As a former infantryman I’ve spent my share of nights sleeping on the ground. My wife and I enjoy backpacking, and we’ve shared a tent on many occasions. What I hadn’t done a lot of, when I began my John Muir Trail thru-hike, was camping by myself. It wasn’t unprecedented, mind you, but it had probably been a few years since I spent the night in the woods all by myself.
I had forgotten how spooky it can be.
There I was on day 1, alongside Sunrise Creek, dinner eaten and ready to get to bed early. I hadn’t seen another hiker since the intersection with the Half Dome trail.
The night before I hadn’t slept well due to pre-hike jitters. The climb out of the valley had kicked my rear end and I was ready for some rest, even if there was still a little daylight left.
As I crawled into the tent and zipped the door shut I was immediately aware of the fact that I was out in the middle of the woods, alone. From inside the tent I could only see about two feet in front of me, but I could imagine that I was surrounded by a whole bunch of critters. Some of those critters were larger than me. I had seen a mother bear and two cubs less than three miles from this very spot.
And that doesn’t even count the bipeds with backpacks, some of whom may be wandering the woods with bad intentions.
Chasing the imaginary hoards surrounding my little tent from my mind, I closed my eyes and settled in for the night.
Something hit the ground near my tent, HARD.
OK, I told myself. This is the woods. Stuff falls all the time. No big deal.
I had just about convinced myself that it was nothing, or perhaps I had imagined the whole thing, when: pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…PLOP!
I had no idea what was making that noise, but it was NOT the wind (there wasn’t a breath of a breeze) or the trees settling or—well, I don’t know what else it WASN’T.
Here’s the thing: there was intentionality to the sound. Someone or something was doing this on purpose, within a few yards of my tent, and making a lot of noise in the process.
Finally, I summoned all of my courage and got up. I half expected to find a prankster standing there with a grin on his face and an unlimited supply of croquet balls to hurl on the ground where I had chosen to sleep.
But there was no one there. In fact, there was nothing there. Even the chipmunks that had been playing on a fallen log in my campsite had sacked out for the night.
I sat on the log and looked around. No sounds. No activity at all.
Then, suddenly, pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…PLOP! A large, heavy, sappy, unopened pine cone landed within a few yards of me. I looked up, and sure enough, at the very top of several tall pines was a squirrel jumping from limb to limb.
I watched him jump from one tree to another, climb up to a pine cone growing from a branch, and start gnawing. Within a minute or two he had the cone separated from the tree.
As it fell it hit a branch (pffffft), another branch (pffffft), etc. When it hit the ground it hit hard and loud (PLOP). Mystery solved.
I crawled back into my sleeping bag, feeling more than a bit sheepish, and was asleep within minutes. In the morning, there wasn’t a pine cone on the ground to be found.
Good hiking, Ray
In the 1960’s the U.S. Forest Service began the development of a program to reduce the impact users had on USFS managed land. It was called “Leave No Trace.” Since then, the program has been expanded and refined substantially. In its most current form “Leave No Trace” is summarized in the following principles:
1. Plan ahead and prepare. An unplanned hike of the John Muir Trail will fail, and will fail in a way that is harmful to the environment through which you are walking. Make sure you understand the use of bear canisters, the rules for camping around water, the rules for fires, and the way to properly do in the woods what bears do in the woods. Be prepared and equipped for all of that.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Sadly, there are places on the trail where there are two—sometimes even three—trails to choose from as you walk through a meadow. This is created by people who don’t want to walk on the primary wet or muddy trail, and cut a new path. A single curving path through an unspoiled wilderness can be a beautiful thing. Two or three paths look horrible.
3. Dispose of waste properly. For the most part, if you carry it in, carry it out. The exception is human waste (although, near Mount Whitney, you’re required to even pack this out).
4. Leave what you find. For the most part this isn’t a problem on the trail. Do you really want to carry that pine cone or pretty rock one or two hundred miles? I don’t think so. Want a neat souvenir? Buy a Yosemite or Mount Whitney keychain before you leave and attach it to your backpack on day one. In the future, every time you pull that bauble out of your pants or purse to start your car you’ll be reminded where it, and you, have been together.
5. Minimize campfire impacts. My recommendation: start no fires anywhere unless there is already an established fire ring. During most years fires will be prohibited on most of the trail, anyway. Small, wood-burning stoves (where permitted) are fine, since they leave no trace.
