John Muir Trail, Day 14: Grouse Meadow to Lower Palisade Lakes

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Jennifer’s commentary on the last post reminded me that I also didn’t sleep well the night before Day 14 because I was 99.5% sure I was about to get killed by a bear because I left my sunscreen in my tent. We’d just gotten back into official bear territory – the first 50 miles or so after VVR was the only section we weren’t required to carry food inside the bear canister, which was a good thing since we had overflow for a couple of days – so that also meant that we’d gotten a little lax with our toiletries at night. I had unscented things in my tent, but then I heard this giant rustle outside and immediately had this paranoid thought that my sunscreen would attract a bear in, so I tossed it out of my tent like a crazy lady, and just sat there staring into the dark. The next morning, I think we all realized it was probably a deer, and I went and found my (unscented and safe) sunscreen.

Jennifer and I had originally written down that today, Day 14, we would tackle both the Golden Staircase AND Mather Pass. Let me just say here that, while that isn’t the dumbest plan ever, it certainly doesn’t make for a short and easy day. By this point, we were more or less ready for something relatively short (although they were never easy). Plus, if we did Mather Pass today, we would have needed to go quite a ways further to set ourselves up for doing the next pass (Pinchot) the following morning, which we preferred to instead starting a trend of doing passes at the end of the day. We also realized that if we kept going according to our tentative schedule, which included a few long days starting today so that we’d have a ‘zero’ or ‘near zero’ day when Chris showed up, we’d be parting ways with our hiking group.

Ultimately, we decided we’d rather spread out the miles and be able to hike/camp with friends as opposed to pushing long days to have a day off and maybe meet up with them in a few days. That said, Day 14 quickly turned into a much-needed short day, and we were ready to get it started.

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We quickly realized that, although we were going easy on the mileage today, tackling the Golden Staircase was no fucking joke. The total climb of the ‘staircase’ is about 1,600-2,000 ft over the course of about a mile and a half, so while it’s a lot of elevation, it isn’t actually horribly steep (at least not as steep as I expected) – just a lot of constant switchbacks.

The start of the day was harder for me – I’d woken up with a nice headache for some reason, but after a few miles and some electrolytes (sports beans!), I was feeling alright – just in time for the staircase, thank goodness.

J:   Heather’s headache probably got scared out of her.  Today was the day we almost died from a deer attack.   The beginning section of the hike headed out through the meadow and into a more wooded area before getting to the rocky, dreaded “Golden Staircase”.  The rest of our trail buddies were ahead of us (per the usual) when we crossed paths with a family of deer.  The mom and dad bounced across the trail in front of us, but the silly baby deer went the opposite way.  At that moment, Heather and I were standing right in between the parents and the baby.  Heather was hiking in front of me and I don’t think she noticed that we were about to walk right between a mama and her baby.  The mama and papa deer had a look of attack in their eyes (as deer do), so I quickly warned her to stop and we waited a few minutes until the baby made it’s way back across to it’s parents.  We averted a quick and sudden death by deer that day…now on to the staircase! 

Umm…how did I forget to write about this? I can’t believe I was almost attacked by a deer. A deer! Yes, we survived the “bear” at camp only to get pummeled by Bambi. Except we escaped. Thanks, Jennifer, for rescuing me!

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right after (or maybe before?) the almost deer attack

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it sucks when you can’t see the top…

Fortunately, we’d gotten started pretty early in the morning, so we were able to get to the “staircase” and start the climb before the sun started blaring through – there wasn’t a lot of shade in this section, so that was key!

We all stopped often to take pictures, but the 5 of us (Samuel surprisingly did not hike with us the next morning), gradually made our way up and up, staying relatively close to one another until the final section up.

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after a while, you get used to it (yes, my glasses are still crooked – laugh it up)

This is one of those sections of the trail where you absolutely need to look behind you – it’s amazing to see all the ground you’ve covered – the views here look back on Kings Canyon National Park and on the other side of the mountains, the John Muir Wilderness. It was hard to believe we’d already covered 150+ miles, and every day seemed to be more and more breathtaking – breathtaking in the “this is gorgeous and I can’t stand it” way, not the “I can’t breathe anymore and hiking sucks” way.

