As I explained a bit in the trip report of our Inyo National Forest adventure, 2020 upended many of our plans, but some for the better. Two weeklong backpacks with only a month in between them? We didn't mind at all. Let's see how that works out!
Some version of this trip has been on our minds for quite some time, with Martha Lake being a must-see, possibly involving some cross-country and a bit of Evolution Valley. Soon after finalizing plans for the other trip, we hashed this one out, too.
We would start on the west side, at Maxson Trailhead by the Courtright Reservoir. First, head south-east to the Bench Valley area, cross-country over to Martha Lake, some more cross-country into the Evolution Basin, do a few miles of northbound freeway (PCT/JMT), but turn south again into Goddard Canyon and back over Hell for Sure Pass.
It turned out two of our dear friends will be in the Martha Lake neighborhood at the same time, so we tweaked the schedule a bit to meet up with them.
We were still antsy about the whole pandemic situation and whether we'll be able to go, but at least the permitting part was somewhat easier, the start being in the Sierra National Forest. The quota was almost full, but we could still reserve a permit with pickup at the ranger station in Prather. The station was supposed to be closed to the public, but permits were put in a mailbox by the door. Good enough for us.
The first trip went great (other than the memory card debacle) and time between flew by with work and prep. July ended with a huge heat wave, and we were somewhat nervous about fires, but other than that, we couldn't wait to go.
Day 1 – L.A. to Prather, then Courtright Reservoir, then campsite along the Kings River
This is going to be another one of those extra-long first days where it feels like it's day zero and one together.
We got up at 4am, left as soon as possible, picked up the permit from Prather. At least there was no delay with that. A little bit before 9am, we arrived in Shaver and turned off the 168. Courtright is about 30 miles from here, on well-paved, but undulating roads. I thought it will take well over an hour, but we were surprised to get to the reservoir in about 50 minutes. It is a very scenic place, that's sure, but it was also very crowded. People were camped all over the place, many of them obviously out of bounds, with no enforcement in sight.
To get to the Maxson trailhead, we had to drive over the dam. It's a narrow dirt road, with no railing on the downslope side. The chasm right next to the car was a bit scary and awe-inspiring at the same time.
Past another (full) campground, there's the overnight parking lot. It still had at least a dozen open spaces and we selected the most shaded one.
We ate, then finished packing the backpacks, put them on, locked the car, almost left… when we realized we forgot our hiking poles at home. I'm a total idiot. It would have been my task to pack them, but we recently moved them from their old location, and as they were out of sight, I completely forgot about them.
We were devastated. To do this trip without them, especially considering all the cross-country we planned, would have been extremely unpleasant at best. We know our performance issues very well and we heavily rely on the poles, especially downhill and cross-country.
It was about 11:30am. We would have been on time if not for this.
What to do? After some discussion, we decided to drive back to Shaver Lake and try to buy at least one pair, so we can share it.
We got in the car and left the parking lot. However, I was determined to try our luck and when we saw a group of day hikers unpacking from their car, we asked them if they had hiking poles. They answered in the negative, but they were from Shaver and told us where we had a good chance of finding some.
Then we saw three rock climber types hanging out by their tent and asked them, too. Two of them shook their heads right away, but one girl said "Hold on, I might have a pair in my truck." We parked the car, and mirabile dictu, in a minute she produced a brand-new pair of Black Diamond carbon hiking poles. She said she got them more than a year before, but really dislikes them and never uses them.
She was more than happy to sell it to us, at a very reasonable price. We were ecstatic, to put it mildly. One pole each would be less comfortable than the regular setup, but still a vast improvement from nothing at all.
A few minutes later, we were back in the parking lot, securing the car once again, and almost exactly at noon, we started walking. We couldn't believe our luck, the time lost with the whole issue was less than half an hour.
The first part of the Maxson trail is actually a dirt road, leading north the east side of the reservoir. The road branches off from the paved spur a bit before the backcountry parking lot. If you're already in this lot, there's a use trail leading down the hillside, merging with the dirt road a few hundred feet further away. Then it's about following this for about three quarters of a mile.
The scenery was great, with a sparse, somewhat dry forest and huge white rocks on the left side, gleaming blindingly in the harsh sunlight. The road itself is a 4WD route, leading first to Voyager Rock campground, then past it to the north, way into the boonies.
A few cars passed us, but they were all going slow and the dust wasn't too bad. Still, we were happy when we reached the clearly marked turnoff and finally trod on a proper trail.
The trail soon featured a few wooden walkways, traversing a boggy area. It was not very wet at this time, a sign of the drought to come.
After about two miles, past some great meadows, the forest gets thicker and even dryer, and the trail climbs a hill of a few hundred feet, not very steep. On the other side of the hill, more meadows awaited, some with dry or almost-dry creeks. We sat down on a big fallen log in the shade and enjoyed a quick snack.
Not much later we got to Post Corral Meadows, the trail turning south, following the creek for a while, then crossing it. There was very little water this time, but we could see that in high flow times, this crossing could be a real problem.
On the far side of the creek is the junction of the trail heading north-east to Fleming Lake. If the trip goes as planned, this will be our return route on the last day.
We continued on the south trail, following it as it climbed away from Corral Creek, cresting a rise, then dropping sharply into the drainage of the North Fork Kings River. This was a gorgeous area, the river flowing over all sorts of flat and sharp rocks with small pools and cascades alternating.
It's been a long day, and we planned on camping here somewhere. Some sites were visible in the trees, but that was exactly it, they were way too exposed. Somewhat further down, we saw a few people set up by the river, so we decided to push on a bit more. It was late by this time, almost 5:30pm.
When scouting via Google Earth and the topo map, I saw that not much after crossing Fleming Creek, the trail runs a few hundred feet away from the Kings River, and there might be suitable camping in that area. In the location I guessed appropriate, we left the trail and bushwhacked to the right. The thicket wasn't too bad, and soon enough we emerged in a great meadow, right by the river. It was perfect, with many level spots to set up the tent, and legally far away from, but with easy access to the water. We happily dropped our packs and cooked soup, pitching the tent while it steeped.
The weather looked dodgy, clouds were all around and we could hear thunder from the east. For a while, it looked like we'll get some rain, but nothing happened. The sky started clearing, and after 7pm, the sun came out for a fantastic sunset. Before dinner, we took a short walk upstream to explore a scenic little bend in the river with a pool bookended by short rapids. It's been a long day, but we were happy, especially having solved the hiking pole problem.