6. Respect wildlife. The marmots are going to be the hardest to resist. They’ll waddle onto a rock and pose, sometimes within a few feet of you, and will then look at you with an expression that virtually screams, “Hey, do you think I do this for free! Cough up the goodies! I know they’re in that backpack.” OK, maybe I’m projecting just a little here, but I swear, that’s what I saw when I looked into their eyes. Don’t hassle or feed the animals; their presence on the trail adds so much.
7. Be considerate of other visitors. The various hiking forums are full of horror stories regarding unpleasant neighbors while camping. More on camp-site etiquette in a future blog post, but the number one complaint is usually noise. Some folks think of the Sierra Nevada as a temple to the beauty of unspoiled places. It may not be a church to you, but treating it that way will usually keep you from offending anyone.
Your hike planning should include a trip to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics .
Good hiking, Ray
So, what’s your excuse?
I know I have a few readers out there who are middle-aged or older. They may be thinking, “You know, hiking the John Muir Trial sounds good, but I’m a few years past when I could realistically hike two hundred miles.”
Think you’re too old? Please consider “Rattling Grandma”:
I’ve heard of dogs playing poker, but…
My wife and I were in Reno over the Fourth of July holiday, and we found it to be a delightful town. (Reno has an “Art Town” celebration in July, which we enjoyed thoroughly.)
We also liked the steakhouse in the basement of Harrah’s Casino. Apparently, its reputation as a friendly place with great food has gotten out. Unfortunately for the hundred-pound cougar, who tried to take advantage of the good eats, the revolving door was a little too complicated.
Of course, not all the cougar encounters are so benign.
You’ve been to the mountain, how about the ship?
For anyone who has been to the summit, or is contemplating a trip to the summit, Mount Whitney is an impressive mountain. The ship, USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), is no less impressive.
Homeported in Gaeta, Italy, she is a command & control vessel and is the flagship of the US Sixth Fleet. Operation Odyssey Dawn, which enforced the no-fly zone that ultimately led to Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall in Libya, was commanded from this ship.
Good hiking, Ray
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, during much of my career I’ve worked as a planner. Just ask my wife or kids—I rarely do anything without working out the details ahead of time.
My thru-hike of the John Muir Trail was no different. I had projected mileage for each day, selected areas where I intended to camp, and established waypoints, on my map and in my GPS, to track progress. The first significant deviation from that plan came on day 2.
After departing from Happy Isles early on day 1, I camped that night along Sunrise Creek. (This was the site of the Great Squirrel Incident, but that’s for another post.)
The second night I was intending to camp north of Upper Cathedral Lake, and east of Lower Cathedral Lake, in a small clearing near the slender tributary that connects the two.
When I arrived I found that the clearing was pleasant enough, although the surrounding trees were sufficiently close and sufficiently tall to limit the views. The real problem: there was no water.
Time to change the plan.
After a quick map reconnaissance it was clear I had two choices: retreat to Upper Cathedral Lake, or walk down to Lower Cathedral Lake. I chose the latter, and had one of the most fabulous “mini-hikes” of the entire trip.
The trail down was initially fairly steep. I was silently complaining that I would have to climb this same stretch in the morning, before I even got back onto the John Muir Trail.
Soon, however, it opened up into a large meadow with several deer. Like most of their brethren I would meet along the trail, this magnificent buck and his rangale of followers completely ignored my approach. Seeing them standing in the long grass, with the Yosemite high country as background, was a sight I’ll not soon forget.
A little further along I found my campsite for the night: the solid granite shore adjacent to the eastern side of Lower Cathedral Lake. And what a campsite.
Almost immediately I noted that there were no mosquitos! I had picked a spot that was outside the range of the swarms down by the lake, to the west, and the swarms near the meadow, to the east. A gentle north breeze helped keep my area bug-free as well.
To the east I had a terrific view of Cathedral Peak, including the sight of a couple of climbers who were summiting the peak as I was setting up camp.
The sky seemed fairly clear (except for the smoke from a nearby fire), so, for the only time during my hike, I decided to sleep under the stars. My amateur weather forecasting proved correct, and I was treated to quite the spread of stars as I woke, occasionally, during the night.
The best part, however, was the lake. My spot on the eastern shore was the perfect spot for the colorful sunset.
What’s the lesson? Embrace change!
I am certainly not suggesting that you DON’T plan, but if you need to divert for a good reason, or even a frivolous one, go for it! It may prove to be one of your best experiences.
Good hiking, Ray
Thus far I have described how Donahue, Silver and Selden passes all got their names. I don’t suppose there is much mystery regarding who Muir Pass is named for. Who gave the pass that name, however, is a little less well known.
