Wednesday, January 21, 2015

John Muir Trail Planning: Getting My Permit

It's official! I'm doing it! I've now secured a permit to hike the John Muir Trail starting at Happy Isles in Yosemite and finishing at Whitney Portal.

I've also revised my hiking plan a bit. Here's the dirt on how to get a permit.

There are two ways to get a permit for the JMT. One way is to walk up the day you want to go and ask for one. They reserve 40 percent of permits for walk-ups... but you'll be taking your chances if you do that.

Option 2 is applying in advance. Since you go through several different national parks and forests and it would be a mess to try to get permits for all of them, JMT hikers are only required to get a permit for their trailhead and first night camping.

Roughly 75 percent of JMT hikers go southbound (a.k.a. SOBO) and the remainder are northbound (NOBO). I'm going SOBO. I am doing it because it's easier for me transportation-wise, because I want to meet others and hike and camp with them for short bits and I think it will be fun to go in the same direction as everyone else, and because I want to give myself a gentle start.

There are four easy re-supply spots along the JMT. They are all along the northern half of the trail, and the last one is at about the halfway point of the trail. Hiking SOBO means you can start with a lighter pack, resupply occasionally, and only at the midway point, after you've got your trail legs, will you have to fill up your pack with enough food to last you the last 100 miles. Also, it's easy to hike short distances at a time in the northernmost parts of the trail, whereas the southernmost bit (Mt Whitney) allows fewer options. That is, going NOBO, you start at Whitney Portal and you can camp either 3.8 or 6.5 miles up the trail. Then from there you have to summit Whitney to officially begin the trail, then hike back about 2 miles, and descend to Guitar Lake, which is the first spot where there is water, unless you want to melt snow. Oh, and good luck getting a permit for Whitney Portal.

Therefore, I'm going SOBO. To do that, the official trail start is in Yosemite National Park. There are excellent instructions for getting your permit here. But here's what I did.

Step 1: Make your plan for where you will camp for each night on the trail, so you know how many days you will be hiking for and when you will finish.

Step 2: If you plan to resupply at Tuolumne Meadows, check a calendar and find out when Sunday falls. The post office where you resupply is closed on Sundays. It's open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday and 9am to noon Saturdays. If you aren't sure if you can reach Tuolumne Meadows by 5pm the day you will get there, then plan to pick up your resupply box the next day at 9pm. That will likely mean a late start on your day's hiking. In any case, check a calendar to make sure you know which days you can start hiking so that you don't end up in Tuolumne Meadows on a Sunday if you plan to resupply there.

Step 3: With that in mind, pick out a few potential start dates. You might have an ideal start date but also consider a few second or third choices. In a dry year with low snow, June is fine for hiking. Generally speaking, it's harder to navigate, not to mention colder, when there is snow on the ground. Once it melts, the river levels will rise. Then the mosquitoes get going. Then come the wildflowers. You can check the snow levels in the Sierras here.

Usually you'll end up applying for your permit when it's too early to tell how much snow will fall for the year. Last year the river levels were low by July 4 weekend. The mosquitoes were less than usual too. But if you're worried about river crossings and mosquitoes, August is a safer bet than July.

I plan to sign up for a Sierra Club bus trip to Yosemite. It starts and ends in Tuolumne Meadows. On the last day of the trip, everyone else will board the bus to go home. I'll pick up my JMT permit, stash a resupply box in one of the bear boxes in Tuolumne Meadows and then board a YARTS bus to Yosemite Valley to begin my hike.

If I wanted, I could spend one night in the backpackers campground in Yosemite Valley. So I could start my hike the day the Sierra Club trip ends or the day after. I was hoping to start the day after (July 6).

Step 4: Check the Yosemite website to find out when you can apply for your dates. You are eligible to apply beginning 168 days before you want to start hiking. For July 6, that meant January 19. You should fax in your permit application after 5pm PST the day BEFORE the day you're allowed to apply. That meant January 18. Just in case, I decided to apply for July 5 too. And that meant applying on January 17.

