2017 Backpacking Season Recap

This year’s backpacking season was one of short trips, being flexible, and changing plans. In March I was awarded a permit to backpack on the Big SEKI Loop in California in August. This 180 mile 10 day loop through Sequoia and Kings Canyon (SEKI) National Parks traverses the Great Western Divide and a section of the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, plus a side trip to the summit of Mount Whitney. Unfortunately, this trip was canceled because of our cat Patches’ health challenges this summer. Shorter trips closer to home were needed through the summer, to be flexible so I could make it home quickly or cancel plans if Patches’ health went downhill.

So instead of training for a big trip, backpacking this summer was about exploring unknown areas close to home on short trips. Taking shorter trips also meant carrying less weight. The heaviest base weight I carried this summer (all carried gear minus food and fuel) was 10 pounds, with most trips in the 8 pound range. On my longest trip of 3 nights in length, that meant a total pack weight of 15 pounds or less, which included bear canister and ice axe.

2017 was a high snow year for the Cascades and the Olympics. Widespread snowfields lingered well into July in the high mountains, even as a record-long 56 day dry streak was well underway for Western Washington. The high runoff combined with plenty of sun made for a bountiful alpine flower season. All that dry, sunny weather also meant a long and active fire season all along the Pacific crest, from California to Oregon and Washington and far into British Columbia.

May and June – In the Rainshadow of the Olympics

The first few backpacks of the season started in May with short one-nighters into the mountains above Sequim – the center of the rain (and snow) shadow of Western Washington. The area around Blue Mountain and Deer Park campground above Sequim (before the road opens) provide relatively easy (and dry) tree line access next to a deep, forested valley (the upper Gray Wolf River valley). Marmot Pass and Mount Townsend are two other destinations near the Olympic rain shadow that usually open up to hiking in June that allow short, scenic one-night trips. Another enjoyable backpack takes the 14 mile Long Ridge Trail to the recently restored historic fire lookout at the summit.

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July – The Olympic Interior

July was time to tread deeper into the Olympics as the snowfields continued to melt, making way for a burst of alpine flowers. It was also time to hike on some new ground I had been wanting to visit since moving to WA. One of the most scenic (and roughest) loop trails in the Northern Olympics starts from the highest trailhead in the Olympics (Obstruction Point) and visits the picturesque alpine basins of Grand Creek and Upper Cameron Creek. From there a primitive trail goes up and over Cameron Pass to the lonely flower gardens of Lost Pass. The trail then descends into the upper Dosewallips River valley for a while before climbing back up and over Gray Wolf Pass. After hiking down the long and poorly maintained Gray Wolf Pass trail, a trail climbs up to Deer Park and Blue Mountain. From there, the high and scenic Grand Ridge trail (the highest maintained trail in the Olympics) takes you back to Obstruction Point.

Perhaps the most popular backpack or long day hike in the Olympics is the Seven Lakes Basin and High Divide loop. This 19 mile loop starts at the iconic Sol Duc Falls and makes a high loop past Seven Lakes Basin and Bogachiel Peak (aka “bagel chip peak” per Ken G.). This loop can be extended another 6 miles by adding on the Cat Basin Primitive Trail, which passes through very scenic and relatively wild alpine country, past pretty Swimming Bear Lake and on the way to the Appleton Pass trail.

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August to October – Exploring the PCT in the Cascades

By August it was time to take a rest from the Olympics and spend some time in the grand alpine playground of the Cascades. One of best hiking features of the Cascades is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT passes through over 500 miles of some of the best mountain scenery in Washington, most of it on well-maintained trail which is a joy to backpack on. This year wildfires closed at least one section of the WA PCT for a while and made much of the hiking season a smoky one.

One of the most spectacular sections of the WA PCT is Section J, which includes the Kendall Katwalk and the high alpine ridge that the PCT follows for over a dozen miles North of Interstate 90. Combining a 1.5 day hike of Section J with a 1.5 day hike on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie trail made for a scenic but smoky 65 mile, 3 day loop. One of the best parts of this trip was spending the last night at Goldmyer Hot Springs. This backcountry hot spring is maintained with a nice campground, bathrooms, filtered drinking water and a surprising “hot cave” that you can swim into – well worth the $20 to experience.

Another section of the WA PCT that’s hard to beat for its grand scenery, gently graded trail and abundance of golden larch trees in autumn is Section L, just North of Rainy Pass off of the North Cascades Highway 20. Due to nearby wildfires, Section L was at risk of being closed this September. But luckily, this section was kept open through the fires, allowing many through hikers to complete their 2650 mile PCT journey from the borders of Mexico to Canada. After hiking 44 miles North on Section L, you can pick up the Devils Pass and Jackita Ridge trails passing through the Pasayten Wilderness – all new country for me. This 70 mile, 3 day semi-loop trip included my longest day of backpacking so far – 30 miles in 11.5 hours from Rainy Pass to Harts Pass. This semi-loop required a 17 mile hitchhike along Hwy 20 to get back to the truck at Rainy Pass. The very next day, the first snows of the Fall season came to the mountains of Washington.

The third and last PCT section hike of the year was on the Northern part of Section H. This trip took advantage of the last two clear days before a strong Fall storm moved across the Cascades. This trip followed the Clear Lost and Coyote Trails (new ground) to the PCT at Elk Pass, then North along the PCT to White Pass. The second day of this trip brought freight train winds, cold temperatures, and descending clouds on the high peaks. Rather than spend a second night out in chilly, windy rain and snow, I hiked the whole way out to the trailhead (over an hour of night hiking by headlamp) so I could sleep under the insulated topper of my truck.

