Water, water everywhere! Navigating the Sierra from Mammoth to Sonora Pass (July 2023)
In September of 2020, I flew to Fresno eager for my first real backpacking trip, a weeklong trip through the Yosemite Wilderness. The night before starting, a wildfire broke out at my starting trailhead. The Creek fire spread quickly and became the 5th largest wildfire in California State history, burning 380,000 acres throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains. I evacuated on a 5:00 AM flight to Salt Lake City the next morning. I wondered when I would ever return to Yosemite as I watched the wildfire smoke from the plane window. A fire was lit inside me in that moment – one that needed adventure and connection to nature. Until now, I never returned to the Yosemite area, but I dreamed of it often.
Which brings me to now! The PCT crosses through 70 miles of Yosemite wilderness… I was finally getting to see the Yosemite that I dreamt about! Well… kinda. Due to the high snow year, this stretch of trail was in bit of a chaotic state due to high water levels from the snow melt. Rivers turned meadows into lakes, drowned bridges, and made the trail almost swimmable in areas. I was excited and intimidated. It seemed fitting that I would see Yosemite in a rare form. Over the next few days, I saw a pure and intense side of this land that I will be forever grateful for experiencing.
July 3 / PCT DAY 64 / Sierra Day 21 – Back to Trail!
4 Mile Road Walk: Mammoth Ski Resort to Agnew Meadows (Mile 916.1)
“The sun cups out there have been on the news! I don’t know if you guys know that…” A man said to us on the bus to Mammoth Ski Village. We, of course, had not been watching the news but laughed as we had experienced these (apparently, infamous) sun cups in our last section of trail. After our quick resupply, I felt more prepared to re-enter the snowy Sierra than last time (however, I don’t know if that was saying much…). It was time to enter the Yosemite section, famous this year for its high, fast moving water crossings.
As we walked through Mammoth Ski Village’s Fourth of July festivities to reach the beginning of our 4 mile road walk back to trail, I tripped and fell in the dirt. Heads turned from the festivities to me. People nearby looked worried and asked if I was okay. I laughed. “Oh I am fine!! I am a PCTer! I fall like this all the time!” I laughed and said as I got back up to my feet. “Just normally, no one is there to watch me when I fall…” I thought to myself. Ready or not, it was time to get back on trail and get back to the snow (I can’t believe I am really typing that) where I could fall in peace.
July 4 / PCT DAY 65 / Sierra Day 22 – Thousand Islands Lake
8 Miles: Agnew Meadows (Mile 916.1) to Thousand Islands Lake (Mile 924.1)
We woke up and tackled a dry trail climb under the light of the full moon. Dry trail? A full moon? This section was off to a strong start. I never needed an excuse to celebrate something on trail. When Taut mentioned that we were approaching Thousand Islands Lakes, one of his favorite places, we decided to give ourselves a Fourth of July holiday! We hiked a short, 8-mile, day so we could camp near the lake.
In my mind, I pictured a crowded lake side campsite with weekend backpackers feasting on Fourth of July food. In reality, we didn’t see any other hikers as we set up camp near the lake mid day. We had Thousand Islands Lake entirely to ourselves, on Fourth of July Weekend… how crazy is that? It felt even more isolating (in a good way) to know that we were just 8 miles away from Mammoth, which was jam packed with people enjoying the holiday weekend.
What does a thru hiker do on an unexpected holiday celebration? Sleep! We all enjoyed a quiet afternoon and evening to soak in the views of Mount Banner and Thousand Islands Lake. I even started to feel a little antsy to get hiking, which I took as a good sign.
July 5 / PCT DAY 66 / Sierra Day 23 – Entering Yosemite Wilderness
19 Miles: Thousand Islands Lake (Mile 924.1) to Tuolumne Meadows Stealth Camp (Mile 943.1)
I woke up feeling well rested from our on trail holiday and motivated since we were one pass away from entering Yosemite! The stars were bright and the moon was high in the sky as we began to hike. We stopped and took in the sun rise before starting the approach to Donahue Pass. As we hiked on, the sun cups became comical in size. I hiked in the alley of the sun cup lines, afraid if I hiked on the tops of the sun cups, I would hurt myself when I would inevitably fall.
When we reached the top of Donahue Pass, we had officially entered the Yosemite Wilderness Boundary. It didn’t look like Yosemite yet, and I was eager to get down into the valley below to experience some Yosemite views for the first time.
“Forget high Sierra passes, maybe I’m a Meadow girl!!” I said as we hiked along the flat, grassy, and slightly flooded meadow. This was our first meadow that was not full of sun cups, slushy snow, or post holing. I soaked it in as I trotted down the trail. The Tuolumne river ran next to the trail in shades of turquoise and sky blue so clear that I could see straight to the bottom. I already noticed how high the water levels were, sometime spilling onto the trail. This was a tomorrow problem. For now, I was happy as could be splashing around in the meadow all the way to camp.
