Fall in the High Sierra

Red's Meadow to Selden Pass (41.7 PCT & alt route miles)

 

 The 1992 Rainbow Fire was started by a lightening strike and burned a broad swath of hillsides above Red's Meadow

The 1992 Rainbow Fire was started by a lightening strike and burned a broad swath of hillsides above Red's Meadow

 One of many small meadows along Deer Creek  

One of many small meadows along Deer Creek  

After one more delicious fresh breakfast on Day 84, Hillair, Michael, and Lola walked with us from Red's Meadow campground to the PCT. A signpost listed mileage to various points, and we were notably much closer to Mexico than Canada! Having left Cookie in Mammoth, we set off on the trail by ourselves. We climbed through the burn zone of the 1992 Rainbow Fire with great views of the peaks in every direction. It struck us that we both remembered this stretch as hot, dry, dusty, and interminable from our JMT hike of 9 years ago, but it seemed rather scenic and took us less than an hour to get through today. We quickly settled into a rhythm of hiking and although we enjoyed the energy that Cookie brought to the past 4+ days it was also nice to be on our own. We haven't spent much time in this area of the Sierra Nevada and that JMT trip was the only time either one of us has been on this stretch of trail. It was interesting to compare memories and see how they differed. Beyond the burn zone we meandered along Crater Creek past several small meadows showing signs of fall with golden grasses and wildflowers gone to seed, passed the intensely red-orange Red Cones and a trail junction to Mammoth Pass, then continued to gain elevation through forested slopes. We were surprised not to find anybody else on the trail, especially so close to Mammoth-area trailheads on a beautiful fall day. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and with a slight breeze the temprature was perfect. There was not one day hiker, casual backpacker, trail runner, JMT hiker, section hiker, or thru-hiker. It seems impossible, but we walked all day on the JMT in late September without coming across a single other person. In peak backpacking season we half-jokingly refer to this trail as the JMT superhighway. The potential for solitude in the late season is but one of many reasons we love fall in the Sierra.

 

 Distinctive crags above Duck Lake are just becoming visible. And that deep blue Sierra sky!

Distinctive crags above Duck Lake are just becoming visible. And that deep blue Sierra sky!

 Purple Lake with its deep purple streak of rock

Purple Lake with its deep purple streak of rock

 Virginia Lake would make a great camp spot any time of year, but it's especially pretty in he fall

Virginia Lake would make a great camp spot any time of year, but it's especially pretty in he fall

As we neared 10,000' in elevation, the forest opened up and we gained views of the distinctive rock formations above Duck Lake, which were familiar to me though Macro didn't remember them. The trail doesn't go to the lake itself, but we stopped at the outlet and had a leisurely lunch on this glorious day. Thanks to Hillair & Michael, our meal looked nothing like standard thru-hiker fare and instead consisted of fresh multi-grain bread, apples, avocados, carrots, radishes, bell peppers, and a local cheese sent from home by one of my ceramics studio-mates. There were cookies too, but we decided to save them for post-dinner dessert given the size of the bounty. These treats would not fit into our bear canister so they had to be enjoyed on our first day out, and enjoyed they were! After lunch we remained at roughly the same elevation traversing through granite and open lodgepole forest to reach Purple Lake on a high shelf in the next recess over. The steep rocky slopes above this narrow and intensely blue lake have a large vein of dark purple-ish rock and we wondered if this was the origin of its name. Macro recalled that there was a rock glacier beyond Purple Lake, and that we had been underwhelmed by its appearance on our JMT hike. As we climbed though the long narrow saddle to Lake Virginia we walked below steep walls of green rock supporting tall Whitebark pines, and Macro remembered that I had been excited by the hues on our last visit. I didn't share his memory, but I'm a sucker for good rock and green is my favorite color, so it seemed reasonable. I certainly stopped for my fair share of pictures in this colorful saddle today. We also saw the rock glacier, which is interesting in concept but to us looked much like any normal moraine of pale pink granite talus with no visible snow or ice, and made our way to Lake Virginia beyond. This large lake is positioned between two steep and blocky pale granite prominences, is surrounded by meadows that were red and gold on this fall day, and sits at the edge of a wide shelf giving an infinity pool appearance to its far shore. In late afternoon light it was simply stunning, and with nobody else there it would have made a great spot to camp. Since we wanted to get more miles in after our last two short days, we gawked at the views and took plenty of pictures but ultimately hiked on. Macro pointed out that we had camped at this spot on our JMT hike, what was then a 2-day hike from Red's Meadow! We marveled at the difference in these two trips, and once he mentioned it the campsite did start to feel familiar.

