Day 2: Backpacked from Bullfrog Lake to Tyndall Creek via Forester Pass on the John Muir Trail
After a very long night’s sleep (ten hours!) I woke up at first light feeling much better. My head still hurt a bit but my guts were much happier. Thank goodness! I wouldn’t be aborting the trip after all! I even had a bit of an appetite, which was a good sign. Maybe I’d be able to hike fifteen miles today and make up for yesterday’s shortfall.
I had some aspirin and caffeine for the headache, then ate a tasty Pop-Tart for breakfast. I was travelling without a stove, so I couldn’t have coffee – hence the caffeine was in pill form. But it worked just the same. I got dressed for the day and packed everything I could from inside the tent. Then I tossed all the gear outside. I ventured forth and took some photos of the dawn. It was a beautiful morning, cool but not cold, and the air seemed to be far less hazy. Maybe the smoke was blowing somewhere else today. I hoped it stayed that way.
I finished packing and managed to leave camp just after 6:30am, which was quite respectable. I headed west down the main trail toward Bullfrog Lake. I could see why they banned camping here, as it was a great spot, and the perfect distance from Onion Valley for an overnight. It must have been severely camped-out once upon a time, but now it was looking quite pristine. I took a lot of photos of the lake as I hiked along the trail.
A bit further was another small pond which had several groups camped nearby. This tiny pond was much closer to the junction with the John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail (JMT/PCT) and seemed rather popular. Unlike me, most of the campers were still asleep, eating breakfast, or busily packing their gear.
I was hiking strong that day, it seems, because I hiked the mile to the PCT junction in less than a half hour. I turned left (south) and began the steep, 1200-foot descent, with many switchbacks, to Vidette Meadow and Bubbs Creek. Along the way I was presented with a few nice views of the canyon to the left. I would soon be hiking up that long valley to its terminus at Forester Pass, elevation 13200 feet, which was the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. It entailed a climb of 3600 feet over a distance of 8.5 miles. If I hadn’t felt so miserable yesterday I would have been camping down there in that valley last night. But I’d make up for it today.
On the way down to Bubbs Creek, I met two friendly Korean hikers who had stopped to adjust their gear. I paused for a moment and learned that all three of us were heading to Mount Whitney. It was a popular destination. I kept on hiking, extra fast, hoping to leave them in the dust (due to my awesomely long legs, striding hugely downhill). Sadly, my legs didn’t make much difference in the end. We were destined to leapfrog each other all day long. They were strong hikers.
The PCT made a left at the bottom of the valley. To the right was the long trail following Bubbs Creek down to Kanawyers, at Roads End on Highway 180 in the Kings Canyon. Vicki and I had hiked north from there over the Monarch Divide back in 2009. It seemed like such a long time ago. It was our first big backpack as a couple, ever since the kids grew up and finished with Scouting. That was a fun trip, and I remembered how old and heavy our gear was. But it was successful, and marked the beginning of long string of excellent Summer Adventures. Good times.
The next four miles of trail up the canyon was some of the most enjoyable hiking I’ve had in a long time. It was uphill the entire way, of course, but it wasn’t steep at all, and the trail was wonderfully smooth and easy to walk on. It traveled through a peaceful pine forest and occasionally wandered near the creek, which was flowing well, cascading over rocky ledges or gliding wide and silent as it wound back and forth across the broad valley floor. It truly was a great day to be out in the wilderness.
Along the way I met a solo woman hiker from Norway, who had started hiking southbound on the PCT way up north in Truckee. I congratulated her on choosing what could arguably be called the most beautiful section of the entire trail. When she said that she was ending her hike at Mount Whitney, I asked whether she had an “Exit Permit” (meaning that she was allowed to leave via Whitney Portal, through the “Whitney Zone” on the east side near Lone Pine), and it turned out that she did, as her permit was reserved six months ago while she was still in Norway. I wished that I, too, had an Exit Permit, because I had no choice but to hike all the way back north over this same exact route after reaching the summit. Not that this was particularly terrible, but it was a bit boring. And then she hiked on ahead of me. She was really fast, and I never saw her again. So much for my extra long legs.
