03 August 2017

North to South: Evolution Basin and Muir Pass

Kings Canyon National Park

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DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6 | DAY 7

A lot of people have told me that Evolution Basin is the prettiest bit of the Sierras. There was even a day hiker coming up toward Piute Pass who said so. Today I will see it for myself. My shoes are not a lot drier after the night that seemed to have a bit of dew. My other camp sites were definitely a lot drier. It does not matter anyway. Crossing the tributary just up the trail while keeping my feet dry only lasts until finding the second, larger part of it. Who needs dry feet? And with the day's inaugural splashing, I head on to more meadows.

McClure Meadow is a vastness of green
Arriving at McClure Meadow.

McClure Meadow is extensive and green and the creek sits within it like a long lake. I stand at the edge of the water for a while before noticing the flicker of ears in a nearby grasses. There is a small deer sitting behind it hiding.

black outlines or ears sticking almost above the grass
There are some ears just above the thickest bit of grass.

Heading off, I check on the ranger station just to see that kind of place it is. It is a simple affair, but has solar electricity and a chair. There is a weather report for two days ago on the board with a note that the ranger is out on patrol. So I turn and continue to wander upward along the meadow and creek.

water rampaging through the rocks
Evolution Creek changes mood constantly.

more meadows between the trees
On up to Colby Meadows.

The trail starts to climb in little wiggles along a tributary on the way up from the valley to the basin. It is nice to have a proper climb for a little bit.

overview of Evolution Valley
One last look out over Evolution Valley.

The trail levels out to wander between two ponds, then it is up and over one little rise into Evolution Basin. Huge Evolution Lake is the first of the lakes. The trail once went much closer to the lake and the track is still very visible. I am glad it no longer does. It is soggy most places and underwater in some. It even hopped along rocks over an inlet. Now the rocks are overgrown. On the other hand, where the trail is now has quite a bit of snow. None of it is hard to walk on and plenty have already to beat down a path.

grey rocks dropping to green flats around ponds
Rocks and greens and ponds as the trail sneaks right between the two.

snow sectionson the trail
A couple sections of snow along the trail.

wide pool between mountains
Evolution Lake with its rock crossed inlet.

The far end of the lake is where trail builders decided that the creek is small enough to cross whenever needed for easier trail construction. Oh, and that it is needed now. There is one long crossing through the water, generally knee high and somewhat swift, before climbing to the next bench and lake. This one is not quite so warm, either. My feet hurt from the cold by the time I finish with it.

long crossing with big rocks, generally below the surface, along the edge
A long stretch of rocks to hop on, I suppose, across Evolution Creek. They still help a bit in the crossing. A person on the other side is preparing for the journey the other direction.

pool and mountains
The ponds on the way to Sapphire Lake and a bit of the Darwin Bench.

small white flowers that generally hang downward
These bells are always a delight.

large lake panorama
Sapphire Lake surrounded by various names in Evolution. Huxley sits at the far right and Fiske left of him, Spencer is the near lump, Darwin just left behind him and Mendel left of him.

the start of bright color in the water
A little taste of the color on the well overcast day. What might it look like in the sunlight?

thin streams of water squirting horizontally from holes in a boulder
A fun find is a very leaky boulder with water squirting out the cracks.

Up the next bench is my destination for the day. I want to cross over the creek and find a camping spot and then head on up Mount Huxley. It has a class 2 approach along this northwest ridge, but is otherwise class 4 as near as I can tell from online information. I was sort of hoping the ridge would be full of snow and dangerous looking for an excuse not to go up. It looks quite clear. The creek crossing looks wide and shallow with a consistent flow the whole way, so should be reasonable. With 2000 feet to climb, I should be able to get up and down within 4 hours and I have 5 to sunset. (Ruth, who I hiked with a fair few years back, uses the estimate of 1 hour per 1000 feet and figures she needs to get in better shape if she cannot keep to it. It can be a very good estimate although I tend to think it puts me needing to get faster.) The weather is not perfect, but it does not look like it will drop any electricity.

Except. Except my legs still feel dreadful from the poorly executed approach to Pilot Knob. And with that in mind, I feel like I really want 6 hours to get up and back.

Except. Except deep down I am sure I can make it. Darkness will not fall at sunset and the lower sections are probably fine by headlamp. Perhaps I should just give it a try. These things are very tough to judge with certainty.

wide creek with little ripples all the way across
The crossing there on the left side of the photo looks quite easy to do at this point, then just up onto the flat on the other side, drop off my stuff in a likely looking spot, and head on up a 13k mountain.

