Friday, September 5, 2008

JMT - Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne

After the day of delay dealing with Caroline’s bear-torn door, we woke up bright and early in the backpackers’ camp on Saturday to get started on our hike. It was about a mile hike to the Happy Isles trailhead, where we would officially start our hike. Of course, when we passed a sign pointing us to the JMT, we had to stop for a photo.

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A few minutes later, we reached the trailhead! Our journey had begun!

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Zero miles down, 211 to go! We were on our way!

It was still early, but we were excited to put the bear attack behind us and get started hiking. Our first resupply in Tuolomne Meadows was only about 24 miles from the trailhead. When we started, we were carrying just enough food to get us through that first 1.5 days which was how long we figured it’d take us to get to Tuolumne. We also weren’t carrying a bear-resistant canister. We’d left one in our resupply at Tuolumne, and tonight we would camp at the Sunrise backpackers’ camp, 13 miles from the trailhead, where there are permanent bear-resistant lockers, similar to those in the overnight parking lots. We knew we should enjoy our light packs (Sarah’s weighed just over 20 lbs. and Brian’s weighed a little over 25 lbs.), since they’d be getting much heavier after we resupplied.

The trail followed the Merced River for quite a while, which was peaceful, easy hiking. After a mile, we crossed the Merced to a water spigot, where we refilled our water bottles, taking advantage of not having to filter water. Then the trail started to climb, and a little more than an hour from the trailhead, we got our first views of Half Dome.

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Here’s Half Dome with Mt. Broderick in front of it:

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Continuing to climb the switchbacks, we arrived at a view of Nevada Fall.

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We hiked up and around the top of the falls, stopping right above the falls to enjoy the view looking down.

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We also got good views of Liberty Cap.

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After that, we continued hiking up to Little Yosemite Valley, the backcountry camp used most commonly as a base for climbing Half Dome by those who don’t want to do the 16-mile hike with 4800 feet of elevation gain all in one day. The most impressive thing there was the outhouse, a little solar-powered log cabin.

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Climbing Half Dome is probably the most popular side trip from the JMT. It’s only two miles and about 1800 feet of elevation gain from the trail junction to the top, but we had a long day planned already, with 13 miles and about 6000 feet of elevation gain to get to our planned campsite. The hordes of weekend day hikers heading up the trail with us, a number of whom looked like they rarely got more exercise than walking from the TV to the fridge, also made the climb seem less attractive. As soon as the Half Dome junction split off from the JMT, it was like night and day – before, we were packed in like sardines with hundreds of people all making a pilgrimage to the top of Half Dome, and now we were all alone.

As we hiked a little higher, we got a good view looking back at Half Dome. For the last stretch to the top, hikers are climbing a sheer granite face, hanging on to a steel cable for dear life. Furthermore, there’s only one of these cables, so those going up have to carefully maneuver around those descending and vice versa. We were glad we’d bypassed the side trip – it just didn’t look like much fun.

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On our way up the trail, though, we’d talked to a couple of guys who had hiked up to the top at night. Tonight would be a full moon, so maybe those guys had the right idea – hike by near-full-moon light to avoid the crowds, enjoy the view from Half Dome at sunrise, and then head down before the weekend day hikers mob the place.

Anyway, we continued hiking, enjoying the peace and quiet, and stopped at Sunrise Creek, the first water we’d seen in a while, to fill our water bottles. There, for the first time, we met a couple of other hikers who were planning to thru-hike the JMT. They looked pretty worn-out already – their packs were huge, and they were carrying three bear canisters between them. We were feeling pretty good at the time, and after seeing them, we were glad to have left a resupply package at Tuolomne.

By afternoon, the skies had begun to cloud up. We’d heard some thunder and gotten a few drops of rain the night before in the backpackers’ camp, so now we feared that tonight would be the night when it really let loose.

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We gamely pressed onward and met these two birds at the side of the trail.

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As we continued to hike, we got more great mountain views under ominous skies. The dark sky didn’t seem to be getting any worse, but it made for pretty views.

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And then, after hiking downhill a little ways, we were at Long Meadow, where we would find the Sunrise Camp.

