By Scott Lange —
Just after Labor Day we set out to capture night and day on the John Muir Trail, and the journey was a great one. Like many, we chose to begin in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows due to the easier conditions for obtaining a permit, and because we’ve already hiked the valley several times.
Departing the day after Labor Day, we trekked some 220 miles through the High Sierra over 20 days. Hauling along our camera gear and putting in late nights made the hike more challenging, but also very rewarding.
When the journey began, the Rough Fire burning in Kings Canyon was a major concern considering the skies to the south were filled with smoke much of the time — threatening visibility for the second half of the route.
Click on images to enlarge.
Thankfully, we were able to hit the ground running by getting some great shots right from the start as the nighttime skies were mostly clear while traveling through Yosemite and the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area. The night we captured Thousand Island Lake in particular was one of the clearest we’ve ever seen. The Milky Way was shining very bright overhead and reflecting off of the lake vividly.
By day, we were hiking amongst hawks, garter snakes, and many deer that were tame enough to let one pass within a few feet while they grazed near the trail. In between Yosemite and Red’s Meadow, we met a good amount of hikers from all around the country — and the world. Many of them had never been backpacking before, but they heard about the majestic views in the Sierra and came for the experience. For some, the grand vistas were enough to keep them up to the challenge, while others opted to end the hike early at Red’s Meadow after discovering that traversing the High Sierra is no easy feat.
The trail constantly transitions from a nice, dirt path, to uneven ruts, to steep stair-like formations, to sometimes just various sizes of crushed granite boulders to walk over. For many who hadn’t known this, the thought of carrying on for another 160 miles was understandably too much. With that being said, hiking Yosemite to Red’s Meadow is a great section of the trail and would make for an excellent introduction to backpacking in the Sierra, so all was not lost for those who decided to end their journey short.
At Red’s Meadow, we were able to grab a tasty meal, as well as capture the Devil’s Postpile National Monument after nightfall.
The sky contained a bit of haze from the fire, but there were still many stars visible. This area of the trail is very desirable due to mostly “softer” dirt trails among a lush forest landscape. Once south of Red’s Meadow, the number of hikers we came across daily dropped significantly. As we quickly moved through this section of the trail which we’d done before, the smoke from Kings Canyon grew closer. At Silver Pass came the poorest visibility yet. The smokey sky clouded the view from the top of the pass, but it cleared up a bit after sunset which allowed us to capture a shot after dark anyways.
The next day we hiked to our second resupply at Vermilion Valley Resort. Usually they offer a ferry service across Thomas Edison Lake to their amenities, but the current severe drought meant we had to walk some 2-1/2 miles across the dry lakebed to a portion of water where a small fishing boat could operate to help hikers the rest of the way. The accommodations at VVR were great, and our timing couldn’t have been more perfect as it began to rain shortly after our arrival. We took the opportunity to sleep in one of their motel rooms for the night, and ate like kings at their restaurant. The rain continued all day and into the next, so we opted to stay a total of two nights. The break was a great refresher for our minds and bodies. Eating “real” meals while in the backcountry is always a treat, and after the rain subsided, the smoke had been erased and the skies were amazingly clear in all directions. The pit stop at VVR was perfect on all levels.
Soon after came two of our favorites places in the Sierra: Marie Lake and Selden Pass. We stayed at Marie Lake where The Range of Light truly showed its colors during sunset, just before temperatures dropped into the low 20s. This was the coldest night of the trip, but also produced some great shots over the lake. We spent the next day relaxing, reading, and fishing around the lake.
It was almost a full day off, but just before sunset we packed up our gear and climbed a short mile to the top of Selden Pass where we made camp for the night. The views from the pass are amazing both to the north and the south, and we really wanted to capture Marie Lake at night from that vantage point. The nighttime skies were clear enough to do just that, and this location ended up being one of our favorite campsites on the trip as well.
