Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 13


This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail (north to south) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during Summer 2015. Previous installments and additional photos are online here.


Day 13: Friday, July 31

Sallie Keyes Lakes to Piute Creek Crossing

9 miles

Our 4:30 a.m. wake-up didn’t happen as planned because we heard the all-too-familiar sound of raindrops. It had been windy throughout the night with intermittent rain, and it wasn’t yet letting up.

When we opened our eyes a couple hours later, there was daylight streaming through the nylon walls of our abode. We left the coziness of our sleeping bags to peer outside the tent for the daily weather report. No rain, but it was wet and chilly, and dark clouds were continuing to hover. 

We were anticipating this day because there was a five-gallon bucket full of food and other supplies waiting for us at Muir Trail Ranch. This tub had been prepared by us and mailed to MTR several weeks before.

Being situated near the halfway point of the John Muir Trail, this is a popular resupply point. MTR charges $75 for this vital service that includes retrieving the bucket at the Lakeshore post office (about 30 miles from the ranch), storing the bucket at Florence Lake, ferrying it across the lake, packing it in on a horse or an off-road vehicle the final five miles to the ranch, then holding the bucket until the party’s expected arrival date. 

We packed and left our campsite by 7:30 a.m., not taking time for breakfast. Energy bars and trail mix would provide sustenance as we walked.

Our campsite was about a quarter-mile off the trail, but we quickly rejoined it where it transects the two Sallie Keyes Lakes. From here, we had about five miles to go to Muir Trail Ranch.

Shortly after leaving the lakes, we caught a glimpse of a log cabin through the lodgepole pine forest. We had to go inspect, discovering a delightful little state Department of Water Resources snow-survey shelter.

It was a flat walk through the woods, then a descent of 2,200 feet on switchbacks into the vast San Joaquin River canyon. With no fanfare, we passed the halfway point of the John Muir Trail somewhere along this stretch.

At four miles, we came to the northern cutoff to MTR and left the JMT. We followed the signs down a dry, dusty trail, and in a mile we were pushing open a creaky gate near a corral full of horses and entering onto the grounds of  the bustling MTR.

We handed our claim ticket, which had been stashed away in a pack pocket for two weeks, to a woman on a stool who then disappeared into a rock building and returned posthaste with our food cache. Beneath a canopy, we settled in the grass, still damp from the previous night’s rainstorms, to start the process of reorganizing and reloading our bear canisters with food… and weight.

The John Muir and Pacific Crest trails have seen a significant increase in traffic the past couple of years. This means MTR is collecting a lot of money on those buckets while experiencing an incessant stream of backpackers from June to September, which may be the impetus for the standoffish attitude of the employees and a profusion of posted rules.

But $75 is a small price to pay for this service where most backpackers will undoubtedly stop, especially if heading south, as MTR is the last place directly on the JMT to resupply with food.

The backpacking services at MTR are organized and efficient. Under another set of tent canopies, lined up on wooden benches, are nearly two dozen five-gallon buckets filled with unwanted items from previous hikers and available for the taking, all sorted and labeled: energy bars, trail mix, breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and so on. 

So Jennie went shopping and  procured a veggie couscous salad that we rehydrated and devoured on the spot. The find of the day, however, was the toilet paper bucket because while other hikers may have overpacked this weightless item, we were running low and in ration mode.

Services we didn’t use but are also available at Muir Trail Ranch, are Internet — $10 for 15 minutes — and an electrical outlet so backpackers may power up their cameras, phones, e-readers, and other electronics, and there’s no charge for this charge.

And so basic yet important, Muir Trail Ranch lets hikers deposit their trash, which is a luxury. We hadn’t seen a trash can since Red’s Meadow, five days and nearly 50 miles previously, so we appreciated this amenity, especially since we were leaving absolutely no trace, meaning packing out used toilet paper. (It is becoming obvious that as the trail gets busier not everyone does this, but they should).

We dragged our repacked packs over to MTR’s hanging industrial scale to see what damage the food had done. Jennie’s pack weighed in at about 37 pounds; mine was 43 pounds. Our packs were at their heaviest now with both bear cans stuffed full of food that would last until our next resupply in seven days.

Under still cloudy skies, we set off to look for the renowned Blayney Hot Springs. We were anticipating immersing ourselves in warm water after nearly two weeks of dunking in cold lakes and rivers.

As we neared the backpackers’ campground, we met a father-daughter duo that we were becoming acquainted with as we saw each other on the trail. They were set up at the campground, taking a zero (mileage) day, and on their way to pick up their resupply bucket but pointed us in the direction of the hot springs and invited us to leave our packs at their campsite.

We slipped off our packs at the crowded campground, sat down on a log, and started to put on our water shoes in preparation for the rocky river crossing to the hot springs. Our conversation went something like this: “We should take our cameras and the GoPro with us.” “But the river is running fast and we don’t want to drop the cameras.” “The clouds are sure getting dark.” “Yep, it’s going to rain again.” “Should we keep hiking?” “I guess it would be better to get to camp early rather than walk in a downpour.” And just like that, we talked ourselves out of a rejuvenating soak in the hot springs.

Back on the trail we embarked on the final four miles of our hiking day. When southbound, it’s about two miles to merge back onto the JMT. Then it was another two miles to that night’s camp at the Piute Canyon Trail junction.

What is significant about this area is upon crossing Piute Creek on a sturdy metal bridge we left Sierra National Forest’s John Muir Wilderness and entered into Kings Canyon National Park. We were thrilled to set foot into one of our favorite parks, but what is remarkable is that simply by traversing this invisible boundary line, the scenery took a dramatic turn toward even more incredible. 

This country was all new to us, yet we felt like we were home. Kings Canyon! 

We were ecstatic to be in this region of vast, unspoiled wilderness — deep canyons, turbulent rivers, indescribably blue lakes, sweeping meadows, and mountains that look like impenetrable castle walls.

Within earshot of Piute Creek, we found a comfortable campsite nestled among big boulders with a privacy screen of manzanita. For the second consecutive day, as soon as we erected the tent, the clouds released the rain. 

This storm was intense. Hailstones the size of peas were pelting the tent, accompanied by bolts of lightning and claps of thunder. As the storm parked overhead, the thunder turned into a nonstop rumble, like a dog growling deep in its throat, threatening an imminent attack. 

So we made the right decision to skip the hot springs. Drenched hikers were pulling off the trail and making camp in the downpour; we — and all our belongings — were dry, except for the tent.

The hail turned to rain falling from the sky in sheets and continued for two hours while we read and slept. At about 5:30 p.m., there was a break in the action. We grabbed the collapsible bucket, water filter, bottles, and towels and scurried to the rushing, gushing Piute Creek to get water for camp, filter water for drinking, and rinse off.

By the time we were done with these chores, it was pouring rain again, making it pointless to dry off with the towels. We cooked dinner in the vestibule and ate inside the tent.

The storm cleared out in time for us to simultaneously experience a stunning alpenglow on Pavilion Dome to the east and a fiery orange sunset in the western sky. As darkness fell, a full moon illuminated the night sky.

We were now halfway through this JMT journey. Our lungs had adapted, our legs were strong, we had our daily routine down to an art, and our heads were seriously in this game. We were more than ready to spend the next 11 days walking north to south through the magnificent yet challenging backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park. 

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