Backpacking in the Sierras July 2016

Introduction

The ten days my 13 year old son and I had reserved on our calendar for a backpacking trip were fast approaching; yet we had 3 totally different possible destinations in three states, no plan and perhaps more importantly, no permits. We finally came to the conclusion that rather than drive all the way to the Rockies, we should spend some time in our own mountain backyard - the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains.

That's when the great folks at High Sierra Topix (highsierratopix.com) came to the rescue. Speaking of them, I would like to thank Maverick and the all other the fellas that gave us great advice and tips. You guys came through. With about a week before our trip, Maverick pointed us to an available Wilderness Permit out of Agnew Meadows. We grabbed the permit quickly and specified a 7 day backpack. Then I realized that we could live one of my dreams. We could retrace the steps that I had taken when I was my son's age and hike from Agnew Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows. Wow! Then I got my maps on CalTopo.com (great site), figured out our food and pulled the equipment out of the garage.

We know that Agnew to Tuolumne Meadows is a popular hike. It is popular for a reason, it has all the classic element of the Sierra and is absolutely beautiful. Highly recommended. Here is the story of our trip and some tips.

We drove up to Mammoth on Saturday, and car camped for 3 nights to acclimate to the altitude, fish, day hike, relax and enjoy each other and God's beautiful creation.

Day 1

Lake Ediza or bust! We caught the Red's Meadow Shuttle at the Mammoth Mountain Inn. We had hoped to be on the 7am shuttle but you know how things go... We just missed the 8:30 and stood in line with a bunch of day trippers and excited backpackers to wait for the 9:00.

The shuttle dropped us at Agnew Meadows at around 9:15am we were off. Well…not in a cloud of smoke….because you see... we had these backpacks. We really paired down and took the bare minimum. But the reality was that we could barely lift the things! We hoisted them on to our backs with all our might and off we galumphed. It was pretty flat through the meadow and along the River Trail. We were pushed to move quickly by the presence of mosquitoes. After a little break to put on some repellent we saw the beautiful river. The trail then crossed and began to climb up.

Oh wow. This is going to be an effort. As we climbed up we began to see the valley that we had come from and after a while arrived at the beautiful Shadow Lake. It was pure Sierras; with snow covered rocky peaks as a backdrop. We gladly dropped our packs and pulled out our lunch. We had bagel sandwiches with mustard, ham, cheese, and lettuce that we had made the day before. We were living large! We knew this might be the most delicious meal of the trip. (It probably was) After lunch we pushed on. We met some nice hikers that had experienced camping at Lake Ediza who told us that we should camp on the west side of the Lake. We were thrilled when we got our first view of the lake! We made it.

Now just another ½ hour walk more than ½ way around the lake to find our campsite. You know that feeling of the first day of backpacking. Excitement. Unrealistic expectations. Heavy Pack. Legs that… well, let's just say it isn't the easiest. Ediza was beautiful. The meadows were green, the lake and sky so blue. The backdrop of Ritter and Banner Peaks majestic. Only one slight negative…..there were lots of annoying bugs… mosquitoes, specifically. We had been warned of them, and had hoped that they were be less prevalent at other destinations along our route. Other than that slight disadvantage, the views were amazing, and the water was refreshingly cold. Not too cold, though, to stop us from soaking our feet and wading around for a while.

Shadow Lake
Ediza Lake
Our Campsite

What? No Stove?

Yep, that’s right. We didn’t forget it. We never bring a stove. How do we survive? Actually we ate pretty well. So you might ask, WHY, don’t you bring a stove? Mainly…to keep things simple. No food prep, no clean up. Plus we don’t have the weight of cooking stuff or need to allocate space in our packs for it.

