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TR - Glamping in Devils Postpile and Glen Aulin (04-11 Aug)

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TR - Glamping in Devils Postpile and Glen Aulin (04-11 Aug)
August 26, 2018 12:57AM
Alternate title: Conquering the Glen Aulin Curse!

Background: We visited our first High Sierra Camp (May Lake) three years ago. We chose May Lake because it would be a short (if a little steep) hike in for our kids, who were 7 and 9 at the time. We stayed only one night, but had a wonderful time and decided to try to get reservations at Glen Aulin the next summer. We lost out in the HSC lottery, but tried again the following year and got in. Unfortunately, that was summer of 2017 and the HSCs did not open due to all the snowfall during the previous winter. Luckily we didn't have to compete in the lottery again as they just bumped our reservations forward to 2018. We were scheduled to go in early July, but we got an email from the concessionaire in spring saying that Glen Aulin HSC would open late due to reconstruction of the bridge over Conness Creek. I called to reschedule, and the earliest slot they had available for two nights for four people was Aug 9 & 10. As our kids started school on Aug 13, we didn't have much choice. Those delays were the origins for our fears that our attempts to get to Glen Aulin must be cursed.

Anyway, we finally had some solid dates, so I scheduled a few days at Reds Meadow Resort in Devils Postpile the weekend before, and reserved a couple nights at White Wolf before we hiked in to Glen Aulin. (Yeah, yeah, we could have camped at Devils Postpile and up in Tuolumne Meadows... but there are no reservations at the campgrounds around DP, and I wasn't comfortable driving the family in there on a weekend in August without some confirmed place to stay the night). The trip was set, and nothing was left to do but look forward to it with great anticipation.

But the Curse of Glen Aulin reared its head once again as forest fires erupted in the Sierra. The Ferguson Fire was burning west of Yosemite, and the Lions Fire was burning southwest of Devils Postpile. Neither of them posed a direct threat to the areas we were visiting, but reading the daily air quality reports as we got closer to our trip was pretty depressing. By the time we left both TM and DP were forecast to have hazardous air quality, and the National Weather Service was recommending either limited or no outdoor activity in these areas, especially for kids. Sigh. Not wanting to cancel the trip, I headed out to the local hardware store and bought some N95 respirators per the NWS recommendation. We would go and see and do what (if anything) we could.

Day One: Through Fire and Brimstone Enroute the Devil's Lair

Okay, so maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic but, wow, did we drive through a lot of smoke. Our departure from the Bay Area was under a light haze of smoke from local wildfires. The Central Valley was likewise overcast with smoke. Hwy 120 through Yosemite and Tioga Pass was closed (the curse again!), so we had to take Hwy 108. It was smoky much of the way, but eventually the blue skies emerged as we climbed higher toward Sonora Pass. We saw some relatively thick smoke in a valley below and to the north of us as we drove, and I remember thinking that seemed pretty distant from the Ferguson Fire. What we didn't know at the time was that the Donnell Fire was raging nearby, and a portion of Hwy 108 and Sonora Pass would be shut down a few hours after we passed through. We made it over Sonora Pass and drove down the eastern side of the Sierras past Bridgeport, Lee Vining, and Mammoth Lakes to Minaret Vista, where we were greeted with this stunning view of the Minarets and Mt. Ritter:






Okay, so there's not a picture there... but that is essentially what we saw. Nothing. It was like looking out over San Francisco Bay on a foggy day. We were halfway down the road into Reds Meadow Valley before the ridge on the other side of the San Joaquin River even came into view. We stopped at Starkweather Lake for a very late lunch, then drove on to the Devils Postpile NM visitor center. The ranger on duty was busy between apologizing to visitors that he couldn't sell any of the merchandise other than water and snacks (because the volunteer staffer from the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association had been sent home due to poor air quality) and trying to explain to someone on the phone (who sounded like they had planned a trip similar to ours, encompassing Devils Postpile and Yosemite) some of the options they had and restrictions they would face if they went through with their trip. We headed out to do the short loop trail around Devils Postpile.



The wife and kids were initially reluctant to wear the respirators because, let's face it, they make you look silly (I had no problem since looking silly is my normal state). You could definitely tell the difference, though. Respirator off: Standing directly downwind from the campfire. Respirator on: Clean air. Once we started up the grade to the top of the Postpile and our breathing got a little heavier, you could feel the smoke getting in your lungs. This was enough to convince my wife (who has some allergy issues) that wearing the respirator and looking silly was a better option than having a splitting headache later that night. The kids even bought in, if somewhat more reluctantly:


The kids sitting on a post-Postpile pile of columnar basalt. Don't they look happy? I figure the respirators are good training, because with the way we are treating this planet they will probably be required wear outside the air locks by the time they have kids. (Who here is old enough to remember the movie Logan's Run?)


