Tuesday, July 21, 2009

PCT/JMT: Thousand Island Lake to Tuolumne Meadows

On Monday, July 13, 2009, the sun is just starting to rise and cast some light on Banner Peak as it towers over Thousand Island Lake.

A buck mule deer wandered through camp, almost oblivious to us.

We hiked back to the outlet of Thousand Island Lake, then caught the trail, now the combined Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail, which began to switchback and gain elevation up the north side of Thousand Island Lake.

A view of the outlet of Thousand Island Lake, the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River.

A view of some islands below, near our campsite.

A mother and baby marmot, near one of our resting spots.

Somewhere on the ridge above Thousand Island Lake, we went over Island Pass, 10,200 feet in elevation, about 1.8 miles from Thousand Island Lake. It was just past a couple of small, unnamed lakes. From Island Pass, we began to descend about 600 feet, over 1.4 miles to Rush Creek, where we stopped to rest and fill our water bottles. The mosquitoes were bad. Below, Nathan makes one of several stream crossings on a log.

A group photo in the Rush Creek vicinity.

From there, we began our slow ascent toward Donohue Pass, the high point of our trip and the entrance into Yosemite National Park. We had another river crossing, this one a little trickier as it was on a log high over a fast stream.

As we ascended, we had some beautiful views of large streams carrying water down from the surrounding mountains. Some of the spots, such as the one below, would have been great to stop and enjoy the view, but we were determined to get to the top of Donohue Pass and pushed on.

Below, a waterfall along one of the streams.

Another beautiful stream

that we eventually had to cross. Larry and Phil approach the log they would use to cross the stream.

As we got higher, the surroundings changed. The vegetation got more sparse and we started to get some nice views of the surrounding peaks. Below, a view of Banner & Ritter stand out over several intermediate ridges.

Another ridge to the north that we were happy we did not have to traverse.

We began to wind around to the west and the guessing game began, as to where the Donahue Pass was.

We ultimately stopped for a long rest in a tundra area of grass, rocks and occasional bushes. Donahue Pass is about where the tree obscures it to the right of the center of the picture below.

We were glad that the trail did not take us further to the left near the impressive triangular peak.

Below, Nathan takes full advantage of the rest, protected by his mosquito net.

Garrett gets something to eat.

After a long slog, which seemed never to end, we eventually made it to Donahue Pass, 11,056 feet and 6.6 miles from Thousand Island Lake. There were several areas where the trail was obscured by snow. A beautiful view of the Sierras was below us.

My Verizon network was apparently on strike and I couldn't get phone service. However, Mark's Singular worked and I was able to talk to Judy from the pass. Below, we get a group shot from a hiker passing through on his way to do the entire John Muir Trail.

A view of Banner and Ritter from Donahue Pass. As you can tell, I really like those mountains.

From Donahue Pass, we descended into Yosemite National Park, down a large boulderfield, the trail partially obstructed by snow. About a mile below the pass, we found a small lake, perhaps a tarn, below Lyell Peak, the tallest mountain in Yosemite National Park. We stopped for water along a small stream nearby. Several of my pictures below were taken by Larry.

Lyell Peak and the largest glacier along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Sierras, loomed above us.

Another view of the small lake and Lyell Peak and glacier. The hiker who took our picture at the pass had climbed Lyell Peak three or four times (a class three or four climb).

The outlet of the lake dropped precipitously down a steep hill to form the headwaters of Lyell Canyon. We originally thought the trail went to the right, and had to backtrack through some soft, tricky snow, after finding a bigger drop than we wanted to negotiate.

After crossing to the other side of the small lake, the trail wound around, made another river crossing, and then started to switchback down the south side of Lyell Canyon, which lay below us.

Below, the headwaters of Lyell Canyon, with the canyon wall and Lyell Peak in the background.

Here, we had to cross the headwaters, at about 10,220 feet, without the benefit of rocks, a log or a bridge. Larry doing a wet crossing.
A closer view of Larry.

After some more steep descending, including a bridged crossing of the Lyell headwaters, we reached the Lyell Canyon floor, at about 9,000 feet. Just below Kuna Creek, which spilled into the canyon in a steep descent over the north rim, we made camp.

I was feeling a little green with altitude sickness, but was able to eat some Mountain House mashed potatoes and pudding, my only freeze-dried food of the trip. We covered a difficult 10.6 miles during the day. It seemed like much more. Lyell Canyon was stunningly beautiful.

The next morning, Tuesday, July 14, 2009, we headed out early for Tuolumne Meadows, concerned about getting a space in the backpackers camp before it filled up. There is a four mile prohibition on camping around Tuolumne Meadows and we didn't want to have to get there and then go another four miles beyond it to camp. Below, the Lyell Canyon River was, for the most part, lazy, slow moving and crystal clear.

Near the Vogelsang trail turnoff, about 2.8 miles from where we camped, we found a mother robin, feeding a worm to her brood in a nest right over the trail.

Below, one of the few spots where the river had some rapids.

We encountered a family of young marmots that was extremely cute.

We also found Lyell Canyon to be full of deer. If I were a mountain lion, this is where I would choose to live. One buck, on the other side of the river, seemed oblivious to us as we got closer for pictures.

It was very fun to get so close.

Just a few minutes later, we encountered another, larger buck, just off the trail.

This trip was making up for all of the wildlife I'd not seen on previous Sierra trips. I'm realizing it was probably because those trips tended to be at higher elevations where the animals are not as numerous.

A mile or two from Tuolumne Meadows, we passed over a bridged stream crossing. The setting was perfect. The meadows, the slow, clear river, the temperature. I would have loved to go swimming then and there. However, we had to push on.

We still spent some time resting and enjoying the cool shade.

Toulumne Meadows, as seen right near Hwy 120.

It was beautiful, but no match for the prettier Lyell Canyon high country we'd just been through.

What I did appreciate was the store, and particularly the Grill next-door to it. I spent the rest of the day, from noon on, reading a book and eating hamburgers. We did about 8.6 miles for the day and enjoyed the beautiful weather of Tuolumne Meadows at 8,650 feet.

Overall, from Thousand Island Lake to Tuolumne Meadows, it was about 19.2 miles.


  1. Thanks for the great account of your trip. My wife and I just returned from a backpacking trip from Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake and back again along the River Trail. I would love to do the trip you have described here. I really enjoyed looking at your photos!

  2. I think Thousand Island Lake is one of the prettiest spots on the planet. I would love to get back there some day.