John Muir Trail Day 1: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows

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“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” — Christopher McCandless

There are days when the sound of your morning alarm reaches deep into your chest to crush your heart and steal any semblance of excitement one might muster to greet another day. The gradations of that morning fog break like the changing tide from day to day. The early wake up calls that accompany the start of a new vacation or an adventurous hike somehow feels altogether dissimilar. It’s like the difference between a deep breath and yawn, the peak experience can only be enjoyed by the individual committed to the act.

Julia and I woke up at 3:45 AM with the excitement of school children and readied ourselves to begin taking our first steps towards completing the John Muir Trail. The brain is funny and plays tricks at this hour. My instant oatmeal with cold water was delicious, and my instant coffee even better.

We did our best to break camp and make our way to the trailhead without waking any of the sleeping bodies in tents nestled close by. We walked along an asphalt road before finding the iconic “High Sierra Trail Loop” sign that signifies the beginning of the JMT. It was an exceptional moment of excitement and anxiety. After years of hoping, and months of planning, I was finally here.

High Sierra Loop John Muir Trail
High Sierra Loop John Muir Trail

My first steps felt like butterfly wings as I huffed uphill hoping to see Nevada Fall at sunrise. We were joined on the trail by two large groups of neon clad college kids making their way up to hike Half Dome. Julia and I were in their shoes last year, and I thought fondly about the harrowing cables to the summit of Half Dome and the views of Yosemite Valley. Unlike last year, the air my lungs took in on this morning had the pale dewy taste that usually accompanies a massive discharging of electricity.

Before we had even made it one mile, a soul shaking blast of thunder put shivers down my spine. I felt like a new ship that gets christened with a bottle of champagne blasting against it’s back. We were heading into dangerous skies.

Nevada Fall With A Storm Brewing
Nevada Fall With A Storm Brewing

We were able to hike to within a mile of Nevada Fall before the skies completely opened up, and the thunderstorm stood right overhead. There was no longer a separation between the boom of the thunder, and the sky splitting lightning. My first plan was to make it up to the bathroom by Nevada Fall, but just when we realized that wasn’t going to be an executable plan, a huge overhang of rock appeared on the trail. We hid underneath our granite saving grace, and waited for the skies to ease up.

The thunder and lightning stopped after an hour, but the rain continued to fall. It was a dreary start to the John Muir Trail, but our enthusiasm from the morning carried us through. Just after hiking through Little Yosemite Valley and before reaching the Half Dome junction, we met a guy who was out hiking solo. He was from Hawaii, and was shocked by the frigid summer storm. He wasn’t really prepared for the weather, but his laid back attitude helped him sail through the falling rain.

Things started to clear up a bit as we approached the Merced Lake junction towards Sunrise Lakes. Following Sunrise Creek, we could look back through parting skies towards Half Dome. It was quite interesting to see how the stokes of red foliage began to change the color palette of the landscape.

John Muir Trail Yosemite to Tuolumne
Reds and Greens
John Muir Trail Yosemite to Tuolumne
Reds and Greens Pt. II

We began climbing the switchbacks up Sunrise Mountain, and although the grade was steep, our spirits were buoyed by the improving weather.

John Muir Trail Yosemite to Tuolumne
Taking In The First Views Of The Day

Just before we reached the peak of the our uphill climb, the rain completely stopped and the skies began to clear away. It made for perfect timing as we neared the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. The trail leading to the Camp was simply breathtaking, cutting through the beautiful Long Meadow. We stopped at Sunrise High Sierra Camp to fill up our water and to take a short break.

John Muir Trail Yosemite to Tuolumne
Long Meadow
John Muir Trail Yosemite to Tuolumne
High Sierra Camp

Leaving High Sierra Camp and Long Meadow, we made our way through a forest of what turned out to be the most picturesque stretch of trail for the day. Cathedral Peak and the Columbia Finger stood tall on the landscape like beams of light, drawing us in.

John Muir Trail Day 1
Leaving High Sierra Camp
We stopped at SuWe stopped at Sunrise High Sierra Camp to fill up our water and to take a short break.nrise High Sierra Camp to fill up our water and to take a short break.
Cathedral Peak

From Cathedral Peak, we made our way up and over Cathedral Pass for our final climb of the hike. We started the day at around 4000 ft in Yosemite Valley and had made it up to over 10,000 ft. All we needed to do now was beat another round of rainclouds bearing down on us to our final destination of Tuolumne Meadows. The weather held up pretty nicely until we got to Cathedral Lake. It was at that moment the skies began to darken. We quickened our pace, and weaved downhill towards Tuolumne Meadows and the safety of our tent to finish the 24 mile day. We got to the Tuolumne Post Office and backpacker’s campground just in time, as the rain started pouring down upon our arrival.

John Muir Trail Yosemite to Tuolumne
Cathedral Lake
We got to the Tuolumne Post Office and backpacker’s campground just in time, as the rain started pouring down upon our arrival.
Tuolumne Post Office, Grill, and General Store

For the entirety of the our downhill march towards Tuolumne Meadows, Julia and I talked about burgers and how much we were going to enjoy eating them at the Tuolumne Grill. Unfortunately, the grill closes at 5:00 PM, and we arrived at 5:10 PM!! The pain of missing the burgers hurt, but at least the gentleman working at the post office was willing to get us our resupply buckets which prevented us from having to wait until they opened up in the morning. The other nice thing is that the market was still open. This is a fully stocked market with a microwave, so all of the frozen goods can be prepared right away. I must say, microwaved pizza after 24 miles of hiking is delicious! We then made our way to the backpackers camp to prepare for the coming days ahead.

We got to the Tuolumne Post Office and backpacker’s campground just in time, as the rain started pouring down upon our arrival.
Tuolumne Meadows
We got to the Tuolumne Post Office and backpacker’s campground just in time, as the rain started pouring down upon our arrival.
Hiding Out From The Showers

“Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans. Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.” — Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit

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23 thoughts on “John Muir Trail Day 1: Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows”

  1. I enjoyed reading this and look forward to reading about the rest of the hike! Hoping to do this trail in 2019 after my youngest graduates from high school. Really hoping she’ll be able to join me!

    • Thanks for reading! It’s great to hear you’re planning to walk in 2019. I saw a lot of parents hiking with their children, it’s such a great experience for people of all ages.

  2. Hey Drew,

    First off.. you’re an amazing storyteller and the pictures? Stunning!

    I’m feeling so giddy coming across your blog. I and my partner we’ve been planning for months now to hike the JMT. Will be adding your blog to our research resource.

    Thank you for sharing this amazing experience with us.

    P.S: I’m impressed with your upbeat attitude in spite of the rain.

  3. What a great read! I am going to read through the other days as well. I am at a beginners level when it comes to hiking so people like you inspire me and motivate me to keep going. I could not imagine doing a 24 mile hike! I bet I would have eaten two of those pizzas and took a nap after, and I don’t even like pizza, LOL! I do have a quick question… What inspires you to pick where you next adventure will be?

  4. Enjoy your blogs and pictures! Your writing is superb and really draws you in to the moment. This is a bucket list hike for me but first, Wonderland to get this Hoosier girl used to mountain backpacking. One thing that jumped out at me reading this, be careful using rock overhangs for shelter from lightning as it can travel over the rock and into the overhang. You probably know this but thought it worth mentioning.


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