Driving south on Highway 395, I felt a bit disconcerted looking west toward the Sierras and trying to guess which canyon held the Baxter Pass Trailhead. The mountains were socked in with clouds and rain, my car blasted by wind rushing down the canyons into the valley. We dropped my car off at Whitney Portal and I scurried around shifting gear between vehicles while trying to stay dry, jumped in Squirrel’s car and slammed the door. I did not want to start the grand finale of our John Muir Trail (JMT) adventure wet.
Thankfully by the time we got back to Independence and turned onto Fish Hatchery Road the sky was looking friendlier and we were in for an amazing sunset. This was just a preview of the weather we had in store for the week…batten down the hatches! I mean rainfly.
First Night: Trailside (1 mile)
The Baxter Pass Trailhead was not our ideal camp destination, so we figured might as well get some trail under our feet. We didn’t have much sunlight left; with time running out we found a level-ish site that was clear of tent-ripping white thorn brush and set up camp. Thankfully this is not a popular trail as this level-ish site was the trail…I will advise that if you have a bit more light, there is a delightful campsite just above the second crossing of North Fork Oak Creek. I’ll also advise wearing pants for this stretch of the trail, lest you encounter stinging nettle.
Second Night: Above Summit Meadow (4 miles)
Our first full day on the trail was another short one, thick vegetation and high temperatures slowed us down. After passing a nice campsite and then realizing it may have been the last before the summit, we were looking at our watches and the building clouds when thunder filled the air. Back to the campsite it is!! Not sure I’ve ever seen Squirrel hike so fast, but thanks to her pace we made it back to the site just in time to set up the tent and jump inside before the skies opened up. Then spent the next hour crouching in some form of the lightening position and counting the seconds between flash and bang. Don’t forget to brush up on lightening safety before heading into the mountains! Thankfully the skies cleared for another wonderful sunset so we could enjoy the view down the canyon; I’m pretty sure we could see all the way to Nevada.
I will note that there were a few more camp options up the trail. We camped near the confluence of two creeks above Summit Meadow, if you climb above that, there’s a nice option just before the granite slab climb. After you climb the granite and stroll through the woods a bit, then look below the trail for another option. There’s one last dry camp just at the edge of the vegetation. Now go forth and explore this canyon knowing where to camp!
Third Night: Middle Rae Lake (9.7 miles)
We received some interesting reactions when folks found out we were getting to the JMT via Baxter Pass. Some confused looks because they’d never heard of it, some warnings that it’s not well maintained, and a note written on tape at the trailhead warned that there was no marked trail past Baxter Lakes. On the eastern side, while the trail was a bit overgrown it was navigable; so while the climb up to Baxter Pass was easy enough to follow the false summits were crushing. Be warned, until you see the actual town of Independence you still have more up. The trail was still easy to follow until we reached the first Baxter Lake, then we played hide and seek until popping out of the trees high above Dollar Lake and the JMT. We were grateful for the kind soul who marked the path with rock piles/cairns/trail ducks, whatever you want to call them, the hike down to the bottom of the canyon would have been treacherous without them.
After our Baxter Pass adventure, the JMT was like a backcountry highway, easy to follow and full of hikers! We hadn’t even stepped on the actual trail yet and we’d already been greeted by Ranger Sam who checked our permit and spotted a handful of other hikers. After a quick snack we made our way to Arrowhead Lake where we set up the tent to weather a bit of rain. However, with plenty of daylight left, we packed up again and made it to middle Rae Lake in time for more rain.
Fourth Night: Below Center Peak (10.2 miles)
First item on the fourth day’s agenda – Glen Pass. We got an early start to beat the heat and the building clouds, which apparently was a popular idea as we joined the conga line climbing up the switchbacks. Compared to the three passes to the north and Forester to the south, Glen was a relatively easy climb. Then came the switch-backing descent to our lowest point on the trail this year – back in the leg scratching vegetation…but only for a short while then we started the gradual trudge up toward Forester Pass. The profile of Forester is the longest right triangle I’ve ever seen with a steady climb up to the pass on the northern side and a sheer cliff on the southern side. With light left in the day we wanted to get as close to the pass as possible while still being sheltered, with that in mind we passed our original campsite at the junction with Center Basin Creek and found a forested knoll 3.7 miles from the pass. There are a few more windy options before the real climbing began, but our sheltered site with 360 degree views was fantastic in my opinion.
Fifth Night: Tyndall Frog Pond (8.9 miles)
We heard great things about the climb to Forester and the views did not disappoint! Purple sky pilot guided us up the trail and the higher we climbed the more mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains we saw. I’m officially declaring Kings Canyon my favorite National Park. Enjoy those northern views, because the south side is a frigid wind tunnel – welcome to Sequoia National Park. Their official greeter for this entrance into the park is Smarmy Marmy, a marmot that will brave an unrelenting amount of rock bombs to get his mitts on your food. Turns out he just wanted to partake in a staring contest, which he lost. On a happier note, this is the day we caught our first glimpse of Mount Whitney. In John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail by Elizabeth Wenk, Mount Whitney is described as the “tall, flat-topped peak with large avalanche chutes on its northern face.” Look for this high point once you’re south of Diamond Mesa.