 

 Cream and orange- colored Red & White Mountain dominates the ridgeline before we drop down past Tully's Hole to Fish Creek

Cream and orange- colored Red & White Mountain dominates the ridgeline before we drop down past Tully's Hole to Fish Creek

We crossed the granite knoll on the far side of Lake Virginia and came out onto a high ridge where we had clear views of surroundings peaks, including the rounded but vibrantly colored (and aptly named) Red & White Mountain. With today's rainbow of colors, it seemed as if even the rocks wanted to get in on the festivity of fall in the high country. Far below us, Fish Creek made lazy S-curves through a wide golden meadow edged by thick forest. We started a long series of switchbacks to drop ~1200' to the banks of the creek, then followed it downstream through the adjacent woods as the banks narrowed. The creek became steadily more unruly until it entered a granite-walled canyon where it tumbled across the rock before heading down towards Cascade Valley. The trail here was cut into the granite a ways above the waterline, and we were surrounded by huge Western junipers that seemingly grew from the tiniest cracks in the rock. As the canyon wall became steeper, we crossed Fish Creek on a steel bridge and settled into a campsite in a clearing on the opposite shore with views of the sky and surrounding rocky knobs. It was a treat to arrive before dusk. As we ate dinner, we wondered how long it would be before we saw another person on the trail.

 

A conversation with Hillair over the past few days got me to thinking about our fellow SOBOs, and how they came to be thru-hikers. Here's the rundown on a completely non-scientific sample of those we've met. Several recently finished degrees (4 doctorate, 2 masters, 2 undergrad) and are hiking the PCT before starting their next degree or career. Some are early-career professionals who were able to take a leave of absence or are likely to find a comparable position when they return (3), or who were looking to make a big change and are using the trail as a catalyst (5). Many (8) are twenty-somethings who have been working a string of non-career jobs and will find the next one post-trail. Most but not all of these are college graduates, and plenty have student debt. Two more do contract work in the healthcare sector and schedule assignments around their hiking plans. Another two are self-employed late-career professionals (one creative, one real estate) with flexibility to be away for several months. One is a late-career professional whose kids just finished college, leaving him & his wife empty nesters. Only one is a retiree, and at 66 is the oldest we've met that is likely to finish in a single season. He is well on-target to complete his hike in about 4.5 months, though he does say he wishes he'd thought to do this 40 years ago. We have not met any other mid-career professionals, but it seems unlikely that we're the only ones. There are a handful of other SOBOs we've crossed paths with whose backgrounds we don't know, and plenty more hiking either in front of us or behind us that we haven't yet met (and may not). One thing is certain, and that is that every single thru-hiker has made a series of choices and sacrifices to be here on the trail, and most have an interesting story behind why they decided to hike the PCT. As to why they chose to hike SOBO, nearly everyone I've asked mentions the draw of being around fewer people (in contrast to the hordes who hike northbound each year). Grateful Red, who has hiked twice as a NOBO and is going SOBO this year, says that SOBOs are simply far cooler people. If you press him on the matter he'll admit that there are plenty of decent NOBOs, but says you have to wait 1000 miles until the posers, partiers, and general losers are weeded out before you get a chance to meet the good ones. In contrast, every SOBO you meet is worth hanging out with... at least that's the word on the street. I don't know if this is true, but we've had a great SOBO experience so far. I wonder when we'll run into our next SOBO, and who it will be.

 

