Our first visit to the United States in 1996 was to the stunning Sierra Nevada mountains of California- home to the iconic Yosemite valley and John Muir Trail where we did some rock climbing, backpacking and touring around. After this taster, we came back in 1998 as part of our longer Pacific Crest Trail hike between Mexico and Canada. Since then we brought the climbing gear back in 2006 and then in 2019 explored the mountains by hiking some cross country.
Listed below are our outdoor trips- with links to blog posts.
We visited California in 2019 and this time went out backpacking, exploring some of the Sierra mountains away from the popular John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails. Our aim was max out on the scenery with some off trail and scrambling over mountain passes and ridges. We used Steve Roper’s excellent ‘Sierra High Route‘ book as a reference along with some very useful websites and blog posts. See an overview map of our 2019 hikes.
Tuesday 24th September 2019 The final hike of our holiday and we chose a southern part of the Sierra mountains near and over Mt Whitney. We picked up a permit easily again and left the car near the town of Lone Pine, relying on hitching a lift to the start at Cottonwood Lakes.
Up at Cottonwood Lakes at just under 10,000 feet it was clear, cool and windy and a forest of Foxtail and Lodgepole Pines poking out of the dry soil. We hiked up for quite a few miles on good trail towards New Army Pass. The scenery was stark with dazzling white granite boulders and rock, blue sky and the odd snow patch. The pass was windy so we nestled down behind some rock ledges then headed down an easy zig-zag trail on the west side to Rock Creek.
We turned off the main trail at Rock Creek, heading up Miter Basin, initially a wide valley with steep granite walls, gradually narrowing and becoming more rugged as we reached Sky Blue Lake in the evening. The sun dipped here and it was rather a cold wind that swept the lake surface so we decided to call it a day and camp at the north end in a wild alpine scene.
After a very windy night we were glad to move on and upwards leaving signs of trail behind as we worked our way up over slabs and a few scrambly sections to a lake at 3697m. Here we sheltered facing the sun for a stop to take in the glorious views. A further easy climb from there and we arrived at Crabtree Pass. The descent down the other side was easier than it looked, on the east side of the gullys on broken slabs. Down at Crabtree Lake we sat watching a pika gathering grass for winter before hiking a wonderful cross country route down the valley past various Crabtree Lakes. Meadows, granite slabs, some scrambling but nothing too hard- this was great! At the final lake we spotted some golden trout as we meandered down through Foxtail Pine again on faint trails.
We picked up a more heavily used trail going back up east to Crabtree Meadows Ranger Station and saw a few people camping around here. This was us back on the JMT with big trails and people! We hiked past Crabtree on the path up to Mt Whitney with views back west gradually improving until we headed off trail to find a lovely granite slab to camp on below Guitar Lake.
This was our last day hiking on the holiday but we aimed for a cool day by climbing over Mt Whitney and down the eastern side back to the Whitney Portal Trailhead and to hitch a lift back to our car lower down the valley.
We were flying by now, climbing steadily up the trail to Whitney Trail Crest with more than 4 weeks hiking fitness behind us. Some fantastic views higher up across the fluted mountains and lakes and we passed a few hikers coming up from the other side of the mountain. Saw some marmots and pikas on the way. After we had bagged the highest point of Whitney we then started the long, long descent east to the road- 6,500 feet roughly. The top half was particularly grand seeing into Whitney’s rocky east face and dotted lakes below.
Our final task was to get a lift which we managed quickly and were soon munching bagels in Lone Pine after another fantastic little backpack. Now back to Scotland!
Monday 9th September 2019 Our aim was to do a loop hike starting at the North Lake trailhead, west of the town of Bishop, hiking north on a chunk of the Sierra High Route, returning via the John Muir Trail and then finishing with a cross country meander past Darwin Lakes and Lamarck Col.
We started with a trip to Basin Bakery for some great bagels then the Bishop Visitor Centre and again managed to get a same day permit for the hike with no trouble. It’s a lovely drive climbing steeply out of the Bishop valley with some final dirt road to North Lake trailhead.
