We peered up at the ridge above the cirque, straining to find Lamarck Col. Checking our maps and double-checking the GPS, we found what looked like a playground of car-sized boulders. The silhouette of a lone backpacker sitting at the top confirmed our suspicions — our route was going to involve some scrambling. Little did we know that the other side of the ridge would be even tougher. And it was only our second day on the second annual Muir Taco Adventure.
On the first Muir Taco Adventure, we packed in beer, grilled carne asada, tortillas, cheese, avocados and salsa over Bishop Pass. Our goal was to serve thru-hikers on the 211-mile John Muir Trail from Muir Hut on Muir Pass, but with one of our team members was hobbled by a nagging foot injury, so we opted instead to setup our pop-up taco stand at the Muir Monster.
This year, we had the same objective, but via a shorter but more challenging route to Muir Pass, heading over Lamarck Col. This route from the North Lake trailhead outside of Bishop begins as an established trail, but dissolves into a boulder-hopping, route finding trip over the col and down to the amazing views of Darwin Bench before finally joining the John Muir Trail near Evolution Lake. From there we planned to head south to Muir Pass, down into Le Conte Canyon, and finally up to Dusy Basin, over Bishop Pass and out to South Lake. It was a solid plan, until the wildfires came along.
There were four of us for this year’s mission. I was joined by three Muir Taco newbies: Paul, Mark and Byron. We drove up the 395 from LA to Bishop, picked up our permit, then parked one car at South Lake (our exit trailhead) and my Xterra at North Lake. With a mid-afternoon start, our plan for day one was an easy hike up to Lamarck Lake.
The next morning, we arose at sunrise. After the requisite coffee and oatmeal, we broke camp and headed toward Lamarck Col. The trail to the col is less-traveled and sometimes picking the route takes some detective work. The views to the east opened up as we climbed above the tree-line, and soon we approached the cirque.
We had some discussion about where exactly the col was. There wasn’t a clear “trail” that led up. It was going to be a boulder scramble to the crest of the col. Finally, we spied a single person standing at the divide next to the trail sign marking the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. We began carefully climbing from boulder to boulder up to the top of the col.
When we reached the crest, we quickly realized two things. First, the smoke from the Rough Fire was far worse than we anticipated. It was certain to be a factor in this trip. Second, getting down the west side of the col would be even more arduous than climbing the east side.
There is no “trail” down from Lamarck Col. It’s another boulder scramble. Every now and then you run across a short social trail, but it soon gives way to another boulder field and you’re stuck picking your way down to the bottom of the basin. Carrying extra heavy loads with taco ingredients (and beer) doesn’t help.
Our goal had been to setup camp near the outlet of Evolution Lake on the JMT. Unfortunately, we got some bad news. As we neared Darwin Bench, we ran across a former ranger traveling in the opposite direction. He had just met up with rangers earlier in the day and was told that they were considering closing Muir Pass and even evacuating the ranger station in Le Conte Canyon due to wildfire danger. The Rough Fire was wreaking havoc.
Exhausted from the long, slow slog over and down the col, we decided to camp at Darwin Bench and reassess our plans.
Darwin Bench is a beautiful place to camp. Being off and above the JMT/PCT corridor, we had the place to ourselves.
After a decent night’s sleep, we considered our options around breakfast. We quickly ruled out our original plan to head over Muir Pass. The smoke had partially dissipated overnight, but we had recognized that as part of the pattern, and knew it would grow worse over the day. We could turn around and go back over Lamarck Col. With the memory of that fresh, we quickly ruled that option out as well. Our third option was to hike through Evolution Valley down to Goddard Canyon, then up Piute Creek, over Piute Pass and back to North Lake. We could still setup our “taco stand” in McClure Meadow. It was settled.
On our way down to McClure Meadow, we ran into a couple of JMT hikers who were continuing southbound in spite of the fire. We wished them well and handed them a beer for later. If nothing else, it would help clear the smoke out of their throats.
McClure Meadow had a great campsite for us to setup our taco production. We were right near the trail, so we could easily see and call out to any passing thru-hikers. Plus, we had a banner.
We setup production, heating the carne asada, making guacamole, and cooling the beer in the nearby creek. And soon we had hikers.
I’ll never get tired of the expressions of pure joy they share when they realize it’s not a joke – we really are offering them a free, freshly made taco and beer. And of course, one of the beautiful things about long distance backpacking is that you can always eat. Your body typically runs a caloric deficit, so more food just staves off the hunger.
My favorite story came when a group of college-age thru-hikers from east coast came by. One of them asked me “Are you the guy from SoCalHiker?! You’re the reason I’m hiking the JMT!” He shared how he’d spend time in class reading and re-reading my posts on the John Muir Trail. I’m hoping it didn’t stop him from graduating, but thrilled that he was inspired. “I bring fresh tacos and beer to all my readers,” I joked. It was a happy accident to run into him.
We shared a couple tacos with the ranger from McClure Meadow Station, and then packed up our gear and hit the trail again. This time, our plan was to camp along the San Joaquin River, near the northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park.
Waking after our third night, we broke camp and soon left Kings Canyon NP. Here we parted from the JMT and PCT and headed up toward Piute Pass. I had never been up this route, and wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, it’s quite beautiful!
As was the pattern, the day began with optimistically blue skies, but almost like clockwork, the afternoon sun was choked with smoke. As we climbed higher toward the pass, smoke filled the entire basin. It was like breathing a campfire. Not good.
We camped for the night just below Piute Pass. It was a long haul, and this set us up well for a short hike out to the trailhead. The smoke was so thick that you could barely make out the outlines of the jagged peaks towering around us.
Our fifth and final day, we climbed over Piute Pass and enjoyed the slightly clearer morning air as we hiked back down to North Lake.
This modified route worked well for us. It was a little longer than our original plan, but with the same number of nights, we had plenty of food. As it turns out, we came out at North Lake, near where we started five days earlier. We still had to go pickup the other car at South Lake, but we didn’t have to hitch a ride.
The Rough Fire may have wreaked havoc on our plans to serve tacos at Muir Pass, but it didn’t stop us from our core mission: bringing a little trail magic to hungry and thirsty thru-hikers, deep in the backcountry. And that is priceless.
Señor Muir’s Taco Hut has it’s own Facebook page. Follow along for more photos from other Muir Taco adventures.
Originally hiked on August 20-24, 2015. Thanks to Paul, Mark and Byron for joining me on this bodacious boondoggle!