Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 3
The first three days of this mother-and-daughter journey took place in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, but this will be written about in a separate installment as it is not part of the John Muir Trail. In this series about the JMT, it begins where we first set foot on the trail, at Tuolumne Meadows. Also not included in the JMT description are the 20 (southbound) miles from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows; we bypassed that section.
“Say hello to Dolores for me!” were the last words my son said to us as he waved goodbye three days previously. We had all been closely watching the weather reports that said residual moisture from Hurricane Dolores was on the way to the Sierra Nevada. We knew exactly what Mother Nature had in store for us, and we were walking straight toward it.
We entered the Tuolumne Meadows area on the Pacific Crest Trail, and we were wet. It had been steadily raining for an hour or so with some lightning and thunder served up as side dishes. As the tar-black clouds were spitting out beads of water, our rain jackets were zipped tight with hoods up. Waterproof covers were in place over our backpacks to keep dry the personal possessions that would ensure we were fed, housed, and clothed for several more weeks.
We had a resupply package waiting for us at the Tuolumne Meadows Post Office and had originally planned to retrieve it and keep walking. But we completed our first segment of the hike about a half-day earlier than planned and… it was raining.
It was late in the day, the post office would be closing soon, and we didn’t know where the facility was located. And it was raining.
In addition to the 10 uphill miles already traveled on this day, to continue hiking meant we would have to travel four miles on the JMT to legally camp as backcountry camping is not allowed any closer than that to the developed Tuolumne Meadows area.
In the vicinity of the Parsons Memorial Lodge, a piece of Tuolumne Meadows history that we didn’t explore… because it was raining… we asked two different groups of park visitors if they could direct us to the campground. But nobody knew the location of the one and only campground in the area.
This is where I received an inkling that our John Muir Trail map, the one we would be relying on for the next couple hundred miles, was subpar. It was too small in scale for us to determine the right trail to the campground.
The rainstorm was increasing in its intensity, water was running off our jackets’ hoods in torrents, impairing visibility, and Jennie’s gloveless hands wrapped around her trekking poles were beginning to lose feeling from the cold. The temperature had plunged quickly with the onset of the storm.
We started down a paved path, crossed a footbridge over the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, continued a short distance then slowed. The direction we were heading didn’t feel right. Jennie urged me to turn around, having a feeling that the PCT headed the opposite direction and so should we. Over the next month, I would become increasingly dependent on her sixth sense of direction.
Here we were, in the heart of Tuolumne Meadows, a place to where people travel from all over the world for its scenic value, and we were just trying to find shelter from the rain and lightning. We barely glanced at the immense meadow or the river that flows so peacefully through it.
We backtracked and were trudging along on a muddy service road with its rain-speckled puddles toward the Lembert Dome Trail parking lot. A man, dry and warm in his government-issued pickup, rolled down his window just a crack lest any moisture strike him and assured us we were heading in the right direction.
We quickened our pace. So did the rain.
We sidestepped around a locked gate and walked down the middle of the paved road that led us from the Lembert Dome trailhead to Tioga Road, the famous highway that leads from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. Obviously, the trail’s parking lot was full because both sides of the access road were lined with overflow vehicles.
Were all these people hiking to the top of the exposed granite monolith during this downpour? With lightning? The Yosemite crowds never cease to amaze me.
We turned right onto Tioga Road, where an RV whizzed by, showering us with water from the roadway. It was a quarter mile to the Tuolumne Meadows Campground entrance, where we turned in and walked to a building that said “Reservations.”
We didn’t have or need reservations to stay in the backpackers’ campground, but were again searching for directions to eliminate any extra steps that would be required by wandering around and searching for the location. After being doused by the water running off the eaves of the building to access the door, I entered the small room and asked the two young men in Park Service uniforms for the information we needed. Looking perturbed at the water dripping from me onto their floor, I was told to go to the campground’s entrance station.
