Tuolumne to South Lake Tahoe: Pushing it

Hi All! So we’ve been back in Cape Town for awhile now and clearly we didn’t finish our blog, as we got further up the trail we found we couldn’t get online as much, and it fell to the wayside. So here’s us trying to remember all the amazing experiences we had and living through the memory of it all. Click here to recap on where we left off.

We woke up the next morning in Tuolomne as cars started streaming in. It was the first day that the campground was open, so we hurriedly packed up and went to the Tuolomne Meadows PO, store and cafe down the road. Not really a cafe, and pretty average food, but we all enjoyed the coffee and ate heartily using the employee discount that Niko’s friend got through working at a nearby Lodge. After picking up our resupply and buying a few odds and ends from the shop, we went over to the lodge to take a much wanted/needed shower to freshen up before heading off into the wild once again. After many tough days in the high Sierras, we were excited at the prospect of being done with that and moving north towards Northern California. Niko told us that the end of the Sierras is considered to be Sonora Pass, only a few days away. As much as we love the Sierras, it can be very grueling in many ways.

Niko and Liane dropped us off at the trail head at midday and we set off on a very well walked path towards the Glen Aulin Campground. This is a campground seen as ‘glamping‘ in the eyes of a PCT hiker, and is only a handful of miles hike from Tuolomne. Some tourists see this as such a long hike in to the wild and camp there for a night, it made us chuckle. On the way there, we passed two stock parties, each with about five horses bring in supplies to the campground. As soon as you pass the trail head to Glen Aulin, the path immediately narrows to half the width, back to PCT size. The trail was beautiful though! We crossed the Tuolomne river, walked by many stunning waterfalls and interesting rock formations. I now understand the love for Yosemite, pity we couldn’t explore the valley.

After about an hour of uphill the trail flattened and we started walking in the meadows. Very pretty but we quickly discovered that we don’t like such meadows. We were swarmed/attacked/mobbed by mosquitoes! This was the first time we really encountered them, especially in such a swarm. If you stopped hiking for just a second, you were engulfed by hundreds of them. We passed a few hikers with varying degrees of tolerance to them, some handling it like a boss, unlike us. We eventually got out of the meadows as we climbed up another 1000 ft to a place we were hoping to camp, ‘Reject’ told us that according to Guthook there was a small campsite right at the top of the hill so we decided to go there and hope for the best. We got to the trail junction at the top of the hill and looked around for a spot, we settled on a flat-ish sandy area, with a gorgeous view of the valley and mountains we would hike the next day. We made camp, and got in our tent and found that it was so hot lying in our tent because the sun was shinning straight into our tent. We didn’t care, being hot was way better than being eaten by mosquitoes. And because we had a tiny campsite, we had a very quiet night (we love these).

Next morning we set off down a steep hill, not so easy on morning legs, and found a ford to cross and quickly found out there were 2 separate fords. We looked up and down stream for a possible crossing but unfortunately you can’t always be so privileged and so we took off our shoes and socks and walked through freezing water in the icy cold of the morning. This certainly forces one to wake up faster than one hopes to in the morning. You think of how back home you would wake up slowly, maybe have a shower, have breakfast and a cup of coffee and half an hour later you feel ready for the day, well, not in the PCT life. It’s wake up, pack up, and start walking. Oh and then maybe 5km’s on we’ll stop for breakfast, but no coffee. Today was filled with probably the most stream crossings we have ever had to do! It seemed like they’d never end, we found ourselves constantly taking our shoes off and putting them on, feeling determined to keep them relatively dry. It was a very hot day, and so the water was refreshing, it was just more about how long it seemed to take. Around lunch time we met up with one of the through-hiking families we had heard about earlier on. I can’t remember their names but it was a mom, dad and their 13 year old daughter and they seemed like such a breath of fresh air. Very different to your average hiker, they were so friendly, funny and the daughter spoke to me with such tenacity. We had Benson pass to do after lunch, which was a long uphill slog in the heat of the day, came to a large snow field, and got ‘lost’, but it’s pretty easy to get back on track when you’re aiming for the lowest point between 2 peaks. Once at the top of the pass, we had a break with the family as they had their lunch and we continued on as quick as we could as we knew there weren’t many campsites due to the large amounts of snow and water on the trail. Once on the other side of Benson pass the snow seemed to disappear for a while, but not for long, we quickly walked back into small snow fields, and tried to dodge large amounts of water from the snow melt. We passed a lake where the family had planned on camping, and it was so full the water had risen to the height of the path and it became impossible to keep our shoes dry. I wondered where this family was going to find a campsite, it just seemed so water logged. We left them behind to figure it out as we hurried on to find a campsite. Our friend Niko had suggested we get to Benson lake, which wasn’t too far away from where we were. But the worst was yet to come.

