You grow up the day you have the fit real laugh at yourself. – Ethel Barrymore
Making breakfast and packing up, I hear some twigs snap and look over towards the trail as a bear saunters by. He’s uninterested in my Clif bars and knows my coffee mix is subpar, so saunters right on by. I still like to think of him as a good luck charm. Right after he leaves, Amy and Erin walk by. It’s a happy reunion of commiserating about heavy packs stuffed with cold weather gear and bear canisters. I feel braver knowing they’re on the trail, and funny, my pack feels a teensy bit lighter with those bars in my stomach – rather than in the bear’s.
This canyon is unbelievably beautiful as I walk up a rocky trail glowing a lustrous yellow, the aspen in their autumn garb. The water is a gem-like green, pouring over green rock shot through with a white stripe. I pass a hiker who tells me he ‘digs’ my hat and laughs when I tell him it’s a Mad Hatter hat.
Soon, I leave this remarkable place to climb hand-made stairs of rock straight up into Evolution Valley, so named to honor the men associated with the theory of evolution. Waterfalls plunge down beside me towards the San Joaquin. It’s hard to believe there is so much water here. I enter a hanging valley and follow the creek through forest and beside absolutely lovely Colby Meadow where the raucous sound of water is suddenly stilled. Here I can see the monstrous peaks named for the evolutionists. I cross the creek without bothering to take off my shoes. I did the same seven years ago and a few hikers in their final day out gave me a bag of trail mix. I gobbled it up so fast, my friends teased me about it and my total lack of sharing the rest of the hike.
I pass a few hikers as I work my way in, deciding I’ll break for lunch at evolution lake. But this turns out to be a long way off and includes a big climb. The altitude is having its way with me as I climb from about 8,000 feet to just four feet shy of 12,000. It doesn’t help that my pack is huge, but I just turn on the breath regulator and take it one step at a time. The views open down the valley I left and across to enormous mountains. I remember breaking here for a snack last time, but now I’m on a mission.
The trail is rocky, switching back and forth but still steep finally pushing me over a crest towards the stunning lakes tucked into this bowl. The water is a deep lapis, contrasted with the white of the rock and the bright red, yellow and orange of the plants. I’m bowled over by it as I collect water and have some food. It’s sunny, warm and calm – I could take a nap. Instead, I work my way around this lake and the next on rocky trail, snow encrusted mountains coming into view. It’s a big walk up and up, past lake after lake in stair steps, all fed by evolution creek.
When I was here before, the sky was filled with dark clouds and thunder rumbled. It’s calm now and hot, though clouds make shadows on the peaks. Up here, only low grasses and wildflowers make a home on the windswept land. A few low shrubs give it a try, but it is barren – just rock, snow and chalky turquoise lakes. And yet, it is gorgeous perhaps because of its imposing grandeur. I pass a couple working their way up. We spot the hut at the pass, but it looks deceptively close and it takes me nearly an hour to reach it from the bottom of this bowl.
Muir Hut was built by the Sierra Club to provide shelter for hikers should they be caught in a storm. It’s made of stone and shaped like a bee hive. I look inside and it appears solid with one window looking back at where I came up. Up here, the wind is blowing and I feel cold – and vulnerable. An emergency hut is exactly what’s needed here. As wild and lovely as this treeless landscape is, it is totally exposed to whatever Mother Nature has in mind.
I grab a few handfuls of trail mix then head down the other side of the pass, into an even more austere landscape. Yes, there are lakes, but does anyone linger here, I wonder. I keep moving down through the rock and snow and magnificent peaks mostly to get out of the wind, but also longing for something green. Only brown grasses cling to patches of dirt. This valley is like a war zone with broken rocks tumbling down in huge piles under massive sharp-edged peaks, leaning over me menacingly. Snow lingers and I have to navigate a patch. I cross over rocks with water moving beneath like a French drain, shooting down black rock towards another lake.
Slowly, more plants appear as I descend. A hiker hides from the wind behind a rock telling me he is very slowly making his way to the top. I stop at a campsite hidden inside gnarled trees. Maybe I’d stay here in July but not this late in the year. As I make my way down – which, frankly, wasn’t s certainty when I started, this bleak valley looking like a dead end – things become more and more beautiful. Meadows appear, flowers and grasses under huge crags, waterfalls spilling down.
I meet a couple who are very interested in both my PCT and Te Araroa hike. They get ahead as I filter water but I meet them again as the trail turns into an enormous valley. Everything in Kings Canyon feel gigantic, everywhere I look is either a spectacular mountain peak or a plunging waterfall enhanced by clouds and the late afternoon light.
Down and down we go, their plan to get as far as they can, mine to find a nice little site near water. I stop to take a picture of the giant cracked rock that looks like a monster with added rock teeth. The men camping there playfully pose for a photo. I continue on and pass several sites, the stunning views and sunset colors urging me on.
But now the river is inaccessible through willows and sites have no water. I’ve gone too far and I really don’t like setting in the dark. I keep moving and looking, seeing Fred and Karen ahead. I find a cool site off trail, but no water, so still move on. Finally, I cross a stream created by a waterfall from the mountain above. I collect water and decide to camp at the next free spot.
Which happens to be next to my new friends. Dark comes fast, so I set quickly, eat dinner and head into my warm bag, thrilled with this fantastic day and resting up for another big pass challenge tomorrow – and friends, it’s an even bigger climb! Sleep well!