Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite

Time to leave town.  I stayed in Mammoth a day longer than I planned and was eager to get back to the trail.  There’s an awesome trolley system that navigates the entire town, so getting back to the ski lodge where I can take a shuttle back to Reds Meadow was easy.  I was dropped off in a bit of a snooty tourist village and asked around for directions to the shuttle, found my way to the stop, and stood around and waited.  The shuttle takes mountain bikers up to the ski lodge and they get priority, so there’s a chance I’ll be waiting here a while.  The shuttle showed up, loaded all the bikes and bikers on board, and had one seat to spare.  Aw yeah!

We went up to the lodge where there was a bustle of tourist activity.  I was weaving my way through crowds of people up to all kinds of activities and got in line for the Reds Meadow shuttle.  I waited there for about twenty minutes until the shuttle pulled up.  I put my pack on a storage rack and took my seat, grateful I smell better this time.  I really love the system they have in place to get back into the wilderness here.  You aren’t really allowed to drive into the wilderness unless you have specific reasons for doing so such as car camping, otherwise you have to take the shuttle which keeps the roads clear.  It would be so cool to have such easy access to the wilderness like this.

We made stops here and there picking up hikers, fishermen, etc.  And eventually got to Reds Meadow.  I made my way through the hoards of people to fill up my water bottles where I ran into another thru-hiker named the Baptist who I hadn’t seen since Idyllwild.  His name is a bit of a legend on the trail, he got it after accidentally taking a piss on a rattlesnake.  It was cool to see him again.  I went into the store and got a soda, chilled at a picnic table for a bit while I got my gear in order, then hit the trail.

There are few moments on the PCT where you have a stretch of relatively flat terrain, and today was one of those days.  I mindlessly strolled along, missing a side-trail to The Devil’s Postpile, an awesome pile of geometric rocks complementing hexagonal spires reaching up into the sky.  It wasn’t a total loss as I got to see it from a distance, and I had miles to make anyways.  As I hiked on I passed day hiker after day hiker after car camper.  It’s really weird to see so many non-thru hikers out, but it’s refreshing in a way.  I flew over the flat landscape, passed a meadow, and finally up to a ridge.  The sun was setting when I hit the top, so I set up camp along the edge admiring the amazing view.  The scenery is definitely changing now, and I’m ready to hit the next stage of the PCT.  The Sierra was such a beautiful adventure, but saying goodbye to scenery is all part of a thru-hike.

The trail here split from the JMT and became the PCT again for a little while and I got hit with waves of nostalgia.  The PCT is so distinct, it’s hard not to recognize its classic characteristics.  For a while it followed along a ridge, not anywhere near the bottom of the mountain I was on but not quite at the top either.  It followed along that lazily and eventually switchbacked downhill to meet back up with the JMT at Thousand Island Lake.  I went off trail and found my own little shorline by the lake and took a break here admiring the beauty of it all.  True to its name, clusters of little islands scattered their way along the water, and at the end of it lied giant mountains keeping guard over it all.  I couldn’t stay long.

I worked my way back to the trail and pushed up to Island Pass, probably one of the easier ascents I’ve had on the PCT so far.  Today was going to be a long one, I’d be doing two passes and the idea excited me.  I made my way down for quite a while passing through treelines and meadows, then working my way back up another pass.  I was pretty worn out at this point and was eager to get up and over it.  This pass had considerably more snow than any pass since Forester which was a welcome sight.  Even if I’m not hiking through it, it still accents the scenery in such an incredible way.  At the top I was stopped by a forest ranger who wanted to check my permit and bear canister (Yes, they actually do this.  Don’t listen to people who say they don’t care.  Come out prepared.) and talked with her for a little while about the scenery and crowds.  Once I got my pack back together I made my way down.

Halfway down there’s an incredible lake with a giant mountain in the backdrop looking more like a scene from the Himalaya than the Sierra and looked at people camping there in envy.  I so want to camp here, but I need to keep pushing on.  I made my way down a maze of switchbacks looking down at the valley below me nursing an absolutely massive meadow.  Well, maybe I’ll score a cool campsite after all.  As I marched through it however it became clear to me that it’ll be a little more difficult than I thought, it was totally packed out here.  All the campsites were completely full up.  I wandered around as the sun set desperate to take anything I could, and eventually found a little campsite tucked away near the river.  I set up camp and listened to music as I cooked dinner, warning JMT hikers as they came up that there wasn’t much in the way of campsites.  I wasn’t too crazy about my campsite.  Some spots just inexplicably creep me out still, I’m not entirely sure why.  I crawled into my tent and passed out regardless, it had been a long day and sleep was absolutely welcome.

