Kings Canyon National Park & John Muir Wilderness 10 Day Loop Hike Starting From Florence Lake
- Location – Sierra-Nevada Mountains, CA
- Park Administration – John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park & Inyo National Forest
- Fees & Permits – $5 for a wilderness permit, required for overnight camping
- Travel Logistics – Flew into Fresno, rented a Chevy Sonic for the drive to Florence Lake
- Trailhead – Florence Lake
- Length Of Time Hiked – 10 days, 9 nights
- Miles Hiked – 95
- Trail Type – Loop, 50/50 mix of on and off trail hiking
- Route Difficulty – 8
- Fires Allowed – Only below 10,000ft
- Bear Canister Required? – No, not along my route. See map of where bear canisters are required in the Sierras
- Scenic Beauty – 9
- Solitude – 6
Kings Canyon/John Muir Wilderness Loop Hike Maps & GPS Files
Max elevation: 12372 ft
Min elevation: 7375 ft
Total climbing: 25453 ft
Total descent: -25443 ft
Pre-Hike Travel Logistics
To access the Sierras, one typically enters on the east of west side. People have mentioned using the town of Bishop as access from the east, but I chose to fly into Fresno, rent a car, and drive in from the west.
There are few direct flights to Fresno, so from Detroit I had to stop in Dallas. The problem was, bad weather in the Dallas area when it was time to leave, lots of red on the radar. We sat on the tarmac in Detroit for an hour before taking off, then we got diverted to a small airport in rural Arkansas to wait on the tarmac there for another 2 hours. Apparently, the entire DFW airport had closed down for a while due to the storm. By the time I landed in Dallas, pretty much all the flights had been cancelled. Great, gotta call the car rental company and change my reservation, as well as try to cancel tonight’s hotel in Fresno.
Now the real “fun” began… dealing with American Airline’s customer service. Calling them is a 2+ hour wait, and they suggest to leave your name and number and be called back later. Meanwhile, I waited in an hour long line to talk to an AA agent at one of the gates. I was given another flight to Fresno tomorrow morning at 10:37am, the earliest they had. I’m still optimistic at this point, thinking I could still get to Fresno, rent the car, get last minute supplies, drive to Florence Lake and hike a few miles in without wasting a whole day.
Now I’m left with the task of finding somewhere to sleep. Since the cancellation is due to weather, American Airlines doesn’t offer any kind of compensation for the delays and you’re basically shit out of luck. All the hotels inside the airport are booked. Sleeping in the chairs was not working for me, and the armrests prevented you from laying down on them as well. They did bring out cots, but at a 1 to 20 person ratio. I didn’t get one. In fact, I spent 4 hours walking all the terminals looking for a decent place to sleep, and eventually found a yoga area that had a few yoga mats. I stacked a few of these up and at least had some cushion for the cement ground. All night people were coming into this little yoga area and I could hear them murmur “ah shit”, as they realized it was taken, just as I did for 4 hours prior.
In the morning, the plane was 5 minutes from boarding and all of the sudden there was a 20 minute delay. Every time I checked back, there was another small delay added. By this time, people were getting upset as there had been no announcement as to the reason. In order to get information, I had to wait in another 1 hour line to speak with someone. The American Airlines agents kept giving me different information and the delays kept getting longer. Finally after a 3.5 hour delay, the plane boarded and I was on my way to Fresno. On the plane, my seat didn’t lean back and the charging plug underneath the seat didn’t work. The flight attendant said “old plane”. American Airlines, you gotta step up your game! Why do I even fly with you?
In Fresno, I got my rental car and headed to my hotel. I did the “name your price” thing with priceline, and got a room nearby. The room ended up being a smoking room, and there were no other rooms available. I had no idea that smoking rooms were on the table when I bid on a room. I had to sit in this ashtray of a room all night before the hike. Disgusting.
Day 1 – Sunday August 21st, 2016
Miles Hiked – 12.49
Elevation Gain – 1976′
Route – Florence Lake to Evolution Valley/Goddard Canyon Junction
Coming from Fresno this morning, I drove to the ranger station in Pranther to pick up my permit. I had called them yesterday morning to let them know that my flight was cancelled and that I could not make my intended start date, and to try and push that date back by one day. The rangers they have working there at that station are great. They accommodated my request and were very nice to deal with all round.
I took hwy 168 to Huntington Lake, where I took Kaiser Pass Rd the remainder of the way to Florence Lake. The road is fine all the way up to Kaiser Pass Rd. From Huntington Lake, it’s about 23 miles to Florence Lake along a one lane road. This road happens to a cliff on one side much of the way, along with blind curves and blind hills every couple hundred yards. Some sections where really rough and had lots of loose gravel. There were few areas to pull off and let opposing traffic through as the non-cliff side of the road was often also a rockface itself. This was a white knuckle drive to say the least. It will take at least 1 hour to drive from Huntington Lake to Florence Lake. But, it’s totally feasible for any small car. My Chevy Sonic rental made it just fine.
The trailhead parking at Florence Lake was much busier than I expected. I was lucky to find what appeared to be the last parking space. I had about 20 minutes before the 10:30am ferry leaves to take me from the northwest side of the lake to the southeast side. This saves about 4 miles of hiking from what I am told. I bought my ticket for one way across the lake, unsure of what I’ll be doing on the way back and what time I’ll be making it to the ferry. As of 2016, the ticket prices are $25 round trip and $13 one way. When picking up my backpack to walk over to the ferry, one of the straps holding the top compartment down broke off. Great, not how I want to start a hike.
The ferry across the lake was on a little boat that fit 8 people, 4 across two rows of benches. The captain of the boat was a skinny kid who looked about 25. He was wearing what looked like a 10 year old girl’s shirt with some home made hearts on it. Interesting thing for a guy to be wearing, but who am I to judge. There were two forest rangers on the boat with us, and they checked our permits during the ride. The boat ride across the lake took no more than 15 minutes or so. The boat lands at slab of rock with a floating dock. It’s a short uphill climb to get a lay of the land in front of you from here. I stopped to readjust my shoes and pack, and realized that I had forgotten my phone in the car. Bummer, no music this hike, but I’ll be fine without it.
I began hiking around 11:15am today. As always, the first mile is pretty tough. My pack is at it’s heaviest, 56 pounds including 4 liters of water, and I’m not yet acclimated to the elevation. There were a lot of small ups and downs in the beginning as well. Regardless, I was making good time and eager to get out of the rather unimpressive lowlands. There were likely some better views from the meadows, where Muir Ranch and Blaney Hot Springs are for example, but on the trail the views were minimal.
Within the first 2 hours or so, I developed a blister on my heel. Before the hike, I was looking to replace my Inov8 Roclite 315 trail runners, but was disappointed to learn that model was discontinued. I settled for the next closest thing, the Roclite 295. My 315s required no break in, and so besides trying the 295s on to confirm the fit, I did not really test these shoes out. Big mistake! Although I don’t think this was the problem causing the blisters, I also noticed the shoe had a coarser mesh allowing much more debris into the shoe. This trail was pretty sandy so far, and I was getting tons of it in my shoes. These are just not the kind of problems I want to be dealing with, let alone on day one.
The skies had clouded over now, with rain looking very possible later. I’ve been seeing a lot of people on the trail so far, but all going the opposite direction. The trail gets a little more scenic after passing Blaney Hot Springs and Muir Trail Ranch. There’s a steep trail heading up to Seldon Pass just east of Muir Trail Ranch, which I took on my return on day 10. About 1.3 miles east of here is the official JMT/PCT route up to Seldon Pass. These two routes merge together about 600ft up, so either way, you’re going to reach the same place.
The landscape opened up a bit and the super fine dirt and sand on the trail seemed to subside. This was more akin to my style of hiking. Sometime around 2pm, it started to rain. I put on my rain jacket and covered my pack, but it was pretty light and so I left the rain pants off. The rain was very light and intermittent for a couple of hours, and was not too big a deal.
I crossed the bridge over the Piute River and entered Kings Canyon National Park. From here, the canyon narrows and is a nice change of pace. There were few tress in this canyon and the trail was mostly rock now, much better!
When I made it to the point on the map labeled “Aspen Meadows”, I didn’t see any meadows. I did see a campsite, but it didn’t offer much of a view and I decided to keep moving. About a mile and a half further, there was another campsite. While there were multiple sites here, several were taken and I would be camping a little too close to others. I kept moving once again.
The next potential campsite location was at the junction of Evolution Valley and Goddard Canyon, just south of the point where Evolution Creek and the South Fork San Joaquin River intersect. I figured there’d be some people here, and sure enough, I was right. I crossed the bridge over the South Fork San Joaquin River and scouted the east side of the river. More people. I eventually found a spot, but it offered no view and no immediate access to water. This is it, even if I have to walk a little ways to get my water. I saw 2 deer near camp while searching for it.
