The John Muir Trail in Retro

Photographically, I feel as though I was born about 30 years early. While being born later would have meant missing out on slide film and awaiting the results from the lab, it would also have meant being born into the world of digital photography and iPhones. When I think back on all the cross country and international trips I made in the early days, to have had a digital SLR or an iPhone to document it all? It would have been amazing.

So this week I decided to delve back into the archives, all the way back to 1994 when a couple of friends and myself hiked the John Muir Trail, and see if I couldn’t bring it into the world of iPhones, Snapseed and Instagram. The photographs were made on one of those simple point and shoot 35mm cameras with a roll of film. I scanned the actual photographs, not the negatives, and ran them through the iPhone to see what it might have looked like if we made the journey today.

My friends Lil and Dave had hiked from Yosemite Valley and met several others of us in Tuolumne Meadows. We’d spent the season working for Summit Adventure and decided to hike the John Muir Trail in September of that year. It was time to enjoy the beauty of the backcountry without students, at our own pace. Here the trail follows Lyle Canyon, with Lyle Peak in the distance.

Having hiked all summer it should have been easy, but that first day hiking through Tuolumne Meadows to the end of the canyon left us all quite beat. I still remember the exhaustion that night. Crossing Donner Pass the next morning was equally arduous, our packs so heavily laden, but as we crossed the pass and began to travel through what we called Waugh Gardens and on towards Thousand Island Lakes and Mt Banner we could now recite with John Muir, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”

We stopped for breakfast at Red’s Meadow, our last home cooked meal for some time. At this point our friends Michael, Michelle, and Sean departed and Lil, Dave and I continued.

The switchbacks have stayed with me, they seemed legion. I think Lil was actually counting them as we climbed. When we arrived at Virginia Lake it was all worth it. That always holds true. Dave told me that he saw a photograph, to go sit on the rock, and it has remained one of my favorites.

I’d have to dig out my old journals to find out exactly which lakes these are and on which days we were there. They are likely to be around Silver Lake and Indian Lakes. Eventually we wound our way past them and over a series of mountain passes to reach the infamous Muir Hut.

I’ve never forgotten the evening that we reached Marie Lakes. Somehow I’d become responsible for the logistics of figuring out mileage. That was a mistake. We reached these beautiful lakes early in the evening and finally we’d have a long rest. We’d just settled in when I took a closer look at the map. “Hey guys, if we want to make it to South Lake in time to get Dave out (Dave had to get to another seasonal job), we’re going to have to hike about 17-19 miles per day.” “What?” “Yeah.”

For most of the rest of the trip that how things went. We’d go to sleep and when the last star was fading from the sky one of us would say, “let’s get up,” and we’d start walking. We’d hike for about an hour or so and then stop for breakfast.

The Sierra have one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. There are lakes that rest beneath mountain passes in tiers of three. We’d climb at the end of the day to the highest lake to camp. In the morning we’d have a long hike up to the next pass where we’d arrive around 10am. From there we’d descend the pass into the valley below and follow the streams all day, most always stopping for a nap after lunch.

Because of the mileage we had to make, we’d get to camp at dusk, make some dinner and enjoy being beneath the stars. When the last star was fading from the sky we’d begin it all again.

A few other images stand out in my mind. One was meeting Al, a 72 year old man who was solo hiking the JMT for the second time in his life. He was a true inspiration.

I also remember that it snowed on September 16th that year. I’d had a bad experience with a white-out in those same mountains a few years earlier and wondered aloud if we should continue. Lil was having none of it. Her will was steeled. We hiked on.

Hiking early in the morning had its rewards. We passed through Evolution Valley in the early dawn hours and that place is still fixed in my mind, that morning, as one of the finest I’ve spent in creation.

Soon we were crossing over the Forrester Pass, at 13,200 feet the high point of the Pacific Crest Trail, although on the John Muir Trail we’d be going higher, in our case to a completely cloud covered Mt Whitney.

So there you have it, the John Muir Trail in retro. You’d probably have thought it was only yesterday, although I’d suspect our shorts might have given us away.


32 thoughts on “The John Muir Trail in Retro

  1. What a good idea to go through your archive. And what a great result of scanning the whole lot! The image of the man sitting on the rock overlooking the lake gives us/me such a sooo back in time feeling, really nice. turned out really well with an I-phone. Interesting discovery.
    Kind regards

    • A quick engine search of “John Muir hut” will fill you in on the story. It was built of all stone on a high pass in the 1930’s. I’d just heard people speak of it, so it was nice to run across it.

  2. These are great! We are actually in the process of doing the same with our pictures from our point and shoot film from an Alaska trip a few years back. Thanks for sharing your photos of such a beautiful place.

  3. Yes man the shorts gave it away!!! Russ being a city boy from Miami arriving at Golden Gate, I won’t forget stopping by your office and asking where to take a cool hike. You said if you go to Muir Woods, hike out the back you can get all the way to Stinson Beach. My first California hike, solo with a bottle of water. It was awesome. Beginning of some great moments with God in the beautiful land surrounding the Seminary. Thanks for sharing your photos and stories bro!

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