Today was the most beautiful day of hiking of my entire life. That’s not exaggeration, that’s simple truth. I almost don’t want to even write about it, because it was so perfect. I want the photos alone to tell the whole story. (If you click through to only one set of photos at the bottom of a post, let it be this one!)
But…of course I want to write about it! Today we ascended Muir Pass, one of the great high passes of the John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail. When we came through here a few years ago, I remember it being beautiful…but beautiful like all these high passes are. But timing is everything in hiking, and the time of year, the time of day, the weather, and everything else just conspired to make today unbelievable.
Before today, most of what I anticipated about Muir Pass was the difficulty of the climb: 4,000 feet of ascent over eleven miles — the longest single climb we’ve had yet, and one that has to rank among the hardest on the entire PCT. So I mostly expected today to be brutal. But it wasn’t — because around every turn was something seemingly yet more breathtaking than the last. You can’t pay attention to how hard you’re working when you’re just enraptured by the beauty.
It started out slowly ascending through beautiful mountain woods and meadows. The sun had just come up, and mist was slowly rising from meadow streams we passed; the air still had that wonderful morning mountain chill in it, and the hiking was just about perfect. We walked along lazy meadow streams and raucous creeks dropping down hillsides, and crossed wide open fields of green. But we were ascending, always ascending, as we continued onwards.
One of the little treats we ran across was something I remembered well from the John Muir Trail. Sitting beside the trail is an enormous boulder with a gaping hole in it from left to right…that someone figured out makes a perfect mouth. There are spots above to put rocks to make eyes, and lots of small, pointy rocks make the mouth full of teeth. Pretty shortly, we have…the TRAIL MONSTER. We took pictures here three years ago, and it made me delighted to see it has (of course) still been plenty well-maintained by hikers coming by.
Eventually, we climbed out of the trees — timberline is typically between 10,000 and 11,000 feet around here, depending on wind patterns — and we were in those beautiful high Sierra places that start to become all tundra and rocks and water. Pretty soon, we started coming across snow: first only little patches here and there, then bigger and bigger snowfields. Thankfully, there were still big troughs carved in the snowfields by hikers who’d been there before us, so all we had to do was follow along…and avoid dropping into any of the postholes, which were sometimes several feet deep.
On the way up, we stopped at a lake that had something I wasn’t expecting at all: frogs! Not just a few frogs, and not just full-grown frogs, either. It was easy to miss if you didn’t look, but there were clearly many dozen frogs in the lake, sunning themselves on rocks or swimming through the water. And for every frog, there were probably five or six tadpoles swimming around, in all stages of development, from tiny little fish-like creatures to things with tails and legs both. We just stood there for quite a while, fascinated, watching the frogs hang out and the tadpoles swim. (Ed. Note.: We later found out that at these elevations, it takes tadpoles four years to mature into frogs — meaning the tiniest frogs were already five years old! That’s incredible to me.) </p
The second completely spectacular thing we came across: Helen Lake — which was still frozen across most of its surface with this amazing layer of blue translucent ice. I’ve truly never seen anything quite like it before. Frozen lakes are usually covered with snow or just a thick layer of opaque white or black ice, but this one was…just incredible. The photos truly don’t come close to doing it justice. Nestled among the mountains surrounding it, it was just remarkably beautiful.
While we were standing there admiring it, who should come hiking up? Sarge, Stump, Dilly, and Dally! We knew they weren’t far behind us, but weren’t sure exactly where. We heard a giant bellow echo off the mountains, looked around, and it was Sarge, yelling up to us! Watching our friends hike up the mountain behind us made me really, really happy — there’s nothing better on a beautiful mountain day like this than sharing it with friends. We waited for them to come up and spent time admiring the lake and chatting before finally moving on.
From the lake, the final ascent to Muir Pass took us across snowfield after snowfield…which was unusual, because we were climbing the south side of the pass, and, for obvious reasons, it’s the north side that usually has all the snow on it. These snowfields were pretty big, but still fairly well-traveled and had troughs where feet had come before ours to follow. Navigating snowfields in the spring or early summer can be tricky, because they’re melting, and there were some pretty substantial small streams underneath different places in the snow — step in the wrong place and you’d be soaked up to your calf. It took us a while, but we managed to avoid all the pitfalls, and, after another forty-five minutes or so…we were at the top!
Muir Pass is particularly notable because there’s a fairly large hut at the top, made entirely of stone, built in 1931 (back when doing such things was completely reasonable in national parks). As I understand it, some stonecutters hauled their sets of tools up there and stayed for weeks, building the hut out of the rocks found on top of the mountain — kind of amazing. The hut itself is great if you’re there on a rainy day; you’re not supposed to stay there except in emergencies, but it’s big enough to easily accommodate a couple of dozen people.
However, we did not need to stay in the hut, because it was a gorgeous day on top! We joined probably a dozen people, some of whom we knew, some of whom we didn’t know, in just hanging out on top of the pass on this absolutely amazing day. It was gorgeous and sunny, we had lunch, chatted, took a group picture…incredible. I could’ve stayed up there all day long. We’d just come up 4,000 feet, but I felt amazing. What a spectacular day!
Alas, eventually you realize that as much as you want to just stay up there, actually doing that would probably become a really bad idea once it got to be nightfall…so we headed down the other side. The north side of Muir Pass turned out to have less snow than the south side, but, just in terms of discomfort, much more treacherous snowfields — this was the first time on the whole trip that snow managed to get part of me really, truly cold and wet, because basically the entire snowfields were sitting on top of several inches of freezing cold water, freshly melted from the snow. I managed to avoid plunging through for a little while, but soon enough I took a wrong step, and…freezing cold feet. OK, well, it’s no fun, but one of the advantages of already having your feet cold and wet like that is that they can’t get any more cold and wet — so now I didn’t care where I stepped, and just trucked right along, through snow, water, whatever else.
As we were heading down, I kind of figured the beauty must have peaked for the day — yet then we came to Wanda Lake. About the same elevation as Helen Lake, this one was frozen only partway across, which meant two things: the colors in the lake were this amazing spectrum from light green through dark blue, and it had thin floes of ice drifting across it as they broke off and headed to shore. It’s nestled in a mountain basin, with high peaks on one side and a grassy hill on the other. To me, this was like photographer’s heaven: I couldn’t stop taking pictures. The iPhone photos (which is what you’re seeing so far) were beautiful, but the photos from my DSLR I think may come out truly spectacular. If you saw a place like this in the movies, you’d think it’d been created largely in Photoshop, over-saturated and color-corrected into existence, because no place can actually be that beautiful. But I was there, and I saw it with my own eyes, and I promise — it really is that beautiful. It’s incredible.
Once we finally managed to tear ourselves away from Wanda Lake, the rest of the descent was much like the first part of the ascent — truly gorgeous. Yet compared to what we’d already seen, it was hard to appreciate it fully, just because we’d been so blown away with beauty that day. Also, this was where the length and difficulty of the day started to really catch up with us, because we were really, really tired.
Yet one more great thing lay in store for us: just below 10,000 feet, we got to a campsite, and found Dilly, Dally, Sarge, and Stump there with a big fire already going. We met a new friend, Secret, and sat around the fire, exhausted, keeping the mosquitoes at bay, talking with our friends and appreciating just how lucky we are to be out in this amazing country. There are days when this trail is more work than pleasure…and then there are days like this that just take your breath away.