Experiencing Tuolumne Meadows – A Trail Review

We lucked into volunteer hiking jobs at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park and spent the summer hiking four days a week! We learned a lot while we were there. Yosemite is a huge park that is broken into sections:

There are many miles to explore between each section of the park!

Tuolumne Meadows has a store, a grill, a post office and the Campground. The store, grill and post office are located in one building that also happens to be a kind of tent building. Pretty cool!

Tuolumne Meadows does not have a set opening day. It opens depending entirely on when the snow melts. We arrived in June and had the privilege of being in the campground for almost a week before it officially opened. We needed much of that first week to acclimate to the 8600’ elevation. Altitude sickness is very real and happens more often than you would think. Drink lots of water in the weeks before heading this way as it really helps!

We needed much of that first week to acclimate to the 8600’ elevation.

Cell service is an iffy thing up there. Depending on the season, there may or may not be a tiny bit of Verizon and the possibility of an even smaller bit of AT&T. We have a boosted Verizon hot-spot and once the tower was turned on we got a whopping 5 bars of 1X service. We were essentially cut off from the world … once we got accustomed to it, it sure was nice!

We quickly realized that although we had left Texas, we had not left the mosquitos! They were bad and stayed bad for every bit of a month while snow melted and puddles evaporated. The biters were bad enough near water that we wore netting over our heads as they laughed at our mosquito spray! If mosquitos are a real problem for you, come later in the year. If flowing water and waterfalls are important, come early and come prepared.

Bears frequent the campground in search of high-calorie food. Let’s face it, almost anything humans eat will fatten up a bear far faster than grass! They will eat anything that smells good … including sunscreen, candles, soap and your food. Bear boxes are provided in the campground and at every trailhead to keep food and “smelly” items safe from bears. Please use them as a fed bear is a dead bear.

Purple 49, AKA Bandit


The drive through Tuolumne is beautiful. However, the really spectacular views are seen while hiking trails. There are even “social” trails which are not listed on the official map, but these trails are not necessarily maintained by the park. Let’s go through the park-maintained trails from our perspective. How is our perspective different?

We knew right away that paper maps weren’t our thing and while apps on a phone aren’t ideal for those who are staying out many nights, they are perfect for day-hikes!

Our Favorite Trail Map Apps



Tracks where you went, time on the trail, time spent moving, pace and elevation gain. Pictures can be added and data downloaded in a shareable format. Be sure to download the trails you intend to hike before getting to the park as you will need data/service to download. Maps sometimes have trouble loading even after downloading, so check before you head out.

Avenza Maps

Shows your exact position on the trail with GPS coordinates. Can also record your tracks, time and elevation gain. Pins can be dropped; pictures and information can be added to the pins. Best thing is you can see everywhere you have been on one map. Maps for this app have to be purchased. Pricing starts at free and goes up from there! No data or service is needed after the map is downloaded!

Avenza hiking tracks

The maps we used

  1. 308: Yosemite NE: Tuolumne Meadows and Hoover Wilderness (South Side) – National Geographic Trails Illustrated
  2. Tuolumne Meadows and High Sierra Camps – Tom Harrison

If We Only Had a Week

The Trails: Ratings & Information

Soda Springs

Difficulty: 1
Wildlife Sightings: Deer and marmot

This is an easy trail, most of which is on an old gravel road and very slightly uphill. The spring is bubbling out of the ground within a partial log cabin surrounding it. The water has an unusual taste and warnings tell you to drink at your own risk. Many people do drink this water and one couple makes an annual trip to get water from the spring to mix up a drink with Tequila and Tang! There are views of the river, meadow and surrounding mountains from the spring. If you like, extend the hike by continuing up to Parsons Lodge and then down the hill to cross the bridge into the meadow.

Lembert Dome and Dog Lake

Difficulty: 3
Wildlife Sightings: Deer and frogs

The first part of this trail is steep and we had to stop to rest a lot! The first time we hiked this trail we passed up the Lembert Dome trail as we thought it would be too hard … it’s not! Do both! The lake is pretty and if its early in the year there may be dragonfly’s emerging … it’s quite a sight! Lembert Dome has a bird’s eye view of the meadow and surrounding mountains and it is truly amazing.