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We’d made it through our first day on the trail! It was the most difficult day, too, in terms of combined mileage and elevation, although we knew that in the future we’d be carrying much heavier packs. We hiked up into the camping area where we discovered that a few other people knew about this place as well. Most of the campsites were occupied, and the few open ones were located really close to other people. We ventured a little farther afield and found a few flat, sandy patches in the granite beside the main tree-covered camping area. These sandy patches would make fine campsites, and although they were more exposed to the weather, the benefit was that they offered fantastic views across the meadow.

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We debated whether it was a good idea to set up in a somewhat exposed area, given the threatening skies, but we ultimately decided that the skies had looked threatening for hours without getting any worse, and besides, it was around 5:30 now, so the typical late-afternoon Sierra storms should have already started by now. So we started setting up the tent.

As soon as we got the tent out of its bag, it started raining. We hurriedly set it up and got our gear safely under the rainfly. And then the thunder started. Sarah went back into the forest for cover while Brian waited it out in the tent. After a few pretty thrilling lightning strikes that were no more than half a mile away, it ended and a beautiful rainbow arced over the meadow. We made dinner up on the granite above our campsite, enjoying the magical evening light on the mountains across the meadow.

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The light changed from golden to reddish as the sun set.

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And a half hour later, the full moon was rising over the mountains.

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What an amazing evening!

When it’s dark around 8:00 at night, it’s hard to stay up very late, so by 6:00 AM, we were out of bed, even though the sun hadn’t risen yet.

Here’s our tent overlooking the meadow in the early morning;

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And here’s Brian, posing for a picture as he makes our first of many oatmeal breakfasts. We packed oatmeal for every morning, but Sarah spiced it up with powdered milk and brown sugar and a variety of nuts and dried fruit.

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Soon, the sky began to light up a bit and we were on our way, starting Day 2 of our hike. We hiked through Long Meadow for quite a ways – it really is long, and beautiful. The meadow was also home to dozens of “picket pins”, Belding ground squirrels, that were scurrying about then standing up like prairie dogs. The Columbia Finger loomed large ahead of us.

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More great mountain views:

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Cathedral Peak is perhaps the most recognizable of the area’s peaks, and we’d be seeing it as we hiked for miles.

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We hiked up and over Cathedral Pass, the first pass of our trip and at 9700’, the lowest of the passes. Then it was all downhill to Tuolumne. Shortly after the pass, we reached the Cathedral Lakes.

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And we took more photos of the photogenic Cathedral Peak from the other side of the pass.

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Continuing along, we got great views of Fairview Dome.

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And then, after a lot of downhill through forest, we reached the road past Tuolomne Meadows! By this point, we were really craving cheeseburgers, but based on our maps, it seemed to make more sense to tour the meadows first and then head to the Tuolomne store and grill for burgers, beer, and ice cream.

Although it was not surprisingly overrun with people, the meadow was really pretty. Lembert Dome stood out at the east end:

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The Tuolumne River flows through the meadow.

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The Soda Springs area in the meadow was one of John Muir’s favorite places to hang out when he was in the park. It’s also where he came up with the idea of protecting Yosemite as a national park.

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A little log structure was built there long ago to protect some of the geothermal features from stock.

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Inside, the water bubbles today just like it did over a century ago when Muir came to relax.

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After our tour of the meadow, we rejoined the road and hiked a short ways to the store. There was a long line at the grill, so we decided to pick up our resupply package and buy some ice cream and beer first. After devouring our ice cream, Brian got in line at the grill while Sarah sorted supplies and talked to an older couple who were also hiking the John Muir Trail, but in sections. They had started this year, for their 40th wedding anniversary, and their plan was to hike a section a year, finishing by summiting Mt. Whitney for their 45th. How neat! They had just finished the first section from Happy Isles to Tuolomne, just like we had, and were amazed that we’d done it in just 1.5 days. Apparently, they’d taken closer to a week, sleeping out in hammocks (fortunately, the thunderstorm had missed them) and enjoying a leisurely pace. They sounded like they’d had a great time and couldn’t wait for the next section next year.

Eventually, Brian came back with two fantastic cheeseburgers. We think they would have been good cheeseburgers even if we hadn’t just hiked 24 miles in 1.5 days, but we can’t be sure. After hiking 24 miles, though, they were unbelievable. Our burgers-and-ice-cream feast finished, we decided there was still plenty of time left to hike a few more miles down the trail, and we headed out.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Great to hear from you. So jealous...