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Late October – The Stark Beauty of Mt. Saint Helens

Most of the high Cascades and Olympics had up to 30 inches of snow from the last two Fall storms. The forecast showed a good weather window at the very end of October, with both clear skies and unusually warm temperatures. And fortunately, recent trip reports indicated that one particular alpine area of Washington had very little snow on the trials. So for the last backpack trip of the year, I visited the unique area of Mount Saint Helens.

The Woolit trail that circumnavigates Mount Saint Helens was an eye opening surprise – it quickly became one of my favorite trails the WA. Unlike most trails in WA of its length (34 mile by the shortest approach), the Woolit Tail spends most of its time near or above treeline, with long stretches of open, treeless alpine country. From the blast zone in the North to the lava fields in the South and to the crumbling, eroded valley crossings on the East and West, the trail provides beauty, challenge and close up views of recent volcanism on a grand scale.

Nearly the entire northern half of the Woolit Trail passes through the blast zone of the May 18, 1980 eruption. The unimaginable power of the eruption is on intimate display around every turn of the trail. All trees 10 miles to the North and nearly 20 miles East to West were felled by the initial 7 megaton blast of the eruption. The landslide that triggered the initial blast was the largest in recorded history. During the day’s eruptions, 0.7 cubic miles of material and 24 megatons of total energy was released from the mountain through lahars, pyroclastic flows, ash clouds and blasted debris, drastically changing the landscape on all sides of the peak.

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John Muir Trail Section Hike, 2016

 
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The John Muir Trail (JMT) travels 210 miles through some of the most spectacular mountain country in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Construction of the trail was begun in 1915, just one year after the famous naturalist John Muir’s death. But it took another 46 years to completely finish the trail over the high and remote Forester Pass (13,153 ft).

Today the trail draws backpackers and hikers from all over the world to the Happy Isles trailhead in spectacular Yosemite Valley, the official start of the JMT. As of 2016, over 3500 people per year are granted Wilderness Permits for the traditional 210 mile JMT trek. Due to such high demand for permits and the need to preserve and maintain the wilderness for future generations, last year Yosemite National Park instituted a quota system for permits. The new quotas allow only 45 hikers per day to exit the Park over Donohue Pass on the JMT. Most people attempt the JMT in the short summer hiking season of mid-June through mid-September. That means that for a typical summer starting date, hundreds of people submit permit applications nearly 6 months in advance, but only 45 actual permit reservations are granted for each day.

Experiencing the JMT

Having never backpacked in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the JMT seemed like the perfect way for my friend Barney Bernhard and I to experience this amazing mountain range. Because of the challenges getting southbound permits for the traditional JMT, we decided to apply for permits using alternative trails to exit the National Park, and then reconnect with the JMT just South of the Park boundary. We also planned to exit the JMT at an alternative location further South, further extending our trip and making the permit even easier to secure. Our route would add an estimated 3 or 4 days to the trip compared to doing the traditional JMT and would require two separate wilderness permits. Our route also went through arguably more scenic country than the traditional JMT through Yosemite, including the highest pass we would hike over on the entire trip.

Preparation for the trip began nearly a year before the start. It took several months to research, acquire and break in all of the light weight backpacking gear we wanted to use. Planning our food needs, resupply points and making our home-dehydrated meals also took quite a bit of time. Submitting permit applications, ongoing physical training, gear testing and refinement and arranging to be away from home for nearly a month rounded out the nearly expedition-scaled preparations.

So after all the planning, training and preparation, Barney and I drove 16 hours South from Bremerton WA to Tuolumne Meadows to begin our hike on August 23. As with any big trip, an entire story could be told about the drive down and back, or about each and every eventful day along the trail. What follows is a gallery of photos from our trip, a compilation of video clips and stills along the hike, and a summary of each day of the hike, along with a closer look at several key aspects of the trip. A big thanks to Barney for sharing several of the photos and videos below and for being a great hiking partner on the trip. For a detailed trip report, continue reading below the photos and video below.

Photo Gallery

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Video Compilation


 
 

Day 1d-03038
Aug 23, 10 miles, +3600x ft, -1200x ft

After a pleasant night’s sleep near Mammoth Lakes, CA, we drove to Tuolumne meadows, picked up our wilderness permit for Leg 1 of the hike and caught the bus for the two hour drive down to Yosemite Valley. After a 1 mile hike up the road to Pohono Tunnel View, we officially started our hike at 2:30 PM. It was a hot, sunny trail with over 3000 ft of climbing and a 4.5 hour hike to camp at Bridalveil Creek. Lots of grand overlooks of Yosemite Valley along the hike, with stunning views of El Capitan and the other monolithic rock formations of Yosemite Valley. The air was a little hazy from all the forest fires burning further West in California, but good views nonetheless. We also saw many surprisingly big trees, including the tallest Ponderosa pines I’ve ever seen. Getting into camp at 7:00PM, it was a little late so we ate a cold dinner, washed up a bit in the creek and hit the sack by 8: pm.

Fires are an increasingly troublesome factor affecting people who hike the JMT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). During fire season large sections of both trails may be closed to hiking. In the past, hikers generally considered late summer and early Fall to be the perfect time of year to hike the JMT. But with the risk of fires closing down large sections of the trail, more people are opting to hike earlier in the summer, despite the heavier snow pack, wetter weather and abundance of mosquitoes.
 

