High Sierra Trail and John Muir Trail

August 1-10, 2012

I first heard about the John Muir Trail while attending a National Park Service Ranger's talk and slideshow at Lodgepole in Sequoia National Park in 1969. I have wanted to complete that hike ever since. This, 2012, was going to be my year to do it. However, I waited too long to make a reservation so I could not start from the "official" step off point at Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park. But I was able to get a permit for the High Sierra Trailhead at Crescent Meadows in Sequoia. And once you get into the high country, you can get a permit to go anywhere. So I decided to hike the High Sierra Trail east to the John Muir trial then north to Happy Isles. I had hiked the High Sierra Trail last year (see report here), and some questioned why I would repeat that part. But I thought, even though it would be challenging and would lengthen my hike, it would be good for me to "get my legs under me" over familiar ground, particularly since I would be hiking solo. If I had to do it over again, I would. And I will.

In preparation for my hike I often took five mile hikes in a local forest preserve. I carried a forty pound bag of softener salt in my backpack. These hikes were helpful, but you can't train for altitude while in Illinois! [001]

I had a serious setback at the end of May. I was hospitalized for two weeks due to cellulitis. I was hospitalized four times for the same thing five years ago, and I have taken antibiotics daily since then. Those antibiotics had kept me out of the hospital until May. The timing was bad: to be hospitalized when I should be in my peak training period. And this was my worst episode. Less than two months from the day I would step on the trail I literally could not even stand up. (More on cellulitis here.) [002]

I also worked out at a gym, alone and with a personal trainer. This is my trainer, John Carmell, after my last workout before leaving for my hike. The cellulitis proved to be a big setback, but we did what we could to get me ready again. [003]

I spent a week at my sister's home in Garden Grove before heading to Sequoia. My nephew Manuel gave me a buzz cut before my hike. [004]

This is me just as we were leaving for the Los Angeles Greyhound station. I would be taking the bus from Los Angeles to Visalia. I had considered taking the Amtrak from Fullerton to L.A. Union Station, then walking to the bus station, but decided against it. When we arrived at the Greyhound station, there were several large groups of men of questionable character hanging around outside the gates (this is skid row) and I was real glad I had not walked from Union Station. To any reader who may be considering such a walk, I certainly would not recommend it, especially at night. [005]

I boarded the bus at 1:45am. It was a pleasant enough trip, uneventful. I got off at the transportation center in Visalia (the regularly scheduled Greyhound stop), and the Visalia Sequoia Shuttle showed up about an hour later. $15 for a one-way trip to Sequoia. Reservations required. See this page for more information. Couldn't be easier. (Not sure the picture shows how tired I am: I have sleep apnea and I couldn't sleep on the bus. My problem, not theirs.) [006]

The shuttle drops you off at Giant Forest. From there you take a bus to Lodgepole to get your permit, then a bus back to Giant Forest, then another bus to Crescent Meadow. It sounds much more complicated than it is. The bus drops you off at the High Sierra Trail trailhead, shown here. I started my hike at 10am.

While waiting for the bus, and during the ride, I had a nice conversation with a woman who was visiting the park with her husband and their two sons. She was really interested in my plan, and before she got off the bus she told me, "I am going to pray for you." As she is leaving the bus she told her son, "We are going to pray for him." Her son wasn't paying sufficient attention (and why should he? he's in Sequoia!) so she grabbed his head and turned him around to face me and said "Look at him. Remember what he looks like. We are going to pray for him." What amazing faith!

I bought a new pack for this hike. My old Kelty pack had served me well for eleven years, but now it was falling apart And I wanted a slightly larger pack. So I bought another Kelty. WHAT A MISTAKE! The straps, including the belt, slipped constantly. Kelty packs are now made in China. My journal shows I was complaining about that pack from the first morning. It would cause pain everyday for the remainder of my hike. And another indicator of the poor quality of the pack: it looked worse after this hike than my old Kelty looked after eleven years. When I returned home I returned the pack to Gander Mountain where I had purchased it. To Gander's credit, they gave me a full refund, no questions asked. [007]

About a mile into the hike you reach Eagle View. I have to go over the mountains you see in the background. I didn't take very many pictures for the rest of the day, as I had been on this same trail last year.

