Note: No videos or pictures for this post for the time being. I will include an update in a future post if and when they are added.
Naming Guide for the High Sierras: Every marmot is named “Marmie,” every chipmunk is named “Chippy,” and every mouse is named “Stop chewing on my |=\/©×¡%& straps, you little §#¡†!”
I left you last at the Mammoth Lakes Motel 6.
The day started with a walk to the Von’s to do my food resupply. I got back to my room just in time to move all my things out into the breezeway so I could check out of my room in time. There I sat for a few hours repackaging and packing all that food.
I learned that there were four other thru hikers staying there that night on the same side of the hotel, two couples. One I recognized but couldn’t remember where from. I gave them the tea and coffee I didn’t need. They were moving hotels to weekend another night in town while her injuries healed. The other was the couple with the cat I’d discussed audiobooks with. They told me which free bus could take me back to the trail and which store had some sun gloves. I told them to try the Mammoth Brewing Company.
Once I had packed and visited the party office to send some things home, I went down to the store I’d been recommended and indeed found a pair of sun gloves. Then I went to the discount grocery store to get the tortillas I had forgotten. Outside the store, I caught the free town trolley up to the Village, right across from where the bus that went up to the lakes trailhead and Mammoth Pass picked up. Using it would mean hiking three miles to the PCT/JMT and then repeating the last three miles to Red’s Meadow, but it was free and a sure thing. It left every thirty minutes, and I was in no hurry, so I got on the waiting list at a nearby Mexican restaurant called Gomez.
I got a burrito, some guac, and a tequila sampler, and drank a gallon of tea while I wrote a blog post, called home, and recharged my phone. Several hours later, I paid my bill and went to the bus stop to catch the 5:30 bus. Unlike when I had scoped it out before, there was a line. I got in line.
When the bus arrived, the driver informed us that his was the last bus of the day, and COVID-19 restrictions meant he could only take 16 passengers. He counted us off. I was number 17. I would not be going to the lake trailhead that day.
Plan B was a bit less of a sure thing. I walked across the street and asked some men standing there if that was where I could catch a bus to the mountain adventure center. “Sure, but the mountain bikers have first priority.” There were only a handful of mountain bikers looking to get one last run in so late in the day, so there was room for me on the bus. It took me halfway up the road to Red’s Meadow.
I stepped off the bus, walked to the road, and made a hitchhiker’s sign. Ten minutes later, I had a ride from a man who was headed up to Devil’s Postpile to pick up his brother. He took me all the way to the trailhead where I had stepped off the trail the previous day. No extra mileage, no repeated section. Thanks, line of 16 mountain bikers for bumping me off the lakes bus!
I hiked down to Devil’s Postpile, worried by a threatening thundercloud. By the time I had gotten all the pictures I wanted from it, all that town food had caught up with me, so I stashed my pack and went out of the way to the parking area to use the toilets there. There was no toilet paper, so I flagged down a fishermen who gave me a few paper towels.
Back up at my pack, I collected some water from the river I had to cross to get back to the trail, then took the long way around to get to the trail so I could get some good pictures of the Postpile from above. I hiked as far as the split where the JMT separated from the PCT, took the JMT branch because it was supposedly better, hiked a little bit up the hill, and stopped at the first place that looked like I could put a tent on it. It was a terribly tilted patch of ground in an ugly forest of snags, but it was getting late. The sleep wasn’t very good, and I kept waking up all night.
I should mention this was the night I invented a hot bdessert drink I named Christmas-in-a-cup, a blend of Bigelow vanilla Chai and Alpine Spiced Cider. I would keep making it every night hence as it was better than either ingredient alone.
Total distance: 2.2 miles
Trail miles: 1
I slept late and left camp even later. Soon, I had to go well out of my way to find a place to rock-hop over Minaret Creek. By the time I reached the Minaret Lake junction and stopped for a snack, I realized that I didn’t have any waypoints on Guthook for this JMT detour because I hadn’t purchased the trail. I had had some cell service near my campsite that morning downloading audiobooks, so I walked back to the pond I had passed to get some clear sky and a signal. I used up even more battery to purchase the trail and download the map data.
