PCT Photo Journal, Part 4: Sierra Peaks and Valleys

In this 289 mile stretch from Red’s Meadow to Sierra City, Yosemite National Park and the neighboring Sonora Pass kicks my backside, I surpass 1000 miles, hike through the lovely Desolation and Granite Chief Wilderness areas and encounter some oddballs near Mammoth Lakes and Donner Pass.

I leave Mammoth Lakes late in the morning with a limited resupply of just bread, cheese and tea, as well as a few other snack items.  I’m giving up on cooking for now, or at least until my appetite returns.  I deem this the ‘John Muir diet’, as he famously only ate bread and tea while he was out exploring the wilderness.  Fitting, as I’m about to enter Yosemite.
It’s Father’s Day weekend, and the bus is packed on the way back up towards Red’s Meadow.  Some tourists are interested in my pack, which is sitting in a luggage bin near where they’re sitting.  They start touching it, pulling on the straps and pretending to lift it in a joking way, as if it’s far too heavy for a human to carry.  Then they fiddle with my ice axe, at which point I snap at them to stop.
Most of the bus spills out at the Devil’s Postpile National Monument, and the rest get off at Red’s Meadow with me.  When I’m off the bus, a group surrounds and then asks me weird questions.
“Aren’t you scared of bears?  Don’t you carry a gun?  What does your mother think of you doing this?”
Maybe I need to staple a FAQ to my shirt.  I manage to escape, and hit up the cafe again for at burger.  Back on the trail, my irritation level is high.  There are loads of tourists everywhere, and they’re all in my way.  They’re taking up the entire trail, wandering aimlessly and in a daze.  I try to be polite and let them know when I’m passing, but they freeze up in the middle of the path and stare at me as if I’m Sasquatch himself.
Once I’m past the side trails for Devil’s Postpile, the crowds disappear completely and I’m in solitude once again.  I enter the Ansel Adams Wilderness just past Agnew Meadows, and do a long, exposed climb.  I want to reach Thousand Island Lake to make camp, but I’m too exhausted to go that far and settle on a spot in the woods.
I stop for water in the morning at Thousand Island Lake and I’m glad I stopped where I did the night before; the campsites are still covered by snow.  I hike up through more tedious, wet conditions towards island pass, and it’s slow going.  At the top of the pass, I stop for some breakfast, where a cheeky marmot stalks my meal.
I continue marching through knee-deep, soggy snow and creeks, passing by more JMT hikers going in the opposite direction.  Plagues of mosquitoes and sunburn add to my misery.
I reach Donahue Pass by late morning, and enter Yosemite National Park.  I glissade down the north side of the pass, and then rely on my GPS to route find my way the rest of the way down.  Once I found the trail again, it was flooded over with several inches of snow melt.  I was thoroughly soaked through now, wading down the trail and descending towards Lyell Canyon.
(Donahue Pass, entering Yosemite National Park)
The meadow in Lyell Canyon was also flooded over in most parts, so I found no relief.  It was still lovely scenery though, and a fox darting across the trail brought me temporary joy.  A JMT hiker warned me about a treacherous creek crossing ahead, and I was dispirited to find that he was right.  I hiked upstream a bit and found a series of fallen trees over the creek, but it was still a sketchy crossing.  I took it slow, and managed to do it without too much excitement.
I tried to hustle the rest of the way to Tuolumne Meadows, trying to get to the store before it closed (I may have had beer on my mind).  Unfortunately, I was 10 minutes too late.  I find the backpacker camp in the campground, which is overrun with tourists.  Even the backpacker campsite is oddly full of people who are not backpackers, this being obvious by their wheeling luggage and massive 4-room tents.  A nice thru-hiker called Star lets me camp with her, and a Belgian man named Louie asks to join us.
I find out that the reason for the Chaos in Yosemite is because of a visit from President Obama and the First Family the next day.  A wilderness ranger comes around later, clearing out the non-backpackers and scolding them, and I feel secretly delighted by it.
Louie wants to hike with me in the morning, so we set off together.  He’s just gotten on the trail and his legs are a bit green, but I still enjoy his company.  We climb and descend quite a bit, and it’s a relatively tough day.
We stop for an early lunch along the Tuolumne River, where the scenery is truly inspiring.
By midday, it’s fairly hot and very buggy.  We follow the raging river for some time, crossing meadows and dipping in and out of forest.
By evening, Louie is quite tired, but I tell him that I need to accomplish at least 20 miles for the day.  He’s hesitant to keep going once we reach a lake around the 15 mile mark.  We take a break so we can have a quick swim, and he ultimately decides to press on with me.  We do another rough climb through the woods, and then descend dramatically to another meadow.  We hike on a few more miles, where we have a challenging creek ford, and then we find a large campsite just on the other side.  Louie builds a campfire and then goes about doing some yoga.  I watch him contort into different poses, then give him the trail name ‘Stretch’ because of this.