J:  A northbound hiker we met at VVR had mentioned the views on the staircase heading north (opposite of us) were spectacular and that we needed to make sure to turn around as we made the climb.  He was not wrong.  Of course, I took any excuse to take breaks along the way, but it was really worthwhile to stop on those climbs and soak it all in. This was what we were here for!

north view

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Brittany on the golden stairs!

The cool part about getting started early is that we often times had these sections of the trail to ourselves – the staircase was no different. Though a few people passed by us from the other direction, we had just a couple of people here and there going in our direction. There was some construction going on here though, so we hiked past a big ‘trail crew’ – it wasn’t something I’d really thought about before – but yeah, people have to hike out here to work… not just to hike. Now that’s a rough commute, eh? It also made me realize and appreciate that people built this trail, and that it needs maintaining regularly (in fact, this section was the last part to get built – the prior route was way less direct).

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At some points, you can’t even really see the start of the ‘staircase’, since it winds around the mountains. I tried to capture that (above) by taking a trail shot of Jennifer – the trail winds down to the right and just disappears, continuing down waaaaay below.

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There was a really great stopping point about midway up where we took a few photos. The view beyond was amazing at this point – hard to imagine we’d been hiking through those mountains way way back in the background!

J:  As you climb (this or any other ascent) I tried to keep in mind that “the top is never the top”.  I looked up at one point and saw people celebrating and taking photos on this rock so I thought, ‘damn, that wasn’t too bad if that’s the top’.  Nope.  It wasn’t too bad, but that was not the top.  It was only about halfway up.  Shiiiit….and I was out of jelly beans.

Shortly after this point, I started losing a little steam (those sports beans were long gone!) so I needed to spread out a little and turn some tunes on (remember – I’d decided at the last minute that I didn’t need the added weight of my headphones – all 1 oz of them! ha ha). I relied pretty heavily on the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways album for this part of the trail, but Jennifer tended towards her country music and probably some Mariah Carey (hey, I don’t love her for her music choices…), so in this case it was better to spread out a little. We’d put together a “trail mix” thinking we’d want music more often to get us through the difficult sections, but we hadn’t busted that out quite yet – but stay tuned!

J:  Hey, don’t look down on Mariah….voice of an angel.  That “trail mix” was a collaborative collection of tunes.  I don’t think there was a Mariah song on there, but that was a mistake on my part, for sure.  

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the Watermelon Fairy

When we had about 2oo feet of elevation to go, Jennifer and I joined back up and decided to tackle it together, since the sports beans and the tunes weren’t working any longer! It was at this exact moment that this magical lady (above) rounded the switchback ahead, hopping happily down the staircase. We started chatting her up for a minute and learned that she often hiked into the area (which at this point was a day long adventure at least, since we were nowhere near civilization) to bring fresh fruit to the trail crew, and oh my goodness, she had a giant bowl of FRESH WATERMELON. We must have looked so completely ragged at this point (and were probably drooling at the watermelon), because she was about to start walking away and then turned to give both Jennifer and I a piece of it. Fucking splendid! At this point, I was so glad that our friends had hiked ahead of us, because there was no way she’d given us watermelon if there were 5 of us! Jennifer and I thanked her profusely, took her picture, and then giddily hiked those final 200 feet with a nice juicy hunk of watermelon in our hands.

Note: When you hear about the existence of trail fairies, know that they are real. We’d met two already – Duct Tape Fairy, and now Watermelon Fairy. Also, know that most of the time when you are literally at the end of your rope and done for the day (or the whole trip!), something amazing will happen – be it a lady with watermelon or a beautiful stream or lake – motivation is everywhere.

J:  best. watermelon. ever.

lower pallisades

Once to the top of the Golden Staircase, we met up with the rest of our crew who were waiting patiently for us (ok, it sounds like we were eons behind – it was really less than 5 minutes). After bragging about the watermelon, we all stuck around at the top to have lunch, realizing that if we didn’t take our time, we’d be at camp before noon.

Instead, we rolled into camp at 2PM, a time that would be our record for the trip. It was nice to get there early because it meant we could claim a spot before the rest of the crowds came though. Since Lower Palisade Lake was the last main stop with legal camping before Mather Pass, it would become pretty crowded as people stopped for the night.

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In addition to getting a campsite, it gave us plenty of time to relax and do our only real housekeeping chore of the JMT – laundry. We weren’t right on the lake here (I know! wtf!), so we had to hike down a little ways, but it was worth it! The lake was beautiful and secluded since there wasn’t a trail taking you down to it. We hung out, washed the majority of our clothes, and I even gave my hair a good rinse while I was at it – the closest I’d come to actually getting IN any of these cold ass lakes.