Day 2d-03070
Aug 24, 16 miles, +3500 ft, -3600 ft

It was a cool but comfortable 37F last night. We were up and on the trail hiking by 6:30 am on another sunny day. We enjoyed the cool morning air and great overlooks of the Valley below. After a quick water stop at the tourist facilities at Glacier Point, we descended all the way to Little Yosemite Valley (LYV), with gorgeous views of Nevada Falls and Half Dome most of the way. At Nevada Falls we encountered dozens of day hikers from Yosemite Valley, along with backpackers just starting their JMT hike. We intersected the official John Muir Trail for the first time, which we would only follow for less than a mile today on our route.

The mostly level hike up LYV was hot, dusty and very beautiful, with graceful granite domes and walls flanking both sides of the valley. The cool waters of Merced Creek danced their way down over granite slabs on the way to the larger Yosemite Valley below. We found a good campsite by 4:30 pm and enjoyed a long dip in the best swimming hole of the entire trip, on Merced Creek. The water temps were fairly comfortable and there was a large low angle granite slab running all the way into a huge neck-deep pool in the creek, right at the base of a pretty cascade. At one point I could feel fish swimming past my leg.

The engineering, effort and resources that were put into making the trails in this part of Yosemite National Park are amazing. They just don’t build trails like this anymore. This trail and many others across the National Park system were built in the 1930’s as part of the large public works projects of that era. Along many stretches of trail are obvious signs of dynamiting at almost every step. Steeper sections of trail have huge stepping stones placed strategically for hikers and horses. And the sections of cobblestone trail are truly a work of art. These trails, enjoyed by thousands of hikers each year, are a lasting memorial to the hard work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other public works projects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal nearly a century ago.
 

Day 3d-03098
Aug 25, 13 miles, +5000 ft, -1400 ft

It was warm and cozy last night, only got down to 51F on the thermometer. We were up at 6:00 and on the trail by 7:00 am, once again enjoying the pretty canyon and the cool morning air. Merced Lake was very nice and larger than we expected, with a large well-developed horse camp and big campsite full of canvas tents near the shores.

Today had a big climb out of LYV all the way to Vogelsang Camp at 10,100 feet, another horse camp with adjacent backpacker’s camping area. Thankfully the sunny climb was not too hot, with a nice breeze and plenty of water to cool our heads and wet our shirts and hats from time to time. At camp near treeline by 3:00 pm, there was a cool breeze blowing, but we took another dip in the lake anyway (Fletcher Lake), which was much colder than yesterday’s swim. I slept out under the stars without setting up the tarp to enjoy the perfectly clear sky.

It’s strange to see people so deep in the wilderness wearing nice clothes, smelling of perfume and looking like they just had a hair styling and manicure. Horse camps like this one allow folks who would normally never see this kind of country to experience it in comfort and style. Horses kick up a lot of dust and put a lot of wear and tear on the trails, and many hikers would rather not encounter them. But these trails were built by horses and mules for use by horses and mules, and equestrians have as much right as we do to use the trails.
 

Day 4d-03107
Aug 26, 8 miles, +200 ft, -1900 ft

A short day today, hiking down to Tuolumne Meadows to resupply, relax and rest up a bit before leg two of the trip. There was frost on the ground and the thermometer read 33 F at 6:00 am when we got up. I slept so-so last night with lots of tossing and turning and strange dreams, probably due to the altitude, which we’re still acclimatizing to. Sleeping out under the stars was nice but I got dew all over the sleeping bag (easy to dry later in the day).

Getting to Tuolumne by late morning, we first picked up our second and last wilderness permit for the trip. Next we cleaned up with a swim in the creek and picked up our first resupply box at the post office with food and other consumable items for the next leg of the trip. Later in the day we took an afternoon nap, enjoyed a double burger with bacon at the grill (yum!) and camped in the Backpackers Campground along with dozens and dozens of other JMT hikers. Many hikers start their JMT hike here in Tuolumne to avoid the crowds of Yosemite Valley and because it’s an easier wilderness permit to obtain. There were some clouds today and the wind shifted from West to North, bringing clearer skies with less smoke in the air. We’ll see if the sunny weather we’ve been enjoying for the last several days holds.

The new permit system and quotas in Yosemite National Park have been a big challenge for hikers trying to do the JMT. If you want to hike the traditional JMT, starting at the Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite Valley, your chances of getting a permit for a particular starting date are very very slim. Many people submit permit applications day after day for a month or more before finally lucking out and getting a permit. But that requires a lot of flexibility as to when your start date will be. Some people show up the day before the hike and try to get one of the limited walk-up permits, sometimes waiting in line multiple days to get one. A growing number of people are now doing the JMT in reverse, starting at Mount Whitney and hiking northbound to end in Yosemite, because it’s easier to get a permit. Still other hikers (such as us) use alternative entry trailheads, and/or exit the Park via alternative trails rather than using the JMT.
 

Day 5d-03112
Aug 27, 17 miles, +3600 ft, -4200 ft

A perfect day. We left the Tuolumne campground by 6:30 am and walked to the main road so we could hitchhike 5 miles to the trailhead for Mono/Parker Pass. Within 10 seconds of hitchhiking, we were picked up by two female rock climbers headed to an alpine climb North of Tioga Pass. They were great to chat with and recommended some enjoyable moderate climbs for us for a future trip to Yosemite.

It was well below freezing on the first hour of the hike up a cool, shady and pretty sub-alpine valley in the morning. When we came into the sun near Mono Pass it felt like the temperature climbed instantly by 20 degrees – a typical experience in the high, dry dessert mountains of the Eastern Sierras. An easy 2 miles of hiking brought us to Parker Pass with its huge gentle expanses of tundra and gravel in all directions, with big peaks sweeping above. We ran into a few groups of trail runners this morning: one group running up to the top of Koip Pass and back and another doing a 25 mile trail run the whole way to Mammoth Lakes.