I set up my tent and got started on water. For this trip I have a new water filtration system, a Platypus GravityWorks setup. The jist of it is, you scoop up your dirty water into this 4L bag, then carry it back to your campsite where you can hang it from a tree or set it on a rock. The bottom of the dirty water bag has a quick connect fitting, where you connect the a hose leading into the filter, which empties out another hose as a clean water via gravity. I can remove the bite valve on my 3L Platypus bladder in my backpack and with a connector fitting, connect the GravityWorks hose to the bladder. No need to remove the bladder anymore from my backpack when filling it, and never have to open it during a hike. Just keep the dirty water bag above the container used to store your clean water and let gravity work for you while you do other stuff. This thing filters fast too. I didn’t time it, but it was about 1L per minute. After filling the bladder, I can then fill my water bottle (32oz gatorade bottle). I keep extra water in the dirty bag by clamping the little shut-off valve closed on the hose below the filter.
After water, it was on to fixing the broken strap on my backpack’s top compartment. The strap is attached by being inserted into a hole in the corner of the top compartment, and then sewed in place. Since I had no needle and thread, I used super glue. I put some glue on both side of the strap, inserted it into the hole it came out of, and used my fingers to clamp it together for a while. Yes, I got super glue all over my fingers. It took a couple of days to wear it all off. The repair seemed to be working well after a few minutes, but I let it sit overnight.
Even though I could have had a fire tonight since I was still below 10,000ft, I didn’t. Instead, I went to bed shortly after sundown. My heels were pretty sore and I was really wondering how I’m going to make it another 9 days without doing too much more damage. Oh well, no choice!
Day 2 – Monday August 22nd, 2016
Miles Hiked – 10.46
Elevation Gain – 2649′
Route – Evolution Valley/Goddard Canyon Junction to McGee Lake
It rained a little bit last night around 3am, so my tent was wet this morning. I was going to be slow at packing up my stuff this morning anyways as it certainly takes a few days to get my routine polished. I put some moleskin over my blisters and covered them with Ace sports tape. I was on the trail by 8:30 this morning.
The skies were pretty clear at this morning and I had high hopes of good weather. The trail starts climbing up some switchbacks immediately after leaving camp, literally within 20ft or so of camp. Nothing like an 800ft climb to get the blood pumping in the morning!
Once near the top, the trail hugs the banks of Evolution Creek on and off as it tumbles over a few waterfalls. There are more people now, and there’s a sense of wonder among them. Hikers are moving slower and taking their time. And, many of them are older. I didn’t see so many people here under 40 it as I somewhat expected and planned, with school starting around this time.
There was a ford of Evolution Creek that required getting wet. Fortunately, the creek was very mellow here and barely knee deep at the max. I stopped on the other side for a snack and talked to a few nice people. Many of the hikers seem to be local Californians, and well familiar with the area. At least, the popular areas. I mentioned my plans to visit Ionian Basin, but many had not heard of it. That tells me I’m going to the right place!
After the water crossing, the trail passes through a mix of forest and meadows. The meadows were pretty nice, and would make a great place to camp. There’s a ranger station in McClure Meadow, right off the trail. I didn’t stop in to see if it was manned, but it looked like it could have been in operation still. I saw some pack llamas on the trail in this section as well.
Eventually, The Hermit came into view. This marks the entrance to McGee Canyon. When I reached the Evolution Creek and McGee Creek, I did not see any time of trail leading into the canyon. I was pretty surprised as this is supposed to be a very popular area (Evolution, not McGee). I just assumed the nearby canyons would all have some sort of use trail at the very least.
I headed off-trail for the first time this trip towards McGee Canyon. After hiking through a small field I was at Evolution Creek at what appeared to be the perfect crossing, despite the lack of trails or tracks here. A tree spanned the width of the creek allowing for a quick and easy crossing. On the south side of Evolution Creek now, the land starts heading uphill into McGee Canyon. I headed towards McGee Creek so I’d have something to follow and started the climb up.
Shortly after my ascent into McGee Canyon, around 12:15pm, it started to rain. A sprinkle at first, then it started picking up. I stopped to don my rain gear, and thought I might wait a few minutes under a couple of pine trees to see if it cleared up. It didn’t. Instead, the storm intensified with a display of hail, thunder and lightning. I decided to abandon my pine trees and head for more solid cover. I found a large boulder with an overhang that allowed me to stand underneath without getting wet. I ended up waiting around until around 2pm until the rain let up. I was getting pretty cold just sitting around, and was glad to get moving.
I continued uphill with grey, dreary skies above. There was no trail still, at least on the east side of McGee Creek. I crossed it for the first time around 10,250ft, but didn’t see a trail here either. The climb up to this was only 450+ feet, but felt like much more. My feet were soaked at this point.
Out of the forest and into the meadows now, the views were more to my liking. I followed the creek upstream through a soggy meadow, with increasingly impressive mountains revealing themselves as I drew closer. Patches of snow remain on Mt. McGee. It was very nice to look at, but the going was a little slow through this area as the best path through here seemed to cross the creek often.
At the south end of the meadow where it starts to climb uphill, I stayed west of the creek(s). There is still no trail visible though here that I’ve seen. After another 450+ft climb, I reached the first lake in the chain. Great views, more scenic than I was anticipating for this area.
After leaving the first lake behind, I noticed a faint trail around the lake, which I followed. I’m fairly close to camp now and done with the hardest part of the day, so it was time to slow down a bit and take some pictures around these lakes. I just wish the sun was out, the grey skies weren’t helping my cause.
I eventually found a place to camp on the little peninsula between upper and lower McGee Lakes. After doing all my camp shores I headed down to the lake to do some fishing. I had seen some small brook trout in here on my way to camp. The sun was out now too, and I was feeling pretty good. I had a couple of bites on my mepps #2. but unfortunately I didn’t catch anything. Oh well, I wasn’t expecting much out of this lake fishing wise. The better-than-expected views and lack of people her more than make up for it. I haven’t seen anyone since leaving Evolution Valley.
The blisters on my heels didn’t get any worse today, and were much less of a problem with the moleskin and sports tape. Without the tape, the moleskin always falls off after a couple of hours as my feet sweat and the moleskin gets rubbed out of place. This is the first time I’ve used it in conjunction with that sports tape and so far, it’s working.
Not much of an appetite yet, even though I was hungry earlier. I ate what I could and headed to bed at sunset.
Day 3 – Tuesday August 23rd, 2016
Miles Hiked – 4.32
Elevation Gain – 1323′
Route – McGee Lake to Lake 11,196
It was an amazingly calm night last night with zero wind. I expected it to be windy out here on this peninsula. But the lack of wind came with a cost… lots of condensation in my tent this morning. It was a nice clear morning, and I took some extra time to let my tent dry out a little.
Today I plan to hike to Ionian Basin. The Davis Lakes side of Pass 11,720 didn’t look like a sane option, so I planned to work my way up towards Davis Lakes Pass from McGee Lakes. It looks a lot easier than Pass 11,720 itself. Then I will hike around Davis Lakes, through Goddard Basin, down to Martha Lake, over Goddard Col and over to Scylla. At least, that’s the plan.
After leaving camp there were some excellent views, with the mountains reflecting in the blue water. Ah, I love the high country! I took my time around the last bit of Upper McGee lake.
When it was time to confront the first uphill battle of the day, it didn’t look so bad at all. A grassy hill with some occasional boulders. Of course, the higher I climbed the less grass there was, and eventually it was almost all boulders.
It was about 400ft up to the next small lake, and another 100ft to yet another lake. The higher lake, at 11,276ft, had a spectacular reflection on it that showcased the puffy while clouds above in contrast to the turquoise blue water. Really beautiful, and basically a “nothing” on the map.
The next section of my route takes me up to the small lake just north of point 12,262. It’s a climb of almost 500ft over boulders and large sections of granite slabs. More excellent views along the way up. I reached the top of the pass, just northeast of point 12,262, at 10:45am. From here, my view was mainly to the east/southeast towards Wanda Lake.
After a 30 minute break I moved on. From here, I had to work my way around some boulders that form a ridgeline running south/southeast from point 12,262. The pass I’m on now isn’t named, but the ridgeline I took drops me down to Davis Lake Pass. This looked like the best way over to Davis Lake from McGee Lake. On the HST map, viewing the cross country passes in the Sierras, there is a pass that more directly connects McGee Lake and Davis Lake directly called Pass 11,720. It’s labeled a class 2 route, but from the looks of the counter lines, I was extremely skeptical.
Along the ridgeline is a series of ups and downs. I didn’t follow the ridgeline far enough south to the low point at Davis Lake Pass, where the route down to Lake 11,1196 is the most gentle. Instead I started heading down sooner, eager to get out of this boulder field. The route I chose down was steep and time consuming. There were many loose boulders and treacherous chutes to traverse. I should have just continued south on the ridge a little farther! The sky was also clouding up fast, I’ll have to keep an eye on that.
