Our first visit to the United States in 1996 was to the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains of California- home to the iconic Yosemite valley and John Muir Trail where we did some rock climbing, backpacking and touring around. After this taster, we came back in 1998 as part of our longer Pacific Crest Trail hike between Mexico and Canada. Since then we brought the climbing gear back in 2006 and then in 2019 explored the mountains by hiking some cross country.
Listed below are our outdoor trips- with links to blog posts.
We visited California in 2019 and this time went out backpacking, exploring some of the Sierra mountains away from the popular John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. Our aim was max out on the scenery with some off trail and scrambling over mountain passes and ridges. We used Steve Roper’s excellent ‘Sierra High Route‘ book as a reference along with some very useful websites and blog posts. See an overview map of our 2019 hikes.
Monday 9th September 2019 Our aim was to do a loop hike starting at the North Lake trailhead, west of the town of Bishop, hiking north on a chunk of the Sierra High Route, returning via the John Muir Trail and then finishing with a cross country meander past Darwin Lakes and Lamarck Col.
We started with a trip to Basin Bakery for some great bagels then the Bishop Visitor Centre and again managed to get a same day permit for the hike with no trouble. It’s a lovely drive climbing steeply out of the Bishop valley with some final dirt road to North Lake trailhead.
From the trailhead we had an easy gradual on-trail ascent past multiple lakes to Piute Pass at 11,423 feet. There were a few other hikers around and we met a nice guy with a donkey! The west side of the pass is gentle going over a plateau like area but we soon split from the trail to head north cross country to Puppet Pass. The area is flattish, dotted with boulders and lakes with mountains on the horizon all around. The descent from Puppet Pass was to the north of the lowest point – bouldery and slow going but the Puppet Lakes below were beautiful. We made it northwards to Elba Lake to camp in a lovely spot with sun and some shelter in amongst krummholz whitebark pine.
Pretty cold overnight with our water bottles freezing- I guess we are quite high at about 11,000 feet. Our start was a relaxed cross country descent down to French Canyon to boulder hop across the frost fringed river. We were both glad no wading was required as it was still frigidly cold! After a relaxed 1 mile hike west on trail we split again with some faint trails and xc up to Merriam Lake sitting in stark alpine surroundings. Easy going from there up a remote feeling valley across meadows and slabs to La Salle lake before a steep granite boulder and slab push to Feather Pass at about 12,300 feet. We met 2 guys here (first since Piute Pass yesterday) who are out for 10 days.
The descent was on better rock this time with some fun scrambling on grippy granite then onto a snow slope to easier ground. We then wound round various lakes with bear related names and all in a grand wild setting before reaching White Bear Pass with its beautiful lake near the top. The descent from this one though was a bit of a pain with endless willow scrub, gravel and loose rock! We were both glad to make it to flatter terrain and past two more lakes to reach the Hilgard valley where we would split west from the Sierra High Route.
A trail was marked in the valley but we found some rough going initially before a rugged trail gradually became a bit clearer. Cool valley though with granite slabs and green meadows. We made it to about 1/2 mile short of the John Muir Trail and pitched the tent fairly tired after a long rough but excellent day.
Boy was it cold in the morning- our shoes had frozen as well as our water. We soon hit the JMT and headed south on a long gradual ascent to Seldon Pass – drying the tent out in the sun on some granite slabs. The lakes below Seldon were scenic and on the other side the trail was easy as it descended 3,000 feet down to Muir Ranch. This is a place where JMT hikers are able to resupply and stay the night. There is lots of spare food here, left behind by JMT hikers and we were able to stock up on bonus nuts and raisins and a few bars – superb!
Suitably replenished, we headed on south following the steep sided San Joaquin River on a grand trail camping just below Evolution Meadow after a fine day of JMT trail walking.
We started the next day with more chilled out JMT trail walking through Evolution Valley before striking steeply uphill off trail to Darwin Bench. Actually there was a pretty good ‘use trail’ much of the way but with some boulder hopping round the fine turquoise Darwin Lakes. After Lake 4 we stopped at its small beach before hitting the 1,000 foot climb up to Lamarck Col. The views opened out as we followed various sandy trails with the odd scramble to pop out at the col in late afternoon at 12,800 feet. A grand spot.
The descent involved crossing a snow slope which was in the shade and had hardened so we got out the micro spikes and ice axes to cross to the boulders below. From there it was easier arid slopes with a trail forming lower down. We stopped at a trickling water source then looked around a bit for a good viewful camping spot, eventually finding a wonderful place on the ridge above. What a view east over to Owens Valley and the White Mountain range. Even better was a full moon popping out over the jagged ridge to the south and no wind to rattle the tent even on this exposed spot.
