THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL
PART TWO: THE ANSEL ADAMS WILDERNESS
Tuolumne Meadows to Reds Meadow
“In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.”
The second section of our JMT thru-hike began in Yosemite National Park at Tuolumne Meadows. We spent the first day hiking through Lyell Canyon, before climbing to Donohue Pass and entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness. After two more days of hiking, we reached Devil’s Postpile National Monument and Reds Meadow.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
Christy had spent much of the previous afternoon debating whether she should continue the hike. Her original plan had been to leave the trail at Reds Meadow, which was still 3 days and 36 miles away. However, illness, along with foot, knee, and hip pain, had her reconsidering her options. The daily YARTS bus from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley would be stopping at Tuolumne Meadows that morning. With such an easy out, the temptation to bail out must’ve been overwhelming.
We were up early Monday morning. Bob and I were eager to hit the trail, and Christy had a bus to catch. We broke camp and strolled down to the post office / store / grill / bus depot, where we encountered a flurry of activity despite the early morning chill. We joined a long line of hikers, backpackers, climbers, and other unsavory types in search of breakfast. It was one of the few opportunities we’d have to eat a breakfast involving actual eggs, and we weren’t about to pass it up. We weren’t disappointed, even though breakfast wasn’t quite as good as the burger we’d gotten for lunch a day earlier.
Over breakfast, I regaled Christy with prosaic descriptions of the trail ahead. I mentioned that it was reputed to be one of the most scenic stretches of the entire JMT. I’m not sure if my description of Lyell Canyon, Donohue Pass, and Thousand Island Lake had any effect on her decision, but name dropping Ansel Adams probably did. We would be passing through his namesake wilderness. No doubt it was named for him because many of his most famous photographs were taken there. I knew Christy admired his photography, and the chance to see the landscapes that had inspired him must’ve motivated her, as well.
I also pointed out that although the next section was longer than the previous one, it would be much easier. The hot climb out of Yosemite Valley had been a bear, and I was looking forward to a gentle stroll through Lyell Canyon. Finally, I reminded her that if she spent 3 extra days at her uncle’s ranch outside of Sacramento, she’d have to endure blistering heat while inhaling smoke from dozens of wildfires in the area.
Bob obtained our resupply box from the post office, and we set about repacking our bear canisters. This was a little tricky, as we weren’t sure if we were packing for two people, or three. The YARTS bus was late, giving Christy extra time to make her decision. She waffled back and forth, and finally the bus arrived, opening its door right in front of the picnic table where we were sitting. What would she do? I looked at Bob. Bob glanced back at me. Christy shifted in her seat, but hesitated. Then the door closed, and the bus pulled slowly away.
I was relieved. Christy had decided to stay. Either that, or she had failed to decide at all, and had her decision made for her by default. Either way, it meant that we’d be spending three more days of our vacation together. We would go our separate ways for the last two weeks, so I was glad we’d have our remaining time together.
We repacked our gear, and dumped some extra food in the hiker’s box. This set off a small riot, as our extra food included a packet of tuna, which had gone uneaten in lieu of yesterday’s cheeseburgers. Hiker’s boxes typically contain zip lock bags full of mysterious substances of questionable edibility. A starving man would be unimpressed by the contents of most hiker’s boxes. When I pitched that tuna in, it was snatched up before it had stopped moving. I hate to think of the chaos that would ensue if someone deposited a 6-pack of Fat Tire and a jumbo bag of Doritos in one.
I returned to the table, and Christy mentioned that she might still want the tuna, after all. I laughed, and exclaimed that I wasn’t going back in there, for fear of losing a few fingers! Bob did pick up the can of denatured alcohol that we had purchased and put on layaway the day before we started the trip. At the time, there had been only two cans on the shelf, and we had worried that they might be out of stock when we arrived. Needless to say, finding the next closest supplier of denatured alcohol would’ve been a bit inconvenient. Getting the store clerk to keep the can for us behind the counter had required some persuasion, but it had paid off.