Along the way down, I found a balloon that had the following written on it; “Go Dodgers”, “RIP Eddie” and “Miss you bud”, along with a date of 9-23-1993. Wow, these balloons sure do last a long time. So, friend of Eddie, next time you release a balloon into the sky, remember that it might end up somewhere like this.
The route down was long and tiring. To be honest, I felt “off” today. The scenery was great, but I was just having a hard time moving. Sure I was tired, but it was more of a mental thing. I guess I just didn’t feel like kicking my own ass today on this tough terrain. I still had a long way to go to my planned campsite, and it was already going on 1pm. It was around this time when it began to sprinkle. Now I really wanted to get a move on, but of course, there’s no shelter up here.
Now it was time to make some decisions. Strong storms look imminent now, so I’ll be very exposed with little or no shelter all day if I continue. I’ve heard Ionian Basin gets a lot of lightning and is a frightening place to be during a storm. If I do continue, it’s probably going to be pretty slow going, and I might not make it to Scylla tonight. I decided my best bet is to set up my tent for now and see if the storm passes quickly.
I hurried around Lake 11,196 looking for a place to set up my tent, and found a spot on the southwest side. There were a couple of other people camping on the southeast side of the lake as well. After getting my tent up, it rained on and off all afternoon. During this time I tried to do some repairs to my gear. One of the straps broke on my water shoes, so I repaired it with 550 cord. I added some carabiners to the bottom of my backpack on the outside so I had some way to keep my rain fly in place and taught.
Later in the afternoon I took shelter inside the tent for about an hour as heavy rain/hail, thunder and lightning pounded the area. Hail was piling up around the tent after it slid off, and it was starting to accumulate. I had a feeling it was going to storm heavily (as the weather indicated a few days ago), and I think I made the right call by staying put.
At this point I knew I was done hiking for the day. My new plan is to skip Ionian Basin. Instead, tomorrow I’ll go over the same pass I went over today, Davis Lkaes Pass, but will be taking a better route this time. Once at the top, instead of following that ridgeline, I’ll just go right over and drop down to Wanda Lake where I’ll pick up the PCT/JMT. I’ll follow that through Evolution Basin and over to Darwin Bench, where I planned to camp on night 5 anyways. I’ll be there a day early, which gives me wiggle room with the rest of my hike. I’m liking this plan, as I typically create a route and almost never deviate from it. I was disappointed in myself for not completing the route I set out to do, but at the same time, happy that I have some extra time to play with.
After the rain let up, the sky still didn’t clear. Storms loomed in the distance and the weather was still looking rather questionable. It stayed this way until I went to bed. The sunset was nice, with some reds illuminating the storm clouds. I hope this weather moves out by tomorrow.
Day 4- Wednesday August 24th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 7.7
Elevation Gain – 1372′
Route – Lake 11,196 to Darwin Bench
The storm seemed to vanish shortly after bed last night. It was very clam again, and there was a lot of condensation inside my tent again this morning. The sky was clear this morning, and I had a good feeling about today.
After breaking camp I headed around Lake 11,196 towards Davis Lakes Pass. I passed by the other group of hikers at camp who were set up on the southeast side of the lake. The terrain immediately before the route goes uphill is basically a flood plain, with various streams running through it. Combined with the rain yesterday, everything through here was drenched. Gotta love wet feet first thing in the morning.
The route up was much easier here than it was going down yesterday. Not only is the terrain less steep, but the route is a little shorter and doesn’t climb as high. There were still a lot of large boulders to contend with and some hard work, but I made great time going up nonetheless. There was another guy at the top when I arrived, although he was a little farther the ridgeline I traversed yesterday.
I stopped to eat some snacks real quick and kept moving. The path down to Wanda Lake was much easier than the Davis Lake side. The PCT/JMT runs along the east side of Wanda Lake, so I made my way towards the northern end of the lake and picked up the trail near the outlet.
Next, I headed north through Evolution Basin. I started to see a lot of people now. Almost every person I saw today was hiking south. Good views and easy trail to follow. Mostly downhill all the way to Evolution Lake too. I stopped several times to eat along the trail this morning, as I was in no rush today.
I passed by Sapphire Lake which was nice. The trail runs high above the lake though, at least until the northern end of the lake. Here, it drops down to lake level as it rounds the final bend before reaching Evolution Lake.
The first views of Evolution Lake from the south end are nice. I stopped here for a snack. I was actually eating today, at least in small doses. The jagged peaks of Mt. Mendel and Mt. Darwin to the east were impressive.
The middle section of Evolution Lake nice too, but less impressive than the southern side. There weren’t many established campsites in this area. I passed by a couple of rangers, I believe, on horseback with a team of horses in tow, carrying gear. Looked like they were going to do some trail maintenance. Well, my feet could use some maintenance. The blister on my right heel seemed to be getting worse. I’ll deal with that later when I get to camp.
The northern end of Evolution Lake is where it’s at. There were more people here hanging out around the lake as this appeared to be the best view of all. I’m glad I got to see the lake since I didn’t get to see Ionian Basin. This would definitely be the spot to camp, if you can stand camping near a ton of other people. Me, I’m headed up to Darwin Bench today.
After passing the lake, I knew I’d have to start climbing uphill soon. I wasn’t sure what to expect for an existing trail leading up to Darwin Bench, but I figured there had to be something. I was right. At the last moment before the trail starts heading down some switchbacks, there’s a very obvious trail junction with a path leading up to Darwin Bench. It quickly peters out though, and you’re left with a very faint, but super manageable path uphill. There’s probably a couple of different paths up at this point, and it really doesn’t matter which way you take as long as you follow the creek uphill. There’s an occasional cairn marking the way through this section.
Beautiful scenery near the top of the hike up Darwin Bench and all throughout this area. I didn’t see anyone up here once I reached the lower lake, so I decided to set up camp on the east side. There’s a nice spot with some decent cover and good views. It was only about 1:15pm now, so I still had a lot of time left to enjoy the day.
When I went down to the lake to get water, I noticed the bottom had a lot of algae. The lake was shallow around the shoreline here on east side of the lake. I was careful to not stir any up as I filled my bag. On the way back to my campsite, I noticed a backpack hanging over the edge of a rockface by a trekking pole. Huh, I wonder how long that’s been there.
After getting water and doing some other camp chores, I headed off to explore the lake a little. First things first, though. I need a bath! I passed a couple of small waterfall pools along the way up the creek that looked enticing, and that’s where I headed.
At the waterfall pool, a scared away a bunch of small trout as I entered the water. It was cold, but nice to clean off. Definitely one of the most scenic places I’ve ever bathed. No soap in these creeks, of course, just rinsing off. It’s amazing how much better that makes me feel out here. The cold water really gets your blood pumping, even long after getting out of the water.
After cleaning up, I headed up to the lake outlet where I saw some small trout earlier. These guys are really alert though, and they know you’re coming from a mile away. I had a bite, but didn’t catch anything. They mostly ignored everything I threw at them, which was just Mepps spinners and rooster tails. Oh, and a Crickhopper, which normally slays bass here in Michigan. But they ignored that too.
Defeated, I headed off to get some pictures of this beautiful area. There were a couple of small hills and high points near the southerly edge of the bench that I gravitated towards.
After exhausting my stay down by the lake I retreated to my campsite for the evening. Today was a really good day all around. I sat around camp all evening in awe of where I was. When the sun set, I followed suit.
Day 5 – Thursday August 25th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 7
Elevation Gain – 1650′
Route – Darwin Bench to Muriel Lake
I slept pretty poorly for the first few hours last night, but much better the second half. Once again, more condensation in my tent this morning and a very calm night. At least the weather is predictable here.
Today my plan is to go over Alpine Col and over to Tomahawk Lake, if I make it that far. While packing up my gear, I noticed 2 guys climbing up a steep rock chute right above my camp. They were just dots at this point, but I could see them up there and hear the rocks tumble down as they made their way up. I wonder if they were climbing Mt. Mendel?
After leaving camp, the trail follows the lake briefly. There is a trail here around the lower lake on Darwin Bench, but north of the lake there’s a ton of streams that converge here and in this chaos, the trail is lost. I’d bet there’s one leading off into Darwin Canyon and up over Lamarck Col, but I did not see a trail for the rest of the day after this point along my route up and over Alpine Col.
After passing the area where all the streams converge, it was time to find a line up to lake 11,540. It’s a climb of about 250′ up some rocks slabs, choked with a little vegetation. I ended up following the creek flowing out of lake 11,540 up the hill. Near the top though, the path along the creek becomes narrow and was no longer the easiest route up. I skirted the hillside to the east and climbed over some rocks to reach the top and gain my first view of lake 11,540.
