Wednesday, February 5, 2020

A Long Day's Work and Reward: Glen Aulin to McCabe Lake

High Sierra/PCT Trail

Date: July 30, 2019
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Trailhead coordinates: 37.909246, -119.419477
Length: 9.4 miles
Level: Strenuous

Glen Aulin to the Big Meadow

The mosquitoes were relentless. From the minute we exited our tent in the morning of our Yosemite's backpacking trip's second day we were swatting the air and ourselves. Within less than a minute we had on the first deet dose of the day. I looked wistfully at anyone wearing a head net and they were many.
Our second day hike as captured by my GPS
Taking our time in the morning we watched nearly everyone else pack up and leave before us. The sun was already up when I walked down to the river to filter water for the hike.

Once all packed and after breakfast we crossed the uncompleted bridge over Conness Creek, balancing ourselves on the long beams. I paused to look down and around and immediately regretted it - the water flow below me gave me vertigo.

Across the creek we rejoined the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and, having decided to sleep the secpnd night at Lakd McCabe, we started hiking north.

The first lag of our day's hike was uphill on exposed granite outcrops. The trail meandered between, around, and over the large slabs of rock. In the cracks and near broken pieces grew plants - a few trees and lots of wildflowers.
Wandering Fleabane, Erigeron glacialis
We had less than 10 miles and the whole day ahead, so we took our time and walked slowly, enjoying the views and the bloom.

It was then that I introduced to my friend the idea of hiking cross country to Young Lake after our night at Lake McCabe. I told her that it would be an off-trail hike that might be mire difficult and certainly slower, and will involve a much higher level of active navigation. My friend didn't even finish listening, she immediately liked the idea. I on the other hand, had some reservations still, but this option was much stronger now with an enthusiastic green light from my friend.

The day heated up. Little lizards came out of rock cracks and sunned themselves on their granite daises. They granted us looks that ranged between wary and boredom as we walked by. Not a single one of them run off before us.
We sought shade and would pause for short drinking breaks under occasional trees that grew close enough to the trail.
High Sierra/PCT Trail
There was no reason to burden our packs with lots of drinking water because our path frequently crossed little creeks flowing with fresh snowmelt water. Whenever we needed we would stop to filter some and chat with other backpackers that paused for the same purpose.
Creek Crossing
On this trail we met only other backpackers - we were out of range for day hikers. As expected, most of them were trekking up the PCT. Some were trekking south, having had to bypass the southern part earlier due to late snow. Every now and then however, we would come across people like us, who were there for a few days only, enjoying what the local area had to offer.
Larkspur, Delphinium sp.
Every now and then we passed through more level, more forested areas. We welcomed the shade, but less so the mosquitoes that accompanied the wetter, greener places. Driven by the mosquitos and eased by the flatter trail we made quicker progress northward.
High Sierra/PCT Trail
For a good long while we were alone, just us and the mosquitoes in what seemed to be an endless forest.
Shootingstar, Primula sp. 
This part of the trail was fairly level and almost straight northward with very little curvature. We maintained a quick pace and made good progress.
Then the trail begun climbing again, one short stretch at a time, separated by small level segments, like huge giant steps. At that time we saw southbound backpackers descending down the PCT, two or three at a time, or singles. After a few had passed us it was clear to me that they were all of the same group because they all carried similar equipment that included ice axes and helmets of the same making. They also looked college age.
High Sierra/PCT Trail
The next fellow that came down the trail carrying the same type of equipment looked much older than the others. I greeted him and asked if they were all one group. He confirmed that and said they were all students from the East Coast taking a mountaineering class and that he was one of two co-instructor of this class. He seemed to be happy for a chat pause and we chatted a bit while my friend and his co-instractor caught up with us.
Tidy Lupine, Lupinus lepidus
I asked him about my thought to hike cross-country from McCabe Lake to Young Lake, and his eyes lit up - that was exactly the route they had taken, opposite direction to ours. He then commenced divulging information about the path and giving out tips that turned out very helpful indeed. He also listed several difficulties that we might or would face on this route but I was sure we'd do fine managing all of these - I was reassured by the knowledge that this route was doable, and such by a class of first timers too.
Nevada Bitter Root, Lewisia nevadensis 
We thanked the class' instructors and they continued southward down the trail while we moved on north. We were now sure that we would continue on from McCabe Lake to Young Lake. We were happy. We also were also tired and ready for a more serious break. All we needed was fresh water.

The Big Meadow
Our chance came soon enough. After some more time of going up through the forest in short trail segments we were descending into a large, flat meadow.

