Cerro Este & Little Yosemite Loop (Sunol Regional Wilderness, CA)

Cerro Este Overlook, Sunol Regional Wilderness, December 2021

Spanning 6,859 acres of the northern Diablo Range, Sunol Regional Wilderness is a hiker’s paradise close to home in the East Bay, wedged between the massif of Mission Peak (2,517’) to the west and Ohlone Wilderness and Rose Peak (3,817’) to the east. This terrific loop hike rises to tremendous heights above Sunol Valley, visiting the highest point in the park (2,210’) before descending Cerro Este to the depths of Jacob’s Valley and the thrilling cascades of the so-called “Little Yosemite” area. Best done in winter or springtime when Alameda Creek is flowing and the hillsides are brilliantly verdant, this 7.6-mile circuit is a demanding, sort of Ohlone Wilderness Trail-in-miniature and one of the finest half-day hikes in the East Bay.

Map of Cerro Este & Little Yosemite Loop, Sunol Regional Wilderness; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The mainstay of Sunol Regional Wilderness is Sunol Valley, which cuts north-south through this scenic section of the Diablo Range, south of Pleasanton, California. Here visitors can enter the park via Geary Road, which parallels the Calaveras Road thoroughfare before culminating at a large, one-way loop with several parking areas. Park near the Visitor Center to start the hike. (Note: If spots are unavailable at the Visitor Center, there are plenty of overflow lots further south along the road.) From the parking area just south of the lawn at the Visitor Center, take the wide trail, and cross the footbridge to the east side of Alameda Creek, the main carving agent of this deep valley. Passing a pretty collection of oaks, bear right on the Canyon View Trail, then stay right again at the junction with the Hayfield Trail. The 3-foot-wide track parallels the creek for another 300 yards, reaching a junction with the Indian Joe Creek Trail after about a quarter-mile of walking.

Bear left on the Indian Joe Creek Trail, a peaceful and mostly-shaded route that serves as the access trail for the climb to Cerro Este. Follow the narrow track for about a quarter-mile, then cross the Indian Joe Creek drainage and bear left at the junction. Pass through a cattle gate, then follow the trail as it crisscrosses the streambed six times (including three in quick succession).

Crossing Indian Joe Creek

After the sixth crossing, the Indian Joe Creek Trail leaves behind its namesake and climbs sharply and steadily up a woody hillslope between two drainages. The imposing ridgetop of Cerro Este peeks through the trees above, still a good distance from here. After returning streamside and passing a junction at 1.3 miles, climb for another minute or two to reach Cave Rocks, a massive jumble of basalt boulders, perched on a slope overlooking Sunol Valley, with Mission Ridge visible beyond. A short spur trail leads to the rocks, which can be explored but requires some careful scrambling.

View from Cave Rocks

Continue to follow the Indian Joe Creek Trail as it gradually rises out of tree cover to the merger with Cave Rocks Road. Bear right on this wide gravel track, which ascends steadily amid excellent views across Sunol Valley to the southwest. By now hikers have come level with the height of Flag Hill (1,360’), the bluff-lined feature to the west, but the route remains below the chapparal scrub of the Vista Grande ridge to the north. Looking back west, one can see the large barn at High Valley Camp, situated on a verdant shelf in the foreground.

View toward Flag Hill and High Valley Camp

Climb to another junction with a bench at 1.9 miles, then a second fork about 200 yards later (stay right both times). From here the trail briefly descends to clear a side drainage nestled in the hillside of Cerro Este; there is sometimes a small, muddy pool off to the right.

Cerro Este Overlook

Beyond the pool, Cave Rocks Road rises steeply, covering two switchbacks before levelling off a bit as the road bears southward. Then, at about 2.6 miles, the trail crests a slope and reaches Cerro Este Overlook, a popular vantage point marked by a large, stone trail sign and monument. The vista from the overlook is terrific, with hikers viewing Calaveras Reservoir to the south for the first time, as well as Jacob’s Valley, the deep canyon that skirts the southern boundary of the park. Looking back to the north, one can see the rugged Maguire Peaks (1,688’), with Pleasanton Valley beyond.

View north to Maguire Peaks from the route up to Cerro Este

Many hikers will be satisfied enough with this vista and proceed down the southern slope toward Little Yosemite. However, those with some extra energy and in search of solitude can bear left, climbing for about ¾ mile to the official summit of Cerro Este and highest point in Sunol Regional Wilderness.

Views toward Jacob’s Valley from Cerro Este

Follow the grassy track—fainter but easily discernable—as it rises to a brief flat with a cattle gate, then ascend steeply to clear a point marked 2,038 feet, with increasingly expansive views eastward into Jacob’s Valley.

View back west toward Mission Ridge

Thereafter, the route passes a high gap, which frames Flag Hill and Mission Peak in the distance, and then rises to another small gate and junction. The official trail bears right and ends at a larger, locked gate, with private property beyond. Staying straight, however, one can pass through the small gate and quickly reach the summit of Cerro Este (2,210’).

View north from the Cerro Este summit

Here the views are sublime and the crowds thin, with the best vistas opening up to the north toward Maguire Peaks. Stop here for a snack or lunch, having travelled around 3.5 miles to this point.

Once ready, return the way you came until reaching Cerro Este Overlook. Bear left at the junction, beginning a steady descent that will shed 1,100 feet in the next 1.75 miles. Following Cerro Este Road, the route weaves down a series of bends, passing a handful of small watering holes frequented by the resident cattle population. At the junction with the McCorkle Trail at 4.7 miles, stay right, dropping another 200 feet to a subsequent fork. Stay left at this junction, passing a bench with a picturesque view of Jacob’s Valley. (Note: It is technically shorter to head right on the McCorkle Trail/Ohlone Wilderness Trail, but this would skip the worthy detour to Little Yosemite.)

Descending toward Little Yosemite

In the next section, the trail descends for ¾ mile into ever-denser brush and then oak/bay woodlands, interrupted by patches of green grass. Protrusions of metamorphic rock with quartz crystals can be seen at one point on the right. At 5.8 miles, the trail passes a four-way junction (stay straight on Cerro Este Road), then drops another 2/10 mile to meet Camp Ohlone Road, where there are two picnic tables and pit toilet.

Calaveras Reservoir from Cerro Este
Jacob’s Valley from Cerro Este Road

By now, one can hear the rushing cascades of the Little Yosemite Area (at least in winter/early spring), a very popular destination and one of the main draws of Sunol. Here Alameda Creek squeezes through a tight canyon, producing a series of stairstep cascades—none entailing more than 10 feet of freefall—that can be quite pretty but sort of difficult to reach. Immediately across from the end of Cerro Este Road, there is one signed area where hikers can scramble down the sharp banks to the creek’s edge. Unfortunately, some of the taller drops upstream are marred by the presence of rock graffiti.

A second approach to the Little Yosemite Area, situated 100 yards west down Camp Ohlone Road, is more popular and comes out at the base of a modest waterfall. This is perhaps no Yosemite, but it’s a nice spot to enjoy a snack and explore.

Small falls at Little Yosemite

After returning to the main track, head west on Camp Ohlone Road, passing a cattle guard and then descending mildly down-valley. One can still hear and see the rushing waters of Alameda Creek, but the stream is now effectively out of reach, situated down a steep slope of perhaps 100 feet. Eventually the waters calm and the valley broadens, and hikers round a right-hand bend that brings one closer to the road and parking areas.

Camp Ohlone Road below Little Yosemite

At around seven miles, stay left at another junction with the McCorkle Trail, then follow the wide bridge over Alameda Creek. Once on the far side, hikers are greeted by a fleet of cars and parking lots, which line seemingly the entire loop south of the Visitor Center. Follow the hiker’s trail along the left side of the road; soon enough, it crosses to the right side and eventually returns to the Visitor Center, capping off a 7.6-mile scenic hike.

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Mendocino Headlands Trail (Mendocino Headlands State Park, CA)

Mendocino Headlands Trail, Mendocino Headlands State Park, November 2021

In contrast with the friendlier beach terrain of central and southern California, the Pacific Coast north of the Bay Area has a more raw, rugged character—the cliffs are taller, the waves stronger, and the weather often considerably more menacing. But if you catch the coastal bluffs on a nice, sunny day—as I was lucky enough to do on a weekend trip in November—there are few landscapes more enchanting. Encircling the modest seaside town of Mendocino, the Mendocino Headlands Trail is jam-packed with spectacular views of the deep blue ocean, crashing waves, towering cliffs, and—most memorably—a series of natural sea arches. The sandy singletrack is mostly level and easy from end-to-end (follow Ford Street or Lansing Street to complete the loop), making for a lovely morning or evening stroll.

Map of Mendocino Headlands Trail, Mendocino Headlands State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

There are many possible entry points for the Mendocino Headlands Trail, but yours truly started at the southeast end and worked clockwise, beginning at the end of Church Street in Mendocino. (Note: This is within easy walking distance of a number of inns/B&Bs in town.) From the gravel parking lot behind the Mendocino Presbyterian Church, two main walking paths head south; take the westernmost track (the eastern one heads down to Big River Beach). Here one enters Mendocino Headlands State Park.

Within seconds, the unmarked path splits in three; take the middle track, heading nearly due south across an open field, toward a clutch of pines at the cliffs’ edge. Head out to a point overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with the sandy terrain of Big River Beach visible below. The Big River drainage, crossed by Highway 1 to the east, features the longest undeveloped estuary in northern California, draining 181 square miles from the Mendocino Range. As fishers and kayakers head east up-river, surfers brave the waves below.

High cliffs along the Mendocino Headlands Trail

After peering over the edge for your first glimpse, bear right on a faint but well-trodden trail hugging the cliffside as it bounds westward. After traversing the open scrub for 1/10 mile, the Mendocino Headlands Trail reaches a second, pine-studded viewpoint at ¼ mile. From here one can see west to a pair of blocky islands, followed by the exposed peninsula of Point Mendocino, which hikers will reach shortly.

Cypress perched along the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean

As the trail continues westward, hikers pass the two initial islands, which, at low tide, reveal large archways in the rock, formed through constant weathering by the battering sea. Natural arches and sea caves are ubiquitous in this area, and these initial openings are but a preview of what’s to come.

At 4/10 mile, there is a prominent junction, with a widely-used path heading north to Main Street in Mendocino. Stay left, with the onward trail dipping to clear an eroded ravine with a beautiful Monterey cypress at its mouth. Continue west as the trail passes above Portuguese Beach, a modest patch of sand strewn with kelp and large logs.

View back to Big River Beach from Point Mendocino

Just after a bench on the right, join with the wider path coming in from the right at about 6/10 mile, then bear south toward Point Mendocino, a flat peninsula bearing surprising secrets—including a spectacular blowhole, where the sea has caused a piece of the headland to cave in, revealing the intruding sea below. The sun glimmers through a large archway connecting the blowhole (a.k.a. punchbowl) with the broader ocean. A fenced path forms a circuit around the fascinating feature.

Awesome punchbowl at Point Mendocino

Just beyond the blowhole is the southernmost tip of the peninsula, after which the onward trail rounds back north, with several spur paths leading down to tidepools left by the receding waves. The highly eroded bluffs are teeming with ice plant—an invasive species brought in to stabilize shores in the early- to mid-20th century but which now has earned the ire of naturalists for crowding out native plants.

Small tidal pool

Angling around to the north side of the peninsula, bear left as the main track heads straight, continuing to follow the Mendocino Headlands Trail around a scenic inlet with a gaping arch cutting through the eroded rock below. The best view of the arch comes at around 1.2 miles, after which the trail splits again, and the onward track skirts the cliffs right above the archway.

Large natural arch

After rounding a bend and heading northwest again, follow the path as it heads all the way around a stony cove with a small beach. After wrapping around another headland, the north-south path faces the open ocean to the west before reaching a parking area at 1.6 miles. Follow the path to another parking area along Heeser Drive, and don’t forget to look back toward the ocean, where the new angle reveals a spectacular sea arch, with the blue depths beyond.

Natural archway past the mid-way point of the hike
Another arch carved into a small island

Briefly follow the road to skirt a stand of cypresses, then bear left again on the unmarked but well-worn trail. A short detour leads out to a narrow promontory overlooking the swarming sea, with Goat Island and a set of additional arches in view.

Narrow peninsula

Heading north, with another archway in the distance, the trail keeps the cliffs on its left and Heeser Drive on its right, eventually passing the next arch and leading to another set of islands off the northwest shores of the headlands.

Mendocino Headlands

After skirting another cove, the trail passes another small, roadside parking area and angles along the coastline with open views north toward Russian Gulch and Point Cabrillo (one can see the Point Cabrillo lighthouse in the distance). As the trail approaches a cypress grove and Point Kelli, the path abruptly ends, spilling out onto Heeser Drive, where there is a parking area with picnic benches and a restroom.

Above the ocean near the end of the hike

This is the official end of the hike. While requiring a short bit of road-walking, hikers can complete the loop and return to the start by heading east on Heeser Drive and then taking Ford or Lansing Streets south back to Main Street and Church Street. Including this section, the hike covers a little over three miles, a modest distance with a high wow factor along a spectacular stretch of coastline.

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Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail (Channel Islands National Park, CA)

Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail, Channel Islands National Park, September 2021

Scorpion Canyon is a usually dry drainage that cuts through the northeastern section of Santa Cruz Island, the largest island in California’s Channel Islands National Park. This moderate-to-strenuous hike follows the lower reaches of the canyon before rising steeply to a landscape of high chapparal hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean and descending back to Scorpion Cove, the starting point for most hikes on the island. (Note: See also the adjacent Cavern Point – Potato Harbor Loop.) This is one of the more challenging day hike options in the Scorpion Cove area but can be completed in a 2- to 3-hour period, well within the 6-7 hours afforded to day visitors to Santa Cruz Island.

Map of Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Reaching Santa Cruz Island in California’s Channel Islands National Park is perhaps half the adventure, as the boat trip to/from the island is roughly an hour each way. Sightings of pods of common dolphins are very common, and some lucky visitors may also spot migrating whales. Concessionaire boats generally pull into Scorpion Anchorage at staggered times in the morning (twice during the week and up to four times on weekend days) and then leave in the late afternoon, leaving day use visitors with around 6-7 hours on the island. Better yet, securing a reservation at the Scorpion Cove Campground allows for multi-day exploration. (Note, however, that there are limited facilities at the campground. Campers will have to bring all of their own gear and food for the trip.)

Scorpion Cove—where there is a single, long pier—is the primary starting point for most visitors to Santa Cruz Island and was once a staging location for ranching activities on the island. In 1887, French-born businessman Justinian Caire constructed several structures at Scorpion Cove, including a two-story ranch house and wooden bunkhouse. Today, the National Park Service has recreated the small ranch; the adobe house includes several exhibits on the island’s natural and human history.

The Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail begins and ends at the Scorpion Cove Visitor Center, which is located about 2/10 mile from the pier at Scorpion Anchorage. Hikers can walk in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Those seeking to avoid a steep climb should opt for the former, but those looking for a challenge or with a preference for saving the best views for last should proceed in a counter-clockwise direction, heading west from the Visitor Center and adobe house into Scorpion Canyon. This description follows the latter track.

Island fox in Scorpion Canyon

From the Visitor Center, pass the kayak/snorkel rental shop and the Lower Scorpion Cove Campground on the right. Hikers are sure to encounter at least one island fox along this wide path. This dwarf version of the mainland gray fox is found only on the Channel Islands and nearly went extinct before a restoration effort in the early 2000s that helped the population recover after a series of attacks by non-native golden eagles.

Scorpion Canyon Loop Trail beyond the campground

About 4/10 mile later, the trail begins a steady and demanding climb, ascending 700 feet in just over ¾ mile. This rude awakening will be challenging for some, but the increasingly dramatic views of the canyon, Montagñon Ridge, and Pacific Ocean ease some of the pain—as do the bushy wildflowers that dot the slope in some sections. Rise to a confluence with a spur trail that leads down to a set of seasonal cascades in the wash below.

Golden cliffs in Scorpion Canyon

After a brief flat section, the trail continues to rise, this time up a very steep, grassy hillside that leads to what was once a vast pastureland for domesticated sheep and cattle. Scorpion Canyon gradually becomes more and more distant, and the trail follows fence-lines and a side drainage on the left to a junction, about two miles from the start. Look south from here to catch a distant view of a modest oil well that was drilled in 1966 but yielded only water.

Ascent into the hills above Scorpion Canyon

With much more of Montagñon Ridge now visible to the south, bear left at the junction and follow the wide track between drainages on the left and right. At 2.3 miles, bear left on Smugglers Road, a popular trail used to access Smugglers Cove on the far eastern shores of the island. Instead of bearing right toward Smugglers Cove, head left, bearing north in the direction of Scorpion Anchorage.

Santa Barbara Channel and Anacapa Islands

Here the path is very wide and sun-exposed, with little trace of vegetation beyond the high grasses and occasional brushy shrubs. Look back east for a view of the Anacapa Islands, which are considerably smaller than Santa Cruz but rise dramatically from the Santa Barbara Channel. Clear days also offer views as far as the mainland of California.

Along the trail leading down to Scorpion Anchorage

After a long left-hand bend, the trail edges northeast toward Scorpion Point, a high headland overlooking Scorpion Anchorage. However, instead of going out to the cliffs overlooking the ocean, the trail suddenly cuts back west, descending a grass-lined pitch for about 250 feet to the mouth of Scorpion Canyon. Passing within sight of the windmill at Scorpion Ranch, the trail crosses the drainage and meets up again with the Scorpion Valley Road at a point between the Visitor Center and the kayak and snorkel rental shop. Bear right to return to the Visitor Center and anchorage.

Overlooking Scorpion Anchorage

All told, this moderate to strenuous, 4.1-mile trek takes about 2-3 hours to complete, making it a decent complement to the Cavern Point – Potato Harbor Loop of similar length (4.5 miles).

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Cavern Point – Potato Harbor Loop (Channel Islands National Park, CA)

Potato Harbor, Channel Islands National Park, September 2021

The largest island in California and most visited destination in Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island spans more than 61,000 acres in the Pacific Ocean. Sporting only a modest visitor center, campground, and kayak company—with no restaurants, stores, or other concessions—exploring Santa Cruz Island is a largely wild experience. Once ashore, visitors can access a network of trails that crisscross the eastern portion of the island, reaching secret beaches, brushy canyons, and high coastal bluffs. A good half-day walk combines the popular Cavern Point and Potato Harbor hikes into a 4.5-mile jaunt with some mild elevation gain. Start and end the hike at the Scorpion Ranch Visitor Center and allot 2-3 hours for the full circuit.

Map of Cavern Point – Potato Harbor Loop, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Reaching Santa Cruz Island in California’s Channel Islands National Park is perhaps half the adventure, as the boat trip to/from the island is roughly an hour each way. Sightings of pods of common dolphins are very common, and some lucky visitors may also spot migrating whales. Concessionaire boats generally pull into Scorpion Anchorage at staggered times in the morning (twice during the week and up to four times on weekend days) and then leave in the late afternoon, leaving single-day visitors with around 6-7 hours on the island. Better yet, securing a reservation at the Scorpion Cove Campground allows for multi-day exploration. (Note, however, that there are limited facilities at the campground. Campers will have to bring all of their own gear and food for the trip.)

Scorpion Cove—where there is a single, long pier—is the primary starting point for most visitors to Santa Cruz Island and was once a staging location for ranching activities on the island. In 1887, French-born businessman Justinian Caire constructed several structures at Scorpion Cove, including a two-story ranch house and wooden bunkhouse. Today, the National Park Service has recreated the small ranch; the adobe house includes several exhibits on the island’s natural and human history.

To reach the start of the loop hike, walk westward from the anchorage, past a large restroom and several old, rusted farming implements. Kayaks (which can be used on expensive but worthwhile sea cave tours) dot the beach on the left, and some visitors may be found snorkeling in the underwater kelp forest on the north side of the pier. Once at the Visitor Center (where there is a refurbished bunkhouse and adobe), look for the start of the Cavern Point Trail heading right (north). This is the beginning of the 4.5-mile stem-and-loop hike.

The Cavern Point Trail begins steeply, ascending several sets of staircases and rounding three switchbacks as the path rises out of a woody side drainage. After the switchbacks, the trail bears eastward with open views of Scorpion Anchorage and the imposing cliffs of Santa Cruz Island, with (on clear days) distant Anacapa Island visible beyond.

Cavern Point Trail rises above Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island

Rising high out of Scorpion Valley, the Cavern Point Trail turns north and passes an overlook at about ¼ mile. Here one can glimpse some hearty native plants clinging to the edge of the cliffs: after the island was overrun by domesticated sheep and cattle in the late 1800s, much of the native plant life was devastated—surviving only in areas such as the precipice of the bluffs, out of reach for livestock.

