DAY 1. PLANS OF UNUSUAL SIZE

I had this trip in my mind for 3 months. I planned it out meticulously. The detail was calculated down to an hourly minutiae. I spent many hours working out this plan. I had 19 or 20 waterfalls to see in four days, and I needed to see them all in good light. Plans always go awry at some point.

The first (and not last) kink was the weather. All of a sudden a day before my trip, the forecast started to show extreme cold and even snow. I had prayed for no rain, I had prayed for no fires, but I did not pray for no freezing cold temperatures. Doh. God is just fooling with me now.

I decided to leave a day earlier than planned and return a day earlier. This would avoid the snow storm, but not the cold. Well, I knew I could handle the cold. In June, it was down to freezing at Cherry Creek Canyon. I survived. I just needed to bring more clothes. Leaving a day earlier would mean I would have to start my hike later in the morning and minus one waterfall.

I had brand new hiking boots that I had not yet worn on any hike. You know what they say: it is extremely foolish to go on a big hike with boots not yet worn in. I tried to soften them up at home as best as I could without going on any actual hike. As soon as I started the hike, I knew I would be fine. They felt comfortable and great. I love my REI Merrell boots. They are always so comfortable. I got no blisters on the hike. With my old (falling apart) boots, I would have gotten blisters for sure.

I was upset my pack weight was 37 pounds. That is two more pounds than my self imposed weight limit. Oh well, you say, what is the big whoop! It is only two pounds! Two pounds is a huge difference in backpacking, especially when you will be climbing over 6500 feet in elevation. Yet I had no choice. I had to take extra food for four nights and extra clothes for the cold. I could not figure out anything more that I could cut on the weight. I will just have to suck it up. Them two extra pounds are going to kill me, I thought.

About two miles in I met some backpackers camping on the side of the trail (nowhere in particular). They said they had to make an emergency stop the prior night, and would have to hike back down. Why? Also, they said they had been intending to go up for opening day? Huh? Opening day for what? For start of Fall Color? No. I guess they meant hunting? Are you even allowed to hunt in the Wilderness? I guess they are allowed, but in that case, I’m sure glad they did not make it. The last thing I would want to listen to in my wilderness experience is the sound of gun shots all day long. How awful would that be? And what are they going to do with anything they kill? Carry the big thing 15 miles back to their vehicle? Not with the weight they were already carrying. In fact, I found out the cause of their emergency stop: One of them was carrying 100 pounds of gear up the trail! Wow! 100 pounds! He was a big strong guy but 100 pounds? I think not. I had about 45 pounds last year, and that was far too much weight. Maybe 37 pounds is not so bad, after all.

These guys had not yet even crossed into the wilderness boundary. I mention this because after passing them and crossing into the wilderness, I saw zero humans for the rest of my trip. Four days. No humans except me, myself, and I. I literally had the entire North Fork San Joaquin Canyon all to myself. Nothing but me and the birds, lizards, and the squirrels. I do not count birds, squirrels, and lizards as wildlife encounters. Unless however if it is an unusual bird (such as a raptor – which I have seen of course but not on this trip), or an unusual squirrel (such as ROUS – Rodents of Unusual Size – which I have not seen), or an unusual lizard (such as a Tyrannosaurus Rex – which I have not seen). I did see a baby garter snake, so I guess that barely qualifies as a wildlife encounter. Oh yeah, and there was that one other creature I saw (you will have to wait for Day 2 for that).

Two of the three creeks I crossed on the way to the river were dry. This was a bad sign. In this very wet year, I would have expected all these creeks to have water. One of them looked like it had been completely dry for a month or more. I was counting on these creeks for drinking water. On the return trip I would have a tough uphill climb, and I would need that water. What was I going to do? Just die of thirst in the middle of the trail? How lovely would that be? I can think of better ways to go out than that. This could be a bad sign for the waterfalls up ahead as well.