We took our time, eating a late lunch and just milling about. The semi-famous comet NEOWISE was in the sky to the north-west, and we made a point to stay up late enough and observe it. The sky was clear, but we were only at cca. 8,000'. The comet was barely visible with the naked eye as a slightly fuzzy object, easily confused with a faint star. However, I propped the camera on a log and took some long-exposure shots. Two of them ended up halfway usable, with the dust tail nicely visible and even the gas tail showing up a bit (yes, each comet has two tails).
Finally, it was to bed, the end of a long, but ultimately fun day.
Day 2 - Campsite along the Kings River to Horsehead Lake
Taking into account the previous day and the relatively low mileage planned for this second day, we decided to sleep an hour later than usual. This meant getting up at 7am. It was a beautiful morning, not very cold and not a cloud in sight. Two hours later, we left camp and bushwhacked back to the trail, which climbed a bit away from the river, then back. Soon we walked past an amazing hut, a ranger- snow-survey- and weather station all rolled into one, but with nobody in sight. The place even featured a hand-cranked pully car to cross the river. We would have loved to try it, but of course it was locked.
The next junction (to Red Mountain Basin) was just a few hundred yards past the station. We kept on the Blackcap Trail, undulating in the forest, then back to the river's edge with some more scenic bits.
The day's destination was Horsehead Lake, east of Bench Valley. Following the trail, we would had to walk way south, then turn north again, a total distance of about 9.5 miles from this point. This we would not have minded, but perusing the at the map and Google Earth, it was obvious that there's a simple shortcut cross-country. I even suspected that there will be a use trail.
After the Bench Creek, we didn't look for such a spur, but left the main trail at the most obvious spot and stared climbing in the forest. It was sparse enough to make for easy going and not terribly steep. As I thought, we even made out some faint traces of an old trail and followed the almost-invisible segments in the general direction.
Soon we got great views of the Kings River's drainage both up- and downstream. It got even more scenic when we contoured back to Bench Creek again. It was not flowing very strongly, but well enough to make for a pretty sight, sliding down the flat rocks. We didn't have to re-cross it, just kept climbing on huge granite slabs polished by untold years of exposure to the elements.
The granite ended as we topped the rise and entered the forest again, pretty thick at this point. The use trail was right there again, well-defined this time in the wetter soil, headed east in the fern thickets. This was officially Bench Valley.
A few minutes later, we picked up the real trail. The shortcut took about an hour, saving us cca. three miles. Most of the time, we're really not about saving time or distance, but this time there was a good chance of rain forecast for the afternoon, and we wanted to make camp quickly. Also, the route was such a no-brainer.
The trail climbs out of Bench Valley, switchbacking steeply for a short while, giving us a glimpse of the valley's upper reaches. Cumulus clouds were gathering, making for great pictures, but a sign of a possible storm later.
Just past the top of the incline, there was the first of the two McGuire Lakes. The shore was pretty boggy and inaccessible, so though we were hungry, we decided to push on a bit more. Ten minutes and a short climb later there was Upper McGuire Lake, much more scenic and more easily accessible than the other. On the eastern shore, we found a perfect rest spot next to the trail. I got some fresh water while Em unpacked the food.
On a whim, I dropped my clothes on got in the lake for a swim, enjoying the cool water. Of course, the sun hid behind clouds and the wind picked up as I was getting out, making for a less-than-pleasant experience, but that's all part of the fun.
All this took some time, but soon enough, we were ready to go again. The trail climbs another bit, and goes by Guest Lake, skirting on the north-west side. That shoreline is heavily guarded by dense brush and rocks, but we decided to take a look anyway and scrambled through the thicket. It was surprisingly hard to get to the water, but it was worth it. Guest Lake is somewhat larger than upper McGuire and just as scenic. Despite the rugged shoreline, there were several suitable campsites among the trees.
Back on the trail, we kept north. This is where on most maps, the official trail ends, but in reality, it's very much visible and continues on, crossing a nice little meadow, then climbing another small hump. From top of the hump, Colt Lake is visible to the east, beautiful in its own right. By this time, menacing thunderclouds surrounded us from all sides, most of them concentrating in the west and north.
Horsehead Lake, our destination, appeared in front of us. On a map, the lake's outline really reminds you of a horse's upper torso (more like a knight chess piece), but only on the map. From this angle, it was still gorgeous, but just an amorphic jumble of water and rocks.
We walked down to the water and looked around. Where to camp? First, we explored to the left, towards the outlet. Though we found a spot, it was too exposed to the wind and too far away from the water. Then we saw a few people appear on the far side. Apparently, they were camped in the trees there. By the way, they were the first people we've seen since the last afternoon.
A group of trees on the eastern shore looked promising. When we got there, it turned out it's just perfect: it was sheltered, out of view, legally close to the water and the tent site could drain well in case of a heavy downpour.
Speaking of which, we saw that a storm cell is not far from us, but moving away. It looked like we got a reprieve, at least for a while. Nonetheless, we pitched the tent before anything else.
Then it was time for a snack and a soup, sitting on a flat rock between the trees and the water. Despite the racing clouds, the sun was out enough so we could take a shower.
As soon as we finished, it looked like we won't escape a shower of the other kind. Several storm cells were all around us, with thunder and lightning flashing and booming every few seconds. Some thunderclaps were so loud, they echoed three or four times from the various ridges. We could see heavy rain in the air from where we came from and even an even thicker curtain to the north-east. That seemed to be a truly serious storm, and we were concerned for our friends we were supposed to meet the following day. If they were on schedule, they should be right in the middle of that. Our only consolation was that we knew they are very experienced and can deal with all sorts of adverse conditions.
Quickly, I prepared a small trench around the tent, then we ducked inside as it started pattering. However, as it didn't turn into serious rain and stopped after a few minutes, we emerged again. The storms were raging all around us, but the Horsehead Lake area was spared. The spectacle was still going on, but the big one seemed like it's abating and drifting further away from us.
No point in hiding. We secured the tent, put on our rain jackets, and went for a walk around the lake. It was unbelievable. The low sun glittering on the water, clouds of all shapes, sizes and colors, several rainbows appearing over the nearby ridgelines.
