South from Tuolumne

In the morning I had a quick breakfast at the village coffee shop, turned in my tent-cabin padlock key and drove back to Tuolumne Meadows. Luckily I got the last spot at the Wilderness Permit Office parking lot. After double-checking there were no bear attracting food wrapper left in the truck, I strapped the pack on and was walking by 9. My original schedule had me starting at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, but the few miles I walked the day before put me farther down the trail. I’d have the choice of a ten mile day or getting ahead of schedule right away. 

The section through the meadows and into Lyell Canyon was fairly flat. It stayed near to the absolutely gorgeous Lyell Fork. The stream was crystal clear and flowing nicely despite the drought. In talking with a few backpackers heading the other way, there would be plenty of water all the way up to Donahue pass, though dry on the back side. The trail stayed flat for 8 miles or so and I made good time and felt good despite the full pack (34 pounds) on my back. 

Deer in a reflecting mood along Lyell Fork
Deer in a reflective mood along Lyell Fork

Once the climb began, I felt it immediately. Over the next two miles the trail climbed from 9,000 to 10,200 feet. The trail was well designed and climbed smoothly with switchbacks, but that didn’t change the fact that I live at an elevation of about 800 feet. 

The sun had been out through the day and the air was dry. At the Upper Lyell Base Camp I drained the last of the 2 liters I’d started with and started filtering some of the Lyell Fork water. Looking up ahead, I could see why the creek was running so well. There was still significant snow on the upper reaches of the mountains up ahead.

As I was bending over and straightening up to get water to filter, I got lightheaded. That settled it. It was only 3 pm, but after 10 miles I was done for the day.

As I scouted for a campsite, two bucks wandered thru the area, oblivious to my presence. All day, it seemed like deer were everywhere and completely unconcerned as I walked the trail near them. I found a great little spot among some pine trees that still had a nice view of the creek and the cliffs on 3 sides. Obviously, it was time for a nap. 

My first camp. The black canister is the Bearikade
My first camp. The black canister is the Bearikade

A couple guys from Bakersfield, CA showed up while I was asleep. One started fishing the small pond and immediately caught a nice brook trout that was to be their dinner. It would be the same dinner they had the night before. I could handle that kind of monotony. 

Per my initial plan, there would be 18 miles to cover the next day. However, after another 1,000 feet climb over 2 miles to clear Donahue Pass, the rest appeared to be downhill or rolling. Hopefully it would be doable.

Climbing toward Donahue Pass
Near Donahue Pass

All my food was in the Bearikade (bear resistant container) set 200 feet or so away. There were a few no food items that I kept in the tent though. I wasn’t worried however. I couldn’t imagine a bear swinging by to eat my hand sanitizer when less than 100 yards away there were two guys awash in the smell of fried trout, trout breath and trout farts. 

After a bear-free night I woke up a little after 6. It took about an hour to eat and break camp. The climb over the pass was significant, but not overly steep. The two miles to the pass were completed in about an hour. This was followed by a long drop through a dry valley until I got below some more mountains with snow melt. So far there was water pretty much everywhere. Even up on Island Pass the trail wove between two ponds. There were some dry ponds, but the streams were running well. 

Got some stupendous views of Thousand Island Lake and snow covered mountains above it. Refilled my water there and followed the trail up and over a ridge. Eventually stated dropping back down and my heart sunk. Was I walking back down to Thousand Island Lake? It sure looked like it. Same mountain in the background and the lake looked similar with some islands. As I walked, I tried to figure how I could have messed up so badly to be somehow walking in circles. As I dropped further down I finally realized that while the mountain was the same, the lake was not. I was at Garnet Lake. 

Thousand Island; or possibly Garnet Lake
Thousand Island; or possibly Garnet Lake

As I was walking I met two thru-hikers. One north-bounder just raved about the experience and the views I would be seeing. A bit later a southbound hiker caught up to me. The first thing Floridia said was he was probably quitting the trail once he reached Muir Trail Ranch. He told me the smoke from wildfires was bad farther south and he didn’t want to walk in it. 

I thought my day was about over when I left Shadow Lake heading for a campsite at Rosalie Lake. The two mile hike to lake was unrelenting switchbacks though. Unfortunately, after that slog all the sites were filled with weekend hikers so it was on to Gladys Lake. I finally arrived there around 6 pm. All the sites were filled there too but Peter from NY offered to share his area. He was a nice guy, about my age and had been hiking the Sierras for 20 years. Though I hadn’t planned on it, he talked me into stopping at Reds Meadow Resort in the morning.