Viewpoint above Scorpion Cove

The brittle, chalky white rock exposed in many places on the island is called diatomaceous earth, a peculiar sedimentary rock layer composed of microscopic, single-cell sea plans named diatoms. Diatomaceous earth is a key ingredient in chert, produced when diatoms are dissolved in water and recrystallized as a harder form of rock, which was used by the Chumash Indians to create tools and arrowheads.

The Channel Islands were formed by compression forces around five million years ago, when tectonic activity thrust the mixture of sedimentary and volcanic rock upward out of the ocean. Intriguingly, despite being within striking distance of mainland California, the Channel Islands were part of a “super-island” named Santarosae that was never connected to the rest of the continent. This means that all the animal species found on Santa Cruz Island either swam, flew, or were brought by humans. This includes the pygmy mammoth, a dwarf version of the larger Columbian mammoth that once roamed the mainland; paleontologists suspect that the mammoths reached Santarosae by swimming and later went extinct around the end of the Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago.

The geographic isolation of the Channel Islands has facilitated natural evolution that has occurred separately from the mainland, producing 145 endemic or unique plant and animal species. Sixty of these species are found on Santa Cruz.

Unfortunately, as noted, much of the native population of plants and animals was devastated by the introduction of large-scale farming and ranching in the 19th century. Such destruction is evident as hikers bear north from the overlook above Scorpion Cove, passing through matted flatlands that include many non-native grasses. The wide trail edges uphill but now at a much more manageable incline, passing through a mulched section that leads to the first of several trail junctions at about 7/10 mile. Hikers can bear right here to climb to Cavern Point (316’), a local high point overlooking the Pacific. A separate trail bears westward at a junction minutes later; this service road loops back to Scorpion Cove.

Peering out over the Pacific Ocean from near Cavern Point

Stay right at the junction, continuing on a trail that now descends mildly, with views down to a sheltered cove frequented by kayakers, almost 300 feet below. The high cliffs continue westward in the distance. The shores and small islands off the coast are frequented by pelicans, seagulls, and cormorants.

Pockmarked cliff along the Cavern Point Loop

Shedding around 50 feet of elevation, the trail drops to a dry drainage and another junction at about 1.1 miles. Continue right, following the sign for Potato Overlook. Now hikers embark on the North Bluff Trail, a narrower and rockier path that rises again and follows the cliff’s edge. The trail passes another promontory above a seabird nesting island, revealing views of a new kelp-strewn inlet below.

Another cliff-bound inlet along the North Bluff Trail

Edging the cliffside for another half-mile, hikers arrive at a point where the North Bluff Trail merges with the wider Potato Harbor Road, a popular thoroughfare for hikers on the island. Bear right, continuing westward along the gravel route. There are fine views of the chalky cliffs from the junction with the unmaintained Montagñon Ridge Trail at 2.4 miles.

Now bearing south, follow the road for another 1/10 mile to Potato Harbor Overlook. Below is a beautiful, aquamarine-colored bay only accessible by watercraft. Off to the south, hikers can peer up to Montagñon Ridge (1,808’), the highest point in the eastern half of the island. Beyond Potato Harbor, hikers can see across a large bight to the western section of the island, off-limits to visitors without permission from the Nature Conservancy.

Looking out over Potato Harbor

Enjoy this popular viewpoint, then return the way you came for about ¾ mile, returning to the junction of the Potato Harbor Road and North Bluff Trail, this time bearing right. Follow the descending road as it overlooks scrubby Scorpion Canyon and passes several prominent displays of diatomaceous earth on the left. The eucalyptus forest of Upper Scorpion Cove Campground eventually comes into view, and the road descends to a junction at the four-mile mark. Bear left, then walk along the wide and level path, where you are sure to encounter the island fox, a smaller relative of the mainland gray fox that is found only on the Channel Islands.

Upper Scorpion Cove Campground

The island fox population on Santa Cruz almost went extinct in the 1990s as non-native golden eagles developed a taste for the dwarfish fox; an intensive conservation effort in the early 2000s removed the eagles—as well as the island’s feral pig population—leading to a recovery of the fox population. The island foxes in this part of the island have become relatively accustomed to humans, allowing visitors to admire up-close their beautiful orange and grey furs and boundless curiosity. (Note: Campers will have to protect their food from the hungry munchers that prowl through Scorpion Canyon in search of scraps.)

Island fox

Stay straight on Scorpion Valley Road as it passes another trailhead for Cavern Point on the left, then parallels Lower Scorpion Cove Campground, where one will find the majority of overnight campers on the island. From here it is a short walk back to the Visitor Center at Scorpion Ranch.

All told, the 4.5-mile loop is a moderately strenuous walk that offers a nice introduction to the island, with fine views of the Pacific Ocean and the towering cliffs of Santa Cruz Island. Day visitors may also be able to sneak in another short hike before the afternoon ferry leaves—and overnighters can use the next day to kayak, snorkel, or hike some more.

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Mott Lake Trail (John Muir Wilderness, CA)

Mott Lake Trail, John Muir Wilderness, August 2021

Generally less frequented than nearby Yosemite or Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park, the John Muir Wilderness spans 650,000 acres of mostly unblemished mountain terrain in the heart of California’s Sierra Nevada. The region is dotted with hundreds of alpine and subalpine lakes, each of which shimmers in the midday sun, with many sporting excellent views of surrounding craggy peaks. One such destination—a hidden gem in the John Muir Wilderness between Mammoth Lakes to the north and Lake Thomas Edison and Mono Creek to the south—is Mott Lake, which is set in a terrific basin below the Silver Divide. The lake is scarcely-visited but within two miles of the long-distance John Muir Trail (JMT), making for a worthy detour for JMT through-hikers if you find yourself with 2-3 hours to spare. Along the way, hikers will cross the scenic North Fork of Mono Creek and ascend wildflower-strewn slopes to the majestic lake.

Map of Mott Lake Trail, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra National Forest; created using alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map)

The hike

Part of Mott Lake’s charm is its remoteness, situated in a rarely-travelled drainage in the John Muir Wilderness just south of the Silver Divide. The nearest road access is more than 10 miles away at Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR), on the western side of Lake Thomas Edison. Mott Lake is reachable as an overnight backpacking trip from VVR, but most visitors will likely be John Muir Trail (JMT) through-hikers, heading north or south on their 220-plus mile journey between Yosemite and Mount Whitney. (Note: The relevant section of the JMT is described here.)

The Mott Lake Trail begins at a junction with the JMT, about three miles north of the bridge over Mono Creek and 3.5 miles south of Silver Pass. Follow the sign as the immediately fainter spur trail parts with the well-trafficked JMT and then ascends a steep pitch lined with thick conifers. Despite its low traffic, the route is relatively easy to follow, and the grade eases briefly after about 1/3-1/2 mile.

Mott Lake Trail junction with the John Muir Trail

Here the trail passes an open granite slab with the North Fork of Mono Creek flowing through it. This gentle stream eventually connects with the main Mono Creek drainage and empties into Lake Thomas Edison. Then continue on a steady ascent alongside the creek before finally crossing it at a point about ¾ mile from the start.

North Fork of Mono Creek at very low flow

Now on the left side of the stream, the trail rises through muddy, buggy terrain, but the wildflowers—which erupt here in a rainbow of colors—make the mucky ascent enjoyable. Eventually the Mott Lake Trail rises to a point overlooking a scenic meadow down to the right, with views back toward the lower canyon.

After reentering the woods, the trail becomes a little harder to follow as it bounds up a series of stony shelves, with occasional cairns and footprints guiding the way. The steadily-climbing trail finally levels off after about 1.8 miles and then approaches Mott Lake, where there a few previously-disturbed campsites.

Mott Lake

The views from Mott Lake’s western shores are stupendous, with the landscape dominated by a sheer granite pitch off to the southeast. The views extend northward toward Red and White Mountain (12,850’) and Mount Crocker (12,457’), with tree-line ridges obscuring an alpine landscape beyond that harbors two more higher lakes (Bighorn and Ross Finch Lakes). (Note: These lakes can be reached via some off-trail scrambling.) To the north lies Mount Isaak Walton (12,099’), a prominent peak also visible from the JMT near Silver Pass.

Looking up-canyon from Mott Lake

The waters here at Mott Lake are clear and serene, with opportunities—like much of the area—for some decent trout fishing. Although the official trail ends here, spur paths lead partway around the lake, and ambitious hikers can explore farther upstream toward the headwaters of the North Fork.

Mott Lake toward Mount Isaak Walton

After enjoying the lake, return the way you came for 1.9 miles back to the JMT.

Posted in California, John Muir Wilderness, Moderate Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Top 10 Hikes in 2021

Evolution Lake, John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park, August 2021

The past year brought new milestones for Live and Let Hike, with the Covid-era bump in traffic continuing for a second year. In fact, annual viewership rose by more than 50 percent compared to 2020 and more than 100 percent relative to 2019—Live and Let Hike had 225,080 site visitors and 338,581 page views in 2021.

In the past 12 months, I added 42 new blog posts, mostly from hikes in California but also a handful of trails in Arizona, Oregon, and Utah. A short trip in January brought us to coastal northern California and southwest Oregon, where we discovered some spectacular, lush landscapes at Redwood National Park and Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. In addition to some local hikes in the Bay Area, the spring was spent training for summer long-distance backpacking adventures with some short, overnight trips in California’s Silver Peak Wilderness, Henry W. Coe State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Yosemite National Park. I also snuck in a separate two-day trip to Yosemite for some more day hiking in April and returned briefly to Utah and northern Arizona for some slot canyon adventures. The summer was all about backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. After completing a terrific 56-mile, week-long circuit in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in June, I embarked in late July on the longest backpacking trip of my life—a 254-mile jaunt from Mount Whitney to Yosemite on the northbound John Muir Trail—which I later catalogued in a five-part series. Other commitments ate into my hiking (and blogging) time in the fall, but I did manage to squeeze in short trips to Channel Islands National Park and the Mendocino area along the Pacific coast. As with past years, the backlog of posts from 2021 hikes will bleed into 2022…

The top five most visited posts on Live and Let Hike in 2021 were, as usual, holdovers from past years: (1) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Frontcountry”; (2) White Rock Canyon – Arizona Hot Spring Canyon Trail Loop (Lake Mead National Recreation Area, AZ); (3) Whiteoak Canyon – Cedar Run Trail Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA); (4) Steep Ravine – Matt Davis Trail Loop (Mount Tamalpais State Park, CA); and (5) Falls Trail Loop (Mount Diablo State Park, CA). The top-viewed new posts in 2021, however, were, in order: (1) The New Wave Loop (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ); (2) Hetch Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls (Yosemite National Park, CA); (3) Crown Lake – Kerrick Meadow – Peeler Lake Loop (Yosemite National Park, CA); (4) Buckskin Gulch via Wire Pass (Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, UT); and (5) Cathedral Wash (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ).

In keeping with tradition from past years, I have compiled below a subjective list of my ten favorite hikes from 2021. A diverse year of hiking brought a wide variety of hikes to the top ten, from the lush redwood forests of northern California to the stunning glacial cirques of the Sierra Nevada to the sinuous slot canyons of Arizona and Utah.

10. Kelly Lake, Coit Lake, & Pacheco Falls Loop (Henry W. Coe State Park)

Springtime is the perfect season for exploring the Diablo Range south and east of the Bay Area, when the streams are full and the hills come alive with wildflowers and verdant colors. This 20-mile backpack in Henry W. Coe State Park traverses challenging terrain to two man-made lakes and a hidden waterfall and features high, panoramic views across the range and Santa Clara Valley in the South Bay.

See my post on March 30, 2021 for a full trail description.

Pacheco Falls Loop, Henry W. Coe State Park, March 2021

9. Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (Yosemite National Park, CO)

The strenuous Upper Yosemite Falls Trail gains a brutal 2,700 feet in elevation as it exits Yosemite Valley and climbs to the top of North America’s tallest waterfall. Atop the sheer granite walls, hikers get extraordinary views across the valley and central Yosemite. There are certainly easier trails in the area with less elevation gain, but tackling this one leaves hikers with a sense of triumph and accomplishment.

See my post on May 23, 2021 for a full trail description.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park, April 2021

8. Cathedral Wash (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, AZ)

The first of two hikes on this list from my Arizona/Utah trip in May, the choose-your-own-adventure ramble down Cathedral Wash is a rewarding and lesser-known hike in the southern reaches of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Some mild scrambling is required to bypass pouroffs, muddy pools, and steep ledges, but this all adds to the fun as the route descends through the Kaibab Limestone and Toroweap Formation to the banks of the mighty Colorado River.

See my post on June 22, 2021 for a full trail description.

Cathedral Wash, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, May 2021

7. Boy Scout Tree Trail (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)

The lush and bountiful opposite of the dusty canyonlands of Utah/Arizona, Redwood National Park in northern California boasts a landscape of ubiquitous ferns and iconic coast redwoods. The Boy Scout Tree Trail in the northern reaches of the park passes hundreds of the silent sentinels—the tallest plant species in the world—en route to the modest but pretty Fern Falls.

See my post on January 12, 2021 for a full trail description.

Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, January 2021

6. Miner’s Ridge – James Irvine Trail Loop, including Gold Bluffs Beach and Fern Canyon (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

Next on the list is another hike from our Oregon/northern California trip in January, this one forming a long (12-mile) loop through the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods. After ascending a modest ridgeline dotted with coast redwoods, the route descends through a Sitka spruce forest to the Pacific Ocean and Fern Canyon, a stream-fed gulch where the hairy walls are covered from top to bottom with the canyon’s namesakes. From the coast, the circuit works its way back through more redwood forest to return to the start.

See my post on February 23, 2021 for a full trail description.

Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, January 2021

5. Hetchy Hetchy to Wapama Falls and Rancheria Falls (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Another overnight backpacking trip, the 13-mile out-and-back to Rancheria Falls from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park brings hikers along the north shore of the reservoir to a landscape of tumbling streams. After passing Wapama Falls, which drops more than 1,000 feet, the onward path passes two more drainages with flowing chutes, culminating at a bridge over Rancheria Falls with excellent views back across the reservoir in the western Sierra Nevada.

See my post on April 16, 2021 for a full trail description.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite National Park, March 2021

4. Twin Lakes, Boomerang Lake, & Island Lake (Desolation Wilderness, CA)

An excellent and easily-accessible hike in the northern Sierra Nevada, this 7-mile jaunt rises into the Crystal Range of the Desolation Wilderness and passes four spectacular alpine lakes. The spring snowmelt also produces pretty waterfalls and water-logged moraines, adding to the allure of this majestic place—often reached by way of a half-day hike or overnight backpack.

See my post on August 24, 2021 for a full trail description.

Lower Twin Lake, Desolation Wilderness, June 2021

3. Buckskin Gulch via Wire Pass (Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, UT)

Cutting more than 18 miles through the Paria Plateau in southwest Utah, Buckskin Gulch is considered to be the longest slot canyon in the world. The narrow, winding passages and colorful hues made my short foray into the canyon one of the top three best hikes of the year, an immensely impressive landscape that lives up to the hype.

See my post on June 4, 2021 for a full trail description.

Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon – Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, May 2021

2. Deadman Canyon Loop (Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, CA)

Meant to be a preparatory trip to condition for my later journey on the John Muir Trail, the 56-mile Deadman Canyon Loop turned out to be a spectacular adventure in its own right. From Lodgepole in Sequoia National Park, the route ascends and descends Silliman Pass and enters Kings Canyon National Park, after which the path bends east and south to traverse Deadman Canyon, a hidden gem that rivals Yosemite Valley in its beauty. Once over Elizabeth Pass, the trail descends a granite pitch that is one of the most scenic stretches of trail I have ever seen and then follows the High Sierra Trail westward back to the Giant Forest in Sequoia.

See my post on August 22, 2021 for a full trail description.

Deadman Canyon, Kings Canyon National Park, June 2021

1. John Muir Trail (Sequoia National Park to Yosemite National Park, CA)

The hands-down favorite for this year was my 254-mile hike along the John Muir Trail (JMT) and environs, a challenging, multi-week journey that brought us from Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park all the way north to Yosemite Valley. During a journey that comprised four linked sections, we camped at spectacular glacier-fed lakes, ascended more than a dozen mountain passes, and traversed long canyons, all the way making friends with several through-hikers.

See my series of four posts for full hike descriptions—Section I, Section II, Section III, and Section IV—plus a bonus post on preparing and planning for the JMT.

John Muir Trail, Kings Canyon National Park, August 2021

Honorable Mention:

Posted in Ansel Adams Wilderness, Arizona, California, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, John Muir Wilderness, Moderate Hikes, Redwood National & State Parks, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, Strenuous Hikes, Utah, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Muir Trail Northbound Section 4 – Red’s Meadow to Happy Isles (Ansel Adams Wilderness & Yosemite National Park, CA)

Garnet Lake, John Muir Trail, Ansel Adams Wilderness, August 2021

Note: This is the fifth in a series of five posts describing the John Muir Trail (JMT), a scintillating, multi-week hike through California’s Sierra Nevada that extends more than 200 miles from Yosemite National Park in the north to Mount Whitney and Sequoia National Park in the south. This post (and those preceding it) assumes a northbound journey, beginning southeast of Mount Whitney at Horseshoe Meadow in Inyo National Forest and culminating at Happy Isles in Yosemite. The JMT is an arduous, multi-week backpacking trip that requires careful planning, preparation, and an official backcountry permit that can be quite difficult to obtain. Hikers typically complete the entire trail, including detours for food resupplies, in about 2-3 weeks. For more information on planning and preparing for the JMT, see my previous post titled “John Muir Trail Preparation & Logistics.” For summaries of the other three sections, see Section I (Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley), Section II (Onion Valley to Muir Trail Ranch), and Section III (Muir Trail Ranch to Red’s Meadow).

In the fourth and final section of the northbound John Muir Trail, hikers leave the creature comforts of Red’s Meadow Resort for one last jaunt in the wilderness, climbing past scintillating lakes and over mountain passes into Yosemite National Park. From here, the JMT follows lengthy Lyell Canyon to bustling Tuolumne Meadows, then, two days later, ends triumphantly at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, at the base of iconic Half Dome. This section rises to over 11,000 feet at Donohue Pass but ends at a modest 4,040 feet in Yosemite Valley, where through-hikers can celebrate completing the entire, multi-week journey on the John Muir Trail.

Red’s Meadow to Garnet Lake (14.4 miles)

It’s hard to say goodbye to Red’s Meadow Resort, where northbound JMT hikers were spoiled with hot food, cold beer, showers, laundry, and other amenities. One final leg remains, however, and fortunately it is no less scenic than the previous three sections.

Map of John Muir Trail – Red’s Meadow to Garnet Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness; created using alltrails.com

Hikers have a few options to access the John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail (JMT/PCT) from Red’s Meadow Resort, but the one that makes most sense is to begin where Section 3 left off: at the junction ¼ mile south of the main entrance to the resort, where the northbound JMT bears right and wraps around the resort to the west side. The trail quickly descends to a second junction, and then a third—stay straight at both. Traversing modest woodlands, the JMT drops for about 4/10 mile to another junction; stay straight, climbing a brief rocky scramble and entering Devils Postpile National Monument. From here the trail quickly approaches a sturdy bridge over the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, the main drainage in the area.

Stony passage in The Buttresses

Cross the footbridge and then enter an area known as The Buttresses, a collection of stony fins and outcrops bisected by narrow passages, including one that steers the JMT northward through the labyrinth. Eventually the trail rises steadily atop a cliff-hewn bench, with bird’s eye views down to the San Joaquin drainage and Red’s Meadow area. Mammoth Mountain (11,053’), which harbors the famous ski area, dominates the skyline to the east.

Smoky skies below Mammoth Mountain

A steady ascent brings travelers to another junction at about the two-mile mark. Here the Summit Meadow Trail leads westward into the Ritter Range, while an access trail to Devils Postpile bears east. Continue straight, quickly passing several outcrops with distant views of the basaltic columns of Devils Postpile, which were formed by cooling lava less than 100,000 years ago.

Perched high above the valley below, the JMT continues northward at a modest incline and reaches another four-way junction at about 2.5 miles. Here, for the first time since Crabtree Meadow, way back in Section 1, the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail split, with the latter bearing slightly east toward Agnew Meadows while the former continues to follow a high shelf below the Ritter Range. (Note: The JMT and PCT will rejoin several miles later, at Thousand Island Lake.)

