Hike long enough in the Sierras and you inevitably notice the FedEx and UPS carriers of the mountain trails. There are around 16 commercial outfitters or packers in the Sierras. Most often, you will see evidence of their passing littering the trail. Initially, you complain about the smell and of the doodles, but then you realize that it’s just part of the experience hiking in one of the most amazing places ever.
The pack or mule trains in the Sierra Nevada Mountains are the primary way of supplying the remote camps throughout the region. Thru-hikers on the JMT definitely appreciate the deliveries of their supplies to the Muir Trail Ranch. Without the mules, people would be exiting the trail for resupply or carrying much more weight.
These sure-footed creatures usually weigh in around 600-800 lbs and can carry around 20% of their body weight. The trains are as short as four mules or big as ten. They are fairly docile and move along at a steady pace of 3-5 mph. As you may know, all mules are sterile, the result of a male donkey and a female horse. The scientific name of the species is Equus asinus x Equus caballus (donkey x horse).
Our first encounter with pack mules was on the John Muir Trail. They were on their way to a High Sierra camp and were loaded down with supplies for the “glampers”. The train drivers are usually cowboy types and almost always friendly.
Trail etiquette: Always give the pack trains the right of way. When you see them coming, find a safe area to stand or on the uphill side if you are on a narrow part of the trail. Generally, they are not skittish, but it’s best to be quiet. If you take pics, ensure your flash is off!
Lessons learned: When getting your water refilled, do it on the upstream side of the trail. Once, I was taking a break next to a creek near the Palisades Glacier. A pack train passed by and several of the mules did their business as they passed over the stream. Ten minutes later a couple of hikers came by and one of them started drinking right out of the stream. I was actually filtering some water upstream. I mentioned that a pack train just came through and well, you know. The hiker continued to drink water and mentioned that she has been drinking out of the streams for over 20 years and hasn’t gotten sick yet. Well, if it wasn’t for her Swedish accent, I would have thought she was a direct descendant of John Muir. Even John would have gotten his water upstream. 🙂
These are awesome light-weight trekking poles:
Each year around Memorial day, an event named Bishop Mule Days Celebration http://www.muledays.org/ is held to commemorate the impact that the mules have had in the Sierras. The town of Bishop, located on Highway 395 in the eastern Sierras puts on a spectacular event that showcases these hard working equines. Looks like fun.
The pack trains of the Sierras. Yet another part of an awesome experience.
“Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) chapter 2.
I use this type of camera on the trail and am very pleased with it: Nikon D3300 DX-format DSLR Kit w/ 18-55mm DX VR II & 55-200mm DX VR II Zoom Lenses and Case
The hike today had been a long one. The John Muir Trail was all that we had expected and more. Imagine Ansel Adams pictures in living color.
Rounding Emerald Lake, I proceeded down toward Thousand Island Lake to look for a suitable camp. To the left, a solid granite landscape rose up but appeared to level out after a few hundred feet. It looked promising so I climbed it with my pack. Reaching the top, it was mostly rocky with a few areas where one could pitch a tent. It was almost a caldera like depression, but the car-sized boulders made it obvious that this area was formed by ancient glaciers.
Dropping my pack, I retreated down the face of a granite hill to see how my wife and brother were doing. The final push toward Thousand Island Lake had been a hard one and my brother was experiencing a bit of acute mountain sickness (AMS). We had to find a place to make camp soon.
I took out our JMT maps and discovered the area up the hill was off-limits. It wasn’t worth getting caught by the ranger, so I went back to retrieve my pack. Starting up the granite escarpment, I noticed something moving in the area where I had left my pack. Marmots! Those sneaky pests found my pack and were checking it out.
I yelled “Hey, get outta here!” and one of them perked up like a meerkat. Still far off, I looked for rocks to throw, but they were too big. Continuing to climb, it was difficult to scale the rock and yell. Kinda like chewing bubble gum and walking. Anyhow, I did find some rocks and started slinging them at the vermin but my shots all fell short. I think one of them snickered something to the other one and they didn’t budge.
It seemed like it took forever to reach my pack and I was worried now that they ripped it open trying to get to my food. Most of it was in a bear canister, but I did keep some snacks in the outer pockets for easy access. As I got to within 20 feet, the two burglars scattered and disappeared down a hole. Man, they’re like Orcs living underground.
Checking my pack out, everything was intact and I was able to meet my wife and brother back on the trail. We ended up camping on the north shore of the lake with Banner Peak as our backdrop.
The yellow-bellied marmot, a ground squirrel – a fat one mind you, is an omnivore that eats anything including stuff in your backpack if left unattended. They hibernate and are generally fattest in the fall. They can live up to 15 years and are nicknamed “whistle pigs” because of the sound they make when predators are near. To me, they look like groundhogs or beavers without the tail. Don’t let their cuteness fool you. They are sneaky and will steal your lunch.
Lesson learned: Never trust a marmot.
