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

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.

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

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

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.