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.


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!


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.


plaque inside the hut


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. 


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!


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!


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 :(.


I was about to be dead, too.


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

John Muir Trail, Day 12: Goddard Canyon to Sapphire Lake

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It probably goes without saying that Jennifer and I were both somewhat anxious when we were getting up and ready to go this morning. The day prior was a real doozy, but we were both really banking on the miracle of duct tape, as Jennifer spent a good amount of time getting that foot bandaged before we got started. As she’s said before, the downside of all that taping and bandaging is that you really have to keep the area dry – not easy for hiking around streams and wanting to hop in lakes…

J:  Waking up to deer perusing around camp about 10 feet away from our tent was a good sign…or at least I took it that way.  I was taking anything as a good sign as I spent the morning carefully using the last of my bandages and all of our duct tape as a final Hail Mary attempt to fix my feet. The plan was to leave the bandages and tape on my feet for a couple of days and see if it made any difference.  I still don’t really know what the medical reasoning was behind this plan, but it had to work.  If nothing else, I would save 30 minutes in the morning by not having to wrap up my feet for the next few days.  So here we go, Day 12…


climbing out of the canyon

So upwards and onward we went. Unfortunately, we woke up in the same giant canyon that we went to sleep in, so we still had to do that massive climb first thing – yay! The climb up was really beautiful though, and eventually we got to a plateau and a little bit of flat for recovery. I didn’t take a ton of pictures on the way up, but managed to turn around once to get a good one of Jennifer mid-hike.

Somewhere along the hike up the canyon we ran into Brittany, Courtney, and Andrew. We never saw them the day before as we were more or less criss-crossing each other, but they camped not too far from where we did the night before – near one of the bridges around Piute Pass. We planned to meet up at McClure Meadows for lunch, which would be our next major stop of the day.


The only things keeping us between the top of the canyon at Evolution Creek wade and McClure Meadows was about 500 feet of elevation gain and 2.5 miles – nothing too horrible considering we’d already finished one decent incline that morning. But this was also the section of the trail where we have to cross Evolution Creek. If you ever watched “Mile, Mile & a Half”, this is the section of the trail where they were all getting pummeled by the creek water, and were basically waste deep. So we got to this area and of course it didn’t look nearly as bad as in the documentary (that was a crazy snow year; 2015 was not), but it still looked like a creek we didn’t want to go walking through – it probably wasn’t even knee deep but that was deep enough to defeat the whole purpose of that damn duct tape on Jennifer’s feet. So we found the sign for the other crossing a bit further down the creek, hoping it would be gentler and less deep.

J:  Ideally, we were looking for a log or some rocks that went across the creek so we (mainly me) wouldn’t have to get our feet wet.  I’m well aware of how silly this sounds, and I sort of wish I did have a photo of my beat up feet to truly paint the picture of how messed up they were…blisters inside of popped blisters, bleeding, puss, etc…you get the idea.  It was gross and I had just used the last of our supplies to patch them up for a few days (or the all the way to Whitney if needed).  So yeah, it was imperative that I didn’t waste those bandages and duct tape by soaking them in a river crossing.

The alternate route and creek crossing ended up being just as deep, but at least calm. However, I don’t think either one of us were relieved by this fact, as it still meant that Jennifer would have to get her feet soaked – not a good way to start the day. We both just stood there for a second, feeling a little hopeless, and then I had one of those few “lightbulb” moments that happen in my life. Okay, kidding – I am FULL of lots of bright ideas – but this was pretty exceptional. I decided that I had a solution to this problem……I would simply carry Jennifer across the creek. No big deal, right?! I mean, we were total badasses at this point, so carrying someone across water was nothing. It seemed easy enough to me, but Jennifer thought I was crazy (I think she thinks this a lot). She quickly realized she really wasn’t in a position to bargain with me, and it was honestly our best shot at keeping her dry – so we just did it. I took off my shoes and put on my sandals, carried my pack across, went back and got Jennifer’s pack and carried it across, and then proceeded to ask a nice couple on the other side to please please please photograph this momentous occasion. I told him I had to go back across and carry my friend and they also looked at me like I was crazy, but obliged. So I went back and hoisted Jennifer up on my back and carried her across that damn creek; she had a death grip on me, both at the waist and my neck, and we both laughed the whole damn time.


friends don’t let friends get their duct taped feet wet

The picture above is probably one of my favorite non-scenic pictures of the trail – and one of the funnier parts was that the ‘non-techie’ man photographing must have taken the picture in ‘burst’ mode, because there are probably 30 of these in a row on my camera. Needless to say, we both made it through the creek in one piece, Jennifer’s feet stayed dry, and we now had this amazingly hilarious story to tell. And for me, I finally felt just a wee bit helpful when it came to easing a little of Jennifer’s blister pain. All in all, it was a pretty awesome start to the day and certainly one that we would never forget.