In the next section, the ascent kicks into high gear, gaining around 400 feet in ¾ mile. After staying right at a junction with the Superior Lake Trail, the JMT comes alongside Minaret Creek and crosses a log bridge, with wild blueberry bushes greeting hikers on the north side of the creek. A maze of trails leads in different directions here; follow the most obvious, which heads right initially and then ascends a slope before leveling off. Relatively flat terrain takes hikers to a short spur leading west to Johnston Lake, a marshy pond set in a pretty meadow surrounded by thick conifers.

Johnston Lake

Beyond the lake lies another junction. Bear right, beginning a steady and arduous climb with one long switchback. It is 2.5 miles—with over 1,100 feet of elevation gain—from Johnston Lake to the first of the Trinity Lakes, a collection of small and swampy pools with some lakeside camping options. (Note: An unmarked trail near here leads westward to Emily Lake, but the junction is not obvious.)

Trinity Lakes

Soon enough, hikers pass another clutch of ponds that constitute the Upper Trinity Lakes, where there are again some sandy campsites. Thereafter the JMT mounts a 250-foot climb to a notch above Gladys Lake, which comes into view through the trees below. It is a quick jaunt down the shoreline, which is surprisingly mucky and a favorite for aquatic bugs but has distant views of San Joaquin Mountain (11,600’) and Two Teats (11,397’) across the broad valley.

Gladys Lake

A brief ascent again leads to a new drainage, this one filled in part by beautiful Rosalie Lake. Descend a couple of switchbacks to reach the shoreline and cross the lake’s outlet, around which there are several nice campsites. This lake is the most dramatic since Purple Lake in Section 3, highlighted by a sheer cliff some 300- to 400-feet tall along the western shore.

Rosalie Lake

The onward JMT follows close to the lake as it edges westward, rising again to yet another low, forested gap. The next drainage, carved by Shadow Creek, is even deeper and more dramatic. In the next mile, JMT hikers will lose more than 750 feet. Descending a set of 21 switchbacks, Shadow Lake comes into view after the eighth. After the switchbacks, the trail leads to a nice rock outcrop perched a couple dozen feet above Shadow Lake, where camping opportunities are very limited.

Shadow Lake at the base of the switchbacks

After skirting the southern shores, the trail suddenly climbs steeply, turning away from the lake. But the route soon drops again to a bridge over Shadow Creek, a good place to stop to fill up with water. Just past the bridge is another route junction; stay left on the JMT.

Ascending trail below the Minarets and Volcanic Ridge

Begin a steady ascent, loosely following rumbling Shadow Creek on the left. About 2/4 mile upstream, stay right at a three-way junction, leaving the main drainage in favor of a tributary ravine. Alternating between dense forest and open granite slickrock, the northbound trail begins a challenging ascent that feels like a mountain pass—even as it is not officially listed as such.

Looking back to the Minarets and Volcanic Ridge

The trail rises 1,100 feet over the course of two miles, first by traversing granite slabs then roughly following a small stream up to a graveyard of black and reddish metavolcanic rock, a sharp contrast from the smooth granite of past terrain. A look back reveals a collection of craggy peaks, including Volcanic Ridge and the Minarets. Finally, at a point about 13 miles from Red’s Meadow Resort, the JMT crests the ridgeline, affording the first views of Garnet Lake, the largest lake yet encountered on the hike.

Overlooking Garnet Lake

Garnet Lake is astonishingly beautiful, dotted with small islands and peninsulas and set in a long basin more than 3,000 feet below towering Mount Ritter (13,140’) and Banner Peak (12,945’), the highest summits in the Ritter Range. Descending several switchbacks leads to a smattering of off-trail campsites near the southern shores of the lake, but the best lie further on, after crossing the outlet of Garnet Lake.

Banner Peak and Mount Ritter above Garnet Lake

Stay left at the junction with the unmaintained Garnet River Cutoff Trail, cross the footbridge, and proceed for more than ¼ mile to a point where the trail edges around a protruding granite outcrop. (Note: Camping is prohibited within ¼ mile of the lake’s outlet.)

Sun setting over Garnet Lake

Here a spur trail leads left to a popular set of campsites; continuing down this narrow and very rocky path leads to even better sites, although all are relatively exposed to the wind. Many hikers will choose to set up camp here at Garnet Lake, more than 13 miles from Red’s Meadow—although hearty hikers can continue farther to Ruby, Emerald, or Thousand Island Lakes.

Trip Report: The first day of Section 4 began with thick smoke from the Dixie Fire, but the haze gradually cleared as the day wore on. Lacking great options for camping near Shadow Creek, we pushed on to Garnet Lake and were glad to do so, as the sunset and sunrise over the majestic lake were simply spectacular. We just avoided some thunder clouds off to the north and west and set up camp in some light rain at a spot about ¼ mile down the spur trail along the northern shore of Garnet Lake. This area is extremely rocky and somewhat difficult to negotiate but offered solitude in an otherwise popular area for overnight camping. The next day we would push on to Thousand Island Lake and beyond.

Garnet Lake to Upper Lyell Canyon via Island Pass and Donohue Pass (10.7 miles)

The next section takes hikers north and west through Ansel Adams Wilderness and into Yosemite National Park. It’s hard to say goodbye to the stunning landscape of Garnet Lake, although the JMT passes several more picturesque lakes in the coming miles.

Map of John Muir Trail – Garnet Lake to Upper Lyell Canyon via Donohue Pass, Ansel Adams Wilderness & Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com

From the north shore of Garnet Lake, the JMT eventually climbs up and away from the lakeshore, but the overhead views of the lake linger for another ¼ mile or so. After gaining around 200 feet, the trail reaches a marked junction, with a route heading left toward a set of campsites on a rocky peninsula to the west.

Morning reflections at Garnet Lake

Beyond, the JMT rises again to clear a scraggy gap and then descends to Ruby Lake, so-named for the scarlet-colored scree slope that flanks the lake’s western shores. This is another moderately popular camping area, with several sites past the outlet of the lake on the left.

Ruby Lake

Camping is more limited at the similarly-sized Emerald Lake, reached by way of a short up and down, about 2/10 mile from Ruby Lake. Views across this lake are considerably more expansive, with another high granodiorite ridge visible to the north, as well as a distant look toward Agnew Pass to the northeast.

John Muir Trail above Emerald Lake

It is a short and easy descent from Emerald Lake to the dazzling Thousand Island Lake, dotted with dozens (though seemingly way less than a thousand) little islets. Like at Garnet Lake, Banner Peak dominates the landscape to the west. This spacious lake, the largest encountered along the entire JMT, is very popular for overnight camping, and there are many sites along the Thousand Island Lake Trail, reached just soon after crossing the lake’s marshy outlet.

Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak

At the four-way junction, stay straight as the Pacific Crest Trail merges again with the JMT as it comes in from the right. The onward JMT/PCT begins a mild but persistent climb to scenic heights overlooking Thousand Island Lake, then through a grassy gap with two unnamed ponds. Without even an obvious marker or trail sign, hikers easily crest Island Pass (10,200’), certainly the least challenging of the JMT’s many mountain passes.

The descent from the north side of Island Pass is slightly steeper but still relatively mild, dropping through mixed coniferous forest into a broad valley serviced by Rush Creek and its many tributaries. Stay right at the junction with the Davis Lake Trail, then descend to clear two streams in quick succession. After following the weaving creek on the right, stay left at the junction with the Rush Creek Trail, which descends the valley to Waugh Lake and Gem Lake—situated in large basins that are not visible from the JMT.

Immediately after the junction, cross the stream again, then proceed up a rocky staircase, initiating a steady climb to Donohue Pass and Yosemite. The uphill path flirts with the main drainage of Rush Creek on the right but does not cross it for nearly a mile. Ascend a set of switchbacks as the tree cover gradually thins, coming to the junction with the Marie Lakes Trail, a popular camping area and rest point about 6.5 miles from Garnet Lake.

Cross over Rush Creek, then ascend through a landscape of rocky ledges and tufty meadows, keeping a small tributary creek off to the right. After passing modest ponds on left and right, the path rises a level and twice crosses the thinning stream. Edging westward toward Donohue Pass, Donohue Peak (12,023’) and the chalky peaks of the Koip Crest dominate the landscape to the north. After passing the stream for a final time—the last water crossing this side of the Sierra Crest—the JMT embarks on a challenging and sun-exposed climb to the pass.

Donohue Peak from near Donohue Pass

After edging largely southwest for about ¾ mile, hikers are tricked into thinking they are almost at the pass. But after rounding a bend along the boulder-strewn slope, it is revealed that there is more to clamber ahead. From here hikers must gain another 100 to 150 feet in elevation. As the contours of the Cathedral Range come into view to the west and south, the JMT finally crests Donohue Pass (11,060’), the penultimate mountain pass of the multi-week journey.

Minor pool at Donohue Pass

Looking back from the pass, the landscape spans from Donohue Peak to the northeast to Banner Peak and Mount Ritter to the southeast. Ahead, there is a small pond fed by snowmelt and then a steep declivity leading down to Lyell Canyon, an expansive valley where hikers will spend the next dozen-plus miles. Here at Donohue Pass, JMT through-hikers finally leave the Ansel Adams Wilderness in Inyo National Forest and enter Yosemite National Park, one of the most famous parks in the world.

Hazy view down Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park

Still several days from bustling Yosemite Valley, the upper reaches of Lyell Canyon are quiet and peaceful, bounded by the Cathedral Range on one side and the Koip and Kuna Crests on the other. Tuolumne Meadows, the next notable stop and only place where the JMT crosses a public road, remains just out of view, tucked around a corner to the northwest.

From Donohue Pass, the JMT is noticeably well-maintained, with meticulously-placed rock steps, the handiwork of Yosemite trail crews. The trail drops down an open slope to a brief ridgeline and then edges westward to an open meadow and the first crossing of the Lyell Fork, the primary drainage of the long valley. Here the glacier-fed waters are a spectacular aquamarine color, set below Mount Lyell (13,114’), the highest point in Yosemite National Park.

Beautiful glacial-fed waters below Mount Lyell

After crossing the waterway, the JMT ascends an unwelcome uphill to a granite knob between streams before descending again to a beautiful tributary. Rock-hop across this creek and proceed down a dramatic descent with at least three more stream crossings and an idyllic meadow and unnamed lake below.

Descending to Upper Lyell Canyon

Edging down the east-facing slope, the JMT crosses the Lyell Fork again at a spot just below the outlet of the unnamed lake. Ideal camping abounds in this area, known as Upper Lyell Base Camp, with dramatic views back toward Lyell Glacier. Expect to meet a lot of southbound JMTers here, very early (2-3 days) into their multi-week journey.

Lyell Fork at the Upper Lyell Canyon Base Camp

Trip Report: Initially planning to camp below Donohue Pass on the south side, a better-than-expected distance covered on the previous day allowed us to tackle the pass on Day 21 of our northbound journey. We found Donohue Pass to be quite challenging, one of the top four most difficult mountain passes on the JMT, and the smoke from distant wildfires was intense, heavily obscuring views down Lyell Canyon. However, we managed to snag a premier campsite at Upper Lyell Base Camp, with easy access to the unnamed lake in the upper canyon, making for a lovely evening in one of our last wilderness camps of the hike. By now we had traversed nearly 25 miles since Red’s Meadow and more than 200 miles from Cottonwood Pass—the start of our journey three weeks earlier.

Upper Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows (11.6 miles)

The descent from Upper Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows is a relatively easy and pleasant downhill, but the 11.6-mile trek to the turnoff for Tuolumne Meadows Campground feels long and even monotonous at times. Even though Red’s Meadow Resort lies only 2-3 days back, the prospect of reaching Tuolumne Meadows—with its lodges, store, and café—provides additional motivation to knock out the remainder of Lyell Canyon in around a half-day of hiking.

Map of John Muir Trail – Upper Lyell Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com

From the stream crossing at Upper Lyell Base Camp, the northbound JMT courses downhill, gradually entering some of the thickest tree cover since before Garnet Lake. After a set of wooded switchbacks, the trail crosses a minor tributary stream and then traverses a footbridge over the Lyell Fork again. Thereafter, the JMT edges slightly westward and begins descending a series of bends that drops 750 feet in ¾ mile to the first of a spate of beautiful meadows, where the Lyell Fork meanders calmly through Lower Lyell Canyon. Up to the east are the bald peaks of the Kuna Crest, headlined by Kuna Peak (13,002’), on the border of Yosemite and Inyo National Forest.

Kuna Crest and Lyell Canyon in SE Yosemite

Once at the meadow level, the JMT is very mild—nearly level—for the next 9-10 miles. In fact, the route sheds only 400 feet between the base of the switchbacks and Tuolumne Meadows. As the canyon courses northwest, the waters of the Lyell Fork grow fuller and even more beautiful, with plenty of nice meanders that offer nice spots to stop for lunch or a snack. The gentle trail follows the western edge of an open meadow for nearly a mile, skirting in and out of the trees, then follows another meadow for another ¾ mile.

Meadow views in Lyell Canyon

After staying right at a junction with the trail to Ireland Lake and Vogelsang, the Lyell Fork briefly picks up force and tumbles down a short set of cascades, after which it mellows again and enters yet another long and beautiful meadow, this one extending for around 2 ½ miles. The trail remains mostly in the woods, however, and traverses some slickrock in places as it edges closer to Tuolumne Meadows and the culmination of Lyell Canyon. At one point the JMT enters a no-camping zone that continues all the way to Tuolumne Meadows (where there is an official backpackers’ campground). The remaining open spaces gradually become enveloped by bushy conifers, and much of the terrain as the JMT bends westward is devoid of views.

Lyell Fork looking back south

After briefly crossing an open pasture with a few slabs of granite, the trail returns to the woods, crosses a bridge over Rafferty Creek, and intersects with the Rafferty Creek Trail, which heads south toward Vogelsang. Staying right, the JMT continues westward, then approaches another junction. Hikers desperate to set up camp can bear left here, following the shortcut path to Tuolumne Meadows Campground.

Tuolumne River at Twin Bridge

However, the official JMT continues right, with the wide and now relatively well-trafficked route crossing the Lyell Fork at a pretty spot called Twin Bridge, where the riverbed itself is revealed to be a long granite slab. Here families of day hikers play in the gently-flowing stream. After the slickrock area, the trail travels north amid the conifers to a brief uphill. After a bridge over the Dana Fork, hikers reach a junction with a spur trail leading right to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Stay left, passing a parking lot for the Rafferty Creek/Lyell Canyon Trailhead off to the right. (Note: Many southbound JMTers will begin their journey here.)

As the curious sound of traffic noise (an unfamiliar sound after multiple weeks on the trail) becomes more frequent, the westbound JMT comes within sight of Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Road and parallels it on the left. Across the street is a small ranger station and wilderness permit office. After skirting another parking lot, the JMT/PCT cuts left, distancing itself from the road, and traverses an open meadow with distant views of the Cathedral Range, including Johnson Peak (11,070’), Unicorn Peak (10,823’), and Cathedral Peak (10,911’).

Cathedral Range from Tuolumne Meadows

Finally, the trail leads straight to a busy road intersection. Across Tioga Road to the north is a small parking lot and trailhead, tucked below the imposing Lembert Dome (9,450’), one of the most popular destinations for day hikers in the Tuolumne Meadows area. While the JMT/PCT continues straight, following a newly-paved road leading northwest, hikers seeking to spend the night at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground should bear left, following the sidewalk over the Lyell Fork. Just before the general store and Tuolumne Meadows Grill lies the entrance to the campground. The backpackers’ campground is tucked away deep in the back of the campground atop a mean hill and costs $6 per person. But the walk-in camp is within walking distance of the store and grill and is a fun place to connect with fellow backpackers.

Lembert Dome from near the Tuolumne Meadows Campground

Trip Report: This was a relatively relaxing day of almost exclusively flat or downhill hiking, and we reached Tuolumne Meadows Campground in the early afternoon. The sight of scores of day hikers and RV campers came as a bit of a shock after three weeks in the wilderness (the visitation numbers at Tuolumne Meadows significant dwarf those of Red’s Meadow)—but we were more than happy to pay the $6/person at the backpackers’ camp for quick access to the store. While the grill was closed due to Covid-19, the store offered a surprising number of snacks, including salads and sandwiches, as well as a fine selection of cold beer. We spent much of the evening chatting with fellow JMTers, many of which were SoBos and just beginning their long trip. We had only two more days left to reach Yosemite Valley.

Tuolumne Meadows to Sunrise High Sierra Camp via Cathedral Pass (9.6 miles)

Just one final leg remains until the completion of the JMT: a 23-mile section linking Tuolumne Meadows with Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, usually finished in two days. Starting from the road junction at Lembert Dome—a short walk north from the Tuolumne Meadows Campground—the JMT/PCT bears northwest, doubling as a secondary road that services the Glen Aulin Trailhead, Soda Springs, and the Parsons Lodge. The trail quickly enters the official Tuolumne Meadows, a series of grassy lawns with open views of the surrounding peaks, including Unicorn Peak and Cathedral Peak in the Cathedral Range, as well as Lembert Dome and Pothole Dome (8,760’).

Map of John Muir Trail – Tuolumne Meadows to Sunrise Camp via Cathedral Pass, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com
Morning at Tuolumne Meadows, with a look toward the Cathedral Range

After the turnout (right) to the Glen Aulin Trailhead, pass through a gate that bars vehicle traffic and continue along the wide, unpaved road amid stands of lodgepole pines, bearing westward and reaching the northernmost point along the JMT. From here the route bends south, passing Parsons Lodge and McCauley Cabin on the right and officially parts with the Pacific Crest Trail, which continues northward. Then the JMT crosses a bridge over the Tuolumne River, the main drainage in the northern part of Yosemite National Park.

Fairview and Pothole Domes with the Tuolumne River

Cutting across the beautiful meadow, the JMT traverses the often-dry Unicorn Creek, then heads southwest on a flat straightaway, returning to Tioga Road. Cross the busy road—be careful of passing traffic—then continue as the trail reenters the thick forest. Bear uphill to two junctions. Stay left at the first, then right at the second, returning to the edge of the Yosemite Wilderness and following it westward, through a dense conifer forest with several rock shelves.

Soon after gaining around 100-150 feet in elevation, the JMT sheds it all, descending to a bridge over Budd Creek, a tributary of the Tuolumne River. Just past the creek, stay left at the junction, finally settling into a steady southward trajectory in the direction of Cathedral Pass and Yosemite Valley.

The northbound JMT (which, ironically, heads south) climbs steadily for the next ¾ mile before the incline eases a bit as granite knobs come into view on the left. After a good distance of mild walking, the trail enters a very steep, half-mile section that gains more than 300 feet before leveling off again.

After a brief downhill, turn up again to a junction for the spur trail to Lower Cathedral Lake, the first of the two Cathedral Lakes. The lower lake is not visible from the main JMT, but Upper Cathedral Lake comes into view on the right about a half-mile farther on. The shore is worthy detour and offers an opportunity to fill up with water; in dry years, this may be the last reliable water source for several miles (until Sunrise Creek). Upper Cathedral Lake is set in a grassy bowl below iconic Cathedral Peak (10,911’), which has an uncanny resemblance to the top of Sauron’s tower in the Lord of the Rings.

Upper Cathedral Lake and Cathedral Peak

Moving on from Upper Cathedral Lake, the trail rises mildly, detours around Cathedral Meadow (a sensitive preservation area), and climbs to Cathedral Pass (9,700’), the last mountain pass on the northbound JMT—and one of the easiest. Here the wide trail traverses a broad meadow wedged between Tresidder Peak on the west and Echo Peaks (10,960’) to the east. The pass also marks a change in watershed: streams flowing north from here empty into the Tuolumne River, while those bearing south end up in the Merced River, which flows through Yosemite Valley.

Spires of the Matthes Crest from Cathedral Pass

Surprisingly, the onward JMT continues to climb after leaving Cathedral Pass, edging partway up the eastern slope of Tresidder Peak and cresting a divide below Columbia Finger, a prominent landmark in the area. The view south from the divide is stunning, with much of central Yosemite unfolding below and a distant view of the rarely-visited Clark Range in the southern reaches of the park.

Terrific view looking south to the Clark Range in Yosemite

Edging westward, away from the main Cathedral Fork drainage below, the trail descends steadily to Long Meadow, notable for its stubby pines. After crossing a (sometimes dry) tributary stream, the JMT comes to a trail junction. Stay right, following the southbound path as it hugs another scenic meadow, this one with good vistas of the granite slopes to the east.

The meadow is actually a dogleg right, with the trail following it around the bend and approaching an area serviced by a side stream known as the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. This site has nine cabins, but they are reserved for registered guests. (Note: In 2021, the Sunrise camp was closed the entire year.) When the camp is open, there is also a water spigot available—but don’t count on it in case the camp is closed. If there is water, this area makes for a nice area to set up tents for one last night on the JMT.