Separating the forest and the meadow was a small, pretty creek. We crossed the creek hopping on stones and slumped down on the meadow side where we took off our backpacks, took out our food and sat down for our long desired lunch break.
The perfect picnic setting 
It really was a perfect day. Even the mosquitoes took their lunch break somewhere else. We sat near the creek bank for a long time, eating, chatting, and taking photos.
Tundra Aster, Oreostemma alpigenum
There were many little flowers blooming all around us. As expected, many little butterflies fluttered near us making their brief landings on one flower or another, or right on the moist ground.

Eventually we resumed our hike. The trail was completely flat here, yet we took our time walking slowly through it, taking little side trips to explore and stopping often to look closer at the little wonders we encountered along our path. 
High Sierra/PCT Trail
I, of course, had to stop at each and every flower, even if I'd already seen the same before. 
Sierra Beardstongue, Penstemon heterodoxus 
There was also no end to the butterflies. Not swarms, but many individuals. 

Some distance into the meadow we came upon a flooded area. We didn't see it at first - the grass hid the shallow layer of water. When we approached it however, we saw that the flooded area was too wide to hop over and too muddy to wade through. 
High Sierra/PCT Trail
A few rocks allowed us to cross the first place where the trail was flooded but beyond that, a wider part of the trail was flooded too and that part had no rocks laid out for convenient crossing. 
Moths feasting on Ivesia flowers
The place was flooded for some time - enough time to nurture pond vegetation. My friend and I each walked along the edge of the flooded area until we found easier places to walk across without sinking into the mud. 
Bolander's Water Starwort, Callitriche heterophylla var. bolanderi 
On the western edge of the Big Meadow was a huge boulder. It wasn't obvious how it got there - there was no immediate slope right above it from which it might have broken off. It was not a round boulder either, I couldn't imagine it rolling there from the slope far behind, but I guess it must have, because it also didn't look like a leftover of a massive local erosion event. 

Resisting the urge to go near the rock for a closer look we continued on northward, trying to make some faster progress. 
Moths on Meadow Everlasting, Antennaria corymbosa 
The diversity of butterflies we saw there that day was simply astounding. And I posted here only a selected few. Most of them were really difficult to photograph, being very hyperactive.

All in all, there's nothing that symbolisms spring for me more than hoards of butterflies enjoying a tapestry of blossoms. 

A couple of backpackers passed us at a quick pace. We picked up our pace too and followed north to where the meadow narrowed and the trees crept right to the trail. The trail itself looked as if it got flooded frequently and the PCT backpackers would carve a parallel side path in effort to avoid the main one. When we we're there however, the main trail and all its parallels were bone dry. 
High Sierra/PCT Trail rail ail il l 

The other backpackers disappeared from our view. Now we were walking along the creek in a narrower part of the meadow. Young trees grew near the creek, I think in the future the forest would take over the meadow there. 

We found a nice flat rock in the shade of a tree and stopped to drink and filter more water. My friend couldn't find her cup. She was sure she had left it by the creek bank at the south edge of the Big Meadow where we had our lunch. She was tired and was ready to give up on it, but I volunteered to go back there and look for the cup. Without the backpack which I left near my resting friend, I felt almost like running. Light as a doe I half run half skipped all the way across the Big Meadow. I had a good view of the mountains we left south behind us. 
Going back for the cup
I didn't find the cup and I assumed that the couple that had passed us must have picked it up, not wanting to leave a plastic item that would become trash on the wilderness. I made it all the way back to find out that my friend had found her cup stashed in a different compartment of her pack ... 
Returning to course
Surprisingly I felt that the extra going back and forth across the Big Meadow without my pack actually rejuvenated me rather than tire me out. A few minutes after reuniting with my friend we resumed our hike north, walking on the ruler-straight trail and following the curvy-curved creek to our east. 

The trees closed in on us and soon we were back inside the forest again. It was nice to be in the shade again, and once more there were mushrooms decorating the forest floor. 
Fly Agaric? mushroom
The land begun rising again, in a mild slope at first, then in somewhat steeper segments separated by short stretches of a more level ground.
High Sierra/PCT Trail
We progressed slower now. My friend, for whom this was the first backpacking trip in her life, was getting tired and we stopped more frequently for short breather and water breaks. 
We used these breaks not only for resting, but to catch up with all the chats and talks we never got to do on our regular daily life routine. Alone time in the wilderness does wonders in bringing souls together. 
Organ Pipe fungus
In the forest I saw again the flowers already familiar to me from the day before and from previous trips to the High Sierra. Those wildflowers I'll never get tired of seeing. 
Leichtsinn Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii
Like old friends, I'd introduce these flowers to my friend. She too enjoyed much the rich mountain spring display. 
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa 
We walked for  long time without coming across any creek or pond. we didn't measure our drinking but I knew that on the next occasion we came by water we would have to take a longer break and fill up on filtered water again. I knew this would come soon because we were nearing the place where the PCT should cross the McCabe Creek. 
Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima 
Sure enough, after a few more uphill stretches, there it was: McCabe Creek. It was flowing lazily through a series of small cascades, making happy water music. 
We crossed the creek dropped our backpacks under a small pine near the creek and got to work filtering water. A few minutes after we stopped a few other backpackers came by. They were not of the same group or related to each other in any way but all of them stopped for the same reason - to rest a bit and fill up on fresh water. 
McCabe Creek
One of the backpackers who stopped there was a long woman doing the PCT on her own. Her pants sagged on her thin hips and were tied by a piece of rope, indicating of much weight lost off them. She said she was going back south to complete the High Sierra part she had to skip earlier that summer because of the late snow. She was in high spirits but shared her frustration with the clouds of mosquitoes that she had to brave throughout her trek. We actually didn't have it as bad that day. I felt generous and gave her a mosquito repellant bracelet I took for just in case. Later, after having to deal with the clouds of mosquitoes myself I wonder how little of a difference that bracelet would have made when even deet proved almost useless. 

