The John Muir trail – part 1 – Yosemite to Devils Postpiles

The John Muir Trail (JMT) is one of the most magnificent long distance hiking routes in the world. It combines pristine landscape, high mountains, wonderful lakes and grand views with a complete wilderness experience. It requires carrying everything you need as well as at  least ten days food supply on your back up and down mountain passes (many days see and an elevation gain/loss of 3000 ft and more).

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On the other hand the trailhead is only a few hours drive away from the bay area, the climate in summer is mild and mostly dry. The path is safe, well built and easy to follow and except a few tricky river crossings doesn’t pose any particular hazards. An excellent map pack covers the entire route (except a variant at the beginning described below). In addition the lovely guidebook by Elizabeth Wenk is the a good companion on the trail (though lighter in its kindle version). I might give some more hints on the required equipment later on.

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I hiked this wonderful path twice (so far…) the first time was in mid July 2010 and the second early September 2012. The first time I went on my own and the second with my son Eran.

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For the first three days in 2010 I was accompanied by Amir Voskoboynik and for the first three days in 2012 we were accompanied by Erez Podoly.  These two hikes were very different. Mid July 2010 was still early season many of the passes still had plenty of snow and the river crossings were scary and wet. On the up side everything was in amazing bloom and most of the flower photos in this post were taken then. The second time, a mere six weeks later in the season was already late summer. Everything was dry and most of the meadows were yellow. There was no snow on the trail and the creeks were low in water so that we kept our feet dry throughout. There was however sufficient water so that we rarely had to carry more then a liter.

Two views from the small lakes by Island Pass

View from the small lake by Island Pass

The first thing to consider when planning a JMT is obtaining a wilderness permit. The trail starts officially in happy isles in the Yosemite valley. The chances of reserving a permit from there are meager (but some are saved for hikers who show up on the day) but there are other alternatives that are less crowded. We decided to start at glacier point from where it is much easier to obtain a permit

This detour adds two days to the trip and takes you right at the beginning to an 11000 ft pass (which was snowed in 2010). On the positive side it takes you to the nicest and least visited parts of Yosemite and it can be incorporated as a 4 day loop back to starting point for the driver. I will thus describe the first part of our journey in some detail as it is off the main JMT, which has very little junctions and is just a single trail

Day 1 – Glacier Point – Illituette Creek

We started from Glacier point, which we reached by a tour bus from the valley floor (2010) or rented car that we left in the car park (2012). From this very crowded point there is a marvelous if hazy view of half dome and vernal falls complete with rainbow. Close to the road we had our first and only encounter with bears –  a mother with two cubs. To our surprise a ranger charged towards them a paintball gun. He later told us that this bear recently trashed his

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Half Dome from Glacier Point

We followed the trail south along the Illituette creek for several miles until we reached a crossing. In 2010 this was were our water filter broke. For the next 18 days I drank only unfiltered water with no ill effect. The water along the entire JMT is wonderfully pure and can be drunk untreated. As a matter of fact chemical treatment (bleach or iodine) is probably much less healthy.

After the crossing the creek the trail follows the Illuette for nine miles up hill. In July 2010 the trail was not very clear and we had to circumnavigate many trees that were blown over in winter. In Sept 2012 the path was clear and dry. This is a rather long and boring part of the trip and we walked until sunset looking for a spot to pitch our tent. In my first trip this was the toughest night. After carrying my heavy pack all day I started to feel the altitude. I had doubts whether this is a viable enterprise and whether I will make it. Many trips have this tough stage, usually early on.

To make things worse the second morning (2010) disaster struck and I tumbled with my backpack into a small t creek. My lens got flooded and became useless. This was real problem as I carried only a single lens (18-270 Tamron). It took two days of drastic drying methods (from sleeping with it in the sleeping bag to heating it over the stove) to get it back into working order. It performed very well for the rest of the trip when it started to accumulate mold. We had a particularly stupid idea to sterilize it by gamma radiation, which baked the lens coatings in brown – RIP. On my second trip I carried a similar lens but mainly used a superb wide field 17-40 F4L canon lens. The camera which survived the dip and many subsequent trips was a wonderful Canon EOS rebel T2i (550). It is light and can do everything its heavier more expensive brothers (7D) can do.