While I did not check out the north/west side of lake 11,540, the south/east side appeared to be the best path. However, along the northeast side of the lake I ran into a bit of a snag. The path along the shoreline abruptly stops due to a cliff butting up to the lake itself, with no way around it other than backtracking a bit and climbing up and over it. Without any other option, I reluctantly headed up the steep mountainside looking for a route around the cliff.
The climb around the cliff was not as easy as I’d hoped. It was steep and there was no obvious line around it. I was working my way along a narrow path along a cliff when that dropped down to a lower section, requiring me to remove my pack and lower it down. Then, without my bulky pack on, I was able to maneuver around this obstacle and keep going. Much of the talus was loose here due to the grade of the slope. At one point, I stepped on a rock that moved, causing my foot to slip and my leg then became wedged in between two rocks. I lost my balance and fell over, with my leg pinned between the rocks. This caused a large scrape on my leg, but it could have snapped my leg had I fallen the other way. Whew.
Eventually I made it around the cliff and back down to the lake. Looking back the way I came along the shoreline, it was only a couple hundred feet of cliff along the shore that I had to work my way around, but it took much, much longer than I thought it would. The depth of the lake next to this cliff only appeared to be a couple of feet deep at the max, but there was no avoiding getting in the water. Because of this I chose to go up and around the cliff. Looking back though, I would seriously consider just getting in the damn lake and walking along the cliff. Keep this in mind when moving through this area.
My route now passes in between lake 11,540 and lake 11,546. Good views through this stretch. It may have been possible to setup a one man tent here, but of course, I had more distance to cover today. Just a thought for someone passing through here.
Past the section in between the two lakes, my route then climbs about 400′ up to lake 11,910. This section featured some really large slabs of granite. Higher up, pools of melt water lay in the shadows with small pockets of snow alongside them.
About halfway through the eastern side of lake 11,910 there was a small sandy beach. The water was crystal clear and had a tropical look to it. Stunning, actually. But no time to stop and enjoy this, or those no-see-ums will have chewed my arms and legs down to the bone.
Almost the entire hike from the midway point around lake 11,910 on to lower Goethe Lake consisted of boulder hopping. These boulders were manageable along the lake, but as I’d find out later going over Alpine Col, this was nothing in comparison to the large boulders on the Goethe Lakes side. There were tons of no-see-ums in this stretch too, and they were relentless.
Now on the northern side of lake 11,910, it was finally time to start heading up Alpine Col. I had read some notes about going over this pass before heading out here. Those notes basically said to angle up above some small sections of grass before you’re directly underneath the pass. From there, you’ll see 3 rock faces with sections of talus in between them. Choose the one on the right. From there, the path to the top is relatively straightforward. Those notes seemed to be spot on for me.
On the top of Alpine Col, I rested for a while and took this opportunity to refuel. Awesome views from the top in both directions. From Alpine Col, you can’t help but feel isolated and alone. There were no use trails here and almost no signs of human intervention.
Now it’s time to descend Alpine Col to Goethe Lakes. The path down was a nightmare. Giant boulders everywhere, and steep in several sections. These boulders ranged in size from a beach ball to a large SUV. Imagine the space in between a couple of SUV sized boulders piled up together. Negotiating these boulders required a lot of patience and care with every step. I normally have my camera hanging from my neck when I hike, but I had to put it away going down Alpine Col. I didn’t want it bouncing around and getting in the way, or falling and breaking it. As a result I got few pictures through here. Most of the ones I’m posting through this section are snapshots from my GoPro footage.
The top section was very steep and required some time to find a feasible line down. The best route appears to be one that angles left on the way down, as the right has even larger boulders. Dark clouds were building above the pass and it looked like it could potentially rain. The next section was not as steep as the route I just descended, but the boulders provided no relief in the difficulty of the route. Around the 12,000′ mark, there’s a steeper drop off of about 200′. If you go right, it looks even steeper and the boulders look larger. So naturally, I went left.
Now working my way west along the 12,000′ mark, I began to realize that this route is not very good either. It was more of the same, large boulders and steep slopes. At one point, the only way I could see to continue was to traverse this section of slick rock which happened to be sitting above a rather large drop off. Water was running down a section of rock a couple of feet wide, with algae on it making it very slippery. I didn’t dare walk across it standing up, but I did need to cross this area to keep going. By crab crawling on all fours I was able to cross this slick rock. That worked, but lead me to a steep rock chute shortly after. This was the only way down from where I was, and so I had no choice but to traverse it. Each step knocked rocks down the chute and caused me to slide down hill.
I continued west along my line around the 12,000′ mark for quite a while looking for a feasible route down. I started angling downhill and west, and ended up hiking over the first moraine shown on the map west of Alpine Col, farther than I wanted to go. After that I came to a another steep chute that was very loose. This one was even looser than the last one, and as a result the remaining rocks in the chute were smaller. This allowed me to turn sideways, dig in my heels and just do a controlled slide down. I got a lot of debris in my shoes from this, but it was the only way down. It appeared I was done with the worst of the descent from Alpine Col now, but definitely not done with boulder hopping just yet. I still had a ways to go to the lake, and a sea of boulders was strewn across my route as far as the eye could see.
Finally, I made it to upper Goethe Lake. I let out a loud victory cry, unable to hold back my enthusiasm for being off the pass. Even though I reached a small section of grass, the terrain moving forward appeared to be more of the same large boulders piled around the lake. I stopped and dropped my pack on one of the boulders near the lake and took a break. More of a mental break than a physical one, although I was dog tired too. Think about the mental strain that comes with needing to make sure every step is right for hours on end. That’s one thing you really can’t prepare for. It was really nice to be able to relax my mind for a couple of minutes here. Having just gone through the roughest section of my entire hike, I didn’t seem to mind the no-see-ums as much on this side of the lake as I did by lake 11,910.
I was glad to be done with the worst of it, but looking at the terrain ahead of me, it was clear that I was not out of the woods yet. The general consensus online was to take the west side of Goethe Lakes, as the east side has huge boulders. The east side was still a pain in the ass.
I guess there is no good way down Alpine Col on the Goethe Lakes side, from what I can tell. I think that many who have done Alpine Col and wrote about it online have done it in times when there was more snow, quite possibly making this route easier. Make no mistake, this route is NOT for the faint of heart. I’m not saying this route should be avoided altogether as it’s totally feasible with the right experience and mind set, but do not even think about doing this route if you have any qualms about boulder hopping for several hours on end without any breaks in the terrain. It sucks, but damn is it beautiful.
The boulders didn’t let up until I reached the lower Goethe Lake. Finally, I was walking on dirt and grass. From memory, I want to say I spent a solid 5 hours working my way through that nightmare of a boulder field that people call Alpine Col. However, looking back at upper Goethe Lake and the cirque behind it was breathtaking.
After passing lower Goethe Lake, the landscape really opened up and flatted out before reaching a rock outcrop above Muriel Lake. From here, there was a great view of Humphreys Basin and Muriel Lake to the north, and Goethe Lakes and the cirque with Goethe Glacier to the south. Scenery wise, this would have been an excellent place to camp. However, the dark clouds to the south still threatened rain. Being as exposed as it was, it was windy too. It was quite a walk back to the lower Goethe Lake from here as well, so it wasn’t ideal in terms of proximity to a water source. I kept moving downhill to Muriel Lake, bummed about not being able to stay at this otherwise beautiful place to camp.
On my way down to Muriel Lake, I saw 2 guys crest a ridge coming from Wahoo Lakes. They were headed towards Alpine Col, and so I asked the first guy if that was his plan. He said, “No, the guy I’m with is 84 years old, he’s not going over that. But he did 30 years ago!” I When I passed the 84 year old guy, I was shocked to see how good he looked. If I had to guess I would have said he was 60 years old. He barely had any wrinkles and had no physical impairments. I was tired and worn out from my hike today, but after seeing this guy out here I told myself to shut up and quit whining. I wanted to say to him, “You’re like the Jack LaLanne of hiking!” I’m sure he would have gotten the reference. Oh, and they both made comments about me going over Alpine Col in trail runners, basically saying I’m crazy doing so without the ankle support of boots.
The hike down to Muriel Lake was easy, with a solid trail to follow now. When I arrived at the lake I was a little surprised to see nobody camped here. That’s great news for me though, as I had the entire place to myself. I found a small flat area among some small trees and a few large boulders to set up my tent. From here, I had a pretty good view of Muriel Lake and Mt. Humphreys.
I didn’t eat much today. Not because I wasn’t hungry, but I was so involved in the route over Alpine Col. I mean, who wants to stop in the middle of terrain like that and eat? I just wanted to keep moving and get out of the boulder field before it started raining. But tonight, I was ready for dinner. I had a tortilla with pre-cooked bacon and cheddar cheese, as I did most nights. Simple and delicious, and last forever in my pack even in fairly mild temperatures.
