August 29, 2014
Distance: 8 Miles
Traveled: Glacier Point to Happy Isles via the Panorama Trail, John Muir Trail, and Mist Trail
“But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others, absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly aware, yet heedless, of everything going on about them. Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these rocks are adorned, and how fine and reassuring the company they keep: their feet among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water, floods of light, while the snow and waterfalls, the winds and avalanches and clouds shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by… as if into this one mountain mansion Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.”
– John Muir, The Yosemite
“The hardest part of doing the JMT, is getting a permit”
– said any southbound JMT hiker
Perhaps I should have titled this Day 1 (kinda?).
I feel like to appreciate what a pain-in-the-ass it is to actually get a permit to hike the John Muir Trail southbound, I need to provide a primer for those who are not familiar with the wilderness permit system in Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite Wilderness Permits 101
Wilderness permits are required for all overnight hikes in Yosemite. There is a daily quota for each trailhead for the number of overnight hikers allowed to enter, and in the words of the NPS, “Wilderness permits are only issued to a limited number people for each trailhead in order to provide outstanding opportunities for solitude, as required by the Wilderness Act.” A portion of the permits for each trailhead are available for reservation 24 weeks (168 days) in advance, and the remaining permits are released as walk-up permits the day before the date of entry on the trail. To do the JMT southbound, all you need is this one permit, and they are extremely competitive to get. Not only are you competing with other JMT hikers, but also with Half Dome hikers. You better have your finger on the send button of a fax machine at 4:59 PM PST the day before your application day when their office closes so your permit application is there at the top of the stack when they get in in the morning. For the Happy Isles to Sunrise/Merced Lake (pass-through) permit I was going after, there are only 6 available for reservation and 4 available for walk-up. Not many at all.
So, whereas last year I was on top of my game in getting my permit out of Yosemite to hike southbound on the John Muir Trail (and also managing to magically get my first choice). This year I was not quite as on-top of my game or as lucky (I had just moved from California to Colorado the week before and had broken my elbow – needless to say, my head was elsewhere). I somehow spaced out a bit, and forgot that I had to fax my permit application at 5pm PST the day before the official “24 weeks before your start date” – and realized at 3:00 pm, when all of the permits for Friday, August 29 had long since been doled out, that I now was semi-screwed and would have to apply for the next day. Though I was lucky enough to actually get a permit, I unfortunately got my 3rd choice permit – Happy Isles to Illiouette. Though this permit would get me on the trail (which is half the battle), and would get me starting at Happy Isles (which is the official start of the JMT southbound), I would have to go out of my way the first night off the JMT and have to backtrack the next day, which would essentially cause me to lose a day (and I had already ‘lost’ a day because with this permit I was already starting a day later than I needed to leave). I decided to hold onto to the permit, so I at least had one – but hope that perhaps I could trade it in for a more optimal walk-up permit if one was available.
The problem with this plan, was that I wasn’t able to get to Yosemite Valley until Friday morning (the same day I also needed to start), and wilderness permits are all released the day before the date of entry – which meant that in all likelihood, all of the permits that would get me on the trail would be long gone, and I would still be stuck leaving on Saturday.
My dear friend Caitlin was joining me on the trail for the first 2 days from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows (27 miles), and in her incredible kindness, she also offered to follow me to Whitney Portal on Thursday night to drop off my car at the end of the trail. We camped at Whitney Portal (a.k.a slept in the back of our cars) and I watched all of the hikers with headlamps going up and coming down the trail at all hours of the night, knowing that the next time I was here I would be one of them – flying down the switchbacks to my car, and wondering what experiences and adventures I would have behind me. Would I be sad that it was over? Would I be happy to be off the trail? Would I be changed, or have come to some prophetic realization after wandering alone in the wilderness for 16 days? I somehow slept fairly well between the racing questions and excitement. Before the sun was up, I said a nervous goodbye to my car, and we were on the road by 5:30am.We raced the sun along the eastern slope of the Sierras heading up 395 to Yosemite, all the while aware that I would be soon walking the entire length we were now driving, just over the other side of those unsuspecting peaks that have beckoned me for so long.
I always think of these words of John Muir when driving along the Sierras:
“In general views no mark of man is visible upon it, nor any thing to suggest the wonderful depth and grandeur of its sculpture. None of its magnificent forest-crowned ridges seems to rise much above the general level to publish its wealth. No great valley or river is seen, or group of well-marked features of any kind standing out as distinct pictures. … Nevertheless the whole range five hundred miles long is furrowed with cañons 2000 to 5000 feet deep, in which once flowed majestic glaciers, and in which now flow and sing the bright rejoicing rivers.”
