This summer for our big hike we chose to revisit one of the most beautiful places on Earth: The Yosemite Wilderness. Specifically, the area north of Tuolumne Meadows. After studying maps and routes I applied for our permit reservations in the late spring, hoping to hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north toward the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. From there we would head further north to climb Matterhorn Peak (of literary fame). That was the plan. Unfortunately, we were too late to get a reservation for this popular trailhead, and instead got our third–ranked choice: The trailhead leading to Young Lakes via Dog Lake.
We had no choice, so we decided to make the best of it. Vicki called the Yosemite Wilderness Ranger Station and spoke to one of the helpful folks who, after a few questions, came up with a plan for hikers like us who weren’t afraid to travel cross-country, without a trail to guide us. She said that we could get back to the PCT (and Matterhorn Peak, our ultimate goal) by heading north from the Young Lakes, climbing over “Don’t Be A Smart Pass”, then descending west along the McCabe Lakes to the main trail.
Back to the map we went. Sure enough, there was a pass on the map, and it was nice to know that others had crossed it. But the name? Don’t Be A Smart Pass? Were they serious? That name wasn’t on any map that I could find. But it was on the internet, where I was able to find reports of it as well as a few photos.
Armed with this knowledge, I made several plans of attack, and scheduled our daily hikes in order to make the trip work. There was so much to see, and so many possible loops of trails, so I made several plans: Easy, Medium, and Difficult. I printed them out, complete with mileages and elevation profiles, and then Vicki and I sat down to decide which one to attempt. Well, maybe I’m a bit ambitious, but Medium and Difficult were struck down almost instantly. I’ll admit to being a bit crestfallen. But how to salvage “Easy” and make it more fun? We stared at the map some more, and decided to upgrade one or two of the ten days into the “Medium” category, thus giving us an extra day, which we planned to spend exploring the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, which had many named waterfalls.
We weren’t sure which would be the highlight of the trip: Matterhorn Peak or the Tuolumne River Waterfalls. Surely they’d both be stunning.
Day 0: We arrived in Tuolumne Meadows, picked up our wilderness permit, and stayed in the Backpackers Camp.
We left San Diego around midnight and drove up to Yosemite along the east side of the Sierra Nevada, via Highway 395. We knew that we had to get to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Ranger Station before ten o’clock, or our reservations for the next day would be given to someone else.
Along the way there was a bit of drama: On one particularly long uphill grade, north of the town of Bishop, our old Saturn car suddenly lost power! Something was seriously wrong. It sounded different, but not alarmingly so. Meanwhile, we could only climb the hill in third gear, slower than an overloaded big rig. We nursed it along, emergency flashers on, to a rest area at the top of the hill, then tried to see what was wrong. It was idling a bit rough. I didn’t dare turn it off, as it might not start again. I surmised that one of the four cylinders wasn’t firing well. Not that this helped us. We had no tools, and we were out in the middle of nowhere. Was our vacation over before it truly got started? We came to a decision: We would continue onward, babying the car, and see if it got any worse. Turning back was not part of our plan.
The car was 18 years old, with over 300,000 miles, so we knew it could be almost anything, but I suspected that the engine was dying. Just the same, it didn’t get any worse, and when we came to Highway 120, we boldly turned left rather than stop at the nearest garage in Lee Vining. We were headed to Yosemite! Our trusty car surely wouldn’t let us down! And it didn’t. Oh, yes, we climbed that steep grade to Tioga pass at a near-crawl, but we made to the Ranger Station. Then we turned it off. And prayed. We got our wilderness permit and went back to the car. It started! Then we did some experimentation with the spark plug wires, removing one at a time to see which cylinder was bad. Result: It idled much worse no matter which wire was missing. So we gave up and drove to the dirt road near the trailhead and parked it. We’d worry about the car later, when the hike was over.
Once the tent was up, we had all the day before us. Our ultimate goal was to begin the process of acclimatization to high altitude, but this was easy. All we had to do was stay at high elevation. So we decided to take an easy dayhike around the Tuolumne Meadows area. Along the way we grabbed some lunch at the Grill, and ate it across the way on a flat boulder in the meadow.
We hiked along the shore of the Tuolumne River, just exploring for fun. We saw people fishing and enjoying themselves. Considering how crowded the campground zone was, this area was surprisingly free of humans. Most of them were probably visiting the local lakes and hiking trails.
We went back to camp after lunch and took a long nap. We’d been driving all night, turn and turn about, and sleeping in the car is never truly restful. When we woke up in the late afternoon, we were super lazy. We’d brought a meal to eat in camp, but decided that splurging on a final civilized meal was the best option. I had a tasty burger with fries, and Vicki opted for a salad, as she wouldn’t be eating any fresh vegetables for a week and a half. After that we went back to camp and made sure our packs were as ready as they could be for tomorrow’s hike. Then we went to bed, planning to wake up at the crack of dawn.
