Day 11 John Muir Trail

Unnamed Lake to Lower Palisades Lake

Total JMT miles — 16
Side trip miles — 1
Elevation gain/loss  —  +2570/-3940

Packing up and heading out
Packed up and headed out

Day 11 was in all ways a great day. I awoke amongst friends and ended up among more friends. In between, I encountered some of the most intense scenery so far, with peak after peak and creek after creek. It was a day of huge elevation loss, followed by difficult elevation gain. Not my favorite sequence, as I would have preferred to start going up and end going down. But the JMT doesn’t always cooperate like that. And frankly, after a rest day on Day 10, I was fully prepared and up for anything.

Looking back to route from Unnamed Lake
Looking back to route from Unnamed Lake

I ate a last breakfast with Oliver, Olivia, and Dave. They gave me “egg crystals” to supplement my regular oatmeal, a backpackers breakfast item, that gradually turns from runny goo into tasty scrambled eggs under the forces of heat. Good stuff, and two breakfasts really had me fueled up and ready to go. I experienced a mixture of sadness and excitement as I packed up my belongings and prepared to set off on my own again. I was sad to leave behind friends and companionship, but excited to be back on the trail after two days of low JMT miles.

Middle Fork Kings River and Black Giant
Middle Fork Kings River and Black Giant

I had in my head two main objectives as I left the party at 8:00 am:  First, I was determined to be very careful descending from the lake back down to the JMT, as that is where I had taken my fall the previous day. And second, I let myself entertain the idea that I might be able to reach lower Palisades Lake by evening, 16 JMT miles away, and meet up with Rob, Ashley, and Marcus for one more night, as they had mentioned they would be camping there.

Looking down into Le Conte Canyon
Looking down into Le Conte Canyon

I took it slow and easy on the initial descent, and was back on the JMT by 9:00 am.  I continued my descent into LeConte Canyon. This stretch was especially sweet, in fact this entire day was, as the previous year much if not all peak views had been shrouded in forest fire smoke. The trail plunged deeply down switchbacks for mile after mile of creek crossings, story book meadows, and stellar peak sightings. Much of this section was dynamited right out of the cliffs in the building of the JMT, and, while rocky underfoot as a result, the precision with which the trail was created is very impressive. Since I was on a mission of sorts I moved quickly, but never missed a scenic beat as peaks continued to emerge and views unfold all the way down to and through LeConte Canyon.

The Monster!

At one point, I came upon four young male backpackers, and I passed them while they stopped for photos. Shortly after, they passed me when I took a break. I was booking along, when I glanced them resting again in a nearby campsite. I waved a hello, but they called after me,  “Wait, don’t you want to see the monster?” I turned around and went back. They pointed to a rock configuration to which someone had added teeth, and I went to examine it and they took some pics. I was grateful they pointed it out, and I was immediately aware that my propensity to stay hiking on auto pilot almost caused me to miss something that cool.

Llamas and handler blocking the trail
Llamas and handler blocking the trail

My mission was again interrupted a few miles later, when I was abruptly stopped by two llamas and their handler on the trail. Somehow, the llamas had come unhooked from each other, and, for whatever reason, the handler couldn’t get them hooked together again. Three other hikers were stopped in front of me, and I desperately wanted to pass them all to keep on with my pace. The handler didn’t seem to speak english, or any language actually, and worked in slow and contemplative silence with her charges. All three were blocking the trail, and the underbrush was too dense to go around. So we all stood there and waited and waited. I felt so impatient, and had to force myself to stay calm. It was probably only a ten minute “road blockage”…but the amount of unrest it caused me did not go unnoticed. Finally, obstacles removed, I jetted past. It was one of those times on the trail when I did NOT feel like a very good trail steward!