After eating, getting water and doing all my camp chores, it was finally time to relax. There was some small brook trout in the lake but I didn’t bother to throw in my line. Instead, I hung out near camp enjoying the expansive view of Humphreys Basin. At this time of day the light wasn’t great over the basin, but Mt. Humphreys was perfectly illuminated. The view of Mt. Humphreys from Muriel Lake was pretty impressive. While walking around near camp, I spotted another backpack stashed in a little opening below a few boulders. It was an older model pack, and looked like it was full of gear. Why are so many people leaving their backpacks behind out here?
Day 6 – Friday August 26th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 9.31
Elevation Gain – 1226′
Route – Muriel Lake to Elba Lake
This was the first morning that I had no condensation in my tent. Finally, I could put it away dry. I heard some coyotes howling last night in the distance. My legs were a little sore for the first time this trip as well. Not surprising after what I went through yesterday.
The views into Humphreys Basin were not great as it appeared to be filled with a thick haze or smoke. It looked like forest fire smoke to be honest. Huh, hope this doesn’t get worse, and hope there isn’t a fire nearby. Either way, this doesn’t bode well for photography.
There were a couple of trails here in the Muriel Lake area, and I followed one towards Piute Pass. I could have just dropped downhill, cut across the valley west of Summit Lake and head uphill where I could intersect the trail, but I chose to stay on trail. While the terrain was open and grassy in the valley below, it also looked like much of it was wet and marshy. I figured I’d just stay on trail here even if it meant adding a little extra distance.
The trail to Piute Pass was well worn and easy. However, with the haze in the basin, I didn’t take many pictures.
From Piute Pass, I headed northwest into Humphreys Basin. The trail remains solid through this section. Humphreys Basin, which was a massive open area, was mostly grass and dirt with less rocks and boulders than my last few days, a welcome change. I made good time through this area. I started to see more people here too. I ran into a group of people along the trail and it was at this point that I realized I had gone a bit farther than I intended to. I was planning on leaving the trail somewhere south of Lower Desolation Lake, and head towards Tomahawk Lake. I had to backtrack a couple of minutes to avoid going up a steeper slope covered with thick vegetation.
Now back on track, my off trail journey for the day began. Fortunately, this was some of the easier off trail hiking I did on this trip. Huge open fields with little in the way of obstacles. Not necessarily the most spectacular views of the trip, but being alone in the middle of such a vast open area and surrounded by distant peaks like Mt. Humphreys certainly set a different mood. I was enjoying today’s hike, and just felt really good overall!
When I reached Tomahawk Lake, I had a pretty good view of it from the hill around 11,200′ to the south. I had planned on dropping down to the lake and walking along it’s western shore, but instead I chose to stay high above the lake and work my way around the slopes to the east. This saved me some ups and downs. Staying west of the long ridge southwest of Desolation lake near the 11,400′ mark, I made my way towards Mesa Lake.
I took the western shore around Mesa Lake. There was a nice section of sandy beach here along the shore, and the deep blue waters sparkled in the sunlight. Just the kind of place that looks perfect for swimming, until you remember just how cold the water is. I also saw some crap here along the shoreline that looked like it came from a coyote, only bigger. Mountain Lion? There was a lot of hair in it.
Past Mesa Lake, there was a decent trail to follow, at least for a little while. The trail faded as I made my way up the slopes leading to Carol Col, also called Puppet Pass. This section was not too difficult, and it was only a couple hundred feet up to the pass from here.
Up on the last shelf below Carol Col, the landscape consisted of smaller talus strewn about a somewhat soggy field. Carol Col, while not very distinct, can clearly be seen from here. The final approach was super easy.
The view from Carol Col is awesome. Clearly though, going down the Puppet Lake side is going to be much harder. For now, I stopped to eat and take pictures. My favorite views are typically from mountain peaks and passes, although peaks reflecting in a lake of turquoise blue water is right up there too. Enjoy this moment while I can!
When it was time to descend the pass towards Puppet Lake, I ended up taking the wrong path down twice. I didn’t make it too far before realizing this was probably not the right way. The path looked steep, too steep. I backtracked and kept looking. I found the best path down starts from the extreme northeast side of the pass, south of point 12,225′.
Coming down the pass was hardest near the top. The best route follows an obvious rockface down hill, but the rockface isn’t reached until you’ve descended 200′ or so. Also, when taking the path I took from the top, you must angle west a little in order to reach that rockface. Until then, there were some large boulders to negotiate along with some tricky sections, but nothing as bad as Alpine Col.
Once you’ve reached the rockface, it looks like you can take a high or low route. The high route hs you pretty much walking on top of the rockface, and this left me with some uncertainty about getting down from said rockface later on. Therefore I chose the low route, which basically follows the base of the rockface. This is what I recommend. This keeps you out of the worst of the boulders and gives you good landmark to work with.
After working my way past the rockface, the going became a littler easier. From here, it was more boulders to hop downhill. A couple of guys were heading up the pass now, and I stopped to chat with them. They had been fishing too and we exchanged info on our experiences so far. They had camped at Elba Lake, directly north of Puppet Lake, and said the fishing was good near the outlet. They also said there were some good campsites near the outlet. They had a dog with them, and I wasn’t sure how that dog would be able to make it up to the top of the pass considering some of the sections I had to go through.
Instead of just walking down to Puppet Lake directly from here, for some reason I worked my way around the slope east of the lake. This was a mistake as the entire hillside was more big boulders. I would not recommend this. I started dropping down towards the lake as soon as I could, but by this time I had already traversed the worst of it.
Once I got down to the shores of Puppet Lake, I started looking for potential campsites. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to camp exactly, but was considering here or Elba Lake, going on the recommendation of the guys I passed earlier. With no great campsites in sight near Puppet Lake, I kept moving. I’m sure there are plenty of campsites here but I just didn’t see anything that caught my eye. I was kinda bummed about passing by Puppet Lake since I heard the fishing was good here.
Past Puppet Lake, I found a clear trail heading downhill towards Elba Lake. Thankfully the trail was here, as this section was a lot steeper than I was expecting. It started to sprinkle a bit on my way down, but quickly tapered off.
At 10,900′, Elba Lake had more trees around it now than Puppet Lake did. I also found lots more people camped here. There were none at Puppet Lake, actually. I worked my way from the southern shore of Elba Lake east, and then around to the northern side of the lake. There were people camping in the areas the guys I had passed earlier mentioned, so I had to keep moving. There was a clear trail around both sides of the lake which made it easy to hike, but I wasn’t seeing a lot of good campsites near the water. There were a lot of places I could camp, but not a lot of places I wanted to camp. Finally, I just took a spot well off the trail and away from the lake. It was windy and still looking like rain, so I figured the trees here might provide the cover I need.
After setting up camp, I headed down to the lake to do some fishing. Again, no luck. For some reason these trout want nothing to do with my mepps spinners. In my past experiences fishing in alpine lakes, fish bite anything shiny. Hell, they’ll bite a damn hook by itself! Not this trip though. Good thing I didn’t bring all my stuff to clean and cook fish: stove, fuel, frying pan, spatula, scrubbing pad, zatarains fish fry breading, cooking oil, etc. I hike without a stove most of the time actually.
I didn’t really care for this campsite much compared to my others so far. There were much more scenic campsites along the lake, but the best ones had already been taken and I guess I just settled for this one. I didn’t have a great view of anything, there were a lot of people around, I wasn’t close to the water and the fishing was not good here, at least for me. If I could do it again, I would have looked harder for a good spot to camp by Puppet Lake. The skies had been threatening rain for much of the afternoon and evening as well, so tonight I pretty much just waited for darkness so I could go to bed. I looked like some serious rain was moving in, but it avoided my exact locale and I never got wet.
Day 7 – Saturday August 27th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 6.8
Elevation Gain – 1634′
Route – Elba Lake to Granite Park
I awoke to clear blue skies again this morning. The haze and smoke that were plaguing my long distance views yesterday didn’t seem to be a factor today. It ended up being a calm night with no rain, and no condensation this morning. Today, I planned to camp at one of the Royce Lakes, making a somewhat short day and giving myself time to explore and fish.
The trail form Elba Lake to Pine Creek pass was rather uninteresting. From Elba Lake’s outlet, the trail drops down roughly 280′ into the valley below. You’re below tree line now, although it’s still pretty open. Still, you can’t see much.
At around the 10,640′ mark, the trail starts climbing up again. The trail reaches a flat shelf around 11,000′, where the views start to improve.
After another 100′ or so, I was at the top of Pine Creek Pass. I stopped here to take some pictures, and then eat some food. Two other hikers came up Pine Creek Pass and they stopped to chat with me for a while. Martin & Maria were their names, and they had a base camp at French Lake. Nice people, great to talk to. Martin was a former mountain guide with experience all over the world. It turns out they were heading up to Royce Lakes too, and possibly beyond. They planned to return to their base camp later tonight. Martin had a map of the area that was maybe 1:100,000, so I showed him my map of the area that was 1:24,000, and let him take some pictures of it.