Perhaps I am really not a peakbagger at heart. It is hard in this moment to feel like anything useful has been done if I try and do not succeed. "Do or do not, there is no try." Except that is false, Yoda. To try is to resolve to do even though doing is not certain. It may happen, it may not. It is only certain that if you do not try, it will not happen. Today, I leave Huxley without even stepping on his toe.

light grey mountains turning suddenly black
Turning away from Huxley, but there is a rather interesting mountain ahead that I also will not be climbing.

The hikers coming the other way tell me that there are no camp sites between here and the pass or at least all the traditional ones are currently under snow. That is not particularly interesting since I am sure I can make the pass. Besides, there is a camp site just 100 feet past our meeting, so I figure the determined person can find one.

tracks in the snow and the creek coming down
Tracks lead up to a snow bridge that should be reasonable for a few more days while the trail crosses the creek again.

The trail crosses the creek again. There is a snow bridge option, although it is not entirely clear from this side that it is. I go for the trail crossing. The trail has been rather wet from thaw anyway, my shoes just got wet again a minute before from a little stream. There seems no reason to risk the snow bridge. Once my feet are in the water, there is a reason. It is now cold enough to hurt immediately. Getting to the lake, it is no wonder. The water is pouring out of a lake that still has at least 80% snow coverage.

snow in a depression thinning in the middle to show the creek running below
The snow sits happily by the water when the water is very cold.

lakes in the rocks below
A look back over the shoulder to the lakes below.

snow covered lake bigger than the rest
Coming upon Wanda Lake and quite a lot of ice floating atop it.

clear space of water
Clear water along the side of the trail.

In spite of all the ice, Wanda Lake still has plenty of green where the ground shows. Shooting stars line the edge. A bee keeper told me they point downward after pollination, so the number I have been seeing old and still pointing up during this trip has me worried about the bees. I stop to toss a rock over to the snow and ice for no good reason except to maybe see it pop through and drop down. Sometimes we must have a silly moment. The first goes off in the wrong direction, but the second hits easily and sits vanished in the snow. It is only after examining the snow for a little longer than I notice the three frogs sitting by my feet not quite in the frigid water.

three frogs with their feet in ice water
High altitude frogs at the edge of Wanda Lake.

Above the lake, the trail gets pretty free with crossing the creek. Hikers coming the other way often make good sign posts, but I catch a couple coming down a very steep bit of bank to a crossing, then notice the trail making a nice and easy climb from the creek a short way north of them. They got misdirected in the snow. There is plenty of snow. It is easy enough to walk in in the current conditions, but still a bit harder than trail. My shoes are stained from the algae that lives on it. Initially, they match it in color, but over time it turns to an orange that matches the colors of some of the rocks.

Muir Pass with Muir Hut
An odd shape against the snow up on Muir Pass. I suppose I have heard of a Muir Hut.

crossing the creek
Yet another crossing of Evolution Creek and looking back at Wanda Lake.

The trail gets really hard to follow with all the snow and I start looking for the reasonable route instead. A track across the snow at a low angle above me looks wonderful. It is probably the winter route from those who were only looking at snow, renewed daily by those who just decide it is a good route. The hill between me and it is not bad, so I zigzag my way up and walk that.

mountains are vanishing into the clouds
A last look back over Evolution Basin. Here, there is a choice of trails in the snow. The lower one connects roughly with the trail in the dirt. The upper one makes a gentle descent for those who only face the smoothed out land covered in snow.

rock hut in a circle with a very pointed top
Arrival at Muir Pass where there is the Muir Hut.

above the kings river, a circle of peaks where snow settles along the flatter areas
The other side! Sure looks snowy over this start of the Middle Fork Kings River.

There are two sites for camping right at the top and the hut to take shelter in should things get worrisome. It rather looks like things might get wet, at least. The wind potential at saddles is great and there is still a bit of usual hiking time, so I head down to Helen Lake below. There is not much indication of exactly where the trail is, just a rather steep and direct downhill route in the snow. It catches in next to a bit of trail going up some more, but down vanishes again. I just work my way down the rocks and toward the hints of trail below that the many feet stomping through the snow seem to have gone for before me.

clambering down snow and rocks
A mix of snow and rocks on the way to Helen Lake, which does not have a lot of open water right now.

rock jutting from snow
Looking around the bowl on the way down.

snow and water
Interesting patterns with the snow and the water.

