Into Another Grand Canyon

3 June 2014 in Backpacking, Camping, Hiking, Trails/Hiking, Traveling, Yosemite National Park

Just as I had expected the party we attended last night sunk its claws deep into our skin and kept us away from our beds into the hours of early morning. Lindsay and I were both helpless to fight against it, with her mixing new margaritas every time my glass went dry and our host brining out the fine bourbons and scotches that target and attack my inhibitions and aspirations with a near perfect accuracy.

We were the last of the last few huddled around a campfire and finally we left our host and one other to slip away to our beds for a few hours of sleep. The alarm came way too soon, but we had every intention of sticking to our plan of hiking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. The Wilderness Office didn’t open until eight so this left us a little time to wallow in the misery we had cast upon ourselves with last night’s festivities. Luckily Lindsay had made scones and we had a half dozen corn tortillas in the fridge along with some veggies and cheese. So after ferociously consuming them along with about a gallon of water between the two of us we were in reasonable shape to assume we might still survive the challenge we had before us.

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River is 31 miles across, the descent is over a mile in depth and the ascent is slightly greater than that. We would be hiking down into a hole in the landscape that was truly deserving of the title “grand”. It’s actually—roughly speaking—as deep as the Grand Canyon and the hike across is about ten miles longer.

As we attended to our final preparations, packing and permits I don’t think either of us had considered or acknowledged these facts. We were simply going on another backpacking trip that was one day and ten miles longer than the past to trips we had taken. We were also in a little rougher shape, but continued to alleviate that with lots of water, as much as we could possibly swallow between home and the trailhead.

By the time we parked we were in functioning condition. Not quite 100%, but close enough to shoulder our packs and abandon the comforts of civilization for a few days. The air was still on the cool side and the sun’s rays were dim as we set out down an old fire road towards the Canyon. I was happy that we had persevered over last night’s indiscretions, but while my mind was celebrating this victory my body was still suffering.

After leaving the old road the trail narrowed and we hiked through a forest of trees and then a jungle of wild flowers and low lying shrubs that attempted to choke the trail and swallowed us up to our shoulders. At first I prayed that this jungle lacked the itch inducing venom of poison oak, but then I thought it better to simply put on pants. There were several stretches of overgrowth along our path, both before and after we reached Harden Lake—a small lake that was well on its ways to slowly draining itself through a crack in its base.

But with time we bushwhacked our way to an opening in the trail and soon stood upon the rim of the Canyon. Peering deep into its depths we briefly questioned our sanity and our abilities before diving into a long and seemingly unending set of switchbacks that led us down to the river. At first it never seemed to get any closer and all of our effort appeared to be a waste. Even when the river was within a stones throw of distance and we were given the impression that we’d soon be swimming within its glistening waters a steep bank kept us at bay.

We followed close to it and departed, up and over small hills, through shaded forests never straying far enough to lose the sound of its roar and never returning to a spot close enough to step into its shore. But finally after many miles of sweaty anticipation we came upon a bank sloped enough to allow entry. It was frigid, frigid enough to keep me out which says a lot, but it was refreshing on our feet and legs for short periods. This paired with some food was just what we needed to continue on after a half hour or so of rest.

On slightly numbed legs we happily strutted down the trail that wound to and fro from the river, but overall was fairly flat. The river was in a constant fluctuation of states when we were in view of it. At times it was as calm as a sheet of glass and gently weaving between grass lined banks. But a half mile up it might be a tangle of white, rushing water darting between massive boulders in a chaotic display of waters flexibility.

Once we passed the junction in the trail with Pate Valley we knew we had completed roughly 1/3 of our journey and began to seek out a small, but ideal place to pitch our tiny tent. As we rounded a corner of rock the perfect setting presented itself. A bend in the river contained three gentle cascades with shallow pools between them – the perfect swimming pools. But there was a catch, about a dozen people had the same idea. They were clearly camping just ahead in the flat patch of forest visible from where we stood. If we had to share this stretch of river I wasn’t about to share a camping area as well.

I had an idea though, the rock we had just rounded appeared as though it may contain a flat spot or two and a short scramble up a natural, but crumbling stairway carried me up atop the rock and confirmed this. There was the tiniest patch of level, gravel lined ground amongst the hard, rough granite. It was almost made for our tent. With no clouds in the sky this was the perfect campsite. We were far from the other people, perched atop a rock that offered incredible views in every direction and we could watch the light show of night sky above us after the sunset without the interruption of trees.

But first things first it was time to revisit the river again. We had spent all day remarking on the beauty of the constantly inviting river. With the hot sun glaring down on us ever pool, pristine and blue beckoned us to swim in its waters. And now that we had put in the necessary miles for the day nothing was keeping us out. Scrambling down the rocks to the shore and stripping down to the essentials needed to properly cover us we searched for the best point of entry.

I had watched some of the other people slide down a portion of slick rock and I longed to do the same. So I made my way up to the first pool and was surprised to see the depth just before the first small cascade. The cascade was perhaps a foot or two, the pool before it was twenty, at least. I briefly waffled over any potential dangers before jumping in and sliding on my belly over the first small cascade. That led me over a few smooth rocks and over to the next cascade, the one that contained the slide.

Even though I had watched a child slide down this natural amusement I was a little uneasy. It was steep and led into a dark patch of water of unknown depth that could conceal any number of unknown dangers. But I held my breath and pushed off. At first struggling to gain anything that could be considered speed, but then accelerating quickly before hitting a small jump in the rock and being tossed into the pool. I was pleasantly surprised to find a ledge of rock on which to stand at the bottom and there I comfortably made my way over to the side where I carefully climbed up the very slick, well water worn rock.

My next task, dare I say duty, was to insure that Lindsay, despite her wealth of worries follow my lead and partake in the fun. It took a little convincing and she only slid down once, but I got her to try it and admit that it was a ton of fun. After thoroughly indulging in all of our water related desires we grew hungry and had dinner. Then it was back to the water just to lay along its slick rock shores and listened to the sound of the rushing water.

As the sun began to set we climbed back up to our perch and watched it gently disappear and shortly after Venus reflected its blazon light. The stars slowly popped through, but couldn’t keep up with our heavy eyes. We’d both awake periodically throughout the night to take in the fully illuminated slender of the Milky Way, but overall we’d sleep well.

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