This loop out of Mono Creek Trailhead at Lake Edison traverses two mountain passes high in the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra National Forest, first taking the John Muir Trail over Silver Pass, and then leaving it to cross of Goodale Pass, dropping down into Graveyard Meadows and back to Edison.
We did this loop in mid-June as the Ferguson Fire was burning just outside of Yosemite, at these elevations, and being to the south of the fire, we were mostly unaffected by the smoke, but near the end of the trip the smoke started producing hazy and dreamy looking skies, obscuring the views of distant mountain ranges. This did nothing to dampen the experience though, the scenery was beautiful; alpine lakes, jagged granite peaks, and lush green meadows.
The Mono Creek trailhead is just past VVR at the mouth of Lake Edison and the terminus of the long and winding Kaiser Pass Road. The first 4 miles of the trail leads around the large reservoir, but this trail is dusty and uninspiring. Alternatively VVR operates a ferry service twice a day down the length of Lake Edison which allows you to cut out this section.
At the end of the lake, right by the ferry junction, the trail crosses the wilderness boundary and enters the John Muir wilderness. It counties along north of Mono Creek, which drains into Lake Edison, and after another mile joins up to the PCT/JMT just before it crosses the creek over a wooden bridge, but the trail to Silver Pass is in the other direction.
The trail continues flat for another half mile before crossing over the North Fork of the Mono Creek and then switch backing up towards Pocket Meadow, through sandy granite, manzanita, and stout Juniper trees. The trail flattens out again after about a mile at the base of Pocket Meadow. At the plateau is the best camping and the only legal place to have a fire before hitting the fire closure.
If taking the ferry, or perhaps taking an extra day, an alternative to camping in lower Pocket Meadow is to follow the trail to the top of the meadow and taking the side trail to Mott Lake, a beautiful alpine lake that sees a lot fewer visitors than the heavily trafficked JMT corridor. The trail to Mott Lake is steep at first, but levels out into a gentler climb through an open basin with short climbs over granite steps past multiple waterfalls and finally cresting at the wide flat mouth to the lake.
The second day takes us up above 10,000 feet as we begin climbing up the steep granite steps up towards Silver Pass. The cool temperatures of the morning are the best time to climb this section. The trail passes a waterfall that cascades over layered granite as Silver Pass Creek shoots down the steep mountain side. The stairs continue their climb up to base of large meadow. At the top of the waterfall you can cross over to the large granite shelf which offers fantastic views down to Pocket Meadow and up Mott Canyon.
From here the trail skirts a large meadow and continues a gentle climb as it follows Silver Pass Creek, before crossing the creek and continuing to climb as the trees start to shrink in size as we pass through tree line. After around 2 miles we reach a large open basin with Silver Pass Lake nestled in to the right of the trail. This marks the start of the final push to the top of the pass.
From here Silver Pass is within reach. A gentle climb takes us up to the top and offers great views in both directions. From the pass we drop down to Chief Lake and scout out a campsite, spending the evening relaxing besides the lake taking the grandeur of the jagged peaks that surround us, watching the sun slowly descend into the orange haze of the wildfire smoke hanging over Silver Divide to the west of us.
Tonight is a full moon, and it rises over a notch in Silver Divide to the south of us, shortly after the sun sets, bathing the entire basin in blue light that reflects off Chief Lake. I lay in my tent and watch it for a while before drifting off.
The third day takes us over Goodale Pass and over to Graveyard Lakes. First we rejoin the JMT for a very short drop down to the trail junction towards Goodale. The trail drops a little further to cross over the outlet of Papoose Lake, which is fed from Chief Lake further up. Just downstream is the Lake of the Lone Indian, which is visible from the trail and initial climb up towards Goodale. It’s a good idea to fill up water bottles here, the trail is hot, dry, and steep for the next few miles.
Goodale Pass is slightly higher than Silver Pass, and marks the high point of the loop. The trail climbs up some steep steps and then snakes through some very dry sandy terrain. It is a little hard to distinguish in places as the sand has eroded away from recent storms, but with a little careful route finding it’s easy-going, tracking around and keep climbing up to the left, eventually topping out on an exposed plateau at the pass, 3 feet shy of 11,000 feet.
From the top of the pass there’s a great view down the top of canyon and the headwaters of Cold Creek. The descent down the other side is steep and incredibly dry. After around a mile the descent flattens as we arrive at the canyon floor, and follow Cold Creek downstream towards Upper Graveyard Meadow. Another mile down the stream, in middle of the upper meadow, we take the trail junction to Graveyard Lakes.
The trail climbs back up over another mile to the lake, which was a little trying at the end of the day as our energy levels were depleting. But the destination was worth it. We eventually arrive at a small meadow that leads along the side of the lowest Graveyard Lake and quickly found a campsite a little way from the lake, heaving off our packs. I quickly threw up my tent and then went to explore the series of lakes that make up Graveyard Lakes before dinner.
The maintained trail runs out at a meadow just behind the lowest lake but a use trail continues on, first climbing up to a middle lake with a large peninsula jutting out into the center, and then up the drainage to the large upper lake. Here the use trail peters out, but behind the upper lake is a chain of smaller lakes in pristine alpine setting. I was racing the sun as it was heading behind the crest of Silver Divide.
The whole day we’ve been experiencing the smoke from the Ferguson Fire burning just outside of Yosemite, at this elevation it’s not very thick, but it produces a haze on the horizon and taints the usually perfectly blue sierra skies.
The final day takes us back down from the Graveyard Lakes back down to Upper Graveyard Meadow, following Cold Creek down the canyon. The trail follows the flat base of the canyon for 3 miles, crossing over Cold Creek once, and then twice, as it passes through the main Graveyard Meadows, which form multiple expansive open areas of bright green grass.
Just before the second stream crossing we actually cross from the John Muir Wilderness into the Ansel Adams Wilderness for the final 3 miles back to the trailhead. The final section again turns into a long and dusty schlep through the woods. Along the way there’s a some vast old Jeffrey Pine trees, some with boughs as big as the trunks of the surrounding trees. In one or two places these trees have fallen to the ground and the rangers have rerouted the trail around as the trunks are too large to cut with their 7 foot crosscut saws.
The final half mile, after the trail joins up trail around Lake Edison, feels like it will never end, every corner seems like it must the last, and finally, we arrive around that last corner and the trailhead comes into sight, we heft off our packs and lay out in the warm sun in the parking lot.