We finally got everything organized, and a Park Service shuttle bus arrived a few minutes later. We were running late, and we had already hiked the mile of trail from the campground to the lodge the night before, while returning from dinner (albeit in the opposite direction). Since we had already covered that stretch of trail, we felt justified in skipping it this morning. We hopped on the bus, and rode down to the lodge, where we embarked on the next stretch of our journey.
WHITE GIRLS CAN JUMP
From the bus stop, we followed a short connector trail to the JMT proper. A few minutes later, we crossed a sturdy footbridge over the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The Lyell Fork is a beautiful river, and from the bridge we had a great view of it winding its way down through lush meadows from the snowy peaks in the distance. The bridge crosses the river right at a spectacular swimming hole featuring deep pools and massive diving-board boulders. I was tempted to call for a break, but it was hard to justify one after walking all of five minutes. Instead, we shuffled across the bridge and headed up the canyon, putting Tuolumne Meadows in our rearview mirror for the final time.
For the next couple of hours, we strolled through Lodgepole Pine forests and grassy meadows. Frequently we walked right along the river, its’ clear waters revealing dozens of trout. The river was a delightful companion, as it snaked through the vast meadows at the base of the broad canyon. The rock walls on the far side added to the scenery, and at one pointed Bob spied a high waterfall tumbling down its flank. The walking was extremely easy, but it almost seemed like a shame to gallop through such a lovely place. The next time I’m in the Sierra’s, I’d like to spend a couple of relaxing days there.
Around noon, we reached a cascading water slide over bare granite. Most of the river had been placid, but this area was a bit more frantic. We stopped there for lunch, and splashed around a bit. Afterwards, Christy did some sunbathing, and I knew I was going to have a tough time getting her moving again. Unfortunately, we only had 3 days to cover the 36 miles to Reds Meadow, and I knew we’d regret it if we failed to make further progress that afternoon.
We eventually got going, and after a few minutes we met a ranger on horseback, who checked our permit. It would end up being one of only two times we had our permit checked during the entire hike. A bit later, Christy was walking ahead of me when she shrieked and jumped straight up in the air. I never would’ve believed that she was capable of a 36” vertical leap, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. A snake slithered past her feet, into the grass on the far side of the trail. I’m not sure what kind of snake it was, but it was clearly a non-poisonous variety. Still, it was startling to see a snake up at 9,000 feet! After that drama, we hiked into the upper reaches of the canyon, waltzing through sunny meadows carpeted with flowers towards the snowy peaks beyond. We knew the easy stroll had to end eventually, as the high peaks ahead beckoned.
Before long, we began the climb out of the valley. We knew we had to climb 2000’ to reach Donohue Pass, but we’d save part of that for Tuesday, as I planned to camp before reaching the crest. The climb was steady, but the grade was reasonable. After switchbacking through the woods, we reached a clearing with a view of the valley we had just traversed. The Lyell Fork winds through dozens of lazy bends in the valley. Fortunately, the trail stays pretty straight. Otherwise, it would take an extra day or two to hike the JMT!
We caught up with Bob a bit later at a bridge over the Lyell Fork. He had taken a tumble there, and was a bit scraped up. Fortunately, there didn’t appear to be any major injuries. There were some campsites in this area, but we were still in the woods, and the mosquitoes were horrific. After our miserable night at Sunrise on Saturday, we decided to continue on in hopes of finding better conditions.
We hiked another mile before reaching a lovely site under Whitebark Pines overlooking a small pond. From there, we caught our first view of the Lyell Glacier high above. The Lyell is the last surviving glacier in Yosemite National Park, and it provided a fine backdrop for our campsite. It was a good spot, and there was a nice breeze blowing through there. We thought that would discourage the mosquitoes, but the wind died down from time to time. Each time it did, swarms of mosquitoes would descend upon us. Fortunately, the next gust of wind would scatter them. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like there without that breeze.