The trail continued to be ugly until I reached Rosalie Lake. I stopped for lunch at Gladys Lake before that, but it wasn’t a very nice lake and I didn’t swim. Indeed, I didn’t swim in any of the lakes I passed. I was still clean from town and wanted to make up for my late start by keeping on hiking.
The sun was setting as I came around Garnet Lake, a large lake and a popular spot to camp in spite of the restrictions on where that was allowed. All the good sites were taken. I thought I was going to have to hike on to Ruby Lake in the dark, but I went down a side trail and found a spot high above the water with a wide, clear view and no one else around.
Total distance: 12 miles
Everyone had told me I should spend some time at Thousand Island Lake, so I got going as quickly as I could, humping it over the hill to Ruby Lake, then down to Emerald Lake and Thousand Island Lake beyond it. It wasn’t nearly as interesting as some of the lakes I’d just passed, so I again skipped taking a dip. Besides, it wasn’t all that hot out yet. I decided to get back to the PCT and into Yosemite as soon as possible by doing Island Pass and Donohue Pass right in a row, a nice double pass day.
I was really trucking all the way up and Island Pass, an easy one with not much of a climb, all things considered, and kept up that pace over the next few miles even as the day grew hotter and the shade scarce. I found a rock perfectly placed in the shade that I could lie back upside-down and submerge only the top of my head in the creek. That’s an experience everyone ought to try at least once. Very peaceful.
I stopped for lunch before the big climb up Donohue Pass (although it really wasn’t that big of a climb compared to all the passes that had come before), then noticed a big, dark cloud coming from behind the mountain. If it gave me some shade, I could certainly climb the pass with great haste.
Almost an hour later, I was on the top of the pass and the cloud was even more ominous, though it hadn’t really moved over the Yosemite boundary. I saw lightning strike the adjacent peak and decided to descend from there as quickly as possible. I passed a couple hiding under an overhanging rock who claimed to be scared of the lightning. I advised them that was probably not the safest place to be if it were going to strike and continued hurrying down the hill.
I came to a stream with some deep pools and, knowing my water bag was getting close to empty, stopped to fill up. While I did this, it started raining, but not very seriously. Just light sprinkling. I got out my Packa just in case, but I didn’t really need it. It was the first rain of my entire hike and it hardly lasted five minutes. I later learned the same storm system had battered the rest of the valley with hail earlier that afternoon. And still the cloud refused to cross Donohue Pass, as if it were respecting national park boundaries. I joked to some hikers I met further down the canyon, near where the Lyell Fork made a small alpine lake, that “on this side, it’s the Sierra Nevada; on the other, it’s Sierra de Luz.”
But I left that pair there after a 30 minute conversation about what was ahead for them going south and my hike so far. I wanted to get to the bottom of the canyon before I slept.
And that was no problem since it was all downhill. The bigger issue was that the bottom of Lyell Canyon was absolutely overrun with people camping. All the tentsites were full. Even when I found one, it was in full view of a much better campsite just up the hill. I didn’t care. I just wanted to eat and sleep.
The pack mules let loose to graze just seemed to want to run up and down the trail ringing their bell. Including a few times in the middle of the night.
But that wasn’t really that bothersome. The bigger issue wouldn’t come until morning.
Total distance: 13 miles
When I woke up, the inside of my tent was soaked with condensation. The Lyell Fork turned the entire canyon into a cloud of mist. There was no way to avoid it. I wasn’t even close to the river. So I ended up starting an hour later than expected after wiping down the tent. I packed up my sleeping bag wet.
After a conversation with my neighbors (as one of them was wearing Perry the Platypus onesie pajamas and would later pass me hiking in them), I set out to get to the Tuolomne Meadows Store and associated food stand for lunch.
The store was not only closed but 90% disassembled. It was boarded up and lacking a roof. No hot lunch for me. But there were picnic tables, so I laid out my sleeping bag in the sun to dry and started making lunch.
While I was there, a couple came in to provide some trail magic to a trio of JMT hikers who walked in off the trail. He was making them blackberry pancakes and handing out beers. Of course, as they had set up at the next table over, I began to ingratiate myself as soon as feasible.
I managed to swing three cans of beer from them, some liquid carbs to keep the hike going. I drank one immediately, gave one to John when he arrived looking for a bus, and saved one for later.
