Bushcamp to Onion Valley Trailhead, 7.6 miles
We set our alarm on Matt’s iPhone to make certain that we don’t oversleep this morning. We have 7.6 miles to hike before we get picked up by Strider at the Onion Valley trailhead at 12:30 pm. If we are late, we will have to hitchhike into Independence on our own, and we are hoping that won’t happen. We wake up at 5:00 am and are on the trail by 6:30.
We leave the JMT at our first junction and start heading along the 2.4 mile connector trail that will take us to Kearsarge Pass. Along the way, we pass a few small lakes before coming to Bullfrog Lake, a beautiful body of water with an impressive wall of mountains forming its backdrop. It would be really nice to linger a bit longer here, but we are on a deadline. We snap a few photos and keep moving.
We reach the junction for the pass, and the trail immediately begins to climb up. The higher we go, the windier it is, and we eventually have to stop to put on a windbreaker for warmth. The trail zigzags its way up to the pass, and the wind is blowing so strongly it nearly blows me over a few times. I am grateful that it is pushing me into the mountain instead of away from it.
At the top of the pass, we chat with a nice young couple from Palm Springs who are doing an overnight hike. We are all hunkered down behind the rocks to get some protection from the wind, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the stupendous views from the 11,820′ pass.
After a short break, we press on and start switchbacking our way down from the pass. There are three beautiful lakes on the descent, and the lower we go the drier the landscape becomes. The north side of the trail is definitely all desert with small, shrubby plants and arid rocky terrain, while the south side looks more alpine with its richly colored evergreen trees and shimmering lakes. It kind of feels like we are on a schizophrenic hike as we switchback down between the two ecosystems. First it’s Hello there, Forest!, but, within a few minutes, the trail changes personality and screams, “Welcome to the desert!” It’s quite interesting and helps the miles pass by.
We stop for a quick snack break on a large boulder overlooking Gilbert Lake before continuing on. The water looks really inviting, and it appears to be a popular place to camp. Perhaps next time, that’s what we will do, too.
From our vantage point on the trail, we can see Independence, the road to the trailhead and finally the parking lot for quite some time. It is teasing us long before we actually reach the bottom.
We finally get to the trailhead by noon, and we head to the bathroom where we have been instructed to look for Strider in a black Toyota 4-Runner. She shows up a few minutes later, and James and Sarah, a father/daughter duo are there, too. We are all accounted for, so we load our packs up in the back, climb into the car and are on our way to the Mt. Williamson Motel in tiny Independence in no time.
Strider owns the motel and is super charismatic. She has hiked the JMT “yo-yo” style (forwards and backwards) for 22 consecutive years now. We grill her with questions about the trail, what it is like to do the trail in October (her preferred time of year) and the differences between PCTers and JMTers. Before we know it, we have arrived and are checking into a super cute, little cottage at the motel.
We have booked the JMT Resupply Package, so, in addition to our room, we get transportation to/from the trailhead, a welcome beverage (beer or tea), our laundry washed and folded, breakfast in the morning, all in addition to hot showers, a soft bed and electricity—in other words, everything a thru-hiker could possibly hope for!
Strider has a passion for the endangered Bighorn sheep that are found in California’s High Sierras, and there is a really cool art installation on the motel that is part of the Migrating Mural project by artist Jane Kim. This project was created to draw attention to public art and rare animals like California’s Bighorn sheep, and there are six different mural projects featuring the endangered animals along an 120 mile stretch of Highway 395, which represents their migratory range. The mural at Strider’s motel depicts the lifespan of the bighorn ram from calf to adult, and it’s really cool!
We borrow some clothes to wear while our laundry is being washed and head to the town co-op for a delicious pizza and salad. There are four other tables, and we notice that everyone waiting for their food looks dazed and confused—completely whacked by the trail. It’s an amusing scene to say the least.
With food in our bellies, we go back to our room to shower, restock our bear canisters with the food cache we dropped off a week ago and repack our backpacks. Once we are done, we talk at length with Strider about the next section of the trail and pick her brain for the best places to camp. She shares her knowledge freely, and, after our chat, we are more excited than ever to get back on the trail tomorrow.
The afternoon slips by, and it’s suddenly already time for dinner. We head over to the other restaurant in town, the Still Life Cafe, and have what turns out to be a rather entertaining meal.
The owners of the cafe are a married French couple who opened the restaurant 17 years ago. The wife is a talented, gourmet chef. She works in the kitchen, while the husband, a reluctant waiter, serves customers in the front. They argue and yell back and forth between their two stations, and it is apparent that their marriage is not exactly a match made in heaven. He tells us he hates working in the restaurant and can’t wait to retire to a dead-end road in the middle of nowhere in the desert. Apparently, sleepy Independence is a little too bustling for this introvert.
The whole scene feels so very French, and it’s a surreal dining experience to have in this tiny desert town in California. Of course, Matt manages to endear himself to the curmudgeonly French man, and we get relatively good service as a result, which we hear is not typically the case. The food is excellent, and we enjoy every bite of the home-cooked meal. After dinner, we walk back to the motel and fall sound asleep in our first proper bed in over a week. Bonne nuit!