I had planned to stop at Mehrten Creek, just like last year. I was exhausted by the time I got there. The lack of sleep the previous night and the high altitude were taking their toll. I layed down on my sleeping pad and slept for about an hour. I felt much better when I woke up and decided to continue on, if for no other reason than to give those who were following my progress via my SPOT transmitter the impression that I was doing better than I had planned.

My family had urged me to cancel my hike. As I have already mentioned, less than two months earlier I couldn't even stand up. And while at my sister's house, I couldn't walk up two steps -- I would instead lead with my right leg and kinda drag my left leg up to meet it. The weekend before my hike I had planned to take a shakedown day hike in the San Gabriel Mountains, without a pack, but I canceled that because my leg was hurting too much. So despite the frequent reminders from my daughters that I was being a dumb ass, I started my hike. In hindsight, they were right and I was wrong. I would often regret my decision. But I'm glad I did it. [008]

Saw this beautiful rattlesnake between Mehrten Creek and Nine Mile Creek. [009]

Shortly after leaving Mehrten Creek I met Brian Jacobs of Laguna Beach. He invited me to camp with him and his friends Ray Wingfield and Paul Stuverud, both of San Diego. We camped at Nine Mile Creek (which is 8.8 miles from Crescent Meadow). I would continue to hike with them for the next five days.

According to my journal, "I am already having serious doubts of my ability to do this hike." And this is only the first day. [010]

Me at Nine Mile Creek campsite. [011]

There were several deer hanging around Nine Mile Creek campsite.

It was very comfortable weather that night. Mixed sentiments in my journal: "Slept better than I expected though awake countless times. Damn apnea." [012]

Me at High Sierra Camp. [013]

Spectacular view from High Sierra Camp. [014]

Spectacular view from High Sierra Camp. [015]

The High Sierra Trail goes up that canyon: Hamilton Lake, Precipice Lake, and ultimately Kaweah Gap. [016]

I will be hiking up that canyon. [017]

Paul, Ray, and Brian at a trailside seepage. I tend to be quite cavalier about water purification: I often drank untreated water. This was delicious. (When I do purify, I use Iodine, in particular, Polar Pure.) [018]

The scenery is spetacular. [019]

Brian on the bridge at Lone Pine Creek. [020]

Looking down to Lone Pine Creek from the bridge. [021]

Paul on the trail between Lone Pine Creek and Hamilton Lake. A lot of exposure to the sun here: it was hot. [022]

Paul on the trail between Lone Pine Creek and Hamilton Lake. [023]

This is the top of a waterfall: the trail crosses over it. There is a lot less water than last year. [024]

Almost to Hamilton Lake. At this point I am so tired. From my journal: "The hike here was brutal. I cannot tell if I am in better or worse shape than I was last year. Rained ever so slightly near Lower Hamilton. Didn't care...too tired to care. Layed down / rested for about an hour as soon as I got (to Upper Hamilton). Exhausted. Why do I do this? (Brian) said he once heard there are two kinds of backpackers: those who enjoy it in the present (the process) and those who enjoy it after the fact (the satisfaction). I guess I am part of the latter. However, I later took a long swim in the lake, and it was fantastic in the present." [025]

The deer at Hamilton Lake are quite brazen. I was warned about them last year when I was here, but I didn't see this behavior because I had camped right at the shore of the lake, on the granite. I was warned that they would come into camp and try to steal your clothing from wherever you had hung it because they wanted the salt from your sweat. Sure enough, shortly after I fell asleep (or what passes for sleep for me) I heard something and sat up just as a deer was going for my shirt, which I had draped over a bush to dry. I didn't make the connection and went back "to sleep" and shortly after the same thing happened again. This time I took my shirt and bandana and rolled them up and put them under my sleeping pad.