It’s a chilly morning, and we start the day off with some difficulty.  The recent large amount of snow melt has made the trail difficult, and we lose it under bog-like conditions once we ford a creek.  I use my GPS to guide us, but we’re unsure which side of the creek to be on.  Naturally, we discover we are on the wrong side, and have a somewhat tricky crossing over a deep ravine on a log jam.
On our way up to Benson Pass, we hit loads of snow.  It’s slow going, and the other side of the pass proves to be worse.  We spend the morning postholing and route finding, and eventually stop at Smedburg Lake for an early lunch.  It’s obvious that today is going to be long and with little progress.  Stretch has a swim is the lake, and I soak up some sun on a nearby rock.
(The descent from Benson Pass)
Further on, we lose the trail again under several feet of snow.  Stretch takes the lead, following a set of old footprints.  The footprints seem to be wandering aimlessly, so I check my GPS and get us back heading in the right direction.  We glissade a bit to make progress where we can, but the snow travel is difficult.
We reach a lake by early evening, and stuff our faces with snacks.
The trail still continues be arduous ahead, and we watch as another hiker ahead of us falls from a narrow snow-covered section of trail into a turbulent creek below.  Thankfully, he’s able to pull himself to safety.
We decide to make camp after only 18 miles completed, in a snow free area near a creek.  Stretch is hurting and tired from the long days, and wants to do shorter mileage from here on out.  I need to keep up my mileage, so we decide to go on solo from there.
I set off in the morning on my own, fording a forceful creek first thing.  I stop for breakfast on a large rock outcropping, watching a search and rescue helicopter in the distance.  Swarms of mosquitoes drive me off before I can finish.  I ford several more creeks throughout the day, some chest deep.  It’s a warm enough day though, and I dry out quickly.
I walk through flooded over alpine meadows, and pass by massive Dorothy lake in the evening.  I’m tired and consider camping, but the 1000 mile marker is just a few miles ahead and I can’t resist pushing it.  I leave Yosemite National Park over a snow-covered pass, and then dip back down into some forest.  There’s loads of slimy ponds throughout the woods, and I find myself in mosquito hell once again.



I get to the 1000 mile marker, which is situated right in the middle of the trail and put my mosquito net on over my head.  I snap a quick pic and run away from the little blood sucking she-demons that are singing their songs of blood thirst in my ear.
I make camp alone in the woods, and hide out in my tent from the bugs while I eat some dinner.  When I go to stash my bear canister before bed, I notice a large pile of human shit in my camp, decorated with a bouquet of toilet paper.  Are you serious?  How did I not notice this before I pitched my tent a what the fuck is wrong with people?  Who are these morons that do this?  I go to bed grumpy.



I enter the Emigrant Wilderness, and encounter more snow.  Flex is ahead of me, and signals with his ice axe that I should be using my own on the bit ahead.  I grab my axe from my pack, and watch as he struggles with his footing across some snow-covered scree and some scary steps.  I have a go at it, and it’s ridiculously scary.  I’m shaking as I find my footing, and on the verge of vomiting.  I finally reach a stable area, and glissade safely down.

It’s cool and breezy the next morning, which allows me to break camp without much bother from the mosquitoes.  I contemplate burying the shit pile, but it’s too disgusting and I can’t do it.  Sorry folks, I tried.
I stop right before the ascent towards Sonora Pass to eat a quick breakfast, and meet a few more thru-hikers: Flex, and two Canadians called Claw Hammer and B-Line.  They take off ahead of me, and I start the treacherous climb up to the ridge.  The route is covered in snow the entire way up, and only ceases when I get to the epic ridge line.
The views are spectacular from the top, and I stop for another break to take it all in.







