John Muir Trail Journal, Part 1: Trail Magic, Alpenglow and Gemstone Lakes

In this 61 mile stretch, I travel by bus from Seattle to Yosemite National Park, then hike from Happy Isles to just beyond Red’s Meadow in 3 days time.  I go over Donahue and Island Passes, meet new people and skirt alpine lakes named after gemstones.   

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I catch an early morning Greyhound in downtown Seattle, and my gut is churning.  This always happens: the pre-trail jitters.  What is it that I’ve forgotten at home?  I can’t think of a single thing but my anxiety still continues to mount.  I watch nervously from the inside the bus as the driver tosses my pack in the luggage hold underneath.

The trip is long and grueling on my bum.  By the time we reach Sacramento, it’s nearly numb and I’ve gotten little sleep.  I’ve been on the bus for nearly twenty hours now, and I’m ready to be done.  We get to the Merced station around 6:30 am, a miracle since we were running late out of Sacramento.  The bus driver opens the luggage hold, but my pack isn’t there.  Panic sweeps over my body and I feel like I might fall over.  He then opens up an even smaller compartment where my pack has been shoved into a tight space.  Sweet relief.

The driver asks me when the YARTS bus is coming, and I tell him in half an hour from now.  He looks skeptical but only mumbles before taking off again, and I feel like I’ve made an epic mistake as I watch the bus pull away.  It’s dark out and I hear shuffling around the corner of the station.  A security guard appears and I feel less afraid, but he eyes me suspiciously.  I go and sit on the bench beneath the YARTS sign and he follows me slowly, stopping a few feet short of where I’m at.  His eyes narrow.

“Are you from Norway?”

What a perfectly odd question.  I tell him no and he walks away without saying a word.  How strange.  I hope this isn’t a prelude to peculiar days to come on the JMT.

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Trail magic

The YARTS is right on time, and my fears are slowly melting away at this point.  I board with another rider, who’s interested in my hike and wants to talk trail.  He’s a postal worker within Yosemite.  He gives me my first trail magic, a huge mango, and wishes me luck on my journey as he departs in Mariposa.

I reach Yosemite Village by late morning, and I’m absurdly tired from traveling.  I go to the shop and buy a beer, then head towards the backpacking campsite behind the North Pines campground.  The ranger at the kiosk is grumpy, however, and tells me I can’t stay there on a PCT permit.

“You need a wilderness permit”, she says.  I tell her that a PCT permit is a wilderness permit, but she’s not having it.  She tells me to go back to Yosemite Village and sort it out at the Wilderness Center.  There’s no arguing with her; she has the same look and stubbornness as the cantankerous Kim Davis.

At the Wilderness Center, a very helpful ranger issues me a make-do permit, which is really just a handwritten note telling Ranger Annie Wilkes that it’s okay for me to stay in the backpacker site.  I head back to the campground, and she huffs and puffs a bit, but I’m allowed to make camp.

After setting up my tent and bed, I take the free shuttle and have a bit of an explore of the Valley.  I’ve got a second wind now, and I head to Bridalveil Falls.  The Valley is filled with smoke from nearby wildfires, but everything is still very lovely.

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My moment of peaceful tranquility is shattered when I stumble and fall, scraping my knee on the gravel walkway.  I pull myself up and a tourist feigns concern through his snickering.  Blood trickles down my leg and I wish I was home in bed, hiding beneath the covers.  I pull the gravel bits from my wound and leave, heading back to camp.

That night I make friends with a Canadian man named Kevin over dinner.  We talk gear and trail for a bit while waiting for our Mountain House dinners to finish cooking.  He’s taking a few weeks to hike the JMT, and I want to do it in only two.  He tells a group of neighboring hikers that I plan on hiking from the Valley to Tuolumne Meadows in a day, and they express doubt.

“That’s a bit much,” they say.  But I know I can do it.

After I finish my beer, I head to bed.

Day 1: Happy Isles Trailhead to Tuolumne Meadows, 23 miles

I wake up early; the sun is nearly up and I can still hear my camp neighbors snoring inside their tents.  Kevin is up too, breaking camp and fussing with his pack.  I pack up quickly and bid him farewell, and make my way out to the road towards Happy Isles trailhead.  By the time I get there, car tourists and day hikers are already starting to crowd the area.  I race past large groups of people, and I’m suddenly alone again.

The pathway is paved for the first mile or so, something I find bizarre.  Once I reach the footbridge and viewing area for Vernal Falls, the trail becomes dirt again.  A few early risers are there snapping photos.  They ask me if I’m heading out for a while, pointing to my pack.  I tell them I’m doing the John Muir Trail, but they shrug and go back to taking selfies.  I fill up my bottle at the water fountain, and press on up the hill.

