Trip Report: Muir Pass
Note: This is a (6-month) belated write-up of a special 3-day, ~30 mile backpacking trip in September 2022. We looped through Evolution Basin via Lamarck Col, Muir Pass, and Echo Col.
Day 0: Reno to North Lake
It's a logistical scramble to get to the start of a backpacking trip, and this one was particularly challenging. My Subaru's head gaskets had taken it to the grave during the summer, and C's Subaru conveniently decided to require repairs the week before our trip. Left without transportation, Uffda, Chispa, C, and myself scrambled to find a rental car for the weekend. Driving down 395, I felt out of place looking for a spot to boondock a Dodge Charger on Thursday night. "It's a free upgrade," the kid staffing the front desk at Enterprise said.
Day 1: North Lake to Darwin Bench
Regardless, we made it to the trailhead early Friday morning in high spirits. All the troubles of work and life quickly fell away in the crisp, clear mountain air. Our party of four was experienced and ready to roll: my long-time friends and Triple Crowners Uffda & Chispa, myself, and C who had just completed the PCT weeks prior. We locked the Charger and headed up toward the Lamarck Lakes lost in lively conversation full of all the obligatory Shrek quotes.
Of course, elevation doesn't care about your experience level, and pretty soon we were all feeling the climb. Uffda in particular felt the effects of elevation sickness, and headaches would plague him for the rest of the day. In retrospect, his decision to quit coffee days prior coupled with dehydration might have been a little laissez-faire. We debated turning around at Lamarck Col.
Because we would be descending, Uffda felt comfortable pushing on into Darwin Canyon. Our hope was that his headaches would cease overnight, and we could reevaluate in the morning. The talus was slow but stable, and views were pleasent. Huge moraines, sparkling lakes, and deep canyons filled our views in all directions.
We settled upon a scenic yet exposed camp spot at dusk. With the expanse of Evolution Valley below us, alpenglow illuminated the rest of the basin as we cooked dinner and settled into our sleeping bags for the night.
Day 2: Darwin Bench to Moonlight Lake
We woke up to bluebird skies and Uffda cracking jokes. Time to go!
Reaching the JMT/PCT, we de-layered and began the journey up Evolution Basin to Muir Pass. That section of trail always takes longer than expected, but the day was pleasant and company good, so I didn't mind. The usual highway of a trail was surprisingly vacant, probably given our late-September timing. Eden was ours.
Perhaps another reason time slowed as we approached the pass was my nervous excitement. I grew quiet, knowing that a major life moment was about to unfold.
If you would have asked Uffda and Chispa what that "major life moment" at Muir Pass was going to be, they probably would have answered, "lunch?" Instead, when we got up to the pass C and I revealed our plan: "Do you mind taking some pictures for us? We're going to propose to each other."
When I got this permit back in March, the goal was simple: spend some time showing my friends around one of my favorite places. Over the summer, plans changed. C hiked the PCT, citing Muir Pass as her favorite in the Sierras. Our time apart led us to grow closer: we couldn't imagine life without the other and felt ready to take the next step. So, when we looked at the calendar and saw that we were going to be atop Muir Pass just weeks after she got home, the opportunity was too perfect to pass up.
We ordered some simple rings online and prepared private words for each other. In the feminist spirit, C proposed first, then I said my piece. We exchanged our rings on some granite overlooking Wanda Lake. The sun smiled.
With the hard part out of the way, all that was left was some fun backpacking! We continued south along the JMT/PCT past Helen Lake, the afternoon sun hot as we began the ascent up slabs toward Echo Col. I played bloodhound, leading the route-finding up to the keyhole-esque pass. Looking back, I was high on life. "How lucky am I to be in such a beautiful place with people I love?"
The descent of Echo Col passed over a glacial moraine. Based on the USFS map and rock quality, I'm guessing there was a lot more snow here even just 10 years ago. Instead, we slowly picked our way down relatively unstable talus. Progress was slow, and upon discovering that camping near Echo Lake was not going to be an option we turned on the afterburners to descend lower.
Once again, we hiked into dusk, eventually coming to a delightful spot full of soft pumace a couple hundred yards west of the main drainage. It was our last night and we celebrated by devouring the rest of our food while chatting and looking up at the stars.
Day 3: Moonlight Lake to Lake Sabrina
Day 3 was a town day, and town days are always a blur. Eager for a diner breakfast, we hiked without pause all the way to Lake Sabrina. C and I lagged behind, hungover with joy from the day before. Chispa, the energizer bunny, volunteered to run up the road to North Lake and retrieve the car. The rest of us sat at the trailhead, placing bets on what time she would show up with the Dodge Charger.
Since first hiking over Muir Pass in 2016, it's held special meaning. It's the rare East-West pass, roughly halfway along the JMT, and really the only practical route to cross the Goddard Divide. While other passes are grander or more scenic, Muir Pass feels out there. Its relative isolation is evidenced by Muir Hut—no other pass in the High Sierra is remote enough to warrant a safety shelter. With no trees in sight, you feel the exposure. The nearest trailhead is 20+ miles away.
While it wasn't a conscious thought at the time, in retrospect I find symbolism in the moment. Muir Pass is a special place, and I'm happy that it now holds even more significance for us. There is poetry in committing to our love at the metaphorical heart of the Sierras. Purity in stating our intentions in a place where everything lays bare.
Before this trip, I'd hiked Muir Pass exactly four times: once on each the PCT, SHR, KCHBR, and JMT. Each of those trips was its own adventure. As such, it fits that C and I signaled the start of our adventure together through a pilgrimage to this remarkable place.