throughout the previous week to get a signal, but we never could get one. I believe that each of us just wanted to phone home and let everyone know that we were all doing great and to let them know that we love them. So we pressed on to Guitar Lake this day… and it was a glorious day.
IMG_1614IMG_1620IMG_1621IMG_1625I know I regularly make this claim and I feel like I really mean it when I say it, but this next section of trail is one of my favorites of any trip.  Of course at the very top of my list are Fifty Mountain in Glacier, this sweet spot on the Escalante Route before Hance Creek in the Grand Canyon, a day hike spot on a mountain in Denali, and Mt. Eielson summit in Denali, but I have to add this section to the list.  After climbing out of the boulders and sequoias and passing Tawny Point to the east, the Bighorn Plateau is a very special place.  It has the appearance of a desert with yellow scrub that almost perfectly matches the ground beneath it, all perfectly complementing the spacious blue skies.  I stopped in this vast, open area and just took it all in.  There was this tiny little pond completely out of place, but adding perfectly to the completeness of the area.  I loved this area for many reasons, most of them aesthetic, but there were so many subjective reasons I loved it as well.  I could stand in a single spot, turn 360 degrees, and it was perfect all the way around.  You can even see Whitney towering above everything else in the distance. This is one spot where I shot some video as well.
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From Bighorn Plateau the trail descends below the treeline, where there are some pretty magnificent Sequoias, and makes it’s way down to the junction with the High Sierra Trail. It’s at this point where the High Sierra Trail joins the John Muir Trail to the top of Whitney. It is also at this point where you will be at the lowest elevation (10,435) before summiting Mt. Whitney. It’s all pretty much up from here.IMG_1638 IMG_1650IMG_1649IMG_1647IMG_1675The remaining trail to Guitar Lake took us over diverse terrain and a series of ups and downs.  Even seven days into this hike we are still captivated by the beauty of the Sierras.  Any direction we look could easily be a masterpiece hanging on a wall.  It’s funny as this particular day wore on how we kind of fell into this “hiker’s delusion,” that every turn we would make or every ridge we would approach had Guitar Lake on the other side of it.  Maybe we were tired and just ready to set up camp and get on with our evening routines.  Or, maybe it was our anticipation of summiting Whitney early the next morning.  Either way we just wanted to be at Guitar Lake.  With everything we heard about it and everything we read about it, we were excited to see this lake sitting at 11,500 feet.  It certainly did not let us down.  I included some video below that I took while lying on the grass by the lake.  I think I may have fallen asleep there after I shot the video.IMG_1660IMG_1670IMG_1676IMG_1689
The next day would be our eighth and biggest day… summiting Mt. Whitney and exiting at Whitney Portal.

California: John Muir Trail- Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek- Day 6

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John Muir Trail- Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek

Mileage- 12.7 miles

Elevation Gain- 4246 feet

Elevation Loss- 2755 feet
Bubbs Creek to Tyndall CreekBubbs Creek to Tyndall Creek Elevation

Our sixth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Bubbs Creek over the monster Forester Pass to Tyndall Creek. On this day we would travel 12.6 miles and conquer over 4200 feet of elevation. And our ascent would be 7.5 miles to Forester Pass. That is a long, long ascent. It feels as if it never ends. But more on that later.  The morning sun brought out the glowing, northeastern face of the East Vidette peak and the southwestern facing  Kearsarge Pinnacles.

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Our trek from Bubbs Creek toward Forester led us through the lodgepole pines and whitebark pines in the sub-alpine region and into areas with decreasing vegetation and significant and increasing piles of talus.  At about the five mile mark it actually looks as if you have made significant progress, as you have now left the trees behind and you now only see a trail amidst the broken and fragmented rocks.  But, the final two and a half miles to Forester Pass climbs an aggressive 2000 feet.  The map at the top of this post indicates my pace slowed significantly, as the red line represents a slower pace.  This was definitely my slowest pace throughout the entire trip.  It is hard to believe that the low oxygen level has such a profound effect.  While I will discuss this again on our Whitney summit day, the percent oxygen level going up to Forester was a little more than 65%.

