JMT, Day 13: Aspens Along the San Joaquin

This past summer, we hiked the John Muir Trail in California. For an overview of our trip, and links to other posts about it, go here.

September 6, 2015
Sapphire Lake to Aspen Meadow



We sleep in. Oh my god we sleep in. My alarm’s off and we’re surrounded by high hills that block the rising sun. It’s dark in the tent until eight, and even then it’s only vaguely light in that way you can almost plausibly ignore. I lie on my back, eyes half open, listening to people walk by. It’s almost ten by the time we slowly get up, roused by the sound of pterodactyls.

I think I’m hungover. What did I drink last night? Three ounces of bourbon? Ridiculous. I guess everything’s amplified here.



We meander down a couple miles – or a couple million years, I can’t tell – to Evolution Lake, where we stop along the shore for a long breakfast.




There are a bunch of people here – short section hikers planning to pull out at Bishop Pass. They’re all nervous about the smoke. They all ask us exactly the same question. I answer all of them in exactly the same way. “It’s been wonderful.”

We sit behind a tree away from the shore, shaded from the sun. Today’s just a long descent down Evolution Valley to the South Fork San Joaquin, and I guess neither of us are in a hurry to leave the land of rocks and water and dinosaurs.


But eventually we pack up, and follow the trail as it descends down steep switchbacks further into forests and meadows. We have a resupply tomorrow at Muir Trail Ranch, and our packs weigh basically nothing. I think mine’s a little under ten pounds? It feels nice to put in some easy, shady miles.



There are more and more people as we get closer to the San Joaquin, all of them nervous. It’s been such a sudden shift, the smoke to this. Every time someone asks what it’s like ahead, I think of the couple we met on our third day, who told us everything was going to be okay. We needed to hear that more than we needed to know the truth. And what’s the truth here anyway?

“You’re going to cough and cry together, your eyes are going to sting at the end of the day. Your lungs will feel full when you wake up. But it will be so, so worth it.”

Or: “You will be okay. It’s been wonderful.”


In the flats, Evolution Creek’s just a slumbering slough, barely moving through the grass. We eat lunch in an over-loved campsite at the edge of Evolution Meadow. Krista’s Magic Beans. They’re still not getting old. And dried mango again. How could anyone ever need more than this?

After lunch, the trail switches back steeply toward the San Joaquin River Canyon. The creek is suddenly beautiful – like a rockier, wilder McKenzie River.


A mile or two of switchbacks later, we finally make it to the River, and cross on a beautiful old wooden bridge. I stand in the center for a long time – staring down.


On the other side, there’s a trail junction, and a sign from the National Parks Service facing the opposite direction – towards hikers headed the way we came:


If the picture’s too hard to read:

Hazardous smoke conditions exist. Travel not advised especially if you have asthma / respiratory issues. Consider exiting Muir Trail Ranch / Piute Pass. Help may nor may not be available. Stay prepared for poor visibility & / or having enough provisions to exit & / or backtrack. Be safe & self reliant.

I think, again: we made it through.


We follow the San Joaquin through fields of aspen that shake and sing slightly in the early evening breeze, over steel-railed horse bridges, under thirty-foot junipers that smell like gin, or the mountains near home, where we used to go when I was a kid.

The light softens and shadows come to our canyon. Somehow we’re the only ones here. It’s just a few miles to camp, but we take it slowly, stopping every few feet to take pictures.




We stop for the night at Aspen Meadows, a small series of clearings on a wooded bench along the creek. We stumble down the steep bank to wash up, stand in the middle of the river, look down as the sun turns the water red.


We eat on a rock perch overlooking the water, with smooth seats carved into the granite. It’s the sort of day before resupply dinner where you eat everything tasty left in the bearcan – candy and dried fruit, trail mix, an extra Snickers. It’s paradise.

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