Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Wilderness' Highway: Backpacking to Glen Aulin at Yosemite

Date: July 29, 2019
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Trailhead coordinates: 37.878763, -119.358192
Length: 6.3 miles
Level: moderate

For several years now I've been entering the permit lottery for a backpacking trip in Yosemite, and every year I end up going someplace else. Last year too I failed to win the coveted permit. But then the unbelievable happened and I was able to find a campsite at Tuolumne Meadows campground for the night before I wanted to go into the wilderness so I decided to try my luck at the 'first come first serve' quite of permits that are kept for walk-in adventurers.
Also, after two years in which I went solo on my summer backpacking trips, this time I was going with a friend.
So, with a lot of faith I placed my chikas on the bus to their 4-H camp, picked up my friend, and drove to Tuolumne Meadows.
At 8:00 am on the following morning we joined the line at the wilderness center, a line that already stretched quite far. I was worried that by the time we'd get to the counter all the permits will have been booked. As it turned out, most people head of us were seeking permits for the morrow, and when I approached the ranger at the counter I still had a few railheads to chose from. I chose the Glen Aulin trailhead, thinking to continue west on the second day along the Tuolumne Canyon that I've read about and wanted to see. My friend had no preferences - she trusted my choice a 100%.
Our Day 1 Hike as captured by my GPS
After securing the permit and listening to the speech about leaving no trace and taking only photos I saw that they had some gear to sell at the wilderness center, among which some mosquito head nets. I had a fleeting thought to get a couple of those but I quickly pushed the thought out of my mind - we had plenty of deep with us.
We drove past the Lambert Dome trailhead and parked along the dirt road leading to Soda Springs. Abiding by the Yosemite rules we removed from the car all of our food and anything smelling like food and secured it in one of the bear boxes installed along the road. We then hoisted our backpacks and started down the gravel road to the trailhead, leaving Lambert Dome behind us.
Looking back at Lambert Dome
It was a beautiful day. Warm, but not too hot. Bright blue sky with only wisps of clouds, merely accentuating the deep blue above us. And what's best was the clean, clear air. I don't get to see much of that in the Bay Area anymore.
We passed the trailhead sign and continued on towards Soda Springs. I eyed the double peaked buttress of which I caught glimpses as it appeared between the trees. There were plenty of people all along the trail - taking a human-free photo wasn't easy.
Trail from Lambert Dome to Soda Springs
Late July is summer in the lowlands but up in the mountains it is high spring. In a fantastic spring it was, following a great snow winter.
Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp. 
There were flowers blooming everywhere. I tried not to start hour hike with my usual botanical crawl but I couldn't help stopping for quick shots.
Blue butterfly on Ragwort, Senecio sp. 
A big challenge in writing about this trip is selecting the photos to post. I photographed many of them, and with great zeal, as if trying to hang on to all of the splendor before me. Naturally, many of my documentation didn't make the final cut for this post, but I'm happy with the samples that did.
Now multiply it by ten thousand-fold.
Sierra Beardstongue, Penstemon heterodoxus 
The trail emerged from between the trees and the double-peaked mountain came into full view. Cathedral Peak is actually south of the road and getting there was one of the possible trail option that were still open at the wilderness center earlier that morning. Perhaps I'll hike there on my next Yosemite trip. It sure looks very inviting.
Cathedral Peak
A narrow foot path splitter off the gravel road and we turned onto it. The trail sloped mildly up through open grassland lined by small trickles. I started seeing patches of wetland vegetation, and when looking closely, I noticed the earth was soaking wet.  
Monument Plant, Frasera speciosa 
Eventually we came upon the Soda Springs area, where all the alkali water was oozing gently from numerous holes in the ground.
Soda Springs
A thin layer of fresh soda water bubbled and sparkled over the ochre soil. Only a few plant species grew directly in the springs area - it takes special adaptation to the alkali soil and water.
Seaside Arrowgrass, Triglochin maritima 
 The arrow grass was familiar to me from the Travertine Hot Springs. The other plants I didn't know.
We dropped our backpacks and explored the area a little bit. A small, partially dismantled cabin enclosed a few of the bigger springs. My friend entered the cabin and without hesitation crouched down and to my horror, she scooped some of the soda water in her hand and tasted it. So conditioned I was to not drink wild water without treating it first that I was sure she was about to get sick. She however, was completely unworried. After all, she took the water right from the source.
I was convinced to try the soda water myself. I went inside and crouched over the spring/ Gingerly I dipped my hand and cupped some water and tasted it. It was pure heaven! All thoughts of illness left me. I took my cup out, filled it up and drunk it whole. It was the best soda I ever had.
Soda Spring
To be clear, I do not want it understood that I recommend doing this. There is danger of contracting pathogens in drinking untreated water in the wild. The park's authorities also discourage this. There's no way to tell if any animals have walked in the springs area and contaminated it. I took my own chance when I had my drink of fresh, natural soda.
We arrived at the soda springs from Lambert Dome, but there's a direct way to get there from Tuolumne Meadows. Looking down I could see the shiny strip of the Tuolumne River and people crossing the foot bridge on simply hanging by the river and enjoying the beautiful day.
Tuolumne River
Right above the Soda Springs there is Parsons Memorial Lodge and a historical cabin where Parsons, one of the first Yosemite guides had lived. We went there to check it out. It was a newly built structure, made of local stones and logs, with a spacious interior with tables, a relief map of the upper Tuolumne area, historical photos on the walls, and one friendly docent who shared her knowledge with us and also warned us that it wasn't advised to drink the soda water ...
Parsons Memorial Lodge
We paused to pose for photographs ourselves with Tuolumne Meadows in the background. I took a few with just that wonderful view. Then we hoisted our packs once again and rejoined the trail leading to Glen Aulin where we were supposed to stay for the first night.

