Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 14
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 here.
Day 14: Saturday, August 1
Piute Creek to McClure Meadow
The rainstorm from the previous evening had moved on for now. We dried our tent on a sunny boulder while devouring a breakfast of Apple Walnut Quinoa Oatmeal, courtesy of the Muir Trail Ranch hiker buckets. It was good to have some variety in the meal fare; our stomachs were beginning to rebel on some of the more routine offerings.
As soon as we embarked on the trail, less than a mile inside the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park, it became obvious we were someplace special. The backcountry of Kings Canyon easily rivals Yosemite in stunning beauty but is much more wild and unspoiled.
The trail here is a work of art, carved out of a rock face that drops another 100 feet to the swift-moving, north-flowing South Fork San Joaquin River. The trail is so narrow in places that two people couldn’t pass if they met.
Our first order of business was to find a rock. Not just any rock, but the “Muir Trail 1917” rock.
As we paralleled the river, we were looking left and right, up and down, for this carved boulder. And, due to its understated nature, it is quite likely that most hikers pass right by without even noticing it.
And we probably would have too because it was in the shade of a tree during that time of morning, making the carving hard to see (and not very photogenic). This boulder was chiseled by a John Muir Trail crew 98 years before.
The trail is a gentle ascent along the mighty San Joaquin to the steel footbridge that crosses the river. We entered onto a large floodplain dotted with lodgepole pines where Evolution Creek merges with the San Joaquin River’s South Fork.
The San Joaquin — with its North, Middle, and South Forks — is the second longest river in California after the Sacramento River. Although dammed in several places after it leaves the wilderness and mostly dry beyond, any water that isn’t used for irrigation or drinking water eventually ends up in the San Francisco Bay.
It was along this wide, flat stretch of trail that I tripped on a root while simultaneously walking and adjusting a hiking pole and, for the first time ever while wearing a fully loaded backpack, fell. It was an interesting phenomenon because due to the weight of the pack there is no chance of recovery. The momentum was solely downward.
I landed with an oomph on my side in the soft duff, immediately thankful for dirt instead of the chunks of granite that were strewn about the trail on the other side of the river. Jennie was 100 feet in front of me, and I watched from my vantage point on the ground as she disappeared over a rise in the trail.
I wanted to yell for her, but in my peripheral vision I could see a bright orange tent through the trees. Pride won out over getting help, and I stayed quiet so as not to draw attention to myself.
The only way to get up was to unbuckle my pack and roll out of it. After brushing off the dirt from shoulder to shin and nursing a bloody knee, I had to figure out how to get the pack on without a perch. There wasn’t a rock or stump or log anywhere close.
Since we had just picked up a resupply of rations two days before, my pack was at its heaviest. At over 40 pounds, I was not able to simply pick it up and sling it over my shoulder.
It needed to be lifted onto an object at least knee height or higher. Then I would back into it, slide my arms through the shoulder straps, and use my legs to lift myself upright.
I grabbed my pack by the haul loop and a shoulder strap and waddled up the trail until I found a much-too-small rock to prop it on. I slipped into the shoulder straps and hoisted from a crouched position until I was upright once again and buckled the hipbelt. As soon as I had adjusted the load and clipped the sternum strap, a group of three appeared on the trail. I nonchalantly said hello as I strolled by, relieved the timing worked out so they didn’t happen upon me after I’d been tackled by my pack and was horizontal in the dirt.
Jennie was waiting for me at the junction of JMT and the Goddard Canyon trail, sitting on the wooden bridge that once again spans the headwaters of the San Joaquin River and confused as to where I could have possibly gone. She had a good laugh.
These bridges are wonderful feats of engineering, especially given their remote locations. And we were thankful they were there. Even after four years of drought, the San Joaquin is a powerful, turbulent force.
We crossed to the east side of the river and looked up at a seemingly impenetrable wall of rock. But, no surprise, we were heading up.
After a long switchback in the floodplain we began ascending back and forth on shorter, steep, rocky switchbacks. Toward the top, the sound of turbulent water came into earshot, then one of the switchbacks took us right to the edge of a polished granite chute where Evolution Creek was plunging downward in a dramatic series of falls and cascades.
We were following the creek now, going in and out of the forest cover, still climbing, but the water provided nonstop music and diversion. We leveled out at the Evolution Creek crossing, which requires the removal of footwear as it is shallow but wide with a strong current. There is an alternate crossing upstream that hikers are advised to use during the early season’s high water.
We stopped for lunch at Evolution Meadow just beyond the ford. From here it was a pleasant four-mile jaunt along the creek with interchanging forest and meadow to reach our destination for the night, McClure Meadow.
The meadow was named in 1920 for Wilbur McClure (1856-1926), the California state engineer who was charged with selecting the final John Muir Trail route and overseeing the construction.
Upon our arrival in the vicinity, we passed by a well-used campsite at the beginning of the meadow, certain that any others rolling in on this day would also be drawn here. So we kept walking and soon passed by the McClure Meadow Ranger Station, perched mostly out of site on a rocky knoll overlooking the picturesque meadow.
We walked a couple minutes beyond the ranger station without settling on a site. I told Jennie that I wanted to walk back to the ranger station; I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to meet its summer resident ranger.
Dario Malengo is ranger legend in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The summer of 2015 marked his 41st season with the National Park Service.
Dario, who would be turning 70 in less than a month, is the oldest ranger in the parks. And no one has served in the parks’ backcountry longer.
It must be a pretty good gig because a lot of these rangers tend to stick around awhile — Randy Morgenson (rest in peace), George Durkee, Bob Kenan, Rick Sanger (Medal of Valor recipient), Rob Pilewski...
Backcountry rangers are the unsung heroes of the wilderness. Their names are rarely mentioned but they’re the ones who are searching for, locating, tending to, and even recovering those wilderness travelers who unintentionally make their way into the Sierra Crest section of the parks incidents reports. They have fed, sheltered, and clothed wayward hikers, and have mended broken ankles, wrapped knees, and been the first responders to every type of outdoor emergency imaginable.
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I met back up with Jennie and followed the directions Dario had given me to a secluded, off-trail campsite on the east end of the meadow where it meets the forest. We had a view of The Hermit, a prominent 12,000-foot peak, to the east and a straight-on shot to the west that would provide sunset views. Maybe.
If you’ve been following along on this trail tale for its entirety, then you won’t be surprised to learn that as soon as we set up the tent, like clockwork, the thunder, lightning, rain, and hail began. Here we go again.
The storm violently announced its intention to park over the meadow. Lightning was so close that a couple of times we squatted on the balls of our feet on our insulated sleeping pads, thus minimizing our contact with the ground and lessening the chance that electricity could enter our bodies if there was a strike nearby.
This storm lasted three hours. The hail sounded as if someone was tossing buckets of gravel onto our tent. The thunder was an unrelenting rumble with intermittent explosions.
We were prisoners in our nylon dome, and it was dinnertime. We certainly didn’t appreciate having a meal delayed. We hadn’t had time to do our camp chores before the storm unleashed its fury, so we had no water to drink, no water to cook with, and no chance to rinse off the day’s trail dirt.
The rain subsided at 6 p.m. We scurried to the creek and filtered water, filled our bucket, and dunked ourselves into a pleasant but chilly pool.
We savored our rehydrated dinner while watching a colorful cloudy sunset across the meadow that lasted until swallowed up by darkness.