My son and I hiked on the PCT-JMT from our camp at lower Palisade Creek to Le Conte Canyon and the Middle Fork Kings River, where we saw waterfalls and meadows, then climbed upward on the Bishop Pass Trail, where we saw even more waterfalls and lakes and meadows, and camped in upper Dusy Basin with a phenomenal view of fourteeners on the Sierra Crest. The hike was only a bit over ten miles long, but we climbed over 3200 feet, which made it one of the toughest days of the trek. Totally worth it.
We had been hoping for a warmer morning due to the lower elevation at this campsite, but the cold air sank down into the creekbed overnight. We even lit the stove inside the tent while boiling our breakfast water in the hopes of getting warmer, but it didn’t really help that much. At least our legs were warm in the sleeping bags while we ate. After that, we reluctantly got dressed and packed up our gear in the cold. We had a lot of climbing ahead of us and it wasn’t going to get done by itself.
We only had a mile of downhill hiking in the beginning, and after that it was upward all the way. So we blasted along, down toward the junction with the trail to Simpson Meadow. Palisade Creek joined the Middle Fork Kings River at that location. After that, the PCT continued north, heading upstream, parallel to the river in Le Conte Canyon.
We stopped at the junction in order to read the trail signs. We noticed that there were many places to camp in this location, but no one was there at the time. We heard the sound of waterfalls, and, peering through the pine trunks, we saw evidence of White Water not far beyond the camp. We put down our packs right away. Waterfalls were always worth investigating. And this one certainly was, although it was more of a cascade over smooth granite than a bona-fide waterfall. But that was OK, as it was still pretty awesome. We scrambled all over the area, taking photos and videos like crazy. This was a great spot, and it almost made me sad that we hadn’t walked the extra mile to set up camp down here the night before.
Video of the Middle Fork Kings River as it pours down over smooth granite
GoPro video of the cascading waters of the Middle Fork Kings River
Eventually, of course, we had to put our packs back on. We couldn’t take breaks all day. So we started up Le Conte Canyon. As we climbed, there were yet more waterfalls/cascades, and there were plenty of towering cliffs all around us, as we were deep inside the canyon. We got one last look east, back up the Palisade Creek valley, and there was the sun, rising up through a reddish haze of smoke. We groaned. We had been running north into clearer air (with bluer skies) for days, and the smoke had been chasing us relentlessly. It looked like yesterday afternoon’s four-mile jog due west had given it enough time to catch us. At least the trail headed north from here, and the weather report I downloaded the night before indicated a change in weather was due. Maybe it would blow the smoke away for at least another day, for tomorrow was the final day of the trek.
We continued hiking along through the forest, when suddenly the valley opened up. We were amazed to see a large meadow down there, nestled within the steep canyon walls. I got out the GPS and checked the map. This was known as Grouse Meadow, and it was truly a beautiful spot. The trail continued in the forest along the edge of the grassy expanse, but there were obvious spots where people stopped to take in the panoramic views. We stopped at several of them, and took plenty of photos and videos as usual. It was like a lush oasis in a sea of stony, glaciated granite. We were glad that we were there so early in the morning, while it was too cool for mosquitoes, and also that it was so late in the season. This place surely must generate tremendous clouds of ravening bugs in the Spring and early Summer. But we didn’t see a single one.
GoPro panorama video of Grouse Meadow
We continued upward on an easy grade for several more miles. The trail stayed high above the river, which cascaded down smooth granite slopes, or poured over ledges as small waterfalls. There were several named mountains along the west side of the canyon, like The Citadel and Langille Peak. The Citadel was an obvious Rock Climbing spot, with its sheer granite walls. But getting to its base would be quite an adventure in itself, and you wouldn’t be likely to meet up with any other climbers.
Video of a small waterfall
As we neared our turn-off for the Bishop Pass Trail, we met up with two Kings Canyon National Park Backcountry Rangers. The Le Conte Ranger Station was quite close by, and they were wearing full backpacks. I didn’t ask, but they were probably heading out for good, as the season was almost over. But they also made certain to tell us that we had to leave the PCT at Bishop Pass. This was fine by us as that was already our plan.