Open views south from near Sunrise High Sierra Camp in central Yosemite

Trip Report: We covered this section in good time on Day 23, filling up several liters of water at Upper Cathedral Lake because of a tip that the next several miles were completely dry. This was not entirely true—there were some pools in the tributary creek at Long Meadow—but the water was indeed turned off at Sunrise Camp (which was closed all of 2021), so we pushed on to find a campsite farther on at Sunrise Creek. The weather was warm and sunny all day, with no real threats of storm clouds, and the skies were relatively clear of smoke after a week of thick haze.

Sunrise High Sierra Camp to Happy Isles (13.2 miles)

The final 13-mile stretch from Sunrise Camp to Happy Isles sheds more than 5,000 feet in elevation. From the High Sierra Camp, the JMT passes a junction with the Sunrise Lakes Trail (stay left) and then drops through a stony notch to the base of a three-part climb. The first pitch, a steep incline, leads up to a scenic outcrop with outstanding views across Yosemite to the distant Clark Range. Then, a longer uphill weaves in and out of woody hollows and ascends a hillside with sparser pines. Finally, after a brief period where the JMT levels off, it rises a third time to crest a ridgeline below Sunrise Mountain. There are a handful of campsites—but no water—atop the ridge.

Map of John Muir Trail – Sunrise Camp to Happy Isles, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com

From the ridgetop, the JMT begins a steep and steady descent, with switchbacks taking hikers down past the trickling headwaters of Sunrise Creek, which travelers will roughly follow for the next several miles. The tumbling stream gains strength as the vegetation grows lusher and the trail incline eases a bit, and hikers will cross Sunrise Creek at a point about 2.8 miles from Sunrise Camp. There is a decent campsite on the left bank, as well as another a couple minutes later along the right bank. (Note: We camped here on our final night.)

After crossing a tributary stream, the JMT eventually bends westward and then enters a forbidding burn area, caused by the 2014 Meadow Fire. Hikers will follow the charred trees for the next 1.5 miles or so. Off to the left, a high ridgeline drops precipitously to Little Yosemite Valley, a beautiful meadow-dotted landscape below Moraine Dome (8,005’) and Bunnell Point (8,193’).

View hazy views of Moraine Dome and Little Yosemite Valley

At a point around 4.5 miles from Sunrise Camp, the JMT intersects with the Forsyth Trail (stay left) and bends left, away from the Sunrise Creek drainage. By now the grassy terrain gives to thick underbrush, which eventually turns to scratchy thistles. (Note: Definitely wear pants through this section.) Bear right at the next junction, cross a tributary stream, and drop to a notch that passes below Moraine Dome on the left, coming parallel to Sunrise Creek again.

Thick brush along the JMT near Sunrise Creek

Gradually the (unburned) forest returns, and the prickly brush dissipates. After crossing the creek again, the JMT descends more steeply through a white fir forest, rounding a stream-fed gully and reaching a junction with the trail to Clouds Rest, a popular day hike and JMT detour. Stay left, edging away from the Sunrise Creek drainage and bearing westward, emerging out of the trees briefly for the hike’s first unobstructed views of Half Dome (8,836’), perhaps the most famous feature in all of Yosemite National Park.

Half Dome from the John Muir Trail

The trail soon descends to the Half Dome Trail Junction, where JMT hikers holding an additional day use permit to climb Half Dome can proceed right for the arduous climb to the summit. All others should bear left, embarking on a wooded switchback section where hikers are likely to encounter scores of Half Dome day hikers. Follow this downhill tread for more than a mile to the Little Yosemite Valley area, where there is a ranger station, restroom, and campground. Bear right at a set of junctions, and head west across the sandy flat, eventually coming within striking distance of the Merced River.

After a mild uphill rocky section, the trail continues downhill, keeping the river on the left. Passing under Liberty Cap (7,076’) on the right, the JMT looks out over a significant drop to Yosemite Valley below, with Grizzly Peak (6,222’) and Glacier Point (7,214’) visible to the west. To remain on the official JMT, stay left at the junction with the Mist Trail, where there is a small pit toilet. (Note: Alternatively, proceed down the Mist Trail, a shorter but steeper alternative that passes under Nevada and Vernal Falls en route to Happy Isles.)

Top of Nevada Falls

It is a short walk from here to the bridge over the Merced River and above Nevada Falls, a spectacular chute that tumbles nearly 600 feet. The best views of the falls lie beyond, as the trail winds south and west; look back to see the falls, with towering Liberty Cap and Half Dome beyond. The carefully-crafted trail here has several long stretches of stony walls to protect visitors from unwelcome slips.

Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Falls

As the trail edges away from Nevada Falls, tree cover becomes thicker and passes a junction with the Panorama Trail, a steep, stair-stepping path leading up to Glacier Point. After a mile-long section with a couple pairs of switchbacks, the JMT descends to the Clark Point Junction, where another spur trail leads down to connect with the Mist Trail and Vernal Falls. Stay left, first staying high with open views before dropping back into the dense woods. The trail edges southwest to a switchback area that winds and bends down toward Yosemite Valley, losing 800 feet before reaching a trail junction. Stay right at the fork with a lesser-used stock trail, then left at the lower junction with the Mist Trail, where JMT hikers meet the masses of day hikers who are heading up to Vernal and Nevada Falls.

Descending stone steps into Yosemite Valley

Keeping the Merced River on the right for a short period, the route drops to a restroom area and crosses the Merced River Bridge. Now on the north side of the rushing stream, the trail is asphalted—a hiker’s superhighway with visitors by the bunches crowding the path. Make your way briefly uphill, then down, as the trail hugs a cliffside well above the Merced River. As the path bends north, the incline eases and, at long last, reaches a large trail sign marked “High Sierra Loop Trail,” which serves as the unofficial end of the northbound JMT. Mount Whitney is a distant 211 miles—and several weeks of hiking—away. It’s a short walk from here to the Happy Isles Loop Road, where the JMT ends at last. (Note: It’s a short walk—or shuttle ride—from here to the Curry Village area, where JMT hikers can enjoy a well-earned pizza and beer.)

At the end of the JMT!

Trip Report: We did it! After camping just past the first crossing of Sunrise Creek, we fought through thick smoke, some of the worst of entire hike. After passing dozens of day hikers heading for Half Dome, we dropped to Little Yosemite and reached the top of Nevada Falls by late morning then proceeded down the switchbacks and through the massive crowds to Happy Isles. From here we walked to Curry Village, where we ate lunch and met up with my girlfriend, who graciously agreed to pick us up and drive us back to the Bay Area. All in all, including the various spurs and detours, we covered 254 miles in 24 days (including two rest days). Fortunately, we managed to finish just a few weeks before much of the area was closed to backpackers due to the KNP Complex Fire. Along the way we saw stunning alpine terrain, made some good friends, and scratched a long-time itch to try our hand at long-distance through-hiking—perhaps the first of many to come!

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John Muir Trail Northbound Section 3 – Muir Trail Ranch to Red’s Meadow (John Muir Wilderness, CA)

Marie Lake, John Muir Trail, John Muir Wilderness, August 2021

Note: This is the fourth in a series of five posts describing the John Muir Trail (JMT), a scintillating, multi-week hike through California’s Sierra Nevada that extends more than 200 miles from Yosemite National Park in the north to Mount Whitney and Sequoia National Park in the south. This post (and those that follow) assumes a northbound journey, beginning southeast of Mount Whitney at Horseshoe Meadow in Inyo National Forest, culminating at Happy Isles in Yosemite. The JMT is an arduous, multi-week backpacking trip that requires careful planning, preparation, and an official backcountry permit that can be quite difficult to obtain. Hikers typically complete the entire trail, including detours for food resupplies, in about 2-3 weeks. For more information on planning and preparing for the JMT, see my previous post titled “John Muir Trail Preparation & Logistics.” For summaries of the other three sections, see Section I (Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley)Section II (Onion Valley to Muir Trail Ranch), and Section IV (Red’s Meadow to Happy Isles).

The third of four sections on the northbound John Muir Trail takes hikers from the deep-cut valley carved by the South Fork of the San Joaquin River to the modest luxuries of Red’s Meadow in the Mammoth Lakes area, the first time since its inception that the JMT comes within a half-mile of a publicly-accessible road. Relative to the two sections already covered, this 50-mile stretch is comparatively easier because it generally traverses lower elevations. However, there is still plenty of up and down, and the lower altitude brings more intense summer heat. After a stiff 3,000-foot climb from Muir Trail Ranch to Selden Pass, the JMT passes beautiful lakes and meadows and then sheds significant elevation to clear the Mono Creek drainage. Thereafter, the JMT rises again to 10,740 feet at Silver Pass, drops to Tully Hole, and ascends again to a lengthy ridgeline featuring several spectacular lakes. Finally, a lengthy descent brings hikers to Red’s Meadow, where creature comforts include a café, store, hot showers, laundry, and fresh resupply for the final leg ahead. (Note: For more on resupply, see my post here.)

Muir Trail Ranch to Marie Lake via Selden Pass (8.0 miles)

The 80-mile Section 2 ended at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), a common resupply point with few amenities save for some drinking water and a small store. Some hikers choose to pass through MTR in the middle of the day and move on, while others elect to camp across the South Fork of the San Joaquin River near the Blayney Hot Springs, a worthy detour.

Map of John Muir Trail – Muir Trail Ranch to Marie Lake, John Muir Wilderness; created using alltrails.com

In any case, the northbound route from MTR requires retracing your steps back up the short spur trail to a grassy shelf and a trail sign. Stay right as the trail climbs back into heavier woodlands and reaches a four-way junction. Trail purists—who seek to traverse every inch of the official JMT—can bear right to pick up the trail where they left off. But those okay with skipping a 1.7-mile portion of the JMT can continue straight on the Sallie Keyes Cutoff Trail. This challenging shortcut tackles around 600 feet in elevation gain in 6/10 mile, a brutal pitch but the most direct route toward Selden Pass and the northbound JMT.

After intersecting with the John Muir Trail, the cutoff trail ends. Hikers should bear left on the JMT, heading in the direction of Selden Pass. After the fork, the incline briefly eases, ascending amid pines and junipers before entering a layer of manzanita shrubs, foxtail pines, and occasional aspens. After some initial uphill bends, the trail settles into a lengthy northwest ascent, with views back south across the San Joaquin drainage to the Le Conte Divide. Florence Lake, situated downstream to the west, is just out of view.

Hazy view of the San Joaquin drainage from the ascending John Muir Trail

At the end of the northwesterly straightaway, the trail comes within striking distance of Senger Creek, with some small cascades visible in the woody drainage below. However, rather than descending to the creek, the JMT cuts eastward, the first of five switchbacks encountered in the next 20-30 minutes or so.

By the fifth switchback, the trail is back in the dense shade and the steady uphill grade eases. The path rises gently to a lovely crossing of Senger Creek—about three miles from MTR—where there are some decent campsites. Fill up with water here if necessary, as the streams between here and Sallie Keyes Lakes often run dry in the summer.

After Senger Creek, the JMT ascends another wooded pitch and edges westward into an area dotted with rocky knobs and outcrops but rather obscured vistas. After passing 10,000 feet, hikers will enter a dry meadow with some views to Mount Senger (12,286’) and Turret Peak (12,091’), two high points on the divide to the north.

West of the meadow, the trail rises to clear a granite shelf and then descends, crossing a very minor stream before routing northward and climbing again. Travelling through spotty pine forest, the route comes level with the first of two of the Sallie Keyes Lakes on the right. This beautiful lake is a perfect lunch spot, with the still waters set below the gravelly western pitch of Mount Senger.

Mount Senger with one of the Sallie Keyes Lakes

Cross Sallie Keyes Creek at the outlet of the lake, then follow the lakeshore and cross the stream again in about 3/10 mile. This small waterway connects the two Sallie Keyes Lakes, the second of which becomes visible off to the west.

Looking back at Sallie Keyes Lakes

From here the JMT begins to climb steadily toward Selden Pass. After skirting the edge of the western lake, the path routes northward, with views back south across the lakes and to the Le Conte Divide in the distance. The trail heads toward what looks like the main gap ahead, but this is indeed revealed to be a false pass, with plenty of additional climbing beyond.

Heart Lake below Selden Pass

However, after crossing Sallie Keyes Creek twice more, hikers are rewarded with shoreline access to wonderful Heart Lake, so-named for its shape and beauty, situated in a granite bowl between Mount Senger and Mount Hooper (12,349’). There may be some small campsites here.

Looking back toward Heart Lake from the climb to Selden Pass

After skirting the eastern banks of Heart Lake, the trail rises again, roughly following the creek through a narrowing canyon. From here the JMT ascends a slope to the left of the stream, then crosses it again as the trail swings way to the east. After settling into a northward climb again, hikers mount the final switchbacks and reach the top of Selden Pass (10,900’), notable for being the first mountain pass since Guyot Pass (way back on Day 2) to be dotted with trees.

Despite the modest tree cover, the views from Selden Pass are magnificent. A glacial cirque off to the southwest reveals sheer cliffs that drop several hundred feet, with Mount Hooper in the distance beyond. And the most dramatic scene lies to the north, where the terrain gives way to a relatively large basin partially filled by Marie Lake. Here one can make out the intricate contours of the lake, with its various inlets and islands.

Marie Lake from Selden Pass

In the distance to the north, the dramatic peaks of the first line comprise the Mono Divide, headlined by mighty Mount Hilgard (13,361’) and Mount Gabb (13,741’). The next line of mountains beyond includes Recess Peak (12,836’) and Volcanic Knob (11,168’), which hikers will pass very soon. The jagged peak to the northeast is Seven Gables (13,075’), which conceals the Sierra Crest beyond.

Having gained more than 3,200 feet since MTR, hikers have more than earned a breather atop the pass, although the allure of Marie Lake entices one to push further. After descending the requisite switchbacks, the JMT gradually descends to the western shores of Marie Lake, where campsites are bountiful and spectacular.

Marie Lake

One particularly great option is to venture out onto a peninsula that nearly bisects the lake; just before the JMT drops westward and away from the lake, veer right off-trail and find a previous disturbed site on the peninsula. MTR to Marie Lake is a relatively short day, with hikers likely to arrive in the early- to mid-afternoon. But the prospect of watching the sunset over this terrific basin makes the early stop worthwhile. (Note: Hikers can continue on, however, easily reaching campsites at Rosemarie Meadow or along Bear Creek.)

Seven Gables and Marie Lake
Dusk falls on a small pool near Marie Lake

Trip Report: This 8-mile day was our shortest since Day 7 (Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake). We had now gone 14 days without a rest day but had firmly established our “trail legs,” which made the 3,200-foot gain to Selden Pass relatively manageable. We arrived at Marie Lake in the mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to rest and explore the views from some of the abutting granite hilltops. Vistas were partly marred by smoke from the distant Dixie Fire. But the haze eased a bit just before sunset, allowing for stunning views in all directions.

Marie Lake to Mono Creek (12.7 miles)

The onward route from Marie Lake descends to the Bear Creek drainage before mounting a hot and dry ridgetop below Volcanic Knob, leading to the larger Mono Creek drainage beyond. From the outlet of Marie Lake, the JMT veers westward, dropping down a level to a valley carved by the West Fork of Bear Creek. Marshall Lake, a modest and rarely-visited lake off to the west, is shielded from view by the thick tree cover. It is a steady and pleasant descent to the edge of Rosemarie Meadow, a somewhat popular camping area where the JMT intersects with the Rose Lake Trail. Continue right to stay on the JMT, then bear left at the junction with the Sandpiper Lake Trail, another short spur trail that leads to a set of lakes in a basin below Seven Gables.

Map of John Muir Trail – Marie Lake to Mono Creek, John Muir Wilderness; created using alltrails.com

Cross the West Fork at a point approximately 1.7 miles from Marie Lake, then continue down a steady, wooded incline that eventually reaches the main Bear Creek drainage. Just after crossing Bear Creek (about 20 feet across), stay left at the junction with the Seven Gables Trail, another short offshoot. For the next three miles, the JMT/PCT roughly parallels the stream, passing occasional waterfalls and swimming holes. Follow Bear Creek to the junction with the Lake Italy Trail, then continue downstream for another two miles. At a point just under six miles from Marie Lake, the route splits again, with the Bear Creek Trail continuing to follow the cascading drainage west, while the JMT abruptly leaves the creek side and rises to the north. Bear right.

The subsequent climb to clear Bear Ridge is one of the least fun ascents of the entire hike, with toasty warm sun but relatively limited views. The climb begins modestly, passing a series of small tributary streams—the last reliable water sources for the next five or six miles. Thereafter, the JMT rises more steeply, ascending a set of switchbacks that are mostly wooded but occasionally allow peeks down into the Bear Creek valley. Here the trail passes below Recess Peak and Volcanic Knob, neither of which are visible through the thick forest. (Note: The latter, however, can be reached as part of a 3.5-mile, off-trail detour.)

View back across Bear Creek Valley from the ascent to Bear Ridge

After a particularly rigorous section with switchbacks and stairs, the trail levels off, crossing the ridgetop as it reaches the Bear Ridge Trail junction. (Note: Hikers can veer left here to detour to Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) for rest and resupply.) Catch your breath at the junction before continuing on across a very mild flat, hugging a largely shaded and west-facing hillside.

Following more than a mile of very pleasant and level walking, the northbound JMT begins the long and winding descent to the Mono Creek drainage, an immense and forested valley that is more than 2,500 feet deep in places. The trail descends through a changing ecosystem that shifts from a forest of white pines, red firs, and mountain hemlocks to a mix of white pines, lodgepole pines, and western junipers. Dense tree cover blocks expansive views of the valley below, but hikers can generally make out the contours of the large drainage that feeds into Lake Thomas Edison, with the obscured Vermilion Cliffs to the north.

As quaking aspens enter the mix, the trail eventually descends to a point about 400 feet above the valley floor where a quick diversion off to the left leads to a rocky overlook. From here the trail cuts eastward and passes a set of small rivulets, the first accessible water in around five miles (at least in the dry season). After crossing a side stream that begins up near Volcanic Knob, the path briefly ascends and then drops to the main crossing of Mono Creek, where there is a sturdy wooden bridge that offers passage to the north bank. There are lots of shaded campsites around here, with easy access to the quick-flowing waters. (Note: Even better sites can be found about ¾ mile further, near the junction of the North Fork of Mono Creek and main Mono Creek waterway.) Less than a minute’s walk from the bridge, hikers will reach Mono Creek Junction, where the Mono Creek Trail (another access route to VVR) comes in from the left.

Mono Creek before sunset

Although still short of the halfway mark in terms of distance, Mono Creek feels like the midway point in Section 3, with about 1 ½-2 days of hiking behind and around two full days ahead.

Trip Report: On Day 15 of our journey, we covered the 13-mile trek from Marie Lake to Mono Creek, camping at a spot about ¾ mile beyond the junction at the intersection of the North Fork and main fork of Mono Creek. The smoke lingered for much of the day, and the ascent of Bear Ridge was challenging in the midday heat. Unfortunately, my hiking partner suffered an ankle injury during the descent from Bear Ridge that ultimately waylaid us for a full day. We decided to take a full zero-day on Day 16 to let the injury heal a bit before pushing onward. During this unanticipated rest day, I managed to take a 9-mile day hike to nearby Mott Lake, a beautiful and rarely-visited destination. By Day 17, we were ready to continue on to Silver Pass and beyond. Even though we lost a day, we remained on schedule because of our decision to forgo a planned rest day at Onion Valley a week prior.

Mono Creek to Lake Virginia via Silver Pass (13.3 miles)

Mono Creek is a lovely drainage featuring lots of cascades and pools, and the JMT/PCT roughly follows it eastward from the Mono Creek Junction. After about ¾ mile of intermittent climbing, the trail levels off briefly and crosses the North Fork of Mono Creek, a side drainage that hikers will follow northward toward Silver Pass. Passing nice campsites on the left, the trail swings around to the east and north and begins a somewhat steep climb up granite slopes to the junction with the eastbound Mono Creek Trail, which services Mono Pass several miles up-canyon.

Map of John Muir Trail – Mono Creek to Lake Virginia, John Muir Wilderness; created using alltrails.com

Stay left and follow the ever-climbing JMT, within sight of the North Fork as it alternates between calm stretches and spilling cascades. Leveling off briefly, the JMT edges a relatively open area called Pocket Meadow, which features some nice campsites and a gently-sloping waterslide. Farther on, pass the junction with the Mott Lake Trail—about three miles up from the bridge over Mono Creek.

After descending to cross the North Fork (no bridge), the trail begins a steep and earnest ascent, the most significant climb before Silver Pass. Gradually putting the leafy canyon behind, hikers will switchback up an east-facing slope, crossing Silver Pass Creek before finally leveling off at the top of a granite shelf about 600 feet above the North Fork.

