As we approached the Tioga Pass entrance station for the last time, Sam asked if I would be interested in exploring the Gaylor Lakes Trail that started just inside the park. The original plan for our final morning in the higher country was to wander around the Tuolumne Meadow and climb Pothole Dome to get a wide view of what is probably some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. As much as I was looking forward to seeing more of the meadow, Sam’s surprise invitation to tackle the Gaylor Lakes Trail seemed like an excellent way to squeeze one more good hike into our visit. After hiking the 14.2 miles to Clouds Rest the day before, I wasn’t entirely confident of my legs being able to withstand another climb, never mind one that would take us to higher than 10,000 feet! But Sam assured me we would be OK, and that the photographs he had seen from this hike showed pretty spectacular scenery…. what the heck, what’s another five miles!
We filled three water bottles each, lubed up with bug spray and sunscreen, and set out on the trail. My initial fears were justified… this trail was so steep I was doing my own personal switchbacks on the switchbacks. Slow and steady… that was my mantra as I kept my head down and tried to keep my pulse under 200 beats per minute. Sam blazed the trail at a pretty good lick, but after getting ahead of me by about 50 yards or so he always stopped to let me catch up and make sure I hadn’t collapsed. Tough climb… maybe because it was straight up, or maybe because I had already hiked 20+ miles in the past two days, but none of that mattered when we crested the top of the ridge and we caught a glimpse of the Gaylor Lakes basin.
Truly breathtaking. This is what I had envisioned when we had first decided that we wanted to explore the high country of Yosemite. Laid out before us all in one vista were green meadows dotted with huge boulders left over from glacial times, jagged and imposing granite peaks sweeping down to the bluest of subalpine lakes, bubbling mountain brooks, and all of this framed with a 360 degree backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra mountains. Going down into the basin was much easier than the climb up, but by now I was catching on to this hiking thing… in general, what goes up must come down, and what goes down must come up. I tried not to think about that though, and instead focused on the amazing scenery.
After skirting the middle lake, we followed the stream up hill toward the third, higher lake. As we climbed the hill we became reacquainted with our mosquito friends, as they seemed bound and determined to welcome us to their domain. As soon as we reached the upper lake, thankfully they lost interest in us and went back downhill to bother some other hikers. The upper lake was in the shadow of Gaylor Peak (11,004 ft), and on the other side we found ourselves in the still unmelted snow that blanketed the landscape. It definitely felt unusual to be walking on what was still deep snow, but both Sam and I agreed that this was waaaaay cool.
Not done yet, we climbed above the upper lake and headed toward the Great Sierra Mine – an old abandoned prospector’s homestead and silver mine that dates back to 1878. It was impressive to see how a home created entirely out of flat stones could stand so strong for so long in what must be a very inhospitable climate for probably 6 months of the year. As we sat high atop the landscape enjoying our lunch of Clif Bars (new favorite of mine), we admired the fortitude of the pioneering spirit who had lived and worked here so long ago. Imagine working hard in the mine all day and coming home to a view like this…
All good things come to an end though, and unfortunately we had to leave this stunning lunch spot and return to civilization. I won’t bore anyone with the details of me huffing and puffing up the hill again, nor will I mention the sounds my knees and ankles made as I gingerly made my way back down the other (steep, very steep) side, but I will say that this was probably my most favorite hike of the entire trip. This must surely be classic Yosemite high country, where the effort to explore is rewarded with sights and sounds that are polar opposite of what most of us experience in our normal daily lives. As we drove along the Tioga Road and passed by Tuolumne Meadow for the last time on our trip, I felt so very happy that Sam and I got to share this time and this place together. Maybe one day Sam will bring his kid here… that would make me very proud.