SEKI/Inyo NF - North Lake to South Lake – August 1- 7, 2009
This was a trip that had a number of unexpected things come up which of course all just added to the adventure. North Lake to South Lake is one of those classic must-do Sierra trips and that just so happens to run along the John Muir Trail for a part of way. This was going to be another section for Steve to add to his JMT section hike collection. Curtis was the planned 3rd party of our merry group but an unfortunate boo-boo a couple of weeks earlier in Yosemite that side-lined him and Steve and I were on our own.
See my pictures
Day 1 – South Lake to Dusy Basin
Oh how this adventure began. We drove into the parking lot at South Lake and found to our surprise there wasn’t a single darn parking space. We didn’t get a really late start either so I have a feeling that the lot had filled the previous day, which was a Friday. We ended up having to park about a mile or so away in a permitted parking zone….what a pain. So we unloaded all of our stuff, left it at the trailhead, parked the car and hitchhiked back up….it was then that I realized that I didn’t have my hiking poles or my camera…DOHHHHHH….I’m not sure what upset me more the poles or the camera….since Steve had his camera it was my poles. I can’t remember the last time I’ve backpacked without those things and with some of the ascents we had in front of us I just knew I had to have them. I know Steve wanted to kill me (I can’t blame him) but we started hiking down, hitched a ride to the car and after some time got a ride back. We even ran into the nice ladies who had given us the first ride…I am sure they thought we were completely disorganized (poor Steve). It was now late at this point and I was not looking forward to climbing in the hot sun or getting the leftover camping spot in Dusy Basin. Nevertheless we started making up good time and eased into backpacking taking in the lakes and great wildflowers. Soon enough we were headed for the top of Bishop Pass and ran into a sign warning us of rock fall danger. The amazing thing is that we saw pack horses coming down off of this pass. By the time we got to the top of the pass it was later in the afternoon and windy….neither of us felt like lounging around at the top…although there was one other two-some at the pass and one of them was having a little nap. We headed down into beautiful Dusy Basin and was once again reminded why I love the High Sierras so much. Dusy is probably one of the prettiest basins I have ever been in and just looking into it I wished we had more time to spend there. We setup camp, broke out our reading materials and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon. We watched a beautiful sunset that included some alpenglow and then settled in for a quiet nights sleep.
Day 2 – Dusy through LeConte Canyon to unnamed lake below Wanda Lake
We were up fairly early and we knew we had a lot of downhill to do (2000+ feet) before climbing up again. I am no fan of downhill unless there is a nice cold beer to reward me at the end and this day there wouldn’t be. It was really interesting to see the landscape and vegetation change as we hiked down into LeConte Canyon and the wildflowers kept getting better and better. We saw lots of cool waterfalls on the way down and between the wildflowers and waterfalls I was some distracted from the jarring going on with my knees. Once we got into LeConte Canyon we started to head Northwest (I think). At this point it was the middle of the day and it was a scorcher and we didn’t really know what our destination was. Part of me wanted to get up over Muir Pass and camp at one of the lakes at the other side but I knew it would be a very long day and we’d likely pull into camp at sunset. We had already been told that Helen Lake was inhospitable to campers and that our best bet was on of the small lakes on the way up….Note to self: Try to do some more research on sites before going out. Steve didn’t want to tackle the pass that day so we took a couple’s recommendation that we ran into and tried to find a ledge that they had camped out on. It took us a little while and we found it but I just didn’t feel safe with the spot…I certainly wasn’t going to go wandering around in the dark for fear of falling down many feet. So we ended up camping on the single patch of grass and flowers by the lake right below a slope full of talus and rock. It wasn’t ideal at all but it was getting late, the sun was setting and it was cold. We soon discovered there was a marmot resident that apparently was less interested in our food and more ticked off that we had invaded its territory. We hung out after sunset lounging in our camp chairs (ah camp chairs a necessary luxury I’ve determined) and using our sleeping bags as throws. When it got too cold we packed it in and settled down for a cozy night.