Step 5: Pick out your entry trailhead and first night's camping. The trail actually starts at Happy Isles and most people camp the first night at Little Yosemite Valley. The permit application lets you say whether you'd like to climb Half Dome too, because it's a few miles from Little Yosemite Valley, making it a very convenient add-on.

However, in the past, because of the quota on how many people can hike from Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley, many people applied for alternate starts. Two of the most common ones are Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley, and Happy Isles to Illilouette. You can also apply to start in Tuolumne Meadows, which saves you the steep climb out of the valley but also means you are missing a few days worth of hiking on the official John Muir Trail.

Right now, there is a potential plan to only approve JMT permits leaving from Happly Isles to Little Yosemite and those leaving from Tuolumne Meadows. The other trailheads and campsites would be reserved for people who are hiking within Yosemite but not hiking the JMT. This has not gone through yet (to my knowledge) but it's on the table.

I was pretty determined to do Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley. I want the experience. I want to do the official trail. ALL OF the official trail. I put that as my first choice. And then, instead of following the newly proposed rules and applying for a second choice trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows, I put my 2nd and 3rd choices as Glacier Point and Happy Isles to Illilouette. I also asked for a Half Dome permit.

Step 6: Fill out the permit and fax that puppy in. It's $5 per application plus $5 per person. That's $10 for me since I'm solo. I used HelloFax, an online fax service, and faxed in my first application on January 17. The next afternoon, I received an email confirming that I got my first choice: Happy Isles to Little Yosemite Valley WITH Half Dome included. Hooray!

I tried again that night, this time for July 6, my first choice start date. The next day, I got an email confirming a permit for Happy Isles to Illilouette, again with Half Dome.

I thought about it a bit, and decided to cancel the July 6 permit. I'll go July 5. That will cut out the night in the backpackers campground, but after I arrive in the valley via the YARTS bus on July 5, I will only have to hike 4.5 miles to get to my camp for the night. It won't kill me to do that. The next day I'll hike up Half Dome and then camp in the same spot, a total of 7.1 mi with a daypack. I'll start hiking longer distances the day after that.

So... that's it! I'm really going! This is happening! I'll post updates as they come.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Seasons, San Diego-Style, at Mt Gower

Sorry for my long absence. I've spent the last several weeks in San Diego (a.k.a. heaven). On Monday, I will return to the meat grinder that is graduate school. Actually, I think being ground up in a meat grinder might be more pleasant.

Some people say they don't want to live in San Diego because they like the changing of the seasons. To them I say: Good. Stay where you are. We're overpopulated here. Enjoy shoveling snow.

However, we DO have seasons here. They just don't involve snow (unless you go up in the mountains). The Kumeyaay people referred to the seasons as cold, rainy (winter); wildflowers (spring); hot, dry (summer); and harvest (fall). That sounds about right to me. We're currently in cold rainy but the first signs of wildflowers are already here. And I AM EXCITED. It's kind of like when you first see Christmas decorations come out before Halloween and you know it's not actually Christmas season yet but it still means that it's coming. If wildflower season is your Christmas.

I wanted to share a hike I did this past Thursday up Mt Gower, an 8 mile hike in Ramona. Because a sadist constructed the trail, I did not get to the top. Well, I am sure I could have but it was late in the day and I wanted to get down by sunset. And the reason why it took me so long was that I kept taking pictures, enjoying all of the signs of San Diego's winter and upcoming wildflower season.

Mt Gower Open Space Preserve is located in Ramona, CA. It's the part of the county that gets beastly hot in the summer, so now is a good time to visit. Actually, March will probably be a better time to visit, because there will be flowers everywhere.

When you begin, all sorts of obvious signs point you to the trail. Shortly thereafter, you reach this sign:

Mt Gower Trail Map

You can go left or right. Go right.

Here's a close-up of that map:

Mt Gower Trail Map

I made it to about the C. If you can't read a topo, let me translate this one: up down up down up down up down. I enjoy going up a mountain and then back down. I am less pleased about this repeated up and down arrangement, particularly when I don't expect it in advance. It's easier to get yourself in trouble on trails like these because when you're going "down" you still have to go UP.

