The hike north out of Tuolumne Meadows was fairly easy, a gentle grade down broad meadows. We crossed the Tuolumne River on a bridge, and headed down to Tuolumne Falls. We could tell that a lot of people had walked this same path – the trail was about 4 feet wide, and there were trail signs and sturdy bridges everywhere. Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country. Unfortunately, it’s about loved to death. The bears in Yosemite are almost a distinct species. They are so habituated to people, that many of them have lost their natural fears. We heard rumors that the park administrators relocated all the worst bears to the Tuolumne Meadows area. (from the more popular Yosemite Valley 25 miles away). So, to minimize our potential bear problems, we hiked as far and as late as possible that night. We kept going past the popular Glen Aulin campground, and 5 miles up past the next valley. We had trouble finding the trail in the dark and snow, and finally camped in the trees on the side of a mountain.
The next morning, we found out what we’d missed. Another hiker, Skitz, passed us early in the morning. He’d camped at Glen Aulin. Bears had been all over Glen Aulin the previous evening. Some people made the simple mistake of turning their back for 5 seconds and had their food & packs ripped apart. Spice was camped just outside of Glen Aulin. A bear grabbed his tent, and started running off with it… with Spice still inside! Spice and his hiking partner were able to chase the bear away, but not before it ripped a huge hole in Spice’s tent. They had to go back to Tuolumne Meadows so he could patch it and order a new one.
We were glad we missed the excitement. We packed up our stuff and headed out. The map of section “I” told a frightening story, we would have to cross about 5 or 6 good sized streams in the next few days. The first two, McCabe Creek and Return Creek, were only a few miles from where we camped. On the way down we encountered a “return” hiker. She had crossed the first few creeks, and decided that the next one wasn’t safe. She was going to skip this section. Hmmm. This wasn’t encouraging. She didn’t even make it to Kerrick Creek, which was rumored to be the most difficult of the Yosemite crossings. A few minutes later, we arrived at McCabe Creek. It was only knee-deep, but very swift. We managed to get across with only minor difficulties. Only a few minutes more and we arrived at Return Creek. It was about the same as McCabe, with one short deep spot at the far end. I got wet up to my chest and banged up my leg, but I was OK. After drying off, we hiked on and started to figure out the Yosemite terrain – straight up a canyon, down the other side, cross a creek and repeat. This became the standard routine for the next couple days.
We made it over snow covered Benson Pass by the end of the day. We walked only far enough to get out of the snow on the other side, and camped.
The next day was more up and down and up and down and getting wet. At one point, we walked up 800 feet just to go right back down – we could have just walked in a flat straight line. Obviously, whoever designed this section of trail was a sadistic evil person. About halfway through the day we crossed Piute Creek, a broad, slow and deep creek snaking through a swampy area. Soon afterwards, we arrived at a junction with a side trail that went 0.4 miles to Benson Lake. The guide book described Benson Lake like as a paradise – “no one should pass it up!” We took one look at the muddy, swampy, mosquito-infested trail and laughed. There was no way we were going there.
Instead, we started climbing up the PCT. Our next destination, Seavey Pass was 1600 feet above us. On the way, we passed by a beautiful little lake. It was about 20 feet deep, absolutely clear, and bounded on all sides by massive rounded granite boulders. Some of the boulders formed peninsulas and islands in the lake. Screw Benson Lake, this little nameless lakelet was paradise. (I took pictures of it, but they don’t do it justice).
After heading over Seavey Pass, we entered a section of trail which Donna described as, “the worst, most annoying section of the whole damn PCT – 4 miles of hell”. The trail followed Kerrick Creek downstream… but somehow, it went uphill in the process. The entire side of the canyon was covered in snow (including the trail). It was all melting – feeding the creek and making us posthole in epic style. Parts of the trail were so close to the Creek that slipping meant certain tragedy. Oh, I almost forgot! A couple sections of the trail were wiped out by small avalanches too!
We finally arrived at Kerrick Creek. It looked hazardous to say the least. The creek was 100% whitewater – decorated with countless rounded granite boulders. Unfortunately, the boulders weren’t close enough together to hop across, the water flowed deep and fast between them. I scouted downstream about a quarter mile, and it was all the same. We started scouting upstream, and came across “the two germans”. Al and Joseph were camping on this shore of the creek – hoping that the nightly freeze would bring the creek level down. They’d also found a spot upstream where the creek split, making it more shallow. This sounded like a good plan, so we decided to join them.
We woke up to deer traipsing through our camp. With a little nervous apprehension, we went to check on the creek. It was amazing! The water level had gone down a good 6 to 9 inches. It didn’t even look like the same creek – previously submerged rocks were now visible. We crossed at the “split”. It had to be the coldest ford of the trip. All the creeks were really chilly, but this one couldn’t have been more than half a degree above 32F. We tried to warm up, then climbed up the canyon on the other side.
The terrain in this area was not as dramatic as the higher sierras to the south, but it was beautiful. There was still a lot of snow in the area – the north Sierra had received 150% of average yearly snowfall. It was almost July and the snow still hadn’t melted. The further north we got, the lower we got. But the snow level followed us down, it was like a cruel joke. The snow was melting at a furious pace though, there was water flowing everywhere.
