Route: McGee Creek to Tully Lake to Grinnell Lake to Big McGee Lake
Distance: 32 miles
Elevation Gain: 10,000 feet
Duration: 3.5 days, 3 nights
As usual, I learned a lot on a recent backpacking trip through California's John Muir Wilderness. The trip has become a tradition with my partner, another couple, and a guest couple that’s going five years strong. This year, the guest couple who came along had very extensive knowledge of the Eastern Sierra and John Muir Wilderness, so they did the trail planning. Alas, this would be my first trip where a majority of it was spent bushwhacking off-trail and on undeveloped trails.
The first day of any backpacking trip is always the hardest day, at least for me. My legs aren’t really warmed up yet, I’m not used to the pain, I still feel too clean, and, because I’m always in charge of carrying the food, my bag is at its heaviest. This trip started out with a doozy too: 11.5 miles and roughly 4,500 feet of elevation gain through McGee Pass at 11,895 feet. Following the pass, there was a fairly steep decline and then a meandering trail that brought us to Tully Lake for our first night.
After Tully Lake things started to get extra interesting. It was time to start navigating via digital maps (we used Gaia), heading in whatever route seemed easiest and in the right direction. I don’t have a ton of experience hiking off-trail or doing anything close to official orienteering, but I get the impression that the High Sierra is a good place to do it. You’re surrounded mostly by granite, scree, and talus, which makes it easy to navigate visually.
The second day was only about 2.5 miles and went up and down twice, proving that moving along talus can be slow and rewarding. The plus side of the short day was arriving at Grinnell Lake in the afternoon. There we set up camp and enjoyed a swim and a day hike up to Little Grinnell Lake.
"The loop beat the hell out of us."
On day three, we got up early to stay on schedule; we had about 10.5 miles of hiking ahead of us with 3,000 feet of elevation. Getting out of Grinnell Lake required more bushwhacking, downhill this time, through a beautiful meadow. Eventually we found the undeveloped trail we'd been shooting for and followed that to the John Muir Trail (JMT). We traveled several miles south before heading back east on another undeveloped trail and up towards Hopkins Pass, 11,485 feet. This too was through a beautiful meadow, and we only saw one other person there. The hike up to Hopkins Pass was a steady climb but at a manageable grade. After we made it to the pass's crest, our descent down to Big McGee Lake involved some class 2, maybe class 3 scrambling that was exciting and beautiful.
The trip was capped off with a 7.5-mile hike back down to the car from Big McGee Lake. The loop pretty much beat the hell out of us. I even managed to split the heel of my hiking boots in half at the end of the third day. Luckily, they weren’t too damaged to make it back to the car, and despite that I'm already looking forward to next year's trip—and a new pair of boots!
Do's and Don'ts for Bushwhack Backpacking in the High Sierra
DO plan trips with friends who are experts in the backcountry and exceptionally comfortable with walking long distances on challenging terrain.
DON’T plan trips with friends who are experts in the backcountry and exceptionally comfortable with walking long distances on challenging terrain. (See what I did there?)
DO plan a shorter day in your trip so you can take a side hike up a mountain or to a small alpine lake.
DONT forget to pack sunscreen! It’s an easy thing to leave behind but very important, especially at higher elevation.
DO bring plenty of electrolytes to mix in with your water—it’s necessary on really hot days when you sweat out all your body's salt. (Also, they can double as an evening whiskey mixer when back at camp.)
DONT do the reverse version of this route, you will end up climbing some pretty short and steep sections of trail.
DO bring a camera, because boy it's beautiful up there!