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Over the July 4th weekend, Bobbi, Dusty, and I drove up to Yosemite. The road over the Tioga Pass was finally open for the summer despite late snow in the Sierras only days before. We wanted to take the opportunity, which we knew to be fleeting, to visit Toulumne Meadows, at 7000 feet, the high Sierra part of the park. Plus we could take advantage of the Tioga Pass road shortcut to visit Mono Lake with its odd tufa formations. Tufas are towers of carbonate rock formed when fresh spring water bubbles up through the saline water of the lake. The lake is breeding ground for brine shrimp which in turn attract migrating birds. The birds home in on the sea of blue on a desert landscape with the snow capped mountains of Yosemite towering just to the west. It's kinda purty.
After camping out one night, I decided a good use of my time would be to stretch my legs on one of the more challenging overnight hikes in the park. Some salient junctures on the route, starting from Toulumne Meadows:
Rush Creek Junction
1000 Island Lake
I have always wanted to make a hike in the area, and the walk from Toulumne Meadows over the Donohoe Pass at 11,000 feet and down to the alpine lakes on the Mammoth side would now be feasible. We camped out our first night, but I would need our tent, so Bobbi and Dusty installed themselves (not complaining) in the Mammoth ski lodge near where I would emerge and drove me back up to Toulumne Meadows inside Yosemite Park. The driving in that area was spectacular. There were lakes with snow-capped mountains right off the road where we could picnic in the grass and forget the proximity of traffic. On the way in, there was an excellent vista with the back side of half-dome, always a striking sight. At one of the lakes we considered inflating our boat, but after numerous mosquito bites, decided not to linger.
I packed as lightly as possible: my down sleeping bag, our tent, some polypro clothing and a jacket, extra socks and underwear, a toothbrush, a guide to the part of the John Muir trail I'd be following, some food stuffed in a bear-proof canister, and about 4 liters of water, since I didn't have a filter. I'm no good at guessing weight, but the pack wasn't all that heavy.
Start from Toulumne Meadows, heading up Lyell Canyon
With Bobbi and Dusty in tow, I left the hiking permit kiosk at Toulumne Meadows at about 1:30. After about 15-20 minutes, we reached a spot known as Two Bridges, for the footbridges over the creek that rushed under them. That spot was charming, and we sat in the shade of a tree and had lunch while admiring the pristine meadow. Then we continued walking a level path through the forest, crossing rustic bridges at the river fords.
At about 3:00 Bobbi and Dusty turned back, and a few minutes later I encountered a brief uphill bit and entered Lyell Canyon, distinguishable from the meadow walk by the mountains rising on either side. By 3:30 I was in the part where the Lyell Fork snaked through meadows, surrounded on 4 sides (I looked) by snowy peaks. The clear water cut a winding path through the rich green of the meadows, and with the snowy peaks nearby, and the silence of nature against the constant murmur of the water, the clear skies overhead, tete rase.
I forget the times and am not sure of the campgrounds passed, but the walking was superb and fairly level, with the river always at hand in the green and flowered meadows. I passed the occasional angler, but was one of only a dozen people in the canyon that day. I stopped to rest where I felt compelled to linger; for example, where the river became shallow and crashed for a hundred meters over a sloping gradient. I began to climb through the lower Lyell campgrounds, straining now against the weight of my pack. I wished I had a filter and could drink at will, but I was used to measuring out my water in the austere heat of Oman. The trail was easy to follow, marked in places with stone steps inviting comparison with the ancient stepped trails of Oman. Why is it, I wondered, that we take our accomplishments for granted and marvel at how men with donkeys accomplish essentially the same thing? I rose higher, passing meadows which invited camping, yet pushing on. It was only 7:00, two hours of daylight still to go, and the pass was only 12 miles into a 28-mile walk. I had been alone for some time now and would see no one else that day. Eventually I crossed the footbridge "halfway" to upper Lyell camp, which would have been about 9000 ft. Tiring slogs up switchback trails ensued leaving me to rest gasping frequently, and the mosquitoes were quite intense, forcing me into long sleeves, with constant replenishments of repellent, which fortunately I had a lot of. I hadn't bought it for the hike. I think it was mostly left over from Oman.
At around 8:00 I entered a meadow area with a creek rushing through, quite near the crest of the mountains. I tried to recognize Upper Lyell camp from photos and finally came on the spot recognizable from the placid tarn which stood at the base of the glacier, with ice floating in it, just before it went gurgling on its way to become Lyell Fork. It is always interesting to be a the place where a river forms from permanent ice clinging to a mountain, and that is where I camped. My spot was near a bog with still water but for some reason, few mosquitoes. I set up my tent, boiled water for tea and drank my fill, ate the rest of my sandwich and some fruit, and went to bed. Stars shone through the tent all night long. Despite my appreciation of nature and wildlife, I was relieved that no bears appeared. That prospect was my only concern as I enjoyed the solitude, hard to find on July 4 in California, but achievable in the wilderness at 10,000 ft.