Day 1: From Lembert Dome, we hiked to Dog Lake, then on around Ragged Peak to the Young Lakes.
The morning dawned cold and clear, as it often does up at 9000 feet elevation. We put on some extra layers of clothes. Then Vicki made breakfast while I deflated the air mats and stuffed the sleeping bag, our usual division of labor. Then we ate, took down the tent, and packed our packs. We had an extra two bags: One with car clothes and the other with car food. We shouldered our packs and hiked over to the trailhead, where there were many bear boxes for the hikers. We put down the packs, put the food in the box, and took a fast walk to the car to drop off the extra clothing. Then it was time to say “Goodbye!” to civilization, and head off into the backcountry. Next stop: Dog Lake.
Overnight camping was no longer allowed at Dog Lake. But we could see why people wanted to. It was only 2.5 miles from the trailhead, and only climbed about 600 feet. Pretty much anyone could make it there, so it must have gotten overused. But we had no desire to stay there anyway. We headed onward to join the main Young Lakes Trail, and were rewarded with some incredible views of the Yosemite High Country to the south. We were able to see Mounts Banner and Ritter far away in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and we also could see Mounts Lyell and McClure, with the huge Lyell Glacier. We’d hiked over there three years ago, in 2010, and it brought back fond memories.
At the eight-mile mark we reached the lowest of the three Young Lakes. We were tired, but Vicki decided to hike onward, as there were some loud people at the lake when we arrived. They were swimming, and the water was certainly cold enough to make anyone shout “Whoo!” upon immersion. But I was glad of this, as I really wanted to hike as far as possible that first day. We hiked upward again, passing the middle lake and eventually finding an excellent camping spot at Upper Young Lake.
We set up camp and ate the first of many freeze dried meals. Our packs were getting lighter! Meanwhile, Vicki was certainly feeling the lack of oxygen up there, but she’s a very determined hiker, and was only mildly dreading our next day’s hike over the pass. We fell asleep just after watching sunset’s golden alpenglow on the nearby granite, happy to be out in the wilderness once again.
Here’s a map of our first day’s hike. A bit over nine miles total distance. We climbed 1600 feet (net gain) and 2500 feet (gross gain, when you account for all the ups and downs). We left Tuolumne Meadows at 8600 feet and arrived at Lake 10218, tired but happy.
Day 2: Cross-country past Roosevelt Lake, over “Don’t Be A Smart Pass” to Upper McCabe Lake.
The next morning it was time for the unknown part of our journey: The cross-country hiking section. We’d never been there, and there were no trails. I had my map and my GPS, and I knew how to use them, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. The main concern was the terrain we’d have to cross. Would there be cliffs to scale? Swamps to slog across? Raging rivers to ford? Probably not. But a valid question was: Would there be difficult/impassable snow on the north side of the pass? The internet didn’t help me on this one, as there were no reports published this year. Well, there was only one way to find out.
We woke up early as this was going to be another difficult day, with plenty of elevation gain. We ate, packed up, and hiked over to the edge where we could see the first section of our long day’s path laid out before us. We had to drop down into a wooded valley, cross a stream, hike through a forested area, side-hill around a ridge, and gradually climb until we gained the shore of Roosevelt Lake, which was just out of sight.
Roosevelt Lake was a very long and skinny lake, completely filling the valley between Sheep Peak and Mount Conness. I had checked out photos of it before we left, so I knew that it was best to hike along its western shore. The eastern shore was formed of rubble and talus, and would have been slow going. There was a breeze blowing down the valley, so we took shelter next to a rocky outcropping and ate some lunch. While there, we noticed that there was a series of near-transparent nylon nets strung completely across the lake, but we didn’t know why. Later, I discovered that they were purposely killing all the rainbow trout in the lake (added on purpose long ago) in order to preserve the habitat of an endangered frog species.
Ahead of us, at the upper end of the lake, was the long easy slope up to Don’t Be A Smart Pass. I sure wish that I knew who named that pass; the only info I have states that it is called that in “The High Sierra” by R.J. Secor. Maybe he knows. It isn’t called anything at all on the official USGS topo map. But you have to admit that it’s certainly an amusing name.
The views from Don’t Be a Smart Pass were truly stunning. To the south we could see all the way to Half Dome, which was unexpected, and to the north was upper McCabe Lake and the Shepherd Crest. The only thing I was worried about was snow, and there was only a small amount of that, so we were quite relieved.
While at the pass, we hiked sideways over to another pass which led to the west and the lower McCabe Lakes. This would be a great shortcut to the PCT if we could take it, and was one of my original ideas when planning the hike. However, we discovered that it would be a very difficult descent indeed, with near-clifflike steepness at the top, and plenty of talus and scree the rest of the way down. At that point I named it “Don’t Be A Dumb (P)Ass” and merely used it as a fine place to take some panorama photos. Definitely not a great place to take a full backpack.
