Hiking the John Muir Trail: Days 7 - 9
This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015.
Day 7: Saturday, July 25
It was headlamps off in the tent at 9 p.m. the previous night, and we didn’t stir again until 9 a.m. Our bodies obviously needed the rest and repair after six consecutive days of hiking an average of 10 miles per day with fully loaded backpacks.
This “zero day” (in reference to the mileage we wouldn’t be doing) would be filled with chores. We dried out and/or aired out all our gear. We washed clothes, which consisted of two pairs of socks, a pair of shorts, a pair of convertible pants, and two shirts each.
We came to appreciate the collapsible bucket that we had been taking backpacking for many years. It is lightweight yet will hold a couple gallons of water.
It is used to draw water from a water source for cooking water. It comes in handy for washing dirty clothes away from a waterway.
We saw many backpackers carrying a one-gallon plastic milk jug on the outside of their packs, which we assumed was for hauling water to camp. While its free and an ounce lighter, it doesn’t collapse and clothes can’t be washed in it.
It was a sunny day but there were wind gusts. The cold wind was frustrating me because I had been so looking forward to swimming in Rosalie Lake (elevation 9,350 feet). I just couldn’t get in the mood with the breezy conditions. But the wind sure dried the clothes quickly.
Now that we stayed in one place for a day, it was interesting to watch the steady stream of foot traffic go by on the trail, both northbound and southbound. We had split with the Pacific Crest Trail the previous day at Thousand Island Lake and would rejoin it at Red’s Meadow, so this was solely JMT and weekend traffic.
In between the busywork, we took a nap in the tent and read in the sun by the lake. At one point, I took the solar charger down to the lakeshore to charge my cell phone. As soon as I plugged the phone into the charger, I heard the distinctive pings announcing the arrival of text messages.
Jennie, who was up by the tent, alerted to the sound. It’s not that we missed technology, but we felt bad for our loved ones who just wanted any type of communication to know we were okay.
I snatched up the phone, typed a brief message, and hit “send.” Jennie did the same with her phone. Then we lost service. We wouldn’t know if the messages were received until we arrived home. Meant to be.
We reverted back to what we were supposed to be doing on a rest day deep in the Sierra. We watched clouds, listened to bird sounds, and watched fish jump in the lake. We were also thoroughly entertained by a “squirrel on crack,” so-dubbed by Jennie for the antics that continued throughout the day that could have so resulted in this hyperactive squirrel’s demise several times as he misjudged the distance from branch to branch.
At 5 p.m., the wind stopped and the lake surface looked like glass. Then, from the western ridge of the lake cirque, the sky suddenly darkened. While we at first thought it was another storm approaching, it turns out we weren’t seeing clouds. It was smoke.
Thick, dark smoke, and it was blowing in quickly. Obviously, there was a significant fire burning, but we didn’t know where it was, how far away, or how fast-moving.
Day 8: Sunday, July 26
Rosalie Lake to Red’s Meadow
It was a warm, smoky morning when we left Rosalie Lake (elevation 9,346 feet). The topic on the trail was guessing as to the cause of the smoke.
We were getting close to the Mammoth Lakes area, so people started having bits and pieces of news.
It turned out that this was the Willow Fire, a human-caused fire in the Bass Lake area (Fresno County) that started July 25 at 2:30 p.m. It had taken the smoke only two-and-a-half hours to drift 35 air miles to where it wafted over Rosalie Lake.
The air was hazy, but it wasn’t dense with smoke. So on we hiked.
It was an easy up from Rosalie Lake then down to the “Johnston Lake” junction. We had been having problems with the Forest Service signs for several days, but now the confusion would get real.
The problem with these signs is that they never delineate JMT (or Pacific Crest Trail when applicable). They list place names instead that sometimes weren’t even on our (too-small-in-scale) Nat Geo trail map.
Sometimes, like at this current junction, we simply had to use our best judgment. Other times, we trusted the “JMT” and the arrow that was carved into a sign by some long-ago hiker who was trying to alleviate the confusion.