Day 2 – Illituette Creek – Ottoway Lakes – Red Peak Pass and beyond

After walking a while in the forest we reached the upper merced pass lake. We turned north east, passed for the first time the 9000 ft elevation and continued to climb up to the lower Ottoway lake. This is a magic spot with only a few hikers as it is a long walk from the road. We enjoyed a good rest and a dip in the cold water.

The path meanders up to the upper Ottoway lake and from there through a rocky valley up many switchbacks to the Red Peak Pass (11075 ft) just under the Red Peak that gave the pass its name. The view from the top towards north and east is stupendous with endless peaks that mark the border of Yosemity with the Ansel Adams Wilderness that we will reach in a few day.

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In Sept 2012 this was an arduous but straightforward ascent. This being only our second day in the Sierras and we have already passed 11000 ft elevation without any ill effect. July 2010 was a different story. The pass was covered in snow and the path was difficult to find and follow. From the top we had basically to slide down through a huge snow field. As we reached the top we saw a heard a huge thunderstorm gathering and passing towards us. It passed by very closely but spared us by only a mile or two. We realized how close it must have been when we pitched out tents after the ascent on a very wet meadow.

Amir after crossing Red Peak Pass. Note that Amirs' camera is without a lens as he borrowed it to me after I flooded mine.

Amir after crossing Red Peak Pass. Note that Amirs’ camera is without a lens as he borrowed it to me after I flooded mine.

The ascend from the pass winds between many small rocky tarns where we spent a lot of time taking photos. We carried further down and set up camp by a large but nameless lake with a view to the Red Devil Lake.

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Day 3 – Triple Peak Fork – Washburn Lake – Merced Lake

The third day was probably the only day in the entire trek without ascent. We followed the path down to the Triple Peak Fork and followed it down.

Reaching Triple Fork

Reaching Triple Fork

After several miles the path veers west along a rocky outcrop until it joins the Merced Peak Fork. In 2010 while we walked on this rock we felt something weird underfoot. At close scrutiny this turned out to be huge mounds of hailstones from the storm the previous day. We were really lucky to be just at the right place at the right time…If we would have been one day earlier on the trail we would have gotten all this ice on our head and would not be able to cross the river, as the signs of the high water were still visible. The trail crosses the river just after all three forks have joined. In fall 2012 this area looked like in the aftermath of a hurricane. Hundreds of trees most of them I estimated between 100-200 years old were blown over. In some points more trees were lying then standing. I have no idea what caused this disaster. It must have happened a while ago as the amazing park service has done a great job in clearing the path.

The path follows all the way to the Washburn lake, which is a great place for a rest.

Erez resting at Washburn lake

Erez resting at Washburn lake

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It hugs its eastern shore and follows downstream along several dramatic waterfalls and rapids and reaches the Merced lake ranger station. A bit further west is a large and convenient campsite.

Day 4 – Merced Lake – Vogelsang – Lyell Canyon

In the morning we parted from our friend (Amir 2010, Erez 2012) who hiked down the  Merced river through little Yosemite valley to Happy Isles (Amir) or up to Glacier point (Erez). Eran and I  turned east and started to climb up along the Lewis Fletcher creek to Vogelsang. The first part of the path was a steep climb alongside a rushing burn. We stopped frequently looking back over to the Yosemite NP spreading below us under a dramatic sky.

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Once at the top the terrain flattened and the valley widened. Here the creek was calmly meandering through lush meadows that turn bright yellow in fall.

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Vogelsang is a summer high sierra camp with a little shop that sells candy bars, some badly needed blister remedies and post cards that can be posted from here. It offers also simple (but very expensive) accommodation. After a short rest at this last outpost of civilization we resumed our walk passing the beautiful    lake just after the camp and the beautiful Evelyn lake a bit further on.