It is time to find a spot as I reach Helen Lake. There is a big group setting up at the top of some of the rocks off to one side of the trail. It looks to me like a site around the rocks a fair distance from them. Being down in the rocks, I hope for a little more shelter from potential winds than they. There are no winds while setting up, but there sure are some rather good gusts once I have my little roof set. The first comes down the canyon on the side where the roof is low and it hardly notices. The second comes up with at least as much vigor, tucks up under the high edge, and shows off the weak link in my set up. The one line that is not tied to a rock with big rocks dropped on top goes flying. Setting up again with the stake with some rock support holds shortly, but then the stake gets around its rocks and goes flying again. This time everything is set out and I have to capture the rather light pieces of sleep system that are thinking of going on their own journey. While holding down tyvek, pad, quilt, and bivy, I am not quite ready to fool around with the roof again. Maybe I can just flip the bivy over to keep the rain off and settle into a slightly more sheltered spot. The sheltered spot is a depression with a gravel bottom. Hopefully it drains as well as it looks like it could.

Helen Lake
A view of Helen Lake from my camp site.

That is not quite where the journey of the day ended, though. Those gentle looking rain clouds kept building and with it dark at least an hour, it did start to rain. After a while, I began to notice that I might be a little wet. Looking around the bivy, there is actually quite a lot of water in it, to be perfectly honest. There is no pooling outside, the puffy mat would keep some of that at bay anyway, but there is pooling inside. Looking around, there is a surprising amount of light considering it is night, overcast, and there are passes between me and any city light source. Where is it all coming from? And more importantly, what do I want to do about this water? Get things set up properly with my roof, including really good rocking on the one that kept getting away? Or maybe get everything stuffed in and climb right back up the last 400 vertical feet of steep snow and take advantage of that nice dry hut at the top? There is lightning. I can see the light from it play across the clouds. It is occasional and so far away that there is not even the slightest sound. There could be wind up there, but the rock would be a really good shield against it.

It takes a while as I look out on that mysteriously bright landscape to decide, but I go for taking advantage of the silly rock hut at the top. I pull on my rain gear, but not my puffy jacket. Everything gets stuffed in, definitely wet things in the space between the pocket and the bag while my quilt can go in its stuff sack inside. Once packed, I finally get my headlamp out and on. The rest of the landscape vanishes as the near becomes easy to see. Memory will have to serve for the general navigation. The big group seems fine on their rock top. One tent has a light on, but the gusts have not done anything permanent to these free standing tents. I hit the snow beside the lake and follow my tracks past an outcrop of rocks in the middle with a cairn, then further up. As I climb, I am determined not to stop. My new rain coat feels just as wet as the old one, making me quite unhappy. Now I can take that little bit of trail up, then kick through the snow toward the main downward route. As I get to it, the down route is not so steep as I recall. It flattens out although I am certain I still have another bit of rocks and snow to go. It just keeps on flattening and then I am at the hut. I had found a different upward going track in the snow for the final push.

There are two bear canisters outside the door. Someone else came up behind me. Opening the door, that dry little hut actually appears to leak a bit. Not so much like a sieve as an upturned colander. There is a pretty good coverage of the interior area with dribble. The two inside have taken refuge inside a tent set up after their illusion that this was a dry hut was shattered. They are a pair of PCT through hikers who pushed all the way to Forester Pass before getting out at Kearsarge and starting south from the California/Nevada border. It is exactly the story I heard from another pair earlier in the day to the point that I am confused because I know they are ahead of me. One of them is even from Oregon. But they are a different pair. These two actually did do Whitney while the other two did not.

My hopes of spreading everything out in the dry hut are crushed, but I can still find a spot on the stone bench that seems, for now, not so wet and go for that. The hut felt really warm as I walked in, but as I settle into my wet quilt, it starts to feel a little cold. Grabbing my jacket to tuck in puts enough of a stop to that to get comfortable. Ish. I am still soggy and everything seems to be suddenly covered in sand. And I realize that I probably sabotaged my bivy by turning it upside down. There must be a reason the breathable fabric on the top is not also used on the bottom to maximize breathablity. It still needs to be tested before it gets used again. It used to get water out even when it puddled on the top.

