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Duck Pass Trip

John Muir Wilderness

August 7th - August 12th, 2017

38.5 miles
8550 vertical feet
32 hours, 26 minutes
Rating: 9/10

Directions: From Highway 395, take Highway 203 into Mammoth Lakes. Turn left onto Lake Mary Road. Turn left toward Coldwater Creek Campground. Drive through the campground to the day use lots at the other end of the campground. The trailhead for the Duck Pass trail is the second lot.   View Driving Map



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When we did the John Muir Trail 2 years ago, we were kind of amazed that almost everything went according to plan. We mostly stuck to the schedule, the resupplies all worked out great, and it was a great 22 days on the trail. This year, pretty much nothing went right - but we made the most of it and ended up visiting some really nice lakes.

But let me go back to the beginning. First of all, we weren't even originally going to backpack in the Sierra this year. I was hoping to get a permit for the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately we applied and did not win the permit lottery. It didn't help that school starts a week earlier this year, giving us less flexibility.

We didn't find out that our permit had been denied until late April, so I didn't even start planning another trip until then. I shortly put together a planned trip, entering from the McGee Creek trailhead, exiting at Rock Creek. The plan was for a 7 day, 64 mile trip, visiting Big McGee Lake, Lake of the Lone Indian, Lost Keys Lake, Chief Lake, Second Recess, and Pioneer Basin.

Friday afternoon, we started the drive to Mammoth Lakes. Leaving around 3:30pm, we were hit with horrible traffic in the Bay Area, more than an hour of delay. We stopped for dinner, but otherwise didn't stop as we went over Highway 108 as it got dark. We reached Highway 395 at 9:30pm, then Mammoth Lakes around 10:45pm. After buying groceries, we finally reached our house rental in Swall Meadows around 11:45pm.

In the morning, we went to the Mammoth Lakes visitor center/ranger station to pick up our permit. There was a long line after which the ranger told us that the bridge at McGee Creek was out and that the creek was thus impassable. Well, they said maybe it would be passable if it was just me and my wife, but definitely not with our kids. Our kids may be strong and experienced hikers, but big and tall they are not, and it sounded like the water would be close to their heads. We'd have to find an alternate route. Even though it had been a very wet winter, since it was now August it hadn't even occurred to me that this would be a problem. But now it was staring us in the face. The ranger also told us that since we weren't leaving until Monday, we'd have to come back tomorrow - at 8am to get our name on the list, then again at 11am to actually pick up a replacement permit!

Also, I had planned to do a short acclimatization hike today, but thunderstorms were now forecast this afternoon (and they arrived on cue right after lunch). So we couldn't really do much today. After lunch we returned to our house rental and I started doing some research trying to find an alternate 7-day route in the area.

I was back at the Mammoth Lakes visitor center at 7:50am the next day, to find several people in line in front of me. I quickly learned there were actually only 3 groups ahead of me, and that 2 of them were going for same-day permits. So there was only one other person in front of me. I put my name on the list and then went back to the house to finalize the route.

Duck Pass seemed like the best entry point. Earlier reports showed some snow on the pass still, but still doable without extra gear (besides trekking poles). So one option was to shorten the route to about 55 miles yet visit much of the same terrain: Duck Pass to Duck Lake, then to Purple Lake and across Fish Creek to Beetlebug Lake, Olive Lake, Lake of the Lone Indian, Second Recess, Pioneer Basin, and then out Rock Creek. However, something was nagging at me. I couldn't get good info on whether exiting over Mono Pass and out Rock Creek would be an issue with snow or creek crossings. It was probably ok, but leaving it to the end of the trip could be risky.

So eventually I revised the route to be a loop starting with Duck Pass to Duck Lake, Lost Keys Lake (via Purple Lake and the cutoff over Fish Creek), Beetlebug Lake, Olive Lake, Wilbur May Lake, Duck Lake, and back to the trailhead. This would involve some shorter days, but visit what looked to be some really nice lakes we hadn't visited before, while minimizing (I thought) the issue of snow-covered passes and creek crossings.

We returned at 11am to get our permit, and it wasn't a problem. I gave him our route and he entered it all into the system. He failed to mention that our route was probably doomed from the start, but it's hard to blame him since he probably didn't know (and I still can't find any current info online).

Since we were now doing a loop trip, I called to cancel the taxi I had reserved for our original route. Then, permit in hand, and no storms in sight for today or the next few days, we went on a short day hike to Crystal Lake.

That night, we finalized our packs and I discovered that somehow, despite having a checklist, I was missing 3 cups. Not sure how that happened, but we'd have time to pick them up at Mammoth Lakes in the morning.

DayDescriptionMilesAscentDescent
1Coldwater Campground to Duck Lake 5.81860540
2Duck Lake to Fish Creek 9.19203040
3Fish Creek to Ram Lake 7.02990650
4Day hike from Ram Lake to Franklin Lake 3.1900900
5Ram Lake to Pika Lake 8.514801760
6Pika Lake to Coldwater Campground 5.04001800


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