South Lake to Sawmill, August 2023

I was already concerned that I would not get a Sierra backpacking trip this year due to all the snow that stayed around all summer and then the damage to the access roads by Hurricane Hilary. That’s when I received a message from Brian suggesting this trip.

We had met Brian and his friends on our Wind River hike last year. At the time we exchanged contact info for possible future adventures. We planned to hike in from South Lake, then down to the John Muir Trail (JMT), south on the JMT, and out over Sawmill Pass. Jack planned to come in via Taboose Pass and meet us at Lake Marjorie.

Day 1
Drive to the trailhead. Brian and I met at Sawmill Trailhead, parked a vehicle for the next 8 nights, and drove up to South Lake with a dinner stop in Bishop for a last, big meal. Most campgrounds on the road to South Lake were closed and we ended up at Four Jeffries campground. From our campsite we had a great view of Mt. Tom, reminding me that I need to climb it.

Day 2
We drove up to South Lake, parked, and got on the trail. South Lake was completely full for the first time in years. We made good progress and soon arrived at Long Lake where we took a snack break with our first close-up views of the Sierra on this trip. There was lots of snow on the north-facing slopes. We then continued up Bishop Pass and down into Dusy Basin, our first camp area. There was a snowfield on the pass, but it was easy to cross in the soft snow (mid-day) and since it was fairly level.
We set up camp and enjoyed the views. When the time came to prepare dinner we almost had some food stolen as a brazen marmot tried to sneak into our kitchen area to steal some of Brian’s food. It was a close call. Dusy Basin is very popular and the marmots have learned that hikers bring food.

Campsites on this trip (click on any image to enlarge/start slideshow)

Day 3
After breakfast, we started our way down towards the JMT, a drop of 2,000 ft. Word on the trail was that a key footbridge was damaged, there was even a note from the park service on the pass about seeking alternative crossing points. We got very different reports about the situation from hikers coming up. They ranged from “scary crossing” to “the bridge is a little bent, but solid”. So we were curious. Turns out the latter was true, just a bent bridge. It was cool to run into an automatic snow sensor, used to determine the water content of snow in winter to predict runoff.

Snow sensor to measure water content of snow

In Le Conte Canyon we encountered some massive tree fall from avalanches during the past record winter. Picking our way through all the fallen trees took some time. Eventually, we arrived at Grouse Meadow. We camped in a spot where Brian had camped 41 years ago for the first time. The Middle Fork Kings River calmly meanders through the meadow. There were some deer in the meadow, including a couple of bucks. They ignored us even when we started to take a quick dip in the cold river.

Day 4
We followed the JMT up along Palisade Creek to Palisade Lakes. There were again numerous sections with tree falls from avalanches to negotiate. We also had a number of stream crossings that needed attention. In a normal year we would not have had to pay much attention since most streams are so small that one can just use stepping stones to get across. Not this year. In some places streams had overrun and used the trail as stream beds. I particularly enjoyed the last 900 ft of climbing up to the lakes. We were now on the Golden Staircase, the last section of the JMT to be completed at the comparatively high cost of $1,400 per mile in 1937.
To avoid the mosquitoes, we picked a campsite about 80 feet above the lake. Views were great all around, including towards Mather Pass.
Here I saw Hummingbird moths for the first time. There were lots of them and unlike Hummingbirds they are not shy.

Bishop Pass to Le Conte Canyon (click on any image to enlarge/start slideshow)

Day 5
Time to tackle Mather Pass. We had heard about snowfields on the north side, that’s why we brought microspikes on the trip, and washouts on the south side. We few hundred feet below the pass we encountered the snow. We watched people come down very slowly and those without traction aids slip and slide. So we did not hesitate and put our microspikes on. With the top 1-2 inches soft from the sun and the spikes on the boots, it was actually fun to cross the snow. On the pass we took a nice, long break enjoying the views and chatting with hikers coming through.
The washouts on the south side were not bad at all and we soon arrived in Upper Basin where we picked a campsite away from the JMT. As I sent my “at camp” message with the inReach we received a message that Jack had to turn around on Taboose trail and would not meet us the next day. That was a big disappointment. We had been looking forward to it. Conditions just were against Jack’s hike up Taboose Canyon: High temperatures in the valley with not much cooling during the night, a very difficult stream crossing with a similarly difficult bypass. We knew the stream was high, but the first-hand accounts Jack got on the hike about the stream and the bypass were even more discouraging than what we had seen in reports during planning.

Day 6
This day took us from Upper Basin to Lake Marjorie north of Pinchot Pass. On paper a pretty straightforward section, but in a wet year like this we ended up with 4-5 stream crossings where we took our boots off. Some were knee-deep for me. The weather continued to treat us well, if anything it was a little warm for hiking. We had not seen a single cloud since day 1 and would not see one until the last day. Very unusual.
In the evening we saw the full moon rise over Pinchot pass with a reflection in Lake Marjorie, a memorable sight. Later we learned that it was a Super Blue Moon [Super: close to Earth; Blue: second full moon in a month].

Le Conte Canyon to Lake Marjorie (click on any image to enlarge/start slideshow)

Day 7
We went up Pinchot Pass and again had a nice long break to enjoy the views. At the Sawmill pass turn-off, we left the JMT and headed up to Woods Lake basin. From my past 2 visits to this area, I knew it as mosquito central. It did not disappoint in this exceptionally wet year. Fortunately, the weather was changing and it was windy. We found a campsite on a peninsula at Woods Lake that put us in a windy spot. That made the situation somewhat tolerable, but those mosquitoes were relentless. They would start swarming in our wind shadow and then attack from behind. Unbelievable!

Day 8
Originally I had planned to try to climb Mt. Cedric Wright on this day and Brian wanted to explore the lakes in the basin. I abandoned my plan because my knee was acting up and did not need extra strain on steep slopes. Brian abandoned his plan because of the mosquito situation. Instead, we did a little exploration on our way back to the trail and then up the pass.
On the east side, there were some small snowfields to walk around, but otherwise the trail to Sawmill Lake was in good shape. We had planned to camp at the lake, but upon learning from other hikers that there was plenty of water at Sawmill Meadow, we decided to head there for our last camp. It would shorten our last day’s hike and it would split up the almost 7,000 ft descent from the pass to the trailhead. The switchbacks between Mule Lake and Sawmill Meadow had sustained some severe damage since last year, most likely Hurricane Hilary. The trail here and the meadow did not look anything like what we encountered last year.

Lake Marjorie to Sawmill Meadow (click on any image to enlarge/start slideshow)

Day 9
Hike out, car shuttle to the starting point with a big lunch in Bishop, and drive home. Clouds started to move in from the west and it was windy. That helped us with the dreaded descent into the desert on the Sawmill Pass trail. Hikers coming up told us that they expected rain, cold, and snow in the next couple of days. We had been very lucky with the weather.
On my way down south after the round trip to South Lake, I saw some big rain storms moving up the canyons of the eastern Sierra, including Sawmill where we had just come out a few hours before. To break up the long drive I took a “nap with a view” along Hwy 395

Another great week in the backcountry in the Sierra!

Total distance hiked: 55 miles (88 km)
Total elevation gain: 12,300 ft (3750 m)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.