The photo above is the southern part of High Sierra mountain range view from its east side, taken on the road side of route 178. A while ago, on our way out from Death Valley to Bakersfield, we encountered this striking view in front of us. I stood up on the road side staring at it for a few seconds and then took this panorama. I want to say it was intimidating just by being there and watching it. In the distance, a storm was rolling into the area, which made the scene even more dramatic and evocative. I had a slight remarks in my head: “…So the John Muir Trail (JMT) runs on THAT MOUNTAIN RANGE”.
We didn’t know anything about JMT until last year, after we had hiked the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim and then the Mt Whitney. Ever since the first day we knew about it, my husband is DETERMINED to do the JMT this year. In the following months, we’ve studied numerous articles and learned nuts and bolts about ultra light backpacking, watched many youtube videos of other hiker’s trip, and not to mention that we bought, tried, tossed and kept a handful amount of gears to really achieve Ultra Light. All of that is to get ready for this 20 days and 215 miles of wonderful back-country life on the trail.
When you hike the JMT, you walk through one of the world’s most spectacular landscape exists beyond auto-access. You start in Yosemite National Park, and continues 215 miles through Ansel Adams Wilderness, Sequoia National Park, King’s Canyon National Park, and end at the highest peak in continental United States, Mount Whitney at 14,496 ft. We are going to walk it the average speed, enjoy each step, each meal, each vista, and more importantly enjoy every moment in one of the world’s most beautiful and rare land.
Where do I begin? We had planned to summit Mt Whitney on Sep 17th right after we came back from the grand canyon rim to rim hike. We had enjoyed the hike so much that we decided to challenge ourselves to hike the Mt Whitney in one day. Boy oh boy, that was quite a hike, considering the fact that we finished the rim to rim in 3 days. In fact, if you would ask me to compare, I would say Rim to Rim was a piece of cake, Mt Whitney was… a giant piece of tough day old bread! The reason not only is the intensity of the elevation change and the climbing involved in one day, but also the high altitude reaction that may develop. However, if I did had high altitude sickness, it would be over powered by the cold air and gusty wind. Yeah, that was the two features of this hike I enjoy the least. Apart from that, I had an unforgettable experience and the view was just out of this world!
We started at 3 o’clock in the morning, under the moonlight and milky way, from Whitney Portal at 8365 ft elevation. The photos below were taken the day after since it was pitch dark when we started. I have heard the “Whitney Burger” was quite a treat from many John Muir Trail accomplishers.
When the sun peaked through the horizon, we reached the part where you can look down on Lone Pine Lake from the trail and view into the Owen Valley and Inyo Mountain. At this point, it shows the transition of the Mount Whitney trail from sub alpine to alpine. We were above tree line from then on.
Here, I was standing at the first part of the 97 switch backs from trail camp to the summit. Did you see the turquoise lake down there? Beside it is the trail camp, where most people camp overnight before reaching the peak. We have hiked 6 miles and have 4.7 miles to go on the switch backs. Let me tell you, it felt like 12 miles already because we have been climbing with each step.
Look at this, the trail condition gets more treacherous. The rest part of the switch backs stays like that.
After countless switchbacks, we made a turn at Trail Crest and made ourselves to the backside of the mountain ridge where the John Muir Wilderness are down in front of our eye. The lake is called the Guitar Lake. I can see the sub alpine and alpine clearly. This view is truly amazing!
The stone hut on the right side image marks the end of the trail. Almost there!!
We have just reached the other end of the highest trail in the United States, and the 14,496 ft the summit of Mt Whitney. Well, I can’t help take a photo of this landmark.
There were some Italian people signing their national flag to leave in the stone hut.
Can you identify one of us’s name in the above register form?
Summit the Mt Whitney was just the start of our Eastern Sierra adventure. This trip was something. We not only summit the highest peak in the contiguous states, we also camped and enjoyed sound sleep among some of the oldest living trees on earth! Stay tuned for what kind of trees in the next blog post.
[ Garnet Lake ]
Behind Yosemite there is a beautiful world I’d like to call fairy tale wonderland, accessed only by walking and felt only by pausing to listen.
It is such a remote and rare place that it conjures up nostalgia, however that’s exactly the kind of spell that High Sierra Nevada casts on me. From the moment that first patch of turquoise breaks forth from the Inyo Forests after a long day’s hike, the lakes and mountains fasten themselves to me in a way that’s almost visceral—bringing forth my fondest memories with the loved one. Though Yosemite is speechless magical, it is the quieter high sierra that’s captured my heart. No matter how chaotic our lives get, we squeeze time to take weekend wild trips to cultivate and grow the bonds with each other under the starlit night sky. There’s nothing like hitting the less traveled trail all by feet to get the creative juices flowing and to be more introspective about our lives. Our feet stepped on the rolling terrain as we listened to the sound of water touching the bank. The sunlight shining through the trees and their shadows dancing on the trail ahead, beckoning us to places unknown. It is so good for the soul.