From the trailhead we had an easy gradual on-trail ascent past multiple lakes to Piute Pass at 11,423 feet. There were a few other hikers around and we met a nice guy with a donkey! The west side of the pass is gentle going over a plateau like area but we soon split from the trail to head north cross country to Puppet Pass. The area is flattish, dotted with boulders and lakes with mountains on the horizon all around. The descent from Puppet Pass was to the north of the lowest point – bouldery and slow going but the Puppet Lakes below were beautiful. We made it northwards to Elba Lake to camp in a lovely spot with sun and some shelter in amongst krummholz whitebark pine.
Pretty cold overnight with our water bottles freezing- I guess we are quite high at about 11,000 feet. Our start was a relaxed cross country descent down to French Canyon to boulder hop across the frost fringed river. We were both glad no wading was required as it was still frigidly cold! After a relaxed 1 mile hike west on trail we split again with some faint trails and xc up to Merriam Lake sitting in stark alpine surroundings. Easy going from there up a remote feeling valley across meadows and slabs to La Salle lake before a steep granite boulder and slab push to Feather Pass at about 12,300 feet. We met 2 guys here (first since Piute Pass yesterday) who are out for 10 days.
The descent was on better rock this time with some fun scrambling on grippy granite then onto a snow slope to easier ground. We then wound round various lakes with bear related names and all in a grand wild setting before reaching White Bear Pass with its beautiful lake near the top. The descent from this one though was a bit of a pain with endless willow scrub, gravel and loose rock! We were both glad to make it to flatter terrain and past two more lakes to reach the Hilgard valley where we would split west from the Sierra High Route.
A trail was marked in the valley but we found some rough going initially before a rugged trail gradually became a bit clearer. Cool valley though with granite slabs and green meadows. We made it to about 1/2 mile short of the John Muir Trail and pitched the tent fairly tired after a long rough but excellent day.
Boy was it cold in the morning- our shoes had frozen as well as our water. We soon hit the JMT and headed south on a long gradual ascent to Seldon Pass – drying the tent out in the sun on some granite slabs. The lakes below Seldon were scenic and on the other side the trail was easy as it descended 3,000 feet down to Muir Ranch. This is a place where JMT hikers are able to resupply and stay the night. There is lots of spare food here, left behind by JMT hikers and we were able to stock up on bonus nuts and raisins and a few bars – superb!
Suitably replenished, we headed on south following the steep sided San Joaquin River on a grand trail camping just below Evolution Meadow after a fine day of JMT trail walking.
We started the next day with more chilled out JMT trail walking through Evolution Valley before striking steeply uphill off trail to Darwin Bench. Actually there was a pretty good ‘use trail’ much of the way but with some boulder hopping round the fine turquoise Darwin Lakes. After Lake 4 we stopped at its small beach before hitting the 1,000 foot climb up to Lamarck Col. The views opened out as we followed various sandy trails with the odd scramble to pop out at the col in late afternoon at 12,800 feet. A grand spot.
The descent involved crossing a snow slope which was in the shade and had hardened so we got out the micro spikes and ice axes to cross to the boulders below. From there it was easier arid slopes with a trail forming lower down. We stopped at a trickling water source then looked around a bit for a good viewful camping spot, eventually finding a wonderful place on the ridge above. What a view east over to Owens Valley and the White Mountain range. Even better was a full moon popping out over the jagged ridge to the south and no wind to rattle the tent even on this exposed spot.
After taking a few pictures over breakfast in the morning, we headed down steadily on trail in the morning back to the North Lakes trailhead. Another great loop !
5th September 2019 This three day backpacking trip had us roughly following the northern section of the ‘Sierra High Route‘ in the Sierra mountains of California with another mix of cross country hiking, scrambling and trails. We drove north from Mammoth Lakes to the town of Bridgeport on the east side of the Sierra mountains and arranged a hiking permit for the trip at the ranger station. Like the rest of of our hikes on this holiday, we were able to get a permit for the same day which was a pleasant surprise. A short drive west took us to the Twin Lakes RV resort (via Buckeye Hot Springs to drop off a hitchhiker!) where we paid a small fee to leave the car for a few days.
Scott the friendly campground host gave us good directions on how to navigate through the myriad of local trails to reach Horse creek and the wilderness area to the south. The weather looked a bit dodgy with foreboding cloud build up and on and off rain but the views ahead southwards to Matterhorn Peak were encouraging. The trail was pretty clear but one section by the creek through thick willow bush soaked us from the waist down. Gradually the terrain got wilder and more barren with scree sided metamorphic peaks and faint trail leading to a wonderful little snow bowl just before the pass.
