August 5, 2014
John Muir Trail (JMT)
Day 2 – Half Dome Junction (6,980ft) to Sunrise Lakes Junction (9,310ft).
7.3 miles plus 5 mile detour to and from Half Dome (8,839ft).
Camped at the popular campground near Sunrise Lakes Junction.
We woke at 5AM, before sunrise, in order to have enough time to do Half Dome before we continued on towards Tuolumne Meadows. Although the previous evening’s weather forecast predicted clear skies, the same gray skies that we’ve seen since arriving in Yosemite plague our morning. This is not the typical summer weather pattern and I’m afraid we will hike through this amazing landscape without ever seeing its granite towers truly lit.
On the way back up to Half Dome Don spots a bear in the forest working diligently on a downed log. The bear barely takes notice of us, more concerned with grubs for breakfast than who is on the trail. Even when he starts to wander in our direction he is quite docile and I manage to get a decent shot of him despite the low light.
Clouds continue to descend and it starts to look like rain over distant mountain peaks. Not as threatening as yesterday afternoon but not the great views we were hoping for either.
We reach the sub-dome just before 7AM and climb up a long and very steep granite staircase. There is only one group, an REI organized tour, ahead of us. Once we near the top of the sub-dome the trail crosses granite slabs to reach the start of the cables.
No one is on the cables at the moment. A woman in pink sits at the bottom waiting for her friends to descend.
We stash our hiking poles behind a rock (they were quite useful for the sub-dome), put on our rubber gloves and start up the cables attached to 68 sets of poles, spaced 10ft apart with boards spanning the poles to provide rest stops. It’s as steep as it looks with some sections pitched more vertically than the 45° average.
The REI guys catch up with me and I let the ones who want to pass pass. One small group of three passes us coming down, but otherwise we take our time, one 10 foot section at a time.
At one point I decide it would be better to climb up the left side rather than the right. A mistake as my camera, which is clipped to the left side of my day pack, hits one of the poles and knocks the lens hood tumbling down the cliff face. Don nearly grabs it, but with a clumsy rubber gloved hand misses it by inches as it continues on its trajectory over the edge into oblivion. There must be a graveyard somewhere thousands of feet below where all the sunglasses, cameras, water bottles and now my lens hood collect, never to be seen again.
The climb gets harder, the air thinner, but soon the track between the polls starts to level off. We’re almost there. My forearms burn and I’m totally out of breath as I stumble off the cables.
Even on this gray day, the views down the other side are unbelievable, Yosemite Village visible straight down a dizzying 4000 plus feet below us. On this sunless day it’s chilly at the top. We snap a few more photos, the REI group guide takes our picture for us, and we start the descent back down while there is no one on the cables.
I go down backwards slowly, step by step, my gloved hands sliding down the cable as I go. Much easier than coming up. Just don’t look down. My heart races with nervous energy. I just want off this cliff. I stop twice to take photos bracing myself against the poles so I can use both hands.
We pass only two trekkers on their way up and the REI group still hasn’t started their descent. It seems like the cables will never end, but then they suddenly do. We did it!
I watch the REI guys descend not believing that we were really up there.
On the way back down to the Half Dome Junction we cross the day trippers from Yosemite Village who have just started to reach the sub-dome at around 9AM.
We’re back at camp by 10AM. Looking back at Half Dome, although a bit hazy, it is now lit by the morning sun.
The trail up to and along Sunrise Creek through the open forest is pleasant but not noteworthy. Just past the Forsyth Trail junction we hit a ridge that would have great views of Mt Clark in better weather. The forest below has seen fire in recent years. The temperature drops in the wind. The sky remains gray. Will we ever see the sun?
Back in the forest the trail runs along Sunrise Creek again which so far has been mostly dry but now has more frequent sections of running water. We see our first marmot chowing down on the vegetation at the edge of the creek. Like the bear, he is focused on his task and barely looks up. In subsequent days they will become a nuisance, but for the moment I’m thrilled for the photo op.
Heading away from the creek, the trail climbs up Sunrise Mountain on a well graded track. However, as we near 9,400ft we feel the effects of the altitude and walk slowly but steadily. The few views, cloaked in clouds and haze, are mostly blocked by trees. The boulder strewn high point as well as the wild flower strewn meadow below add interest, but what really captures my attention are the first views of the mountain range across Long Meadow. Still mostly in shadow, the jagged peaks are an imposing sight.
The trail descends through the forest with more views through the trees, this time to the east. We round the bend and hit the meadow we saw from above. Here sits Sunrise Lakes junction with the campground just above.
The campground at Sunrise Lakes junction has many campsites scattered along Long Meadow and up the hill. The campground also has potable water and a toilet, a rarity in the back country.
This is a popular stop over for hikers on the area’s trail circuit and when we arrived at 4:30PM many of the lower spaces near the meadow were already taken. Nonetheless, we found a great site a little higher up with peak views over the valley.
During the afternoon and evening the sky cleared to puffy clouds over the peaks. The best vista we’ve had since the start of the trip.
Adjacent to the campground is the Sunrise High Sierra Camp where tented cabins are reserved by lottery months in advance. You can, however, according to a local park ranger, inquire about meals and eat there if space is available.