Pushing Boundaries in the Outdoors: The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

“It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, they are mostly hidden”.

-John Muir

The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

National Parks are some of my favorite places to visit in the United States. Of course, Yosemite National Park is on the top of my list, but I cannot grapple with the crowds, traffic jams, and long lines. I avoid Yosemite Valley in the summer and instead drive up Tioga Pass to Tuolumne to experience the beauty of granite rocks, waterfalls, and lush green meadows, without hoards of crowds. I avoid summer weekends and instead get there early on weekday mornings. I also prefer going after Labor Day when the kids are back in school, and the weather is a bit cooler.

Choosing the route

Permits for backcountry Yosemite trips can be challenging to come by through the lottery process, but walk-up permits in shoulder seasons are usually always guaranteed. Luckily for me, I scored a two-night/three-day permit out of Glen Aulin for the middle of September. I was not too familiar with this area, but after a couple of days of research, I stumbled upon an area known as “The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne.” I read that it was not an easy hike, and there were two ways to conquer this trip into Pate Valley.

1) Glen Aulin to White Wolf and either hitch or take the bus back to Glen Aulin.

2) The 60-mile loop from Glen Aulin to White Wolf to Ten Lakes back to Glen Aulin.

I read that both routes were challenging, in a knee-breaking sort of way, and the elevation change was killer. Hitchhiking or taking the bus seemed like a bit more effort than I wanted to deal with, and I was itching for a knee-breaking challenge, so I decided to hike the 60-mile loop over three days.

Glen Aulin trailhead

Glen Aulin trailhead

Hiking out of Glen Aulin

Hiking out of Glen Aulin

Hiking solo

Since I had a permit for three people, I tried to recruit a couple of my friends, but since it was midweek; it seemed that this was going to be a solo trip. I LOVE solo trips! I can make my own itinerary, go as fast or as slow as I want, wake up early or sleep in late. The caveat to backpacking solo in Yosemite is I would be solo, without my dog. I take Moo pretty much everywhere with me, so leaving her behind is always something I struggle with. When I am out with my dog, I do not consider myself solo, since she is entertaining and overly adventurous and the best company on the trail.

My gameplan

My game plan was to average 20 miles and 8,000-elevation change per day. I have never hiked this mileage and elevation change over consecutive days. Sure I have done 30-mile days with a daypack, but not for multiple days in a row. I haven’t ever backpacked more than 13 miles in a day with a fully loaded pack. However, I knew I was in great shape after spending my entire summer in the outdoors, so if I was going to complete this challenge, now was the time to do it.

The importance of pushing boundaries

I am a huge advocate of pushing boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone. If you do not test these boundaries, how will you learn your limits? How will you discover new things? How will you find out what you love? If you spend your life in a box, playing it safe and doing the same routine; not only is this mundane and boring, but you are robbing yourself of discovering a whole new world. This philosophy is not just applied to the outdoors but also can be applied to your professional and personal life.

This was going to be the most challenging trip I have ever done. To add to this challenge, I planned to climb Mt. Tyndall from Shepherd’s Pass the next day with a friend who was visiting me from Utah! I talked all of this over with a couple of friends, and they were incredibly supportive and had faith in me. I also knew there were three ways to exit the trail just in case I could not keep a steady pace or if I became injured, and of course, I was going to carry my Garmin inReach. I told my work I was going to be off the grid for a few days, emailed my emergency contacts my trip itinerary and contact numbers for Yosemite SAR, hugged my dog, and headed into Tuolumne.

Raging rivers in the canyon

Raging rivers in the canyon

Day one: permit pick-up

I arrived at the Tuolumne ranger station at 8 AM to pick up my permit. There was a line of 7 people or so waiting for walk-up permits, and thankfully, the rangers helped whoever had a reservation first. I went inside, gave them my information, and told them my plan. I arrived on September 9th and was planning to complete the loop on September 11th. I was planning to be on the trail by 8:45 AM sharp. The ranger looked at me and told me that my permit entry date was for September 11th. I WAS TWO DAYS EARLY! I apologized and told him how humiliated I felt. I have done some pretty mindless things before, but never have I showed up for a trip two days early! He knew I was hiking out that day and I had 20 miles to cover, he talked to his co-worker, and they went ahead and gave me a walk-up permit without making me wait in that line. We talked about the Leave No Trace Rules, and he not only asked me if I had a bear canister but asked me which kind. I have never been asked this before. For those who are wondering, I have the Bearikade, which is gold! I thanked him a million times, he wished me luck and gave me directions to the trailhead, and I was on my way. Although I was off to a rocky start, at least I had good karma on my side.

