- Day 1: BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS AND ALL…
- Day 2: DAYTRIPPING IN THE HIGH SIERRA…
- Day 3: GOING HOME…
- Day 3: BACK AT HOME…
Day 1: BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS AND ALL…
It 6am Saturday morning. I arrived at Cindy and Ed’s place with the rental car. With our internal frame backpacks all packed and ready to go, the car was fully loaded. It was time to make the 5.5-hour journey up the Hwy 395 to the Tioga Pass Entrance of Yosemite National Park.
I had arranged for pickup of our backcountry permits the previous night to ensure we’d have them if we showed up after 10am – which was the time they’d assume no-shows weren’t going to show up and surrender their permits to the public.
With our early start, we made pretty decent time getting through the Tioga Pass Entrance and then the backcountry office near Tuolumne Meadows. It was about 10:15am – a little after the deadline, but we didn’t sweat it because we had the permit arrangement in hand – or so I thought.
When we went in to the office, we told them we were going to pick up our reserved permits. Then the employee dropped the bomb…
…your reservation was no longer on hold.
“What?!?!” I said.
“You didn’t pick up your permits before 10am,” she said.
I was dumbfounded. I had explained to her that I called yesterday evening to hold on to our permits in case we showed up after ten.
Before I was really about to get pissed off, she said they still had three permits available for the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead. Fortunately for us, those three permits were the very ones they took off the reservation list, and that no one else claimed them before we showed up.
So quickly we acted on getting those permits, and we headed back out to the parking lot to repack our belongings.
I didn’t have a plan B for the trip so I wasn’t sure what we were going to do if we couldn’t do the planned hike.
That planned hike, by the way, was the Waterwheel Falls hike with two nights of camping nearby the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. The camp’s amenities were closed as it was too early in the season so the area would retain its backcountry feel until later in the Summer when the place would be open for business. That’s fine by us since we were going after a backcountry experience anyways.
The Waterwheel Falls hike was at least 16 miles, but we were breaking it up over three days and two nights. The trail would lose nearly 3000ft in elevation as we would get nearer Waterwheel Falls – which was situated pretty much where the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River begins.
So all three of us repacked our internal frame packs – bear canisters and all – and loaded up the car again. Each pack was easily about 40-50lbs. We each split up responsibilities in terms of carrying tents, cookware, food, canisters, and clothing.
A few minutes later, we made it to the unpaved road where the Glen Aulin trail began. Watched over by the slanted Lembert Dome, there were plenty of cars parked alongside the dirt road. We managed to find a spot and leave the car there.
With hiking sticks in hand, cameras ready, and heavy packs slinged on our backs, we were good to go…
…and not too soon since the mosquitoes were starting to swarm us and look for unsuspecting blood donors.
It was about 12:15pm by now and we were off.
It was unusual that the Tioga Pass was open by Memorial Day, but this year had a dry Winter. Even with that said, the High Country peaks were beautifully clad with snow piercing the cloudless deep blue skies.
Tuolumne Meadows was already a grassy green though there were plenty of pools of standing water – resulting from the fresh snowmelt and muddying parts of the trail. These pools were great for reflection photographs but also a haven for annoying mosquitoes.
When we reached the Parson’s Memorial Lodge area, we somehow lost the way in the confusing network of trails. After about 15 minutes, we realized that we had gone the wrong way when we noticed smelly and artificial pools of waste water.
So after another brief delay, we were back on the trail and found the four-way intersection between Soda Springs and Parson’s Lodge.
Now the trail started to go into a more forested scene. The forest was not dense though so you could see the vast grassy landscape of Tuolumne Meadows along with views of the lovely peaks such as Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Fairview Dome.
About 90 minutes since the start of the hike, we had to get across a deep creek crossing. Fortunately, there was a downed tree further upstream, but it was quite tricky balancing on the narrow tree with 50lb packs on our backs.
All three of us made it through without incident.
Then, the trail proceeded uneventfully until we got to an exposed granite section. Such sections don’t have trails so we had to look for stacked rocks called cairns to lead the way. Unfortunately, there were also false cairns leading us the wrong way to the Tuolumne River.
There was a nice set of rapids there, but we had to back track and find the correct cairns and trail.
Once we successfully did that, we proceeded merrily until the next stream crossing. This wasn’t quite as dramatic as the first, but it was longer. With my hiking sticks and gore-tex boots, I had no problems getting across. However, both Cindy and Ed had lower shoes that didn’t have gore-tex so they were busy trying to rock hop their way without getting wet and without hiking sticks.