July 6 / PCT DAY 67 / Sierra Day 24 – Yosemite Tour and River Crossings
16.6 Miles: Stealth Camp (Mile 943.1) to Campsite after Spiller Creek (Mile 958.7)
I woke up excited for a morning filled with Yosemite attractions! “It’s Yosemite Tour day!!!” I shouted as we walked through Tuolumne Meadows at sunrise, staring at the domes on the horizon. I filled my water bottle up at the natural soda spring, walked along the Tuolumne River, saw Tuolumne Falls, tried to identify the different dome shaped mountains, and called everything El Capitan and Half Dome (which we do NOT see from the PCT, but it was fun to pretend!) along the way.
Water raged around us all day. Being in a National Park brought the luxury of many bridges over bigger rivers, but we often found ourselves fording waist deep water just to get up onto a bridge. And here I was… thinking that the bridges were supposed to keep me dry?! I thought back to many conversations with other hikers on how they were skipping the Sierra section due to the intense water crossings. And here I was. It was time to be smart and not cut any corners to cross these rivers.
We had three major river crossings ahead of us today – McCabe Creek (mile 957.2), Return Creek (mile 957.4), and Spiller Creek (mile 958.5). Each of us forded McCabe Creek successfully before looking for a safe place to cross the nearby Return Creek.
Taut stepped into the river to trial out a crossing location and looked focused. Deemed our river expert, Taut normally crossed rivers quickly and with ease, but this one seemed different. I could tell he was wedging his feet in between rocks to help stabilze him as he fought the strong current. He made it to the other side and looked at us with a serious face. “That was just about my limit… I think we need to look for a safer crossing for you guys.” We hiked up stream, Taut following us on the other side of the river. Each time someone found a spot in the river that looked promising, we’d gather around and evaluate the route. Taut would often hold up his trekking poles in a big ‘X’ formation if the crossing didn’t look possible from his side since talking over the river was difficult. I felt thankful for my team’s unity, dedication, and teamwork that enabled us to eventually cross this river safely.
After crossing all three rivers, we found the nearest camp. River crossings take WAY more time than I expected, and we fell short of today’s mileage goal. It was time to adjust our expectations for mileage on this section. It seemed that one river crossing could cost us 10 minutes or 2 hours, and we would need to adjust our days accordingly.
July 7 / PCT DAY 68 / Sierra Day 25 – Benson Lake Swim
15.4 Miles: Campsite after Spiller Creek (Mile 958.7) to Campsite with Volunteer Peak View (Mile 974.1)
I woke up with dread and a healthy appreciation of how many days I had woken up at 2:15 AM for impending snow walking. Was it too soon to start the Sierra countdown? “I just want to get to Tahoe safely.” I would think to myself throughout the days’ obstacles. I was still mentally tired from our water crossings the previous day and felt a little defeated for not making it to our intended camp.
I put on my damp socks and very wet shoes. I grimaced through it, but it really didn’t matter since I’d probably have to walk through water early this morning anyway, which would create the same outcome. We conquered quite a few river crossings and snowy sections on the ascent of Benson Pass before earning a dry few miles down to camp.
“Should we try to camp on the Benson Lake beach??” the group debated. We decided that hiking the extra 0.4 miles to the lake would be a welcome treat. After our last tricky water crossing of the day, we took the blue blaze over to Benson Lake to go swimming and camp on the beach. Best laid plans… I guess we did go swimming, but only because the trail had become Benson Lake. Needless to say, after a good laugh, we hiked (waded?) back to the PCT to find a dry campsite instead.
I went on an off trail adventure atop a nearby meadow to find a campsite with a view to replace our lake side dreams. I stood in awe at the view that revealed itself just off trail. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening drying out and relaxing among the wildflowers and old oak tree.
July 8 / PCT DAY 69 / Sierra Day 26 – Rancheria Creek Traverse
14.5 Miles: Campsite with Volunteer Peak View (Mile 974.1) to Camp before Falls Creek (Mile 988.6)
I started hiking in the dark with Taut, Detour, and Spud as normal. As we near the top of the climb, I stopped and stared at the lake near trail, barely illuminated in my headlamp. Every day, in the snowy Sierra, I saw something breathtakingly beautiful. But sometimes, I wondered what I was missing while hiking between 3AM and sunrise. I attempted a photo of the lake in the dark and continued hiking.
We reached the top of the climb around sunrise, and I saw the light shine over the Yosemite Wilderness. It struck all of us, in that moment, that we had Yosemite National Park all to ourselves. “Yeah, I may miss a few alpine lake views as I hike in the wee hours of the morning…” I thought to myself. “But who gets Yosemite (!) to themselves!” Moments and realizations like those reminded me why I was out here, hiking the Sierra in a 300% snow year.
