We started out at Mono Meadows trailhead (7200), on Glacier Point Road. The hike begins with a big descent to Illilouette Creek (6400), and then a big hike back up to our starting elevation. In every direction we looked, domes emerged from the forest. We hiked right under stark Mt Starr King, and past old bald Mt Clark. We left the trail just past Clark Fork (7200). Our cross-country route went through regrowth from the Illilouette Fire of 1991 and the Horizon Fire of 1994. Decades after the blazes, the forest floor was still scattered with fallen timber. It was slow going, picking our way over and around the debris. Our plan was to camp at Grayling Lake (8692). We didn't find the lake before dusk, but we later discovered that our intended campsite was only a couple hundred yards away.
Saturday morning, we worked our way up the west ridge of Gray Peak. Tall pines gave way to dense stunted pines. At last we got onto bare, rocky ground. We continued to follow the west ridge until it narrowed to where we couldn't call it class 2 climbing any more. We dropped down 100 feet on the south side, traversed, and worked our way up to the summit (11573). At the mountaintop, we could see smoke rising from the remnant of the Rim Fire. We had a beautiful view into Yosemite Valley and down onto the top of Half Dome. To the east, Mounts Ritter and Banner, and the Minarets seemed close enough to touch.
Will had the urge, so he took off by himself to climb nearby Red Peak. The other three headed down and through the forest toward Grayling Lake. As we approached the lake, Will had caught up, right there alongside us.
Grayling Lake turned out to be a charming place. It was warm enough for Kathy to take a swim. A previous visitor had left a lake register. It's just a book with a pen, triple wrapped in plastic, under a rock. I had never signed in at a lake before that day.
After a brief stay, we found our campsite nearby. We packed up and started down. When sun touched the horizon we were in the charred ruins of what was once a forest. The site was spacious, and it made for a convenient but creepy place to camp. Over dinner, Will tested us with puzzles. Name five words, each five letters long, where every letter is allowable in a Roman numeral (MDCLXVI), and by the way, you don't need to use 'X'. There among the ashes, it felt like we were telling stories around the world's biggest campfire.
On Sunday morning, we quickly found our way back to the trail, then across the creek, then back up to the trailhead. That was our gray celebration of the end of summer, and the end of California fire season.
(Photos are by Kathy Kohberger.)