Stepping Into The Wilderness…
Today was a momentous day for both of us. After two and a half years of planning (and almost the same amount of time for Wayne to convince me to say ‘yes’), we finally set foot on the John Muir Trail.
The trail, more popularly known as ‘The JMT’, starts from Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park. It then takes you through 211 miles of wilderness across California’s Sierra Nevada and ends at Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.
It will be our longest and most challenging thru-hike to date. Not because of the distance or elevation gain – but because of ‘bears’.
The adventure starts… Setting off from Happy Isles trailhead in Yosemite National Park.
Day 1 – Happy Isles to Sunrise Creek (12.4 miles) – Friday 29th August 2014 – ‘Becoming Bear Aware’
In large contrast with the hikes we’ve completed across England, where the most dangerous animal we’ve come across is a bull in a field, in the USA it’s a lot different. With each step, with each wild camp, we have to be vigilant about wildlife, particularly the presence of bears, which adds another complexity to the trail, as well as extra weight to carry in the form of a bear proof canister.
A typical information board with food storage regulations.
In this part of the USA, for overnight trips, it’s mandatory to carry all food stuffs, in fact anything with a scent, (such as toothpaste, soap, medication) inside a bear proof container. The container must then be kept inside a bear proof locker at designated campsites or at least 50 feet away from your tent when camping in the back country.
We purchased ‘Bear Vault’ canisters for storing our food rations.
Being out here, and kind of ‘adventurous’, we’re really hoping that we do get to see a bear – but out there in the wild, minding it’s own business, not scavenging for food around our campsite!
We hope this isn’t the only bear that we get to see!
When staying in the Backpackers Camp in Yosemite before setting off, it was slightly unsettling knowing that there are bears out there! We had a night of tossing and turning, listening to every sound outside our tent. But it’s just something we’ll have to get used to. Despite our concerns, the sobering thought is that the black bears present at various places along the JMT are not ‘grizzlies’. Black bears are not usually interested in people, but are more preoccupied with acquiring a tasty meal with minimal effort. As highly intelligent animals, they now associate backpacks with food and will attempt to steal your goodies the moment your attention is elsewhere!
A bear locker available for food storage at the Backpackers Campground in Yosemite National Park.
This is also the case with little creatures like squirrels, chipmunks and marmots which we’ve nicknamed ‘Trail Bandits’! We’ve already seen how cunning they are, nibbling through another hiker’s backpack (left unattended) because there was sun cream inside. So we’ve learnt that your backpack should never leave your sight and that everything should be stowed safely in the bear canister.
Watch out for ‘Trail Bandits’ scavenging for food! (You might be cute, but you’re not getting any!)
Suddenly as if out of nowhere, a little ‘Trail Bandit’ appears at the mere rustle of a packet opening. (I’m sure they can hear us unwrapping a ‘Clif Bar’ from at least 2 miles away!) We don’t want this to be the case with a bear! Right, enough of bears for now. Let’s get back to the trail. (As you can tell, I’m more than a little preoccupied with them!)
Day 1 wasn’t quite as planned. We had to make an itinerary change straight away as our JMT permit was a ‘Happy Isles Pass Thru to Merced Lake, Sunrise’, which basically meant we couldn’t camp in Little Yosemite Valley and then hike up to Half Dome the following day. Instead, we had to contend with Half Dome on Day 1, as well as a longer hike to reach a camp spot near Sunrise Creek, as another stipulation of our permit was that we had to camp beyond Moraine Dome.
The mountains are calling… Half Dome, Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap.
Looking at Liberty Cap, a granite dome to the north of Nevada Falls.
Heading for Half Dome, the highest peak on the left.
So there came the second itinerary change. Wayne had wanted to stay at Cloud’s Rest Junction and then hike to Sunrise Lake on Day 2. But as we had to go beyond this on Day 1 (due to our permit restrictions) we were already a day ahead of ourselves! (We’re not complaining about our permit – we’re really lucky that we got one at all due to the trail having a specific quota per day). It just meant we had a hard day with a lot of ‘up’ to start the JMT – probably our toughest day for a while.
A rest stop with views of Liberty Cap.
Fantastic ‘fall’ colours.
We’ve already gained a lot of height within the first hour of walking.
But it was an amazing day! One of those days where the scenery was so beautiful it prompted lots of ‘wows’ from the both of us. And remember, it was only Day 1! This is definitely America at its best.
