Secrets of the John Muir Trail: Silver Pass & Tully Hole

Day 19 or 20 on the JMT 14.5 miles (180 miles total)Tully Hole to Red Cones

It’s about seven I think.  I’m shoveling oatmeal in my mouth and writing frantically before I pack up and get on the trail.  I didn’t write last night because I had company. Yes, I had company, and he wasn’t from Arkansas!  My Tully Hole camp-mate, Etai, had is ultra-light tarp-tent all packed up and was finishing up his Power Bar breakfast when I emerged from my tent for breakfast this morning. We said a quick goodbye and he was off!

Yesterday, I left the company of the eerie mysterious voices at the cutoff at Vermillion Resort (VVR) junction to begin my three-thousand-foot ascent over Silver Pass. I was fueled with excitement about getting one day closer to Red’s Meadow, a veggie burger and a shower!!!  A Shower! Ohmygod I can’t wait for a shower!

The last three days of hiking have been mind-numbing.  This section of the JMT is B-O-RING! I hope this isn’t what the rest of the hike will be like. For three days, I’ve been ambling up and over forested hill after rolling forested hill. Seemingly for no apparent reason – isn’t there a way AROUND them?  Is it really necessary to go up, just so I can go down again? And then hike up another hill and then down, once again? Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Alllll dayyyyy loooong fooor threeee straigggght dayyyyyys.

Tully Hole JOhn muir trail

I actually miss the giant peaks and long passes of the southern end of the JMT.  In the south, I was (mostly) either climbing up a pass, or down a pass, and the barren above-tree-line granite landscape couldn’t hide many secrets. In the north, under a canopy of thick pines, many secrets are kept: in the form of false summits.

Half a dozen times a day as another mountaintop preens masterly ahead, my relief and anticipation of summiting builds. Yay, I’m almost there, just a little further. I’ve got this! But with each painful and heavy step another rounded mountaintop peeks up behind it, like a rising moon cresting the horizon.

And just like that, the revolting secret of the hills is revealed: another false summit.  Mother Nature’s playful snickers kiss my ears as a breeze floats through the stoic trunks of lodgepole and foxtail pines. Once again, she yanks my finish line away and teasingly places it higher and further up the trail, along with my positive attitude.  “NOOOOO! NO! NO! NO!!!”  I try to fight the disappointment and frustration, but my cranky inner 6-year-old takes over and throws an internal temper tantrum. “I don’t wanna climb anymore! I wanna be done. I wanna go downhill now!  wahhhhh.”  The tantrum passes, I pull on my big-girl-panties and hike on. What else can I do?

Now I know why hikers half-jokingly say there are no flat parts of the JMT! When I think back over the past twenty days and 170 miles I have a hard time remembering any!

The last three days have felt like Ground Hog Day; same views, different day. No matter how high or low I am, all I can see are trees, the sandy-dirt path, more trees, more dirt path. Gone are the sweeping granite vistas of the Sequoia Kings Canyon Range. Gone are the 14,000 foot passes (not sure I miss those so much – although at this stage of my hike, a 3000’ climb is a 3000’ foot climb whether I’m at 14,000’ or 11,000’) where I can lounge atop the world and soak in hundreds of miles of Mother Nature’s rugged brilliance. Gone are the other-worldly moonscapes. Gone are the serene tarns, tucked away in majestic mountains, reflecting the dull gray smoke-diluted skies. It’s just forest. And more forest.

tully hole john muir trail
Camp at Tully Hole
packed up

I can see how hiking the JMT SOBO would be more rewarding; the best scenery is saved for the second part.  As my NOBO hike winds down, it’s feeling anti-climactic.  Maybe it’s because I’m hiking into familiar terrain? As I get closer to Yosemite, where I’ve backpacked for decades, I feel like I’m getting closer to home. It feels like I’m closing in on my final finish line.

So, for the last forty miles I’ve hiked in the forest.  Thick, view blocking, forest. Today I had the exact same view for ten miles; trees and more trees.  There wasn’t even a drop of water for a seven mile stretch; not a creek , lake, tarn, river, or even a trickling spring. Just Forest.  Dense, eerie, forest, full of stoic giants going about their silent big-tree lives like they have for hundreds, and even thousands of years. Hello tree! How are you today?