As I was packing up the next morning I made a last minute change of plans:  I’d totally forgotten that I was going to pass the spur to Yosemite on this section.  I really wanted to check it out but I don’t have enough food and I’m sure that prices at the store in Tuolumne are crazy high.  I sat there and thought for a moment, then sent my dad a message.  I decided to head out and check out Yosemite, then meet up with him at the tourist area and head back home.  This is it, my northbound hike will end here.  The thought made me emotional for reasons I can’t really describe, but I put them aside and pushed on.

The trail wrapped around the massive meadow the entire day and I didn’t go up a single hill.  I was making my miles too fast and slowed things down a bit, I was only going 7 miles today and didn’t want to leave too much time where I was sitting around doing nothing, but my pace was hard to control as I was trying to stay relatively alone which proved to be difficult with all the day hikers out.  I’m happy to see people out enjoying the wilderness, but it’s so strange seeing people out on the trail anymore.

I got to Tuolumne Meadows where I was greeted by granite mountains with dramatically rounded and sheer edges reminiscent of what you’d expect from Yosemite Valley.  I stared in awe for a while, then made my way to the ranger station to get a permit.  I wasn’t too sure I’d get one for tomorrow, I was expecting to have to wait around here for at least a day or two, but when I requested a permit to hike up Clouds Rest then down into Yosemite Valley I got a permit right away for free.  I don’t know if it’s usually this easy or if I got lucky, but I feel like most hikers say that it’s nearly impossible to get a permit here.  I left the station feeling charged with excitement and made my way down to the backpackers campground at Tuolumne skirting along the edge of a car campground.

I set up my tent among the city of other hikers and car campers, made my way to the store to grab some snacks, then headed back to my tent where I gorged on food.  Another man set up next to me and was gone for most of the day, so I had a moment to myself to sit under a tree and look at the hoards of car campers doing the wilderness thing in an almost foreign way to me now.  On the way to a water spigot a woman proclaimed to me that they were ‘roughing it’ because the spigot was so far away from their camp.  What even.. what?

As it became evening, my camp neighbor came back and we had three more people set up in our little circle.  All of them were JMT hikers who were just starting their trek and I was at a loss for what to even talk about with them, but we eventually started to get to know each other and talked well into the night about the Sierra, home towns, and hikes all over the North American continent where I scored info on a great coastal hike in Canada.  Bucket list!

I woke up in the morning, wished them luck on their trek, and made my way back to the road.  I couldn’t take the conventional way to Clouds Rest/Yosemite along the JMT, I had to take a side-trail due to overuse.  I found it along the road, then it got sucked into the vast network of campgrounds in Tuolumne where I lost it completely.  I made my way back to the road and just walked along that for a while.  I eventually found the trail again only to have it completely disappear after a few minutes of hiking.  I bushwhacked back to the road and decided to just follow that for a while.

I got to a point where road walking became a little sketchy, so I followed a dry river bed back into the forest and up a slope where I found the trail and threw my fist up in the air in victory.  It’s good to be back on a trail again.  It became apparent to me very quickly that this trail sees very little use however as it kept disappearing here and there or just completely splitting off in random directions without so much as a sign indicating which way to go, and it became a bit like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.  Luckily I had a map and am somewhat decent at using one and was able to go off that as it took me down to a lake where I’d hit a proper trail up to Clouds Rest.

When I got to the lake I was a little overwhelmed with crowds once again.  I was splitting off to use the restroom at the trailhead (because if you have a choice between a toilet or shitting in the woods, the toilet is always more appealing).  I chose a trail that wound behind the shores of the lake where I came literally face-to-face with a deer.  We stood there and stared at each other for a moment after we had our own moments to shake off being startled.  I left it alone and pushed on to the trail head passing clean tourists smelling strongly of perfume and cologne.

Bathroom adventure aside, I got back to the trail and made my way halfway around the lake and took a lunch break on my own little portion away from the honking cars.  I feel like I’m some crazy animal that just emerged from the forest to take a quick peek at all the humans who come out to visit the forest on the weekends.  It’s really surreal and I feel like I need to keep my distance.  I put my lunch away and hit the trail, eager to head into Yosemite.  I’ve been wanting to climb up Clouds Rest for a couple of years now and I’m out of my mind with excitement.  It’s also a short day for me at 13 miles, I want to get up to the top and sit there for a couple hours.

