The morning sun was warm on our backs as we stood high in the sky atop the aptly named, huge stacked-granite mound called Cloud’s Rest at 9926’ and looked down 1100 feet to the top of Half Dome and over a mile down to the Yosemite Valley floor below. Today we would finish our journey along the northern John Muir Trail among the masses of humanity in the Valley, having started 13 days and 144 miles earlier in Bishop.
The last five days had been among the most stunning that we’d experienced along the entire John Muir Trail, the bones of the earth laid bare under our feet with only the occasional veneer of splendid lakes, tumbling rivers and meadows resting lightly on top. From our high perch we could see it all. (Follow this link to learn more about the Geology of Thousand Island Lakes and the Tuolumne Country.)
We’d left Gladys Lake five days earlier, eager to see the succession of huge below Banner and Ritter peaks, some of the most photographed country in all the Sierra. From Gladys we followed the precipitous, rocky path down successive cliff-lined benches holding glistening Rosalie Lake and Shadow Lake. Then, descending around a rocky knob, suddenly there was Garnet Lake before us; reflecting the perfectly blue morning sky and Banner Peak (12,936’) close in at its opposite end – a perfect spot for a snack and a dip in the warm sun, soaking up the rays and the sublime view.
But Thousand Island Lake called from just 2.6 miles further on, and we wanted to secure camps there early, so we packed up and wound through the rolling granite terrain past two more small jewels of lakes (appropriately named Ruby and Emerald) before arriving at the bridge crossing the outlet creek for Thousand Island Lake. We hoped to camp on the northwest side somewhere along the north shore trail that led all the way into the moraine fields below Mt Davis and Banner Peak at the lake’s far end.
We readily found camps on a promontory jutting out into the lake about halfway down, with fabulous views across the lake’s many white granite islands to the peaks and their resident glaciers. There was just enough time for us to don daypacks and hike quickly up to lake’s end, passing a large climbers’ camp among the rocks at Banner’s foot, before the now-daily ritual of dark clouds, lightning and rain drove us back and into the shelter of our tents. During the night, a group of campers under the trees above us to the north hollered “BEAR!” and scattered loudly (might I guess, somewhat drunkenly?) through the trees; but we never saw the bruin and quiet was soon restored.
Rising early the next day we were treated to a fabulous display of pink, orange, and salmon light playing off the faces of Davis and Banner and their snowfields. This was a place well deserving of its vaunted reputation. But we had a date with Yosemite Park, and a resupply pickup to be reached at the Tuolumne Meadows post office two days out. Turning resolutely uphill and away from the lake basin, we ascended through conifer, meadow and glacier-strewn granite boulders to a broad forested flat shown as Island Pass (10,205’) on our map, and then turned our sights to the Sierra Crest at Donohue Pass, about 5 miles ahead.
This was a lovely section, with cheerful creeks and small waterfalls tumbling through the mixed forest-meadow country flecked with white rock. We climbed gradually, then steeply along Rush Creek draining from the base of Donohue Peak directly ahead, before finally turning abruptly southwest and scaling a boulder-strewn headwall to the wide, barren pass at 11,056’. Mount Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite National Park at 13,120’, was foreshortened above us to the southwest. The view north stretched far down along Lyell Canyon with Tuolumne Meadows far beyond. The Divide here actually shed water in three directions: into the Tuolumne River watershed to the north, the Merced to the west, and the Mono Lake basin to the southeast. Our footsteps from here on would be in Yosemite National Park.
The trail down from Donohue was a very steep slip-n-slide down switchbacks covered in pea gravel. Midway down we crossed the upper reaches of the Lyell Fork draining from the glacier above at a lovely little lake with meadows all around, a perfect rest and snack spot. Then it was back to the pounding descent, over a trail bed paved with smooth rocks that had been manhandled into the cliffside and now starting to erode away. Trail crews with hand tools were chipping away at the old rocks and wrestling in new ones. Soon we could see the long meadows and meandering water of the Lyell Fork far below, and looking back, the full majesty of Mount Lyell and Lyell glacier above. We made short work of the last part of the descent into the broad and flat meadow country of Lyell Canyon, finding an unused flat spot near the Ireland Lake trail junction to make our camp.
