18.8 miles (633.3 to 652.1), plus ~1.5 miles to/from Yellow Jacket Spring
Wind shakes the tent all night and wakes me repeatedly. My feet cramp as I drift to sleep, waking me. I get too little sleep but still wake before my alarm. There are a few clouds in the sky. Sunrise lights them up in pink and orange. As I hike, I get great views of the magic.
The trail meanders through a forest of live oak and pine. Five miles in, I take off cross-country for Yellow Jacket Spring. From a campsite at mile 638.4, the spring is a 0.7-mile cross-country hike. I don’t actually need water now; I can fill up later (and easier) at McIver Spring. But Yellow Jacket is going to have a starring role in a hobby project I’m working on, so I need to check it out. Shortly into the hike, I see a gray fox. Cool!
The spring itself is easy to find; a faint trail (made by hikers and/or wildlife) leads most of the way there. Water seeps from the ground and trickles into a little pool, then down into a thick patch of rushes. I take notes and videos, then sit and let my feet air out. While I sit, Northern Flickers, Chipping Sparrows, Bushtits, Mourning Doves, an Anna’s Hummingbird, and a Scrub Jay visit the spring. I’m shocked to see a Lawrence’s Goldfinch come in for a drink. There are other species, too, flitting around in the willows and nearby trees, but I can’t ID them. This is a birding hot spot!
I top off my water for the 14 miles to Walker Pass, then reluctantly stand up and walk back to the trail. As I near the campsite where I started this side trip, I see bear tracks. Bear tracks! The first hint of bear I’ve seen on this trip. The trail continues through live oak-pine forest. I don’t know the name of this pine. It has single needles rather than clusters. Single leaf pinyon?
Near mile 642, the view suddenly opens. I see snowy peaks on the horizon. Am I finally looking at the Sierra? I get an even better view three miles later after the trail joins a dirt road. The road follows the ridge through an old burn where dense shrubs line the way. Thunderheads build to the north. Puffy clouds build overhead. After a few miles, the trail leaves the road. I stop for a quick lunch break, then continue on into the heat of the day. This is the first time since Tehachapi that I haven’t stopped for a long afternoon break. I’m meeting Dad and Uncle Pete at Walker Pass and I don’t want to arrive late in the day, so I keep walking.
The trail drops onto the north side of the ridge, out of the old burn. A spectacular view of clouds and mountains opens. I can see across to the mountain range on the far side of Walker Pass and beyond. Despite many dead pines, this is a truly gorgeous stretch of trail; unfortunately I’m not enjoying it as much as I should. I’m running on way too little sleep. I should have had a nap by now. My feet hurt. I’m hungry. Even though I have “enough” water, I don’t really have enough water. I gulp warm water out of my Platypus bladder and still feel deeply thirsty.
I send an update via satellite letting Dad and Pete know my best guess for an ETA is 3:00-3:30. Afterward, I realize how ridiculous that is. That’s why I’m so tired: I’m trying to finish 20 miles by 3pm. I’ve never done that before, and I probably shouldn’t; it’s too much, especially in this heat. No wonder my feet hurt. No wonder I can hardly stay awake. I need to stop and rest, but there’s no shade. The angle of the sun and the angle of the trail create a shadowless corridor through which I trudge, until finally the sun goes behind a cloud and a little rock outcropping appears beneath a pine. I fall asleep in the dirt, halfway into the trail.
I wake in a thunderstorm. Whoa. When did this happen? Quick as I can, I pack up and start walking. Thunder follows me down the mountain and overtakes me. Thunder booms from all directions. I’m a little nervous, but so far I haven’t seen any lightening. So far there’s no rain.
At the fork that leads to Walker Pass Campground, I quickly sign the trail register, then keep moving and hike to where the trail crosses Highway 178. Dad and Pete are there. They’ve brought me a fresh salad and cold water, which I immediately devour.
The thunderstorm passes. We decide to go down the hill to spend the night in Lake Isabella, 35 miles away. Dad’s foot is better; he’s going to hike with me from Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows, where he left his car. Uncle Pete drives us to a motel, then heads for home. He’s been a fantastic trail angel. Thank you, Pete!
The motel is old and funky but clean. The swamp cooler keeps my room at a reasonable temperature. I take a shower, eat, and organize my resupply. It’s 50 miles to Kennedy Meadows, probably a little over two days by the time we get a ride back to the trail. For once, I definitely have too much food. I have 3-4 extra breakfasts, 1 extra lunch, at least 1 extra dinner, and an abundance of bars. I can finally eat as much as I want and not run out, a huge relief after going hungry since Tehachapi.