I enter the Emigrant Wilderness, and encounter more snow.  Flex is ahead of me, and signals with his ice axe that I should be using my own on the bit ahead.  I grab my axe from my pack, and watch as he struggles with his footing across some snow-covered scree and some scary steps.  I have a go at it, and it’s ridiculously scary.  I’m shaking as I find my footing, and on the verge of vomiting.  I finally reach a stable area, and glissade safely down.
At the highway crossing for Sonora Pass, a man is there handing out impromptu trail magic as we get there.  He hands me a beer and I sit in the dirt.  A woman is currently being rescued from Sonora Pass and I’m so happy to be alive (and also drinking a beer).  The others hitch down to Kennedy Meadows North, but I decide to keep going despite feeling slightly traumatized from my Sonora Pass experience.
The climb away from the highway is difficult and I regret my decision to keep going once I reach the top: there’s another horrible snow crossing, across a steep mountainside via sloppy, half melted snow steps.  The fall from the mountain will surely be deadly, with jagged rocks at the bottom.  I want to cry.
I get across, taking each step slowly to make certain I have good footing.  On the other side, however, I lose the trail under the snow.  I’m tired, and my GPS is making little sense to me at that moment.  Two hikers appear, Cookie and Green Legs, and let me follow them.  We descend down through the snow and at a snail’s pace, eventually finding the trail as it follows a large creek.  We make camp next to the creek in a clearing, and enjoy a warm campfire before bed.
I take off solo in the morning, not wanting to feel like a third wheel to Cookie and Green Legs.  I was feeling pretty grumpy, having endured the the biggest ass-kicking of my life from both Yosemite and Sonora Pass.  I was feeling both emotionally and physically taxed, and was in need of a break.  I was looking forward to some time off in South Lake Tahoe, where I had a motel reservation for the 4th of July festivities.  (photo: Sierra Snow Flowers)
I hit more snow throughout the day as I hiked through the woods, much to my annoyance.  I’m so sick of the snow I want to scream.
I get up and around Tyron Peak late in the afternoon and then down into Noble Canyon by evening.  My knees are aching from the descent on loose scree, and I’m ready to call it a day soon.  I ford through several chilly, somewhat hair-raising creeks before finding a good spot to camp overlooking the canyon.  I’m all alone, but I don’t mind.
I’m only a few miles from Highway 4 at Ebbett’s Pass, and I’m dangerously low on food.  My appetite has made a sudden return, and it’s back in full force.  I’m ahead of schedule, so I decide to try to hitch into Markleeville to grab some food to get me through to South Lake Tahoe.  I reach the highway early in the morning, after a dreadful climb up some switchbacks from where I camped.



There’s a trail angel there, called Chipmunk, who offers to make me eggs, toast and beans for breakfast.  I happily accept.  Cookie and Green Legs are there too, along with several others.   Chipmunk warns me that the hitch down the one lane, rarely used highway can be next to impossible, but I give it go after I’m done eating.  To the surprise of everyone, I manage to flag down the first car that I see and they take me all the way into town.
There’s no place to camp in Markleeville, but I get a good deal on a room at the lodge in town.  The small store is charming and surprisingly well stocked for thru-hikers, so I have no problem getting what I need for the trail as well as dinner for the night.


The next morning, I eat some huevos rancheros from the cafe next door, and then try to hitch back to the trail.  It’s a bit challenging, as not a lot of people are coming and going through the tiny town.  Finally, a climber in a camper van picks me up.  But he only takes me about halfway, leaving me at a remote junction along the highway.  Several cars pass me by, giving me odd looks as if saying “dream big you dirty vagrant”.  A nice woman gives me a lift after some time, and takes me to the pass.  Chipmunk is still there, serving breakfast to hungry hikers.  He gives me a cup of fresh coffee and I hang in the shade a bit before heading out.
The day is already hot and sticky, and I follow gentle rambling trail through the hills.  I look for a campsite near a paved road in the evening, but the mosquitoes drive me out before I can even pitch my tent.  I get back on the trail for a while, climbing away from the road until I find an open, rocky outcropping overlooking a valley and the mountains


I get up early, ready to make it to Carson Pass and take some time off from the trail in South Lake Tahoe.  I pass some fascinating volcanic formations off in the distance and then begin my climb up the snow covered Elephant’s Back.  The climb is surprisingly easy in comparison to my recent unnerving Sierra pass experiences.  At the top of the saddle I take a quick break, then make my way down to Carson Pass.