Video of Bubbs Creek as it makes a noisy cascade along the JMT
The trail got a bit steeper as it approached Center Peak, which dominated the upper end of the Bubbs Creek canyon. The JMT veered to the right of the peak and climbed out into the sun above the treeline. The views got better as the trail continued upward above 11,000 feet.
I checked my watch and it was nearing noon. I had been feeling a bit tired, so I found a spot in the shade of a stunted pine. I took off my pack and got out some food and my book. After yesterday’s lack of dinner, I knew that I’d better eat as much as I could right now, or I wasn’t going to be climbing another 2000 feet to the pass. I chowed down a bunch of calories. Then I cleared a smooth spot and lay down for a nap. I didn’t sleep very deep or very long, but when I sat back up I felt a whole lot better.
Panorama video from high in the Bubbs Creek drainage
I kept on hiking, and soon I passed the two Korean gentlemen, who had also stopped for lunch. They were almost done and I knew they’d be passing me if I didn’t keep moving. I was glad that I’d filtered more water before my nap, so that I wouldn’t have to stop again.
By this point on the trail, there were no more pines of any kind, only low tundra-like plants with plenty of loose rocks piled everywhere. The trail climbed higher and I was able to see the peaks which formed the headwall of the canyon. I met a couple of ladies that were heading north and I asked them which of the two obvious passes was Forester Pass, and they told me that it was the higher of the two. Of course it was. But there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway, except wish that it was a whole lot closer. Hiking would eventually solve that problem, too.
The trail was sneaky. It gradually grew steeper and steeper as it headed for the pass. Luckily, the air got cooler and the breeze stronger, so I never really felt like I was overheating. I just kept plodding on. Every half hour or so I would find a comfy rock to sit on, and take a bit of a break. I was definitely feeling some fatigue, so I used these breaks to chow down on some additional calories and water. But it was the two Korean guys that really kept me motivated. Every time I saw them getting dangerously close I realized that my break was over, and I continued onward. Gotta keep ahead of the competition.
I came upon a large high lake at 12,200 feet and noticed that there was one small flat spot for a tent that some maniac had cleared among the loose blocks of stone. They really must’ve wanted to camp there in the worst way. I won’t deny that I was tempted, but I continued onward. I only had another mile or so (and a thousand feet up) to get to the pass and it wasn’t even 2pm yet. I looked at my map. Yes, there were several lakes on the other side, so there would be water for camping if I couldn’t make it the rest of the way to Tyndall Creek that day. It was nice to know that there were additional bail-out options, even if I didn’t really want to use them.
After the lake, the trail gained a long ridge, and headed in a more direct line toward the pass. The trail itself was difficult to see up ahead of me, thanks to the endless slope of granite talus blocks, but I could see a few other hikers in the distance, so I got a fairly good idea of where I was headed. As I got closer to the pass, I realized that the trail wasn’t going to get there in one straight shot. It arrived at a point about 300 feet directly below the pass. And then it made a series of short switchbacks which zig-zagged their way directly up the slope.
And then I was at the top! The views were excellent, as you might expect. After taking off my pack, I took plenty of photos and videos in every direction. The southern side of the pass was impressively steep, and it looked like they blasted the trail downward along the face of the cliff using dynamite. Very impressive. There was a sign up there which informed me that I was leaving Kings Canyon and entering Sequoia National Park.
I looked back down to the north and saw the Korean gentlemen toiling up the final switchbacks. I didn’t mind waiting for them this time. We could enjoy the pass together. And we did. That’s when I found out that we were intending to camp in the same places the next two nights. They had done a car shuttle and would be exiting via Whitney Portal. I asked them if they had an Exit Permit and they said that they didn’t. I warned them that the rangers often checked for permits, but if they headed down late enough in the day then maybe the rangers would’ve gone home already. They also told me that they could give me a ride back to my car in Onion Valley if I wanted one. It was a very tempting offer. I thanked them for it but we made no firm plans. And let’s face it: I wasn’t sure what would happen if I got caught. Getting a hefty fine was bad enough, but what if they banned me from getting hiking permits in the future? That would be devastating. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to take that chance.