©2017 Valerie Norton
Posted 15 August 2017

02 August 2017

North to South: Piute Canyon and Evolution Meadow

Sierra National Forest

Kings Canyon National Park

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DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6 | DAY 7

Today is a travel day without any mountains to climb. Well, a get down to the trail and then travel day. My plan to get back on trail is to go over the low spot west of the outlet and work my way down tending left to get to less steep areas of the canyon. Just getting to the low spot needs a round-about route as the direct way seems to have a bit of water topped by a wall of snow.

Pilot Knob above a tree and grass covered depression
The view back up to Pilot Knob from nearby camp.

edging toward the dropoff
Climbing up and around for a low spot.

Heading down among the rocks that make a lovely terraced flower garden requires some rather careful stepping. Halfway down, my stepping is not quite careful enough. Trust in one particular rock is rewarded with it slipping down a chimney it was sitting in the top of for a couple feet. It could be worse, they often keep on going resulting in a painful catch with the other leg in a bad position to do so or a very painful landing followed by a difficult extraction. Of course, I am off balance when my foot stops dropping and start to topple forward with my leg down a hole and the full weight of enough food for another five days in my pack. A rather panicked search for some means to stop that happening does work out giving me a chance to extract my leg and survey the damage rather than add to it. There is a large, but shallow, gash a few inches below my knee to show about how deep my leg was in the hole. I am not sure how, but the stepping has to be more careful down the rest of these rocks.

Pilot Knob from the rocks down into the canyon
Another look back up to Pilot Knob. It looks a little more forbidding with the granite slabs.

dirt between the rocks and trees
It gets easier.

I get to the relative safety of rock strewn dirt with no more incidents. It actually looks like it might have been easier to go from the higher spot a little east where there is a crest leading downward. There it would have been a simple friction walk down. Then again, most of the granite is rough and sticky, but there are a few spots that offer nearly no friction at all. The rocks seem slightly yellower. Maybe a different composition that shines up nicely or maybe just spots where the glacial polish remains. Glaciers are excellent at polishing rocks so that walking on them is a bit like being on ice. I just head downward into the trees. And the mosquitoes.

lupin with many other flowers around it
A big stand of lupin with lots of other flowers around its edges.

trees climbing up the slope
Not so bad a slope now, especially beside the rocks rather than in them.

I can hear the creek raging below and see the suggestion of it and a lot of rocks that it is rushing over as I pass by two game trails doing about what the people trail should be doing. The trail comes as I am sure I will come out right on top of the water. Just up the trail is the "no fires" sign that should mark 10k feet. The GPS would have me believe that I have just lost over 1000 feet in less than half a mile. I turn to continue downhill at a much more gentle pace.

wide creek flowing behind tiger lilies
Piute Creek thunders by behind some tiger lilies. Those things are most everywhere there is water.

French Canyon empties quite a lot of water into Piute Creek and must be crossed. At first, it looks like a pair of crossings, both with rather a lot of water going through. Way downstream, there might be a log that could be used to cross one of them, but the other will still mean wet feet so there is not a lot of motivation to try for it. Plenty of stock come through here, so the direct route is smoothed out and knee deep for any who are not afraid of wet feet. In I go. The water is not actually that cold but it hurts when it hits the fresh gash in one deeper spot. Also, it turns out that is not it for the crossings. This creek braids a lot more than that where the trail crosses. There are a couple little ones and a couple more big ones to get through before the slogging is done.

rushing water out of French Canyon
Just another crossing to get past French Canyon. Feet already wet and most of the way is visible. It could be worse.

Hutchinson Meadow on the far side is a much more open spot where the surrounding canyon side can be seen. Pilot Knob does not look so high up from here as it rises between the canyons.

white rocks, brown and green grass in large chuncks, the creek, and granite sides
Piute Creek flows by at a gentle pace through Hutchinson Meadow.

swallow tail butterfly resting on tiger lilies beside a pine tree
The tiger lilies have many admirers.

Below the meadow, the trees never quite close in again they way they did above. It is much rockier as the canyon narrows. The trail sometimes flirts very near to the creek, which is disconcerting when the water next to it is a deep, fast moving and thunderous mass.

thundering creek a few feet from the trail
The trail passes by barely above the water level of the creek with a few willows providing a separation.

rushing creek and a peeking peak
Looking back along the trail past those same willows. Pilot Knob still sits above the canyon.

