Day 1-2: Tioga Road Trailhead to Gem Lake
After nearly a year of planning, we made it to our start day.
We woke up in Yosemite Valley and took the time to enjoy breakfast, a last shower and to do one last check on all of our
gear. Then my father-in-law drove us up to our trailhead, a couple hours away near Tioga Pass.
Due to new restrictions on JMT permits out of Yosemite, we had decided on an alternate start. Officially our permit started in Yosemite Park, but within a couple hours of starting along the trail we would leave the park over Parker Pass. Our first couple days would be along a parallel trail and we’d rejoin the JMT at Thousand Island Lakes, just South of Donohue Pass.
The biggest challenge with our trailhead choice was the elevation. We started at an elevation of 9,700 feet, meaning we were taxing our bodies right from the start. The trail started quite gradually winding through the forest and some meadows. A couple miles in we started to climb, eventually working our way up and out of the tree line and reaching our pinnacle for the day at Mile 6, in Parker Pass at 11,100 ft!
We made sure to move slow, take lots of breaks and try to enjoy the first few miles on trail.
Parker Pass was quite unlike any other passes along the JMT. It was a very wide pass with a gradual grade, and of course offered views of the awesome volcanic peaks nearby.
We had left the trailhead around 1 pm, giving ourselves lots of time to hike the 6 miles up to Parker Pass. We dropped over the pass and decided to stop at the first lake we came to, still well above the tree line.
It was a windy and cold night and we learned our first lesson on trail – don’t camp so near the pass!
As we were sitting around camp our first evening, I was looking around and I realized with a shock that I could see the trail for our next day: a crazy series of switchbacks that seemed to go straight up the side of a reddish mountain!
Knowing what we’d be facing the next day, we decided to get an early start. The trail first dropped briefly back into the tree line and then we started our big climb up to Koip Pass at a mean 12,250 ft.
Just like the day before, we made sure to move slow and steady. It helped that we were treated to amazing views of Mono Lake as we climbed. There were also some amazing wildflowers adding pops of colour.
We reached the Pass by mid-morning and enjoyed a brief rest to catch our breath. The effects of altitude were definitely touching us, but we also realized that all of our training was already paying off.
The most surprising thing while sitting in the Pass was being buzzed by a hummingbird! I accepted it as a good luck sign.
From Koip Pass we dropped over a thousand feet down to the Alger Lakes and enjoyed a much-needed stop for lunch and to soak our feet. We also saw the first people of the day, a couple fishermen at the lake.
Alger Lakes were in a hanging valley, surrounded by awesome volcanic peaks. As we headed away and down from the lakes we were surprised to see purple rocks! This was the only time along the trail that we would see such an odd geological phenomenon.
We also found a beautiful little unnamed lake just before our climb up to
Gem Pass. It was a real treat to jump into the clear waters, if only for a few moments.
After Gem Pass we dropped another thousand feet all the way to Gem Lake at 9,050 ft. Gem Lake is a much more accessible spot from the Mammoth area, both for day hikers and for overnighters. Thankfully we were there on a weeknight so it wasn’t too busy. It was a beautiful colour lake in a low bowl in the mountains. Unfortunately we were so worn out from our first full day on trail that we didn’t take any pictures! But we did take time to relax and enjoy the sunset before tucking in.
We were pretty amazed and proud of ourselves on our first full day on trail. This section of trail can be completed as part of a 3-day, 36 mile loop that joins up to the JMT near Donohue Pass and finishes back at Tioga Rd. We highly recommend it as a great option around Yosemite and have already talked about going back just for the loop trail.
Next post: we join up with the JMT for some ups and downs through lake country!