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This trip was the first time I had been backpacking since I was 17. So why did I choose to fly all the way to California and hit the trail for 7 days with only one 5 mile practice hike in the season before? Well, I wanted to go to Yosemite because it is an amazing place and I feel like I left something behind when I was there two years ago. I had to get back and see the backcountry! As for why did I choose 7 days...well, I wanted to do the High Sierra Camp Loop so I could see a large portion of the park but still have some support nearby if needed. It had been 21 years since I'd done this after all.
I secured my permit in February and got three of the six spots for the Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley along with Half Dome permits. It was a chore to get the permit because the fax machine was not answering on the Sunday that applications were due. Thankfully some very nice people were able to help resolve the issues and allow me to get my application int the lottery. A big thanks to the nice people at Yosemite Conservancy for their great work and helpful spirit! I am proud to now be a member!
Before this trip even began I could feel it was the culmination of something. That something was the last two years that I had been re-aquainting myself with the outdoors and the skills required to enjoy them. In the beginning I had been nervous but now I was full of confidence. I had originally planned on going with a couple of people from Kansas City, but they were unable to make the trip and there was no way I was not going, so I decided it would be a solo trip, adding a bit more to the adventure!
This trip required a bit more planning than others because of traveling by plane with backpacking gear, needing to resupply with food halfway through the trip, and making sure I could fit everything into my pack. So, with the resupply box on it's way to the post office in Tuolumne Meadows I left for the high sierra!
DAY - 1
Saturday August 17, 2013 I headed for the airport. I checked my backpack paying careful attention to having the batteries, lighter, etc. in my carry on so that I wouldn't be missing anything when I got there. You see, I had to make it to the permit station before 5:00pm to pick up my permit or it would make my next morning very difficult as I would only have an hour to pickup my permit and catch the shuttle to my trailhead at Glacier Point. I was very stressed and it would only get worse.
My first flight was to Denver on a turbo prop. Yes, seriously, Kansas City to Denver on a turbo prop. Oh well, it added to the sense of adventure! When I got to Denver I found out my flight to Fresno had been rescheduled two hours ahead...for which I had not been notified. So I had no choice to wait and pray for the best. After a four hour layover I was off to Fresno. Upon landing in Fresno I hurried to get my bag and my rental car. Fortunately it didn't appear that TSA had torn my bag apart but there was a huge line at the rental car counter. Even though I had a reservation Dollar had no rental cars available and was having to wash them and bring them around for people waiting in line. It took me 1 hour and 20 minutes before I had a car. And as I pulled onto the freeway it started making a horrible noise from the driver side front wheel. It literally sounded like I was driving a Pod Racer when I hit 55. It was now 2:30pm and I knew it would take me until 4:45pm to make it to the valley best case. If I turned around it would take at least 45 minutes to get a new car. I kept going hoping the car would make it!
Along the way I had called the park and verified that I could pick up my permit at Wawona. This would save me 45 minutes and I started to feel better. I arrived at the Wawona Wilderness Permit Office at just after 4:00pm. That is when I learned the reason for all of my delays. There were two guys from Seattle, Mike & Andrew, who were trying to find an available permit that would allow them to hike the High Sierra Camp Loop like I was planning. I interjected and soon the ranger had issued the permit for me and my two new friends. I realized that the reason for all the delays was so we would meet up and be able to hike together for the week! Seems someone was looking out for both of us ; )
Mike & Andrew followed me down to the valley with a stop at Tunnel View along the way. We ate dinner at the cafeteria and did a little shopping in the store. I hadn't had time to get stove fuel at REI in Fresno and they were out, but luckily the guys had two large canisters. We headed to the trailhead parking and walked to the backpackers campground just as the sun was setting. We grabbed the last open spot and crashed for the night after a long day.