Luckily, I’d studied my map and listened to the SOBO hikers who told me about the seven-mile dry spell. I was prepared. Thirst wasn’t’ the problem. The lack of visual interest was the problem: not even a creek to break up the monotony.

Even the people I met today were boring. Nothing but bouncy Shiny Happy People (SHP) out for the Labor Day Weekend in their brand new, crisp-clean name-brand hiking clothes and freshly washed hair, clean fingernails, giant backpacks and fishing rods.  They’d cheerily bounce past me leaving in their wake clouds of perfumed soap, shampoo and cologne (yes, cologne!). Even their sunscreen and Deet annoyed the hell out of me, because I know they’ll all be jumping in the lakes and creeks without washing it all off first.

Oh, they weren’t that bad… just slightly annoying and an insult to my hypersensitive senses.  I’ve been out here mostly-alone too long and maybe more than a little self-conscious about my 20-day unshoweredness (like that new word I just made up?) state. Yes, I felt a bit like Jodie Foster’s Nell as I tried to put coherent sentences together to answer their annoying questions: “Where’s the next water?”; “How’s the fishing?”; “can I see your map?”; “Do you have any extra cologne?” (ok, I made the last one up).

I met one person today who neither shined nor bounced, nor reeked of cologne. As I trudged up the trail toward Tully Hole at the end of a long day, looking for a spot to camp, I met Etai. He’s a 22-year-old guy from Israel. He was headed south and I north and we stopped each other to ask if there were any good camping spots back in the direction we’d each come. “No” I said. “Nope, he replied. just a long climb ahead of you with nothing but steep hills and canyons; no good camping.”

We’d crossed paths at the bright green meadow in, what I’m assuming was Tully Hole. “There’s a tiny spot in the woods about a quarter mile behind me,” I said, “but I don’t really want to camp there, it’s tiny, wooded and kind of eerie.”

We both walked back in the direction I’d come to check it out.  We stood on the trail, just feet from the tiny clearing in the dark woods next to the creek. It was barely big enough for one person, much less two and there was nothing but rocks and steep hills all around us.

“I was thinking about staying here, but I’d rather sleep out in the open,” I said pointing toward the meadow where we’d met. “I don’t really like camping in the woods.  I’m kinda scared of the woods. “I laughed self-consciously as I confessed my irrational fear to the young stranger.

“Me too! I hate the woods, they’re creepy!” he admitted and we both laughed at the irony of two solo-hikers in the woods, admitting to be afraid of the woods.  “Let’s go check out the meadow.”

With packs still on, we headed back to the meadow and then parted ways to scout for camping spots.  I slopped around in the soggy mess trying to find a spot dry enough to camp. I felt guilty for traipsing through the delicate eco-system of the marshy meadow.  Not exactly the best Leave No Trace (LNT) move, but it was necessary if I didn’t want to get eaten by forest-monsters in the middle of the night, I told myself.  After stepping ankle deep in mud and mush a couple of times I looked over at Etai who was busy sloshing around and scouting for a spot himself, wondering if he was having any better luck.

tully hole selfie

I slogged back to the trail where he joined me. No luck. So, we headed back down toward the eerie wooded site.  He pointed to a steep bank across the creek that appeared to be flat on the top. “I’m gonna ago check that out.”  By then, we’d pretty much decided we were camping together for the night. I don’t know if we even talked about it or it was just assumed.

He was half my age, in great shape and was on day four of his South Bound John Muir Hike, compared to my day twenty, so I felt no guilt in sloughing off my pack and resting against a tree as he rock-hopped across the creek and easily scaled the steep bank on the opposite side.  As he disappeared into the woods above I had  a few fleeting concerns about camping with a strange man; is he up there preparing a torture apparatus? Finding a tree to tie me to to leave me for dead?  Plotting how he’ll chop me up and bury me far off the trail where no one will find me? I entertained the thoughts for a few minutes and then weighed the more real threat of being alone in a spooky forest full of unknowns. I decided to take my chances with the mortal stranger.

A few minutes later he was careening down the bank toward me with a huge smile on his face. “It’s great! There’s a ton of space and plenty of flat spots to camp! What do you think?”

