Last year our crew decided to start our backpacking trip at White Wolf, hike down to Pate Valley and up the Grand Canyon on the Tuolumne, past Waterwheel and La Conte Falls, into Glen Aulin, and on to Tuolumne Meadows. These places are legendary among backpackers and I was really looking forward visiting them finally. Parts of the route are along the Pacific Crest Trail, which is always inspiring in its own way. But the trail gods had other ideas.
When we picked up our permits, the Ranger told us the trail past Pate Valley was closed because of a fire in the area. So we had to pick another route. All the Topo profiles and maps we had prepared were suddenly just dead (and useless) weight. And any route we chose would be attempted without understanding the profile or calculating accurate distances. This increases the risk of injury and discontent among the hikers. But we had no choice.
After lengthy discussions, the group decided to start in White Wolf, hike around to Glen Aulin (around 25 miles) and try to enter the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne from that direction. With luck, we could drop packs in Glen Aulin and get to Waterwheel Falls on a day hike (3.5 miles each way). The Ranger verified that the trail was open from that direction.
The night in White Wolf was typical for a public campground in Yosemite during the summer: crowded and noisy and frequented by bears. After dark we crawled into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, every 30 minutes the food boxes started rattling and someone would start yelling, “Go Away Bear” while banging their pots and pans.” With all the rattling, yelling, grunting, and banging, we didn’t get much sleep. But it was exciting for the hikers who had not encountered bears before.
After a quick breakfast of cinnamon rolls and cereal, everyone was glad to hit the trail. Our first destination was Ten Lakes, rumored to be beautiful and isolated. But without trail profiles and detailed maps, we were caught off guard by the steep climb at the end of the day. The last two miles (at 9,000 feet elevation) caused lots of grumbling . Worse, when we finally got close to the Lakes we found crowds of explorers competing for a place to pitch their tents. (Guess everyone got diverted because of the fire and wound up at Ten Lakes!) We were lucky to find a campsite – up and away from the water. But not far enough that we didn’t hear the laughter from other hiking groups echoing off the lake and up to where we were camped. (A nice Ranger stopped by to check our permits and inspect the campsite for rule violations.)
Next day we headed down to Polly Dome Lakes. We had an early start and hoped to make good time until someone dropped a water filter into the Lake. Who’s fault was it? Fingers pointed everywhere. Doesn’t matter. We just have to sterilize the filter! The hike out of Ten Lakes was strenuous but the views were stunning. After a long lunch near a creek (perfect for splashing around) we worked our way up and over Tuolumne Peak, noticing the snow patches (in August) and beautiful little ponds. Then it was down, down, down past the May Lake junction, until we finally found the trail junction near Poly Dome. We found a suitable place for a wilderness camp, 200 feet off the trail, and pitched tents in the deepening twilight. Everyone was unhappy that the day was so hard. Twelve miles with a full backpack makes for a long day.
We allowed ourselves a small campfire and ate a cold dinner (too late to cook and clean up) and then crawled into our tents. Just before dawn, I awoke to the smell of smoke, and crawled out to take a look, worried that the forest fire that diverted us had changed direction. But, the source of this smoke was much closer. We were in the process of starting a new forest fire, right in our campsite!
In the dark, our Scouts had selected a perfect spot for the campfire, three feet from a rotting tree that had been shredded by bears looking for insects. So, even though we dug a suitable hole for the fire pit and lined it with rocks, the not-quite-extinguished fire had lingered in the sawdust, struggling to break into flames again. I got the cooking pots down to the creek , filled them with dirty water and rushed back to the fire before it got out of control. Lesson learned. There are reasons to follow rules about fire safety. Time for everyone to get up and start breakfast.
We broke camp, sterilized the cooking pots and water pump with bleach and boiling water, filled in the fire hole (according to Handbook guidelines), washed our filthy hands, and set off for Glen Aulin, only four miles away. We passed at least two dozen hikers on the trail, all going from Glen Aulin to May Lake as part of the High Sierra Camp hiking program for people who don’t want to carry heavy backpacks. It was an easy day and we got to our destination before lunch.
Glen Aulin is one of those camps every adventurer should visit once. Lots of backpackers campsites. Pit toilets. Backpacker store. Rustic kitchen (selling hot meals) and tent cabins. Showers and laundry. Organized evening campfire with a “Ranger talk.” Even a bear that came right into our campsite in the middle of the afternoon. (Our Scouts chased him off). The attraction at Glen Aulin is the Tuolumne River and Falls, which is a perfect place for swimming, jumping, and rock climbing. (Yeah the water is cold, but real backpackers have no problem with it.) After drying off, a few minutes of hard climbing above the Falls gets you to vantage spot with impressive views down the Valley. Well worth the effort.
Our plan was to hike down to Waterwheel Falls from Glen Aulin, but the forest fire was still burning and Rangers had closed that trail the day before we arrived. We walked around one barrier, thinking we could get there and back before getting caught. But shortly we encountered another barrier. Then another. So we decided the Rangers were serious and turned around to find the trail towards Tuolumne Meadows about six miles away. This route would put us on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The miles melted away quickly as we followed the Tuolumne River, passed several minor waterfalls, worked our way around high sierra meadows and then into spectacular Tuolumne Meadows. (John Muir’s favorite summer camping area.) The last few miles were marked by a sudden snow storm, freezing rain, hail, and sleet. Rain ponchos out and on. We walked the last quarter mile across Tuolumne Meadows with a cold wind in our face trying to catch the hailstones that were raining down on us. Good stuff.
The hiker’s bus got us safely back to White Wolf and our cars. Everything was OK, although there was one large and obvious bear print on a side window of the mini-van where a bear had stopped to look for an ice chest or other signs of food in the vehicle. Then on to Oakdale, pizza, and eventually home. The biggest problem with this outing was that it was way too short.