Well, despite the extra weight, I felt good on the hike. However, I started feeling tired just before I got to camp. It was a very long 10 miles. The first seven were uphill, the last 3 were downhill, and a very steep downhill. As I said, that was something I was not looking forward to when I had to climb out of the canyon later. When I got down to the NF San Joaquin River at Hemlock Crossing, I found plenty of water. The side creeks dropping into the river were also flowing very well, no worries about waterfalls; most of the creeks had more water flowing than I expected, but there were a couple creeks that I was a bit disappointed in. I was later getting to camp than I wanted to. According to my meticulous plan, I had one hour to setup camp, eat my dinner, then I had another hike to do to see some evening waterfalls. The evening hike really did me in. I was so tired. (actually, it probably did me in for the rest of the trip and I had to cut out a couple falls from my great plan of unusual size – but more on that later). Essentially, I had been hiking for 7 straight hours with few rests along the way. Nonetheless, I saw four Falls in the evening, and all were beautiful. This one here was one of my favorites on the entire trip. It is an incredibly gorgeous waterfall on the river, about 50 ft. high. It is one of 12 significant waterfalls on this river, and perhaps the best. This is where I camped the first night, and listened to the sound of the roaring water as I drifted off to my much needed sleep. Sweet perfection.

 

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DETOUR

On the way back down from Half Moon Lake, I wanted to make one pit stop to a second new waterfall. We had time, and it was still fairly early. This would be a quick little detour.

There is no trail, said Nekoda. Yeah I know that, I said. On the way up to Half Moon, Nekoda asked me if I ever went on hikes that were straight up the mountain without any nicely graded trails (such as the one we were hiking on). I said, yes, lots of times. That must be very hard, she said. I said, definitely much harder than this hike. I think now she must have been getting an anxiety attack when I started off trail on this little side trip.

She had nothing to worry about, it was a very easy little side trip. However, when we got over to the creek, I could see that to get up to the falls, we were going to have to do some bushwhacking through some brush. Nekoda did not want to do this. She was already pretty tired. Any extra effort would take all her energy away for the hike back down the mountain. She wanted to just sit down and wait. I insisted she come with me. It would not be too hard or long. The waterfall was hidden in a slot canyon, and we had to jump across the creek at the bottom of the falls to see it. It was an incredibly gorgeous 76 ft. high cascade, shooting down a very narrow slot, and fanning out at the bottom. It was much much nicer than I expected it to be. Stunningly beautiful. I think Nekoda was glad I made her come after all. Even though this is just a short detour from the main trail, I do not think hardly anyone knows this waterfall exists. Did you? We relaxed a bit, took photos, and then headed down the mountain. We still had quite a hike to do, and we just got back to the car a bit after dark.

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MOONSHINE

It would be back to Lake Tahoe and the Desolation Wilderness once more for me, and this time my daughter Nekoda wanted to tag along. I like it when my children want to come with me. It seems like such a rare thing.

My initial thought was we would backpack up to Half Moon Lake for one night. However, since it was last minute I could not get a permit, so thus I decided we should just do a day hike instead. It is only 6 miles (1 way) and a 1700 ft. elevation gain. We can do that in a day, right? Nekoda can do that in a day, right?

We arrived in Lake Tahoe around noon, stopped at Subway to get lunch and brought it to the Glen Alpine trailhead. I was shocked to see the parking area completely full. I would expect this on a Saturday, but this was not a Saturday. I prayed for a spot. There was a car ahead of me, but he turned off to the right. After he turned, another person waved me into the one remaining spot, located right at the trailhead sign. Perfecto! Thank you once again, Lord. It would really suck to have to walk an extra mile just to get to the trailhead. This was going to be a tough hike as it was.

We sat down by the lake and ate our lunch. The local chipmunks joined us, literally climbing up on our backs to get any morsels we would give them. Ok not literally, but almost. They were all over us and not shy at all. I suspect they get plenty of handouts in this area.

I heard the mosquitoes have been bad in this area in recent weeks. I have experienced them here in the past, and it was not pleasant. I was prepared for the worst. However, I could not get a very recent report and the last one I got was a couple weeks ago. Perhaps they have subsided since then. I hoped so, anyway. As it turned out, we did not see any bugs on the hike up to the lake or while up at the lake. Only on the hike back down in the evening did the mosquitoes come out to feast, but once we put on bug spray, they left us alone. So all in all, not too bad at all.