Day 3 – Unnamed Lake to Evolution Valley
Interestingly enough we didn’t see anyone come through on the trail from the time we setup camp until we were about to leave. I’m guessing most folks settle in somewhere lower in LeConte Canyon by the Ranger Station. We chowed down on some grub, packed up and got the show on the road. I was really looking forward to this day and seeing Muir Hut. I had seen plenty of pictures but I had always wanted to see it in person it looked like such a cool setting and had built by Sierra Club many many years ago in honor of John Muir aka “The Man”. We passed Wanda Lake on the way there which was a really beautiful lake and frankly I thought we could have found some camp spots there…everything was really exposed so it would have been a bitterly cold night but doable nonetheless. When we got up to Muir Pass we were the only ones there (woohoo!) oh well us and the hoards of marmots. I have to say it was very cool to be up that spot and have it all to ourselves. We opened the door to the hut and had a look inside…it was definitely a very cozy place especially given the fireplace. Soon enough our moment alone on the pass was interrupted by other hikers but we had been there for a while and it was darn chilly so it was a good time to head down. The hike down into Evolution Basin is just amazing I was really tickled by the upper lakes – e.g. Wanda…..Steve thought it looked like a moonscape which is right up my alley. We talked to some hikers including some older gentlemen from TN I think that were through hiking the JMT….they had Tarptents so I felt an immediate connection ☺ . We ran into another hiker who told me I had “nice guns”…I was completely clueless as to what he was talking about until Steve enlightened me and told me it was my arms (oops) I wasn’t sure how to take that. We hiked on and on….passing lake after lake and stopping for lunch at Evolution Lake. In hindsight I think it would have been really nice to camp at one of the lakes in Evolution Basin but we had already planned at camping in the Valley so we sojourned on and on….at this point we definitely had our hiking mojo and we kept looking for that perfect spot and soon realized we better stop being picky. We ended up finding a nice spot right by the river, which allowed us to do some cleaning of ourselves as well as our clothes. We were soon to find out the next day that we had absolutely made the right decision to stop looking for sites and stay put.
Day 4 – Evolution Valley to Muir Trail Ranch
As we started out on day 4 we realized that we found the last established campsite before we hiked down to the San Joaquin. We also had the early morning pleasure of being eaten alive by mosquitoes as we did a minor stream crossing. There were several folks that were headed up into Evolution Valley and Basin and we were definitely glad we were going the other way vs. the uphill slog….folks headed south for the most part were either JMTrs or were coming out of Florence Lake. Steve and I were looking forward to today because we were headed to some hot springs!!!! I remember this day as a somewhat quiet hike…the noise from the river was so deafening you couldn’t really hear anything else. When we got the junction of the JMT and North Lake Trail we stopped and took a break and had a nice chat with some JMTrs. They were also Tarptenters…..so I was of course happy to share that I was a fan and that I couldn’t wait to get another tent. They were carrying a cool little contraption to keep bears aware from their goodies although it not legal in Yosemite or SEKI. It was basically a wire that carried an electrical charge apparently the only run that had been had was with the guy who own the contraption….he had actually zapped himself. They were able to hook up 3 bags to the rope though and it was definitely a great ultra-light alternative. I can’t remember where the group was from but they were definitely from out of state and two of the group were father and son. I was always think it’s great when you see multi-generational groups out backpacking. We saddled up after our lunch break and once we saw our Muir Trail Ranch signs headed down through the trees and out of the high high country. We decided to cross the river and establish camp on the other side since one of my books had recommended the sites on the other side. In hindsight I think the sites on either side of the river were perfectly fine and it was a bit frigid crossing that river first thing in the morning on day 6. Steve wanted to waste no time checking out the springs and we just followed the use trails to the springs. The largest pool was muddy muddy muddy and I had no desire to get in so we walked over to a lake nearby that was warm by Sierra standards and I did get in and get a bit of a wash….oh so nice. We then found another little spring…very little you couldn’t get your whole body in and I just hung out there for a while. As the sunset we hunted around for sparsely available firewood and then settled in for the evening.
Day 5 – Muir Trail Ranch – Layover Day
Layover days….there was a time where I refused to take a layover day….I get too bored and restless but have tried to be a bit more mellow about this as time goes by and there were hot spring after all at this rest place. It was a lazy morning in camp and I got some reading and cleaning in before heading out to the warm lake and some spring dipping. The day was basically dedicated to lounging and sunning…not a bad thing when you are on vacation.
