Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 11
This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail (north to south) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015. Previous installments and additional photos are online here.
Day 11: Wednesday, July 29
Fords Creek to Bear Creek
A milestone was reached at some point on this day. We surpassed 100 miles.
Another achievement on this, our eleventh day on the trail, was that it was now the most consecutive days we’d ever backpacked. Our previous personal records were 10 days of wilderness travel.
So far, we had traveled through four California counties — Tuolumne, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno — as well as Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness and Ansel Adams Wilderness in Inyo and Sierra national forests. All on our own two feet.
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That morning, we said goodbye to our camp mates, whom we had been seeing regularly along the trail since we had camped with them at Red’s Meadow two days previously. They left before daybreak while Jennie and I stuck around and enjoyed the campsite a little longer. We never saw any of them again.
The day started out easy enough. We had knocked a couple miles off our day’s itinerary by hiking beyond our destination of Silver Lake the afternoon before. And it was a downhill jaunt along Fords Creek until reaching the bottom of the canyon where it meets with Mono Creek.
The route is in a shaded forest with plenty of views of the creek that picks up speed as the canyon narrows and the descent steepens. We happened upon “Ranger Miller” somewhere along this stretch. He was friendly enough as he checked our permit, but then for an exaggerated amount of time proceeded to teach us the basics of backpacking, from food storage to camping near water and everything in between. Perhaps he didn’t notice the date on our permit, which would have informed him we had been traveling for 11 days so probably knew what we were doing by now and, if not, we most likely weren’t planning on changing our ways.
Being two women on the trail, we had a few other instances where (older) men were condescending or patronizing. It’s ingrained culturally, and they didn’t realize they were doing it and had the best of intentions. An example is when we were descending a steep pass and near the base, a male backpacker going up warned us we were approaching some “slippery rocks” ahead. We had just descended a steep mountain of slippery rocks — in fact, the entire trail is made up of slippery rocks — and try as we might, we never found a section of even slippery-er rocks that he may have been alluding to. But we did appreciate that he cared (even though he didn’t tell the men behind us about the slippery rocks).
At the bottom of the canyon, we passed the cut-off to Lake Thomas A. Edison and Vermilion Valley Resort (a popular resupply stop). We skipped VVR because it requires a bit of maneuvering to get there — a combination of hiking, a ferry, and/or, in times of drought, a jeep ride. Our next resupply, the second of three, would be in a couple days at Muir Trail Ranch.
Instead, we stayed on the JMT and crossed a substantial footbridge to plant ourselves at the river’s edge to filter water. The trail was entering a dry, uphill stretch that would have no water source for more than five miles.
Appearing out of nowhere, Forest Service ranger #2 asked to see our permit. We then eavesdropped as a backpacker, who was from another country, asked this ranger about the poor signage along the trail (see www.kaweahcommonwealth.com/john-muir-trail/hiking-john-muir-trail-days-7-9). Jennie and I knew this was a valid question. We had met two parties who had gotten off-trail due to the confusing wooden trail signs or lack thereof.
“It’s because we don’t want hikers to rely on the signs,” the ranger responded.
It’s possible the Forest Service doesn’t even know all the signs that are missing. There are splintered fragments nailed to trees of wooden blocks that had the Pacific Crest Trail emblem burned onto them. Most likely, these have been taken over the years as souvenirs, meaning thru-hikers have no confirmation for many miles that they are on the right trail.
Jennie and I had already learned not to rely on the USFS trail signs, stopping regularly at junctions to instead pull out the map and determine our direction of travel. But as busy as the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails have become, the more some hikers don’t have trail signs to rely on, the more they will have to rely on search-and-rescue services.
Since the John Muir Trail is so well-traveled, we didn’t worry too much about losing the trail. We have both been backpacking for many years (Jennie nearly every year of her life) and are well-versed in map and compass, if necessary. Many hikers use GPS navigation. We will advance to that technology, reluctantly, but didn’t deem it (or the added weight) necessary on this trip.
Upon leaving Mono Creek, it is a four-mile, dusty, forested stretch up the steep slope known as Bear Ridge. And to add to the fun, the day was heating up.
This section of trail has 68 to 97 switchbacks, depending on whom we were talking to at the time. We didn’t count, so can’t verify the numbers although the consensus seems to be in the 60 to 70 range.
Our stomachs, not our watch, told us it was lunchtime somewhere in the midst of this forest, so we continued straight where a switchback made a U-turn and sat down in the dirt on a steep, old section of trail. No creek babbling, no wind whispering in the trees, no sun-drenched granite boulders, no scenic vistas.
We had packed a watch with our gear, but its only use now was to time how long our dinners had been rehydrating so we knew the exact second we could start eating. As the days progressed, we were becoming increasingly ravenous.
Interestingly, when we started this trip, we depended on the watch to tell us when to wake up and when it was time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But we subconsciously had quit relying on time. We woke up at daybreak, went to sleep at dark, and ate when we were hungry. We were naturally reverting to our primal instincts.
As soon as the trail tops Bear Ridge, it levels off for a bit, then heads down the other side. Now we were on a sunny, scenic slope with green grasses swaying and aspens sparkling in the breeze. We were on the water side of the mountain, and the difference in vegetation is noticeable. And we were out of the forest so the views were expansive.
Down we went, losing all the elevation we had worked so hard to gain. We dropped 1,000 feet into the next canyon south.
We passed where the Bear Creek Trail intersects the JMT, which is another way for hikers to get to or from Vermilion Valley Resort. It was time to start looking for a campsite but the trail junction was congested with backpackers set up for the night.
We decided to continue farther upstream. Alternating along the way between cascading white water and a tranquil stream, the falls and pools along Bear Creek are alluring, and there are lots of places to stop for a swim.
We selected a comfortable campsite with a granite deck overlooking the creek. We were close to the trail but somewhat blocked by shrubbery.
We prepared dinner by the side of the creek, stowed our food, and crawled into the tent. As was becoming a pleasant routine, we fell asleep to the sound of the rushing water. And even though we were obviously in bear country — Bear Ridge, Bear Creek — we had not yet had the privilege of seeing one.