We use the Nikon 3300 series for most of our pics. An easy to use camera a step up from the entry-level model. Nikon D3300 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR with AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II Zoom Lens (Black)
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike. John Muir, The Yosemite (1912)
Thank you Abraham Lincoln for signing the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. This laid the foundation for others to preserve the beauty and sanctity of Yosemite National Park, which was established in 1872.
I think Yosemite is the crown jewel of the Sierras. It is a land of majesty, iconic mountains, with ancient forests, waterfalls and endless vistas. In Yosemite Valley one can experience the four seasons. In spring, the melting snow makes the water burst from the mountains with a roaring thunder that resonates in your bones. In summer, the ground floor of the valley is bustling with flowers and tourists seeking views of Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and the Mist Trail. Fall in the valley provides a glorious display of the deciduous flora in its fullness. Winter is a quieter time where you can take leisurely strolls while catching glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the distance.
John Muir captured the essence of this land through his writings. After visiting the park a couple of times, I read My First Summer in the Sierra and The Yosemite. Walking through Tuolumne Meadows, dipping my feet in the Merced River and experiencing the enveloping mist of Nevada Falls – this is where he walked. Awakening to the sun cresting behind Cathedral, drifting through the moraine fields near Lembert Dome and listening to the gurgling Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River are but a few memories that I will take with me. It is a respite that you will cherish long after you go home. While at work, my mind drifts to thepanorama of the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir and how it must have looked 100 years ago before they built the O’Shaughnessy Dam.
I see the Almighty’s handiwork in the granite sentinels surrounding the valley. They beckon me to venture higher and explore further the miles of trails. Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. – John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)
I am blessed to live within a day’s drive of Yosemite. If you ever make it to California, this should be the first stop on your list of destinations. Venture into the valley, wade in the Merced River and drive the Tioga Road where the views at Olmsted Point will make you want to linger. Stroll down to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and notice the Steller’s Jays as they follow you along the path, flitting from tree to tree. Savor the waving blue lupines hanging on the edge of a precipice near Yosemite Falls. Is it strange to fall in love with a place? Spend some time here and you may come away with a desire to write poetry. 🙂
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. – John Muir, Our National Parks, (1901)
I’m thankful for John Muir and the love he held for The Yosemite. He was a true visionary who inspired others to cherish and become good stewards of this national treasure. Come see for yourself and experience this gem.
Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.
John Muir – My First Summer in the Sierra
The last day was bittersweet. Ready to finish our week on the trail, we broke camp after a light breakfast. We filtered water at the creek last night and the flow was just a trickle, full of water bugs. The mosquitoes were relentless at the creek and we were glad that we didn’t camp near there. Generally, it’s not a great idea to pitch your tent near calm or stagnant water. 🙂
The John Muir trail guide was very helpful as it listed plenty of campsites – all were spot on. Today, as we made our way toward the Half Dome spur we met a large group on their way back to their base camp. Seems that the area we stayed in is often used by those who climb the dome. This group must have left camp around 4 in the morning to climb the rock. I’m sure Half Dome is a neat experience, it just wasn’t on our itinerary. Remember, as they say on the A.T. – “hike your own hike”.
As we passed the spur trail to Half Dome, we started seeing a lot of people. Alas, the splendor and solitude of the JMT started to fade. Within the next 30-45 minutes, we would come across more people than we had seen all week. It’s probably the main reason we don’t do the main attractions, too many people.
Continuing through Little Yosemite Valley, it seemed like a decent place to camp, but looked crowded. We have enjoyed the ability to pick out our own campsite on the JMT. The Merced River came up beside the trail and the smell of jasmine filled the air. Well, I thought it was jasmine, but they were probably fragrant mountain dogwoods with beautiful white flowers.
The Merced at this point was leveling out prior to the leap over Nevada Fall, and it was deceitfully calm. Clear with a slight green tint, this water has traveled many miles from its’ snowy origin. We passed the junction to Vernal Falls and the Mist Trail and emerged on solid granite. Dropping our packs, we removed our shoes and dipped our feet in the cool waters. Some adventurous souls were wading out into the river. We were probably two hundred yards from the precipice, but it still unnerved me to see people in the water. Almost every year, someone gets too close and is swept over the edge. On the other side of the Merced River, a foreign tourist had climbed down and was within 6 feet of the edge. This was surely a Darwin Award candidate so I took his picture.
We filtered some more water as the day hikers watched. One gentleman asked me if it was safe to drink. I explained that if it was filtered, yes. After a while, my brother and I ventured over and took some pics. The whirling cascade just puts you in awe of the power. John Muir captured this with eloquence:
The Nevada is white from its first appearance as it leaps out into the freedom of the air. At the head it presents a twisted appearance, by an overfolding of the current from striking on the side of its channel just before the first free out-bounding leap is made. About two thirds of the way down, the hurrying throng of comet-shaped masses glance on an inclined part of the face of the precipice and are beaten into yet whiter foam, greatly expanded, and sent bounding outward, making an indescribably glorious show, especially when the afternoon sunshine is pouring into it.
Ready to complete our journey, we got back on the trail and began the longest stretch to the valley floor below. I’m not sure why it seemed long, maybe because we were mentally finished. The stretch from Nevada to the valley was tough on our tired feet.