Oh, John Muir Trail… 221 miles in 3 weeks. We had only tasted 16 miles of it last Sunday and we have already being excited about taking the entire trail next year. There’s no reason or excuse, we simply have to do it. Meg Cabot said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the belief that something else is more important than fear.” I have yet to understand what is “that something else”, but I am sure I will next year at the Whitney Portal, the end of John Muir Trail traverse.
[Berry Creek Falls]
[ Native Monterey Pine (very rare) ]
[ McCrary Ridge Trail ]
[ Golden Falls ]
[Ocean view from Mt. McAbee Overlook]
[ Wadell Beach ]
Once I am backpacker I can’t stop to be just once. Backpacking is addicting. Taking the skyline to the sea trail through the ancient coast redwoods and Santa Cruz mountains to reach the Pacific ocean makes it even more irresistible.
Each time I am back from the wilderness, I feel more like a human “being”. I reminisce the sound of steps on the trail and birds singing right outside the tent. I surpassed my limits and tolerance a bit more. I embrace profoundly the point of freedom and minimalism, that is stripping away the distractions and concentrating on things really matters to me: companionship, love, shelter, food, free spirit, and inner compass. I am less scared by the unknown and less worried about the uncertain because I believe somehow we will always made it through the difficulties. Now I can effortlessly identify the things that add value to life and say absolutely no to junks and burden. I see more clear why so many adventurers out there dream about hiking the Appalachian Through Trail someday in their life. Maybe one day we will take it gladly if we are granted the time. There is something amazing growing in the mind and body, I have yet found an exact words about it, but it’s magical and solid.
Here is the trail tracking of our Skyline to The Sea backpacking hike. We started from and returned back to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park Headquarter, camped one night near the Wadell Beach at camp Alder.
It was about 8 o’clock the last morning on the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike. We had 3 miles of switch backs ahead before reaching the Bright Angel trailhead of South Rim. It felt like a habit already: wake up before dawn, flatten the sleeping pad and tear down the tent, fold everything back into the sack and reload the backpack, fill the water, buckle up the hip belt, and start walking in the dim light. We took the best advantage to enjoy the only hour of cool breeze we were granted at dawn by starting the hike before 4 o’clock. Right now we have climbed 4.5 miles from the Colorado river and had just passed the Tonto Platform and Indian Garden. I could tell we were starting to walk in the opening of the Grand Canyon. Looking up, I almost spotted the flag waving just outside of the Kolb Studio on the Rim.
For the first time I didn’t want a hike to come to an end. Though I was on the trail, the bright and pure moments I had at the bottom of the Canyon flashed back in the back of my mind like movie slips: sipping coffee in Phatom Ranch with feet above the head, liberating in the creek side pool beside our campsite, chatting with the fearless minimalism soloists, and having freeze dried meal dinner party with fellow backpackers… It is amazing that there wasn’t much down there but somehow we made the most of our time. It felt like living a perfect lifestyle in an original world…
Right now, the sun had just peaked behind the tip of the rim, which means that we have to fight with the heat on the most difficult part of the trail. Every step felt heavier and longer. I was switching my weight between legs and arms with the help of trekking poles. My hubby seems taking all of these like a piece of cake, about that I was really glad and thankful. In my head, I kept thinking this is going to end soon. From the idea of the Rim to Rim hike to the luck of getting the permit, and now the punishment towards the final reward. Strange it was that I enjoyed the thoughts of “the greater the punishment, the greater the rewards”. I thought about some of the friend we met along the hike are going to camp one last night at Indian Garden, wouldn’t that be nice to have one more day before leaving all of this? But everything has an ending at last.
A couple hours passed, I saw the trailhead sign just hundreds of feet ahead. I suddenly slowed down the pace intentionally and I swear I had the thought of turning back down… Soon later I found myself back in the civilization. Travelers of all kinds passing me by and chatting about what they saw and felt. I am again returning to be one of them, except having spent three days of untethered life. I didn’t feel like manifesting anything like a champion would do. I sat down on a bench, and cried quietly. My hubby was worried about me crying, but I couldn’t come up with a word to explain myself. I guess I was either too relieved or too exhausted, or both… Gazing at the miles of trail winding deep down and stretching far beyond until disappearing, I felt insignificant. I suddenly thought about one piece of comments I received last year on my “Half Dome Conquered” post. The reader challenged me of using the word “conquered”. From now on, I have to confess that I should never have taken nature by conquering it. If that’s the one thing I’ve grown myself out of this trip, then I think that is the biggest reward I am given.
