At 5 a.m. last Saturday a significant rockfall occurred on the John Muir Trail, within a couple of miles of the Happy Isles trailhead. The fall was loud enough to be heard throughout the valley. A second rockfall happened several hours later. The portion of the trail depicted, below, is closed indefinitely. The Mist Trail will be the best alternative.
One doesn’t often brush up against near perfection. My encounters have been limited to the feel of the chef’s knife I bought in Heidelberg a dozen years ago, the experience of a Beethoven symphony magnificently conducted, the spectacle of standing at Tunnel View in Yosemite National Park during a clearing storm…
…and a book about the mountains I love.
The book is called “The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada.” It was written and illustrated by the aptly named John Muir Laws.
How can a little book achieve near perfection? It does so through elegance, usability, beauty, and its encyclopedic scope. Like the chef’s knife I mention up above, it’s both a work of art and exactly the right tool for the job.
The book can’t really be described as small (it runs 8.75 inches by 4.5 inches by .8 inch, and weighs 17.5 ounces), but it makes good use of every page. There is more information per square inch in this volume than in any field guide I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
Flip through the pages and the first thing you’ll notice are the illustrations–more than 2,700 of them. Each was hand sketched and painted by Mr. Laws, himself. I’ll confess to treating the book like a museum catalog or a fine art, coffee table book. I’ll open it and admire the gentle curve introduced to the stem of the fairy lantern (page 73), the way the great basin fritillary appears to be ready to leap off the page (page 169), or the, “Hey, what are YOU looking at!” scowl on the face of the snowshoe hare (page 311).
Each illustration is surrounded by small nuggets of text that help you to identify what you’ve found, and occasionally you’ll get even more. For example, you’ll learn that the viper heat-sensing pits on a northern pacific rattlesnake can detect temperature changes as small as 0.003 degrees centigrade. (Or, in other words, you’re unlikely to sneak past one that is coiled next to the trail.)
Taking It Outdoors
If you were to buy the book for the sole purpose of leafing through it in search of such delights, it would be money well spent. But the real genius of its design is revealed when you take it outdoors.
Open the cover and you’ll find a colorful, user-friendly table of contents, which, when combined with the colors that bleed to the fore-edge, make navigating to the proper section (there are nine) quick and easy.
The first eight sections cover fungi & lichens; trees & shrubs, vines & ferns; wildflowers; spiders, insects & other small animals (think crayfish or snails); fish; amphibians & reptiles; birds; and mammals.
The ninth is a real gem-within-a-gem. It contains illustrations and text that will help you identify animals by their tracks and scat, galls (small outgrowths on plants where insects lay eggs), four star charts (one for each season), and even a couple of pages on how to predict weather in the Sierra Nevada.
The user-friendly organization continues after you’ve moved directly to the appropriate section.
Assume, for a moment, you are trying to identify a particular wildflower you have found along the trail. It has four petals and is orange in color. On the first two pages of the wildflower section you quickly zero in on the section for four-petal flowers. A split second later you see that the orange ones are described on page 113. It’s taken you all of about three seconds to find exactly the right illustrations, in a book of nearly 400 pages, to identify your flower.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Taking this book on your John Muir Trail hike will certainly not appeal to everyone. Those of you with a ten-pound base weight, cooking over a stove made from a Diet Coke can, and carrying Cuban-carbon-titanium-anti-gravity whatchamacallits are no doubt staggered that I would even suggest it, but suggest it I will.
I’m stunned and a bit shamed by my own ignorance of the places I’ve hiked though. Carrying this seventeen-and-a-half ounce package of near perfection, and some exploration along the trail, will be my first step in correcting that problem.
Good hiking, Ray
In part one of this post I talked about the Sierra Nevada’s lack of snow this year, and explored some of the advantages of less white stuff: the ability to hike earlier in the year, easier stream crossings, and fewer mosquitoes.
This week it’s all about the downsides. They boil down to two.
Crossing streams frequently, passing lakes seemingly around every bend, encountering water just about everywhere you look, during most summers staying hydrated on the John Muir Trail is as easy as dipping your cup into whatever is nearby. Not so this year, especially if you are hiking in August or September (and surely if you are hiking in October). Water won’t necessarily be a worry, but it will take some careful planning.
Before I discuss the where and the how, a few words about hydration: it’s absolutely critical.
Blisters may cause you to abandon your hike, as can sprains and broken bones. Improper nutrition can make you weak, irritable, sluggish and lethargic.
Heat stroke, often the final phase of serious dehydration, can make you dead. Dehydration, along with HAPE and HACE, is nothing to fool with.
There are going to be times on the hike when you are uncomfortable–times when the best course of action is to just ignore the hill, the tired legs, or the weight of the backpack. Dehydration cannot be ignored. Plan ahead and make sure you not only have enough water, but that you have a little extra in reserve.
