Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue.
Colby Meadow to Le Conte Ranger Station
Miles: 18.8 Elevation Gain: 2913′
Trip Miles: 125.4 Elevation Loss: 3788′
Muir Pass, 11,955′
Max elevation: 11880 ft
Min elevation: 8832 ft
Total climbing: 3642 ft
A big doe trotted through our campsite this morning, maybe on her morning commute to the water. She didn’t take the time to acknowledge or greet the strangers who slept in her house last night.
We got up, broke down camp, and had our morning coffee and meal and quickly rejoined the trail we’d left a few hundred feet to the northeast. In a couple miles, we reached the end of the valley and the climb toward Evolution Lake and Basin. There was another creek crossing that required a couple submerged steps in icy water, but I knew my shoes and socks would dry themselves out before too long. On the way up the switchbacks out of the valley, we passed a couple of hikers making the same morning trek up the hill. After passing them, I looked back and saw that the guy had taken the woman’s load off her shoulders and he carried both of their packs. I guess the early morning uphill was too much for her.
At the top of the climb, the trail flattened out into a wide, clear basin. There were amazing views of the peaks on either side of us and the valley far below and behind us. We were approaching elevations higher than anything we’d seen since Koip Pass on the first day. The basin soon opened up into the stark beauty of Evolution Lake, nestled comfortably at the feet of the towering Mount Mendel.
The hike past the lake and further down the basin brought even more Sierra beauty. Giant peaks on either side of us, granite boulders and scree under foot, and water everywhere, coursing down the basin to join Evolution Lake, Evolution Creek, and eventually the San Joaquin and beyond.
Going gently ever upwards, each step brought more incredible views. The beauty of Evolution Basin is difficult to put into words. I couldn’t help myself from stopping, turning around, and taking in 360 degree sweeps of that pristine, Sierra scenery.
After climbing up from Evolution Lake along the bubbling, meandering, multi-channel creek, we decided we’d take a break. We relaxed on some granite slabs near one of the many large pools just below Sapphire Lake. It was easy to agree this was the most beautiful surroundings we’d encountered yet on the trip.
With water refilled and more fuel in us, we continued up the basin. Coming over a rise, Wanda Lake came into view. We had left the trees far behind miles ago and Wanda’s crystal clear waters sat in a bowl of grey granite. She marked the last part of the ascent to Muir Pass.
Following Wanda’s shoreline south, we continued to climb and the pass came into full view. The ascent wasn’t difficult; the climb from the valley to the basin was steeper. And the breathtaking beauty surrounding us kept me more than entertained as I continued upward, past Lake McDermand. Soon, as the trail steepened a little, it seemed that the mountain itself was weeping. Water seeped out of the ground all around. The trail, being the easiest course, happily carried the flow downhill. Even higher than I thought could be possible, like a sponge being squeezed, the mountain gave up seemingly endless supplies of cold, clear water.
The final ascent and switchbacks up Muir Pass brought with them the first glimpse of the Muir hut perched atop the pass. It was a clear goal to work towards, although, I was never without Carlos’ lead to keep me going. He became a small, blue speck among the boulders, diligently marking where the trail ahead of me would go.
The top of the pass opened up the view behind us toward Wanda Lake, and the descent on the other side came into sight. We’d finally made it to that iconic JMT landmark, the Muir hut. It was built by the Sierra Club in 1930 and is intended to be a refuge from lighting for hikers caught on the pass in a storm. We had nothing but blue skies above us, though.
After a break, pictures, and a chat with some JMTers from San Rafael, we started down toward Helen Lake. This side of Muir Pass was similar to the north side, granite and water. Water seeped from the ground at every turn. The seeps trickled together on the the trail, pouring off where the easier path was elsewhere. Those became creeks with waterfalls pouring down the side of the mountain. The creeks fed into lakes and the outlets from the lakes spilled down more waterfalls.
Further down this side, back in elevations the trees found more suitable, the trail ran alongside a large waterfall on the Middle Fork Kings River. Reaching the bottom of the waterfall brought us into a valley bordered on either side by towering peaks. We passed through Big Pete Meadow and continued on past Little Pete to just past the Le Conte Ranger station.
There weren’t many flat areas to set camp in this valley, and those that we could find were already taken by several hikers. We split up and went in opposite directions, hoping to spot a good site. I walked further down the trail with an eye on the opposite side of the water. It wasn’t long before I spotted what looked like a good spot near a fallen log across the water that would serve well as a bridge.
After collecting Carlos, we crossed the river and set up camp on the other side. It was nice to have found a spot away from the more crowded areas. We cleaned off in the cold water, pitched the tent, made dinner, and retired for the evening.