The trail is busy on my way down, with day hikers and sunburned tourists.  When I get to the ranger cabin along the highway, some volunteers are there spoiling thru-hikers with trail magic.  A woman gives me some chilled grapes and a turkey wrap, and it’s so amazing.
After my surprise lunch, I attempt to hitch with two other guys into town.  The highway is busy with tourists though, who aren’t inclined to pick up hikers.  They usually have cars full to the roof with kids, dogs and stuff, and they generally don’t know that we’re hikers and mistake us for drifters.
The guys give up after some time and head back towards the cabin.  As soon as they do, however, a convertible Mercedes pulls over and it’s cigar smoking driver tells me to hop in.  The guys run back up and ask about a ride before we take off, and the driver tells them to pile in the back.
I get dropped off at the Lake of the Sky outdoor shop in town, where I have a box waiting for me.  After I get my box, I begin a merciless walk three miles across town to my awaiting motel room.
South Lake Tahoe is an assault on my senses; it’s hot and busy, loud with traffic and stinks of pollution.  There are a million things going on all at once around me, and my head feels like it’s going to explode.  I stop at a Denny’s and get a sandwich for lunch, and suck down about ten orange sodas.  The city is stifling and I don’t want to go back out in it. (photo: Lake Tahoe, seen from a casino buffet room)
The 4th of July is a complete shit show, with drunken frat-boy types drinking excessively and making trouble.  Thankfully, my time there is still well spent thanks to some awesome family members who payed me a visit.  I go to a casino buffet one evening and eat an offensive amount of food and then relax in my air-conditioned room watching HBO. (Photo: I dip an eclair in my ice cream because I can)
I get back to the trail after 6 days off, returning without the weight of my bear canister, ice axe and microspikes.  I also now have a new pair of shoes, which I am unsure of.  On the climb out of Carson Pass, my feet are already aching. (photo: old kicks vs. new kicks)
A few miles in, I pass through open meadow and by the historic Meiss Cabin homestead.  Here, the trail joined with the Tahoe Rim Trail.  I stopped in the shade beside Showers Lake and consider staying here because it’s so lovely.  I’m persuaded not to though when the area’s overuse becomes obvious from the amount of exposed waste and toilet paper near the campsites.  I decide to camp in the forest further on, near a nice cool creek, and drift off to the sounds of the cicadas in the trees.


(Photo: Meiss homestead)
In the morning, I meet a trail angel called Coppertone after just a few miles of walking near a trailhead.  He makes me a delicious root beer float and gives me some fresh bananas and a chocolate muffin, and I’m thrilled to eat all of it.  (Photo: back into the mountains after a long stay in South Lake Tahoe)
The day is dry and hot, and the trail winds through forest until I reach the resort at Echo Lake.  There are lots of tourists here, and I make use of the pit toilets and charging station for my phone.  I buy a trail beer and bury it in my pack, and eat some ice cream before heading out again.  I do a rough, rocky climb along the lake and enter the heavenly Desolation Wilderness.  I reach Aloha lake by the afternoon, which is still flanked with patches of snow.  I soak my tired feet for a bit, and defend my food bag from some ferocious chipmunks.  (Photo: Lake Aloha)
I pass by a couple more lovely alpine lakes further on, and then make camp along the outlet of Lake Susie.  I didn’t do the miles I wanted to, having been distracted by trail magic and other luxuries.  But my new shoes are killing my feet, and I’m exhausted.  I drink my beer while I soak my feet again, and then go to bed early.
I immediately start climbing first thing in the morning, reaching the high point of Dick Pass early.  The north side of the pass is still under snow, although it’s not too difficult to navigate.  I pass by several lakes and then enter dense woods, where I’m met by hungry mosquitoes.  I’ve managed to do eleven miles without too many aches and pains before noon, and take some time to soak my feet again in a cool lake before the day is done.  I use the Halfmile App to find a campsite, but it’s kind of crap; lumpy and a bit on a slope. I pitch my tent anyway, and have a restless night.
I pack it up early and quickly hike the 3 miles to a parking area ahead at Barker Pass.  There’s a pit toilet there and I need to use it!
The trail leaving Barker Pass is delightful; it’s lined with thousands of bright yellow Mule’s Ears flowers that are alive with the sounds of cicadas.
(Photo: Lake on the north side of Dick Pass)


I enter the Granite Chief Wilderness, part ways with the Tahoe Rim Trail and begin an epic ridge walk through a ski area.
Along the ridge, the wind is formidable while walking along the narrow trail.  The views are fantastic from here, but they’re overshadowed by the danger of being blown off the mountain.


