Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

Meet-and-greet on Mather Pass. (Click arrows for additional photos.)The fjord-like Lower Palisade Lake.Hey, grownups! Kids can backpack too! A family tackles the Sierra High Route. The Bench Lake Ranger Station.The meadow plateau at the intersection of the JMT and the Bench Lake trail.Campsite at Marjorie Lake and the view back to Mather Pass and the Palisade Peaks beyond.An extraordinary sunset illuminated the evening sky at Lake Marjorie.An incredible alpenglow appeared on the ridgeline, setting the granite afire with a rosy glow.
View of Lake Marjorie looking north.  View of Lake Marjorie looking south toward Pinchot Pass.
The view looking north from Mather Pass.The view looking south from Mather Pass.

Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 18

By: 
Sarah Elliott
[The John Muir Trail is] a magnificent memorial, a highway for devout pilgrims blessing the memory of the prophet who was the first to sing the praises of this glorious sequence of mountain, meadow, pass, and lake. —Francis Farquhar

 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 more photos are online at here.
 
Day 18: Wednesday, August 5
Above Palisade Lakes to Lake Marjorie
10 miles
Cumulative miles: 160
 
Mather. Pinchot. Glen. Forester. The mountain passes would be arriving at regular intervals now as long as we kept moving in a southerly direction. And we were heading into the home stretch of this spectacular trail.
 
It would be a few days before we would even drop below 10,000 feet elevation again.  The temperature on this morning reflected the high elevation.
 
We were at about 11,000 feet; the temperature was hovering around 30, and we would be leaving our camp long before the sun spread its rays to our little shelf of granite.
 
Odds of wind the night before were definitely high since we had camped in an exposed chute below a pass. But there was none, and it felt good to catch up on our sleep.
 
The chilly conditions made it hard to leave the tent. We wanted to stay in the warmth of our sleeping bags until the sun shined down upon us, but we had a pass to conquer.
 
We made hot drinks and set about packing up camp. We were still in the shadows of daybreak by the time we shrugged into our packs. so walked briskly up the steep trail.
 
At this early hour, as the sun was still below the high peaks to the east, the only rays of sun were on Mather Pass, which rises abruptly about two trail miles away. Jennie caught sight of this promise of warmth and was gone, not even the high granite steps along the trail were going to stop her on her quest to thaw out. I didn’t see her again until I arrived at the pass where she was basking in the sunshine.
 
The views during the climb are spectacular. It’s a barren, monochromatic landscape speckled with sapphire lakes and surrounded by a half-dozen serrated spikes surpassing 14,000 feet. Our world had become all about water, stone, and cobalt sky.
 
Jennie flew quickly by several other hikers also heading up the north side that morning and had some solitude on the pass before anyone else arrived. By the time I made it to Mather Pass (elevation 12,100 feet), there were a dozen people there. 
 
We were becoming acquainted with some of these trekkers because we had been leap-frogging on the trail for several days. Others were hiking northbound and had arrived from the other side of the pass, including a family of four with a daughter, 11, and son, 9. They were traveling on a section of the Sierra High Route (a 195-mile Kings Canyon-to-Yosemite traverse, all above 9,000 feet, and much of it off trail).
 
So it was a party on the pass. Group photos were taken of each other and with each other. It was snacks all around and lots of good cheer. Then off we all went, heading our separate ways and hiking at our own varying paces. 
 
Mather Pass was first visited in 1897 by a sheepherder and his burro. It was named in 1921 for Stephen Mather (1867-1930), a wealthy businessman who was appointed the first director of the National Park Service in 1917, a position he held until January 1929. The pass did not become a part of the JMT until the trail was rerouted here in 1938.
 
The views to the south of Mather are just as striking with the lake-dappled Upper Basin, a long, wide, glacier-scoured trench; more soaring peaks above 13,000 feet, including massive Split Mountain (14,058 feet), the southernmost of the Palisade range’s fourteeners; and the expansive vista toward Pinchot Pass, our next day’s target. And peeking out from behind the front ranges was Mount Brewer (13,570 feet), located along the Great Western Divide in Sequoia National Park, another sign of how far we had walked and how quickly we were now approaching home. 
 
Mather Pass is the dividing line between the Middle and South forks of the Kings River, so down we went to follow the headwaters to another river. The descent is moderately steep, with some short switchbacks at first on the sandy south side of the pass, then the trail bears east along the mountainside before dropping into Upper Basin, where we resume our southward trek amidst flower-covered tundra dotted with shimmering tarns.
 
What took us almost two hours to climb took less than 30 minutes to descend. We met up with the South Fork of the Kings, which we would follow for several more miles. But first, we stopped along the grassy shoreline for lunch.
 
After our break, we continued along the river. The terrain changes abruptly as we entered forest cover for the first time that day and met up with the first of two crossings over the South Fork-Kings. About 2.5 miles later comes ford number two, the more challenging of the duo.
 
Even in this low water year, negotiating this wild river presented a challenge and the search for an alternative crossing, which usually consists of a fallen log or a river-spanning series of boulders. Jennie utilized rocks and a log; I went downstream where the river splits in two around a small sandbar, changed my footwear, and waded. (See “Missing PCT hiker’s body found in Kings River”; this is the location of the drowning. Also see here for a description of an alternative route to avoid this crossing during periods of high water.)
 
There are spacious, shady campsites here. It was in this low-lying, water-carved canyon where our downhill travel came to an end for the day. We would be climbing out of this drainage, beginning the ascent to Pinchot Pass. 
 
The assault on this slope begins immediately via steep switchbacks on a dry, dusty trail. But once out of the river canyon the route becomes a more gradual traverse. We passed the Taboose Pass trail junction and crossed a small creek that drains from Pinchot Pass. 
 
Just beyond this crossing, in a tranquil meadowland that lured us to stop, is the 1.6-mile trail to Bench Lake. We dropped our packs and reclined on a flat-topped boulder; we were in no hurry to leave this idyllic glade.
 
I went in search of the Bench Lake Ranger Station and found it about one-tenth of a mile off the trail nestled in the cover of some lodgepole pines. This ranger station is a large tent on a wooden platform; it would be easy to miss if not looking for it.
 
We enjoyed our sunny chunk of rock, but perhaps were just procrastinating. We had about two more miles of trail to ascend before we were done for the day, working our way about halfway up the escarpment that would culminate at Pinchot Pass the next morning.
 
We traveled along some outlet streams and large granite slabs on a sandy shelf before reaching Lake Marjorie (11,132 feet), our home for the night. There was no one around, and we found a sheltered campsite with memorable views. 
 
At nearly 13,000 feet, Mount Ickes dominates the skyline. Its eastern flank is sloughing off into the lake, creating the beginnings of a new mountain that divides the lake in two.
 
We set up the tent, filtered water, and washed off the trail dust. Happy hour consisted of a shot of electrolyte drink. On the menu for our three-course dinner was miso soup, chipotle chili, and garlic mashed potatoes. 
 
From our tent site, we could still see Mather Pass, where we had been that morning. It never got old to look back at the mountain ranges that seemed to go on and on forever and realize that we had walked across all of them! 
 
And tomorrow would be another day, another 12,000-foot pass.  From camp, we could also see Pinchot Pass, where we would be the following morning. 
 
To be continued...
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