From my journal: "Comfortable night but no sleep for me. Just awful." (Damn apnea.) [026]

I saw this beautiful buck the next morning. [027]

I think it's almost as if this buck is pausing reverently to thank God for giving him this beautiful place and this beautiful day. As if he knows he is lucky to be here. Amen. [028]

Majestic. [029]

Saying good bye to Hamilton Lake. [030]

The infamous tunnel. The men who built this trail were true studs. [031]

Looking back down to Hamilton Lake from the bend in the trail just past the tunnel. [032]

One of my last views of Hamilton Lake as I approach Lower Precipice Lake. Look carefully: you can see much of the trail as it leaves the lake to the right. [033]

Lower Precipice Lake. [034]

Precipice Lake. It was frozen last year. I guess it often remains frozen all year. [035]

Precipice Lake. [036]

I don't remember his name, but he was from Michigan and was nice enough to share dried cherries from Traverse City, so that justifies a picture. [037]

Hikers enjoying Precipice Lake. [038]

Precipice Lake. [039]

Precipice Lake [040]

Precipice Lake [041]

Precipice Lake [042]

Between Precipice Lake and Kaweah Gap. I think this is a very beautiful section. [043]

Descending from Kaweah Gap.

At this point my recent medical problems and my sleep apnea caught up with me. From my journal: "Took 3 hours 45 minutes to get to Precipice. (I was fine from Hamilton to Kaweah Gap.) It is 3.4 from Kaweah Gap to Big Arroyo campsite, mostly downhill, but not too steep. But it was horrible. Painful. I cried in prayer. How can I be in so much worse shape this year than last? I realize now that I was a fool to attempt this and wonder how I will even get out. Scared. Very scared." [044]

Brian and Ray do some orienteering. (Not really necessary, since I was here last year and I knew where we were. But I think they were just doing it for practice.) [045]

Old ranger cabin at Big Arroyo campsite. [046]

Cool hinge on the old ranger cabin at Big Arroyo campsite. [047]

Details of the notched logs on the old ranger cabin at Big Arroyo campsite. [048]

The creek at Big Arroyo campsite. [050]

This is Tricia (adventure racer and middle school P.E. teacher) and Don (computer programmer) from Connecticutt. I first saw Don at the creek when I was getting some water. He looked at me and asked if I was doing the John Muir Trail. I told him I was going to try, and he said he had met a woman on the shuttle bus who told him to look for me, and that she was praying for me. How cool is that!

Tricia was a few yards downstream as I talked to Don, but I caught her giving me what appeared to be a knowing eye. I assumed she was thinking about the woman Don was referring to. Later I stopped by their campsite to chat, and Tricia asked me "Did you hike this trail last year?" Surprised, I said yes. She then said, "Didn't you write a blog about it?" Now I am quite curious. Yes, I did. She then proceeded to compliment me on my blog (webpage) and to say how helpful it was in planning their trip, including travel logistics (the shuttle bus) and food (last year I mentioned how much I enjoyed Carnation Breakfast Essentials, and that was what she brought since she didn't really care for breakfast.) That was kinda cool! Small world. [049]

That night I took some vicodine to help me sleep, and I felt much better the next morning. It took 3.5 hours to hike to Moraine Lake. This was taken shortly after leaving Big Arroyo campsite. [051]

There are many wonderful views as you approach the Chagoopa Plateau enroute to Moraine Lake. [052]

Enroute to Moraine Lake. Last year this was a large pond, but it has been a very dry year. [053]

On the Chagoopa Plateau enroute to Moraine Lake, looking down into the southern reaches of Big Arroyo. [054]

This is Steve Egusquiza, a former Navy rescue swimmer. He was a very strong backpacker. We met him at Big Arroyo, and he camped with us at Moraine Lake and Kern Hot Springs. Steve likes a nice campfire! [055]

Brian preparing dinner. For the life of me, I don't know how he crammed all this stuff into his backpack! [056]

Brian seeks shelter from a very brief afternoon shower. Notice the yellow duct tape I gave him for his blister. Works great. Last year I gave some to a friend to fix a leak in his water bladder. Good stuff to have on a hike. I keep some wrapped around my water bottle and around my hiking stick. [057]