Devils Postpile

On the way back we took a quick side trip across the bridge over the river to stop at Soda Springs.


Looking north up the Middle Fork San Joaquin River.

After that we headed on to Reds Meadow Resort and settled into our cabin to cook dinner, work on Junior Ranger booklets, and fret over the smoky conditions.

Day 2: Rainbow Falls

The next day brought some relief in that the smoke was not nearly as bad. We went to the visitor center again to hear a ranger talk, but found out that all interpretive programs had been cancelled due to the air quality. The kids finished up their Junior Ranger books and got their badges (Side note - If anyone else has kids or is interested in Junior Ranger programs, the Devils Postpile JR patch is pretty cool... it is hexagonal like the columnar basalt in the Postpile). The kids wanted to visit Soda Springs again, so we took a quick walk down there to let them play a bit.


Middle Fork San Joaquin River again. Significantly less smoke!

We drove back to the cabin, loaded up the day packs, and headed out on the hike to Rainbow Falls. We brought the respirators but didn't wear them much because the air, while still having a faint tinge of smoke, was not nearly as bad as on the previous day. The air quality seemed to get even better as we got closer to the falls, which was a little puzzling since we were walking toward the area affected by the Lions Fire. We stopped to look at Rainbow Falls, which was flowing better than I had expected, and then continued on the trail to Lower Rainbow Falls.


Rainbow Falls

There were some people down at the base of Lower Rainbow Falls, so we had lunch on the rocks at the top of the falls. Looking to the east/southeast, you could see smoke rising from the Lions Fire, and we saw and heard several helicopters going back and forth between Mammoth and the fire. After lunch my daughter and I scrambled down to get a view from below the falls before we headed back to the cabin with a quick stop at Rainbow Falls to take advantage of the better sun angle.


View downriver from above Lower Rainbow Falls. Smoke from Lions Fire visible in the distance.


Lower Rainbow Falls


Rainbow Falls... with rainbow!

Day 3: Shadow Lake

In planning this trip, I had targeted Shadow Lake in the Ansel Adams wilderness for one of our hikes while staying at Reds Meadow. While I would have loved to hike to Garnet or Thousand Island Lakes, they were a little out of dayhike range for the kids. Shadow Lake, at around 8.5 miles round trip from Agnew Meadows, seemed just about their limit. The smoky conditions had me worried that even this distance might be too much, but fortunately the morning of Day 3 brought continued (if only slight) improvement in air quality. We loaded up the packs after breakfast, piled into the car and drove up to the trailhead at Agnew Meadows. The hike took us north and down to the Middle Fork San Joaquin, which we eventually crossed as the trail turned east and started climbing up several switchbacks and then alongside Shadow Creek. Even with the light haze, the views around Shadow Lake were pretty incredible. We found a suitable spot on a rocky outcropping along the north shore and stopped for a lunch break and some play time for the kids.


The kids: "Wait, HOW long is this hike, Dad?"


Hiking down toward the Middle Fork San Joaquin River.


Hiking up to Shadow Lake with Shadow Creek cascading alongside


View to the west over Shadow Lake. The Minarets visible at last!


View east toward the outlet of Shadow Lake.

About an hour after we arrived, the wind picked up and blew a slug of smoke in up from the San Joaquin River canyon.


View east after the smoke blew in.

Not knowing how smoky it would be on the hike out, we decided to pack up and start heading back. We took a quick side trip up to the junction with the JMT and the bridge over a waterfall on Shadow Creek before turning around. By the time we got back to the Shadow Lake outlet the smoke had pretty much cleared out, but with momentum established we retraced our route to Agnew Meadows and drove back for our final night at Reds Meadow Resort.


Looking down Shadow Creek toward the Middle Fork San Joaquin River.




Day 4: To Tuolumne

We departed Reds Meadow on Tuesday, managing to dodge the rampaging shuttle buses as we drove back up to Minaret Vista. The views today, while still hazy, were a thousand times better than when we arrived.


View from Minaret Vista

From there we went headed to Tioga Pass. Our target today was the Gaylor Lakes and the Great Sierra Mine.


Looking down into Gaylor Lakes Basin from the ridge above Tioga Pass.