It’s dead silent now; no sounds of tourist chatter to be heard.  I feel as though I can relax and breathe again.  My anxieties from before- scraping my knee, tourists laughing at me, utter embarrassment, fellow hiker doubts in my abilities- are vanishing with the mileage that I’m leaving in the dust.

I stop to admire Nevada Falls along the trail as it comes into view, and down a Cliff Bar and some fruit snacks for my late breakfast.  I’m the only one around, and the thunderous sound of the waterfall is all I need to keep me company.

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I reach the top of Nevada Falls in good time, just as the backpackers from the Little Yosemite camp and the Half Dome crowd are starting their day.  I have a quick break beneath a juniper tree, check my map and drain my water bottle.  It’s already heating up outside and the smoke in the air is making my throat scratchy.

After passing the Little Yosemite campsite, I start up a series of exposed and dusty switchbacks.  There’s more serious hikers on the trail now; JMT thru-hikers and those heading towards Half Dome, the truly adventurous spirits.

 

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The top of Nevada Falls

Past the junction for Half Dome, I enter a burn area.  The trees here are skeletal and the air is hazy with smoke.  There’s an eerie feeling here, and a lone buck darts across the trail, startling me.  My lungs are hurting now from the smoke, which seems to have settled in this area.

After a couple of miles, the trail enters a lush meadow.  The smoke has cleared a bit thanks to a cool breeze, and hiking is comfortable once again.  I’m making decent time, and I wonder if I can make it to Tuolumne Meadows before the post office closes.  I pick up my pace a bit on the flat ground, with dreams of beer and salty junk food just ahead.

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I enter forest again near Cathedral Pass, and encounter some day hikers.  This is a good sign that I’m close to Tuolumne, or at least Tioga Road.  I try to hurry, knowing that the post office closes at 5:00 pm, but I’m held up when a huge work crew on mules comes up the trail.  They thank me for waiting, but I’m secretly cursing them for the delay.

It’s after 4:00 now, and I still have over three miles to go until I reach the store.  My ambitions are fading now, and I think I won’t make it in time.  I slow my pace to a more relaxed stroll.  My feet are a bit sore, but I’m still feeling alright considering I’ve already come 20 miles.  A day hiker stops me to chat, wanting to know how far I’ve come.

“The Valley.”

“Little Yosemite?”

“No. Happy Isles,” I’m trying not to sound pretentious or big.  I hate sounding like I’m bragging.

“Whoa!” he says, and I can feel myself blushing a bit. “You’re like a superhero!  Like Wonder Woman!”

I’m so flattered, and I thank him for his kindness.  This puts a little pep in my step, and I take off down the trail.  I’m descending now towards the campground and the store, feeling really good about myself.  These feelings of magnificence are all broken though when I stumble on the downhill, and fall onto my knee again.  The wound reopens and bleeds, and I’m angry at myself for being so clumsy.

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I hobble down to the road, and then to the store.  The post office is closed, as I had expected, but I meander around the store for a bit picking out some snacks and a beer.  The cashier tells me to come back at 9:00-ish the next morning for the post office.

On arrival at the backpacker site in the campground, I find the only open a spot near the back.  The bear locker is open, but has a faded warning on it that the key for the lock is stripped.  I use it anyway, despite having to fuss with it for a bit.  I set up my tent and crack open my beer, and a ranger comes by to check permits.  She compliments my hat and high fives me for being “a fearless female solo hiker.”  I’m feeling confident again from this, despite my gaping knee wound.  I make a double batch of ramen for dinner and enjoy my cold beer, then head to bed.

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Day 2: Tuolumne Meadows to Rush Creek Campsite, 16 miles

Since I have to wait for the post office to open at 9:00, I decide to sleep in as much as I can.  By the time I crawl out of my tent at half past 7, most of the other hikers in the camp are gone and starting their days.  I casually eat my breakfast and make some coffee, then pack everything up.  Another ranger comes by just as I’m fussing with the bear locker, and offers to help.  He uses a pair of pliers to open it, and I write another note warning future hikers of the trouble.

I get to the post office just after it opens and grab my parcel, then go about trying to fit everything into my bear canister.  I have to cut back through the campground to get back onto the trail, and the smell of other campers cooking bacon and sausages, and brewing fresh coffee is driving me mad.  I eat a protein bar to try to satisfy my already grumbling stomach, but it’s nowhere near the same.

It’s a lovely day, and the sunshine is washing the meadows of Lyell Canyon in a golden light.  The haze and smoke from the wildfires has ceased, and the air smells of pine and dewdrops.  The trail gently rambles along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River for some time, then begins to climb away from the canyon and towards Donahue Pass.

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The climb is a long and strenuous one, via rocky switchbacks.  I encounter an unfazed deer about halfway up, and stop to admire it and collect some water from the creek that’s now rushing turbulently into the canyon below.

