Those of you who read my blog know my friend Jeff has gotten me interested and enjoying backpacking again. After our memorable down and back to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I took a break, it’s a little hot here for summer backpacking. Then this winter, Jeff come up with the idea for our next adventure, backpack in his favorite National Park, Yosemite. We made multiple permit applications and were finally approved for a 5-day trip off Tioga Road and out to Ten Lakes and around Tuolumne Peak.
This was to be a hike like I have never attempted. While the Grand Canyon had a lot of elevation climb to get back out, this trip also involved altitude, something I needed to train for. At 9500ft the air is thinner and your breath is harder to catch. Jeff and I did tried to get some altitude training in locally at Mt Lemmon. As it all turned out, I probably should have done more training, not that I couldn’t do it, but it might have made it a little easier.
Jeff did all the planning, so credit goes to him for orchestrating such a great event. He had additional plans for some backpacking the weeks prior with John, so he was already in the area. I had a couple of trips in the weeks prior, so we decided to all meet up at Yosemite.
My adventure began with the 10-hour drive to Lone Pine, CA to spend the night before meeting Jeff and John in the morning at Ellery Lake Campground just outside the East Entrance of Yosemite. Lone Pine is one of the Gateway communities to that area of the Sierras. It also sits at the base of Mt Whitney. I must admit the scenery for the 10 hours up to Lone Pine left a lot to be desired. But it was like someone flipped a switch once I got to Lone Pine.
The next morning started bright and early at Alabama Hills Café for one last real breakfast. Then it was a beautiful 120-mile drive along the eastern side of the Sierras and up and over Tioga Pass (9945ft) and down to Ellery Lake to meet Jeff and John. Our first day was our “organizing” day. We spent the day sorting and checking gear, then headed into Yosemite. We had to pick up our permit and some food that Jeff had cached at a trailhead. Jeff gave us a tour of the area as we drove through. Tuolumne Meadows, Tenaya Lake, and up to Olmsted Point for a great view of Half Dome. With John’s binoculars I could see the people climbing up the chain pull on Half Dome. They looked like ants on a string.
The Adventure Begins– Day 1
We packed up from our “civilized” camp site and headed into the park to begin our adventure. Pack weights were reasonable. Jeff at 39.5 lbs, Craig at 33.5 and John at 29.5. Yosemite requires bear vaults, hard tough plastic canisters, in which to store your food which contributed approximately 8 pounds to each of our packs! The hard plastic prevents the bears from being able to smell your food or being able to open the container if they manage to get a hold of it. Fortunately, there was plenty of water, so we only had to carry about a liter or so and could fill and filter almost everywhere. The main and only road through this part of the park, Tioga Road, is under construction this summer. Fifteen miles of one-lane gravel with follow-me trucks and 30 minutes waits, then we left vehicles at both our entry and exit trailheads to shuttle when we got back. Needless to say, it was just short of 11:00 when we finally hit the trail. We started in at Ten Lakes. It was warm in the sun, but a nice hike. The first couple miles were in a fire area from a few years ago but vegetation was coming back. Lots of granite rock everywhere. Once out of the fire area, the views really were spectacular. The trail slowly climbed up about 1300ft the first 3 or 4 miles with lots of stream crossings.
About 4 miles in, we found a great meadow, Half-Moon Meadow, for a late lunch. Got out our chairs and took a seat. It was here that we first encountered what came to be our constant companion on the trip, mosquitos. It was just that time of year and the conditions were perfect for them. To be honest, with our head nets and clothing, they really did not attack us, more of a nuisance, but more on that later. Otherwise, not a lot of wildlife on the trail, we did see deer, and a marmot joined us for lunch.
Already up at about 8900ft, it was now time to start the 1 mile climb up to Ten Lakes Pass at 9670 ft. When combined with the altitude, this proved to be a challenging climb for all of us, most of all me! But we made it, and the views from the top were SPECTACULAR.
Ten Lakes are down in a bowl, so we had a nice decent of about 700 ft for the last mile and a half. I was sure glad we were going down on this section of the trail, as continuing to climb would have been rough; steep, lots of steps (I hate steps) and lots of loose granite rock.
Once at the big lake, Jeff found us a great campsite on a peninsula with a nice breeze, plenty of flat area and a wonderful view, and almost no mosquitos! We set up camp for the night, settled down for happy hour and dinner. The skies were clear so when I woke up in the middle of the night I went out to look at the stars. They were magnificent.
Seeking a Lower Altitude – Day 2
After what proved to be a good night’s sleep, we had breakfast and decided to take a short day-hike around the lakes area. Jeff had been in this area before, so he took us on a tour of the big lake we camped at and showed us the views of some of the other lakes. It was good to get out and stretch our legs on basically flat ground before we started our main hike, with our packs, to our next destination.
Upon our return, I was feeling a little woozy, and a little short of breath. Besides being out of shape, and a little tired from the previous day, John and Jeff thought maybe the altitude was starting to get to me. So, we plotted our course for the day to go down a little in elevation and see if that helped. John had found a spot about 200 ft lower that looked to be a good place for us to spend night two. But first, a short climb back up to the Ten Lakes bowl. It was a very gentle 500 ft climb over the first 2 miles. There were more great views of the Ten Lakes area as we climbed up and out of the bowl.
