September 7, 2014
Distance: 21 miles
Traveled: Muir Trail Ranch to somewhere in Evolution Basin
“The stars shone clear in the strip of sky between the huge dark cliffs; and as I lay recalling the lessons of the day, suddenly the full moon looked down over the cañon wall, her face apparently filled with eager concern, which had a startling effect, as if she had left her place in the sky and had come down to gaze on me alone, like a person entering one’s bedroom. It was hard to realize that she was in her place in the sky, and was looking abroad on half the globe, land and sea, mountains, plains, lakes, rivers, oceans, ships, cities with their myriads of inhabitants sleeping and waking, sick and well. No, she seemed to be just on the rim of Bloody Cañon and looking only at me. This was indeed getting near to Nature.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Why hadn’t I planned to just take a zero day? When my alarm went off at 6:00, all I wanted to do was sleep in, eat breakfast, soak in the hot springs, take a nap, eat more food, take another nap, soak in the hot springs, eat…repeat. Putting on my pack filled with 8 days of food was not something I was overly thrilled about.
Yet, there was no time to waste dreaming about the zero-day that could not be. I quickly got dressed and ran out the door to squeeze in one more soak in the hot springs before breakfast. Thankfully the springs were vacant and open, and before the rising sun had even hit the valley I was submerged and relaxed. My back and legs felt better, I was clean, and my 6th toe blister had not yet popped and was still bulging at the seams in all of its glory (gross…I know, I know…). I didn’t stay in the springs long, as the smell of breakfast and coffee was wafting my way from the kitchen and calling me.
The breakfast spread was impressive. I joined Ric, Jen, and their daughter around one of the large wooden tables. Durand and Jason came in not long after, we all talked over plates overflowing with food. Ric had brought some Mile…Mile & A Half stickers with him in case he saw me – so thoughtful. I felt like it was a good omen for the rest of my journey. Unfortunately, I couldn’t linger at breakfast long as I had to leave and meet the guys. When I had devoured my fill of fresh fruit, roasted potatoes, and orange juice, I scooped up my bear canister from the corner of the dining room where they stored it overnight, and said goodbye to my new friends – them all wishing me well for my last 100 miles of trail.
I went back to my cabin and packed my bag, and was at the resupply area to meet the guys at 8:30. Friz, Slippers and Chops were ready to go when I got there. I yelled as I walked toward them, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRIZ!” We would celebrate Friz’s 30th birthday all day long by, well…walking. If I had been a thoughtful friend I would have shoved some breakfast potatoes and waffles in my pocket for him as a birthday present – but, alas, I didn’t think of it at the time. Plus, he probably wouldn’t want my dirty, gross, pocket-waffles.
We topped off our water bottles and weighed our packs, newly filled to the brim with food. Mine weighed in at 35 lbs with 8 days of food and 2 liters of water. Much more than my 20 lb base weight. Ugh. Yet, I still felt a new burst of energy after my night at the Ranch. My sore body was rested, my greasy hair was washed, my belly was content, and my bear canister was full with what felt like 10 bricks. I said my goodbye to the Muir Trail Ranch, already looking forward to the zero-day that would await me there on some unknown day in the future.
We were off.
Not far up the dusty trail, Chops randomly ran into some guy he knew from the PCT the year before. He stayed back and talked with him while Slippers, Friz and I continued ahead. It wasn’t far before we crossed a bridge over Piute Creek and reached the sign marking the entrance into Kings Canyon National Park. I was giddy. This is where the true treasure of the trail was hiding.
For so many years, I have hiked in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and have looked upon the peaks of the Great Western Divide and the Kings Canyon Wilderness and felt them beckoning me. I have poured over maps of the area for endless hours getting lost in the potential adventure. I have wanted to know this areas secrets for so long. Finally, I was at it’s front door.
Immediately, upon entering the park, the landscape transformed. Tall granite canyon walls towered above, and the trail hugged the canyon edge above the San Joaquin River. It was an impressive landscape, and dramatic a shift from where I had been so far. The John Muir Trail is known for the continually morphing landscape that it winds through. Every 30-40 miles the landscape transitions into scenery that feels entirely new and different. I was now entering the landscape of imposing and dramatic granite peaks and lake-filled basins, and tomorrow I would be high above the treeline in a Mars-like world.
We hiked along at our own pace – Friz and Slippers moving ahead while I stopped for a break along the San Joaquin River. My pack was dreadfully heavy, and I couldn’t wait for a small respite. Calley appeared on the trail above me and I convinced her to join me for a little break. She pulled out a sandwich she had made before leaving the Ranch, and we talked and snacked for a bit by the river (Muir Trail Ranch doesn’t serve an ‘official’ lunch, but they do put out stuff for guests to make their own sandwiches – crap, I probably should have made Friz a sandwich for his birthday. I’m a bad friend!).