J:  I know what you’re thinking, why didn’t Heather just carry me, my pack, and her pack all at the same time?  Now THAT would have been impressive.  

As you can probably see Heather is one tiny chik, so I was a little worried about pulling us both down into the creek.  Her plan sounded ridiculous but she was pretty damn serious, so what the hell?  I figured it was worth a try.  She was halfway across the creek before I could argue anyway.

Obviously, we made it across and this was probably one of the best and definitely one of the funniest memories we have of the whole hike.  Heather is, for the record, THE BEST HIKING PARTNER EVER and definitely a little bit crazy. 


After our wading in the creek adventure, we made our way to McClure Meadow and met up with our buddies. We found a nice sunny spot in front of the water and just chilled out for a bit. It was a nice spot to rest for a while so it was hard to leave, but we were excited to get to the Evolution Basin area, so eventually we all packed up our bags and made our way out.


Before heading out though, I ran into the ranger parked at the station (you’d find one every once and a while out here!) and made a little small talk with him. Fortunately, I learned that the weather forecast was clear and there didn’t appear to be any concerns for storms over the next few days – score! This made hiking over these next few passes way more awesome.


McClure Meadows ranger station


The hike up to the outlet of Evolution Lake was nice and steep, so we each went along at our own pace, and after a while, the 1k feet of elevation gain was behind us. We all took another break right at the top of the climb to enjoy the first peek at this area, knowing all we had in front of us for the rest of the day was just more awesomeness.


See what I mean? Pretty freaking awesome, eh? I took a ton more pictures in this area and just took my sweet time walking around here.



This is what happens to Gregory (the name of Jennifer’s pack) when she has to pee. I don’t know why I felt compelled to photograph this, but it just made me laugh.

We were thinking of heading all the way to Wanda Lake, the last stop before the climb up to Muir Pass, but we instead found a nice spot that would fit all 3 ‘groups’ at Sapphire Lake, which is a smaller lake right between Evolution Lake and Wanda Lake. Since there was a party of 5 at tonight’s campsite, we played a game called Love Letters. Coincidentally enough, this is a game Chris and I have at home, so it cracked me up when Brittany whipped it out to play on the JMT. It’s a really simple game, and not a lot of cards/materials, so it’s a perfect backpacking game to play with a group – it wouldn’t be the last time, either!


Andrew reading Game of Thrones in his bivy sack. #whippersnappersdontneedtents

After our gaming, dining, and general chatting, we all headed to bed. As I mentioned a few posts ago, it is entirely typically to be in your tent before the actual sun sets. This night though, we all had to step back out to admire the setting sun. I mean, sunsets in general are pretty spectacular, especially along the JMT, but the sunset at Sapphire Lake was by far the most gorgeous one we’d seen so far. The sky changed colors right before our eyes, and the reflection against the mountains and the lakes was pretty breathtaking.


I can’t stop saying how beautiful everything is out here – but JUST LOOK AT THIS SUNSET!!!!! Makes me want to go back right now.

It was so breathtaking that we all got out to snap some pictures, except Brittany! It was a perfect moment to capture – Courtney snapping a picture and Brittany gazing from her tent. Also, please note the dudes in the back right of the picture below – they just sat there for hours chatting, well beyond when we went to sleep. We didn’t talk to them too much, but they seemed like relatively nice folk.

J:  So. Much. Pretty….another one of my favorite places.  Seriously, every day on this trail we experienced something even more magnificent than the day before.  These photos don’t even do this sunset justice.  The whole area was glowing in orange/pink, reflecting off the water and the rocks.  It was pretty incredible.

As we were going to bed, a group of girls passed by (still hiking) and singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music”…which was fitting, and a little weird since I’d had a dream the night before about The Sound of Music and had been singing that song all day in my head.  


All in all, day 12 was a pretty good day, particularly in light of the difficulty of the day before it. I think the new blister care situation was helping a little bit, and the general amazingness of the day – the scenery, the hanging with new friends, and our creek wading adventure made Day 12 one of my favorites so far – and we still had 8 days to go!

Tomorrow’s adventure? MUIR PASS! The hut!! Can’t wait to share this one with you all – until then!

Day 12 Details (August 5, 2015):

Start-Finish: Goddard Canyon to Sapphire Lake
Daily Miles: 10
Mileage Tally: 140.9
Camp elevation: 10,900 ft
Hiking Elevation: 2,446 ft gain; 80 ft loss