Glen Aulin to Pate Valley

Hiking out of Glen Aulin was breathtaking. The sky was bright blue, the air was crisp, and there were so many waterfalls raging over the granite cliff formations. I hiked mostly downhill, descending the steep granite steps into Pate Valley. I walked (I was actually jogging) past Tuolomne Falls, Glen Aulin High Camp, California Falls, Le Conte Falls and arrived at Waterwheel Falls, where I decided to take a break and eat lunch. I was making great time and averaging 3.5mph. My pack was relatively light (32 pounds, including the six pounds of camera gear). My goal for each day was to start on the trail by 8 AM and stop hiking at 6:30 PM, so I had ample time to look for a campsite, set up my tent and cook dinner before it got dark and cold.

On the way to Pate Valley…

On the way to Pate Valley…

Morning reflections

Morning reflections

The fly apocalypse

After finishing lunch, I hiked through the Grand Canyon of Tuolomne into Pate Valley. The raging Tuolumne River cut through the huge granite walls that hovered over each side of the canyon. I felt insignificant and tiny among this powerful landscape. I continued to hike up steep granite steps to gain 1,000 feet of elevation to then hike right back down 1,000 feet into another valley. What goes up must come down, and this was the story of the trip. Pate Valley is at 4,000 feet, which is a lot of elevation loss compared to 8,000 feet. The constant up and down was tough, but the swarms of flies made it an absolute death march. These flies were relentless. I couldn’t stop because they would devour me. I would look back and see a black swarm following me. Thank goodness they were not biting, but no amount of DEET or any size bug net would stop them. For the first time in months, I wanted to cry. I was constantly waving my hiking poles in my face so I could have split seconds of normalcy. To be honest, I would never hike this route again because the flies were that bad. I swallowed at least a dozen, and the anxiety it caused me was indescribable.

The only photo I took of “myself”

The only photo I took of “myself”

My goal for day one was to reach Glen Aulin, which is about 30 miles, but of course, after the huge elevation change and World War III with the flies, this was not going to happen. After I clocked 22 miles, I found a decent campsite at the end of Pate Valley and knew day two was going to be even more challenging.

Berries on the trail in Pate Valley

Berries on the trail in Pate Valley

Taking care of my body

Each night before I went to sleep, I drank 1 liter of water, soaked my feet in the river, ate a package of electrolytes, and took a full dose (800mg) of Ibuprofen. I needed my body to remain strong, as I could not afford to hike slow or lose too much mileage; if I did, I knew I wouldn’t finish the trail. Prophylactically treating myself with Ibuprofen was a game-changer. My body did not ache in the mornings, and I felt relatively good for the number of miles and elevation change I was traveling.

Day two: White Wolf, death marching and bears

I awoke on day 2, quickly packed up my camp, devoured an espresso GU energy (I didn’t have the time to make coffee and didn’t want the extra weight, so I decided on espresso gels in the morning) and was on the trail by 8 AM. Within a mile, I can across a sign that read “bridge out.” I remember reading that this bridge was repaired, so I was a bit confused but was prepared for any water crossings that came my way. When I came across the bridge, there was a trail crew working on the repairs. I looked around, and thankfully the river was calm, serene even. It was about mid-thigh deep, so I knew it would be an easy crossing since it was not raging. I ventured towards the bridge and greeted the trail crew. I asked them if this was the bridge that was out. They replied, “yes, it is, but lucky for you, it is almost finished” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I was curious. They offered to escort me across the bridge, telling me where I can and cannot step. “More good karma,” I thought to myself. I thanked the trail crew multiple times, and they wished me a great hike.

Bridge is out…

Bridge is out…

After a couple of miles, I started my climb out of Pate Valley into White Wolf. I gained 4,0000 feet in elevation over 4 miles, and the switchbacks were worse than the Mt Whitney switchbacks. They were never-ending. I was glad I camped in the valley last night because there was no way I could have made this climb on tired legs or in the dark. This never-ending death march became steeper and steeper, and I just started to laugh. I wanted a challenge, and clearly, God has a great sense of humor. At one point, I managed to roll my ankle, and I heard, “crack, crack,” however, it was minimally painful, and I was still able to hike on it. When I stumbled across views of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, I was mesmerized. It was stunning. I decided to filter water and soak my feet in a nearby stream. I made sure to soak my feet every day on this trip, even just for 10 minutes.