We circled clockwise, beginning with the western shore (where we looked for camp first), crossed the outlet leading into Bench Valley, then continued around, passing by the campsite of those other folks. We saw them from relatively far away and waved. Here we picked up the use trail, which apparently goes around the lake south-east to north, then peters out on the northwest side.
Another storm cell appeared from the south-east, and this time it started raining lightly. It went on and off for about 15 minutes, then it stopped, and that was it. The air was crisp, fragrant, it felt like life force in its purest form. The light kept getting better and better by the minute, with the colors turning ever deeper and richer than before.
We got back to camp and just stood there, enjoying the show of the sun setting almost exactly by the lake's outlet. Even past sunset, the visual feast continued with all the clouds and the lake interplaying.
The wind quieted down completely, but the water's surface wasn't still. The lake was full of trout, most very small. Like always this time of day, they were all having dinner, jumping for mosquitoes and other bugs. In the quiet evening, so many were jumping at any given moment, that you could hear it. It was like a very quiet sizzle or very light rain. We've seen trout feed countless times, but neither of us could remember ever hearing them like this.
We cooked dinner and sat on the usual rock, looking at the darkening sky and the water, grateful to have missed the storm. Our thoughts kept returning to our friends. We'll, let's see if we meet them tomorrow, maybe they'll have a story to tell.
Then it was to bed for a good night's sleep in the quiet night.
Day 3 – Horsehead Lake to Martha Lake
Mistakenly, I cancelled the 6am alarm and it was 6:30 when we woke up. The first thing was to check the weather forecast. The skies were clear, but as we all know, that doesn't mean anything. It looked much better though; the chance of rain dropped to almost nothing.
Regardless, we knew we'll be exposed for most of the route, so we tried to get going quickly. Of course, it still took two hours. The morning was spectacular – hurry or not, we spent a long time sitting on the rock and looking at the water while eating breakfast and drinking tea slowly.
Then we were off, first making sure to bury all the trenching I dug before. Leave no trace.
After following the use trail to the northern tip of the lake, we turned into the little gully leading up to the next lake. Soon we were walking by Roman Four Lake, small, shallow and boggy. On the far side, the first part of the climb began among the trees, then on immense granite slabs. The idea was to avoid dropping to Twin Buck Lakes and climb to Bullet Lake.
The route was easy and obvious enough, soon we emerged on a rugged plateau scored with deep gullies and a tiny, beautiful meadow on the far side. Here we had to climb the next hump, which got as to Bullet Lake. This lake looked shallow as well, but way more rocky than Roman Four. All in all, it was a fantastic place, Em and I agreed that we'd love to camp here someday. We couldn't see for sure, but it looked like the northwest shore could have some sheltered spots among the trees.
After a snack break on the shore, it was northward again, climbing another bit to a shelf above Schoolmarm Lake. This lake is relatively large, roundish and just as pretty in its own right as all the others. However, no great camp spots were evident on any side of its shores. We were higher up anyway and had to turn west, following the inflow creek another "step" up within lush green grasses and bushes, dotted with wildflowers. Even faint traces of a use trail were visible now and then.
Six Shooter Lake was next, its southern shore somewhat flooded by all the overflowing snowmelt. Thankfully, there was a great ledge which took us south. That end of Six Shooter was a bonanza of wildflowers, at least a dozen different kinds with hundreds of individuals crowding in the green grass. We had to take a break to admire them and take pictures. Four guys showed up behind us, apparently having come from the same direction.
We kept south for another few hundred yards, gaining some elevation in a gully draining Holster Lake. However, we took a small detour to the left to see another small lake hidden from sight, namely Wah Hoo Lake (yes, I do have tremendous fun writing down all these quirky lake names). From a rock overlooking Wah Hoo, we saw the four guys, now on the far side of the lake, proceeding up to the northern ramp of the valley.
We continued south for a bit to the outlet of Holster Lake, crossed it (another photo break for wildflowers), then turned west and entered the cirque leading up to Confusion Pass. If you peruse the map, the way we came from Bullet Lake was a big upside-down U in order to circumnavigate a tall rocky fin between Bullet and Holster. Take a look at a topo and it will all make sense.
For now, we were staring at the scenery ahead of us, the first of a few unnamed lakes right there, mostly bare rock on its shores. The view was cut off by the headwall of the cirque, with the pass in the middle. No trail, of course.
The west side of the first lake was easy to navigate, a few minutes later we were on the far side, going up in the boulder field.
It was lunchtime, and we were looking for shade. When the following lake came into view, we saw some trees by the outflow and decided to try there. It was perfect, there were comfortable, flat rocks right by the water and the trees provided much-needed shade a bit further back. We were mostly concerned about our food getting too much heat as the weather on this trip has been unseasonably warm so far.
Having stashed our gear in the shade, we took the shoes off, soaked our feet in the ice-cold water and had a long lunch. We kept looking at the route ahead, trying to scout the best way.
After saddling up again, we circumnavigated the lake on its northern shore, and then the more serious climb began. It was slow going, but the route was very easy to make out. From above the lake, we could see that its shape resembles a devil's mask, complete with two horns.
According to the map, there's yet another, small lake before the pass, but it was dry. However, it was inevitable that we lose some elevation. We tried to contour as much as possible and it did turn out relatively easy.
From here, the talus is as jumbled and difficult as any in the Sierra. We had to plan each step, sometimes backtrack a bit. The pass kept creeping closer, though. At one point I lost my footing and fell, but that one pole I had saved me, I got away with a small scrape on my shin.
Up and up we went, moving slowly among the seemingly barren granite boulders. Of course, small patches of grass and flowers still reared their heads wherever a bit of dirt accumulated. They were many columbines, most of them in full bloom. These are some of our favorite flowers, and we were delighted to find many colors, from white to pink to yellow, and even some purple, which are supposedly very common in Colorado, but rare in the Sierra.
At 1pm, we topped the rise. The pass itself is at least a hundred yards wide and even features a small tarn. Surprisingly, there was a guy on the far end, evidently finishing his break and putting his pack on. When we scrambled around the tarn, he told us he camped by Holster Lake and just came up. I guess we didn't' see him in front of us because he was wearing mostly light-colored clothes. Anyway, he was very friendly, he said he's been here at least a dozen times over the years and never met anybody else.
