“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” ― John Muir
I woke to the sounds of footsteps in the Tuolumne Meadows backpacker camp. The silnylon body of my tent was just starting to illuminate with the promise of a sunny day. I crept out slowly into the lodgepole forest enveloping the campground to stretch my legs and prepare my breakfast. Very few people were up at this early hour, but all those moving about in the cold air of the early morning had an enthusiasm about them. Julia and I only had to spend one day walking in the rain, but many of the PCT and JMT hikers sharing the camp with us had spent the last 4 days in it. It’s the luck of the draw, and something you can’t predict when permits are applied for 168 days before a start date. Our first day wasn’t a perfect one, but if the conditions from morning number two were any indication, our future looked promising.
The John Muir Trail initially heads east out of Tuolumne Meadows following CA 120 and offers great views of Lembert Dome. After crossing a few bridges and a drainage divide, we were in Lyell Canyon and on a beautiful stretch of trail that parallels the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne river. The early morning views here were stunning, with clear skies and a very pleasant air temperature. This stretch of trail is almost completely flat, which was a welcome change from the massive amount of climbing we endured on day 1.
After leaving the tranquility of Lyell Fork, we began to ascend towards Donahue Pass via a series of switchbacks. We started passing a number of northbound PCT hikers who had camped in the previous night’s storm just after crossing the pass. At the top of the switchbacks, we came upon a beautiful alpine lake and our first major water crossing. Luckily, a series of rocks had been placed to link the trail over the water. It only took a few well balanced hops before we were on the other side and continuing on towards Donahue Pass.
It was at this section of the trail that I had my first transcendent JMT moment. We were passing crystal clear creeks and streams with views of beautiful alpine lakes, Mt. Lyell was on my shoulder, and beautiful slabs of granite were all around me. There were wildflowers, trout, singing birds, and puffy clouds in every direction.
My moment of zen was quickly broken by the crack of thunder as we neared the pass. The skies over Mt. Lyell began to darken, and an ominous looking front began to push in our direction. We hurried our pace in order to make it up and over Donahue Pass before a thunderstorm could materialize. We were glad to have done so much high altitude training, as we cruised up the broken granite slabs to the 11,000 ft Donahue Pass without really needing to break a sweat. We thought we were in the clear, but just as we finished our uphill push, the skies unleashed with a torrent of hail. Hail can sting, but I prefer it to rain, as it doesn’t penetrate in the same way or try to soak you to the core. I really wanted to do a side hike to Donahue Peak, but the weather just wasn’t cooperating. We stood in the hail for a few minutes before making our way downhill to clearing skies, this was also the moment we left Yosemite National Park for Ansel Adams Wilderness.
From the pass, we made our way downhill with a quickness and were out of the nasty weather when we got past 10,000 ft. Despite the darkening clouds, the view that stood before us was one of pure beauty. The surrounding landscape was made up of large boulders surrounded by abundant vegetation. This was also a stretch of trail ripe with water, so we only filtered a liter at a time and enjoyed the decrease in pack weight.
We finished the downhill section in what seemed like no time at all, and began heading uphill towards Island Pass. The unique beauty of our climb up from Donahue Pass was truly special, but the views coming in to play as we reached Island Pass took things to another level. The summit of Island Pass levels out into a flat stretch of lakes, flowers, and a trail cutting through pure green vegetation. This was also where we started to get our first views of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. Just like on Donahue Pass, the weather started to deteriorate a bit on this pass as well. There was no hail this time, just the faintest hints of a pattering rain.
From Island Pass, we began a two mile descent to our campsite for the night, Thousand Island Lake. It was getting a bit late in the day, and we were starting to feel pretty tired, hungry, and worn down. It’s funny though, because even with those conditions, I was feeling incredibly positive. As I took in the first views of Thousand Island Lake, I thought to myself, “Life just doesn’t get any better than this.”
We were a bit worried when we first turned towards the campsites at the Thousand Island Lake junction, as it looked like a ton of other hikers were camping at the lake as well. The land surrounding the lake is made up of rocky hills, and there aren’t a lot of flat campsites to be found. We continued following a trail towards Mt. Ritter with hopes of finding our perfect spot. The rules state that you can’t camp along the shore, so this limits the available spots even more (lot’s of people broke this rule though…tisk, tisk). Finally, after about 20 minutes of searching, I decided to climb up on the hillside and start looking around on higher ground. This was my stroke of luck, as I found the perfect spot overlooking the lake.
To make things even better, the rain and stormy clouds moved out, and a promisingly dry sky took it’s place. We pitched the tent, made dinner, and settled in to the most breathtaking campsite I’ve ever stayed at. I finished off the evening by making my way down to the lake, and enjoyed a packless stroll. These are the moments I live for.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ― Hunter S. Thompson