We passed the delightful campsites at the Tyndall Creek crossing to gain more miles and the “warm-ish swimming” at the Tyndall Frog Ponds. However, do to the cold front that was blowing in, swimming just wasn’t happening. However, my feet enjoyed the soak. If you have the energy and light I’d continue on to Wright Creek like our trail friends The Simpsons did to cover more miles and nicer camping.
Sixth Night: East of Timberline Lake (10.3 miles)
We had a rollercoaster of emotions our sixth day on the trail. We peeked out of our tent in the morning to see blue skies. However when we climbed out, our hearts sank as there were clouds in just about every other inch of sky. We made it over our first little climb with nice weather and sweeping views of the Kaweahs, a sub-range of the Sierras, to the west and Mount Whitney with her head in the clouds to the east. Then the clouds started closing in, thankfully we didn’t have any high passes to go over, because after a few drops of rain it started hailing – a lot. So much so that there was a dusting of it on the ground, which I’m not sure if I’d use the word magical, but it did turn Bighorn Plateau into a winter wonderland. That is, until my fingers started going numb and our chances of safely summiting Whitney looked dicey. We’d packed for the warmer forecasted temperatures, not all of this chilly precipitation. In search of a weather report for tomorrow’s summit day we headed for the Crabtree Ranger Station posthaste. At the junction we found the bin with wag bags for folks entering the Whitney Zone. Yes, if you enter the Whitney Zone and Nature calls, you only dig a figurative cathole into a bag and then pack it out due to high usage. Have fun!
Anyway, I scurried down the white path toward the station only to discover a creek that had a precarious log crossing over/through the ragging creek. I chose dry feet and ran back to Squirrel at the trail junction. We decided to press on and ran in to a ranger not a quarter-mile down the trail. The weather was supposed to clear by midnight, but freezing temperatures and more precipitation didn’t look promising for us finishing the last 1.9 miles of the JMT. Nature will do as she wishes, but either way our exit was over Trail Crest so we pressed on. The ranger advised us to camp below Timberline Lake to stay at a lower elevation due to the cold temperatures, but with our fast pace to stay warm and a lack of flat options we found ourselves at Timberline where camping is prohibited. We met a hiker coming down the trail and received news of two familiar tents with open space next to them – The Simpsons! We filtered water and hurried up the trail to find them a short distance past the lake. They invited us to join their cozy site and set up our tent before the next batch of snow arrived.
Then came the debate. Get up early to beat the thunder storms? If we get up too early the ice on the trail will still be treacherous, especially if we’re traveling by headlamp. We decided to stick with our 5 am wake up time and just see where the trail took us.
Seventh Day: Whitney Portal (15.9 miles)
The morning of truth – frost on the ground, bear canisters frozen shut, but blue skies! We hustled as fast as our numb fingers would allow and got on the trail, watching for ice as we went. We found it between the Arctic Creek crossing at Guitar Lake until we got above the braided creeks flowing down the trail. Then snow blanketed the trail, which we’ll take over ice any day. That’s when the real climb began, but it kept us warm as we hiked toward the sunrise. We finally reached the Whitney trail junction where a dozen or more packs were already piled. The building clouds were still far off, so I looked hopefully at Squirrel. Her response, “We’re not going to have a better chance.” Yes! We dropped our packs, grabbed some essentials, and started the last of the climb to the highest point in the contiguous United States.
There are certain stretches of the trail where I would have really appreciated micro-spikes, but alas my trekking poles would have to suffice. The dusting of snow gave the views a more dramatic look – typical Eastern Sierras, always being dramatic.
We summited Mount Whitney to find spectacular views to the west and a wall of clouds sitting on the eastern edge. I’m sure the view down to Lone Pine is amazing, but we had to image the view to the east and the sharp drop below. We explored the shelter, log book, and plaque with lots of photo opportunities. However, the clouds were creeping toward us so after one last look around we headed down.
After all the footsteps packing the snowy path, the trip back proved a bit more challenging. I’m glad most of the folks heading into the clouds had micro-spikes for when the path turned into an ice rink. We grabbed our packs and headed for Trail Crest, taking one last look toward Guitar Lake and the mountains beyond before starting the relentless descent toward Whitney Portal.
Our original plan was to stay at Trail Camp, but when we arrived we were still in the clouds and getting every type of precipitation. Outpost Camp it is, 3.1 more miles and 1,670 feet down. When we reached plan B, we were wet and chilled to the bone. Though our knees and feet protested, we promised them comfy chairs, heaters, and told them to suck it up. And that’s how we ended up hiking a 15.9 mile day with 3,405 feet of elevation gain, followed by 6,175 feet of elevation loss. Oh and also how we ended up finishing the John Muir Trail.