We took a break after that, as we were already at the footbridge over the Dusy Branch (as the creek is called), which drains Dusy Basin. The basin was currently 2000 feet above us, so its waters recently had quite the downhill ride. We took off our shoes, soaked our feet in the water, and generally rested ourselves. The big climb of the day (and of the entire trek) was about to begin.
When we got to the trail junction, the SEKI signs had several handwritten notices taped to them. Basically, they said what the rangers had already told us, that all northbound hikers must exit here. But it looked as if it was OK for southbound hikers to continue onward.
In fact, we met three young ladies taking a break next to the sign. They were heading for Whitney, the traditional end of the John Muir Trail. They had successfully made it past the Creek Fire, but were sad because a friend was due to meet them at Onion Valley a few days from now. She would be joining them for the final push, as well as bringing them additional food supplies. Since hikers were no longer allowed INTO the wilderness in the National Forest (as of 9/7/2020), it looked as if their trip was doomed. Being the nice guy that I am, I told them of a way to safely get their friend entry at Onion Valley and avoid being caught by “The Man.” I mentioned that the rangers working in Lone Pine all went home at 5pm, and that all they needed to do was arrive at Onion Valley in the evening. If they met their friend at the trailhead, they could then hike two miles (and climb 1500 feet) to camp at Gilbert Lake that night. I had done it by headlamp one year, and it was easy. The next morning they could pop over Kearsarge Pass and be back on the JMT by noon. They were very nice girls, so they weren’t the type to break any rules, and I could see them hesitating. “How long have you been planning this trip?” I asked them. “Two years.” they sadly replied. “Don’t let a knee-jerk closure by some idiotic bureaucrat get in the way of your dream. We’re all grown-ups here. We can judge our own risks. And we all know perfectly well that the nearest fire is over a hundred miles away. There’s no danger to anyone out here.” I raised my fist like a 1960’s Radical. “Stick it to The Man!” I proclaimed loudly into the forest. We all laughed. My son and I wished them well, and we headed up the trail. And I never did learn whether they found the courage to break the rules. I sure hope so.
We were currently at 8700 feet elevation. We had hiked about four miles and climbed 700 feet already, but the daunting task before us was to hike another six miles while climbing an additional 2500 feet. That’s a lot of climbing. And we knew that it was going to get done one step at a time. So we started stepping. The first part of the climb was directly up the steep wall of Le Conte Canyon, and the trail switchbacked again and again. So we kept grinding on. As expected, the views got better as we climbed, and we were pleased to be able to look both up and down the canyon. It was a spectacular scene.
There was a steep granite slope on the way up, and the Dusy Branch was flowing down it. In the Winter this thing must be a seriously deadly ice slope, but right then it looked like an insane butt-slide. No, we didn’t try it. The rock pile at the bottom wasn’t soft enough.
GoPro Panorama video of the Dusy Branch pouring down over smooth granite
Soon, we had climbed high enough to get even better views both up and down Le Conte Canyon. And the trail kept on making switchbacks. So we kept on climbing.
The first set of switchbacks ended as we gained the lip of the canyon. We had entered a lower basin that was well forested, and the trail went due east for a while, with a much mellower grade. Easy hiking, relatively. We stopped for a break in the shade of some pines and took off our boots to cool our sweaty feet. It was noon, so we also ate some lunch. There was only one lunch left in the bear cannister for tomorrow, and our packs had been feeling a lot lighter. Which was nice with all the climbing we were doing. This was hard work!
We continued on, and soon reached the headwall of this lower basin. The trail started switchbacking again. The best part about this section of trail was the footbridge over the Dusy Branch, where it cascaded down in a lovely waterfall. We stopped and took another break. Why not? And we took a bunch more photos and videos.