After taking a few pictures over breakfast in the morning, we headed down steadily on trail in the morning back to the North Lakes trailhead. Another great loop !
Sunday 25th August 2019 We flew into LA from Scotland yesterday and drove up the east side of the Sierra mountains, stopping to pick up our hiking permit and bear canister on the way to the McGee Creek trailhead. It was a blistering 30C here as we packed our gear in the shade and emptying spare food into the trailhead bear box to hopefully prevent bears taking an interest in the rental car.
For this our first backpack of the holiday we aimed to warm up for 4 days following mostly trails, some cross country and to reach a high point on McGee Pass at about 11,800 feet for acclimatization.
Once we started hiking up McGee Creek through sage and past some aspen, the air cooled down a little and it was a very pleasant gradual ascent up to Big McGee Lake at 10,500 feet. We saw a few other campers here but found a cool spot above and away from the lake. A few mozzies around on the way up but tolerable at the campsite – phew!
After a beautiful sunrise over the lake with some snow patched mountains behind, we set off uphill on trail on a grand hike past lakes and some frozen snow patches. We had brought mini crampons- ‘micro spikes’ to fit over our trail shoes and these worked perfectly for moving quickly up the snow. The pass was fairly gentle and scree covered but had good views out west to the jagged ridge of the Silver Divide and the green meadows of Tully Hole below- our descent line.
This was an idyllic valley with lush green meadows and wildflowers, marmots, pika, chipmunks. We eventually connected lower down with the John Muir Trail at a river crossing at Tully Hole – mozzy central!- and followed the JMT northward for a wee while. It was obvious this was a heavy used trail, as well as seeing lots of people, the trail was wide and dusty from many foot and hoof marks. Still it was pleasant hiking and soon we reached Lake Virginia where we cut off cross country northwards up a shallow drainage over a small pass to the the Rams Lake area to camp. Man this was nice up here above the treeline, amongst the small lakes and rough hills around!
We set off on a rather beautiful cross country rambling descent down through meadows, past dotted lakes and streams. We soon picked up a trail below Rams lakes that took us down to Purple Lake. Saw a white owl in the trees and an osprey catch fish on the lake. Back on the wide PCT we headed northwards and turned off soon again to climb up on another trail to the large Duck Lake. Someone kindly offered us some DEET mozzy repellent which Brian gratefully accepted! From Duck Pass we headed north west following notes for the Sierra High route on the broad ridge of the Mammoth Crest. We decided to haul water to camp on the plateau like ridge with panoramic views all round. Particularly north to Banner and Ritter mountains and south to south impressive swelling thunderclouds which we were thankfully able to watch from a distance.
Next morning we had an easy saunter down to Lake Mary on the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes town to end a rather scenic and wonderful ‘warm up’ backpack. We only had the small problem of getting back to our rental car at McGee Lake trailhead. Though yo!- we lucked out and we hitched a lift from a very kind gentleman who took us back to the car in one go along three different roads including the final few miles on gravel dirt road. Thanks!
Saturday 3rd October We spent a day off in a town near to Independence called Lone Pine before hitching back up to the Kearsage Pass road end. Luckily for us we caught a lift from two guys who we had met on the trail at Kearsage Pass and they stopped to give us a lift when they recognised us.
Often when we were hiking, people would ask us where we had hiked from and, although we did delight in telling hikers our full story, there were times when we would just reply with the last nights camping spot so that we could just have a short chat then keep on hiking. On this occasion however, I had told the two guys that we had hiked all they from Canada and one had replied “That’s amazing, let me shake your hand!”. We were both a bit embarrassed by this living in Scotland where the norm is to downplay any achievements however it did mean that we were recognised when standing at the side of the road looking sunburnt and dusty.
Since we didn’t start hiking that day ’til 3.30pm we only made it about 7 miles to camp at Kearsarge Lakes in a bitterly cold but lovely spot. There were bear-proof boxes provided here where we could store our food safe from bears, however we were amused to find out that this area was where ‘bad-bears’ from tourist spots around Yosemite valley are air lifted out to by park staff. We kept a careful look out that evening for any signs of bear activity but thankfully there was none. Two miles further hiking the next morning and we were back on the PCT again and heading south on our final stage! We noticed some lovely trees on the way south before finally crossed the highest point of the whole Pacific Crest Trail, Forester Pass at 13,180 feet.