To the west, it finally came into view: Martha Lake, sitting majestically in her barren bowl, Mt. Goddard towering above. We could also see a sliver of Confusion Lake, sitting just a bit below us. The interesting thing about this lake is that it drains in two directions: both into Goddard Canyon and Blackcap Basin.
Speaking of Goddard Canyon, we could see its full splendor stretching away to our left with all the big peaks (too numerous to list) visible in the distance.
Another part we examined carefully was the north side of Mt. Goddard with the unnamed lake above Martha and the terrain behind it. That's the route we planned on taking the next day or two.
In the meantime, the sky was about half covered with fluffy white clouds, but true to the forecast, they were not coalescing into thunderheads.
The break was over, our new friend let us go ahead, saying he's very slow and he's contouring over to Confusion Lake anyway. He gave us a good tip about descending: he advised to take the small gully of Confusion's outflow and follow that north with its more gently descending slope as it's the easiest route down into the canyon, even if it's out of the way a bit.
This we did, first descending on the boulder field, then hitting vegetation and turning left. It was somewhat difficult with five-foot steps and thick brushes, but we kept making progress. After about a third of a mile northward, we judged it easy enough to turn sharply downhill. It almost turned out to be a mistake, we should have continued north some more. The route we chose was very steep and in a few places it looked like we are cliffed out. However, we always managed to find a way, the worst was when we had to take the backpacks off so we could downclimb a particularly steep section.
An hour later, after hopping over another short boulder field, we were down in Goddard Canyon proper, walking in the green grass among thousands of lupins. We were about 3-400' below and a mile and a half away from Martha Lake.
The cloud cover kept getting thicker, but we were reasonably sure there won't be any rain that day. We were somewhat tired, of course, not from the distance, but from the terrain. Regardless, the slog up to the lake was made very enjoyable by the beautiful surroundings. We kept marveling at how thick the lupin fields were.
We got to the outflow of the lake and crossed it as this looked the easiest route. Again, some parts of the use trail were visible now and then.
After a last, seemingly steep climb, we emerged on the plateau, still a few hundred yards away from the lake itself. Time to look for our friends. They said more than likely they'll be camped by the outflow. Right away, we spotted a bright yellow piece of gear on a boulder, secured by rocks. We took is as a sure sign to "lure" us and yes, a few minutes later we saw them on the far side of the outlet.
It was a happy reunion, we were all glad it worked out, meeting in the middle of nowhere. They did have a tale to tell, turns out my estimate was right, the big storm cell the other night passed right above them with tremendous thunder, lightning and lots of rain. However, just as I suspected, they knew the score and had the tent up and prepped by the time the storm hit. They were cozy and dry.
First, we went for a quick swim in the icy waters of the lake, then set up the tent about fifty yards from the others. My friend and I went fishing, with not much luck. I caught one sizable trout, though, and we shared it as an appetizer before dinner.
Not Em, she got strangely sick, to this day I don't know what happened. Just when we started eating the fish, all of a sudden, she got extremely nauseous and felt very weak. She didn't throw up, but she looked awful. As they say in the backcountry: "If you're feeling bad, it's altitude sickness until proven otherwise." However, this was extremely unlikely. Regardless, she skipped dinner, ate a bit of sweets for dessert and then felt much better right away.
I messed up my own dinner royally, in all the excitement I neglected to add a few things and it was the blandest meal I ever had. My fault, but no harm done. Em was doing well, by the time dinner was cleaned up, she was almost back to normal.
The four of us kept talking late into the night, discussing all sorts of adventures.
Day 4 – Martha Lake to Lake 11,659'
We slept in, then woke up to a sparkling morning with cool temperatures and not a cloud in sight. According to the forecast, that was it for thunderstorms. Em was fine, no traces of that sudden sickness.
Originally, we discussed the possibility of the four of us spending a day here together and going for a day hike, but our friends decided to start heading back in order to pace out their remaining miles better. They warned us that the climb to Hell for Sure Pass is worse than it seems on the map as there are many little ups and downs, sapping your energy. In four days, that's where we should be, but first we wanted to cross over to the PCT.
Having eaten a leisurely breakfast, we packed up said our goodbyes. Our friends headed downcanyon. We circled Martha Lake on its north side, crossing another amazing field of lupins, featuring white ones, which I understand are rare in this part of California. Here we climbed the small incline to the next lake, about 150' higher. This lake we circled from the south and east, going up the far side, next to the inflow creek from above. More flowers, more wonders. Mating grasshoppers on the rocks, bald eagles circling high in the sky.
After climbing another 300 feet to the next small lake, we turned north-west, following the shelf with a string of many shallow lakes and tarns. It was calm and utterly beautiful. At one of the lakes, we sat down for break and ate a snack, munching in silence. Our goal was to make this a short day, not to descend to Davis Lake, but find a suitable campsite at one of the higher lakes on this side of the ridge.
We made a little detour to the west to have a look at Goddard Canyon again, but then we turned around and climbed around some small tarns and rocky outcrops to the east. Amazing geology with all sorts of basalt columns and exposed layers in boundary areas.
According to the map, there were several lakes a bit higher, some fairly large. I was hoping for trout in one of them, though I knew they're above the tree line and it's unlikely we'll find any fish.
The easiest route placed us right between two of these lakes, one larger on the north side, one much smaller to the south. The outflow area from the former to the latter was a channel of dry rocks, with the water level way below. We stopped here, dropped the packs and explored to see if we could find a spot for the tent. We went our separate ways, then reconvened by the packs to discuss the results. This time it was me who got lucky. On the huge rock outcrop separating the lakes, I found a great, level shelf in the lee of some rocks about 20 feet higher than the water, looking over the small lake. On the far side, another drainage channel could be seen, this one much narrower, but it had exposed water running through it.
However, we decided not to go to the campsite yet as it was too exposed to the sun. The larger drainage channel had some shade by the rock walls, so we settled there for the moment. I took a quick swim in the smaller lake (shallower, this a teeny bit less cold) and we showered away from the water. It was heavenly. Then I helped Em with laundry and after we laid the wet clothes on the rocks to dry, we cooked soup and sat in the shade, eating. It was one of those perfect, beautiful, quiet Sierra afternoons, almost like a zero-day.
We took a few short walks, exploring the lakes and admiring the geology. I tried fishing, but just as I suspected, both lakes were fishless.
