John Muir Trail - Day Four

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I was a little nervous for this day: our first major pass of the trip was right in front of us and hikers traveling north warned us that it would not be an easy one. Despite this one member of our group, Mike, left much earlier to take a side trip to Donohue Peak! If the pass doesn’t scare you enough this side trip is an extra 3 miles round-trip plus 1200’ of gain, requiring some off trail navigation.

The pass was a solid 2000’ climb that took most of the morning. As we gained elevation the views were unbelievable – snowy peaks, turquoise ponds, small waterfalls/cascades, and the meadow below us. It was like walking through a postcard the entire way. I was surprised by how acclimated and energized I felt on the way to the top. The timing worked out perfectly with Mike’s side trip, and we all met at the chilly summit of Donohue Pass [36.1 mi, 11060’] for a quick group picture before heading down. For those with extra time and motivation, there’s a small hill on the north side of the path that offers a better view. Completing our first major pass was very rewarding and made me feel a lot more confident in our decision to hike the whole JMT!

A nice downhill section followed with Banner Peak and other prominent snow-capped mountains coming into view. We stopped for lunch at Marie Lake Junction [38.9 mi, 10050’] and continued further downhill. Our uphill wasn’t over though, and we soon began our next pass of the trip: Island Pass [41.2 mi, 10200’]. This one was much broader/longer than Donohue and included closer views of epic Banner Peak. The top of the pass was unexpectedly covered with lakes/ponds with tiny islands sprinkled in. This would be a nice place for camping in the future.

Thousand Island Lake [43.0 mi, 9830’] soon came into view and it was just as amazing as I'd heard – a giant lake smacked down in front of Banner Peak filled with dozens of islands, some large enough to contain forests. We heard a tip from another hiker that this was a pretty crowded place to camp, so we only stopped for a snack break and continued on our way. We continued past smaller Emerald and Ruby Lakes, the first of which was inviting and had some nice campsites although they seemed mostly full. Ruby Lake had a few campsites as well and by contrast it was very deep and colorful. After a long climb that gave me a side cramp we finally made it to the top of our last hill of the day.

We descended some fast switchbacks and found the turnoff for our chosen Garnet Lake campsite [45.4 mi, 9690’]. Due to some confusion on where the campsites were our group got split up and we had to detour around the north shore of the lake an extra distance. I overreacted due to exhaustion, but we finally made it to a gorgeous site raised slightly above the lake which had views of both Banner Peak and Mount Ritter. Somehow we had some time to “improve morale” by bathing and washing clothes. We had a hot meal and Jason caught a trout! We fried it up in some olive oil and it was delicious. The only downside to this site was that it got fairly windy and cold at night, but it sounds like this is typical for most sites in the area.

Although we climbed 2 major passes this was one of my favorite days on the trail, filled with constant jaw-dropping views.