DAY - 2 (8.1 Miles | 1,461ft Gain | 2,398ft Loss | 5H 45M)
Now that I had two hiking companions with a second car I didn't have to worry about catching the shuttle to Glacier Point! We got up at a decent hour and packed up camp after a quick breakfast. We hiked back to the cars at the trailhead parking and loaded our gear into their car before departing for Glacier Point. We arriver at Glacier Point and spent some time walking around and enjoying the views. This is the spot where I watched the sun set two years ago before driving back to Fresno. What an amazing place!
We hit the trail just before 11:00 and headed down the hill to Illouette Creek. The creek and the falls were not roaring as it was late in the season, but they still provided an incredible spot for lunch! After lunch we began out trek up to Panorama Point. Of our 1400ft of ascent this day this section would count for 1000ft of it. I was clearly out of shape as it was hard going. Slow and steady was the key. Once we reached the top we had a great view back to the valley and up the Merced River towards Nevada Falls. We dropped down to the top of Nevada Falls before heading up river to Little Yosemite Valley.
As was typical for the week, Andrew and I arrived at camp after Mike as he was in much better shape. He had picked out a nice campsite and we began to setup after spending some time sitting on a log and relaxing! I was really not feeling very well. I knew I hadn't eaten enough during the day and probably should have drank more water as well. I also had hot spots on my heels and my feet were tired. We headed down to the river to pump water and once that was complete I decided to take a swim. The water was very cold, but several of us managed to slash around for a bit. It was very refreshing and did an amazing job helping me to feel better!
Upon returning to camp we made dinner and settled in. The rangers came by around dusk to check our permit and inform us of a mother bear and cubs in the area. This is the most popular campsite as there are lots of people who spend the night here to shorten the hike up to Half Dome. Other than the base of Half Dome this was the only other place we had our permit checked. I went to sleep exhausted but with the happy knowledge that I was finally in the Yosemite Backcountry!
DAY - 3 (10.0 Miles | 1,599ft Gain | 495ft Loss | 7H 54M)
We awoke and broke camp hitting the trail around 9:00am. The trail followed the river through the relatively flat Little Yosemite Valley with beautiful trees and views of granite domes all around us. After while we came upon the first of several pools followed by a cascade of water down the granite. We began our climb before the trail leveled out again. This pattern of flat areas followed by rocky climbs would repeat throughout the day with the trail gaining about 1,100ft by the time we hit camp at Merced Lake.
We stopped for lunch and a swim / wade at one of the pools before starting another big climb. Passing through Echo Vally and the junction with the trail from Sunrise Hight Sierra Camp where we were passed by a mule train delivering supplies to the camps. A short climb of a few hundred feet brought us to the West end of Merced Lake as the storm clouds were approaching front he East. We made it to camp just as it started to sprinkle and managed to have dinner before the heavy rain hit. Apparently the night before the camp had been hit by a storm and a very old and large tree fell, narrowly missing a mother and daughter. I was in my tent at 6:30. By 7:30 it was windy, rainy, and the sky was full of lightning. I was warm and dry in my tent. I just love that feeling : )
DAY - 4 (9.3 Miles | 3,200ft Gain | 343ft Loss | 8H 55M)
The first day had been hard, the second day a bit easier. This was the day I worried about as we had to climb over 3,000ft to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. We hit the trail just after 8:30am and began to climb the rocky switchbacks. We caught up to Mike at the junction with Lewis Creek. I had originally planned to follow Lewis Creek making my way over Vogelsang Pass before dropping into camp. Given the approaching storm and my slow pace I felt it prudent to skip the pass and get to camp quicker while staying at a lower elevation. Andrew agreed so the two of us tackled the switchbacks that followed Fletcher Creek.