J:  This was “day 3” of the duct tape experiment, so I had planned to finally unwrap my feet and see what damage had been done (or repaired?).  So while everyone was getting ready to hike down to the lake, I took some time to unwrap my feet.  Hot damn, did they smell great.  The blisters were not healed by any means, but at least they weren’t getting any worse.  

Every toe was swollen, so it was good to give them some air and head down to the soak my feet in the ice cold lake water for a bit.  

glacier water

not a bad view, eh?  camp was up the “hill” to the right


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is this the John Muir Trail or the streets of Naples? I’m confused…

After the hike back up, we hung up all of our clothes and proceeded to chill, which meant yet another few games of Love Letters. We met up with Samuel again at camp, and apparently we didn’t scare him away with our talk of poop the night before, because he stayed around and played cards with us.

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me, Courtney, Brittany, Samuel, and Andrew (Jennifer was the photographer)

We were here so long that we ran into all sorts of fellow hikers. Our favorite group of Tallahassee hikers camped here and we talked to them some that evening, and we also met a woman (Debbie?) who brought hair washing supplies. All in all, Day 14 was a pretty good day, with plenty of socializing and relaxing.  People wandered in all throughout the afternoon and evening, which was an interesting change for us, as we were typically the ones coming in later.

Next up, Mather Pass – my least favorite pass of the whole trip!


Day 14 Details (August 7, 2015):

Start-Finish: Grouse Meadow to Lower Palisade Lakes
Daily Miles: 9.0
Mileage Tally: 164.0
Camp elevation: 11,000 ft
Hiking Elevation: 2,473 ft gain; 221 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 13: Sapphire Lake to Grouse Meadows

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I know, I know. We get on a roll and then we fall off the wagon again! But you just wait – Jennifer and I are determined to get to the end of this blogging adventure before the 1-year anniversary of us finishing this thing last year. Writing this here will hold us to it, right?!

Ok, so where were we? We just had a most amazing Day 12 – I carried Jennifer across the creek to keep her feet dry, we had lunch in McClure Meadow with our trail fam, we meandered around Evolution Valley, and we camped at Sapphire Lake where we had one of the most beautiful sunsets of our entire lives. Day 12 was pretty un-sucky, so we were hoping the good vibes would continue along to Day 13.

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Since we’d camped at Sapphire Lake, we actually only had a short distance to go before getting to Muir Pass, the 4th of the 8 major passes on the JMT and home of the famous Muir Trail Hut. Our entire group started around the same time and before long, we’d covered the ~3 miles and 800 feet of elevation to make it up to the pass relatively early in the morning.

J:  The Muir hut! I was actually looking forward to this pass because of the hut.  It’s one of only a few man-made landmarks along the trail.  Maybe it’s the architect in me, but I thought it was pretty fascinating to see an 86 year old stone hut still standing in the middle of this incredible wilderness.  It was also a really nice place to hide from the wind and marmots to eat our snickers bars and celebrate climbing another pass!

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group picture at the Muir Trail Hut

We spent a ton of time at the pass because, why the hell not?! It felt like a special kind of victory to make it to this point – the hut is something you read about frequently when planning for and considering hiking the JMT, so seeing it in the flesh (well, stone) was one of those really major feelings of accomplishment.

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plaque inside the hut

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two sexy beasts at the hut

On our way up to Muir Pass, we hiked past a couple of girls making their way early in the day as well. Luckily, we stayed long enough for them to meet up with us, as meeting them was one of the highlights of the trip. They had been writing songs throughout their hike and were dying to play in the hut to test out the acoustics, so of course we stayed and listened for a while. One of them had a ukulele (you should have seen how I spelled that in my journal..), which fortunately, doesn’t add a lot of weight to your pack; it was really a special moment for all of us – I probably got a little teary-eyed just listening and realizing how lucky I was to be there on that day, at that time, and with so many amazing people.

J:  We sat in the hut for a while chatting with the girls (Sophie from NYC and Anna from MD – who knew where my itty bitty hometown was!).  There was also another group of hikers including an older guy who told us a story about his family hiking over the pass with 7 kids and his mom was pregnant with him…yes, pregnant!  She had broken her arm (or something) and had stayed in the hut while waiting for the rescue team to help them out.  Crazy story!  Then the girls broke out their ukulele and played us some songs.  It was definitely one of my favorite moments of the whole hike. 