We had decided to deviate from the Sierra High Route by following Spiller Canyon on the other side of the pass all the way down to meet the Pacific Crest Trail and then climb back over McCabe Pass back to the SHR itself. Spiller Canyon is a broad open glaciated canyon surrounded now by sweeping granite peaks. There was no trail but the hiking was easy down grassy meadows and lower down weaving through a thin forest cover. In the evening, rain built up and it got rather unpleasantly wet and we searched around a bit to find a flat spot to camp near the river.
We heard the crashing of branches in the night and assumed a bear may have wandered past heading up or down canyon. Anyway if it was a bear it didn’t bother us thankfully. The rain was still coming down in the morning as we packed the tent up but there were patches of blue sky poking through giving us some optimism. Continuing down the broad U-shaped canyon, the forest thickened a little but there was always a clear way to hike through with a few river crossings to find the easiest ground. We scrabbled over old avalanche paths with lines of felled trees from the higher hillside down into the river. By mid morning we met the obvious Pacific Crest Trail and found some granite slabs to lay out the wet gear in the sun that had managed to break through. Spiller Canyon had provided an excellent hike with no trails or people.
Following the PCT southbound for a few miles was a chance to chill out and enjoy the sunshine. We left the PCT to head east climbing up on the smaller McCabe Lakes trail, firstly through woodland before we split to head cross country again to pick up McCabe Creek. After crossing some meadows and lodgepole pine the climb got a bit steeper and we had to pick a line between willow scrub and steeper slabs before we popped out near to Upper McCabe Lake. We stopped for a rest to take in the more mountainous scene and look at the route up to the pass.
The final push to the pass was about 700ft but on a gravelly trail with some grippy granite scrambling. The views at the top of McCabe Pass were cool particularly to the east and south where we were heading to lakes, snow and rocky peaks. We headed south for a bit along the ridge before zig zagging down ledges between slabs to get reach Secret Lake and then followed easier meadows and a trail down to the beautiful Cascade Lake to camp. Great day and great alpine feeling camp!
A cold night but the sun soon hit the tent in the morning and we warmed up over breakfast. We started with an excellent walk south round the east ridge of North Peak to Connes Lakes where we chatted to some hikers heading up one of the peaks. We then scrambled up lovely granite slabs onto the east ridge of Mt Connes in grand terrain with extensive views. More meadows, streams, slabs, pools and waterfalls as we rounded some more ridges before the push up to Mine Shaft Pass where we had a look around at the namesake old mine workings and could now see south to the Tuolumne meadows area.
We hit trail for the first time today as we descended gradually down past Gaylor Lakes and meadows dotted with white granite boulders. Surprisingly a whole bunch of tiny frogs hopped across the path through the meadow at one point – we found out later that these were tree frogs – cool!
Later on we saw some other hikers before we finally hit the Tuolumne Meadows park road and ended a fantastic final day to the hike. The only thing remaining for us after some calories at the Tuolumne Meadows grill was to hitch all the way round to the car at Twin Lakes. This worked out incredibly well- a lift down to the road junction before Lee Vining – a walk into Lee Vining- a kind person then gave us a lift all the way up to Bridgeport where he was staying then out of his way all the way west to the car at the end of the road Twin Lakes. Another great trip.
On this 6 day hike we took the bus from Mammoth Lakes ski area to Reds Meadows then followed the ‘Sierra High Route’ for 4 days to the road at Tuolumne Meadows. This was a mix of cross country and trail over some beautiful mountainous terrain past Ritter and Banner Peaks. We returned back south for 2 days via Koip Peak Pass on quiet trails, way east of the busier John Muir Trail and lovely in a more sparse arid way with wide expansive views.
This was a section of the Sierra High Route we had wanted to do since climbing Ritter in 2006 and returning to the trailhead past the stunning Iceberg, Cecile and Minaret Lakes on the SHR. With the opportunity to hike into Tuolumne Meadows via remote cross country territory, camp and then return to the start on lesser used trails it had all the makings of a great trip for us.
Thursday 29th August 2019 After a bus trip from Mammoth Lakes ski area to near Reds Meadow resort we hiked off on good trails past some of the basalt columns of Devils Postpile National Monument, over the creek and briefly joined the John Muir Trail.
