John Muir Trail – Muir Trail Ranch to Mt. Whitney

Day 11 – MTR to Colby Meadows in Evolution Valley (12.5 miles)
Today we crossed a number of milestones! We broke the 100 mile mark and we crossed into Kings Canyon National Park., This area may take the cake for most beautiful scenery so far, but it’s hard to be totally sure because everything is shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke. Hiking along the San Joaquin River, the canyon walls grew ever taller and closer together. Finally, we climbed the switchbacks up to Evolution Valley. About halfway up we came close to Evolution Creek, which was incredible. Massive waterfalls, deeply carved out pools. It was so beautiful.

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Sheer canyon walls carved by the San Joaquin

Once we entered the valley through Evolution Meadow, it was clear that this place is really special. But because of the smoke, we couldn’t see past the immediate hills on the edges of the valley. Looking out the tent window I can see orange tinted smoke from Goodard Canyon just miles away.

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Terrble haze as we cross Evolution Creek in the meadow

Day 12 – Colby Meadows to Big Pete Meadow via Muir Pass (12 miles)
A new favorite, for sure! From the very start, an epic day. We awoke to clear blue skies, and got to appreciate the view of the valley we’d heard so much about and missed yesterday. From the moment we started up the switchbacks up to Evolution Lake, it was a fantastic day. The mountains rise up to 13,000 feet along a corridor of absolutely massive alpine lakes. Allie was brave and dove into the freezing Evolution Lake, but I didn’t quite have the guts. Walking and taking in the surroundings was a true challenge. Even now, I struggle to find words to truly capture the majesty. I do know, though, that all day I felt so grateful and happy. The hikers high was real!

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Entering Evolution Valley

The final climb from Lake Wanda to the pass was a slog, but it was close enough that it passed quickly. We were at the hut by 2:30. A ranger had left a book of John Muir writings inside, so I read a few aloud and we meditated in that moment. The pass revealed a new set of towering peaks, but by that point in the day the haze had returned yet again. We hoped to camp high at Lake Helen to be able to see better in the morning but there just wasn’t any good camping so we continued on. The black and grey and red rock on this side of the pass along with the eerie red sun from the smoke made it feel as if we were hiking on some other planet.

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The infamous Muir Hut at the summit of Muir Pass

We finally came to a stop at a spot just below the ridge of the Black Giant, an absolutely gorgeous mountain. There was one tent already set up so we went nearby and we are glad we did. Our neighbor turned out to be an excellent and awesome woman who is out for a couple days on solo. We ended up staying up until 10pm talking.

Day 13 – to Deer Meadow (12.3 miles)

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Cascading waterfalls into LeConte Canyon

Surprisingly tiring day? Perhaps the strenuous day over Muir Pass is catching up to us? Not sure, but the mileage for today consoles me for the level of fatigue I felt when we stopped hiking. Again, the smoke cleared in the morning so we basked in the views of the surrounding peaks and LeConte Canyon as we made our descent. The smoke seemed to roll in earlier today, but we finally got solid information on the location of the fire responsible for this smoke. The backcountry ranger said we should be mostly clear of it once we get over Pinchot Pass, which will be the day after tomorrow. I had some anxiety that our hike might be disrupted but now we should be in the clear! I can see the mountains we’ll head into tomorrow and the excitement for what is going to surely be a beautiful trek over another pass is building.

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Day 14 – to Bench Lake Ranger Station via Mather Pass (14.5 miles)

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Looking ahead towards our climb up the Golden Staircase

Two weeks! And an absolutely incredible day. In addition to an impressive amount of miles we also ascended over 4100 feet today. Spectacular views from start to finish, and today the smoke haze didn’t noticeably roll in until about 4pm as we were finishing our last climb to where we’re camped tonight.

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At the top of the Golden Staircase

We made it to the pass around 1pm. Every step seemed to reveal some new peak or feature, even a hidden lake. The Palisade Lakes were bright turquoise all around their shores. The hike down the South side of the Pass and through Upper Basin was really cool. Totally barren, and so many totally unique mountains around, each one seemingly different from its neighbor.

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The view from Mather Pass

Our tent looks out at Pinchot Pass and Crater Mountain which will surely be incredible with a clear blue sky in the morning and the new light of sunrise. Three passes remain, and we plan to do them over the next three days, one each day. Hard hiking left to do before we’re finished, but today felt very doable even if strenuous at times. Doing the climb in the first half of the day makes all the difference!

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Spectacular views in the basin below Mather Pass

Day 15 – to Arrowhead Lake via Pinchot Pass (16 miles)

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Beautiful reflections in calm morning water below Pinchot Pass

Made it to the pass by 11am, but we ended up hiking our longest day so far. Challenging and full of wonderful views, as always. Climbing up the pass in the morning yesterday was the easy part of the day. We then had to descend down 3,000 feet in extreme heat, smoke haze rolling in. We hoped to be clear of the haze after crossing the pass but it seems the fire is growing which naturally means more smoke. Even our usually clear mornings now seem to be a thing of the past. It has certainly thinned, but has not dissipated fully.