GoPro video looking north
GoPro panorama video looking south
After eating some snacks and enjoying the view, I began to get a bit cold. There was a stiff breeze blowing through the narrow gap, and the sun had hidden itself behind some puffy cumulus clouds. It was 3:30pm, and I still had five more miles to hike. I was glad that it was all downhill, but it wasn’t going to happen sitting on my butt up here. So I shouldered my pack and the three of us began the descent of the amazing trail on this side of the pass. It hugged the cliff and headed off to the left where the slope was less severe, whereupon it switchbacked steeply all the way down to a small pond at the base.
After that, the trail became quite easy again, with a mellow downhill slope that led almost directly toward our camp at Tyndall Creek. Once again, I began cranking out the miles, successfully managing to stay just ahead of the other two. We all seemed to take rests at similar intervals, and I imagined that their legs felt just as tired as mine. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet.
The trail stayed high above treeline and crossed innumerable small streams. There were tiny ponds and water seemed to be everywhere, but just the same, it was essentially barren, tundra-like High Sierra terrain. Beautiful, yet forbidding. For half the year, this place was undoubtedly a frozen windy wasteland.
My long legs finally worked to my advantage. I drew ahead of my two new friends, and began gaining on a solo hiker in a bright red pack. She seemed to be wearing a skirt, which was a bit different, although it was hard to tell at that distance. I’d noticed this past year that skirts seemed to be gaining popularity in the ladies hiking world, although shorts and yoga pants were more the norm. All this fashion stuff made me glad that I was a man, and an older one at that. The only thing I really cared about was function. As far as I was concerned, if some new clothing or gear was lighter and stronger I was all in favor of it.
It turned out that she was also a strong hiker. I would gain on her, then stop for a short break, then gain on her again. This went on for over an hour. But I never quite caught up to her until she stopped at Tyndall Creek. It was six o’clock by then and it was obvious that both of us planned to camp here. In fact, it was a very popular spot amongst the PCT and JMT crowd. By the time we arrived, the main camping spots were already taken. There were lots of people hanging out and cooking dinner all over the place, here on the near side of the creek.
When I met up with her she was looking for the best place to cross the creek without getting wet. It was flowing strong. We introduced ourselves as we searched for a crossing. Her name was Steph, she said, and she’d started hiking the JMT two weeks ago, beginning somewhere a bit south of Yosemite. She had started her trek with a friend, who had gotten injured and decided to bail out a week early. For my part, I told her how I had started two days ago and was heading for Whitney, but I had no exit permit and so would be hiking back this same way in a few days. And that’s when Steph mentioned that she now had an extra spot on her Whitney Exit Permit and that maybe I could use it. Wow! That could be a real opportunity for me. I thanked her profusely, but I wasn’t completely decided yet. I needed to text my wife and see what she thought of the idea, since I had promised her that I wouldn’t be doing any crazy hitchhiking back to Onion Valley. So Steph and I made vague plans that maybe we’d hike to Whitney together two days from now. Nothing definite. And then we crossed the creek.
I found a small spot directly across the creek that was good enough for me. My legs were tired and I didn’t want to walk any further that day. Steph headed on down the trail alongside the creek, looking for her own spot, which we figured she’d find without any difficulty.
I set up my tent and did the usual chores like blowing up my air mattress, getting out my sleeping bag, and finally, filtering water for tonight and the next morning’s hike. I used my InReach to text Vicki that I was safe, and that I wished she was here. I asked her what she thought of me exiting at Whitney Portal and coming home three days earlier than planned, but I didn’t expect a reply until the next day. Then I sat in my tent with the screen door zipped tight to keep out the mosquitoes, and I ate my cold dinner while reading my book.
I got dressed in my night clothes and lay down in my sleeping bag. As evening drew on and the sun dropped behind the mountain I thought about my day. I was coming to the opinion that solo hiking wasn’t as lonely as I had feared. True, I had hiked alone all day, but I loved being out in nature. And I had met a number of really friendly people, and they had even offered me rides to my car and exit permits! On a busy trail like the JMT, you could always make friends along the way, and people that love backpacking are amazingly generous and helpful. Also, I was happy that I’d felt so much better that morning, and that I was able to make up the distance. All told, I’d hiked over fifteen miles and climbed nearly four thousand feet! I was tired, but I fell asleep feeling quite happy about the way this hiking trip was turning out.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page
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