We turned west and uphill following Minaret Creek in mellow woods with views slowly opening up to the Minarets range and all their spikey magnificence ahead. It gradually got better and better as we climbed past a tumbling waterfall over rockslabs. Minaret Lake has one of the greatest views of any and we skirted round before an easy scramble up to the next Lake – Cecile (banner pic). The Minarets tower above with Clyde Minaret dominating- it has a very classic rock climb up the face via a set of clean corners. The rock is not granite like much of the Sierra range but a slightly more brittle looking metamorphic. One for another day!
The air felt clear and alpine as we scrabbled round the lake over boulders and a few snow patches (microspikes came in handy). At the far north end we had a wee look around before Martina spotted the exit descent starting right at the lakes outlet stream. This was a bit loose and gravelly but quickly took us down to the next wonderful lake – Iceberg – well named!
From there we cross countried over grassy meadows round ridges to find a camp above Ediza Lake.
Continuing the next day cross country on the Sierra High Route involved fairly easily, but still beautiful, travel over some small ridges past Nydiver, Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes. The drop down to Garnet from Whitebark Col was a bit loose and gnarly and we were glad to get to the bottom and onto easier meadows. We turned direction from northwards to south west to follow the drainage up to North Glacier Pass- a splendid, windy and wild feeling place covered in boulders and with the snowy col between Ritter and Banner lending an alpine atmosphere.
The next section of hiking was not particularly hard but felt quite ‘out there’ without any trails through complex terrain – well described by the Steve Roper guidebook though. We found a welcome patch of trees just below an old mine working to stop for a rest before descending steeply past vibrant colourful flower gardens. After lots of winding between outcrops we arrived at the northern of Twin Island Lakes and found a way round the eastern shore on grippy, slabby granite. The outlet from the lake can provide a very deep wade but today it was about mid thigh and fairly gentle so turned out to be a pleasant, refreshing dip. Easy granite slabs gave a good route up to the southern Twin Island Lake and round the east side and we called it a day in the meadows to the south. A brilliant backpacking day! (Brian nipped up the hill to the south east after dinner but the views were limited in the dimming light).
Turning westward we contoured round some hillsides and down into the idyllic Bench Canyon with flat white granite slabs, meadows and water rivulets. More mellow hiking up to Blue Lakes where we went for a swim – jumping off some granite boulders into the still, frigid water. Our climb up to Blue Lake Pass was a bit eventful as we took a ‘sporting’ granite corner line (probably to the right of the easiest route) and ended up hauling the backpacks up with our cord to get over a tricky 30 foot section. From there it was easy scrambling to the pass and new vistas out west towards the domes around Yosemite valley.
The 400 foot descent looked steep, bouldery and unattractive so we traversed hard right along boulders to reach a prominent pure white quartz outcrop looking like a giant ‘Kendal Mint Cake‘ bar. From there the descent was easy down grass and slabby slopes before traversing benches north west and descending into the forest.
This was the point where we should have picked up a good trail to zig zag steeply down to the Lyell Fork creek. However we couldn’t find it despite us separating and sweep searching across the small forested valley. Brian even switched on the gps for help. We decided to keep descending in the general line of the trail in the hope that we would find it again and eventually after about 20 minutes Martina did! Looks like the top of the trail is positioned a bit to the west compared to our gps and as drawn on the map. Funny that after a couple of days of mostly cross country hiking, we lose our way when we were supposed to be on trail!
Set up the tent as it got dark in a well used large wooded camping area near to the creek- a nice spot all the same.
Today was a day of trail hiking northwards to the campsite and store of Tuolumne Meadows – a place we know and love being in the centre of some beautiful climbing and hiking areas. We enjoyed the relaxing hiking through open forest with the standout being the first Sierra Juniper trees we had noticed this holiday- incredible looking trees. Here is a quote from John Muir himself…
The Sierra juniper is one of the hardiest of all mountaineers. Growing mostly on ridges and rocks, these brave highlanders live for over twenty centuries on sunshine and snow. Thick and sturdy, junipers easily survive mountain storms. A truly wonderful fellow, he seems to last about as long as the granite he stands on. Surely he is the most enduring of all tree mountaineers—never seeming to die a natural death. If protected from accidents, he would perhaps be immortal. I wish I could live like these junipers, on sunshine and snow, and stand beside them for a thousand years. How much I should see, and how delightful it would be!