About halfway up the mountain, Nekoda almost bonked. Apparently this was a tougher hike for her than I thought it would be. She does not hike much, but she is a dancer, and she is dancing about 5 days per week usually, so she should be in great shape. Now since it is summer, she has not danced in the past couple weeks, but she should not get out of shape in only two weeks. Thus, I figured this hike would be fairly easy for her. Humph. Well, I really wanted to get up to this waterfall, but I also know Nekoda is more important than the hike. If I take her on a hike that is too hard for her, that is all on me. My fault completely. I told her that and that it was perfectly ok to turn around if she needed to. I can do this hike anytime. But Nekoda is a trooper. She always has been a trooper. Remember the story of her continuing the hike with me last year after she was stung by a bee? She wanted to continue on, so onwards we went. Before too long, the terrain leveled out and got much easier the rest of the way to the lake.

When we got up on the ridge the views were astounding. We could see over to Susie Lake and Susie Lake Falls (roaring), and the drainage above Susie Lake. There was still an incredible amount of snow above Susie Lake. It is the middle of August. I could not believe how much snow is still up there.

When we finally got to Half Moon Lake, we could see the waterfall on the other side of the lake, and it was flowing very strong. Awesome. There was still snow at the base of the waterfall. Nekoda thought it just looked just ok, and not so awesome. Wait til you get up close to it, dearie. You will be impressed. We are still a long way away from it. It was a longer hike to the end of the lake than I anticipated. The trail became quite overgrown now, but it was not too difficult. We were early however, so we went down to Alta Morris Lake to spend an hour or so.

What will you give me if I jump in the lake, I said to Nekoda. The lake was freezing cold. There was still snow around the lakeside. I will give you a kiss, she said. Ok that works, I said. The lake was blistering, but I dipped my head completely under for a very brief second, while she took photos of me doing it. It was fun and refreshing. You have to do this, I told her. She said, no way! Nonetheless, I talked her into it and she went under as well. Fun fun fun. I never did get my kiss, though. She said that since she did it as well, she does not owe me anything. Lame! After we huddled together to relieve our hypothermia, we went back up to the waterfall. We had to walk up a snow field to get up to it. Nekoda waited while I went over closer to the falls to take my photos. It is a magnificent 117 ft. high waterfall.

Hiking back down from the falls, I could see a large animal on the snow off in the distance. From this distance, it looked like it was getting ready to make a run for my daughter, who was way off ahead of me. It was too small to be a mountain lion, but I was definitely thinking coyote or bobcat. As I got closer, I could see it was neither of these. It was a bird. It was an enormous bird. It was a golden eagle. It was sitting on the snow, eating something or other. So I guess it was not interested in attacking my daughter, but it was definitely interesting to see it there on the snow.

We made good time hiking back down the mountain. We saw a couple backpackers coming up. Their packs looked enormous. And I thought that eagle was big.  It is not pleasant to go backpacking when you are carrying such a huge weight. I did that last year, my pack was 45 pounds. And I’m sure these two had at least 55 pounds on their backs by the looks of it. I am so glad I cut my pack weight to about 32 pounds this year. It is so much more pleasant! Backpacking is supposed to be fun! Anyway, it was getting quite late and I do not think these two were going to make it up to the lake before dark. Not at the rate they were going (which was zero mph). It was 8:30 when Nekoda and I got back to the car. Just a little past dark. Not too shabby.

It was a glorious hike up into the Desolation Wilderness, and we did not just see the one awesome waterfall. We saw a second fantastic waterfall on the way back down as well. Coming up next …

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DAY 2. GOT GAS?

Got gas? No sir. Negatory. Nopity nope.

