If the song of the southern John Muir Trail was a Wagner opera: starkly beautiful and moving, with long buildups to dramatic crescendos, then the song of the northern Muir Trail was a lilting Vivaldi symphony: many changes of tempo, full of bright loveliness and depth, but sometimes also inspiring tears of pain.
From the rocky cliff above our camp at Gladys Lake, a day beyond Red’s Meadow, we watched the sun go down behind Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to the northwest, and behind Mammoth Mountain to the southeast. We had taken refuge in the spacious camps under the trees at Gladys early that afternoon as yet another thunderstorm blew in, with lightning flashing and rain sheeting across the lake.
Then, just as quickly as it had blown in, the storm passed and the storm clouds in the distance reflected the salmon, pink and orange of the setting sun in a fantastic display. It was one of those timeless moments that one only gets by carrying camp on your back and putting yourself in the path of the gifts nature throws your way in the wild backcountry.
We were on the seventh day of a northbound journey on the Muir Trail, having come in over Pine Creek Pass (north of Bishop) and joined the trail where Piute Creek met the South Fork of the San Joaquin River at the lower end of the Evolution Valley. Five years before, we had left the Valley’s upper reaches via Lamarck Col at the end of a 14-day southern John Muir Trail backpack in 2007. We were a little grayer now, but still light-footed with backs unbent (plus our gear was now much lighter).
Magnificent vanilla-fragranced Jeffrey Pines lined the flat east bank of the San Joaquin as we turned north on the John Muir Trail, heading for a rendezvous with two friends at the Muir Trail Ranch about 45 minutes to the northwest. Dick and Steve had started their own Northern Muir Trail journey four days earlier, climbing over Bishop Pass (through a freak summer snowstorm!) to join the Trail northward at LeConte Canyon.
Muir Trail Ranch, a popular resupply hub, was an eccentric collection of rustic outbuildings, cabins, and corrals just 1.5 miles off the main trail, through the trees above the South Fork San Joaquin. The compound sported an outdoor pump-spigot; an extensive collection of resupply barrels; and bins of castoff trail food, partially used gas canisters, and dog-eared paperbacks (Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” anyone?). If one wasn’t too picky, it would be possible to find ample sustenance here without even having to send a barrel. Steve and Dick were already there, having collected their shared barrel, stowed their new food, and contributed more to the surplus bins.
Just in time for the late afternoon heat to arrive in earnest, we headed up and up the unrelenting south-faced switchbacks to regain the Sierra Crest. By the time the grade relented at some gravelly pools on tiny Senger Creek, we were seriously ready for a foot-and-head soak. From there it was a short traverse to Sallie Keyes Lakes, 10,300’, our planned stop for the night.
Here we heard the first lyrical strains of the symphony of the northern John Muir Trail, though we didn’t recognize it yet. Lake after glorious lake and fast-moving rivers lined with meadow grass; all reflecting white-cliffed peaks and deep green, red-barked conifers, with welcoming camps and dipping spots in the dappled shade alongside. After a soothing swim and dinner by the bank of the lower Sallie Keyes Lake we were treated to a lovely alpenglow display on the peak-tops above.
Selden Pass was achieved early the next morning while the sun was still barely clearing the ridge. It was an “elegant” pass according to our guidebook, the name well-earned. The approach ascended gradually through meadows and trees past the upper lake, tucked shimmering in its own little bowl. A narrowing gully took us around little Heart Lake and finally we switchbacked up a headwall decorated in fetching contrasts of white boulders and deep green trees. From the narrow notch at the Pass, at 10,880’, the vista northward was dominated by Marie Lake, her curved shores and rocky peninsula encircled by meadow, granite, and high peaks. Hikers climbing past us told of lightning strikes all around their lakeside camp, and there certainly was little shelter but for a few boulders and tree clumps.
A short refreshing dip in Marie’s waters and we were on our way again. Passing marshy Rosemarie Meadows and crossing Bear Creek (at one of the scariest early-season crossings on the John Muir Trail, now a rock-hop), we then descended steeply along the rushing creek to a junction where it turned west and the John Muir trail pointed back upwards; another steep, brutally hot afternoon climb along a south-facing slope to the top of Bear Ridge. As we periodically stopped, hands on knees, panting, we caught glimpses of the spires and walls of the Seven Gables to the south.