While I still want to take the trail along Lewis Creek someday I was very pleased with the path we took. After the grueling switchbacks we stopped for lunch before entering the wooded meadow near Babcock Lake where we saw a Marmot scurrying about. A few more switchbacks took us up alongside a 300ft cascade. When we crested the hill we followed Fletcher Creek into a beautiful high alpine meadow. We stopped for a swim as I was in desperate need of getting clean from all the sweating. Traversing the meadow took us to some moderate elevation gain and into Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. We found Mike on his way back from pumping water and we were all able to get some dinner before the rain hit. Thankfully it was just some light sprinkles and the majority of the storm passed to the North of us. We were able to enjoy a lightning show and got some beautiful sunset pictures! We would learn the next day that the storm had dumped hail on Tuolumne Meadows.
DAY - 5 (15.5 Miles | 754ft Gain | 2,970 Loss | 10H 03M)
It was all down hill from here. Literally! Today we would drop from our high point at Vogelsang of 10,200ft to Glen Aulin at 7,900ft. We woke up around 5:30 am but didn't get out of camp until 8:00am! I should have slept longer as I was up in the night. We followed Rafferty Creek through a beautiful alpine meadow before the trail entered a more wooded area and descended into Tuolumne Meadows. We hiked to the lodge thinking that was where we could get some real food to eat. Turns out the only place serving lunch was the grill near the post office, so we took the shuttle about a mile down the road. We met a hiker named Patrick and he joined us for a burger and fries before continuing on North. The post office was closed for sorting, but as soon as it opened I picked up my resupply box. I still had food so I gave out the extras that the guys wanted and put the rest in the hiker box. We also had cell service so I was able to text the family and let them know I was doing fine. After a nice rest we headed out across the meadow towards Parsons Lodge and the trailhead to Glen Aulin.
The trail from Tuolumne Meadows starts out relatively flat following the Tuolumne River. After while the trail starts to cross slick rock marked with cairns. The the river and trail begin a dramatic drop! We arrived in camp before dark and had time for a nice meal before turning in. This was a long day at 15.5 miles and 10 hours. By the end of the day my feet were really sore. I had been getting hot spots on my heels but they had turned into callouses. By now I had sore spots on my big toes where the nail was rubbing on the skin. All in all the only thing bothering me was sore feet, but that was to be expected.
DAY - 6 (14.2 Miles | 3,104ft Gain | 1,672ft Loss | 10H 31M)
This is the day where my original plan would change. Mike & Andrew had to fly back to Seattle on Sunday but I did not have to head back to Kansas City until Monday. If I wanted to keep hiking with them I would have to skip one of the camps and shorten the trip. I had taken a day hike up to May Lake when I was here two years ago so I decided to skip it this time and head straight to Sunrise. This would make for another long day at over 14 miles and this time rather than being down hill 3/4 of it would be up hill.
We started by soaking our feet in the river and enjoying the falls before heading out. Hitting the trail about 10:00am we began a climb out of Glen Aulin toward May Lake. After about 4.5 miles we hit the trail junction and head down hill towards Tenaya Lake. We stopped at the beach to eat lunch around 2:00pm and soak our feet but Mike was nowhere to be found. Andrew went to the North shore looking for him but he was nowhere to be found. As I was soaking my feet I noticed I had a large blister on one of my smaller toes on each foot. They were literally as big as the toe, but didn't hurt so I left them alone. By the time we got to camp they had popped but thankfully they never hurt! We continued on and started the climb up to Sunrise. These swithchbacks were as hard as any we had seen on the way to Vogelsang and our progress was slow. About 3/4 of the way up Mike came up behind us and we had learned that he was waiting for us on the South side of the lake.
It was at this time that we learned about the Rim Fire. This was the first vantage we had where we could see the smoke and the thunderclouds that were being created from the heat of the fire. As we passed other hikers we got more information. While it was horrible news we were thankful that it was a safe distance away from us and would not affect our safety or our ability to finish the trip.
We arrived at the very scenic Lower Sunrise Lake and took a break while Mike pumped some water. We soon passed the middle and upper lakes and crested the top of the peak. As we were snapping photos we noticed a big black fuzzy butt walking down the trail away from us. We followed the bear for about a half mile making sure to talk loud enough he could hear us behind him. As the sun was going down the temperature started to drop so we stopped to pull out our fleeces and lost him. Shortly after we came upon two girls coming up the trail and they said they had scared him down into a meadow.