The scene at Vernal Fall bridge was chaotic. People, like ants milled about seemingly without direction. At least ants have a purpose. We just wanted to get through the throngs of people so we trudged on. I am sure that we looked haggard after a week on the trail, but it felt good to be near the end.
The asphalt sidewalk on the Mist Trail was another reminder that we were back in civilization. It felt awkward to walk on it with our poles clacking about. “Move over people, make a hole, real hikers coming through!” I wanted to say that, but my subconscious did not prevail.
At the end, the sign that lists the various trails was our last photo-op. While the sign showed 211 miles for the JMT, we actually only did our 68 mile section. It still felt good and I was proud of my wife and brother for completing it.
The shuttle ride from Happy Isles to the Visitor Center was tough. Throngs of people made their way on the shuttle and we were separated from my brother. We eventually found each other and enjoyed a good sandwich from the deli. The YARTS bus stop is across from the Visitor Center. In the summer, it leaves once daily at 5 p.m. from the valley and makes multiple stops on the way to Mammoth Lakes. For $18, it was a wonderful ride, comfortable with amazing scenery. Google YARTS and you will find the various schedules.
For the next few weeks, the memories of the trip would resurface and we would laugh about things that happened. It was an amazing journey and one that created great memories. I did push my brother and wife hard on this trip, but they persevered and made it through. It doesn’t take an athlete to do backcountry hiking. It takes a desire to explore and the ability to push yourself a bit beyond your limits.
YouTube slide show of our trip:
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)
The day at Lower Cathedral was most enjoyable. While my brother determined that there were no brook or rainbow trout in this part of the lake, we enjoyed watching the sky as clouds would form and morph into a variety of shapes. One could spend hours lying on their back watching the afternoon cumulus formations come and go.
Alas, we had a goal in mind. Another 20 or so miles to go between today and tomorrow. At 9,400 feet and heading into Yosemite Valley it is mostly downhill for us. A climb out of Cathedral and up to Long Meadow and then our toes would be in for a beating.
As we neared Upper Cathedral, a sign detoured us away from the meadow near the lake. Years of overuse and erosion had taken its’ toll on this area. Am pretty sure you can camp here, but the JMT was rerouted a quarter-half mile to the east.
A neat thing about hiking is that depending on the direction you are going, the views can be drastically different. Occasionally, we would look over our shoulders to catch a glimpse of where we have been. Cathedral Peak and the upper lake were prominent as we climbed Cathedral Pass. Farther to the north, we caught glimpses of Pettit Peak and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
We entered Long Meadow and were rewarded with a nice respite of flatness and views of the surrounding peaks. Man, the vistas just never stop here. If you only have 2-3 days, I would recommend the area between Cathedral and Sunrise Camp. If you have 4-5 days, a loop including Merced and Vogelsang High Sierra Camp looks awesome.
A last climb and we would see the rest of the Cathedral Range including Vogelsang and Amelia Earhart Peaks. We saw our first of what would be many mule trains around the Columbia Finger. As they passed, we quietly watched and snapped some pics. Most of the mules today were en route to one of the three local High Sierra camps including Sunrise, Merced and Vogelsang. These beasts of burden carried between 150-200 lbs of cargo. Sure footed, they followed their leader at a steady pace. It’s cool that this is still the primary means of resupply for the remote camps.
As we made our way south, the view of the Cathedral Range opened up.
We stopped for lunch near Sunrise Camp and filtered some water. During this backcountry trip, we typically carried two liters since there was plenty of water. As we passed through the meadow near Sunrise, we began a gradual descent through a burned area and saw Half Dome for the first time. Entering a thickly wooded area, the downhill was steeper and the views diminished. Several southbound hikers asked about available water. It’s important to have maps that show the various creeks and streams. While water was generally abundant, there were many areas where the vernal streams were dry.
Using an excerpt from the JMT guide that showed potential campsites, I started scanning for a suitable location. I saw movement to my right and initially thought that it was another deer. It was big and moving slowly. Hey, a bear! It was about 75-100 ft. away and rooting around a log. Glancing over its’ shoulder at us, the bruin ignored us and continued to dig. It appeared to be an old brown bear around 300 lbs. We snapped a few photos and moved on.
Within 10 minutes, we located a site to camp with a view of Half Dome. This was a busy area, mainly used by campers as a staging area for climbing the rock. Most of the other campers were out of sight, but you could hear them as well as see the smoke from various campfires.
This had been a long day and we had one last dinner on the trail. We started a small fire and enjoyed the peacefulness.
Sadly, tomorrow would be the end of our seven-day trek. I was getting used to this camping stuff, but looked forward to a real shower. Well, that and maybe a cheeseburger.
Links to a slide show of the hike:
“Going to the mountains is going home.”