The river of Lewis Fork had a pleasant slabby trail up beside granite slabs and the gushing stream. We continued climbing easily to Vogelsang Pass and saw a few hikers again at Vogelsang Lake. From here to Tuolumne was another 7 or 8 miles of fairly hot and dusty hiking and we sped up in the hope that we would be able to get a camping spot at the Tuolumne Meadows campsite – and before the grill closed!
Made it into the backpackers campsite (I think there was no need to worry here as we could just squeeze into any flat spot remaining) and just in time before the grill closed at 6pm to gorge on veggie burgers and chips! Finished the day off with a fascinating campfire talk on woodpeckers -didn’t realise they have such long tongues.
Chatted to other hikers in the morning then hitched a lift for the 5 or 6 miles of road to the start of our 2 day return hike at the Mono Pass trailhead back to Reds Meadows- we didn’t see the point of walking along the busy road!
Chilled out hiking on trail up to the huge saddle of Parker Pass at 11,100 feet- it reminded us of hiking in the San Juan Rockies on the Continental Divide Trail in southern Colorado- we liked the wide open spaces and big sky views. From there we zig zagged forever upwards on a steady gradient to Koip Peak Pass at 12,270 feet. Great views east to Mono Lake and otherwise drier countryside down below in the valley. The terrain here is volcanic, red and scree covered and quite a contrast to the granite mountains to the west. A shower came through and we hunkered down at the summit cairn then dropped down quickly through some further showers to Alger Lakes. Gem Lake was our intended camp spot but it looked a bit overused by horse packers so we climbed south and pitched on a great little outcrop before Agnew Pass and looking back down to Gem Lake.
Our final day was another mellow one following the Pacific Crest Trail as it traversed south east along a valley side with splendid views back over to Ritter and Banner. We were soon at the horse stables of Agnew Meadows and picked up a bus ride back to Mammoth Lakes. This truly was a great 6 days out there in the Sierra…
Sunday 25th August 2019 We flew into LA from Scotland yesterday and drove up the east side of the Sierra mountains, stopping to pick up our hiking permit and bear canister on the way to the McGee Creek trailhead. It was a blistering 30C here as we packed our gear in the shade and emptying spare food into the trailhead bear box to hopefully prevent bears taking an interest in the rental car.
For this our first backpack of the holiday we aimed to warm up for 4 days following mostly trails, some cross country and to reach a high point on McGee Pass at about 11,800 feet for acclimatization.
Once we started hiking up McGee Creek through sage and past some aspen, the air cooled down a little and it was a very pleasant gradual ascent up to Big McGee Lake at 10,500 feet. We saw a few other campers here but found a cool spot above and away from the lake. A few mozzies around on the way up but tolerable at the campsite – phew!
After a beautiful sunrise over the lake with some snow patched mountains behind, we set off uphill on trail on a grand hike past lakes and some frozen snow patches. We had brought mini crampons- ‘micro spikes’ to fit over our trail shoes and these worked perfectly for moving quickly up the snow. The pass was fairly gentle and scree covered but had good views out west to the jagged ridge of the Silver Divide and the green meadows of Tully Hole below- our descent line.
This was an idyllic valley with lush green meadows and wildflowers, marmots, pika, chipmunks. We eventually connected lower down with the John Muir Trail at a river crossing at Tully Hole – mozzy central!- and followed the JMT northward for a wee while. It was obvious this was a heavy used trail, as well as seeing lots of people, the trail was wide and dusty from many foot and hoof marks. Still it was pleasant hiking and soon we reached Lake Virginia where we cut off cross country northwards up a shallow drainage over a small pass to the the Rams Lake area to camp. Man this was nice up here above the treeline, amongst the small lakes and rough hills around!
We set off on a rather beautiful cross country rambling descent down through meadows, past dotted lakes and streams. We soon picked up a trail below Rams lakes that took us down to Purple Lake. Saw a white owl in the trees and an osprey catch fish on the lake. Back on the wide PCT we headed northwards and turned off soon again to climb up on another trail to the large Duck Lake. Someone kindly offered us some DEET mozzy repellent which Brian gratefully accepted! From Duck Pass we headed north west following notes for the Sierra High route on the broad ridge of the Mammoth Crest. We decided to haul water to camp on the plateau like ridge with panoramic views all round. Particularly north to Banner and Ritter mountains and south to south impressive swelling thunderclouds which we were thankfully able to watch from a distance.