Hetch Hetchy reservoir

Hetch Hetchy reservoir

After about 10 miles of some of the hardest hiking I have ever done, I reached White Wolf. I considered getting off the trail at this point and hitching to my car. I knew day two was only going to be a 15-mile day if I continued, which meant I would have to do 25 miles the next day. This plan was starting to become ridiculous, but I was not yet convinced I should quit. I continued and ran into some fellow backpackers who were beginning their journey out of White Wolf. It seemed everyone was making the loop over 5-7 days or going from White Wolf to Glen Aulin in 3-5 days. I got a few strange looks when I told others my itinerary. Luckily I met one other guy on day three who had the same itinerary as me, which made me feel a little bit better.

After I completed the death march into White Wolf, I was greeted by stunning lush green meadows, cooler temps, and FLAT ground. I ran the next three miles. My goal for day two was to make it to Ten Lakes, but I had a feeling I may be cutting it too close to dark. I usually do not mind hiking in the dark, but only when I have fresh legs and a sharp mind. I don’t hike over mountain passes in the dark or climb down steep granite rock, so hiking in the dark during this trip was not on my agenda. I started to hike through a forestry area as the sun was setting behind the ridge. I changed into my puffy and pulled out my hat and gloves as the sun dropped behind the mountains. I had a gut feeling this was bear territory; it was also about 5:30 PM, dinnertime for bears. Within minutes of having these thoughts and while I was singing along to my music, a large black bear appeared on the trail about 30 yards in front of me. We both froze, and he bolted before I could even think about making noise. I was so tired to even process what was happening, and I think we both were simultaneously surprised. I stood there hoping there were no cubs around, and then I quickly continued on. I think bears and marmots are the cutest mountain creatures I have ever seen. I am not afraid of bears; however, I am always nervous I will run into a mom and her cubs, and that terrifies me.

 If only my dog will stop barking at bears during our walks through town or the Lake Basin.

 After the five-second bear encounter, I took this as my cue; I should probably start looking for a campsite. I was about one mile from Ten Lakes Pass and two miles from Ten Lakes. I couldn’t beat myself up about a 16-mile day and over 10, 000 feet in elevation change. I found a perfect campsite, and as I took off my boots, I felt the pain from my ankle. I definitely sprained it, and the compression and rigidity from my boots were minimizing the pain. One more day left!

Day three: Ten Lakes aka heaven

I awoke at 6 AM the next morning with hopes of being on the trail by 6:30 AM; however, after discovering my tent was covered in frost, and it was absolutely freezing outside, I quickly got back into my sleeping bag and waited until the sun rose. Once it was warm enough, I quickly packed up camp and headed for Ten Lakes Pass. I was tired. These miles and elevation changes were getting to me, and I knew I had a lot of ground to cover. But I also knew I was strong enough to complete this loop, and that strength is what carried me through. I arrived at Ten Lakes and could not believe how beautiful this place was. It was early enough in the morning that the lake reflections were in full force. I knew I wanted to come back and camp here. This area was one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen in the Sierra. Unfortunately, I was on a time crunch, so I quickly climbed over the ridge and began to descend steep granite switchbacks. I climbed over so many ridges this day that it felt disorienting.

Ten Lakes was a dream…

Ten Lakes was a dream…

Can’t wait to plan a trip here…

Can’t wait to plan a trip here…

I had to remind myself of my sense of direction continually. The views of Tuolumne Peak were stunning, but I knew I had at least seven more miles to Glen Aulin and four miles from Glen Aulin to my car. It was 3 PM in the afternoon, and it was dark by 8 PM. I had five hours to hike 11 miles. Yes, this is very doable for a day hike. This is even doable on a multiday hike. With a sprained ankle, and after pushing myself to the extreme the past two days, I was a bit nervous this was going to be a challenge.