Mist was rising from the river in the rising dawn light the next morning as we quickly passed the last five miles to the Tuolumne Meadows complex and the Tioga Road. Oh joy of joys, hamburgers, fries and free wi-fi at the Tuolumne store, calls to the kids, and a trouble-free pickup of our final resupply. Here we would part company with Dick who would stay on the John Muir Trail and head up to Cathedral Lakes that afternoon; John, Steve and I had decided to explore more of the Tuolumne country via the high camps at Glen Aulin and May Lakes before circling back to the John Muir Trail at Cathedral Lakes trailhead.
Skirting busy Lembert Dome and following the Tuolumne River, much of the trail to Glen Aulin was from cairn to cairn up, over, around and down broad granite slabs and domes. As we neared the High Camp, the river was rushing strong and we crossed over sturdy bridges first to the south side and then the north, before skirting a significant waterfall and joining the PCT headed northward at the junction to the camp. We stood silent for a moment looking at the PCT sign with distances to landmarks far to the north, before heading over one more bridge to the sturdy tent camp and well-appointed campground. From a perch atop a ridge just west of camp, we watched the sunset paint an orange-salmon glow on the striated domes and walls of the Tuolumne River canyon below, as a ranger talked about the landmarks around us and the storied history of the park.
The way from Glen Aulin to May Lakes camp was short, forested for much of the way before breaking out to switch up the side of a large granite-slab wall to the bench where lower May Lake rested, right under the multi-spiked summit of Mount Hoffman. Passing the white canvas tent cabins of the High Camp we found a lovely, spacious campground near the shore just beyond. Our date that afternoon was with the summit of Hoffman at 10,855 feet elevation, where my father’s ashes had been scattered years before.
The trail headed northwest along the inlet stream before cutting back nearly straight up the southwest ridge, sometimes on a well-defined path, sometimes straight across the slippery scree. We finally scrambled the summit haystack to the dizzying 360o view. Alas, the black clouds were blowing in again, so after some photos we backtracked the slippery scree down to the creekside trail and on to the lake. This night, a friend treated us to a gourmet 3-course dinner in the High Camp dining hall where we could wait out the rain in comfort before retiring to our tents in the now-crowded campground.
It was just 3 miles from May Lakes down to the Tioga Road where we caught an early shuttle back east to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and the John Muir Trail. This section climbed gradually through forest for 3 miles before breaking out into the open and presenting us with the vista of sharp-spired Cathedral Peak, 10,911’, with Cathedral Lake resting just below in a broad grassy bowl. From there the trail crested Cathedral Pass and wound almost level through boggy tree-less flats with forested ridges on both sides. The Sunrise High Camp was perched partway up one of the ridges, and we climbed steeply through and past its dining hall and tent cabins to crest a ridge and descend past the Sunrise Lakes, the first two small and marshy, the third larger with perfect spots near its shore for our camp.
Determined to make it all the way out the next day, we started on the trail before dawn, headlamps nearly unnecessary with the almost unearthly glow of the white granite under our feet. Reaching the junction for Clouds Rest, we took the turn off the John Muir Trail once more, and with little effort found ourselves climbing the stacked bare slabs to the top by 7:30 in the morning. From there it was almost 6000 feet down, with little respite from the grade but mostly protected under trees, joining the Merced at the wide pasture and ranger cabin at Little Yosemite Valley, and soon reaching Nevada Falls.
Suddenly the hordes, oh the jarring hordes! From the Nevada Falls overlook and bridge, the trail down was paved and brutally steep, though still a lovely passage along the dripping cliff wall switching back and forth along the west bank of the Merced. The last mile we were drawn along with a solid mass of sneakered humanity, until we were dumped out at the Happy Isles Visitor Center. We stood dazed by the sign marking the start of the John Muir Trail, people of all nationalities flowing by, before shouldering our packs one last time to find our shuttle back to civilization.