A route suitable for man and stock, extending from Yosemite to Kings Canyon, was a dream long before the current John Muir Trail existed. Portions were already established by the Sierra Club and the United States Geological Survey in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until 1907 that the last segment was mapped and proven passable.
That last section of the route was the stretch between the Evolution Basin and the Middle Fork of the Kings River.
George R. Davis, of the USGS, led the team that first reconnoitered and later traveled the route. In 1907, he named the pass which separates the Evolution Basin and the Middle Fork of the Kings River as Muir Pass.
Davis was described as tall, easygoing and as possessing a “dry wit.” As an aside, he was also one of the first outsiders to enter San Francisco on April 18, 1906, just after the great San Francisco earthquake. He went there to ascertain the status of his father, who was staying a hotel within the city. (It turned out he was fine.)
Muir Pass is probably best known for having the famous Muir Hut, which was built in 1930 by the Sierra Club and acts as a temporary shelter for those exposed to storms.
The pass is at nearly 12,000 feet of elevation, so during my thru-hike this was one of the last places I expected to have a wildlife encounter, but I did! I was sitting on the steps of the hut, eating an energy bar, when a doe and fawn walked right by me, heading west. (The trail actually runs east-west at that point.) They paid little attention to me, looked as if they were not exerting themselves much at all, and headed down towards Wanda Lake.
Good hiking, Ray
Cat Bites Man
There has never been a confirmed mountain lion attack anywhere on the John Muir Trail, and there has never been an attack on a sleeping camper anywhere in California. As of early last month, only one of those two records still hold.
On Saturday, June 30th, a 63-year-old solo hiker was camping near a tributary of the Yuba River, where it runs through Nevada County. (This area is more than 150 miles north of the most northern point in the John Muir Trail.) At about 1:00 a.m., the next morning, he was awakened by a mountain lion as it clawed and bit its way into his sleeping bag.
The attack went on for nearly two minutes before, inexplicably, the animal stopped. It retreated about fifteen feet, turned to assess the situation and stare down its prey, and left the area.
The hiker was able to self-rescue, and eventually drove himself to the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley. His injuries included some nasty lacerations to the head, arms and back.
California Fish and Game Wardens returned to the scene, found the big cat’s tracks and the remains of a domestic cat, but were unable to find the mountain lion, even with specially trained dogs.
For more on the cougar, in general, and how its resurgence in the United States is conflicting with suburbia, I strongly recommend David Baron’s “The Beast in the Garden”.
The Accidental Tourist
It is not at all unusual for a visitor to turn a corner in Yosemite Valley and see something they have never seen before. The exceptional is commonplace there.
On Tuesday, July 17th, the shoe was on the other foot: some Yosemite regulars encountered a tourist that no one could remember seeing in the past: a California brown pelican.
The female bird was found on Big Oak Flat Road and appeared to be hungry and in poor health. Apparently, pelicans are making quite a comeback in California, and some birds are venturing far outside their normal range. If she was looking for trout in the part of the Merced that flows through the valley, I can understand the problem.
The story ends happily, however. The bird was captured, without incident, and transferred to a representative from International Bird Rescue. The organization has been overwhelmed this summer with pelicans!
Good hiking, Ray
It’s time for another blog post with odds and ends.
Have you seen Steve Bumgardner’s Yosemite Nature Notes? They are a series of short films with terrific production values and informative content. Episode 14, on Horsetail Fall (the natural version of the famous Yosemite “firefall”) is probably my favorite. Check them out; they are well worth the time.
On a related note, last Tuesday Steve and a bunch of other folks shot the raw footage that will eventually become a documentary called “One Day in Yosemite.” I look forward to seeing the results!
Not all of us have the time for a great adventure every year (although I would argue we probably should). “The Gentle Art of Wandering,” a new book by Albuquerque author David Ryan, makes the case that there are plenty of discoveries to be made, on foot, regardless of where you live. Read an interview with the author on the REI blog, and check out the author’s blog here .
Automated cameras (digital cameras that automatically take a photo whenever anything passes in front of them) are revolutionizing the study of endangered and infrequently seen species. Here’s an example: scientists believe that there are two thriving colonies of Sierra Nevada red foxes in Oregon (Mount Hood and Crater Lake). While there had been tracks and even the occasional sighting, nothing settles the case quite like photographic evidence.
Finally, bringing this blog post back to the John Muir Trail, you should check out John Dittli and Mark Schlenz’s book “Walk the Sky: Following the John Muir Trail.” If you’re looking for that last bit of encouragement to actually hike this hike, or if you would like to reward yourself with a most apposite reminder of what you have accomplished, the breathtaking photography and illuminating essays in this large volume are just the ticket!