I hiked for five miles as fast as I could, and when I realized I was going to be hiking in the dark, I sat down to rearrange my pack. I knew it was going to be a full moon, so I was going to have natural light, but I also knew I was going to be extremely tired. As I was getting out my headlamp, my warm clothes, and my dinner, I noticed my car keys were missing. I frantically tore apart my entire pack while trying to come up with a plan of how I was going to get into my car without any cell service. I was a wreck. I always put my car keys at the bottom of my bear canister, but they were not there. I figured they must have fallen out at camp early that morning. The last place I looked was in my electronics dry bag, and after praying and simultaneously swearing at myself, I found my keys. I spent 30 minutes tearing apart my bag and wasted so much energy on crazy emotions. This was my final sign that I was exhausted. I am not an emotional person in the backcountry, so when my emotions do come out, it is a sign I am tired and need to stop. I told myself when I reached the end of the loop; I am going to set up camp and hike the last 4 miles to my car in the morning.

Hiking in the dark

I hiked the last couple of miles in the dark, and even with a headlamp and a full moon; it was becoming difficult to find the trail. I gave myself two more rules; if I had difficulty finding the trail and/or if I ran into switchbacks, I was going to call it and set up camp immediately. I finally completed the loop at Tuolumne Falls at 9:00 PM on day three.

I felt it was unsafe to hike the last four miles to my car because I was exhausted and delirious. I was in communication with both my dog sitter and my friend, who was coming into town from Utah, and I explained to both of them my plan. I was proud of myself for completing this 60-mile loop in 3 days but stressed that I was spending an extra night on the trail. I knew I set up my tent off the trail, but I had a hard time deciphering how far off. I also knew I was technically hiking out a day past my permit, however in the event, I did come across a ranger, I would explain to him my journey, and I was not going to compromise my safety. As I lay in my tent, all I could think about was the last four miles to my car, my sore ankle, if I had any important work emails to return, and how am I supposed to hike up Shepherds Pass in the next 36 hours. I also was simultaneously grateful I made it this far for my friends who sent me funny stories and jokes through my Garmin inReach and for Christie, who runs Sierra Dog Ventures for taking such good care of Moo. 

Too many waterfalls to count…

Too many waterfalls to count…

The final home stretch

I awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn and hiked to my car as fast as I could. I made the hour drive back to Mammoth, unpacked, showered, took Ibuprofen, soaked my ankle in Epsom Salt baths, and waited for Moo to come home. I had six hours to reset, take care of my ankle, pack my bag, and hang out with my dog before my friend arrived. We were off to backpack Tyndall the next morning!

 Throughout the entire three days, I ran into only a handful of people. I also only came across two other groups of females; the rest of the hikers were male or mixed-gender groups. The trail was not crowded, which I much appreciated.

All in all, this trip was incredible. I pushed myself to my core, I hiked through stunning scenery in solitude, and I learned I never want to go back to Pate Valley, but I do want to go back to Ten Lakes. I am forever grateful to the kind rangers and trail crew who helped me when they did not have to. And of course, I am lucky to have people like Christie from Sierra Dog Ventures and Judy and Allie from Donna’s Dog Boarding who take the best care of Moo and also put up with my backcountry shenanigans. This trip was one for the books, and I am so glad I did it!

Trip details

  • Trail: Grand Canyon of Tuolumne: Glen Aulin to Pate Valley to White Wolf to Ten Lakes back to Glen Aulin

  • Season: Mid September

  • Mileage: 64ish miles

  • Net Elevation: 24,000 feet

  • Highest Elevation: 9,000 feet

  • Lowest Elevation: 4,000 feet

  • Dogs: no

  • Permit: yes

  • Parking: Along the dirt road at Lambert Dome parking area

  • Weather: Dry, 80’s during the day and 20s-50s at night.

    Thanks for reading,

    See you on the trails

    Xx,

    Kristen

Trip Planning, Goal Setting and Picking the Best Backcountry Partner

A recipe for happiness: Friends, alpine lakes and Moo.

A recipe for happiness: Friends, alpine lakes and Moo.