Next morning we had an easy saunter down to Lake Mary on the outskirts of Mammoth Lakes town to end a rather scenic and wonderful ‘warm up’ backpack. We only had the small problem of getting back to our rental car at McGee Lake trailhead. Though yo!- we lucked out and we hitched a lift from a very kind gentleman who took us back to the car in one go along three different roads including the final few miles on gravel dirt road. Thanks!
Saturday 3rd October We spent a day off in a town near to Independence called Lone Pine before hitching back up to the Kearsage Pass road end. Luckily for us we caught a lift from two guys who we had met on the trail at Kearsage Pass and they stopped to give us a lift when they recognised us.
Often when we were hiking, people would ask us where we had hiked from and, although we did delight in telling hikers our full story, there were times when we would just reply with the last nights camping spot so that we could just have a short chat then keep on hiking. On this occasion however, I had told the two guys that we had hiked all they from Canada and one had replied “That’s amazing, let me shake your hand!”. We were both a bit embarrassed by this living in Scotland where the norm is to downplay any achievements however it did mean that we were recognised when standing at the side of the road looking sunburnt and dusty.
Since we didn’t start hiking that day ’til 3.30pm we only made it about 7 miles to camp at Kearsarge Lakes in a bitterly cold but lovely spot. There were bear-proof boxes provided here where we could store our food safe from bears, however we were amused to find out that this area was where ‘bad-bears’ from tourist spots around Yosemite valley are air lifted out to by park staff. We kept a careful look out that evening for any signs of bear activity but thankfully there was none. Two miles further hiking the next morning and we were back on the PCT again and heading south on our final stage! We noticed some lovely trees on the way south before finally crossed the highest point of the whole Pacific Crest Trail, Forester Pass at 13,180 feet.
Lunch was eaten just over the other side of the pass in the snow in a little warm sun trap sheltered from the wind before dropping down onto lake dotted granite Bighorn Plateau. We passed the highest mountain in the contiguous states, Mt Whitney, at Crabtree Meadows and since we had summited two years earlier on a climbing trip we sped on southwards with only a few backward glances. The meadows however were in lovely autumnal colours with patches of snow adding to the scene. Our lunchtime ritual had now extended to laying out the frost-wetted tent and sleeping bags in the sun to dry them out as we lazed around and soaked up the midday sun’s rays.
Near Big Whitney Meadows we were surprised to meet two friendly horse riders who were also out on a backpacking trip into the mountains. Apart from them we hadn’t met anyone else since Kearsarge Pass. The spectacular mountain scenery began to flatten out a little as we wound round tree lined peaks southward into an amazing stark granite, sandy landscape with unusual dry dead trees. We guessed that breakdown of trees takes a long time in this high dry climate.
After a 23.5 mile day we arrived at Kennedy Meadows, a small store and campground and for us it meant that we had cracked the high Sierra mountains- one of the undoubted highlights of our long journey. The terrain around here was more arid with sage and manzanita the dominant plants instead of the big pines of the higher lands.
With 47 miles left to our finish at Walker Pass we just picked up some food and headed off into some hot sunshine down beside the Kern River. Our minds were focused now on finishing and resting our tired legs. We made it 23 miles down the trail just past a water source called Fox Springs for our last night on the PCT. Typically for us, it ended as it began with us running out of daylight and camping right on top of the trail as it was the only suitable flat bit of ground we could find. This had happened to us on our very first night out from the Mexican border at Campo!
Brian startled a coyote which jumped into the bushes as we set camp. We had carried some special food for our last night and had a Mexican gourmet meal with tortillas, refried beans, salsa, corn chips and beer!
Our last day was a bit of a blur with ever increasing heat, sore feet and a focus on reaching the road at Walker Pass. We did have time to notice some Joshua Tree and teddy bear cactus though before reaching the road in a sweaty bedraggled state. Martina wrote a goodbye into the sand on a dirt track and we assumed a familiar position by the side of the road waiting for a hitch to a town down the road to the west. When a driver did stop we asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a photo of us to record the end of a long, long hike and a special experience for both of us……..
It was Saturday 10th October 1998 and it was 2 weeks short of six months since we had set out from the Mexican border in April – we were definitely in need of a rest but elated and thinking that we had been privileged to spend so long in the beautiful and wild country of western USA.