Before dinner, we did inventory. Both Bearikades were emptied on the rocks and we went through the items, checking for damage and mentally pairing the remaining food to the remaining days. Everything passed muster.
Dinner was higher on the rocks, a few dozen yards from camp. The wind died down completely and the last of the sun, while setting somewhere behind Red Mountain, was still hitting this spot. It was unbelievable. We just sat there in the fading light, barely talking, taking in the view.
Darkness fell quickly and the waxing moon gave me a good opportunity to take some long-expo shot before going to bed. However, I was both careless and unlucky, the camera kept slipping and most ended up blurry.
Day 5 - Lake 11,659' to McClure Meadow
After a quiet and almost balmy night, we slept in a little bit, then broke camp slowly and left around 8:30am. Having scouted the route the day before, we climbed the rock on the east end of the lake, taking advantage of a drainage and a ledge to get to the next shelf up. Here it was easy going on large rocks, keeping north-east-ish.
After a quick detour to an outcropping to take in the bird's eye view of "our" two lakes below, the next bit took us to the hump and we got our first view of Davis Lake basin, with Mt. Mendel and Mr. Darwin hiding beyond. The lake basin was about 600' lower and as expected, the terrain looked steep and forbidding.
The first part of the descent looked the worst, so we took a little time to scout a route. Here I made the mistake of not checking far enough to the east. That direction had a scree field, but the top looked even steeper and even had a some snow.
We decided to descend the rock face. It was very "ledgy" (here's a new word), so for the most part it was easy. Careful steps, going back and forth on the ledges, down and down. In one spot we almost cliffed out, but then we found a solution, tough we had to take the packs off for one short downclimb. After that it was much easier.
As soon as we got to the base of the cliff, looking back we realized that just a bit further east, we could have descended on the scree. There was a not very steep gap on top between the snow and the large rock. I didn't go close enough to see it. Well, anyway, we learned our lesson.
The rest of the descent to the first lake was still steep and tedious, alternating between talus and scree. This part was way longer than it seemed from above, with countless many detours needed. It took us almost half an hour to get down.
A bit further along we sat by down the water for a quick snack break, resting our knees. The sun was beating down mercilessly, with not a whisp of a cloud in sight. At least for those few minutes, we put the packs in the half-shade of some larger boulders, then covered them with our rain jackets, the white inner membrane facing out.
Now we had to get to the east side of Davis Lake. The easiest route was to simply contour along its southern shore, looking for the least complicated way. Well, that still meant boulder-hopping, of course, and it took well over an hour to reach the south-east end. Regardless, we were enjoying ourselves tremendously.
Another short climb took us the next lake, much smaller than Davis, unnamed as far as I know. The shore was way less rocky, almost like a meadow. It wasn't very late, only around noon, but we decided to stop for lunch. After ditching the packs on some rocks, we took our boots off and delighted in the feel of the soft, warm grass on our feet, then the cold water of the lake. I filtered some water, Em unpacked the food and we had a great, long lunch.
Compared to Davis Lake, circumnavigating this was a breeze, but the far side had another hump before we could descend to Wanda Lake. The hump was surprisingly steep and covered in huge boulders, up to house-sized towards the top. It was a maze, fun to navigate, and the simplest route turned out to be more to the south than we initially thought. While wandering around here, he heard a tremendous noise in the distance. A long rumble started, booming like artillery, then dragging out much longer and deeper, like thunder. We both agreed it came from behind the ridge to the north, but we can't be sure. It was a large rock slide, that's obvious, and we kept looking for dust plumes, but saw nothing.
Not much later we got to the top of the hump, losing sight of Davis Lake et al. behind us. A few small trans were hiding among the huge boulders, I guess the snowmelt can't drain very well in this rocky area.
Soon we got our first glimpse of magnificent Wanda Lake and Evolution Basin, with Muir Pass to our right. Even the famous hut was visible in the distance, tough with the naked eye, one could barely make it out. I had to take a picture at full zoom, and enlarge the preview on the camera's monitor to be sure.
The lake is truly impressive, huge and (judging by the color) deep, with the shores almost completely barren. On the far side, we could make out the freeway (PCT/JMT) with a few people already visible as they were moving in both directions, looking like crawling ants from this distance. These were the first people we've seen since our friends at Martha Lake.
The idea was to keep going down, keeping north and try to merge onto the freeway at the outlet of Wanda. Compared to the other side, this was much easier going, and half an hour later – after many, many photo stops – we were down on the shore, rock-hopping the outlet. Unless I'm mistaken, this is the source of Evolution Creek.
The PCT was right there, our first real trail in four days. It was 2:30pm already, but we knew we only had 5-6 more miles to go, all downhill. Of course, people started showing up in droves. It wasn't the "conga line" concentration, but having seen less than 10 people since our first day, it was still shocking.
The scenery was unbelievable, though. We've never been to this exact area, but everybody mentions how it's one of the most scenic places in the Sierra, and I see why.
The trail, crossing the creek, loses elevation gently at first. At the lake just north of Wanda (unnamed on my map) we saw a bald eagle swoop down into the water to get a fish, but no luck.
Then there's a sharp descent as the trail approaches and then passes Sapphire Lake. Here we took a quick snack break in the shade, marveling at the lake and the mountains. The words "gorgeous" and "magnificent" doesn't do it justice.
Past Sapphire, Evolution Creek continues in a wide, extremely scenic channel, arriving at another jewel of the area: Evolution Lake. At the inlet, the trail crosses to the east side again, with campsites dotting the shore.
The lake is about a mile long and more irregular than a Rorschach test blot. Much more beautiful, though. As we moved down, it kept offering new wonders, including a previously completely unseen section at the far end that could even be mistaken for a separate lake without a map.
A serious drop follows, the trail losing around 1,000' in little over a mile, entering the trees, leading to the entrance of McClure Meadows. Our weary knees begged for a respite, so we sat down on a log to rest for a few minutes, but then pressed on.
The meadow itself is very long with thick forest on both sides, Evolution Creek meandering in the center. There's also a ranger station somewhere mid-way.
Several typical PCT-type campsites were right by the trail, but we walked past them. When researching the trip, I saw what looked like possible spots to the west, in an area where the trail is relatively far away from the water. I memorized a point where we should look for routes leading into the forest.