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
Louisa May Alcott

Exploring the Hoover Wilderness: Saddlebag Lake, Conness Lake and 20 Lakes Basin

This past summer, I have had the pleasure of spending the majority of my time in the backcountry. I spent many days exploring new trails, paddle boarding on alpine lakes, fording swift rivers, and even learning how to backcountry ski. I went on solo 60-mile backcountry excursions, bagged a couple of 14ers, hiked fun easy treks with friends and suffered through extended knee breaking day trips with my dog in tow. Over the past couple of years, I have learned to set many different objectives when I venture into the outdoors. My outdoor partners and I have essential discussions on whether we are going to bring wine or vodka and if we should also bring along blow up rafts and bikinis. We also discuss the practical stuff like weather, alpine gear, and strict turn around times due to inclement forecasts. I have come to learn that not every trip has to be an "accomplishment", in the sense of bagging a massive peak, or doing loads of miles each day. An accomplishment can mean having tons of fun, frolicking in lakes, improving my photography skills, or spending hours watching my dog run around alpine meadows.

A day without bright colors is a boring day…

A day without bright colors is a boring day…

I have also learned to choose my backcountry partners wisely. I have about ten close friends who I backcountry with on the regular and although I love each one dearly, I am very attuned to each of their limitations and preferences. Some of these friends have zero desire to hike 20 miles in a day with me, others cannot stand the snow, and a small handful will be up for any adventure I plan. I also have some friends who I will struggle to keep up with and who will challenge me to my core. Having an agenda and a goal in mind for each trip is important because it not only determines the purpose of the trip, but it determines who you will have the most fun with in the backcountry.

To solo or to not solo?

I recently completed a 60-mile loop in three days with a total of 24,000 feet in elevation change. I started from Glen Aulin and made my way to the Grand Canyon of Tuolomne via Pate Valley up to White Wolf to Ten Lakes and back to Glen Aulin. It was an absolute sufferfest, and my goal was to push myself physically and mentally so far out of my comfort zone. I wanted to test my strength, endurance, and willpower. Although I would have loved a backpacking partner, I honestly didn't have anyone on speed dial who would jump at this chance. So, therefore, some trips like these are better off as a solo adventure.

Fun is the goal of this trip

When my friend Brandi reached out to me about a backpacking trip over Labor Day, I jumped at the chance. Brandi is extremely easy going, and FUN and I like fun! She told me she did not want to do big miles or any crazy elevation gains so I decided on a stunning, moderate loop off of Tioga Road. We had a quick phone conversation to discuss goals, gear, and alcohol, and the decision was final, Saddlebag Lake and 20 Lakes Basin over three-days. Low miles, lots of swimming in lakes, minimal elevation gain, non-quota permits, and only an hour away from where I live.

  • Trip details: Saddlebag Lake, Conness Lake, and 20 Lakes Basin

  • Permit: Yes, non-quota

  • Dog-friendly: Yes, but be mindful of the paws 

  • Miles: 15

  • Highest elevation: 10,800 feet 

  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet

  • Parking: On the side of the road

The long path to fun…

The long path to fun…

One too many tequillas

Living in Mammoth during long holiday weekends means one thing; I need to escape the crowds. Vodka, rainbow blow-up rafts, swimming in alpine lakes, playing fetch with my pup and just enjoying Mother Nature, were the only items on our agenda. We decided to go out to dinner Friday night before our Saturday morning early departure, and I may have had one too many tequilas. Yikes! I am pretty sure I had a tequila to go and took it on the trolley with me back home.

Easy to say, the next morning was brutal. I felt like death, but with Brandi's motherly help, I powered through! We had to make a couple of quick stops in town and everyone who I ran into, declared, "Kristen, you look like death!" Yes, I was hurting. Brandi drove my car to the trailhead after trying to convince me to eat some food at The Mobil Mart, but I could not even keep water down. I had an emergency bag in the car, and we may or may not have had to pull over multiple times on the 395. I was off to a rough start.

Your dog is your own responsibility

Our first day consisted of an easy 2.5-mile hike into our campsite, so I was not too concerned. I could take it slow, puke my brains out and chug along. I was armed with Pedialyte, ginger and lots of water to keep me as hydrated as possible. After all, my philosophy is "I can do ANYTHING for two miles"! Within the first half-mile, we saw a dog that was overheating and needed to be treated then carried off the trail. The owner declared that I should carry her dog back to the trailhead (we were hiking the opposite direction, I had a 45-pound pack, I had my dog to take care of, and I was actively puking). I was in no shape to carry out a 50-pound dog. The lady was annoyed when I said, "I couldn't". She had the option of pouring water on her dog, soaking a t-shirt in water and wrapping it around her dog, allowing her dog to actually drink water and the list goes on. She was persistent in having someone immediately carry her dog off the trail, and I was not going to be that person.