I think they made it through without getting their feet wet…
It wasn’t long afterwards that we had to negotiate yet another stream crossing. This was much longer than the first two as an ephemeral creek spilled into some kind of delta as it added to the Tuolumne River’s flow.
I ended up getting my feet wet and soggy on this crossing and I’d imagine so did Cindy and Ed.
Our worries of getting soggy and pruny feet subsided as we continued to trudge onwards.
It seemed like forever before we finally reached an outcrop with our first expansive views of the Glen Aulin area. As the sun continued to dip lower on the horizon, the skies became a darker blue, and even the early moon was visible in the late afternoon light.
We proceeded to descend from the outcrop, through another forested area, and eventually to a set of footbridges that crossed the Tuolumne River.
At this point, the river started to gain momentum and become a continuous series of rapids and cascades.
Spurred on by the sound of refreshing sound of moving water, we started to pound our feet and legs on the unforgiving granite steps as we descended along with the river.
Easily distracted by some of the smaller cascades, both Ed and I took frequent photo breaks.
Eventually, we got to a point where the granite steps became steeper and the river made a sharp drop…
…it was Tuolumne Falls! And boy did it have a nice rainbow before it!
The three of us seized this opportunity for photos.
Tuolumne Falls had a satisfyingly steep drop, and to have it juxtaposed with cloudless blue skies along with a rainbow made it real difficult to keep going. Nonetheless, we eagerly continued on – sensing we were getting close to camp.
The trail continued to descend down more granite steps. We saw that the Tuolumne River was about to make another drop, but the trail kind of veered away from the river at this time. In any case, we took more photos of the scene as we could see attractive granite peaks and domes surrounding a valley that we were about to enter.
As we looked across the river, we could see that there were some shacks besides the river. We weren’t sure what they were for, but there was no way we could access them from where we were at. But the signs of civilization were certainly encouraging since it was getting late and we knew that we still had to set up camp.
The trail continued to descend down more granite steps before hitting a junction. Turning right at the junction, the trail became dirt again. Shortly thereafter, it crossed a series of footbridges crossing the wide Tuolumne River. At this point, we could see the attractive White Cascade.
As we spent a few minutes searching for a place to set up our base camp, we finally managed to find one atop a small ridge with a few other tents nearby.
After setting everything up, Cindy and Ed quickly took out my Pocket Rocket stove and went to work preparing quesadillas, oatmeal, and pasta.
Meanwhile, I got my collapsible bucket and Waterworks II filter and replenished our water supply along the cool Tuolumne River.
We enjoyed the dinner, the surroundings, and even the company of other fellow campers. It was quite a way to spend the first night out in the High Sierra backcountry.
Before we could quietly brush our teeth and get to sleep, we started to hear a huge raucous of clanging pots and pans along with people screaming in unison!
What was that?!?
When the noise got louder as it was approaching us, soon other campers joined in the fray and started making noise.
It quickly became apparent why…
Down below the ridge was a big, lumbering bear. Apparently, it must be looking for some freebies as it was obvious it had already made the connection between people and food.
All that noise was an effort to scare it away, but it seemed kind of immune to all the racquet and kept lumbering along.
Eventually, it would head back into the woods and the raucous faded. Returning were the sound of crickets and the odd conversation here and there.
It was a little unsettling knowing that we’re sleeping in the open air with a hungry bear looking for human munchies. So all of us crowded the nearby bear lockers with our packs and made sure the locked bear canisters were several steps away from our tents.
Other than that bit of drama, all of us spent the night in relative camp comfort – all under a starry night and a very bright moon.
Day 2: DAYTRIPPING IN THE HIGH SIERRA…
Normally, I’m an early bird who likes to get an early start to the day. But even though I was already up by 6am, Cindy and Ed didn’t get up until around 8am.
We took our time having breakfast and refilling our water bottles.
Today, the plan was to day hike out to Waterwheel Falls and return back to camp. It was supposed to be 6 miles out-and-back – at least according to my book on California Waterfalls.
It wasn’t until it was nearly 10am that we had finally set out on our hike – leaving most of the weight of our packs back at base camp.
As we started the hike, we were immediately greeted with a lovely expansive view of the Glen Aulin area. After taking a few photos, we proceeded with the hike.
The trail descended to the base of the last of the cascades near the Glen Aulin area. Then it became sandy as it followed a calm Tuolumne River.
The trail would proceed uneventfully for quite a while until we started to notice an interesting waterfall off to the cliff on our right.
I never expected to see this cascade as I had never heard about it in the literature. Nonetheless, I took some time to take photos of it. But soon after we had our fill of this waterfall and continued hiking.