After a short break at the top of the pass, it was time for the descent. And it looked (and was!) extremely steep and full of scree. Vicki put on her knee braces before even bothering to try it. Just enough people had climbed it that there was a bit of a use path, so we weren’t breaking new trail, and so we slipped and slid our way down the chute to the lake. Only one spot had a larger icy snow patch, which we crossed with great care.
The southern shore of Upper McCabe Lake was very rocky, but it was made of larger, blocky talus, and so was actually quite fun to hike. We jumped and danced our way on the rocks for a half mile or so, and camped on the far western shore of the lake. We were truly in the trackless wilderness now, and had only seen three people all day.
Here’s a map of our second day’s hike, cross-country from Young Lakes to Upper McCabe Lake (10459 feet elevation). This was the highest elevation where we would camp the entire trip, and Vicki was feeling it. We’d hiked about six miles that day, all of it off-trail, and had climbed about 1600 feet total, though our final spot was only about 200 feet higher than the night before.
Day 3: Cross-country to lower McCabe Lake, on-trail to the PCT, then north to Miller Lake.
This was the day when we finished the cross-country travel and got back on the PCT where we wanted to be ever since the spring when it was my first choice in trail reservations. Today’s hike was destined to be a longer one, as we had to make it all the way to Miller Lake if we were to reach the base of Matterhorn the following day. Luckily it was mostly a downhill day, at least in the beginning. The uphill part wouldn’t happen until later, but I didn’t want to mention the word “up” to Vicki, as it might make her glare at me. So I didn’t.
We woke up bright and early and enjoyed the sunrise from the shore of the lake. We ate, packed up, and began hiking along and around a ridge before descending through some gently sloping forest to the lowest of the McCabe Lakes. We saw large trout swimming along the shore, and checked out some nice campsites. But we weren’t stopping. We joined up with the maintained McCabe Lakes Trail, and descended it to its junction with the Pacific Crest Trail.
After joining the much busier PCT (we’d actually meet up with a group every hour or so) we continued the long descent into Virginia Canyon, home of Return Creek. This was a fairly large stream that drained a significant portion of northeastern Yosemite, eventually adding it’s water to the Tuolumne River further downstream. The worn granite of the streambed was very picturesque, and we had lunch and a nap in the sun. Very relaxing.
Video of Vicki crossing Return Creek in Virginia Canyon on the PCT
Sadly, this was the end of the downhill portion of our hike. The uphill part was about to begin. And so we hefted our heavy packs and began the gradual climb out of Virginia Canyon. The trail curved around and entered Spiller Canyon, and we were greatly pleased to have fun with the cascading water of Spiller Creek over the smooth granite rock. The views were excellent as the creek fell steeply down into Virginia Canyon. We stopped for one last break at the creek and filtered some more water. The main climb of the day was about to start, and it was likely to be hot hiking.
Video of Spiller Creek flowing over smooth granite
Once at the top of the grade, I put down my pack and climbed a rocky outcropping next to the trail. And what a view I got from there! Vicki didn’t want to do it, but I made her climb up to check it out as well. And she was glad she did it. We were able to see almost all of the previous ground we’d hiked over the last two days. It gave a real perspective to just how far we’d traveled. And it made Vicki happy to hear that we had less than a mile left to hike to reach Miller Lake, and that it was relatively flat the rest of the way. She desperately wanted to get into camp, take another nap, and have some tasty dinner.
Our third day’s hike had been another long one, at a bit over nine miles. We’d hiked downhill a net 2000 feet and climbed back up a net 1000 feet. Dropping lower and camping at 9450 feet elevation made a big difference to Vicki. She was having much less trouble getting oxygen, and was truly beginning to get acclimated.
Day 4: PCT to the Matterhorn Canyon Trail, up-canyon to the bowl below Matterhorn Peak.
On this day our goal was to get as close to Matterhorn Peak as possible, preparatory to our summit attempt the next day. The further up Matterhorn Canyon we could get, the higher we’d be, and the closer we’d be to the mountain itself. The limiting factors on where we’d camp were the availability of water and a flat spot to set up the tent. As well as how tired we were by then. The first part was descending into Matterhorn Canyon on the PCT, followed by turning right on the Matterhorn Canyon Trail. This trail leads up and over Burro Pass into Slide Canyon, but we’d be veering off the trail before the climb to the pass.
We didn’t get up quite as early this time, and started hiking when the sun was higher. But we still had a long hike ahead of us. We said only a temporary goodbye to Miller Lake as we’d be back in two days, the hiked down and down into the canyon. We took a break at the bottom, then began the long gradual climb up toward the peak. I knew that the trail got steeper near the end, but I didn’t tell Vicki about that. Maybe she wouldn’t notice. Right. I didn’t believe it, either.