Brian was kind enough to share his dinner with me. This looks simple but it was the best meal I ate on my entire hike. Sauteed garlic, reconstituted dried mushrooms, salmon, rice, and a generous glop of olive oil. So very good! Thanks again, Brian! [058]

Like I said, Steve likes a nice campfire. [059]

Paul descibes himself as "a lifelong Norwegian bachelor." I liked Paul. [060]

Ray, a funny guy who is uncomfortable with silence. [062]

Moraine Lake in the evening... [061]

...and Moraine Lake in the morning. I am so fortunate to have been here not once, but twice. This lake is shallow, so it is also warm. I swam for about a half hour. So wonderful. [063]

A friend of mine is the inventor of the Emberlit stove. It is a very efficient wood burning stove. It disassembles and folds flat. This one is made of titanium. It weighs almost nothing, and is perfect for the backpacker who doesn't want to fuss with gas stoves and fuel. What I like about this stove is that I can put it in my pack and carry it on a plane. [064]

Leaving Moraine Lake, but still on the Chagoopa Plateau. [065]

Ruins of an old cabin near the trail. [066]

Sky Parlor Meadow on the Chagoopa Plateau. [067]

Descending to the Kern River. [068]

Descending to the Kern River. [069]

Descending to the Kern River. [070]

Descending to the Kern River. [071]

Descending to the Kern River. [072]

Along the Kern River. Over my right shoulder is Chagoopa Falls. [073]

The Kern River. [074]

After cleaning up at Kern Hot Springs. [075]

Brian and Ray in the overflow pool from the Hot Springs. Comfortably warm. [076]

Steve. [077]

Paul enjoys the hot springs. [078]

We camped near the Hot Springs. For future reference for other hikers, shortly after you pass the spur trail to the hot springs, you will see a small clearing on the right side of the trail. Go up about 200 feet. There is a bear box there. To the left, near a clump of manzanita, is a pit toilet. To the right, just over a very small mound, is a beautiful creek: no need to walk down to the Kern for your water.

Gleaned from my journal: I really liked the strawberry protein drink mix I brought from the gym, and the large chunk of cheddar cheese I bought at the store at Lodgepole.

The next morning we continued up river. This is the Kern River at Junction Meadow campground. I felt very strong walking here, making it in 3 hours and 45 minutes. [079]

And now we leave the Kern River. It is 4.3 miles to the John Muir trail, with an elevation gain of 2300 feet. Every step is uphill, and it is warm. I felt great for the first half, then bonked. [080]

Looking down the Kern River basin which we had just descended into the day before. [081]

Not to worry... [082]

In a normal year, the crossing at Wright Creek is one of the most hazardous. But there was hardly any water this year. [083]

We camped at Wallace Creek and the John Muir Trail. My feet were usually bad at the end of each day, but were always fine by the next morning. [084]

In my tent, my home away from home. [085]

I had planned to hike to Whitney with the guys, but I was pretty sure that if I did, I would probably leave the trail at that point. Yes, I didn't trust myself. Besides, I had been there just last year. So the next morning I said my good byes and headed north on the John Muir Trail. While I had enjoyed their company, it was good to be hiking solo again. From this point on it would be all new country for me.

This is Bighorn Plateau. [086]

Bighorn Plateau has its own kind of stark beauty. [087]

The trek from Wallace Creek to Forester Pass is mostly uphill and mostly exposed. I was hot. [088]

The darker spot directly in front of me is Forester Pass. [089]

The darker spot just to the right of center is Forester Pass. Note the clouds. [090]

This lake is immediately below Forester Pass (not shown in this picture). From here it is a steep but relatively short walk to the pass. Note how quickly the clouds have changed. I need to decide if I should attempt to go over Forester, or just hunker down here. I decide to go for it. [091]

There it is. Not as intimidating as I had expected from all I've read. [092]

Looking back (south). [093]

