Lyell Fork Bridge to Upper Cathedral Lake, approx. 16 miles
We have a long day in store, so we wake at 5:00 am and try to break camp as quickly as possible. Before taking off we walk down to the waterfalls, and Matt gets some cool shots of the rushing water slowed down and smoothed out. Backpacking with a tripod borderlines on crazy, but it’s moments like these that make us glad we have one with us.
The good news is that a lot of our journey today is through pancake flat Lyell Canyon; the bad news is that we still have a steep, rocky downhill to face before getting there, and we aren’t fond of starting the day off that way. We find a big descent to be a tough way to warm up our stiff legs, but it will have to do this morning. We are on the trail by 7 and get passed by a few groups of hikers also going down. We didn’t catch what trail they are doing, but they didn’t have the air of thru hikers.
When the trail finally flattens out, it is much appreciated by both of us. The Lyell River here is calm and snakes its way through the valley. Its deep pools are so clear and blue that the water resembles a swimming pool—so inviting! We pass on the temptation to take a dip and keep marching towards Tuolumne Meadows. There is the promise of cold beer, ice cream and Diet Coke ahead, and so we keep marching on to reach that tasty, dangling carrot that’s hanging ten miles ahead.
Most of the miles go quick enough, but the closer we get to Tuolumne, the harder it gets. We start encountering more and more dayhikers, so we know we are getting closer, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades so we keep our heads down and keep going. By now it is past 11 am, and it is already getting hot, making it all the more difficult to keep walking.
We come to a pretty section of the Lyell River and cross on a footbridge where many people are swimming—so many people in one place. Matt asks me, “Are you ready for this?” He is referring to the sudden reemergence into “civilization” which can be a little tough after being out on the trail for a lengthy period of time.
Continuing on we pass many trail junctions and have to keep double checking that we are going the right way. We finally parallel the road (another shock) and see the Wilderness Permit Station. We decide to stop in for a visit to confirm that our Wilderness Permit for entry from Horseshoe Meadows allows us to climb Half Dome. That’s what the Inyo Forest Service Ranger who gave us our permit told us, and we don’t want to risk a fine in case that is not true.
The Yosemite Ranger was impressed that we have come so far and confirms that we have a “golden ticket” in our hands. I was kind of hoping we didn’t since dangerous hikes like Half Dome aren’t really my cup of tea—now I feel compelled to give it a try. But I tell myself that I am not going to worry about that today. Fiddle-dee-dee! Tomorrow is another day! Tomorrow may be about crazy, scary cable ascents, but today is all about ice cream and cold drinks. And they are just a few minutes away!
We have to go a little out of our way to get to the Tuolumne Grill, but it’s worth every step. Our first order is for fries and ice cream, and, as soon as we are done with that, we hit the small grocery store/post office next door for beer, Diet Coke and potato chips, which all taste heavenly. We park ourselves at a picnic table and silently enjoy a little people watching while we partake in our delicious treats. There are all types of people dining who have come to Yosemite to enjoy this beautiful park in so many different ways, but it is clear with just a little observation that thru hikers are definitely a breed of their own!
It’s hard to put the backpacks on again and start hiking on the road back to where we last stopped, but we do anyway. The trail around Tuolumne is strange. First, we hike on the old CA 120 road past impressive Lembert Dome and then on to the pack station.
From there, we follow another wide road-like trail with interpretive signs giving some of the human and natural history of the area. Eventually, we come to Soda Springs, an old mineral spring where John Muir and early visitors to Yosemite liked to hang out and sample the natural mineral waters bubbling out of the ground. Next up is a stop at the Parson’s Lodge, a meeting space built by the Sierra Club in 1915 that reminds us of Sig Olsen’s cabin at Listening Point outside of Ely, MN—very cool.
We continue on the JMT over the Lyell River yet again and cross Tioga Road to pick up the trail to Cathedral Lakes, our destination for the night. We gain a quick 400 feet on the dusty trail before it levels off a bit and starts to give us views of impressive Cathedral Peak whose distinctive profile is being lit up beautifully by the late afternoon sun. We pass a lot of climbers coming down the trail and can even spot a few on the very top of the mountains through our binoculars.
It’s quite late by the time we follow the spur trail to Upper Cathedral Lake to look for the evening’s campsite. As we approach the lake, we are surprised to see Team Alabama’s two tents set up near the lake’s shore! The last time we saw Greg and Will was two days ago at Thousand Island Lakes, and we figured they were miles ahead of us by now. We enjoy our reunion and talk about the culture shock of Tuolumne and how strange it will be to end the trail in just a few days. We have just enough daylight to shoot some reflections in the golden light before setting up camp.
We eat our dinner on a big boulder on the shoreline with some wine we bought at the grocery store at the Tuolomne grocery store. It’s nice to have a little vino on the trail, but it tastes like chai tea and coffee we have been drinking for breakfast in our plastic collapsible cups. We hear titanium cups don’t have this problem, and so that just may be the splurge we make before our next backpack in Washington when we are done with this trail. Somehow we always figure out a way to need more gear. Go figure!
Before going to bed we set up the camera in an effort to get star trails, but we are still experimenting with the correct settings. We manage to find the North Star and get some trails, but we overexpose the sky on our first attempt. We are more successful with star point, but we are definitely determined to figure this out by the end of the summer!