Day 2

We packed up, hoping our next destination would be less buggy. We started out without eating breakfast, but found that the bugs were a bit more tolerable on the east side of the lake. We stopped there for some muesli, fruit, and protein powder, and enjoyed our last views of the gorgeous way that Lake Ediza is set in the bowl of mountains. We headed down the trail and then turned north at the junction. We had been given the hot tip from davepctjmt on the High Sierra Topix forum, that Clarice Lake was swimmable, that fires were allowed and it had good views. We tried to read the topo map and figure out where we should go off trail to find it. It was hard to get our landmarks because of the trees and we did not have a GPS. We dropped our packs and went cross country several times looking for it but unfortunately could not find it. We really wanted to find it. A little frustrated with out navigational skills we headed for Garnet Lake. Unfortunately, we also found that we were out of water and that there is almost no water from a bit past the junction until Garnet Lake. Note to self - always fill up at known water sources unless they are close together. A bit dehydrated we came over the ridge and looked down on the big Garnet Lake. We made the long decent to the lake and filled out water bottles. We found the unmarked trail on the north side of the lake and made our way to the most beautiful campsite we had on the whole trip. It was unbelievable. We camped out on a peninsula about halfway down the lake. There were many beautifully cleared campsites. We got one near the water with a GORGEOUS view of the lake backdropped by Ritter and Banner.

Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake
Garnet Lake

So... what did we eat?

Here is a list of what we took on this trip. We bought almost everything at Trader Joe’s.

Breakfast

  • Muesli (1 cup per person)
  • Powered milk (Nido) or protein powder (Hemp)
  • Freeze dried strawberries or blueberries.
  • Lunch and Dinner
  • We made sandwiches with this stuff….
  • Flat Bread or Mini Sandwich Rounds (1 per meal)

Note: we also brought Corn tortillas - don’t bring em - they crumbled and were inferior!

Salami - we brought two kinds and found the Dry Salami better!

Justin’s Peanut Butter Packets (got 7 of these out of backpacker barrel at Red’s Meadows)

Cheese Sticks (1 per meal)

Tuna Packets - 3oz foil for two meals - We got these at Sprouts farmers market

Jerky - Turkey and Beef (we ate 2-3 bags)

Snacks

Trail mix - we put some Ziploc bags together with macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, off-brand M&M’s, raisins and chocolate chips (next time we would take out the chocolate chips and just have M&M’s because the chocolate chips melted

Bars - we liked the Simply Nutty Bars from Trader Joe’s, This (blueberry, strawberry, fig, ect.) Walks into a Bar (also by Trader Joe’s), and Cliff Bars.

Day 3

We woke up… and jumped out of the tent quickly to see sunrise colors wash over Ritter and Banner with a FULL MOON centered between the two! It was EPIC! Certainly the defining image of the trip! Noah and I did our usually morning photo walk each taking lots of photos. Garnet was the most beautiful place on our trip. Definitely recommended. It was a glorious morning in God’s creation! What a show!

After a leisurely morning enjoying the reflections, colors, shadows, sun bursts, rock patterns and breeze we packed up and took the short hike over to Thousand Island Lake. On the way we walked by Ruby and Emerald Lakes. We passed (and were passed by) so many John Muir Trail (JMT) hikers on the trip. Perhaps 60% of the hikers we encountered were JMT through hikers! We admired them for their endurance and motivation. Most were attempting the 220 mile journey in 16-22 days…averaging 11-15 miles a day. While we were impressed with their condition, we were also glad that we had time to relax, to contemplate, to soak in the views, to stop along the trail and to just soak up the beauty.

We found a good campsite at Thousand Island (but it was certainly not as great as Garnet). There were lots of people around and the setting was just not Garnet lake. We spent the afternoon wading in the water and relaxing.

Thousand Island Lake
Thousand Island Lake
Thousand Island Lake

What? No Filter?

Ok. I know, we’re totally OLD SCHOOL. We bring iodine tablets. I have introduced my son to this and he gets it as well. The bottle is really small and light. The iodine purifies the water. There are no mechanical parts to break or get fouled up. There are no batteries. No crouching down by the lake or stream pumping. The taste is fine - we don’t even use the neutralizer pills. We put one or two pills in a Nalgene bottle, wait 15-20 minutes (shake after 5 minutes) and presto. Sure, you have to plan a bit ahead since you can’t drink the water immediately.

We also had one electrolyte powder packet made by “Power Pak” each day in 8 oz of purified water. It has vitamins and electrolytes. We do this to make sure we are getting the nutrients we needed and to prevent cramps.

