Last Saturday I should have been hiking through California’s Eastern Sierras on my way to what surely would have been a spectacular backcountry campsite in the Evolution Valley. Instead I found myself in a motel room shower in Fresno. Days of trail dirt, sweat, and hard work swirled down the drain. And I have to admit a few tears too. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
I was supposed to be hiking southbound on the John Muir Trail, an iconic 211 mile trail in the High Sierra backcountry of California that connects Yosemite Valley and Mount Whitney. Most of the trail is above 8,000′ in elevation with 35% of it above 10,000′. Six mountain passes take you over 11,000′ and the southern terminus is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,505′. In a state as heavily populated as California it’s amazing to find such a remote, pristine, and blissfully quiet stretch of wilderness.
I had planned to thru-hike the route in 18 days, spending the first 4 with my dad, stepmom, and family friend before continuing solo for 10 days, then meeting up with them again for the final 4 day stretch to Whitney. Due to growing popularity permitting for the trail is tough. Instead of starting at the JMT’s traditional beginning — the Happy Isles trailhead inside Yosemite — we made it easier by getting permits to start at Silver Lake just south of Yosemite. From there we could hike the spectacular 35 mile Thousand Island Loop trail through the Minarets. We’d still end up at Whitney with 210 miles, which was just fine by us!
My reasons for doing this adventure were many. Having done little backpacking I simply sought a new challenge. My dad and stepmom hike frequently in the Sierras and I wanted to experience the beauty of the area firsthand. I wanted to unplug and really absorb nature. I wanted to be completely alone and rely only on myself. I wanted to reflect on and celebrate nearly 40 years of life and think about what I wanted to do next. Most importantly, I wanted to share the experience with my dad, who at 67 is still incredibly fit and active. Could I backpack for 18 days? Would I beat the trail or would it beat me?
Hiking the JMT requires planning and preparation. I spent months preparing. I upgraded backpacking gear. I poured over maps to plan my itinerary. I arranged longer term boarding for my dog. I took time off work. I figured out where and how I’d need to send food resupplies. The food was the toughest and most time consuming piece of the trip planning. Our hike was to start August 14th, so July basically became “Operation JMT Food Resupply”. I bought food, I packaged food, I repackaged food, I packed it into my bear canister and then repacked it into supply buckets, all the while having no idea what I was doing and hoping that I’d have enough calories without turning my backpack into a 50lb monster. I give immense thanks to my friends at the Adventure Film School who helped me dehydrate food for this trip. It was a life saver!
The week before the trip I was a nervous wreck. I had bought a SPOT tracker so friends and family could see my location and I could use it as a help beacon if necessary. I thought that if I didn’t finish this adventure it would be because of something that went wrong on my part. I never considered Mother Nature might have other plans.
And We’re Off!
Finally, just like that, it was August 10th and I was driving south to California. The evening before the hike I set aside my backpack and let out a big sigh. The planning was done. There was no more I could do but hit the trail and start hiking. The morning of August 14th I showed up at the Rush Creek Trailhead with my dad, stepmom, and friend, and once our boots hit the trail my worries disappeared. I was doing it! I was on my way to hiking the John Muir Trail!
The first 4 days on the trail with my folks were incredible! We adjusted to the altitude and our pack weight and marveled at the stunning scenery. The Thousand Island Loop was heavenly! Waugh Lake, Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake and Ediza Lake were spectacular. Though the sun was blazing hot we had perfect weather. We hiked all day, camped at beautiful alpine lakes under the stars, and woke to gorgeous sunrises. This was certainly living the dream!
We quickly realized how much work this hike was going to be and how little time we had for relaxing. I consider myself an efficient backpacker but it still takes a lot of time to wake up, fix breakfast, prep for the day, pack up camp, hike 9-13 miles, eat lunch, setup camp again, filter water, clean up, fix dinner, and prep for bed. Nearly every night we were passed out around 8-8:30pm before it was fully dark!
The second night of our trip we camped at Thousand Island Lake and while preparing dinner spied a huge plume of smoke over the next ridge, close enough to be concerning. We suspected the fire was somewhere around the June Lake area where we had started our hike and a few days later when we had cell service at Red’s Meadow we confirmed our suspicions.
That evening we watched an air tanker fly over at least a dozen times and hoped the fire was being controlled. My dad began voicing his concern about wildfire smoke and trail conditions. It had already been a bad fire year across much of the West. Several fires were burning in the Sierras, the worst being the Rough Fire near Kings Canyon. Though none currently threatened our immediate area or the JMT, we all know how rapidly conditions can change.