The trail shot up immediately and switchbacked up for about a mile.  I’d run out of steam here and there but my excitement kept me going.  I ran out of water halfway up and took my first opportunity to filter water from a little pond.  As I filtered water I heard day-hikers laugh about how I was drinking ‘mosquito water’, whatever that means.  I thought back to a time in the desert where I had no choice but to drink water with a dead animal floating around in it and laughed.  If they only knew.  I chugged a liter, replenished it, and pushed on.

I flip flopped with day-hikers the rest of the way up then eventually lost them once I hit the final push up Clouds Rest.  As I made my way along the ridge I ran into another couple of day hikers who stopped along the very narrow path to the summit preparing to take a selfie.  I stood behind them patiently as they lined it up, then they looked back at me and scowled at me in confusion as if to say: “Um.. why are you here?”.  I expected them to move over so I could pass at that point, which they didn’t.  I got frustrated and took a bit of a risky jump onto a rock, then jumped back onto the trail so I could go around them.  Blocking the path and getting annoyed at the person behind you for photobombing, classy.

I got to the top and found a little flat spot along the edge of Clouds Rest looking out at Half Dome and the rest of Yosemite Valley where I geeked out over all the little things people climb, El Cap in particular.  I have no interest in getting into rock climbing, but I’m helplessly fascinated by it.  As I sat up there I was joined by a couple of crows who would fly around the summit for a while then land on the ridge in front of me and stare at me for a while, occasionally breaking to squawk at each other.  They may seem like chaotic or mindless animals, but crows are actually very smart creatures and I always love having them around.  Above all they remind me of home.  Some states have Seagulls or Magpies, Washington has Crows.

As I sat up at the top, more day-hikers and weekend-hikers poured in and brought out their fancy foods that tortured me with their delicious smells, listening to people bite down on crisp vegetables and break out elaborate sandwiches.  I’m so tired of my food at this point and I’d throw it all off the cliff to have a head of broccoli or something.  What finally got me off the summit however was listening to the person next to me say “The hike up here was nice” over and over and over again within the timespan of maybe a minute.  It was packed up there and I was already feeling claustrophobic, the food, the noise, and that one sentence for some reason just made me say “Time to push on”.

I made my way down the opposite end of Clouds Rest and plunged into Little Yosemite Valley.  The descent lasted for what felt like an eternity, I do not envy people who try to summit Clouds Rest from this side.  I passed the spur to Half Dome and continued downhill keeping an eye out for potential campsites.  There were none, none close to water anyways.  I was running really low and it had been a hot day, I need more than half a liter.  Eventually I got to the bottom of my descent for the day and got to a backcountry campground for people staying overnight to climb up Half Dome or Clouds Rest and pitched my tent in the corner.

As I ate dinner I got into a bit of a battle with the wildlife.  I’m not used to having to guard my food with my life, but the animals here are so desensitized to humans that they’re bold enough to come right up to you and wait for you to drop something or leave something unattended.  Birds and squirrels were the main ones, but I had a deer lingering around as well.  It made me sad, these animals rely on humans for food now because people are either negligent with their food or are actually feeding the wildlife here.  I hate to imagine what the bears are like here.  I tried just talking to the animals telling them to go away, when that didn’t work I stood up and chased them out and crammed the rest of my food down my throat to make it clear they weren’t getting anything.

I stored my bear canister in a bear locker, got into my tent, and listened to music as the sun went down.  Again I remembered that my northbound trek was over and let it take hold of me this time.  I looked back on the days, weeks, months of walking that got me to this point.  Who knew I’d be switching directions and going southbound?  I didn’t think I’d be in this situation.  I fell asleep to the sounds of hikers excited to embark on their weekend adventures.

