September 1 (~07:25 – ~19:15)
McCabe Lake Trail Junction – Lyell Fork before Donohue Pass (24.6 mi / Total: 930.5 mi)
Total PCT miles: 2424.5
Weather: Chilly in the morning, but warm once the sun hits me.
I wake up next to the trail, a sandy, bare spot with great views that stays cold for a long time as I’m on the shady side of the mountain. I wonder if I’m actually allowed to camp here. Am I too close to the trail? Has anyone camped here before? I can’t be sure.
Once I set off I enter the forest I wanted to nighthike through yesterday. I’m glad I didn’t – not because it’s a difficult section, but because it would’ve been too spooky for me, and I expected it to be a lot more exposed but the forest goes on and on for quite a while. It’s not until a few miles in that a meadow appears, and it’s so cold there’s frost on the grass. Everything sprinkled with a touch of white. That’s a first. It’s not until the sun hits me that I warm up – the weather is changing.
Nevertheless, the trail is blissfully easy and non eventful. It’s mostly level, which is a huge change from the last few days. Although I’m here for the views and I’m not getting those right now, sometimes it’s nice to just walk and zone out. I put in my ear plugs and day dream about everything and nothing. It’s a straight forward terrain that cuts through forests and meadows, rocky crags hidden far behind. This is the type of landscape that made me want to do the PCT in the first place, although it’s definitely been more mountainous than I’d expected. But not today. Today is a cruise.
Better yet, I’m headed into Tuolumne Meadows today, a touristy area and the gateway to Yosemite National Park. There’s a shop where I can do my resupply for the next few days until I get to Mammoth Lakes, and I’m excited about eating some hot food there. I’m running low on supplies already, and all I have to eat this morning are two Nature Valley granola bars that really don’t have sufficient calories to get me all that way. It’s over 12 miles to Tuolumne Meadows, and so I keep up the pace, chasing the food.
About halfway there the trail turns touristy. I pass a huge waterfall and follow the river as I go along. Day trippers appear, and other backpackers out for shorter trips. I don’t enjoy the busyness, and I have the misfortune of arriving here on a Sunday as well, and these places are always teeming with people on a Sunday.
When I’m only a few miles away, I begin to really feel it – my arms feel funny, tingly, as if they’re drained of energy altogether. My legs are swaying. I need food. I follow the trail through the gently flowing rock and the trees, and then the parking lot, and then the road and then it’s noon and I’m there.
I go straight into the grill area and join the long line for the hot food. I order a chilli dog and a cheeseburger, and sit outside on a bench devouring it all, right next to some people who are trying to have a conversation, and I’m there, shoving all this food in my face like a madwoman. I go back in again after I pick up my resupply and get a large ice cream and a coffee, and looking at the calories posted on the menu, I must’ve consumed close to 2000 calories in one sitting. It feels great.
I meet a few people while I sit on my bench. First, I chat with Locomotive – I saw her yesterday for the first time when we leapfrogged a little at the end of the day, and she comes up to me, recognising me as a fellow thruhiker. She’s also finishing the trail in Kennedy Meadows, so we’re on the same schedule which is nice. When she takes off I chat with John, who has all the thruhiker gear but looks just a little too pale and too clean to be a PCT thruhiker. There are more people like that walking around, and it’s confusing, until John reminds me this is where the John Muir Trail (a 211 mile trail that runs through the Sierras) begins to overlap with the PCT, which it does for almost its entire length. Of course, JMTers – they lack that distinct tan line and that weary yet determined look, and they still have all their baby fat. I’ll be seeing more of those these coming weeks.
I set off again at 2 pm, and continue that blissfully level trail through an elongated valley and up the river, which has so many day trippers swimming in it, and I wait until I’ve gone far enough and left everyone behind me to get water from the river. My legs welcome the easy grade and as the day goes by I’m building speed. They’re still feeling it whenever here’s a short uphill, but I have a newfound spring in my step. It feels good to feel like a thruhiker again.
Then I meet my second ranger, sitting against a tree and I can’t help but mention the bad food bag hanging job so many people do. I just passed a few tents and saw bags hanging in trees, easily reachable to anyone and most of all bears, and he goes out to investigate, and I keep on going.
Ten miles after Tuolumne Meadows I hit the base of the next pass, a steep ascend of just over 3 miles to Donohue Pass which is flanked by a snowy crest. I wasn’t sure how far I could get today – when I start the climb up it’s only 6, but I think I can make it, I can make it to the top.
And I’m doing it. I’m going up. Not that it’s easy, but I’m steadily moving up this pass without the immense struggle I felt since entering the Sierras. The level terrain earlier, the food, I needed it. The ascend exists of mostly stone steps up, just like Benson Pass yesterday, and I get the long views back into the valley, and then it’s as though I move further into the depth of the mountain, further into the rocky crest.
I can’t seem to figure out where this path is leading me. I follow the steps of stone, a green meadow, then more stairs again. The snowy crest disappears further and further towards the back, and I chase it with every step, fruitlessly. When I’m high up and surrounded by piles of rock, a sharp turn in the midst of everything leaves the craggy peak behind forever, and I find the beginnings of a river as it plummets down a vertical wall of rock, and I realise I’ve walked far enough, perhaps I should stay here.
I’m just a mile from the pass, and it’s getting cold and windy. Any campsite further up will be exposed – quite likely more exposed than the ones here. So I climb up the grassy hills and find a level spot. It’s almost 10,500 ft up here and I wonder if I’ve ever camped this high before.