Lyell Canyon

Difficulty: 1
Wildlife Sightings: An occasional deer and lots of marmots

Easy trail with very little elevation gain. Early in the season, the trail is quite busy due to PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and JMT (John Muir Trail) hikers. It’s a pretty hike with nice river views.

Glen Aulin

Difficulty: 2-3
Wildlife Sightings: Deer, coyote, bear and marmot

This is a fantastic, but deceiving trail. Leaving the trailhead, it is mostly all downhill which makes it really easy to go much farther than intended. Tuolumne Falls are about 6 miles down the trail and the beauty of the falls as well as the changing scenery make this hike fantastic. Coming back can be fairly strenuous, but it’s absolutely worth it.

May Lake

Difficulty: 2
Wildlife Sightings: Deer, marmot

This is a steep trail that takes you to May Lake and the May Lake High Sierra Camp. Note: High Sierra Camps have lodging and food but must be reserved in advance – possibly the year before. The views are great on the climb up and the lake is gorgeous. Upon arriving at the lake stay on the trail to the right, keeping the lake to your left. For a nice scenic view, continue past the lake always staying to the right and climb the rocks just before the switchbacks that lead down into a valley.

Murphy Creek

Difficulty: 1-2
Wildlife Sightings: Coyote, deer and bear (during one hike we actually had two bear sightings!)

Pond near trail

This pretty trail doesn’t have many mountain views but its rocky terrain is different from other trails. There’s plenty to look at and it’s a peaceful trail.

Elizabeth Lake

Difficulty: 3.5
Wildlife Sightings: Deer, snake

Steep but shorter hike leading to a pretty lake. Early in the season, there will still be snow, a number of water crossings as well as many mosquitos. Later in the summer the marshy/boggy waterlogged areas will dry up and you can take a trail all the way around the lake.

Lower Cathedral Lake

Difficulty: 4
Wildlife Sightings: Deer

This large and beautiful lake is worth every uphill step! The hike is steep and mostly wooded with a couple of stops along the way that should make the climb more interesting. We always fill our spare water bottle when we pass by the natural spring. Drink at your own risk.

Upper Cathedral Lake

Difficulty: 4
Wildlife Sightings: Deer

Smaller lake that is just off the John Muir trail and high above the lower lake. This lake isn’t as popular but is well worth the extra climb. We were unable to walk around the whole lake as part of it is unpassable unless you wade/swim or maybe climb up and around some rocks.

Mono/Parker Pass and Spillway Lake

Difficulty: Mono–4, Parker–4, Spillway–2.5
Wildlife Sightings: Deer, coyote

Spectacular views await from either of the passes. The trail up is through a forest with a number of creek crossings and a pretty good climb. As you get higher the trees will thin out and all but disappear. The wind will also pick up, so secure that hat! If your timing is good, you will see abundant wildflowers. There are a couple of old log cabins along the trail to the passes and more along a trail that “y’s” off of the main trail near Mono Pass. They are worth checking out. Spillway Lake starts at the same trailhead but veers off before you get to the really steep stuff.

Gaylor Lakes, the Mine and Granite Lakes

Difficulty: 5
Wildlife Sightings: Deer, weasel (there are Pika, but we never saw them)

This is my favorite trail, but it starts hard! Just take your time and stop to rest … it’s worth it. Trails to the lakes and mine are well defined, but there are no defined trails to Granite Lakes. Cross-country hiking is required. Use AllTrails and/or Avenza apps to navigate to the lakes and back.

Lower Gaylor Lake

Difficulty: 3
Wildlife Sightings: Deer

Nice uphill hike that leads to an alpine meadow. The meadow is amazing and the views from the far side (if you can get there) of the lake are astounding. Early in the season, there is so much water that’s it’s nearly impossible to walk around the lake without getting wet.

This is not an all-inclusive trail list! There are other trails that we either did not hike or that could not be done in a day hike. Social trails are not included.

Lessons Learned

Photo bombed!

All tucked into our summer home

Headed out of the park

Feeling small … Can you spot Gertie?


Exploring Garner State Park

Early fall in Garner means summer has vanished, but autumn hasn’t truly begun in Garner. The days are still quite warm and the evenings have just begun to cool enough to enjoy a roaring campfire. It was an almost perfect time to visit the park! We stayed 3 full days and felt another 5 would have made the visit perfect.