As we crested the summit, we were treated to some amazing views of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. This canyon can only be seen by backpacking in. The canyon walls are steep and sheer granite and we could see the river running through it.
From the summit it was a mile and a half down 1200 feet of steep, sharp, and loose granite rock. Yet another section I was glad to be going down, not up!
We made our camp in a meadow John found, near some water and open for the breeze. It was here our constant companions, the mosquito, decided to cluster. Yes, they were thick, but between the breeze, and our gear, they really were not biting us. Once the evening temperature dropped they left us alone. We found a nice big rock to use as an “island” and settled in for happy hour and dinner.
Polly Dome Lake– Day 3
Well, I have to hand it to the pros, John and Jeff were right, the lower altitude did have me feeling much better and somehow, the mosquitos managed to stay out of my tent all night, so I had another great night of sleep. It was cloudy and sprinkled a little in the early hours. Glad I got up and looked at the stars at Ten Lakes. Our plan for today was to try and make it to Poly Dome Lake. It is off our main trail by about half a mile or so, but we had heard great things about it. After a big breakfast we headed out to get a start at our climb for the day: a steady climb of 1600 feet over about 4 miles. We followed up the stream to a turnaround crossing the stream which doubled us back on the other side of the hill. There were some pretty cascading waterfalls on this section before we crossed the stream and headed back up. We had some great views of the meadow we stayed in, as well as the steep descent we had made the day before.
This section of our trip actually had two summits with a small 300 ft drop between. We rested and had snacks at the first summit with more great views. We used our camp chairs again. My camp chair was the single luxury item I took. It weighs about 2lbs but was worth every added ounce!!
After cresting the second summit, we found ourselves on the other side of the mountain in a forest. We also had a much better view of the big rain clouds and thunderstorms that seemed to be surrounding us! 🙁 As the raindrops started to fall, we geared up in our rain gear and pressed on. A couple times we debated about finding a place to just wait it out, but it never got to be much more than a light rain so we kept moving. We were in a forest of tall pines and that was sheltering us quite a bit. As the rain subsided, Jeff found us a flat spot off the trail some with water nearby. Though the ground and grass were wet, it was about as good a spot as we could hope for. We got our tents set up, just threw our stuff in to keep it dry and grabbed something to snack and contemplate our next move.
After a meeting of the minds, we all decided we still wanted to see Poly Dome Lake. The rain had quit, our companions, the mosquitos were out in force, so we thought the best thing to do was keep moving and explore. The walk to Poly Dome was about a mile and a half one way, over relatively flat ground. We lengthened it by another half mile, as we missed our turn. The trail to the lake is a branch off the main trail. There are no trail signs and the junction is obscured, at least that is our story anyway. We eventually found it with the help of All Trails and climbed up the steep 200 ft climb to the lake. It was beautiful there and would have been a great place to spend the night, had it not been for mosquitos so thick you could almost scoop them out of the air. So we turned around and headed back to camp.
Once back at camp, we decided it was just too wet and too many mosquitos where we had planned to have dinner, so we moved up and away from the wet grass and water into some rocks. We lit a small fire and kept wet and green wood on it to create some smoke. It worked great and the mosquitos pretty much left us. However, the rain decided to come back, so we put our rain gear back on, had happy hour to help stay warm, and ate a light dinner.
As we ate, we discussed our plans for the next day. Our exit trailhead was just 3.6 miles away, all downhill. By this time, Jeff and John had been camping and sleeping in tents for two weeks, we were all a little soggy, and we had grown weary of our constant insect companions. So the decision was jointly reached to hike out in the morning after breakfast.
The Exit– Day 4
I must give credit to my tent and sleeping set up. Even with the rain and the dampness, the inside of my tent was dry all night. Not one mosquito got in and I slept great. We had a quick breakfast and coffee, packed up all our stuff and headed out early. One of my other luxuries on this trip was my morning coffee. We use freeze dried coffee as it is light and easy to make. This trip, I also brought powdered chocolate milk and added it in to make a morning mocha. My new go-to morning drink on the trail. It was an easy straight hike back and we did the 3.6 miles in just an hour and 17 minutes.
As I mentioned earlier, we left two of our vehicles at the Ten Lakes Trailhead, about 10 miles away. So we threw our backpacks in the back of Jeff’s truck and piled in drive back to Ten Lakes Trailhead. We sorted out our gear and weighed our backpacks again. I obviously did not eat enough as mine was still about 32.5lbs, John’s had dropped to about 27 and Jeff’s was down near 35. Jeff was the one carrying the scotch, so that must be how his lost the most weight.
I spent the next 13 hours driving home. I did stop in Bishop though and visited Erick Shat’s Dutch Bakery for a sandwich and some pastries to help with the drive home 🙂 I highly recommend it.
As the title of this blog says, this was an epic adventure for me. I pushed myself to do some things I never thought I would be able to do, I used every piece of the gear I took, I learned a ton from both Jeff and John, and had a great time. The views were amazing, scenery was extraordinary and the hiking was fantastic. Next time I will probably do a better job or training though! Lesson learned! I can’t wait for my next adventure.