Yosemite Backpacking Part I: Tuolumne Meadows to May Lake

This backpacking trip had been in the works for well over a year, and I finally was able to do it! Of course, not the way it was originally intended, but that always makes it better anyways.

Originally, my mom and I wanted to do the whole "high sierra camp loop"  which entailed entering a lottery, and wasn't exactly "real backpacking" because you got to stay in tent cabins, and have all of your meals provided for you. This didn't really bother us, since I had never been backpacking for more than one night, and my mom hadn't been for more than 2 nights (and many years ago...), so we thought semi-backpacking for 5 nights would be a good introduction to legitimate backpacking later.

But dang, was that expensive, and definitely a gamble due to the lottery process. "Why don't we just backpack it normally," I proposed. The tent cabins were sooo expensive, we'd have to share our cabin with strangers, and I also wanted to backpack Cloud's Rest, which is just a little (read: kind of a lot) off route. So exactly 6 months before our determined start date, I faxed in a wilderness permit application, and the next day, everything was confirmed! We'd be starting our trip on July 14th. And, we decided we'd do a "meals only" reservation at the high sierra camps, which meant we only had to bring a few food items (and only 1 small bear canister!).

Meanwhile, snow was falling in the Sierras. A lot of snow. So much snow, the concessionaire in Yosemite made the decision to not open the high sierra camps for the year. WHAT?! Some good and bad consequences. 1. Possibly so many less people on trail!!!!!!!!!!!!! 2. We need to carry all of our food... for 7 days. OK. 3. Wait, so, what's the weather going to be like? What will the trail conditions be? Many questions, few answers. Moral of the story, we would be legitimately backpacking for 7 days and 6 nights.

 

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DAY ZERO

Getting from the Bay Area to Yosemite (especially Tuolumne Meadows) is no joke, so a travel day was absolutely necessary before starting. We also had to drive my grandma's car over, since my uncle was purchasing it (who lives in Bishop), so we drove separately. It was a long 5 hours, but I was so excited to drive Tioga Road since I'd never been outside of Yosemite Valley/ Glacier Point/ Wawona before. We picked up our wilderness permit from the permit office, then got situated in our surroundings: parked our car at the trailhead parking and walked around, eating the rest of our lunch. We were winded! We sort of forgot we went from sea level to over 8,000 ft in just a few hours, and once we were out walking just a little bit, we were feeling a little woozy.

Eventually it was time to meet up with my mom's brother, Uncle Rick, who would be joining us for 2 nights. Since we were meeting him at the MobilMart in Lee Vining (seriously, the best place on the Eastern side of Yosemite: AWESOME food, tons of snacks, last minute backpacking food, and pretty nice inside. Definitely the ultimate gas station.), and we still had some time, we decided to explore Mono Lake for a little bit since neither of us had been!

It was such a cool place. To us, the formations looked like dried up coral reefs. I don't know what I was expecting, but this place exceeded my expectations. There was definitely more life than I was expecting - I didn't think there would be so many plants! Highly recommend visiting if you are ever in the area.

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A storm was moving into the area, so we hustled back to the car (just in time!) and drove over to the MobilMart for some dinner and to meet Uncle Rick. The original plan was to drive back into the park and sleep in the backpacker's campground, but the backpacker's campground is closed, because the campground is closed. Seriously, Tuolumne Meadows was like a ghost town. The only operational building when we were there was the wilderness office. Everything else was closed, with no plans to open until August 1st.

So, we slept in Uncle Rick's car somewhere random in the desert.

It was actually super cool and really pretty. The sunset was gorgeous, and I was staring goo-goo eyes at the mountains to the west.

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I already had a desire to explore the Eastern Sierras, but coming out here made me want to explore even more! Such a bummer its so far away (and really only accessible a few months out of the year), but at least I know of a nice secluded spot to sleep now.

DAY ONE

And finally, we were ready to begin backpacking! We woke up bright and early to get a jump start on today, and were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise and a show of a hunting owl looking for some grub.

We hit the road, slathering on sunscreen and bug repellent en route, and got to the trailhead in only 20 minutes. The views of the mountains during the drive in were incredible! I was so excited to be back in some real mountains. They seem so far away in Yosemite Valley!

And pretty soon, we were on the trail to Glen Aulin (and I was pretty stoked it was the PCT too)!

 

Right off the bat we saw a deer and a marmot chilling out, eating some breakfast. Such cuties!

I absolutely loved this day on trail. The grade was so gentle (which was nice, given our packs were the heaviest this day), and it was such a joy to walk beside the Tuolumne River for most of the day. I have nothing to compare it to (aka a normal snow year) but the river was just so full and flowing so strong! Despite the obvious dangers (Yosemite and the surrounding area have already seen multiple river deaths this summer), it was gorgeous.