This park is HUGE and it has so much to offer. Camping, swimming, tubing, paddle boats, volleyball, mini golf, wildlife viewing, photography, hiking and geocaching are all on the menu.

There are MANY campgrounds within Garner. With Old Garner campground being where all the weekend and summer activities are located. This campground is adjacent to the swimming hole, inner tube rentals, paddle boats, kayaks, camp stores and the popular evening dance at the pavilion. If you are there in the summer and you like these activities or want to be where the action is…. This is the place to be. We hear it has to be booked way in advance, so plan accordingly in the summer months. Most of the other campgrounds are quite a distance from the action and we needed our Jeep to get to and from everything. If there were shortcuts, we didn’t find them in our time at the park.

Frio River

We stayed in New Garner at the Live Oak campground. The Frio River was directly behind our site and only a short hike down the hill. We spent a lot of time walking in the river… yep walking! You see, most of the river behind our site was just ankle deep and in some places, it was even less! There are rock dams that create deeper pools in places and we enjoyed sitting on the rock dams soaking our feet. The water is cool and clear… so clear that you can watch the minnows and perch nibbling on your feet. They tickle!!

Jack Rabbit

If you carry a camera you’ve probably already discovered that wildlife seems to KNOW when you have it with you and they absolutely refuse to make an appearance! We did see a few White Tail deer, Axis deer, wild turkey, fox squirrels and Jack Rabbits. This was our first time to see a Jack Rabbit… they are HUGE. Our 13-pound dog looked tiny when compared to these rabbits!  Sometimes they are so still you can easily mistake them for a big rock until they get up and hop away. My jaw dropped the first time I saw one get up! They are always out in the morning and evening time, so you will want to take a walk and check them out. They don’t even mind if you have your camera!

Geocaching Fun

Hiking and Geocaching go hand and hand at Garner as there is not a single geocache in the park that does not require hiking. This worked well for us as these are our favorite things to do! If you are not familiar with geocaching, let me explain. Geocaching is somewhat of a high-tech treasure hunt that may or may not include “treasure” at least in the physical sense. Containers are hidden and GPS coordinates are documented online so that you can get to the general area where the container is hidden. Either a GPS unit or an app on your cell phone can be used to access the coordinates and get directions to the general area of the geocache. Once you get to “ground zero”, it’s totally up to you to find the hidden container. The real treasure in geocaching is the places it will take you and that is definitely true at Garner. We managed to find 5 of the caches in the park… there were more, but we didn’t have time to hike to them.

Our first hiking trip took us up the Bridges Trail where we found our first cache. We then jumped on the Crystal Cave trail and made our way to Crystal Cave. It was neat to go inside this small cave all on our own… no guides and no restrictions! At only 30 feet deep, you can’t really get lost but you will need a flashlight to get a good look around. It is DARK! We hung out for a while and enjoyed the slightly cooler, but smelly air before heading back. The trek ended at just over a mile and a half of really challenging trail. If you want to make things a bit easier, go back via the Bridges Trail instead of Crystal Cave trail as it has less loose rock. Loose rock caused me to lose my footing and fall. Luckily, I kept from falling down the hill and just scraped up my knee! Our little dog hikes with us and really struggled with this system of trails, but I think it was mostly because of how hot it was even with the low humidity. In the future, we will do our hiking in the morning to avoid the heat.

