Our first impression of (what we now lovingly call The Shangri-La of the Sierra) Vermillion Valley Resort was not a pleasant one. We were exhausted, filthy, cold, wet and hungry. Hiking the John Muir Trail had proved to be (almost) more than we could handle. We were about half way through our 250 mile hike. The miserable challenges we faced included snow, ice storms, high winds, lightning and nasty, oozing, debilitating blisters. We were behind schedule. Food was low. More importantly, so were our spirits (literally and figuratively).
THE BROKEN TENT POLE
At this point we don’t even remember what day it was or how many days we had actually been on the trail. It felt like forever since we had had beer, showers and non-freeze dried food. Our trip had been rough. The night before, the JMT had blessed us with another special challenge: a broken tent pole. We were fifty miles of tough backpacking away from a store or tools. Now, considering this was Laura’s sister’s first backpacking trip, (way to go big CC, kudos!) she had done admirably well. Yet, the look on her face told us that this was too much. We hoped for the best as we rigged her tent haphazardly to a tree. Par for the course, the rain started again. It held through the night.
FATE SMILED UPON US
The next day, fate smiled upon us. We oddly found a set of tent poles, in perfect condition, just sitting on a stump next to the trail. What are the odds? It was like somebody had left them for us. Remember we are in the middle of nowhere at this point. While the tent poles were not from the same exact tent (too much to hope for?), they were the same diameter. Now, all we needed were some tools to make the repairs and the tent would be good as new. Fortunately, we soon arrived at our next resupply point, Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) or, as we affectionately call it: The Shangri-La of the Sierra.
PLIGHT ACROSS THE DESERT TO LAKE EDISON (that’s what we’re calling it!)
Plight? Yep. That’s what we’re calling it. Lake Edison wasn’t what we expected. California was in an extreme drought the year we hiked the JMT and the water level was disturbingly low. This added several miles of hiking in sand at the bottom of the lake in order to get to the water. Our plan was to catch a ferry to the resort. It looked apocalyptic. There were wooden posts with upside down orange Home Depot buckets leading the way to the water. The writing on the buckets had worn out and was illegible. We passed tree stumps and items that had rusted years before under the water. All were now visible in this odd environment.
It looked like it had been deserted for years. Seldom did we see other footprints in the sand. We made jokes about none of us knowing that the world had ended. I’m not sure any of us thought they were funny. We hadn’t had news for many days. It seemed like eternity in some ways. I realize how crazy that sounds, yet there is an odd disconnect from the outside world when you’re on a long backpacking trip.
We expected a pontoon boat with blue stripes (just like the cute one in the picture on their website, right?) to pick us up at the water and take us across the lake. In the distance instead, we were able to make out a shirtless man, waving to us, from a very small motorboat. Well, really it was a dingy. We waved back, then had a discussion about how to proceed. It simply wasn’t what we expected. The scene felt off, but our food supply box was across the lake. It was pretty simple. He hadn’t done anything for us to question our safety, in fact he was nicely waving. Not taking his boat would add an extra 7 miles each way to our hike.
THE MAN IN THE BOAT
As we came closer, we realized the man was much older than we originally thought. His skin was leathered and dark from the sun. Hair was bleached, teeth yellow and several were missing. The boat was by far, in worse shape than him. He must have seen our hesitation because he turned into a salesman of sorts. Trying to convince us to hop in the old boat. He explained that the water was too low to bring out the other boat. We acquiesced, feeling a bit like horror story victims. Hoping that he wouldn’t kill us, nor would the boat sink. At some point we all started to calculate how we would survive the boat going under. The patches were leaking badly. We made quiet conversation. Each in our own world, just happy to be sitting down and accepting our new situation. As it turned out he was a really nice person and we were just tired and paranoid.
Overdramatic? Possibly. Looking back the situation seems harmless. However at the time, we were exhausted. That’s my only explanation. Don’t judge. For the sake of pure honesty and a good story, that’s really how it went down.
FABULOUS SCARY VAN PICTURES
We were thrilled when we made it across the lake and headed into a channel. The ease didn’t last long when we saw the old Land Rover with velvet orange and green striped interiors and no seat belts that was to take us to the resort. We’re not sure if the windows were down or missing. We drove through sand and dirt. Not that it made us any dirtier. It really didn’t even matter at that point and we all knew it. The apocalyptic feeling continued. In a frenzied state of constant risk management, I forgot to take pictures. However, I did get them on the return trip which are equally glorious. If this van had picked us up (we sat on milk crates and were locked in the back) I never would have jumped in! The entire trip I could hear my parents tell my seven year old self to never get in the back of a van.
When we arrived, the man drove us around the back of the resort. So we saw run down cars, old motor homes, rusted machines and equipment. It wasn’t what we expected at all. Our hearts sank a little. Remember we’ve been living in Orange County, California for the past few decades! It’s possible that our idea of a “resort” might be a little off. Then, we walked to the front.
ARRIVING AT VERMILLION VALLEY RESORT
Wait a second…there was an adorable little store. And a restaurant. We walked in and the nicest woman welcomed us and told us to grab a beer… for free! Such a small gesture, a free beer. Nonetheless, it made us proud and thankful for the acknowledgment of accomplishing the part we’d already done on the John Muir Trail.
VERMILLION VALLEY RESORT
Vermillion Valley Resort is located among the pine trees on the shores of Lake Edison in the John Muir Wilderness. The resort features a full service restaurant, grocery store, motel, tent cabins and a marina. In addition, Vermillion Valley Resort caters to John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail hikers offering resupply, Wi-Fi, laundry, showers, free campsite for the first two nights and a free beer upon arrival.
At this point, I will pause to dispense some advice to hikers: Stop at Vermillion Valley Resort, plan a resupply, pay for the water taxi ride (no matter how it looks) and take a zero day. Trust us! You’ll save about 5 miles of hiking (two more if the water in the lake is low). Other hikers walked around the lake in order to get there, lost half the day, had no water access and truly regretted it.
FIXING TENT POLE
We arrived, found an impressive variety of frosty beers and friendly staff who, upon hearing about our broken tent, took us to their workshop. The workshop was a giant A framed building filled with every tool we could imagine. We were surprised that the guy just smiled and said we could use whatever we needed and left. Best part, it was free! We completed the repairs and returned her tent to like new condition. After that, it was time to explore the rest of the camp.
VERMILLION VALLEY RESORT AMENITIES
Vermillion Valley Resort was an enchanting place. When you arrive you set up a tab for your purchases. After that, anytime you need anything the clerk, who remembered everyone by name, would simply add the beer to your tab. It was like walking into your own kitchen. The food at the restaurant was delicious. We feasted on wine, thick, juicy, steak and plump, fresh vegetables. Everyone who worked at Vermillion Valley Resort was incredibly nice. Most had hiked through and decided to stay or came back some seasons. They offered free food to hikers in exchange for work! The 8 minutes for $6.50 showers were great! In our wildest dreams we never thought a public shower could possibly be magical. We were wrong. They are at the Shangri-La of the Sierra.
THE SHANGRI-LA OF THE SIERRA’S
We ran into a lot of the people that we had met along the trail. A reunion of sorts, we became friends. It felt like home. Considering what a strange arrival we had, none of us want to leave. Ever. After daydreaming about it, Paul even looked into buying the place after returning home! There is a simplicity about life that only exists in the Shangri-La of the Sierra’s. Another great example friends, Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. It might just surprise you. We’ve been to a lot of “resorts” and none have taken a piece of our heart like this place