Not much, view-wise, down at the bottom of the canyon, but there were occasional clearings in the forest that allowed for a glimpse of the towering granite walls. At times the trail stayed near the stream, and at other times crossed it. As we headed onward, the canyon widened and the floor became meadow-like. Eventually we were rewarded with views of the Sawtooth Ridge, which Matterhorn dominates.
The trail steepened as the afternoon waned, and Vicki became truly exhausted. It hadn’t looked steep earlier, in fact it mostly looked flat, but we’d been climbing steadily all along. The steeper section merely made it obvious. Plus, we were nearing the 10000 foot mark, and Vicki’s breathing was impacted. She wanted to camp right there, on a slope that was impossible to camp on. I exhorted her to take a rest, then give it another try. It was only a little bit further, I said. Luckily, the word “little” has no objective meaning, so I wasn’t really fibbing. What I wanted her to do was gain the wide flat bowl below the mountain. Eventually, we reached the edge of the bowl, and she refused to move. She took off her pack, sat down on a boulder, and stared blankly down-canyon. She was a zombie. So I hiked off in search of a campsite. I found one about a quarter mile away, a nice spot far from the trail, with an excellent view of Matterhorn Peak (and much of the Sawtooth Ridge). I put down my pack and went back to Vicki. She had absolutely no energy left. I shouldered her pack and led her by the hand, walking slowly, over to the campsite. I set up the tent and she crawled inside for a nap. After twenty minutes or so her batteries were recharged and she was fine again. Then we got busy filtering water and making dinner. Afterward, we had a beautiful sunset, a great ending to a strenuous day of hiking.
Here’s the track for our fourth day’s hike. We hiked about 8.5 miles total, descending 1000 feet to the bottom of the canyon, then gradually ascending another 1500 feet to the bowl below Matterhorn Peak. Our campsite was just above 10,000 feet elevation.
Day 5: Climbed Matterhorn Peak, elevation 12279 feet.
Today was the day. The day we climbed Matterhorn Peak, the mountain of literary fame, known and loved by Beatniks everywhere. As an avid reader of classic literature, attempting to climb this peak was compulsory. Attaining the summit was an added plus.
We woke up early and got our small day packs ready, filled with water, snacks, lunch, and the ten essentials. We had over 2200 vertical feet to climb that day, so we got going early. We approached the steep mountainside in the shade and began climbing as much as possible before the sun rose high enough to begin roasting us. We hustled along, watching the line of sunlight approaching, and then it was upon us, and we realized that we hadn’t gotten that far after all.
The other thing that happened was that our sense of direction seemed to get worse as we approached the mountain. Or maybe it was the perspective that did it. The closer we got, the steeper it got, and the summit itself, which had been obvious from camp, became impossible to distinguish. All we could see were the nondescript “teeth” of the Sawtooth Ridge. I pulled out my GPS, calibrated its compass, and determined where the peak was. “It’s over THERE?” I asked out loud. It was far to our left, and an intervening ridge of cliff-like granite made hiking in that direction problematic, to say the least. Losing our hard-won elevation was not something I was looking forward to. I was fairly certain that Vicki would mutiny if I suggested it. So I brought up my memories of researching routes on the mountain, and decided that maybe we could climb via the easiest route, the southeast face. We were currently on the southwest face. All we had to do was pop over to the other side of the Sawtooth Ridge. Then I looked at the ridge of forbiddingly sharp granite teeth and laughed. No problem! If I was a mountain goat, that is.
As we headed toward the right, where the ridge was lower, we met up with another couple. They, too, were heading for the summit of Matterhorn. And they were far more lost than we were, because they thought that it was even further to the right. I tried to tell them that they were heading for Whorl Mountain, and that they should follow us up and over the ridge, but they remained dubious. My credibility wasn’t improved by our precarious position on an extremely steep slope of scree and loose boulders. We continued climbing, and by the time I looked again, the couple were out of sight. We’ll never know what mountain they climbed.
Eventually we gained the ridge at a flat section between two of the teeth, and rested while taking in some amazing views of Horse Creek Pass and Spiller Canyon.
We also discovered that it was even steeper down below us on this side of the ridge. And we might have to lose a LOT of elevation to get down there. Vicki was dismayed. She was ready to give up then and there, like that other couple. But I kept searching for a plan of attack that wouldn’t kill us. And then I saw a potential path, side-hilling to the left, which would only lose a small amount of elevation. If we could get far enough to the left we’d be out in the big sandy slope that was the southeast face. I knew we’d be able to climb it to the summit if we could only get there. And that’s what we did. One step at a time, we edged left and reached the easier terrain.