Climbing toward Silver Pass

Now treading westward, the trail skirts a lovely meadow sparged by Silver Pass Creek. Follow the stream until the JMT crosses it again and then resumes its steady climb toward Silver Pass, rising through the woods below a rocky ridgeline. Eventually reaching an open area, the terrain descends modest slopes on both the left and right; hikers are following a thin upland toward the timberline. As the vegetation gradually falls away, great views can be had looking back south toward Volcanic Knob and the high peaks around Selden Pass beyond. Traversing sandy flats brings one to within striking distance of dramatic Silver Pass Lake off to the left; this surprisingly large water basin sits at the base of a wall of sheer cliffs and sawtooth pinnacles.

Silver Pass Lake

With Silver Pass now almost within view, the trail makes its final ascent to the high gap, passing an unnamed pool on the right and then skirting the creek toward its headwaters just below the pass. Curiously, the mild ascent needs no switchbacks to reach Silver Pass (10,740’) itself, but the trail then continues upward from here, ascending a set of switches to an even higher point that offers better views to the north.

From this vista, Silver Pass gives way to a basin of shimmering blue lakes, including Chief Lake and Papoose Lake off to the left and Warrior Lake to the right. Farther on, the bedrock drops significantly to Fish Valley, with the Mammoth Crest beyond. On clear days, one can spot the imposing peaks of the Ritter Range and even Donohue Peak (at the gateway to Yosemite National Park) in the distance.

Chief Lake, Papoose Lake, and the Silver Divide from Silver Pass
Fish Valley and Mammoth Crest from Silver Pass

Beyond Silver Pass, the trail begins a seemingly never-ending descent from the Silver Divide to Cascade Valley and the Fish Creek drainage. The decline, which sheds nearly 2,000 feet in elevation, begins by skirting an exposed ridgeline overlooking Warrior Lake, with Mount Isaac Walton (12,099’) beyond. Rather than descending the east slope, however, the JMT cuts west, dropping to the shores of Chief Lake, set in a bowl below jagged peaks of the Silver Divide. There are a few campsites scattered here amid the granite slabs and patchy pines.

Chief Lake

Bearing northwest from Chief Lake, the trail drops to a junction with the Goodale Pass Trail, a lengthy side route that offers passage back to Lake Thomas Edison and VVR. From here the JMT swings right again, descending to the outlet of Squaw Lake, a small but scenic lake lined by a green lawn of tufty grasses. Cross the stream, a tributary of Fish Creek, then follow the watercourse down-canyon as the trail returns to timberline. A lengthy descent brings one down to a pleasant meadow and bridged crossing, about a mile from the Squaw Lake outlet.

Squaw Lake

After crossing the tributary creek, the trail quickly crosses back again—this time with no bridge. The onward route descends steadily, first alongside the creek, then edges eastward into thicker lodgepole forest, away from the stream. Soon the trail reaches a minor clearing on a shelf above Cascade Valley, working northward toward Fish Creek and Tully Hole.

At the junction with the Fish Creek Trail, now a little less than four miles from Silver Pass, bear right, staying on the JMT. After a brief uphill, the trail drops to a steel bridge over Fish Creek, which is cascading here through a boulder-choked canyon. Following a steep switchback, the trail bears northeast along the creek, beginning the ascent to Tully Hole and Lake Virginia. The tumbling waters soon turn to calm meanders as hikers approach Tully Hole, a spacious meadow situated below McGee Pass and the Sierra Crest.

Tully Hole

Turn left at the junction with the McGee Pass Trail, edging eastward to the base of a lengthy switchback section that constitutes the second major climb since Mono Creek. In the course of a little over a mile, the JMT ascends 17 switchbacks and gains more than 800 feet in elevation. The route offers extensive views eastward to the amphitheater of peaks beyond Tully Hole, including Red Slate Mountain (13,163’), Red and White Mountain (12,850’), and Mount Isaak Walton (12,099’). Here the Silver Divide meets the Sierra Crest, forming the upper reaches of the Fish Creek watershed.

Counting switchbacks helps pass the time—while the first twelve come in quick succession, the thirteenth leads to a longer straightaway, as do the last two. A long uphill after the final bend finally leads up to the ridgeline, where the trail bends north and crests a wooded pass. Beyond lies Lake Virginia, the first in a series of large subalpine lakes tucked in the clutches below the Mammoth Crest. But first, hikers pass a smaller, unnamed pond visible down to the left; then the route edges northward and traverses a boulder slide to the shores of Lake Virginia, another memorable milestone on the JMT.

Approaching Lake Virginia

Lake Virginia is a very popular destination for backpacking, fishing, and swimming, and campsites can be found in abundance a short distance from the northern and western banks. Expect to have company on a summer day, although the crowds do little to blemish the terrific sunsets. Unnamed peaks along the Mammoth Crest dominate the landscape to the north and east, while a look south past the lake reveals a hidden drop to Fish Valley and the high crags of the Silver Divide on the horizon.

Dusk at Lake Virginia

Trip Report: After the unexpected zero day at Mono Creek, we made good time on Day 17 despite facing the most elevation gain (4,100’) of any single day on the JMT. New encounters with fellow through-hikers made us some fast friends—and an unexpected reunion with a PCT hiker we met way back on Day 2 made for a fun surprise. Pushing all the way to Lake Virginia despite the temptation to camp at Tully Hole eased the burden of the next day, allowing us to reach Red’s Meadow a day earlier than we budgeted. By now we had travelled around 180 miles—almost 2/3 of the way through the entire journey from Cottonwood Pass.

Lake Virginia to Red’s Meadow (15.6 miles)

The distance from Lake Virginia to Red’s Meadow is a lengthy 15.6 miles, including several miles of relatively mundane terrain. However, the largely downhill tread and prospect of warm food, cold beer, and showers helps propel hikers on this final stretch to the first road-accessible destination within a half mile of the JMT since the start.

Map of John Muir Trail – Lake Virginia to Red’s Meadow, John Muir Wilderness & Ansel Adams Wilderness; created using alltrails.com
Morning reflections at Lake Virginia

From Lake Virginia, the northbound JMT rises steadily for a short period and clears a rocky passage, with the Purple Creek drainage beyond. From the gap, the trail drifts northward and descends a string of wooded switchbacks, dropping to the outlet of Purple Lake, a beautiful destination in its own right that is set in a subalpine basin below the Mammoth Crest. (Note: There is no camping at the outlet of Purple Lake but there are some previously-disturbed sites past Purple Creek on the lake’s west side.)

Purple Lake

Cross Purple Creek at the mouth of the lake, then stay right at the junction with the Cascade Valley Cutoff Trail. Minutes later, bear left at the next fork (with the Ram Lake Trail), continuing on the JMT as it enters a lengthy stretch where the route hugs the southern flank of a long string of mountains, with views of Fish Valley below.

Silver Divide above Fish Valley

This section begins with a steady ascent out of the Purple Creek drainage, with the uphill persisting for at least ¾ mile. Finally, the trail rounds a corner and heads northwest and soon settles into a relatively level tread, with steep drop-offs on the left. Across the valley hikers get excellent views of the Silver Divide, with its various canyons, each harboring at least one subalpine lake.

At a point just under four miles from Lake Virginia, the JMT curves northward and descends sharply amid craggy slopes to the Duck Pass Junction. The elevated terrain to the north conceals massive Duck Lake—at nearly 10,500 feet—above. (Note: The Duck Pass Trail offers an exit route to the Mammoth Lakes area and is a popular path for fishing enthusiasts on shorter day or overnight trips.)

Open meadow along the JMT northbound

From the junction, the JMT/PCT continues downhill (left) to a bridge over Duck Creek, which may in dry years be the only available water source for the next five miles. This 5-mile section begins by ascending briefly again, then rounding a right-hand bend. The bulky protrusion of Pumice Butte (9,533’) gradually draws nearer as the JMT/PCT contours around a series of minor drainages, remaining just above 10,000 feet for about three miles.

After finally dipping below 10,000 feet, the trail descends steadily through a dry lodgepole forest and then dips in and out of sandy flats before reaching the crossing of Deer Creek, a popular camping area. By now hikers have travelled nearly 10 miles from Lake Virginia.

After Deer Creek, the trail veers left and ascends briefly, with the terrain giving way to a sudden drop down to the left toward Fish Valley. The trail then levels and courses northward, crossing a tributary wash and approaching an unassuming gap between Pumice Butte and the Mammoth Crest, keeping a long and narrow meadow on the right.

After bearing west through the gap, hikers reach the Crater Creek watershed. Cross the creek, then pass Upper Crater Meadow on the right. The eerie terrain in this area is lined with pumice deposits, left by volcanic activity in the past three million years. The gray soil still yields wildflowers in abundance, however, and the streamside walk is pleasant enough as hikers push on toward Mammoth and Red’s Meadow.

Cross the creek again, and then stay left at the junction with the Mammoth Pass Cutoff Trail. Cross Crater Creek a third time, then proceed up a short hill to the start of a downhill switchback section, with the first good views of the Red Cones, two scarlet-colored cinder cones that are a reminder of the area’s volcanic past. The JMT drops back to the banks of Crater Creek, crosses it, and then passes between the two cones, which stand like sentinels above a significant downhill slope that forms the eastern flank of a large valley. Here the JMT exits the John Muir Wilderness and enters the Ansel Adams Wilderness for the first time.

Red Cones near Mammoth

The steep slope beyond is donned with a dense thicket of pines and firs, with occasional openings revealing a stunning landscape beyond: the jagged peaks of the Ritter Range, which constitute the Sierra Crest in this section. After a long downhill heading north, the JMT cuts back south just before a flowing waterway.

Ritter Range from the descent to Red’s Meadow

Minutes later, the trail switches back north again, eventually entering a burn area caused by the Rainbow Fire in 1992. This marred landscape offers limited shelter from stormy weather, so hikers facing afternoon thunderstorms on the horizon should try to make quick work of this open section. The trail descends to cross Boundary Creek, which is often dry, then follows a charred upland in view of the Ritter Range. After crossing a final small stream, the JMT/PCT reaches a signed junction with a wider track heading east to Red’s Meadow Resort.

Red’s Meadow Resort entrance

Hikers seeking rest and resupply should bear right at this fork, following the rutted path for a short distance to the official entrance to Red’s Meadow. Hot food, a general store, laundry, and showers await! There is also a generous hiker’s box of leftover resupply items at the resort, usually stored in the courtyard between the café and store. The Reds Meadow Campground, where most JMT hikers will reside for the night, is a quarter-mile walk from here. (Note: The backpackers’ campsite is #38, and the cost of the site—the first pay campground since Onion Valley—can be split among the various JMT hikers using it for the night.)

Trip Report: The 15.6-mile trek from Lake Virginia was the longest single-day slog of our entire hike, but we arrived in early afternoon, just beating out some threatening thunderstorms brewing over Mammoth Mountain. Red’s Meadow—with its hot showers, made-to-order meals, and nice collection of beer and ice cream—was a welcome sight after 18 days on the trail. We spent a whole rest day at Red’s Meadow the following day, during which we ventured briefly to nearby Devils Postpile National Monument and soaked in the hot springs above Reds Meadow Campground. There was some limited cell service at Red’s Meadow, which allowed me to call home to arrange our pick-up—five days later—in Yosemite.

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John Muir Trail Northbound Section 2 – Onion Valley to Muir Trail Ranch (Kings Canyon National Park, CA)

John Muir Trail above Woods Creek Junction, Kings Canyon National Park, August 2021

Note: This is the third in a series of five posts describing the John Muir Trail (JMT), a scintillating, multi-week hike through California’s Sierra Nevada that extends more than 200 miles from Yosemite National Park in the north to Mount Whitney and Sequoia National Park in the south. This post (and those that follow) assumes a northbound journey, beginning southeast of Mount Whitney at Horseshoe Meadow in Inyo National Forest, culminating at Happy Isles in Yosemite. The JMT is an arduous, multi-week backpacking trip that requires careful planning, preparation, and an official backcountry permit that can be quite difficult to obtain. Hikers typically complete the entire trail, including detours for food resupplies, in about 2-3 weeks. For more information on planning and preparing for the JMT, see my previous post titled “John Muir Trail Preparation & Logistics.” For summaries of the other three sections, see Section I (Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley)Section II (Onion Valley to Muir Trail Ranch)Section III (Muir Trail Ranch to Red’s Meadow), and Section IV (Red’s Meadow to Happy Isles).

The second of four sections along the northbound John Muir Trail, this 80-mile stretch is arguably the hardest—and definitely the most remote—portion of the hike and is likely to take most hikers between 6-8 days to complete. (Note: We did it in seven, covering roughly 11 miles per day on average.) The stretch through Kings Canyon National Park is the land of many mountain passes, with travelers having to tackle one 12,000+ foot pass nearly every day. It is also a spectacular wonderland of lost alpine lakes, jagged pinnacles, and broad pine-studded valleys. A difficult stretch of 4-5 days brings one over Kearsarge, Glen, Pinchot, and Mather Passes, followed by a descent down the “Golden Staircase” to Le Conte Canyon. After climbing up and over Muir Pass, the JMT traverses nearly tree-less terrain to Evolution Lake, arguably the highlight of the entire trip, then follows lengthy Evolution Valley to the San Joaquin River and Muir Trail Ranch, where many hikers will get their next resupply. (Note: For more on resupply, see my post here.)

Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake via Kearsarge Pass (7.7 miles)

Assuming hikers exited the JMT for rest and resupply after Section I, onward travelers must retrace their steps from the previous leg for at least four miles, from Onion Valley to Kearsarge Pass. Having to carry a full bear canister with a week’s worth of food, the relentless ascent of more than 2,500 feet can be a rude awakening. Moreover, Onion Valley is also quite hot, so getting an early start is a must.

Map of Kearsarge Pass Trail – Onion Valley to Charlotte Lake, Inyo National Forest & Kings Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com

Start from the Onion Valley Trailhead, north of the Onion Valley Campground and at the end of the parking area, which tends to mostly full of day hikers. Beginning in scrubby lowlands, the bristly pines eventually become more ubiquitous, offering shade on a sunny day. First bending south, the Kearsarge Pass Trail cuts north and reaches an unmarked trail junction; stay left, then left again at the next (marked) fork, rising into the John Muir Wilderness.

Entering the John Muir Wilderness, Inyo National Forest

After about a mile and a half, hikers pass a bluff overlooking Little Pothole Lake, which is fed by cascades coursing down a pine-studded hillside. Keeping the main drainage of Independence Creek to the south, the trail switchbacks up to a tree-less rock slide and levels off as it approaches Gilbert Lake, set in a majestic basin bounded by the high peaks of the Sierra Crest.

After skirting the right flank of the lake, the trail ascends briefly to an unmarked junction where spur trails lead to Flower Lake, an artichoke-green body of water with a number of campsites. By now hikers have travelled more than two miles and gained around 1,300 feet.

Flower Lake

The next section cuts in and out of tree cover, switchbacking to a point overlooking Onion Valley and Heart Lake, the latter a difficult-to-reach destination situated at the base of high cliffs. The dominant summit to the south is University Peak (13,632’), a mainstay of the final two days of Section I.

Once hikers have tackled the switchbacks above Heart Lake, the ascent to Kearsarge Pass reaches its final stage, an often sun-exposed trek through low shrubs and eventually alpine terrain. The trail follows a barren hillside on the right, rising to a shelf and then a pair of long switchbacks. Looking down to the left, one can see Big Pothole Lake, the last lake this side of the Sierra Crest.

Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake from Kearsarge Pass

At last, around 4.2 miles from the trailhead, hikers crest Kearsarge Pass (11,760’), with views of the stunning landscape of Kings Canyon National Park beyond. In the basin below lie the shining blue waters of Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake, with Kearsarge Pinnacles (12,035’) and Mount Bago (11,871’) beyond. (Note: The valley below Mount Bago conceals Charlotte Lake, a popular camping destination for the night.) The massive range to the south is the Kings-Kern Divide, which separates Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Atop Kearsarge Pass

From Kearsarge Pass, northbound JMT hikers will want to begin thinking about how far they want to go for the day and where to camp for the night. After descending the far side of the pass, hikers will soon come to a junction, with the Kearsarge Pass Trail continuing north while the Bullfrog Lake Trail heads south. Both intersect with the John Muir Trail further west, but taking the northern route makes more sense for a more direct connection. The downside, however, is that camping opportunities and accessible water are sparser along the northern route. (Note: For this reason, I recommend pushing on partway up Glen Pass to the north or diverting to lovely Charlotte Lake to camp. See map above.)

High ledges above Bullfrog Lake

Continuing along the Kearsarge Pass Trail, the northern route skirts a series of high ledges that are not for the faint of heart (though not as crazy as these along the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia). After crossing a small but relatively reliable stream, hikers will encounter a few isolated campsites with great views but relatively distant access to water. After enjoying spectacular views of Bullfrog Lake from above, the trail dips to denser woods and climbs in and out of drier drainages. At nearly seven miles on the day, hikers will reach a signed trail junction. Those with enough energy to conquer part of Glen Pass or beyond can continue right, while those heading to camp at Charlotte Lake should bear left. Taking the latter path, the Kearsarge-Charlotte Lake Connector Trail is very short (roughly 2/10 mile) and ends at a four-way junction in a dusty gap between Kearsarge Basin and the Charlotte Creek drainage.

From the open saddle, known as Sandy Junction, continue straight on the Charlotte Lake Trail, which quickly drops back into the conifers and sheds 300 feet in elevation. The 6/10-mile detour to the edge of Charlotte Lake is a worthy diversion, especially given the excellent access to water (even swimming!) and a myriad of campsites. From the edge of the quiet bluish waters, stay on the trail for another ¼ mile or so to reach an area with a bear locker (nice if you packed too much food) and camping aplenty. Charlotte Lake is a great place to watch the sunset over the vast, deep waters, in the shadow of Mount Bago to the south.

Charlotte Lake

Trip Report: Having resupplied and spent the night at Onion Valley Campground on Day 6, we opted the next day to begin Leg II a day earlier than planned. Given the sharp ascent to Kearsarge Pass and newly-heavy packs, we covered a relatively modest 7.7 miles and camped at Charlotte Lake. We used the bear locker to store a few extra items that would not quite fit in our bear canisters. Our campsite, situated atop a rocky face overlooking the lake, was our best yet, and with nice, sunny weather finally upon us, we were in high spirits as we embarked on Leg II of our journey.

Charlotte Lake to Woods Creek Junction via Glen Pass (12.0 miles)

From the campsites at Charlotte Lake, retrace your steps along the lakeshore, then climb 300 feet in a little over a half-mile to return to Sandy Junction. Turn left on the John Muir Trail (JMT)—the only trail you will have to worry about following for the next 60+ miles. The subsequent stretch between here and Rae Lakes is exceptionally scenic but requires mounting Glen Pass (11,970’), one of the most challenging ascents on the northbound JMT.

Map of John Muir Trail – Charlotte Lake to Woods Creek Junction, Kings Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com

The climb begins in a sparse lodgepole forest but soon turns to foxtail pines as the trail steadily ascends a west-facing slope, with excellent views emerging of Charlotte Lake, Mount Bago, and the Charlotte Creek drainage. Soon enough, a smooth-faced granite knob appears in the distance—this is Charlotte Dome (10,673’), a reasonably popular climbing destination.

Overlooking Charlotte Lake and Mount Bago, with Charlotte Dome beyond

Drawing closer to the edge of treeline, the JMT ascends a challenging rocky traverse with deep steps, then briefly draws downhill before rising again and rounding a corner that offers the first views east toward Glen Pass. Hikers soon reach a small tarn at the base of a granite slope on the right; this water, while stagnant, is fresh and a good place to fill up.

Ascending toward Glen Pass (out of view off to the right)

In around 300 yards, the pines dissipate, giving way to an amphitheater of rubble. The cirque appears to bottom out in what looks like a large crater down to the right that is sometimes filled by a pothole lake. (Note: Elizabeth Wenk’s book on the JMT describes this as “quite possibly the only lake along the JMT that lacks any acceptable campsite” (p. 179)).

From here to the pass, the ascent is simply a brutal slog, one of the meanest yet experienced on the northbound JMT. After cresting a lip with a brief flat, the trail skirts a second, larger lake and then mounts a series of switchbacks through the talus to the exposed rim of Glen Pass (11,970’).

Looking back south from Glen Pass

While the views south from the pass are limited due to the high walls of the bowl-shaped cirque, the northward vistas are much broader, spanning a chalky basin with dozens of unnamed lakes, followed in the background by majestic Rae Lakes and several high peaks of the Sierra Crest (from right to left): Dragon Peak (12,995’), Black Mountain (13,291’), Diamond Peak (13,126’), Acrodectes Peak (13,179’), and Colosseum Mountain (12,473’), with more beyond. Much of the terrain that will be covered in the next two days is within view, extending all the way to Pinchot Pass (12,130’), more than 16 miles away by foot, and even North Palisade (14,242’), a distant fourteener and highest point in Kings Canyon National Park.

