August 30, 2014
Distance: 10 Miles
Traveled: Sunrise Lakes Trailhead to Lower Cathedral Lake
“The grand Sierra Cathedral, a building of one stone, sewn from the living rock, with sides, roof, gable, spire and ornamental pinnacles, fashioned and finished symmetrically like a work of art, and set on a well-graded plateau about 9000 feet high, as if Nature in making so fine a building had also been careful that it should be finely seen. From every direction its peculiar form and graceful, majestic beauty of expression never fail to charm.”
– John Muir, The Yosemite
I’ll lie to you and say that we didn’t sleep in the back of our car in the Camp Curry parking lot, and instead, leave you to imagine that we ‘properly’ slept in the backpackers camp that we couldn’t find.
We were up bright and early, and I went into the village to purchase what I thought would likely be my last soy latte, and last pieces of fresh fruit (a banana and orange) for 18 days. While Caitlin snagged a shower and cooked her breakfast, I organized all of my gear and supplies.
The plan was to leave Caitlin’s car in Tuolumne Meadows in the Wilderness Permit Office parking area, which was also an intersection with the JMT. I would only have to carry one night of stuff with me tonight, and then I would swap out a bunch of my gear at her car the next morning before continuing on my way solo. I only had to carry one day of food with me in my smaller BV450 bear canister, and I would leave my larger BV500 bear canister with my food for the next 3 days in the bear bins at the parking lot. It was a brilliant convenience to be able to do all of this and to only have to carry a light load for the climb up to Tuolumne Meadows.
We drove the hour from the valley, parked the car, stashed the necessary items in the bear bins, caught the Tuolumne Meadows shuttle, and were at the Sunrise Trailhead by 11am.
It wasn’t going to be a super long day, as we only had about 11 miles – but it was going to be a climb. It would essentially be almost entirely uphill. The Sunrise Trailhead is at 8,140 ft and we would climb almost 1200 ft in the first 2.5 milles.
It was hot in the sun. Oh boy, was it hot.
About a ¼ miles down the trail, the sun was relentless and I decided to try out my newest and prized piece of gear – my GoLite Chrome Dome Trekking Umbrella. I originally felt inspired to give it a shot after my experience hiking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne a few months earlier. The sun reflecting off the granite on that hike was brutal, and it felt like the sun was inescapable. My friend that finished the JMT the year prior said that the next time he hiked he would probably bring an umbrella for the last half of the hike as it was incredibly exposed. I knew I would look completely ridiculous with my umbrella, but I didn’t care. The umbrella proved to be a game-changer. Oh, man. Hiking along a glaring, exposed, granite ridge? Incredible in the traveling shade.
The thing I couldn’t have predicted about my umbrella was what a spectacle it was. Honestly, I thought everyone would think I was an idiot – and instead every hiker we passed (and there were a lot of them because we were still knee-deep in Yosemite National Park) stopped to ask about it. The comments of jealousy I got from sweaty-hot-hikers became comical. I went from feeling like a total gear-nerd with my silver trekking umbrella, to complete satisfaction that I brought it. I would have been miserable without it that first day.
One of the biggest take-aways from this day was the people. Not that there were too many (which there always are in Yosemite) – but that everyone was so friendly. Every time we would run into a group of hikers and stopped to talk with them and hear about where they were going and coming from it was so invigorating. I once heard a saying along the lines of “There’s no bad people above 5,000 ft .” and it really always has proven true for me (thought I’m not sure that saying counts living in Colorado – I’ll probably raise that to 10,000 ft). At the junction for Clouds Rest we ran into a large group of woman that were backpacking between all of the High Sierra Camps, and they have been doing this trip every year for the past 5 years. They were super friendly and funny, and we talked for a bit and exchanged some gear tips – as someone that has only ever backpacked solo the idea of backpacking with a group of 10 women sounds super fun (and potentially frightening?).
Leaving the junction Caitlin and were talking about the phenomenon of making trail-friends. I know people that have made life-long friendships on the JMT, and I have also heard of those that have done the JMT and didn’t cross paths with many people at all. I was expecting I would surely meet some great people out there – and part of me was hoping I wouldn’t meet anyone out there that drove me crazy. I was slightly concerned I would have a pinecone named Wilson by the time I was done, though.
Not much further up the trail we came upon the first of the three Sunrise Lakes (9,427 ft). Beautiful, clear, greenish-blue waters surrounded by granite. We stopped to have some lunch, change our socks, and soak our dusty feet. There was another group taking a break on the granite slabs along the lake, we talked with two guys from the group that were, of course, a super nice. And we got there just in time to root them on as they both launched themselves into the lake below with running jumps off rock next to us. We sat and ate and admired the scenery and talked with them as they floated around the lake hanging onto a floating log, while we felt jealous that we didn’t have time for a swim (or likely the courage to get into the glacially cold water).
Once our feet were soaked, our socks were fresh, and our bellies were full we were on our way again (Caitlin brought a few avocados with her since we were only out for a day together – avocado in the wilderness proves to be almost sinful in it’s indulgence). We had about 7 miles left, and we were realizing we would probably be getting to camp just before dark.