Lo and behold, there was a use trail! We followed that, and a few minutes later found what looked like a long-abandoned horse camp with many great tent spots and several fire rings (fires are legal). Some traces even indicated that the main trail ran through here at a time.
A few sites showed signs of somewhat recent use, but nobody was around. We chose a cozy spot on a small hump, about 200' from the creek. It felt like our own private paradise, less than a quarter mile from one of the most-trafficked places in the Sierra. The Hermit, a very prominent peak, looming 2,500' above the valley floor, was right across the creek.
We ate soup, then went down to the water. There was a great swimming spot, I took a quick plunge, and we both showered further way from the water.
I started fishing, and realized the trout are small, but great in numbers. Em made a small fire, I caught quite a few fish and cleaned them quickly. We grilled them over the hot coals, and boy where they heavenly. We love our steamed trout, but they taste even better when barbequed. Of course, most places we go to, fires are prohibited.
The evening was unbelievably serene, the Hermit's top still illuminated by the late sun, the waxing moon following behind.
Quick side note: McGee Canyon starts here, on the north-west side of the Hermit, leading up to McGee Lake, which looks like an amazing place. There's no official trail, but I hear it's very doable. Can't wait to explore that area.
Day 6 - McClure Meadow to Goddard Canyon
We slept in, enjoying the silence. When placing the Bearikades the night before, I tried to figure out the direction of the morning sun so they would be in the shade in the morning. This almost worked out, but Murphy's law always works: in the large shaded area, one tiny gap allowed a few square feet of sunlight, and of course that exactly where the canisters were. We had to laugh, I took a quick photo (they looked great with the backlight, almost staged) then retrieved them to make breakfast.
We took it very slow, just enjoying ourselves. We even discussed possibly spending another day here, but then decided against it. After a walk down to the meadow to admire its beauty, we finally packed up and left at 10:30am.
Going back to the trail the exact way we came didn't make sense. We followed the creek downstream for a few hundred yards, and then there was a route which lent itself to cutting through the forest. We picked up the PCT about half a mile from where we left it.
It was slow going, the scenery and the wildflowers were just too stunning, we kept stopping for photos. Soon we walked past the ranger station and like most of the time, we swooned over how cool it would be to spend a season working in such a place. I'm not sure, though, if it'd like it to be in such a crowded area, I can imagine that most of the work is dealing with idiots who don't know what they're doing.
McClure Meadow is huge, at least five trail miles long. About three miles down from the ranger station, we got to the crossing of Evolution Creek. Supposedly this is one of the most problematic water crossings on the JMT when the water is high. The creek here is wide and relatively fast. For wetter periods, there's another crossing further upstream that is supposedly much deeper, but the water flows very slowly. I heard that in some years people have to cross there even in late July, with the water being chest-deep.
This time, the main crossing was only about calf deep and proved very easy. At least 15 people were around, some eating, some taking a bath.
Our lunch was to be on the far shore, so we took our shoes off and went across. As the riverbed was relatively wide and the rocks were slippery, we tied the boots to our backpacks and stabilized ourselves with the poles. Em is really good at securing things, but this time she made a mistake, because in the middle of the creek, one of her boots fell off, right into the water. None of us saw this, I was busy keeping my balance while taking pictures, but another hiker right next to us pointed to the shoe slowly floating downstream. I rushed after it and retrieved it just before the swifter part would have carried it away. Some water got inside, but it wasn't too bad.
On the other side, we placed it in the sun to start drying and we put some dehydrated salsa in the mug to reconstitute. We love this food. It takes at least 10-15 minutes to reconstitute properly, but it tastes like a fresh salad. While waiting for the salsa, I went for a quick swim. Just below the crossing there's an area with belly-deep, calm water, perfect for a dip. Then we ate heartily. It was surprisingly late, about 1pm.
At this point, Evolution Valley and McClure Meadow ends, and the creek starts its descent, first in a series of scenic little rapids in wide channels, with the trail following along. About half a mile later, the trail veers off and drops into Goddard Canyon via steep switchbacks. Here on the hillside, we met the resident McClure meadows ranger and his girlfriend coming up from a patrol hike. We chatted briefly, but they didn't check our permit.
Only 15 minutes later, we were down at the bottom of the canyon in Franklin MEadows. After a quick, flat hike through the trees, we crossed South Fork San Joaquin River again, this time quite a few miles from its headwaters at Martha Lake. A sturdy little wooden bridge spanned the channel of the river, with vertical rocks walls bordering the creek bed on both sides. Here the walls were only a few feet, but they were a taste of what to expect upstream.
The junction is just past the bridge, and we thankfully turned away from the freeway. Evolution Basin and Valley were gorgeous beyond description, but we had enough of the crowds.
As soon as we started climbing in Goddard Canyon, the trail changed drastically, being way narrower and sporting infinitely fewer footprints.
Our plan was to keep going as much as we can bear and find a decent spot with good access to water, but possibly a few miles before the turnoff to Hell for Sure Pass. Looking at the map and satellite pictures at home, the situation was not encouraging, but I thought I could see some candidate areas about 2-3 miles upcanyon. Unless I was wrong, there was nothing to be found sooner.
The reality was even harsher. The canyon is completely stunning, that's sure, and very different from the other we just came down. It's much narrower, and most importantly, the river in the middle runs in a deep channel with the aforementioned vertical walls. In some places, these walls are dozens of feet high. Accessing the water is impossible in most spots, very difficult in a few. Also, the trail runs on the steep hillside, with no flat spots for a tent.
This didn't bother us, though, we kept on and enjoyed the great view. Our only concern was water – we did fill up at lunch, but not too much, and we had no idea how restricted access to water is.
We stopped at a little side-creek to drink some and eat a snack, then pressed on. The canyon kept looking more and more rugged and beautiful. There was a big waterfall, carving a huge hole in the bottom, the trail looking down on it. Close to this point was also the first candidate area to spend the night, at least judging from the map. However, it was impossible as there was no access to water.
The trail floats up from the river, climbing the canyon's side, passing through some colorful rocks in a narrow path carved by what must have been countless man-hours of work. Still no campsites. It was late, we were tired and hot, but still having a great time. I told Em that if I remember right, the next possible spot is a little bit further up, maybe around 3.5 miles from the junction.
