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A summer adventure on the John Muir Trail

This past spring and summer I was immersed in learning and writing about the benefits of nature and wilderness for youth, for science, for parks and for everyone. I attended a summit at UC Berkeley in March (where I shook hands with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell!), relished the Bay Area Open Space Council’s 25th Anniversary conference in May and wrote grant proposals (for projects like this one) to support a stronger and more diverse constituency for our national lands.

It was time for me to drink from the streams of adventure and discovery.

On my first day on the trail, near Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, other hikers asked me where I was headed. I almost gasped when I said, “Mount Whitney.” I had over 160 miles to cover and 35,000 feet to climb to get there. My path: the John Muir Trail.

Sunrise at Virginia Lake
Sunrise at Virginia Lake

Hikers of all ages and from around the world come to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains to experience the John Muir Trail.  Some hike sections and others hike the full length from Yosemite National Park to the top of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park, 211 roadless miles away.

Yes, you can walk for more than 200 miles, through some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States, and never cross a road. We have the Wilderness Act of 1964 to thank for that.

Meadows on the JMT near Sallie Keyes Lakes
Meadows near Sallie Keyes Lakes, John Muir Wilderness

These wild places in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, John Muir Wilderness, Yosemite and Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks belong to all of us. Nicholas Kristof, an outstanding journalist and humanitarian, reminds us of this fact every year in his column in The New York Times. He shares stories about his annual family backpacking trips on the Pacific Crest Trail, extols the myriad benefits of wilderness adventures, and makes the case for protecting more wild places as quintessential public goods: “Our national lands are a rare space of utter democracy: the poorest citizen gets resplendent views that even a billionaire is not allowed to buy.” (Read his latest post, published today: “This Land is Our Land”).

Indeed, money cannot buy the experiences and the memories you will earn from pushing your comfort zone in the backcountry.

Evolution Lake in Kings Canyon National Park
Evolution Lake in Kings Canyon National Park

Once the butterflies and nervousness dissipated I soaked in everything that the natural wonders of the High Sierra had to offer, from the sounds of cascading streams and morning birdsong to the scenes of bats flying at dusk and star-filled night skies. I relished soupy dehydrated food, campsites with views of turquoise lakes and the enthusiastic greetings from northbound hikers.

I spent one lunch next to an alpine lake thrilled to spot several Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs. These endangered amphibians were swimming laps and doing pull ups on the shoreline.

Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs
Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs

Nature also produces undesired elements for hikers: lightning storms and fires. The Rough Fire burning near Kings Canyon National Park stole many mountain vistas and chewed on my morale. Imagine the smoke billowing from a 30,000-acre (and growing!) fire.  As of today, the lightning-sparked fire is burning over 61,000 acres.

Smoke from the Rough Fire envelops the basin beneath Pinchot Pass
Smoke from the Rough Fire envelops the basin beneath Pinchot Pass

Thankfully, other people you meet on the trail provide the inspiration you need when you are flagging or dealing with unforeseen environmental challenges. For me, observing the endurance and ambition of other hikers was powerful enough for me to carry on and motor my legs to the top of several exposed mountain passes, thin on oxygen. (Thank you Catherine, Finn, Minna, Nick, Betsy and Jim.) I also remembered the supportive words of my husband and close friends back at home. “You’ve got this!”

Forester Pass, 13,160 feet
Forester Pass, 13,160 feet

With the fires, the smoke was the most intense in the afternoons, so I made the most of each morning and had the good fortune to experience the famed Rae Lakes Basin in Kings Canyon before the smoke rolled in.

Fin dome reflecting on Dollar Lake, Rae Lakes Basin, Kings Canyon National Park
Fin dome reflecting on Dollar Lake, Rae Lakes Basin, Kings Canyon National Park

Nearing my last day in the wilderness I traversed the otherworldly Bighorn Plateau and camped at Guitar Lake in Sequoia National Park.

Camping at Guitar Lake near Mt. Whitney
Camping at Guitar Lake near Mt. Whitney, Sequoia National Park

The next morning, I woke up at 3:00 a.m., broke camp, donned my headlamp and set off for the final ascent to the tallest peak in the continental United States, 14,495 feet above sea level.

Standing on the top of Mount Whitney in the morning light, I felt awe, exhilaration, profound gratitude and a new appreciation for the treasures of wilderness, which change from mile to mile. Elizabeth Wenk, author of a comprehensive guide for the John Muir Trail, offers some great advice for the trail that we can all take home to our daily lives as well:

With each step, enjoy and absorb where you are, rather than comparing it with where you have been or where you are headed.

Mt. Whitney summit trail at sunrise
Mt. Whitney summit trail at sunrise
Summit of Mt. Whitney, August 21, 2015