I can’t say I’ve ever been graced by the presence of a river more beautiful than the Tuolumne. We covered over twenty miles of it and had just seven more to go today. But we didn’t know what we had in store today until we crested one more crown of rock, the slab we had slept below the night before.
As the next stage of our hike slowly rose into view the corners of my lips rose with it. We had unknowingly camped two hundred yards from Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp – our desired destination the day before. With this we knew we had just a short hike ahead of us.
And also just ahead of us was a gorgeous waterfall, and then another above it, and then another above that. It was foreshadowing additional climbing, but it was beautiful climbing. The air was cool, the sun was just creeping into the valley to our west and all was well. We hiked up over the last falls and past a large pool. Then we passed Little Devil’s Post Pile. Smaller than it’s big brother Little Devil’s Post Pile is a rare, volcanic phenomenon it which long, Play-Doh-like strands of rock emerge from the ground and cool leaving stringy, fairly uniform columns that look manmade.
Continuing on the trail finally gave in and flattened out. We wound through forests and over spans of exposed, boulder speckled granite. Then we returned to the river and our surroundings became lush and grassy meadows with backdrops of craggy peaks on which still clung a few patches of snow. Surprisingly the end of the trail was quite stunning. I hadn’t even considered taking the easy hike in the other direction and as a day hike, but I will definitely do so in the future when the bloodthirsty plague of mosquitos die off for the season.
Before we knew it we were in Tuolumne Meadows, at the end of our long journey. And as chance would seem to have it here we ran into someone from Wisconsin. This has been the case an improbable number of times now, but once again the timing was just right for us to look over and see a Wisconsin patch on a young man’s backpack. Turns out he and his dad were just visiting the park and he actually works on a fire crew in Nevada, but they were both born and bred Wisconsinites.
After checking out the bubbling puddles at Soda Spring—a naturally carbonated spring in Tuolumne Meadows—we made our way to Tioga Road and quickly unpacked our backs and raised our thumbs. Thankfully our hitchhiking went a little better than the first time and within twenty minutes we were riding with a park employee who was on her way back from Lake Tahoe. Both times we hitchhiked it’s been park employees who have picked us up. Again what are the chances? I guess in this case a little more likely, but still a strange coincidence.
We both slept well with the Milky Way as our nightlight and awoke bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to hit the trail and see what beautiful sights today had to offer. We seemed to be the first to do so as we passed a couple other groups of campers still leisurely eating breakfast and sipping coffee. But before long we were all alone again. The sun was still hiding just over the canyon wall as the shadows slowly receded towards us.
It was cool and a light breeze graced our skin as we followed the well beaten path this way and that, up and down, away from the river and back to its shores. We put in a few good hours of hiking before the allure of the water was simply too inviting. Traipsing off trail a short distance we took a little break at the water’s edge and dipped our legs in knee deep, providing a little relief to our tightly wound muscles.
After the break we began a long climb that carried us above an unseen—except for on the map—gorge called Muir Gorge. Apparently John Muir was one of the first people to successfully navigate his way down into the gorge and back out. From what I’ve read it’s quite challenging and so we decided to pass. The climb up and around it was presenting enough of a challenge for us.
It let up a few times, but for the most part the trail steadily led upward, sometimes at a reasonable grade and other times at a body grading pitch. And of course by this time the sun was beating us down from the high noon sky. I felt like I was being compacted, the sun crushing me from above and the trail grinding away at me feet and legs. Less than halfway through our hike, maybe seven miles in, I was ready to call it quits.
But we continued on. There’s no quitting on the trail. It’s survival. It’s a self-imposed hardship with no easy way out. And it’s sadomasochistically (not a word but it should be) wonderful! In most of our privileged lives there’s very little physical struggle. We’ll complain about a tough day at work or the stress of traffic, but those crusades are menial and trite with alleviation in the form of a couch or bed awaiting you shortly. They are the slow erosion that will eventually reduce us to dust, but they require sufficient time. The trail has an insatiable appetite for toil and if you are not constantly feeding it then it just may consume you.
So we fed it, our sweat dripping and instantly evaporating in the dust below our feet, our bodies screaming like banshees engulfed in flames. We peered up at each imposing dome of rock, carved with the signs of future switchbacks and cursed our infatuation with nature. Why are we addicted to wild places that ask so much of us? Why can’t we just be happy touring the countryside from the comfort of a car like the majority of visitors to the park? Is this really worth it?
Simple answer – yes. It is totally worth it. Each utterly unbearable step up, every backbreaking mile rewarded us handsomely with another wonderful view of the massive, tree bedded canyon or the untamed rapids and pools of the Tuolumne River. Not to mention the small swell of pride and accomplishment slowly growing and glowing like a tiny ember in the wind. We were capable of overcoming great obstacles. Mentally and physically we were strong and could log this confidence and retrieve it in times of doubt.
