It is July 3, and tomorrow we set off on our biggest backpacking trip ever, the John Muir Trail! We are both excited and nervous to get going. But, before we can step foot on the trail, we have so many last minute details we need to take care of. I know we shouldn’t complain—nobody ever said it would be easy to walk in the woods for 270 miles for over 3 weeks. If that’s the price of slipping away from real life for a while, it’s definitely worth the hassle.
We are based in the small town of Lee Vining, the gateway town to Yosemite’s east entrance. By the time we reorganize all of our gear into what is coming with us on the JMT, what is being cached at the Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence and what is staying in our car while we trek, it’s 10:30 before we are ready to leave our comfortable room at the Lake View Lodge.
We have a lot on the agenda today, including picking up our JMT permit, driving into Yosemite Valley on the park’s west side, finding long-term parking, dropping off any leftover food and toiletries in bear lockers and catching a YARTS bus back to Lee Vining at 5:00 pm. First stop is the Mono Lake Visitor Center where the forest ranger is friendly but not too willing (able?) to answer our questions about JMT trail conditions and what not. He prints out our permit, goes over a few regulations and sends us on our way as quickly as he can get rid of us.
We drop the permit off back in our hotel room since we don’t want to accidentally forget it in the car later on, and then we start making our way over Tioga Pass into Yosemite proper. We visited the park once before for a few days in October for a short weekend trip with Matt’s brother Steve, but this is the first time seeing it in the summer. The glistening white rock, tall dark green pines and deep blue lakes we see even before ever entering the park are mesmerizing and are making us all the more excited to get out of the car and start trekking.
But, before long, we run into our very first traffic jam of the day. There is a line of cars stretching as far as we can see. We are still nearly three miles away from the park entrance, and it looks like all of California has decided to spend the holiday weekend in Yosemite. We are going nowhere fast. Ugh!
After inching along for nearly an hour, the pace suddenly picks up. The rangers have finally started sending cars holding park passes through the exit lane, and we are through. Traffic inside the park is light, and we are now making good progress. We see two hitch hikers on the side of the road and pass them by but quickly decide to turn the car around and offer them a lift. We figure we could use all the good trail karma we can get. By the time we swing around, someone else is in the process of picking them up, so we keep going.
Just after Tuolumne Meadows, we see another solo hitchhiker and stop again. This time things work out, and Andrew hops in our backseat. He just finished a 32-mile, 2-day backpack through Yosemite’s Grand Canyon and needs a lift back to his car at White Wolf. Andrew’s a nice guy, and we chat about travel, hiking, etc. as we make our way across the park’s center. Turns out that Andrew is a good college friend of one of Matt’s work colleagues, and we marvel at the serendipity of meeting each other in this totally random way.
We drop Andrew off at his car and continue on. As we begin the drop down into the valley, we run into more and more traffic, until we are finally sitting at a dead stand still. As we get closer to Yosemite Village, there are signs saying that all the parking lots are full and to expect a 3-hour delay—time we definitely do not have.
We inch closer and closer to Curry Village and speak to a ranger directing traffic who tells us that we won’t find any spaces and to come back after 8 pm!
Now, we are almost in a full panic and decide that we will need to bail by 4 pm if we don’t find anything, that is if we can ever even get that close to the parking lots. Doing so would at least give us the chance to try to beat the YARTS bus back to Tuolomne Meadows where we could also potentially leave our car and worry about getting back to it at the end of the trek. But what happens if the bus beats us there? Or if there are no parking spaces there either? Man, this day is turning out to be a lot more stressful than we thought!
Just when things couldn’t look any worse, we run into a barricade blocking the road to the backpacker’s parking lot. There are no park rangers in sight, so we boldly drive around the barricade and make our way to the backpacker’s lot, where, thankfully, there are several parking spaces to be had. We even manage to find a nice spot in the shade. We unload all of our extra food and toiletries into bear boxes, stuff our faces with a very late lunch and quickly change into our trail clothes. We lock up the car and head to a shuttle bus station hoping to catch a quick ride over to the Visitor Center where we will catch the bus back to Lee Vining.
The first bus to come doesn’t stop to pick up any of us waiting at the shuttle stop. A man waiting there tells us that the next station up had so many people waiting at it that he walked up to this stop in hopes of getting on. It is 4:15, and the Visitor Center is about 1.25 miles from where we are. We don’t have any time to spare, so we decide to hoof it. We are moving as fast as we can and getting our trail clothes nice and sweaty before we ever step foot on the trail.
We arrive at 4:45 and find the YARTS stop. Our bus shows up a mere ten minutes later. We pay for our seats on board ($30/2 pax), and the bus pulls away promptly at 5:00. That is the moment when we finally exhale a huge sigh of relief. We can’t believe we made it. Hiking the JMT should be a piece of cake after all that stress!
We are sitting in the front seat and have fun chatting with the driver on the ride. He is frustrated/disgusted by the amount of people/drivers in the park. We’re guessing he is not the only one.
We finally arrive at the Tioga Gas Mart in Lee Vining at 7:30 where we get off and head to the Whoa Nellie’s Deli for dinner. Located right next to the gas station, the WND is not your typical gas station cafe, no siree! This is the most hoppin’ place in town. There is a bluegrass band playing live music outside, and the entire lawn is jam-packed with people enjoying the show, eating, drinking and living it up on this picture-perfect evening.
The line to order food snakes through the mini-mart, and the owner is so happy with the large crowds of people who have converged on his restaurant that he is passing out free beer to everyone standing in line waiting to order. We order our dinner (fish tacos and an Asian salad with grilled tofu), grab a table outside and join the party.
People are dancing, hooting and hollering—everyone seems to be in such a joyous mood. This unexpected party is the perfect antidote to our stressful day of logistics and a fitting last evening celebration before hitting the trail for the next 3+ weeks. What a fun send off!