We crossed three more creeks that day – Stubblefied Creek luckily had a log across the creek (“Guten Log”, I said to Joseph… he didn’t get it.). Tilden creek was shallow and slow… but still wet. Falls Creek was broad, thigh-deep, warmer, and almost fun. It was also the last serious wet ford of the entire trip. We met a couple on the other side of Falls Creek – they were doing a study of the meadow ecosystems in the area. I felt a bit envious… “working” out here? Well, hiking the PCT was another definition of “work” I suppose.
We stopped for dinner at a nice little spot in the middle of Grace Meadow. We were out in the open, and all the while I was looking around for bears. I felt like a puny little animal trying to sneak a meal in-between random passings of hungry beasts. We later hiked all the way up past Grace Meadow, over Dorothy Lake Pass, and out of Yosemite National Park. We lost the trail in the dark and snow. We finally camped on a little patch of grass surrounded by boulders and snow. It was a long day, we crossed a number of creeks and still managed a good 22 miles. We were presented with a small mystery that night. Every 15 minutes, the nearby creek would get noisy… then it would calm down again. It was almost as if someone was turning the creek “on” and “off” every so often. I figured that it was harmless and went to sleep… confused.
We realized that we didn’t have enough food to make it to Echo Lake without stopping. Slogging through the creeks and snowy trails of Yosemite had slowed us down. We were going to have to make a pit stop at Bridgeport via Sonora Pass. So, we got moving, hoping to make it to town that night. The trail gently wound down toward the West Fork West Walker River (long name…) and then up Kennedy Canyon. During this segment of trail, we reached a landmark of sorts – we’d now hiked 1000 miles! We took a break at “another” creek (the book described it as “…you pass another creek…”) and took a commemorative photo. The mountain landscape changed abruptly. Instead of giant granite monoliths, we were facing massive dark mounds of volcanic scree (like flat-shaped gravel). The sides of the mountains above us were bare – no trees, just rock and snow. We soon learned why. The trail disappeared into a tangled mess of broken trees and snow. An avalanche had wiped out 300 yards of the PCT in grand fashion. The trail was completely gone. But, we could see where we needed to go… up the mountain. So, we headed straight up. The rock was really loose, our feet sank 6 inches into it with every step. I could tell that this area was extremely avalanche prone. I looked up and saw that most of the mountain was still covered in thick snow. I hurried up as fast as possible, it just didn’t feel safe. However, the lack of trees meant we had uninterrupted views across a hundred miles of mountains. We could see south to the area we’d been weeks before. It was impossible to pick out any familiar peaks in the distance, but we knew that we’d walked as far as we could see.
We reached the top of our climb and faced another choice. We could either continue on the PCT to Sonora Pass, or take a slightly shorter route to hwy 108. We were running out of daylight, and the guidebook described the next section of the PCT as “potentially fatal when snow is heavy”. We took the short cut, straight down the other side of the mountain. After joyfully sliding down the snow, we reached Leavitt Lake. While cooking dinner, we solved our mystery. The lake was melting and sheets of ice were breaking up. When one of these sheets reached the outlet stream, it made a lot of noise. A-Ha! there was indeed a logical explanation for the randomly noisy creek!
We hiked 5 more miles along a snowy jeep road, and finally arrived at Hwy 108 at dusk. It was 33 miles to Bridgeport. We stuck out our thumbs and the traffic disappeared. No cars. We had almost given up hope when we got a ride from a prison guard. He’d driven Hwy 108 hundreds of times. We were treated to a crazy roller coaster ride down the winding highway. We’d been going 3 mph for weeks, this was insane! He dropped us off at Hwy 395. Only another 15 miles to Bridgeport. It was getting dark though, and this wasn’t a good place to get a ride. The cars were whizzing by at 70 mph. We were nothing more than a couple of fuzzy specs in their rear-view mirror. As the sun went down, we got more desperate – jumping up and down, praying at the cars for a ride. It looked pretty bleak.
Finally, Donna flagged down Otis. Otis was actually headed up the mountain. There’s a mountain warfare training center halfway up Sonora Pass, and Otis worked there. The combination of our pathetic state, Donna’s charms and Otis’ kindness converged. Otis agreed to drive us 15 miles out of his way (30 actually… he had to drive back) to Bridgeport. Otis did survival training for marines. Yup, he’d eaten worms… and roadkill, and tree bark, and roots. In fact, I’ll bet there was very little in the mountains that Otis hadn’t eaten. We got to hear some great stories of marine training scenarios, flavored by Otis’ southern accent and unique personal style. He dropped us off in Bridgeport, where we found a hotel, a meal and a deep sleep.
The next day, while walking around town buying groceries, we stopped in the local bakery. We were surprised to find 3 hikers we knew behind the counter. Jamie, Beth and Brian knew the owners, and were staying in Bridgeport for a couple days. They were stuffing themselves with pastries and washing an occasional dish. They appeared to be in hungry hiker heaven.
Now well stocked, Donna and I prepared for the reverse hitchhike back up to Sonora Pass. Donna convinced a tourist couple from the UK to give us a ride back to Hwy 108. A nice man then gave us a ride up to the pass. He’d been out fishing with his little boy, and they’d quickly caught their limit. We visited with him for a little while. He’d been a back country firefighter for years, and was familiar with much of the area we’d hiked over. He gave us a couple soft drinks, some salami, bread and cheese. His son insisted that Donna take a jiffy pop (yes, the popcorn-in-aluminum-foil-pan-thing), so she attached it to her backpack and we headed out.