YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — I stood in the U-shaped amphitheater of upper Lyell base camp, scanning the surrounding cirque for a likely path upward. Ten miles out from Yosemite National Park's Tuolumne Meadows and into our second day on the Pacific Crest Trail, my hiking partner, Frank Berghuis, and I had ascended steadily all morning. We now viewed a scene at once spectacular and serene: pine saplings dotting an amber-green meadow; an emphatic cascade thundering down the far cliffs; in the distance, glacier-cloaked Mt. Lyell.
We rejoined the trail, which now led up the talus-strewn western side of the canyon. After 20 minutes, we gained a hanging valley closer to Lyell's pyramidal bulk and within sight of our goal, 11,000-foot Donohue Pass. With this prize nearly in hand, we paused for lunch. This lingering and pressing on became a familiar rhythm of our 29-mile southerly route from Tuolumne Meadows to another popular Pacific Crest trail head, Agnew Meadows. Despite the route's well-documented popularity, we discovered it's entirely possible to find solitude on the PCT.
We'd planned last summer's trip for the four days preceding Labor Day. Though Frank and I had been friends since high school, we'd never hiked together. Now in our early 40s and preoccupied with jobs and families, Frank and I had casually talked about reuniting for a backpacking trip together; during an early-spring conversation, the idea took root. Frank, an avid backpacker, suggested a few possible destinations but left me--the relative tenderfoot--to make the final decision. After considering ventures into remote areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, I chose the more time-tested (and trodden) Pacific Crest Trail through the central Sierra.
Though our chosen route frequently skirted timberline, we reckoned the season would still offer warm days. But we had no illusions about the altitude. We bet on two factors to prepare us for scrounging oxygen from the thin air. One was the easy gradient over the route's first nine miles, when the Pacific Coast Trail climbs a scant few hundred feet. And we figured the first night in Tuolumne Meadows Campground, Yosemite's 9,000-foot-high gateway to the high country, would be good for acclimatizing.
Sundown that night found us clearing the last vestiges of dinner and bundling against the encroaching chill. To avoid luring one of Yosemite's rapacious black bears, we stowed all food (and fragrant personal effects like toothpaste) in the campsite's locker. Tuolumne is a major campground, with a store, big open-air amphitheater and bathrooms with sinks and flush toilets. Its 300-plus campsites probably were 90% taken. After a goodbye call home at a pay phone, we admired the sweep of the Milky Way overhead.
By 9 the next morning, we were on the trail. In the vicinity of Tuolumne Meadows, the PCT parallels Tioga Road (California 120) and looks more like a nature trail than a route into alpine remoteness. It crosses the Tuolumne River's Lyell Fork on neat footbridges; the pine-fringed meadows look tame, almost domesticated. The well-grooved, multilane path suggested the high country ahead might be overrun by throngs.
Soon the trail veered south, and we entered the wide, meadowed valley of the Lyell Fork. The serpentine river plies this canyon in broad meanders. In spots, the water pools in placid reflecting ponds. Trout fingerlings dart among the rocks, and grasses fringe the curving riverbank. But a few minutes up the trail finds the river agitated, running shallow, churning white froth.
By midafternoon we came upon the first of several campsites within view of the stream. I heeded my jellied legs and hinted that nine miles was enough for the day; Frank agreed. For a while we lolled on boulders in the leaf-muted sunshine, lazing to regain strength for camp-making.
Menu planning had fallen to Frank, who took to meal preparation with gusto. Breakfasts mostly were fortified muesli cereal washed down with rich hot chocolate. We planned lunches separately; I brought simple-to-prepare combinations of crackers, canned meat spreads and that backwoods staple, M&M-laced trail mix.
Thanks in no small part to Frank's judicious choice of dehydrated foods and his substitution of a simple tarp for his more elaborate backpacking tent, we started out with packs weighing a comparatively light 30 to 35 pounds.
As Frank was preparing our first night's meal, a carbohydrate-rich noodle and ground meat "goulash," a bushy-mustachioed wrangler from a horse-packing outfit camped nearby strolled by to say hello. Jeff invited us to have coffee over at his group's evening campfire. Later we joined Jeff's riders, who were chatting happily and making s'mores.