Broke camp around 7:30. After a short climb it was all downhill to Reds. About halfway there, Peter caught up to me so I picked up the pace and walked with him. The trail to Reds can be poorly marked, so Peter guided me in through the Devils Postpile National Monument. The name comes from the pretty interesting volcanic formations.

Post pile
Post pile

We made great time to Reds, arriving about 10:30; just in time for a second breakfast.  And some ice cream. Peter was resupplying there and headed for the laundry/showers. Several other hikers were also there trying to decide whether or not to continue into the worsening smoke. After some more ice cream I headed out into the worst smoky haze of the trip. The hard climb out of Reds was partly through a burn area and the haze made it appear very fresh. 

Apparently it wasn’t all haze though as I began to hear thunder. Keeping up the strong pace from the morning I arrived at my planned destination (Deer Creek) for the day at 3. It seemed a little early to stop, but the next camp spot was another five miles. As I considered options, the rain started. I quickly put up the tent and dove in to ride out the storm. Decision made; hiking was done for the day. Of course it cleared off shortly thereafter. 

With possible thunderstorms in the forecast I saw at Reds, I wanted to get an early start and push hard to get over Silver Pass as early in the day as possible. Camping at over 9,000 feet, it was a cold night however. I put a hat on in the middle of the night to stay warm and brought in my water filter so it wouldn’t freeze. Despite the cold I got up at 6 and was rolling by 7. Smoke was rather thick in the area so there wasn’t much need to stop for pictures. Went into a forced march pace up the first climb, about a 1,000 feet over three miles. The trail bounced around 10,000 foot elevation the rest of the morning passing a couple beautiful lakes. The smoke/cloud cover thickened up, a cold wind began and for the first time of the trip I hiked with my rain jacket on. In late morning, after a big drop down to Fish Creek, I broke for lunch in a pine grove to help block the rain that was starting. By the time I’d finished eating, I needed the pack cover and rain pants too. Passed another hiker that was stopped to dig out her gloves. I knew I’d have to empty my pack or get to mine or I’d have done the same. 

The climb to Silver Pass was about 3 1/2 miles rising from 9,200 to nearly 11,000 ft. The steady cold rain and wind were not the most pleasant conditions. About halfway up the rain luckily quit. Unluckily, it had turned into sleet and snow. The ice pellets were actually preferable to the rain and while the ground began to get covered, it never got deep enough to cause any problems. 

Silver Pass
Silver Pass

Once I thought I was close to the top some hikers came the other way and one told me I was 5 minutes from the top. Enthusiasm renewed, I pressed on. When I hadn’t reached the pass 20 minutes later, I was sorry for the encouragement. Finally topping out, all I wanted at that point was to get to a lower altitude and warm up a little. I kept walking at a brisk pace downhill thru more snow which changed back into rain; finally slowing to a sprinkle. The drop was steep and few spots looked inviting to put up the tent. Once I finally found one I had dropped 2,500 feet from the pass and covered over 20 miles for the day. At around 5:30 pm I set up right next to a big pine that would hopefully protect me from a huge widow maker that threatened the rest of the flat spots in the area.

At that point I was just a few miles from the cutoff trail to Vermillion Valley Resort. I had a room reserved for the next night and a resupply bucket was supposed to be waiting for me as well. Rain continued on and off through the night. I wanted to make the resort’s 8:30 ferry across Lake Edison so I planned to roll at first light, no breakfast. The plan was to get up at 5:30 or so. That was the same time the rain began to fall its hardest. I packed everything I could into the pack while still inside the tent. That worked fine until I had to put the soaking wet tent into the pack. I was glad to be heading to the resort. It would have been rough to try to dry everything out on the trail. The lake is actually a hydroelectric reservoir and was low enough that the walk to the boat included a couple miles on the lake bottom. The boat ride was in a cold, windy rain with two other hikers: James and son Thomas from England. They said they might drop out if the rain doesn’t cleared the smoke.

View from the bottom of Lake Edison
View from the bottom of Lake Edison

We arrived at the resort just in time for an extraordinarily hearty and tasty breakfast. By the time I had showered and done a load of laundry the sun was breaking out. There was a picnic table outside my room that spent the sunny afternoon holding pieces of equipment to dry. With great food, a friendly atmosphere and a cold beer or two, Vermillion Valley Resort was a perfect resupply stop.