After travelling in the car for an hour, hopping out at 10.000 feet and then immediately climbing another 500 feet in the first half mile, let's just say I was not too popular with the wife and kids. Fortunately the easier trail and amazing scenery ahead bailed me out.


Looking back down at Middle Gaylor Lake from the trail to Upper, with the Cathedral Range off in the distant haze.

We hiked to Upper Gaylor Lake and on up to the Great Sierra Mine site.



We crossed over to get a look down into the Granite Lakes Basin before returning.






After this hike, we headed on to White Wolf Lodge, where we were staying for the next two nights. While the air in the Tuolumne River basin was pretty clear thanks to an east wind that day, as soon as we crossed over into the Merced River watershed the smoke got thick quickly. We couldn't see across Tenaya Lake. Olmstead Point was like looking into a fog bank. When we arrived at White Wolf, it seemed almost deserted. A quick inquiry at the Lodge told us why... they were shutting down the next day. Since we had a two night stay planned, they offered to shift our stay to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge for both nights. We eagerly accepted since that was where we were planning to do most of our hiking. Our luck continued after we drove back to Tuolumne Meadows, as they essentially let us pick which tent cabin we wanted since they had so many cancellations due to the fire and smoke. We chose a cabin near the Dana Fork and enjoyed listening to the water tumble over Miller Cascade during our stay.


Lembert Dome over the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River


Miller Cascade on the Dana Fork


Cathedral Peak peeks between two lodgepole pines.

Day 5: Saddlebag Lake

We got a late start the next day because the kids were having too much fun exploring the Dana Fork. The better half had also twisted her knee a bit on yesterday's hike, so we decided to take it easy today. Since we had already done many of the easier hikes in the TM area, we decided to head over Tioga Pass and hit the Saddlebag Lake/Twenty Lakes Basin area. This is the last place I went backpacking... roughly a quarter century ago! (We as a family are working on a return to it... which I hope will be reflected in future TRs). I'd forgotten how much loose talus there is on the trail around the west side of Saddlebag (sorry, honey!). With the late start we just kept the hiking to a circuit of Saddlebag Lake, with a short foray to Greenstone Lake for lunch.


Mt. Conness (or maybe North Peak?) and Greenstone Lake in the Twenty Lakes Basin


Looking back at the north end of Saddlebag Lake


Lunch at Greenstone Lake


South saddlebag.

We headed back to TM Lodge to enjoy the sunset and prepare for our hike in to Glen Aulin the next day.


Sunset over the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne

(My apologies for all the delays in posting this Trip Report! Life intervened. I'll use another post to cover the Glen Aulin section of the trip.)



Edited 4 time(s). Last edit at 09/08/2018 02:47PM by FatFlatlander.
Re: TR - Glamping in Devils Postpile and Glen Aulin (04-11 Aug)
August 26, 2018 11:43PM
Thanks for the TR. I love Ansel Adams Wilderness and glad to see that you guys persevered through some unexpected developments.

That pic of Shadow Lake with the smoke blowing in within an hour is crazzzy!
Re: TR - Glamping in Devils Postpile and Glen Aulin (04-11 Aug)
September 08, 2018 05:33PM
Day 6: Tuolumne Meadows to Glen Aulin

At last the day had arrived for our hike in to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. We pried the kids away from playing around the Dana Fork, loaded up, and headed out. (Quick aside: I mentioned we are looking to start backpacking. My wife and I had recently bought some 60+ liter packs in preparation, and we brought them on this portion of the trip. And for a two night outing where we didn't have to bring food, stove, tent, or sleeping bags... both packs were jammed full! We did carry some of the kids' stuff, but clearly a few more lessons on gear selection and management are needed before we try any real backpacking trips!). Once again the fire and smoke helped us as there was plenty of parking at the turn to the TM stables where the Glen Aulin trail starts.


At the trailhead.


Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Range.



We took a break for lunch and some play time at the twin bridges, then headed down the last section of trail to Glen Aulin.



Cascades between the twin bridges and Tuolumne Falls.


Tuolumne Falls.


View from the bridge over the Tuolumne at Glen Aulin HSC.


The Emperor's New Bridge over Conness Creek.

We checked in to the HSC and poked around the area a bit until dinner. With the fires and smoke, many people had cancelled their reservations, so we only had 14 at dinner on both nights (I believe the camp capacity is 32). There was a menu change since the resupply pack trains had been affected by the fires, so we had pasta instead of pork that night... and it was INCREDIBLE. I ate so much that I could barely drag myself up the ridge below the HSC to watch the sunset, but I'm sure glad I did.





