John Muir Trail 2015: Day 1

The day has finally come. Horseshoe Meadows, resting at 10,000 feet is the trailhead for the Cottonwood Lakes Basin. This is where we exchange beds, showers, and toilets for the endless beauty of California’s high country.  My first trip to the high Sierra in college was to this same trailhead. I also spent the weekend before my wedding in this wonderful landscape of lakes and cliffs. I can think of no better place to start a 220 mile personal landmark journey through the majestic terrain of the Sierra Nevada.

The Trail Begins

This first leg of the hike is more of a warm up than anything else. It consists of six miles of easy trail to a broad basin sprinkled with lakes and surrounded by towering cirques. The weather report is foreboding: it calls for one inch of rain and thunderstorms. For a mountain range that’s known for its dry favorable weather, that’s a lot of rain. Growing up I learned that when a thunderstorm approaches, the safe and sane thing is to head inside. And normally on a weekend trip I would probably retreat home filling my time with board games and movies.

Cottonwood Lakes

For the next three weeks this isn’t going to be an option.  So we might as well suck it up and get hiking. We start down the trail constantly looking up at the ominous swirling clouds. With some luck we make it all the way to camp without getting wet. Our first night’s camp sits at the outlet to Cottonwood Lake 4, a large blue lake surrounded by 2,000-foot cliffs. On the other side of the lake, is Old Army Pass our, destination for the next day. At 11,000 feet we are ready to begin acclimatization. With a slight altitude headache, we setup camp in no time, having perfected the art on many training hikes leading up to this day.

Cottonwood Lake #5

Within minutes the darkening clouds let loose. First comes rain, then wind, and finally hail pounding the nylon walls of our tent. We scarf down fettuccini Alfredo, whip up some Nutella and Peanut Butter wraps and retire to our sleeping bags to listen to an audiobook. I last only 10 minutes before sleep overtakes me.

Cirque Cliffs




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