From Parker Pass the trail traversed under Kuna Peak (13,002 ft), giving us our first view of the 23 switchbacks zigzagging up the flanks of Parker Peak toward the Koip Pass. The climb up the switchbacks looked like a real grunt, but it turned out to be quite enjoyable, with a nice smooth trail bed cut into the mountain at a moderate angle with exceptional views – perfect mountain hiking. As we got higher, views of the huge 45,000 acre Mono Lake opened up far below us, a highly alkaline lake with pillars of salt surrounding its shores.

As we crested Koip Pass at 12,250 ft, an endless sea of Sierra mountains extended to the South revealing some of the country we would be hiking through over the coming weeks. After descending past beautiful Alger Lakes, we continued hiking down the mountain to Gem Lake, getting into camp at 5:30 pm, tired but happy after a 17+ mile day. A quick swim, dinner and then off to sleep after a long, high altitude day.

The JMT is a long, rugged and demanding trail. Our preparation for the rigors of the hike focused on two main things: 1) hike and backpack as much as possible before the trip for physical conditioning and, 2) carry as little weight on our backs as reasonably possible. The hiking part was pretty easy – there are lots of good day hikes and short backpacks in the Olympic Mountains and in the Cascades. As for acclimatization, our chosen route began at just 4000 feet and spent 5 days gradually increasing in altitude before hitting our first high pass.

To reduce weight, we adopted the principles of light weight backpacking, seeking out the lightest possible equipment that would safely and effectively meet our needs, plus leaving unnecessary gear at home. The difference between traditional backpacking and light weight backpacking is like night and day. On some days of our hike, the weight we carried was little more than most people’s day packs. Going light makes it a joy to backpack in the mountains, even over rough terrain. All the time and money we spent acquiring and testing new light weight equipment really paid off.
 

Day 6d-03130
Aug 28, 15 miles, +4000 ft, -3900x ft

After a restful night we were up by 6:00 am and hiking by 6:30 am. Today we intercepted the John Muir Trail at beautiful Thousand Island Lake, and this time we would remain on the JMT. As soon as we hit the JMT we began seeing many more backpackers than the days before. The trails we hiked on the first leg of our trip were popular enough, seeing hiking groups every 2 or 3 hours. But on his section of the JMT we passed by backpackers, day hikers and trail runners every 5 to 10 minutes, sometimes in large groups. One JMT hiker we met had been doing some calculations and estimated that 1000 people were spread along the entire 210 miles of the JMT at that time.

Paralleling the jagged Minaret range, today’s stretch of the JMT rolls up and down crossing several valleys as it heads South, each valley holding a beautiful lake. After hearing several good reports about the beauty of Ediza Lake from hikers along the trail, we decided to venture off the JMT over 2 miles to camp at the Lake tonight. The side trail to Ediza Lake was a pretty hike with a beautiful stream. Ediza Lake is considered by many people to be the most scenic lake in this region of the Sierras, and it did not fail to impress us. Into camp by 2:30 pm after a fast 15 mile day, we had plenty of time to swim and relax before dinner. We were off to bed early for a 5:15 wake-up time for sunrise photography of the lake.

The increasing popularity of hiking and backpacking in the U.S. is putting a strain on the JMT. Even with quotas for permits there are a lot of people out there on the trail during the summer months. While most of the JMT is through Wilderness, it’s easy to forget it’s wilderness because of all the people you see. While we expected crowds and did not mind it much, some folks seemed surprised and disappointed by the number of other people they encountered along the trail. It’s good to see more people who care about wilderness and have a vested interest in helping to preserve it. But too many people can also lead to resource damage and overuse of some areas, especially delicate alpine meadows. As with many things in life, it’s all about balance. In this case, it’s a matter of balance between preservation and recreation, both of which are important. At least the wear and tear caused by so much traffic is confined to a narrow strip along the JMT corridor. As one long-time Sierra hiker told us during the hike “I volunteer for JMT trail maintenance so that everyone keeps using the JMT, while I use all the other trails in the area where nobody else goes”.
 

Day 7d-03157
Aug 29, 13 miles, +1900 ft, -2100 ft

Up at 5:15 am to pack up camp and be at the East side of Ediza Lake for sunrise photography. Excellent alpenglow light and perfect reflections – it doesn’t get any better than this for mountain photography. After a cool walk 2.3 miles down valley we hit the JMT again. Today’s hike went past three more pretty lakes and then a long descent to Red’s Meadow Resort near Devils Postpile National Monument, where we had our second resupply package waiting.

Got in to Red’s at 12:30 (early) and snagged a campsite in the backpackers area of the campground. Next we walked to Red’s Meadow resort and took a long warm shower (excellent), washed a load of clothes, cleaned our glasses, ate a well-prepared meal at the resort’s diner (yummy), and picked up our resupply box. In the campground we spent a bit of time talking with Rob and his daughter from Bainbridge Island WA, just a few miles from where Barney lives. They were just ending a 5 day section hike and planning some sightseeing around Mammoth and the National Monument.

One of the coolest things about the JMT is all the great people you meet. Hikers, and especially backpackers, tend to be great people. Who else would sacrifice convenience and comfort for the sake of peace, beauty and communion with nature? It’s fun how you keep running across the same people from time to time on the trail – sometimes they pass you, other times you pass them. We’re all on the same journey, which gives us all something in common, despite our different cultures, nationalities and the roles we may play back in the so-called “real world”. Most long-time backpackers would probably agree that the “real world” is actually out here on the trail, not in the frenetic hustle and bustle of civilization.
 