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The benefit of stopping frequently to catch my breath was the opportunity to take pictures and savor the views, which were nothing short of astounding. Maybe I should have said breath-taking, literally (haha). The sloping talus piles of small, crumbly rock turned into massive broken boulders. The trail skillfully navigated through it all. And then there was a pristine lake just above 12,000 feet with the triangular Junction Peak towering in the background.  The epic views lead to a series of seemingly unending switchbacks amidst the scree with Forester at the top.  If you look closely you will see one of our guys at Forester Pass with the rest of our group scattered throughout the scree field heading up.  As a side note, if you happen to use the National Geographic Topographic Map for the John Muir Trail there is an error on the trail profile on page 16.  It shows a significant dip at the 12,200 mark and looks as if you have to go down a couple of hundred feet before going back up.  Well, the dip does not exist.  The trail goes up the entire way without any dip.  Anyway, just thought you may want to know that.

IMG_1556IMG_1552IMG_1551IMG_1554IMG_1555IMG_1556IMG_1558IMG_1561The view at the top of Forester was the best yet. It was expansive and massive with beautiful blue skies holding the billows of white clouds. This is the point at which one exits Kings Canyon National Park and enters Sequoia National Park. This is also the highest elevation of the trail before summiting Mt. Whitney. We took a much needed break at the top and posed for a few pics.
IMG_1570IMG_1564IMG_1569IMG_3565IMG_1576 The descent from Forester Pass has an aggressive descent down through a series of switchbacks down to an unnamed lake (as far as I know). Patrick was the first one down to it, so I will refer to it as Patrick Lake. Patrick Lake is a real stunner. After taking close to an hour break at the pass, we were FORCED to take another break at the lake because it was just that beautiful. We washed up, lied down on the grass, and just stared at the gorgeousness. Our numbers are probably off, but we tried to figure out how many people actually see this lake each year. We estimated a little over 300 people. Even if we are a bit off, the percentage of the U.S. population that gets to see this lake each year is a infinitesimally minuscule .000086% of the population. I don’t take any of this for granted. IMG_3575IMG_1583IMG_1593 With close to two hours of breaks, we still had between four to five miles before Tyndall Creek. The trail opens up into this wide expanse that we spied from Forester. No matter which direction we looked, it was special. As we pressed on throughout the afternoon, the cloud cover enveloped us. A few times we even felt a sprinkle of rain, but we knew the chances of rain were extraordinarily slim, even though the parks were praying for rain to slow down Rough Fire. Once we settled into our campsite near Tyndall Frog Ponds, the haze of Rough Fire greeted us. IMG_1605IMG_1609 The next day we would leave Tyndall and trek all the way to Guitar Lake, where we would camp, in preparation for our Whitney Summit.

California: John Muir Trail- Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek- Day 5

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John Muir Trail- Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek

Mileage- 12.6 miles

Elevation Gain- 4440 feet

Elevation Loss- 3487 feet

Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek 1Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek

Our fifth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from Woods Creek over Glen Pass to Bubbs Creek.  This was our first of three monster days that had significant mileage and significant total elevation gain.  The total distance was 12.6 miles and the total elevation gain was close to 4500 feet.  I was sitting here somewhat shocked to see our total trip time clock in at nine hours and fifteen minutes, but as I thought of how much down time we had taking pictures and swimming, it made complete sense.  From Woods Creek to the top of Glen Pass is one of the greatest and most beautiful 8.5 mile stretches I have ever seen.  As proof, this post has more pictures than any other post!  We knew that we needed to get an early start because the day was going to be long, but we also wanted to try to get the majority of our hiking done before the smoke of Rough Fire rolled in in the afternoon.  I am super glad that we got an early start!

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We began to climb out of the lower grassy and piney areas into the classic and picturesque Sierra Nevada landscapes- sparse vegetation, big time pale granite mountains set against rich blue skies, and high altitude, crystal clear lakes.  After about four miles of gradual incline we hit Dollar Lake and Arrowhead Lake. The trail snakes in between these these lakes and it’s from these lakes where we got our first glimpse of Fin Dome, which is really easy to spot.  In fact, the trail works it’s way even closer to Fin and provides a ridiculous number of opportunities for stunning photos.