*For those wondering, despite the fact that sandwiches are my favorite-all-time food, I did not make myself a sandwich. Why? Because the universe hates me, and shortly before leaving for the trail I found out I am allergic to wheat. I have been vegan for many years and don’t miss dairy and meat in the slightest – but having to say goodbye to bread, admittedly, is really sucky. And what does one do when you’re in the middle of the wilderness and someone offers you your favorite food (a sandwich), and you have to turn it down? Lets just say that it’s a major test of willpower and mental strength.
I continued on sandwich-less. A few miles ahead the trail met up with Evolution Creek and began the somewhat long climb into Evolution Valley.
The views were incredible, and the river, despite its low late-summer flow, was loud and beautiful as it fell into the canyon below. I can imagine that at the height of the snow melt in early summer, that this river is quite a raging spectacle.
Nearing Evolution Valley my excitement was building.
Evolution Valley was the single spot on the trail I was most excited to see. On maps, it is apparent that it is the most remote section of the Sierras – over 20 miles from any trailhead, and end even farther from the nearest road. I had heard from other JMT thru-hikers that you truly feel more in the depths of the wilderness in Evolution Valley and Evolution Basin than on any other part of the trail. Truly wild. Years before, a woman that worked for Kings Canyon and Yosemite Search and Rescue for many years had whispered to me off to the side that there are rumors that the California Grizzly is still alive and hiding out in Evolution Basin – I started poking around online and found some intriguing stories. If there was a place they could be hiding out, I suppose this was it.
Months earlier, when making my itinerary for this hike, I also discovered that I would be staying in Evolution Basin on the night of the full moon. Tonight. Before leaving, I had told friends that on this night when they looked at the full moon, to think of me alone in a remote corner of the wilderness – surrounded by a mountain landscape glowing blue under the light of the moon, dreaming of ghost grizzlies.
That was almost what happened….but back to the daylight for now…
The trail kept climbing, my dysfunctional lungs kept breathing, and my legs kept moving – all in anticipation. I was surprised I hadn’t run into Friz and Slippers yet. I hit the first ‘real’ river crossing at Evolution Creek, a couple miles before getting to McClure Meadow. This crossing can be very dangerous when California isn’t in a Stage 27 drought and it’s not September – fortunately, for me (but not for California’s water supply), the river was incredibly low and without breaking stride I crossed quickly in my trail runners – giving my shoes a much needed bath, and my feet an invigorating cold soak.
Another mile up the trail I ran into Friz and Slippers settling in for lunch …prematurely. Friz was already out of his trail runners and had his crocs on, but I insisted they pack up because a much better lunch plan awaited us. They protested saying they were starving, I promised them it would be worth their while. I could tell they were skeptical.
Jeff trudging along in his crocs, us all carrying unbearably heavy packs and growling stomachs, we set out again for another mile or so. We rounded a corner and through the trees gained our first glimpses of McClure Meadow and the expanse of Evolution Valley – they immediately knew they were right in moving on from their previous lunch spot.
The finest lunchtime view.
We shed our overweight packs, set up near the edge of the meadow in the shade along Evolution Creek, and gazed up in awe of our surroundings. This was the moment it really hit me how far I had walked. 123 miles. And I felt 123 miles away from it all in this spot.
At lunch, I noticed a change in the sky compared to all previous days (and looking back at the photos from the whole day, it’s even more obvious). Where there had been jokes a few days ago that we might have only seen 3 clouds on our entire hike, the sky today was full of fluffy cumulus clouds – a sure sign of the chance of thunderstorms that was in the forecast. But for now, there were no signs of anything threatening in our near future.
We were debating between continuing to North Evolution Lake for the night, or Colby Meadow. I had really wanted to camp at one of the Evolution Lakes, but in looking at the potential campsites listed in Wenk’s book, it seemed that the number of sites could possibly be very limited. Anita, and a group of hikers we had met yesterday, had passed us while we were lunching. We were concerned that we would now have competition for the few spots at North Evolution Lake, and would get all the way up there only to find we had nowhere to camp. To quote from Elizabeth Wenk’s guide: “For the next 10 miles, the only camping options are above treeline and in locations suited for just one or two tents, so if it is getting late in the day, consider stopping below this climb, and give yourself a full day to enjoy Evolution Basin.”
After lingering for more than an hour we packed up and continued on, feeling like staying near Colby Meadow would be the smarter option. We had a very short 3 miles, before the end of the day (or so we thought).
We caught up with Anita while we were hunting for a spot, and we ended up finding the most incredible campsite in the history of all time. Perhaps, not all time – but it was pretty fantastic. Friz pronounced it the best camp he had ever stayed at (even compared to his time on the AT and CT) – and it couldn’t have been timelier for his birthday. A gift from the trail.
It was a bit off the trail, next to the river, with granite ledges the perfect size for each of our tents (including Anita’s, who decided to camp with us). To the north we had views down the canyon toward McClure Meadow, to the south The Hermit towered over us, and to the west was a confluence of small waterfalls along Evolution Creek. The sun was golden, the afternoon was still in it’s prime, and we had plenty of time to enjoy the perfection of our corner of wilderness.