The Sierra Nevada section of the PCT is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the entire trail, but it is also thought to be the most challenging. The elevation is much higher here than anywhere else along the PCT, and the long roadless stretches limit resupply options. SOBOs have to contend with the potential for early fall storms, and generally have a goal of crossing Forester Pass (the highest point on the entire trail) before the first significant snowfall. Another difficulty is that many common resupply points have closed or are difficult to access after Labor Day, the exact time when most SOBOs are in the Sierra. Tuolumne Meadows store and post office closed for the season the day we were there, and the shuttles to Yosemite Valley had already stopped operating. Red's Meadow Resort is on-trail and open until October, but bus service to nearby Mammoth is done for the season. Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) on Lake Edison is open through early October, though the ferry isn't running so reaching the resort means hiking about 6 bonus miles each way. Towns along the east side of the range don't close, but the probability of catching a ride from a remote trailhead drops dramatically as the year wears on, and of course there are bonus miles to hike to even reach those trailheads. Talk among SOBOs for weeks has centered around Sierra plans. Where to resupply? How much food to carry? How cold will it get? Side trip to summit Mt. Whitney? What date to reach Kennedy Meadows South (the official end of the Sierra)? There are as many strategies as there are hikers, but it seems that many SOBOs plan to hike through the Sierra as quickly as possible, to minimize the amount of food they have to carry and reduce their chance of being caught in an early season storm. Another common plan is to camp at the lowest elevations possible, since temperatures are likely to be warmer and many hikers have gear and clothing that are marginal at best for high country conditions (we know of one SOBO hiking with a 40-degree sleeping bag!). When we talk to SOBOs about the Sierra, there is so much fear and a resulting desire to rush through this section. In contrast, when we talk to locals the uniform consensus is that fall is the best time to be in the high country, while it is still beautiful but after the crowds have gone home. And then there are the JMT hikers. They typically cover this ~220 mile stretch of trail in 20-21 days, in contrast to the 10-14 days that most PCT thru-hikers plan to take. We haven't run into a single JMT hiker who raised any concern about the lateness of the season, the cold nights, or the potential for storms although most we've passed won't reach Mt. Whitney for a good week or two after we plan to get there. On the other hand, it is common for JMT hikers to carry 10 days of food at a time (most thru-hikers are loathe to carry more than 4-5), they typically have sufficient clothing and gear to be prepared for any normal conditions, and their trip isn't quite so monumental as a thru-hike so an unplanned exit might not feel like such a letdown. We even ran across a foursome of southbound JMT-ers who were carrying camp chairs, and were still sitting in them at their campsite by the shore of an alpine lake after 9:30am when we hiked by! In any case, we feel pulled in two directions. We have made good time on our thru-hike so far, and are well on-track to complete the entire trail in about 4 months. The goal of completion is very important to us. On the other hand, the Sierra Nevada is our home range, we are very comfortable in fall conditions here, and the last thing we want to do is rush through our favorite terrain in what may be its most beautiful season due to fear of potential storms or reluctance to carry a heavy food load. We are already carrying warmer clothing and more robust gear than many thru-hikers, and have friends who have generously offered to assist our resupply plans so we are not at the mercy of transportation schedules and resort closures. Our fairly conservative itinerary requires an average of 17-18 miles daily through the high country, quite low by thru-hiker standards but nearly twice what a JMT-er or casual backpacker might cover. And still. We find ourselves constantly pulled towards the higher mileage that has been our norm over so many weeks. What if the weather changes? What if we never catch up with our friends? Shouldn't we push just a bit further? When will we be over Forester? Will we have time to summit Whitney?  When will we reach Kennedy Meadows South? It has been a surprising struggle to stick to our plan, though it does help that we have pre-arranged meeting times with friends at our resupply spots so there is no point in getting there early. We will probably put in more miles in the early days of this first long stretch to buy us flexibility later in case the weather changes, and this means that our time to lollygag coincides with some of our very favorite high country. We are even planning to zero in Independence, just north of Forester Pass. SOBOs who are currently behind us will probably catch up and may get ahead of us as we decrease our daily mileage, take time to hike bonus miles each way over Kearsarge Pass, and spend an entire day off in town with friends. Although it seems impossible that a single day can make that much difference, that little voice in each of our heads wonders if taking a zero day through the Sierra in early October might be a folly we come to regret. Only time will tell. For now, we are focused on enjoying every day in the high Sierra during this spectacular (though sometimes challenging) season. We currently plan to summit Mt. Whitney, but have been to the top twice before and will leave it as a flex option so in case the weather worsens we could use that extra day to hunker down or head south sooner.