In any case, there were already early blooming flowers all over, mainly sugar bush and manzanita.

Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata)
Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata)

Mission Manzanita (with bee)
Mission Manzanita, with bee

Mission Manzanita (with bee)

Mission Manzanita
Mission Manzanita

Other type of manzanita

You can still see the damage from the Cedar Fire of 2003, which burned most of this area, although there is plenty of regrowth. In this picture, you can see the dead wood from what burned above the manzanita regrowing beneath:

Regrowth After the Cedar Fire

There's quite a lot of a type of perennial sage I'm unfamiliar with. It's not white or black. It might be purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) but that's just a guess I can't confirm without seeing the flowers. It smelled slightly different from the other sages, and very nice.


Sage close-up. It's lighter than black sage but darker than white, with a different fragrance from either.

Speaking of good smells, I saw lots of my favorite-smelling plant, Artemisia californica, a close relative of sagebrush, mugwort, and wormwood.

Artemisia californica

Here's the TRUE sign of the start of wildflower season (for me, anyway): a baby wild cucumber vine beginning to grow. First these flower and then the rest of the landscape explodes in flowers soon thereafter:

Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpus)
Wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus)

P.S. They aren't edible.

Here's another plant growing that will soon explode into flowers. I need to check to be sure but I would bet this is some sort of Four O'Clock.


Most exciting of all to me was the little baby native chia plants I saw (Salvia columbariae). These plants have nutritious seeds like the chia sold in supermarkets and health food stores, but it is a different species than those.

Native Chia (Salvia columbariae)

For perspective, here's how tiny they are right now if you are standing and looking at the ground:

Native Chia (Salvia columbariae)

So how did I spot these tiny baby plants? I saw what I correctly guessed were last year's dead chia plants up above them. Or perhaps dead plants from the year before, considering last year's drought:

Native Chia (Salvia columbariae)
Dead chia plants

There was also a bit of something I did not recognize in the sunflower family already blooming:


And the first blue dicks are starting to grow - with no flowers just yet. They are the plants that look like large blades of grass in this pic:

Blue Dicks sprouting
Blue Dicks

Indian potatoes (Jepsonia parryi) are also growing. These plants produce one flower in the fall and one leaf each in the spring. Because they are weird. But each little leaf hides an edible corm just below the soil.

Indian potatoes (Jepsonia parryi)

A navigational note: After maybe a mile, a water tower comes into view (visible in this picture below in the background). Once you can see it, there's a fork in the trail. Go left.

Artemisia californica
Artemisia californica in front, water tower in back

As you're coming along and the water tower is in view, you can look down and see some sycamores, which are the deciduous trees with yellowing leaves that have mostly dropped off in this picture:

Ravine with Sycamores

Ravine with Sycamores
Close-up of sycamores

The trail you want to follow goes down to the sycamores and back up the other side. It gets very steep as it goes back up. After you come up that steep side, you start doing all of the up and down, up and down. It's mostly fairly minor but it's still a pain. And you aren't even really going up Mt Gower, you're still basically walking toward it. This becomes clear when you look around and see this:

Mt Gower
Mt Gower... that tall thing that you aren't actually climbing yet

Oh, you wanted to go to the top of Mt Gower? Well, you've got a ways to go before you even start on that. Sorry. Keep walking. Up and down, up and down.

It wasn't long after that when I got fed up and headed back. I'm staying with a friend and borrowing her car, and it did not seem polite to stay out after dark when she didn't expect me to. But I can tell you that the last bit of the Mt Gower hike involves rock scrambling and bouldering, so expect that if you go.

All in all it was a fun hike that will be spectacular once wildflower season arrives in full and beastly hot and miserable in the summer. Best of all, it's uncrowded, unlike some other nearby hikes. I saw a total of two other hikers the entire time I was there - and no dog poop or mountain bikers at all.