Little Pete Meadow
Little Pete Meadow

After nine miles and 3430 feet of elevation loss since rejoining the JMT, the trail crossed Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork of the South Kings River. At 8030 ft. elevation, that was the lowest point I would be for the remainder of my trip until after summiting Mt. Whitney and heading out for good.  The trail back up was gradual at first as  I hiked a three mile section through another burned out zone, this one from a fire in 2002. Black, charred tree trunks and avalanche debris made it the only less-than-scenic part of my day,  and I was all up in my head about what was to come next. The last four miles of my day, should I choose to take it on, would be up the Golden Staircase, the route between Palisade Creek and the Palisades lake basin. While I really wanted to get there, I remembered the climb as steep and seemingly never ending,  I had told myself when the day started that if I got to the base of the Golden Staircase by 4:00, I would go for it. If not, I would make camp down below and tackle it the next morning.

Looking up the Golden Staircase
Looking up the Golden Staircase

I arrived at the final campsite before the staircase at 3:45, and I knew I would keep going. I was taking a break, snacking, drinking, and basically psyching myself up, when three older hikers came up. I’d seen them a couple of times that day, flip flopping as we took our breaks and passed each other. They were also headed up the staircase before calling it a day. As we chatted, one of them asked, “Hey, are you that famous 105 pound woman with the 50 + pound backpack?”  I laughed and said, “Well I don’t know…surely I don’t weigh 105, but my pack is over 50 pounds, yes.” They replied, “Ah, we’ve heard about you! The legend has grown over time!” This both made me chuckle, AND it strangely invigorated me. I had spent all day stressing about whether or not I would have enough OOMPH to get up that climb at the end of a long day. Suddenly, I was buoyed by their comments, and I started to see myself as that legendary woman who was strong and powerful and could do it.

Devils Crags (left) and Wheel Mt. from top of staircase
Devils Crags (left) and Wheel Mt. from Staircase

I won’t say I flew up the staircase, but it went much better than I expected. I kept a steady pace, passing both the three of them and two other hikers farther up. Part of my strategy for making a rapid ascent was to stay in my preferred hiking attire…shorts and a tank top. Clouds and wind had arrived, and it was chilly so wearing a scant amount of clothing really motivated me to keep moving. Finally at 5:30 I arrived at the very top, with the Lower Palisade lake basin laid out before me. Sure enough, there were Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, welcoming me as if they’d been waiting for me to show up. I was ecstatic to see them!  I dumped my pack in their camp, immediately put on warm clothes, and we caught up on our respective day and a half since I had last seen them at Muir Pass. I was strongly tempted to find a site right there with them, but I was also incredibly drawn to camp in the exact same spot Gregg and I had camped last year. High up on rock slabs, I knew the views overlooking the Palisades were priceless…and highly obscured by smoke last year. I had envisioned that camp site all day in my quest to attain it, and I wasn’t going to fall short after coming so close.

Campsite at Palisades
Campsite at Palisades

I said a temporary goodbye to my solo pals, now a convincing party of three, telling them I’d be back down for water before bed. I ascended the last bit to my camp from last year, and it was just as remarkable as I remembered. It was also very dusty, windy, and cold, and I made sure to get my tent set up properly so I didn’t have a repeat of Wanda Lake’s partial tent collapse. I had just enough daylight to set up camp, make and eat dinner, and go back down to the creek and the crew for water and to say goodnight. I didn’t know at the time that it would also be goodbye to the three, as I would not end up seeing them again due to the circumstances of the next several days. So it was especially sweet in retrospect to have had a bit of time with them, and I am grateful for their strong presence and hearty welcome at the end of a long but very satisfying day.

Highlights of the day

Wandering among the giants!

The Citadel (left) and Langille Peak
The Citadel (left) and Langille Peak

The sheer vastness of the 12-, 13-, and 14- thousand foot peaks that emerge and stand before the JMT hiker during this stretch is phenomenal!  I passed so many peaks, there was no way to keep track of them all.  I did my best to capture them with photos, and I relied on Peak Identifier Extraordinaire, the afore-mentioned Oliver, to help me identify them after the fact and for this post. I hope some day I can hike this same territory and say “that is this peak, and this one…” as I wander through. But for this trip I let the sheer beauty envelop me, as mile after mile of trail sported spectacular vistas that I had missed the previous year due to the smoke.