Some notes about John: old guy; loud, close talker (hard to have a conversation with anyone else when he is near); wants you to know about his keto diet; fan of Spam singles; very fast hiker.
Some notes on the guy doing the magic: works for the forest service surveying land before and after controlled burns, possibly educated in biology; the job mostly entails counting sticks. The girl he came up with was unknown to the three hikers, but seemed to have had some work counting or watching owls at some point.
Two hours later, I left to enter the meadow proper, where all the tourists were, but soon dropped my pack and returned to the (closed) campground to avail myself of the (open) flush toilets before heading off into the wilderness again. Then I walked back into the meadow, read all the info signs about who had owned and herded sheep in the meadow. I put my hand in the naturally carbonated soda spring inside the century-old structure built to keep out the animals. Then I found the PCT and hiked down past the falls to Glen Aulin just before dark.
Glen Aulin is normally a Sierra backcountry camp where you pay a fee to reserve a site, and get dinner made for you and can use a shower and a privy. But it’s 2020 and all those services are shut down, disassembled, and locked up, which meant anyone who came there could claim a tent site and spend the night for free. And there must have been more than twenty of us there doing just that.
Cooked dinner and ate next to the waterfall then went to bed.
Total distance: 15 miles
While there weren’t any more car tourists around, there were still, like the last couple of days, far too many people on the trail this day. I started hiking around 7, but after a couple of hours hiking across a flat, exposed plateau meadow, I was already getting hot. I stopped to soak in a deep pool in the middle of the meadow at one point, just me and the tadpoles and the bugs and a baby snake. Had half a lunch.
Stopped next to Return Creek for lunch part 2. Some dark clouds threatened rain but never made good on that promise, and I dared them to by never getting out my pack cover.
Then a nice long climb to Miller Lake. It was dinner time when I arrived but I hadn’t quite done the miles, so I cooked and ate by the lake and then hiked down into Matterhorn Canyon by the pink light of the setting sun. I was marching by headlamp by the time I crossed Matterhorn Creek.
A ton of campers were already there with, what I would later learn, was a mule packing tour. An old man signaled me and said there were plenty of campsites in the woods, so I found a relatively flat spot up the hill and went to bed.
By watching as I packed up and talking to some of the employees, I learned a good bit about the mule tours. Apparently an 8 day trip costs two grand. The campsites are planned in advance and about 13 miles apart. The only work you do is setting up your tent when you get to camp. The packers unload your gear, dig the latrine, cook the food (breakfast sandwiches that morning), and handle most of the logistics. You just day hike to the next site. The perfect way to retire from backpacking without giving up on camping.
The climb over Benson Pass was quick and easy as I had my heart set on lunch and a dip on Smedberg Lake. I was already there before any of that crowd in the camp had come up behind me. But one person who had shared that camp was already there.
Maggie was a young thru-hiker with pink hair and a round face. She seemed in good condition but low spirits and spoke of getting off the trail in Tahoe and skipping ahead. The Sierras had apparently worn her out. She also said that the people in the pack camp had given her dinner and she wanted to follow them and try to yogi some more treats. So she left ahead of me to get to Benson Lake where they were going to spend that night.
After lunch and a brief dip in the cold lake, I hiked on, leaving behind a handful of hikers from the camp to face the marmot who stalked the shores.
It was basically all downhill to the Benson Lake junction, though I did have to stop briefly to put on my pack cover when it started raining in the mid afternoon. I passed a ranger who didn’t ask to see my permit but was interested in the mule packers and thought the weather would get better the next few days. Further down, the entire mule train and the rest of the hikers passed me around the time I was picking my way over a pile of logs that crossed the Benson Lake outlet creek.
I followed their tracks to the incredible ocean beach-like shores of Benson Lake. Maggie was already there, hiding from the mosquitos in her tent. She had heard the mule train go by but had no interest yet in visiting the camp. I made and ate dinner right there on the beach in front of where they were making camp. Once they looked settled, I went up to strike up conversation with some of the guests, but no one offered me any of the wine or sake or scotch they had packed in.
So while they all bathed in the lake, I packed up and hiked out to climb a two mile hill and reach a small beautiful pond before sunset. I had the whole thing to myself, so I set myself up on opposite ends of two adjacent campsites and ate supper on a rock in the middle of the pond accessed by a log bridge. Little flies kept dropping and bouncing off the surface of the water for an unknown reason. There were a few mosquitos, but they weren’t too bad as long as I kept moving.