On My Own
Our arrival to Red’s Meadow 4 days later signified a big change in the journey. My folks would leave soon and I’d be headed out alone for the next 10 day stretch. I surprisingly found myself more excited than nervous. The first few days on the trail quieted any fears I had about hiking alone. Despite many people on the trail it never felt overcrowded to me. I encountered enough people to feel comfortable with being alone yet every day I was able to enjoy stretches of quiet solitude. For me, it was a perfect balance.
After inhaling cheeseburgers and beer at the Red’s Meadow Cafe (they were heavenly!!!) I said goodbye to my folks that night and my dad told me to stay updated and to ask northbound hikers frequently about fire and smoke conditions. Even though I looked forward to seeing them again at Kearsarge Pass in just over a week I was excited to get out on my own.
The next day I covered a relatively easy 13 miles and camped at beautiful Purple Lake. My first night alone I felt comfortable and safe. Backpackers were camped all around yet the lake was peacefully quiet. I couldn’t get over the amazing trail etiquette and respect everyone showed for this special place.
My 2nd solo day was a tough one. I hiked nearly 15 miles with a long steep climb to Silver Pass at 10,900′. At the top I took a break to enjoy the views and had the summit all to myself. After a short time I recognized a girl who I’d met at Red’s Meadow and passed several times over the last 2 days. She was hiking with a friend who was waiting for her further up the trail. She joined me on the top of Silver and small talk led to a bigger conversation about our reasons for doing the trail, our life, etc. Her name was Deborah and I found out that her hiking partner Aya actually lives in Seattle! Small world! Talking with her was one of my best trail moments and my first glimpse into the amazing community the JMT fosters. We were all out there looking for something: for inspiration, for beauty, for life answers, for a challenge, for a bigger picture.
We sat on the top of Silver Pass, marveling at the silence and how remote and beautiful it was.
After a long break I told Deborah goodbye and began a knee crushing descent all the way down to Mono Creek at 7,700′. What mentally killed me the most about the JMT was that you’d spend all day getting to 10-11,000′ only to end up right back down at 7-8,000′. It was a bit demoralizing!
I found a spectacular campsite along Mono Creek and almost crawled into my tent, my legs destroyed and my energy depleted. I learned my first big lesson on the trail that day: not paying enough attention to the elevation profile when creating your itinerary is a big mistake. Not all 13 mile days are created equal.
Day 7 started with another long, tough climb and with my body already tired I moved pretty slowly to my next destination, Marie Lake. Today was the first day I heard northbound hikers talking about smoke in the passes where I was headed. Being a few days away and knowing at some point I’d likely encounter a bit of haze and smoke, I wasn’t yet overly concerned.
I again ran into Aya and Deborah on the trail and they told me they were only hiking as far as Bishop. They had met other hikers who had arranged for a shuttle to Bishop from the trailhead terminus near there and invited me to join them if I needed. I thanked them as I resumed hiking and thought it would be a long shot that I would need to bail off the trail to Bishop.
Trail Reality Sets In
The 12 mile hike to Marie Lake took me a slow 9 hours but once I arrived I couldn’t contain my excitement. The lake sat in a gorgeous basin beneath Selden Pass and the views were incredible! That night as I enjoyed the sunset I realized that not planning any rest days into my itinerary was a huge mistake. I had been on the trail a full 7 days and though I was loving every second of it, my body was tired. My back ached, my legs were fatigued, and mentally I felt weary. I had come to hike this trail to enjoy the little things and the scenery, the sunsets, and the sunrises. And though I was doing that, the daily process of packing and unpacking camp, cleaning up, fixing food, and filtering water was taking so much time!
I reviewed my itinerary and with 2 shortish days coming up I considered taking a rest day at Marie Lake and making up the mileage later. My next stop would be to resupply at the Muir Trail Ranch with 6 days of food. I worried about my ability to carry the weight with my body so fatigued. I had an extra day of food with me and I was so in love with this lake that I made a decision to stay.
That evening I reveled in the idea that tomorrow I would have to go absolutely nowhere! I’d have the whole day to rest, relax, and enjoy this beautiful lake. As I lounged, northbound hikers passing my camp stopped to chat and told me that the fire in Kings Canyon had exploded, nearly doubling in size over the last two days. They said Muir, Mather, Pinchot, and Kearsarge passes were filling with smoke. They were excited to have reached Selden Pass, right above where I was camped, and find it smoke free. It wasn’t news I was happy to hear.
For the first time I was genuinely concerned that I might have to abandon the trail near Bishop, some 20-30 miles away. All I could do now though was enjoy tomorrow’s rest day, continue on the JMT, and then make a decision in a few days when I reached the junction to Bishop. I curled up in my tent, wondering what would happen the next few days, eager for a beautiful sunrise the next morning.