My route up to Royce Lakes was off trail from here. Fortunately, this part was pretty easy. There were few large rocks and boulders to deal with, as the terrain was generally just dirt and small rocks. Some sections of granite slabs too.
I hiked up the hillside until I reached a shelf with a small pond. The reflection of Royce and Miriam Peaks in the water was stunning. Such beauty for such a lackluster spot on the map. This is a perfect example of why I like to explore off trail!
Miriam Peak on the left, Royce Peak in the center. Royce Lake #3 center, #4 to the right.
After passing the unnamed lake, I could see Martin and Maria in the distance. Instead of going down to Royce Lake #2 (I believe the lowest lake is #1 and the highest is #5), I stayed high above the lake and just hiked towards Royce Lake #3. Somewhere near Royce Lake #3 I finally caught up to Martin. We stopped to chat again briefly before parting ways again.
I then hiked down to lake level when I got a chance. When I reached the lake, I found myself on the extreme north side. Great views of Miriam Peak from here.
Between Royce Lakes 3 & 4 would be a good place to camp. In fact, there’s a great spot closer to Royce Lake #4. It’s a flat, sandy area free of rocks and perfect for a tent, maybe two. However, it was early in the day and I couldn’t see myself spending the whole day right here, even though it was beautiful. The shoreline wasn’t great for fishing. It was really rocky in general, and didn’t seem to have good access to fish-able waters. To get to the deep water, you’d have to hike over some huge boulders.
I kept moving around Royce Lake #4. The first half of the lake was fairly easy to traverse, with small rocks along a flat shoreline. After the midway point or so, the boulders became larger and they were stacked more steeply. Not the kind of stuff I want to be dealing with all day if I was camping nearby.
At the northeast end of Royce Lake #4 lies Royce Pass. Here, I saw Martin & Maria again eating lunch in the only shade in the area. They mentioned trying for Italy Pass today. I had seen another possible campsite nearby, but this one looked less appealing than the last one I saw in terms of access to the lake. I was also considering checking out Royce Lake #5. With all the large boulders in the area now, I was thinking that I should probably just abandon that idea. I was now thinking of camping in Granite Park tonight instead of Royce Lakes, and considering my route options from here. I didn’t know about Royce Pass before I left as I didn’t have it marked on my map. Instead, I was considering an off trail route from Royce Lake #5 down into Granite Park. This looked roughly equal in terms of steepness on the map, this route would not lose as much elevation. It was tempting, but I decided to head downhill from what I now know to be Royce Pass, which sits between Treasure Peak and point 12,470′. This is also the way Martin chose moments earlier.
Before heading down the pass, I took some pictures. One peak stands out from the rest in the interesting geological area. Marked 12,245′ on the map, this peak is made up of a predominantly dark colored rock, but with veins of lighter colored rock zigzagging through it. Pretty unique looking. Actually, when I look back at the picture I took of this same peak from the Pine Creek Pass area, I can see that the light colored veins are a feature of the entire ridge line all the way up to Bear Creek Spire. I don’t ever remember seeing another mountain quire like this one.
Another interesting thing about Royce Pass is that it offered my first solid view of the eastern Sierras. I could see down into Owens Valley, somewhere around 4,000′ at the floor, from my position here at 11,750′. Mt. Whitney borders Owens Valley too, making it “one of the deepest in the US” according to Wikipedia. Then, what’s deeper?
Descending Royce Pass was easy. There was nothing technical about it, and no large boulders to traverse. I made good time going down.
Following the ridge line down from point 12,470′, there was a tiny pond around the 11,150′ mark. This looked like a viable route over the ridge line, and would save me from dropping down to about the 10,600′ mark. There were even some use trails now leading the way as I approached the pond. It turned out to be another off trail gem, and another one of my favorite photos from the trip. But then again, I have so many favorites!
Past the little pond, I dropped downhill a very short distance and met up with the main trail running through Granite Park. Everything about this area was beautiful. The farther I hiked, the more spectacular it became. I was really enjoying my hike today and definitely glad I made the decision to visit Granite Park instead of camping at Royce Lakes. Around this time, I saw Martin & Maria heading back towards their base camp. They didn’t make it to Italy Pass, but they seemed more than happy about just being in Granite Park.
I took my time hiking through this area, stopping anywhere I could to take pictures. I only hiked about 3/4 mile from the tiny pond earlier before finding a campsite I couldn’t pass up. From the trail, I could see a large flat sandy spot below, perched above a chain of small lakes. I headed down to check it out, and decided to make it home for the night. This was my favorite campsite of the trip.
After getting water and snacking, I headed down to the lake to wash up. It had been a few days now since I’ve got in the water completely, and so it was time to take the plunge once again. Damn it’s cold, but it makes you feel sooo good when you’re done. Not only do I feel cleaner, but it really gets your adrenaline flowing being in that icy water. I sat by the lake afterwards soaking up the sun and drying out. Just another surreal way to spend an afternoon.
I did try fishing the small lakes by camp, but once again, no luck. The fish looked especially small here anyway. While exploring the other side of the lake I was camped alongside, I noticed another couple and their dog near their tent. They were actually very close to my camp, but completely out of sight. I wonder if they saw me change out of my underwear earlier by the lake when I was washing? I really thought I was alone up here. Later, I noticed that another person had set up camp near the outlet of the lowest lake in the chain on this shelf as well.
Back at camp, it was time for dinner. Another tortilla filled with pre-cooked bacon and cheddar cheese. This was probably the best tasting one all week for some reason. I think my appetite was improving, which is always a problem for me on these long hikes. And as luck would have it, I realized that I had an extra bacon/chz wrap, so I ate two of them tonight. Bonus meal!
Today was one of the best days of my hike. Greta scenery, great weather, and a bad ass campsite. What more could I ask for? I went to bed happy tonight, and felt like I was startling to settle in to being out here. It definitely takes a couple of days to adjust physically and mentally.
Day 8 – Sunday August 28th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 7.69
Elevation Gain – 1782′
Route – Granite Park to Vee Lake
The Milky Way was very bright last night once again. I could see it often throughout this hike, something I never see at home due to light pollution. This morning was clear and calm again, with deep blue skies. Another great day to be in the mountains! Today, I’ll hike over Italy Pass, skirt the mountainside to Dancing Bear Pass and drop down into Bear Basin, where I’ll camp at Vee Lake.
I rejoined the trail after packing up camp and headed uphill towards Italy Pass. The trail ascends a series of shelves which contain several small lakes. The landscape continued to impress today, with spectacular reflections of the mountains in almost every pool of water. Jagged peaks dot the horizon in all directions. The hike was not difficult at all through this area either. The trail was well worn and easy to follow, and nothing was too steep.
Above the 11,600′ mark, the trail winds away from the lakes for the last time. I saw a couple of other solo hikers come down Italy Pass and pass by me. Below the final approach to the pass, there was a tiny little creek bed, with just a trickle of water coming down. It was grassy and had fewer rocks alongside it, and led the way to the top. Italy Pass was both beautiful and easy, a rare combination.
On top of Italy Pass, I took a short break. I love cresting the top of a pass and seeing a whole new world open up beneath me. I always found the top of mountain passes interesting. Often times, different rocks can be found up here than at lower elevations. Looking in one direction, the mountain looked as if humans had paved it with some large stones and then weathered over time. Looking towards Mount Julius Ceaser, you can see all of the rocks are aligned in the same direction, pointing towards the sky. Then I picked up a few pieces of trash some thoughtful hikers left behind up here. Come on, people.
Heading down from Italy Pass wasn’t too bad. I originally planned on dropping down much farther towards Jumble Lake than I actually had to. I was surprised at how easy the route looked going from Italy Pass to Dancing Bear Pass. It looked much easier in person than it did on the map. Usually, the opposite is true.
This section didn’t have much in the way of giant boulders, which was nice. The rocks were smaller in size and there were a few patches of snow here and there. Great views as well. I even passed a campsite up here, a flat spot with no rocks just large enough for a one man tent. It also seemed like there was a use trail here, but it faded away often. It was not really needed though as the terrain was open enough and easy enough to not be a problem regardless.
Below Dancing Bear Pass there was a large patch of snow that remained. I stayed north of the snow, where the route looked easiest. The climb up the pass was short and simple.
Dancing Bear Pass is an interesting one. It’s a long, flat area in between two peaks. Most passes have a bunch of rocks piled up and generally are just more rugged. Towards the middle of the pass, it’s actually very sandy. Since the pass is so long on the top, you can’t really see much from the middle.
