Note: for those who want to skip the Day 3 narrative and just look at the photos, feel free to scroll down to the gallery at the end of the post and click on the first photo to begin the slideshow. By my own admission, brevity in the written word is not my strong point. The gallery photos are also in the body of the post.
Saturday, July 18 2015. John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park
I always find it remarkable how the human body responds to a challenge. I find the challenge of the extended backpacking trip equal parts mental and physical. Mentally, I started with the mindset that for the next three+ weeks, walking was my full-time job, my vocation. As I mentioned in a previous post, I learned a lot from my 2014 attempt. I was carrying less weight on my back and I didn’t wear my body out by overtraining. Because of a stupid (on my part) and potentially dangerous campstove accident last summer, I had to skip the section from Little Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows that I covered on this year’s 2nd & 3rd day. Because of how the mileage and terrain set up for the 25+ mile section from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne (which I budgeted 3 days to complete), I knew day 2 would be my hardest. It was difficult for me, but I rebounded quickly.
One big difference in how my body felt compared to last year was how much energy I had in late afternoon and early evening even after long miles on the trail. This allowed me two very important things: 1) I was able to take the time to scout better campsites; 2) I was able to explore the surrounding areas of these sites with my camera or just to simply appreciate the fact that I was out in a special place. Last year, there were times that I was so physically spent, or dealing with my strained back, that I couldn’t crawl into my tent and sleeping bag fast enough.
Because of how hard my second day on the trail was, specifically the climb up Sunrise Mountain, I was concerned with how my body would feel this third morning when I woke. My worries, as they often are, were for naught. No sore spots, legs and back felt amazing. I did, however, have one worry that I hadn’t considered in my planning. I’d be picking up my first resupply today at the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office. It didn’t occur to me until I was on the trail that being a Saturday, they might close early or maybe even not be open at all. And if that were the case, they certainly weren’t going to be open on Sunday. Although I had more miles to cover than Day 2, I knew the elevation profile would allow me to make good time. Turns out my fears weren’t totally off base. I got to the post office thirty minutes before they were set to close until Monday. Had I been late, I would’ve had an unscheduled rest day. Although as I reflect, there are worse places to rest and chill out than Tuolumne Meadows.
Because of my concern with getting to my Tuolumne Meadows resupply early, I set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. and took these first two photos as I prepared my breakfast (coffee & oatmeal with a Naprosyn chaser). For the most part, I was an early riser most days. And except for my two zero days later in the trip when I was able to enjoy a nice campfire, I was also in my tent pretty early in the evenings, long before it got dark. This was one of the main reasons I left my tripod behind. In 2014, I’d planned and hoped to do some night/star photography. The realities of the trail and my exertions made me realize that I’d be in my sleeping bag while the stars were out.
It’s a good thing I rise early, because I do move slowly in the mornings. I got on the trail just past 7:00. The forecast called for a very slight chance of rain later, but a greater chance (that would prove true) in the coming days. In looking at my Harrison map and reading about the day’s terrain in my Elizabeth Wenk JMT book (with the very helpful elevation profiles), I knew I’d have a relatively easy day with an easy climb to Cathedral Pass early and then a steady descent to Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows.
As always, I can’t resist wildflowers and I found plenty of them all along the trail this morning.
Still early in my day and on my trek, making my way through a new landscape, I can barely contain my giddiness. I’m almost always a grateful, mindful hiker. And on this particular trip, I’m hyper-aware of what a blessing it is to have the opportunity to take a sabbatical, and enjoy an open ended itinerary. In fleshing out my rough itinerary from Happy Isles (Yosemite) through my final resupply at Muir Trail Ranch at the approximate halfway point of the JMT, I purposely built in some short days and two zero days so I wouldn’t have to kill my legs and other body parts over the first 109 miles.
Just before 9:00, the distinctive Cathedral Peak came into view (in photo below it’s the peak on the left). Aside from Mt. Ritter & Banner Peak near Garnet Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, it’s probably the most photographed peak along the trail, maybe even more so, since it’s so accessible to Yosemite hikers.
The moderate terrain contributed to an unexpectedly fast pace and I realized I was going to reach Upper Cathedral Lake much earlier than I planned. Although Cathedral Pass (9,700′) was ahead of me, the climb was a breeze compared to yesterday’s slog up Sunrise. And Sunrise camp was already at 9,320′, so I barely had to exert myself during the morning. (all relative of course!).
And a couple of alternate black & white views of this spectacular landscape.
I thought I’d get to Cathedral Lake at about 10:00/10:30, but even with stopping for wildflowers and other landscape photos, I got to the lake at 9:30. With this early arrival, and knowing I’d be able to eat both lunch and dinner at Tuolumne Grill later in the day, I decided to have a mid-morning tortilla/cheese/salami snack.
And as I sat munching my meal, I decided to get back on the trail quickly and to increase my pace even further as I considered the possibility that the post office at Tuolumne might close early. Over the next couple of hours, I wouldn’t take many as many photos. But I did find a cool photo opportunity when I saw a climber making his way up the back side of Cathedral Peak.
From the time I got back on the trail at Cathedral Lake, I started encountering an ever increasing volume of weekend day hikers coming up the trail from Tioga Road. I have to admit that I allowed the hordes to get me out of my ‘zen-ness’, as many were making an inordinate amount of noise and weren’t acquainted with proper trail etiquette. By the time I reached Tioga Road at 11:30, I was like a horse smelling the barn. I reached the post office/grill area at 12:40 and it turns out that my fears of them closing early were justified. When I walked up, the worker said they’d be closing up at 1:00. I grabbed my small box containing a 5-day supply to get me to Reds Meadow and after buying a burger and soda, I took my cache and hot food over to the nearby picnic benches to rest, eat and then refill my bear canister. (Note: I was planning on 4 days to reach Reds Meadow, but I like having a one-day food supply buffer).
Afterwards, I made my way to set up camp at the Tuolumne Backpackers Camp about half a mile away. When I got to the camp, there were plenty of open spots, but by late afternoon/early evening, it got pretty crowded. I went out for about a 90 minute hike out to Parsons Lodge, Soda Springs and the meadow late in the afternoon to explore and take photos.
When I got back to my campsite, it had gotten even more crowded and I almost had to act as a host to find spots for several newbies who weren’t sure where to set up. I think many of them were hesitant to crowd others, but I tried to assure them that it was the nature of the Backpackers Camp, especially on a Saturday night. I enjoyed a nice evening with a campfire and relaxed with a cigar as the stars came out. This would be one of the evenings that I’d turn in a little later. In the morning, I planned on sleeping in a little so I could eat breakfast sandwiches and coffee at the grill before hitting the trail.