Then it was time for the endless slog up the scree, sand, and loose boulders of the southeast face. We paused and rested often. Vicki even took a nap at one point, while I read my book and took photos of Spiller Canyon and surrounding peaks. I was quite happy. My only worry was that we might have to come back down this way on our descent. I was hoping to descend directly toward our camp via the southwest face, but it might be too steep for Vicki and her fragile knees. I wisely didn’t mention this to her, and we continued onward up the scree, until we reached the ridge at the top of what must surely be the top of the Class 5 east couloir.
We saw a couple not far away, on a flat area near the top of the southwest face. That was where we should have been, if we hadn’t gotten off-course earlier. We traversed horizontally on an obvious use path and spoke with them. Sadly, they were not the same people we’d met earlier that morning. They’d also come in from Burro Pass, but obviously had made the correct decisions down below and climbed the proper peak. They also showed us the right way down, which was very obvious from here. It was a relief to know we wouldn’t be going back the same way we’d climbed.
It was at this point that Vicki decided not to climb any further. The summit wasn’t much further, but it was a Class 3 scamble over loose boulders and cracked granite slabs, and she had had enough. It was up to me to reach the summit on my own. And I did! It was great, with tremendous views in all directions. I took tons of photos. I sat there in the breeze, taking it all in. You’ll never know the feeling of awesomeness that you get on a summit like this unless you’ve done it yourself. Absolutely exhilarating, with the whole world spread out beneath you.
All too soon, however, I had to descend. Vicki was waiting, and it wasn’t very warm with the breeze up there. I came back and found her watering some of the Alpine Daisy flowers, one of the few plants that can survive up at this elevation. We took another timer photo of the two of us, and then Vicki got out the knee supports and put them on. It was likely to be a very steep descent. And it was! I was thankful that we hadn’t come up via this route. We used our hands, we used hiking poles, we skied on our boots down the loose sandy scree, and eventually we reached a slope that was far less precarious.
Video of Scree-Skiing the southwest slope of Matterhorn Peak, Yosemite
We kept turning back to look up, trying to remember landmarks for later, so that we could figure out the route by looking at photos, but it was nearly impossible to tell, just like it had been on the way up, when we got side-tracked off to the right of the peak.
We discovered that Matterhorn Creek had its headwaters high on the slope, and that it was still flowing, albeit at a trickle, far above the bowl down below where we were camped. We were in the green-tinged slot that we’d seen from camp the previous night; it was green from the running water flowing down the mountain.
Eventually we reached the wide flat bowl below the mountain, and hiked onward to our campsite. We arrived with plenty of daylight left over. We took a short nap, then went and filtered enough water for supper and the next day’s hike down the canyon. Vicki got out the small box of wine that we’d carried the entire way here (it had been a last-minute purchase at the Tuolumne Meadows store) and drank it in celebration of her accomplishment. It had been a very challenging day for her, and she deserved it. I celebrated by eating a yummy cheesecake for dessert. It really hit the spot!
That day we’d only hiked four miles, but they were some very serious miles. We’d climbed (and descended) over 2500 vertical feet, summitting Matterhorn Peak at 12,279 feet elevation. This was truly the highlight (and high point) of the entire hiking trip.
Day 6: Descended Matterhorn Canyon Trail to the PCT intersection.
Today was destined to be the easiest day of the entire trip. I had originally wanted to make it a really tough day, but Vicki vetoed that idea early on. My thinking was that we would surely be in shape after five days on the trail, and that a thirteen mile day was reasonable. But not Vicki. She thought that she deserved a break after climbing the mountain. But the real problem was the lack of water on the PCT between Virginia Canyon and Glen Aulin, which was forcing us to spend a night in Virginia Canyon. We either made it there in one day, or two. Vicki chose two. So our entire day’s hike was a mellow six miles downhill in Matterhorn Canyon. We’d save the climbing for tomorrow.
This also allowed us to sleep in. We lounged inside the tent long after sunrise, and waited until the sun rose high enough over the north ridge of Whorl Mountain to actually strike our tent. At that point more sleep was out of the question. We rose lazily, ate lazily, and packed lazily. We even hiked lazily. And it was a lovely day to be lazy in the High Sierra.
Video of Matterhorn Creek
We made it to our campsite near the PCT trail junction with plenty of time to spare. Vicki was feeling positively chipper. In fact, she decided that it was high time we did some laundry. OK, both of us knew it was way past the time to do our laundry, but this was the first chance we’d had. There was plenty of sun and breeze, and the clothes dried quickly. We also decided to have a campfire, not that we needed one, but just because it would smell nice. And that’s what we did.
You know what? There isn’t much to say about a lazy hiking day.
Video of our campfire burning in Matterhorn Canyon
Day six stats: 5.6 miles hiked while descending 1500 feet.
Day 7: PCT south to Virginia Canyon, with a cross-country side trip to Lake 9418.
