Tuolumne Meadows to Red's Meadow (35.9 PCT/JMT Miles)
Hillair and Michael unleashed a brekkie feast fit for thru-hikers, determined to make sure that none of us starved on this morning. Courses included grilled quesadillas, sautéed kale, eggs with fresh tomatoes and feta, avocado toast, and fresh fruit, a wonderfully generous meal that made it hard to pull away from this "town" stop like so many others. To top it off, they sent all three of us with apples and avocados for the trail. Reluctantly, we packed up our gear as the trail was calling. and Hillair, Michael, and Lola walked us to the end of the campground where we said our goodbyes and headed south on the JMT/PCT.
The wide open expanse of Lyell Canyon stretched out ahead of us and we marveled at the change in the weather. From the brisk cold of Sonora Pass and dusting of snow near Dorothy Lake with cold nights and cool days since then, we suddenly seemed to be in an Indian Summer. It was warm, even bordering on hot, with bluebird skies and a gentle cool breeze blowing northward from the mountains at the end of the canyon. The relatively flat terrain in the early part of the canyon made for easy miles and it wasn't long before we were starting the climb up to the first major bench at the far end. Along the way, we saw several causal backpackers, day hikers, and even a few climbers all returning to Tuloumne at the end of their weekend excursions. We also passed a few sunburnt JMT thru-hikers nearing the end of their 220+ mile journey from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite Valley, who reported perfect weather the entire time (when pressed, they admitted that it did storm the day they were indoors at their resupply). The initial climb was gradual, followed by a long series of switchbacks before we reached the wooden footbridge over the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. From here it was another gradual climb to the second bench where we had great views of Mt. Lyell, Mt. McClure, and Donahue Peak as we neared Donahue Pass which marks the southern boundary of Yosemite. Crossing the Lyell Fork again, using boulders this time, we made our way up a granite ledge to the final bench and had stunning views to the north from whence we came and could now clearly see the pass. We encountered a few more JMT hikers and then found ourselves alone on the trail to tackle the last part of the climb. Donahue Pass at 11,000' is the highest elevation we have been at so far on the PCT and it also marked our exit from Yosemite into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I was a bit incredulous that we crossed the whole of Yosemite National Park in a little over 4 days.
Departing Yosemite, the vista was incredible, with mountains as far as the eye could see. To our left were the spires of Koip Ridge and far ahead and to the right were Banner Peak and the Ritter Range. We dropped down into a high alpine basin of small meadows and numerous streams studded with Whitebark pines. The trail crossed several of these streams using a few rudimentary log bridges and one small but perfectly constructed bridge of granite (seriously impressive trail crew work) as we made our way towards Island Pass and our destination for the night, Thousand Island Lake. Along the way we saw several JMTers including a foursome of guys on Day 4 of their JMT hike who had set up a large campsite and were already settled in for the day. They called out hellos and invited us to join them for dinner, saying they had plenty of food (they also seemed to have plenty of gear, as their area looked like they were on expedition). We thanked them and laughed, saying they wouldn't be giving away food after another week or so on-trail, and declined as we had a few more miles to go even on this short day of hiking. Seeing these hikers and being on the JMT again made me realize the differences between that hike and our current saga.
Huckleberry and I hiked the JMT with our friend Tonya 9 years ago. On that trip we hiked an average of ~11 miles per day (a typical JMT schedule), and that always felt like a full day of hiking. Needless to say, our current trail fitness level is dramatically different, and we are hiking towards a different goal. Even on our current schedule of "Sierra leisure" we are covering twice that distance nearly every day. It was a little surreal to leave Tuolumne Meadows after 10am and camp at Thousand Island Lake that night, then recall that it had taken us a full 2 days to cover that same distance on our previous "thru-hike". The other huge contrast I have noticed is that on our JMT hike our days were more about needing to cover a certain distance to cover the 220 miles in 20-21 days, divided into two long stretches between resupply. We divided the distance roughly equally into the number of days. While there was a little variation due to wanting to camp just before a pass, we didn't generally choose specific locations as goals for campsites based on their attributes other than their mile point along the trail. I was much less aware of my surroundings other than general appreciation for beautiful nature. Nearly a decade later I have spent so much more time in these mountains that many peaks, passes, lakes, and canyons feel like old friends that I recognize as we walk by, and we are selecting our campsites because they are specific places we want to stay overnight, within a broad range of daily hiking mileage. Through this stretch of the PCT especially but also all along the trail, I am much more aware of our geography. Now I see a mountain, know (or find out) its name, and use its changing location to chart our progress through the landscape. My familiarity with the Sierra has taken years to hone, and it makes me all the more happy to be back in our home range. I do find hat while I visually recognize so many lakes and mountains, I am still working on learning and remembering plenty of names. Still, there is something magical about being back in a familiar environment as part of this bigger journey.
