Sawmill Pass to Bench Lake (August, 2018)

Sign at JMT junction
This was a 6 day trip done by my son Alex and myself. We hiked up the Sawmill Pass trail, through Woods Lake basin to the John Muir Trail (JMT), then north on the JMT over Pinchot Pass and then west to Bench Lake. We turned around and returned exactly the same way. This is 23.2 miles each way, 46.4 miles round trip. Most of this is in the Kings Canyon Park backcountry.

We hit the road not having decided what we were going to do. A week backpacking in the Sierra was fine no matter what, and we had plenty of time on the road to toss ideas around Do we want to go to the Bishop Pass area, loaf around and visit the lakes in every nook and cranny? Do we want to go over Lamarck Col and into the Evolution area? Do we want to go over Taboose Pass to Bench Lake and climb Arrow Peak?

Day 00, Saturday July 28, 2018

Alex picked me up at 11:00 AM in Tucson and we hit the road. We made our usual stop at the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Needles for dinner, then drove on to our familiar camp spot in the Mojave desert. Temperatures aren't bad as soon as the sun sets and we had a nice evening looking at the stars.

Day 0, Sunday July 29, 2018

We drove to Barstow, then a bit south of town to a group of motels and restaurants and had breakfast at the Black Bear restaurant. The food was good, and there was plenty of it, but it felt like we were in Los Angeles for some reason and we will probably scratch this off of our list.

We started seeing smoke from fires in western California near Barstow and it got steadily worse as we headed north from Kramer Corners and up the Owens Valley. We began discussing alternate plans, such as driving to the ocean, spending a day on the beach and scuttling the whole trip. We stopped at the multi-agency center at Lone Pine and asked about a permit for Taboose Pass. To our utter amazement there was only one opening left, so that option is gone. We find out later that all the permits were taken by a group doing plant research in Upper Basin. We have no trouble getting a permit for the two of us to hike in via Sawmill Pass, so that will be the plan.

We have plans to meet some friends for dinner in Bishop, so we do something I have wanted to do for years, namely drive up Big Pine creek and see what it looks like. It looks like pretty much every other east side trailhead, but with some ammenities -- accomodations if you don't mind spending some money. After an hour or two here, we head to Bishop, meet our friends and have dinner at "Amigos", which is a nice Mexican restaurant, then it is off to a camp spot of ours east of town. A nice night camping at 7700 feet.

Day 1, Monday July 30, 2018

Lots of smoke is visible down below us and our view of the Sierras is pretty much non-existant. We plan to hike up Sawmill, camp one night and evaluate things. Even if things are terrible, we will probably hike up to the pass (11347 feet) and maybe even over to Woods Lake, but if we get up the next day and the smoke is bad, we will bail out.

We make some final gear decisions. Most importantly, we decide to share one tent. Alex carries his REI Half Dome 2. He also carries his stove (a jetboil). I carry the gas can. This makes my starting pack weight 26 pounds, and his 29 pounds. He is 30 years younger than I am, and I am grateful that he is going out of his way to make my life a bit easier.

I am carrying a pack loaned to me by a friend. It is a Hyperlite 4400 "Porter" made from a fancy Dyneema fabric. I have gotten frustrated with sore shoulder muscles (trapezoids) when carrying even 25 pound loads with my current ultralight pack. I am hoping this new pack with a decent hipbelt and some structure will make things better (and it definitely does). Only 2.5 pounds -- very sturdy -- and virtually waterproof.

We get on the trail at 9:30 AM. Smart people would have started at sunrise given that the first several miles of the Sawmill trail are in hot desert with absolutely no shade or water and the temperature is going to hit over 100 degrees. The trailhead is at 4587 feet. It is hot, but we are from Tucson and fairly used to the heat. I carry only 1 liter of water, but a smart person would carry two. We don't push our pace to avoid generating excess heat (this sounds like an excuse, but actually is prudent for hot weather hiking). It is almost dangerously hot. We get to the stream thirsty and from then on, everything changes. We have a stream nearby, and trees overhead. It is tempting to stop at Sawmill Meadow, and that would make for a reasonable day, but we push on to Sawmill Lake, which made it a hard day.