Hiking Views

Our next hiking trip took us on a multitude of trails. Many were not even on the trail map we got from the park, but you will still need that map! There is nothing like getting to an intersection of 5 trails and not knowing which one to take! Maps were posted at some trail intersections, but not all were in great shape and we had to dig our map out on more than one occasion. We started this trek on the Foshee trail where we found a couple of geocaches with awesome views. When we got to the intersection of trails we took Wilks trail and quickly found a shady pile of rocks to sit on and have some lunch before heading down. The cache on this trail had us going up and down the side of the mountain (on the trail) over and over! You see GPS works as the “crow flies”, it does not follow a trail nor does it register height. We passed the cache thinking it was farther down the trail and ended up climbing between switchbacks to score the find. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize in doing so we missed our next trail until we were back at our lunch spot! Back down we went. We eventually found Bell trail which we followed to Donavan Trail where we scored another cache! Are you confused yet? We sure were and it just got worse! We had decided to make a full circle by taking some other trails out to the trailhead. Trying to decipher where we needed to go was confusing, even with a map. There are so many trails to choose from! Eventually, we made it to Bird trail. I have to say this trail is better left to the birds unless you are looking for some real adventure! The Bird Trail is extremely steep. In places, we had to scoot on our bottoms to get to the next section safely! Loose rock everywhere, big boulders to traverse and rock “slides” to scoot down. Even Crowley (our dog) was struggling to find a good path down. This trail would probably be better going up rather than down… if you decide to take it at all. I don’t regret taking the trail, but it was TOUGH. We finished out the hike on White Rock Cave trail where we passed but did not stop at the cave. All in all, a great day of hiking could only be made better by FOOD!

We filled our tummies at the Garner Grill which is essentially a food truck housed in a modified Airstream trailer. The food was actually pretty good, though a bit pricey. I do NOT recommend the bacon cheeseburger as there isn’t enough bacon on it to justify the price increase. I personally couldn’t even taste it on my burger. (Why oh why didn’t I take a picture?) If you plan to eat there, look for the signs with “Brown-Bag” specials when you register at the park and don’t let them tell you it’s over when you order!

There were many more trails we wanted to hike and several more geocaches we wanted to find, but we were out of time in the park. We will be back… probably when it is cooler!

Day Use Area


About Geocaching

Geocaching /ˈdʒiːoʊˌkæʃɪŋ/ is an outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches”, anywhere in the world.


We were facing a problem! It was a problem the geographical size of the entire state of South Carolina. It was a voluminous problem, one that could hold as much water as all of the Great Lakes combined! It was certainly an uncrossable problem, one so large that if we stood on the pebble strewn shores of one end, we surely wouldn’t see land where her blue horizon meets a similarly coloured sky, on the other end. It was a numerically large problem, at approximately 350 miles (560 km) long and 160 miles (260 km) wide. It was a problem that was angled rather awkwardly between the four Cardinal points of the Compass. It was a problem that was going to force us to make a choice of a Route.

We were in Toronto mapping ourselves a driveable, yet hopefully somewhat adventurous route Westwards, to the LTV Rally scheduled in Winkler (MB) on the 6th of September. We had a couple of extra days between now and then to… Adventure!  The problem that lay in our path was forcing us to choose between a Northwards direction before going West all the while staying in Canada, or cross American Borders as we headed Southwestwards before going North & West. The problem that lay in our way was Gichi-Gami.

Gichi-Gami is the Ojibwa name for Lake Superior, the largest of the Five Great Lakes and translated means Upper Lake, or Great Sea. The Canadian Province of Ontario sits to her Northern shores, and the states of Minnesota (on her West side) and Michigan (South side) envelop her on the American side.

“So, do you want to drive the North of Lake Superior route?” asked Dave, as we were enjoying our morning cup of coffee. “Or should we explore the Southern route? The one below the Lake?”

“Let’s go the Southern route” I suggested, “we’ve never been that way before!” The excitement of the unknown just the Adrenaline we were looking for. Or maybe it was that double shot of Expresso pulsing through our veins that had us Excited to be on the road again.

We crossed the border into the USA at Sarnia and once in Michigan checked our trusty RV Parky App, double checked with Allstays, and the end result had us pulling into Lakeport State Park.

Our neighbour who’d been eyeing us since our arrival, sauntered over with a friendly wave once he noticed we were comfortably settled.

“Howdy,” he said, “How long you folks here for?”

“Oh, just overnight” responded Dave.

“I knew it!” he chuckled, “your spot has been full of one-night-ers all week. I can’t figure out where everyone is going? Maybe they don’t like the way I talk!”

He laughed, and we too, along with him.

“Where you headed?” he asked. We told him that our destination was Manitoba, and that we had a couple of days to spend exploring, and that we didn’t know which route to take. “Well…” he said, holding up his hand interrupting our passage ponderings, “…you need to go to the U.P.!”

Dave and I looked at each other quizzically, hoping the other could clarify what we weren’t sure we’d heard right, then looked back at him, hoping for an answer.

