Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 10


This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015. Previous installments and additional photos are here.


Day 10: Tuesday, July 28

Purple Lake to Fords Creek – 11 miles

One of the best parts about backpacking is the freedom to choose where to pitch a tent.  Jennie and I have always been picky about our camping spots; each one has to be epic and better than the previous one.

Every campsite so far on this JMT thru-hike has been in close proximity to water (with the exception of the two backpackers’ camps that we utilized to resupply our food stores). The sound of water, the sight of water, the feel of water; we love high-altitude camping with a side of clear, cold water. 

Waking up at Purple Lake (elevation 10,078 feet) in the John Muir Wilderness portion of Sierra National Forest made us realize once again how incredibly peaceful it is to sleep outside with no one else around. Sipping our hot morning drinks of choice while perched on our granite couch, we watched yet another incredible Sierra sunrise. 

Adding to the morning’s peacefulness was the glass-like surface of Purple Lake. The water was so still that the surrounding peaks were reflected in it perfectly as if it was a mirror instead of a body of water. 

On this day, a Tuesday, my mind felt like Purple Lake looked. It, too, was still and at peace. I compared this with what my mind feels like most Tuesdays at home. It would be more like a lake in a rainstorm with each droplet representing a thought, and while all those droplets create ripples, the downpour steadily increases as the workweek unfolds.

On the trail, the mornings were calm, our minds benefitting incredibly from this time away from civilization and its commitments, worries, and responsibilities. The only item on the day’s agenda was the same as yesterday’s and tomorrow’s: walking along a trail that has been rated as the most beautiful in the world. 

From Purple Lake, the JMT climbs a series of switchbacks and, approaching an elevation of 11,000 feet, the landscape is composed of more granite and less trees. After passing through small patches of wildflowers and being surrounded by walls of stacked, car-sized granite and slopes of talus on either side of the trail, we reached the summit and began the brief descent. 

We arrived at the shore of Lake Virginia (elevation 10,314 feet), which immediately was placed in the top five of my favorite lakes along a 211-plus-mile trail that consists of an abundance of beautiful lakes. Lake Virginia is large compared to the high-country lakes in the southern Sierra. It has flat, grassy beaches and private inlets, scenic campsites, and westerly views to distant peaks. Oh, how I longed to see a sunset from this glorious lake, but we had barely hiked two miles, so after an extended rest period spent watching a mother duck in a peaceful isthmus providing life lessons to her brood of seven youngsters, back on went the packs.

The trail climbs above Lake Virginia but follows the east shoreline, teasing us with even more incredible views. The climb out of the cirque is a gradual ascent, and we crossed the saddle to descend the other side on more than a mile of steep switchbacks. This south-facing slope was green with vegetation, quite different from the barren, rocky north side. A series of falls cascading down the steep wall allowed us to splash our faces with the refreshing runoff at regular intervals as we traversed back and forth down the mountain.

Below us was Tully Hole (elevation 9,588 feet), an enormous meadow with a tributary of Fish Creek meandering through it. This aerial view of Tully Hole, with its luxuriance of green grasses, tranquil water, and vibrant wildflowers, contrasts vividly with the surrounding landscape of steep escarpments and dense woodland.

We were finally heading down — 1,800 feet to be exact — into Cascade Valley, a deep trench that the JMT had been staying well above for the past 15 miles.

We left the switchbacks at the McGee Pass trailhead but continued to descend another mile in a shady forest alongside the creek that was now gaining momentum. A steel footbridge (elevation 9,000 feet) appropriately placed saved us from a treacherous water crossing. 

On the other side of the gorge, we stopped for lunch on a sunny granite bench overlooking the fast-moving creek.

When we hoisted our packs once again, what loomed ahead was the 3.3-mile, 1,700-foot climb to Silver Pass. Promptly upon leaving our lunch spot we came across a couple, Anna and Dillon, whom we had met during the congestion and elbow rubbing at the Red’s Meadow backpackers’ campsites a few days previously. We were surprised to have caught up with them because they were putting in long days of 20 miles and more with plans to finish the trail in less than two weeks. Jennie and I were enjoying the extravagant luxury of a more leisurely pace. 

While the four of us hiked together toward the pass, they confessed that they had taken the wrong trail from Red’s Meadow, and at the point we came across them, they had just rejoined the JMT after a challenging two-day detour. This wasn’t the first tale we had heard about people wandering off the JMT due to inadequate signage in this U.S. Forest Service-administered section. And Jennie and I had also become confused at some trail junctions over the past several days and were keeping the map close at hand to eliminate the likelihood of a wrong turn.

Once we had made the climb back to 10,000 feet, the trail eases in its ascent and provides expansive views that contain several lakes with a spate of names referring to Native Americans (some of which today are considered derogatory): Squaw Lake, Warrior Lake, Papoose Lake, and Chief Lake. 

These lakes are in close proximity to Lake of the Lone Indian, which was named around the turn of the 20th century. The other names first appeared on maps in 1953 but, according to Place Names of the Sierra Nevada, “no one has ever confessed to the deed” of conferring these names.

The hike to Silver Pass is chock-full of scenery as the trail meanders around Squaw Lake, then Chief Lake’s east side, crossing the inlet using conveniently arranged stepping stones, then ascends so Chief Lake (elevation 10,500 feet) and several other lakes and tarns come into view, the surfaces sparkling like diamonds in the afternoon sun. The climb to the top of the pass is not too strenuous, especially in comparison to the other passes we would be encountering over the next several weeks. 

At the top of Silver Pass (elevation 10,754 feet), there are sweeping views of the lakes below and to the south where we would be traveling. And what we would come to enjoy most about these high points is looking back over all the mountain ranges we had surmounted to get where we were. It was incredible to comprehend that we were traveling under our own physical power in this wild, remote area that, remarkably, has no road crossings for 160 miles from Red’s Meadow to Whitney Portal.

From Silver Pass, we descended a few hundred feet to Silver Pass Lake (elevation 10,386 feet), which is where we intended to spend the night. As we walked along looking for a campsite that met our strict standards, we came across Anna and Dillon once again, resting trailside. 

By the mere fact of association, it became expected by them that we would camp together. Then Dillon decided that it would be too exposed and therefore windy at Silver Pass Lake. Jennie and I wanted to stay at this lake, but didn’t mind knocking some distance off the next day’s itinerary, so we continued past the lake, and even though it was all downhill, Dillon fell farther and farther behind. The couple, due to their unintended detour, was closing in on a daily tally of about 30 miles in their attempt to make up the time lost.

Jennie and I had a steady pace going, ready to find a campsite and call it a day. Anna was keeping pace, but stopping and yelling for Dillon every now and then. There was a flat granite shelf in some trees as the trail meets up with Fords Creek. There were three tents already pitched just upstream.

Jennie and I set about pitching the tent and getting ready for a dip in the creek, our daily reward. Anna stayed near the trail to watch for Dillon. When the neighboring party of three emerged from their respective tents, we recognized them. They were also acquaintances from our crowded campsite at Red’s Meadow two days earlier, an inspiring sister and brother, ages 73 and 70, respectively, and another man, younger by a couple decades. 

It was a beautiful night with the moon waxing nearly full. Although scenic, the moonlight was useful, too, as it was so bright that headlamps were unnecessary, thus conserving precious battery life.

We were closing in on the halfway point of the trail and our next resupply stop. The days had been warm with clear skies, so different from the previous week’s lightning flashes, cracks of thunder, and pelting hail, but the chatter on the trail was that thunderstorms might again soon be roiling overhead.

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