Finally, I was right. It was around 5pm, and we saw a welcome sight: right above a lovely little waterfall, the river ran "normally" for a change, which meant no channel. A small, almost meadow-like area sat on the shore with some obvious tent spots and great access to water. The site was in full view of the trail, but we haven't seen anybody since the turnoff, so that was not a concern.
After dropping the packs, the first order of business was to filter water and make soup. Also, I filled the shower and laid it in the sun. While waiting for the soup, we took our shoes off and lounged in the creek, cooling our feet. I crossed to the other side and was surprised to see an old trail leading into the trees. There was what looked like a very old camp, unused for at least a few dozen years. The trail petered out and I didn't try to pick it up, but I'd be curious to learn if it led up into the mountains or if it was only a spur to the camp.
I returned to Em, we ate the soup and explored our neighborhood some more. Our camp was right on top of the waterfall and we could climb down to the base to get a close-up view of the countless wildflowers growing there and the creek channel further downstream, truly impressive from this vantage point.
We even discussed whether what to the next day: continue on the mapped trail in the canyon to the Hell for Sure Pass trail, or try to climb up the canyon wall and try to find the trail there? It was not about cutting distance, it was about making it interesting. The pass trail began around three miles up from us, but then it backtracked on the side of the mountain, passing cca. 600' above our current position again. Looking at the terrain (and remembering the satellite pictures), we deemed it doable, but not worth the effort. The decision was to stick to the trail.
After a quick shower, we pitched the tent and cooked dinner. We haven't seen anybody since leaving the freeway, but now we could smell faint campfire smoke. From what we could discern, it must have come from up-canyon, at least half a mile or more away.
Night fell. The moon, growing closer to full, illuminated everything perfectly. We sat on the rocks overlooking the waterfall and ate dessert. I couldn't resist taking a few long-exposure shots by the moonlight, then we went to bed not much before 10pm.
Day 7 – Goddard Canyon to Rae Lake
The morning was somewhat chilly, but very bearable. We left around 8:20am, our spot still in the shade of the canyon walls. Soon we were in full sunshine on the side, shedding layers.
As suspected, not much further up, we saw a big equestrian camp. It was off the trail, down among the trees, with no obvious access to the river, which ran even deeper down. However, I suspect there must be an easy way to get to the water, we just didn't see it, otherwise the camp wouldn't have been there.
It was a big setup with many tents, tarps, and a few people lounging by the morning fire. We didn't interact, they were too far away and looked the other way. Then we heard horses ahead of us and sure enough, soon we walked by several beasts grazing on the hillside.
The environment was just as gorgeous as below, with cool little creeks cascading down from the side, the trail climbing alternately among the trees or on the rocks.
Slowly, the canyon became wider and the middle channel disappeared, giving way to a more "traditional" look. About an hour after leaving camp, we arrived at the junction to the pass. Had we continued on, we would have recrossed our path at Martha Lake after another three miles or so.
We turned right, following the trail up. We were warned that it's way harder than it looks. The first part was straight-forward, the trail slowly ascended while undulating between the trees and the rocks.
The view each way – when not obscured – was simply stunning. As I mentioned before, the trail turns back north, essentially making a giant, three-mile switchback while climbing the canyon wall.
Here came the annoying dips our friends talked about. The trail loses elevation several times in a row, totaling at least a few hundred feet, all of which have to be gained back. Also, the trail itself is very faint and overgrown in a few places, and we had to stop a few times to figure out which way to go. Regardless, we never really lost our way. It's a beautifully varied environment with creeks, streams, fern thickets, mini-meadows and rocky outcrops – we enjoyed ourselves very much.
The truly steep part comes at the end of the giant switchback, a short section going up almost 500'. It was strenuous with some lose rocks and soil, but we took it slow and soon we were in the small canyon below the pass. This was around the tree line, but a small creek was still flowing well among the rocks, with lush green grass and flowers on the banks.
It was past noon, time for lunch. The sun was blazing hot, but there was no chance for shade. We settled down by the creek and found a tiny bit of shadow by some rocks to hide the packs. While some salsa was reconstituting again, we cooled our feet in a creek, filtered water, then devoured the food.
The place was so serene and calming, we just couldn't leave quickly. The lunch break stretched to over an hour, but then we finally took off.
From here, the pass was about 800' higher and less than a mile in a straight line, but the trail contours back and forth to avoid the steepest parts, so the walk was more like a mile and a half at least.
Well-fed and watered, we were having a great time. Countless butterflies were swarming the wildflowers. The mountains in the distance kept coming into view and like always, we couldn't help but stop for photos.
The final approach to the pass is the easiest part of this route, it's a very gentle slope compared what came before.
A few minutes before 2pm, we walked onto Hell for Sure Pass. I'm not 100% sure whether it's true, but supposedly the name came not from the fact that it's hard to hike over it but from ranching days when they were raising livestock in the mountains and somebody remarked "if you're trying to drive sheep over it, it's hell for sure". If anybody knows better, let me know.
The vista opened up to the west with Hell for Sure Lake right below and the Kings River drainage visible in the distance.
We only took a quick break at the pass, then continued on. The first few hundred feet of drop after the pass are crazy, crazy steep. In some places, it's almost like downclimb rather than a trail. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. Anyway, this section is short and it was over in 15 minutes, we walked by the lake. The trail contours above the water and avoids the shoreline. The lake itself is a pretty big, relatively regular-shaped (especially compared to the canyon lakes) as it's sitting in a cirque. We saw several campsites down in the trees, but none were occupied.
Some more downhill followed, very gentle this time, passing a few tarns and two more lakes, both named oh-so-positively. Chagrin Lake, on right by the trail, relatively small, still picturesque, and Disappointment Lake, on the other side, about 150' feet below and a quarter mile below the trail. This was bigger and looked like a great place to camp out of sight. The trail itself was very well worn here with countless fresh boot tracks, but we still haven't met anybody.
With dismay, I realized my second camera battery is dying. Some context: the way I use my camera, one battery lasts 5-6 days in the backcountry. I always carry a second one, and the two together easily last through the 7-8 days trips we make. On schedule, the first battery died at the end of day 6 and I popped in the fresh one. What I didn't realize that this was the oldest battery I had and it became much weaker. Now, only two days later, it showed almost zero charge. I knew I still have a few dozen shots with it if I'm careful, so I tried to curb my picture-taking urge.
