Day 7: Lyell Canyon (Kuna Creek) to Tuolumne Meadows
With the clouds now gone and only blue sky above, the night cooled appreciable. This cooling wasn’t too noticeable when we were cocooned in our tents under the trees, but it sure was when we emerged for an early morning walk in the frost covered meadow. 🥶 But it was going to be a fully sunny day! And we only had 9.6 miles (15.6 km) of essentially flat hiking ahead to Tuolumne Meadows! 😃
I climbed Mount Lyell (13,114 feet / 3,997 m) in July of 1983 with Sam and Tom but, frankly, I don’t remember much about the approach. We’d had breakfast at the Tuolumne Lodge (even dirtbag climbers were served!) and then swiftly hiked up the John Muir Trail (JMT) to camp near the footbridge at the head of the canyon.
Early the next morning, it was only 3,300 feet (1,005 m) of climbing over boulder fields and a sastrugi-strewn glacier to the summit! Only! Somehow, zooming up such elevation gains wasn’t something that much registered with me in those days. We just did it. Ah, youth! In 1983, we too camped near Kuna Creek on our way out – thus unknowingly setting-up for a déjà vu moment some 40 years in the future. 😏
What struck me about these old photos was how much snow there was in the High Sierra in July in those days. This was before the current mega-drought (or climate change) started to bite and back then we could often climb on some snow into August. It was sad to see that the Lyell Glacier is now much smaller than it was back in the day – but that’s now true of a lot of the world’s glaciers. 😢
Because we were short two people, and thus had extra food, KK had been bestowing backpackers with trail magic in the form of fresh cooked breakfast and lunch items – her signature breakfast burritos were a favorite – as the pack string moved along the trail. Even the hardiest backpacker was willing to skip another meal of Ramen and oatmeal in favor of a fistful of burrito deliciousness. 😋 As were we. Thus stuffed with KK’s breakfast burritos, we lit out for Tuolumne Meadows.
One last navigation challenge confronted us. There are two horse corrals in Tuolumne Meadows: one near the ranger station and another, farther away, on the west side of Lembert Dome (climbed with Ken Stanton in 1973 – we came down to find that Nixon had resigned). We had been told to “meet at the corral” but without specifying which one.
We soon found that the one near the ranger station was for the Park Service and we needed to be at the other one – which houses the pack animals used by the concessionaire to supply the High Sierra Camps (or will, if these camps ever reopen). So more walking ensued. Thanks to road construction, we missed the trail on the other side of Highway 120 and just walked up the new road to the corral.
And thus ended our Reds Meadow to Tuolumne Meadows mule-supported hiking trip. Almost 40 miles (64 km) of walking, with 6,200 feet (1,890 m) of gain, spread over 7 days. Steady – not necessarily fast – progress was our goal and we did that. So, despite the weather 🌧 and some navigational issues, it was a very good trip – more so because there was no appreciable wildfire smoke this time. Jacob and KK were superb! KK’s meals were fantastic, even when eaten standing-up under a rain-sodden tarp! 😋
Will we do another such trip? We love seeing the wranglers work with the horses and mules. And we’re fascinated by the history of packing in the Sierra Nevada. And we’re cognizant of the important role it’s played (and still plays) in trail maintenance, fire suppression, and emergency rescues. And then there’s just a certain romance about traveling with pack animals in the high country. Which are all reasons we did the this pack trip and the one in 2020.
But, that said, likely not again. These trips are pretty spendy (more so than a raft trip) and there are other things we’d like to do with our time and money. And, for me at least, maybe the moment has finally arrived to say good-bye to the peaks, ridges, and valleys of the Range of Light. I’ll always cherish and revisit the many memories that accumulated during the half century I spent exploring this magnificent terrain. But perhaps it’s time to move on, explore different areas of the country and the world, see and experience new things. While that’s still possible…
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead.
Beryl Markham (West with the Night)