Yosemite Backpacking Part II: May Lake to Yosemite Valley
This is part II of a two part series. If you'd like to read part I, click here.
Today would be our longest day on trail, with the most elevation gain, so we knew getting an early start would be imperative for a successful day. So, we got up quick, packed our things up even faster, shoved some pop tarts in our mouths and got hiking by 6 am. Immediately after leaving camp, we had awesome views from the trail.
We even got a view of Half Dome, way off in the distance! It was cool to have this view, especially since we would be ending our day at the top of Cloud's Rest - for another epic view of Half Dome!
We made great time down to Tenaya Lake, and it felt great to already knock 2 miles off of our day so early in the morning. Today Uncle Rick was leaving us to go back home, and in typical Mr. Mountain Man fashion, he decided to take the long route back to his car via Sunrise and the JMT. We told him not to wait for us, since we knew there was a long stretch of switchbacks coming up, and we were going to take our time doing them.
The switchbacks were no joke! About 1,000 ft gain in less than 1 mile. At least the views were nice! It was crazy though, to already see Mt. Hoffman so far away, even though we were at the base of it this morning!
After what felt like forever, we reached the top of the switchbacks, encountering only a little bit of snow at the very top. Soon, we reached the junction to Sunrise Lakes & High Sierra Camp, which we would be trekking back to tomorrow. Today though, we had our minds set on Cloud's Rest.
After that long climb, we welcomed downhill trail (forgetting that it would be uphill trail tomorrow). It was such a nice hike. Beautiful woods, meadows, granite fields, and wildflowers.
We even stumbled upon a little pond, and wondered if it is usually this big and full.
After the nice stretch of mostly flat/ downhill trail, we again started climbing. This time however, it was just straight up. No nice switchbacks to help us up the ridge. At least we only had about 2.5 miles to go to the summit! That meant our campsite zone would appear in the next 1.5 miles and we would get a nice rest before continuing on to Cloud's Rest.
Eventually, after a long slog uphill, and (thankfully) after some semi-threatening looking clouds blew by, we reached the top of the ridge and could start looking for a campsite! We found one pretty quickly and easily: someone had been there before as there was a nice fire ring already built. We set up camp and did a couple of chores (and ate dinner, part I) and then rested in our tent for about an hour. We made great time and felt we deserved an afternoon nap.
After resting, we got ready for our ascent of Cloud's Rest (and ate dinner, part II). Since mom was feeling a little tired, and since her backpack's removable lid also doubles as a fanny pack, I offered to put our summit gear in the pack and carry it so she could go pack free. We only had a mile to go to the top, but still had about 700 ft to gain, so it wasn't going to be easy peasy.
One of the best parts of our summit time was that practically no one was there! We ran into a couple of groups that were still day hiking (...and who had a nice long walk back to the trailhead in the dark), but we were the last ones on the summit.
Cloud's Rest was absolutely fantastic. I had heard rumors that the view from the top was way better than Half Dome, and now I can verify that yes, its true. The view is way better, and it is way less scary to get to the top (but, you should still do Half Dome). My mom was a little apprehensive about the footpath to the very top, but eventually she overcame her fears, which made me very happy, since she did not do the cables on Half Dome with me last year (can't really blame her since I thought I was going to for-sure die while descending).
The 360-degree views of the high sierra were simply incredible. And it was so cool seeing all of the mountains we had been looking at earlier in our trip - just from a different and higher vantage point!
One of the things that slightly concerned us, however, was the huge cloud of smoke rising up west of Yosemite Valley (see photo of Half Dome, above). We called Dad from the top (our best phone service on the trip!), but he didn't know anything about the fire yet. In the coming days, late-afternoon smoke would be commonplace, and later we would find out it was the beginnings of the Detwiler Fire, which destroyed many homes in Mariposa (and is still burning, at time of writing).
Eventually, it was time to say a reluctant good-bye to Cloud's Rest. It was by far my favorite, and most highly anticipated, part of our trip so far, and it did not disappoint! And we had some great sunset views on the way down!
We were so exhausted by the time we got back to the tent. Let's just say, it was the first night I slept super well on the trip.
Today was going to be a much shorter day, so we got a slow start to the morning. But we were getting pretty good at our routine by now. The only thing that could get us moving any quicker was a bear sauntering by. Which did. As I was going to the bathroom. Yes, a bear moseyed on by as I was squatting. It pretended not to see me, but I was very well aware of it, and after I finished, we got out of camp fast. It was slightly terrifying (I was frantically looking around to se if any cubs were around - there weren't, thank goodness), but also so amazing.
So we got moving pretty quickly after that, re-tracing our steps from yesterday. We were feeling pretty sluggish. Was it the 13 mile day yesterday? Or the biscuits and gravy for breakfast? Whatever it was, it was killing us on our ascent back to the trail junction (the nice, downhill part we forgot about yesterday...). Eventually, we made it back to the trail junction, and were happy to see we only had "2.5 miles to go" until Sunrise camp.
We think Yosemite needs to update their trail signs, because it felt much longer than 2.5 miles to the camp.
Regardless, the hike to Sunrise Lakes was very nice, and all of the lakes were gorgeous! We also had this whole section of trail to ourselves, which was wonderful.
Since this was our short day, and we deserved to relax a little, we decided to set up for a nice long break at the third lake. Plus, we needed to hop in a lake since, let's be real, we were a little smelly. I have NEVER stepped into water this cold. The Pacific Ocean was warmer than this water. I screamed after fully submerging my body. It was insane! Pure snow melt. We both jumped in fully clothed to "wash our clothes" and then laid out. The sun was so nice and warm. Needless to say, we dried pretty quick. We also saw a coyote on the opposite shore! After resting, eating, and filtering water for a good 2 hours, we were ready to continue on "only another 1.5 miles" which turned into a very long 1.5 miles.