We reached Thousand Island Lake and found a campsite on one of the numerous peninsulas on the north shore by headlamp. We could see a few other lights around the large lake, but had our spot to ourselves. It was cold while we set up tents and cooked dinner, but we still sat outside on rocks to eat so we could take in the night sky filled with stars. The Milky Way looked as it was emanating from the top of iconic Banner Peak, and if not for the cold and the need to hike tomorrow we would have stayed out much longer. There was no wind overnight and we woke up on Day 83 to find our sleeping bags stiff with frozen condensation. The inside of Cookie's single-wall tent was completely covered in a thin layer of ice. Our pot, left upside down on a rock to drain, was frozen to the granite. Even the 2L reservoir that I'd left out next to the tent was partially frozen! With the cold temperature it took a little while to get started, but the three of us motivated one another and not long after we started hiking we had direct sunlight to start thawing us out. From Thousand Island Lake, we took the JMT alternate to the official PCT route and passed several beautiful lakes in rapid succession. There were the jewel lakes: Emerald was the smallest, Ruby which ironically enough had a brilliant greenish-blue color, and Garnet, the real show-stopper of the bunch. Garnet is a huge like rivaling Thousand Island in size, also studded with islands and surrounded by mountains. On the descent down to Garnet Lake, we also got our first glimpse of the towering Minarets. The last of our lakes in this stretch was Shadow Lake, nestled deep in a narrow cirque with steep walls. Nine years ago the long series of switchbacks the trail takes to exit the cirque south of this lake had felt nearly impossible, while this time around it was a brief climb that we barely noticed. I'll chalk up that difference to trail legs, good conversation, or both.
After that final climb, we passed by Rosalie Lake then stopped at smaller Gladys Lake for a lunch that included the precious avocados and apples from Hillair and Michael. The day had remained warm, and we would have liked to lounge in the sun even longer but knowing we would be seeing them at Red's Meadow and wanting to maximize our time together, we continued on the trail. We took another alt route for a brief scenic detour to Devil's Postpile National Monument and because it lead directly to the campground where we would meet. Devil's Postpile is one of the best-preserved and most easily accessed example of basaltic columns on the earth. Under the right conditions cooling basaltic lava cracks and forms hexagonal columns since that shape is inherently very stable. These columns were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, then uncovered and polished in an ice age about 20,000 years back. Surrounded by aspens in their yellow fall colors it was a particularly scenic day at the postpile. From there it was a short hike over to Red's Meadow Campground where Hillair and Michael had settled into the best spot, next to a creek and visible from where we walked in on the road. They so enjoyed being part of our adventure and had already driven this far, so they decided to meet up with us at Red's Meadow. This allowed Huckleberry & I to split up our longest resupply stretch, gave Cookie access to an easy ride into Mammoth, and meant we all got to enjoy their fabulous company once more before heading south to Kearsarge Pass.
In contrast to our late Tuolumne arrival with no way to let them know of our progress, we were right on target for our planned 4pm rendezvous at Red's Meadow and had good cell service earlier in the day so had been in text contact to know what site they had selected. Since Cookie needed to go to Mammoth for resupply and a planned zero, we all headed into town to have pizza as an afternoon snack. After 4.5 days of hiking together, it was hard to say good-bye when we dropped Cookie off at her hostel, but hope we will reconnect further down the trail. She loved hanging out with Hillair and Michael, and has put them in touch with her parents as they have many shared interests and she thinks they might enjoy knowing each other. We headed back to the campground, with a brief stop at the resort for showers. Huckleberry and I hadn't had access to showers since Brad & Vicki's place 5 days back, and those 5 minutes of warm water were pure heaven. For a "light" second dinner, Hillair and Michael made spicy nachos with ahi tuna, radishes, and avocado along with salad, bread, and more ice cream. Michael even turned the freezer down so that the ice cream would be similar to soft serve in consistency! Huckleberry and I were especially touched by their generosity of time and spirit. It was clear that they combed through our blog posts for clues to what we might like, as nearly every food item we have talked about made an appearance in some part of the feast(s) they prepared for us. We are lucky to have such great and supportive friends! We went to sleep that night to dream of heading back into our beloved Sierra as we continue our southward journey.
On one final note, I'd like to give a shout out to two outdoor companies whose gear we depend on. Early in our trip we had some rainfly attachment issues with our beloved and previously trustworthy tent, a North Face Mica FL-2. A friend who works at the company put us in touch with the right person and The North Face quickly replacing our tent with a new rent of the same (older) model that we had been using. Unfortunately we soon had the very same problem with our replacement tent. Our contact at The North Face researched the issue and found it related to a manufacturing defect, and went to great lengths to get us the new, updated model of the tent while we are hiking and before we entered the Sierra. There are several improvements in the re-design and we have pitched it nearly every night with the rainfly, no problems. Thanks Ann, Dan, and The North Face! My current backpack, a Mountain Hardware model that we've had for a few seasons and picked up this year in Truckee, has an aluminum internal frame that snapped somewhere between Sonora and Yosemite. Another friend who used to work for the company was able to put me in touch with the right people to expedite a warranty claim. Within the <24hrs we were at Red's Meadow with solid cell service, I had a replacement pack on the way to our next resupply point and in the meantime made a field repair (with duct tape and tent stakes) that will hopefully keep it stable enough to wear until my new pack arrives. Many thanks to Cynthia, Annabel, Topher, and Mountain Hardwear! We love to support retailers that have local operations, stand behind their products, and offer exceptional customer support. This is very much appreciated, especially on a long thru-hike where our gear is used daily and is integral to our safety and comfort.