Trekking on Hallowed Ground ~ John Muir Wildnerness

“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where.  Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars.  This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”  ~  John Muir 

Some of the finest alpine hiking in this county can be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.  Looking up at the peaks I am drawn to discover her secrets whispered on the wind; smell her intoxicating scents of pine and sage; listen to the thundering of crystal clear streams cascading down her slopes; walk on these hallowed grounds named in honor of the father of American environmental consciousness, naturalist John Muir.  To immerse yourself in these many wonders means your mind and body must embrace high altitude hiking, something in the past that has been a little challenging for me.  But my desire to embrace all this wilderness has to offer surpasses my concerns.

We were planning on two hikes while in the Independence and Big Pine areas, but the forecast wasn’t looking good, with snowstorms predicted in the mountains and rain in the valley.  We decided to camp outside Independence, up at the 6000′ level and get an early start on a hike that began at Onion Valley, the Kearsarge Pass Trail.  We arrived at the trailhead the next morning to a chilly 38º at an elevation of 9200′.  We layered-up and hit the trail.  Unless you have hiked in the mountains, you cannot imagine how breathtaking the alpine lakes can be and there were five that we encountered on our way up to the pass, some still frozen over, awaiting the spring thaw.

Once we cleared the tree line, the howling wind was our lone companion on the barren, windswept trail that switchbacked the remaining 1.5 miles to the pass. Snowflakes swirled around us as we continued our upward trek, but quite frankly, I did not notice their beauty until I stepped onto the pass.  The view down into Kings Canyon National Park, dotted with alpine lakes, was breathtaking.  And the sign indicating that we had arrived at an altitude of 11,760′ put a smile on my face that seemed frozen in place until we began our descent.  Snowflakes danced around us as if to the pulse of Nature’s heartbeat.

Our hike back down seemed colder than earlier in the day, as the winds picked up speed, bringing in a storm that would dump a foot of fresh snow in the mountains that night.  It was a beautiful 10-mile hike, albeit a bit frigid.

We sat out the storm and luckily the days following were warm, so after checking with the rangers and a couple of locals we decided to head out to Big Pine to hike the North Fork Trail.  Originally we thought we would hike to Black Lake to get a view of the Palisade Glacier, the largest in the Sierras and the southernmost in the U.S.  When we came to the fork in the road, we opted for Third Lake, which is fed by the glacier, and was reported to be a milky turquoise color. The hike was the same distance and the lure of several more alpine lakes was too much to pass by.

This hike begins at 7700′ and unlike the many switchbacks on the Kearsarge Pass Trail, it has a grueling long stretch of upward climbing.  You can almost forget about how tiring this first section is by looking at the beauty around you. You catch a glimpse of the Middle Palisade Glacier on this stretch, and some lovely waterfalls.  Once beyond the uphill slog the trail begins to zigzag through a slope of sagebrush, manzanita, and Jeffrey pine, before reaching Second Falls.  And once again you are bewitched by the tantalizing smells and sounds enveloping you.

At the 3-mile mark you come upon a cabin built by movie actor Lon Chaney, now used as a wilderness ranger camp, a beautiful setting along a lovely stream.

Lon Chaney cabin
Lon Chaney cabin

Continue upward and you arrive at First Lake, a lovely blue-green oasis sitting in a bowl, then on to Second Lake a short distance later.

First Lake
First Lake
Second Lake
Second Lake
Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead
Third Lake with Temple Crag looming overhead

Third Lake, where we planned to stop and have lunch, was a bit of a disappointment, but still a handsome gal with Tempe Crag looming over her.   Given the lack of snowfall these past four years, glacial runoff has not been occurring at the normal rate so her coloring was, shall we say, less than spectacular.  It was still “lunch with a view” as John and Pam would say, and at 10,400′, the air was crisp and the sun was shining.  Once we lightened our load by consuming a few calories we headed back down the trail, making for an exhilarating, but bone-weary 11-mile trek.

There is another storm predicted but we are hopeful to do a few more hikes before we leave the Sierras.  To quote John Muir, there is nothing like hiking in the mountains to “wash your spirit clean”.

Next Stop:  Bishop, CA

74 thoughts on “Trekking on Hallowed Ground ~ John Muir Wildnerness

  • What utterly awesome images of these majestic mountains. More power to you for hiking at those altitudes. You can’t go wrong with a Muir quote!

  • Wonderful post and pics, LuAnn. Your hiking such a distance and at high altitude is impressive. I bet that lunch was very welcome. Th colours of the first two lakes are really stunning. 🙂

  • Your photos are breathtaking! We have never hiked the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. We have visited Kings Canyon so I can image the beauty of the area. You two are a ton bravery than we are. I don’t think I could ever hike in snow and winds like you two. Great job!

    What a contrast that last photo is from all the others. Simply lovely.

    • The first hike was the coldest by far but the second seemed a bit grueling at first. It is difficult to find hikes in the Sierras without elevation unfortunately.

  • OMG! What beautiful pictures!!! A couple of the pictures look like some from your last post? After these posts, I think I might want to wait until June of next year to tackle some of these trails; May looks kind of iffy, to me. Hmm, maybe even July. Anyway, I’m so glad you left early enough to be able to do these hikes on your way to Washington. Looking forward to your next trek!

