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John Muir Trail: Day 8, Muir Trail Ranch

While I have no good explanation for why, this ended up being one of the coldest nights on trail. The lowest point for miles around, excepting the narrow canyon of the San Joaquin, the cold air may have settled into the valley, chilling the air and chilling me. But the fact remains that the lower elevation should've translated to warmer temperatures-- this was no local minima at altitude, this was thousands of feet below where I'd camped the previous night-- at 8500', this was the new low point for the trail. I struggled out of my sleeping bag, eager for a hot breakfast and a quick start to the day. As always, though, these two things are antithetical, and by the time I made my oatmeal, did my dishes, and packed up, it was nearly 8 am. On future trips, I may plan for cold breakfasts to allow for a true jumpstart to the day; while a third of my breakfasts on the JMT were cold, I expected to be looking forward to the hot ones and dreading the cold ones. Instead, with few exceptions, I found myself excited to hit the trail and a little weary of anything standing in my way. Including my bougie homemade oatmeal.

The forest was cloaked in the dense fog rising off of the San Joaquin, and deer foraged for the few remaining green shoots, nearing the end of the season where they could afford to be picky. As the day warmed, the fog burned off, and I felt that now-familiar and frankly unwelcome morning heat. To quote dads everywhere: it was going to be a hot one. Where was this last night as I was two degrees too cold, I wondered. I'm a picky sleeper, for sure, deer-like, and it shows in my campsite selection. Hopper would have his tent set up and be cooking dinner while I was wandering around-- too bumpy, too steep, too exposed, too close to water, too far from water. Just pick one! But now, tents were packed up and we made our way down the narrow canyon, the river's wide waters nearly touching the steep walls on either side.

The granite headwalls of the San Joaquin.

The trail quickly left the tree cover and wound along the banks, stood off from the water by twenty feet or so, baking in the heat of the day. The SOBOers who had camped at MTR had gotten an early start for their long day with freshly laden packs, nothing but uphill for miles and miles, a straight slope to the top of Muir Pass. I passed group after group, breaking trail for the uphill right-of-way. And, as per usual, the uphill crowd would pull off, signaling, "no, please, you got on ahead-- I need the break!" I was by no means exempt from this. It's the circle of life. I chatted with many groups, COVID concerns lessened as everyone at this point was more than a week into the backcountry, myself with not too many miles for the day, the SOBOers wanting a break from the heat and their packs, and curious about the trail ahead. I met a man from Georgia (the country) with an Osprey pack filled to the brim, carrying some portion of his wife's gear. They'd been all over, and he recommended hostel-based backpacking through Europe. I promised him I'm try it out. Hopper met someone with whom to practice his Farsi. We made slow, joyful progress toward MTR.

The trail crosses a talus field, I take a selfie in the shadows.

I was ahead of schedule, having camped 7 miles or so past my planned site. I decided to spend this free time to take it easy today-- no need to rush with an about-to-be-heavy pack, and no need to press on, getting further ahead of schedule, particularly when the hot springs at MTR existed. Despite lessening COVID concerns at this point in the trail, MTR was enough of a hub that, even in this low-traffic year, I was concerned about crowds and mask etiquette. But as I approached, only a couple hours into the day, I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone was wearing a mask, everyone was practicing good social distancing, it was incredibly easy to pick up a bucket, as close to contactless as it could be without concern about mis-distributing buckets, and there were plenty of sanitation options. I was incredibly grateful for the thought and effort that went into making MTR as smooth an experience as it was!