– John Muir, The Yosemite
The Wilderness Permit Office opened at 8am, and by the time we got to the Tuolumne Meadows office at about 7:45am there was already a huge line in the parking lot. I was feeling a little hopeless that any permits would still be left over for today, and the ranger that was ‘helping’ the people in line (if ‘helping’ means being an unnecessary bitch to everyone) assured me that there were no more remaining permits leaving from Happy Isles or Glacier Point, but if we got down to the permit office in the valley before 10:00, I may still have a shot at swapping out my permit in the valley for a better one on Saturday. We jumped in the car and made the hour drive down to the valley permit office. On the way down I tried to evaluate our options and see what still might get us on the trail today, instead of Saturday.
After a serious logistical debate, I came up with our new plan (and I totally forgive you if none of the following makes any sense, which it probably won’t).
I decided that we would try for Sunrise Lakes permits to leave on Saturday, since that would get us about as far up the trail as we would need to be by that time. Then, today, we would take the shuttle up to Glacier Point and dayhike down the Panorama Trail to the Happy Isles Trailhead and camp in the valley tonight. Tomorrow we would drive up to the Sunrise Lakes trailhead and hike the 8 miles to join with the JMT, and continue on from there. Since I had already done the hike up from Happy Isles to near Half Dome Junction last year in my first attempt, I didn’t feel like I was cheating myself of anything by skipping that section this time, and today we would have the opportunity to hike down the Mist Trail back to Happy Isles, instead of the JMT, which would allow me to see more trail I had not seen before. With this detour I would still be doing essentially the same mileage, but about 12 miles of it would be on other trails – and at the end of the day, I’m not a purist. It’s all beautiful, beautiful, miles in the Sierras…
We waited in line at the permit office in Yosemite Valley, ate whatever vegan/wheat-free fare I could get my hands on at the deli next door, and then headed to the Yosemite Lodge to catch the next shuttle to Glacier Point. The shuttle that runs up there is technically not a “shuttle” and actually more of a tour bus. Our driver was great and entertaining, I actually learned some things I didn’t know about the park on the way up. (I don’t remember what those things were now…so maybe I didn’t actually learn anything?) We stopped at the base of El Capitan to gawk at a late season climber on the wall.
I slept for a little bit on the way (I was exhasuted), and we finally got to Glacier Point around 3:30 which meant we had to hustle a bit to get the 8 miles back to the valley before dark.
The view from Glacier Point is stunning, and likely one of the best (accessible) views in the park. Unfortunately, it was a bit overcast it didn’t do justice to it’s complete grandeur. It stands 3,200 feet above the valley floor at 7,214 feet, and has incredible views of of Half Dome, Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls (when it’s flowing – which it’s typically not come Sept), Clouds Rest, and in the far distance the peaks of the Cathedral Range where we would be camping the next night.
The overcast skies were actually quite welcome once we got on the trail and realized that it saved us from having to hike in the hot glaring sun. The trail is downhill (mostly) from Glacier Point to the valley. After walking on a bridge over Illiouette Creek the trail climbs for a bit, but the views were worth it. We took a few short side tracks to enjoy the view.
At 5 miles we hit the junction with the John Muir Trail and hiked up .5 mile to the top of Nevada Falls for a snack and to take in the views. When we got to the top of the falls it all started to hit me…I was actually back on this trail. A year ago to the day I was in that very spot – almost to the exact minute. The lighting was exactly as I remembered it the year before, the sun falling low just about to creep behind the valley walls, but last year the smoke from the Rim Fire was billowing in, the sun was glowing red, and there was so much struggle in my lungs and uncertainty. It felt like the year had flown by, but also that so much had happened. I didn’t realize until we sat down above Nevada Falls to eat some avocado and rice crackers and to watch the sunset (yes, Caitlin actually brought fresh avocados for trail food – I’m slightly convinced they’re worth the weight), how much that defeat last year had affected me – but I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and I knew in my gut that this year would be the year. I took a few photos from the same vantage point as the year before to compare, and then we hustled down the mist trail because the sun was setting fast.
A few photos from this year juxtaposed with photos from last year:
Oh, and the Mist Trail. Holy crap. Who in their right might would ever want to hike UP that thing? To think it’s one of the most popular trails in the park. That was one of the most miserable downhills I’ve ever experienced, and I can’t even imagine how miserable the uphill would be. I was feeling certain that with my luck I would end up blowing a knee out on that trail before I even hit the JMT. Sure, the views of the waterfalls are incredible (and probably beyond-incredible in the spring), but still…
The sun had set, and I snagged a photo with the Happy Isles Trailhead sign just before it got super dark. We got to the shuttle stop just as the bus was pulling up, snagged dinner and a shower at Curry Village, and then eagerly got in bed ready to get back on the trail tomorrow. Finally, it was happening.