Well, what can you do, on we went. The vegetation became thicker as we continued downhill and approached Fleming Creek. Our route would have taken us past Fleming Lake, but we decided to go out of the way a bit and camp at Rae Lake. No, this is not the same as Rea Lakes in the Sequoia NP, this lake is the one right below Mount Fleming, somewhat south of Lower Indian Lake.
Here in the forest, we met the first people since the PCT (not counting the cowboys we saw at the horse camp), a trio powering up towards the high lakes.
When we got to the meadow above Fleming Lake, we realized it would be much shorter to simply cut across the grass and over the creek, then go up the hillside and find the trail. It was pretty late, saving 10-15 minutes made sense. The meadow was carpeted with tens of thousands of white flowers in full bloom, making for a great spectacle.
As anticipated, we picked up the trail, relatively faint, but easy to follow. The turnoff to Rae was clearly marked and after descending for a bit, we arrived at the lake. It was as gorgeous as any.
It looked like there might be sites on the north shore, however, that side was windier and the shoreline looked choked with boggy vegetation. Water was a concern here, the water level looked low, with no new inflow from anywhere.
We decided to go the other way, and on the south side, we found the perfect spot: level, well established and decent access to water via some rocks on the shore. The water itself tasted a bit swampy even after filtering, but it wasn't too bad and we didn't have a choice.
As soon as we settled, I went for a swim. The water was perfect, way warmer than the usual lakes. I splashed around for a long time, but Em somehow got queasy and didn't want to come in, no matter how much I begged. Her loss, it was one of the greatest lake swims ever.
I also tried to fish, but no luck. I guess at a time there must have been lots of trout here, but in recent years with all the heat and no oxygen, they slowly died out. I saw one of the few remaining fish, a huge individual, at least 3-4 pounds. The poor thing was swimming lethargically, not caring about anything.
Before sundown, we took a walk around the lake. Just as we suspected, there were quite a few sites on the north side, but water access would have been very cumbersome.
The evening was stunning with the wind dying off and the lake reflecting the sunlit mountains, the moon raising above them. We took a long time, but finally returned to camp and cooked the last dinner of the trip and toasted with the last sips of tequila we had (we carried a tiny 8-ounce plastic bottle, full at the beginning).
It was the usual bittersweet last evening of a trip, but what an evening! We sat on the shore in the moonlight, discussing the highlights of the last few days. My battery being almost dead, I took some long expos with Em's camera, and they turned out pretty decent. We tried to go to bed early, but it was nearly impossible, it was so nice out there by our own private lake.
Day 8 – Rae Lake to Courtright Reservoir and L.A.
We awoke to a balmy morning with tons of sunshine, the lake as calm and beautiful as ever. Breakfast was a last piece of that Hungarian sausage we carry almost on every trip. It's fully cured, ready to eat, doesn't need refrigeration, but it doesn't hold up forever.
We finally left camp at 8:30am, following the dry outflow of the lake in the thick forest, emerging on the trail above Fleming Lake a bit later. By this time, we both agreed that the sausage started to turn and both of us are feeling the effects. It wasn't full-blown food poisoning, but it was definitely unpleasant. Luckily, we always have Altoids with us, we eat one or two a day. Even now, we still had plenty left. After eating three of them each, we felt much better. It is true that they help with an upset stomach.
Quick note: for serious gastrointestinal issues, we have a European drug with us that only takes one or two pills to take care even of the nastiest stomach symptoms. I don't think it would help much with giardiasis, but I don't want to test it. Anyhow, we never had to use this drug in the backcountry.
Soon there was Fleming Lake on the right side. Relatively small, shallow, but full of trout. However, we were happy we didn't camp here, the only spots were on the other side of the trail, very unappealing.
Past Fleming Lake, the trail contours around the hill and then the big drop into the Kings River Basin begins. From the top, there's a great view of it all, and I pointed out the approximate route we'll take to reconnect to our lollipop handle and via that, back to the car. Here my camera battery died for good, but Em's was still going strong, so we were good.
Soon we met the first human since the day before, an older gentleman and his dog, making their way slowly up to the lake. We kept hiking and hiking – it was hot and dry, but our stomachs were doing much better and it was easy going. This area is not even remotely as scenic as the higher parts, but it still has its own beauty.
At around 11am, we got to Long Meadow Junction and picked up our lollipop-handle trail. Here we made the mistake of not taking on more water. As we powered on trough the next few miles, we realized we're running low. Post Corral Creek and Burn Corral Creek were both dry or there were only muddy puddles left.
We still had water, but we needed some more for lunch. We weren't that hungry, though, an energy bar did the trick for the moment and we kept pressing, up the hill, then turned off-route towards Hobler Lake. We had no intention of going all the way to the lake, but by all indications, I was sure the creek running off it will have water. I was very relieved when I saw I was right. The flow was pretty weak, but plenty for us. We sat down in the shadowy forest, I filtered lots of water and we had a great meal with several Nuun drinks.
From here it was easy, though the weather was getting hotter and hotter. Soon we were on the 4x4 trail and encountered our first cars. The funniest was a Jeep Wrangler. You could see that the guy just got it and had it decked out it every possible feature, but he had no idea what to do with it. He approached a tiny pothole, one that even our low-clearance sedan could drive over quickly, but he slowed down to a crawl and inched his way across. He looked genuinely scared, as did his wife next to him. Well, what can you do? Noveau riche jerks will always be like that.
At 3pm almost on the dot, we climbed the last little hill back to the parking lot. After cleaning up a bit, we got on the road. As many people say, the most dangerous part of a backcountry trip is the drive to and from the trailhead.
True to this adage, we almost died on the road to Shaver Lake, some drunk guys in a double-axle truck overloaded with camping gear almost hit us head on when they drifted out of a curve, coming right at us. Had our car been a few yards further ahead, I don't think we'd gotten away unscathed. Luckily, we got to Shaver in one piece, ate a nice lunch, then drove back home to L.A.
Despite having only one hiking pole per person, we managed the cross-country sections with some effort and still had a great time. The weather was way warmer than usual, and I'm afraid that's a trend that will continue and get worse in the years to come.
A month later, the infamous Creek Fire was ignited next to Shaver Lake. It burned burning several spots we've been to on this trip, not on our backcountry route, but parts of Shaver and Cressman's General Store, where we stopped for a break.
Make sure to take a look the tons of pictures in the full gallery.