Day One – North Rim to Cottonwood Campground
When the North Rim gets the first ray of sunrise, we took off at the North Kaibab Trailhead. We felt prepared and energetic, having no clue what’s waiting for us in the following three days.
We first encountered the Coconino Overlook point. Then the Grand Canyon started revealing its steeping and scary path to us.
The weather changed dramatically towards the worst way you could possibly imagine as we were approaching the bottom. The hot and dry air made every breeze feel like sand and dust scrubbing my face. My nose started to bleed and I smelled it….. It was strongly recommended to hike before 10 am and after 4 pm, because you don’t want to find yourself in the brutal sun. So here we were, arriving at Cottonwood campground at 10 am like we planned and without losing any toe nails. Just like we were told, we were tired and sweaty in the 120F degree. Now we just need to figure out ways to rest in the shade between 10 am and 4 pm. It worked out for us by taking a half wake half asleep nap under a small loosely covered tree canopy… It wasn’t that comfortable as it sounded like but it felt nice to lay down for a while.
4Pm passed, the sun moved behind the cliff and created some shade in the opening. We “woke up” and decided to take a side path visiting the mystic Ribbon Falls. Nothing stroked me until the moment I was right underneath the falls. Who would have thought in this desert like canyon bottom exists such an amazing work of art. My eyes were filled with vibrant greens and my nose were definitely soaking up the humidity in the air! We realized we probably should have hide ourselves the whole afternoon right there under the falls… right?? (That’s our first tip for you and probably a reminder for our next trip.)
Day two – Cottonwood Campground to Phatom Ranch
The hike from Cottonwood Campground to Phatom Ranch is right through the fault of Bright Angel Canyon and it is mostly flat with couple ups and downs. Technically speaking, the second day’s plan poses the least pressure and anxious among the entire Rim to Rim hike. I thought it was going to be effortless and laid back. However there were a few things I totally forgot. First, my knees were not listening to me and completely on their own mind; Second, it was so hot that I sweat even without moving; Third, there is no treated water from Cottonwood to Phatom Ranch. I wasn’t wise enough to estimate the right amount of water I needed for this hike, so besides filling up a 3L bladder, I also had 3 water bottles full. “Are you sure you want to carry all these water with you??” my husband raised his eye brows… “Yes!” I was determined to not dehydrate myself. Did I drink up all the water at the end of the hike? No, I barely finished 3 water bottles… Having the extra water on me helped me mentally, but not physically!
We met a soloist named “butterfly” along the way. She came from Colorado and has been on the trail for a month.
And finally, we arrived at the Phatom Ranch around 10 am. If you are lucky enough, you may stay overnight at one of these Cabins, but I know the odds are very small!
The Phatom Ranch canteen opens during the day until 4 o’clock, then it closes to serve reservation dinners. There is air condition, lemonade, coffee and snacks you can purchase. They also have books and games to let you kill time. No, there’s no ice cream for sell though… It is a pretty neat place for hikers rejuvenating for the next hike.
Later that day, we found our nice little campsite along the creek and look at the little creek pool we’ve got. Of course I went down soaked in, very nice! I think that was the best amenity we’ve got for a campsite!
Day three – Phatom Ranch to South Rim via Bright Angel Trail
We left the campsite around 3:40 am. It was basically dark hiking along the Colorado River. It would have made nice photos with the river and the canyon walls, but unfortunately my camera can’t see anything in the dark without a tripod. After 2 miles warm up on the river trail, we were hit by this first part of serious ascending called “Devil’s Corkscrew”, which are many switch backs instantly lifting up 2000 feet. I didn’t feel it was such horrible as I was told though.
After the Devil’s Corkscrew, our vantage point immediately changed. The clouds were lit by the sunrise over our head.
Bright Angel trail turns into endless switchbacks after passing Indian Garden campground and Tonto Platform.
Phew…. Thank you for sticking with me to the end of our Rim to Rim Hike. Here is a little bonus feature for you:
The straight down view of both the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River from the helicopter we took the next day after the hike!
And yet, I am totally ready to do this again or maybe surprise myself on a different trail.
The freedom and the simple beauty out there are just too good to pass on.