There was then another cascade that I noticed on the wall to my right. This particular cascade was even more attractive and taller than the previous one. However, it didn’t look like we had time to get closer to that cascade. So we continued hiking and then…
…we were met with lots of deep standing pools of water covering the trail!
Apparently the runoff from that waterfall inundated the Waterwheel Falls Trail. Cindy and Ed were ready to turn back because of this obstacle, but I was determined to get to our goal.
So I coerced them to come with me and find a way to get around these obstacles without getting our feet wet and soggy.
After about a half hour of scrambling over downed trees and keeping our balance, we eventually made it through this obstacle.
It wasn’t long afterwards until we got to the next cascade – California Falls.
Once again the trail switchbacked its way down granite steps alongside the cascade. At the bottom of the descent, we saw a spur trail, which we took. It led to the banks of the river with a descent view of the multi-tiered cascade of California Falls.
The falls wasn’t that eye-popping to us so we were quickly on our way.
The cascades of California Falls seemed like it tumbled constantly. You couldn’t tell where one waterfall ended and where one began. Anyhow the next hour or so of hiking was dominated by granite steps with the clapping sounds of rapids.
I couldn’t remember where California Falls ended and where LeConte Falls began. There seemed to be little (if any) opportunities to catch a glimpse of the cascades constantly to our left. When we did see one opening, we saw some unremarkable cascades so it wasn’t like we missed out on much for this stretch of trail.
Anyhow, we eventually got to a point where the trail steeply descended down more granite steps. We noticed a spur trail leading into some vegetation offering a closer look at a cascade that appeared to have waterwheels on it!
Could this be the Waterwheel Falls?
I couldn’t figure out where LeConte Falls was in all that whitewater we saw on the way.
Anyhow – confused or not – we took the spur trail and got a closer look at the waterwheels on the cascade. The waterwheels, by the way, were areas of the cascade where water would dive into a groove backed by a rock – causing the water to shoot up in the air before landing back on the cascade. When viewed from afar, you get the illusion that the cascade has waterwheels on it. Quite cool!
There had to be at least a half dozen waterwheels on this cascade.
Cindy, Ed, and I each had our lunches here. Ed and I had a field day trying to experiment with long exposures to capture a silky smooth waterwheel on our shots.
While we were relaxing by the falls, I took a few minutes to hike further down the trail to get more comprehensive views of this cascade that we had assumed was Waterwheel Falls. It wasn’t long before I rejoined Ed and Cindy.
It was nearly 2pm and it was time to return to camp. The further down the trail we went, the more we had to climb on the way back. So we saw no need to proceed any further thinking we had indeed seen our goal.
But before we turned back, we looked further downstream towards what appeared to be the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, which was basically a forested valley surrounded by granite peaks on both sides.
Meanwhile, we noticed some attractive waterwheels even along the main trail. We basically spotted them where the trees had parted enough so we could see them.
Looking downstream at an angle towards more waterwheels, we felt pretty satisfied with our viewing experience. Thus, we slowly trudged back uphill with the constant cascades rushing to our right, now.
So up we went on the relentless granite steps – listening to the incessant sounds of clapping rapids.
Finally when we made it to the top of California Falls, we had to go through that flooded section again. Knowing that we had already gone through it once, we weren’t as delayed going through this on this go around.
Now, the Tuolumne River calmed down. Ed and Cindy took this opportunity to have a brief nap besides the picturesque settings.
Now it was 3:30pm when we got up from our momentary reverie. Ultimately, we made it back to our camp by Glen Aulin at about 5pm.
We spent some time filling up some water while staring at the attractive White Cascade. There was a faint rainbow across it at this time of day, so that was kind of like a nice bookend to all the photos that we took on this day.
Once again Cindy and Ed were preparing quesadillas on top of the lid of the stove while the water was boiling – how efficient! I replenished our water supply by the river again, but I was a little frustrated at the apparent clogging of my filter since it was pumping sooo sloooow. Regardless, we still got our water and our hearty meal.
It was once again another beautiful late afternoon with the sun setting and beautiful alpenglow colors on the cliffs watching over us. As the light began to fade, I decided to head over to the toilet. But after a few steps, I noticed something big moving right next to someone’s tent…
…it was that bear again!
Since I was alone, I wasn’t sure what to do. So I basically got his attention by saying, “Hey! You! Go Away!”
Not that it did much since it just stood there dumbfounded at what I was trying to do.
Moments later, Ed was wondering what the commotion was about. Then he saw the bear. He immediately grabbed his whistle and blew on it.
That made the bear go away.
A lady in the tent wondered what went on when we she looked out and saw that big bear walking away from her tent.