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It is from Dollar and Arrowhead Lakes to Rae Lakes where your heart begins to beat out of your chest because it is just SO BEAUTIFUL. Off topic a little here, but I remember a family vacation we took about ten years ago. It was with my two daughters (6 and 3 at the time), my wife, and I. It was the first time I had been to Colorado and we were in Rocky Mountain National Park driving Trail Ridge Road from the entrance to the top of the mountains and then back down. At one point we pulled off the road and there was a clearing that climbed about 150 feet up to some huge rocks. We got out of the car and hiked up to those massive rocks and jumped up on them and took pictures of ourselves. I had not done any backpacking in my life up to that point and I just remember the freedom I felt running into nature and into something not so domesticated and structured. That was the first day I had this deep longing to get away and go to places and experience this amazing freedom and beauty. I mention that story for two reasons. The first is that I did not grow up backpacking. I didn’t start with extensive experience or great insight. I just had an insatiable hunger TO GO and EXPLORE. I am not joking when I say that anyone, with the right mindset and dedication, can do things you would never imagine you could do. The second reason for this story is that this portion of the JMT reminded me why I first decided to start backpacking in the first place. Despite the rigorous training, difficult situations and terrain, the smoke from Rough Fire, and missing my family… seeing this land… preserved in it’s full glory… and being a small part of it… makes all the rigors and pain worth it.

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We took our lunch break at Rae Lakes. If you get the opportunity to take a break here… DO IT! The trail passes on a ford the separates the lake in two. For some reason half of us stopped at the first portion of the lake and the other half of us went to the second portion of the lake. We were out of view from each other but only 20 to 25 feet from each other. We took some time to pump and eat. Someone asked me if I was going to get in the water. I said no. The truth was that I was going to, but I wanted to catch everyone off guard. So as everyone ate I began to slip off my clothes down to my underwear undetected. And without warning I ran and jumped with the biggest cannonball ever. The sudden explosion caught everyone off guard and within ten minutes everyone (I think) jumped in. The water was so so so so ridiculously cold, but man it was great. While half of us got in the south part of the most northern lake, the other guys got in the northern part of the most southern lake. I actually think that was the better of the two, because it was more like “cliff jumping,” but not quite that high. Either way, it was a great place to have an absolute blast.

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We had taken way too much time with pictures and playing.  We still had to conquer Glen Pass and a total of another seven or so miles.  Glen Pass an easy ascent to 11,926.  We were refreshed and running full of energy from all of the beauty around us.  From Glen Pass we had a little more than three miles down to Bubbs Creek.  I am so thankful that we were able to go from Woods to Glen Pass without any smoke from Rough Fire, but our trek down to Bubbs would be smoky.  I admit that I didn’t take many pictures once the smoke rolled in.  Maybe I didn’t want to remember it.

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There were several spots to camp within a mile of passing the Kearsarge Pass Trail junction.  This junction is really your only option to get off the JMT before Whitney and Whitney Portal.  I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really, really have to get off the trail.  To Onion Valley it is a little over six miles and involves crossing Kearsarge Pass at 11,823.  But anyway, there are several spots to camp after the junction but I would recommend camping closer to Vidette Meadow.  There are several spots to camp in the Meadow and Bubbs Creek is easily accessible for water.  Also, there is a metal bear box nearby for your bear cans at night.

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Our sixth day on the John Muir Trail would take us from Bubbs Creek, over the massive 13,160 foot Forester Pass, and down to Tyndall Creek.

California: John Muir Trail- Bench Lake to Woods Creek- Day 4

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John Muir Trail- Bench Lake (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek

Mileage- 8.94 miles

Elevation Gain- 1418 feet

Elevation Loss- 4031 feet

Bench Lake to Woods Creek

Bench Lake to Woods Creek Profile

Our fourth day on the John Muir Trail in California took us from the Bench Lake area (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek. This would be our shortest day both in distance and elevation gain… and we were welcoming it. Not because the previous days had been overly taxing at all, but because the remaining three days were going to be MONSTROUS. For the record, our trip was originally planned for eight days, but we were confident that we could squeeze the final four days into three and finish a day early, but more on that later.  The smoke from Rough Fire had again cleared out overnight, which brought blue morning skies and the crystal clear waters of Lake Marjorie.  Being that this day was our shortest, we took our time breaking camp.  I believe that each one of us spent some time giving ourselves a good wash… from head to toe.  The September air was cool and perfectly refreshing.  It was a great way to start our day.

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Our trek began at Lake Marjorie at about 11,200 feet.  Within less than two miles we would be at our highest point, Pinchot Pass at 12,050.  The cumulative elevation gain to the pass was probably a bit over 900 feet.  It was an easy climb, again on a well-established trail.  The views back to the north of Lake Marjorie were something special.  The skies were perfectly blue and reflected brilliantly off the water.  Just west of Marjorie you can see Mt. Ruskin and then in the far north North Palisade.  Facing southward you can see Mount Wynne to the east and Mount Ickes to the west.  The change in rock composition and color added a nice element to the canvas.