Continuing south, we reached another resupply at Muir Trail Ranch just one day before they closed for the year. The ranch is a rare, true rustic outpost in the Sierras, and sits near a set of hot springs which were delightful after bathing in extremely cold lakes most of the time. After this resupply we’d have to go 7 or 8 days before the next, so we were packing as much food as possible into our bear canisters, and tossing anything that wasn’t needed. We’d also be meeting up with a friend in a couple of days who would join us until our last resupply at Onion Valley, so we had a schedule to mind.
Shortly after leaving MTR we entered Kings Canyon National Park, which begins with the scenic Evolution Valley when coming from the north. Waterfalls lined much of this section of the trail along Evolution Creek as we slowly climbed to Evolution Lake. We’d decided we wanted to get a shot of the Muir Hut atop Muir Pass under the Milky Way. This meant the hike for the “day” would end up totaling around 23 miles and actually last deep into the night. Once we got to the top and saw the Milky Way rising over the hut, we knew it would be our best shot so far, and maybe best ever — the scene was just amazing. After an hour or so of shooting, we made our way down the rocky pass to find some flat ground for some much needed sleep.
The following day we made it to Le Conte Canyon where we’d meet up with our friend Kari. She is an avid backpacker and wanted to taste part of the JMT before heading off to medical school in Mexico later this year. As it would turn out, she joined us for the hardest section of the trail which featured five grueling mountain passes in five days.
The topography though Kings Canyon was now almost Martian-like — with vast expanses of dirt and rock at high elevation. Thankfully, mixed in with the rugged, steep passes were pristine alpine lakes. We camped at Lake Marjorie where we caught an amazing view back at the difficult Mather Pass. We also spent a night in the Rae Lakes area where the majestic Fin Dome lies. We climbed the very steep Glen and Kearsarge Passes before exiting the trail for one last resupply at Onion Valley, which featured another motel room along with a giant pizza.
With Kari now departed, we climbed back over Kearsarge Pass the next day and began the final leg of the trail. On our first night back in, we arrived at Vidette Meadow just in time to catch a colorful cloudy sunset. The peaks around this area were large and interesting with their jagged crags and different shades of granite.
After making our way over Forester Pass – the highest pass on the trail at 13,153 ft. – and entering Sequoia National Park, we caught a glimpse of the back side of Mt. Whitney. The end of the trail was near. The lands were mostly barren at this point as we straddled the tree line before entering a valley to approach Whitney from the southwest. The moon was almost full by now, so nighttime photography had been mostly limited to sunsets for the previous few nights. The skies were also becoming partly cloudy which was a welcome change from the constant clear skies that we had hoped for and gotten for most of the trip.
On the last day, we ascended Mt. Whitney from the west side. After meeting up with the junction of the trail coming from the east side, we encountered a fair amount of day hikers braving the 6000 ft. ascent and descent all in one day. Upon reaching the summit, we signed the registry at the hut, and took in the seemingly infinite 360 degree view. As the sun began to set, the sky became every shade of red and blue in every direction. It was a grand finale at the top of Mt. Whitney indeed! We took what we thought would be our last shots, and started down the long, east side descent shortly after dark.
As we traversed the endless switchbacks down the mountain, the lunar eclipse of September 28 was taking place. The Earth’s shadow slowly moved off of the moon in a way that left the perfect amount of lighting on Mt. Whitney for a 30 second shot. We quickly threw off our packs and set up for what turned out to be a great shot of its east side face. This would end up being the final shot of the trip, and after a six hour descent, we reach our vehicle around 2 a.m., and exited the trail in true Dark Sky fashion.
The expedition was an overall success by more than we could have ever imagined. The weather turned out to be great almost every night despite being on the outskirts of the largest fire burning in California at the time. The rain couldn’t have come at a more perfect time to wash away the smoke from the skies. The images we were able to capture will no doubt make for the best book and prints we have produced to date.
Hauling nighttime camera gear to remote destinations has sparked our interest to pursue other locations as well — both in and outside of the Sierra. For now, we’ll focus on the task of processing the images and completing the book: The Range of Light: Night & Day on the John Muir Trail.
For more information regarding this project or to view more of the photos as they’re ready, visit our website at DarkSkyPhotography.com
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” — John Muir