Monday, June 18, 2012

Day 58: Ridge Below Helen Lake to South Fork San Joaquin River

I've climbed Muir Pass several times, almost always when it is buried under miles of snow. Even last night's campsite was completely buried when Sierra and I passed through this area last year. But this year the trail is relatively snow free.

We crossed several snowfields as we climbed to the top, but most of the switchbacks were snow-free. This is Sierra's fourth time climbing the pass, and the first time she has seen the switchbacks! Several of the lakes and streams (including Helen Lake, named after John Muir's youngest daughter) were partially covered with thin sheets of ice, and a frigid wind periodically reminded us how cold it can get at high elevation.

We caught our first glimpse of Muir Hut, on top of Muir Pass (11,955 ft), on the final switchback. We reacquainted ourselves with the hut for a few minutes, then headed down the other side of the pass.

We approached Wanda Lake (named after John Muir's oldest daughter) searching for the mountain frogs we had seen in years past. We were not disappointed. We spotted our first frog in a large puddle on the trail. Then we started noticing frogs sunning themselves on rocks.  Some jumped into the lake as we strode past. One particularly skittish frog leaped into the water so anxiously that he landed on his dark, spotted back, exposing his bright yellow belly and underside.

We stopped for lunch near the outlet of deep blue Sapphire Lake. We stopped again at a swampy pond near Evolution Lake (10,850 ft), where Sierra investigated the hundreds of invertebrates and tadpoles that lived there. Then we descended into the trees, switchbacking steeply to Colby Meadow.

We continued to descend, more gently now, through Colby and McClure Meadows. The river meandered through their grassy green expanses, and you could see the mountains towering just behind. Baby pines sprouted along the fringes of the meadow, and larger pines stood over them just beyond.

We reached the Evolution Creek crossing (9,210 ft) in late afternoon. The water was only knee deep. After the initial icy chill, the water soothed our tired muscles and bathed our dusty legs. Just below the crossing, the water cascaded over polished granite rocks in a series of waterfalls, each ending in a circular whirlpool.

After dropping into the canyon, we crossed the South Fork of the San Joaquin River (8,470 ft) twice, then followed the river along a rocky cliff, more than a hundred feet above the water. Dropping back down near the water, we found a soft, flat camp underneath a massive juniper tree.

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