When we arrived at Waterwheel Falls we took another break and prepared some lunch. Ramen noodles was just what our drained fuel tanks needed. We found a little spot at the top of the falls where we could peer down upon the valley we had just climbed out of and there was also a pool of rushing water in which to submerge our feet. It was like a cold whirlpool with small jets of water gently massaging away the miles of hard trail. We spent a couple hours at this spot – eating and dazing off in lost stares as we took in the scenery.
After such a relaxing siesta we thought we had the gusto to proceed on for a few more hours and cut into the miles we’d have to surpass on our final day, but almost immediately lethargy rolled over us and we were once again forced to push our spent bodies to new extremes. We laughed madly as we approached each new wall of granite and carried our burdensome bodies up and over. I hadn’t felt this tired since hiking and running the Grand Canyon. I didn’t want to move another foot, let alone another 20,000, but I did. We both did.
We passed Le Conte and California Falls, but also several other smaller falls. None of them had signs so we were forced to ponder our exact location. We wanted to make it to a spot near the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, but without identifying which falls was which we had no other points of reference to use to assess distances. Finally, as the sun approached the cliff’s edge we found a flat area where others were setting up tents.
A gorgeous falls cascaded down into a tranquil pool and was bordered on one side by bare rock and on the other side by a sandy beach. This was it. It didn’t matter where we were or how far we had to go tomorrow. We were camping here. Our bodies wouldn’t have it any other way.
I built a fire as Lindsay set up the tent and fetched water. We spent the rest of the evening making trips to the river for cooking water and drinking water. We were out of purifying tablets and so boiling was our only alternative. We were both tired, but we knew it was best to take care of this issue now, rather than in the morning. We planned to get up and going early in hopes of beating the beating the sun would be handing out tomorrow afternoon.
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.
While I can’t say I slept soundly, without waking I can say that my tossing and turning in the twilight hours was some of the most pleasant unease I’ve ever had. After 13 miles of hiking with a 30 pound pack on my back I was just a little sore and the inch of partially inflated foam below me didn’t provide much relief. But I did sleep. For stretches of an hour or so at a time. And when I did wake with pain pulsing from which ever side of me was on the bottom, the bright moon was always there, illuminating the stunning silhouettes of the mountains just outside of our tent.
And as dawn began to glow I eagerly anticipated sunrise. Drifting off for just minutes at a time and awaking, startled, fearing I had missed it—like a kid on Christmas morning. Finally the very tips of the peaks caught the first light of day and I emerged from the tent to watch the fire of the morning sun slowly creep down the coarse and jagged rocks.
While doing so I began to cook breakfast and awoke Lindsay to join me. We sat on a flat rock in our campsite, sharing oatmeal and tea while the rest of the world was ignited before us. The mosquitos that had pestered us the night before were probably too gorged still this morning to bother us and the ants had found someone else to bother as well. It was the peace we were hoping for last night.
After eating and packing up our camp the heavy packs were once again hoisted up upon our backs and we continued our ascent. A short distance in we came across our first creek and filled and purified our water. As we did so the early birds of the mosquito kingdom greeted us in small droves. This would only be the beginning.
At first the mosquitos were bearable if we just kept moving. And so we did, only occasionally stopping to take in a view, snap a photo or refill our water. As we came over the top of the ridge we crossed more small creeks and the large patches of snow that was still feeding them. It was a whole new world on this side and despite our tired bodies and the beating sun we were in high spirits.
Then we began a long descent. Switchback, after switchback, after switchback carried us down off the top of the mountain. It seemed endless and was only made worse by the increase in buzzing little bloodsuckers. We had applied OFF! before starting the day, but it seemed to be doing little, if anything. Our pace quickened and we were soon barreling down the hillside at a record pace.
I had hopes that a breeze would kick up as the day went on or that maybe we’d soon be out of this heavily infested breeding ground, but it never let up, only worsened. When we got to more level ground we were forced to pass through countless meadows, thick and green and damp. Here there seemed to be thousands of mosquitos floating in clouds around us and attacking every area of exposed skin and sometimes going right through our clothing with their tiny, little straws.
In desperation we tried to apply more of the ineffective OFF!, but the aerosol ran out and now a dose strong enough to lay waste to our enemies was trapped inside the can. I carried this can in vain, cursing it’s very existence for miles and miles as we marched at a speed walkers pace. I have never been so distraught and filled with anger on a trail. We were miserable and couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful scenery or the wonderful day. We just kept going. And going. And going. The trail seemed to have no end. The minutes felt like hours and the miles lightyears.