It was time to leave Matterhorn Canyon, and head back to Tuolumne Meadows via the Pacific Crest Trail. On the way back we planned to spend a day in Glen Aulin exploring the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, but that wouldn’t be for two more days. On this day our plan was to hike up out of Matterhorn Canyon, visit a lake or two on the plateau, and descend into Spiller Canyon, and from there to Virginia Canyon. This was ground that we’d already hiked on the way in, so we didn’t expect to see any surprises. The only new item would be another large lake not far from Miller Lake. It was off-trail, and might be relatively pristine.
The first part of the hike was uphill, with 1100 feet of climbing, so we got up early in order to hike it while it was still cool. The trail was shaded in the morning hours, and this was part of our plan. Indeed, it was why we made yesterday the lazy day. We didn’t want to climb this west-facing slope in the heat of the afternoon.
Checking the GPS, we determined the best location to veer off-trail in order to visit an unnamed lake east of Miller Lake. It was labelled WL9418 on the topo map, meaning that it’s elevation was 9418 feet. We put down our packs, stashing them behind some big pines, and packed our daypacks with lunch. Then a bee stung me on my thumb! Ouch! I ran from the packs in case there were more, or there were more angry ones. Maybe they were “killer” bees. I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really want to find out. Sadly, there were our packs, sitting near angry bees. We eventually got up our courage and approached cautiously. We discovered a thumb-sized hole in the ground about a foot from my pack;, the bees were entering and leaving the hole in their usual bee-like way, not buzzing madly like a stinging tornado. This was an enormous relief. So we made our move, grabbing our packs and darting away quickly. We found another spot to stash the packs. Then we headed off, exploring as we went. It was a rather long lake, and we enjoyed checking out some of the camping sites that had been used in the past. It was a great place to stay, well off the trail, and beautiful.
After lunch, we continued on, descending into Spiller Canyon. We stopped once again at the gorgeous Spiller Creek, and this time Vicki decided to try a butt-slide on one particularly likely section of granite streambed. It turned out to be much more slippery than she expected!
Video of Vicki butt-sliding in Spiller Creek – I was so shocked at how fast she went that I forgot to track her with the camera!
Eventually we continued on around the corner and descended to cross Return Creek in Virginia Canyon. This was where we planned to spend the night. There were plenty of well-used campsites, and lots of fantastically-shaped granite boulders in the streambed. We set up camp, explored a bit, and went to bed early. We didn’t bother having a fire this time. All night long we were lulled into dreamland by the sound of the creek and it’s plunging waters. Very nice.
Video of Return Creek in Virginia Canyon with water spiralling through the granite walls
Stats for our seventh day’s hike: We hiked a bit over eight miles, climbing 1100 vertical feet, but actually climbing about 1800 feet with all the ups and downs. Our final campsite was nearly the same elevation as the previous site, at 8600 feet.
Day 8: PCT south via Cold Canyon to Glen Aulin, camped downstream from the main campground.
Today was planned to be a long hiking day, at a bit over nine miles. Luckily, after an initial climb, the rest of the hike was a long easy slope downhill. We tried to get up early, but we failed. We ended up lounging in bed longer than usual. But we knew it couldn’t last. We got up, ate breakfast, packed up, and got moving. We needed to get up that slope out of Virginia Canyon before the sun started beating down on us. And that’s exactly what we did.
After we turned right at the McCabe Lakes Trail junction, we were on new, unseen territory. We were going to be on the PCT all the way back to Tuolumne Meadows. This was the way we had wanted to come in the beginning, but we didn’t get our choice of trailhead permit (and instead climbed over Don’t Be a Smart Pass).
The trail traveled down Cold Canyon, a shallow, high-elevation canyon unlike Virginia, Spiller, and Matterhorn Canyons. It was so high that it had trouble keeping water above the surface late in the summer, and there were warnings about it on PCT-specific maps and the PCT Water Report. We had stocked up on extra water that morning before the climb.
In the beginning the trail was forested, with occasional views off toward the west and the waterfalls of Spiller Creek, while later it traversed vast meadows, one after another. We had lunch in one of them, sitting under a huge overhanging boulder in the shade. After a final short climb over a ridge, we were able to view our old friend Mount Conness to the east. After that the trail continued to descend for the rest of the day. It sure was nice hiking downhill on a gentle slope.
We took our afternoon nap just before the final descent to Glen Aulin, on a large granite outcropping with amazing views. We could even see Tuolumne Falls from there. Waterfalls and glaciated granite everywhere. This is what Yosemite was supposed to look like! Eventually we (Vicki) woke up and continued hiking, headed for the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. We crossed the bridge over Conness Creek and checked the place out. There were plenty of horses and mules that carried gear and food for the people who had hiked in on guided tours. These folks were all staying in those old-fashioned large white platform tents that they love to use in the Sierra Camps and down in Yosemite Valley. Conveniently, White Cascade Falls was right in the camp, so we posed for a photo there.