Unnamed lakes and Rae Lakes from Glen Pass

It is hard to believe that there is verdant life down in the valley given the views of the barren landscape from Glen Pass, but the descent down into the Woods Creek watershed eventually brings hikers back to the lush forest. After an initial descent down sharp, crumbly switchbacks, the trail briefly ascends a slickrock knob and follows a narrow notch before reaching a partly vegetated area at the base of another set of switches. After following—and crossing—a small stream, the trail drops into a larger drainage marking another steady descent toward the three beautiful Rae Lakes—one of the iconic sights of the JMT.

Approaching Upper Rae Lake

After skirting some high ledges above Upper Rae Lake, the JMT finally reaches a junction at the lake level, around two miles from—and 1,400 feet below—Glen Pass. Here a spur path leads left toward the Sixty Lakes Basin; stay right, threading a narrow strip of land between Upper and Middle Rae Lakes. Looking off to the south, the prominent pinnacle across Upper Rae Lake is called the Painted Lady (12,126’), a superbly scenic and photogenic peak composed partly of pinkish mafic plutonic dikes.

Painted Lady rises above Upper Rae Lake

The crystal blue waters continue to tempt hikers as the JMT leads to a creek crossing and then continues to follow the shores of the upper lake eastward and north. A little less than a half-mile from the junction, the trail leaves Upper Rae Lake behind but keeps Middle Rae Lake in view to the west, even as the JMT rises to a shelf pockmarked with stands of whitebark pines. A signed spur leads left to a camping area with a bear locker. The imposing Fin Dome (11,693’) comes into view partway down the valley, and the JMT passes the Rae Lakes Ranger Station on the right, nearly three miles from Glen Pass.

Looking back toward Painted Lady, Dragon Peak, and Mount Rixford

Staying high and mostly away from the lakeshore, the JMT gradually descends and clears Lower Rae Lake off to the left, arriving eventually at a shelf overlooking the next body of water—Arrowhead Lake—in the valley below. This impressive lake nonetheless appears modest compared to the majestic Rae Lakes to the south. There is some decent camping as the trail comes to the north side of the lake, with a sedgy marsh beyond.

Lower Rae Lake and Fin Dome
Arrowhead Lake

After crossing a marshy basin with multiple stream crossings, the JMT briefly rises again and continues to a spot overlooking Dollar Lake before descending again to the lakeshore. (Note: As of 2021, there was no camping allowed at Dollar Lake.) As the trail enters thicker woodlands, hikers pass a signed junction with the Baxter Pass Trail—this little-used, unmaintained track leads up to Baxter Lakes and the Sierra Crest before descending sharply into Owens Valley. Stay left at the junction, continuing on the northbound JMT.

Dollar Lake

After Dollar Lake, the onward trail drops down a sun-exposed section with the cascading waters of the South Fork of Woods Creek off to the right. The imposing peaks to the east briefly conceal the Baxter Creek drainage and passage up to Baxter Pass before eventually the terrain opens up again, with the creek visible coming down from the Sierra Crest.

The mixed scrub eventually turns to denser woods as the JMT drops to clear a tributary stream fed by the Sixty Lakes Basin. Upon crossing, hikers must pass through a sad wire gate, after which the trail briefly rises again before settling into a gradual decline. The stairstep terrain of flats and drops offers magnificent views down-canyon toward Window Peak (12,086’), Pyramid Peak (12,777’), and Crater Mountain (12,871’).

Descending toward Woods Creek

The onward trail descends in and out of thick tree cover, with lots of aspens and even some ferns coming into view. Cross a few minor streams as the brush grows thick, high enough to obscure one’s views for awhile, with occasional campsites available under clutches of pines. Just when hikers think they have reached the end of the descent, the trail cuts west from the confluence of the two main forks of Woods Creek, taking another ½ mile to descend to the famously wobbly Woods Creek suspension bridge, also known as the “Golden Gate of the Sierra.”

If arriving here from Charlotte Lake, it’s likely that many will want to look for a place to camp for the night around here. (Note: The footbridge is about 12 miles from Charlotte Lake, and nine from Glen Pass.) The most obvious is a large, well-used camping area off to the right, just before the bridge, with a bear box and lots of places for tents. (Note: Better spots are to be had a little further, however—especially as the onward JMT rises to pass a scenic waterslide along Woods Creek, about ½ mile from the crossing.)

Looking back at King Spur from the Woods Creek waterslide

Crossing the suspension bridge is itself an experience—a sign asks that hikers cross it one at a time, as the swaying of the cables can be unnerving. Once across, it is a short walk to the junction with the Woods Creek Trail (also known as Paradise Valley Junction), the unofficial end of this scenic section, often completed on day two of the second leg from Onion Valley.

Sunset at our campsite on Day 8

Trip Report: We traversed this section on Day 8 of our journey and Day 2 of the second leg, reaching the Woods Creek Junction in late afternoon. Seeing three black bears in the section below Dollar Lake was a highlight, as were the relatively clear skies—a welcome sight after a rainy first leg from Cottonwood Pass to Onion Valley. We camped at an excellent spot about ½ mile past the Woods Creek Junction; from our perch at the edge of a lengthy water slide, we enjoyed excellent views down to the valley, as well as a lovely set of pools at the head of the waterfall. One of our best spots yet, and worth the extra push at the end of the day.

Woods Creek Junction to Bench Lake Junction via Pinchot Pass (10.5 miles)

Although the popular JMT route rarely affords absolute solitude, the section north of Woods Creek Junction is one of the least-travelled portions of the hike. While Glen Pass and Rae Lakes are heavily-trafficked by backpackers on the shorter and more popular Rae Lakes Loop, the terrain between Woods Creek and Le Conte Canyon is traversed largely by JMT through-hikers.

Map of John Muir Trail – Woods Creek Jct. to Bench Lake Jct., Kings Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com

After shedding more than 3,400 feet since Glen Pass, the subsequent section wastes little time in regaining that elevation. Past the junction, the stairstep trail climbs steadily through pockets of lodgepole pines and ubiquitous manzanitas, reaching the Woods Creek Waterslide after about a half-mile. This terrifically scenic cascade tumbles down a sheet of granite bedrock, with southward views of King Spur (12,212’) and Diamond Peak (13,126’). This scenic corner of Kings Canyon is one of the most memorable points of the hike. (Note: Better yet, there are a couple of small campsites near the waterslide, set back on a partly shaded bluff overlooking Paradise Valley. This is an ideal spot to watch the sun set over the Sierras and is much better than the crowded spots down by the footbridge.)

Looking back toward Paradise Valley

Above the waterslide, the trail enters a denser thicket of brush, fed by a set of minor tributaries coming off the mountains to the west. Steep stone steps abound as the onward JMT follows a shelf dozens of feet above the northern fork of Woods Creek. At a point about 1.3 miles from the Woods Creek Junction (and 600 feet in elevation), the trail crosses the White Fork of Woods Creek, a well-flowing tributary that offers the easiest water access for the next two miles. (Note: Even as Woods Creek proper is visible just off the trail, it usually requires descending a steep—sometimes sheer—cliff to reach.)

Waterfall ahead

Beyond, the trail continues to climb, paralleling the stream, and then ascends a sun-exposed rocky section with views of a waterfall up ahead. After a short set of switchbacks, the trail clears the top of the falls, and Woods Creek calms again as the trail follows a grassy plain with a couple of campsites. About 2.5 miles from the junction, the trail enters a dense wooded section, which partly eases the relentless uphill – while still climbing, at least hikers are out of the blaring sun.

Woods Creek with Mount Cedric Wright beyond

Having cleared a particularly steep section, the path rises to cross a stream, where one can easily filter water again, and then shortly approaches the junction with the Sawmill Pass Trail. (Note: Like the Baxter Pass Trail, the Sawmill Pass route rises sharply from Owens Valley and does not exactly have rave reviews…) By now hikers have walked around 3.6 miles—and gained more than 1,800 feet—since Woods Creek Junction and the suspension bridge. This also marks roughly the halfway point to Pinchot Pass, arguably the toughest mountain pass of the entire journey.

Crater Mountain

Part of the reason Pinchot Pass is so gnarly is that the terrain around it is largely dry and sun-exposed, at points appearing almost like a Martian landscape of ruddy and orange-hued talus. The amphitheater of mountains becomes clearer as hikers ascend past the Sawmill Pass Junction to a partly tree-lined ridge between Twin Lakes on the right and a smaller lake on the left. The craggy peak to the west is Crater Mountain (12,871’), which some JMT hikers summit as a half-day hike.

Beyond the lakes, as the vegetation grows thinner and the winds stronger, it appears that the trail is heading straight, toward a tree-less gap east of Mount Wynne (13,180’) and along the Sierra Crest. However, after passing above more unnamed lakes off to the right, the JMT actually bends west, cresting a ridgeline around 5.75 miles from the Woods Creek bridge. Here one can finally see Pinchot Pass (12,130’)—the grey saddle to the west of Mount Wynne—ahead.

Approaching Pinchot Pass (off to the left, out of view)

The final approach to Pinchot Pass involves crossing open terrain, following a blocky spine and keeping a sedgy meadow with additional ponds down to the right. The JMT dips briefly and crosses a stream and pool between two ridges, after which the brutal finale greets hikers with a slap in the face.

View southeast from Pinchot Pass

The path ascends 500 feet in about 6/10 mile and can be thought of in three parts. First, an initial, switchbacking climb gains height quickly, offering views across the vast plateau and beyond to the Sierra Crest. After clearing a rocky protrusion, the trail then cuts left, bending and cutting into a second set of switches. This is followed by a deceptive straightaway that belies the final set of switchbacks and a steady northward clamber, which finally crests the pass at a point 7.4 miles—and seemingly a world away—from Woods Creek Junction.

As with other passes, the views from Pinchot Pass—named for the founder of the U.S. Forest Service—are magnificent in both directions. Looking back south and east, a parade of small pools leads to a drop-off to the broader Woods Creek valley, with Mount Perkins (12,562’), Colosseum Mountain (12,473’), and Mount Cedric Wright (12,336’) just beyond. In the distance is the Sierra Crest, which hikers have been following for several days.

View north from Pinchot Pass

To the north and west, the terrain is similar—with dramatic lakes and endless mountains—but the pools to the west are much larger. Lake Marjorie, just two miles from this point, is visible down below, with the Cirque Crest, Mount Ruskin (12,921’), and Vennacher Needle (12,996’) beyond. One cannot quite see Mather Pass, the next in the chain of passes to the north, but the lofty peaks visible beyond the pass are among the highest in the Sierras—including North Palisade (14,242’), Polemonium Peak (13,962’), and Mount Sill (14,153’).

Rejuvenated by the views and (temporary) end to the uphill, hikers can make good time descending off the pass and down toward the main watershed of the South Fork of the Kings River. After the requisite stable of switchbacks, the trail descends through a stony notch, adjacent to an unnamed turquoise pool at the base of a stunning, reddish talus slope. The path then stays along a bench to the east of Lake Marjorie, resisting coming close to the lakeshore until the lake’s northern terminus. Around here are a large number of campsites, although many are hidden and somewhat distant from the trail itself. This is still exposed terrain, with little vegetation and high propensity for winds and bad weather.

Approaching Lake Marjorie

Heading further down, the JMT drops to a marshier area with another lovely lake on the left. More campsites are available, and camping here has the advantage of avoiding the crowds of Lake Marjorie. Better still, the trail drops to a flat with a number of additional campsites with more shade and a fourth lake on the left. (Note: Yours truly camped here.) This is an excellent spot and has good views cross the South Fork drainage to Upper Basin and Mather Pass, now visible in the distance.

John Muir Trail with Mather Pass and the Palisades ahead

Further on, a fifth lake, even more surrounded by pines, emerges in a bowl down to the right. After skipping across a small stream, the trail drops to a junction with the Bench Lake Trail; minutes later, after another water crossing, the trail reaches a junction with a short spur to the Bench Lake Ranger Station and, quickly thereafter, the Taboose Pass Trail junction.

Sun setting on the John Muir Trail

Trip Report: Day 9 of our adventure was one of the most challenging, given the 3,300-foot climb from our campsite at the Woods Creek Waterslide to Pinchot Pass. After reaching the pass in the early afternoon, we quickly scampered down the north slope, passing on campsites near Marjorie Lake in favor of a lovely spot just off the trail near lake #4 described above. From here we enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the South Fork drainage, with majestic views of Mather Pass and North Palisade—terrain we would cover the next day. We could have possibly pushed further, but we had heard stories of a very aggressive black bear prowling in the South Fork of Kings River drainage and thus opted for a higher-elevation camp. At just above 11,000 feet, this was the highest campsite of our entire hike. But temperatures were still relatively mild, and small rain clouds—while coming close to threatening—held off the entire day.

Bench Lake Jct. to Deer Meadow via Mather Pass and Golden Staircase (14.5 miles)

From the Bench Lake and Taboose Pass Trail junctions, the northbound JMT begins a sharp, switchbacking descent through lodgepole pine forest, skirting the main stream fed by Lake Marjorie to the south. After an initial set of bends and turns, the trail cuts northeast and enters a second set of switches, dropping to cross a tributary stream, then comes level with the main drainage—the South Fork of Kings River.

Map of John Muir Trail – Bench Lake Jct. to Deer Meadow, Kings Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com

Crossing this river can be a challenge at high water: it is deep and flowing at a good clip. But much of the year, one can rock-hop across the stream like most others. Around here, a faint path is all that remains of what some call the “old JMT”—a section of trail that climbs up an over nearby Cartridge Pass, used by travelers when the present route over Mather Pass and up the so-called “Golden Staircase” was still being constructed.

Crossing the South Fork

Today’s JMT stays right after crossing the South Fork, gradually ascending en route to Mather Pass. As far as ascents go, the amble up to this pass is considerably more enjoyable than most, rising 2,000 feet over the course of 5.5 miles, with plenty of scenery along the way. The route ascends mildly, eventually rising out of the thick woods into a section of patchy meadows, with the tumbling creek off to the right.

Marmot watchdog

Crossing several tributary streams, the path ascends to an area of even spottier woods, with vast talus slopes and sporadic brush. This is Upper Basin, an exceptionally scenic alpine flat, bounded on three sides by towering peaks. Looking back to the southeast, one can spot the ruddy-colored peak of Cardinal Mountain (13,397’), and the imposing 14-er to the east is Split Mountain (14,058’), a reasonably popular day hike from here. Off to the left is a saddle known as Amphitheater Pass, situated off trail but probably a reasonable scramble for those who are curious. Ahead, one can see the low cut of Mather Pass—to which the JMT is taking you—with the tippy tip of Middle Palisade (14,040’) visible just beyond it.

Upper Basin and Mather Pass
Looking back

Continue to climb up through scrub and open sun, passing several small pools on left and right. Finally, about 4.5 miles from the South Fork, hikers reach the base of the final pitch up to Mather Pass. While the climb to this point was leisurely, this concluding section is not: the ascent begins by swinging way over to the right, then curves left and follows a steady proclivity westward toward the pass. After the straightaway, the route suddenly steepens and ascends a group of switchbacks, cutting back right to the high saddle.

At last, the exposed trail mounts Mather Pass, although the views north from the cut remain limited. Travel some 30 seconds further to get the first look down into Palisade Canyon, where hikers will spend the next several miles. The basin in the canyon’s upper reaches feels narrower and tighter than others, with small lakes feeding into the larger Palisade Lakes below and the craggy ridge of Palisade Crest (13,553’), Norman Clyde Peak (13,851’), Middle Palisade (14,040’), and Disappointment Peak (13,917’) constituting the northern flank.

Peering down to Palisade Lakes from Mather Pass

A perch just beyond the pass itself offers the best place to look out over the canyon, after which the trail again sheds the elevation that it had gained. The inevitable switchbacks down into Palisade Canyon eventually give way to a relative flat, with the trail staying high on the shelf to the right of Palisade Lakes. Scree turns to scrub and eventually modest meadows, and tributary streams become more frequently seen. There are several campsites as one comes closer to Upper Palisade Lake, but they remain more than 100 feet above the shores, making lake access perhaps more difficult than necessary.

Further on, the trail gradually curves westward, still remaining high above the two lakes. There are even some uphill pitches here, with regular sets of neatly-carved stone stairs. Finally, after walking nearly the length of Lower Palisade Lake, the JMT cuts back sharply and descends a stony staircase, reaching the outlet of the lake, around which where there is lots of camping. Some may call it quits here for the day, not a bad choice given the excellent views and the rigorous downhill section beyond.

But onward travelers hoping to put in a very full day can push onward, dropping below Lower Palisade Lake and into the craggy canyonlands of the Palisade Creek drainage. Here the stream has carved shallow cuts in the rock, producing narrow pitches and beautiful—but hardly accessible—waterfalls.

Waterfalls along Palisade Creek

Then, at a point more than 11 miles from Bench Lake Junction, the JMT reaches a high bluff overlooking the remainder of Palisade Canyon below. This is one of the most picturesque overlooks on the hike, with the canyon dropping more than 1,500 feet to the forest and Deer Meadow below, with Le Conte Canyon and Devils Crags (12,262’) and the peaks of the Black Divide in the distance.

View atop the Golden Staircase

This spot also roughly marks the start of what has become to known as the “Golden Staircase,” a rugged and intricately-cut collection of switchbacks, the final section of the JMT to be completed in 1938. The staircase begins by making its way toward a narrow side canyon, where the well-trodden trail descends a series of rocky wiggles, followed by a mellow forested area. Palisade Creek, which comes in and out of view, forms large cascades as it plunges down the steep pitch. Next, the route bears westward and descends another notch. Following a long zig-zag, the trail approaches creekside, where there are a couple of small campsites with amazing views but windy exposure.

Thereafter, the trail continues to descend, cutting through a surprisingly brushy and lush—even muddy—section, adjacent to a modest waterfall. From here it is a short walk down to the treeline, where hikers are suddenly plunged into a forest of densely-packed lodgepole pines.

Although the meadow part of Deer Meadow is not easily found, there are camping spots aplenty around the start of the wooded section, with easy access to Palisade Creek. There is a temptation to push further, but the available campsites soon thin out, with the only obvious previously-disturbed sites too close to the water to be “legal.” The route crosses Glacier Creek and its various rivulets and then actually climbs—gaining around 50 feet—before dropping to an area with lots of dead trees from a fire that is around a decade old.

Campsite around Deer Meadow

Continue around a mile past Glacier Creek to reach a couple of decent campsites just off the trail, with easy access to Palisade Creek. It is about 14.5 miles from Bench Lake Junction to this point, making for a long day. Hearty hikers can push farther across relatively easy terrain, or weary walkers can camp up to a few miles back at Palisade Lakes or the base of the Golden Staircase.

Trip Report: From our campsite about a half-mile above the Bench Lake Junction, we travelled farther than expected on Day 10. Originally planning to camp near the outlet of Lower Palisade Lake, we arrived early in the afternoon after a leisurely walk up and over Mather Pass. Unsatisfied with the remaining campsites (the best spots were taken) and with some extra energy to spare, we pushed on, completing the entire length of the Golden Staircase. We struggled to find an open campsite at Deer Meadow, so we kept going for about 1.5 miles to the aforementioned campsite beyond Glacier Creek. The site itself was nothing to write home about, but it was one of the lowest elevation sites we had used yet and offered easy access to water. After six straight days of tackling a mountain pass, we were looking forward to our next day, the first pass-free day since Day 4. We also reached a milestone today, completing our first 100 miles of the more than 250-mile journey.

Deer Meadow to Starr Camp via Le Conte Canyon (10.5 miles)

The subsequent section between Deer Meadow and Muir Pass begins as a very mild and pleasant walk through deep, forested canyons, followed by the inevitable uphill back to the timberline and beyond. The westward path from Deer Meadow gradually descends into ever-thicker woodlands, staying consistently to the right of Palisade Creek—but never crossing it. Occasional open patches offer distant views of the Black Divide and other ragged peaks of central Kings Canyon, while aspens—and pine trees with huge cones—increasingly dot the landscape.

Map of John Muir Trail – Deer Meadow to Starr Camp, Kings Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com

After three to four miles from the various Deer Meadow campsites, the trail suddenly drops quickly down to a junction, where a path heads left down the Middle Fork of Kings River drainage toward Cedar Grove and the main visitation area of Kings Canyon National Park. The Middle Fork comes into view just ahead, near the confluence with smaller Palisade Creek, which hikers had been following for several miles to this point. At just over 8,000 feet, this is the lowest elevation of the entire JMT hike (from Cottonwood Pass) thus far.