He took a moment and looked down at his right hand, changed his mind with a shake of his head, and then raised his left hand instead, bending his fingers down at the top joints and with his thumb kind of sticking outwards, making it all look curiously like…

“This is the State of Michigan” he explained, “which really looks like Da Mitten.” I nodded in agreement as his right-hand pointer finger aimed at the bottom. “This is us” and he traced his finger upwards as he continued,  “Head up here. Cross the MightyMac and you’ll be in the U.P. Visit the waterfalls at the Qu’M’Non. And them Pictured Rocks are God’s gift,” he stopped for a moment before adding “and stop at the Lake in the Clouds in the Porkies.”

We looked at him, looked at each other, and quickly double checked our arrival beers, which were still rather full and certainly not the reason we weren’t understanding his lingo.

“Give me a minute,” he said, as he walked towards his campsite. “I’ve got some maps for you.” He returned moments later, his mitten hand full of the promised paperwork.

The next morning we drove the red line of GPS directions. Soon the silver cables and towers of a bridge appeared on the horizon and we found ourselves on the tolled Mackinac Bridge; five miles of four lanes of road that is the third longest suspension bridge in the world.

“The bridge opened on the first of November 1957 and it’s called the Mighty Mac or the Big Mac” I read out loud from the tourist pamphlet as Dave kept his eyes on the road ahead, “or the Troll Turnpike!”

“Why is it called the Troll Turnpike?” asked Dave.

“Well, Michigonians who live in the Lower Peninsula, South of the bridge, are called Trolls.”“And I suppose the U.P. the guy was talking about last night stands for the Upper Peninsula?”

“Yup” I laughed, “And the people who live there? They’re called Yoopers.”

We both laughed at the wordage, but truth be told we were intrigued and just slightly curious as to what kind of landscape this jargon was taking us to.

Our hungry bellies were growling their insistence for lunch just as we arrived at the Tahquamenon State Park campground. Thankfully it doesn’t take long to Park’N’Play!

“How about we hike the River Trail?” I asked as I mused over the potential edible contents of the fridge. “The trail entrance is right in this campsite loop. It’s only a couple of miles, and best of all it takes us to views of both the Upper and Lower Falls?”

“Sure, sounds great!”

Armed with water and an afternoon snack, we set a moderate pace as we followed the signs pointing the way to the Lower Falls. The afternoon sun shone brilliantly in the clear blue skies, and the sounds that are tall standing trees with no wind to whisper about their breezes was occasionally broken by the many chirping birds flitting about.

With ever increasing loudness we could hear the roar of rushing water before we actually saw the violent cascade of chocolate brown waters misting about and foaming on the shores.

From there, the River Trail started. For a while, we huffed and puffed uphill. We sidestepped the exposed tree roots, easily making our way over heeled wooden boardwalks.

We made our way down the hills and then counted the way too many stairs that led us back up. But, oh how the watery views here were calming and peaceful compared to the rushing waterfalls we witnessed earlier.

A little over two hours later we finally reached the Upper Falls and sat down on the first park bench we found. The banana we’d brought for a snack did nothing to convince our aching thighs to walk the extra mile to the Upper Falls, nor did drinking our now warm water help motivate our weary bodies towards the 116 step descent to the Gorge.

“Look dear, there’s a shuttle that can take us back,” said Dave as he read the sign out loud, and immediately frowned. “For $20!”
“Well, that sucks” I lamented, knowing full well we had brought Zero dollars with us.

“How was the trail?” asked the family group that sidled close to the same map we were reading.“It’s well worth the effort” we both agreed as we described the hike in greater detail adding, “It’s a linear 4 miles, so count on 8 miles if you’re hiking round trip. Should take you about 2 hours one way, or 4 if you’re going round trip.”

“It’s well worth the effort” we both agreed as we described the hike in greater detail adding, “It’s a linear 4 miles, so count on 8 miles if you’re hiking round trip. Should take you about 2 hours one way, or 4 if you’re going round trip.”

“Perhaps I won’t go,” said the elderly lady to her husband, “I’ll just drive down and wait for you, then you don’t have to walk back.” Then she looked over at us and asked: “Would you like a drive?” We accepted her generous offer and moments later arrived at our camp that was home for the night, where our chairs welcomed us with open arms and a perfect fire pit to rest our weary legs on.