We passed by the other two Sunrise Lakes and enjoyed an easy flat and a bit of a downhill to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp / John Muir Trail junction. Walking through the Sunrise High Sierra Camp and Long Meadow was stunning. We finally hit the JMT! From there I was home-free for another 210 miles. It was about 4:00 by the time we got there and the sun was low enough that I took down my umbrella to enjoy the unobstructed view. The meadow was dry, yellowed, and had all measures of late summer and a dry year – but was still breathtaking. We walked the path cut cleanly through the grass and then started the climb up to Cathedral Pass. On the way up we passed a couple I had met in the permit office the previous day – we talked briefly, but continued to push ahead and race the sun.
We climbed the pass and passed right beneath Columbia Finger towering above us close to the trail. It was neat have watched Columbia Finger piercing the distant horizon for miles and miles and then to suddenly find ourselves standing in it’s living room – a reminder of how far we had come that day. While taking a bunch of photos from the top of the pass and gawking over the view, the wind started to pick up and the temperature dropped an the sun started to sink lower. We continued on, worried that perhaps we actually hadn’t actually crossed over the pass (because it didn’t feel like much of a pass) – and we were looking ahead at a different pass near Echo Peak dreading that the real pass was actually up there. Fortunately, we were actually at the top, and we were very relieved. We passed our first deer on the trail shortly after the descent toward the Cathedral Lakes area.
The shadows were long on the meadow approaching Cathedral peak, which unfortunately didn’t allow for great photos. There were ground squirrels (which we actually couldn’t figure out what they were intially) EVERYWHERE.
Hikers earlier had told us that they stayed at Lower Cathedral Lake the day before and found it way more beautiful than Upper Cathedral – I then became very confused about which lake was which. We ended up passing up Upper Cathedral Lake (which according to my itinerary was supposed to be camp for the night) and taking the side trail for a .5 mile to Lower Cathedral Lake (9,288 ft). It was a steep downhill that opened up to a beautiful meadow the led to the lake in the shadow of Tressider Peak and surrounded by smooth rolling granite. The path cut from the meadow ended at the granite and we made our way around the lake wandering on the rock looking for the best spot to camp. There was one camp we could see on the other side of the lake, but for the most part it seemed like we had that side of the lake to ourselves. We crossed an almost dried up small cove on the east side of the lake and set up camp on a little peninsula sheltered a bit by a taller granite rock to our north.
We settled in and set up camp and quickly, and bundled up in our layers. As the sun went down and the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. I went and filtered water quickly because I had essentially run out on the hike in, while scooping up water with one of my Nalgenes the lid piece came off of the bottle and the bottle started to float away! I tweaked my knee and nearly fell in trying to get it before it floated too far. I set up my tent and re-hydrated my dinner just in time to site before the clouds above started to turn a brilliant pink color. Caitlin cooked up some incredible smelling dinner with fresh kale and onion and coconut milk and other yummy fresh veggies she brought – it smelled so good. I was envious of her freshly cooked dinner!
After eating and cleaning up, it was starting to get pretty dark so we got ready for bed and hid our bear canisters off by the edge of the trees. We stayed out of our tents for a while and looked at some of the stars and tried to figure out what the 2 planets were under the moon (which I think turned out to be Mars and Saturn) – she also showed me how to locate the North Star which was something I had forgotten how to do.
We turned in. The night was very windy and cold and I ended up not sleeping well. I got out of my tent about 3 times to pee and wanted to sit and watch the stars, but the warmth of bed beckoned me each time.
Do you wish you had left earlier or later than you did? Also, I didn’t see your umbrella show up in any future days posts. Did you consistently use it throughout your trip?
I wouldn’t have changed a thing! But I also don’t think there’s a bad time to be on the trail between July – Sept. Every month has something different to offer! I did use my umbrella throughout the course of the hike until the last few days because the temperatures got much milder the last few days.
The time frame that worries me is July. I hear the bugs can be crazy. I was leaning towards a mid august start and an early Sept finish. We’ll see! Any learning experiences from your umbrella use I can glean? I was planning on bungie-ing it to my pack for hands free usage during peak sun hours when not shaded by trees and having it as part of my rain kit.
The mosquitos can totally be a nightmare in July – but I have somehow lucked out and haven’t had a rough time in July. So, I think it all depends where you are and where you camp (camp high above lakes and meadows). In September the weather is perfect and there are no bugs – but I think there’s a tradeoff a bit for the scenery. The Sierra in the high summer just can’t be beat with the wildflowers and lush green and lingering snowfields…in September everything has gone dormant but its still too early for fall color…still beautiful, but doesn’t pack the same punch as July/early august.
For the umbrella – it totally depends on your pack. I suggest packing up your pack somewhat and playing with the options. My favorite is just unrolling the top of my bag (I use a roll-top either ULA Catalyst or Gossamer Gear Mariposa) and cramming the handle down into my pack. When I actually attach it to a strap with a cord I find it to be a little more annoying when I’m taking the pack off for a break, or if I want to remove the umbrella while still moving (but this is the more secure way if it’s actually raining).
Erica, I loved reading your posts. I normally don’t have the patience to read a blog unless it’s for work(I do what you do), but your blog kept my attention with the large readable text, high res photos, and unfiltered first-hand account.
Thanks for fueling my inspiration to go explore the west more, and best wishes on your future quests!