John Muir Trail- LeConte Canyon to Palisade Lakes
Mileage- 11.1 miles
Elevation Gain- 3705 feet
Elevation Loss- 1512 feet
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: