John Muir Trail: Mules, Meals & Camp Life

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Emma’s kitchen was always the heart of our campsite.

In choosing to walk the John Muir Trail with the support of a mule team and packers, we realized far more benefits were more than we could have hoped for. While we still walked every knee-busting mile of the trail, our backpacks were reduced to a manageable 25+/- lbs. “Cheater” I was called once by a fellow hiker carrying an oversized pack. Well, that depends on one’s perspective doesn’t it? The fact is, Reg and I wanted to walk this iconic trail for ourselves and carrying a 40+ lb. pack was out of the question.
We still worked hard. Every night Reg and I tidied ourselves up in a stream or lake, filtered water for the next day, washed a shirt or pair of socks or more, set up our tent, blew up our air mattresses, unfurled our sleeping bags and tried to organize ourselves prior to our 5:00 a.m. alarm…when the whole process reversed itself. Let me tell you, it was really cold at 5:00 in the morning on the John Muir Trail!

We also had a few rules to follow. No breakfast or coffee until all our mule-packed belongings were ready to go and placed on the packer tarps. It took all eleven of us (hikers) about an hour to pack up each morning.
Because the horses and mules were let loose to graze overnight, we were not allowed to leave camp to start our daily hike until all stock had been accounted for. Without stock, our baggage could not be transported to the next camp and we would be without overnight supplies. Not often, but sometimes they wandered off under the cover of dark and the guys had to hunt for them in the early hours.
One morning as I held my coffee cup out to Emma to fill, she warned me that the guys had been out searching for the horses and mules since 4:30 a.m. It wasn’t too long after breakfast that they all finally returned and we started our day. It seemed our four-legged friends had wandered miles back along the trail to enjoy greener pastures.

Theres no doubt that having our meals prepared for us each day was an incredible treat. Emma was amazing. She was up at 4:30 every morning making us all sandwiches or wraps to pack as part of our lunch. Breakfast could be any combination of eggs, pancakes, toast, sausage, bacon, oatmeal, cream of wheat and sometimes fresh fruit.
Dinners were equally and unexpectedly good. Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken tacos, steak, hamburgers, basil pasta, shepherd’s pie and pork chops. Often we even had dessert – brownies or cake.

Our hardworking crew of four packers (left to right) Wyatt, Emma, Lane and Tate.

With all this support, we might just make it to the end of the trail!

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John Muir Trail: Over the river and into the woods

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Crossing Wallace Creek and climbing 1,000 feet to the Bighorn Plateau eventually brought us to one of our more unique and out-of-the-way campgrounds near Tyndall Creek. The day was hot with long shadeless stretches that were especially tiring for all who had summited Mt. Whitney the day before.

The Shepherds Hut was well off the beaten path and one of the most unusual sites we camped in.

It might appear charming in the photo but by the time we all reached our campsite (a good mile off the trail and not well marked) it was late and getting dark. We all still had to set our tents up, organize our things and filter water for the next day…and we were all tired, cranky and hungry. Thinking back, this was possibly the low point of the trip for Reg and me. We went to bed wondering just what we had gotten ourselves into.

However, it wouldn’t be the last time that our itinerary seemed at odds with the reality of our day. We were learning that a John Muir Mile could not be trusted to cover the same short distance as a regular mile. And we had many more miles to go.

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Mount Whitney or bust

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Sunrise from the trail up Mt. Whitney.

It was pitch black when Reg shook me awake and said, “Honey, I’m leaving.” Up until that point, I don’t think Reg had definitely decided to make the climb. It was 4:00 am and having made the decision to take a rest day, catch up on chores and better adjust to the altitude, I grunted and rolled over.

While I puttered around the campsite with three others who chose to remain behind, Reg and seven hikers from our group, along with Lane, one of our packers, journeyed to the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. There is no easy way to the top, and from what Reg said, much of it was a group effort of encouragement.

Reg continued up the trail and conquered the mountain, fulfilling one of the John Muir Trail goals he set for himself.

The afternoon brought good news from all seven hikers. Everyone had made it to the top, the weather was perfect and Reg managed to correct his wrong turn on the way down…before ending up at the wrong trailhead.

Pictured above is Lane, our walking packer who often brought up the rear of our daily hikes – checking on our progress and making sure we had what we needed. According to Reg, he was full of encouragement in the early morning hours of the Whitney climb. The photo on the right shows Guitar Lake, shaped like, you guessed it, a guitar. What a surprise!

What other surprises will John Muir’s Trail hold for us?

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John Muir Trail: Scenery galore

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Peaks in the distance, forest and meadow below and rocks under our feet.

We entered Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks area, covering 20 miles in 2 days to reach Guitar Lake where we spent 2 nights. The trail eventually led us along Rock Creek where our second campsite was located. The next morning we had just over 3,000 feet of elevation gain before finally reaching (dragging ourselves) up to our Guitar Lake camp.

Guitar Lake, elevation 11,400 feet, is a popular starting point for the iconic Mt. Whitney climb. Due to the quickly changing weather conditions at the top of Whitney, morning is considered the best time to start the 3,100 foot climb…and the earlier, the better. Our group of climbing hopefuls was scheduled for a 4:00 am breakfast call. Who would attempt the climb? Who would make it to the top?

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John Muir Trail: Loaded and ready to go

We couldn’t believe the heavy loads mules are able to pack…about 20% of their body weight, or 150-200 lbs.

If you remember our last post, you’ll recall that over a month ago we were getting ready for the trip of a lifetime; a 243-mile, mule assisted trek along the John Muir Trail. I don’t know about Reg, but I certainly had plenty of misgivings right up to the moment we first set foot on the trail. We would be surrounded by wilderness with very few escape routes. A number of concerning “what ifs” had kept me up at night.

Regardless, our journey began on schedule August 2 at Horseshoe Meadow in California’s Inyo National Forest. We arrived to a bustling corral that looked straight out of a Hollywood western. Our final group count equaled eleven hikers, four packers with four horses and eight or ten mules…for some reason, Reg and I could never agree on the mule count.


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Our 4.5 mile route for Day 1 took us up over 11,160′ Cottonwood Pass, then on to Chicken Spring Lake (11,242′) for the night. Total elevation gain: 1,400 feet. Was it really just 4.5 miles?

And so, after a dusty first day, we put up our tent, blew up our air mattresses, unrolled our sleeping bags, filtered our water for the next day and found just enough time for a short rest before dinner. What would the next 29 days reveal?

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John Muir Trail: Never say Never

Reg and I spent last year, stuck at home, watching every YouTube hiking video we could find, dreaming of the time we could get ourselves back on one of Europe’s long distance trails.
“If only we were willing to camp with our backpacks -tents, sleeping bags, the whole bit,” we’d say. “Then we could hike some of the gorgeous trails in our own backyard.”

I guess we’re really going to do this.

It was after a visit from friends Kathy and Doug early last spring that our plan quickly (impulsively) took shape. Their suggestion to my joking, offhand remark about needing a Sherpa if I was ever to backpack the John Muir Trail, was to look into one of the mule supported pack station trips available in the Eastern Sierra.

And that’s how we’ve found ourselves packed and ready to set off August 2 on a mule-assisted, 30-day, northbound backpacking trip along the John Muir Trail…and no, the mules are not for us to ride.

Distance: 243 miles, beginning at Horseshoe Meadow and traveling north, finishing at Happy Isle in Yosemite Valley.

46,800’ total elevation gain and 52,700’ elevation loss over the course of the trip.

Photo credit: Rock Creek Pack Station

There are seven of us in our group, plus the staff who will tend to all the details of transporting everything needed via mules, plus large bags of our stuff – including our tents, sleeping bags and pads, clothing and whatever other necessities we choose to bring. We will all carry individual packs with water and water filters, rain gear and whatever else we want to have at our fingertips.
There will be no end of day hot shower or comfy bed that we’ve enjoyed on previous treks. We’ll have to set up and take down our tents, roll up our sleeping bags etc. There will be a decent amount of roughing it. The good news is we will have three meals/day provided by the staff cook.
Should be an interesting trek. We’ll return with a full report once we’re back in civilization.

