The Glory of Lyell Canyon

July 21st

Mileage: 14 (60.6)

I wake to air so crisp and cold it could chip a tooth.  The sky is blue and the surrounding mountains look lunar: pale, stark, severe.  Last night, I was not visited by a bear.  I begin my morning tasks: breaking down camp and loading my pack.  I have become an efficient machine in this regard and have to pause and remind myself to be deliberate.  Here, it is good to be precise and slow.  I go to the lake and collect water.  I dip my hand in and swoosh my reservoir bag back and forth, filling it to the brim.  The water is warmer than the air and gives off a mist that glows in the early morning.

Cathedral Lake in the morning

I take an inventory of myself and find there is no soreness, no ache, no pain.  I have adapted.  Perhaps today the game I refer to as “The Bodily Pain Carousel” will come to an end.  It not really a game you play, rather, you just exist alongside it.  One moment its the shoulder, next the back, the heel, toe, neck, elbow.  Somehow these pains never coexist.  Just morph from one to the other, often without me even realizing its happened.  Suddenly its: “Ouch.  My heel.”

I begin to hike and say out loud,  “No rain today.  Not even so much as a hint.”

The hike to Tuolumne is uneventful and I begin to notice more and more day-hikers and trail-runners.  Trail-head approaching!  Through them I learn two things: the region got hail and ice in yesterday’s storm, and clear skies in the extended forecast.  Yes!  As I gradually walk downhill I see water bubbling up from the side of the mountain and fill my water bottle.  I consider not even filtering it, but decide against that.  It only takes a minute to treat the water, but weeks to get rid of giardia.

Three trains of mules walk past, loaded down with gear and heading for the High Sunrise Camp.  The people leading them look like cowboys and I step off the trail and let the animals go by.  In their wake are excesses of green waste and a lingering fowl odor.  I step lightly and find myself in civilization for the first time since Glacier Point.  The Tuolumne Visitor’s Center.  A older man asks me about my trekking poles, and I tell him they are very helpful going downhill.

“Where did you get them?”  He asks.

“I don’t know.  They were a gift.  Probably the internet.”


“I think my parents got them online.  Amazon.”

“Oh.”  He smiles and walks away, as if the internet is some kind of joke that he’s in on, but I’m not.

I find a ranger and ask how to get to the post office and general store and he points me to the road and says its easier just to road walk.  There’s a trail next to the road and a mile later, the small cluster of buildings that must be the main drag in Tuolumne.  I resupply and get out quickly before I have a chance to spend lots of money.  Luckily, my hiker hunger hasn’t set in, so the food isn’t irresistible and I even dump excess resupplies so I won’t have to carry extra weight in my bear canister.  I get lost walking back to the JMT, and a ranger with a backpack catches up to me.  She asks me if I’ve had any bear encounters.  I laugh and tell her about my time at the Cloud’s Rest campsite.  She nods.

“We caught a bear there recently that was creating a lot of disturbances and held him for a while.  Put GPS on him and everything.  While he was in our custody we had more reports coming in every day, so now we think its two bears.”

“I probably met your second bear.”  I say.

“Its sad really.  That area gets a lot of day hikers and one-night backpackers.  People climbing Half-Dome.  Sometimes they leave food out and bears learn to get it.”  I tell her about the empty candy bar and pepperoni wrappers I saw and she makes some notes.   “The good news is: all reports are coming back fine for this area, so we should have a quiet night.”

“That’s good.”  I say.  She walks on.

I’m back on the JMT and eventually I find myself walking into Lyell Canyon.

And it is beautiful.  My pictures from this stretch of the trail win the award for “Doesn’t do the place justice.”  The countryside is sweeping and grandiose.  The mountains to the north are broad, towering, rounded.  It remind me of the Rockies.  They just look different from the mountains I’ve seen so far in the Sierras.  Lyell Forks River cuts a wide and roundabout path back and forth through the meadow, its water running shallow.  How did it become so meandering?  What stood in its way?  Grasses grow right up to the banks, which are raised above the river by a few feet.  Fish jump from the water.  Here and there, backpackers are sitting on rocks or with their feet dangling over the river, too transfixed to move on.  Nobody, it appears, wants to leave.  All of this is only a day hike (!) from Tuolumne!  Why?! WHY?  Isn’t this trail overrun with people?!?!  Oh well.  More open space for me.  I eat trail mix and sip on water pulled from the river.

The highly underrated Lyell Canyon
The trail cutting through Lyell Canyon

I spend the rest of the afternoon in this glorious place and think about how much my pack weighs.  The resupply pumped weight back on my body, and my ankles are slipping (The Bodily Pain Carousel returns!)  “Oh well,” I think, as I eat more M&Ms.

Near the end of the day I pass a great campsite at the very end of Lyell Canyon and almost stop.  Instead, I decide to continue on and begin walking up the approach to Donahue Pass, my first real mountain pass.  The decision was a poor one as I quickly realize I’m not in the mood for walking uphill.  Too lazy to backtrack I find a big campsite just a little ways off the trail.  Its big enough for probably 20 tents, but I’m the only one here and I feel like I’m at some abandoned amusement park for some reason.  Its eerie seeing so much space set aside for people, yet seeing no people occupying that space.

I sit on a rocky ledge and eat my dinner.  The mountains opposite me are still bathed in light.  My side has been thrown into an early evening.  I watch the shadow creep over the trees, moving up the mountain.  The light getting smaller and smaller.   Beneath me I can still hear the Lyell Forks River, gorged on all the freshly fallen rain.  I crawl into my tent as the last of the light shuts off.

One thought on “The Glory of Lyell Canyon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s