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Thru-Hiking the JMT: The Golden Staircase and Mather Pass to Kings River

Looking South from Mather Pass

Day 16 on the John Muir Trail…

Today we climb the Golden Staircase, past the Palisade Lakes and up over Mather Pass (12,100ft). We will climb 4,682 feet and descend 2,486 feet, logging 12.6 miles in the process. In other words, this will be a big day in every respect.

John Muir Trail Day 16
Distance: 12.6 miles
Cumulative Distance: 158.4 miles
Total Ascent: 4,682 ft
Cumulative Ascent: 42,540 ft
Harrison Map Sheet 4
We started up the valley paralleling Palisade Creek up to Deer Meadow and started up the Golden Staircase.

Why is it called the Golden Staircase? First of all, it’s a steep series of switchbacks that will take you up, up and UP in a very short distance. Some call it Mother Nature’s StairMaster. Second, if you catch it toward the golden hour before sunset, the light reflects off cascading Palisade Creek giving it a golden glow.

We took our time on the Golden Staircase, and while it was tough, we were tougher. Joan and I can tell that two weeks of hiking the JMT has really made a difference. We reached the high shelf above the Golden Staircase feeling strong.

Looking Down the Golden Staircase

We had logged about five miles, and stopped to enjoy lunch beside Palisade Creek. It was a beautiful day, with a good breeze. Not much shade, unfortunately, as we were above the tree line.

Above the Golden Staircase

Refueled and rehydrated, we continued on. About a half mile up the trail we came across the first of the two Palisade Lakes. These are beautiful lakes, and the trail follows the canyon wall around their north-east shoreline.

Palisade Lake

Beyond Upper Palisade Lake the land became increasingly stark and Mather Pass loomed high above us. We would have a lot of climbing yet to do.

Climbing Mather Pass

When we finally reached Mather Pass, we rested, drank water and took some photos. The climbing behind us, it would be all downhill for the rest of the day.

The descent on the south side of Mather Pass is intimidating. The trail is narrow with a series of switchbacks down a slope that seems impossibly steep. We had to keep our eyes on the trail — one misstep could be catastrophic.

It’s difficult to adequately express how steep this section of the trail is. To give you some sense, after we reached the Upper Basin, I paused to look back towards Mather Pass, and spotted a pack train slowly making their way down the trail. Impressive, and scary.

Pack Train Descending Mather Pass

The Upper Basin looks a  bit like a moonscape.


We headed down along the headwaters of the Kings River. Other than the pack train behind us, we hadn’t seen anyone since the Palisade Lakes. It had been a long day, and while we originally had hoped to camp at the South Fork Junction, the sun was getting low and we started looking for a suitable place to camp for the night.

We were just beginning to get back below the tree line, when we saw a scraggly solo hiker headed up the trail. We stopped and said hello, and talked about where were were coming from. I asked the older gentleman if I could take a photo of him — to which he replied “I should probably tell you who I am…”

Reinhold Metzger

It turns out that we had run into Reinhold Metzger. He was 69 years old and on a 14-day NOBO (north-bound) JMT thru-hike — his 12th time. Not only that, but Reinhold previously held the unsupported thru-hike speed record of 4 days, 12 hours and 45 minutes.

The sun was setting, but Reinhold was planning to hike over Mather Pass and see how far he got. His gear was not particularly fancy or new — he even had an old external frame backpack. He was thinking about picking up some ultralight gear and maybe doing a yo-yo of the JMT (in his case, hiking north-bound, then turn around and doing it again south-bound).

Hike Your Own Hike
JMT-JeffSome of my friends will hear about Reinhold’s hiking pace and his age, and give me some ribbing hiking the JMT so much slower. Still others will suggest he’s nuts for hiking in darkness and claim he’s missing the point.

The real truth? Our reasons for hiking are vastly different. Our ability to go further or faster vary. What we want to achieve can be very different, as well. So whether you’re hiking locally, or on the JMT, hike your own hike.

Trail Map: The Golden Staircase, Mather Pass and the Upper Basin

Download file: JMT-Day-16.gpx

JMT Day 16 Photo Gallery

Click on any photo to view a larger version. You can also leave comments on any photo.

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Tomorrow, we head over Pinchot Pass to Woods Creek.

Originally hiked on August 11, 2010.

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