It was about 50 miles of slow driving from my tent cabin in Curry Village to Tuolumne Meadows. The sun was just hinting at rising as I climbed into my truck and headed out. Arriving at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead nearly 2 hours later I parked alongside the road. Everyone else was using windshield covers (fool bears?) so I did too. Hiking began about 8:30. In case you were wondering, I took my truck instead of the free bus because I was worried about running out of daylight. The Trail from Cathedral Lakes Trailhead started with a consistent, though not steep ascent. Surface was a sand and dirt mix. In some spots it was almost like beach sand. One thing I noticed right away was the complete lack of blazes. Metal signs were at intersections, but that was it. However, the signage seemed to be plenty as the trail was very obvious. I was starting at 8,600 feet and felt a little short of breath due to the altitude. Just carrying a day pack there was no problem climbing though.
Hiking through open woods, it didn’t take long for the scenery to start getting spectacular. Heading toward Cathedral Peak the views just kept getting better. Near Cathedral Lake every direction was a postcard. Over five miles the trail climbed to 10,000 feet and repetitively named Cathedral Pass. Met a couple high school aged guys that had begun hiking the JMT at Happy Isles. They looked pretty happy when I told them they were done climbing for a while. I continued on through another meadow with new gorgeous views.
The sun stayed strong and I took a break to put on sunblock. After a little over nine miles of hiking, the trail topped out again near 10,000 feet and started the long drop to Yosemite Valley. Trees around me started getting huge. A deer walked behind one and was completely hidden. A little while later a coyote strolled by seemingly unconcerned with my presence. The downslope was steep, but a liberal use of switchbacks helped.
When I was almost exactly halfway on the day’s hike I came across two couples taking a break. They asked if I knew how far it was to Tuolumne Meadows. Checking the GPS app on my phone (Guthook), I let them know they had 10 1/2 miles to Cathedral Peak Trailhead and that’s the same distance they’d walked from Happy Isles. One member of the group told me that as the crow flies, they’d gone 8 miles and the standard trail multiplier was 1.5 so they’d gone 12 miles. I replied that as the crow walked, they’d gone 10.5. Once he pulled his map out, I politely taught him how to read it and how my walking crow was more accurate than his crow.
A short time later the trail passed through a burn area (fire in 2014) and dropped down through desolation of charred standing tree trunks for about 2 miles. With the drought, nothing had even started growing back except right along a small creek. There were a couple tents set up near the creek. What a depressing place to camp.
Eventually I was back into a live forest and getting views of Half Done. A large firefighting plane flew over towards an area of smoke. Once to the Half Dome Trail, things got crowded and steep switchbacks returned till I reached a flat stretch through Little Yosemite Valley. The trail crossed over Nevada Falls then circled back to get some great views of the falls.
Thus began an unrelenting 3 mile drop to the valley floor with the JMT chiseled into the wall of the valley. The trail surface eventually transitioned to asphalt as it headed steeply down, losing a final 2,000 feet in altitude. My knees and feet, already tired from the previous 18 miles were complaining loudly about the pounding. However, it would have had to be much tougher going up with a full pack. I’m sure that tough start has ended more than a few JMT dreams. I silently thanked my bad luck in not being able to score a permit from the trail’s official beginning.
It was about 6 pm when I reached Happy Isles and the end of the day’s hike. In a lucky break, a shuttle bus pulled up just as I stepped off the trail, walking within 10 feet of a deer that grazed unconcerned by the bus stop. And so I finished my first day’s hike where many start, but had covered the miles nonetheless.
After another good night’s sleep in the tent cabin, my task for the day was to pick up my wilderness permit and retrieve my vehicle. To get back to the truck, I could retrace my 21 mile hike of the day before or ride the free shuttle bus back to Tuolumne. The bus was pretty nice and even had plugs to charge my phone had I brought a cord. I was on the first bus of the day, leaving Curry Village at 7:45 am. Why didn’t I take the bus yesterday you ask? If it were summer you’d have a point, but I really didn’t want to finish the hike by headlamp and driving myself bought me more daylight. The bus didn’t roll by my truck until nearly 10:30. I’d have been walking in the dark. Two more stops and I got off at the Wilderness Permit Station. There I picked up my permit for next day complete with the standard lecture about bear canisters, running off bears, picking campsites, soap, fires and packing out toilet paper. I was also presented with a “wag bag” in case I need to poop on Mt Whitney. Although the bag didn’t appear to require much of a learning curve, rest assured I intended to avoid that situation if at all possible.
Lunch was at the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Grill and then I enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to the truck. The trail was a bit confusing in the area, so be careful if you’re a purist about walking the trail correctly. Of course, if you feel that way, you’re probably not parked at Cathedral Lakes Trailhead. The drive back was interesting as a bear ran right in front of me. Back by Curry Village I spotted my first bobcat in “the wild” as it walked right past my tent cabin.
Dinner in the village was a pizza and a beer. It tasted so good I had another pizza and more beer. Spent the rest of the evening getting everything ready and feeling like I might explode from all the food and drink. Out of an abundance of caution I kept the wag bag handy, but it was not required.