As we continued on to cam Mike started to get out into the lead again about the time we heir the switchbacks. He had walked down the switchback already and was directly below me on the hill when I saw the bear step onto the trail 30ft in front of me. He appeared to be about a 300lb male and was looking me right in the eyes. I had wondered how I would handle a situation like this. Turns out I handled it very well with only a bit of nerves. Andrew was 10-15ft behind me and I told him and Mike to stop. I focused on the bear and sternly told him to go on. He looked me over and it seemed like he was thinking "But, I'm bigger than you." I held my ground and yelled at him again while waving my arms. He bowed his head submissively and turned away with a sad look on his face before wondering off. I cut the switchback and the three of us headed down into a camp full of onlookers.
The sun was setting quickly and the picking for campsites was slim. We met two guys from Arizona who were happy to share their area for us. As we set up camp they built a roaring fire. This was actually the first fire of our trip and it was amazing! Not only did it take the chill off, but gave us enough light to cook and eat our dinner while we talked with our campmates. We turned in wondering if we would hear a bear in camp that night, but all was calm.
DAY - 7 (7.2 Miles | 545ft Gain | 2,684ft Loss | 4H 20M)
This was to be a short day that was mostly down hill so we slept in and stayed in camp until 12:00pm. I spread out on a nice warm rock in the morning sunshine and wrote in my journal, had breakfast, and closed my eyes for a short nap. By the time we hit the trail we were refreshed. We had decided to camp near the trail to Half Dome rather than returning all the way to Little Yosemite Valley as it would drastically shorten our last day. The only unknown was whether or not there was a source of water. The trail started with a bit of elevation gain before a dramatic drop through a gorgeous section of trees and pine duff forest floor. This was part of the John Muir Trail and I was very glad we were going down hill rather than up. There was a picture perfect campsite near water but it was not close enough to our destination so we pressed on. The trail opened up into an area burnt by a previous forest fire. With the hillside open we could see Half Dome ahead and the Merced River to the side.
We arrived at an area about 1/4 mile up from the Half Dome trail where several groups were camping. There was just a trickle of a stream but it was enough to pump from so we set up camp for the night. This camp was directly off the trail so there was a bit too much traffic but it turned out to be a very nice site once the sound started to go down. We made a campfire and stayed up a bit enjoying it before bed.
DAY - 8 (12.7 Miles | 2,495ft Gain | 5,548ft Loss | 10H 04M)
We woke up early and hit the trail by 6:15am. Yes, this was the earliest we had started by far but we figured getting to Half Dome before the crowds did would be the way to go. The hike up was challenging and I was glad to be doing it with just my day pack! The "steps" made me a bit nervous as there is quite a bit of exposure. Ironically I felt much more comfortable on the slab by sections above the stairs. Andrew was the exact opposite, but I taught him he could just trust his boots and walk up the angled slab. We reached the cables to find Mike half way up waving for us to follow. Now, I am not a peak bagger. I much prefer hiking through a wooded area next to a mountain stream. I enjoy the views, but prefer being near the water and beautiful scenery more at a human scale. That being said, when I had the chance to get Half Dome permits with our wilderness permit I knew I could not pass it up!
Andrew and I grabbed a pair of gloves from the pile and headed up the cables. Now I wasn't sure how I would enjoy this as it is very exposed and you are not protected in any way. The gloves allow for a good grip on the cable and the board spanning the posts give you a good place to rest at regular intervals. Even so, my arms got very tired going up, but it was not that bad. Going down was actually much easier as I spent most of the time with my hands on a single cable going hand over hand walking down as if I was on a rope.
We got to the top and spent roughly a half an hour taking pictures and walking around. There had been no ranger at the bottom of the climb and we head heard from some people that they don't show up until 9:00. There had been a few groups coming back down before we even got up there as they had gone up for sunrise. As we got to the base of the steps the ranger was there and checked our permit. We stopped for a snack before heading back to camp to pack up.
We were all packed up and back on the trail just after noon. The trail back down to Little Yosemite Valley is very steep and full of switchbacks. About half way down we started passing more and more groups headed up wondering if they were almost there. Ha! No. Good luck and keep at it : )
We got to the top of Nevada Falls about 1:30pm and I was amazed by the huge crowd there. A lot of tourists had already hiked up from the valley floor and were there to swim as they no longer allow swimming at the emerald pools area (which we learned when we got down there). After getting a few pictures we headed down the mist trail. I had hiked up to the base of Nevada Falls two years ago, but the switchbacks up to the top of the falls were something I did not tackle. I did not expect them to be quite so long! At this point we were all tired and ready to be done for the day.
As we reached the Emerald Pool we saw the new signs that no swimming was allowed. As we were sweating we had been looking forward to a swim. Ultimately we had to settle for wading in 6-10 inches of water and laying down in it. It was very cold but very refreshing.
After a half an hour of rest we headed down the mist trail and enjoyed the ever lovely Vernal Falls. Given that it was late August, none of the falls were roaring, but they were still very pretty. I had however taken my good camera with me on my day hike two years ago and got some really nice photos with the high water flow of 2011. We soon hit the paved section of trail and the water station at the bridge over the Merced. Before we knew it we had arrived at Happy Isles and our week long adventure was over. It was bittersweet to be sure. We were tired but it was such an amazing trip it was hard for it to end. We had hiked 77 miles over 7 days!!!
We arrived at the car around 4:15pm and loaded up our gear. I drove the guys back to their car at Glacier Point and had planned to come back to the Backpackers Campground for the night. As they were talking about heading into Fresno and getting a good dinner I decided that I was going to head into Oakhurst and see if I could find a hotel for the night. I had spent the last 6 nights sleeping on the ground and though I could have spent one more I decided to go for a bit of comfort. They stopped at Wawona to turn in their Bear Cannisters and I got some dinner at the store there before heading into town and getting a good nights sleep.
DAY - 9
I was able to call and talk to Colin this morning and it was great to hear his voice after so many days! He was already asleep last night by the time I was able to call.
Originally my plan would have been to have come down from Sunrise on Day 8 while doing Half Dome along the way. That would have made for a very long day and I would not have gotten back to the valley until very late. By skipping May Lake we were able to make the Half Dome day easier and get them back to Fresno on Saturday. So, this day was to be my extras day in case I needed one more on the trail. If I didn't I had planned on spending half of it in the valley and the other half exploring the Mariposa Grove. Given that I was an hour away from the Valley in Oakhurst, and that I had seen most of it two years ago, I decided to spend the day looking at the big trees. So, after hiking 77 miles I went for a 4 hour, 7.4 Mile hike through the Mariposa Grove, but with just a day pack : ) After my hike I drove back to Fresno where I looked around at the REI and had a nice dinner before checking into my hotel.
DAY - 10
The final day was a travel day. Fresno to Denver, Denver to Kansas City, and then the drive back home. I had a great trip, but it was sure nice to see my family!
So I had done both a canoeing and backpacking trip in the backcountry this summer and was comfortable with the skills required of each. As I push my boundaries it seems I will need to push into more remote locations to find the challenge I am seeking. I also went on a canyoneering trip two years ago. On that trip I did some pretty big rappels that challenged me quite a bit. I also have been having some trouble leading while climbing outdoors...it's a mental game. I think the first thing I am going to work on is my comfort with exposure while climbing and rappelling as I work toward multi-pitch climbing. Oh, and learning to be able to canoe in whitewater. Then I will look towards more remote wilderness for the adventure I am seeking.