Lunch was eaten just over the other side of the pass in the snow in a little warm sun trap sheltered from the wind before dropping down onto lake dotted granite Bighorn Plateau. We passed the highest mountain in the contiguous states, Mt Whitney, at Crabtree Meadows and since we had summited two years earlier on a climbing trip we sped on southwards with only a few backward glances. The meadows however were in lovely autumnal colours with patches of snow adding to the scene. Our lunchtime ritual had now extended to laying out the frost-wetted tent and sleeping bags in the sun to dry them out as we lazed around and soaked up the midday sun’s rays.
Near Big Whitney Meadows we were surprised to meet two friendly horse riders who were also out on a backpacking trip into the mountains. Apart from them we hadn’t met anyone else since Kearsarge Pass. The spectacular mountain scenery began to flatten out a little as we wound round tree lined peaks southward into an amazing stark granite, sandy landscape with unusual dry dead trees. We guessed that breakdown of trees takes a long time in this high dry climate.
After a 23.5 mile day we arrived at Kennedy Meadows, a small store and campground and for us it meant that we had cracked the high Sierra mountains- one of the undoubted highlights of our long journey. The terrain around here was more arid with sage and manzanita the dominant plants instead of the big pines of the higher lands.
With 47 miles left to our finish at Walker Pass we just picked up some food and headed off into some hot sunshine down beside the Kern River. Our minds were focused now on finishing and resting our tired legs. We made it 23 miles down the trail just past a water source called Fox Springs for our last night on the PCT. Typically for us, it ended as it began with us running out of daylight and camping right on top of the trail as it was the only suitable flat bit of ground we could find. This had happened to us on our very first night out from the Mexican border at Campo!
Brian startled a coyote which jumped into the bushes as we set camp. We had carried some special food for our last night and had a Mexican gourmet meal with tortillas, refried beans, salsa, corn chips and beer!
Our last day was a bit of a blur with ever increasing heat, sore feet and a focus on reaching the road at Walker Pass. We did have time to notice some Joshua Tree and teddy bear cactus though before reaching the road in a sweaty bedraggled state. Martina wrote a goodbye into the sand on a dirt track and we assumed a familiar position by the side of the road waiting for a hitch to a town down the road to the west. When a driver did stop we asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a photo of us to record the end of a long, long hike and a special experience for both of us……..
It was Saturday 10th October 1998 and it was 2 weeks short of six months since we had set out from the Mexican border in April – we were definitely in need of a rest but elated and thinking that we had been privileged to spend so long in the beautiful and wild country of western USA.
Tuolumne Meadows to Independence Sunday 20th September We spent a rest day down in Yosemite valley with Gordon and Eric. The valley, although extraordinarily beautiful, does suffer a bit from extreme tourist crowding and we were lucky to find a campsite in a quiet hiker-only area by using our PCT permit we had obtained at the start of the trip. Martina and I had visited Yosemite on a rock climbing trip two years earlier and, creaking our necks gaping upwards at the granite walls, we vowed to return again!
Next day Gordon drove us back round to the trail at Tuolumne Meadows and we parted there with he and Eric to continue our hike (Eric was to take part in a uphill running race from Lee Vining to the Tioga Pass). We met up with Ron Vaughn and Hikin Mike here – Mike had just sold his car to Ron who was going to use it to return home after the trail. Given the slightly dilapidated state of the car we doubted whether it would get Ron very far at all but both seemed happy with the deal!
On Tuesday 22nd September We hiked south with Hikin Mike from Tuolumne Meadows up Lyell Canyon with its lovely tumbling river and spacious views. Martina and I had good memories of chilling out here after a rock climb two years ago but our minds were set on more strenuous things. We were both certainly lean and fit now (‘as a butchers dog’ as the saying goes) in our sixth month of the journey but this was offset by the fact that we were pretty fatigued and sore from so much constant hiking and load carrying- our bodies were craving for a long rest.
Wild mountain scenery was the next best thing to a rest- and the area of Donahue Pass with its snowy bowls, rocky tops and distant high mountains- gave us a spring to our step. Over Island Pass and its superb views to Mt Ritter, Banner and Thousand Island Lake we dropped down to stunning Garnet Lake feeling like we were immersed in the Sierra Nevada mountains already.