It’s tough to predict precisely where the dry stretches will be this year, but here are the most likely candidates. I am assuming that you are hiking southbound.
The Merced River (in Little Yosemite Valley) to Upper Cathedral Lake; Approximately Thirteen Miles
There are two water sources along this portion of the trail that may or may not be available. The first is Sunrise Creek, about three-and-a-half miles from the Merced. It’s not unusual for Sunrise to be reduced to little more than a tiny brook in the latter part of the summer, but it is unusual for it to disappear entirely. Then again, this is an unusual year.
The second somewhat unreliable source is at Sunrise Camp, about ten miles from Little Yosemite Valley. I’ve always helped myself to the water available at the spigot (located just a few feet off the trail, near one of the buildings), but, in late summer, during dry years, water is available only to guests staying at the camp.
If there is no water between Little Yosemite Valley and Upper Cathedral Lake, you’re in for a long haul. Fortunately, there is a way to get current information on the water sources ahead. More on that in a moment.
Crater Meadow to Duck Creek; Approximately Seven Miles
The unknown here is Deer Creek, situated a couple miles past Crater Meadow. The five-mile stretch between Deer Creek and Duck Creek is always dry. The less reliable of these two tributaries is Deer Creek. If it’s dry you’ll need to carry enough from Crater Meadow for the entire stretch.
Mono Creek to Lake Italy Trail Junction; Approximately Eight Miles
You’ll cross Mono Creek via a bridge near the junction where the trail splits off from the JMT and heads to Lake Edison. I mention that for a reason: if you’ve spent the night before at Vermilion Valley Resort, you are going to start up the fifty-two switchbacks of Bear Ridge during mid-morning. (The ferry doesn’t depart until 9:00 a.m., and it’s a couple of miles back to the trail junction from where the ferry drops you.) A late start means it will be hotter and you will need more water.
On the other hand, Bear Creek will almost certainly have some water in it. Unfortunately, the accessibility to Bear Creek varies greatly. If it’s extraordinarily dry, there will be times were you are just ten or twenty yards from water, but it will be practically unreachable.
Sallie Keyes Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch; Approximately Five Miles
Senger Creek is the unknown. If it is still running (it’s a fairly robust little creek) you’ll have an additional source not long after Sallie Keyes Lakes. Water is available at Muir Trail Ranch even if you are not staying there.
Palisade Lakes to the South Fork of the Kings River; Approximately Six Miles
This stretch will take you up and over Mather Pass. If you climb the pass during the morning, and do your descent in the hotter part of the day, you will need less water.
Wallace Creek to Crabtree Meadow; Approximately Four Miles
This part of the trial is not heavily forested, but there are quite a few trees. The shade they provide should make this stretch a little less taxing. Besides, with the stamina you’ve acquired on the trail, you’ll speed through these four miles in no time.
Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal; Approximately Fifteen Miles
There are water sources between Guitar Lake and Whitney Portal, but they are of variable quality. First, there is a small, unnamed, tarn, less than a mile east of Guitar Lake. Since it’s so close to your previous night’s campground, stopping here doesn’t make much sense. There are no further water sources between this tarn and the summit of Whitney.
After you’ve summited and you leave the John Muir Trail, cross over Trail Crest, and start to descend, there are several water sources available. I’m going to reluctantly link to a PDF, developed by Mr. Bob Rockwell. He does a comprehensive job of listing the sources available, and has produced a terrific summary.
The reason I say I’m reluctant to link to the document is because of his comments regarding water purification. I don’t doubt for a moment that he has had success without purifying the water he finds and drinks, but I still don’t recommend that approach. As they say in the statistics game: the plural of anecdote is not data.
Personally, I always leave Guitar Lake assuming that my next water resupply will come from Whitney Portal. That means I fill everything available (including my stomach) with water before I leave my campground. I also leave Guitar Lake very early and do much of my ascending in the cool night and morning air.
Final Remarks About Water
If you are reading this it probably means you are reading everything you can to prepare for your John Muir Trail hike. Good for you. However, there is a better source of information available to all hikers. I’m talking about timely information, delivered to you, daily, as you walk the trail. What is this source? Some sort of satellite down-link? No, it’s the hikers you pass coming the opposite direction!
Before you leave camp each day, have a plan on where you intend to refill your bladder or bottles. On days during which I anticipate long stretches between water sources, I start drinking the moment I get out of my sleeping bag, and continue as I pack and eat breakfast. My goal is to be peeing clear before I take my first step on the trail.
Then, as you see hikers, quiz them on what’s up ahead.