Interactions with people

First views of Mt. Jepson (left), Palisade Crest and Middle Palisade (right)
First views of Mt. Jepson (left), Palisade Crest and Middle Palisade (right)

Even though I was mission-oriented on Day 11 and hiked determinedly alone,  I had great interactions with people. From the breakfast with Oliver, Dave, and Olivia, to the guys on the trail who showed me the monster, to the three hikers below the staircase who told me I was “legendary”,  and finally with Ashley, Rob, and Marcus as happy to see me in camp as I was to see them, I felt positively inspired in my personal interactions. I experienced a mutual caring for and appreciation of others, even in the briefest of interchanges. My seriousness of mission was appropriately balanced by the lightness and laughter I experienced being with these folks. In my ongoing quest for balance between time alone and time with others, this day was nearly perfect.

Lessons of the day

Positive affirmations work!

I was struck by how much the positive things people said to me on the trail helped in pulling off a physically challenging day with relative ease. Even the four young “monster” hikers were “impressed” with my pace on the trail. I am sure I had 25 years on all of them, but they were resting more than I was, and as we chatted at the monster, they gave me lots of accolades. Then, the three hikers at the bottom of the staircase boosted my confidence tremendously by their recounting of the “growing legend” I was supposedly becoming (I am sure my legend faded fast…but it was nice while it lasted!). And finally, when I reached the top and was hanging with Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, Ashley commented, “I wish I had half your energy!” So again, I was struck that maybe I do have it, at least on some days — an energy, willingness, passion, and enough fitness to pull off a stellar day in style!

Rest days work!

I am quite sure the two days of easier miles and resting with Oliver, Dave, and Olivia, helped make Day 11’s accomplishments a bit easier to attain. In the past, when I used to run half marathons and train for marathons, I would have to force myself to take even a single day off, let alone a full-on taper before a race. Consequently, I always battled overtraining and overuse injuries, and never even made it to the start of a single marathon. I am not saying I am out of the overdoing woods just yet…my propensity is still to push on and do more, even when intellectually I realize that often, less IS more. But the ease of the 17 mile day (that ended with a significant climb), did cause me to stop and say “Huh.  Maybe there IS something to this rest day phenomenon after all.”

Impatience doesn’t work!

When I think of the llamas, their handler, and the three other hikers waiting for passage, I feel embarrassed at my reaction. That was really the only negative in a day of otherwise positives, that I let myself inwardly and outwardly become so impatient with an in-reality quite trivial trail blockage.  My obvious frustration did nothing to clear the path more quickly. The llamas moved on when they were ready, and the whole silent communication between handler and llamas was completely out of my control and influence. It’s absurd to think that somehow I could have done it “better”.  Who am I to judge someone else’s way of dealing with a problem I know absolutely nothing about?  Even as I sailed past all of them once the trail was free, I felt chagrined at my attitude and semi-inclined to go back and apologize. But my mission orientation prevailed, and instead I moved right along. But not without getting the lesson…and seeing the humor in the whole situation.

On the whole, Day 11 was very nearly a perfect day on the JMT.

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  1. What gorgeous photos!!! Kathie, your posts are so inspiring to me! I can relate with so much of your internal thoughts, struggles and self-reflections- and truly appreciate how honestly you share this with us!
    It is so motivating for me reading about how you worked through each situation (especially the llama roadblock, as I would have reacted exactly the same way!!!), and reading your reflections about this was so inspiring!
    Thank you for sharing your vulnerabilities, successes and insights in such a raw and honest way!!!
    Oh and I was laughing reading about your famous reputation as the tiny woman carrying a huge backpack!!! That so accurately represents your incredible strength, will, desire and heart!!!!
    I am so blessed to have you in my life, Kathie!

    1. I think a lot of people relate to impatience, and it’s curious when it comes up in a situation like on the trail. The trail represents “normal life” condensed down, and, not surprisingly, brings up challenges that are very similar to what we deal with in the bigger picture of our lives.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. It makes me happy that readers feel taken along for the ride…I feel like I am accomplishing my mission, and I’m having fun doing the posts. Hopefully they will help lead me to a memoir some day soon!


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