Next day we figured we would stretch out our sore muscles with a flat, yet easy, 1.5 miles walk to the AuSable Lighthouse. We followed what was the old Coast Guard road along and soon an arrow pointed us down some stairs to the pebbled beach, where the mile-long shallow sandstone reef that extends out into Lake Superior was clearly visible to the eyes.

This lakeshore is known to be especially treacherous for voyaging vessels, especially in foggy or stormy conditions and the wrecks that made history are many, and famous, such as the Edmund Fitzgerald. How many tales would this weathered pile of jetsam tell if only the continuous ebb and flow of waters wouldn’t so constantly wash their stories away?

And as we climbed back up to the path and reached the Au Sable Lighthouse, we appreciated the many stories that this light could tell, and the lives it saved, as we toured about.

In Munising, we stopped at the Pictured Rocks National Park. Here we saw jaggedly picturesque sandstone cliffs emerging from Lake Superior’s waterline. Sculpted into the shoreline with a stunning palette of colours that appears when groundwater seeps through the cracks in the rocks and plays around with nature’s embedded minerals. Reds and oranges glow when iron is present, blues and greens shine where there is copper, browns and blacks develop where they find manganese and white arise from the limonite.

A small group of mountain ranges stand around here, their contour shaped rather like a porcupine. Or so the Ojibwa people thought, as they named them the Porcupine Mountains. Or Porkies for short.

It started raining when we arrived at Union Bay Campground, and we got a little wet as we waited for the Park Ranger to process our stay.

“On 11th of July 2016, we had the Storm of the Millenium. A whopping 11 inches of rain in only 4 hours! ” he said as he handed us our Windshield Paperwork and sent us on our rainy way. We hoped we weren’t going to break any new storm records that night as we navigated the large water puddles forming helter-skelter on the ground, and tampered with our ability to park all of our tires in relatively dry and level spots.

After all that Adventuring an early night was quite welcome. The pitter-patter song that is splattering raindrops on the roof lulled us to sleep, with no need to count raindrops, or porcupined mountain ranges, for that matter.

We woke up to the sun and clear blue skies and such a beautiful view from our site that it wasn’t difficult to talk ourselves into a second cup of coffee watching the morning mist retreat into the horizon.

It wasn’t far from our Campground to the Lake of the Clouds Overlook. The Park Ranger checked our pass and pointed the way to the parking lot, still rather empty in the early morning hours. We walked the short path to the Edges of the Escarpment and gasped.

“Look…” I whispered to Dave, getting my camera ready, and we both stared in mesmerizing fashion as the misty grey clouds played tag with the cliffs, and bounced towards the Lake below, singing “Tag! Play Along, Catch me if you can!” as they disappeared from view, and re-emerged with surprising haziness somewhere else.

It wasn’t difficult to understand why the lake was renamed from Carp Lake (originating from the French Term “Lac du Escarpe”) to Lake of the Clouds, for it truly was just that.

Three mountain ridges parallel Lake Superior’s shoreline. And Lake of the Clouds sits on one of them. We visited the other ridge, purported to be the tallest one, where we stopped at the Summit Peak trailhead. Given the impassably wet conditions we opted out of all the trail hikes, and chose the boardwalk type of uphill walk, that had way too many stairs to count but came with many benches where we could sit to catch our breath until we reached the base of the Observation Tower.

With heartbeats pumping out of our heaving chests, we exhaled loudly as we officially reached, at 1958 feet, the top of the Tower and the highest peak in the Porkies.  Would this be what the world would look like if you were a bird soaring freely over the dense tree topped porcupine shaped mountain ranges?

And so this is the Story of how, thanks to the unusual lingo of a campsite neighbour, we came to adventure in a State that looks like Da Mitten. Where, for very special few days we visited a land abbreviated as the U.P. Where, for a while, we were Trolls, then continued on as Yoopers but only after we crossed the MightyMac, of course. This is the story of chocolate coloured waterfalls and lighthouses with shipwrecked history. Of where the Lake and the Clouds played a disappearing game of tag all in strangely shaped mountains called the Porkies.

And how, because of Gichi-Gami, our Adventures drove us through one Compass Tale of a Route!