I think we both were on the brink of cracking and going mad out there. I was swearing at the mosquitos and actually felt fleeting vindication when I was able to smash one against my polka dotted skin. There was this brief sense of retribution, but it soon disappeared as their seemingly infinite army filled in the fallen ranks. We were at war and loosing. I began to retreat and leave my fellow soldier in the dust. We had stuck together for hours now, but I had to escape. I had to find the end of the trail and emerge from the madness.
Had it been a minute longer I don’t know what I would have done. An hour would have surely left a lasting crack in my psyche. A day longer and I would have been found laying by the trail side, sucked dry like some human raisin. But I found the end and emerged from the horror and soon Lindsay was there beside me, itching manically. It’s no wonder, in our state we had a hard time hitching a ride. It would end up taking us another hour just to get back to the truck.
Our wounds would last us a week. Lindsay fairing far worse than me. Somehow my bites barely itched and there remnants were few and far between. Lindsay on the other hand was covered from head to ankles in bumps and some clusters numbered in the hundreds. We tried all of the usual remedies and surprisingly the newest and oddest one helped the most. So here’s a tip from one of our fellow rangers for treating mosquito bites – Vick’s Vapor Rub. Yep, the stuff your mom used to apply to your chest when you were very young and had a cold. It smells pretty intense and out of place in the middle of summer, but it works.
The rain came blowing in yesterday and washed away all of the dust and the dirt as well as all of our hopes of spending two days in the backcountry. We made the best of it with overindulgence – a big breakfast, a late lunch at the Mexican restaurant in Groveland. But today we had our sights set on the Ten Lakes loop and there was not a cloud in the sky to stop us.
This was our first backpacking trip of season—with many more to come. We had our wilderness permit and our bear canister, along with every other necessity strapped on our backs and we were ready to roll. I had done the first portion of this trail as a day hike just last week and so I was familiar with the terrain as we strolled up short inclines, along rock laden passes and wound our way through short stretches of forest. Surprisingly our 20-30 pound packs hadn’t reduced our standard pace much and soon we crossed the vast meadow I knew foreshadowed a steep and unrelenting incline.
We stopped for a quick break and a granola bar before proceeding skyward along the short and precipitous trail. Initially our packs were tolerable, but this incline provided a effective reminder of the weight we had “gained”. Our knees and our thighs were engulfed in flames with each step and the sweat dripped down our brows. The first time I made this ascension I thought it was much longer, but thankfully this time it seemed to let up sooner than I had anticipated.
Rounding the crest and now atop a long, flat and vacant plateau the mountain range to the north began to rise slowly over the horizon. Dipping ever so slightly the whole of this massive range was soon revealed. Pinnacles of rock stood as they had for millions of years, still and imposing. Their size and distance so overwhelming and unreachable that they could have been a painted backdrop leftover from some old movie set.
Departing from the trail we took a spur trail I had discovered on my first trip and soon we were perched upon a small, elevated mound of crumbling rock. To our right were four of the Ten Lakes and to our left was the bottomless gash that dove infinitely down below the previously mentioned mountain range. The Tuolumne River spent more time than could possibly be imagined cutting through these mountains and forming a canyon truly worthy of the title “Grand”—and we should know we lived at the Grand Canyon for a couple months. Even though our perch only revealed a small section of the canyon it was certainly impressive.
We waffled and waited up here for a long while. It was too early to eat lunch, but we wanted to take a good, long break here. We also wanted to have a good number of miles behind us before we called it a day. So after much deliberation—most of which was only an excuse to hang around—we continued down the trail to the basin of Ten Lakes. Once we were in the basin it’s easy to get turned around. The lakes are situated short distances apart, but far enough where you can’t see one from the other. So in the thick forest four lakes were hidden and the secret passageways were the small streams that linked them all together—except one.
The trail leads to the link between two lakes and so we followed that north to one of the lakes. It was a peaceful and tranquil place to eat our sandwiches and entertainment was provided by a pair of rambunctious marmots who were scurrying about just across the way. Just off shore was a small cluster of islands that I deeply wanted to swim out to, but after testing the waters I thought them too cold.
After lunch our goal was to find the lake located furthest north. It was the only one of four I had not visited on my initial venture. A small and faint footpath led us to the side of a bald hump of granite. Here the trail disappeared, but we knew we needed to go up and so up we went, making careful notes of any peculiar landmarks so that we might find our way back. As we rounded the top another pristine alpine lake was revealed and we were once again, as always in awe of the beautiful scenery around us and how fortunate we were to be able to explore it.