    • Thanks Joan! Some of the pictures are those that I posted to FB. This is probably an iffy month for hiking in the Sierras. We are preparing for another storm that should bring snow to the mountains. We may have to bypass Mammoth Lakes if the weather doesn’t improve soon. 😦

    • Lisa, I am surprised that you haven’t done Kearsarge Pass yet, given how many years you lived in So. Cal. Also I learned recently that you have hiked Mt. McKinley. I bow down to you. 🙂

  • What gorgeous country. Reminds me a little of Rocky Mountain National Park. Kudos for completing those hikes. Sounds a little too cold and long for my comfort… very impressive 🙂

    • Thanks Ingrid! Yes, it did remind me of Rocky Mtn NP as well. That first hike was a bit cold. At times my fingers were numb even with gloves on. But the view from the top made it worth it. 🙂

  • wonderful – and the jubilant photo – with the hands up – is my fav – and well, congrats on the way you can hike and explore like this 🙂

  • Spectacular hikes and photos! We’ve not hiked the Sierras in the spring — the snow makes the scenery even more magnificent. But brrrrr……it sounds really cold! And those hikes are so challenging anyway because of the elevation. I’m impressed with your fortitude. I love your John Muir quote — hiking in the mountains definitely “washes the spirit clean.”

    • So far hiking in the Sierras in the spring has proved to be a bit challenging given the storms that continue to move through every few days. The forecast is not looking promising for getting the hikes in that we had planned.

  • My word these are gorgeous LuAnn . Such crispness and beauty here .You’ve some stamina too .. hiking at that altitude …. I’ve not done anything like this for far too long … you’ve whetted my appetite 🙂

    • This is a beautiful part of the country. The mountains, the deserts, the oceans all have their own special beauty…nature at its finest! 🙂

  • Wow what a beautiful vista to enjoy, breath taking to say the least, BUT it looks quite a climb to get to enjoy such beauty and I’m afraid it looks a tad cold up there…lakes still frozen over says one thing to me, stay away… so I’ll continue to enjoy the views via your beautiful photos…

  • Oh, yes! My idea of some wonderful hikes. While the snow can be a problem, it sure changest the landscape and creates such beautiful scenery. We were lucky that we had a snow storm the night we arrived in Jasper NP. The surrounding mountains were magical all snow covered (made for tricky trails but I’ll take it). The glacial lakes are just so pretty. Glad Lake One and Two were full of glacial silt:) But like you said that huge snow splattered peak over Lake Three made a great lunch view:)

    Those were some awesome hikes and what a tremndous workout! Great job:) You both look so happy out on the trail!! The nice part about hiking is that there is no timetable…just take your time and meet the challenge, stop to take your surroundings, smell the trees and air, and take time to enjoy what you are experiencing. Can’t wait to see what else you discover!

    • The Sierras are exhilarating. I do wish for less storms moving through, as most all hikes are at higher elevation, and the snow makes the trails impassable without snowshoes. We are sitting out another series of storms and probably won’t get to do a hike we have been wanting to do. There is always another time. We are hoping to head out tomorrow if the conditions allow us to get up to Mammoth.

      • Gee, sounds familiar! We are sitting out more storms also! Yesterday’s high was 47 and the mountains on both sides of us have lots of new snow. When we arrived 18 days ago there was hardly any visible snow but since every rain was duirng cooler temps, the mountains have gotten much deeper. Such a strange weather pattern. Like you said, there is always another time. Hope you are able to continue your journey and get in some good hiking:) Safe travels!

  • If you are around the Lon Chaney cabin then you are near the lava tubes. I don’t know how to get to them exactly, but my kids field trips took them there and they are remarkable.

  • Heavenly! Your photos captured the true beauty of this remarkable place! I applaud you for doing the hike! It was cold… but LOOK at what you saw! AMAZING!
    Those photos of Lake Gilbert… and the views… well heck…all of them… astonishing!

  • You guys are crazy hikers! We would have never survived those cold temps. In fact we scrapped our plans for Lee Vining and headed west to Sonora after we left Yosemite today. Your photos are great! Love those alpine lakes.

    • Thanks Gayle. Terry laughingly has been calling me the drill sergeant as I have been suggesting the hikes. It was very cold when we did Kearsarge Pass. Even my gloves didn’t stop my fingers from getting numb at times. We are waiting out another set of storms to try to make it to Mammoth and Lee Vining. We wanted to do Little Lakes but there is too much snow in the mountains. We would need snowshoes. Can’t believe this crazy weather.

  • HU-WOW!!! Breathtaking!!! Exactly like the scenes I watched on their theater inside the Visitor Center. You do this so well – exploring the most gorgeous place, I mean really exploring, and not just visiting. Wonderful, wonderful photos, Luann. When I was there last December, a lot of areas are inaccessible.

    • We are having lots of “winter” storms that keep dumping snow in the mountains. It is putting a damper on our hiking. 😦 When you come back, if you are at some point I hope, I will have lots more ideas for hikes. Are you game?

  • That’s a whole lot of nature to embrace, I love how you can post about deserts one minute and then skiing the next! It looks absolutely stunning there and I wonder if you had the urge to yodel, I would have done and that would have been the only reason for bringing lederhosen…honest! I hope the weather holds for you and you have plenty more opportunity to make us all jealous with your adventures.

      • There’s always next time, which would be the perfect time to post of video of doing it so we can all enjoy your talent for yodelling, which I am sure you have in abundance.

      • If the weather ever breaks here we will be heading back up into the mountains. I will be so excited I am thinking there might be some yodeling in my future. 🙂

  • Absolutely breathtaking LuAnn! Wow, I need to hike here! I am longing to someday get to hike some of California’s famous trails. The John Muir park looks stunning! What is the easiest airport to fly into to get there? Would love to see it sometime!

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