Day 8d-03167
Aug 30, 16 miles, +4100 ft, -1100 ft

It has been a week now since starting our hike. We’re feeling strong, acclimatized to the altitude and ready to tackle the next section of the JMT. We left Red’s Meadow reluctantly as the diner was opening for breakfast – really hard to pass up, let me tell you. But both Barney and I like to get going early in the mornings. The first several miles out of Red’s climbed gradually along a mountain side through dry but pretty forests to Deer Creek – last water for 5 miles, until reaching Duck Creek. After Duck Creek we passed pretty Purple Lake. We finally made it to camp on the far side of Lake Virginia at 4:00 pm after a 16 mile day. We camped at over 10,500 ft, our highest campsite yet.

Barney was pretty tired at the end of the day and he ended up cutting his toe open while stepping over a rock barefoot near the shore of the lake. He stopped the bleeding and we bandaged up his toe as well as we could. Fortunately, Barney has excellent first aid training, having taken a week-long Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. He was upset at the possibility of a trip-ending injury, and I was thinking of the fastest escape from the wilderness if need be. We’ll see tomorrow how his foot feels and how it handles hiking.

According to the extensive JMT hiker survey, 27% of people have to shorten their trip for some reason, often due to injury. Wildfires are another common reason people have to change or delay their plans. For the much longer Pacific Crest Trail (2600+ miles), it is estimated that only 10% of people who start the hike finish the whole thing. Having to cut the trip short is something that every long distance hiker wants to avoid but has to plan for, just in case.

 

Day 9d-03179
Aug 31, 13 miles, +1800 ft, -4300 ft

It was quite warm last night (48 F by 6:30 am) and we both slept well. Thankfully Barney’s toe did OK overnight with no new bleeding and we were on the trail by 7:00 am. He could hike OK, just a little slower than usual. Ascending to Silver Pass was very pretty, with intimate little meadows, babbling streams and several lakes of all sizes, all surrounded by shapely mountains on all sides. The South side of the pass was also very pretty but dry and windy. As we got near North Mono Creek, the trail dropped steeply, with a rocky uneven trail bed and big rock steps to negotiate on the hot, sunny descent. I would not want to be hiking up this bit of trail in the heat of mid-day, but plenty of people were. Tonight’s camp was just past the footbridge over Mono Creek and at the base of the notorious Bear Ridge – our big climb for tomorrow.

Nearly every day we planned our campsites so that we could hike up the next big uphill section of the trail early in the morning, while it was still cool and shady. This strategy worked really well for us, sparing us a lot of sweat, energy and time. Plenty of people enjoy the JMT by camping wherever strikes their fancy. While I like the idea of flexibility and going with the flow, it’s also good to give a little thought to campsite selection if it can save energy, make things more comfortable, or potentially be safer.
 

Day 10d-03188
Sep 1, 13 miles, +3700 ft, -1000 ft

The first of September with a cool hint of Fall in the morning air. On the trail before 7:00 am, nice and cool and shady. The switchbacks up Bear Ridge were well constructed and easy to hike. There was water near the top and on the way down the other side. The notoriously grueling and dry climb up and over Bear Ridge ended up being pleasurable and easy. Barney’s toe did very well today and seems to have healed up nicely. Upper Bear Creek was quite scenic: a large open valley with scattered trees, granite slabs and domes and a cool stream. Lake Marie was a pretty place to camp and provided some nice sunset reflection photos.

Photography has always been a passion of mine and I usually carry a lot of heavy photo gear on backpacking trips. For this trip we decided to save weight and take Barney’s high quality point-and-shoot camera rather than my DSLR. We also opted for a 3 ounce homemade trekking pole – tripod adapter rather than a traditional (heavy) tripod. In the end the camera performed above expectations and the tripod system worked well enough for most of our needs. Carrying such limited photo gear does limit your photo options occasionally, but it’s a trade off I’d make again in a heartbeat on a long hike like the JMT.
 

Day 11d-03195
Sep 2, 14 miles, +1100 ft, -3100 ft

Up at 5:30 am and on the trail by 6:30 am – Seldon Pass went by quickly. The descent down the South side of the pass was very picturesque. Sally Keys Lakes were perhaps my favorite lakes of the trip. If I had to build a cabin and live someplace along the trail we’ve hiked on this trip, Sally Keys Lakes would be the spot. As we descended further we got good views of the San Juaquin valley and the area around Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), where we would pick up our third and largest resupply package (a 5 gallon bucket) of the trip.

The MTR resupply went fairly smoothly, but MTR is not a place I’d want to linger longer, as least not as a backpacker. The place was dusty, hot and smelled of horse (not that there’s anything wrong with horses). MTR caters to their clients who pay $200 per night to ride a horse to the ranch, sleep in a comfy cabin with a shower, lounge in the client-only hot springs, and get fed a gourmet meal by a chef. For backpackers, the services provided are: 1) resupply bucket storage and pickup, 2) a running potable water spigot , 3) a tiny store with maybe 5 items for sale, and 4) a way-to-small power strip for 20 odd backpackers to recharge all their electrical devices. No bathroom for hikers – unbelievable. They would rather hikers take a dump behind a tree on the edge of their property, I guess.

One nice thing about MTR was all of the hiker barrels. Hikers with extra or unneeded food, gear and other items leave them behind in the bins. You never know what you’ll find and most people find at least something they find useful. I found 2 of my favorite flavored trail bars and some extra hand sanitizer.