How Quickly Things Change
The day dawned with clear skies and Marie Lake was full of sparkles! I sat outside making coffee, lounging, and enjoying the idea that today, I wouldn’t have to pack my camp. I was taking a rest day!
I soon saw a hiker coming my way and immediately recognized her. It was Aya. She stopped to say hi, then sat a while to chat, enjoy the views, and wait for Deborah. I mentioned to her the smoke conditions I had heard about from last night’s hikers but since they were heading out to Bishop she wasn’t quite as concerned. She figured they’d be hiking off the trail before the worst of the smoke. For the first time I considered joining them.
Northbound hikers passed as we talked and we heard more and more dire condition reports. One hiker told us that he had been hiking in nothing but thick smoke for days. He said all the passes south of us were completely socked in. Another told us they camped near Muir Pass one night and woke up to ash falling on them. This wasn’t good at all. Subjecting your lungs to those kind of conditions isn’t healthy, especially at high altitude. And what fun is it to hike if you can’t see anything?
Always one to have multiple backup plans, I felt like I should prepare for the worst. Aya and I looked at our maps and I calculated distances to get to Bishop. That morning the wind completely changed direction and began blowing northerly. As we talked I glanced up to Selden Pass and saw an eerily huge cloud of smoke that hadn’t been there minutes ago. I pointed to Aya to take a look and in 20-30 short minutes we watched the smoke cloud billow up and over Selden Pass and fill the entire Marie Lake basin. Every breathe contained more and more smoke and I couldn’t believe how quickly things had changed. We could barely see across the beautiful lake that minutes ago was sparkling as clear as crystal.
So much for my rest day.
With smoke pouring into the valley I knew I couldn’t stay here. The only option was to hike to the Muir Trail Ranch where they would hopefully have more information about conditions. I packed up just as Deborah showed up and we explained to her that 30 minutes ago there had been no smoke in the air. We all went together over Selden Pass and when we looked back we could barely see the valley we had just hiked through. Northbound hikers were reporting awful conditions all the way to Whitney.
One of the logistical problems with the JMT is it’s incredible remoteness. In most places it takes several days to hike off the trail to civilization. Being near the Trail Ranch meant we actually did have a way to exit the trail but it was a long way to Fresno from there. Exiting at the Muir Trail Ranch would require me to hike 5 miles to Florence Lake and then take a water taxi to the western shore of the lake. Easy for me. But for my folks it would mean a 3-4 hour drive from LA to Fresno, then another 4 hour drive on winding one-lane mountain roads. Florence Lake was about as deep into the Sierras as you could drive. As conditions deteriorated I sadly knew that I’d have no choice but to get off the trail here.
I activated the beacon on my SPOT that would send an alert to my folks to tell them I was coming off the trail. With no cell service anywhere in the area I hoped that I could contact them from the Trail Ranch to let them know what was happening so they wouldn’t worry.
The next 3 hours we hiked through more and more smoke and every northbound hiker we passed told us the air would not improve. I felt especially sad for a hiker who said he had spent the last 6 days hiking from Whitney in awful smoke, looking forward to clear skies near Selden. I told him that unfortunately Selden and the surrounding area was no longer clear. Many northbounders were heading to Lake Edison and the Vermillion Resort to evaluate conditions and consider exiting. Southbounders such as myself were thinking of abandoning at the Muir Trail Ranch. Everyone’s disappointment was clear.
Mixed Emotions at The Muir Trail Ranch
Arriving at the Trail Ranch was bittersweet. The Ranch workers were kind, welcoming, and offered up as much information about the fires as they knew. Everything we heard had just been passed down the trail by other hikers. We heard that a ranger stationed at Muir Pass a few days away was advising people not to continue southbound on the trail. We heard that heavy smoke was present all the way to Whitney. We heard that the most beautiful part of the hike, the Evolution Valley that I was set to enter the next day, was filled with choking smoke and barely visible.
We put smoke thoughts aside long enough to receive our resupply buckets, which was as giddy as I had been in days! I had filled my bucket with all sorts of goodies: salami, pop tarts, gummy bears, and Capri Suns. It was a hilarious scene at the Ranch watching happy, dirty, smelly hikers excitedly open their resupplies, pouring food everywhere and stuffing all sorts of junk food into their mouths. I had no problem polishing off an entire bag of salami and my new trail friends had no problem helping!
Most southbound hikers we talked to were reluctantly abandoning the trail and looking for ways to get to Fresno. We were told the Vermillion Resort nearby offered a shuttle service IF they could be reached and that hikers could frequently hitchhike to Fresno with Florence Lake day visitors. The only working phones were satellite phones but they were unreliable. A fellow hiker offered that I could send out some text messages from his Delorme Satellite Phone so I was finally able to get a text to my folks to let them know what was happening.
