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Sierra-Nevada Mountains: Hiking to Mono Pass

Mono Pass

During the summer of 2009, two friends and I journeyed west to Yosemite National Park to spend five days hiking along the John Muir Trail. The third day of our trip was the first day of our five-day backpacking from Yosemite National Park to Reds Meadows Campground. The first day started at the Mono Pass Trailhead within Yosemite National Park and took us through three passes and up to almost thirteen thousand feet in elevation before dropping down to Alger Lakes for the night. The following post chronicles the first of three parts of the first day of the backpacking trip. Starting at the Mono Pass trailhead we climbed up to the pass by mid-morning.

The morning of our first day on the trail was sunny and clear but cool. After heading to bed the previous night soon upon returning from our trip down to Yosemite Valley (our exploration of Tuolumne Grove and our auto-tour of the valley can be found here) we were well rested and ready to begin the main attraction of our trip: a five day backpacking trip to Reds Meadow Campground.

Although the original plan was to hike the John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Reds Meadow, our inability to get the proper permit forced us to modify our plans somewhat (read about our failure to obtain the permit here). Instead we were starting our hike at the Mono Pass Trailhead in Yosemite National Park and would have to hike through several passes and up to an elevation of almost thirteen thousand feet before finally merging with the John Muir Trail at the end of our second day near Thousand Island Lake.

After taking down my tarp and packing up my backpack
I was ready to leave our campsite at Tuolumne Meadows Campground. After a cursory search of the campsite and the bear locker we packed up the rental car and headed for the trailhead located about six miles to the east back toward the park entrance.

At the parking lot for the trailhead we unpacked any extra food, toiletries and anything else with a scent from the rental vehicle and placed them into one of the many bear lockers scattered about at the trailhead. Upon finally cleaning out the car Jim decided he had to go to the restroom. Luckily there was one situated right in the parking lot so Dave and I waited with our packs ready until Jim was properly unencumbered to start the trip.

Mono Pass Trailhead

The trailhead was situated within a mature pine forest. Unlike most of the forests I observed around the Tuolumne Meadows area this one had a fairly dense carpet of grass covering the ground underneath the tree canopy. The trees were Jeffery pines as best as I could determine without any type of field guide. Dave read the bark of Jeffery pines was suppose to smell like pineapple, which led to much sniffing of tree trunks during our trip (my research after the trip indicated the twigs of Jeffery pines smell like pineapple when crushed).

Finally just after 8 AM we started our hike. The Mono Pass trail follows along an old Native American trading route for a distance of about 4 miles to the pass. We were planning on taking the trail toward Parker Pass at the second intersection but we decided on hiking the fraction of a mile to Mono Pass if it proved not to be too arduous. The climb is gradual up to Mono Pass with only a thousand feet increase in elevation over 4 miles but the Yosemite book I purchased warned to be prepared for some heavy breathing since the trailhead starts at about ten thousand feet.

Mountains overlooking Dana Meadows

At the beginning the trail appeared to weave in and out of a series of small meadows. On the map these are identified as Dana Meadows. Rising in the distance above the trees surrounding the meadows were majestic mountains some of which had snow scattered about; even in late July. When I stepped off the trail and into the meadow my boots
were almost instantly covered with moisture due to the very heavy dew. The droplets of water glistened in the morning sun giving the entire meadow a glowing aspect.

Some birds were spotted flying about near the tops of the pine trees along the meadow border. Since I was carrying my compact binoculars on my backpack hip belt I was able to whip them out and identify the birds as red crossbills. I watched the crossbills for a while before realizing Dave and Jim had continued on without me. After hurriedly replacing my binoculars into their case on my belt I hastily hiked down the trail to catch up.

Near the end of the series of meadows we crossed a small stream on a downed pine log. This proved more difficult than it originally appeared as the log had retained most of its branches despite its apparent age. After crossing the stream the trail started to gain a little in elevation and the meadows became less frequent replaced with a thicker contiguous forest.

Forest along trail to Mono Pass

As soon as we started to climb in elevation I frequently found myself breathing harder and wheezing occasionally. The heavy breathing was not constant as periods of normal breathing would soon follow. Dave assured me this was normal because of the lack of oxygen but it foreshadowed some elevation issues I would have later in the day.

