In honour of the U.S. National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary, I’ve introduced a feature called “Find Your Park,” named after the popular hashtag the NPS has been using this year to promote the parks. Each unique post will feature one of the U.S. National Parks that I have had the chance to visit.
Over the past couple weeks I’ve shared my experiences in Yosemite Valley and along Tioga Road. But Yosemite is truly a backpacker’s paradise, and the best way to really experience the park is to strap on some gear and head out along a trail for a night or two.
One of the most popular trails to do is the first 22 miles of the John Muir Trail, from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, to Tuolomne Meadows in the high country.
We did the hike in early August of 2014, and I’d love to share that experience with you.
Hike Name: JMT Section 1 (Tuolomne to Happy Isles)
Date: August 5-7, 2014
Location: Yosemite Nat’l Park
Approx. drive time from home: 15 hours
Distance: 25.2 mi. / 40.5 km (including Half Dome summit)
Overall elevation gain: 3500 ft / 1070 m
Overall elevation loss: 8100 ft / 2470 m
Max. elevation: 9900 ft / 3020 m
Days on trail: 3 days
Unlike our more recent trip to Yosemite, our visit in 2014 was initially characterized by unseasonably cold and rainy weather. We drove through Tioga Pass in a sleeting rainstorm and shivered as we tried to explore Tuolomne Meadows.
This section of the John Muir Trail is usually done as a one-way hike. We had decided to do the hike southbound, from Tuolomne to Happy Isles, for two main reasons. The first reason was that by choosing that direction we would be doing more downhill, descending more than 7000 feet instead of climbing all of it. The other reason was the permit process. The trailhead at Happy Isles is a very popular starting point, and it was easier at the time to get a permitleaving from Tuolomne Meadows (Yosemite is constantly re-evaluating and re-structuring their permitting process and our experience would likely be different in future years.)
Our first day in the park was spent driving to Yosemite Valley to drop our car at our exit trailhead and then returning to Tuolomne Meadows via the regional shuttle bus (YARTS).
We spent our first night in the backpacker’s camp of Tuolomne Campground. The next morning we slept in and then hit the trail mid-morning.
The initial section of trail was a steady climb through somewhat sparse forest. I found the climb quite challenging due to the high elevation of the area. We took the cutoff for Lower Cathedral Lake and enjoyed lunch along the lakeshore. We then continued one more mile to the Upper Lake where we found a great campsite.
It was a dreary morning, but thankfully the weather started to clear by the time we made it to Upper Cathedral Lake. We spent a fair bit of time scrambling around the granite to the north and west of the lake, getting different vantage points of Cathedral Peak and both lakes. Even more astonishingly, we had the basin to ourselves. Not a single other camper spent the night there!
The next morning we woke to crisp and clear skies. We were ready for a full day on trail.
Heading south from Upper Cathedral Lake, we climbed up to Cathedral Pass, passing below Tresidder Peak. We stayed high, skirting a ridge beside the unique rock formation (and popular scrambling goal) known as Columbia Finger.
From that point we dropped into some amazing alpine meadows, skirting the edges until we reached the Sunrise High Sierra Camp in Long Meadow, where we stopped to enjoy a well-earned lunch break, and take in the amazing scenery.
Leaving from Sunrise campground, we had another short climb before a long switchbacking drop along Sunrise Creek. The forest at the base of the switchbacks had previously been burned in a forest fire, giving it a very different feel.
The trail continued alongside Sunrise Creek, crossing it a couple times and offering some great views of the ranges to the east.
When we applied for our backcountry permit, we had also asked for the Half Dome permit. Our plan was to camp near the junction to Half Dome and hopefully get up onto the summit in time for sunrise. We happily settled into camp after our surprisingly challenging 12-mile trek that day.
Just after polishing off our dinner, we had a surprise visitor – a bear! This corridor is recognized as a common location to have a bear run-in. He was a bit on the small side, which made us think he was a juvenile. He was also very curious and not easily scared off. Once we did get him to clear out, he circled around to harass some other campers, and then circled back to our site once again.
Mr. Bear came around again in the middle of the night, ruining any chance of getting a decent night’s sleep and also making it so that we weren’t too keen on getting up in the dark to make our way up Half Dome. Instead we stayed cozy in our tent until first light. We figured that even though we wouldn’t see sunrise, we’d still beat the day hikers up onto the summit.
We tidied and bear-proofed our gear and left it near the trail junction, heading up with only a couple litres of water and some snacks. The trail from the junction is only two miles long, but climbs over 1800 feet. It was definitely challenging, and required lots of plodding along and quite a few breaks. Thankfully the scenery was dazzling, giving us views down into Tenaya Canyon and across to Little Yosemite Valley.
Finally the infamous Half Dome cables came into view. Thankfully we had managed to get out ahead of the crowds and the cables were quiet. We slipped on our gloves and worked our way up the last four hundred feet and onto the rounded summit of Half Dome!
My first goal was to head to the true summit and take in the view. It was pretty amazing to be sitting nearly 5000 feet above the valley floor!
We gave ourselves lots of time to enjoy the experience of being on top of Half Dome, recognizing that it could be a long while before we have the chance to summit again. Eventually we had to make our slow way down the cables and back down along the trail.
We picked up our gear at the trail junction and started the long drop down into Yosemite Valley, switchbacking first into Little Yosemite Valley where we took a good break beside the Merced River to soak our feet.
We followed the Merced River for another mile to the top of Nevada Falls. We stayed high on the JMT for a mile and then took a cut-off to join the Mist Trail, enjoying views of Vernal Fall and some cool spray.
The last mile was a bit surreal, as we tried to navigate through crowds of summer tourists on the paved trail. It was both a physical and mental relief to reach the trailhead and the end of our backpacking trip.
While not easy, the trip from Tuolomne to Happy Isles is incredibly varied and very rewarding, especially if you’re lucky enough to summit Half Dome as well. The hike is a great introduction to the longer John Muir Trail and offers a great taste of what Yosemite’s backcountry can offer.