Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 6


Day 6 / 11.5 miles

Rush Creek Trail Junction to Rosalie Lake

No storms today. They had relented… for now.

We were up before daybreak to pack up the campsite. Rush Creek kept us company with its constant, upbeat flow. This waterway is pristine, fed by ice melt and lakes of the remote Ritter Range. 

This hiking day would be an incredible journey of views, but such expansive scenery comes with a price; there would be several ascents and descents. We were on our second day of travel in the Ansel Adams Wilderness of Inyo National Forest, and this was virgin territory for us. 

A portion of this wilderness was originally part of Yosemite National Park when it was first created in 1890, and it certainly contains national park qualities. Later, the region was converted to wilderness, and when Ansel Adams (1902-1984) died, it was named in his honor, also fitting because of the area’s photographic attributes. It’s a remote land best traveled on foot or horseback as it contains more miles of trail than it does roads. 

From our camp at the Rush Creek Trail junction (elevation 9,670 feet), we briskly climbed the 1.6 miles of switchbacks through a hillside thick with lavender lupine to Island Pass (10,221 feet). But “pass” is too abrupt of a word for this scenic wonderland.

This is not the classic Sierra Nevada pass that provides narrow passage on a windswept, austere ledge between two towering peaks. Island Pass is instead a high alpine meadow. It’s a grass-filled, wildflower-adorned plateau with a striking, never-to-be-forgotten view of Banner Peak (elevation 12,945 feet) and, less conspicuous only because of perspective, Mount Ritter (elevation 13,140 feet). 

Francois Matthes, preeminent geologist of the Sierra Nevada, wrote that Mount Ritter is “…one of the ancestral mountains that were formed more than a hundred million years before the present Sierra Nevada was uplifted.”

As we strolled along this grassy gap where it traveled between an alluring pool and a small lake, we were overcome by the beauty encompassing us. We had been hiking for only a half-hour but the location was so aesthetically pleasing that we found a sunny stone slab, shrugged out of our packs, and sat in awe amidst peaks and creeks, lakes and rocks, meadowlands and forest, cotton-top clouds and azure sky. Here is the essence of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and it was laid out in front of us like an artist’s exhibit, capturing all that’s best at a single venue.

Similar to most passes, once atop Island Pass, the trail leads down the opposite side. In another effortless 1.5 miles, we would be at Thousand Island Lake (elevation 9,847 feet). Including the small lake on Island Pass, Thousand Island Lake would be the second of seven lakes we would travel alongside on this day. And there were many more lakes glimmering in the distance as we hit the high points during this day of ups and downs.

We didn’t have to wait to arrive at Thousand Island Lake to see Thousand Island Lake. There was an extensive view into the basin that contains the mile-and-a-half-long lake during the downhill approach. And from our vantage point several hundred feet above, it became apparent that while maybe there aren’t exactly 1,000 islands, the lake is aptly named. The surface is dotted with many “islands” of stone protrusions, a result of the area’s past volcanic activities, now covered with vegetation, including stunted lodgepole pines. 

These gnarled trees are persistent given the harsh growing conditions that include metamorphosed lava instead of soil. Banner Peak, still dominating the landscape, towers 3,000 feet above Thousand Island’s southern shore. 

Just before an artistic log footbridge that crosses the lake’s outlet on the isthmus dividing the lake and three small ponds, the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail part ways. We would rejoin the PCT in a couple days at Devils Postpile National Monument, about 15 miles south. We stopped for a snack just beyond this junction, but the wind was feisty, so we didn’t linger.

The trail leaves Thousand Island Lake abruptly; we climbed out of the lake cirque, passing a couple of small gems — Emerald Lake, then Ruby Lake — before descending once again to another precious stone of a lake, Garnet Lake (elevation 9,690 feet), which is about 2.5 miles south of Thousand Island. There is no reference in the Place Names of the Sierra Nevada: From Abbot to Zumwalt book as to why this trio of lakes is named for gemstones. 

Garnet Lake rivals Thousand Island Lake in beauty and size. It, too, is a large body of water  and dotted with islands from an ancient volcanic eruption. Banner Peak and its snowfields are also the backdrop of Garnet Lake, a different exposure — more easterly — but no less jaw-dropping.

These lakes are sizable, especially in comparison to the lakes we visit frequently in the Sequoia National Park backcountry that are tucked away in cozy glacial cirques.

Crossing another hewn log footbridge on the eastern end of Garnet Lake, we skirted a portion of the lake’s south side, passing by a sizeable group of Boy Scouts lounging shore-side, before climbing once again on switchbacks to an unnamed pass (10,175 feet). From the top, several more lakes came into view. There was so much water surrounding us, it was easy to forget that California was in the throes of a multi-year drought. There seemed to be no shortage of water here. 

