After four years of drought here in Central California, we finally have a decent snow pack. Could it be possible that part of the John Muir Trail over Cathedral Pass in Yosemite National Park was open?
On June 6, joining my hiking partners Fred Cochran and Clem Bingham, we decided to drive to Tuolumne Meadows off Tioga Pass Road, ready to attempt the 21-mile adventure from Cathedral Lakes Trailhead to Happy Isles at the Yosemite Valley floor.
At 8:30 a.m., June 7, we arrived at the Cathedral Pass Trailhead. Temperatures were unseasonably warm around 55 degrees. This could be a good sign for favorable snow conditions, but the first hour of hiking we had minimal snow on the trail. As we increased in elevation, however, small patches were forming along our pathway.
After three hours those small patches became larger mounds, caused by the combination of sunlight and shade. We were faced with climbing over mounds of snow up to four feet in height.
After eight hours of forging our way, we arrived at upper Cathedral Lake (9,600 feet). Luckily for us, at this elevation we found a bare spot to set up our campsite. Most of the area had snow depths of four feet or more. To explain the atmosphere of this location, it’s like sleeping in a refrigerator.
On a positive note, the surrounding landscape was beautiful. Upper Cathedral Lake was frozen and created a mist rising from the ice followed by the reflection of the sunset. In the background was Cathedral Pass, our destination for tomorrow. To the east was Cathedral Peak, all 10,940 feet first climbed by John Muir in 1869. Sharing this lofty location is Eichorn Pinnacle named after Jules Eichorn, the first person to climb the spire on July 24, 1931. Glen Dawson was his climbing partner on that date.
More snow the following morning as we forged our way across the pass. Our early morning departure was to our advantage, the snow surface was frozen from the night before which made our trekking easier. Looking across the snow-covered saddle ahead of us was this figure of a man next to a cluster of trees. As we approached he introduced himself as Chuck from Wisconsin on a hiking adventure with his family.
From the shadows out stepped five other adults and three children. They had spent the night clustered within the protection of the trees. They were all in great spirits and looking forward to completing this same adventure. We spoke with them the following evening and they thanked us for forging a trail for them to follow.
Next we passed Columbia Finger which is the tallest mountain west of our trail. It identifies the final ridge to cross before starting our descent to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. We’ll drop down slightly along a meadow before arriving at the west side. Above this meadow, concealed by trees is this camping area for those hiking the John Muir Trail.
From this point, the trail follows Sunrise Creek as it descends into Little Yosemite Valley. Before searching for our next camp, we’ll have to locate the beginning of a series of switchback trails that follow the creek. Between the fallen trees and remaining snow, we had a difficult time locating this trail. After some trial and error we managed to find its location behind a cluster of fallen trees. Our second campsite’s location was along the creek around four miles from Little Yosemite Valley.
We broke camp the next morning and after 30 minutes on the trail, we thankfully said goodbye to all that snow. This trail now rambles along a ridge line and skirts through two miles of burnt trees - the remains of a lightning strike from two years ago. Beyond the ridge and to the west is the Clark Mountain Range. We’ll follow this range while dropping in elevation through Long Meadow. Guess what? There was more snow through this open area following the creek. Once crossing the creek the trail would lead us into Little Yosemite Valley for our last campsite.
On our final day we’ll descend the five-mile trek along the Mist Trail that passes Nevada Falls, Vernal Falls and follows the Merced River to the Happy Isle Trailhead. This completes our 21-mile hike which took us an extra day forging through snow at the higher elevations. Our only disappointment was not having the time to climb Mount Broderick at 6,706 feet which is located next to Liberty Cap. Now there’s another reason to hike back into Little Yosemite Valley to complete this adventure.