We were setting up camp when Molly and Rosa came by. We had started our trips on the same day, and we had been passing each other ever since. They had camped on a knob near ours the first night – and had lost one of their bear canisters. Apparently a bear had found it, and had rolled it down the hill. Despite a lengthy search, they never recovered it. Since then, we’d seen them at Sunrise, as they had camped nearby. Now, they were looking for a place to spend the night. Bob suggested another possible site around the pond from us, but they decided to continue on, hiking up the trail beyond tree line.
That night we dined on pasta while the setting sun turned the clouds above the glacier a brilliant pink. Behind us, smoke from a nearby forest fire was filling the valley. We went to bed hoping that it would blow elsewhere and leave us alone.
We started the next morning with blueberry pancakes. This was quite a treat, as it was a rare breakfast that didn’t involve oatmeal or cold cereal. After eating, we packed up and tackled our first challenge of the day – fording the outlet stream below the pond. Several hikers had come through the previous evening, and some had attempted to rock hop – with varying degrees of success. We weren’t real interested in getting our boots wet, so we opted to wade. The water there comes directly from the Lyell Glacier, so it was cold! It was certainly a shocking way to wake up!
Beyond the ford, we began a steady climb up to a bench. Here we found another small pond, and a close-up view of the glacier. Abundant wildflowers added to the beauty. My favorite was the pink heather, which added vibrant color to the scene. The view behind us was somewhat limited, due to the persistent smoke. We could only hope we’d leave the smoke behind on the far side of the pass.
Another moderate climb, through boulders and snow, brought us to Donohue Pass. Here we left Yosemite National Park, and entered the Ansel Adams Wilderness. We paused there for a break, although the scenery was less exciting than the views from the trail on the way up. The pass is a broad saddle, featuring small tarns, snowfields, and lots and lots of rocks. We needed a snack break though, and we were able to fend off the local marmot while we munched on energy bars.
From the pass, we descended through snow into the Rush Creek Headwaters. This stretch of trail passes through a broad basin, full of streams, boulders, and stunted trees. Views of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and the Ritter Range unfolded ahead of us as we descended. Before long, we dropped back below treeline. We crossed Rush Creek on a footlog, and paused for lunch. We met Alex there a few minutes later. Alex was on his first backpacking trip – a thru hike of the JMT! Most would say that his goal was a bit ambitious for his first trip, but you’ve got to admire someone who thinks big. He had actually started the hike with a more experienced friend, but his companion had injured himself on the climb out of Yosemite Valley. Instead of scrapping his plans, Alex decided to press on solo.
His goal was to reach Mount Whitney on July 18th – a full week ahead of Bob and me! He had a very heavy pack - in fact, he was carrying his water bladder in his hands. At lunch, he pulled out a giant bag of gorp that must’ve weighed 5 pounds. Without question, there were some things he needed to change to have a successful hike. The good news is that he seemed to be enjoying himself. Ultimately, that’s the important thing.
After lunch, we made a modest climb to Island Pass. The mosquitoes were miserable there, so we didn’t linger. Instead, we hustled down towards Thousand Island Lake. Thousand Island Lake is the subject of one of Ansel Adams’ most famous photographs, and it didn’t take us long to see why. It’s a vast lake, and although it may not have a thousand islands, it’s probably pretty close. Banner Peak towers behind the lake, creating a dramatic backdrop. Although we only had to hike a couple more miles to get to our destination for the night, we couldn’t justify rushing. We stopped at the lake, despite persistent mosquitoes, for another break. Everyone attempted some photos, and Christy even went for a brief swim.
Afterwards, we continued on towards Ruby Lake. As we walked, Christy stated that she would carry my (heavier) pack on Wednesday if I could guess the two songs that were running through her mind. I laughed, and suggested that a hint or two might make this game a little less impossible. She granted me three guesses (for each song), and then helped me out by providing the bands. One song was by Eddie From Ohio, and the other was a Jimmy Buffet song. Great! Eddie From Ohio probably has a hundred songs, and Jimmy Buffet has far more than that!