Day 4

It was a great hiking day! We loved all the big views as we climbed over Island Pass. We were warned about the bugs down in Rush Creek but they were not too bad. We encountered a ranger there and were so glad we had proper permits! A fellow on High Sierra Topix (wildhiker) had given us information about a off-trail, secluded, camping spot at some tarns (which are pretty much snow ponds) east of the trail at around 10,500 feet. We followed wildhiker’s advice and hiked about a mile across the meadow and around the beautiful dry and wet streams and found that 4 of the ponds still had some water left. It was a beautiful spot with great views of Ritter, Banner, Mammoth Mountain and Donahue Pass. The meadow had lots of flowers. We loved the high country feel. We soaked our feet in the pond and waded in - the water was only three feet deep and was pretty warm. We enjoyed this campsite a lot although the bugs at dusk were pretty fierce.

In the morning, we made a new friend. He was very cute and quite small. He had big front teeth. He had very short arms. You might have guessed he was a marmot. We watched him from close range for a long time, eating flowers, peeking out from his whole, scurrying away, then coming back curious about us.

Tarn near Donahue Pass
Our Friend
Tarn near Donohue Pass

Day 5

We slept in a bit since sunrise was not as spectacular in the plateau as other locations. Then loaded up our packs…and said to each other…can you believe we have to put these things on again?!? We headed over Donahue Pass. It really was not difficult since we camped just 500 feet below the peak elevation of Donahue Pass.

As we ascended my left shoe didn't feel right. My toes were cramped as if suddenly my almost completely new boots had shrunk. They had been comfortable the other days. At the top of the pass I took my boot off, only to find some wadded up trash that I had placed in my boot so it would not blow away the previous night. Note to self….do not hike up Sierra passes with trash in your boot. It is not comfortable!

Our Park System's Shoestring Budget

At the top we saw this sign. To us it was symbolic of the condition of our National Park System and its funding. The National Park Service doesn’t have an adequate budget; they are trying to manage our parks on a “shoe-string” budget. There is basically no budget for maintenance, restoration, or refurbishment. Perhaps you have heard the horror stories of deferred maintenance, inadequate facilities, and pushing the ball of problems into the future? We need to make our National Parks, monuments and sites a bigger budget priority. Would we adequately be able to care for our parks if we moved .01% of the budget for war to the National Park Service?

We came down the pass and stopped for lunch at a beautiful glacial lake. We dipped our feet in the cold water and it was refreshing. It was here that we saw the guy attempting the 220 mile JMT carrying a bear container under one arm and a car camping tent by the other. - The ranger we met later, who had also encountered him, told us that he said his backpack was full. Here he is resting from carrying his load!

Guy chilling after hiking JMT carrying bear canister under one arm and Walmart tent under the other

We descended into Lyell Canyon. It was a long decent. We felt sorry for the people who were coming up Donahue Pass from Toulumne. Wow. We continued down the peaceful canyon with the winding clear calm river for miles. After a long time on the trail, we found a campsite about 5.5 miles from Toulumne that met the 100 feet from water and trail criteria. While we were setting up our tent we saw a man carrying a full size American flag on a large pole up the trail. God Bless America! Here he is….

God Bless America!

It was not an ideal campsite but we enjoyed our dinner and breakfast on the rocks of the river. The noises and whirlpools were fun to watch.

Clear Water!
Oh dear!

Day 6

After our last breakfast we headed down the trail to Tuolumne Meadows. The trail was easy and we commented that we wished our packs had been this light the whole trip. Backpacks are so much lighter when the bear containers are empty (except for trash). We began to anticipate lunch at the Tuolumne Grill. Soon we were close to Tuolumne…but we took some weird turns and had to walk about a mile along the road to the Grill. After managing the line at the grill we feasted on our burgers, potato wedges, and sodas. Later that afternoon we took the YARTS bus back to the Mammoth Mountain Lodge where we had left our car.

Best meal of the trip!

We spent the next two nights car camping at Pumice Campground along the Red’s Meadow road.

We hope you enjoyed our trip report and that it encourages you to spend some more time in the wilderness and support our national parks and forests!

Credits:

Anthony Witt and Noah Witt

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