Looking south from the top of Forester Pass. You can see it is raining. I was about 100 yards from the top when I saw a flash of lightning, and heard thunder less than two seconds later. So the strike was within a half mile of me. I knew I was in danger, but strangely I was not afraid. It did strike me as ironic at the time that for all my family's concerns about my hike and my recent cellulitis and the bears and the snakes, none of us would have anticipated me being killed by lightning! [095]

Me on Forester Pass! So excited to be here. No one else is here. But the weather continues to threaten, so I need to get down from here. [096]

Descending the north side of Forester Pass. I didn't know it at the time, but I will be camping at the north end of that lake. It's about 45 downhill minutes away. [097]

When I got to the lake I found a small cleared area just large enough for my tent. It was rocky so I couldn't stake my tent down, but I had tied cords to my stake loops for just such a situation: I just tied those cords to rocks and pulled them taut. I would need the tent to get out of the weather. It was windy and I was wet, and that is a recipe for disaster. Not to worry: I was prepared.

This lake is actually called Lake 12250: its elevation. So it is 1000 vertical feet below the Pass.

Having gone over Forester Pass for the first time, this was a very satisfying day. [098]

A couple of nice guys I met the next morning. One of the problems with hiking northbound instead of southbound is you don't get the opportunity to spend any quality trail time with very many people. [099]

Long slow descent that day... [100]

The route parallels Bubbs creek. [101]

Lunch break near Vidette Meadow before beginning the ascent of Glen Pass. [102]

I think this was near Vidette Meadow, where the Rae Lakes Loop meets the John Muir Trail. [103]

There is a very steep climb to a flat area, which sure felt like it should have been Glen Pass. No, not even close. Follow a ridge above Charlotte Lake, then up some more. Tired. [104]

Glen Pass is in the middle of this picture. Farther away than it looks. When I got to this point I was totally demoralized. I couldn't believe I still had more to do. Glen Pass from the south is tough. Period. [105]

Almost to Glen Pass, looking back to where I have come from. [106]

Last approach to Glen Pass. [107]

Looking north from Glen Pass (11,960'). The pass is very narrow. Not even a comfortable place to sit. Now comes the part I dread most: steep downhill. But the time I make it to Upper Rae Lake (upper right), I am almost in tears as my knees hurt so bad. I collapse and sleep for about an hour before making camp. [108]

Upper Rae Lake, the next morning. [109]

Fin Dome above Arrowhead Lake. [110]

I don't remember which lake this was. It might be Dollar Lake. [111]

Fin Done from Dollar Lake. My sleeping bag and tent were damp from condensation last night, so I layed them out in the sun, then stripped down to nothing and went for a long refreshing swim. I felt alive again. No one else here: I had the lake to myself. This was probably my favorite morning of the entire trip. [112]

Continuing north, descending.

From my journal: "I continue to have a lot of pain just below my right shoulder blade. It remains my biggest physical challenge."

The new pack really sucked. [113]

Woods Creek bridge. [114]

Me at Woods Creek Bridge.

From my journal: "I am now at the Woods Creek suspension bridge. It is 2pm. My schedule says to stop here, but I want to see if I can get at least halfway up (yes, up!) Pinchot Pass, stopping at Shepherd Pass trail. Ideally, Pinchot Pass, but it is 3750' in 6 miles. It would be dark -- if not thundering -- by the time I got there. I have only done 7 miles today -- all downhill."

I continued on... [115]

It was raining lightly as I left the Woods Creek bridge. This was a nice section of trail. Finally, my shoulder was hurting a lot and suddenly every desire to finish the trail left me. [116]

About a mile from the bridge I ran into Murrey. I don't remember his last name, I'm not sure if he ever said. Murrey loved to talk. But as much as he loved to talk, he was also a real good listener.