In this case that is actually a bad thing. After I made my dinner on the first day, I realized my gas canister was now empty. Crap! I was so careful about checking everything on my backpacking trip, but I did not check my gas canister. I was certain I had enough for another trip. Stupid stupid stupid. I had to eat all my snack food for breakfast the next morning, and now I did not have enough food to stay somewhere a second night, as I had initially wanted to. I had two lunches (for 2 days), and no breakfasts or dinners to eat. So I packed up my gear and hiked all the way back. 11 miles. All the way back to Loon Lake. In the heat. I did not get back to the car until after noon, and I was dead tired. Did I say it was hot? Bummer, but I did have a totally epic first day on the trip. I found two, yes two, incredibly spectacular waterfalls, and a third one as well that was not too shabby either.

When I first planned the hike to Horseshoe Lake Falls, I did not think I would go up to McConnell Peak Falls. I did not even consider it at first. However, when I studied the route on Google Earth, I saw that it did not look too difficult to climb up to the top of Horseshoe Lake Falls, and from there it is a short distance to McConnell Peak Falls. This new hike was now on the agenda. Totally on the agenda. These two waterfalls in the Desolation Wilderness have been on my radar for a few years now, but before now they both just seemed too remote to reach.

It was a bit steep and sketchy in a couple places but overall not too hard to climb to the top of the first waterfall. From there I got on an actual trail, and continued up to Horseshoe Lake. The trail is not much of a trail, but it is a trail. Sort of. Sort of not. In other words it is a bit faded and hard to follow. At Horseshoe Lake, I got my first glimpse of McConnell Peak Falls. My thought was: yeah it looks like it is ok. You are still quite a long distance away at Horseshoe Lake. Initially, I thought I would just take a photograph of it from Horseshoe Lake and call it a day. However, it was still early, the lake was still in the sun, and would be for at least 3 more hours, and oh yeah, there were mosquitoes at the lake. I did not want to wait around 3 hours with the skeeters. Plus, I could not see any good compositions of the waterfall from the lake anyway. The trail was pretty good from the lake, so I continued onwards. It meanders through the forest before it comes out right at the base of the waterfall. When I first saw it up close, I exclaimed out loud something to the effect: holy crap is that ever awesome! This is most certainly one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Northern Sierra, and without a doubt it is the best waterfall I have seen so far this year. About 470 ft. high, and flowing very strong. In the Desolation Wilderness, it is second only to Horsetail Falls (590 ft.). There was still plenty of snow melting from McConnell Peak in late July. It is crazy awesome that you can get right to the base of this giant waterfall and look up to see the entire thing crashing down the cliff. Wow wow wow! It is also crazy that I have never seen any photos of this massive waterfall before. The trail goes right along the bottom of it, but this area is so remote, I do not think it ever gets very much traffic, even in the summer after the snow is melted and the waterfall is reduced to a trickle. Seeing it now, after a great snow year, and flowing so strong in the middle of summer, is something that very few people have ever seen. After seeing these two incredible waterfalls, I didn’t feel so bad about having to hike home a day early. It was an incredible trip into the remote Desolation Wilderness.

 

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DAY 1. GOT MOSQUITOES?

Got mosquitoes? No sir. Negatory. Nopity nope.

I have heard that the mosquitoes have been horrendously epic this year in certain places such as the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite high country. That would make sense considering the big winter we had. I have avoided going to those places this summer even though I did want to go. I hate mosquitoes. Perhaps I will go later. Yet I also heard they are not bad at all in other places of the Sierra, even in some places that are normally horrible such as Wrights Lake and the Desolation Wilderness. I like hearing stuff like that. It’s off to the Desolation Wilderness for me.

I did not really want to go backpacking again this summer (I still want to go more in the Fall). It is 100 degrees in the valley and pretty hot in the mountains also. However, my wife and kids are gone for the week and I was playing a bachelor with nothing else to do. I suppose I could do a couple day hikes but I could not think of anything good so backpacking it is. I figured if I could do all or most of my hiking in the morning it would not be too bad. Hmph. Yeah, right.

I left early for Loon Lake. I heard there were not any mosquitoes here last week so maybe it would be ok at the place where I was planning to go from there. There weren’t any when I arrived at the trailhead about sunrise.

