Big Pete Meadow to Muir Pass to Evolution Lake, 11.6 miles
We set off bright and early for Muir Pass this morning, and our guidebook says it is our last big pass of the John Muir Trail, so we are pretty pumped for it. We have about 2500′ of elevation yet to gain, and it starts right out of the gate. As we climb up, the Middle Fork of the Kings River tumbles down violently beside us.
After a few miles, we reach Starr Camp, where there is a pretty waterfall to photograph for our morning break.
From there, we are above tree line the rest of the way, and the scenery keeps getting better and better. We cross several rivers and finally come to an unnamed lake where the trail closely skirts the shoreline.
The water here is super clear, and, as we are walking, I notice that there are giant tadpoles visible right at the water’s edge. We look more closely and realize that there are tons of them.
I go down to the shore to get a better look and find six mature yellow legged frogs hanging out. The tadpoles move en masse as I get closer to them and stir up the mud in the water, but I can see that many are already growing legs. They’ll be frogs soon. There must be thousands of them. I can’t imagine what that lake will be like when it is overrun by frogs!
From there, we cross another river, pass another gorgeous lake and then follow the rocky trail up to the lake’s inlet. Our progress is super slow because everything we see is so crazy gorgeous, so we keep stopping to take photos.
We’ve seen a lot of alpine terrain in our day, and this scenery knocks our socks off. This probably sounds really dumb, but we had no idea that the mountains in California were so beautiful!
Yet another river crossing leads us up to a snow field. An older couple is making their way down it slowly, so we wait. The woman apologizes to us for being such a chicken, and I tell her that I am one, too, and not to worry about it. Matt notices that she is wearing mismatched shoes—a regular hiking boot on one foot and one Teva sandal taped at the toe on the other. Curiosity gets the best of him, and he asks what the story is.
Apparently 4 or 5 days back, she and her husband were fording a river, and, out of frustration, she decided to throw her boots across to the other shore rather than carry them or tie them on to her pack. She threw the first successfully, but the second fell short and didn’t land on the bank. Off it went floating down the river! She and her husband ran after it for as long as possible but never did catch it, and this was how she was making do. I suppose if she can make it over Muir Pass in a sandal, she should be able to handle the rest of the JMT—jeez!
The snowfield is easier for us northbounders because we are going up instead of down for a change. The trail then leads us up to the outflow of Helen Lake, a beautiful high alpine lake named after one of Muir’s daughters. The water from the lake’s outlet flows right over the trail, but stepping stones help keep us slightly above the water level.
We stop for lunch and have a chance to take in the incredible scenery around Helen Lake. The mountains here are so stark and barren that they look like they have been snatched from Iceland or Greenland and dropped here for our viewing pleasure. The waters of Helen Lake are so clear and deep blue, that we swear we could be in the Adriatic. We say again for the umpteenth time that we had no idea that mountains like this existed in California—wow!
We make the final push up to the pass through more river-logged trail, snowfields and switchbacks. It’s actually a little difficult to figure out where to go since there are so many tracks leading through the snow in all directions.
We know when we have made it to the top when we finally see the conical-shaped stone Muir Hut cresting the ridge. It is such an icon of this trail that it is a little hard to believe that we are finally here. I guess it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are hordes of hikers hanging out all around it. Nonetheless it’s a bit of a bummer, and we take some photos and have a look inside before taking off pretty quickly.
The descent is through Evolution Valley which is rocky and barren save for a series of lakes that are so sapphire blue that they look unreal. We take a break at Wanda Lake (Muir’s other daughter) and then pass Sapphire Lake on our way to finding a campsite on Evolution Lake.
There’s one more water crossing before we can call it quits, and this one is super wide. It’s across the inlet to Evolution Lake. Luckily, someone has laid out a series of very well-placed boulders all the way across the water. Thank you JMT trail crew!
We get about 2/3 the way around the lake and find a pretty cool campsite on a peninsula sticking into the lake. Despite the popularity of this lake, we have this site all to ourselves. It’s off the trail a bit, on a rock shelf jutting out toward the lake, but well above it. The views all around us are phenomenal, but we have quite a trek down to the lake to get water. A deer is down there, but she doesn’t see to mind our presence too much. This is one of the more beautiful campsites we have ever stayed at, and we are pinching ourselves that we are here all alone.
As the sky turns dark on a cloudless night, Matt decides to take advantage of the unobstructed panoramic views to experiment with some nighttime photography. The moonlight is so bright tonight that it’s possible to take some shots using it as the only source of light, creating some surreal shots that feel like we are on the moon.
Of course, we know we’re not really on the moon, but the phrase “out of this world” perfectly captures this amazing day on the trail!