When we weren't hiking by the river, we had some nice high sierra views:

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I'm also a little obsessed with meadows, and we got a lot of alpine meadow action during this leg.

Another factor in this trip was the trail conditions. Yosemite had not updated their wilderness conditions page online for more than 1 week, so that's all we had to go on (plus some PCT insight from my good friend Will, and insight from Uncle Rick who hiked most of this trail a week earlier). So we were expecting a more wet trail in general. However, we were pleasantly surprised. Only a few very slow and shallow creek crossings got in our way. Otherwise, the trail was perfect.

The river and waterfalls, though, were full of water!

Before we knew it, we were at Glen Aulin! We already knew we would not be camping here, as the footbridge had washed away due to the very fast and powerful snowmelt. The creek to the backpacker's camp was definitely passable, but we had only hiked 5.5 miles, and we were eager to knock some miles off of tomorrow's hike, so we continued on.

Bye, Glen Aulin!

We decided we'd hike on to McGee Lake and see what there was around there, since it was less than a mile away. I love trail signs, by the way. It always inspires me to research new places and add them to my bucket list (yes, Ten Lakes is now on the bucket list).

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McGee Lake was way bigger than I was expecting. It looked so enticing to swim in, but we had just taken a substantial break at Glen Aulin and still didn't have a place to sleep for the night, so we continued on a little ways.

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After passing by McGee Lake though, I was READY to find a camp spot. Thank goodness we found one pretty soon. It was so nice, secluded from the trail by a huge rock, and had a tiny little stream nearby with a pool of water, perfect for filtering our water, and soaking our feet. And after a little walk, we had a wonderful view for the sunset.

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We were pretty tired even though we didn't hike too much and lazed around most of the afternoon, so we were in bed well before the sun fully set. We were determined to get a good night sleep since we had a longer day coming up (feat. sleeping bag selfie).

DAY TWO

We got off to a little bit of a late start today. It was our first camp morning, so we still needed to get a routine down. The morning was going pretty well, though we did have a creek crossing right off the bat, which meant also having an early break to eat a snack and attempt to dry out our shoes and socks. We didn't have too many "wow" views this morning: it was mostly wooded with some granite domes interspersed. We also saw these plants everywhere (and we saw them A LOT the whole trip) and I am obsessed with them.

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We also came upon a "seasonal creek" aka river with waterfall elements, that had the most perfect granite ledge that was slightly submerged under water. If it was like, 3 pm and 100 degrees outside, I would have been sitting there. But it was like 10 am, so we had to pass it up.

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Shortly after this pool, we started gaining some elevation, and soon, we were at 8,500 ft., and snow appeared. At first it was just very patchy, and mostly melted, but after a little more gain and tree cover, it turned flat trail into sporadic mounds to climb over, which was tiring, mentally, and physically. It was bad enough that a trail junction was still almost completely covered in snow, and we almost missed the signs! Thank goodness for GaiaGPS (if you are looking for an amazing phone GPS, this is the app to get). We are admittedly very rusty with our map and compass skills, and definitely need to brush up on them, but Gaia was an amazing help. And, after what felt like multiple miles, we still had almost 4 to go... we weren't really feeling it at this point.

We stopped to re-group, filter water, and eat some snacks. Which was a great idea, because we were about to go into a pretty big climb - which offered absolutely amazing views! It was the best part of the day so far: exposed switchbacks with high sierra views, no snow, and because the views were so great, the climb didn't even seem too bad (also, I was stopping after every switchback to snap pics).

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After this climb, I felt so much closer to May Lake (even though we still had a good 2 miles left, and even more climbing to do). The good news was, we knew we wouldn't have much (if any) snow left because it became obvious that the rest of the way to May Lake was pretty exposed.

 

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But no snow doesn't mean no water! The "trail" is the creek:

 

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And, we were a little mistaken: we still had snow to conquer, but the good news was that it was really just around May Lake, and it was mostly melted, or at least trampled down by other hikers, and it was on mostly flat ground. Soon enough, we were at the backpacker's campground and setting up camp. We had only seen one other hiker until we got into the May Lake vicinity, then there was A LOT more people. We're guessing most of those folks came to May Lake from Tioga Road, since its really close to the front-country.

May Lake was absolutely gorgeous, and as reported, it was still partially frozen! All we could think about was when it normally thaws during a "normal" snow year. I don't think May Lake will completely thaw until mid-August after seeing it in person!

The view at the end definitely redeemed the hiking today. There were good parts, but the bunny slopes of snow on trail were not fun to negotiate. When we were going over the map at night, I was getting a little anxious about other possible snow on trail, especially for the next day, our Cloud's Rest day (aka our longest day). Trip reports from early July stated that the trail to Cloud's Rest was completely covered in snow, so we were feeling a little uneasy about that, but we would just have to see what the conditions were like for ourselves.

To continue on to part II, click here.