The delay in our trip from July to August (to allow for the completion of the Emperor's New Bridge) had the beneficial side effect of allowing my wife and I to spend our anniversary in the high country of Yosemite.

Happy 16th Anniversary! (Okay, our actual anniversary was the next day, but this is the only pic I have of us on the trip)


Day 7: Down the Tuolumne and back to Glen Aulin

We were staying two nights at Glen Aulin HSC, so our goal this day was to hike down the Tuolumne to Waterwheel Falls and back. We ended up getting about halfway between California Falls and LeConte Falls before the trail started heading down, down, down... which my kids are unfortunately smart enough to realize means up, up, up on the return. We took a vote and decided to turn around here (that's okay... all the more reason for a return trip!). We hiked back and had lunch either right at or just below California Falls, then continued at a leisurely pace back to Glen Aulin for some swimming before dinner.


Early morning view of White Cascades.


Daytime view from the ridge below Glen Aulin HSC.


Obligatory infinity pool shot from above California Falls.


California Falls (I think?).

I'm sure most people who read this board have visited this area multiple times, but for those few who haven't let me assure you that my crappy cell phone pics do not in any way capture how AMAZINGLY beautiful this area is. The scenery was stunning every step of the way.











The cascade below Glen Aulin HSC... and the only people we saw during our hike this day.

Dinner, while not quite as delectable as the previous night's pasta, was still delicious. We headed up to the ridge after dinner to bask in some more sunset views.





It was at this point that I started thinking about the next day, our hike out, and return to the hustle and bustle of civilization and daily life. That was depressing, so I pushed those thoughts aside and just soaked up the beauty of this place and the joy and peace I felt spending time here with my family. The below video was taken the previous night, but I think it somewhat captures the essence that draws me (and so many of us) back to places like this.

https://youtu.be/ipN-heInPUI


Day 8: Glen Aulin HSC to Tuolumne Meadows

I headed up to the ridge below the HSC before breakfast on our last day to get a few final shots.





After a very hearty and delicious breakfast (Do NOT plan on losing weight while staying at the High Sierra Camps!), we packed our stuff up and headed out on the trail.


Crossing back over the Tuolumne River as we start the hike out.


Parting shot of White Cascades.


View back toward Glen Aulin HSC from the trail above White Cascades.


Hiking up past Tuolumne Falls.


Pano shot from the twin bridges.

This was Saturday, which is a resupply day for Glen Aulin HSC, and much to our daughter's delight we saw two separate mule trains heading down to the camp with supplies. We also saw lots of hikers, as Hwy 120 had been open through the park for several days now and I think far fewer people were cancelling their trips. We stopped for lunch at Dingley Creek, then took the last mile and a half or so to our car (Le Petit Vin Bleu?) and piled into it for the drive back to the Bay Area.


Little Devils Postpile. (Thanks to the members on this site... I only knew to look for this feature from reading about it here. It was neat to see Mother Nature's preliminary sketches and contrast them with her final effort we'd seen back at Devils Postpile NM).


Someone else thought Dingley Creek would be a good lunch spot.


Crossing Dingley Creek after lunch.


Lembert Dome looms as we approach the end of our hike.

Overall this was one of those trips that you remember forever. The fires and smoke, which we initially thought would either force us to cancel our trip or at least severely limit what we could do, turned out to be a blessing in several ways with the decreased crowds and beautiful sunsets. I look forward to returning to all of these places (Devils Postpile, Ansel Adams Wilderness, and Glen Aulin) in the future and (I hope) "cutting the cord" and actually backpacking in them. Thanks to anyone who slogged through this whole TR, and my apologies again for taking so long to post and complete it.
Re: TR - Glamping in Devils Postpile and Glen Aulin (04-11 Aug)
September 09, 2018 04:17PM
Thanks for posting it! Despite the looks on your kids' faces, I bet you had a great time--and your report brought back many memories of hiking with our girls...now 30 and 34. They still talk about our trips.

That's Conness in your photos of the Saddlebag Lake hike.



Balzaccom

follow our adventures, read our blog, or just to come hang out at our website: http://www.backpackthesierra.com/
avatar Re: TR - Glamping in Devils Postpile and Glen Aulin (04-11 Aug)
September 10, 2018 11:02AM
A fantastic read! Many thanks for the thorough report. It's fun to follow along as I sit here in my cubicle on a Monday.
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