Trees on the trail.
Bridge across Nevada Falls, looking onto Liberty Cap.
Within a couple of miles we were treated to an incredible view of Nevada Falls. As we walked around to the top of the falls, Wayne bravely stood on a rock right near the drop off for an obligatory photograph!
Wayne braves the edge of the falls for a great view!
One of the most spectacular views of the day however was Half Dome, a huge granite rock face reaching 2,694 metres, that looks like it’s been split in two. It draws lots of hikers to Yosemite Valley eager to scale the sheer cliff face, assisted by a metal cable system. Again, access is restricted by a daily quota, so we were lucky to obtain Half Dome permits along with our permit for the JMT.
A permit is required for access to ‘Half Dome’.
Beginning the ascent up to Half Dome.
It’s a long way up…
Still on the up. The summit of Half Dome is in the background.
Having sat for an hour watching other people attempt to go up, Wayne decided it wasn’t for him, and I only managed to go about a quarter of the way up the cables before it got too scary. Traversing a rock at almost a 90° angle will surely explain why. We’re not ‘mountain climbers’ after all. I think we’re both more than happy to stick to hiking! But the view was incredible and Wayne captured a time lapse sequence of all the brave and crazy people slowly making their way to the top and back down via the same route. Heart-stopping stuff!
To go up or not? Decisions, decisions!
Still debating whether to attempt the final ascent…
‘Trail Bandit’ alert!
Half Dome – an incredible start to the JMT.
Going for it!
Jelly legs! I only made it about a quarter of the way before coming back down.
Great views from Half Dome.
A romantic spot looking across Yosemite Valley.
Stunning scenery and it’s only Day 1!
We finally left Half Dome just before 4pm and had a 2 mile walk ahead of us to reach the trail junction and get back on the JMT. Prior to heading up the trail to Half Dome we had stashed our bear canisters and removed a few other heavy items from our backpacks to make it easier going up there, hiding our stuff behind some bushes off-trail. Now coming back down, we were really hoping that our bear canisters were still intact and that some pesky ‘trail bandits’ hadn’t eaten through our sleeping bags! Luckily we re-located our hiding spots and both our bear canisters and other equipment were fine.
Thankfully the gear we stashed before hiking up Half Dome was still in one piece!
Next job, to find a good camp spot for our first night in the wilderness. We had been advised by a Ranger that a problematic bear keeps returning to the camp area around ‘Clouds Rest Junction’, so to make sure we camped well beyond there. So after reaching this spot we stopped to filter some water, then continued on. It was a good decision about topping up our water supplies at that point, as there was literally no water at all in Sunrise Creek.
A couple of miles on we found our first proper wild camp. You’re expected to try and camp in an area that has previously been used so that you make as little impact as possible. We found a small clearing off-trail in the middle of some woodland, that had clearly been used as a camp spot before. So as the sun was dipping we decided this was as good a place as any to lay our heads for the night. Having had so much practise on the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast hikes, we assumed our usual routines, quickly setting up the tent and getting on with cooking dinner before it got dark.
Our first camping spot in the ‘wilderness’ on the JMT.
It was time to test out our new ‘hiker menu’ – a la packet meals. Tonight was a ‘Thai’ made with instant noodles, chipotle tuna, creamy thai soup and a packet of chilli flakes we had procured from Pizza Hut. Not bad for a light weight, tasty dinner!
Bear canisters also make good camp tables!
After safely placing our bear canisters 50 feet away from the tent (but still in eye-sight), with our cook set and cutlery on top as a home made alarm system, we settled down for a good night’s sleep. It actually turned out to be quite a restless sleep however, as we both lay listening to the sounds of the great outdoors and any inkling that there could be a bear nearby! I shone my torch out to check the bear canisters more than a few times but they were still in one piece, right there where we left them. (25 more nights of this and I’ll be a nervous wreck!) I shouldn’t be so concerned as I’m sure the smell of Wayne’s radioactive feet will keep any bear at bay! (Well at least from trying to get inside the tent anyway!)
So there you have it – our first day and night on the JMT is complete! It’s everything we thought it would be and more… Although we hadn’t realised how concerned about bears we would actually be! They are our first and last thought each day. We’ll keep you posted on whether we see one, or indeed whether they see us first!