Great, so you found a perfect tree to hang me from, huh? “Awesome! Let’s go!” I said out loud as I pulled my pack on and followed him up the bank. Once I crested it, a whole new flat world of forest splayed before me! Yay!!!  My new non ax-murderer friend found us a perfect home for the night!

We ate dinner together, shared hiking stories and I enjoyed hearing about his life in Israel and his summers spent in the U.S. taking youth on backpacking trips into the wilderness.  See, serial killers don’t take youth on backpacking trips, you have nothing to worry about!  

Later, as I laid in bed with my ears perked for signs that he was sharpening his hatchet, something else about him struck me: he’d started his JMT hike out of Yosemite four days ago.  And a reality that I’d been ignoring hit me; I’m almost done. I’m fewer than 60 miles from Yosemite Valley. I can probably be in Tuolumne Meadows in three days. A sadness and panicky feeling spread over my tired and aching body as I snuggled into my bag to keep out the cold night.

I’m almost to Yosemite. I’ve hiked from Horseshoe Meadows all this way. I’ve hiked one hundred eighty miles. I’ve been out here twenty days.  I felt a surge of pride at my accomplishment.. an unfamiliar feeling -and it brought tears to my eyes. I must be exhausted… 

As I slid into sleep I thought about checking on Capone when I got to Tuolomne Meadows. I miss y buddy and can’t wait to see him, but what will it be like going home? What will home feel like after this?

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this experience.


(Epilogue: When I read that last line in my journal entry I was blown away. Yes, interesting, indeed. for those of you who don’t know, this is my new life:  and on YouTube:



Shiny Happy People and the Gifts They Leave Behind

Day 15 Sapphire Lake in Evolution Basin to Aspen Meadow on Piute Creek.

7:30 am.

It’s still too cold to venture out into the stone cold morning. I’m snuggled in my bag, eating breakfast and choking down my Starbucks Via French Roast. (Instant coffee is good for about a week, then it’s very very bad – what I wouldn’t do for a cup of Peet’s French Roast right now!).

I got to Sapphire Lake late yesterday afternoon and decided to make it home for the night. (I get to camp in Evolution Basin!!!- I’m actually here!). I hiked the half mile or so along the lake searching for my perfect site.  Everything to the right (east) was too close to the trail and/or the water so I had to climb up the rocky hills on the west. I found the perfect spot at the base of The Hermit, high enough to give me a muted smoky view of the lake, and the dramatic peaks of Mts. Huxley and Warlow directly to the southeast of me.  Another perfectly picturesque camp on the John Muir Trail!

Sapphire Lake Evolution basin
Morning view from Sapphire Lake looking North toward Evolution Valley

There’s just one other solo backpacker on the far south end of Sapphire Lake. His camp rests between two pools of water- it looks gorgeous, but too close to the water for me. I like my perch –above the lake resting in the now-familiar rocky terrain of SEKI Wilderness.  I feel at home in the rocks with unobstructed views and dramatic ruggedness that speaks ‘earth’ and ‘wilderness’ to me.

The chill set in early last night.  As soon as I got to camp I put on my Merino Smart Wool base layer (lightweight: I wish I’d gotten medium-weight, at least) my tank top, down jacket and beanie – and I was still chilled to the bone. I headed down the hill from camp to the edge of the frigid Sapphire Lake, which wasn’t able to live up to its name under the heavy burden of smoke-gray skies.  I plunged my hands into the icy-cold outlet creek and splashed water on my face in a vain attempt to wash the day’s dirt and grime away.  Next I filled my Nalgene, challenging myself not to fall in and soak the only clothes I have to keep me warm.   I rinsed my hiking pants and shirt, which I instantly regretted as my hands turned numb trying to wring them out.  Despite the dull smoke corrupting the views, it was amazing. I was surrounded by stark jagged mountains piercing the sky, a peaceful lake and the outlet creek gently running north into the valley. It was all I’d imagined it to be

Back at camp I made tea and soaked my dinner of curried chickpeas and sweet potatoes, found a rock to lean against and watched the sun lazily seep away, painting the mountains in hues of amber and red.

As soon I finished dinner before darkness even had a chance to steal the sky, I retreated to the warmth of my sleeping bag and tent. I knew it was going to be a miserable, cold night. I remembered reading somewhere that fat gets your metabolism working and warms you up, so I choked down a packet of (not very good) olive oil. I’m not sure how much it helped, because I still froze my ass off.

Morning view of Evolution Basin from my tent at Sapphire Lake
Morning view of Evolution Basin from my tent at Sapphire Lake

I’m wishing I’d brought heavier base layers. It’s September now, the weather very well could have turned,  and every night might be below thirty.  That would be miserable. My 24 degree down bag and lightweight wool aren’t enough –  I’m not sure I can handle two more weeks of this level of cold.

I also wish I’d brought a cone filter and Peet’s coffee. OMG, I can barely choke this instant crap down…. what happened? I used to think it was pretty good for instant! 

Ok, I need to think about getting a move on, the sun is almost cresting the eastern peak and camp should be flooded with warmth any minute (please, please, please). The plan is to get as close to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) as possible for my resupply tomorrow (Yay, resupply!!! – Booo, heavy pack…). It’s about 15 miles and they close at 5, so there’s no way I’ll make it today. It’ll  be best to get there in the morning. Besides I heard the hike out over Sallie Keys is long, hot and miserable and best done early before it gets too hot.

The Guthook app says the last camping spot is about 3 miles before MTR, but trail rumor has it that there is camping closer, where the San Joaquin river meets up with the cutoff trail about ½ mile away. I may try my luck depending on the terrain.

Lunchbreak:  McClure Meadow @ Evolution Creek

I must be near an easy entry point, there are casual hikers and their disgusting toilet paper piles everywhere. It infuriates me.  What makes them think they can come into MY wilderness and leave their garbage all over MY trail? That’s how I feel. When you spend more than a few days hiking, you begin to feel like the wilderness is your backyard and it infuriates me that people come in here and disrespect it. In what universe is it OK to leave used toilet paper everywhere for the world to see? Grrrr…  I want to find out where they live and go poop and pee all over their yard, leaving my TP behind. See how they like it!

A smoky view from tent at Sapphire Lake
A smoky view from tent at Sapphire Lake

I’m sitting on the edge of the Evolution River absorbing the warmth of the sun, soaking my feet and nibbling on trail mix, dried mango and a GoMacro Cashew bar. The cool water feels good on my swollen achy feet.  I passed a cowboy resting his mules in a large camp and groups of day-hikers relaxing and sunbathing on the warm rocks that, in the spring are covered with snow melt. I know they aren’t backpackers because they have real towels – giant, fluffy, clean towels – ohhh a real towel. Soft and warm right out of the dryer…  Sigh, the luxuries of life that I miss…   If I had a towel, maybe the whole back of my lower body wouldn’t be chapped from not drying off enough.

I’ve decided that the collective trail name for day hikers is “Shiny Happy People” (or SHP, for short). They happily bounce along the trail with their dainty little day-packs and ultra-bright clothes looking well rested, well fed and well quaffed. With skin so clean and moisturized that it glows. I mean, it utterly glows!

I ran into a three generation family of SHP (let’s call them the Shiny Happy Jones Family, just for fun!) in their brand-spanking-new fluorescent pink (for the girls!)  and green (for the boys!) breathable hiking shirts and crisp hiking pants, that probably hadn’t even been washed yet. The brightness of their clothes was dulled only by their artificially white teeth (that shade of white just doesn’t exist in nature). After spending fifteen days in dirty, grungy, earthy nature, they looked ridiculously out of place- I’m serious, their teeth were blinding me. I had to put my sunglasses on to talk to them – and I never wear sunglasses!

All day I had to deal with SHP who enthusiastically scampered along the trail with huge unfatigued, un-trail-weary, artificially-white smiles painted on their dirt-free faces, stopping for brief moments to exchange pleasantries with me; like spectators at a wild animal exhibit at the zoo. Seriously, it was more brutal than climbing Glen Pass!

The conversations usually went something like this:

SHP: “HI!!!!”

Me: ‘hi.”

SHP: “Where ya headed?”

Me: “Yosemite.”

SHP: “Yosemite!?! Wow, that’s far! Where’d ya come from?”

Me: “Cottonwood Pass, 22 miles south of Mt. Whitney.”

SHP: “Have ya seen any bears?”

Me: “Nope.”