― John Muir
On July 4th, we decided to take a pseudo-zero day and hike up to Lower Cathedral Lake where we would relax. We passed by the Tuolumne Grill in the a.m. and got a wonderful bacon, egg and cheese biscuit. A quick shuttle to the Cathedral trailhead and we began the relatively short 3.5 mile hike to Lower Cathedral Lake. Short yes, easy no. (I left out the part where I almost took out a tourist’ eye on the shuttle with my hiking pole.) Lesson learned: When getting on the shuttles/buses, wear your pack, don’t try to carry it.
This is probably the most popular trail with day hikers in the Tuolumne area. As you near the lake you enter into a meadow and are in the shadow of Cathedral Peak. There are several creeks feeding the lake. Most day hikers stop on the eastern shore; we would continue on the north side of the lake and head west to the far end. We were rewarded with a lakefront campsite and plenty of solitude. Tip – get there early in the day for your choice of sites.
After setting up our camp and eating lunch, we did chores. My brother took one of his waterproof clothing bags and filtered some lake water. Oila, a washing machine! Dump the dirty water at least 100 ft. away from the lake and fill the bag with clean filtered water for rinsing. It was labor intensive, but the clothes came out smelling clean. We used Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable Magic Soap and it was great. I’ve used the peppermint soap in the past which can be used for bathing too. A clothesline between two dead trees and we were set. One biohazard Mary discovered was that the bees liked the aroma of the lavender soap on the clothes while they dried. I had some insect bite/sting paste in my 1st aid kit that does wonders for those stings.
At the far end of Lower Cathedral Lake, the water is warmer in the shallows of the shore. No fish in this lake that we could see. We ventured to the western edge where the lake’s outlet is and viewed Tenaya Lake 1,300 ft. below. The flows from Cathedral are one of many that make their way to the glacier made Tenaya. The Yosemite Indians actually called it Pywiack, meaning shining rock. The white man renamed it Tenaya after the Indian chief who fled here from soldiers one spring.
We would enjoy the remainder of our day at Lower Cathedral. Our Independence Day celebration concluded with fireworks presented by God. The sky to the west of the lake was most spectacular. I highly recommend spending the night here. Bring mosquito head nets and some bug repellant, as it can get a bit buggy.
Tomorrow, we are determined to put in some mileage. Tonight, we would sleep soundly in the quiet surroundings of another lake.
Links to a slide show of the hike:
John says it best: ….Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 438.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
― John Muir
This day should have been called “The Race to Tuolumne”. It was July 3rd and we were trying to make it to the Tuolumne post office to retrieve our resupply package before it closed at 4. While a stop in Tuolumne Meadows would be nice, we didn’t want to spend the holiday on the 4th waiting around for a package.
Tuolumne Meadows is a great place to hang out, but a zero day around the Cathedral Lakes would be ideal. Getting our usual late start, we were on the trail and looking forward to the flat paths of Lyell Canyon. We had to drop around 500 ft. and enjoyed the relative shade of the pines as we followed the river.
We noticed a large deer grazing in the distance. It was a pregnant doe who kept one eye on us, but wasn’t very concerned. These creatures have few predators in Yosemite.
As the terrain flattened out, we picked up the pace and the sun was beaming down. It was hot as the path meandered in and out of the forest. To our left, Amelia Earhart Peak loomed over us. We would see this ridge from another angle as the trail would do a horseshoe after Tuolumne. Distant rumblings of early afternoon thunderstorms were behind and to the west of us. We passed an area where day hikers from Tuolumne had gathered around a nice area on the river. The number of people increased as we closed in on Tioga Road.
As we neared Tuolumne, the thunder was more frequent and louder. A fairly close crack of thunder prompted us to spread out a bit as we picked up the pace. Occasional large splatters of rain filtered down through the pines. We crossed a couple of foot-bridges where the Lyell Fork neared the main branch of the Tuolumne River. We emerged in the parking lot near the lodge and started walking down the road. It was strange to be in civilization after days on the trail.
A local worker from the Tuolumne Meadows store graciously gave us a ride to the post office. As we pulled into the parking area, the scene was chaotic. Tourists and hikers were like ants swarming around the store. It took a few minutes to absorb the busy surroundings. Near the road was a collection of picnic tables where thru-hikers lounged around. A family sat at one of the tables listening to a PCT hiker expound on his trail life. It was like storytime at the preschool. Other hikers were going through their resupply packages.
We would get some refreshments and pick up our packages at the window. The post office here was a small room with a window on the outside of the store. The clerk was friendly and politely asked if we could open our packages over where the thru-hikers were. We obliged, and noticed the grill. The thought of cheeseburgers and fries was too much. We gave in to our cravings and enjoyed the greasy goodness. Mmmmm.
We made our way to the backpackers camp. It’s first come first serve and $5 per camper. We found out how many hikers are moochers and “stealth camp”. You know the ones who are too cheap to pay the fee. Bathrooms are at a premium here – only one within walking distance of the camp and it was uber-busy. Bring a flashlight, no electricity in these rustic restrooms.
At 8:00 p.m. a ranger hosts a campfire in the amphitheater near the backpacker’s camp. Ranger Sally provided an excellent presentation of Yosemite history and we learned a lot about owls. We really enjoyed hanging out and laughing at other campers who participated in the campfire.