Taking a right on the JMT/PCT, the northward route formally enters Le Conte Canyon, a lengthy valley that is fed by the Middle Fork and bounded by the Black Divide on the west and Sierra Crest to the east. After the junction, the trail climbs steeply, passing lovely forested cascades and a couple of swimming holes on the left. Then the path levels off for a mile or so, and the rumbling waters of the Middle Fork turn suddenly still and quiet as the trail passes Grouse Meadows on the left. These marshy meadows are a lovely spot to stop for a break (or set up camp), with excellent views of the chalky white peaks to the west and north. There are also patches of blueberry bushes that reach their peak in around late August.

Grouse Meadows

After Grouse Meadows, the trail returns to thick lodgepole forest, with a few spots where one can sneak a peek of a waterfall coming down from a stone gap to the west. This is Ladder Creek, fed by Ladder Lake and the snowmelt from the Black Divide.

Ahead the tree cover weakens and the vegetation transitions to manzanita and a wider array of conifers. The trail steepens again, climbing alongside small waterfalls on the Middle Fork. After crossing a footbridge over Dusy Branch, the JMT reaches another junction, this one with the Bishop Pass Trail. Here hikers enter from the South Lake area, a popular starting point for the North Lake – South Lake Loop, a shorter, week-long journey that covers some of the best terrain in northern Kings Canyon National Park.

John Muir Trail and the Middle Fork in Le Conte Canyon

After passing the junction and the Le Conte Ranger Station, the onward trail climbs mildly to Little Pete Meadow, which is not so little at all. Beyond the meadow is the hardest climb since Mather Pass—a relentless, sun-exposed ascent clears around 300 feet to crest a rocky shelf. The views looking back down Le Conte Canyon are spectacular, with hikers in awe at the amount of ground they have covered thus far.

From here the trail levels off again and rounds a dogleg left to skirt Big Pete Meadow, which boasts some lovely streamside campsites. After crossing two modest tributaries in quick succession, the JMT begins a gnarly, exposed climb with lots of loose gravel. From here until Muir Pass, hikers will gain more than 2,700 feet in elevation.

Following the Middle Fork as it narrows but drops over tumbling cascades, the trail skirts a talus slope, approaching a stunning waterfall—one of the largest seen yet on the hike—on the left. After switchbacking up a granite notch, there is a second set of falls, after which the terrain suddenly levels off and reaches a meadow and marshy area informally known as Starr Camp. (Note: This site is unsigned and not marked on maps but is somewhat obvious when hikers reach it.) Here there are plenty of camping opportunities, most off to the left, across Palisade Creek to an unnamed, hidden pond. (Note: Even better campsites lie about ¼ mile further at a flat area tucked on a shelf above a narrow canyon, with another waterfall just beyond to the north.)

Dinner spot with views of waterfall

The distance from the Deer Meadow campsites to here is roughly 10.5-12 miles, depending how far one pushed on the previous day. Ambitious hikers can continue onward toward Muir Pass, although there is a relative dearth of sheltered campsites between here and the other side of the pass.

Waterfall

Trip Report: On our first day without a mountain pass since Day 4, we covered about 10.5 miles on Day 11 and camped at a spot about ¼ mile past Starr Camp, with great access to the stream and views of tumbling waterfalls. This was a veritable paradise, although it did get a tad cold at 10,500 feet. We had now gone 11 days with no rest days, but our packs were getting lighter, and the prospect of seeing spectacular Evolution Lake and getting our resupply in the next two days kept us motivated. We were also nearing the halfway mark of the hike (we would reach it on the next day).

Starr Camp to Evolution Lake via Muir Pass (10.1 miles)

In the subsequent section, JMT hikers will emerge above tree line and tackle a desolate landscape of granite crags and boulder fields en route to Muir Pass. The climb from Starr Camp begins in the trees, passing clutches of pines and rising to an upper shelf with another scrubby meadow and waterfall. Upon climbing to clear the falls, the trail reaches another tier, this one with an unnamed lake on the right. (Note: There is no camping allowed at this lake.) The still waters reflect the towering peaks of Mount Warlow (13,286’) and Mount Fiske (13,503’) of the Goddard Divide, with the foreground lined with low grass and stunted shrubs.

Map of John Muir Trail – Starr Camp to Evolution Lake, Kings Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com

Beyond this point, the vegetation largely disappears, and the trail switchbacks up a granite slope and crosses a side stream. Soon enough the JMT comes back to the northern banks of the Middle Fork of Kings River, now little more than a small creek. The trail follows a shallow canyon and cuts through a notch at the outlet of another unnamed lake, this one surrounded by bleak, dark metamorphic rocks.

After sunrise in Upper Le Conte Canyon

From the far side of the lake, the trail follows the river to its headwaters at Helen Lake, a surprisingly large and majestic lake set in a glacial cirque below the Goddard Divide. (Note: The lake was named after one of John Muir’s daughters; nearby Wanda Lake was named after his other daughter.) There is nary a tree or shrub in view at Helen Lake, and camping here in the windswept cold would not be ideal.

Helen Lake

From the outlet of the lake, the trail cuts southwest above the shores, approaching the final approach to Muir Pass, which is notably milder than the brutal final pitches at Pinchot or Glen. After reaching nearly 12,000 feet, the John Muir Trail crests its namesake Muir Pass, which boasts a semi-famous stone hut, constructed in 1930.

Hut at Muir Pass

At 11,980 feet, Muir Pass is the highest point remaining on the northbound JMT – while there will still be ups and downs, hikers will not reach another 11,000-foot pass until Donohue Pass (11,060’) in Yosemite. One can get a sneak peek at the coming landscape by peering westward across the mostly barren landscape, filled by two glimmering lakes—Wanda Lake and Lake McDermand—in the basin below. However, the onward passage into Evolution Valley is hidden from view for now.

Descending from Muir Pass to Lake McDermand and Wanda Lake

Descending into Evolution Basin from Muir Pass, the sun-exposed trail descends a series of rocky but relatively mild switchbacks and then skirts Lake McDermand on the left. After a short uphill, the JMT descends to the much larger Wanda Lake, which—despite having no tree cover—has a handful of campsites that are frequently used by southbound JMT hikers. For a lengthy period, the trail abuts the shoreline, allowing travelers to peer down into the crystal-clear but chilly waters.

Wanda Lake

After following the length of Wanda Lake, the trail crosses the beginnings of Evolution Creek and follows it northward as the terrain drops a level, reaching another unnamed lake between Wanda and Sapphire Lakes. Some modest vegetation begins to appear as the path drops steadily to Sapphire Lake, another exceptionally pretty destination, in the shadow of imposing Mount Huxley (13,086’). There are a few campsites in the sandy section near the lake’s shores, but shade remains at a premium.

Sapphire Lake and Mount Huxley

Hikers in search of camping are better-suited pushing onward to Evolution Lake, the final of the three named lakes in the Evolution Basin and easily the most spectacular. Bounded by steep cliffs to the east and west, the lake extends length-wise, filling pretty inlets and producing small islands studded with granite and occasional conifers.

While the trail follows Evolution Lake for 1.5 miles, it largely keeps its distance so as to protect the fragile lakeshore, and the majority of the campsites are located at the northern end near the outlet. Here the lake suddenly gives way to a stream that tumbles more than 800 feet to spectacular Evolution Valley below.

Overlooking Evolution Valley from the outlet of the lake

To reach the top of these cascades, detour left just as the trail turns away from the far western end of the lake, following a well-worn trail to Evolution Creek and the lip of a granite slide where the terrain appears to fall off a sudden cliff. There are some premier campsites in this area, and the granite knob off to the right is an exceptional spot to watch the sunset. Even if one arrives relatively early in the afternoon to Evolution Lake, it is worth staying the night so as to take in one of the JMT’s most beautiful settings.

Our campsite
Evolution Lake in late afternoon
Sun setting on Evolution Lake

Trip Report: Covering just ten miles with relatively modest elevation gain, this was one of the easiest days thus far, but, knowing that Evolution Lake would be a highlight of the trip, we elected to camp there instead of pushing farther on. As we set up camp, we witnessed the arrival of a search -and-rescue helicopter—guided in by the McClure Meadow ranger—to fly out a camper who had broken his ankle climbing a nearby stony knob. As the sun set, I set up atop the granite bluff at the western end of the lake and watched as the skies filled with orange, red, and purple hues. The sun set almost perfectly in the aperture cut by Evolution Valley to the west, capping off another terrific day on the trail.

Sunset over Evolution Lake

Evolution Lake to Muir Trail Ranch (14.9 miles)

From the west end of Evolution Lake, the earth gives way and drops abruptly, with the remainder of Evolution Valley more than 800 feet below. One can spot McClure and Colby Meadows in the distance, followed by a slight southward curve in the valley that reveals granite-lined slopes and conceals the distant junction of Evolution Creek and the South Fork of San Joaquin River. Hikers will cover all of this terrain between Evolution Lake and Muir Trail Ranch.

John Muir Trail – Evolution Lake to Muir Trail Ranch, Kings Canyon National Park & John Muir Wilderness; created using alltrails.com

From the outlet of Evolution Lake, the JMT leaves the lakeshore, following the left flank of a secondary drainage and then courses toward the thick lodgepole forest and a lengthy downhill switchback section. At the top of the switchbacks is an unmarked spur leading up Darwin Bench and Lamarck Col to the north. The main track, however, drops steadily and winds back and forth down woody switches to the valley floor below.

Sunrise at Evolution Lake

The switchbacks last more than a half-mile, after which the terrain levels and the trail courses west, following two partly-obscured waterfalls on the right. Both drain from Darwin Bench and fill a waterway that hikers must cross minutes later. This long, three-part crossing could be challenging at high water, but rocks and logs offer passage for much of the summer season.

The Hermit from the JMT

From here the terrain becomes considerably easier and the trail settles into a mild and gradual descent for much of the length of Evolution Valley. Staying mostly in the trees, the JMT/PCT passes Colby Meadow on the left, then McClure Meadow about a mile later. The latter is a popular camping spot because of its fantastic views looking back east toward the High Sierra. The towering knob off to the right is called The Hermit (12,360’); one can also see beyond to Mount Mendel (13,691’), Mount Darwin (13,830’), and other distant mountains. There is also a ranger station at McClure Meadow, and easy access to water at the shores of Evolution Creek.

Hazy, smoke-filled sky at McClure Meadow

The onward path loosely follows the creek as it eventually leaves the meadow behind. About ¼ mile from the ranger station, the trail suddenly switchbacks down but then quickly settles back into its casual descent as the creek cascades down a slope on the left. The trail later passes through a gate and then skirts a bend in the stream to the left, followed by a mild descent in and out of pretty clearings.

The trail eventually comes level with Evolution Meadow, but it is not easily seen through the thick pines. After edging northward, the trail swings back around to the south to reach the crossing of Evolution Creek, situated about 6.5 miles from the outlet of Evolution Lake. (Note: Water levels remain reasonably high here year-round; in fact, on our July-August trip—during a drought year—this was the only time where we legitimately had to take off our shoes to cross. The creek was only ankle-deep and not particularly fast-flowing, however. At higher levels, it is safer to use an alternative crossing—marked on the Guthook app—about a half-mile upstream.)

From the south side of the creek, the trail settles back into a westward tread, and the stream turns from calm ripples to raging cascades and waterfalls. Pass a pair of 10- to 20-foot cascades on the right as the trail cuts in and out of talus clearings. The sharper terrain reveals a steady drop to the main canyon of the South Fork of the San Joaquin, with Goddard Canyon coming in from the left. As the trail settles into a set of steep switchbacks, the crumbly trail is dotted with darker-hued metavolcanic rock that is around 160 to 130 million years old.

The temperature notably rises as hikers descend into the warm and dusty canyon, cutting north and south down the switchbacks before coming out at a bridge over the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, the main drainage in the area. Right after the crossing is a junction; JMT hikers should continue right.

Descending to the South Fork of San Joaquin River

Now heading north, the trail follows a dry—and then wet—tributary wash before reaching the banks of the San Joaquin again, this time downstream from the confluence with Evolution Creek. Cross another high bridge over the river, entering a section that interchanges shady woods and exposed rock slides. The canyon narrows considerably as hikers hug the north banks of the San Joaquin, at some point passing the modest Aspen Meadow, where its namesake trees can be spotted, though not necessarily in great abundance.

Crossing over San Joaquin River

At one point, the onward path climbs briefly to clear a narrow cleft, overlooking the rushing waters below, then descends and cuts through manzanitas to a bridge over Piute Creek, a majority tributary of the San Joaquin. A junction lies just beyond, and—for the first time in several days—hikers depart Kings Canyon National Park. (Note: Hikers on the North Lake-South Lake Loop will use the Piute Canyon Trail heading east toward Piute Pass.)

Entering Sierra National Forest and John Muir Wilderness

By this point, hikers have covered more than 11.5 miles from Evolution Lake, but Muir Trail Ranch—the popular resupply spot—lies still further. Entering the John Muir Wilderness and Sierra National Forest, leave Piute Creek and its associated campsites behind, traversing a sandy bench well above the San Joaquin. (Note: There is no easy access to water for the next two miles.) After edging in and out of the sparse tree cover, the trail rises mildly at a point about one mile from the Piute Creek Junction and then descends gently to another fork. This junction marks the turnoff point for Muir Trail Ranch (MTR); hikers without need for resupply can continue right, but those heading for MTR should bear left, following the sign for Florence Lake.

The spur trail descends to an area with pebble-lined banks and several campsites along the San Joaquin. Then the trail enters an unwelcome uphill section that leads away from the river, rounds a dry tributary, and then descends again. As partly-obscured Shooting Star Meadow is passed on the left, the spur trail reaches a four-way junction, with the Sallie Keyes Cutoff Trail heading off to the right and the descent to MTR and Blayney Hot Springs to the left.

Heading left, the trail traverses open terrain to another trail sign. Stay left and descend sharply into a highly-vegetated area, which opens up soon enough to Muir Trail Ranch, where hikers can retrieve their resupply buckets.

All of Muir Trail Ranch is off-limits to backpackers, save for a small, fenced-in section where there is a small store and several tables available for packing and organizing resupply buckets. There is also a sink with potable drinking water, and—except during Covid-19—a generous hiker’s box full of supplies and food leftover by past hikers. Visiting MTR offers a chance to meet fellow JMT hikers, swap snacks, and share stories.

After picking up the resupply, hikers can continue back to the JMT, or settle in for the night. Camping is not allowed right at MTR, but there is a path leading south from the ranch toward the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, which leads to some suitable campsites. The sign marking existing trails and no-camping zones is confusing, but generally one can head past the sign and find campsites on the left, set back from the water. A better but more adventurous option involves following the path to the San Joaquin, then fording the river just upstream from a black rope strung across the length of the water. From here, follow a path leading straight away from the river and toward an open, soggy field. Here lies Blayney Hot Springs, clutch of pleasantly-warm pools, some easily accessible and relatively mud-free.

Sun setting on Blayney Hot Springs

While one cannot camp right at the hot springs, there are a few small spots hidden amid the rock outcrops between the field and the river. (Note: These are not the world’s greatest but serviceable and worth it for their proximity to the hot springs.) Soaking at the hot springs offers a nice respite after a long journey from Onion Valley to this point, more than halfway now to the end of the JMT.

Trip Report: Now nearly 150 miles into our 250-mile journey, we reached Muir Trail Ranch around 3pm after covering 15 miles of downhill hiking from Evolution Lake. It was noticeably warmer down in the valley and in the sunny patches of the San Joaquin watershed—and smoke from the distant Dixie Fire in northern California had started to settle in the valley, partly obscuring our views but not severe enough to have lingering effects on our health and endurance. We found the service at MTR to be good and efficient, and the store had a surprising number of supplies, including some extra sunscreen, electrolytes, and even some hats and shirts. After loading our next set of food into our bear canisters, we trudged across the San Joaquin and, after some confusion, eventually found the campsites and Blayney Hot Springs. The hot springs were blissful as the sun started to set, well worth the slight detour from MTR. The next day we would begin Leg III of our journey.

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John Muir Trail Northbound Section 1 – Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley (Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, CA)

John Muir Trail above Lower Vidette Meadow, Kings Canyon National Park, August 2021

Note: This is the second in a series of five posts describing the John Muir Trail (JMT), a scintillating, multi-week hike through California’s Sierra Nevada that extends more than 200 miles from Yosemite National Park in the north to Mount Whitney and Sequoia National Park in the south. This post (and those that follow) assumes a northbound journey, beginning southeast of Mount Whitney at Horseshoe Meadow in Inyo National Forest, culminating at Happy Isles in Yosemite. The JMT is an arduous, multi-week backpacking trip that requires careful planning, preparation, and an official backcountry permit that can be quite difficult to obtain. Hikers typically complete the entire trail, including detours for food resupplies, in about 2-3 weeks. For more information on planning and preparing for the JMT, see my previous post titled “John Muir Trail Preparation & Logistics.” For summaries of the other three sections, see Section II (Onion Valley to Muir Trail Ranch)Section III (Muir Trail Ranch to Red’s Meadow), and Section IV (Red’s Meadow to Happy Isles).

The first of four sections along the northbound John Muir Trail, this roughly 65-mile stretch extends from Horseshoe Meadow to Onion Valley and traverses the highest terrain of the entire hike, including the summit of Mount Whitney (14,505’), the highest point in the contiguous United States. Those starting at Horseshoe Meadow and hiking at a roughly average pace (10-12 miles/day) should be able to complete this section in about six days (including a day hike to Mount Whitney). Careful planners will note that roughly the first two days are not in fact on the true John Muir Trail (JMT); rather, it is a 20-mile journey from Horseshoe Meadow to the JMT by way of Cottonwood Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), through Sequoia National Park. (Note: This is due to the relative ease of getting a Cottonwood Pass permit, rather than one starting from Whitney Portal. See my previous post, “John Muir Trail – Preparation and Logistics.”) Only after reaching Crabtree Meadow, at the base of the Whitney complex, does one begin the proper JMT. From here, hikers can do an out-and-back to the summit of Mount Whitney as a day hike (without heavy packs!) and then continue northward the next day across stunning terrain to Forester Pass (13,110’), the highest pass of the entire JMT. Here hikers leave Sequoia and enter Kings Canyon National Park, following the Bubbs Creek drainage before ascending to Kearsarge Basin; a detour up and over Kearsarge Pass leads to Onion Valley, the first road connection since the start and a common waypoint for hikers who need to resupply for the onward journey.

Horseshoe Meadow to Rock Creek via Cottonwood Pass (14 miles)

For many, due to permit constraints, the scintillating, multi-week journey on the John Muir Trail (JMT) begins not on the JMT at all, but along one of the many side trails that eventually connect with the main track. One popular destination for beginning the hike is Horseshoe Meadow, a high-altitude staging area at about 10,000 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada—a 23-mile drive from Lone Pine, California. From Horseshoe Meadow, a network of paths offers access through Inyo National Forest to Sequoia National Park and the Golden Trout Wilderness. Two trailheads are of relevance for JMT hikers—Cottonwood Pass and Cottonwood Lakes—and are about a half-mile apart, with separate parking areas and backpacker campgrounds. A Cottonwood Pass or Cottonwood Lakes permit—which is good for the entire JMT journey—allows hikers to spend the night prior to your start date at the trailhead. (Note: There are 18 and 13 first-come, first-serve walk-in sites, at the cost of $6/night, at Cottonwood Pass and Cottonwood Lakes, respectively.) Although both the Cottonwood Pass and Cottonwood Lake routes both provide access to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the hike as described here follows the former, offering slightly easier and shorter access to the PCT/JMT corridor.

Map of Horseshoe Meadow area, Inyo National Forest; created using alltrails.com

Camping the night before your permit date helps with acclimating to the significant elevation change, with Lone Pine and Owens Valley several thousand feet below. (Note: We came from the Bay Area, meaning we were starting from near sea level.) Altitude sickness is one of the most common trip-enders, so doing all you can to acclimate to the 10,000+ foot elevation is highly recommended. (Note: This also suggests drinking lots of fluids—more than you think you need—on the trip’s opening days.)

Map of Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Cottonwood Pass Trail (Horseshoe Meadow to Rock Creek), Inyo National Forest & Sequoia National Park; created using alltrails.com

At the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead, situated at the far western end of the short loop drive at Horseshoe Meadow, a variety of signs and information boards welcome hikers to Inyo National Forest and the Golden Trout Wilderness, a 304,000-acre tract in the southern Sierras. The Golden Trout Wilderness, established in 1978, is often thought to mark the southern fringe of the High Sierras, the transition from glacier-carved peaks and valleys to open plateaus and eventually the scrubby foothills and Mojave Desert.