Next up on this roller-coaster-ride of a day was a 3.5-mile descent of about 1,500 feet that afforded more incredible views of the serrated Ritter Range. We bottomed out in a narrow canyon where the main feature is Shadow Creek. We had left the exposed high country and were now in forest.

We pulled out our map at a trail junction to determine if we were to travel upstream or downstream. We were quickly realizing that the U.S. Forest Service signs are vague, listing place names we weren’t familiar with and rarely delineating the John Muir Trail, which would simplify the route-finding.

After determining that the JMT heads downstream, we stopped at the creek to filter water and refill our water bottles. While here, we noticed tents pitched on the other side of the creek. 

These nylon domes of varying colors were too big to be carried by any sane backpacker. But these weren’t car-campers because no roads lead here. This area is inaccessible by trail from the west side of the Sierra; the Ritter Range is nearly impenetrable. 

We hadn’t realized we were so close to civilization; we eventually surmised that these campers were brought in by horses, as were their ice chests, barbecue grills, fishing gear, folding chairs, blowup mattresses, and pillows. Agnew Meadows, on the east side of the Sierra, is just five miles away, and there are campgrounds, a pack station, and bus service to and from the town of Mammoth Lakes, 9.5 miles from the trailhead.

So far, in nearly a week on the trail, we had met pack stock, private or commercial, every day. All told, by the end of nearly a month of traveling, there were only a few days that we didn’t encounter horse and rider. 

We weren’t carrying any of the aforementioned luxury items. We were hauling the bare necessities needed for a month's worth of sustenance, and basic survival, and it all fit into a single pack on our backs.

If we needed something cold, it was immersed in a creek. Our dinners were heated over a butane stove, quickly to conserve fuel. No chairs for us, just rocks and logs. Our self-inflating mattresses were about an inch thick, being more beneficial in providing insulation from the cold ground than any kind of plush softness. And pillows? That was our luxury item. Thank you, Big Agnes, for coming up with an inflatable pillow that has added so much comfort to sleeping on the ground. Previously, a wadded-up fleece jacket served double duty as a pillow.

In the mile it took us to reach our sixth lake of the day, Shadow Lake (elevation 8,810 feet), we descended steeply along the creek, which provided another respite from a day of climbing and the distraction of a series of toppling, tumbling waterfalls. The trail traverses the south shore of Shadow Lake, which is surrounded by pockets of dense forest in a bowl sheltered from all but the strongest winds.

Now just four miles from the Agnew Meadows trailhead, hordes of hikers appeared. We had to struggle to come up with what day of the week it was: Friday, so the trail was probably busier than it would be midweek. Shadow Lake, definitely a worthwhile destination, seemed to be quite popular with these people in clean clothes carrying tiny packs. However, due to previous overuse, the lake is closed to camping.

That meant onward and upward for us. This was the last incline of the day, but it made us earn our zero day (i.e., a rest day with no mileage) that was on the itinerary for tomorrow. As we left Shadow Lake, a 700-foot climb and about two miles of tedious switchbacks loomed before us. 

It was mid-afternoon and the temperature was hovering around 80. Jennie had a cold and a pulled leg muscle. I had an inflamed hip bone and a pinched nerve in my back. 

Our bodies were rebelling and our minds were concurring, conspiring to convince us that all this walking with all this weight to the point of exhaustion every single day was a bad idea. But there was no complaining, that would be useless; the hill would still be there. 

We separated during the climb, Jennie hiking uphill faster than me (it used to be the other way around but that has forever changed, I fear). Although separated, we both had the same resolve: to get to the top of the ridge. 

When we met up again at the saddle, we were impressed with how fast we conquered this stretch of steep trail. With this minor hindrance behind, we embarked on the half-mile descent to our encampment for the next two nights: Rosalie Lake (9,346 feet).

As we headed down to Rosalie Lake, we were above its north shore. We met up with the water on the lake’s east end. 

There is a sizable group campsite here, but we yearned for solitude, so Jennie scouted out a campsite on the lake’s south side and off the trail. Although I had some aches and pains, my journal entry stated, “It was a tough day, but this is the first day that I wasn’t absolutely fall-down, dead-tired at the end of the day…” After a week on the trail, our anatomies were beginning to get used to what we were demanding of them. 

We set up camp; took our daily ice bath; toasted the day with a rehydrating sports drink; savored a three-course meal of miso soup, garlic mashed potatoes, and an entrĂ©e of “Chunky Chipotle Chili”; washed dishes; stashed the bear canisters; and were asleep before the stars came out.

Previous installments in this series may be read here.

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