Eran and his Kindle by Evelyn Lake

Eran and his Kindle by Evelyn Lake

Using superlatives to describe lakes will become harder and harder along the way as we will come across some of the most amazing ones on planet earth.

We finally reached the crest and started ascending into the Lyell canyon where we at long last joined official JMT a few miles south of the Tolumne meadows station. We carried on a bit on the JMT until we found a nice camp site by the river.

Lyell river at dusk

Lyell river at dusk

Day 5 – Lyell Canyon – Donahue Pass – Island Pass – Thousand Island Lake

So far every day brought us to more beautiful places then the previous one and this trend continued today. We started off walking along the Lyell canyon with its wide and lazy stream. The path soon started to climb trough the forest to two lovely lakes, whose dark color contrasted with the yellow dry grassy meadows along their shores.

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Small lake with Mt. Lyell and its “glacier”

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Above the lakes towers Mt Lyell with the largest glacier we will see along our hike. Here it stated to rain and continued on and off for several hours. This was the only rain during our entire trip (Sept 2012).  After we  left the lakes the path ascended on a wide rocky slope toward Donahue pass  (11056). In July 2010 this slope was partially covered in snow and the path was hard to follow. From the top of the pass we had a great view towards south. Several marmots live up there and their strong whistles can be heard all over.

Marmot on Donahue Pass

Marmot on Donahue Pass

Here we left Yosemite national park and crossed into the Ansel Adams wilderness which is part of the huge Inyo national forest. This wilderness is commemorates Ansel Adams one the best know landscape photographers whose work has inspired generations of photographers.

Donahue Pass crossing from Yosemite NP to the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Donahue Pass crossing from Yosemite NP to the Ansel Adams Wilderness

The path descended from the pass crossed several streams and climbed to the Island pass. Shortly after the pass the path crosses between two particularly lovely lakes with a grand view of the imposing Banner peak and Mt Ritter.

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The views from the small lakes by Island Pass changed rapidly

The final part of this hike, which was poor delight took us down the Thousand Island lake, which I consider the highlight of this entire section.

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Thousand Island Lake

Thousand Island Lake

We spent a cold and humid night under the countless stars. Spending both the late afternoon and the early morning hours photographing this unforgettable vista.

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Thousand Island Lake just before sunrise with Banner Peak. The first photo in this post shows the peak several minutes later

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Mt Davies and Thousand Island Lake

Mt Davies and Thousand Island Lake

Day 6 – Thousand Island Lake – Garnet Lake – Devils Postpiles

We started off climbing from the outlet of the Thousand Island lake and soon reached the aptly named Emerald  and Ruby Lakes. From there the path descended to Garnet Lake whose beauty rivals that of  the Thousand  Island Lake. In 2010 I camped here so I had a chance to fall in love with both of them.

Garnet Lake

Garnet Lake

From here we had another ascend and descend to Shadow Lake.

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Shadow Lake and Mt. Ritter

From there the JMT climbs again to Rosalie Lake and down and up again. In 2010 I dutyfully followed this path but in 2012 we decided to save some climbing and to cheat. We took the path down from Shadow Lake to the River Trail which goes all the dusty way to Devils Postpiles National Monument. This very special geological formation of columnar basalt was saved in 1911 from destruction by presidential proclamation. Apparently somebody wanted to blaze these unique rocks to build a dam.

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A bit futher on we reached Reds Meadow resort and our first cold beer and cooked food in six days. The small shop is also a good place to stock up on provisions for the next lag or can be used as an address for sending supplies. We did neither as our supplies waited for us in Muir Ranch. The food in the restaurant was extra yummy, at least after six days of freeze dried meals. In summer it even also possible to take a shuttle into Mammoth which has plenty of shops (an opportunity I took in 2010). We camped in the hikers campsite. After five nights of solo camping this was the first time we camped with many other hikers.

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