Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 4


This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail from July 19 to August 13, 2015. Previous installments may be found here.


Along the [Tuolumne] river a series of beautiful glacier-meadows extend with but little interruption, from the lower end of the Valley to its head, a distance of about twelve miles, forming charming sauntering-grounds from which the glorious mountains may be enjoyed as they look down in divine serenity over the dark forests that clothe their bases. Narrow strips of pine woods cross the meadow-carpet from side to side, and it is somewhat roughened here and there by moraine boulders and dead trees brought down from the heights by snow avalanches; but for miles and miles it is so smooth and level that a hundred horsemen may ride abreast over it.  —The Yosemite, by John Muir


Day 4 / 6.5 miles

Tuolumne Meadows (elevation 8,600 feet) to Lyell Canyon (elevation 8,900 feet) 

This now-completed journey on the John Muir Trail was a scouting trip. While we allowed plenty of time to complete the trail and take a couple of rest days, there are only so many days away from home we were allotted but so many more places still to explore in the beautiful, wild Sierra Nevada Mountains that are just a stone’s throw away from home in Three Rivers.

Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park is one of these places. Our backpacks were at their heaviest because we had just picked up 10 days of food, however, this would be the easiest hiking day of the trip. It was one of the shortest in mileage and definitely the least amount of elevation gain. 

It was to be a pleasantly flat walk through one of the loveliest spots in the High Sierra. But the cotton-candy clouds that we awakened to that morning were beginning to take on a more foreboding form.

Exactly on schedule, by noon the clouds were conspiring to block any blue sky and were piling higher and higher into the atmosphere as though they were mountains themselves. As we emerged from the trees into the wide expanse of Lyell Canyon, we were greeted by a vigorous downpour.

We huddled under a stand of young firs to retrieve our rainwear. We had started the day with our packs covered, anticipating the arrival of this storm.

With storm jackets and waterproof pants in place, we shrugged into our packs and stepped back onto the trail. Several parties of day-hikers, recognizable by their itty-bitty packs, scurried by, on their way, no doubt, to a warm and dry shelter. We, on the other hand, headed the opposite direction and toward the heart of the storm that would continue for two hours, alternating between drizzle and torrent.

There were a few backpackers heading south with us. They were dressed in all manner of rainproof attire, from tarps to full ponchos to skirts to the always-reliable black garbage bag.

Lined by 12,000-foot peaks, the canyon floor is entirely meadow, which was lovely in spite of this welcoming committee of water from the sky. Its grasses golden on this midsummer day, the north-flowing Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River tranquil and glassy.

If it wasn’t raining, we might have stretched out on a flat expanse of granite to enjoy the sun-warmed rock while watching the river meander along. But nature had other plans and was soon hurling hailstones at us. 

Jennie was hiking about 20 feet ahead. At one point, in the midst of an especially unbridled downpour of marble-sized hail, she turned around, outstretched her arms, and asked a question to the universe. Although I wasn’t close enough to hear her through the barrage of hail pelting the nylon hood of my jacket, I could certainly read her lips. 

“What the …?” The clouds replied with a peal of thunder. And the storm rejected the request to relent. 

We sloshed along the muddy trail. Although dripping with water, we were dry beneath as were the contents of our packs, and we couldn’t help but notice the spectacular surroundings. I even risked waterlogging my camera to take some photos because I couldn’t pass through this magnificent meadow without bringing an image of it home.

We were heading south on the John Muir Trail. Both sides of this meadow-filled gorge are lined with thick forests of firs and pines. They continue to grow up the steep moraines that line the canyon for as high as they can hold out, growth more stunted at the topmost reaches. But the apex of the peaks that soar 3,000 feet above are stark white granite and bare of most vegetation. The JMT (and Pacific Crest Trail) parallels the Lyell Fork and is worn down to a trench into the meadow by the thousands who have passed this way before us. During this recent storm, the trail was doing double duty by serving as a channel for water runoff.

As is typical for the rainy season in the Sierra, the thunder soon dwindled, the clouds parted, and rays of sun began beaming through the gaps. We had been hiking for about four hours, meaning with our late start it was almost 4 p.m. Time to start watching for the perfect campsite.

And we found it. As the trail began an ascent out of the meadow and into rocks and trees, we could see a flat open area below. The site met our criteria, which is simply a level tent site near water. Any added amenities — such as granite slabs for seating and keeping our gear out of the dirt, sturdy tree branches for hanging towels and drying clothes, and privacy from the trail, which this site also provided — are also appreciated.

Having a good view is just icing on the cake. From camp, we could peer south across the great expanse of meadow to the Cathedral Range and Mount Lyell, the highest point in Yosemite National Park.

We gratefully dropped our packs and began the afternoon routine. Unpack, set up the tent, and furnish it with our inflated sleeping pads and unrolled sleeping bags. We used those handy tree branches to hang our pack covers and other rain gear to dry, then gathered up our towels, water filter and bottles, and collapsible bucket for an excursion to the creek.

We left our campsite in the trees and walked upriver through the meadow. We found an alluring section of water, out of sight of the trail, calm with a sandy bottom and a waist-deep pool. The river was cold enough to numb our feet as we inched our way in. 

After an invigorating dip, we put on our evening wear: a warm base layer, thick socks, camp shoes, beanies, and puffy jackets. The sun that had barely emerged from the clouds set prematurely below the canyon’s towering western escarpment as we gathered out water for drinking and cooking and headed back to camp for “happy hour.&

Happy hour is a ritual we’ve had since first beginning to backpack with our young children. It is basically a shared bottle of water mixed with a scoop of sports-drink powder. It is an anticipated treat that rehydrates us and replenishes calories and necessary electrolytes while providing the added benefit of getting us to sit for a short time to appreciate where we are and discuss the day. 

The evening chores consist of boiling water several times for our three-course meal of miso soup, garlic mashed potatoes, and a main dish of pasta or a grain. This was my domain while Jennie went to some nearby scenic locale to film her video diary. By default, however, that meant the cleanup was her job. It was usually getting dark with the temperature plummeting by the time she pushed up the sleeves of her jacket and immersed her hands into the bucket of ice-cold water to wash the dishes, which consisted of one pot and lid, two sporks, the happy-hour water bottle, and two collapsible bowls. But this minimal amount of kitchenware didn’t make her like this chore any better.

However, this is a mother-daughter trip. I can still pull the seniority card, although I saved it for rare occasions. Jennie, however, would pay me back many times over by hopping up to the top of the dozen or so passes along the route like a hyperactive bunny rabbit, often completely rested by the time I arrived. 

After brushing our teeth, securing the food, and buttoning up camp, we nestled into our tent where we read by headlamp until falling asleep. The white noise of the flowing water was the soundtrack that would lull us into slumber nearly every night for the next several weeks.

Tomorrow we would make the climb to the first major pass of the hike.

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