By mid afternoon, some ominous looking clouds have formed in the distance and above Donahue Pass.  I had seen warnings about the afternoon thunderstorms that were all too frequent for this time of year, and the last place I wanted to be was on a rocky, exposed pass.  I hang back for a bit, just below treeline and carefully watching the clouds.  There’s a small breeze, but not the powerful, chilly wind that’s characteristic of impending lightning.

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I grow impatient and I leave the treeline behind to start my climb towards the pass.  The sky is darkening a bit, but some hikers coming in the opposite direction assure me that it seems fine on the other side of Donahue.  The air thins as I go, and my breathing becomes labored from the climbing and high elevation.

I reach the top of Donahue late in the day, and quickly try to descend.  It’s incredibly cold and windy at the top, but the thunderous clouds have passed and are now lingering over Lyell Canyon.  The other side of the pass is quite pleasant, with the trail winding its way down through alpine meadow abundant with still blooming wildflowers.

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At the top of Donahue Pass and exiting Yosemite National Park

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After 16 miles covered and a somewhat late start, I decide to make camp along Rush Creek.  There’s a large campsite there among some trees, with several other hikers already there.  I find a flat spot and make camp, then go about cooking some noodles with summer sausage in it.  Another hiker named Don joins me beside the creek, where I’m cooking, and we talk about the day for a while and admire the alpenglow.  I go to bed just after dusk, and fall asleep right away.

Day 3:  Rush Creek to Beyond Red’s Meadow, 22 miles

I wake sometime in the night to the sound of something in camp.  I hear it walking around and snorting, so I make some noise within my tent until it runs off.  I have trouble getting back to sleep after that and don’t get the rest that I need to get me through the day.  After a cup of coffee I start hiking,  still descending away from Donahue Pass on switchbacks and managing a few creek fords.  Near the bottom, I stop for a quick breakfast of fruit and protein bars, then begin to climb again through the woods.

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I get to Island Pass fairly early, a relatively easy climb, and stop at Thousand Island Lake to fill up on water and have another bite to eat.  The views aren’t disappointing, and the sights of mountains and wildflowers is a reminder as to why I’ve returned to this amazing place.  A couple more hikers appear, and say good morning.  From here, the John Muir Trail splits from the PCT, and I’m excited to see some new scenery.

The JMT from here on out is stunning, with craggy peaks rising dramatically into the sky from the shores of lakes named after gemstones; Emerald, Ruby and Garnet.  I leapfrog the two friendly hikers from before throughout this section, but lose them around the trail junction for Agnew Meadows.

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Having a break at Thousand Island Lake

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Late in the day, I’m feeling pretty knackered and wanting to camp.  Red’s meadow is a stone’s throw away, and I consider pushing it to there.  I keep going, doing a long descent through the woods and then fording a creek.  I reach the side trail and alternate loop for the Devil’s Postpile National Monument, a volcanic wonder I’ve been dying to see since I missed it on my PCT thru-hike the year before.

I take the alternate towards the monument, and I’m so glad that I didn’t skip it this time around; it was an amazing sight to see.  After taking it all in, I head towards the resort at Red’s Meadow.

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The columnar basalt formations at Devil’s Postpile

There’s quite a lot of people loitering around Red’s when I arrive; many hikers as well as tourists.  I head to the shop and buy a beer and some ice cream, then sit outside on the picnic benches watching the crowd.  I learn that the nearby campground is full, thanks to an outdoor gear vendor being there and promoting their stuff.  After finishing my ice cream, I push on in hopes of finding a spot along the trail within the next few miles.  The day is fading and more storm clouds are appearing on the horizon, and I’m so tired I could collapse.  About a mile in, I come across a search and rescue team from the forest service looking for a lost day hiker.  They ask me to keep an eye out and point the missing in the right direction if I see him, and I agree.

I enter the forest after some climbing, and manage to find a very small clearing in the undergrowth.  I clear it of sticks and other debris, and begin making camp just as it’s getting dark.  I have a strange nagging feeling about the area, and halfway through pitching my tent I consider moving on.  I’ve always had an unsettling feeling when I’m in the woods at dark, and I’ve remedied this by going to bed when it’s still light outside.  I decide not to cook dinner and just snack instead, all while sitting on my bear canister in the middle of the trail.  Another hiker, a young woman, appears on the trail and decides to make camp in a neighboring clearing.  My mind is put to ease, and I go to sleep without fear.

 

 

 

 

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One Comment

  1. One Sock

    Great blog – rad to read about your adventures . I remember seeing you on the JMT trail for the first time – chilling out at Thousand Island on the rocks. Happy trails and many adventures to ya!
    Jason

    Like

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