The decent from the pass seemed unassuming. I quickly realized we were on a 45 degree slope over the raging Ranchita Creek. I planted my ice axe with every step, digging my spikes into the icy snow. I kicked a small branch out of my foot path and watched as it fall further and further down the slope, almost into the water. I tried not to think about what would happen if I lost my footing and fell on this slope. It was time to focus… we were going to be traversing this high angle slope until we could find a safe place to cross the river below. Eventually, I heard Taut, “Snow Bridge! Let’s Go!!”. I carefully made my way down to the water to see a massive Avalanche Bridge (a giant snow bridge that is formed by avalanche debris). In that moment, I was sure that this avalanche bridge was the prettiest thing I had seen in the entire Sierra.
We crossed the Avalanche Bridge then had the sobering realization that we were rock climbing back to trail. By the time we neared our campsite, it had been a long, slow day of off trail adventures. The area near our campsite was flooded by a nearby lake, and we slushed our way through the trail. Spud ran over to a pond and jumped onto an island of snow. “Land Ho!!” he shouted as he used his trekking poles to move his “boat” to the other side of the pond. I felt thankful for the lighthearted laugh (and innovation!) after an intense day.
July 9 / PCT DAY 70 / Sierra Day 27 – Mile 1000!
15.4 Miles: Camp before Falls Creek (Mile 988.6) to Campsite (Mile 1004)
About 5 minutes into the day, I fell into a snow hole and hit my knee on a large rock underneath the snow. I now had a second knee-looking protrusion just below my knee and it hurt. Badly. Stopping was not really an option. We were 20 miles and many river crossings away from our nearest exit. This morning we needed to hike upstream of Falls Creek to find a safe crossing. Hiking upstream required us to cross Tilden Creek, a bonus, 5 branch river that was supposedly “rock hop-able”. We hiked off trail, for about 3 miles to reach Tilden Creek. I could hear the river long before I could see it. It certainly did not look “rock hop-able”.
I knew that this creek was crossable, I had crossed worse, but I didn’t want to. I was exhausted. My knee ached. We were just 1 day from Sonora Pass, and I was, well, kinda over the Sierra’s obstacles. I crossed the first branch in time to see Taut scouting our route for the second branch. He hopped on a log and crossed over the whitewater very slowly. Detour followed suit, slow and steady. I had never seen Taut and Detour cross a log so slowly and carefully, which made me nervous. Detour hollered across the river, “It’s a little icy, I would put on your microspikes!” The combination of pain in my knee and being fed up with the Sierra caused me to unravel. I started sobbing as I strapped on my microspikes, and I didn’t stop sobbing until I had successfully crossed all 5 branches of the creek.
“I’m okay, I’m okay.” I said through tears when I rejoined the guys on the other side of Tilden Creek. “I’m just in pain and, honestly, pissed off. This was supposed to be the easiest part of our day.”
“You know it’s okay to not be okay?” Taut replied. “We all know that you are still gonna get through it.” My trail family held confidence in me that I had lost, and I was truly thankful. Later that day, I hiked over the last pass of the Sierra and hit PCT mile 1,000. This morning was a reminder that it wasn’t easy, and I was proud of myself.
July 10 / PCT DAY 71 / Sierra Day 28 – We made it!
14.1 Miles: Campsite (Mile 1004) to Kennedy Meadows North (Mile 1018.1)
“ONLY TWO MORE MILES OF THIS BULLSHIT!” I screamed at the top of a large snowy traverse on the decent to Sonora Pass. Two miles. I had dreamt of seeing that green Sonora Pass highway sign during the lowest moments of my hike through the Sierra. Earlier this morning, we enjoyed a snow free ridge walk, and I naively thought that I would enjoy a fully snow free decent down to my finish line. It was not going to be an easy, snow-free decent, nor should it have been… I was going to have to earn this one.
I walked, boot skied, and glissaded down to the road where I finally saw the green highway sign that I had dreamt about over the last month. Sonora Pass. After a little disorientation, celebration, and a team photo, we got a hitch to Kennedy Meadows North for a celebratory burger, beer, and bed (the triple B!) for the night.
“You know…” Spud said as he slid a beer over to me at the picnic table behind the Kennedy Meadows North Resort. “I think you were the most scared out of all of us throughout the Sierra…”
“Yeah. I was scared every day.” I looked at him and replied seriously. “Well… I think that make you the most brave too.” he replied. I smiled.
28 days ago I started repeating the mantra “I am brave. I am strong. I am capable.” any time that I was scared or unsure of myself (which happened a lot out there). As I sat in Kennedy Meadows North reflecting on the past 300+ miles of snow and river crossings, I really did believe it.
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