Then we got the heck out of that crowded zone of excessive humanity and headed downstream along the Tuolumne River. Surely we would find some peace and solitude along the way. And we did. Through the entire Glen Aulin area, the river winds sinuously, deep and slow, through the pine and aspen forest. This was the upper end of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and the granite rose around us on either side. We set up camp under some huge cedars after walking up and down the trail searching for a secluded spot. We wanted a good one because we would be staying here for two nights.
We ate dinner and walked along the river afterward. We saw some deer along the way, and wondered what it would be like to camp across the river, but the water was much too deep to cross. We were really looking forward to our next day’s hike, checking out all the big waterfalls as the river dropped further into the canyon.
Day eight results: 10 miles hiked, We ascended 900 feet and descended 1700 feet gross change, from an initial elevation of 8500 feet to that of Glen Aulin at 7800 feet.
Day 9: Day-hiked down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, viewed many waterfalls.
Even though it was more of a “vacation” day in that we didn’t really have to hike anywhere at all, we both got up extra early. We really wanted to see as many waterfalls as possible, and we wanted to get started before all those other campers in the fancy tents even got out of bed. Then we could enjoy them in peace. We got dressed and ready inside the tent, then cooked breakfast, then hiked with the breakfast downstream to a fantastic spot on a huge granite outcropping and ate it while viewing the river slowly meandering along on the wide flat valley floor that is Glen Aulin. We were deep in the canyon, so it was still shady and cool. We watched the line of shadow moving down the opposite side of the canyon as the sun rose, warming everything as it went.
After breakfast, we hiked onward rapidly, barely stopping at all. Why? Well, I reasoned that with all the shadows from the early sun that the photos of the waterfalls wouldn’t be well exposed. Taking shots with both shadows and bright sunlight doesn’t usually work well. By the time we got to the lowest falls the sun would be perfect, and we could take our time hiking back. It was uphill coming back, and I knew that Vicki would be more than happy to take rests at every waterfall we saw. It was a plan, and that’s what we did.
Please be sure to realize that these shots were taken in mid-August on a relatively dry rain year. I can barely imagine what this canyon would be like during the spring melt in June. The only way to even begin to visualize it is to look at the water-staining of the granite in the river bed.
Video of small rapids on the Tuolumne River between California Falls and LeConte Falls
Video of Waterwheel Falls on the Tuolumne River
We hiked down the trail a bit further beyond Waterwheel Falls, but didn’t go too far, as it began to descend in a very serious manner. Also, there were no more named waterfalls below this point, although it was obvious that this entire canyon must be full of waterfalls the entire way down the trail to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Now that would be a fantastic hike for a waterfall lover, but not for getting distant views as you can’t see very far down in the bottom of a canyon. Still, we were able to see the deep cleft and canyon where Return Creek (containing the combined water from Matterhorn, Spiller, and Virginia Canyons) joined the Tuolumne River down below us. We met two fellow backpackers heading down the trail who were intending to bushwhack directly up that trailless canyon. It sounded like an awesome adventure, and we wished them well. Then we turned around and headed back up the trail, exploring as we hiked.
Video of LeConte Falls on the Tuolumne River
We ate our lunch at LeConte Falls, simply enjoying the roar of the water as it cascaded down the smooth granite. We wondered whether the entire apron of granite was awash during the spring floods. But it was beautiful enough for us to enjoy right now.
Technically, there are three named waterfalls on the Tuolumne River below Glen Aulin: California, LeConte, and Waterwheel. And each of these are truly worthy of being named. But there are also interminable smaller cascades and waterfalls all along the way in between the mighty ones. The mood of the river varied tremendously: At times it would be calm, with deep, slow-moving pools of crystal clear water, so that you could see the boulders of the streambed far below the surface, and at other times it would tumble tumultuously over rocks and ridges, the granite both shaping and being shaped by the relentless power of the river. The large falls were absolutely awe-inspiring, but the smaller cascades seemed to have a beauty and joy all their own, and we really had fun exploring them. I took far too many photos and videos, and I knew it, and I didn’t care. Everything was wonderful and worthy of enshrinement in my memory.
Eventually we made it back to camp, feeling good about our day. It was hard to say whether this day was better then the day we climbed Matterhorn Peak. They were both fantastic, yet completely different, We decided that we’d love them both, and let time decide which day made the biggest impression on our memories in the years to come.
Day nine statistics: We hiked 7.5 miles round trip, descending (and ascending) over 1000 feet into the canyon.
Day 10: PCT south back to Tuolumne Meadows. Chowed down on burgers at the grill.
This was our final day. All we had to do was hike up the Tuolumne River to our car. And so we rose slowly, and a bit sadly. It was a bittersweet feeling. We were sad to be leaving Yosemite and the beautiful wilderness that we loved, but at the same time we were ready to return to the regular, civilized world with all of its own joys. Vicki and I truly loved being together, but even lovers need a break from one another eventually. Especially after spending ten days with each other, twenty four hours per day, without letup. And the food! We really liked the freeze dried food, as well as our special lunches and snacks, but the thought of a hamburger and some extra-salty french fries up at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill had us positively drooling. That thought, more than anything else, made us get out of bed that morning. We decided that we’d take our motivation any way we could get it.