Since staying well hydrated may reduce the risk of elevation sickness I used a water bladder for the first time ever on this backpacking trip. I purchased an older version of the Platypus Big Zip Hydration System some time ago to use with an inline water filter but found it inadequate for my purposes and never bothered to return it. The bladder proved very advantageous on this hike since it allowed me to remain fully hydrated throughout the long hike. For the first time ever the bladder sleeve and the hose hole in my backpack actually served some useful purpose.

Climbing to Mono Pass

The trail continued to climb slowly along the side of a slope fully covered with a canopy of pine trees although a small meadow still made an occasional appearance. According to the map the Parker Pass Creek was located at the bottom of the rather steep drop off to the west but it was well out of sight.

One of our rest stops was at the site of an old log cabin. We assumed this cabin was from same mining operations as those supposedly near Mono Pass further up the trail. The cabin was located near the edge of a meadow with a pretty meandering stream running through the middle. This was a beautiful spot and I could imagine why someone decided to live here. While at the cabin site another trio of hikers passed us. From this point on we would engage in a game of leap frog with this group; they getting ahead of us when we stopped for a quick rest and the roles reversing soon after when the other group took their rest.

It was not much further past the cabin that the elevation climb leveled off and the frequency of meadows along the trail increased. Consequently, the outstanding views of the surrounding mountains returned as well. I saw a perfect example of the forest cover diminishing with a rise in elevation here with the trees becoming more scattered until finally there was nothing but rock (and snow) to the top of the peaks.

Trail through Mono Pass with Mt Lewis in background

Soon we reached an intersection at the edge of a long meadow where the trail to Mono Pass went off to the left and the one to Parker Pass went straight ahead. Scattered about the intersection were the backpacks of the other trio that leap-frogged ahead of us a ways back. We decided to shed our backpacks and hike the 0.3 miles to Mono Pass before heading on through to Parker Pass.

The trail to Mono Pass meanders through a wide open meadow with a shallow, wet trough running through the center. The rut was choked full of lush, green grass growing tall throughout. The trail stayed up in the drier and more sparely vegetated edge of the meadow near the tree line. The trail had dug through the sparse vegetation from the footfalls over the many long years of heavy use.

As we continued along the trail we passed a sign indicating Yosemite National Park border. The sign was metal with the letters literally cut out of it as were many of the signs in the area. Obviously the metal nature of the sign was necessary given the harsh winter conditions this high in elevation. On the other side of sign was Inyo National Forest within the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Lower Sardine Lake

Before us as we approached the pass Mt. Lewis dominated the landscape before us. The mountain grew larger as we approached the pass itself. Mt. Gibbs lies off to the north out of sight.

A pond appeared within the recessed area running through the center of the meadow. The water appeared crystal clear from the advantage of the higher rocky ground of the trail. Three people could be seen on the far side of the pond exploring the swampy borders. These were apparently the other trio that had leap-frogged in front of us earlier.

Beyond the pond in the distance was our destination for later in the day. There Kuna, Koip and Parker Peaks nearly blurred together into one giant mountains of red and gray rock. Scattered about the peaks were patches of bright, white snow, apparently unthawed from the previous winter. We would be hiking through Koip and Parker Peaks in some less than ideal weather conditions in the afternoon.

View from Mono Pass

After a brief descent we came to a point looking down upon Lower Sardine Lake. The trail descended further and then skirted around the lake as a thin ribbon before vanishing within a cluster of pine trees. It would eventually descend into Bloody Canyon but we were to follow it no further. Instead after enjoying the view for a while, we turned around and headed back toward the last trail junction where we hoped our backpacks still remained.

On the return trip through the meadow the Mammoth Peak dominated the horizon to the west. The scattered pine trees seemed to rise up about two-thirds up the peak before giving way to 100 percent gray rock. A small rise of red rock closer to our location gave a strong contrast to the completely gray granite of the far off peak.

As we returned to the intersection the trail provided a pretty view to the northwest back toward the valley where Tuolumne Meadow lied. We did not dwell long on how far we had come since this morning as it was nearly 11 AM. We gathered up our backpacks and headed down the trail to the southeast where Parker Pass, Parker Peak and Koip Peak were awaiting us.

Mammoth Peak

View toward Tuolumne Meadows

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