Before I started the hike I remembered talking to my dad and he joked that I couldn’t abandon at the Trail Ranch because it would be the worst possible place for them to get me! I felt awful that they would have to drive so far but I knew they’d do it and I’d have to repay them with some good food and drink! Aya and Deborah weren’t excited to hike another 2 days through smoke to Bishop and decided to head for Florence Lake as well. I guaranteed them a ride to Fresno with my folks and they eagerly accepted.
We stayed at the ranch for a few hours stuffing our faces with food, chatting with fellow hikers, and saying goodbye to people we had only just begun to know. I felt a tremendous sense of emptiness and disappointment. I just wasn’t ready for this adventure to be over! I had started to see familiar faces on the trail each day, slowly weaving myself into the whole JMT community. I had met incredible people and was eager to meet more. I had so looked forward to hiking through the Evolution Valley and to climbing over the big passes yet to come. I envisioned standing on the top of Mount Whitney, celebrating with my folks, and forever remembering how I hiked the JMT and stood on the highest peak in the continuous US with my 67-yr old dad.
But it just wasn’t meant to be. There is no beating Mother Nature.
To be continued…
That evening I hiked with Aya and Deborah and we camped halfway between the Muir Trail Ranch and Florence Lake with another couple we had met on the trail. They were on their honeymoon and he was looking forward to standing on Whitney and celebrating his life. 4 years prior he had nearly been killed in a car accident and he wanted to show other people how you can heal from life-changing injuries. “Well,” he said with sadness, “perhaps we’ll just go to the Channel Islands and relax for a while. I think our JMT adventure is to be continued”. We were struck by how anticlimactic the whole ending would be. Our last night on the trail was somber.
The next day we hiked out to the Florence Lake ferry dock and a charming and friendly summer worker took us on a quick 10-minute boat ride to the Florence Lake resort, which is really nothing more than a small store. We quickly raided their stock however and I found myself buying tons of potato chips, iced cold Frappuccinos, Snickers, and Coca-Cola.
Aya, Deborah, and I sat at the Florence Lake Resort for nearly 8 hours and talked about everything: our trail experiences, relationships, life, work, and our future plans. We laughed at how dirty we were and thought about the food we wanted to eat and the showers we wanted to take. When my folks finally showed up at 5pm I couldn’t have been happier to see them! They were excited to meet my trail friends and that night we dropped them off at a hotel in Fresno near the bus station where they could easily catch a bus to Yosemite to retrieve their car. As they checked in they sheepishly asked the front desk attendent, “Uhhhh, could we get some extra soap and conditioner?”
I gave them big hugs and we exchanged numbers, hopeful that with all of us living so close we’ll see each other again. When my folks and I checked in to our Fresno hotel room I was eager to shower yet reluctant to see my hard-earned dirt swirl down the drain. I just couldn’t stop thinking about how much time and effort I had put into this. I had made it 8 days and close to 100 miles — barely halfway. I had climbed 15,000′ of elevation. But I still had another 10 days left. I hadn’t completed what I set out to do. It was like being in a perfect dream and then suddenly being yanked right out of it.
I loved everything about the trail and it was heartbreaking to discontinue it. The first few days after leaving the trail I tried to write about the experience but it was still too fresh and every time I tried I couldn’t shake my disappointment. Friends sent me well wishes that I greatly appreciated. “You can try it again sometime” they said. And yes, I most certainly will. But it still didn’t make me feel better. I wanted to do it THIS time, while my dad can still share a part of the experience with me.
I do know we made the right decision though. The Rough fire in Kings Canyon has grown to over 50,000 acres and though firefighters are slowly getting containment, it continues to burn. There was just no way I was going to risk my health to hike in smoky conditions. And what’s the point in hiking up mountain passes only to get a view of gray?
All I can do now is remember the amazing 8 days I had on the trail. I met incredible people, I saw gorgeous country, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Though the JMT is becoming busier, I couldn’t believe the incredible solitude and positive trail energy I felt. I’ve never met a more fantastic trail community. Any time I was feeling down or beat I met someone who offered a smile and a pep talk. When I was bounding along the trail feeling fantastic and smiling from ear to ear I offered someone else a boost. Although the scenery was breathtaking it’s the people I’ll remember the most.
I hope most importantly that the wildfires can be contained and that everyone who continued on the trail is safe. I trust that everyone who made the decision to stop can return again someday. I’m forever humbled by my experience and grateful to all the people who helped me both on and off the trail. I can only look forward to coming back next year and completing the journey.