Unknown Delphinium along Sawmill Creek

We got to Sawmill Lake just before sunset. We passed a party of 5 or 6 people down in the desert part of the trail (and never saw them again), and someone is camped at the lake. There are few campsites. We find a spot away from the other person among boulders towards the inlet side of the lake. The night is very warm (maybe 62 degrees). We hardly noticed the smoke unless we looked back towards Owens Valley.

Day 2, Tuesday July 31, 2018

No smoke! However we have clouds already at sunrise. Thunderstorms have been active and more are forecast. A rule of thumb that I have heard (and that seems pretty good) is that if you are seeing clouds by 10 AM, you are going to have rain.

We meet two people on their way out. They did an interesting loop via Window Creek and cross country to Bench Lake. Like what we are doing, but with some extra variety. Nice to see people doing interesting things in the backcountry.

We are enjoying a lazy morning and find ourselves camped in a grove of foxtail pines (one of my favorite Sierra trees). There is plenty of Bush Chinquapin to enjoy and we see our first Clarks Nutcrackers. We are definitely in the Sierras! Up to Sawmill Pass we go and are at the pass by noon. Here we enter Kings Canyon Park. Clouds have built up and the sprinkles start as we stroll down from the pass. We are camped at the largest lake (Woods Lake) before 3:00 PM. This seems smart in light of the storms developing, and an easy day after pushing up Sawmill makes good sense. No big storm develops.

Woods Lake just before sunset
We find a nice spot on the east side of Woods lake. We loaf all afternoon reading a book Alex has brought along, "The School for good and evil", which is a pretty silly fantasy story that provides light entertainment. We have clear skies by sunset (but we hear thunder late at night).

Day 3, Wednesday August 1, 2018

We awake to completely clear skies. No smoke. Whatever weather system is pushing in from the southeast is apparently keeping the smoke off to the west. No clouds either. We pack up and promptly hit the trail. The trail through the Woods Lake basin requires a bit of attention to follow in places, but is no problem for anyone with a clue. From the trailead up to Sawmill Pass was easy to follow and in decent shape except for a few down trees. All this is worth mentioning, given this trails status as "unmaintained". We hike down to the JMT junction, then begin climbing to Pinchot Pass.

Alex on the way to Pinchot Pass

Clouds are building and the first drops begin to fall just after we cross the pass. I stop to pull out my rain jacket and fashion a rain skirt out of a black trash bag. None too soon as it turns out because the drops turn to a downpour and a vigorous hailstorm. Some hailstones are a half inch in diameter and hurt when they hit your head or bare hands! My rain jacket has seen better days and is not doing the job -- I will start shopping for a replacement when I get home. I get chilled and edge towards hypothermia. Alex is snug and fine in a fancy new Arcteryx jacket he is carrying. I am jealous. We look up at the peaks around us, and they are decorated by hail that has accumulated in chutes and on ledges. Lake Marjorie is beautiful, but we are somewhat distracted from the scenery by getting soaked. On the other hand, it is a novel experience and worth relishing.

The rain continues all the way to Bench Lake. We chat for a bit with a trail crew working on the spur trail to Bench Lake, then press on to a nice camp spot near the outlet to Bench Lake. We hurry to set the tent up, and the rain decides to give its last big spurt while we are doing this. That turns out to be the end of it and soon the sun is out and we are drying out gear. We have the place to ourselves! I had expected Bench Lake to be extremely popular, but apparently folks hiking the JMT don't want to make the detour of 2.4 miles each way. The skies clear and we have a pleasant night.

Day 4, Thursday August 2, 2018

Bench Lake and Arrow Peak, early morning.
We wake up and have a lazy morning as we finish drying gear. Every campsite needs a big rock to eat and lounge on! We had talked about climbing Arrow Peak, but at least three things are making us decide not to. First of all, we just don't feel like it. Second, with storms becoming active shortly after noon, we will have a short time window and need to start as early as possible. Third, to do so would really require an extra day, and we don't have one. Neither of us has regrets -- we have plenty of peaks under our belts.

We explore a little along Bench Lake and check out the views north towards the South fork of the Kings river and Mount Ruskin. Then we pack up and head through nice forest back to the JMT. We chat again with the trail crew and are surprised and pleased to find Sam, the backcountry ranger at the Bench Lake station. We have a nice visit with him -- his "digs" consist of a huge canvas tent along with an outside area under a big tarp. It certainly looks like a great setup to me. We hike up to Lake Marjorie, which is spectacular. We stop early because clouds are building, but this is not any kind of disappointment. We have a fabulous camp spot among big rocks at the north end of the lake.