I pondered this for a few minutes, before guessing the Eddie From Ohio song that was bouncing around in MY head. I went with “And the Rain Crashed Down”, which didn’t seem to make sense, as it hadn’t rained the entire time we’d been in California. However, it had clouded up that afternoon, and rain seemed to be threatening. I made my guess, and Christy’s jaw dropped. I had gotten the first one on the first try – and she had thought the task was impossible.
Christy was nervous now. Could she even lift my pack? Unfortunately, I didn’t have any Jimmy Buffett songs rolling around in my head. I made a few wild ass guesses. “Cheeseburger in Paradise”? Nope. “You Call It Jogging, I call it running around”? Nyet. How about, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw”? Ha, wishful thinking. It turns out the correct answer was “Last Mango in Paris”. I could’ve guessed all afternoon and not gotten that one.
We passed pretty Ruby Lake, before descending towards Garnet Lake. Garnet Lake is similar to Thousand Island Lake, although it doesn’t have quite as many islands. Despite this, it’s every bit as beautiful. Banner Peak and Mount Ritter soar beyond it. I was looking forward to camping on its lovely waters. Fortunately the rain clouds had dispersed, promising a pleasant sunset.
This proved to be a bit more challenging than we expected. Bob had gone ahead of us, to scout out a site. We descended towards the lake, but reached a side trail leading along the north shore. I scouted it out, and eventually found a great spot. Unfortunately there was only room there for one tent. There was no sign of Bob, so I rejoined Christy and we continued east around the lake. We caught up with Bob at a campsite near the outlet. However, camping is current not allowed in that area. We pressed on, crossing the outlet on a bridge before following the JMT along the south shore. Just before the JMT began to climb away from the lake, I noticed a possible spot up the hill above us. It wasn’t a good spot – in fact, the site consisted of a couple of tiny benches on a steep slope. Luckily, there was a small peninsula jutting into the lake below the site. That peninsula offered a fantastic eating area. We dined there on pasta and smoked salmon, while gazing over Garnet Lake to the rugged summits of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. It was a wonderful place to spend the evening, as the scenery was unparalleled, and a steady breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay. Although the site was great for ascetics, it was less than ideal for sleeping. The tent sites were cramped, and I kept waking up thinking I was rolling down the side of the mountain. Plus, my sinuses had been giving me trouble all trip. I’m not sure if it was the presence of smoke in the air, or the lack of humidity, but I had all kinds of trouble breathing in the tent. To make matters worse, it was unusually warm that night. I spent most of the night lying on top of my sleeping bag, and it seemed like I barely slept.
THE DEVIL’S RAINBOW
We had a quick breakfast of granola cereal the next morning, before packing up. We managed to get a fairly early start, which was good, since we still had 14 miles or so to go. Although Christy had recovered from her cold, her knee and hip were still troubling her. While we ate, I studied the map. The map shows a side trail running from Garnet Lake down to Agnew Meadows. Agnew Meadows is quite a few miles from Reds Meadow, but it’s on the same road. A National Park Service bus runs the length of the road, from the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to Agnew Meadows, Devil’s Postpile, and Reds Meadow. Since the bus stops at Agnew Meadows, Christy could hike out that way. That route offered a significant shortcut, as Agnew Meadows appeared to be only 6 miles away. Also, the hike there would be downhill the whole way. Going to Reds Meadow would be much longer, and with plenty of ups and downs.
Christy wasn’t excited about hiking out solo, but she was less enthusiastic about a 14-mile hike. Unfortunately I couldn’t accompany her, since I was committed to hiking the whole trail. My only concern was that I didn’t know anything about those trails, except what was shown on the map. What if that route turned out to be unmaintained, or impassable? Despite my concerns, she decided to go for it. We gave her a head start, as the first part of the route was a steep descent through a narrow ravine below Garnet Lake’s outlet. We figured if she had trouble, it would be in this stretch. Once she made it down to the river, we figured she’d be home free. By giving her a head start, she’d have a chance to backtrack and catch up with us if she couldn’t make it.