From my journal: "Huddled under a tarp, sitting on the trail, was Murrey. He is 62 years old, has aspbergers, PTSD, disabled from a head injury having been hit from behind while on his bicycle as a kid. Very quirky, very knowledgeable, lots of trail experience. PCT twice I think, JMT many times. Grand Canyon 240 times! Lives in Boston. I lead while he talked. Delightful. We took a break and he sat in the trail while I expressed my concerns and I made my decision to quit. He agreed the apnea is the biggest problem for me. I have been trying to make this "fun" and while some of it is (swim at Dollar Lake) other is just painful (shoulder) and always at a sleep deficit. BTW, my cardio seems good. Anyway, it's 15 miles from here to the trailhead at Roads End in Kings Canyon. From there I will attempt to get a ride to Fresno. Might take 2 days to get there. We'll see. Am I disappointed? Yes, very."

I don't know if I will ever see Murrey again, but I hope so. [117]

From my journal: "6:43am. Woke refreshed. Best nights sleep yet. So naturally I am questioning my decision to leave the trail. But rather than call it quitting, I think I prefer to think of it as having changed my mind: it's not as important to me as I thought it was. Or am I just bullshitting myself...I don't know."

From my journal: "8:17am. I stopped trailside for some vicodine. I am on my way out and good thing because my shoulder is killing me. It is 15.2 miles to the tailhead and I am sure it will take 2 days because of my shoulder. Damn it."

What a difference 94 minutes can make.... [118]

I saw this bear just before reaching Upper Paradise Valley campground. [119]

Bear. [120]

Bear. [121]

Bridge at Upper Paradise Valley campground. [122]

Just as I was leaving Upper Paradise Valley camground an inbound hiker warned me, "There is a rattlesnake on the side of the trail about a mile back there. He'd be on your left side." I said thanks, but wasn't too concerned: I figured a rattlesnake had better things to do than wait 20 minutes for me to get there. So I was really startled when this thing started rattling. It was loud. I never did see his head: it was under the log. So I thought, "Cool, I can get a little closer and get a nice picture." As I leaned in for a picture, my peripheral vision caught something to my left. I turned and there was another rattlesnake -- standing a full foot up in the air! -- just looking to see what was going on. That one scared the crap out of me! No, no picture of him! [123]

Kings Canyon is rugged and beautiful. [124]

Mist Falls (about 2 miles from Roads End). The picture doesn't show its size very well. Look carefully on the left side and you can see a couple of people. [125]

I made it out in one day. It was 15.2 miles, but downhill almost every step of the way. I approached a couple of backpackers in the parking lot -- father and son -- about a ride to town, and they agreed. God bless them. When I got a cell signal I called the Fairfield in Clovis and reserved a room. After a shower, I walked down the street to In-n-Out and had a double with fries. It was so good, I did it twice. [126]

The next morning Wayne Dill and Michael Bailey, whom I had met on the trail last year, picked me up at the hotel. We went out for breakfast together, and then ice cream (!), and then they dropped me off at the Greyhound Station in Fresno for my trip home. Only after I got on the bus did I realize I had not taken a picture of them. Sorry guys. [127]

And so ends my hike. Disappointed? Yes. I only hiked about one third as much as I had planned. But there were some real challenges. At one point I referred to those challenges as the ABCs of a perfect storm for a bad trip. "A" stands for sleep apnea. If you don't know what it is, imagine that every time you start to fall asleep at night, someone covers your mouth and pinches your nose, just long enough to bring you out of a sleeping state. It sucks. "B" stands for backpack. What a shame that the great Kelty name is now manufactured in China by people who clearly have never backpacked. There was nothing I could do about the slipping belt and straps...except take more vicodine. "C" stands for cellulitis, including my all-to-recent hospitalization. Two months before my hike I couldn't even stand up. A month before my hike I walked with a limp. A week before my hike, when going up stairs, I would step with my right leg and drag my left leg behind.

So, any successes? Well, despite everything that went wrong, I still managed to hike my longest ever solo hike, 85 miles over ten days, including most of the High Sierra Trail, Forester Pass, and most of the Rae Lakes Loop.

As of this writing I am 35 pounds lighter than I was at the start of last year's hike, and I still have six months to go. Yes, that's right, I am planning another thru hike. My daughters are right: I am a dumb ass.

If you see me on the trail, please say hi. If not, please follow the example of the nice woman in Sequoia, and say a prayer for me.

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Qualls. Last updated February 16, 2013.
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