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Pinchot Pass ended up being one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip for me. As we reached the pass there was a small rocky peak directly to our west and I was convinced that I was going to climb the additional 200 feet for some reason- maybe accomplishment or a better view- I am not really sure, but three of us scrambled to the top as you can see in one of the pictures below. We are at the top waving. Pinchot Pass was also memorable because one I came back down from my side excursion I sat down to eat lunch. On night one a critter stole my spork from the area where I stored my bear can overnight. I had been operating for a few days by having to share with one of the other guys. But when I sat down at Pinchot I leaned backward to stretch and my hand landed on something strange. I picked it up and start screaming. Someone lost a spork and I, by chance, found it! I later boiled and cleaned it for usage the rest of the trip. It was a fantastic moment. For the record, this is the third trip in which I have lost a spork. It’s unreal.

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The descent from Pinchot Pass was one of several visual treats over the 100 miles we covered.  The area opened up with an expansive sky and mountains surrounding us on all sides with Crater Mountain to the west being most notable.  While the view was a bit hazy from Pinchot, as we traveled down the views cleared up nicely.  A few times we would just stop and take time to get a 360 degree view of the area.  It was that kind of place for sure.

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As we approached the Woods Creek area and dipped below the tree line, the afternoon smoke began to roll in. Woods Creek has a really cool suspension bridge that must be crossed in order to reach the camping areas. While the first couple of guys didn’t read the suspension bridge rules of “one person at a time,” the rest of us went one at a time. For this particular area the camping areas were a bit closer together. Not side by side necessarily, but you could easily see other tents and backpackers. I noticed that this area filled up quickly too. Those coming into the area later had to pack further to get spots. This area also sported a metal bear box to put your smelly stuff in, but we just threw our bear cans in it or beside it.

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The next day would take us from Woods Creek to Glen Pass and then on to Bubbs Creek. Our remaining days were some of the most beautiful of any trip, but also the most physically exerting.

California: John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake- Day 3

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John Muir Trail- Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake (Lake Marjorie)

Mileage- 10.8 miles

Elevation Gain- 2787 feet

Elevation Loss- 2472 feet

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake

Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake Elevation

On our third day hiking half of the John Muir Trail we were traveling from Palisade Lakes to Bench Lake area.  That is the “official” permit location of our end destination, but we technically stayed at Lake Marjorie.  Lake Marjorie, which is beautiful by the way, is about a mile passed an offshoot trail that would take you to Bench Lake.  Our day would consist of an early morning 1300 foot march up to Mather Pass, a six-mile descent, and a late day 1000 foot ascent (which I don’t like at the end of a day!).  The morning, again, started off clear with stunning blue skies.  Starting the day off at 11,000 feet in early September is a gift of cool, crisp temperatures that are AMAZING for backpacking.  AMAZING.  And we were expecting some stunning views from the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet.

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As you would expect, the trek up to Mather Pass was really pretty easy. From our campsite at the second of two Palisade Lakes it was only a 1300 foot climb.  We could see it as soon as we started hiking and were really pumped to get up there.  There was a hesitant optimism that we may have traveled south far enough to escape the eastward winds of Rough Fire.  That wouldn’t be the case on this day either.  The terrain leading southward for the first mile is sandy with old broken granite rocks amidst sequoias and pines.  The trail is easily visible and traversed.  On either side of Mather Pass you can see steep granite wall and saw tooth ridge lines, respectively.  As we gradually ascended I continued to look back.  Palisades Lake was something nice to look at up close, it’s real beauty is in how exquistively it surrounds itself with peaks and passes.  In the photo with me in it below you will see Disappointment Peak immediately behind me with Palisade Lake smiling on my side.

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The approach to Mather Pass is wide open with busted and broken granite bits and boulders strewn about.  The series of switchbacks are easily managed and traversed.  We were feeling really strong on this day.  Between the acclimatization and adjusting to the time zone difference, we were in our element.

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Crossing over Mather Pass was significantly disappointing.  The smoke from Rough Fire was the worst it had been up to that point.  While we enjoyed our conversation the rest of the hiking day, we were a bit deflated.  On my mind was whether or not it would get any better or if this is what we could expect all the way to Mt. Whitney.  We crossed some pretty streams but, for the most part, our visibility was limited.  It was obvious during our short breaks that morale had suffered.  Epic views were veiled by a serious irritant and my sinuses agreed.  As we approached Marjorie, she was beautiful.  It was obvious that she would really dazzle once the smoke cleared overnight.