Day 6 – Muir Trail Ranch to Meadow
Today there was no set destination…..my my what has happened to me. I definitely had a major backpacking-planning breakdown this summer this would have never happened in the past. We need we wanted to at least get to Hutchinson Meadow and I was secretly hoping to get into a lake (I forget the name now) off of the main trail just outside of Hutchinson Meadow. I knew my goal was going to be a stretch though since it involved a bit of climb to just get into….in any case I was on vacation and in the Sierras so was pretty sure we’d land a sweet camping spot. When we hit the North Lake/Piute junction it was all-uphill and I was glad to be in the high country again. Hiking up the canyon was really nice and it looked like there were a bunch of good surprises awaiting us. The river that flowed through the canyon was beautiful and we took a couple of nice stops next to it to fuel up. The trail eventually flattened out and we started walking through lots of trees and bad patches of mosquitoes. I was really surprised we were having mosquito issues so high up given the time of the year but I suppose I always blocked out previous years mosquitoes seasons and forget how long those buggers are actually out. We saw good wildflowers this day including Leopard Lilies which in addition to Lupine and the Mariposa Lily is probably one of my favorite Sierra flowers if not my favorite. We kept walking and decided to not walk to late in the day and ended up making the camping right off the trail and close to the river which afforded clothes washing opportunities. I think this was also a night where I made wayyyyyy too much food for dinner….macaroni I suspect that gave us belly aches. The weather was also changing at this point and there was a definite chill in the air. I knew that it was this cold where we were that the Basin was going to be much colder. We also knew that we didn’t have much mileage to get to the North Lake trailhead so the discussion began about hiking out early. I had really wanted to spend a layover day in Humphrey’s Basin to explore the lakes in that area but knew based on past experience that rain was likely. We didn’t make any decisions at this point and decided to play it by ear in the morning.
Day 7 – Meadow to North Shore
When we woke up in the morning it was really cold. I think we both started out in hats and gloves although for some unknown reason I believe I had shorts on…I think this was just wishful sun thinking on my part. We also had a talk at this point about heading all of the way out. There was no doubt that the weather had turned and I suspected that if there was any precipitation it would likely be hail if not snow. We walked on and into the basin and I have to say it met and exceeded my expectations…what an amazing place. I think the one thing that surprised me was how open it was. This area definitely warranted a few days of exploration and without navigation challenges it certainly would be fun. Unfortunately for us it was very overcast and we were trying to keep on the move so we could be warm. If we had stopped at the point we reached the basin and headed to lake we had planned to camp at it would have been before noon and it would have been a chilly afternoon and evening so we decided to just keep on walking and headed to Piute Pass….where it was windy and therefore we moved down very quickly. We were also running into more and more a people and a number of folks were headed into the basin for a few days of exploration and some people we had talked to said there was snow in the forecast. Well we were headed for the warm weather of Bishop ☺ The hike down to the trailhead was pleasant and littered with wildflowers. When we got to the trailhead we then had to figure out what to do….Curtis was our transportation and we basically hiked out 2 days early so it was fair to say our pick up ride was not even close to us. There was no cell coverage at the trailhead so we wandered down the road a bit and made sure that we looked a little lost. Finally a fishermen asked us where we headed…thank goodness….our fishermen was a local friendly who drove us all the way back to the car….this was definitely a good 20 minutes or so out of the way for him. Along the way he told us about living in Bishop and how it was the best place to live….no doubt. When we got back to the car there was a little store and we wandered over to get the obligatory congratulatory beers while I called our other ride to figure out what to do. In the end Steve and I decided to drive all the way back to the Bay Area that day….I was definitely a bit moody about that since I try to stretch out any amount of time I can in the Sierras especially the Eastern Sierras but they’ll be here next year and besides margaritas were waiting for us at Whoa Nellie Deli.
Another JMT section done, a weeklong vacation hike in the Sierras accomplished and mind you…NO RAIN…woohoo…Steve and I will dispel this myth.