“Most people do the John Muir Trail in 30 days, but I think we can do it in 15.”
My cousin Mark had texted me offering a backpacking trip as a graduation present.
“Uhhh, I don’t have 15 days for a trip Cuz. I’m not even going to be in California that long,” I replied.
I figured that was easier than trying to convince him that the JMT in 15 days wasn’t exactly reasonable. After some more texting back and forth that included a few date changes and some gear talk we decided on a three-day trip in California’s Emigrant Wilderness just north of Yosemite. We were both familiar with the area and realized we didn’t have that much time for a wilderness trek after all.
Meetup with Mi Wuks
After running into road closures that added another hour to our drive we got on the trail around noon as we looked at nearby snowy peaks and talked about how lucky we were to be able to find any way into the backcountry this early in the season.
While we hiked my cousin told me about hunting in the region and how he met a Mi Wuk couple who owned a 100-year lease on cattle land that we’d be hiking through. He hoped that they’d already be living in their Cooper Valley homestead at 8,000 feet so he could see them again.
We made quick work of Eagle Pass but still only arrived at the homestead around 5 p.m. because of our late start on the day. The Mi Wuk couple wasn’t there but the little cabins and outhouse made for a picturesque place to make camp so we decided our hike was done for the day.
As we started a fire and cooked dinner we broke into a fifth of Crown Royal that we’d carried in (with its felt sack) to pass the time. A few hours later when we reached the bottom of the bottle and the end of our wood pile we scattered the coals and hit the sack.
We woke up the next morning to everything in the valley covered in frost. We made our way over to our camp kitchen to start on coffee and breakfast when we noticed the bottle of Crown Royal sitting in the dirt, empty. Suddenly our headaches made more sense. After the coffee kicked in we got to work planning our day over some hearty homemade granola.
“There’s this peak, Granite Mound, that I’ve seen in the distance when I hunt this area. I’ve always wanted to climb it but never had the chance, you up for it?” Mark asked.
“Sure. We’ve just got to hike through this valley, and this valley, and this valley, and then make this part of the climb to 10,000 feet without a trail,” I said as I pointed at the map that was laid out between us.
“Yup,” he replied, as if it would be as easy as skipping a rock.
We hiked in and out of mosquito infested valleys all morning, crossed a half-dozen streams, and lost the trail in huge swaths of snow along the way, until we finally got a glimpse of Granite Mound two miles in the distance, according to Mark’s GPS. We haphazardly planned our summit route from afar and then embarked on the portion of the hike that was off-trail.
An hour and two false summits later—which dashed my hopes more than I’d like to admit—we stood in the middle of a field of snow with soaked boots and looked up at the summit. It still felt impossibly far away, but there was no way we’d turn back now. We scarfed down some salami sandwiches and gummy bears before we slogged our way to the top as we huffed and puffed from the altitude.
When we finally made it to the top we looked off in the distance at Yosemite Valley and turned in amazement at the 360-degree view that surrounded us. We saw the valley that our camp was in and plumes from forest fires in the distance. I had barely caught my breath when I looked at my watch and thought we should head back home if we didn’t want to be hiking the last mile in the dark.
As we hiked back all of the fields of snow that we’d traversed on the way up became sledding hills on the way back down, and with our tired legs we didn’t care about wet butts.
We were still a valley away from camp when I asked Mark how far he thought we’d walked.
“Today wasn’t that far, I’d guess seven or eight miles.”
“Total? Or one way,” I asked incredulously. There was no way we’d only hiked eight miles, I thought.
“Total,” Mark responded coolly. Don’t forget, this is the same person who thought we could hike the John Muir Trail in half the time that most people do.
I didn’t have the energy to argue so I focused on the trail ahead and the freeze-dried backpacking meal that waited for me at camp.
Our home valley didn’t end up being the warm welcome we were looking for. The three minutes it took the water to boil for dinner felt like an eternity as we were swarmed by what felt like all of the world’s mosquitos. Despite the heat we bundled ourselves in every bit of clothing we had to try and keep them at bay while we ate our food in silence, too exhausted to talk. I was the first to admit defeat in the battle against the bugs and trudged to our tent to lay down and rest. Mark wasn’t far behind.
In a daze, we pulled out the map to sort out how far we’d actually hiked that day. After some quick math, we realized Mark was way off. I wasn’t shy in rubbing it in that his estimate was so far off.
“16 MILES. Ha! Man were you off, Mark. 16 miles to a 10,000-foot peak,” I remarked.
He wasn’t embarrassed to admit how wrong he was as he folded up the map.
We didn’t need Crown Royal or an hour of reading to help us sleep that night as we curled up at 8 p.m. trying to find a position, any position, that didn’t hurt.
Compared to the day before the hike home was uneventful. We meandered our way up and out of Cooper Valley and back down to the car, an easy 5-mile stroll. We rinsed off in a stream and cooled off our blister covered feet before getting back on the road. The first place that sold burgers was our first stop on our way back to civilization and crazy times in the world. (Trump and Kim Jong Un met while we were gone.)