We followed the trail into a thin conifer forest. Large granite rocks littered the forest floor and between the rocks bloomed lots of wildflowers.
Sierra Stonecrop, Sedum 
The trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Glen Aulin is a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which is like a freeway of hikers backpackers. There were some moments in which we felt alone in the woods but these were few and far between. I knew this would be like that throughout our first day but I hoped that as we went deeper into the wilderness the crowds will disappear.
A moment of solitude on the PCT
Here and there we passed near grassy forest clearings, some of which were flooded. These looked very peaceful and beautiful. What is not captures in this image however, are the mosquitoes that at that point begun bugging us.
The forest was thin enough to let lots of sunlight through, and the forest floor was abloom with many wildflowers.
Mountain Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana 
Flying all around were numerous butterflies. They had a lot to thrive on.
Butterfly visiting a buckwheat, Eriogonum sp. 
One of the most common blooming plants of the forest floor was the satin lupine, with its mat-like ground coverage of velvety leaves and pretty blue blossoms.
Brewer's Lupine, Lupinus breweri 
A few red spots on the forest floor beaconed me to get a closer look. These were columbine flowers, familiar to me from many other hikes in California.
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 
We came to a creek crossing, first of many we would have to cross on this trip. Many other hikers and backpacks were at various stages of crossing at the shallow, rock-lined ford. A fallen log bridges the creek a bit downstream of the ford and a few people were crossing the creek balancing on the log. Not feeling like wading so early on our walk we too chose to cross over the log bridge. Balancing with the big backpack however, was a bit too much for me so I butt-scooted my way across the log.

On the other side I found my first botanical prise –mariposa lilies. There were many of them all around and I was gleefully photographing all of them. Eventually I selected this pretty bouquet to post here.
Leichtlin's ariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii

As I mentioned earlier, there were many people on this trail that day, it being part of the PCT. For the most part we only nodded to one another but every now an then we would pause for a chat. I did take the effort to photograph the trail without any human presence.

One of the backpackers we chatted with had told us that the big bridge across the Tuolumne River down at Pate Valley was out. Apparently it was out for three years already. This revelation was significant for our plans down the line because it meant that if we chose to follow the Tuolumne River southwest almost all the way to Hetch Hetchy we won't be able to loop back from the south but will have to return by the same path (the northern loop would have taken us too long). I started running other options in my head. 

We reached a huge slab of granite and our trail disappeared. I mean that it wasn't beaten into the rock but was marked by little stones on both sides. In some places the stones were scattered but all and all it wasn't difficult to tell where the trail should continue. 
Peaks of the High Sierra 
Then the trail took us close to the Tuolumne River and we decided to take a short break by the river bank and enjoy the view.
Tuolumne River
Something was moving in the grass on the opposite side- a deer! We watched the deer for a while. At some point the debt too became aware of us and turned to look at us. It didn't seem to be bothered by our attention and just kept on grazing peacefully.
Black-tailed Deer
A movement in the water caught my attention and I went down to the river for a closer look. There were large trout in the water, gracefully gliding to and fro.
Moving on. The Tuolumne too reached pure granite and assumed the shape of water spilled on a polished floor. It is the river of course, that polishes the granite here. While the river flows in one general direction, little currents, ebbs and eddies curled around underwater rocks and along the banks. The water sparkled invitingly but was very, very cold to touch.
Tuolumne River
Besides the chill, the water of the Tuolumne is very dangerous. The current is swift and powerful and a short distance downstream it drops in a series of cascades and waterfalls.
"The Watcher" rock hanging over shallow river cascades. 
We followed the trail up the mass of rock, climbing a narrow path on the cliffside. Trees grew sparsely, rooted inside granite cracks, enlarging them slowly.
The trail seemed to end suddenly at the edge of a large smooth granite cliff. The view from there was gorgeous. Fir the first time that day we had a wide scope of the mountain peaks north of the Tuolumne.