I unwrapped my bucket from the cocoon of packing tape I'd covered it in, and inspected my food. Despite this being my first attempt to make my own food, not a single item had gone bad! The low fat content in all the dehydrated food meant there was very little to go rancid, and everything had kept perfectly shelf-stable. I inventoried everything, making sure I had enough for my current pace, and then entered the fray: everyone was tired of what they'd been eating, and everyone was willing to make a trade. Some folks had realized they'd overpacked, and were trying to give away as much food as possible. Again, this is where Hopper thrives-- as a lone PCTer in the midst of overburdened JMTers, it's a mutually symbiotic arrangement; all the food he is given is another day without a resupply, and all the food he takes is someone else's lighter pack. Slowly realizing I was pretty happy with my food planning (memories of calorie distribution spreadsheets bouncing around my head) I left the bazaar and started looking for the hot springs I'd heard so much about.

Spoiler: I found the hot springs.

Blaney Hot Springs lie across the now-placid San Joaquin, a crossing this late in the season possible with some careful rock-hopping, feet safe and dry just above the surface of the water. An unstable or slippery rock here and there is a quick recipe for wet toes, but less steady hikers may find it a recipe for a quick plunge. A rope for use during the chest-high early season crossing hangs slack In August, no help for the altogether different San Joaquin, now a wide, calm, inches-deep, minutes-long ford, each step critically important, each stone a chance to survey the path ahead. Wet shoes are a hiker's nightmare, and it makes the otherwise stakeless journey across comical-- the lengths we'll go to for dry feet.

Across is the river is a permanent green meadow, fed year-round by the same groundwater that creates the springs, the meadow pockmarked with scattered pools, rising up out of the tall grass. Use trails crisscross the meadow, from pool to pool, some completely clear, others swirling silt, some too hot to enter, others not much warmer than the air, like stepping into a zero-gravity extension of the dry land. I found a secluded pool at the edge of the meadow, shoulder-deep, warm enough to be liquid relief for my muscles, not too warm to be prohibitive to a soak. The invisible floor was a sandy loam, a soft cushion underfoot, warm from the geothermal activity, the water a cloudy silt that rinsed completely clean upon exiting, and afforded some privacy. I wasn't about to get my shorts wet again-- after hiking in just wind pants post-Rae Lakes, it wasn't an experience I was necessarily chasing or eager to repeat. Hopper, myself, and some newfound friends spent the better part of two hours soaking, a reprieve from the trail. But soon enough, it was time to be on our way.

I took no pictures for the next four hours. The trail up from MTR was precisely as difficult as I'd heard, dusty, hot, and lacking much shade. As Hopper and I rested at the top of the MTR climb, finally back on the JMT, mentally steeling ourselves for the Selden Pass approach (a couple thousand feet left to go), we were nearly too exhausted to notice Timmy (any trail name but Top Gun) and Katie (Two-Hats) arriving, our friends from the night before Pinchot. In our break at MTR, they'd caught up with us, in the middle of several huge days to catch up to their own schedule. I lamented how far I had to go before Sallie Keyes Lakes-- they said they were planning on camping there as well. And thus began several days of what could be called group hiking, but more accurately was playing leapfrog throughout the day and reconvening at camp each night. We struggled together up the massive switchbacks ahead of us, each switch a quarter mile long, sometimes more. Hours later, the flat ground across the top of the plateau holding Sallie Keyes felt like an earned reward and an unbearable final obstacle.

But the payoff was worth it-- Sallie Keyes gifted us with a gorgeous campsite on the granite slabs above the lake, perfectly positioned for an excellent sunset and a great jumpstart on the pass in the morning. Timmy and Katie explained that they were trying to push on toward Vermillion Valley Resort tomorrow, a detour off the JMT, but one with burgers, a complimentary beer, and many, many more beers following the free one. I had originally been planning on stopping by, since my proposed camp was just across the lake from VVR, at the ferry stop, but the ferry's cessation due to the low water level made it tough to justify the now-14 mile round trip. But the burger was alluring, and with the promise of company, the decision was made. There was just one more detail-- Timmy wanted to make VVR, more than 15 miles away, by the time the lunch grill closed, around 1 pm. We'd make first tracks at 5 am sharp.

A vista above Sallie Keyes.

Stats for the day:

12 mi

+ 3400 / - 1650



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