Even though Tuolumne Meadows was much lower in altitude than our previous campsites, it was the coolest night yet. Temps dipped into the 40’s as we snuggled deep in our sleeping bags. Tomorrow, we would head up to Cathedral and enjoy some downtime.
For a slideshow of the part 1 of the hike, you can go here:
First half slideshow of our hike:
The continuing story of our northbound JMT section hike…..
By day 3, we all had our trail legs. You know what I mean, the steadiness that you get after a few days of stepping on, around and over stuff. Backpacks have a way of changing your center of gravity. Bend over a bit too far to smell those lupines and you’ll see how blue they really are. The night at Thousand Island Lake was amazing. The sound of the distant snow-fed waterfall created a peaceful nights’ rest.
At Thousand Island, it was a bit difficult to find a private place to do your business. Sorry for bringing it up, but it’s just one of those things that you have to do. One could write an entire blog about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that sometimes you have to venture out to find that secluded spot and hope that the nearest trail is out of view. It is arguably one of the most challenging yet natural chores in the backcountry. Mosquitoes present a significant challenge with this, so you may need to apply some repellant where the “sun don’t shine”. The cathole shovel, tp and antiseptic wipes are essential gear. However, in a pinch so are a stick, leaves and some handfuls of dirt. Let’s leave it at that.
We admired the view from our campsite and did the usual tasks. Filtering water, making breakfast, tearing down camp and repacking those packs. The last task was usually the biggest pain. Packing around those bear canisters is like emptying a sardine can and then stuffing them back in. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake was steady and hot. The views over our shoulders of Banner Peak were ever-changing and dramatic. As we rounded a ledge, a fat marmot sat perched on a rock and it looked like a good place to stop. This is their territory and the scat is enough to prove it. Pausing occasionally to catch our breath, we would hunch over to shift the weight of the pack and lean on our poles. It was a funny sight for sure. Island Pass was like something out of a movie. Little archipelagos of grass seemingly floated around us. Birds were abundant here as were so many varieties of flowers. This area made me regret that we had to cover 10 miles today.
We descended into an area near Wough Lake and heard rumblings of thunderstorms. The skies to the north were menacing and I kept an eye on the direction it was moving. We discussed what our plan would be for inclement weather, especially if caught out in the open. Things like avoiding meadows, tall trees and shallow caves if lightning is nearby. Lightning is a strange and dangerous occurrence and you should have a plan whether you are alone or hiking in a group. In a group, it’s a good idea to spread out so a stray bolt doesn’t take everyone out. If possible, find a clump of medium-sized trees for shelter. The tallest and shortest trees are not advisable. The position for protection is simple. Sit on your backpack or sleeping pad with your two feet touching the ground or pad. Don’t lay or stand up if possible. If in a tent, do the same and don’t touch your tent frame. Enough of the morbidity, you can do some research on hiking and lightning. It is “enlightening”.
We would cross several streams over single logs perched 6-8 feet above rushing streams and creeks. It requires a sense of balance with a pack and if you are unsteady should consider having a mate take your pack across for you. Something about a skinny log, sights and sounds of roaring water can unnerve almost anyone.
We passed through a canyon and ran into a large group from Tennessee. They proceeded to tell us how they were pummeled by hail and rain for 1 1/2 hours. I must say, God protected our little group because we avoided bad weather all week. Either way, be prepared. We started the steady climb up Donahue Pass and a 80% cloud cover made it much more comfortable as we were totally exposed. The trail is well-defined and there are plenty of boulders to take breaks on. We ran across a couple of SoBo’s (southbounders) who provided upcoming trail conditions. We did the same. It’s very common to briefly stop and chat to discuss weather, trail conditions and experiences. People who are out here most often share our appreciation for the outdoors and generally are friendly with good attitudes. While I still scratch my head when we come across solo female hikers, they are safer out here than in their urban neighborhoods.
We would also run across a PCT thru-hiker who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to walk 30 miles today. Man, I thought we were doing good at 10 miles per day.
Reaching the Pass, we would tread across the last remnants of snow fields and cross into Yosemite territory.
The trail becomes a bit hard to follow on the north side of Donahue as you cross more snow. Some cairns indicated the general direction.
We quickly descended into the beginnings of Lyell Canyon. The landscape, ever-changing was devoid of all but the hardiest of vegetation. The hiking poles made the descent easier as we snaked our way down. Forty five minutes later, we reached a wide creek and realized that we would have to ford it. Two hundred feet downstream was a waterfall and cascade, so no crossing there. We put on our water shoes and stepped in the cold creek that would become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Here, underneath the snow of Donahue Pass, the water was a chili 40-45 degrees.
I crossed without incident, my wife mentioned that her feet were getting numb within 30-45 seconds. When fording water, it’s best to unbuckle your pack in case you fall since it can absorb water and drag you under. It took a bit to warm up from the creek as I imagined what it would have been like if there had been a heavy snow year.