We had traveled six miles and were nearing Devils Postpile National Monument. I so wanted to visit the postpile but we missed that trail too due to confusing signage that never once pointed the way off the JMT to the feature.
So we continued high on an exposed ridge to the west and ate lunch on a granite shelf that overlooked the striking feature on the other side of the canyon.
Signage issues came into play once again as we neared Red’s Meadow, which is where we would spend the night. We arrived early and were inundated by crowds of people who were mostly on the trail to visit Rainbow Falls, a popular day-hike.
After backtracking once, we were able to find the resort, which includes a store, cabins, cafe, pack station, shuttle stop, restrooms, and showers. What was the most exciting of all these amenities? The flush toilets in the restroom, of course!
Red’s Meadow Resort (elevation 7,650) is a popular resupply stop for thru-hikers. We weren’t picking up a food drop here, but we did pay three times the going rate to replenish our supply of crackers.
We were pointed in the direction of the drive-in campground. Tucked in a corner are four backpackers’ sites.
We had learned our lesson when pulling into the busy Tuolumne Meadows backpacking camp late in the day and finding it overflowing with hikers. At Red’s Meadow, we arrived early and were the first ones to pitch our tent in one of the designated sites, although we were totally surrounded by car-campers in their luxurious RVs and giant domed tents.
I hesitantly dropped the campground fee of $22 into the slot (backpackers are charged the same rate as car-campers here). But I soon ended up in the black as dozens of backpackers started rolling in and would continue in a steady stream into the night. Several more groups crammed into our site with us, each leaving a few bucks on the picnic table to help cover the cost.
We would become trail buddies with many of these people, swapping experiences, leapfrogging along the trail with them in the coming days, and even camping again with some.
Regarding the USFS sign issues mentioned previously: It is not to be taken lightly. One PCT solo hiker, a young woman, who we camped with at Red’s Meadow, said she hiked on the wrong trail for two hours before the trail faded, then ended, forcing her to retrace her steps.
Another couple who shared our campsite at Red’s left before daybreak the next morning. They took the wrong trail and wouldn’t meet back up with the John Muir Trail for two days, missing about 20 miles of the JMT.
Day 9: Monday, July 27
Reds Meadow to Purple Lake
This would be a day of trails heading up. Our destination of Purple Lake would be our first night sleeping over 10,000 feet, and that’s where we like to be.
We hiked through miles and miles of severely burned forest. We first experienced the devastation the day before when we were on the exposed west ridge in Devils Postpile, making a warm day downright sweltering because there is absolutely no shade left since all the trees were burned.
On August 20, 1992, the Rainbow Fire was ignited by lightning. This high-severity wildfire scorched thousands of acres within the boundaries of Ansel Adams Wilderness and Devils Postpile National Monument.
Although there is some regeneration of vegetation, nearly a quarter-century later, the area consists of mainly shrubs and the burned skeletons of trees. We hiked through several miles of this desolation before entering the cover of forest again.
We had a lunch stop at Deer Creek crossing (elevation 9,100 feet) where we also filled up on water. From here, there would be no water sources for more than five miles.
And it was a stark stretch of trail that took us another 1,000 feet up and around a long ridgeline. Below us was the deep trench known as Cascade Valley, the mountains of the Silver Divide were across the way, and the pumice and cinder volcanic outcroppings of red, white, gray, and yellow were compelling.
Most of the main campsites at Purple Lake were taken by a church group, but we were able to find a satisfactory one above the outlet just beyond a no-camping zone’s 300 feet perimeter. Purple Lake ended up being one of Jennie's most favorite spots along the trail.
We set up camp, headed to the lake for our evening dip to remove the trail dust, ate dinner, washed dishes, locked up the food, studied the map, played Rummy, and read till we fell asleep. That was our nightly routine that wouldn’t vary much for the next three weeks.
These past two days had some challenging hiking conditions: hot and steep best describe this section. But it only made me love more deeply, if that is possible, this diverse land that we refer to as the Sierra Nevada.