There will be a cost for this service, of course: the same sort of information from you. As you travel down the trail, note what is flowing and what is dry, and be ready to school folks going northbound.
The Ferry at Vermilion Valley Resort
There is one final disadvantage, which pertains only to those folks stopping at Vermilion Valley Resort. In wet years, that detour will mean a mile-to-mile-and-a-half walk to the ferry that will whisk you across Lake Edison, and an equal distance back to the trail junction. This year, I would be surprised if the ferry is still running by mid-August, and wouldn’t be surprised if it was discontinued by late July. If that happens, you’re looking at a six-mile walk to the resort. (The desserts at VVR make those six miles well worth it, though!)
Good hiking, Ray
Special note: thanks to John Ladd, Frank Dumville and Jim White for suggestions regarding this post.
I suppose it’s still possible for the Sierra Nevada to get significantly more snow this spring, but it’s not likely. Barring a weather event just short of miraculous, the winter of 2012/2013 will go down as getting a little more than half of an average winter’s snowfall. (Some areas are a little better than that; others aren’t quite as good.)
Putting the significance of that aside for the California communities that rely on the melting snow for fresh water, what should John Muir Trail hikers expect?
It’s a mixed bag.
Hikers who reserved wilderness permits for July, even early July, might be feeling pretty smug right now. July is often too early for JMT hikers who want to avoid snow and the problems associated with trekking and navigating over it. This year, the trail will likely be completely snow-free by the end of July, and should present few problems at the beginning of the month.
You will undoubtedly see snow, and there may be some very short stretches where there is snow on the trail, but it should be more of a novelty than a challenge.
The white stuff won’t be the only thing missing. A few years back, over an extended Fourth of July vacation, my wife and I hiked between Tuolumne Meadow and Lake Edison, when the mosquitos were just about at their peak. We dealt with them when we camped, when we ate, and even as we walked. It was my only trip when I actually used my head net. The swarms in the Rush Creek drainage were especially unforgettable and ravenous. Less snow means less water; less water means fewer of the flying, persistent pests.
Less snow also means fewer swollen streams and creeks. By the end of July it’s possible that the only stretch of water deep and wide enough to require hikers to remove their footwear would be Evolution Creek. Other crossings with bad reputations, like Silver Pass Creek, the North Fork of Mono Creek, and Bear Creek should present few problems from snow runoff. (Note that any of these can become dangerous during and after heavy rains. Snow isn’t the only source of water in the Sierra Nevada.)
If all this paints a pretty pleasant picture, I should warn you that there are some definite disadvantages, as well. I’ll talk about those next week.
Good hiking, Ray
The last pass on the John Muir Trail is Forester Pass. At 13,153 feet above sea level, it is the highest pass on the John Muir Trail* (and the highest point on the JMT’s much longer sibling, the Pacific Crest Trail). For many who hike southbound, it will also be the fourth pass in four days.
The trail up and over the pass was one of the last portions of the trail completed. Much of it is carved into granite, with–if not hair-raising–at least significant exposure to falls.
The only way to hike the last few miles of the approach in the shade is to hike it at night (or carry an umbrella). There isn’t a tree to be found. As John Muir Trail passes go, this is the top dog!
Actually, it’s not that tough.
Physically, by the time to start your way up to Forester Pass, you will have developed legs of steel. With more than 180 trail miles behind you, as well as seven other passes, walking uphill just isn’t going to wear you out like it once did.
Psychologically, there will be very little left on the trail to intimidate you. The butterflies, which were doing loop-de-loops in your stomach as you stood in front of the trailhead sign in Happy Isles, have been exterminated long ago. Besides, as I’ve mentioned previously, once you’ve cleared Glen Pass (probably the day before), your frame-of-mind has subtly changed: you are no longer hiking the trail, you are finishing the trail.
The other factor in your favor is the way the trail is built. It’s miraculous, really. The grade is relentless, but it is also moderate and consistent. There are no possible navigation problems to contend with (unless the area is covered with snow). Keep moving and keep admiring the gorgeous scenery and you’ll be at the top of the pass before you know it.
When you arrive you’ll quickly realize that you will have reached somewhere special. If you were to straddle this pass in a rainstorm, drops that fell to your north would ultimately find themselves in the Kings River. The precipitation to the south will run downhill to the Kern River. One foot will be in King’s Canyon National Park, and one in Sequoia National Park.
The perfect geometry of Junction Peak, with a summit less than a mile away and just a little more than 700 feet above the pass, looks impossibly symmetrical–almost sculpted.
To the south you’ll see Diamond Mesa (looking, unsurprisingly, narrow at the close and far end, and wide in the middle), and Tyndall Creek, your constant companion for the trip down.