We would cross countless tributaries to this creek as we ventured further in the valley. Some streams were cutting across the trail on a ledge that was five feet wide. Rock hopping was common and we definitely got better at it. We would also cross the creek twice more before finding a campsite. At the last crossing, we did it in our hiking shoes. My shoes, while excellent on the trail, were not waterproof.
We made camp around 100 ft. from the water in a beautiful stand of pines within earshot of the cascades. The sun was setting quickly as we ended a tough day on the trail. Dinner was spicy beef stew. We slept like hibernating bears. Tomorrow, July 3rd would be a race to Tuolumne Post Office to retrieve our supplies.
Link to YouTube slideshow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfTmobpnlmg
If you’ve ever camped near rushing water you may understand that it’s like taking a sleeping pill. In the Sierras near Mammoth, the San Joaquin River is small as rivers go, but grows as it makes its way west. It is born at Thousand Island Lake where we would camp on day 2. As the San Joaquin descends into Devils Postpile, the cascades provide some character to the little river branch before it provides vital nourishment to the California Central Valley.
We were awakened by the dawn light as it filtered through the trees in the campground. Breakfast would be scrambled eggs and bacon. Food is a priority for me in the backcountry. I found out about these crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon from Backpackers magazine. The eggs are real, in powdered form and when mixed with water – come to life when heat is applied. These aren’t the old-school powdered eggs, they are the real deal. The bacon is real and just reheated. Put two checks in the protein box for today. Only thing missing was toast, but that’s ok. We would have to get our carbs from the pita bread and snack bars.
We packed up our site and headed toward the Devils Postpile Monument less than a half mile up the trail. Afterward, we would hit the JMT and head north. We would be one of the odd 10% of JMT hikers that go north. It just worked out that way mainly for logistics. Devils Postpile is an amazing display of a geologic formation of lava that cooled in long geometric columns. Definitely worth a side visit. We would run into a family that was hiking the JMT from north to south and they proceeded to tell us about the onslaught of mosquitos. A couple of the younger women had 50 or 60 bites – on their arms. Hmmm, either bug repellant wasn’t applied, or these are mosquitos from Hades. They also told us how a bear tore into their non-food bags that were hanging from trees in Lyell Canyon. I wasn’t fazed by these tales of woe, thanked them for the info and looked forward to meeting the challenge (and our dementors) head on.
We made our way up the hill several hundred yards before I realized we were going south. Oops, the morning sun was on my left – that’s not right. I flipped my map around, apologized and asked everyone if they were warmed up yet. I felt like Dr Lazarus in the movie Galaxy Quest, when he was reading his tricorder thingy backwards. We found the JMT junction and crossed the San Joaquin on a nice footbridge. My brother and I brought our DSLR cameras on this trip, the extra 2 pounds worth it since we knew about the vistas that lay ahead. The trail wasted no time increasing elevation as we left the river and the mid-morning heat was on. We peeled off a layer and unzipped the legs off our pants. A bit of sunscreen and bug repellant and we were on our way. Much of this area was devastated by a freak windstorm last year and required much trail maintenance to clear the blow-downs. I was impressed at the amount of work done to restore the trail. Kudos to the Forest Service employees and their army of volunteers.
Our packs were heavy with our full complement of food. We would carry 2 liters of water and a spare .75 liter bottle. Prior to hitting the trail, we would tank up – drinking as much as was comfortable. Hydration is everything when you hike, especially when your body is working hard at altitude with a heavy load. Pulling my Tom Harrison map out, I would occasionally check our position and compare the various landmarks. Eventually, the JMT and PCT split and we would go left to follow the JMT toward a land of lakes.
The trail was fairly steep at 400-500 ft per mile and came with an array of SUDS (senseless up-downs). In a hikers’ mind, you should go up or down, not both. We could hear the cascades of the river below and see waterfalls in the distance. We cinched the shoulder harnesses and load balancers to bring the packs closer to our shoulders as the incline seemed relentless. With a full pack, comfort is not really an option. You shift the load from hips to shoulders and move the pain points around. General rule is uphill-bring the load in close to your shoulders, downhill-shift it to your hips. Always a good idea to play around with waist-shoulder-sternum-load balancer straps as you hike. All good quality backpacks have those adjustments. It takes practice to adjust those while holding hiking poles, sipping water and keeping your eye on the trail.
As the GPS altimeter continued to click up, I glanced again at the maps. The Harrison maps have great detail, but man it was hard to make out those contour lines. As we approached 10,000 ft later in the day, we realized that we should look for a camp near a water source. That wouldn’t be too hard since there was water everywhere. I knew enough to avoid ponds since their still waters are just breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I had cut out select pages of the John Muir Trail: The essential guide to hiking America’s most famous trail, which listed elevation profiles and campsite coördinates along the JMT. It is an invaluable guide and highly recommended.
The guide recommended an area near the Rosalie Lake outlet and it was spot on. There was evidence of a previous camp close by a stream. Too bad we couldn’t make use of the fire ring since there is a moratorium on campfires in the Inyo National Forest.