Exiting Dancing Bear Pass, I had my first view of Bear Basin. Seven Gables can been seen clearly in the distance. I stopped here to take a food break. While doing so, I heard some yelling in the distance. I scanned the horizon and saw a couple of guys above White Bear Lake. One of them was waving his arms. I waved back, and I think that was the purpose of the yelling… to say hello. Well, hello back, and glad you aren’t injured or something, because that’s what I was thinking at first. I watched them drop down towards White Bear Pass, and eventually they headed down the pass towards Lake Italy.
It was a short hike down Dancing Bear Pass to the knob above White Bear Lake, near the area the guys where yelling from earlier. I hugged the eastern side of the knob as I made my way downhill towards Big Bear Lake. Light use trails exist, but nothing you can count on to take you from one place to another. Most of my hike through the area would be considered off trail.
The hike through Bear Basin was awesome. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire route through the basin. My only regret is not having more time to spend here and explore. I got the impression that few people visit the area, exactly what I was looking for. The terrain wasn’t as tough as other places, with large area of grass and flatlands, along with some occasional boulder fields of course. At least, it was fairly easy along my chosen route. There were only a few sections where I was forced to work my way through large boulders.
Little Bear Lake was particularly appealing to me. Coming from Big Bear Lake, the outlet drains into a narrow little canyon where the stream runs underneath some boulders. After hiking through this short section, Little Bear Lake comes into view with Seven Gables in the distance beyond the west end of the lake. This area looked appealing to camp at, but I had my mind made up already for Vee Lake.
In between Little Bear Lake and Vee Lake lie more tiny, unnamed lakes that offered spectacular views as well. For anyone interested in photography, I would try to fit more time in here as I could not walk very far without finding something to shoot. I also saw a marmot bumbling around in this section, one of a handful I’ve seen this trip.
When I got my first glimpse of Vee Lake, I realized how large it actually was. I dropped down almost 200′ to get to the lake, and quickly realized that there weren’t many good campsites. Not that the view wasn’t good, but there was nowhere to camp that offered any “amenities”, such as places to sit or protection from the wind. And right now, it was really windy.
On the eastern end of the northern spoke of the “V”, there was a large grassy field that I was thinking could be a potential campsite. When I got there though, it was really soft and soggy, not a place you’d want to camp. I kept walking around the lake, towards the inside of the “V”. Again, I saw no previously used campsites, although I did not make it all the way to the inside of the “V”. It was just too windy here to consider it. After having my tent blown over by wind in the middle of the night twice before, I have a strong distaste for windy campsites. I turned around and went back to the northern shore, near where I originally came down to the lake.
I found a flat spot to place my tent here on the northern shore of Vee Lake. It was windy here too, but probably less windy than the little peninsula in the inside of the “V”. I figure the wind will just die down when the sun sets as it has done every day since I’ve been here. After getting my tent set up, I walked the shoreline for a bit taking some pictures. I then noticed another guy camping on the peninsula in the center of the “V”, just past where I was checking earlier. I wonder if he was there when I was over there and I just didn’t see him, or if he moved in right after I left the area. Either way, he can have that constant wind that was coming directly across the lake from the direction of Seven Gables. Plus, less distance for me to cover in the morning tomorrow when leaving from this spot.
Now it was time to try my hand at fishing once again. I headed down to the lake and found a bit of a peninsula that jets out into the water, with deep water alongside it. First cast, bam! Landed a 10″ Golden Trout, my first Golden ever. Caught it on a mepps #2 spinner with a gold blade. Awesome, the fishing is going to pick up, I thought. I got my GoPro out and attached it to my headband, hoping to get some fishing action on tape. After that though, no bites all night. I moved around several times and switched lures, but that was the only fish of the night. Since my 10 day non-resident fishing license cost me a staggering $47, I dubbed this fish the $47 trout.
I try to do the right thing by buying these non resident fishing licences, but I know many people don’t buy them out here and I can understand why. $47 is way too much for a 10 day licence. I firmly believe that states need to lower these prices to encourage more people to buy the licences. Chances are, you’ll never get caught out here, especially in places like this well off the beaten path. But if you expect people to do the right thing, then give them some incentive to do so! Don’t rape us with those insanely overpriced fishing licences, and then wonder why people don’t buy them.
Done with fishing, I headed back to camp to wait for the sun to set. With no fire, I found myself going to be shortly after sunset each day this trip. Thankfully it was summer (the best season!) and there was actually some day light to work with. When I do my annual desert hike in January, the sun sets at 5 something. With no fires, that’s a looong night to spend in the tent. At least this was more manageable.
Day 9 – Monday August 29th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 8.96
Elevation Gain – 1274′
Route – Vee Lake to Marie Lake
Just as I thought it would, the wind died down last night right after the sun set. It was a calm and very cold night, the coldest yet. It was 31°F in my tent when I checked around 4am. Amazingly though, within 15 minutes of the sun rising, I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and a t shirt!
Today my plan is to hike down the outlet of Vee Lake to the Seven Gables Lakes area, then follow that downhill to East Fork Bear Creek. Follow that down to the PCT/JMT junction and then head to Marie Lake for my final night in the Sierras.
After packing up camp and heading out, I took my time hiking around Vee Lake. The water was calm and provided an excellent reflection of Seven Gables.
I hiked towards the outlet of Vee Lake. There was a spotty trail along the shoreline which quickly faded away where outlet starts draining downhill. I saw no trail or cairns to help me navigate down. It wasn’t super hard, but it was slow going. There was a myriad of tiny streams crisscrossing the hillside, with some thicker shrubs along some of these streams too.
Once down into the Seven Gables Lakes area, I was expecting to find a trail. I didn’t. There were some very occasional cairns, but nothing solid to follow the entire way through the valley. At least not that I saw. I stayed west of the creeks and lakes. Not saying that’s the best route, it’s just what I happened to choose based on what I saw.
It was actually a little chaotic down here in the valley. There were tons of little streams flowing from every which way. There were also many small hills and rock outcrops to navigate around, and it made it tough to just look at the terrain and choose the best way through it. It’s obvious which direction I need to go, but which is the best path through the obstacles in front of me? It wasn’t tough terrain, but slightly time consuming from a route finding perspective.
I ended up hiking west of the lowest Seven Gables lake, but later I saw what appeared to be a trail to the east of the creek flowing out of the lake. Later, where the canyon narrows near point 10,851′, I found myself up on a small set of cliffs where I had to backtrack in order to get down. Great view from the cliffs though. It looks lake a lake from above, but the map shows a river.
Down by the water I saw from above, I saw some prints in the muddy shoreline that could have been mountain lion. They were too big to be a coyote and didn’t appear to have claws. Not bear prints either. Despite the fact that these prints were here, it would have been my choice for a campsite if I were to stay in the area overnight. I found this area to be the most scenic of part of this morning’s hike.
I still wasn’t sure if I was on the right or wrong side of the creek when I reached the point where the canyon narrows. There was no easy way across it, so I just kept moving downstream. I took an awkward path over a rocky ridge at the narrowest point of the canyon, and found myself about 40′ above the creek below. The narrow section was only a few hundred yards long, and then the landscape widens again.
From here on out, the trail was extremely spotting for a while. I know I need to follow the creek downhill,but there wasn’t much in the way of cairns or markers to let you know you’re on the right path. The best route appeared to alternate between the two sides of the creek, requiring semi-frequent crossings. Nothing that you can’t hop rocks across, but without cairns or trail markers, it’s easy to continue on well past an area where you should have crossed. This meant hiking through thick bushes, boulder fields and all sorts of other obstacles when I missed the “right way”. Needless to say, the next couple hours weren’t necessarily fun.
The top section of East Fork Bear Creek was the worst. The middle section got a littler better. I passed a European guy in this section going uphill, and man, I did not envy him at the moment. The long slog uphill alone is enough, but he’s carrying a 65 pound pack. He was headed to Vee Lake, and like Martin 2 days ago, was only carrying a 1:100,000 map. I let him take some pictures of my 1:24,000 map of the route from here to Vee Lake and gave him some info on my hike through the area before we parted ways.
There was a short section where the trail headed uphill again, working it’s way around a hillside. After this section, which is roughly halfway between the PCT/JMT and the point where the canyon narrows at the top, the trail started to become more solid. Finally, something to follow and I can start to cover some miles. The pine trees were getting larger now, and the smell was a refreshing reminder of life below the treeline.
I made great time through the bottom half of East Fork Beak Creek and eventually hit the PCT/JMT. There was an easy water crossing here, with rocks strewn across the creek. The trail seemed massive to me now since I haven’t seen anything this well maintained in several days. Almost like a 4 wheeler path.
I made great time moving along the PCT/JMT. For the first mile or two, there wasn’t much to see. Then, the trail winds through some nice meadows as it nears Marie Lake. I didn’t see a single person the entire way to Marie Lake, which was maybe 3 miles.