Hopeful mentions of soothing streams along the climb in our guidebook were (this summer) only wishful thinking as we passed one after another dry stream bed. Then, finally! The trail leveled out on a broad bench at the top of Bear Ridge and traversed for a time through the trees, before an endless, bone-jarring descent back down the other side.
At last, after passing through a stand of strikingly white-barked aspen on a bench above Mono Creek, we crossed a major wooden bridge and reached the junction at Quail Meadows with the trail west to Lake Thomas Edison and the Vermillion Ranch. “Quail Meadows” was mostly just spartan, crowded camps under the trees by the river, but it was time to unload after a very long day. Swatting flies, we soaked our feet briefly in the river, fixed dinner and crashed.
Clouds began to gather early the next day as we followed North Fork creek upward around Vermillion Cliffs and began the climb toward Silver Pass. Cliffs narrowed around the creek drainage with gnarled, ancient juniper along the trailside, their curved lines mirrored in the tortured metamorphic rocks.
By early afternoon we broke out into the broad subalpine basin below the pass, with pristine Silver Pass Lake at its center and rock cliffs on either side. We found camps among scruffy trees at the top of a knoll overlooking the Lake’s southeast shore, rather than attempting the pass with dark clouds blowing in fast. Lightning, with alternating rain and shafts of sun pierced the clouds as they raced past, somehow avoiding our little haven; but the wind blew incessantly, and even our bold lake-dipping friends, finding a moment of sun to leap in, didn’t stay in long. The night set early in the basin, with sun glowing bright orange on the cliff tops before fading into the soft violet-black of the night sky.
Silver Pass was a short, gentle ramble from the lake, among white-tan rocks still glowing with the sunrise. We descended past several small lakes glittering to the north as we descended to Tully Hole; a meadow bowl with glimpses of rusty pumice peaks to the east. As is the way with Holes, the steep descent in was matched by equally steep switchbacks up on the opposite side to get back out.
John was having a low-energy day after the desiccating winds of the previous afternoon, so we took our time. It was raining by the time we crested the ridge and approached Virginia Lake, and we hurried quickly back into the trees on the far side, seeking shelter from the lightning. Around yet another forested knob and down, we came to Purple Lake and junctions with boot paths up into popular trout lakes to the northeast. It was here that stories we’d read of a massive windstorm the previous winter began to play out on the ground.
Above Purple Lake it was as if a giant hand had flattened the trees in a single swipe; some entirely uprooted and many just snapped off. We would pass through the effects of this storm for parts of the next two days. For this night, though, we were able to make camp under standing trees closer to the lake just in time to dive in out of the next heavy rainshower.
With reports that tonight would be the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower, Steve’s alarm went off at midnight. Not finding any other takers, he and I took our Therma-Rests down to the lakeshore and lay on our backs to catch the show. Amazingly, all clouds had cleared off and the Milky Way dusted the sky from horizon to horizon. Then ZIP!! ZZZZIIIPPP!! The shooting stars appeared, sometimes several in a minute, the show lasting at least an hour before we began to feel the cold in our bones and retired back to our respective tents, thankful for yet another amazing gift from the Universe.
The following day promised soft beds, hot showers, and a restaurant meal at Red’s Meadow Resort. We crossed a long traverse above the Cascade Valley and through moraines high on both sides into volcanic terrain. We rounded two reddish-black cinder cones before descending through more wind-flattened forest into a wasteland of fire-blackened snags stretching all the way down into the valley of the Middle Fork San Joaquin far below; the result of a terrible wildfire back in 2001 that barely spared the Resort.
Now, bright colored foxglove and lush young trees were growing thickly among the snags, nature doing its slow repairing act. After a night at the Resort cabins with fine hot showers and a tasty restaurant breakfast, we set back out on the maze of trails past the exposed vertical rock columns of Devil’s Postpile, climbing steadily back up through the trees into the high country, to finally reach Gladys Lake just as the next afternoon rainstorm hit.
Next: John Muir Trail 5: Thousand Island Lakes through Tuolumne Meadows to Happy Isles