We passed by the Minarets mountain area the next day- home to lots of great rock climbing- and were stopped by a female ranger out hiking who asked us for our park permits. This was the first time we had been asked in our whole trip and, as we had convinced Mike that he wouldn’t need one, we had to do some serious persuading with the ranger to let Mike off. Hiked past Devil’s Postpile Monument- a basalt columned rock structure which was impressive but a bit like our Island of Staffa off the coast of Scotland but not as spectacular!
After a cold camp that night we ascended up to Silver Pass at 10,900 feet with some hail on top to greet us so we descended quickly to camp down at Pocket Meadow. It hailed heavily that night and we had to get out our sleeping bags in the dark to move the tent as a large puddle had gathered underneath us.
Our aim from there was to hike to Vermillion Lake and take a boat ride to the resort at the far side of the lake. Our only problem being that we didn’t know when the boat ran so we got up at 6am and hiked down to the steaming, frosty lake edge, cooked breakfast with some hot mugs of tea and waited. Luckily, the boat arrived at 9.45am disgorging other PCT hikers El Nino and the Nike Girls along with a lama! After a chat we had a lovely 4 mile trip across the lake to the lodge – only to meet our PCT friend Brian Sweet last seen in Washington state. He had finished the trail ahead of us and had got a job as a waiter at the lodge until the end of the season. It seemed that the other hikers had been told to keep it a surprise for us that he was here!
We rented a caravan as cold, snowy weather set in and had lots of good food, borrowing a tape player and generally having a ball. It stayed wet and cold the next day so we got a lift down to local Mono Hot Springs with Scott and Rebecca for a refreshing dip.
We reluctantly left the restful lodge on the boat the next day, hiking on fresh snow in more lovely country all the way up to pitch the tent with hats and gloves near Seldon Pass. Our tactic in the morning was to get up and hike quickly in the freezing cold until we were hit by the sun, at which point we stopped and had breakfast. Evolution Valley was wonderful with its waterfalls, lakes, mountains and clear, clear autumnal air- the Sierra were well named ‘The Range of Light’ by John Muir the Scottish born naturalist and “Father of the American Natural Parks”.
Although the weather was certainly crisp and cold, we did have the great advantage that this normally popular hiking area was now virtually empty as this was considered post season to most. As for us, we were having one of the best days of our entire hike out there. I picked up some dead wood for a fire and filled up with water as our aim was to stay in the Muir Hut at the top of 11,955 foot Muir Pass (John Muir made a big impact here!). This is a remote stone shelter or ‘bothy’ as it would be called in Scotland. We made it there in a tired state at 6.30pm with temperatures well below freezing but it was a welcome sight.
Our fire wasn’t a total success as I just succeeded in smoking out the shelter – so we reluctantly had to put the fire out and, as it was so cold, we opted to pitch the tent inside the hut for extra warmth. A lively mouse tried to get in the tent by jumping up the tent door through the night- we named it ‘Murdo the Mouse’ and wondered how it would survive the winter up here.
Thunderstorms and heavy snow fall greeted us in the morning and we settled in the hut to wait for a clearing in the weather. Our few foray’s out during the day did not look good as we must have had about 18 inches of new snow fall and by about 3pm we concluded we would stay another night as at least we had a solid, if cold, shelter here. For a diversion Martina busied herself by sculpting a snow-bear and we cooked our way through a fair bit of food and stove fuel to keep ourselves warm.
Thankfully the next morning was cold but gloriously sunny with the fresh powder snow glinting in the light. Our descent down past Helen Lake and lots of other smaller tarns in pure snow was another highlight of the trail for us. As the trail dropped down to around 8,000 feet the snow cleared and we could tread on dry ground again. We stopped at a ranger station ‘Le Conte’ where the ranger was packing up to leave for the end of the summer season. He told us another storm was due in three days and we made our mind up to hike out to the town of Independence at Kearsarge Pass in another 40 miles where we could pick up extra supplies and sit out the storm for a day.
Another bitterly cold camp at Lower Palisade Lake around 10,600 feet that night and the next day involved crossing two high cols at Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass passing beautiful blue green, boulder dotted lakes. The crisp crunch of snow underneath our boots was constant until we dropped down low to camp at Woods Creek settled in a canyon at 8,500 feet. More stunning scenery followed as we ascended rocky Glen Pass in snow and split from the PCT trail to hike 9 miles out to the road end over Kearsarge Pass. Although this diversion was a long way off the trail it provided delightful scenery to match any on the main trail itself and we had a great time that day.
With a two hour dash down the path we made it to the trailhead around 4pm, however despite our good efforts, it took an hour to get a ride into the nearest small town of Independence where we settled down for a wash and some food in a hotel.