SHP:  Showing obvious disappointment that I hadn’t had a life-threatening encounter with a wild beast to entertain them with, they’d flatly reply,  “Oh.  Well, have a great trip!”And with a flash of their blindingly-white smile, they’d bounce off into the woods like a clueless fawn.

About five minutes after my encounter with the Shiny Happy Jones Family (they were either Smiths or Joneses, I guarantee it!), while my pupils were still trying to undilate from their blinding brightness,  I nearly stopped dead in my tracks with a thought: Shit!!! Shit, shit, shit. Why didn’t I realize this sooner?   I’d passed a mule caravan about a mile back – why didn’t I realize the Shiny Happy Jones family was  with that caravan??  Already hating the day hikers for invading my space with their blinding smiles and clothes, perfumey soap and dirty toilet paper, this gave me one more reason to despise them: Fuckers can’t even carry their own gear!

And I mentally kicked myself for not thinking on my feet. Dammit, if only I’d put two and two together sooner!  A retrospective sinister plot began to tale hold in my brain…THIS is the conversation I would have had: 

SHP: “HI!!!!”

Me: ‘hi.”

SHP: “Where ya headed?”

Me: “Yosemite.”

SHP: “Yosemite!?! Wow, that’s far! Good for you! Where’d ya come from?”

Me: “Cottonwood Pass, 22 miles south of Mt. Whitney.”

SHP: “Have ya seen any bears?”

Me: “Nope, but watch out for that pack of wild coyotes about a mile back.”

SHP: “Coyotes? REALLY?”

Me: “Yep, there was a pack of at least 15 barbarous coyotes back there feasting on a mule! I saw it charge out of the forest and take down a pack mule in a split second and then drag it off the trail and just start feasting on it, not more than ten feet away. It was gruesome! They ripped right through the gear and flesh like it was nothing!”

SHP: “Gear? The mule had supplies on it???”

Me: “Yeah, pretty sure the supplies are history, I wouldn’t go near those coyotes, they were scary! You should have seen them tearing that poor mule limb by limb. I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought they’d come for me next so I practically ran the last mile. You better be careful out there! Happy Trails!”

I amused myself for several miles over my missed opportunity to have some fun with the SHP.  OMG it would have been hilarious. I bet that would have taken the pep right out of their step! Hee, hee.   This is what two weeks without proper nutrition and sleep will do to you!

5:30 camped on Piute Creek, about 3 miles from Muir Trail Ranch

I’m a few yards off the trail in the woods. I don’t like the woods. They still scare me a little. There are too many shadows and the possibility of things lurking that I can’t see. But it was either this or collapse right on the trail. After twelve tough miles, I’m done!

Piute Creek camp near Muir Trail Ranch
Piute Creek Camp in the Aspens

Oh – and I have officially banned the phrase ‘easy day’ from my vocabulary – forever and ever.  Really, I mean it this time!   It was twelve miles of a lot of not-so-easy downhill. I have never had so many different parts of my body hurt all at once… seriously I could list what doesn’t hurt much easier than what does!  I’ve been pushing hard for the last five days. It’s time for another rest day.

I passed several backpackers today who ranted about how wonderful MTR is if you stay there. Apparently there have been a lot of cancellations because of the fires and rooms are easy to get. The backpackers looked so clean and rested (backpacker clean – NOT SHP clean!). They said it exceeded their expectations: the food is delicious and fresh, there are nice hot showers (oooh, a shower… *sigh*), laundry and private hot springs for guests. They talked me into it. If there are vacancies I’m going to splurge! I could use a little R&R –  and a giant fresh salad (they said the salads are amazing)!  And shampoo! And a hot shower! I’m sick of smelling myself, clean will be nice.

My fingers are crossed they will have an opening, I can’t think of anything else! Hiking down those endless switchbacks from McClure Meadow to Evolution Valley, I was obsessed with it!

My site is cozy, surrounded by aspens. Only about 8000’ feet so it’s a lot warmer! No rainfly so I can see any wild beast lurking in the thick forest (I know that makes no sense- like I’d be able to stop it from lunging at me and making me dinner!). Anyway, I’m hoping its warmer tonight and the patch of sand my tent is on is soft enough to cushion my aching bones against the ground. I’m hoping for a rare good night’s sleep. I want to get up early and hightail the three miles to MTR before they sell out of cabins! I’ll be dreaming of salad and hot showers!