The hike out of Little Yosemite Valley was unreal.  I walked through the treeline for a ways and down some stone steps, passing large groups of hikers on their way to Half Dome.  At some point I came across a couple of people who immediately knew I was a thru-hiker.  They had hiked the AT the previous year and we both egged each other on to try each other’s trails.  Thru-hikers recognize thru-hikers, we are unmistakable for whatever reason.  It’s kind of cool really.  We said our goodbyes and I pushed down and got to a waterfall that rattled my bones with its immensity.  I went off trail to find a better view and found a stone staircase that went to a bit of a balcony looking at the waterfall from the side where I could get a good view of it pouring down the edge of the cliff.  The power of all this water falling off the edge was incredible and humbling.  Most waterfalls I’ve seen were a bit of a trickle or at very most just a very straight-forward waterfall.  This one was almost like a natural firehose spewing water out and straight down into the valley.

I got back up to the trail and started making my way down.  Along the way I found a plastic water bottle discarded on the middle of the trail and picked it up and used it as a garbage can for the rest of the trash I found on the way.  Surprisingly there wasn’t much, it seems like people out here pick up wrappers at least every now and again, but I was left to deal with cigarette butts and tissues.  My hands are fucking disgusting either way, I’m not bothered by it.

It was a very nice walk down initially, but as I got lower I started to run into more and more people.  It wasn’t an issue until I ran into people who would walk in solid lines across the entire trail or people who seem to have absolutely no direction in mind as they wander along.  They’re just kind of shuffling their feet around with their heads straight up, mouths open as if they’re trying to catch snowflakes or something.  My initial patience wore off quickly and I started to weave through them with my pack.  As I was doing this a guy ran up to me and started talking, asking if I’d seen a woman with an extremely small pack on.  Apparently his wife was running the JMT and had completed it in five days.  Five days!! The JMT is 200+ miles long, I covered 100 miles in that amount of time in the desert where the terrain was easier and eventually was able to get close to doing that kind of time again.  I was absolutely amazed and made sure this guy knew he was married to a complete badass.  Apparently she barely sleeps and eats horribly in order to accomplish this, and the last time she did it she vowed that she’d never do it again.  But here she was.  It’s amazing to me that there’s people out there in this world who can do this stuff.

The conversation then switched to my thru-hike for a while until we got to the main tourist area where we parted ways.  I felt hopelessly lost here not knowing where to go at all, so I picked a direction and stuck with it.  I got to my destination fortunately, but became completely lost again trying to find some kind of landmark to meet my dad at.  I walked around for a good hour and passed a city of elaborate cabin/tent things that remind me of some kind of camp for war criminals.  It didn’t look inviting at all and I wondered why people would actually pay to stay there.  Eventually I got my bearings and called my dad from a payphone to let him know where to meet me.  It’d be 4-5 hours before he’d get here so I had some time to kill.

I wandered around for a while, got a soda, sat on the grass for a bit, then wandered a round some more.  I found some bathrooms near a swimming pool (A swimming pool!  In Yosemite!  Are you serious?!) and found out it had showers.  I was expecting there to be an area to pay for shower access or something but couldn’t find anything, so I snuck in and cleaned myself up a bit.  This would help the problem I was having with people staring at me.  “Yeah I’m covered in dirt and have lines of crusted blood running down my arm, so what?”.

After the shower I headed over to a pizza place and got a medium pizza and an Angry Orchard and sat on the deck enjoying each bite and each gulp of delicious hard cider while squirrels once again circled me hoping for a small crumb.  I felt a little guilty for eating here and contributing to the problem but.. pizza.  After lunch I wandered around looking for a quiet place to hang out while I waited for my dad, and settled on a cluster of trees behind the amphitheater (An Ampitherater guys!  This place is so weird).  I sat there falling in and out of sleep, and when it was near the time my dad said he’d arrive.  I waited there for 45 minutes or so watching people wander around completely ignoring the wilderness around them.  When I saw a group of deer and a buck wandering through a meadow I was sure there’d be a hoard of people scattering to the meadow to take pictures but no one even noticed.  I don’t like Yosemite Valley (now dubbed Half Dome Village), this is a very strange place.

My dad showed up eventually, when his truck pulled up I was overcome with happiness.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen him last.  We went and got more pizza and were eventually both overwhelmed and thoroughly weirded out by how crazy this place was and decided to leave.  We hit the road and made our way back to Washington.

And here I am.  I’ve been back at my home-state for about a week doing family things and getting everything together to hike southbound.  Occasionally I’ll remember that the trail as I knew it is over and I’m about to start a different kind of hike going southbound.  Sometimes it makes me incredibly sad, sometimes it scares me, and sometimes it excites me.  In the end though I just can’t wait to get back to it.

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