Yosemite National Park from Donohue Pass to Happy Isles: 40 miles in three days
August 8th: 18 miles from Donohue Pass through Lyell Canyon to Cathedral Lake
August 9th: 11 miles from Cathedral Lake to Sunrise Creek
August 10th: 11 miles from Sunrise Creek into Yosemite Valley via Mist Trail
Billy here. The night before we made it over Donohue Pass and camped between two small lakes next to a boulder. Lyell Glacier gleamed in plain view across from us. I was surprised that the rocks held our tent so well in the winds. In the dawn curious marmots stood above the grasses to peer at us. Crossing my first mountain pass was incredible: the dry winds, the granite expanse. Even in the height of the summer, the altitude alone is challenging to the lungs. No matter the time of the year, a mountain pass seems a gateways to gods, a portal to the cosmos beyond, an absolute, vast, awesome and deadly space.
I could not shake the feeling that I was a stranger as a backpacker, passing through, carrying all my food on my back and partaking and sharing nothing except water and my own waste – merely an observer. But also I felt that this was as it should be, for in certain wilds humans do not belong and should not meddle.
The first day we hiked down into Lyell Canyon, a flat, hot and relatively dry walk along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. Walking down from the pass, I could tell that the hike up for southbound hikers would be much more difficult than northbound the way we came. It was a lovely morning view, walking down into the green canyon and watching the trees overtake the granite. The trail crosses the river twice, where at the first crossing one must ford on foot and the second there is a little footbridge. It was refreshing to take off my shoes and plunge through barefoot, especially as I felt the day warming up. This part of the trail was the hottest, even though we were barely under 9,000 feet, partly because there was little shade a good part of the way. We encountered many hikers coming from Tuolumne Meadows, some out just for the afternoon, some heading further toward Donohue Pass, Tuolumne Pass to the west or camp Vogelsang. It is about twelve miles to Tuolumne from Donohue Pass, so we decided we would resupply there and camp for the night. I think I said out loud that I couldn’t imagine hiking six more miles after getting to the campground and general store. I asked Spence if he was ready for the crowds of Yosemite, everyone and their toy piano. He wasn’t sure. We were pretty tired by the time we reached Tuolumne Meadows and filled up on bagels, cheese and beer from the store. We were somewhat refreshed and realized we may have to pay for camping. After exploring the campgrounds, we had enough of the sounds and sights of people on summer vacation running generators and hollering, although we did see an amazing crew of GQ young men with kerchiefs around their necks and open shirts, who watched us as intently as we did them in passing. Though we were tired we decided to keep going and not camp next to the hum of humanity. Funny that I had picked six miles as the arbitrary number that I couldn’t imagine hiking after already doing 12 miles the day after climbing my first pass, because that’s exactly how many more miles we did in fact hike. Each time I open my mouth to declare an artificial limitation in my mind, I hope to be challenged with my own immediate sweat and consequent triumph like this! We trudged up to a gravelly spot beneath Cathedral Peak, nearly invisible in the dusk and camped after what would be our longest day of the hike.
The next morning we could see the glory Cathedral Peak in the dawn light and trekked up to Upper Cathedral Lake for water and breakfast. We saw lots of deer and horse trains as we went over Cathedral Pass and past Colombia Finger. This stretch of the trail seemed like Valhalla: vast, bouldered, verdant and surrounded with enormous peaks of granite rising like castles and spires. We went further this day than we intended as well because the Sunrise Creek area, which supposed to contain more camping, was littered with fallen trees from a recent wind storm, so there was no ideal place to camp. We tromped off the trail to find camp, finding more cougar and bear scat than anything, but finally found a flat spot near the Quarter Domes: the best spot of the trip on a rock outcropping with an amazing view of the domes.
The next day the crowds started growing as we passed Little Yosemite Valley. We decided to take the Mist Trail down to Happy Isles because I wanted to see Vernal fall. Mist Trail is ridiculously steep and rocky. I was nervous walking down it even with trekking poles, but the falls were worth it. The crowds were at this point were as packed as a theme park, the trail’s steep descent wearing on our knees, and we were getting tired and hungry. Another sighting of the GQ men in matching denim cutoff open shirts and shorts (the wind blowing their hair like an ’80s music video) boosted our spirits and we made it to Happy Isles ready for food. We went into the Nature Center briefly and took the shuttle to Yosemite Valley, where we chowed and drank a beer at the incredibly busy cafe there (which reminded me of my job back in Portland). We filled out postcards, spaced out and oveheated, as it was 101 degrees out, and waited for the arrival of our shuttle back to Mammoth Lakes where we would start back at the van to head south. There were a lot of people waiting for the shuttle and by the time we got on the shuttle we were forced to stand in the aisles holding on to the overhead luggage racks for a couple of hours to the north side of the park before other people got off the shuttle. I felt a little bad for the dressed up tourists smelling our unshowered backpacker’s odor under our raised arms, but what can you do?