It was getting late in the afternoon and the shadows were lengthening. I wanted to quicken our pace but it wasn't long before we needed to slow down again. 
High Sierra/PCT Trail
Thoughts f staying for the night near the PCT have presented themselves in my mind but I didn't voice them out loud. We kept moving between light and shade patches, pressing on northward until we arrived at the trail junction where the McCabe Lake trail split off the PCT. 
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilleja miniata 

From the PCT to Lower McCabe Lake
There is a nice vista point right by the PCT/Lake McCabe trail junction. We went over there and sat down for the last major break of the day's hike. The view was indeed spectacular and the afternoon sun warm but no longer scorching.

Here too I didn't voice my idea of staying there for the night. My friend looked tired but relaxed and happy. When I asked if she'd be up for continuing to McCabe Lake she said that she's fine to go on. Also, there was no fresh water near the trail junction. After a decent break we had to get going otherwise we wouldn't rechristen the lake by nightfall.
We did meet the creek again, or one of its tributaries further up the trail. It was easy enough to cross it, hopping on strategically placed rocks.

Near the creek bloomed the West Labrador Tea, the one bush that we had the pleasure of seeing by nearly every water source we've been at on this trip.
Western Labrador Tea, Rhododendron columbianum
The trail was constantly ascending. We crossed a few more little creeks and rivulets. Every now and then the trail itself turned into a little brook. We treaded carefully at the trail edge, trying to minimize any damage to the trailside vegetation while avoiding wetting our shoes too much.
Swarms of mosquitos detected our presence and unleashed an unprovoked attack on our hot-blooded bodies. I pulled out a deep wipe which me and my friend shared. It helped a little.
 Lake McCabe Trail
All of a sudden the trail became much steeper. After some more climbing my friend asked for another rest stop. I was too anxious to get to the lake before nightfall so I suggested that she'll rest there while I go up ahead and check how close was the lake really. She nodded in agreement and I jotted uphill leaving her seated on a flat, bench like rock.
 Lake McCabe Trail
I pushed on for what seemed forever even though it couldn't have been more than a third of a mile. Nearing the lake the trail pulled near McCabe Creek which was now much wider.
McCabe Creek
Ignoring the pretty wildflowers that bloomed in the muddy wetland net the creek and hopping over the flooded areas of the trail I made it to the lake shore where I found a suitable camp site where it was clear that others have camped before. I dropped my backpack there, pulled the bear canister out and placed it in a safe distance, then hurried back down the trail.
McCabe Lake
I found my friend on her feet, huffing and puffing up the slope. I had to argue with her a little but eventually she yielded and allowed me to take her backpack and carry it up myself. We made it to the lake just in time to view the splendid sunset.
After sunset we took our time pitching our tent and making dinner. By the time we were done clearing everything it was dark. Our second night had fallen.
Last Light of Day
Tired from the long day's hike we crawled into the tent and into our sleeping sacks. The night was warm enough and our camp comfortable. We chatted a bit and then I was talking to myself only - my friend was sound asleep. It didn't take long for me to drift off too. We had a good, long nigh ahead, and tomorrow - adventure.  


  1. That seems to be a beautiful but very tiring hike...

    1. A good encouragement for being in shape before going out :-)

  2. I think it's a good thing I'm reading this backwards, because otherwise I would be really worried right now....
    few IDs:
    picture #19 - butterfly - I think it's Speyeria sp.
    #26 - Algais milberti - there is a relative of it in the Hermon that I dream of meeting some day...
    #32 - Poladryas sp. - I think we've seen something similar in Mitchell Canyon
    #33 - Painted Lady - the most common butterfly in the world
    #41 - the mushroom - Volvopluteus. some of the species are edible, but this one seems a bit old...

    1. Thank you for the IDs! I'll update the post soon.