Tuolumne Meadows to Independence Sunday 20th September We spent a rest day down in Yosemite valley with Gordon and Eric. The valley, although extraordinarily beautiful, does suffer a bit from extreme tourist crowding and we were lucky to find a campsite in a quiet hiker-only area by using our PCT permit we had obtained at the start of the trip. Martina and I had visited Yosemite on a rock climbing trip two years earlier and, creaking our necks gaping upwards at the granite walls, we vowed to return again!
Next day Gordon drove us back round to the trail at Tuolumne Meadows and we parted there with he and Eric to continue our hike (Eric was to take part in a uphill running race from Lee Vining to the Tioga Pass). We met up with Ron Vaughn and Hikin Mike here – Mike had just sold his car to Ron who was going to use it to return home after the trail. Given the slightly dilapidated state of the car we doubted whether it would get Ron very far at all but both seemed happy with the deal!
On Tuesday 22nd September We hiked south with Hikin Mike from Tuolumne Meadows up Lyell Canyon with its lovely tumbling river and spacious views. Martina and I had good memories of chilling out here after a rock climb two years ago but our minds were set on more strenuous things. We were both certainly lean and fit now (‘as a butchers dog’ as the saying goes) in our sixth month of the journey but this was offset by the fact that we were pretty fatigued and sore from so much constant hiking and load carrying- our bodies were craving for a long rest.
Wild mountain scenery was the next best thing to a rest- and the area of Donahue Pass with its snowy bowls, rocky tops and distant high mountains- gave us a spring to our step. Over Island Pass and its superb views to Mt Ritter, Banner and Thousand Island Lake we dropped down to stunning Garnet Lake feeling like we were immersed in the Sierra Nevada mountains already.
We passed by the Minarets mountain area the next day- home to lots of great rock climbing- and were stopped by a female ranger out hiking who asked us for our park permits. This was the first time we had been asked in our whole trip and, as we had convinced Mike that he wouldn’t need one, we had to do some serious persuading with the ranger to let Mike off. Hiked past Devil’s Postpile Monument- a basalt columned rock structure which was impressive but a bit like our Island of Staffa off the coast of Scotland but not as spectacular!
After a cold camp that night we ascended up to Silver Pass at 10,900 feet with some hail on top to greet us so we descended quickly to camp down at Pocket Meadow. It hailed heavily that night and we had to get out our sleeping bags in the dark to move the tent as a large puddle had gathered underneath us.
Our aim from there was to hike to Vermillion Lake and take a boat ride to the resort at the far side of the lake. Our only problem being that we didn’t know when the boat ran so we got up at 6am and hiked down to the steaming, frosty lake edge, cooked breakfast with some hot mugs of tea and waited. Luckily, the boat arrived at 9.45am disgorging other PCT hikers El Nino and the Nike Girls along with a lama! After a chat we had a lovely 4 mile trip across the lake to the lodge – only to meet our PCT friend Brian Sweet last seen in Washington state. He had finished the trail ahead of us and had got a job as a waiter at the lodge until the end of the season. It seemed that the other hikers had been told to keep it a surprise for us that he was here!
We rented a caravan as cold, snowy weather set in and had lots of good food, borrowing a tape player and generally having a ball. It stayed wet and cold the next day so we got a lift down to local Mono Hot Springs with Scott and Rebecca for a refreshing dip.
We reluctantly left the restful lodge on the boat the next day, hiking on fresh snow in more lovely country all the way up to pitch the tent with hats and gloves near Seldon Pass. Our tactic in the morning was to get up and hike quickly in the freezing cold until we were hit by the sun, at which point we stopped and had breakfast. Evolution Valley was wonderful with its waterfalls, lakes, mountains and clear, clear autumnal air- the Sierra were well named ‘The Range of Light’ by John Muir the Scottish born naturalist and “Father of the American Natural Parks”.
Although the weather was certainly crisp and cold, we did have the great advantage that this normally popular hiking area was now virtually empty as this was considered post season to most. As for us, we were having one of the best days of our entire hike out there. I picked up some dead wood for a fire and filled up with water as our aim was to stay in the Muir Hut at the top of 11,955 foot Muir Pass (John Muir made a big impact here!). This is a remote stone shelter or ‘bothy’ as it would be called in Scotland. We made it there in a tired state at 6.30pm with temperatures well below freezing but it was a welcome sight.
Our fire wasn’t a total success as I just succeeded in smoking out the shelter – so we reluctantly had to put the fire out and, as it was so cold, we opted to pitch the tent inside the hut for extra warmth. A lively mouse tried to get in the tent by jumping up the tent door through the night- we named it ‘Murdo the Mouse’ and wondered how it would survive the winter up here.
Thunderstorms and heavy snow fall greeted us in the morning and we settled in the hut to wait for a clearing in the weather. Our few foray’s out during the day did not look good as we must have had about 18 inches of new snow fall and by about 3pm we concluded we would stay another night as at least we had a solid, if cold, shelter here. For a diversion Martina busied herself by sculpting a snow-bear and we cooked our way through a fair bit of food and stove fuel to keep ourselves warm.
Thankfully the next morning was cold but gloriously sunny with the fresh powder snow glinting in the light. Our descent down past Helen Lake and lots of other smaller tarns in pure snow was another highlight of the trail for us. As the trail dropped down to around 8,000 feet the snow cleared and we could tread on dry ground again. We stopped at a ranger station ‘Le Conte’ where the ranger was packing up to leave for the end of the summer season. He told us another storm was due in three days and we made our mind up to hike out to the town of Independence at Kearsarge Pass in another 40 miles where we could pick up extra supplies and sit out the storm for a day.
Another bitterly cold camp at Lower Palisade Lake around 10,600 feet that night and the next day involved crossing two high cols at Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass passing beautiful blue green, boulder dotted lakes. The crisp crunch of snow underneath our boots was constant until we dropped down low to camp at Woods Creek settled in a canyon at 8,500 feet. More stunning scenery followed as we ascended rocky Glen Pass in snow and split from the PCT trail to hike 9 miles out to the road end over Kearsarge Pass. Although this diversion was a long way off the trail it provided delightful scenery to match any on the main trail itself and we had a great time that day.
With a two hour dash down the path we made it to the trailhead around 4pm, however despite our good efforts, it took an hour to get a ride into the nearest small town of Independence where we settled down for a wash and some food in a hotel.
Next- Our final stage out to Walker Pass ……………..