Christy headed out, and Bob and I took our time breaking camp. After an hour, we figured Christy wasn’t coming back. We hit the trail, and made an abrupt climb away from Garnet Lake. Some minor ups and downs followed, before we began a huge descent towards Shadow Creek. We were treated to some nice views of the Ritter Range, before we bottomed out along turbulent Shadow Creek. We continued down the gorge, following the creek past dozens of cascades, slides, and waterfalls. Unfortunately, the sunny morning did not provide ideal conditions for photography in the gorge.
We reached the last of the cascades just before the creek enters Shadow Lake. We had a snack break there, and Molly and Rosa passed by a couple of minutes later. After fueling up, we began a hearty climb out of the valley. This was a bit of a grunt, but the many switchbacks eased the grade, and the Lodgepole Pines provided ample shade. We eventually crested the hill, and began a long but easy stretch to Devil’s Postpile National Monument. After a few miles, we passed above Minaret Falls. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a clear view of the falls from the trail. Near the park boundary, we intersected the Pacific Crest Trail, which follows a separate route between Devil’s Postpile and Thousand Island Lake. At this point, we had a choice to make. The JMT and PCT follow the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River along the edge of the park boundary, bypassing the Devil’s Postpile. The Devil’s Postpile is a rather unique natural feature, and I wanted to see it. So, we chose to follow an alternate route that would take us past the rock formations.
We crossed a bridge over the river and entered the National Monument. The description of this area in my guidebook is confusing, but the actual trails were easy to follow. The junctions were well-marked, and after only a few minutes we arrived at the base of the Postpile. The Devil’s Postpile itself is a formation of columnar basalt. It was formed by ancient volcanic activity, and exposed by more recent glacial action. The view of it from the base was fascinating, but the area was crowded with tourists. After three days of seeing only a handful of hikers, the crowds were a little disorienting. We didn’t linger long, and skipped the side trip up to the top of the Postpile. Instead we continued on, following a trail leading back to the JMT.
A few minutes later, we reached another junction. Here, a left turn would take us out to the road where we could catch the bus. However, we weren’t far from Rainbow Falls, and I wanted to check it out. It was only mid-afternoon, so I was pretty sure we had time for the side trip. Bob was ready to call it a day though, so I decided to do it solo. Bob was nice enough to take some of my gear, so I could make it down there and back quicker. We parted ways, with Bob heading up to Reds Meadow Resort to grab a snack and a beer. I hurried on down the trail, eager to see the falls before heading to town.
I hiked through an area ravaged by a recent forest fire, and the lack of shade made for a hot afternoon hike. I set a blistering pace, since we still needed to catch a series of buses to get to Mammoth Lakes for the evening. I weaved through some dayhikers and a large family, and reached the junction with the side trail to the falls. A short jaunt down that path brought me to the upper overlook. There were several people there, but it’s a big overlook, so it was easy to get a good view. Rainbow Falls drops 101’, and it’s on a river, so there is a lot of water. Under normal circumstances, the falls are breathtaking. My timing was particularly good though, as the sun emerged from behind a cloud shortly after I arrived. When it did, a rainbow appeared in the spray below.
I took a few photos, and then wandered down to a lower overlook. From there, I could have descended all the way to the bottom of the gorge to see the falls from the base. It was getting late though, and I was running out of energy. Continuing the hike downstream to the lower falls also seemed overly ambitious. Instead, I enjoyed the view for a couple of minutes before heading back.