Early Morning Hike to Donohoe Pass across the Glacier
In the morning, I followed what appeared to be sections of a footpath up a rocky slope alongside the glacier. Snow covered what seemed to me to be the trail. After ascending a couple hundred feet I saw the trail on the opposite canyon wall, and had to descend, wasting energy and an hour, so that I only really got under way at 8:00. I startled two stags from their drinking as I gingerly forded the pool, which started out as a river, and started the 1000 foot climb up to Lyell glacier, a very impressive mass of striated permanent snow. It was there that I met two others coming down, the only two others I would see until reaching Island Pass nearer the Mammoth area. The two men looked odd, covered with gloves and ear-flaps against the mosquitoes, each carrying two walking sticks for balance at stream crossings, and with typical California manners, they said nothing as they passed. With great views of the winding Lyell in the meadowed canyon below, but walking in snowy rocky waste, I continued tediously up to Donohoe Pass at 11,000 ft. The trail was often obliterated by snow, and I crossed two glaciers. Occasionally I had trouble finding the way, but just as often the muddy footsteps on crisp snow of the two other walkers guided me.
At Donohoe pass signs marked the border with Yosemite and Ansel Adams Wilderness. Signs pointed the way to Rush Creek Junction and Island Pass, both destinations on my route, but the trail was again obscured by a dense snowpack. I opted to extrapolate the trail going up and ended on a ridge with no way down. I dumped my pack and walked high, and from there ascertained that the only way off the crest was down in the valley. From the summit I could see the slashed ski runs on Mammoth Mountain, near where I would end up. I also identified the mountaintop known, obviously, as Two Teats, which was in the Mammoth area. Immediately to my right, I could see the close at hand the jagged crags of summits Bobbi and I had seen from Vista Point near the Mammoth resort area the day before.
I lowered myself down the boulders to the valley, slipping occasionally in deep snow (getting my clothes stained red from whatever it was that grew on the snow). Guessing the way, I would walk onto the trail and follow it until it again became covered in snow. I walked over the snow and searched about until I came on the trail again. This pattern repeated itself all down the valley. I couldn't see the trail once I lost it in the snow cover unless I just happened to come on it further on. It was by now after 10:00.
The walking was beautiful. Birds chirped in the green pines that grew stunted from altitude at the edge of picturesque ponds and lakes. Between the lakes was a constant stream of water, sometimes inundating the trail and forcing detours, and creating bog that gave rise to swarms of mosquitoes that perched constantly on my clothing. Armed with repellent, I found them to be a minor irritant. The water and sunlight made the grass a rich green, and the snow on the surrounding peaks was a constant stimulant.
Rush Creek Junction
But only halfway through my hike, I was getting tired and beginning to wonder if I would make my appointment with Bobbi by dark that evening. The route was at least generally downhill. At around noon I reached Rush Creek Junction, a point of the river aptly named. Next day, at Mono Lake, I was interested to see where Rush Creek ended at the lake. But at that point the trail started its long and difficult haul up to Island Pass. Midway through a long stretch of uphill walking, I stopped in the shade of a tree on an otherwise hot trail and applied more insect repellent so I could rest. I had left the lakes and water in the rivers and meandering creeks. Resuming my trek, I continued up several false summits, meeting a pair of hikers, more friendly than the ones before, who were camping at 1000 Islands and who told me I'd made it to Island Pass. It was 1:00, so I stopped at a pair of lakes which caught my fancy and had tea and tuna and 3-bean salad in a windy meadow, snow and green grass and water all around.
1000 Island Lake
On my descent to 1000 Island Lake, a beautiful island-studded body of water right beneath a snowy Banner Peak (what a name for a salad dressing!). I continued on past the Pacific Crest Trail junction to little Emerald Lake, but was put off by the snow obliterating the trail at that point and the delays this might cause if I lost my way. Behind me was a 20-horese pack train heading for Garnet Lake, but they were going slower than I was, and unless I wanted another night out, it would do me no good to follow them (not to mention the mess). Besides, the lake area was filling up with holiday campers who were trickling in off the easier PCT, and I decided if I was to make it back that day I had better take the PCT home, and this turned out to be the right decision given my time frame. So by 3:00 I was heading down the PCT. I learned from hikers coming up that it was 9 miles from there to Agnew Meadows (12 from Toulumne to Donohoe and 16 from Donohoe to Agnew Meadows). I did the last nine miles in 4 hours. It was not all downhill as the hiking books suggested. There were some very serious uphill bits including a 500 ft. switchback to skirt a side-canyon. The trail was not well signposted but it was obviously PCT. Near the end of my trek I encountered people out exercising their llamas, and they told me I was almost done. The last part of my trail was down a switchback on a mountainside that dropped me in the Agnew Meadows camping area at 6:45. I had just missed the last shuttle to the lodge where Bobbi and Dusty were staying, but Bobbi, who was to come for me if I wasn't on the last paid way out, reached the shuttle stop at around 7:15. The only inconvenience to me on this denouement to a well-executed expedition was that the mosquitoes were worse at the shuttle stop than at anywhere else on the hike.
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