We left MTR by 12:30 pm and hiked another 7 miles up the hot but scenic San Juaquin valley. We found a great campsite near the creek and had plenty of time to wash up and relax in the afternoon. Tomorrow we go into the Muir Pass area – southern JMT high-country at its best.

Planning and preparing resupply packages is one of the main logistical considerations for any long distance hike. For the JMT, some fast hikers only resupply once at MTR, carrying a week’s worth of food before and after MTR for a two week trip. Since our route was actually longer than the traditional JMT by four days, we opted to resupply more often. Frequent resupply means that you can carry less weight on your back. However, it takes time to resupply, especially if you have to hike a significant distance off of the JMT into a town. It also takes time to plan, prepare and ship each resupply package, plus the costs of shipping and storage fees that some resupply points charge (it’s $70 plus shipping for MTR to horse-pack your resupply barrel up to the ranch).
 

Day 12jmt-914
Sep 3, 12 miles, +3000 ft, -100 ft

After a good night’s sleep we were on the trail by 6:15 am for the hike up to Evolution Valley, a hanging valley high above the main San Juaquin valley. As we were hiking up the rocky switchbacks into Evolution Valley, Barney twisted his ankle on one of the rock steps, doubling up on the ground in pain. After a rest he was able to hike again reasonably well with the help of his trekking poles. Fording the cold waters of Evolution Creek at Evolution Meadow helped reduce the swelling in his ankle and he continued hiking relatively well the rest of the day.

Evolution Valley was a special place, with pastoral meadows and stately trees against a majestic backdrop of rugged mountain peaks. Further up-valley in Evolution Basin, Evolution and Sapphire Lakes were breathtakingly beautiful, as were the wispy clouds in the crisp blue sky. As we entered the upper part of Evolution Basin, we met a group of three backpackers (two sisters and their brother) from the Southeast U.S. hiking the JMT Northbound. They were fun to talk with and had a lot of experience hiking. They have been hiking a different section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) each year and have backpacked much of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), including most of the PCT in Washington State.

We camped high above 11,000 ft – our highest and likely coldest campsite of the trip so far. Sunset from the ponds near camp was amazing, with moody clouds of red and orange and picture-perfect reflections of peaks bathed in alpenglow. Despite the ominous clouds this afternoon, the InReach satellite forecast called for at least 3 more days of sunny weather coming up (sounds good to me). We have not had a single drop of rain yet for 12 days.

Most people who do a long through hike have to deal with at least one recurring challenge throughout their trip. For many hikers that challenge is blisters on their feet. So many through hikers are constantly having to tend their feet, applying special tapes and solutions to ease the pain of blisters or prevent more from forming. It’s also common for long distance hikers to have recurring foot problems unrelated to blisters. For other people, chaffing of their skin becomes a issue, as it did for me. I had never had problems with chaffing before, even on week-long backpack trips. But on a longer trip, any number of unforeseen challenges can crop up. For Barney, his recurring challenge was his ankles, for which he had a history of past strains or sprains.
 

Day 13d-03258
Sep 4, 11 miles, +700 ft, -3300 ft

It got into the high 20’s last night. There was a fair amount of ice in the water bottles and my breath froze a little on my growing beard and mustache. This morning was an enjoyable and chilly hike past huge Wanda Lake then up to Muir Pass. The historic Muir Pass hut was bigger than I imagined and it’s well constructed rock walls and ceiling look like they’ll last another 80 years, no problem.

The South side of the pass was a long, steep and rocky descent into the dramatic Middle Fork of Kings Canyon. Barney had been hiking well all morning and yesterday afternoon. But on the long descent from the pass, his pace slowed down and his ankle flared up in pain. We cut the day short and camped near the intersection with Bishop Pass trail – the closest and easiest way to exit the wilderness tomorrow if needed.

We discussed the prospects for his ankle and the potential exit points further South along the JMT. We concluded that the ankle would not be able to heal well as long as he kept hiking. While the ankle did well in the mornings and while hiking uphill or level, descending seemed to aggravate it. Also, Bishop Pass is the last convenient exit from the JMT for a few days heading South. And some of the roughest terrain on the JMT still lay in front of us, including one of the biggest downhill stretches on the entire trail. Therefore, we reluctantly decided to cut the trip short by exiting over Bishop Pass to South Lake trailhead.
 

Day 14jmt-1067
Sep 5, 11 miles, +3700 ft, -2600 ft

We hiked up the better part of 4000 vertical feet over Bishop Pass, with excellent views of the 14,000 ft peaks of the Palisades, home to some of the largest remaining glaciers in the Sierras. From the pass it was a dry but scenic hike down to South Lake trailhead, were we were fortunate to get a ride down to Bishop CA from two long-time residents of the town who were day hiking near the lake.

We spent the night in a hostel in Bishop and enjoyed some really good food and locally brewed beer at a local pub. After looking at the timing constraints, logistics and transportation options to get back to WA by myself, I came to the conclusion that continuing the hike by myself would not work well logistically. So the decision was made for us to start the trip back home to WA tomorrow morning.
 

After an early morning bus ride and a short hitchhike back to Tuolumne Meadows, we picked up Barney’s car and began the long drive home well before noon. We had an unexpected layover for the night just 30 minutes to the North in Bridgeport CA. After losing power on the road and getting a lift into town, we found out that Barney’s car needed a new alternator, which was thankfully installed early the following morning. Despite the car trouble, we were blessed by excellent timing and the generous assistance of the folks in Bridgeport.