I saw a few people at Marie Lake when I got there. They were all basically congregated near the large peninsula in the center of the lake. I kept moving towards Seldon Pass, thinking I could grab a campsite near the pass so I’d have less distance to cover tomorrow morning heading back to Florence Lake. I didn’t see much, but then I found a great spot perched above the extreme southern end of the lake, near the inlet. This was also directly below Seldon Pass, so it was perfect for me. The only downside was that my campsite required a bit of a walk down to the water.
After setting up camp, I set up my GoPro on the tripod to do a time lapse of the clouds moving over Marie Lake. I had tons of GoPro batteries left since my solar charging panel was working so well, and didn’t mind setting it up and just running it til the battery dies.
While the GoPro was doing it’s thing, I went down to the lake to fish. The shoreline was pretty poor for fishing on this side of the lake. The shoreline was soggy and wet, and the water was shallow in many areas. I could see a clear, distinct channel running through the lake coming from the inlet, so I had a closer look at this. The shoreline here was soft and soggy too, but I could see tons of fish sitting in the channel. Following that channel to the inlet itself, there was a pool filled with hundreds of trout! They got spooked as I approached, but hey, they’re here!
I went back to the channel, away from the pool by the inlet and proceeded to cast. Before long, I had caught a couple of 12″ brookies. I’m glad I caught these fish, because I didn’t really want to call that golden I caught last night the $47 fish. I had fun chasing these fish around for a few hours, and I think I ended up with 4 on the night. I caught them all on the same mepps #2 spinner with the gold blade.
Back at camp, it was time to reflect on my hike as sun set on my final night. I was feeling great for being out here for 9 days. I wasn’t overly tired, sore, sunburnt, hungry, anything. I just felt good. Of course, I was really looking forward to a hot meal and a shower.
I was treated to an incredible sunset tonight filled with lots of red and orange, reflecting over Lake Marie. There was also this weird looking “funnel cloud” very nearby that ended up turning red as well. That was interesting. All in all, a great way to end my last night out here.
Day 10 – Tuesday August 30th, 2016
Miles Hiked – 12
Elevation Gain – 780′
Route – Marie Lake to Florence Lake
I woke up at 6am today, much earlier then the the rest of the days on the hike. I want to make it to Florence Lake by 11am so I can catch the Ferry. Otherwise, I’ll have to wait until 1pm for the next one. I was on the trail by 6:55 this morning.
The climb up Seldon Pass wasn’t too tough, but as I’ve said before, there’s nothing like a mountain pass in the morning to get the blood pumping. The view from Seldon Pass was better in the direction of Marie Lake then Sallie Keyes, but at this time of the morning, the lighting wasn’t up to par yet to take many pictures. Besides, I was on a mission to get back to Florence Lake, and since I wasn’t sure exactly how long it was going to take, I had to get moving.
I stopped only briefly along Heart Lake and Sallie Keyes Lakes to take a few pictures, and moved on as quickly as possible.
There were a few people camping neat lower Sallie Keyes lakes, but nowhere else along this morning’s hike. Sallie Keyes Lakes looked so different then the lakes I’ve grown accustomed to in the high country. These lakes were surrounded by tall, thick pines and I thought I could have been at 5,000ft if I didn’t know any better.
After Sallie Keyes Lakes, I really hauled ass. I was already fast walking all morning, and I stepped it up a notch from here on out. I was guessing this hike would be about 12 miles, and I was hoping to do it in 4 hours flat. Fortunately there was a very good trail today all the way from Marie Lake on, and it was all basically downhill. I was keeping a close eye on the time, and it was going to be close.
There was not much to see after passing Sallie Keyes Lakes. There were few meadows, and few distant views. You’re basically in the forest the entire way with nothing super interesting to see. That’s fine with me, since I don’t have time to stop and enjoy the scenery anyways. I’m really glad I didn’t choose to hike up this way in the beginning though. I didn’t even consider it, to be honest. 4,000’+ of elevation gain with a full pack on day one, when you’re not acclimated yet… not my first choice in routes. Still, I saw several people making this slog uphill. I’m just glad I’m going down!
After crossing Senger Creek, the trail heads downhill steeply. Here, there’s a series of switchbacks that wind through an entire mountainside of manzanitas. All I could think about was my hike in the Sierras Ancha Wilderness, AZ in May, and some of the nightmare off trail sections there where I was hiking through thick patches of manzanitas. I have a big scar on my shin from one of them now, and have a new respect for that plant.
I continued to fast walk down the switchbacks until they ended, and it was just s teep trail through the forest again. Coming down, there’s a trail that leads off to the left and the right. The one that heads left is the official PCT/JMT, but heads southeast and away from Florence Lake. The other trail, heading right, is a “shortcut” trail that just runs directly south and joins up with the main trail running through the Blaney Meadows area. I went right as this was the obvious route for someone heading back to Florence Lake.
Now done with the worst of the downhill and on generally flat ground, I started to run a little. I had about an hour left to get back to the lake and it still looked a long ways away. Running with a backpack on is not fun, with the extra weight and having it flop around. Straps tend to come lose on your pack making it even more awkward. To make matters worse, I was running on about 500 calories for the day. I literally had no time to stop and eat, as I was realizing every minute counts.
I alternated between running and fast walking for much of the last hour. It was going to come down to the wire, and so I was running the last section. You can’t see the ferry until the you crest the final hill, and when I did, the boat was halfway across the lake already. I looked down at my watch and saw it turn form 10:59 to 11. So, he must have left at least 5 minutes early. I waved my armed and yelled at the top of my lungs before I realized he either can’t see/hear me, or he doesn’t care. Great, I just busted my ass for 4 hours to get here on time, just so the ferry could leave without me. Now i have to wait another 2 hours for the next one.
I took refuge in the only shade in the area and took a nap. I was too pissed off to do anything else. I had plans to get back to Fresno early and actually have time to do something today, but now that’s not going to happen.
Eventually, other hikers started pouring into the area. We all moved towards the dock before 1pm, waiting for the boat to come. When 1pm rolls around, we still don’t see him coming. 1:30 hits, and still no boat. One of the other guys said there was some sort of phone at the top of the hill that can be used to call them, so he went up there to ask what’s going on. He came back and told us that there was a lot of wind on the other side of the lake and that their dock blew away. They said they would try to send out the boat again later this afternoon, but could not give us a time as to when they would be here to pick us up. Oh man, really? So now, I’m thinking I should just hike around the lake back to the car. It’s another 4 miles or so, but would require a little backtracking form here. Plus, I know as soon as I leave to do that, the boat will come. I considered it but stuck with my instinct to stay and wait for the boat. I pulled out my fishing pole to kill some time, and sure enough, just as I did that, we could see the boat on it’s way.
When the boat arrived, the captain was complaining that someone called and complained that he hadn’t shown up. He said something like, “Alright, who’s the one who called and complained that I wasn’t coming? I’m pissed now, you put me in a bad mood. I was busy chasing our dock that got blown away”. I turned and said to one of the other hikers “Ha, he’s pissed? I was here at 11am and he had already left. I’ve been waiting here for almost 3 hours”. Later on the boat, he admitted to leaving 5 minutes early. He said I was supposed to use the phone to call them before I had crested the hill above the boat docks so they know I’m close. Well, that was never explained to me. If it’s that important, it should be something you mention while everyone is on the boat, not after we’ve docked and people have already walked away. Apparently, that’s when he does the explanation of the phone bit. I mentioned what I went through this morning, doing 13 miles in 4 hours and running with my pack to get here on time, and the captain says “Oh, you must be a really good hiker”. Really? You smug little bastard. Kind of a crappy way to end a great trip.
I would not start my hike from Florence Lake again. I’d rather just not deal with the ferry ride, or the long scary drive on Kaiser Pass Rd. I’d rather start somewhere like North Lake where I can start at 9,000’+ instead of 7,000 at Florence. Logistically though, it’s more difficult, but that would be my ideal approach to the area.
Many of my past hikes were ones where I created a route and never wavered from it. It feels good to create a plan and stick to it, but this hike taught me some valuable lessons in flexibility. My 3rd day here forced me to re-evaluate my route when the weather turned bad. I ended up chopping off the Ionian Basin section as well as the Sabrina Basin section. I had a feeling that my exit plan from the Sabrina Basin area was going to be tough, and was unsure of the danger level. I chose a safer route and worked in an extra day to either take as a zero day or to spread out between the remaining days. This layer of flexibility was something I am not used to, but I enjoyed. I supposed I forced myself to do shorter days this hike and focus on enjoying the area instead of just covering ground.
My Inov8 Roclite 295 shoes were a major let down. They let way too much fine debris into the shoe to be viable for most types of terrain. Damn you Inov8, bring back the Roclite 315s! These shoes allowed me the “opportunity” to perfect my blister care methods though. Putting a band aid over the blister and then putting Ace sports tape over the band aid seemed to work wonders for me in terms of preventing the blisters from getting worse and minimizing the pain.
As always, questions and comments are welcome!
If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.