Forester (on many old maps it’s called Foresters) Pass was named in August of 1929 by the then supervisor of the Sequoia National Forest, Frank Cunningham. He named the pass in honor of the foresters who discovered the pass. (Frank was one of them, so, in a way, he named it after himself!)
It’s not all downhill from Forester Pass to the end of the JMT; you will climb even higher before you finish at the summit of Mount Whitney. But, as you depart Forester Pass, one of the last great challenges of the trail will be behind you and in two days it will likely all be over.
Good hiking, Ray
* Once you leave the John Muir Trail for the trip down to Whitney Portal, you’ll cross another, slightly higher, pass: Trail Crest. However, the less-than-a-mile stretch from the point at which you leave the JMT, to Trail Crest pass, involves very little climbing.
In part one of this series I discussed simple, easy-to-use, point-and-shoot cameras. They are a great choice due to their small size, light weight, ease of carrying, and terrific photos they can produce–particularly if you are going to view your photos primarily on a computer screen.
Last week was all about the advantages of carrying a camera with a larger image sensor. I hope I convinced you that it is possible to carry such a camera, without adding significant amounts of weight, due to the vast array of what is known as mirrorless-interchangeable-lens-cameras (MILCs). Nikon, Canon, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Olympus are just a few of the manufacturers with MILCs in their product line.
For some of us, however, neither of these options are going to do the trick. I can think of two types of photographers who might fall into this category.
First, is anyone who truly wants to use nothing but the finest glass available (“glass” is camera-buff jargon for “lenses”). The lenses for MILCs are getting good, but they are not yet up to the standard of the best DSLR lenses. There are specialty lenses that are not available for MILCs, like tilt/shift lenses, and it’s tough to find good prime (i.e., non-zoom) lenses, which produce the sharpest images. Some lenses produced by Canon and Nikon could rightly be described as works of art in and of themselves. MILC lenses aren’t there, yet.
The second group of photographers who may consider hauling a large DSLR up and down the John Muir Trail are people like me, who have already invested a lot of money into DSLR gear, and aren’t particularly interested in starting over with a new format, even if it means less than half the weight.
If you are in either of these categories, you are probably doomed to lug some pounds of camera gear on your back. The question then becomes, what should you take?
The first dilemma many of us will face is full-frame or cropped sensor? (A full-frame camera has an image sensor roughly the size of old 35mm film. They have come down in price in the last couple of years, and many enthusiasts now own one. Cropped sensors are about the same size as the larger MILCs.)
This is a tough question, mainly because of the opposing nature of what we will have the opportunity to shoot: wildlife, which calls for long lenses, or landscapes, which calls for wide ones. Wildlife shooters may want the extra reach of a cropped sensor (a 200mm lens on a cropped sensor will have the effective focal length of 300mm or more). Landscape photographers will want the full-frame body and the coverage of a good, 24mm prime (or the bottom end of a 24-70 zoom).
If you find yourself in this situation, here’s what I would recommend: take the full-frame. Remember, you can still crop the full-frame shots and, in many cases, end up with almost the same resolution (particularly if you are shooting with a Nikon D800, which weighs in at 36MP).
Next, just how many lenses, and which lenses, are you going to carry? I’ve been struggling with this as I prepare for my August thru-hike. I keep vacillating between four options.
- At the heavy end is two zooms: either a 24-70 and a 70-200, or a 16-28 and a 24-70 (all are 2.8s). I suppose I could carry THREE, but now we’re talking close to ten pounds, just for lenses!
- Next is just the 24-70.
- The third option would be to rent a super-zoom for a full-frame Nikon, possibly the Nikkor 28-300, which is relatively light (28 ounces) and comes with pretty good vibration reduction (for handheld shooting).
- Last–and this would be a photographic challenge–is to just carry a fast 50mm.
Right now I am leaning towards renting the 28-300. I’ll probably change my mind, tomorrow. Why not, I did yesterday!
If you are going to carry a DSLR a camera body and lens (or two), you’re probably going to carry some more stuff, too. That includes a tripod (carbon fiber if you’re lucky), a ball head, L-bracket, a filter or two, extra batteries, a way to recharge the batteries when there is electricity available, some additional CF or SD cards, and possibly a way to back up images while on the trail. It’s a shame you can’t hire a porter or two!
Yes. It’s a lot of gear, but here’s how I look at it: one of the highlights of my photographic life was to train for several days under the great National Geographic photographer, Joe McNally. He said something that I will always remember, although he attributed it another great photographer, Jim Richardson.
If you want your pictures to be better, stand in front of more interesting stuff.
If you have committed to hike the John Muir Trail, and you are serious enough about your photography to have invested in a premium DSLR, wouldn’t it be a shame to stand in front of really interesting stuff, day after day, without your best camera?
Good hiking, Ray