From where we sat with our backs against a white-speckled granite rock on the top of Mather Pass at 12,100 feet in the southern Sierra, the view could have fit with any good post-apocalyptic science fiction novel: bare jumbled rock spreading away to the horizon south and north, rimmed by the next column of stark dry peaks, sparse alpine plants clinging to fragile rootholds, scattered tarns reflecting the striking blue sky above, and not another soul in sight for miles. It would be easy to imagine that something big went “BOOM!” here and the lifeless land had not yet healed its scars.
The soul-satisfying rhythm of the southern John Muir Trail had settled well into our bones now, eight days in from our starting point to the south of Mount Whitney at Cottonwood Lakes. Wake early, climb a headwall to a high pass, descend far down to a deep cross-cutting river canyon, then climb long and high to a lonely, lovely camp below the next headwall. For all its starkness, this section of the Trail would be among the most spectacular and memorable of our hiking lives before or since.
The day before we had parted company with my Mountain Man brother and his family at Rae Lakes, spent a peaceful night at pretty, tree-lined Arrowhead Lake, and were now heading steeply downhill to the crossing of Woods Creek, a substantial tributary of the South Fork Kings River. Here at the crossing were access trails out to civilization, a bustling camp, and an elegant wood-sparred suspension bridge self-importantly named the “Golden Gate of the Sierras” in our guidebook. My forester’s eye also marked the lush forest vegetation here: white fir, lodgepole pine, even that lowland monarch the ponderosa pine, mixed with stately hardwoods and thick green undergrowth – such a contrast with the barrenness we had just descended through. Only a little elevation was enough – in temperature, moisture, hospitability of soils – to cause an abrupt demarcation in species composition here.
Then back up we went, scaling successive steep benches along Woods Creek with the Sierra crest closing in on us to the east. Seeking water and protection from lightning, we set up camp under the last scruffy trees at a desolate junction with an unmaintained trail to Sawmill Pass unseen to the east. Not another soul was in sight, nor would we see anyone at all for the next two days.
The next morning we rose early and excited to conquer Pinchot Pass and see the next vista. Our trail wandered gradually past small tarns silvery in the low-angled morning light before coming to a short and sudden headwall climb, switching so steeply that I could nearly reach up and touch John’s feet on the trail above. Then, just as suddenly, we were at the top, 12,130’, with the view behind to Glen Pass and ahead to Mather Pass unfolding around us. From Pinchot Pass, Lake Marjorie and a myriad of unnamed companion lakes shone bright aqua-blue in the barren terrain to the northwest, with the shadows of fast-blowing clouds skipping across the landscape ahead.
There was no time to waste, though – we had to cross another deep defile, this time the upper reaches of the South Fork Kings River itself, and make our way up into the simply-named Upper Basin to stage ourselves for Mather Pass the next day. We headed up, hopping over a multitude of small streams draining lakes hidden high on the ridges above on both sides. The alpenglow was stunning as the sun dropped early behind the high ridges above our tent. Yet again, we could have been the only people on the planet for the absolute solitude of the place.
The crisp early-morning light cast the landscape in stark relief as we proceeded up and over Mather Pass, 12,100’, before 8AM the next day. Following long switchbacks down through the talus, we soon reached the Palisade Lakes under the looming wall of the Palisades, a connected series of peaks over 14,000’. (There are apparently more 14-ers here than anywhere else in the Sierra Nevada.) Lower Palisade Lake was a lovely green oasis (and a fine swimming hole!), its lower edge bubbling over a steep precipice. Indeed, the precipice formed the top of the famed Golden Staircase, the last section of the JMT to be completed in 1938. The reality of this hot, nearly vertical, south-facing wall was not nearly as romantic as its name, and we felt serious pity for the travelers ascending past us in the afternoon sun as we headed down. Still, Palisade Creek was lovely as it sheeted over the rocks beside the trail.
As we proceeded knee-jarringly down, down, DOWN, 2600’ in under 5 miles, opening up before us was the Black Divide, its dark metamorphic peaks contrasting starkly with the white granite around it. The peak names on our map were fantastic: Devil’s Crags, Scylla, Charybdis, the Three Sirens, the Black Giant. At the bottom, both we and Palisade Creek joined the Middle Fork Kings River at 8070’, and we turned north and upstream into LeConte Canyon.
This was fabulous country, a deep healing breath between the severe lessons of the high passes behind us and the ones to come. The peaks framed bright green meadows of marsh grass and scattered evergreens above the meandering river. It was an easy ramble to the ranger’s cabin at the junction with the Bishop Pass trail, and after a chat with the immensely knowledgeable volunteer ranger, we found a flat spot for our tent on the boulders above the trail. My brother would find us there in the dusk, joining us for our last section of trail, and bringing another much appreciated resupply.
It was back into the moonscape the next day, on a massive scale. Winding past the origins of the Middle Fork Kings, the treeless barren country seemed endless. Following the trail up through endless twists and turns, the first of the lakes named after John Muir’s daughters finally appeared, Helen Lake, with the ridge of Muir Pass just above. It was hard to judge just where the pass was until, suddenly, there was the igloo-shaped Muir Hut on a narrow ridge rising into the Evolution Divide at its east end. Now in view to the north were the massive peaks and succession of dramatic lakes of the Evolution Valley. We had scarce time to soak in the vistas and salute back to the Black Divide before dark clouds and the beginning of storm winds convinced us to pack up and hustle down the north side of the pass. First Lake McDermand, then huge, desolate Wanda Lake, then Sapphire Lake sparking grey under the clouds, we passed nearly at a run as lightning began to strike the highlands above us and rain began to sheet down. At last under the high narrow walls of the lower canyon we could slow our steps, and by the time we reached Evolution Lake the sun was out, rays streaking through the clouds and illuminating the ridgeline we had just come down to the north. Our camp at Evolution Lake was strikingly beautiful, full of dappled light and contrast, and we toasted our escape from the lightning with a swig from my brother’s flask of bourbon as the sun went down over the Divide.
The next day would be our last on our southern John Muir Trail journey. And it was time…our bear-can-constrained food supply had proven a bit scanty for the demands of the terrain, and we were feeling a bit skeletal in body and mind. But the trail had fantastic gifts yet to deliver. Setting out the next morning, we soon found the side trail up and onto the magical Darwin Bench, a glowing white-rock flat loomed over by the peaks of Goethe, Lamarck, Mendel and Darwin, all over 13,000’, massive, a-spired and full of stark dignity. The peaks of the Evolution Group were named in 1895 by Theodore Solomons, a Stanford math professor who did as much as anyone to pioneer the high route from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, and named the features as he went along. Apparently when he found himself in the valley where we stood, surrounded by magnificent white-granite peaks, he could think of no greater complement than to name them after the great evolutionary biologists of his time. His poetic names also honor many of the other peaks of the High Sierra.
Now the peaks drew us forward, boulder-hopping along the narrowing Darwin canyon. The way grew more and more challenging, often requiring both hands. Standing beside the last, uppermost lake at 11,700’, craning our necks we could see our path (if you could call it that) leading up the steep talus to the notch which was Lamarck Col. A multitude of boot tracks meandered up the slope and we had no trouble picking our way up. From the top of the col at 12,960’ the view took in most of the Evolution group as well as the Darwin Glacier perched between Mt Darwin and Mt Mendel. Hazy and far, far below to the east lay the Owens Valley and Bishop.
The snowfield just east and below the col was, luckily, easily passible this year and we picked our way past it, down one bench, two benches, around and through and steeply down, finally into lowland forest again for the long plod on soft forest trail (what a novelty!) out to the North Lake trailhead, the parking lot and our ride back to civilization.