Once I leave the ridge and I’m in the safety of the forest again, I stop to filter some water and rinse out my socks in creek.  I meet another hiker there called Lo Flo and I share some of my Gatorade powder with him.
The crazy wind starts moving clouds in and I fear a thunderstorm is on the horizon.  I start descending into the Squaw Valley, passing beneath swaying chair lifts.  I see Lo Flo again further on, making camp in some trees and protected from the wind.  But there’s no room for me, so I’m forced to keep going.  I go much further than I want to, fighting to stay upright against the forceful winds as I make my way to the top of Tinker Knob.  There, within a group of trees, I’m able to find a very small spot to put my tent next to three others.  I don’t bother with the rainfly, as I’m pretty sure that would result in me taking flight in the middle of the night.


The wind continues into the morning, although it is less strong by the time I start hiking again.  I pass a weather station, where a day hiker gives me a candy bar.  She tells me she’s left some trail magic in the parking lot and to help myself, so I hurry down the trail.  I pass legions of tourists on the way down, who want to talk trail and ask the same old tired questions about bears and guns.  I get to the parking lot and find a cooler stashed behind a building.  I open it and explore the bounty inside.  Sparkling juice and soda, and even some beer! I pound a juice down, and then tuck a beer away into my pack for later.
As I’m crossing the road to the trail on the other side, a sign for the ski lodge grabs my attention.  They have breakfast burritos, and I’m hungry.  I instantly regret it when I get there and the bartender barks at me to leave my pack out on the deck.  I order a burrito, and it’s overpriced and awful.  Two women with a toddler in tow are already saddled up to the bar at 10 am and throwing back cocktails.  They make snide remarks about the hikers coming through and I hold back the urge to fight their rudeness with more rudeness (stellar parenting, ladies).
I can’t wait to get out of the area once I’m back on the trail. I cross under Highway 80 and stop briefly at the rest stop to fill up on water, then begin climbing up to Castle Pass.  There’s still more tourists there, but this time they have taken Ninja Mike and Bombadil captive with their questions (sorry guys).  I keep going until I reach the camping area I want to stop at, but it’s overrun with weekend warriors who have started illegal campfires despite the 90 degree weather and recent burn ban.  Frustrated, I move on.
I find some solitude on a saddle where there’s a nice clearing and make camp there for the night.  The view is great from here, and I enjoy my trail beer while watching the sun go down over the mountains.
I’m awoken to the sound of an animal in my camp before it’s light outside.  I shuffle around in my tent a bit and it runs off.  I’m wide awake now, so I decide to get on with my day.  I’m up before the cicadas, and when I hit the trail they are warming up like a symphony before a performance.  It’s a lovely sound to start the day.
A few miles in, the sun is already baking me.  I follow a winding trail, decorated with Mule’s Ears and volcanic stones.  I find a welcoming stream at the bottom of a canyon, and immerse my poor aching feet into the cool water.  Further on I enter dark forest, and I find that the heat has permeated the shade.  I take lay down in a creek for some relief, letting the cold water soak my clothes through.




I descend into another canyon, this one thriving with oak trees which then gives way to more pine forest.  I reach a bridge crossing and a large campsite near it, but I decide to keep going to Sierra City and make it a 30 mile day.
By the time I reach the highway, I’m not sure I have it in me to road walk the 2 miles into town.  There’s no traffic to try to hitch, and it’s getting dark.  With no other choice, I hobble down the highway.  I go to the far side of town and get a room with a hiker discount at Herrington’s Sierra Pines Resort.  The woman running the desk kindly offers to bring me some dinner down from the kitchen to my room, and I gratefully accept.












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