Driving through the Sierra on my way home after spending a few weeks at the Park City Mathematics Institute, I couldn’t not stop for a short trip. This solo three-nighter was a mix of glorious solitude and frustrating crowds, complete with my back country hot spring and 36 hours without seeing people before picking up the highway that is the JMT/PCT.
I drove from Park City and arrived at the Duck Pass trailhead in the mid-afternoon. I sorted all my food and got my gear together while eyeing people coming off the trail for potential rides into town. A nice local guy dropped me at the Mammoth Adventure Center so I could take the bus down into Reds Meadow, where I camped at the backpacker camp and drank beers with a bunch of dirty but friendly PCTers.
Reds Meadow to Iva Bell Hot Spring
12.5 miles, +2,400ft/-2,400ft
I packed up and hit the trail a little later than I’d intended and attempted to navigate the maze of trails that leads out of Reds. I didn’t have too much trouble finding the Fish Creek trail and headed down that way.
I made a quick side-jaunt out to see Rainbow Falls, where there was no rainbow, I guess because I was there at the wrong time of day. Still, quite a massive flow and lovely fall.
The Fish Creek trail hugs the shoulder of the Mammoth Crest as it descends down to the canyon of Fish Creek. The trail was more interesting than I was expecting with basalt formations and lots of granite slabs.
About 7 miles or so in, the trail turns east and I got my first view up the canyon towards Iva Bell.
Down in the canyon floor, the trail crosses powerful Fish Creek on a bridge.
The wildflowers were blooming everywhere and hiking up the canyon was peaceful. I didn’t see a single soul until I arrived at Iva Bell.
I arrived in the general area of the hot springs around 2pm and set about hunting for the “upper” pools. This turned out to be much more of an adventure than I was anticipating. I knew I was in the right area because the stream was warmish, so I hunted around for side trails leading to campsites and pools. I knew I wanted to climb up to the highest of the pools, but finding out where these were was another story. I found one pool, occupied by a pair of people and their dog. I headed up a meadow behind this pool thinking I was on the right track. Nope. I climbed to the top of the meadow, which was thick with waist-high grass and showy milkweed.
The meadow was quite steep and seeping warm water, but no pools were to be found. I went back down to the bottom to try my luck again. This time I headed a bit further east through a stand of trees and up a very very steep and pretty faint use trail. I was about to give up when the trees opened up and I saw a faint little trail across a creek to a clearing. In that clearing I found these pools.
And back across the creek I found this incredible campsite. I think this is one of the most perfect campsites I’ve ever had. It had a flat, sheltered tent pad and a rock to sit on and enjoy the view. Not to mention being right next to a cold creek for water and about 50 yards from the hot springs pools.
I had to get a dip right away. I spent the rest of the afternoon soaking until I was too hot, eating snacks, and soaking again.
Iva Bell Hot Springs to Grassy Lake
8.5 miles, +2,957ft / -1,108ft
I woke up early for a pre-hike soak in the hot springs before breakfast and breaking camp. I headed back down the steep use trail and crossed a creek on a log crossing, then turned left to head up the trail along Sharktooth Creek.
The trail climbs steeply through the woods out of the valley with occasional views of cascading Sharktooth Creek or down to Iva Bell.
Once again the wildflowers were blooming and I was pleasantly alone. I wouldn’t see another soul until lunchtime the following day.
After gaining about 2,000ft in about 2 miles, the trail levels out, passing through open forest and crossing a few creeks.
I stopped for a snack at Jackson Meadow, where the forest opened up and I had a lovely view of the crest between the meadow and the Sierra crest.
I hiked along the mostly level trail, passing a few streams here and there and also a few mosquito-laden bogs until I reached Grassy Lake.
My plan was to head up to Peter Pande Lake, so I headed on past Grassy Lake’s idyllic views until I reached the junction for the spur trail.
I followed the faint trail for a quarter mile or so and then arrived at this boggy wetland of willows and meandering streams.
Traipsing around a bit I found a signpost that said “trail.” Yay! I must be on the right track. It was pointing across the stream, so I crossed.
On the opposite side of the stream I found a coyboy camp but no signs of the trail. Being on my own and since I hadn’t seen anybody since leaving Iva Bell (and almost nobody there as well), I decided to take the safe route and head back to Grassy Lake to camp. Peter Pande will have to wait for another day.
I set up camp just west of Peter Pande, on a rocky clearing in the trees where I had a view, was far enough from shore to be rid of most of the bugs (but lord knows not all of them), and where there weren’t any widowmakers.
I took a short nap in my tent and woke up to a nice view.
I headed over to the lake in the late afternoon for a dip and to swim out to the little island. Sorry no photos from out there since I don’t carry a waterproof camera. You can use your imagination, I’m sure.
Grassy Lake to ridge above Virginia Lake
9 miles, +3,000 ft / -2,000 ft
I woke up with the sun, made breakfast, and headed on my way. There was some nice lupine on my way north along the trail towards the Lake of the Lone Indian.
