My emotional fugue state from the previous night carried over, and I spent some pensive time by the river in the morning just thinking, attempting to wrap my head around the end of this thing that had been a dream, an impossibility, for so long. Hopper and I also found ourselves stuck-- the winds had conspired and we'd awoken to heavy condensation inside our tents. So, we'd wait a few hours for the sun to come up enough to dry the tents, and then get on the trail again. All told, we spent about 3 hours from waking up to leaving-- much, much longer than the usual < 1 hour. But it was a pleasant reprieve-- we chatted, took our time to organize food a bit more than usual, did what we could to zest up breakfast. Other hikers started to walk past us on the trail, asking about bear news, or what our plans were. I was just amazed the the absurdity of it all: how did I get here? The middle of nowhere, and somehow nowhere I'd rather be. The smoke still lay heavy over the valley, but in time the sun poked through, and we got underway.
A last glance back north before rounding the bend to Tuolumne
The first six miles of the day were the easiest, most pleasant walking of the entire JMT. With a net elevation change of under -300' over the six miles, and a gross not much worse, we absolutely flew, chatting, watching the tone of the smoky sky shift from a blue to an orange to something approaching clear. Lyell Canyon remained as enchanting, in its own way, as the day before; the trail wound along the river, sometimes bending into the trees for a moment, other times taking us right out to the water's edge. It couldn't have taken us longer than 2 hours after setting out to the see the bridges, tourists, and signage marking Tuolumne on the horizon.
Looking toward Tioga Pass from the eastern edge of Tuolumne Meadows
The Lyell fork enters Tuolumne Meadows as a steady, peaceful flow that every now and again breaks out onto a granite slab, flowing wide, swift, and a shallow, before again collecting itself. By the end of the meadow proper, the Lyell and Dana forks have fully combined, empowering the Tuolumne River on its flow through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, some 15 miles north and 4000' vertical feet down. My trip through the GCT in the summer of the same year was made memorable by the rampant, almost raging flow of the river as it tossed over waterfall after waterfall on its way down, as well as the life-saving cooling the calmer sections provided from the 90+ degree heat. It was odd to think that the little Lyell Fork that I'd seen grow from its headwaters at the southern Cathedral Range glaciers would turn into that.
Lembert Dome over late-summer meadow colors
Tuolumne was also the end of my time hiking with Hopper-- his PCT route would take him much, much further north, while the JMT loops back south toward Yosemite Valley. I'd first seen him the day I summited Whitney; we'd briefly waved as I sheltered from the noon sun under a boulder, and started leapfrogging later the same day. I thought I'd lost him for good when I went over Forester around 5:30 pm; he'd end up crossing closer to 6:30 (absolute madman). Since reconvening atop Glen, we'd spent the majority of the last 170 miles together. And I couldn't recommend a better hiking partner. I'm not sure I've met a kinder, more empathetic, and certainly not more interesting person out on trail. Hopper, if you're reading this, thanks for everything, man! You can also check out his youtube channel for world-travel content here. We toasted with the natural fizzy water from Soda Springs and went our separate ways.
Having covered the portion of trail in Hopper's immediate future, and having been unimpressed, I didn't expect mine to be anything special either. So, I was unprepared for the rest of the day to be perhaps the most gorgeous section of trail of the trip.
The Cathedral Pass area was breathtaking despite (or aided by?) the smoke
With the smoke, golden hour extended from 3:00 to sunset, the entire landscape awash in color and warmth. Again, the miles came easy, and the only thing slowing me was the urge to capture as much of it as I could, in my camera and in my memory. Cathedral Pass, like Island, is a bit of a misnomer. It lacks the prominence (to use the peak definition) to seem like a pass, though it may be significantly more clear SOBO (cosmically, not locally) since it marks the end of the 4000' climb out of Yosemite Valley. Much to my surprise, I encountered nearly nobody on this stretch of trail. Maybe everyone had made camp already, or it was the low trail population due to COVID travel restrictions, but I had the trail to myself. The only question was which lake(s) to stop and swim in. With how late the day had gotten, I'd rather swim sooner and night hike if need be-- but the smarter decision was to push through to Sunset Lakes, set up camp, and then swim, albeit more briefly. Unfortunately for my swimming aspirations, logic prevailed, and I pushed on.
The section of trail near Sunrise High Sierra Camp (above) was beautiful. The camp itself is built against the slope of a hill, overlooking a beautiful, massive, meadow. The construction is unobtrusive and it provides a lovely opportunity to get into the backcountry without carrying gear. If you're not sure if backpacking is for you, look into a High Sierra Camp! I've been past Tuolumne, Glen Aulin, and Sunrise, and never once thought "wow, that doesn't look like fun". Vogelsang is also on the immediate to-do list, I've heard incredible things from PCTers, day hikers, rangers, and folks on intermediate trips (me!).
I started getting some hot spots on one foot, and unwisely decided to finish the last 2 miles to camp instead of taking a 3 second break to fix it. I found a wonderful camping spot with a smoky view, and dropped my bag as quickly as possible. I still may not have gotten a blister had I not then run in mostly-untied shoes around the entire lake to the sunlit section, but the past is the past! I was still able to get a good amount of swimming in by the time the sun started to set, and maybe that's all that matters.
One happy bb!
I now had to reconcile that this night would be my last night on the trail. I had a short day tomorrow, and this would be my last time setting up camp, cooking dinner-- it's incredibly easy to get caught up in things like this. Post-trail depression is real, and if you're unlucky, or not careful, it can start to sink in on-trail. I took the time to re-focus on enjoying the remaining time I had, and watched a stunning sunset over Olmsted Point and Tenaya Canyon, eating some phenomenal crab curry (compliments to the chef). As per usual, I forgot to take any pictures until the event was nearly over-- but I've got it where it counts. And against all odds, I felt ready for my last day.
Stats for the day:
+2400' / -1800'