The campsite was full of those big black carpenter ants. They are pretty harmless from what I remember unless you get close to their colony. They are persistent and get into everything that isn’t sealed up. We learned to co-exist with these critters. One thing, you can’t be afraid of bugs in the backcountry. In the Sierras, most are harmless and bug repellant with 33% Deet works ok. Be careful with the 100% Deet, it melts most plastics. Another thing worth mentioning is that prior to our trip I sprayed our outer garments with Permethrin. I’ve used this on the A.T. and it works great as most bugs will bounce off your clothes-especially ticks. It also is effective for up to six washings. It can be applied to your tent or tarp too.
Dinner was a Mountain Home Chicken & Mashed Potatoes. It’s a good one, four stars. We would wind down our day chatting about how hard the first day was. I told everyone how well they did on the trail and that it would eventually get easier. It didn’t get easier until the last day…
The mosquitos were definitely in charge here, but our headnets and long sleeves/pants kept them at bay. As the night cooled and the breeze picked up, their numbers diminished. The heat of the day was gone and the coolness of Rosalie Lake wafted over our campsite. Temps would drop into the low 50’s at 9,500 ft. The lake outlet was a babbling brook which made it so easy to sleep. If at all possible, seek out those streams, they are nature’s sleep machine.
Late at night, we would see flashes of light through our tent. Why do strange things happen late at night? I was concerned about a forest fire, so I unzipped the tent to watch the sky. To the south – southeast, it appeared to be fireworks. It was only June 30th, but some town must have gotten an early start. Maybe there was something going on in Mammoth Lakes.
Gear we recommend:
shoes/boots –Five Ten Men’s Camp Four Hiking Shoe
hiking pants – Columbia Men’s Silver Ridge Cargo Short
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
The big day was here. Anyone who has ever hiked in the Sierras can tell you the allure of these mountains. The vistas are like fuel for the soul. This trip was planned about six months ago. We decided to do a south-north section hike of the JMT starting in the Mammoth Lakes area and ending up in Yosemite Valley. 90% of hikers do the north-south route and finish at Mt. Whitney. While that fourteener is on the list, this trip was meant to enjoy a seven-day trek up the legendary trail.
My friend obtained the permit through the recreation.gov website ahead of time. He couldn’t make it, but listed me as an alternate group leader which made picking up the permit easier. I will not go into detail, but if you don’t need to climb Whitney or Half Dome, obtaining the permit is very easy online. Overall, the fee for four people online was $26, which included a processing fee. At the Wilderness Centers or ranger stations, it is around $5 per person. There is no guarantee of trail availability for walk-ins, so plan accordingly.
Since my friend could not make it, I asked my trusty hiking partner – aka my wife to go. She reluctantly said yes! We also asked my older brother who said that it was on his bucket list. Early morning, June 29th we left suburban San Diego heading toward Mammoth Lakes. Today was a hot one, with forecasts putting the temps between 100-110 degrees in the Owens Valley area. Mammoth was projected to be in the 90’s. Whew!
We picked up our permit at the Mammoth Visitor Center and spoiled ourselves with a burger at a local tourist trap before heading to Mammoth Lakes Inn to catch the Reds Meadow Shuttle. The shuttle was $7 and would drop us at our choice of campgrounds. We chose to stay at Devils PostPile Campground. At $14, it was a good bargain and had nice sites located close to the San Joaquin River. We pitched our tents and settled in for a leisurely night before our first hiking day. The camp has bathrooms, potable water, picnic tables and fire rings. This was luxury camping to us compared to the rest of the week. You can tent or RV camp.
We would try out our first dehydrated dinner at the camp. It was an Alpineaire Black Bart Chili. Yummm. We hung out by the river, my brother trying his hand at fly fishing. Discussing tomorrow’s itinerary, we would rest well with the sound of the cascading San Joaquin River 100 ft. away.
Temps are forecast to be in the 80’s tomorrow. Hopefully, as we climb out the temps will drop between 3-5 degrees for each 1,000 ft. Oh well, at least there is plenty of water up here.
Next: Section Hike of the JMT – Day 1
After much preparation, our section hike of the JMT commenced. Our plan was to do a 60+ mile section from south-north. We would start around Devils Postpile and finish in Yosemite Valley. There are a lot of logistics that go into an extended backcountry trip. From clothing, food, transportation – the options are numerous.
How much will it cost? It will vary widely depending on your choices for transportation, gear and food. Don’t go cheap on essential hiking gear. You get what you pay for. The $25 tent is not a good idea for a High Sierra backcountry trip.
It started with choosing a time of year to do it. In the Sierras, the previous winter has a lot of impact on trail conditions. This year was a low snow year, so the streams were not very high. Since there was less snow, that usually means less standing water so mosquitos should not be as bad. Well, that’s debatable. To some, any mosquitos are bad. Ensure that you don’t have problems fording streams or walking across logs over rushing water. Late June/early July worked for us. I hear late August/early September is a good time.
Next choice was the distance to hike. This is where you need to know what your limits are. Can you hike 8-10 miles per day with a full pack at high altitude in 80 degree temps? I can tell you as an avid day hiker, there is a lot of difference between hiking 10 miles with a daypack and with a 40 lb. pack. It’s not pleasant to do a forced march just to make your mileage.