With tents set up, and dinners being prepared, we were all feeling awesome – giving our backs and legs a break from our heavy packs until the morning.
Can I express how happy, and content, and perfect this evening was? How grateful I was to have such an awesome site for the night, and looking so forward to the good long sleep in my near future? It was sublime. It was unparalleled, it was….
….and then Chops showed up.
Oh, Chops. Unicorn-wrangling, lake-diving, trail-conquering, elusive and oh-so-timely, Chops – casually strolling into our camp about an hour before sunset, proclaiming: “I’m doing a full-moon hike to the Muir Hut for the night – you guys in?” In my mind I prefer to imagine that he didn’t even walk into our camp – rather he magically manifested next to me out of thin air, casually lounging on a rock: “Hey, who’s up for a night hike?”
Of course, of course. We would expect no less on the one day we had found the all-time-best-campsite-ever.
My water for dinner was mid-boil. Slippers and Friz were sitting above me enjoying the last peaceful rays of sunlight while savoring their dinners. After a moment of absorbing this proposition that had just been slung at us from left field – the groaning of pros and cons began.
We were all tired, I was exhausted and looking forward to lying horizontal in the very near future, we were already very well established in Camp Perfection for the night, I had probably had the best tent pitch going of the entire trip (a perfect tent pitch, can be a small, cherished thing on a thru-hike) – but a night hike through Evolution Basin by the light of the full moon, to sleep illegally in the Muir Hut… c’mon, how could you turn that down? Friz immediately played the ‘birthday card’: “It’s my birthday, and I want to go on a night hike!” We had no choice but to respect these wishes, because only a shitty friend would negate the ‘birthday card’ when played. My mind wanted to go, my tired body wanted to knock my mind out for entertaining the thought. And before I had entirely absorbed what was happening, I was shoving things back into stuff sacks, taking down my tent, piling my dinner into my mouth, and saying goodbye to Anita while we walked off to explore the abyss (being totally reasonable and rational, Anita opted to stay put for the night).
Not far down the trail we ran into Calley who was making dinner and settled in for the night. We invited her to join us, but also being of reasonable and rational mind, she declined, bidding us an awesome night. The climb up into the basin was steep. The sun was setting and the alpenglow on the surrounding mountains was beautiful. I warned Chops that I would probably be slow as hell on the uphill because of my horrible breathing, he said he had no problem walking slow – and he did end up sticking back with me for the walk that night, a gesture I was very grateful for.
The world grew dark, and with the moon not having yet risen over the mountains we turned on our headlamps. After a couple miles we came out above the treeline at 10,800’ and the moon had made its grand appearance. North Evolution Lake sprawled out in front of us in the eerie cool moonlight – silent and glassy. We had arrived on Mars. A headlamp was spotted on the far shore of the lake – a lucky hiker who had made it to this amazing spot for the night. The moonlight was bright, and were able to see clear enough to turn off our headlamps while we walked.
We wound our way through the glacially carved basin – talking about life, and love, why we were all out here, and shared tales of ghosts and strange things we couldn’t explain – all conversation that only the moon could inspire.
I was feeling conflicted about the whole experience at the time – Evolution Basin was known to be a particularly magical place, and I was torn by regret that I wouldn’t be seeing it in the day. Yet, I was savoring the fact that I was in the heart of an experience I would never forget. Friz was thrilled, and this was possibly the best thing that could have happened on his birthday.
Eventually the conversation quieted, and we were all starting to get tired. Around 11:00 I was feeling completely exhausted, and Slippers was feeling the elevation (we were right up around 11,000’). We had walked 6 miles since sunset, making it a 21 mile day with almost 5,000’ of elevation gain – big miles, steep climbs, heavy packs, a long long day.
We marched forward a bit longer, but at 11:30 I suggested we stop soon. We happened to be walking on a short stretch of flat tundra between Sapphire Lake and an unnamed lake to the south, and Chops suggested we just stop here for the night. Normally, it would not be okay to set up camp in a spot that wasn’t an actual ‘site’ – but it seemed we had little options in this sparse granite basin (this is really not okay on the JMT, unless you’re in a dire situation, you should never camp in a spot that hasn’t been previously established). In retrospect, after seeing what our options would have been further up the trail – it was quite lucky we thought to stop where we were, because there were no other options between there and the Muir Hut (3.5 miles ahead).
We all quickly set up our tents and dove into our private cocoons for the night. I was incredibly, insanely, tired – and I fell fast asleep only minutes after I was horizontal.
In the enchantment of the night, I had entirely forgotten about one important thing: the storms in the forecast. While we walked that night I was so enamored with the stars, moon, and landscape – that I failed to notice the glimpse of heavy clouds on the far horizon (that can be seen in my night photos).
Perhaps if we had noticed those distant clouds, we might have thought twice about sleeping entirely exposed above the treeline, where should lightning strike, we would by far be the tallest things around…
But alas, the magic, moonlight, friendship, and good fortune of the night was far too distracting to pay attention to the pesky details.