All things considered, we had an excellent backpacking trip with a full two weeks and over 180 miles on the trail in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. In total, we hiked nearly 87% of the mileage found on a traditional JMT hike. For us, hiking the traditional JMT was secondary to enjoying ourselves, experiencing the beautiful Sierras, and immersing ourselves in the joy of living life simply and efficiently on the trail. For John Muir, spending time in the wilderness was about deeply experiencing each passing moment, renewal of body and mind, and developing a deeper connection with something much greater than himself. By John Muir’s standards I’d say we had a very successful trip.

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Washington PCT Section Hike: Chinook Pass to Walupt Lake

Many hikers who complete the 2660 mile long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) running from the border of Mexico to Canada say their favorite part was the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Washington State. The combination of glaciers, majestic peaks, abundant wildlife, sweeping waterfall-filled valleys and wildflower gardens makes the Goat Rocks a uniquely beautiful wilderness. Fortunately for hikers, the well-maintained PCT runs right through the crest of the range, providing a scenic yet challenging way to experience the area.

As part of a training regimen and gear shakedown for an upcoming hike of the 260 mile John Muir Trail (JMT) in California, my friend Barney and I did a four day 58 mile backpack along a section of the PCT in Washington state, including most of the Goat Rocks. Starting just East of Mount Rainier at Chinook Pass, we hiked the PCT Southbound across White Pass and Hwy 24, through the Goat Rocks Wilderness and exited at Walupt Lake on the Southwest corner of the Goat Rocks. Below is a filmstrip image gallery for the trip, and under that are some notes and experiences from the trip.

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Day 1: Wednesday July 27, Chinook Pass to Bumping River

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15 miles, +3300 ft, -1900 ft

After setting up a car shuttle at Walupt Lake, we got started with our hike from Chinook Pass at noon. It was a sunny, warm day with great views from the ridge line trail, much of which is near treeline. Being so scenic with easy access from Chinook Pass, the first 3 or 4 miles are very popular with day hikers.

We were surprised to meet through-hikers doing the entire PCT, most heading North, but a few heading South. Most “PCT thrus” start in mid-April on the Mexico border and hike Northbound (NOBO) to end in September on the Canadian border – a 5 month+ hike. So NOBO thrus usually hike WA state in late August at the earliest. 10% of PCT thrus are Southbound hikers (SOBO), usually starting on the Canada border in early June, finishing WA state by the end of June. We met our first NOBO thru this afternoon – he started in mid-May and was on pace to end the second week of August – that’s a 3 month pace, or 30 miles per day on average! The two SOBO thrus we met were trying for a similar pace – they were putting tons of Leukotape onto their feet for blisters when we met them, but soon blasted on by us moving fast.

We got a little overheated in the middle of the afternoon, but had enough water to hike well. We pushed a few extra miles to camp, getting into camp at 8:20 pm. Got a pretty good night’s sleep for the first night out (I usually sleep poorly the first night).

Day 2: Thursday July 28, Bumping River to White Pass

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13 miles, +1700 ft, -1400 ft

We got up a little late at 6:30 am, on the trail hiking by 8:00 am. Nice and cool for a while hiking in the morning, lots of pretty forest, small meadows and ponds. Later in the day the sun got higher and hotter, but we had lots of shade for the most part. We also had lots of mosquitos because of the ponds and small lakes (mosquito factories).

We met more PCT thrus today, and some PCT section hikers doing just the WA portion of the PCT from the Columbia River Gorge to the Canada border. Also chatted with some backpackers doing local in-and-out or short loop trips. Most of today’s hike was fairly remote, so we didn’t see any day hikers until we got near White Pass.

We got to White Pass at 3:15 pm, pretty early in the day, and decided to just camp at the campground. We enjoyed a nice long swim in the warm waters of Leech Lake (no leeches, we checked) – good to cool off the tired feet. We slept pretty well in the campground – I put the sleeping bag right out on the picnic table for a warm starry night.

Day 3: Friday July 29, White Pass to Elk Pass

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17 miles, +4200 ft, -2100 ft

Got a good early start to beat the heat, on the trail by 6:00 am. The first 3 miles had the most mosquitos we saw so far. I broke down and put a little DEET around the edges of my sun hat and on the backs of my hands – I prefer physical (clothing) barriers if possible. After hiking past White Pass ski area it became more alpine and the bugs were suddenly gone (for the most part). We met a mix of day hikers, local backpackers and PCT thrus today. The PCT thrus are generally easy to recognize – they are mostly young, slim and fit, wearing shorts and colorful running gaiters, and carrying a small, light backpack.

It was a long, dry and hot yet scenic ridge walk today to reach the Goat Rocks, where we took the last protected campsite before climbing the alpine ridge to Elk Pass. I feel pretty good for having done 17 hot miles and the feet are a little less tired than yesterday. We have awesome views of Mt. Rainier to the North and many other peaks and ridges of the Cascades around us. I think we can even see Mt. Stuart in the distance at 20 degrees magnetic – Barney and I climbed that big granite mountain last August with our friend Isaac. A beautiful sunset and a nice cool breeze to start off the nights sleep.

Day 4: Saturday July 30, Elk Pass to Walupt Lake

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14 miles, +2700 ft, -5300 ft

I got up to pee around 2:00 am and saw Barney’s tent billowing around in the wind with a lot of slack in the guylines. So I retightened the lines and put slip knots on the ends to keep them from slipping any more. I envy Barney’s ability to sleep so soundly! By morning the tent was limp and billowing again. Turns out the lines were fine, but the two trekking poles (breaking in a brand new pair) holding the tent up had loosened and shortened overnight. Mystery solved.