“Thanks!” she said. “That’s one huge bear.”
Soon afterwards, the familiar raucous of clanging pots and pans with people screaming ensued. Like the wave at a sporting event, the raucous would change in volume along with the whereabouts of the bear.
Eventually, it lumbered away from the campsites – probably discouraged. Cindy noted how sickly the bear looked with its prickly fur.
Despite its size, it was clear the bear might have been malnourished as it had been seeking people food instead of its own omnivorous staple diet of insects, berries, shrubs, and maybe the occasional small rodent. We couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy.
But at the same time, we were also concerned about sleeping in the open with the hungry bear looking to pilfer someone’s stash of food or even mistaken something or someone for food.
After tending to our personal hygiene, Ed, Cindy, and I clambered back to our tents to sleep the night away.
Since last night was not too cold, I decided to take the rainfly off the tent and sleep under the bright moon and starry sky. Given the brightness of the moon however, it took awhile to fall asleep. The constant worry of a 500lb bear pouncing the tent didn’t help either…
Day 3: GOING HOME…
All of us got up at around 6am. Itching to get home and shower, we were hastier in breaking camp and stuffing our internal frame packs.
We left Glen Aulin by about 7am hoping to get to Tuolumne Meadows in time for us to have a lunch at the Tioga Gas Mart – situated on the corner where the Tioga Road and the Hwy 395 junction just south of the town of Lee Vining. Cindy and Ed raved about the cafe there, and I was dying to dry the killer mango fish tacos there myself.
Spurred on by that thought, we did the mostly uphill hike that started off as mostly granite steps but soon gave way to dirt once we got past the footbridges crossing the Tuolumne River.
The early morning light was great for landscape photographs of the vast Tuolumne Meadows. When we got to a point where the river was calm and wide, we could see the familiar high country peaks of Cathedral Peak, Unicorn Peak, and Fairview Dome all reflected in the river!
We negotiated the three stream crossings without trouble and eventually got back to the Parson’s Lodge vicinity.
It was here that we talked with a backcountry ranger walking the other way checking for permits. After showing him our permits, we talked about our bear experiences of the last two nights.
The ranger went on to tell us that it was one of two cubs who accompanied a mother (sow). The sow was successfully able to obtain human food in the Glen Aulin area and managed to teach her cubs to find food there. It was kind of a sad story actually since the cubs didn’t know any better.
Obviously the wildlife managers in the park have been keeping tabs on these bears. It’s almost comical how these rangers talk about these bears as if they know them like the old neighbors down the street in a residential community.
Anyhow, we parted ways and continued along the Tuolumne Meadows area with the odd marmot here and there basking in the sun on the trail before us. As we passed the Soda Springs area, we started noticing the mosquitoes that wouldn’t leave us alone. That hastened our pace and made us want to get to the car sooner.
We knew we had finally finished the hike when we saw Lembert Dome looming large over the parked cars up the trail. It was 10am when we returned to the car and headed straight for the Tioga Gas Mart to spoil ourselves and ensure we had enough fuel to make it home.
After enjoying the delicious and hearty Mexican-influenced meals while staring out at Mono Lake, we headed home. We’d eventually make it back in Los Angeles by 5pm.
With Cindy and Ed having their first real Sierra waterfall experience (they usually do High Sierra backcountry hikes around lakes or peaks above the tree line), they’d tell me how sometimes they’d dream about cascades and waterfalls.
In my mind, this was one memorable Memorial Day backpacking experience. It had it all – good company, good exercise, excellent scenery, great weather, great food, and unforgettable experiences.
It’s too bad I couldn’t say the same for the hungry bear. I hope it eventually figures out that it needs to go on its natural low carb diet and survive the way they normally do in Yosemite…
Day 3: BACK AT HOME…
When I got home, I quickly downloaded the trip log and waypoints from my GPS and onto my Topo maps on my PC. That was when the trip logs dropped the bomb on me…
…we didn’t see Waterwheel Falls!?!
After rubbing my eyes and staring at the screen for a bit, the data clearly showed that we only went as far as LeConte Falls! Waterwheel Falls was still another 3/4-mile further.
I was distraught. I wasn’t sure when I’d be back to see the real Waterwheel Falls. I even gave Ed a call to tell him the bad news.
After I finally accepted the disappointing turn of events, I was determined to come back to Tuolumne Meadows next weekend. Once again Mom learned what I was about to do and made sure I wasn’t going back alone. We made reservations for a room at the Holiday Haus in Mammoth Lakes and anxiously awaited the coming weekend to retry the whole thing again…
…in one day!!!
To be continued…
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