Camp spot at Lake Marjorie

The storms fizzle, the sun comes out, and we take the opportunity to go for a swim in the lake. This season I have discovered that swimming in these high altitude lakes is great! Although it is really cold and you don't stay in long, it is wonderfully refreshing to jump in and get cleaned up a bit. You enjoy being clean afterwards, and with a sunny spot on a rock it is not at all uncomfortable to let the sun dry you off. This is true in July and August at any event, maybe not in September when the leaves start changing color.

We see only two other parties at the lake. One briefly camped next to us on the other side of our big rock, but then thought differently about it and vanished. The other was far away on the other side of the lake. By no means did we see anything resembling a "crowd of people" along the JMT.

Day 5, Friday August 3, 2018

There are high clouds at sunrise, but the sky soon clears and the day turns out to be clear, cool and windy. The weather is clearly shifting out of the thunderstorm pattern. We leave beautiful Lake Marjorie and stroll up to Pinchot Pass (12130 feet). We are lucky enough to see a Pika on the way (no picture though). Once we cross the pass we start seeing smoke coming up Woods Creek. Down Woods Creek we go on the JMT to the signed Sawmill trail junction, then through Woods Lake basin to the pass. We get to Sawmill Lake and have it to ourselves, so we select a spectacular spot on a rock overlooking the lake. There is no way to stake the tent, and I am particularly concerned that the wind doesn't blow it into the lake. We stay on top of things though and this never happens. With afternoon sun, a swim in the lake is enjoyable, then it is a nice night in the tent without the fly admiring the view and enjoying the wind.

Alex at Sawmill Lake

Day 6, Saturday August 4, 2018

It is a beautiful clear morning, but suddenly I smell smoke and think we have an unexpected neighbor with a campfire. It turns out to be smoke coming up Sawmill Canyon. Yesterdays wind has filled Owen's valley with smoke and some of it is getting up to our elevation. The Inyo Mountains and the valley floor are completely hidden. All this from a fire on the west side of Yosemite Park!

The hike down turns out to be an effortless stroll with Alex and I talking the whole time. We shouldered packs at 9:00 AM and find ourselves at his truck at 2:20 PM.

We head to Lone Pine for a shower at the hostel and the now tradional pizza and drive to our camp spot west of Needles, getting there about 8:30 PM.

We are at our spot just after sunset and watch the stars come out. A nice night, albeit quite windy.

Day 7, Sunday August 5, 2018

We drive to Needles for breakfast at the Wagon Wheel, then it is the long drive home. The entire Mojave is full of smoke now, and we keep seeing smoke well into Arizona. We are back in Tucson around 3:30 PM.

A local resident surveys his territory

Debriefing and gear talk

We hiked 46.4 miles in 6 days, making for an average of 7.7 miles per day. We didn't do it quite like that, in fact we alternated hard and easy days, which worked out well and made this a pleasant trip. Most people would consider any trip over Sawmill Pass grueling and tough, given the 6760 foot ascent from 4587 to 11347 feet. It was never truly miserable, although our first day was certainly a tough one.

My camera on this trip was my Sony A6000 mirrorless, which I am unendingly pleased with for a backpacking camera. I use the 18-55 lens, which is fairly inexpensive, and to my taste delivers excellent results -- you can look at the photos and decide for yourself. I use it on a Peak Designs Capture Pro, which allows me to carry it on the left side strap of my pack. If it rains, it goes into a neoprene case and inside the pack. I have had one unpleasant incident with the Capture Pro. On a previous trip, the plate came unscrewed, dropped the camera and broke the lens. On this trip, I glued the tripod stud into the camera to avoid any more of that nonsense, and had no troubles whatsoever. You have been warned.

This was my first trip with a Hyperlite pack -- a friend loaned me his 4400 "porter". I could not have been more pleased. I have a list of things that I am excited about:

I could go on, but I won't -- after the trip I ordered a Hyperlite 4400 "Southwest" of my own.

Food worked out perfectly. I was still enjoying some acclimatization from a trip the week before, so my appetite was up, and I had a couple of extra Ramen that I enjoyed. But my 1.3 pounds per day rule worked out perfectly. I was never hungry, nor did I find myself having to force food down. I made my exit with essentially no food left over -- perfect!

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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