And so we packed up our tent and sleeping gear for the last time. We ate breakfast and put the stove away. We finished packing our packs. Then we checked the campsite for any leftover belongings or trash (we always do this, as a part of the Leave No Trace backpacking philosophy). We shouldered our packs and began hiking. First stop: Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. But we didn’t go over the wooden bridge. We went straight for the metal bridge over the Tuolumne River, southbound on the PCT.
There were two more named waterfalls on our way: White Cascade (which we’d already seen) and Tuolumne Falls. These two would make the hike out much more interesting. As it turned out, there were several nice viewpoints where we were able to see familiar peaks off in the distance. We saw Sheep Peak and Mount Conness, back where we hiked on the second day of our trip, and we also saw Whorl Mountain and the tiniest glimpse of Matterhorn Peak, the high point of the fifth day of the trek. They looked so far away. Did we really cover that much ground? Oh yes, indeed we did.
Video of White Cascade Falls at Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp
The trail climbed steeply in the beginning, but after we’d passed the big waterfalls and rapids, the land leveled out. The river broadened and meandered in great sweeping curves. We were less than a day’s hike from the highway, and we began to see more people. The trails became wider and smoother. We met horse trains loaded with packs and gear. We saw countless clean and pristine-looking hikers, their outfits direct from the outdoor retailers, their shoes barely dusty, leaving faint aromas of perfumes and body spray in their wake. We, by comparison, were dirty, grizzled, wizened outdoorsmen. People made sure they were upwind of us when they stopped to chat. We never removed our hats because our hair was in perpetual disarray. But we all had one thing in common: We loved hiking in Yosemite.
We made it back to the car and plopped our packs to the ground. We dug in our packs trying to see who could find their car keys first. Vicki beat me and jumped inside. She stuck her legs out the door and whipped off her stinky shoes, freeing her feet at last. She wiggled her toes in the cool afternoon breeze. Because she couldn’t get up barefoot it was up to me to grab her bag of car clothes from the trunk. She shut the door and changed into a fresh outfit, with comfortable slip-on shoes. She was brand new! Meanwhile, I got my stuff ready, jumped in the back seat and did the same thing. The two of us were nearly indistinguishable from typical tourists! But we still didn’t dare take off our hats.
We thought about driving to the bear box and picking up our extra car food, and then, lazy tourists that we were, droving the half mile to the grill! We wanted to be pathetic and we didn’t care. But we couldn’t. The car still had its engine problem, so we had to hike some more. But this time we hiked wearing wimpy car shoes.
The grill was extremely crowded but we waited in line anyway, our minds giddy from inhaling the deep fryer fumes and the scent of sizzling burgers. We got our food and headed for the condiments counter. I grabbed the salt shake and began dumping salt on the french fries. It wasn’t sticking well so I dumped even more. Nearby people looked at me like I was insane. And maybe I was! But I knew that I’d sweated so much over the last ten days that I was severely sodium-depleted. And I aimed to begin satisfying that lack immediately. And I did. Those fries were great, and I mashed each individual fry down on my salt-covered plate, forcing the salt to stick. Ahhhhh! Life was good again.
While eating, we planned our course of action. The shortest way home was back down the east side of the Sierra on Route 395, but it was incredibly empty out there, especially when it crossed the Mojave Desert. A final breakdown in the summer heat could be deadly, as we might have to wait hours for a tow truck, and even then we’d still be stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Our other alternative was to head west through Yosemite and down Route 99 through the San Joaquin Valley to LA. It’s downsides were that it was longer, and also that we’d have to put up with the summer tourist madness down in the Yosemite Valley. Still, it was much safer to break down in a populated area, so we opted for this route. And it worked! Or should I say that the car worked? And that our worries were for naught? Of course they were. Our trusty car, weak and damaged though it was, made it home without incident. Did we baby it? Oh, yes. It crawled up and over the mountains of LA, and it even climbed faster than some of the lumbering, overloaded big rigs. We took it to the mechanic and discovered that one of the cylinders had little compression; it had blown its piston rings, and it was so old that it wasn’t economical to repair. What a great machine it had been. It had taken us all over (for 18 years and 315,000 miles!), and it made it to Yosemite for one last trip, and got us home safely. It was a great ending to a great hiking trip.
Day 10 stats: 7.5 miles hiked, with 1000 feet of climbing.
Total Trip Stats: 10 days of hiking, 76.4 miles (8 miles of which were off-trail), and over 15,000 feet elevation both gained and lost.
Interactive Topographic Map on my Caltopo Page
Lots more photos on my Flickr Album Page