Anyway, we slept in till 6:30 am and got up to a surprise in the valleys all around us – all filled with fog up to about a thousand feet below us. The fog was slowly pushing further up the valleys and getting higher, thicker and pouring over low passes. We packed up quick thinking the weather would take a turn later in the day. The first two hours was a cool and windy hike along the Goat Rock’s Knife Edge: a well-constructed trail right on the crest of a steep alpine ridge with amazing views in all directions. As the morning wore one, the sun burned off the valley fog to give us another sunny day – a little cooler and windier than the last three days.

Next we did a side trip up Old Snowy (7900 ft), the largest peak in the Northern Goat Rocks. Then we hiked down and across the Snowgrass Flat area, an alpine flower garden with picture-perfect views and lots-and-lots of people. Big groups, small groups, kids, scouts, dogs, families, foreign travelers, local fishermen, photographers – feels more like a National Park than a Wilderness area. It’s a popular destination for day hikers and weekend backpackers with easy access trails from the West.

On arrival at Nanny Ridge, which was our planned campsite for a fifth night, we encountered a dozen or so kids swimming and frolicking in the small pond (the only nearby water source) and tents and more people spread around the area. So we decided to hike the last 4 or 5 miles down to the car and end our trip a little early. After a hot descent on the Nanny Ridge trail followed by a cool swim in Walupt Lake, we drove Barney’s car back to Chinook Pass to my vehicle and began the long drive home.

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Mt. Townsend Overnight

With the snow pack melting fast in the Olympic rain shadow, some of the higher trails are opening up for easy hiking. After a two hour hike up Mount Townsend (6260 ft) early yesterday evening, I slept on the summit, setting up the bivy sack right on the summit ridge. By early morning the West wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped in to the high 30’s, so I moved my bivy sack to a more sheltered location nearby, onto the East side of the ridge. Both sunset and sunrise were very pretty and colorful.

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Teebone Ridge Snowshoe

On Saturday a group of ten of us from the Mountaineers club took advantage of a slight break in the winter weather to explore the trail to Teebone Ridge and Monogram Lake above the town of Marblemount WA. While the snow was too deep to allow us to attain the ridge, we enjoyed the beautiful cones, mushrooms and otherworldly shapes that the recent blizzards brought to the rocks and trees of the Cascade Range.

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Washington Section J of the PCT, October 3 – 6, 2015

Autumn colors were exceptionally brilliant in Washington this year – maybe the warm dry summer and Fall had something to do with it. The high country of the Cascades is one of the best places to experience Fall colors, with every hue and shade of yellow, orange and red on display in the trees and undergrowth.

In early October I got to spend a little over 4 days enjoying the Fall colors in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, along WA Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). WA Section J is one of the most scenic and challenging legs of the entire 2,650 mile long PCT, which runs from the Mexico border to the Canadian border through California, Oregon and Washington. This section of the PCT runs between popular trailheads at Snoqualmie Pass (PCT mile 2391) and Stevens Pass (PCT mile 2462). WA Section J is 71 miles long and has 18,000 feet of elevation gain running South to North.

This backpacking trip was unusual for me in two ways. First, it was a “through hike”, or a one-way hike starting from one trailhead and ending at another (in this case Stevens Pass south to Snoqualmie Pass). Second, this was my first light weight backpacking trip where the total weight carried was under 30 pounds. In fact, one of the main reasons for this trip was to test out some new light weight gear and backpacking techniques.

The trip was fantastic in many ways. The scenery was breathtaking, the weather was exceptional and hiking with such a light load felt nearly effortless compared to previous backpacking trips. Plus, the new gear and techniques worked very efficiently while keeping me comfortable and safe.

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Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho 2015

The Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho are a rugged range of deep clear lakes, white granite rocks and whitebark pines up to 1000 years old. In July of 2015 I was fortunate to spend a week exploring this beautiful area with four long-time friends from Colorado (Jeff, Ken, Stan and Steve). We enjoyed a relaxing and photogenic four night backpack in the Twin Lake and Toxaway Lake valleys followed by a successful scramble up Idaho’s highest peak Borah Peak (12,668 feet).

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Kayak surf clinic and Cape Flattery tour

On 19 June 2015 Don Rice and seven other Mountaineers paddlers kayaked to Cape Flattery to enjoy the sea caves and wildlife on a sunny, calm and low-swell day. Over the following two days we had a successful clinic where all the students improved their skills kayaking in surf.

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Mt Anderson Climb

Three of the largest rivers in the Olympic Mountains begin on the slopes of Mount Anderson (7321 ft), the hydrographic center of the range. On June 12 and 13 I was fortunate to take part in an attempt to climb Mt. Anderson via Flypaper Pass and the upper Eel glacier on a trip led by Dave Morgan for the Seattle Mountaineers. While lack of snow below Flypaper Pass thwarted our summit attempt, we were blessed with great weather, a fun and fit team and beautiful scenery in the remote West Fork of the Dosewallips River and Anderson Glacier area.

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Mt Deception Climb

Mt Deception, Olympic National Park

On 5 June 2015 Barney Bernhard and I climbed Mount Deception, the second highest peak in Olympic National Park at 7788 feet. Not only is Mount Deception a high peak, it’s also large, aesthetic and sits as the rocky king at the head of Royal Basin.

Our route started from a camp in upper Royal Basin, attaining the low point on the Deception-Martin Peak Ridge via steep snow. From the ridge, we traversed the upper flanks of Deception Glacier under Gilhooley Spire to gain the summit ridge from the West. Blessed with clear skies, light winds and moderate temperatures, we enjoyed an excellent climb and great climbing conditions.

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