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.
Echo Lake to Tuolumne Meadows Sunday 13th September Our next section of the hike at 155 miles to Tuolumne Meadows was to be one of the longest between resupplies and, with the reputation of consisting of lots of steep climbs, we made sure we had plenty of food for fuel to keep us going for the estimated seven days hike. Sam, the owner of the Sunset Lodge where we stayed kindly gave us a lift from South Lake Tahoe back up to the trail at Echo Lake. Here we left a note for Hikin Mike as we hoped to meet up with him along the trail.
We sped off southwards from Echo Lake a bit late at 11am over rolling hills and granite outcrops to camp with an excellent sunset at Frog Lake.
We hiked 17 miles that day and were aware we would have to average a bit more than 20 miles per day for the next 6 days to meet Eric and Gordon as agreed at Tuolumne Meadows.
Next day we were delighted to talk to a northbound PCT hiker, Alison, who we had last seen way back in Wrightwood in Southern California. Then she had been with her partner Richard who had since stopped hiking and Alison was continuing on solo.
We met up with Hikin Mike near Eagle Creek and enjoyed an excellent and varied day hiking south at and above the tree line with stunted cedars, fine mountains and sparkly lakes to be seen.
Mike left us at Sonora road pass to attend a wedding, after which we climbed up on to the ridge crest where we collected some ‘grainy’ water from a snow patch right on the ridge. We enjoyed some sublime hiking here along volcanic ridges with panoramic views.
Our hiking rate was increasing again and we managed 26 miles the next day to put us back on target for our Tuolumne Meadows rendezvous. At Dorothy Lake we met some rangers on horseback out looking for an escapee horse that had been lost by a tourist! Unfortunately we couldn’t help them. The route crossed a few deep canyon like valleys giving us lots of ascent and descent but the sweeps of granite slabs and walls and the wilderness feel made up for it easily.
Our hiking was going well in this scenic area and with 10 miles to Tuolumne we were pleased to see the familiar figure of Eric hiking out to greet us. Gordon appeared as well at the waterfalls of Glen Aulin – his tendon had recovered well and sufficient to be able to hike out for a 14 mile round trip to here. After a cool dip in the pool below the waterfall we made the final seven miles to the road at Tuolumne Meadows in style and the four of us had a celebratory huge Mexican meal in the nearby town of Lee Vining that evening.
Beldon to Echo Lake Wednesday 9th September As it was raining we had an early breakfast with Eric and Gordon in Truckee near Lake Tahoe. We then drove up Highway 80 to Donner Pass where we left the hire car and the four of us set out south on the PCT towards our next stop at Echo Lake.
It seemed strange to be hiking with friends from home again. Martina and I had got into some sort of rhythm over the past few months and had probably developed a pretty fair level of hiking fitness. It would be difficult for the otherwise super-fit Eric and Gordon to step off the plane and expect to put in the long miles carrying backpacks.
Our route took us along a viewful volcanic ridge to an alpine hut where we stopped for some lunch. The weather was a touch colder that day and some rain turned to hailstones as we ascended up to Five Lakes area to camp, half a mile off the trail. At 20.5 miles hiking it was a long day for the PCT newcomers!
That night the temperature dipped dramatically and we woke to a lining of ice on the inside of the tent outer. So it was a slow start that morning as we all thawed out before zigzagging back onto the trail. Gordon was suffering from a tendon injury and, when we crossed a small road about midday, made a decision to take a lift out from a fellow hiker we met on the trail. The remaining three of us carried on up to Richardson Lake and stopped after 17.5 miles at a pleasant spot by the lake.
Eric surprised us by going for a pre breakfast dip in the cold lake before we set off to cross into the splendidly named Desolation Wilderness. The scenery improved here to one of crystal clear lakes etched out into a bare granite mountain-scape. Dick’s Pass at 9,400ft gave great views north and south across the region and our descent into a lake filled valley provided marvellous hiking.
Next day we had 8 miles to walk in more lovely lake filled country before we reached Echo Lake resort and our next resupply. Gordon met us there after he had managed to pick up the hire car and we all travelled down to the town of South Lake Tahoe for some lunch and food shopping. Eric and Gordon headed off to visit Yosemite with an arrangement to meet us in seven days after we have hiked 150 miles to our next stop at Tuolumne Meadows.