 

 One of several lakes on the successive shelves that lead to Silver Pass from the north

One of several lakes on the successive shelves that lead to Silver Pass from the north

 Wildflowers are still in bloom even in late September at the higher elevations as we near Silver Pass

Wildflowers are still in bloom even in late September at the higher elevations as we near Silver Pass

 Following the trail over the final shoulder before dropping down to Silver Pass

Following the trail over the final shoulder before dropping down to Silver Pass

Even at our relatively low elevation (9200') campsite along Fish Creek, the night was cold and the morning of Day 85 was frosty. We have been putting the fly on the tent nearly every night for warmth and/or protection from the wind, and need to keep our hydration reservoirs inside our backpacks with air blown into the tubing to prevent freezing overnight. As we have so many mornings of late, we both started hiking in multiple layers. The trail climbed immediately, but even with this exertion we didn't start shedding clothes until the sunlight hit us several miles into the morning. The northern approach to Silver Pass is classic high Sierra terrain, with heather and low grasses and plenty of blocky white granite along with stands of Whitebark pines that grow shorter, more gnarled, and more sparse as the elevation increases. The trail climbs up through a series of low shelves, each holding a brilliant alpine lake, and all of this is set against a backdrop of the deepest blue Sierra sky. The Silver Divide's string of white granite peaks and ridges practically sparkled in the sun on this clear fall day. Near Squaw Lake, the lowest and smallest of the lakes, we came across our first person - a northbound JMT hiker who had camped just on the far side of the pass at Silver Pass Lake last night. We continued our climb, ultimately crossing a shoulder above Warrior Lake, then dropping down about 200' to the actual pass.

 

 Silver Pass Lake and the broad Meadow of Silver Creek, with just a few innocent puffy clouds overhead

Silver Pass Lake and the broad Meadow of Silver Creek, with just a few innocent puffy clouds overhead

 Fall colors on the hillside, and more clouds as we follow the path of Silver Creek towards the edge of the canyon

Fall colors on the hillside, and more clouds as we follow the path of Silver Creek towards the edge of the canyon

 As we descend through glorious fall colors to the North Fork of Mono Creek, the sky has turned positively ominous

As we descend through glorious fall colors to the North Fork of Mono Creek, the sky has turned positively ominous

From the pass we had amazing views down the broad valley carrying Silver Creek, brilliant in its fall colors of golden yellows and deep orange reds. As we walked through the nearly-flat upper portion of the valley we noticed puffy clouds starting to form above the ridge to the west, and saw a low layer of grayish clouds off in the distance to the southeast. The temperature remained pleasant, cool but perfect for hiking with only a light breeze. Before long, we started a gradual descent across granite and open forest along Silver Creek. This transitioned into a steep switchbacking drop of 700' down the canyon wall to the North Fork of Mono Creek. As we lost elevation we walked through broad swaths of aspen whose leaves had turned yellow, orange, and even a deep shade of red. Their leaves fluttered in the wind, which had picked up in conjunction with building clouds to the south and a sky that looked positively ominous in the direction we were ultimately headed. We wondered if we might see some rain, but the sky directly above us remained clear as we continued our descent along with the creek towards Quail Meadows and the trail junction for Edison Lake/VVR. The North Fork flows in wide sheets across broad granite aprons, and at this lower elevation we found ourselves once more in an open forest of giant Jeffrey pines and ancient Western juniper. Just above the meadow we came across Deb and Larry, an older couple from the Seattle area roughly halfway through their 30-day John Muir Trail hike starting from Cottonwood Pass. They had spent the night at VVR, a common resupply point for JMT/PCT hikers, and confirmed that Pitbull had also been there and left very early this morning. I inquired about their weather and they just shook their heads. Apparently they had several days of bitter cold (like us), and hiked through snowstorms on both Mt. Whitney and Forester Pass (the highest points on the trail). On the subject of weather, the sky above us had turned completely grey and remained especially ominous to the south. We had all heard a forecast calling for clear days through next weekend, which wasn't looking very accurate at this particular time. I noted that the Sierra often has afternoon rain that clears up within a few hours, and we all hoped that these clouds didn't have any more than that in store for us. With that, we wished them a good hike and continued down the trail. With Pitbull less than half a day ahead of us, we wondered if we might see him after all over the next few days. It seemed unlikely, but with trail dynamics you never know.