We started climbing up a small hill and out of nowhere we found ourselves in a huge snow field. The snow was so deep, and soft, causing us to post hole like nobody’s business. I was feeling so frustrated, I thought the worst of the snow was over in the high Sierras but I was mistaken. I was quickly starting to hate the snow. I was so tired of it. Steve was leading us up this random steep hill, losing our way a few times. We lost each other at one point, but managed to find each other on top of the hill. Then came the frustrating downhill. This was one of the hardest few miles for me, both physically and mentally. The buttress that we had just gone up and around was in so much shade by the large mountains and the narrow gorge we were coming down helped make the snow deep, which made it quite steep. The combination of deep steep snow, and Steve trying to hurry us up as we had limited daylight hours to get to our campsite made for a very stressful and emotionally painful experience. I was crying and walking, trying my best to see through my blurry tear-filled eyes. I had no option but to just keep going, and that’s just what I did. We got through it. We made it. Until we came to yet another ford to cross. This one looked scary. There was a lot of water coming from many tributaries and flowing through quite a narrow space, so it was deep and had plenty of white-water rapids. The hot days make for very rapid snow melt, causing raging rivers in the afternoon and early evening. We braced ourselves and made our way very carefully across, Steve looked back at me, watching with a worried eye and made sure I crossed, encouraging me along the way. At this stage the sun had gone behind the mountains, it was getting dark and we still had a little while to go, but we were so exhausted. Little did we know it was not the end of our ford crossing for the day. We got to another river, which turned out to be a set of a few rivers that we needed to cross, one being 30m wide and the other coming up to our thighs. We finally got to the trail head that led to Benson lake, only to discover that the trail was a mini-river, a few feet deep in places! So much water everywhere! I really hope there will be enough dry ground for us at this lake I thought. We ended up taking our shoes off, putting our flip-flops on and wading through the water looking for signs of dry ground. Finally we found a dry spot right on the edge of the swollen lake, and had to put our tent up in the dark with hundreds of mosquitoes looming around us. We had just enough energy to make supper and fell asleep instantly after eating.

The next few days were not as difficult. What did make it tough was the heat and the elevation profile. It was constantly going up 1000-2000 ft, then descending about the same, only to go up again. We got through 2 to 3 of these climbs a day, occasionally finding snow fields at the top and crossing fords at the bottom. We made it to Wilma lake where we were again engulfed by mozzies, but we enjoyed the tranquil setting and the warm evening. The next day we made our way through many of those ‘pretty’ meadows filled with lovely mosquitoes, while trying to avoid all the mud and water on and around the trail. Sometimes we felt as though we were in a computer game, find a way to dodge the next watery section and you get 10 points, slip and land into mud or water you lose 5 points. We made camp just a few miles from Sonora Pass, excited to get over it and be done with the Sierras. The next morning we woke up early and started uphill towards the last big pass of our hike. We found a lot of snow, and quickly decided to put on our micro spikes on, and started climbing up steep snow which was luckily icy and easy to grip on. We got to the top of the first false horizon, following a ridge towards our most favorite glissade of the whole trip. It was exhilarating as we sped down a steep snowy slope. Then came another false horizon, we both thought we got to the end of the pass, and even took a celebratory selfie. But again, we descended a little and started up another hill. I remember thinking when it would be over. Finally we got to the top, the end, and decided to have lunch before going down. The descent of Sonora pass was one of the hardest we did, and every other hiker we spoke to all agreed, a few hikers actually fell and hurt themselves on the ice. It was a scary experience because of the snow. There was still a lot of it, and areas where it was very steep and rocky, it was very easy to slip and fall while traversing downhill on slushy snow. But once we passed a certain point, we got to glissade the rest of the way down, which I was so grateful for. We passed a road where we wanted to hitch to a town to resupply, and met a cute couple who gave us a lift to Northern Kennedy Meadows. I forgot to mention while on this section we passed the 1000 mile mark!! Wow what a feeling, such an achievement, only another 1650 to go!

Northern Kennedy Meadows is a small resort and campground with a stall store and we quickly ordered a burger and chips for lunch! We managed to resupply at the tiny store, and hitched back tot he trail head. At this point in time we were running low on motivation as we were in such a hurry to get to South Lake Tahoe in time for our flight to the UK. All we really needed was a break, which we didn’t have time for, so we ended up feeling emotionally drained and so sick of hiking. The next few days flew by because they were a lot easier. We saw less snow and the trail was less ‘climby’. One thing that was really apparent was the change in the landscape. It was now much more open, the rocks were changing, and had large finger-like projections. It was just under 100 miles to go, and we pushed hard to get there, doing bigger mile days. We stopped in a tiny town called Markleeville as we needed WiFi to book some travel things, and quickly got back on trail. The next few days were really hot. And finally, we got sight of South Lake Tahoe and made our way into town. We felt very accomplished and ready to get off trail and see our family. We found an amazing couple who offered their garden for us to sleep in, and we enjoyed the luxuries of town life, while the wife cooked us wonderful home-made dinner. We also got the special treat of seeing Steve’s cousin Stuart for about an hour, before we started the long trek to the UK. It was so nice to see a familiar face after such a long time of only seeing strangers. On route to the UK, we had a bus ride to Sacramento (and a hotel stay), a train ride to Oakland, a flight to Gatwick London, a bus to Glasgow, a train into the highlands and an taxi to our BnB. By that time we were exhausted of traveling, but excited to see our family and enjoy a less stressful walk in the Scottish highlands, with luxury accommodation and pub dinners. It felt like we were about to do a really long, pretty decent, and fun pub crawl.

One Comments

  • Daddyo

    November 29, 2016

    This was quite a tough section, having to push the miles! What an achievement to reach South Lake Tahoe in time. Many thanks for updating your story.

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