On my return, I took an alternate, shorter route to Reds Meadow, rather than doubling back all the way to where I’d left Bob. This saved me a few minutes. Despite my best efforts, I emerged from the woods to see the shuttle bus pulling away. Noooooo! As is typical with buses and trains and ferries, I’d just missed it. How long would we have to wait for the next one? 30 minutes? An hour? Well, I guess we’d be forced to drink beer the whole time. That’s exactly what Bob was doing, waiting for me at the bus stop. I caught up with him, and was just getting ready to join him, when the shuttle bus circled back. It was a miracle! Apparently someone on the bus had missed the stop, and had talked to driver into going back. Their mistake was our gain, and we boarded the bus bound for the Mammoth Lakes Ski area.
The trip was leisurely, and it took quite a while to get down the mountain. We passed the stop at Agnew Meadows, but there wasn’t any sign of Christy. Of course, if everything had gone according to plan, she would’ve made it down the mountain hours earlier. Towards the end of the trip, we stopped at the park entrance to pay the fee for the bus. At $7 round-trip, it was pretty reasonable. We reached the Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort a bit later and disembarked. We were still several miles from the town of Mammoth Lakes, and our next challenge was to find our way down there. My understanding was that there was some sort of shuttle bus for mountain bikers between the resort and the town. After a considerable amount of hunting around, we found out that we had missed the last bus of the day. Sigh. Hitchhiking probably wouldn’t have been too difficult, but we decided to check at the hotel. The folks at the front desk we’re extremely nice, as they offered to take us into town in the hotel van. That was pretty generous, particularly considering that we were going to another hotel. I had reserved a room at the Holiday Inn, simply because I could stay there for free.
The hotel employee was a really nice guy, and we gave him a tip when we arrived at the Holiday Inn. We checked in, and found out that Christy had arrived early that afternoon. This was a huge relief, and we found her napping in our room. She was recovering from a wicked hike. She had made it down to the river without much trouble, but ended up following a path on the near side of the river, rather than crossing to the other side. This path was poorly maintained, and at one point she was forced to descend through a steep ravine choked by snow. To make matters worse, somewhere along the way she lost my map. Luckily she eventually stumbled on the main trail, which took her through the Agnew Meadows Campground and out to the road. Despite all of the drama, she made into town in time for lunch. That afternoon, she had picked up our resupply package from the post office. She had also purchased a titanium spoon for me, to replace the one I’d lost somewhere along the trail.
We spent a few minutes repacking our bear canisters and reorganizing our gear. I passed a few things to Christy that I didn’t want to carry on the rest of the trail. The most significant item was the small frying pan I’d brought to facilitate cooking for three people. Now that we were down to two, it was no longer worth carrying the extra weight.
We took advantage of all the conveniences offered by the hotel. I did a load of laundry, as I’d only brought one pair of pants for the whole trip. Meanwhile, the flush toilets were exquisite. After showering, we headed out to feed. Since most of my clothes were in the dryer, I wore an ugly bathing suit Christy had purchased for me at the gift shop. Restaurant options in Mammoth Lakes were plentiful, but we ended up walking across the street to an Italian place. It looked like a nice place, and we all felt like we’d already walked far enough without strolling around town in search of dinner. Bob and I shared a pizza, and Christy had a pasta dish. We washed it down with plenty of beer, and afterwards we stopped at a beer store next door and picked up a 6-pack of Fat Tire.
It was well after dark when we finally started back to the hotel. We were almost there when a large shadow on the sidewalk ahead of us made us pause. There was a brief movement, and a large black bear stepped off the sidewalk into the street. Yikes! After walking 60 miles through the Sierra’s and only encountering one bear, I wasn’t expecting to see one in town! The bear, which was only about 50’ away, turned and looked at us. I deftly handed the leftover pizza to Bob. Then the bear turned and darted into traffic. Several cars slammed on their brakes, but somehow he managed to avoid getting hit. He made it across the road, and disappeared into the shadows on the other side.
We spent the rest of the night drinking our Fat Tire’s and soaking in the hot tub. Then we headed for bed, as we had to get up early the next morning.
Continue reading about our trip as we continue our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail from Reds Meadow to the Vermillion Valley Resort.
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