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A Mammoth Walk in California

Full disclosure: We did not walk up the mountain. Our intention was to wander around up top to get a feel for the altitude, so we chose the gondola for a quick and easy ascent. We were met with gorgeous 360 degree views from what felt like the top of the world.

Reg struck up a conversation with a couple who had made the walk up from the main lodge, claiming to have completed the 2,000 foot climb in about 2 hours. They seemed a little surprised that we had taken the easy way to the top. Feeling a bit wimpy and wanting to salvage our pride, we decided to walk back down the mountain.

It turned out to be a great decision. The hike was well marked, not too steep and filled with jaw-dropping scenery. The trail filled our morning, depositing us back at the lodge right about noon…just in time for lunch!

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Pacific Crest Trail – Wildflowers Galore

We put our hiking legs to the test Sunday morning and drove up to Mount Ashland where we picked up a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Southern Oregon has been experiencing hazy skies due to multiple fires burning in the area and in Northern California, but at the 6,300 foot elevation level the sky above us was clear and blue…and spring was in full bloom. Wildflowers of every size, shape and color decorated the hillside, some just past their prime while others were at their peak.

They say it’s good to stop and smell the roses…or, in this case, whatever flower is right under your nose.
California’s Mount Shasta was barely visible through the haze of smoke. A recent heatwave stripped much of the snow that normally remains through the summer months.

Hiking south, the trail wound up through open meadows to switchbacks and along a ridge line that offered 360 degree views. The occasional northbound hiker passed us, always with a smile and a nod, still cheerful after hundreds of miles traveled and with hundreds of miles to go. A large group was gathered about the drink-filled ice chest left trailside by a compassionate trail angel. The guestbook was filled with a colorful list of the trail names and dates of trekkers who had previously enjoyed a respite.

Just over 5 miles in and after thousand feet of climbing, the trail took a downhill turn, plunging into a thick forest with no end in sight. Deciding that we’d had enough, we turned and retraced out steps back out to the car, thankful that we didn’t have to search for a tent site for the night.

Categories: Ashland life, Day hike near Medford, Oregon, Oregon | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Travels With Minnie: There’s No Place Like Home

There really is no place like home…that’s true for me at least. Friends of ours know those “happy to be home” feelings don’t last long with Reg. He’d just as soon sell the house and live the nomadic life. That is not a lifestyle he can have with me. I insist on a home base.
That being said, we managed to make a comfortable home within Minnie’s walls for the last 2 month. I thought it would be fun to share all our campsites with any of you who might be planning an extended camping trip of your own. A little inspiration perhaps. We cheated just twice with hotel rooms, once for convenience and once to avoid the Nevada heat.

With all the recent talk of increased RV and travel trailer sales, we were worried that finding space might prove difficult. Traveling in early spring with no firm plan seemed to help. We chose to drive a more northerly route first and found most campgrounds with plenty of open spaces. Not wanting to get stuck in a Walmart parking lot or roadside rest stop, we reserved 2-4 days in advance. There’s a limit to how much we’ll rough it.
Thanks to all who followed along with us. We plan to be back with more adventures soon.

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Travels With Minnie: Rainbows End

Located just off Interstate 70 in the Colorado town of Frisco lies the Rainbow Lake Trail. The easy walk winds its way up through a forest of Aspens and past the remnants of what must have once been a stand of evergreens. Acres and acres of cut trees, all neatly stacked pyramid style, left us wondering if the bark beetles had devastated the large swath of trees.

Rainbow Lake

We should be home tomorrow, having covered about 9,000 miles over 9 weeks on the road. It’s been a fantastic trip and Minnie has taken good care of us. That doesn’t surprise me though. The real Minnie, Reg’s Mother, Minnie Spittle, had some 1950s travel trailer stories of her own to tell. A strong woman, we like to think she’s watching over us as we criss-cross the country.

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