Monday, August 17, 2015

Yosemite Marathon

Lyell Fork, Tuolemne River
No, not an organized running event in Yosemite, but our first near marathon length hike of the year. Our friend Hikin' Bill picked the destination - Ireland Lake - and one of us had the crazy idea to loop the hike through Vogelsang for some bonus scenery and miles. This could be a two or three day backpack trip!

On the drive up, while passing the north June Lake Loop road on highway 395, we notice a small stream of smoke coming from the west side of the highway. A few forest service fire trucks were parked at the intersection of the loop road and the highway. We didn't give it much thought at the time, but this would impact the rest of our day. We were on our way from the Tuolumne Lodge trailhead by 7:30, heading south on the John Muir trail into Lyell Canyon. This is the southern extension of the expansive Tuolumne Meadow and the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The trail meanders along the edge of the meadow through mostly lodgepole pines and gains very little elevation for miles toward Donahue Pass. We were greeted almost immediately by a very noisy Red Crossbill. Over the course of the 6 miles to our trail turn away from the meadow we passed numerous flocks of Crossbills. It must be a great cone year for the lodgepoles in this area.

Lyell Canyon

We took the Evelyn Lake turn and immediately started climbing the west wall of Lyell Canyon. A nicely graded and switchbacked trail up 1,500 feet brought us to the plateau containing Ireland Lake. A two mile side trail took us to the lake nestled between Amelia Earhart and Parsons Peaks above treeline at 10,800 feet. It was unlike anything we were expecting; stark, open, windswept - really quite beautiful. I'm sure earlier in the summer there would have been plenty of rosy-finches and pipits frolicking about the alpine meadows.

Ireland Lake

Once back on the main trail we turned west toward Vogelsang. The trail climbs a small ridge then drops down to Evelyn Lake. The view to the west and the Cathedral Range was inspiring.

Cathedral Range
Back the way we had come from trouble was a brewing... Over the Kuna Crest to the east we could see a mushroom cloud indicating the small wisp of smoke we passed in the morning had become a full blown fire. This of course was troubling, but still miles from the car there was little we could do except watch and wonder what it would mean to us later.  We continued on as multiple air tankers started making runs from an airport somewhere in the Central Valley.

Fire beyond the Kuna Crest
We cruised down the ridge past Evelyn and soon came to Fletcher Lake near the Vogelsang High Camp and major trail junction.

Fletcher Lake and Peak

Fletcher Lake and Peak
Susan and I had been down this next stretch at the beginning of July on the Sierra High Route and knew what to expect on the trail down Rafferty Creek. What's the old definition of insanity? Doing something repeatedly and expecting a different result... Because of the Vogelsang High Camp ghetto and numerous mule trains each day used to supply the encampment, this 7 mile section of trail has to be among the worst in the Sierra. We hated every step of the way and have truly vowed this time not to do it again! Really, we mean it this time! 

Rafferty Creek and fire over the crest.  Contrails from the air tankers.
We were back at the parking lot at around 6:30. It was time to try our luck at getting out of the park - heading into the teeth of the fire...

Escape from Tuolumne

Leaving the Tuolumne Lodge area we turned east on Tioga Road and headed for the pass. Smoke filled the distance but other cars were going that way so we followed along. At the entrance station there were several park service vehicles and uniformed folks milling about. We continued through and moved down the hill. Little did we know at the time, but the Park Service was literally minutes from closing the gate. The westbound road had already been closed at Lee Vining. We rounded the corner at Ellery Lake and saw over a hundred vehicles stopped on the road ahead. This was not good...

Tioga Road
After about 15 minutes we saw from far below a CHP escort vehicle starting the line moving. Wow, we dodged a bullet there. If the pass had been closed or we were turned around at the top, it was at least a six hour detour to the west and north back to Bishop instead of an hour from where we were. There turned out to be only about 10 cars behind us. Amazingly the traffic moved along fairly well and we were back at the highway 395 junction near Lee Vining. The fire had crested the south Lee Vining Canyon and was now threatening the entire canyon. There is nothing in this world like watching a mature Jeffrey Pine torch - imagine the biggest roman candle you've ever seen times 1000.  Scary...

Lee Vining Canyon

Fire crests Lee Vining Canyon
Once southbound on 395 we just kept moving.  No reason to join the dozens of looky-loos parked on the side of the road.  Susan grabbed this image (and the other fire photos) as we kept going south.

West toward the crest
The Walker Fire is still burning mostly out of control as I type this Monday evening. There are lots of resources on the ground and in the air, so we hope these brave firefighters will make short work of containment (and be safe!), and all our friends in Lee Vining will be able to relax soon.

25+ miles, 4,000 feet elevation gain


Bird Lists:

Tuolumne Meadows
Lyell Canyon
Evelyn Lake Trail
Ireland Lake
Rafferty Creek

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