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Multicolored mountains approaching Pinchot Pass

Pinchot Pass and the descent were surrounded by multicolored metamorphic mountains, full of spires and turrets. The crossing at the base of the descent was a massive and swaying cable suspension bridge. Quite beautiful, but felt rather out of place! When we decided to keep hiking, we figured we’d go as far as we could and find good camping. Despite the trail paralleling a creek, there was nothing. And when we finally reached Dollar Lake, the whole lake was closed to camping for restoration. On we trudged, and I was moving unbelievably slow. When we finally reached Arrowhead Lake, I was so relieved when a very nice couple invited us to camp next to them.

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Unique geology descending from Pinchot Pass

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Crossing the cable bridge

Day 16 – to Vidette Meadows via Glen Pass (10 miles)

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The Painted Lady and Glen Pass

Interesting day. The haze lessened in the morning but never really went away. Thankfully it dispersed enough in the morning to provide good views as we climbed. Glen Pass was a burly one, definitely the steepest and most exposed so far. Tons of switchbacks up a steep wall of boulder fields and cliffs. The mountains next to the pass were beautifully multicolored (Mt. Rixton and The Painted Lady). I’m sure the views on the Southern side are beautiful, but once we summited the pass, we had about a half mile of visibility because of haze. This is as bad, if not worse, than the day we crossed Muir Pass. And we’re down in a valley to camp, which seems to be where the haze is at its worst.

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The steep ascent to Glen Pass

The park has begun shutting down roads, but we’ve met multiple people who picked up permits and began hiking yesterday, so it seems as if we’re clear of any danger on our route. But the sky is white from horizon to horizon, and the sun glows an ominous red through the smoke.

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Smoke haze on the summit of Glen Pass

Day 17 – to the first bear box on Tyndall Creek via Forester Pass (11 miles)

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Climbing towards Forester Pass

Forester takes the cake, best pass so far! Grateful to have started the day with a bluebird morning. Took us about 3.5 hours to ascend the 3000 feet to the pass, which was superb. 13,000 foot mountains all around the pass, and unbelievable switchbacks coming down the South side. Without the trail, the descent would have been literally impossible without technical gear. Of course the haze rolled in around noon and got worse from there. But we had great visibility and views all morning, and it even seems to be backing off now as we boil water for dinner.

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The Forester Pass hike had some excellent trail maintenance!

Forester Pass marked the boundary between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. We swam in an unnamed lake just below the pass on the South side at around 12,480. It was small enough that the water could warm up in the summer sun, but it was still a shock to the system! Totally invigorating, though.

Day 18 – to Guitar Lake (11 miles)

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Hazy views on vistas in Sequoia National Park

Despite the relatively short distance and lack of a pass today, it felt way harder than I anticipated. I think four pass days in a row is catching up to me, but it was also very hot. Plus, the trail was up and down unpredictably unlike when we climb a pass, when you can mentally prepare for a certain amount of gain and loss in terms of elevation.

Haze seemed to clear up this morning, and when we arrived at Guitar Lake it was perfectly blue above Mt. Whitney. Sadly it was pointless to take many pictures as we crossed Bighorn Plateau, but the views were spectacular enough to take in and remember. As soon as we arrived at Guitar Lake we went for a swim. It was just around 2pm so it was sunny and warm, but the elevation and wind made it a chilly dip.  It felt like a mandatory swim in our last lake, beneath our final ascent!

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Our first official views of Mt. Whitney as we approach Guitar Lake

Everyone who will climb tomorrow is camped at this lake. Tents and camps are scattered all about, it has a bit of a ‘base camp’ feel. So many people come through here that they require everyone to pack out all waste in ‘wag bags’. I’m hoping to avoid it, but I doubt I’ll make it all the way to the trailhead. We’ve got our alarms set for 3am doing an early morning ascent. We’ll probably miss the sunrise on the summit proper, but it will be nice and cool for the climb and we’ll have plenty of time to find our way back to Mammoth. I truly cannot believe we’ve made it here!

Day 19 – Mt. Whitney to Whitney Portal (13.1 miles)
Alarm set for 3am. People started rustling around 1:30 so I awoke early. Many people departed so until my alarm went off, I laid in my sleeping bag just slightly chilly, watching headlamps flicker as they headed up the 3500 foot climb to the summit. When 3 finally hit, we slowly roused, drank cold coffee and downed cold oatmeal, and packed up one final time.

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First light at the top of our climb

The hike up was absolute perfection. Hiking in darkness, only by light of headlamp, only the dark silhouettes of the peaks in the distance. We did 3500 feet of elevation to the summit in around 2.5 hours. We arrived on the summit just minutes after the sun crested the horizon. Making the traverse from Trail Crest we hiked amidst pinnacles and windows through to the East side where we could watch glimpses of the sunrise casting its glow on the earth and sky around it.

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Alpen glow as sunrise crests the peaks

To stand on Mt. Whitney, 14,508 feet above the sea, when three weeks prior to the day we had our feet in the ocean? What a magical ending to an absolutely life-changing journey. My pride and joy was palpable.

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Better views of the towers as we descend from the summit

The descent was the toughest part of the entire 19 days. 8.7 miles, 6500 feet lost in elevation. And so hot, even once we crossed below treeline the shade was sparse. But relief was waiting at the trailhead. We made it down by 1pm. And we’re done. Just like that. What a glorious and beautiful life I am living.

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Happy summit smiles!

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks”

19 days, 12 passes, 207.2 miles, 2 burly mountain women

My next post will be some of my closing thoughts on thru-hiking the JMT! Stay tuned!

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