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 from July 19 to August 13, 2015.
Previous installments and more photos are here.
Day 17: Tuesday, August 4
LeConte Canyon to (beyond) Palisade Lakes
As thru-hikers in the most remote backcountry of Kings Canyon National Park, there were only two news items of which to keep abreast: weather and fire. That’s how small the universe becomes when removed from the material world.
Each morning, our first action was to look out the tent flap for a weather check. Then the rest of the day was spent wondering from where the wisps of smoke in the sky were coming.
We had pieced together bits of information and concluded that the smoke that wafted in during our zero day at Rosalie Lake (day 7) was from the Willow Fire near Oakhurst. Now there was more smoke, not bothersome, but we seemed to be walking toward it.
(In retrospect, we now know that this smoke was from the Rough Fire, which was ignited by lightning on July 31, 2015, to the west of Cedar Grove. The Rough Fire eventually burned more than 150,000 acres. The smoke from this fire became intense along the JMT, causing many JMT hikers to abort their trips. We were fortunate that we completed our hike before the smoke became a serious hindrance.)
On this hiking day, we had a strategy. Our chief goal was to get into position below Mather Pass (elevation 12,100 feet) in order to get to the top of the pass first thing the next morning. But before Mather Pass is another steep ascent that we didn’t want to do on the same day, so we planned to position ourselves in the middle of these two sections to accomplish the 4,000 feet of climbing over two days.
The high passes would be a regular part of the itinerary now; we would be climbing one every other day, if not every day, for the rest of the trip.
Here is a summary of our days: Get up early, climb a headwall to a high pass, descend into a deep river canyon, then climb long and high to a lovely camp below the next headwall. Yet redundant our days were not; this trail that bisects Kings Canyon National Park is the most spectacular and memorable of our hiking lives, before or since.
Leaving our LeConte Canyon campsite, we descended south along the scenic Middle Fork of the Kings River. We passed picturesque Grouse Meadows where two male hikers were twisted like pretzels in their morning yoga poses.
At about the 3.5-mile mark (and an elevation of 8,100 feet), the JMT turns east at a junction. The trail that continues south along the river travels through Simpson Meadow and reaches Roads End in the Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park in 32 miles. We felt so close to home!
But we turned away from this familiar trail and began a gradual 4.5-mile ascent along Palisade Creek. We climbed through a verdant valley, surrounded by lofty peaks with exfoliating granite slopes and highlighted by quaking aspens lining the sandy trail.
There was a slight breeze in this creek-side canyon, so the foliage was fluttering, causing the trees to sparkle like ripples on a sun-drenched lake. It takes just the slightest movement of air to create movement in an aspen’s leaves.
We were headed toward the Golden Staircase. Sounds like a magical place, doesn’t it? The reality of this exposed, nearly vertical, south-facing wall is not nearly as romantic as its name. Anything with “stair” in the name when carrying a 40-pound pack should be cause for suspicion.
Sure enough, this two-mile stretch of trail lives up to its infamous reputation. With each step, literally a “step,” we were in awe that a trail was conceived, let alone constructed, in this area.
The original trail engineers also must have been daunted by this looming, seemingly impenetrable granitic barrier in the shadow of the Palisades ridgeline. In 1938, this was the very last section of the John Muir Trail to be built.
We endured the 1,500 feet of rapid ascent — nearly 750 feet per mile — by taking a lunch break on a granite sheet at just beyond the halfway mark where Palisade Creek was cascading over the rocks to create a lovely fall. In hindsight, this climb wasn’t so bad; just imagine a never-ending StairMaster at the gym, but with a far superior view.
Conducting maintenance on the narrow trail was a National Park Service crew. As is our ritual when passing a trail crew, we expressed massive appreciation and gratitude.
Because smoke was nearly obscuring the sun at this point, Jennie asked a female crew member with a radio where the fire was burning.
“It’s one of many” was the curt reply. What? We continued on, no more informed of the conditions than before and too out of breath to make a second attempt at the question.
We had initially planned on camping at Lower Palisade Lake, but there were quite a few tents at the west end of the lake where the campsites are located. For the duration of our trip, Jennie and I never got comfortable with squeezing in with other campers, preferring instead the solitude of our own campsite.
Although we were ready to call it quits for the day, we decided to soldier on and seek out a spot at Upper Palisade Lake. But our Nat Geo JMT map booklet failed us again. First of all, the distance between the lower and upper lakes is farther than the map depicts. And the trail traverses well above the upper lake, never actually coming near to the shore, so we were having trouble finding a tent site with access to water.
We kept walking and walking, up and up, pleasantly distracted by the views: the lakes are magnificent as are the towering peaks overhead. We passed a few trailside camps, all occupied.
Eventually we crossed a small creek. We veered right off the trail and located a small but feasible glat granite surface neat this water source.
By the time we got our tent set up, the sun was disappearing, its last reddish rays lingering on the pinnacles of the Palisades. We hustled to filter water, wash, and cook and eat dinner. In less than 45 minutes, we were tucked away in our sleeping bags and ready for shuteye, and it wasn't even dark yet. this early turn-in was partly due to our choice of campsite, which was on an exposed ridge below Mather Pass, a chilly location near 11,000 feet elevation and the perfect chute for wind, which was threatening to intensify.