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Its now July and I need to start getting serious about getting in shape for the JMT. So for the 4 day, July 4th weekend, I headed up to the southern Sierra Nevada where I hiked the 60 mile Eclectic Tour that I got from the Golden Trout Wilderness website
. As is usual for the Golden Trout Wilderness, I found old trail signs of trails that didn’t seem to exist and trails without signs that did exist.
There was a mixture of good and poor trail conditions.
Having a GPS, while not necessary, does take a lot of guess work out when you are seeing trails that don’t exist on the Tom Harrison printed Map.
After being burned (figuratively) last year by a last minute fire forcing me to change my hiking plans last year, you would think I would have learned to check online for fires before leaving on a trip, rather than arriving to find a surprise waiting for me. But I didn’t learn, so this time, the Schaeffer Fire surprised me.
On Saturday, I left Lewis Camp TH by 7:30am. As I was descending down towards Little Kern River, I noticed a thick haze in the canyons to the east. At first I thought fog, than I noticed some brown coloring. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t a fire since it was rising into the sky. But it was still early in the morning and the fire was just waking up. By the time I reached the river, I knew there was a fire somewhere to the south of Kern Flat. I just didn’t know where. So I decided to reverse my trip direction and pass through Kern Flat today instead of chancing that I would find myself blocked on Monday/Tuesday and have to go back. I would ended up missing work on Wednesday if that happened since there is no short way back to Lewis Camp if I have to detour. With this growing fear in my mind, I hiked down to the Little Kern River. Along the way, I passed a Boy Scout troop looking for Jerky Meadow but they didn’t go far enough up the trail before assuming they were lost and backtracking.
After seeing 2 people camped at the river, I passed 2 woman hikers shortly later as they stopped to take a photo. I didn’t see the trail junction to Willow Meadow that I was originally going to take before reversing my hike’s direction. When I came through from the other side a few days later, it kind of looked like a spot for rain runoff from the hill above the trail which is why I likely didn’t notice it; not that I was looking closely for it at the time. I did add a cairn, but I likely put it too high up on the hill as I was afraid a horse would kick it.
The trail over to Trout Meadow was easy and the meadow was lush with wildflowers. I stopped at the picnic table by the ranger cabin for a late morning break. I had a couple pass by the other direction carrying their 2 small dogs who were suffering in the heat. The trail from there to Kern Flat had some tree falls but wasn’t hard to follow except for one spot across a small meadow by a spring where a very large tree covered the exit point so I had to hunt for trail briefly. It was very hot (low to mid 90’s once I started to descend down to Kern River with a strong smell of smoke that the afternoon winds was blowing straight towards Kern Flat. After crossing the river around 5pm, as I climbed up towards Soda Flat, I could see the front of the fire crest the top of the ridge line to the SE and was thinking it would burn over Kern Flat in a few days given the prevailing wind direction after 11am. I was surprised when I got home that it hadn’t, though they finally closed it by the following weekend. I guess the fact that it’s burning though a previous fire area, there isn’t enough fuel for a fast burn, so it took longer to move than I thought. The sun behind the smoke was giving everything an interesting color.
As I climbed higher, the hot temperatures didn’t start to cool down until 7pm when it finally fell below 90F and then rapidly fell off as the sun went down. I went through 6L of water that day which is far more than I normally drink. The trail around the meadow Soda Flats was very faint and hard to follow. The creek crossing just to the north of it was knee deep. I stopped and slept just after the fictional (but still signed) trail junction to Cold Meadows shortly later in a small flat spot between the brush. Had a low of 43F.
I hiked to Jordan Hot Springs in the early morning, having gotten up before 6am to beat the heat. Several burnt trees had fallen across the trail, but fortunately, there aren’t many still standing in the burn area there so it can’t get much worse. At Jordan, I saw no one around which is unusual, though I didn’t actually visit the hot springs. But you usually can hear people and see their tents this time of year. The creek looked deep so I didn’t want to ford it as I would have had to cross it again shortly later. So I followed some trampled grass and met the trail just after it forded the creek in the trees.
From Jordan HS to Redrock, the trail was in bad shape. In May of 2015, I found that section in poor shape, but last year it had been cleared and easy to follow. This year, it has rapidly fallen back into poor shape, though not as bad as it had been before. Brush has already re-grown across the trail. Numerous burnt tree falls across the trail, with some large ones on the steep mountain side as you parallel the creek. One I had to crawl under through a puddle. It was hot due to little shade. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of burnt trees waiting to fall. When the trail drops down along the creek, I stopped seeing much sign of a trail until I crossed over to the other side for the first crossing. After that, trail became easy to follow to the top. After 10am, the wind changed to the NW again, and the smoke got thick as I made the final climb up to Indian Head. Visibility looking back south was very poor. It reminded me of a really bad smog day in LA in the early 80’s. After all the climbing I’ve done since yesterday afternoon after Kern Flat, I stopped for 2 hours for a long lunch hopping to recover some of my leg strength. They were feeling pretty weak by this point.
Trail from Redrock over to Templeton Meadows was easy to follow (except for that first meadow crossing which is normal) though I was dragging on the climb up as my legs are still fatigued. Also, due to the smoke, it feels like I’m hiking while smoking. There are only a few small patches of snow left on the south side. The north side had some large patches at the top that hid part of the trail as you first started to descend so you could miss the first switchback; which a hiker I met at the bottom did miss and she cross-countried the rest of the way to the bottom and wasn’t sure where she was. Once out of the brief snow, I found the trail down in good shape for the most part. Trail from Templeton Cow Camp to Ramshaw Meadows was good. All the streams were flowing and I had wet shoes to end the day. I stopped to camp maybe ½ mile before the junction to Kern Peak. Had a low of 37F. Other than that semi-lost hiker I met at Templeton Cow Camp, I only saw 3 other people this day, all in Ramshaw Meadows. I could still smell the smoke on this side of the mountain, though visibility wasn’t impaired much.
The trail down to the Kern River was easy to follow with only the occasional down tree to go around. Once across the bridge, I took the SNP bypass trail and waded across Coyote Creek which was mid-thigh around 10am. Trail along the Kern River was easy to follow except for a marshy spot halfway to Kern Lake where some springs are located just above the trail. There was a trail crew cutting the vegetation back though, so it should be easy to follow for the rest of the summer. Due to the high runoff, Kern Lake looked more like a branch of the Kern River than a lake. I stopped for a 2.5 hour lunch at Little Kern Lake just after where a couple was camped, as I wanted to wait out the heat of the day. Temperatures were in the mid to upper 80’s. I resorted to dipping my shirt and hat into the river or lake when I was near it to stay cool. I should have done that on the first day at Kern Flat. I passed 1 other hiker shortly later and that was all I saw for the day. I stopped to camp after Willow Meadows where the terrain flattened out not far from the next trail junction to Trout Meadow. The low was 51F with plenty of bugs out until late. I didn’t notice smell much smoke this day as it seemed to stay more to the east, though the mountains to the south looked hazy.
Trail from Willow Meadows down to Little Kern River had numerous tree falls through the burn area; with the trail growing really faint in a few places as a result. This section had the worse extended trail conditions of the trip. Once back on the main trail near Little Kern River, hiking back up to Lewis Camp TH was simple though hot. Spotted a lot more smoke on the eastern horizon than I noticed the first day. Saw 5 people on the hike up from Little Kern, all returning to the trail head.
Overall a fun trip, though the heat and smoke did take some from the enjoyment.