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On Day 4 we would be traveling from Bench Lake area (Lake Marjorie) to Woods Creek Trail area.

 

California: John Muir Trail- LeConte to Palisade Lakes- Day 2

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John Muir Trail- LeConte Canyon to Palisade Lakes

Mileage- 11.1 miles

Elevation Gain- 3705 feet

Elevation Loss- 1512 feet

LeConte to Palisade Lake

LeConte to Palisade Lakes Elevation

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but our trek from LeConte to Palisade Lakes was interesting and a bit of a mixed bag. Our morning was absolutely stunning and clear but the afternoon was really pretty brutal (again) because of the smoke from Rough Fire. We had not quite figured out that the smoke typically rolled in early afternoon. So with our 8am start, coupled with breaks/lunch, we inevitably had about 2-3 hours of smoke at the end of our hiking day. Nonetheless, we had over 11 miles to cover and over 3700 feet total elevation gain from LeConte to Palisades Lakes.

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In early September, morning temps are on the cool side and obviously cooler at higher elevations. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have long pants and sleeves (maybe even another layer) from the time we awoke until the time we broke camp.  That is what it was like this first morning.  You can see where the sun is shining, but it’s warmth is just out of reach. From LeConte we began to descend for a little over three miles to Middle Fork Kings River, which by the way is the lowest point (8113 feet) until after Mt. Whitney.  From LeConte, it’s about a six hundred foot gradual descent that will take you through a beautiful (and peaceful) meadow called Grouse Meadows.  I jumped off of the trail to break through some scattered pines to get a few shots.

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The remainder of our day was up.  From Middle Fork Kings the next eight miles would have us climbing over 3500 total feet in elevation.  It’s an eastward trek following Palisade Creek with Mather Pass set in it’s sights.  We would stop just a couple of miles shy of Mather Pass and leave it for the next day.  Our destination for this day was Palisade Lakes.  And the only way of getting to the lakes is by climbing the Golden Staircase.  Being that we would not be stopping to set up camp at the first of the two Palisade Lakes, our climb up the staircase to our final camp was about 2500 feet.  I admit that this day was tiring.  Of course, we were still adjusting to the elevation, but that climb up the Golden Staircase was taxing. But we pressed on another mile to reach the first of two Palisade Lakes.  By the time we reached the first lake I think we were ready to set up camp!  But we still had two miles and another thousand feet to go.  We put our heads down and found a way to grind out those remaining miles.

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We could have camped at the first lake, but there was another guy already there.  We took our chances by going to the second lake for a little more solitude, which worked perfectly.  We had the second lake all to ourselves!  That was great…and there was the added benefit of cutting mileage for our next day… but we were getting a bit grumpy at the end of this day.  The smoke was taking it’s toll for sure.  There were several campsite options at the second lake.  A few of them were southwest of the trail closer to the lake.  We took a couple of spots in a piney area toward the southeast end of the lake.

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Once the sun began to hid behind the razor edge ridge line across the lake, it began to cool quickly.  We set up camp and then started to pump and prepare for our long-anticipated dinner.  One of the funniest moments of the trip was when we were pumping from a side creek that drained into the lake.  While pumping, Ryan (who was on his first backpacking trip) dropped one of his socks into the creek and did not notice.  We shouted at him and told him that he lost his sock.  The sock had dropped into a small pool about three and a half feet deep (in the middle), but in the excitement of the moment Ryan tried to scamper quickly down the wet, slick rocks in his traction-less evening shoes.  Before we could stop him, he slipped and went full body into the small pool.  We sat there completely stunned at what had just happened.  Patrick was like, “Take a picture.”  I did, but I was so perplexed at the situation that I could hardly move or look away from, the now silent, Ryan.  On one hand it was completely hilarious. But on the other hand, it was a dangerous situation because it was really, really, really cold water and the air temperature was very cool.  Fortunately Ryan was able to recover his sock (ha!) and then change into some warm, dry clothes rather quickly.

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Our third day would take us from Palisade Lakes over Mather Pass to the beautiful Bench Lake area.

If you missed Day 1, here it is:

South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1.

