Fast Packing 50 Miles Across the John Muir Wilderness

A typical scenic Sierra view from the Pine Creek Trailhead.
A typical scenic Sierra view from the Pine Creek Trailhead. Kara Kieffer
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Bishop, CA on a Friday night is bustling with activity, but maybe not in the way you’d think. As the sun sets below the imposing Sierras to the west and the temperature drops, the streets come alive with mountain adventurers of every kind. Roving packs of climbers push their tape and chalk covered hands through saloon doors, trail runners and hikers mill around the local park letting their over-excited dogs use the facili-trees, and families sit down for dinner at the Pizza Factory. We parked ourselves at the bar in Mountain Rambler Brewery and discussed the pros and cons of bivy sacks over tacos and beer.

Leaving Mountain Rambler our eyes were pulled once again to the massive peaks that stand like sentinels above the tiny town. The Sierra Nevada range, which runs like a jagged spine through central and northern California, covers almost 400 miles north to south, and close to 70 miles wide at points. Internally the range is made of hundreds of towering granite peaks which makes for difficult passage regardless of your chosen mode of transit.

Pine Lake is an alpine lake gem.
    Kara Kieffer
Pine Lake is an alpine lake gem. Kara Kieffer

From where we stood in Bishop it seemed impossible that one could simply walk through those mountains to the other side, much less that it would be possible to do so in one day.

However, in between the jumble of rocks, roaring rivers, and dense forests lies a footpath, stretching just 25 miles that will take you from Pine Creek Trailhead—just 10 minutes from downtown Bishop—to Florence Lake on the eastern side of the Sierra. In the process you will cross the entire John Muir Wilderness. This trek, though little known and even less publicized, embodies everything that makes the Sierra Nevada such a special mountain range.

I turned to my boyfriend, smiled, and said “tomorrow we’ll be on the other side of the mountains.” He returned my smile nervously and agreed “the other side.”

The other side of the mountains from the top of Pine Creek Pass.
    Kara Kieffer
The other side of the mountains from the top of Pine Creek Pass. Kara Kieffer

The next morning we woke in the dark, drinking cold coffee and munching quietly on granola bars as we piloted our little car towards the Pine Creek Pass Trailhead parking lot. Above us loomed a defunct tungsten mine which sat below the ubiquitous granite faces of the Sierras. We were halfway out of the steep valley when the first rays of morning sun struck the treeless peaks above us. We were moving fast and making good ground, which was important if we planned to make it on the last ferry across Florence Lake at 5:00pm.

By 8:00am we were filtering water at Upper Pine Lake and getting ready for the push over the pass. As I tossed on my pack I felt a thrill of excitement and nervousness as I was reminded once again how light it was. We had planned this trip months before, waiting for the perfect opportunity that would make a two day crossing not only feasible, but safe. We had waited for perfect weather, dry, but not cold. The snowpack had to melt out, but it couldn’t be so late in the summer that the days had begun to shorten noticeably. When traveling without a tent, and without enough food to make it without resupply at Florence Lake, you need to be sure that the stars have all aligned in your favor.

By 10:00am we were standing atop Pine Creek Pass—at just over 11,000 feet, this would be the highest point on our trip. The wind whipped at our running shorts as we stood looking down into the expansive valley that would lead us all the way to Florence Lake. From here to the lake, it was literally all downhill. However, we still had to cover nearly 18 miles of rugged Sierra terrain, so we weren’t prepared to count our chickens just yet.

The descent into the valley was deeply rutted, steep, and rocky, and our pace slowed to accommodate the trail. I glanced at my watch again and again. Could we make it 16 miles in six hours? Seven hours? What if we missed the ferry? I tried to push these thoughts out of my mind as the trail took us lower and lower until we were once again submerged in the cool pine forests of lower elevations.

A bluebird day above Pavillion Dome.
    Kara Kieffer
A bluebird day above Pavillion Dome. Kara Kieffer

At 17 miles into our day, we merged onto the John Muir Trail (JMT) and began to see the first signs of other hikers. We saw southbound JMT hikers, packs loaded with 10 days of food as they left Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), and we flew passed northbound JMT hikers, their packs conspicuously small as they headed to Muir Trail Ranch or Vermillion Valley Resort to resupply. After the descent from Pine Creek Pass, the JMT felt mercifully smooth and well graded and the miles towards the MTR passed quickly. I looked longingly at the JMT hikers as they sat in the hot springs at the ranch, ate popsicles, and compared blisters. It was 3:oopm and we still had four miles to the lake. I wasn’t willing to miss our ferry, even for popsicles.

The miles between MTR and Florence Lake are well-graded and easy on the feet, even if the trail itself is often convoluted and confusing as it winds around and over the only road that services the MTR. Then suddenly, we could see the bright waters of Florence Lake stretching out in front of us. We nearly ran down to the waterfront so as to ensure that we’d be on the 5pm ferry. After hiking for nearly 11 hours, it felt surreal to be whisked across the lake by motorboat and we couldn’t stop grinning at each other like idiots.

On the other side of the lake we fell into the Florence Lake store like a pair of hungry jackals. This little store has everything you need from snacks and camping supplies, to some truly strange souvenirs. As we loaded our arms with ice cream, dinner, snacks, and more ice cream, I couldn’t help but feel both elated and apprehensive. We had made it, and yet we were only half way. Tomorrow would be another early rise followed by another long day, our only solace being that we had no time cut off, no ferry to catch in the evening, just a small VW Golf with which to throw all our smelly stuff into.

Descending to the John Muir Trail. 
    Kara Kieffer
Descending to the John Muir Trail. Kara Kieffer

Camping at Jackass Campground that evening—the best-named campground in all of California?—we discussed tactics for the return trip the following day. The plan would be to rise in time to make another snack run to the store and catch the 8:30am ferry back across the lake. The return leg of this trek is, if anything, more challenging, as the trail climbs almost continuously from 7,000 feet to over 11,000 feet.

However, as we rolled out our sleeping bags to cowboy camp, and the stars unfurled above, I had complete confidence that we’d make it back safe and sound. I turned to my boyfriend, his face just visible in the light of the moon, and smiled as I said “Tomorrow we’ll be on the other side of the mountains.” He returned my smile contentedly and agreed “The other side.”

Setting off from Florence Lake on a smooth singletrack trail.
    Kara Kieffer
Setting off from Florence Lake on a smooth singletrack trail. Kara Kieffer

Author’s Note About This Trip: Only you can decided if you are comfortable doing the mileage and trail time that is required to make this a two day trip. However, there are a variety of options that can allow you to extend this trip into a four or even five day trip that would accommodate almost any backpacker’s skill level. To make this a four day trip, simply camp along Pine Creek before it connects with Piute Creek. To make this a five day trip, you can spend an additional day relaxing at Jackass Campground, or else choose from one of the many idyllic spots along the south fork of the San Joaquin.

Here is a rough map of this hike for reference:

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