August 21, 2014
John Muir Trail (JMT)
Day 18 – Big Pete Meadow (9,240ft) to Upper Palisade Lake (10,840) via Middle Fork junction (8,030),
Camped in the scrubby trees above the second Palisade Lake.
A starry night leads to another clear morning. Dark menacing clouds start to appear over the peaks to the north later in the morning, but never amount to much. Like the previous day, by the time the sun is low in the sky the clouds are on their way out.
As we are leaving Big Pete Meadow we stop and chat with the guy camped across from us who has brought llamas on the trail. He tells us a couple of the llamas are sick from eating something in the meadow and that they have been holed up at this campsite for the last four days waiting for them to recover.
According to other hikers we talked to later, the “llama master” has been plagued with problems – one llama broke a leg and had to be airlifted out, another died in its sleep and had to be dynamited – you apparently can’t just leave a llama carcass lying about the trail and it was too rocky to bury it. You never know if these stories are true, but such is the nature of trail rumors.
The morning hike continues for five miles down through Le Conte Canyon. The track through the forest, now much gentler than the previous evening, runs alongside the Middle Fork of the Kings River passing great cascades and open meadows with the cliffs to the west brilliantly lit.
Once at the Middle Fork junction with Palisade Creek (8,030ft), the low point of the day, we start the climb along the creek to Mather Pass. The first section to Deer Meadow parallels the creek, often at a distance. The track climbs gently through a mix of forest and more open areas burned by the 2002 Palisade Fire with lingering views of the Le Conte Canyon peaks behind us. Aspen trees, their leaves sparking in the afternoon light, have started to reclaim this area.
Past Deer Meadow, more of a burnt out forest than a true meadow, starts the steep climb up the Golden Staircase to Palisade Lakes.
An impressive, well graded track of switchbacks up the gullies and carved and blasted from the cliff face this was one of the last sections of the JMT to be built. The ascent begins gently but soon becomes steeper and the switchbacks shorter as you near the top to Palisade Lakes.
Alongside the track Palisade Creek cascades down wide granite slabs. Wild flowers line the trail, more than we’ve seen in days. The striking rock formations along this stretch are well lit in the late afternoon sun. Dark clouds cling to distant peaks in the north, but never move in our direction.
As we near the top an old man coming down the trail warns us that they were blasting at Mather Pass this afternoon and that he was the last hiker heading north that they let through. He suggests that they may have the pass closed for part of the day (from 12PM – 4PM) tomorrow as well.
We decide to camp as close to the pass as possible to shorten the morning climb and head to the tent sites in the clump of scrubby trees above the second lake. Palisade Basin is smaller than Evolution Basin but stunning nonetheless with Palisade Creek plunging through a deep gully at the entrance and the 14,000 ft. Palisade Peaks towering overhead.
Passing the first lake we notice that several hikers are already camped at the tent sites along its sandy shore. There are a number of hikers at the second lake as well, but still plenty of sheltered sites remain and we find a scenic spot above a stream cascading down into the lake. Trish and the girls, who we met at Vermilion Valley Resort, are camped just above us.
It’s a gorgeous afternoon. The last rays of sun play on the surrounding peaks, but the temperatures drop quickly as soon as the light fades.