What about my injury? My arm and leg have had a lot of pain the last 3 to 4 weeks. My arm is now completely healed and my leg is getting there but not quite. This last week was the first time I’ve been back to the gym. I realized it was the machine at the gym I’ve been using that caused the injury. If you keep doing the same thing over and over and more and more of the same thing then you can get hurt. Carpal Tunnel is a good example. When I go to the gym from now on I need to be careful to mix it up a lot more. Anyhow, the leg has not been hurting when I have gone hiking, so this trip should be ok.

This would be an 11 mile hike one way with minimal elevation gain and mostly all of it on a well maintained trail. It should be easy as pie. Well we all know that when the Madman says that it usually means it is not going to be anything of the sort. However, surprise surprise, this time it actually was easy. But when I hit that sun at around 9 or 10am, it was definitely hot already. Good thing I started early. I would not want to be out hiking in the afternoon for sure.

I saw one weird slug like snake thing on the trail. Is it a giant slug or a strange snake? A snake obviously, but I did not know what kind of snake it was. I poked it (gently of course!), it only moved a microcosm. Not a rattlesnake. I looked it up later, and I believe it is the northern Rubber Boa. I don’t think I have seen one of these before.

Much of the trail was very rocky. I hate hiking on trails like this. It is very hard on your feet and you get blisters galore (and I got blisters galore). You have to pay attention to where you are walking so you don’t twist an ankle, and generally just try to walk on the flattest rocks. As I was walking along, keeping my eye to the ground, I heard and glimpsed out of the corner of my eye a large animal coming out of the bushes towards me. I realized it was going to attack me, whatever it was. Was it a bear? Was it a mountain lion? Was it a Sasquatch? No, it was a big dog and it came at me barking loudly. It scared the living crap out of me. I really thought it was going to attack. I fell back and tripped, landing on my butt on the rocks. Ouch. Where are the owners of this thing? I finally saw them coming up the trail and they called the dog away. Damn. I really don’t mind dogs on the trails (in fact, it’s my number one pet peeve when dogs are not allowed) and I don’t mind them being off leash either, but not if they are going to attack people and you cannot control your animal. Keep it on the leash people! I wonder how many other people that dog scared this weekend.

After 10 or so miles of hiking, I came to the Rubicon River crossing. The river was flowing hecka strong, most hikers continuing from here would need to cross the river. I do not know how anyone could cross here, but I have read of hardcore hikers making dangerous crossings this year. Not for me, thank you. This is where my trail ended. I would not need to cross any rivers, but I would need to go cross country from here. I could see the waterfall in the distance. My final destination was not far.

I arrived at Horseshoe Lake Falls where I would camp. The waterfall was spectacular! It is about 280 ft. high and still flowing strong at the end of July. Incredible beauty, and I would be camping right beside it. Finding the perfect and epic campsite in the remote wilderness is an art form. There was a very small spot for my tent near the creek with a great view of the falls. It had a big tree that would keep me in shade all day, and a nice little breeze. Perfecto. There were a couple other slightly bigger spots but they had no shade and there was more brush which I thought might bring out the skeeters in the evening. I set up my camp, ate lunch, and relaxed all afternoon, listening to my music, and watching thunderstorm clouds develop in the distance. All afternoon, they were really trying to come towards me from two different directions. They would start to come closer, then they would move off in the other direction. It would continue like this all afternoon. I thought I kept hearing thunder in the distance, but it was hard to hear anything over the roar of the waterfall. In the end, however, God kept the clouds and rain away from my location. Thank you for that, Lord.

I took my photos of the waterfall in the evening. There were many good view points and I took many photos. However, I think a better view would have been on the other side of the creek. I tried to cross it, but I balked. The flow was just a bit too strong and deep. Never mind the Rubicon River, I could not even cross this little creek. Perhaps if I had my proper water shoes I could have done it (not sure), but I only had my water socks which have zero traction. The pull in the creek was strong, and the rocks slippery. If I had slipped, I would have been gone over a small waterfall. It was definitely not worth the risk. I still had a great view from the bottom of the falls, standing in the middle of the creek (where the flow was minimal). It was an epic day of backpacking, and it was not over yet…

 

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