Total distance: 13 miles
I woke with the sun and packed up moving things from one side of the area to the other. Before I left, I realized a mouse had chewed on several of my pack straps, even chewing one loose nonessential bit completely off. I spent some extra time melting the frayed edges and fashioning a new zipper pull to replace one the mouse had stolen. The distraction meant I didn’t pay enough attention as I was packing camp, but I was eager to get moving.
Seavey Pass was just a mile ahead and didn’t even require a major climb on the south side, though there was a steep bit right before it where I looked down and saw Maggie chasing me at a pretty good pace. Clearly she had gotten up earlier than me.
Down at the creek in Kerrick Canyon, I sat and had lunch part 1 while watching a trout that was bigger than the rest constantly bullying and chasing off every other trout it saw.I sat and had lunch part 1 while watching a trout that was bigger than the rest constantly bullying and chasing off every other trout it saw.
When I was ready to go, Maggie arrived behind me. She said she never did go visit the packer camp and still wasn’t particularly enjoying herself, though you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong by looking at her. I left her there and never saw her again, though I figured she was always right behind me.
Over the next grueling hill was another creek that needed crossing. There was a log there, but it was hard to find. Charlie Horse had hiked up behind me on the last stretch before it and we would have kept walking on the wrong side of the creek had a couple not pointed out that it was time to cross. John had come through earlier and informed them, and they had just settled in to relax in hammocks beside the water.
Charlie Horse was a name I was familiar with because John had told a story about how they had hiked together for a while, but John had abandoned him because he had bought up all the Spam singles that he knew John wanted after John had shared so much of his food with him. However, they later made up when Charlie Horse had given John most of the Spam in return.
Anyway, Charlie Horse had been hiking with Maggie for some time and was worried about her. We thought she was going to hike down behind us at any moment but she never did. We chatted for a bit over my lunch part 2, where another pee-hungry doe kept edging in way too close to my stuff.
Charlie went on over the hill while I stopped just before the climb to find a deep swimming hole in the creek to cool off. I followed his lead an hour later, beginning the climb absolutely soaking wet.
And both the climb and the following descent were possibly the easiest and most joyous I had yet experienced. Part of it was that I had eaten through most of my pack weight, and part of it was that six weeks of hiking had finally passed, so I finally had some trail legs, but mostly, I came to discover, it was that I can hike a lot faster and easier when I’m soaking wet. The 5 miles from the creek to Wilma Lake seemed to pass in an instant.
Charlie Horse was already there and set up, so I set up next to him. Which is when I realized I had no tent stakes. I had apparently left the entire stake bag in my previous campsite while distracted by the chewed straps. Fortunately, he had three spare stakes to lend me (including one I had seen but not picked up in my previous campsite) and for the fourth, I made do with a stick and a rock. I shared some of my Christmas-in-a-cup with him in gratitude.
Total distance: 12 miles
Charlie Horse left before me and I didn’t catch up with him all day. He let me hold on to the stakes though.
It was a nearly level trail, ever so slightly rising. It was easy to keep a good pace. Until I saw a rock in a creek that looked like a water slide and had to stop to try to slide down it. I managed it at least once and got some halfway good tries on video before picking the crawfish larvae off my belly and hiking on, intent on reaching Dorothy Lake for lunch.
It was here I was accosted by the Bakin’ Ladies: Patty, Mary, Jane, and Katharine. They were glamping by the lake, having hiked packers to bring in all their gear. They gave me a chair, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, peach pound cake, red wine, filtered water, and conversation.
Them: Would you like some Pringles?
Them: Some sausage and gnocchi?
Them: Peach pound cake? Cookies? Brownies?
Me: Did you bake all that at home?
Them: Of course, who do you think we are? Do you think we but anything at the store?
Them: Be careful what you say now!
Me (thinking, not out loud): Are those homemade Pringles then?
I still ended up fixing myself lunch from what I brought. I gave them their moniker when they told me John and Charlie Horse had come by earlier and eaten the last of their bacon. Charlie Horse had nicknamed them the Bacon Ladies. So, obviously, after eating all their baked goods, I have to call them the Bakin’ Ladies.