On the way to Mammoth Lakes we saw another forest fire past Mono Lake from the shuttle around dusk, which seemed somewhat ominous. We reached Mammoth Lakes in the dark and it was cold, a shocking difference from the scorching wait in Yosemite Valley. We approached the parking area with anticipation where we hoped our van was sitting intact. Much to our relief, it was just as we had left it. However, that night in Mammoth Lakes our hopes of finding a motel room were dashed by “Margaritaville”, some tourist festival or another. As exhausted as we were, we drove out to June Lake in hopes of finding camping or a cheap motel room. Finally after 11pm, we found a janky little “cabin” at the Boulderlodge. Completely drained of all energy, we showered and slept on a real bed. Even though sleeping indoors felt extremely hot and stuffy, we slept like champs.
spence here: upon waking from a fitful high altitude sleep, near donohue pass, i crawled out of the tent and felt as if i crawled into an rei catalog. at first, the views and the crisp air awed and disoriented me–how did i get here?! i couldn’t believe we had hiked in! it looked as if a helicopter couldn’t have even gotten there…cliffs, peaks, glaciers and intimidating rocks surrounded us. as the morning wore on and we were breaking camp, however, the isolation wore off, as many many backpackers came ’round the boulder, up and onward heading south to summit the pass before the heat. it was our first inkling of the “crowds” that were to come.
i savored the views of the canyon and thanked the universe for our somewhat random decision to hike this part of the trail north. the steep granite “steps” (they were 2-3 feet tall) we descended from the pass through avalanche territory, didn’t pain me as much as watching families with packs loaded to the brink, struggling up them as the heat rose as well. still, we had a great hike down. there was a trail crew out, seemingly “practicing maneuvers” as my mom would say, and i secretly thanked everyone for working so hard to build and maintain the trail… i think i even thanked john muir in my imaginary speech. once down the granite, crossing over the river, we entered a magical meadow, where the river wound around lazily. i had read on the internet before our hike that lyell canyon was home to the most bears in yosemite national park, and i could see why–the clear winding river, fish literally jumping, plentiful grasses and wildflowers made me want to live there. no bears came out of the brush, however. i think the heat kept them in higher places.
tuolumne meadows was a buzz. the family-style campground and camp store are always a comfort to me, left over from the days my family and i would go car camping and exploring all summer. i want people to be in nature and experience even small tastes of the forest, as that is the only way any of it will remain saved. that said, i also am annoyed by bohemoth RVS, generators, partier extreme rock climber bro’s, perfumed teenagers on their phones and people leaving food trash everywhere next to signs that say “help protect california black bears”. i was pleased with a re-fuel however, of bagels, cheese, cold beer and people watching, so maybe i’m a hypocrite. the decision to move on that day towards cathedral peak was a good one. i didn’t want to hassle with the backpacker camp or bother showing a bogus permit to camp there. there was plenty of light left in the day, so up we went, with billy’s words of hiking 6 more miles echoing in my head!
a curious thing happened on our way up the trail. we passed two hikers working their way down the trail and one of them stopped me in my tracks. as billy cordially said hello, i stumbled to say anything at all, as my brain tried to compute the face i saw–it was non-other than the woman who had turned me onto long distance backpacking 10 years ago! we had met through a series of friends in the spring of 2001, when i was on my way to move to portland, oregon. she was hurriedly in preparation mode for a big thru-hike–the pacific crest trail. i had heard of the east coast “version” of a cross country thru-hike, the Appalachian trail, but i was unaware of the pct. also, i was unaware of a thing called the “triple crown” (the three major thru-hiking trails, the other trail being the continental divide trail) of long distance backpacking. i was enamored of all of it and hung on her every word. later that summer, we met her at crater lake and helped her re-supply, as her and another friend were to hike some of the trail together. we eventually lost touch as people do, going our separate ways, but i had been obsessed with the pct ever since. to actually be on a “real” thru-hike and to see her on the trail many years later was like seeing a ghost. of course she was still on the trail! in my mind, it is where she had always been. i had changed over the years and i was sure she wouldn’t recognize me, which she didn’t, but she looked exactly the same! i spent the next 4 miles wishing i had said something instead of letting the moment pass me by. it was no less profound. it was a sign i was indeed on the right path!
cathedral peak is a wondrous formation, as are its lakes and trail. the following miles felt easy, as the guidebook mentioned, the scenery taking over whatever physical ailments were present. billy and i had fun trying to figure out the other formations along the trail–the vistas feeling wide open and endless. mostly though, we clomped a long in silence, the wind and our minds making the noise. i spotted a fair, scrawny, seasoned hiker down the path near sunrise high sierra camp and we stopped to chat. turns out he was a back country ranger and he asked to see our permit. busted! i pulled out our permit, thinking that it might actually apply since we were just heading north instead of south, no big deal? well, i neglected to worry about being on the right trail! the jmt deviates from the pct in only a few places–from tuolumne meadows to happy isles is a section where it does. we technically had a permit for the pct only, besides also stating that we should be heading in the opposite direction. the ranger was not pleased and sternly pointed out that we were not only going the wrong direction but that we were supposed to be on the pct. well, that actually was an honest mistake and we explained we weren’t coming back that way, but taking the shuttle to our van once we arrived in happy isles. he let us go since we were so close, but he warned to stay away from the happy isles ranger station, lest we get him in trouble for letting us go. i was surprised he didn’t want to see our california stove and fire permit, as it was so dry, but he scoffed, as if it didn’t mean anything. so apparently it doesn’t, even in one of the driest summers the sierras have ever had. hmmm.
at a lower elevation it felt like a hot autumn day in michigan. we wormed our way through the masses of people we first started to encounter near half dome, then at the waterfalls. i was trying to take it all in, but the crowds were impeding my enjoyment. at one point there was a line of people waking to get up the trail about 50 deep. after making our way down towards yosemite valley and getting our grub on, i finally felt happy about what we had accomplished and seen. my knee was holding up under extreme climbing circumstances, our stove worked well, we had eaten fairly well, we were on our way to another segment of adventure and we had just seen some of the most beautiful back country on earth.