Starting out at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead, the first day of the JMT

Heading west on the wide Cottonwood Pass Trail, the subalpine forest is dominated by lodgepole pines; hikers quickly reach a trail junction at about 1/10 mile. Staying right, follow the level moraine as the trail briefly skirts the sandy and open Horseshoe Meadow, fed by the modest Horseshoe Creek. Here hikers can begin to make out the bowl-like surroundings, with the smooth plateau skirted by high alpine peaks, including Trail Peak (11,605’) to the south.

After briefly flirting with the open meadow, the still-level trail heads back into the woods, which grow thicker as hikers continue westward. At about 1.3 miles, the easy trail crosses two minor streams in relatively quick succession and then begins the first major ascent, a roughly 1,100-foot climb to Cottonwood Pass. It begins with a relatively mild but steady uphill, still remaining among the conifers for now. At about the 2-mile mark, the pace of ascent picks up as hikers tackle around a dozen switchbacks.

As the trail briefly levels off, it skirts a brushy drainage on the left and then rises to a point with the hike’s first excellent views looking back toward Horseshoe Meadow. The broad length of the meadow gives way to a high front to the east, capped by unnamed peaks cresting 11,000 feet, concealing the major drop to the vast Owens Valley and Inyo Mountains beyond.

Horseshoe Meadow from the trail to Cottonwood Pass

Soon enough, a second set of switchbacks ensues, this stretch remaining mostly in the trees with occasional vistas as the pass approaches. Rising to a layer of blocky granite, the trail crests the divide at Cottonwood Pass (11,132’), about 3.8 miles from the start.

Cottonwood Pass (11,132′)

In addition to continued views down the eastern slopes of the Sierras, hikers get their first peek west of the divide. Across the Kern River watershed (where hikers will spend the next several days), one can see as far as the Great Western Divide, a range of towering peaks that bisect Sequoia National Park. At Cottonwood Pass, hikers also connect for the first time with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,650-mile track that eventually doubles as the JMT some 16 miles to the north.

View west into the Golden Trout Wilderness from Cottonwood Pass

Though the most obvious trail leads straight in the direction of Big Whitney Meadow, this is not the PCT. Rather, hikers will want to turn right, following a reasonable grade as it hugs the south-facing slope of the main mountain divide. The mostly uphill track leads for 6/10 mile to a junction that is easy to miss: just before crossing a small drainage, a 0.2-mile spur trail leads right and climbs to Chicken Spring Lake, a worthy detour and good place to fill up on water for the onward journey.

Chicken Spring Lake in the Golden Trout Wilderness

Chicken Spring Lake is perhaps the most popular destination in the Golden Trout Wilderness, with good reason, as the still waters abut a scenic granite pitch, a preview of what’s to come. Some JMT hikers will choose to camp here; although only 4.6 miles from the trailhead, the lake is already at 11,200 feet, so those concerned with altitude sickness may wish to set up here for the night. (Note: At a minimum, definitely fill up with water here, as, especially late in the season, there may be limited or no stream access for the next eight miles on the northbound PCT.)

After visiting the lake, return to the PCT, cross the drainage (which may be dry), and begin a surprisingly difficult clamber, one of the steepest sections of the day. From here the rocky trail gains around 200 feet as it clears a ridgeline dotted with hearty foxtail pines and bird’s eye views of Chicken Spring Lake. On the other side of the ridge, hikers are greeted with an excellent look across the woody terrain of the Golden Trout Wilderness. The grassy patch to the southwest is Big Whitney Meadow, fed by Stokes Stringer Creek, which flows into Golden Trout Creek and eventually the South Fork of the Kern River. Beyond lies Johnson Peak (11,371’) and the Great Western Divide. Off to the south, hikers will eventually spot Olancha Peak (12,132’), a prominent summit that stands out as the highest peak in its immediate vicinity.

Big Whitney Meadow and the Golden Trout Wilderness from the Pacific Crest Trail

The High Sierras beckon, and Rock Creek—a popular goal for the first day of hiking—remains more than eight miles away. After a nice stretch of relative flat, the route ascends again as it skirts a talus slope with more great views of Big Whitney Meadow and beyond. After some more pleasant, level walking, the PCT rises again to clear a notch, where an unnamed but beautiful meadow lies beyond. The trail keeps its distance from the meadow, instead skirting a granite slope below Cirque Peak (12,900’). (Note: there is sometimes water here, in ponds above or below trail level, but don’t count on it.)

Siberian Plateau from near the southern boundary of Sequoia National Park

From here the ascent kicks into high gear again, rising steadily to clear another pointed ridgeline. The opposite side offers another new view—this time to the north, across the vast flats of the Siberian Plateau. One can begin to make out the steep valley carved by the Rock Creek drainage, still more than a five-mile’s walk from this point. (Note: The Mount Whitney area is visible in the distance.) Thereafter, the trail briefly descends before rising again to enter Sequoia National Park, where you will spend the next few days. By now, hikers are about 7.5 miles from the start.

Looking out toward the Siberian Plateau

Onward travel leads down to another trail junction at about 8.2 miles, where hikers must make a choice. The most common option is to continue straight on the PCT, following it for another 4.5-5 miles to the Rock Creek drainage. However, limited water availability between here and Rock Creek (as of July 2021, the area was completely dry) may push some to choose to bear right on the Siberian Pass Trail, taking an alternate route down to Rock Creek. The upside of this alternative is that it offers quicker access to water and nice campsites at the Soldier Lakes area; the downside is that the detour adds over a half-mile to the hike. A third option is to camp around here, on the Siberian Plateau: there are gads of nice campsites by the meadow, though the various forks of Siberian Pass Creek may be dry, depending on the time of year of travel, forcing one to dry camp.

This description continues to follow the PCT, which sets out across the Siberian Outpost en route to Rock Creek. The next four miles are a nice combination of flat and downhill terrain, although hikers who started at Horseshoe Meadow may be quite tired by this time of day, making the descent seem rather endless. Bearing west amid coniferous forest, hikers get occasional, somewhat obscured views of Joe Devel Peak (13,325’) and the spectacular Miter Basin area.

After about 2.5 miles of relatively level terrain, the PCT begins to descend in earnest into the drainage carved by Siberian Pass Creek. By now, hikers can see across the woody valley of Rock Creek to Mount Guyot (12,300’), the most prominent peak to the northwest. After about a mile of descent, hikers pass a small meadow bounded by thick granite slabs, then the trail zig-zags down switchbacks toward the main Rock Creek drainage. Crossing a marshy area at around 12.5 miles, there is some seasonal stream access and a campsite frequently used by trail crews. Thereafter, it is a relatively short walk to the next trail junction, situated about 12.8 miles from the start.

Here the Army Pass Trail (the route from Soldiers Lakes and Miter Basin) enters from the right, while the main PCT heads left, traversing a woody shelf above the Rock Creek drainage, with the main stream not yet visible. Just after crossing a tributary, about 300 yards from the junction, there are a couple decent campsites on the right, a welcome sight for those who hiked the full 13 miles to get here and don’t quite have the energy to keep going down to Rock Creek itself.

Continuing onward, it is another 1/3 mile until hikers cross a series of beautiful meadows, eventually coming to the banks of Rock Creek, a beautiful, babbling stream that hikers will follow for the next half-mile. There are several campsites around here, as well as a signed spur trail leading to the Rock Creek Ranger Station.

Beautiful Rock Creek

Finally, after nearly 14 miles of hiking from Horseshoe Meadow, the trail reaches the crossing of Rock Creek, where there is a bear locker and a multitude of campsites. This, or one of the campsites along the previous mile, is an ideal place to reach on Day 1 (or Day 2 if camped at Chicken Spring Lake the previous night) of the hike.

Trip Report: Three of us set out on July 27, 2021 from Horseshoe Meadow, carrying six days of food for Leg 1 of the journey. Despite a nasty thunderstorm the day before, we lucked out with sunny skies for much of the day, but the drought conditions made water availability challenging. We filled up at Chicken Spring Lake and saw no other water for the next eight miles, requiring each of us to carry about three liters each. It’s a good haul to Rock Creek on the first day, and we ended up camping at the tributary stream reached at around mile 13—not the greatest site but good enough for setting us up for the next section—up and over Guyot Pass to Crabtree Meadow—the following day.

Rock Creek to Crabtree (7 miles)

After rock-hopping across Rock Creek, the PCT wastes no time in beginning the ascent, more than 1,300 feet in elevation, to Guyot Pass (10,935’). After crossing a couple tributary streams, the path enters a set of aggressive switchbacks, quickly rising out of the Rock Creek drainage, with some limited views down-valley to the much-larger Kern Canyon. After more than 500 feet in elevation gain, the trail briefly levels off as the conifers grow sparser. From here the PCT descends to a point crossing Guyot Creek, often the last reliable stream before Crabtree.

Map of Pacific Crest Trail (Rock Creek to Crabtree), Sequoia National Park; created using alltrails.com

After the creek, the upward incline remains relatively mild for about ¼ mile before picking up again, sans switchbacks, as the trail makes its way toward Guyot Pass. Rising amid a sparse conifer forest, travelers hike through the shadow of Mount Guyot (12,300’), a major peak separating the pass from the Kern River drainage.

Climbing toward Guyot Pass, with Mount Guyot (12,300′) off to the west

After more than two miles and 1,300 feet in elevation gain, the PCT finally crests a final set of trail bends and clears Guyot Pass. The saddle itself offers partly obscured views back toward Rock Creek, as well as north toward the Crabtree and Mount Whitney areas.

Beyond Guyot Pass, the PCT descends mildly to the fringes of Guyot Flat, a sandy expanse with limited (or no) water but expansive views west to Kern Canyon, the Kaweah Peaks, and the Great Western Divide. After a brief stretch of easy, level walking, the track climbs again amid a somewhat dense collection of pines. At about 4.4 miles from Rock Creek, the route traverses an open, sandy patch again; from here, the PCT ascends a surprisingly steep pitch, gaining around 200 feet in elevation to clear a woody ridgeline.

Mount Guyot from Guyot Flat

Once over the ridgetop, the eastward-trending trail offers its first views of the Mount Whitney complex: an intimidating collection of distant sawtooth peaks and spires, the highest terrain in the Sierra Nevada. The peak of Whitney is just out of view, but hikers can see many of its surrounding cousins, including Mount Young (13,177’), Mount Hale (13,491’), Mount Muir (14,012’), and Discovery Pinnacle (13,748’).

View from the PCT as it descends toward Crabtree Meadow and the Mount Whitney area

As the trail makes its way northeast, it drops into a granite notch lined with bulky boulders and reaches a wooden gate. After a short uphill, the trail briefly reenters the woods and then rounds a left-hand bend to the edge of Lower Crabtree Meadow, a beautiful and large patch of green fields, fed by meandering Whitney Creek.

The High Sierras from Lower Crabtree Meadow

As hikers approach Whitney Creek and the junction with a spur trail leading toward Mount Whitney, there is a bear locker and plenty of excellent camping spots along the edge of the meadow. At the fork, those skipping Mount Whitney can stay left, ascending the PCT in the direction of Wallace Creek and Forester Pass to the north. But most hikers seeking to do the entire John Muir Trail will want to bear east, setting one up for tackling Mount Whitney (and the official start of the northbound JMT) the following day.

The Whitney Creek Trail heading right offers the quickest access to Upper Crabtree Meadow and the Ranger Station, around which many hikers from Cottonwood Pass will make camp on night two or three. At first, the path is mild and extremely pleasant, flanking the meadow on the right, with views east and south toward Mount Hitchcock (13,184’) and Mount Chamberlin (13,169’).

Flanking Whitney Creek as we climb to the main camping area at Crabtree

Soon enough, however, the trail diverts away from the meadow and begins to climb again, following the Whitney Creek drainage through a thick forest of conifers. After climbing perhaps 100 to 150 feet, the narrow but well-trodden path crosses Whitney Creek, with an unmarked path heading right toward Crabtree Lakes. Stay left, now paralleling the stream on the right, steadily ascending in the shadow of Mount Young. After a short walk, hikers reach another trail fork, a three-way junction at the head of Upper Crabtree Meadow. Heading right (away from the creek) leads to the main camping area at Crabtree, a veritable “hiker village” chock full of campers at the edge of the meadow.

This main camping area at Crabtree, where there is a two-night limit, is nothing special, except for the presence of a bear locker and a rare luxury: a small pit toilet, with a single wall of corrugated metal for privacy, situated perhaps 150 yards from the stream and trail junction, at the edge of the meadow on the east side. Crabtree is particularly popular as a staging point for travelers to Mount Whitney (15 miles round-trip from here), and the Crabtree Ranger Station offers assistance in the case of emergency, as well as a sheltered deck if you need to dry some clothes or equipment during one of the area’s frequent rainstorms.

Trip Report: Beginning about a mile back on the PCT from the Rock Creek crossing, we covered the short trip to Crabtree on Day 2 of our journey. The climb out of the Rock Creek drainage to Guyot Pass was challenging, with steady gain but few switchbacks, but the rest of the day was relatively mild, with the sun finally coming out briefly as we reached Lower Crabtree Meadow. But, being late July, we were in the middle of a powerful monsoon season, and storm clouds threatened as we reached the main camping area at Crabtree in the mid-afternoon. A nasty thunderstorm had us scrambling for our tents, where we spent an hour and a half waiting out the rain and lightning. After moving our tents out of deep puddles, we got some better weather in the evening, enough to cook dinner and prepare for the next day—a 15-day hike to Mount Whitney—which would be our toughest day yet.

Crabtree to Mount Whitney and back (15 miles)

For hikers heading southbound on the John Muir Trail, the multi-week trek culminates at Mount Whitney (14,505’), the highest peak in the contiguous United States. For northbound JMT hikers, summitting the mountain comes very early in the trip; for most backpackers coming from Horseshoe Meadow, the arduous climb to Mount Whitney comes on Day 3 or 4. Fortunately, if one camps at Crabtree (or slightly farther up a Guitar Lake), hikers can tackle the summit as a reasonable, out-and-back day hike.

Map of John Muir Trail – Crabtree to Mount Whitney, Sequoia National Park; created using alltrails.com

Due to the high propensity for afternoon thunderstorms, starting early in the morning from Crabtree is a must. (Note: Those seeking to watch the sunrise from the summit will want to start hiking no later than 1 or 2am.) From the main camping area—near the junction, bear locker, and Ranger Station—cross Whitney Creek and clamber up a woody hill with additional campsites to the right and left. After about 1/10 mile, take a right at the trail junction; at long last, hikers are finally on the John Muir Trail! The official start of the JMT (the summit of Mount Whitney) lies 7.4 miles—and a brutal 3,800 feet in elevation gain—from this point.

Heading east on the JMT, the high-traffic route follows a pine-studded terrace then traverses an open upland with views of the craggy Whitney complex ahead. About one mile from Crabtree, the trail skirts another pleasant meadow bisected by Whitney Creek and then rises rather sharply to a point overlooking the grassy carpet, bounded by the massif of Mount Hitchcock to the south.

Early morning ascent toward Mount Whitney

Next, the trail rises to mount a granite shelf, overlooking a narrow gorge carved by Whitney Creek. The rushing waters soon give way to a quiet, marshy area and the serene Timberline Lake, where camping is prohibited but the morning reflection of the Whitney ridgeline is spectacular. This is a lovely spot and the last lake in the subalpine ecosystem before the JMT moves up beyond tree-line.

Timberline Lake

From Timberline Lake, the onward trail skirts the shoreline before rising to a densely wooded area with a nice campsite nestled up against a smooth granite wall on the right. After rising up above the timberline, the conifers are sparse and the granite boulders grow larger as the trail follows a wide depression between rocky slopes. The gently sloping path climbs to an open terrace that soon offers the first views of the entirely tree-less Guitar Lake, a very popular camping destination (especially for southbound JMT hikers heading to Whitney Portal). Coming in from the north, a nicely-flowing stream—which drains Arctic Lake, some 800 feet above—offers perhaps the last opportunity to fill up with water before the dry and desolate climb beyond.

Passing campers at Guitar Lake

Up to this point, with Guitar Lake on the right, the climb from Crabtree has covered 800 feet in elevation in just under three miles. In the next 4.5 miles, hikers will cover a crushing 3,000-foot gain between here and the summit of Mount Whitney.

Looking back at Guitar Lake from the JMT

The trail beyond Guitar Lake quickly passes a couple of small mountain tarns and then scrambles up a rocky bench, with the guitar-like shape of the lake coming into full view. The bowl-shaped depression in the granite ahead is entirely devoid of trees, with virtually all vegetation disappearing as the trail climbs to the base of a rugged and seemingly endless set of switchbacks leading up to Trail Crest and the turnoff for the summit.

Traversing Mordor…

As hikers pass 12,000—then eventually 13,000—feet, the relentlessly ascending trail offers excellent views down to Hitchcock Lakes, two deep blue pools set at the base of jagged Mount Hitchcock. Beyond to the south, hikers eventually rise high enough to see over Mount Hitchcock to a clutch of peaks in the Miter Basin area—such as Mount Newcomb (13,410’), Mount Pickering (13,485’), and Mount Langley (14,042’). To the west, the Whitney Creek drainage gives way to Kern Canyon, with the Kaweah Peaks and Great Western Divide dominating the horizon.

Hitchcock Lakes from the JMT
Looking back at Hitchcock Lakes, Guitar Lake, and Crabtree Basin

It is not until about 5.4 miles—at elevation 13,450’—that hikers reach the three-way junction just below Trail Crest. Here the JMT bears left for the final, two-mile stretch to the summit, while the onward path to Whitney Portal (the exit route for southbound JMT hikers) continues right. Because the journey to the summit from here is an out-and-back, this intersection is a popular staging point for multi-day hikers to leave their backpacks behind. (Note: Beware, however, of hungry marmots—who will have no qualms about chewing through your pack if left unattended!)

On the spur toward the summit of Mount Whitney

From this point onward, the crowds multiply, as throngs of day hikers and overnighters enter from Whitney Portal to the east, joining the hearty travelers from Crabtree for the final leg. The last two miles to Mount Whitney begin with a quick set of switchbacks, with continued views down to Hitchcock Lakes and Guitar Lake to the west.

Jagged pinnacles on the ridge between Mount Whitney and Mount Muir

After cresting a cleft between the main ridge and a jagged clutch of spires, the trail actually descends for a short while, reaching a set of window-like notches with precipitous drops down to the east. At many of these windows, hikers get a view down toward Owens Valley and Lone Pine, with a barren landscape resembling Mordor in between.

View east toward Owens Valley

After passing a series of pinnacles and Mount Muir (14,012’), the trail settles into a steady, stony ascent toward the bulky western slope of Mount Whitney. In the final stretch, the JMT swings suddenly to the west, reaching a slope with new and spectacular vistas down to Wales Lake and the Wallace Lake drainage to the northwest.

Wales Lake from near the Mount Whitney summit
View southwest from near the summit

From here, the trail routes back to the east, making its final ascent to the summit of Mount Whitney (14,505’), the highest peak in not just California but the entire contiguous United States. (Note: There are 11 peaks, all in Alaska, that are higher.) The summit also marks the end of the southbound JMT—and mile 0.0 for the northbound JMT, the (official) beginning of the journey! A metal plaque marks the true summit, while the modest Mount Whitney Summit Shelter offers sanctuary in case of a sudden lightning storm.

If the weather holds, the vistas from Mount Whitney are aplenty. To the east lies Owens Valley and the Inyo Mountains, with the various forks of Lone Pine Creek immediately below. The view south is even better, with clean views of Mount Langley, Mount Mallory (13,850’), and other high peaks, with Owens Lake (dry) and even the Death Valley area visible beyond. To the southwest lies Hitchcock Lakes and Crabtree, as well as much of the terrain covered in previous days, including the Guyot Pass area and Rock Creek drainage. The Kaweah Peaks and Great Western Divide continue to dominate the landscape to the west, while a northward view previews some of the terrain passed in future days on the JMT, including the Kings-Kern Divide, Mount Williamson (14,375’), and even the distant peaks of the Palisades (14,242’) in Kings Canyon National Park.

Yours truly on the summit of Mount Whitney

Having climbed 7.5 miles and 3,800 feet from Crabtree, it’s worth staying awhile at the summit, even as the gads of other visitors stream up and down the trail to the top. Once ready, however (a decision which may be accelerated by approaching storm clouds), return back down the way you came, returning to the junction after around two miles, then an additional 5.4 miles to Crabtree and the main camping area. The 15-mile round-trip journey will take much of the day for most travelers and, despite doing the trek without a heavy pack, is one of the hardest stretches of trail on the entire JMT.