If I had to pick a fave section of the John Muir Trail, I think this would be it. Southbound hikers have a battle ahead of them. From Palisade Creek, one has no choice but to go up (ignoring, of course, the descent into Tehipite Valley, the escape from which is its own set of switchback horrors.) Southbound hikers have an special bonus ahead of them as well. The Golden Staircase awaits. After a mellow ascent along Palisade Creek to Deer Meadow (the actual "meadow" part of which I have yet to see) it begins in earnest. Our strategy was to hit the staircase first thing in the morning, which meant camping as close to its base as we could. Yes, it's intense, but it's also intricate and wonderful. Easy to see why it was the last segment of the trail to be constructed. The valley sprawls downward with more and more grandeur as you near the top, and the views (on a clear day) of Devil's Crag are marvelous. Once at the top of the main staircase there's still some uphill to tackle, but in comparison, it's fairly mild. Soon, the trail drops you off at Lower Palisade Lake. Make time to have a lingering lunch here. It's about the most gorgeous and serene lake on the trail (my opinion) and you'll want to loiter a bit. Next stop, Mather. Actually, our tactic headed southbound was to camp in the marvelous area above Upper Palisade Lake, where a tributary stream tumbles across the trail and there is an abundance of fine, secluded campsites. From there, Mather was a stab of effort that we tackled the next morning. Dropping over dramatic Mather Pass the trail descends into terrain that is as wide and open as the Palisade Basin is narrow. Upper Basin might be my favorite stretch on the trail--hundreds of tiny lakes, wide open spaces, cool meadows, relative seclusion and spectacular views.
From the South Fork King's River the climb to Mather Pass is gentle and scenic. It takes about six miles to climb the 2000 feet or so to the crest of the pass, the steepest part of which is that last circling assault up Mather's southern face. If you're aiming for Palisade Creek (or even Deer Meadow) by day's end, prepare for a long, knee-jam descent once you crest the pass. You may not notice the pain, however. The views as you descend into the Palisade Basin are extraordinary. Continuing down the basin you pass Upper Palisade Lake (well above it) and then beautiful Lower Palisade Lake, where rest and a snack are imperative. The approach to the fabled Golden Staircase is mellow, and even produces a bit of suspense. You just know that at any second the trail's gonna get steep. When it does, it's a thrill. The drop down towards the valley below is severe and convoluted, while never actually being very dangerous (although on our southbound trip in 2002, the trail was blocked by a massive hunk of granite, requiring a jelly-kneed talus detour.) After the tumbling descent of the Staircase, the trail levels off and trickles down alongside Palisade Creek to meet the Middle Fork of the Kings River.