Day 18: Duck Lake Outlet to Red’s Meadow, 11.2 miles
Today we are headed to Red’s Meadow, and we are both so excited to reach this landmark on the JMT! We pop out of the tent like kids on Christmas morning, ready to get going. Red’s Meadow is a rustic resort with a general store, diner, laundromat, showers and campground. We mailed our last resupply bucket there from Chicago, and it will mark 60 miles until the end of the JMT. It’s an exciting milestone, and, lord knows, we could definitely use a real shower and a few of “civilization’s” amenities.
We are camped high on a hillside above the outlet for Duck Lake, which is in a pretty little valley. After packing up quicker than normal, we walk down the hillside and once again feel a stark drop in temperature. In the 20 feet of elevation between our camp and the river, the temperature must drop at least 10°F. It feels cold and wet down by the river, making us happy that we made the extra effort to camp high last night.
The first 5.5 miles of the trail are on a sandy ridge with pretty arid-loving flowers and lodgepole pines. The morning temps are cool, and we enjoy the gentle tread and easy ups and downs for this long stretch. So many of the miles on the JMT are challenging. On this morning, we certainly don’t mind having a few easy ones. We pass the 900-mile marker on the PCT and both agree that it would be amazing to come back sometime and do the entire trail from Mexico to Canada.
After the Deer Creek crossing, the trail widens, and we begin seeing southbound hikers who have left Red’s earlier that morning. They are showered and clean with huge smiles on their faces and a skip in their step. We respond by kicking up the pace a notch. We are hiking down hill, so even though we probably still have a half dozen miles to go, we figure we should be there soon. That is, if we stop taking photos of all the interesting tree bark and pretty lupine that we see.
After 2.1 miles we see the Red Cones, striking red volcanic cinder cone formations that are a recommended side trip in our guidebook. With the promise of a shower and a milkshake awaiting us, we opt out and continue on down some long switchbacks through a mountain hemlock forest. Apparently these trees were favorites of John Muir, and we take some time to admire their beauty.
With such pretty trees on our minds, it’s a bit of a shock when we turn the corner to see a scene straight out of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. On the hillside ahead of us and as far as the eye can see, almost every tree stands broken in half. It is a scene of total devastation, yet the sky is blue and the sun is shining brightly. It is oddly pretty in its own strange way.
We enter this surreal world and see a lone deer on the hillside in front of us. It is almost 11 now, and the deer goes into the shade under a tree stump to dig in the dirt. We guess that is it is making a bed to pass the heat of the day, and, sure enough, it lays down in the shade when it is done. We pretend not to see it as we walk by in hopes of not disturbing it.
This area is a result of the 1992 Rainbow Fire, and, as we enter some 24 years later, it is slowly showing signs of recovery. There is plenty of thick, green undergrowth, and young fir trees are randomly growing here and there. We walk through a section of the trail that is totally overgrown with ferns.
This area reminds us of a beloved section of the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota that was devastated a few years ago by the Pagami Creek Fire, and we suddenly realize from seeing this just how long it will take for that newly-burned area in canoe country to look normal again. It feels like we are walking through a graveyard of sorts, and we both walk in a reverent silence as we pay our respect to the fallen trees.
Finally, stands of healthy trees not touched by the fire reappear, and almost immediately we see signs for Red’s Meadow! The trail leads us to the horse stables and road, and there are lots of people walking around. We follow the pavement to the resort. It feels really strange it is to be walking on a man-made surface.
We are a little appalled by how dusty we are, but we are guessing the folks working at Red’s must be pretty used to hikers looking this way when they arrive after being out on the trail for days or even weeks on end.
As we approach the main complex we see loads of daytrippers lining up to wait for the shuttle bus that will take them back to Mammoth Lakes, the nearby town where we plan to take care of numerous tasks tomorrow on our “zero” day. There are also plenty of grubby hikers (PCTrs and JMTers alike) milling about, chilling out on the picnic tables or lounging in the shade on the dusty ground between the general store and the cafe. It is quite a scene.
We drop our packs outside the diner and grab a spot at the counter for a diner-style lunch. The diner is paneled in knotty pine and decorated in an antiquated style from an older era. The place is buzzing with hikers and daytrippers alike. The menu is short and rather limited on vegetarian selections. Matt orders a grilled cheese, and I have a veggie burger. We both indulge in a mint-chocolate chip shake. We eat in somewhat of a daze, overwhelmed by modern conveniences like chairs, ice and napkins after 18 days on the trail.
After lunch we head to the backpackers campground and set up our tent under the shade of a tree. The whole place is dusty beyond belief, and any time the wind picks up or a car goes by, a wave of fine, pumice-like dust rises in the air and coats everything in its vicinity.
We grab our dirty clothes, our empty bear canisters and toiletries and head to the laundry and shower building. Since every item of clothing we own is filthy and in need of washing, we change into our rain gear (commando style!) and get the laundry started while we shower. It’s amazing to watch all of the dirt wash off our bodies and go down the drain! The showers are operated by tokens, and, all too soon, our precious shower time is up. We barely have enough water to rinse clean before it ends abruptly.
We spend the rest of the afternoon hanging out on the deck of the laundry building, enjoying cold beers and chatting amiably with fellow hikers while charging various batteries and finishing up the laundry. It’s fun to socialize with other people experiencing many of the same situations on the JMT, even if most are headed in the opposite direction. One benefit of this is getting “intel” on the trail ahead of us, and we ask the south-bounders about trail conditions, the difficulty of Donahue Pass and if there are any campsites worth pursuing or avoiding.
We pick up our resupply from the storage area in the back of the general store and learn that Red’s no longer operates a “food exchange” like Muir Trail Ranch. This is because long-form hikers on the PCT started campingout illegally in the hills above Red’s and come down for free food, living for weeks at a time off of the excess food left behind by JMTers. So we repack our bear vaults with food for the final 6 days and give away our leftovers to our porch companions in an amusing live auction of sorts.
We meet two guys from San Jose who were out for a short week of hiking. We also meet two younger guys, one of whom is deciding whether or not to call it quits because his boots have given him terrible blisters that are turning into open wounds. It’s pretty clear to us that his feet will not heal if he presses on, but he’s visibly depressed about the idea of ending his journey early. We are feeling fortunate that our bodies have held up for these 18 days without serious injury.
Just before dark we head over to the campground and try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, repacking our clothes and re-situating all the smaller items in our packs. The backpackers share a small, crowded campsite with a few scattered picnic tables and bear lockers. By now, there are more than a dozen tents pitched fairly close to one another, and folks are hanging out together and chatting at the picnic tables over dinner and beers.
Camped near us are two solo Japanese hikers with whom we spend the rest of the evening chatting. It is interesting to hear their take on hiking in the US and how they are enjoying their experience. For the most part they are positive about it, but they find the trail far too dusty.
We commiserate and laugh together about the ups and downs of hiking the JMT. We exchange stories from the trail and hope that we have helped to create a favorable impression of friendly hikers in the US. We are the last ones awake in the campground. By 10:30, we are wrapped in our sleeping bags hoping to get a good night of sleep before our busy day in Mammoth tomorrow!