Out I went to meet up with Jennie, water pummeling me again as it streamed off the roof, and we continued in the direction of the main campground. The rain became more intense as we stood in line behind a car whose occupants were registering. An attendant inside the kiosk took pity on us, stepped out of the shelter, and asked, “Backpackers?”
Were we that obvious? He told us to take the first road to the right, turn left at the use trail just past the first restroom, and follow that up to the top of the hill. So we did.
The backpackers’ campground is a walk-in campground; no cars allowed. Each site has a table, bear-resistant food storage box, and fire ring. The cost, depending on which sign you’re reading, is $5 or $6. And the deal is only one night allowed.
I’ve been living and recreating in national parks my entire life. I’ve learned that the Park Service is a stickler for their rules and regulations; you can’t get away with much.
But all bets are off in the backpackers’ campground. After all, it was raining. Many of these backpackers had ignored the one-night-only rule and were waiting out the storm here. There wasn’t a campsite available.
And that’s when we learned our first lesson about thru-hiking. It is acceptable to share someone else’s campsite (which is different from car-camping protocol, where we would never consider even walking through someone’s site nor is it allowed to set up camp in a national park in any place other than a developed site).
We were invited by a couple groups to join them. There was a break in the storm as we squeezed in under a pine tree on the highest ground we could find. We took advantage of the rain’s hiatus and hurriedly set up the tent. We tossed all our belongings inside — pads, sleeping bags, clothing, and even the backpacks — and dove in as the relentless rain returned.
Soon we had our wet clothes drip-drying from the ceiling of the tent, and we huddled together and shivered in our sleeping bags. After a quick trip to a nearby spigot to fill our collapsible bucket with water for cooking, dinner was prepared in the vestibule of the tent while rivers of rain tried to wash us from our perch in a mighty flood.
When nightfall arrived, the rain subsided. But being under a tree meant water would continue to pester us as the constant dripping from the branches made a rhythmic ker-plunking sound on the top of the tent.
In hindsight, we would have preferred to stay somewhere other than this campground, but we learned valuable thru-hiking lessons while here. A large group of PCTers a couple sites over were drunk, loud, and really bad singers. As a result, Jennie and I came up with the phrase, “Everybody hikes their own hike,” which would stay with us the rest of the trip to aid in our compassion and patience toward other trail-users.
We also discovered by reading the bulletin board at the entrance to the walk-in sites that traffic on the PCT/JMT had tripled in 2015 over the previous year’s numbers. This became evident in the morning, which dawned sunny with just a few clouds, when Jennie left camp about 8:20 a.m. to pick up our package of food at the post office (according to a JMT guidebook, the post office opened at 8 a.m.). When she arrived at the post office, she was informed that because of this increase in thru-hikers, packages weren’t issued by the one postal employee until 10 a.m., which allowed him time for sorting. The bad news was she had to wait an hour-and-a-half to receive our resupply; the good news is she was first in what became a very long line.
Meanwhile, back at the campsite, I was in the tent doing some packing when I saw the green pant legs of a Park Service uniform walk by. The ranger stopped at the next tent over, about 25 feet away, rousted the hungover guy still sleeping inside, and said, “You left your food out all night…” This super-smart backpacker was actually in a site with a food-storage box. I made a silent request to the trail gods that his route be the opposite direction of ours.
By the time Jennie returned to camp with our stockpile of 10 more days of food, I had done my best to dry out the tent, rainfly, and ground cloth and had most of the gear organized and ready to be packed. We sorted the food and put it in its respective bear canisters (we each were carrying one). These were placed in our packs, the rest of our items piled on top, and we were ready, finally, to embark on the John Muir Trail.
Off we went… to ask directions. It was about noon when campground staff pointed us to a shortcut to the JMT at the back of the main campground. We walked toward the end of the A Loop as the clouds again began to gather and the sky darkened.
The rain was going to drench us wherever we may be. We were excited to leave the hustle and bustle of the Tuolumne Meadows front country and start our long-awaited journey on the famous John Muir Trail.