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the duo singing in the hut

Eventually, we all decided it was time to get going. We were all sort of dreading it, because as per usual the wind was picking up at the top of the pass and we were getting chilly – never a fun way to start a descent, but it wasn’t going to change any time soon!

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For the rest of the day, we were going down, down, down. The first part of the descent from the pass is always a little steep and fast-moving, but eventually it evens out a little as you descend into the next valley. We were starting to learn this routine, but as we continued south, the passes would be higher up, the ascents and descents on either side just a little bit more steep with each one. Muir Pass elevation was 11,980 ft, and our anticipated stop for the day was down at 8,830.

The five of us all hiked together on the way down from Muir Pass – Jennifer’s feet were feeling better, were staying dry, and the duct tape was on tight! My feet were continuing to hurt pretty badly each morning, but a little Ibuprofen seemed to do the trick, as long as I took 2-3 each morning and another round at night.

J:  I was definitely worried about the steep descent from Muir pass, especially after the brutal downhill on Day 11 heading into MTR.  I was pretty gimpy and slow, but my feet held up ok.  I was starting to rely a little less on my hiking poles to keep steady which was a pretty good sign that the duct tape was doing something right.  

We’d all go at slightly different paces throughout the day, but all in all weren’t too far from one another. Courtney seemed to be in a race with herself that day and disappeared ahead of us all for a while, and Brittany and I kept a similar pace for a large part of the descent, with Jennifer not too far behind us. Who knows where Andrew was… he’d lollygag for a while to shoot some photos and then catch up when he was finished, so I never remembered if he was ahead of us or behind at any given point!

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Jennifer is dead here. Duh.

Fortunately, Jennifer, Brittany, and I spotted the giant whale head of a stone, where we just had to take some silly pictures. This spot is pretty popular on the JMT – who knows how long ago someone had the idea to make stone eyes and stone teeth with the rocks around the giant stone – we knew we’d come across it soon, and glad we found it! Courtney blew right past it, but by the time we found her, we were too far away from it for her to go back for pictures :(.

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I was about to be dead, too.

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We stopped as a group around 4:30 at Grouse Meadows, a campsite slightly before our ‘planned’ stop of the day, but not by much. Jennifer and I decided we’d rather stay with our buddies instead of hike another mile or two further, plus we’d already covered 14 miles. We shared the campsite with Samuel, a really nice young guy who was solo-hiking. It was pretty eerie, as he was also from NC (Charlotte). Did we mention that Courtney and Brittany grew up in NC, too? I can’t remember…anyway, it was weird that 5 out of 6 of us at this campsite had some ties to NC. Andrew was the oddball here, since he’s always lived in the Midwest.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before we were corrupting Samuel with talk of poop – as we get set up at camp, it’s always a conversation because we all had to pick our ‘spots’ for the next morning – one slight disadvantage of group camping! I think Samuel thought we were funny, but probably also thought we were super weird, and he was probably ready to get back to his solo hiking the next day.

J:  At Grouse Meadows we also started visibly noticing that the sky was getting a lot smokier.  It was kind of nerve racking since we had zero way of finding out exactly where the smoke was coming from.  We all decided that if we were in immediate danger then we would have seen a ranger or at least signs on one of the many trail posts along the way telling us we needed to evacuate.  As it turns out, this was only the start of a pretty horrible season of wildfires.  Looking back, I’m glad we were on the trail when we were because if we’d been hiking even a week later, we would have had to make some tough choices about leaving the trail because of the wildfires in the Sierras. Regardless, I didn’t sleep well and had nightmares about getting swallowed up by fire that night.  It also didn’t help that Brittany and Courtney thought they heard a bear outside our tents… false alarm (I think).

That’s about it for Day 13 – time to call it a night and rest up for another big day ahead – the day we’d tackle the Golden Staircase!


Day 13 Details (August 6, 2015):

Start-Finish: Sapphire Lake to Grouse Meadows
Daily Miles: 14.0
Mileage Tally: 154.9
Camp elevation: 8,400 ft (the last of the “low elevation” stops!)
Hiking Elevation: 877 ft gain; 3,512 ft loss