California: John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon- Day 1

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John Muir Trail- South Lake (Bishop Pass Trailhead) to LeConte Canyon

Mileage- 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain- 2800 feet

Elevation Loss- 3874 feet

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte

Bishop Pass Trailhead to LeConte 1

We arrived in Lone Pine, California late Thursday/early Friday and stayed at the Whitney Portal Hostel and Hotel, where we got a few hours sleep before dropping our rental vehicle at a Whitney Portal parking lot (our end destination) and meeting our shuttle that would take us to Bishop Pass Trailhead.

We used East Side Sierra Shuttle (Paul Freitheim), who is incredibly knowledgeable of the area and the trail, and who also has a ton of funny stories to share.  He agreed to take us to the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop where we would pick up our backcountry permit.  While two of us took care of the permit, the other guys walked to Eastside Sports to pick up fuel canisters.  Once we secured the permit and fuel we made the short drive to Bishop Pass Trailhead.  We were getting a bit later start than we would have liked.  I think it was after 11am by the time we unloaded our gear and settled up with Paul.  Our estimated mileage for the day from the trailhead to LeConte was 11.5 miles with 2800 total elevation gain.

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Our trek from South Lake began in Inyo National Forest/John Muir Wilderness.  Trail conditions were extremely dry.  Two months before this trip we monitored fire activity in the area.  One of the biggest fires in the area, Rough Fire, began on July 31, 2015 and, despite all efforts to contain it, was still continuing to grow when we began on September 4.  This massive fire was approximately 30 miles west of the John Muir Trail and approximately 80,000 acres, which meant that we would deal with a significant amount of smoke over the seven days on the trail, as you will see in many pictures.

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The great thing about this trail, and then the John Muir Trail, is that there is no guessing where the trail is.  While our Denali trip in 2014 did not have any trails, but was all about route finding and bushwhacking, these trails were incredibly easy to follow.  The greatest challenges for us, even on day one, were acclimating to the elevation and the daily physical demand of distance and elevation gain. At the end of the day, despite all of our exhaustive planning, we are still from Indiana (650 feet above sea level)!  Actually we did just fine.  We trained a ton and I believe everyone took Diamox for a few days to speed up our acclimation to the thin air.  Other than breathing hard on day one, I don’t believe anyone suffered any ill effects.

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Despite the dry conditions, the stunning beauty that we saw was off the chart.  Even when I am surrounded by what looks like a trail among a boulder field I have to pinch myself to make sure it is real.  That is exactly how it was the first 5.5 miles to Bishop Pass, as we crossed into Kings Canyon National Park.  There is certainly a possibility of getting so wrapped up in the mileage and the 2800 foot climb that one doesn’t slow down enough to appreciate where they are or what they are seeing.  People always ask me for advice or perspective on backpacking and the number one thing I always say is, “Don’t forget why you are there in the first place.  Breathe deep and take it all in.”  Pictures are one thing, but remembering how it felt and how it looked with your own eyes is an absolutely priceless experience that a small percentage of the population ever get to realize.  And don’t forget to turn around occasionally to snap a picture of where you came from!

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The biggest drop of the day was around Dusy Basin.  Our eastward view displayed magnificent and hazy views of Isosceles Peak and Columbine Peak.  Further in the eastward distance was a beautiful razor’s edge of 14-ers, including Thunderbolt and North Palisade.  As we continued to drop from Dusy Basin into LeConte Canyon, our views boasted of Langille Peak and the Citadel.  Depending on which direction we were looking we could either see the contrast of marvelous blue skies and ridge lines or mountains fading into the smoky haze.  Unfortunately for us, we were heading into the canyon where the smoky haze rested for the evening.

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From Bishop Pass to the JMT junction at LeConte is 6.0 miles and a descent of 3874 feet.  To be honest, it was some really easy hiking that passed through some really spectacular areas.  The smoke was a real irritant, however.  We realized after a couple of days that the smoke would clear out overnight and then usually reappear around 2 or 3pm the next day.  Being that we got a really late start this first day, we battled the smoke a bit more than would subsequent days.  While I didn’t take any pictures of our campsites or set-up, there are quite a few places to camp that are spread out from one another.  While there were others camping at the other spots, we really never felt as if they were too close or inhibiting our experience.  The camp spots are relatively easy to spot, as they are areas that have had quite a bit of usage over time.  Some areas along the JMT provide metal bear storage boxes to put your bear can in for the night.  In other areas, where there are no metal bear storage boxes, one would need to simply put their bear cans in an area away from tents and the eating/food preparation area.

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The Day 2 would take us from LeConte along the JMT, through Grouse Meadows, up the mighty Golden Staircase, and then to Palisades Lakes.