The Bighorn Plateau is an enigma, a broad, panoramic expanse of golden grassland, waving lupine and scattered, majestic foxtail pines in the midst of one of the most rough-and-tumbled fault-block granite mountain ranges in the world. Apparently, according to geologists, the Plateau and the adjoining gently sloping country up to the Whitney summit were remnants of an ancient eroded north-south mountain range from the Cretaceous, lifted dramatically up with the rest of the range in the series of cataclysmic events that raised the Sierras. Subsequent faulting and uplift would raise the younger crags around us, and glaciers would scour the Plateau and the lower flanks of Whitney, but where we walked the topography under our feet was very VERY old indeed.
The John Muir trail’s narrow tread stretched ahead across the flatland as far as our eyes could see, with ghostly grey-blue peaks framing the vista from southeast to northwest in the far distance, and the shadows of fast-scudding clouds zipping quickly westward across the flatlands in front of us. One of the cuts in those high granite walls on the horizon was legendary Forester Pass, the high point of the entire Pacific Crest Trail at 13,153’ elevation, and our target for first thing the next morning.
We had left our camp at Crabtree Meadow below Mt Whitney at first light that morning and headed north on the John Muir trail. It was day 4 of our journey, and we were amped by our previous day’s success reaching the summit of Whitney with energy to spare. Almost before our day had fully begun we had already reached Wallace Creek and the junction with the High Sierra Trail, a 50 mile west to east traverse of the Sierras from the Big Trees area of Sequoia Park. The campground here was bustling, one of the few concentrations of humanity (other than Whitney Summit) that we would encounter on our entire 11-day, 140 mile journey on the southern JMT. In recognition of its heavy use the park had even installed bear lockers near the junction.
From Wallace Creek the trail climbed steeply up through the trees over a sequence of moraine benches before suddenly dumping us onto the Bighorn Plateau. Winding mostly north-northwest, our path took us past clusters of squat but majestic foxtail pines, a rarified breed found at treeline only in this part of the southern Sierra and in another small refugio in the Klamath Mountains of northern California. Like their famous relatives the Bristlecone Pines, Foxtail trees are capable of great longevity. Clinging to rocky treeline flats and exposed crags, their lives are seriously harsh – sheared and seared by lightning, twisted and broken by wind, stunted by snow and short seasons. Many trees show only tiny strips of living tissue on the outside of massive stems of naked polished wood. And yet they successfully reproduce, their artful cones like small elaborate woodcarvings displayed on the trees’ few residual green limbs, and young trees pushing up through the rocks and kitty-litter-granite soil under our feet. One could only stand back and admire their strength and fortitude.
By mid afternoon, dark thunder clouds threatened and we pitched our tent under the trailside stand of trees near picturesque Tyndall Creek, a bubbling, cheerful watercourse draining the several stark lakes immediately beneath the steep rock headwall leading up to Forester Pass. Lightning began to flash and rain pelted the trees and dry duff around our tent, but the storm passed almost as soon as it had begun, a pattern that would prove typical of our entire trip. (Through-hikers determined to complete their 25 to 30 miles per day would just keep walking through the torrent, heads down, seemingly willing the lightning to miss them. We had planned our trip with a bit more genteel schedule, allowing us to make camp every day before the storms hit and watch the weather spectacle from the vestibule of our dry tent with a hot beverage.) Wandering a bit after the storm had passed, we climbed briefly to treeline and the lonely trail marker for distant Lake South America, beside a rocky footpath heading off into the vast rolling empty moraineland beyond the darkening horizon. More desolate and forbidding country we could scarce imagine, and we skittered back to our warm camp for dinner.
Another early wake-up, this time full of anticipation for the crossing of Forester Pass 5 miles ahead. The light of morning provided a more optimistic perspective on the desolate tarn-studded rockland of the high basin before us. Several snow-fed lakes lined the trail, not a ripple fouling the mountain reflections in their grey surface.
Finally there was no way to avoid the reality: the trail to the pass was going to go straight up a vertical rockpile. Yet arriving at its edge a real gravel trail actually wound through and around the rocks taking us steeply and unerringly to the sharp notch that was Forester.
A sign with the elevation was a photo-op, documenting our conquest of the pass with the high basin and lakes stretching behind the sign to the south.
The trail descended even more precipitously as it had climbed, winding down through the scree back to treeline and a camp in the trees of Vidette Meadow with a fantastic view of the sunset on East Vidette peak.
So this was to be the rhythm of our days in the southern Sierra. In a single day we would traverse the stark rocky heights brooded over by the scattered massive Foxtail, on a long gradual climb to a headwall and high pass, then back down around snowmelt tarns and through picturesque subalpine and lush mid-elevation forests to cross an east-west river drainage before climbing again to camp at treeline under the next pass. Long approach, headwall, pass, descent, river crossing, another long approach to the next headwall. We came to savor it and to look forward to each day’s unfolding of the pattern.
Our path at sunrise the next morning followed busy Bubbs Creek downhill, the spires of the Kearsarge Pinnacles shadowing our path and catching the early sun just above us to the north and east. The milestone for this day, our 6th on the trail, was to meet my brother, his wife and two robust young sons from Bishop who were carrying in our resupply over Kearsarge Pass, accompanying us over Glen Pass, and spending the weekend with us at Rae Lakes. Amazingly, given all this empty country, we made our rendezvous as planned at midmorning and headed uphill toward Glen Pass.
The trail over Glen Pass was a mass of boulders, our trail appearing to have no clear sense of purpose other than to make their way around the enormous obstacles in the path. An unnamed lake just below the trail offered the boys a welcome diversion and they leaped into the water from the adjoining rocks buck naked and screeching with joy. A chance to dry on the warm rocks, a bite of lunch, and we finally made it to the actual pass and glorious views to the spectacular deep jade green Rae Lakes lined with white granite below. It was a scamper down the steep trail from the pass to the lakes and some of the loveliest camps we were to find on the entire JMT.
Smooth promontories of white granite extended out over the lakes, flat white boulders afforded view-filled tent spots with lake views and sunset on the peaks of Mt Rixford and the Painted Lady behind to the east, and meadow and rock edged the lake in an artfully curved shoreline. Our youngest nephew caught a small golden trout on a handline (enough for a carefully pan-fried quarter-sized bite). Life could hardly be better.
The next morning we wandered up a steep side trail into the aptly named Sixty Lakes Basin, soaking in the steadily expanding views of the lakes, contrasting white rock and emerald conifers below, before we had to pack up to allow my brother’s family to get back over the pass and home. It was just a short distance down-trail for John and me to Arrowhead lake where we pitched our tent in the now kid-less quiet of the woods by the shoreline.