But there were still miles to do and I had nearly worn out my hospitality by taking some of their red wine, so I hiked on. I hope Maggie came up behind me and spent the night with them and had a better day overall.
It was only a mile later, just over Dorothy Pass (and therefore just outside of Yosemite) that I realized I wasn’t wearing my sun gloves and had, in fact, left them by the creek I had played in three miles back. They were wonderful sun gloves, way better than the ones Yogi had sold me, complete with palm grips that don’t fall off and leather-like tabs on the middle fingers to make them easy to remove. But I was low on food and couldn’t spare the time to walk six extra miles to retrieve them. And they hadn’t been all that expensive, so I wrote them off and kept walking.
A few miles later, I collected some water from a nice waterfall that fed a subrerranean stream and camped at a crappy little site right before the beginning of a long climb I wanted to save for the next day. I got my feet covered in pine sap walking barefoot to hang my pack from a tree but camp was otherwise uneventful.
Total distance: 17 miles
The climb was rough. I stopped only a couple of miles in for a snack. Soon, the trail went out into the sun and began working its way straight up a huge exposed hill. About this time, I realized that the creek I had crossed a mile back was the last guaranteed water on trail for the next 10 miles.
Fortunately, I could reach the upper part of the creek just a quarter mile away by walking down a long rocky talus slope. I grabbed a couple of liters, drank some of it, and returned to the climb.
With the steep rocky trail zig-zagging under the direct aim of the blistering sun, I started getting winded and dizzy. I stopped in a switchback to hydrate and eat some Clif Bloks and that seemed to solve the problem. I made it up onto the ridge at a much better pace.
I stopped under a random tree on a random rock for lunch. The views from the ridge were spectacular but the trail was often just loose pebbles. Fortunately, the shade from a dark thundercloud made hiking a lot easier.
When the trail turned into a scattered pile of red (sandstone?) foot-sized platters of rock, the cloud decided to open up and dump a solid ten or twenty minutes worth of hail on me. They were only pea-sized bits, so it didn’t hurt that bad, and it cooled me off enough that my spirits were actually lifted.
I crossed a small snowfield and circuited a couple of glacier lakes. Soon, it started raining, steadily but lightly. I didn’t bother with rain gear. The more I got soaked, the faster I went. I was flying, giddy with the speed both up and down the sides of the ridge. Anyone who saw me would not have been able to guess I had been struggling just to put one foot in front of another just hours before.
Finally, I could look down and see the highway through Sonora Pass. But I still had several miles to go. As I descended the long final hill to the pass, the storm clouds decided to get serious. I still shunned my rain gear, not wanting to take the time and knowing it didn’t matter if anything got wet since I was headed to “town” anyway.
I had been told the Kennedy Meadows (North) shuttle came at 4:15pm, so I could, I figured, find a bit of shelter at the parking area, change clothes, and wait. I had been told wrong, though. The shuttle came at 3:15pm.
Which was exactly the time I stepped off the trail onto the road. Moments later, a van pulled over and asked me if I was headed to Kennedy Meadows. I got in. It was the official shuttle. A man and his two (grand?) boys had the other seats. I was the only hiker going in
Kennedy Meadows gave me a room to myself upstairs and access to a shower and laundry. There was a ton of good stuff in the hiker boxes, but limited goods in the store. I had to make some substitutions, but I managed to get enough to keep going, including a new set of tent stakes.
John and Charlie Horse had arrived before me and shared the room next door. I returned Charlie’s stakes and joined them both for dinner: a huge tourney dinner with dressing, potatoes, beans, and gravy for me, a second round of burgers for them (as they had already eaten in the restaurant at lunch). Curiously, I was able to eat indoors for the first time since Lone Pine. I don’t know if the restrictions had been lifted or if the resort was just doing its own thing, but the Bakin’ Ladies relayed that, due to COVID-19, the resort’s bar would “remain open until it could be safely closed.” Obviously, I went over there after dinner and ordered a beer, then joined in a game of cornhole work some local boys out front. My team got creamed.
And that was how I ended my night. I returned to my room and put out the lights, working on this blog until the bartender turned off the generator some time in the wee hours.
Total distance: 13 miles