We found where the trail continued - a steeply sloped cobblestone path on the side of the big granite dome we were on. We came across several places where the trail was fixed with cobblestones, apparently to prevent degradation, but I found it harder to tread than the regular earth trail or even natural irregular rock surface.
Cobblestone trail
The river too flowed down steeper grades now. Our trail was closer to the river now so we followed a beautiful series of cascades and waterfalls. Any chance we had we stepped off trail and approached the water to enjoy the spectacular sight and sounds of the gashing mountain river.
Tuolumne River
Near the river grew large lush bushes of Western Labrador Tea, in full bloom. This blossom, like that of the mariposa lily, we've seen all along our trip except for the highest elevation.
Western Labrador Tea, Rhododendron columbianum
Flowing through a flat area the river calmed and widened. A nice, new-looking bridge traversed it and we crossed it slowly, stopping in the middle to take in the view.
Tuolumne River 
A bit later on the trail we met a couple of park rangers who were checking backpackers for wilderness permits and bear-proof food canisters. They stopped us too and after verifying we had both permit and canister they confirmed that the bridge at Pate Valley was out. They also said that the canyon trail involved much wading in flooded areas and lots pf mosquitoes. It was then that I started seriously considering continuing north from Glen Aulin on the PCT to McCabe Lake. Since either direction would be an in and out  trip we might as well go higher rather than lower.
Cascades of the Tuolumne River
As we walked on another idea sprouted in my mind though I didn't yet vocalize it to my friend - the idea of making a round trip through McCabe Pass to Young Lake instead of coming back down the PCT. Making this trip however, would mean going off trail and cross-country. I've done that before, but not intentionally.
Tuolumne River
We took a break by the river, eating our snacks and considering options. My friend didn't do any preparation before setting out and was ready to go wherever I chose to go. She said she preferred a circular trip rather than an in-and-out one. We agreed to go north on the PCT after out night at Glen Aulin and decide then.
Pussypaws, Calyptridium sp.

We continued descending along the Tuolumne, passing between groves of trees and open rock crops. Then we came upon the first waterfall of our hike. It was noisy and lovely and its mist had a rainbow!

Below that waterfall we continued on a fairly level stretch of trail with more soil between the boulders and granite slabs and more trees. There were more wildflowers as well.
Pretty Face, Triteleia ixiodes
Groups of people were going past us in both directions. I was surprised to see how many of them were organized trips of scouts or the like. I wonder what it takes to get a wilderness permit for a large group (not that I plan to go with any such group). They were mostly young men or male youth, and there was one thing they all had in common that had me worried - they were all covered with mosquito bits. Some of them looked pretty bad, with all of their exposed skin bump to bump, and miserable faces. I chatted with some of them and got the impression that in some places at the higher elevation the lakes were unusually infested this year and I got some recommendations for what places we should avoid. I did a mental check of our deet supply and didn't come to a very encouraging conclusion. 
Varied-leaved Jewelflower, Streptanthus diversifolius

So far however, the mosquitoes weren't all that bothersome. Not more than my usual experience of my previous Sierra Nevada backpacking trips. 
A bit further down and we were right on top the Glen Aulin Valley. From where we stood we had a beautiful view of the river drop, the valley below, and the set of round mountain peaks on the north, hugging Return Creek which flowed into the Tuolumne at Glen Aulin. We were headed down there where we would spend the night.
View down to Glen Olin
We took our time going down to the valley. There was plenty of daylight time still and once below we stopped off trail a bit to view the waterfall. 
Glen Aulin is one of the High Sierra camps and a popular first nighter for backpackers. Once securing  our permit for a night there we were obliged to stay there for the first night. Although we arrived there with plenty of daylight time, we were not allowed to continue on that day. That worked fine for us because we weren't a 100% settled on our next direction. 
Many people were bathing in the cold Tuolumne where it pooled below the waterfall. I worried about being in an over crowded campground but there was nothing to do about it now. 

The valley of Glen Aulin is where the Conness Creek joins the Tuolumne, and the trail crosses each separately in a place where they both flow level and gentle. The second bridge wasn't complete and we had to balance on the long beams to get across. 

My friend was eager to get to the campground and take off her heavy pack. I was too, but not enough to not stop by the pretty flowers on the trailside. 
Mountain Pride, Penstemon newberryi 
As crowded as Glen Aulin was, we had no trouble finding a nice campsite. Glen Aulin even has compost toilets and bear boxes where we could store our food when not eating. We took our time pitching our tent and cooking dinner, then we used the remaining daylight to explore the area a bit.
Our campsite at Glen Aulin
It was there that the mosquitoes started to seriously bother us. Lathered with ample deet (on hindsight we should have been more frugal with it) we went down to the river to watch the waterfall and to filter more drinking water.

The chill crept in as the sun sunk in the horizon. We stayed by the river to watch the sunset, then we went back, shivering, to our campsite. 
Sunset at Glen Aulin
Dressed in our sweatshirts we sat outside and chatted until the mosquitoes chased us into the tent. A group of boy scouts nearby were making merry but thankfully they too ceased after a while. Slowly we drifted into sleep.