But the trail called, and the miles to the camping area we wished to reach weren’t getting any fewer. So we hiked back past the lake we had eaten lunch at and threaded between two lakes in the general direction in which our map was directing us. Then we lost the trail. We had somehow ended up on a trail to nowhere. It was faint and fleeting, but it was there. It was also not the right path and led us to a dead end.
And so we reexamined the map and found our way back to the proper trail. This led us through some small tracts rich with lush green grasses and then up a series of winding passes. Then we wandered along side a ridge of rock and later passed the last lake associated with Ten Lakes. We were still a long haul from where we wanted to be, but we had know idea at the time.
The next span of trail sent us down more perilous switchbacks than we could count. We could see a flat valley of green grass below with a snake of a stream, but it seemed impossibly far away. The distance really seemed like more than we could overcome and the trail reinforced this belief with long, hard stretches of loose, unforgiving rock. Of course my knee began to act up and so each step down triggered a small burst of pain. But the sun beat down and the promise of flatter ground was at least gradually approaching. There was certainly nowhere to camp along this slope and so we had no choice.
As we approached the bottom of the valley our spirits were high. It was around this area that we had hopes of camping. But we also had hopes of a beautiful view for sunset and sunrise. Down, deep in this valley we were surrounded by trees and had only partial views of the mountains immediately across the meadow. We were exhausted and we had come all this way to find the perfect campsite, to settle for anything less seemed to be acknowledging that the last stretch of hard fought miles between the Ten Lakes Basin and where we stood was all for nothing.
We took another break and mulled things over. We treated some water to replenish our supply and ate a snack. And then we decided to pony up and continue on. From what we could gather from our map we were close a section of trail that would carry us back up and out of this valley to higher view points. We just had to follow the river for a little ways and then we’d begin yet another set of punishing, innumerable switchbacks.
We shadowed the river for longer than we had anticipated. I think by then it was our impatience that extended the trail. Our tired bodies were begging for rest and would not be silenced. Each step was increasingly labor intensive and required as much physical exertion as it did mental. After perhaps a mile or so I was eagerly surveying the landscape for a suitably flat area to set up camp, but there was nothing. The side of this mountain was steep, much like the side we had descended into the valley on, and this side was even less conducive to camping with massive boulders and burly trees scattered about a 45 degree incline.
So we slogged on. And on. And on. And on. And on. I kept rechecking the map aiming to find salvation, but the tiny scale furnished little substantial proof it’s existence and just left me guessing as to how many more switchbacks we had to go. But then something popped out at me. A long, fairly straight line dotted it’s way across the map. A line that had to represent the long stretch of fairly straight trail we were currently upon. This would lead us to the rim and to views of the range set across the canyon, I was sure of it.
My steps hurried leaving Lindsay in the dust, but I always stopped and kept her within reasonable sight. And then my joy was crushed. The trail did lead to the rim, but the only viable campsite at the end of this rainbow was a tiny patch of flat space set perilously close to the edge. It was not ideal to say the least and so I let Lindsay catch up and once again we weighed our options.
Another set of seemingly endless switchbacks loomed above us and below us only a lot of back tracking. At our immediate side was the least suitable site, but a wonderful view. We continued on.
And finally we had a little luck, just a short distance up. It was not perfect, had we stood on fresh legs, but in our tired state it was the best site in the whole park. It was just off the trail, contained a large flat area with rock walls on either side, and best of all a magnificent view of the mountains and the canyon below.
Our bags were immediately dropped and dinner was started. It was almost seven and we had began our hike at eight in the morning. With only a few short breaks amounting to less than an hour we had been hiking pretty much none stop for ten hours. The fuel in our bellies had run out and we were in desperate need of a refill. Boxed veggie soup supplemented with TVP and dehydrated refried beans made for a hearty dinner and just to make sure our stomachs remained satiated through the evening a ramen was cooked for dessert.
While the view was wonderful, tiny pests tortured us as we cooked and ate. Ants seemed to be everywhere, crawling on our food, our clothes, everything. And mosquitos, despite our almost fully covered bodies seemed to find ways into our ears, up our noses and onto the backs of our necks. There was not a peaceful moment to be had that wasn’t annoyingly interrupted by one insect or the other. It became intolerable and we were prematurely forced into our tent.
From there we watched the sun slowly set and the warm tones of twilight transition into the cool tones of the night. Venus popped out, followed by a few other stars poking their way through the atmosphere, but then the mighty moon rose and cancelled the majority of the remaining appearances. We would eventually drift off to sleep, but the moon remained. As we awoke throughout the night it always seemed like the sun was about to rise, but it was just the intense light of the moon. It was our night light for the evening, though we were too tired to be scared of any bears of mountain lions, it provided comfort when we did awake and look out.
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