 

 Golden hour light on the Mono Divide reflected in a pool of Bear Creek

Golden hour light on the Mono Divide reflected in a pool of Bear Creek

I'd never really thought about the name VVR, as we didn't resupply there on our JMT hike and weren't stopping in this year either. We both remembered a very steep, long, and rather unexciting climb after the trail junction for the resort, and on our map noted that the north wall of the deep valley was named the Vermillion Cliffs. Looking up, we saw craggy cliffs of pink granite reaching towards the grey sky and realized that these must be the namesake for both the valley and the resort. We crossed the North Fork once more, this time on a steel bridge, and passed a young pair of southbound JMT hikers who had just bundled up in rain gear. We asked where they were headed for tonight and were surprised that they answered "over the pass, and then somewhere." Our plan was to camp at Marie Lake on the near side of Selden Pass, and given the long climb ahead of us it seemed unlikely we'd arrive before dusk. While many thru-hikers walk by headlamp through darkness, it would be very unusual for a JMT hiker to do so. In any case, we quickly pulled away from them on the lower switchbacks and never saw them again. Macro pointed out that they may have meant somewhere beyond the top of the climb, rather than the actual pass. Neither of us remembered the lower part of the climb being filled with aspens, and on this fall day their leaves were brilliant yellow and fluttered madly in the wind that accompanied the rapidly changing sky overhead. Beyond the aspens, we entered a rather non-descript forest but were happy for the cool temperatures and lack of significant precipitation. We occasionally felt a few errant raindrops, there was obvious rain in the distance, and in many places the trail was wet from recent rain, but we remained generally dry and as we crested Bear Ridge in the late afternoon the sky was already clearing. The trail climbs along Bear Creek for a few miles, and we enjoyed golden low-angle sunlight on the Mono Divide as we walked. While we haven't been on this stretch of trail since our JMT hike, we have explored many trail-less basins in the Mono Divide just east of the JMT/PCT on multiple backpacking trips, so most of the peaks are familiar. Bear Creek itself was a pleasant companion, its clear waters alternately running over streambeds of rounded stones, flowing across wide sheets of granite, or burbling through tangles of downed trees atop blocky rock. We found it interesting that this wide but currently shallow and tame creek is considered the most dangerous ford for NOBO PCT hikers. It is the single most common reason that many NOBOs flip north of the Sierra until the snowmelt is complete, and has been the source of many near-miss incidents. Of course, swollen with snowmelt and surrounded by snow on either bank it would be a different creature altogether. This evening it was a straightforward dry shoes rock-hop to the far shore, to continue our climb to Rosemarie Meadow where the sun dipped below the ridgeline.

 

 A frosty morning along the shore of Marie Lake

A frosty morning along the shore of Marie Lake

 Morning light across Marie Lake looking towards the east into the Mono Divide

Morning light across Marie Lake looking towards the east into the Mono Divide

 Morning light across Marie Lake from our campsite, looking north towards the Silver Divide

Morning light across Marie Lake from our campsite, looking north towards the Silver Divide

We hadn't wanted to do any headlamp hiking in the high Sierra, but knew that Marie Lake (10,500') would make a stunning campsite and decided to press on to our desired destination even if it meant arriving after dark. Strangely, we didn't specifically remember the spot from our JMT hike but had visited this sweet lake a few seasons ago during a trail work PCTA service trip and were looking forward to pitching our tent there. It sits on a high shelf just below Selden Pass and has stellar views all the way north to the Silver Divide. There was alpenglow on nearby Gemini and the Seven Gables and pink sky above as we started our final climb from the meadow, and as expected we had to pull out both headlamps and warm layers for the final mile. Having not seen anyone on the trail all afternoon, we were surprised to come across several people setting up camp at the north end of the lake. We continued on and found a sweet private site on a wide peninsula further south, protected by a stand of Whitebark pines and several large granite boulders. As I was rinsing my dusty legs in the lake, a 10" trout with bright red markings swam into the shallows nearby. It didn't shy away from my splashing or the light of my headlamp, so I sat and watched it for a bit before returning to our camp to make dinner. After eating we stargazed briefly but soon retired to the tent and our warm sleeping bags. While the late September days can be pleasant in the high country and we have enjoyed the Indian Summer-like conditions of the past few days, the nights are uniformly cold and getting colder. Day 86 was another frosty morning, though the early morning light was magical and Marie lake provided perfect reflections of the surrounding peaks on its wide flat surface. We set out early for the pass in multiple layers as usual, and enjoyed the relatively easy 400' climb over white granite through more windswept Whitebark pines. As we remembered from our last visit, the views in every direction were stellar. This past section of trail has not been as familiar to us as the areas around Lake Tahoe and through Yosemite. However, as we continue south we will enter a stretch of the Sierra Nevada that we have visited countless times, and it feels like we are heading home.

 

- Huckleberry