Clothing was another choice. What to wear? Best advice I can give is to check blogs and user groups to see what others are doing. Yahoo has a great JMT user group with relevant info. Due to a forecast of high temps, we would take synthetic short and long sleeve shirts, convertible pants and rain/wind jackets. Still, conditions in the Sierras vary widely, so an extra layer or two is a good idea. Those light weight hiking shoes may not provide enough support on a multi-day hike with a full pack. Test it out first.
Food was next. Dehydrated meals are the easiest and they’ve come a long way. Test some out ahead of time and read the reviews for each. There is some amazing innovation in the area of crystallized eggs and pre-cooked bacon. Ensure they you have plenty of snacks like energy bars, trail mix, beef sticks and fruits like apples. My wife found healthy alternatives in the form of grass fed beef sticks and even some gluten free snacks. It’s amazing how many calories you can burn in 6-8 hours of hiking, so do the math. Bear canisters are mandatory in most areas on the JMT, so plan to rent or bring your own.
Transportation. Since we were doing a section hike, we chose to leave our car in Mammoth Lakes, catch a shuttle to the trail and for the return leg, catch public transportation (YARTS) back to Mammoth. It ended up working out great. Have a backup plan in case you miss your ride.
Research and planning was everything on this trip which helped make it successful. I learned so much reading others’ blogs and experiences.
NEXT: John Muir Trail Section Hike – Day 0
I use a Nikon 3000 series camera and have really been pleased with it. It is easy to use and takes awesome pictures. It’s durable and has survived many hiking and camping trips. Nikon D3200 24.2 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm Non-VR DX Zoom Lenses Bundle
When my friend asked me to go camping in Yosemite this spring, it took about two seconds to say yes. Each season in this place promises to provide a different perspective on the ever-changing landscape. This was an opportunity to hang out with him and his family and do a few day hikes in the valley. With the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, the campsites were full. These things fill up quickly with all variety of campers. From ultralight tents like mine, to tent-condos and vintage RVs, you will see them all. Not one to enjoy being around throngs of people, I found the car camping experience in the Upper Pines Campground to be very decent. Most people are good neighbors and obey the multitude of rules. Other than the 0730 trash trucks, it was fairly peaceful.
Pollen is abundant in the valley and the conifers were producing it in vast amounts. Hay fever sufferers, beware – get your shots and/or bring your antihistamines with you. Diligence with your food and toiletries is required while camping here as the vermin are quite adept at the snatch and grab, especially the ravens and squirrels. My friends watched as a squirrel disappeared under a neighbors truck with the doors open; the rascal emerged with food in a matter of seconds. He went right for the boxed graham crackers, found the bag, eaten through the box and extracted his morsels before they knew what hit them. I love animals, but thought back to what I would have done as a kid in this campground. A sling shot would have been awesome.
At night, the muted roar of the Merced River beckoned me as I drifted off to sleep that first night. Soon, I would venture out with my friends on a trek to Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail. Having done this cardio extravaganza in the fall of 2010, I was excited to see the volume of water during the spring snow melt. I read in the Backpackers magazine that 90% of hikers hike only 10% of the trails in Yosemite. Well, I think that 99% of the visitors to Yosemite hang out in the valley and then go to Vernal Falls. Crowds aside, the steady climb up to Vernal is rewarded with the drenching mist probably similar to Niagara. The granite steps would give a stair-master competition. The one thing that kept me going was the humility of having an old person pass me up on the steps. At the top, the volume of water is near flood stage compared to the previous fall flow that I witnessed.
The trail continued up to Nevada where you cross the Merced and I was in awe of the speed of the water as it rushed through a shallow granite track into a 90 degree curve. The sheer power of the current is amazing. You get a respite from the incline and then start a steep ascent over the manmade steps. This section of the trail is a testament to the trail builders over the years. The huge slabs are cut and fit together like a puzzle.
Nevada Falls was busy, but there was plenty of room to spread out. This cascade seems even more powerful than Vernal because the water is funneled through a crevice that is maybe 6-8 ft. across. The roar and subsequent plunge is impressive. Glacier Point fills the western vista and hawks lazily glided around the nearby Liberty Cap. Even with all the people, it was peaceful to lay back and take it all in.
The walk down the John Muir Trail is always a treat. As you progress down, you get quick showers from above and obtain postcard views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls. This is a shared trail and we encountered a couple of riders on a mule and quarter horse. It can get slippery as the sand covered rocks keep you alert as you try to prevent rolling your ankles. We returned via the JMT to the Mist Trail down to the valley floor.
At just under 7 miles, this loop is a good workout, full of killer views. Due to the crowds in the spring, I would recommend a late start – like after 1 or 2 in the afternoon. The risk with an afternoon hike is the occasional thunderstorm. Most people start up around 0900. Half Dome bound hikers pass by this way and it’s worth the stop.
God certainly knew what he was doing when he created this place. It’s best enjoyed with family and friends.