My feet are almost dry from the last crossing when another comes up. People who claim their runners dry out quickly must wear much thinner socks than I do. Mine are wet for hours. The crossings along here tend to come in sets and they get worse as they go along. One has three little logs across just above the trail level. They look like at some point they have been a useful bridge across the water. Today, they are bobbing a little and barely held by their mooring rocks. They also only cross about half the creek. Everything is white water. Still, plenty of stock go through and the shape of the water does suggest there is a smooth walkway down there. Feeling the flow with my sticks before stepping into it, feeling carefully for my footing with each step, and only ever moving one foot or one stick at a time so I can always have a stable tripod, I can get across without feeling endangered. Just the pain from that gash because it is thigh deep a lot of the way.

a big bend and more canyons joining
Nearing the river. Just one more big bend and some straight to finish with Piute Creek.

low spot showing a peek up the next canyon
A low spot nearing the confluence allows a glimpse up the next canyon. Weather is reducing visibility some, but it is still nicer than what the Rough Fire did.

A creek like this has a tremendous amount of energy and one tends to have some sense of it. Usually, I can just let this sense flow past me, but today it just feels oppressive. Coming to South Fork San Joaquin River will probably not be much of a relief, but I do seem to remember it being on a slightly gentler slope. There are about four groups coming up the last two miles as I head down, in contrast to seeing absolutely no one all day until then. Once on the Pacific Crest Trail, there are always people not too far away. There are two groups at the junction hanging out. I cross the bridge, feeling more anxious about it than I ought to, into the park and start up the gentle trail beside the river. The skies are threatening, but only produce a few drops.

South Fork San Joaquin River in little ripples
Hiking up along the South Fork San Joaquin River.

A few of the juniper trees seem particularly familiar as I pass. A bridge to the other side of the river and a bridge back at Goddard Canyon and it is time for some new trail. It starts into the other canyon, but then turns back and starts to climb. I had not paid much attention to the details I would be hiking through, so this comes as a surprise. It gives some very nice views of the canyons. Still, I wonder what it is climbing so vigorously to avoid.

Goddard Canyon from the edge
Looking up Goddard Canyon from the climbing trail.

cliffs of granite
The view back down the South Fork San Joaquin River.

A pair coming down have bug nets on their heads and I realize that the lack of bugs might be a good reason to have stayed below although it does get rather crowded at that junction. There are the low tones of water falling from a great height off to the side. Somewhere there is a waterfall. I can just see white water through the trees. It looks like I might be able to get a much better view although I would expect more trail from those before me if I really can. There is a little to a rock, then nothing really. A buck on the other side of the rock glares at me a moment, then moves up the trail and I go to see what I can see.

three tiers above before one long drop that is mostly hidden by tree tops
There is a waterfall of solid white. For an attempt at scale, realize that the littlest trees are still bigger than a person.

The waterfall can be seen. I might have even been able to get a less obstructed view as footing does not look bad to the base of the trees. This would be in shadow in the morning had I stayed the night below. Further up, there are views of the top from the trail, but it is certainly not the same.

huge white water coming down
The view from near the trail is certainly of rampaging water, but not a waterfall.

There are some camping spots at the top just before hitting the bugs, but they are non-obvious and currently taken. My plan is to get across the ford and then let my shoes have all night to dry out. The trail comes to a crossing, but the sign warns it is dangerous in deep water. Right now it is deep water. It would be at least to my chest if I went for it. The sign directs hikers to use the alternate route and ford it in the meadow. The alternate route has lots of campsites that are available along it, but I want the ford first. It does look a little easier in the meadow. It is more than twice as wide and up to my knee halfway and up to my thigh the rest. It is still a big ford. At least my morning wound has healed a little.

water dropping down a little step
That sure is a lot of water I am about to have to ford.

surging big water
Evolution Creek looks tamer but is still dangerous to cross.

There are no campsites after the ford. One spot looks like a campsite, but then I realize it is the main trail as the alternate route rejoins it. I continue on for more than a mile before finding something suitable just short of the crossing of a big tributary. There are a few spots that look promising before this, but access to water is down a cliff to roaring creek. I need some water and this will not work. The tributary is an easy source, so I finally have my site for the night.

water cascading down the other side of the canyon
A place to camp with one tributary a little way up the trail and another cascading down the other side of the canyon.

Continue reading day 5 >>

©2017 Valerie Norton
Posted 13 August 2017