There is a love of wild nature in everybody an ancient mother-love ever showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties.
– John Muir
Tuolumne Meadows to Alger Lakes
Miles: 10.6 Elevation Gain: 2918′
Trip Miles: 10.6 Elevation Loss: 1830′
Max elevation: 12218 ft
Min elevation: 9728 ft
Total climbing: 3009 ft
This isn’t the traditional day 1 of the JMT. However, permits for the official start of the trail (Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley) with a Yosemite exit of Donohue Pass have become very difficult to obtain. There is a 40-person reservation quota for a Donohue Pass exit and according to online forums, the permit office was receiving around 700 permit requests per day this year. After failing to secure that permit several days in a row, we got creative about the Yosemite portion of our trip. Studying the maps revealed the most direct alternate route was to start in Tuolumne at the Mono Pass trailhead, go over Parker and Koip passes, then use the Rush Creek trail to junction with the JMT between Donohue and Island passes, north of Thousand Island Lake. That permit reservation was much easier to get our hands on.
After spending a fair amount of travel time (SF to Reno, Reno to Lee Vining, Lee Vining to Tuolumne Meadows), we were ready to finally hit the trail. The day before that, a friend of Carlos had dropped us off in Lee Vining, where we stayed the night. In the afternoon, we caught the YARTS bus into Tuolumne Meadows. Once there, we walked to the permit station to pick up the papers that would permit us to walk through the Sierra, all the way to Mount Whitney.
The plan was to get our permit, then spend the night at the backpackers’ camp and start early the next morning. However, when we got to the office, we found out the Mono Pass trail quota hadn’t yet been filled for the day. It was already 2:00, but we were itching to start our adventure, and we figured we had just enough sunlight to make it. So we decided to go for it.
A few minutes later, permit and Whitney Zone wag bags (carry in, carry out bags for human waste) in hand, we were ready to go. The Mono Pass trailhead, however, is about 5 miles down the road from the permit station. Since it was already so late and we were looking at an 11-mile hike to get to Alger Lakes, we figured it would be smartest to get a ride to the trailhead. After trying and failing at hitching, we walked to Yosemite Lodge to wait for the shuttle, which would get us to there at 3:00. With a little time to kill and a store available, an It’s-It was clearly needed.
Finally at the trailhead, we began our journey. The trail was easy through the cutoff to Parker. After leaving the Mono Pass trail and cutting across a large meadow, we could finally start to see the easy, almost flat, Parker Pass in the distance. To our right and far below, Parker Pass Lake sparkled in the late afternoon light.
It wasn’t long before we made it to Parker Pass, a wide, open saddle that marks the border of Yosemite National Park and entrance into Inyo National Forest. From there it was a gentle descent as we approached Koip, which loomed ahead. As we got closer to Koip, the zigzag lines of switchbacks started to appear and the realization that we had to climb them started to solidify.
Tackling a 13,000′ pass on day 1 with limited daylight hours was perhaps a bit ambitious. But tackle it, we did. The ascent is a scree-covered, steep climb. As we got higher, Mono Lake came into view to the northeast and the expansive meadow of Parker Pass continued to open up behind us. And the shadow of Koip Peak relentlessly reached for us as the sun slowly sank. Then, finally, we made it to the top, a long saddle between Koip and Parker Peaks, and Alger Lakes appeared below.
(enable captions for translation of Spanish in the video)
We were in shadow on our descent toward the lakes, but there was still daylight. More switchbacks down to the basin didn’t help, though. When we got to the bottom of the descent, there was precious little light left, so we decided to use the first good campsite near water that we could find. There was a trickling stream alongside the trail and plenty of place to pitch our tent, so we grabbed a spot. As I set up the tent, Carlos filtered some water and soon we were boiling water for dinner. We were both feeling the effects of the altitude and even after the strenuous day’s hike, neither of us was very hungry. That, combined with the swiftly dropping temperature, made dinner a quick activity. Before long, we’d cleaned and packed up and we got our shivering bodies into the tent and off to sleep.