Panorama video of the Dusy Branch pouring down under a footbridge
After that, there was another set of endless switchbacks. My son kept hiking steadily onward, while I began to lag. I stopped, ostensibly to take photos of the views down-canyon, but I knew in my heart that I was simply tired. What I really needed was that extra thirty years back! I’d still be totally kicking butt if I was in my thirties, I said to myself. You can tell that I was tired, because I pretty much kick butt all of the time, and was, in fact, doing it right then! It was a mental thing. In truth, my son was only ahead of me by a few minutes, so it really wasn’t all that bad. I took a few deep breaths and hiked on with renewed vigor.
When I finally caught up with him he was sitting down next to a languid stream reading a book. Nice! I put down my pack, grabbed my own book, and took off my shoes. We chilled for a while with our feet in the water. It was an idyllic scene. We had finally made it into Dusy Basin! This was the low end of the basin, but that was OK. I got out the GPS and looked at our route. I had originally planned to camp somewhere down in the lower basin, but yesterday we had hiked a few extra miles, so now we might be able to get into the upper basin. That would make tomorrow’s hike shorter (our final day), but, most importantly, it would give us some seriously killer views of the Sierra Crest. We were both in favor of that. As it was only 2pm, we still had plenty of time. All we needed was the energy. We had that, too.
I felt strong after the break, and soon we were hiking along through the lower basin. I got out my phone with its PeakFinder app and was identifying as many peaks as possible. I knew a lot of them from the time my wife and I camped in the upper basin back in 2011, so they were like old friends. As we hiked, the grasses below our feet were all brown since this was end-of-season on a dry year, but back in 2011 it was a big snow year and it was a whole lot wetter back then.
The trail kept climbing steadily, and eventually made a left around a ridge. Suddenly, the Sierra Crest came into view. Stunning! Magnificent! Impressive! I could go on and on. Dusy Basin really was a marvel. A mountain photographer’s dream, in so many ways.
We were plenty high enough now, I told my son. What we really needed was a camping spot with a view. And some water. Things were very dry up here this year. We found a potential camping spot with a flat, sandy floor on some granite slabs, and checked the GPS. The creek next to us was dry as a bone, but there was a small tarn nearby which might have some water left in it. We grabbed the water filtration gear and hiked over there. The tarn was low but looked OK for drinking. There were fish living in it, which was a good sign, and it wasn’t covered with slime. We filtered the water, then headed back and set up the tent. After that, we simply chilled out for a while and took in the spectacular views. Now this was backpacking in the High Sierra!
We noticed that there was still some smoke lurking in the south and west, but up here, and to the north and east, it was deep blue skies and crisp, clear mountains. That smoke had been chasing us for days, and we were maintaining our lead. Tomorrow’s hike was due northeast, so we felt confident that we would beat it to the car.
We cooked our final freeze-dried dinner and smiled at the near-emptiness of our bear cans. We took inventory and decided that we didn’t have to cook breakfast the next day, that we could substitute some extra snack in its place. That way we could get up extra-early and leave before dawn. If we could get to the car early enough, we could eat “real food” down in Bishop. We were almost salivating at the thought of hamburgers, fries, eggs, cheese, and maybe even pizza. So many choices! Civilization surely has its benefits.
After dinner we took a walk up the trail a bit further. We met another couple who were also heading out in the morning. They had started at North Lake (twelve miles from the trailhead at South Lake) and had a shuttle scheduled for 2pm, but they wondered if we could give them a lift instead. It would save them almost two hundred dollars! I mentioned that my car had been modified and that I didn’t have a back seat, but they didn’t care. To save two hundred they’d be happy to lie down in the back, and joked that even the roof would work. I politely told them that it might be possible. But I really didn’t feel great about it, and not because it was illegal to ride without a seatbelt. I was the “stick it to the man” guy, after all. It was Covid-19, and my wife being at-risk. I didn’t dare take chances like that with my family. Sorry, folks. The shuttle would have to do.
After that, we took a few more photos of the alpenglow on the surrounding peaks, then headed back to camp. We both agreed that it had been a really great day, one of the best of the seven-day trek. Lakes, streams, meadows, waterfalls, and mighty granite peaks. It really had it all.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page