The first lesson of the trip: If you are bringing your dog into the backcountry, make sure you can carry him/her out on your own and also understand how to prevent and treat heat exhaustion in your pet.

Reflections from Saddlebag Lake

Reflections from Saddlebag Lake

Broken tents and tequila sickness

Since it was a holiday weekend, the trail was extremely crowded. I was nervous; some dude was going to walk by me and give me the lecture on "altitude sickness" when I had "tequila sickness." As a result, I tried to keep it together and only vomit when nobody was around. Mission accomplished! We arrived at Greenstone Lake and took our time looking for a campsite that was not on alpine meadows or within 100 feet from the lake. We came across the perfect spot and started setting up camp when Brandi noticed her tent poles were broken. I was pretty sure I was done puking for the day, but I still felt like garbage; however, I knew I had to help her. We devised a plan, spent over 30 minutes re-constructing her tent poles, and I used my duct tape from my first aid kit to hold her poles together.

#TeamworkMakestheDreamwork

The second lesson of the trip: Always carry duct tape in your first aid kit

After we set up camp, I blew up my rainbow raft, and we ran for the lake. The water was refreshing, and Moo surprisingly ran in after me (she is not a water dog). We frolicked around for a minute and spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing on a rock. We were content, and Moo was off chasing all the cute marmots, flies and lizards to her little heart’s content. 

Queen Moo, living her best life.

Queen Moo, living her best life.

Granite waterfalls on the way to Conness Lake

Granite waterfalls on the way to Conness Lake

More tents than square footage

As we were cooking dinner, we noticed hoards among hoards of people setting up camp on alpine meadows. Many of the campers were also setting up their tents way too close to the lakes (like within a stone's throw away). I have never seen anything like it, in all my years of backcountry adventuring. I was downright disgusted in regards to how people were disrespecting the backcountry rules. Rangers work extremely hard to herd cats and to create a safe environment in the outdoors, and it is incredibly disheartening to see so many people have zero respect for Mother Nature. Although this area was under a "non-quota" permit; it is still required to walk into a ranger station, request a permit and listen to the lecture on the particular backcountry rules that are set in place to protect our environment. 

The third lesson of the trip: Leave No Trace regulations are in place for a reason. Please respect the rules, so these areas are around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy. 

We settled into our tents, and I started reading a new book that I could not put down. It was a new moon, so I was overly excited to photograph the night sky for my very first time. I woke up around 11 PM, and the Milky Way was shining in all her glory. I set up my tripod and camera and got to work! Astrophotography is a skill that takes practice. I spent over an hour shooting the night sky, and for my very first time, I was pretty stoked on some of my photos! By 1 AM, I was back in my tent, cuddling with my pup! 

Oh Starry Night

Oh Starry Night

Our backcountry “home”

Our backcountry “home”

Conness Lake is dreamy

We woke up nice and slow the next morning and started to plan out our day. Our original plan was to backpack to Lake Helen and set up camp; however, Brandi's tent was broken, and neither of us wanted to take on that task again during this trip. We also had an incredible, private campsite, and after seeing the hoards of people, we had a gut feeling Lake Helen was going to be packed! We decided to keep our camp and day hike to Conness Lake and around the entire 20 Lakes Basin Loop. We made the right decision. The crowds were out of control, the number of illegal campsites we saw around the lakes was disturbing, and it is always so much nicer carrying a daypack instead of our full overnight set up! 

The fourth lesson of the trip: Be flexible, plans can change, and sometimes for the better. 

Conness Lake and all her glory

Conness Lake and all her glory

We headed off to Conness Lakes for some alpine lake swimming. The two-mile trail was stunning. Moo ran and ran through alpine meadows, and we stood in awe of the granite, the waterfalls, and the views. The short climb was enough to get our blood pumping, and as we approached the second lake, we couldn't wait to go for a dip! I blew up my raft, and we immediately jumped in the turquoise lake. The frigid water took our breath away. We laughed at how ridiculous we must have looked, but we were having SO much fun. Once we could no longer feel our limbs, we jumped out, dried off in the sun and marveled at the beauty. As we were sitting in our bikinis on the granite rock, a nice gentleman offered to take our photo. He couldn't figure out how to work my camera, and the wind blew our raft away. He quickly retrieved our raft, took our pictures, complimented my sweet dog, and off he went. We need more men like him in this world; kindred souls who empower women to be themselves. 