Good hiking, Ray
Each day I poke around the internet for items of interest to John Muir Trail hikers, all in hopes of finding ideas for blog posts. Often I find tidbits that are deserving of mention, but do not warrant an entire article. Today, and from time to time in the future, I’ll toss them together, mix in some comments, and present it for your consideration.
(By the way, these odds and ends will not necessarily be about the trail itself, but if you’re interested in the trail, it’s likely you find these interesting as well.)
Here we go.
~ “Lorraine Miller, 89, said she was driving to her novels class, part of a college emeritus program for seniors, when she learned …” that a full-grown mountain lion was prowling the courtyard of the building in which she was taking her course. Now, you’re probably thinking that that sort of thing might be common in Boulder, Colorado or perhaps at the University of California in San Luis Obispo. This was in Santa Monica, a city with miles of urban sprawl to its east and miles of Pacific Ocean to its west. Sadly, the event did not end well (at least for the cat; Ms. Miller, presumably, eventually made it to her novels class).
~ In the spring of 2010, my step-daughter, Malia, and I set off for Yosemite National Park to climb Half Dome. It was to be one-half confidence builder and one-half an attempt to instill a love of hiking. Despite all the best predictions regarding when the Half Dome cables would be installed, they did NOT make it up in time. We decided to go to the top of Yosemite Falls instead, which is just as strenuous (if not quite as scary). The confidence boost took – success! The love of hiking? Not so much. Anyway, the Half Dome cables will be up today. Hope you have a permit!
~ In “Planning Your Thru-Hike of the John Muir Trail” I touch, briefly, on Leave No Trace principles. Philip Werner of the Section Hiker blog has a pretty good article that drills down a bit beyond “do-this-don’t-do-that” approach. Take a look at the comments as well; there’s some good stuff there.
~ I’m from Hawaii, so I think everyone should come here on vacation and spend as much as possible. (That might help keep our atrocious taxes from going even higher!) That said, if you’re looking for an inexpensive family vacation, look no further than the Sierra Nevada!
~ Do the climbs to the eight major passes on the John Muir Trail seem to be getting harder every year? Do you think it’s because you’re getting older? Not true! They’re getting higher!
Good hiking, Ray
Have you ever encountered something (a lot) larger than you in the woods? I’m not talking about a cow in a pasture, I mean something that weighs three of four times what you do, and has claws, teeth, and a reputation for a certain amount of ferocity.
That happy incident occurred to me on the very first day of my John Muir Trail thru-hike.
The climb out of Yosemite Valley (which begins at Happy Isles) has a reputation for being tough. It certainly was for me. I climbed 4,500 feet on the first day, but the trail was wide, even and well maintained—more like walking on a sidewalk. I also had lots of day-hiker friends heading for Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall, or Half Dome, to buoy me along. It was never crowded enough to be unpleasant, but I was always aware of people being around me.
All that changed once I passed the Half Dome trail intersection; the woods got quiet. I was alone and walking on dirt so, even though I wasn’t trying to move stealthily, I was hardly making a sound.
As I turned the corner I actually spotted the two cubs, first, just to the right of the trail. They were scrounging around under a fallen log. I stopped in my tracks and immediately looked for mama bear.
She was on the left of the trail, completely oblivious to me, also looking for a late lunch.
Despite being more excited than scared (I’m sure I had a huge grin on my face), I realized that there was a potentially bad situation here. One thing’s for sure: I wasn’t going try to sneak between mama and the kids. I considered retreating, but for how long? I had only managed about seven of the 211 miles that I had ahead of me; it was a little early in the game to start backtracking.
I got out my camera and snapped a couple of photos. Then I alerted all the four-pawed animals in the area that I was there with a quick yell. Three sets of bear eyes were on me in a split second.
The two cubs immediately started running over to mom, although they stopped a couple of times to get a better look at the strange guy with a big red hump on his back. Eventually mom got them behind her and she turned her attention to me.
She rose up on her back legs just a bit, shouted a half-hearted growl in my direction, and then spun around and headed away with the kids. My bear encounter (one of two on the trail) was over.
Almost the entire JMT is within prime bear habitat, but (somewhat counter-intuitively) encounters are more common the closer you are to civilization. Although you might see one anywhere, the most likely places are: Little Yosemite Valley, Lyell Canyon, anywhere else within Yosemite, Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake. Each of these locales has something in common: lots of people with food, often carelessly stored.
A bear encounter can be thrilling! Just make sure you don’t encounter one eating your dinner. Keep everything with a scent in your canister.
Good hiking, Ray