The trail was very nicely constructed, but I believe was incorrectly marked on the Tom Harrison maps for this region. There were some discrepancies as far as where some water features were marked. I don’t recall the details (dangit, I should have written this down two and a half years ago when I hiked it!), but do be aware of potential issues if you use that map to navigate in this area.
But! I got a peek-a-boo view of Banner and Ritter peaks, the first of very many glimpses of these on this route.
The very carefully constructed trail continues to climb up until it reaches a nice plateau.
At the end of the plateau, the trail cuts sharply right (south) to bypass a thousand-foot sheer cliff face, but I decided to go out to the edge to take a break and have a snack. I was rewarded with an incredible view.
After a snack, I picked up the trail again and headed towards Lake of the Lone Indian, which is just northwest of Silver Pass.
There I continued to find beautiful wildflowers, including some quite impressive mountain heather.
I headed east at the junction just below Papoose Lake to pick up the JMT just below Silver Pass. On the way, I admired the scenery with these two women who I saw taking a break. We got to chatting and they were trying to decide whether to hike back out over Duck Pass or something else. I told them about my trip and that they could make a semi-loop by heading back the way I came and they’d get treated with a hot spring, to boot! The only problem they had was a lack of cash for the shuttle, so I slipped them $20 and they demanded my address with promises to repay. It’s always worth carrying a bit of cash on the trail because you never know what will happen! A few months later, I got a card from an address I didn’t quite recognize. I opened it up and it was an incredibly gracious note from these women, thanking me and paying me back. Be kind to your fellow travelers :)
I hiked on, feeling helpful, towards the JMT. I headed north when I reached it, down to Square Lake.
The trail descends and descends about 1,400ft in about 2.5 miles and I met many an unhappy-looking JMT’er slowly climbing up, some of them asking how far they were from Silver Pass. I always try to give an honest but somewhat optimistic answer, but boy was I feeling a bit sorry for some of those hikers. It was pretty hot and they had quite the climb ahead of them with stairs on stairs on stairs.
On the way down, I caught yet another peek-a-boo glimpse of Banner and Ritter.
Finally at the bottom, the trail crosses Fish Creek and then gently ascends along its north side until Tully Hole.
At Tully Hole, the trail bifurcates (you can climb out over the Sierra Crest to McGee Lakes by heading right) and I took the left fork south for a steep switchback-laden climb out of Tully Hole.
Gaining altitude quickly, I got a great view south to Red Slate Moutain and its neighbors.
After climbing 1,400 feet, the trail flattens out as it walks along a wide forested saddle before reaching Virginia Lake.
Once at Virginia Lake, I couldn’t help but take a quick dip. I was hot and sweaty from the day’s hiking and the water was cool and refreshing. I chatted with a few of the copious PCT’ers who were making bad Leave No Trace decisions, setting up tents directly on the meadow grass a few feet from the lake’s edge (grr).
Wanting some solitude, I decided to climb the ridge northwest of Virginia Lake to look for a spot to camp. I hauled enough water for the evening and the morning and clambered up the 200 feet to the little ridge. I had a magnificent view of the peaks behind Virginia Lake and, even better, to the southwest I could see the entirety of the Silver Divide.
I chose a nice sheltered spot just below the peak of the ridge and set up my tent.
A bit later, I made some dinner higher up on the ridge to watch the sunset. It did not disappoint, with peaks all around basking in neon orange alpenglow.
Virginia Lake to Duck Pass Trailhead
10 miles, +1,647ft/-3,050ft
On this last day I lingered in the tent for a while and wasn’t on the trail until around 10am. The crystal clear blue skies and well-graded JMT made for pleasant hiking as I headed north from Lake Virginia.
I first passed Purple Lake, which is really more green than it is purple.
The JMT hugs the shoulder of the mountains and gives nice views across Cascade Valley towards the Silver Divide and the ledge I’d hiked along when heading from Iva Bell to Grassy Lake a few days prior.
I could also see down the canyon of Fish Creek, coming full circle with views since I’d been looking straight up this canyon a few days before.
After cutting back east and descending a bit, the trail reaches stunning Duck Lake, famous for its crystal clear water.
There were a few day hikers hanging out at the outlet stream area, so I went around the north side and stopped for a snack amidst the wildflowers.
I was so distracted by the beauty of the bloom that somewhere along here I lost my lens cap. With a long drive ahead of me later that day, I decided to go ahead and get a move on and climbed up to Duck Pass.
Once over the pass, it was just a steep and then less steep descent to the trailhead. The first part was exposed with gorgeous views of Barney Lake, and then the trail descends into the forest. I was at my car by 2pm, sweaty and ready for a long drive home.
Want to do this trip yourself? You’ll need a permit from Inyo National Forest, either for Fish Creek or Duck Pass if you want to do the route in reverse. Here’s roughly my route on CalTopo (not an exact GPS track). Download the Bloody Mountain and Crystal Crag USGS quads, and pick up the Tom Harrison Ansel Adams Wilderness topo.