Tent city and rock scrambles; Greenstone Lake to Lake Helen to Odelle Lake

We ate lunch and decided that we should get on with our day since we had about nine more miles to go. As we continued hiking the 20 Lakes Basin loop, we kept commenting on the number of disrespectful people pitching their tents wherever they felt like it. It was becoming a tent city!

After about five miles, we scrambled over some pretty rocky terrain on the way to Lake Helen. As we navigated our way through the boulders and rounded the corner of beautiful Lake Helen, we were grateful we did not choose to camp here, as it was overly crowded with tents, ice chests and lots of people playing music.

As you approach the backside of Lake Helen, you can continue the loop or verge left and go up Lundy Canyon. At the beginning of the summer, I hiked to Lake Helen from Lundy, and it was a type 2 suffer-fest. I do not recommend it!

Cornices are pretty but they can kill you…

Cornices are pretty but they can kill you…

Views from Greenstone Lake

Views from Greenstone Lake

The trail from Lake Helen to Odelle Lake was extremely rocky. I eventually packed Moo into my pack to protect her paws as we hiked up through the canyon to Odelle Lake. Odelle Lake was stunning, and it was void of people (my kind of lake). We continued the loop and made our way back to camp just before the sun was setting. We got cleaned up, cooked dinner, and reminisced about our day. Moo ran straight into my tent and passed out. We once again fell asleep under a sky littered with bright stars. We had a successful 10-mile day.

Lake Helen with Moo in my pack

Lake Helen with Moo in my pack

Will work for that Alpenglow

We awoke the next morning before sunrise to set up my camera, as I wanted to shoot the alpenglow. I do not function without coffee, so it took me a while to get my act together and adjust my camera settings appropriately. I had the most magical six-minute window as the sun hit Conness Peak, and I was in awe. When I was finally satisfied with my captures, I made coffee and began to pack up my camp. Moo was already off running around and guarding our campsite.

Good morning, Conness Peak

Good morning, Conness Peak

Looking for marmots

Looking for marmots

Air horns and cranky old men

We began our hike out on the opposite side of the lake from which we hiked in. As we were approaching Saddlebag Lake and as Moo was trotting along the trail, a cranky old man who had his tent set up in an alpine meadow, blew his air horn at Moo as she was approaching his camp. She barked and barked, and my friend and I both had steam coming out of our ears. She quickly ran off, not giving a care in the world about this guy. She had marmots to chase and could not be bothered by a hostile camper, but Brandi and I were both pretty bitter. That man must have felt like a fool for blowing his air horn at a 12-pound little dog, who did not even react. He could have yelled at her, asked us to leash her, and nine other possibilities before blowing his air horn. He also had his food spread out all over his campsite, inviting bears and marmots to a feast. We joked that he probably carries bear bells (the most annoying thing on the trails) and bear spray (which is illegal in this area). I was so over all the nonsense I witnessed on this trip, that I did not have the energy or the desire to approach this man about his erratic and inappropriate behavior. 

The fifth lesson of the trip: My dog has a better temperament than most people. 

Me telling Moo that she must always live her best life while she is hopelessly scanning the grass for marmots.

Me telling Moo that she must always live her best life while she is hopelessly scanning the grass for marmots.

The hike out was stunning and was much less crowded than the trek in. After 3.5 miles, we arrived at our car and headed back to Mammoth. Our hearts were full, our spirits were rejuvenated, Moo was dead tired, and once again, I was incredibly grateful for another friend who willingly puts up with my shenanigans on the trail. I am also eternally thankful for my healthy body that carried me to these beautiful places. 

Sometimes innocent and easy backcountry fun is just what we need

We accomplished our "goals" for this trip. We relaxed, had a blast, swam in lakes, and were able to enjoy each other's company while still overcoming unexpected obstacles. We did not do any big mile days, summit massive peaks, or backcountry ski a line; we just had fun.

I used to only think about the destination in terms of "I want to backpack here" or "I want to bag this peak" or "I want to do this many miles in this amount of time." When I look back on these objectives, I sort of laugh at myself. I won't lie; I still plan trips where I set goals that are out of my comfort zone. However, not every journey has to be about stroking the ego, chasing fear or gunning for adrenaline. Sometimes, we can all use a little bit of innocent backcountry fun.

 Thanks for reading!

Hope to see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen