Two friends who decided to get married in Lake Tahoe, made me decide to make their wedding a good excuse for an extended summer vacation and backpacking trip to what they call the High Sierra. Early conservation pioneers of the west and the work they did are fascinating to me. That famous photograph of Teddy and John Muir standing atop Overhanging Rock are on my living room wall. Muir once wrote,“But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”
I wanted to see that.
I faxed in my permit application 168 days before my start date to ensure I began from the trailhead of my choosing. I arrived at the permitting office immediately inside the entrance to Yosemite 167 days later. I was aware, and in for the congestion of a world famous National Park and the epic drought. I was a tourist among many when I drove down into the Yosemite valley floor on a Sunday afternoon. I was in possession of a Wilderness permit, so I was able to stay in one of the backpackers campgrounds a night before my trip. This also gave me an opportunity to drive up to Glacier Point and see where Roosevelt and Muir once stood. I hastily walked past dozens of people on my way to the point. I suppose I could have felt out-of-place as I chose not wear flip-flops, a tank top, speak excessively and wield my smart phone from scene to scene as if I could only see the world through its screen. I put myself in the zone of my own world and peered over the edge to the valley below. It got close to brining back memories of standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time when I was a kid. At first the beauty tends to be a little overwhelming.
The heat was intense. I walked and ran my way up Sentinel Dome for an even higher perch. It felt good to work my lungs again after the first half of lazy, but very enjoyable vacation.
Staging gear for my six day walk in the woods.
The outside temperature on my car listed 99 F. People in bright bathing suits lined the banks of the Merced River. Kids splashed while their content parents dipped lawn chairs and coolers in for a drink. Much of the rivers I had seen up to this point were that of a small pools and trickles. In and on the banks, the size of rock and debris of these streams suggested much, much bigger water could and had come through. It was a bigger introduction to the state of California’s massive drought condition. I couldn’t stand but inquiring further when the Wilderness ranger told me that campfires in the valley and in the backcountry were still being allowed. She seemed as stunned as I, but kept it professional in backing the Parks stance.
Overnight parking was near non-existent when I began to look for the backpackers campground. Before settling in I was already into backpacking logistical conversations with several JMT thru hikers. Later into the evening I had walked into Curry Village for a bite to eat and to circle my car around the park as to look for the closest possible parking spot to my campground that I could. I was essentially a car camper having to walk 3/4 of a mile between my campsite and my vehicle; rookie mistake.
The Yosemite Valley Floor … What can I say? They sure know how to exploit an incredibly beautiful chunk of public land. I get it though. What could I say here that isn’t something that hasn’t already been said on the topic? Having never been to one, the one phrase I could think of when walking through what seemed like endless RV and tent camping sites, dorms and shower houses, was “immigration camp.” I knew on the surface what to expect, but I was not prepared for the immense footprint. I tried to imagine what Muir would have said. “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
I began from the Mono Meadow trailhead off of Glacier Point Road on a warm and peaceful morning.
Mount Starr King
Through the burn area of Illilouette Creek.
I stopped and chatted briefly with some students who were carrying long butterfly nets. “Yeah, that’s pretty important,” I said. They were collecting pollinators to get a feel for populations in the park. “We think so.”
The Illilouette Creek watershed has burned many times.
What remains in Buena Vista Creek.
By this time I had been conserving my water intake as I had not seen a running stream since the trail left Illilouette. Stream beds fed from Edson and Hart Lakes were dry as well.
Storm clouds to the northeast and first thunder heard around 13:00.
Buena Vista Lake. Water in my life again.
My home for the night would be on the banks of Royal Arch lake. After knocking out 14.5 miles and setting up a little camp, I hopped right into the lake to ease the heat of the day. This would be a rarity for me in the Colorado Rockies, where the ambient and water temperature is way cooler.
This was my first experience with ever using a bear canister (required by Yosemite NPS). Kudos to Wild Ideas who provided excellent customer service, and an even better product. Carbon fiber composite and aluminum make it a lighter alternative to what you can rent out at the ranger station. I still felt a heavy pack anyway.
Light rain began to fall around 17:00 so I waited the passing showers in my tarptent and continued to plan my route for the next five days.
Success fooling fish and peaceful sunset viewing from the giant granite slab right off shore. The night remained still and quiet as no inlet or outlet to or from the lake appeared to be running much. Low of 56 F.
I got an early start the following morning as I knew I’d have a longer day and would be climbing a pass which would require me to cognizant of potential lightning in the afternoon.
I heard the loud snap in the forest first. The kind where I immediately thought that it must be a bear. I just knew. I then walked to a clearing and looked over to see the cinnamon sow and her jet black cub walking the deadfall. At a safe distance, I gave the situation a small stare and a photo. Afterwards I immediately began hiking again. One of the highlights of my day considering this was the first mom and cub I’ve seen in the wild.
Mosquitos which I’m convinced ascended directly from the bowels of hell followed me from Buck Camp through Moraine Meadows. I worked quickly to reach the final leg up to Fernandez Pass.
Manicured rock on the Yosemite side of Fernandez Pass.
Gale Peak and Breeze Lake. First thunder today around 12:30.
On top of Fernandez Pass.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy the view and munch my lunch for very long as thunder became louder and dark clouds began to move in from all directions. Thoughts of the two people who died and dozens injured from lightning strikes back home just days before I left for this trip entered my mind. Drops of water from the sky fell as I descended the pass and entered Ansel Adams Wilderness Area.
Fernandez Creek was running and I took the opportunity to collect water. Four people on horseback were the first humans I had seen all day.
Looking toward Post Peak Pass and one possible route to cross back over into Yosemite.
I had been following the same set of Vibram-sole prints since Moraine Meadows. At last I found out who they belonged to. On my way down to Lillian Lake, I encountered a man who was sitting next to a tree checking his map. What I looked forward to finally speaking with another backpacker and exchanging trail info, quickly turned to a volatile conversation with someone who was arrogant to the fact he didn’t know where he truly was. Without getting into the finer details, I basically had a small argument with the guy about the direction of north and where he had been. It felt so stupid and unnecessary as he continued to breathe heavy after taking his break from walking downhill. I never feel good about people when I walk away from them after I know for fact they’ve come into the woods ill-prepared. He asked me where he was and my answer didn’t please him. When I inquired about where else he had been that day, he began to get defensive. I wished him luck and kept walking.
Shorty after that, continuing my path to Lillian Lake I came across a few women with a dog. I’m sure my eyes lit up as I had been missing my own canine.
“Howdy”, I said.
The women replied hello and I asked if their dog was people friendly before I reached out to pet.
As we continued to cross each other in the wide terrain, I said “Not even people friendly, huh?”
Immediately after I said that, the dog took advantage of the lazy caution her owner had given the leash and the dog reached to bite me in the calf. Broken skin and an immediate red sore accumulated. I played it off as my fault for staying too close after I had my question answered, but I was cursing the situation as I moved farther up towards my final destination for the evening. I couldn’t help but think of how ridiculous the past few interactions had been with the very few people I had seen all day.
Contrasting skies on Lillian Lake.
I came upon Forest Service employees just finishing up the clearing of an illegal campfire ring. As my permit was getting checked, we talked at length about my journey so far and possible route options for the days ahead. I came to find out that the Sierra National Forest is one of the most funded services in the system. The conversation with good people after a long day was appreciated.
I nearly walked the entire shore length of the lake before settling on a camp 17.8 miles later. Light rain moved in by 16:30 and thunder remained at a distance. A second straight dead quiet night with a low 56 F.
Silence continued the following morning with sparse clouds in the sky. I took my time this morning and put some special care into my breakfast of dehydrated eggs, potatoes, sausage and green chili (Thank you Packit Gourmet). It was easy to feel peaceful on such a pristine morning. I knew I’d be hiking a shorter day, so I felt no rush that morning at camp.
To save an unneccesary drop, then gain in elevation by following the trail to Timber Creek, I navigated off-trail to the Fernandez and Timber Creek junction. Not too long after I had begun to follow the Timber Creek Trail, I came to realize that it was un-maintained. I wasted time by going back and forth, scouting from possible trail junction to junction; attempting to retrace the true tread. The truth was that deadfall and overgrowth had not been removed in years. The drainage was easy enough to navigate, but the process of hiking was nothing swift.
Standing at the summit of what I’ll call Timber Creek Pass. In the background stands Ritter Range and what I believe are the Minarets.
I ate lunch on the pass and again began to watch storms clouds roll up high. Thunder today began around 12:15.
Descending to my north and trying to stay as close as I could to being on the expired trail was tedious and sometimes frustrating. Map and compass work consumed much of my descent. The terrain wasn’t all that difficult to read, but my desire to find a trail in order to hit cruise control hampered my time.
My goal was to get near the trail junction of Joe Crane Lake and the Isberg trail.
I managed to stay close to what used to be a maintained trail.
At last I reached the Isberg trail and began the hike uphill to Sadler and McClure Lakes. McClure would be my goal for camp that evening. I reached Sadler Lake, took a photo, then saw two people hiking around the opposite end of the lake; first folks of the day and the last for the rest. Just as I began to follow the trail to McClure around 15:00, small quickly turned to big raindrops. I took out my rain jacket and stretched my pack cover around my backpack. I found moderate cover to wait out the rain which I figured would be just as isolated as the rest of the trip.
Dark clouds crept in on all of my horizons and I began to shiver as hail blanketed the ground. It had been around 45 minutes since it began to rain. The weather had only intensified and visible lightning began as my thoughts turned to getting warm. I pitched my tarptent in the pouring rain, stripped off my wet clothes and surrounded myself with down. My thermometer read 54 F and freckles of rain were falling on my quilt; time for me to seam-seal again.
For the next three hours I further contemplated my route, took notes and read my book. I had planned to fish that evening but never got to do it. I was forced to hurry camp in an undesirable location after a frustrating afternoon of unexpected route finding. I was down in the dumps and was questioning my desire for being there.
Finally the storm broke. I was able to retrieve my bear canister and put a hot meal in a grumbling belly. I decided that evening to skip Red Peak Pass. I decided instead to drop down to lower elevations and take the longer loop through Little Yosemite Valley. Looking up at the Clark Range and Red Peak made me think of other familiar places, but it was the polished rock of the Yosemite Valley that impressed me the most so far this trip.
I walked for 10.5 trail miles today and the overnight low was 45 F.
The approach to Isberg Pass.
The next morning I was out of my tent by 05:30 and began to make breakfast. Once the sun began to crest over the horizon of mountains I was discouraged to see the progression of clouds blanketing my natural drier. Everything wet I hung out on the outside of my pack as I began the climb up to Isberg Pass.
On top of Isberg pass and looking toward the Clark Range. The mood had improved.
I was in the groove again and enjoying the scenery.
At the trail junction of Red Peak Pass, I resumed to see people and smack mosquitos.
Looking north near a waterfall and cascade that plunge into the Merced River.
A small cascade on the Merced.
I had contemplated setting up camp here, but found no suitable, used campsite along the south shore.
I admired the thick and towering trees all trip long.
Banks of the Merced Lake.
People began to appear again as I crossed into the Merced Lake “High Sierra” campground. Back to civilization now as people hiking up the valley continued to ask me how much further to the camp. I had to laugh to myself as I reside year round, higher than this particular “High” Sierra camp.
Evening cascade on the Merced River.
I decided to settle on camp in Echo Valley after 17.8 miles of trail. I set up in an old grove that had seen people camped before, but not recently.
From my notes:
“I am not regretting my decision to skip Red Peak Pass and having to drop back down into the burn area of Illilouette. Coming down through the Merced River drainage reminded me of why I chose to come here. Today has been the pinnacle of the entire trip.”
“Echo Valley is warm, scenic and quiet (minus the flow of the river). Todays skinny dip in the Merced was the best yet. There is thunder that can be heard at camp and I can see dark clouds in the mountains up high, but I have the benefit of being low and dry this evening. So far this is the first evening that I have not had rain. The hours flow here and ever since my arrival, I’ve been straddling this line in the sky between bright sun and the dark and thunderous.”
Another low of 45 F this evening.
One of seven different species of lizard in Yosemite.
A look back up the valley as I hiked down.
Travel by soft sand in Little Yosemite Valley.
Colorful lichen is abundant.
This photo was taken just above the drop of Nevada Fall. I spent over an hour at this popular, but gorgeous vista. I ate lunch and said hello to various dayhikers, overnight and JMT thru hikers.
From Nevada Fall I continued on the Panorama Cliff trail and continued my hello’s all the way to Illilouette Fall.
Illilouette Fall and Half Dome
I settled on a campsite near Illilouette Creek after 14.4 miles that day. I made small fish jump on Tenkara as I passed the time camped only 2.8 miles from my trailhead. The heat was familiar, and I was taking it all in on my last night out.
Casting long shadows in early morning on my trek back to Mono Meadow.
Mount Starr King
Back at the trailhead roughly 78 miles later.