We had gotten accustomed to a nice, dry, sometimes muddy trail over the past 2 days, and were not very happy to see snowfields. The next 250 vertical feet were all covered in snow, and that, combined with doing this in the afternoon (slushy snow) after our nice sun nap was extremely tiring. Once we broke the ridge line, we were so relieved, and so ready to be done with the day. We were also so happy we would not have to return that way again.
Despite being our lowest mile day, it was the most tiring of all. We were very very happy to settle into camp. And since Sunrise is right on the JMT, we actually saw a lot of traffic. At this camp area we saw the highest population of people we had seen pretty much all week so far. I actually really enjoyed the camp, despite the backpacker camps being a little close together. It had a pit toilet (stocked with toilet paper!), which was exciting. It also overlooked this amazing alpine meadow. It was sooooo big, and had a beautiful river snaking through it. All we could think about was letting our dogs run around here. They would have loved every minute of it.
Soon enough, the smoke from the Detwiler Fire rolled into camp, and everything was super hazy. At least it made for a cool sunset.
Tonight we also started talking about the rest of our trip. We were beginning to get anxious about the snow and water conditions going to Vogelsang, considering the ranger who gave us our permit said "microspikes would probably be useful" on our ascent to Vogelsang. We were also getting pretty tired, and we had yet to run into anybody who had come from the Vogelsang area. So, we sent out a sat message to good ole' Dad at home to do some intel and call a wilderness ranger (thanks, Garmin!) to get the scoop on the conditions. Meanwhile, we were getting ready for our all-downhill trek to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp tomorrow, with the hopes we'd have some Vogelsang intel by mid-day and would be able to make a decision on what to do.
We knew we needed to get an early start today since we had 10 miles to go to Merced! Unfortunately, we woke up to so much condensation on our tent and fly, so we delayed our departure so the morning sun could dry it out a little bit.
Soon though, we were on our way, walking on the JMT through the meadow we were admiring the day before. We had stunning views of Cathedral Peak during our mile on this stretch.
And, oops, I overlooked a very small portion of our topo map and realized we would have to climb a little bit before beginning our very long descent. This was very tiring, for some reason. Normally, I have more energy in the morning, especially to do an uphill portion in the morning, versus later in the day, but I was moving like a sloth up this hill.
Thanks goodness it ended soon, because after that, we were cruising. Until we weren't. Because there was a downed tree literally every quarter to half mile that were often very large and still had their branches on and required a lot of maneuvering off-trail to get around. I respect and admire backcountry trail crews for all of their hard work, but they really have to get to this trail and do some clean up. It was obvious this had been a burn section many years ago, as there were a lot of dead trees but tons of new growth as well. So unfortunately, our nice long downhill day turned into a chore instead of rest. And a lot of times, it wasn't the prettiest (especially in comparison to other trails we had been on).
But, we needed to focus on something, so we focused on the beautiful wildflowers that littered the trail.
We stopped after a little while for a snack break, and because my lower back felt like it was on fire. I originally thought my pack had finally rubbed my back raw, but after taking it off and having my mom take a look, we realized it was badly sunburnt! And then we realized we didn't put any sunscreen on when we were laying out at the lake yesterday. Oops.
When the trail didn't have any downed trees in our way and we weren't walking through burnt trees, the trail was actually kind of nice. It was much different than what we had been walking through so far! So much more lush, and we were walking parallel to Cathedral Creek (and later, the Merced river) the whole day, so it was nice to hear running water again.
We also saw some beautiful trees during this section.
And Mom taught me how to identify Jeffrey Pines (hint: smell the bark!)
We were also really relieved to see the footbridges over the rivers were intact. We had no reason to believe they wouldn't be, but given the lack of people we've seen, and the crazy winter we had, we didn't know for sure if they would be there.
Finally, we came upon a trail junction informing us we were 3 miles from Merced camp. At this point, we needed another break, because we were TIRED. It was easily over 90 degrees, and the trail was pretty exposed. We also wanted to see if Dad got any news about the trail conditions. We ran into a group of three men earlier in our day and learned they came from Vogelsang, though via a different route and had kind of vague descriptions of the terrain and conditions. So, not super helpful for people who are deciding whether to bail or not. But, if we were being honest, the WHOLE entire hike today, all I could think about was being done tomorrow, not 2 days from now. And all I could think about even more was descending 3,000 ft into Yosemite Valley instead of ascending 3,000 ft to Vogelsang camp. So during this break, we talked more about our expectations, fears, and desires, and decided right then that we would not be going to Vogelsang like originally intended. Instead, we would be descending into Yosemite Valley tomorrow afternoon, and we would figure out our car and sleeping situation when we got there. And just like that, the rest of the day seemed to fly by. The mood had definitely improved knowing that we had a relatively easy, well-traveled exit route (that we were familiar with) to the valley and we wouldn't have to deal with any unknown trail conditions and major climbs the next day.
Soon enough, we arrived at Merced Lake, after joining up and following the amazingly strong Merced River to its headwaters.
Upon arriving at Merced Lake, we wandered around a bit trying to find a spot and happened upon the high sierra camp. This one was the most "together" out of the ones we had seen. It is obviously the most permanent high sierra camp, which made sense due to its lower elevation. In fact, it looked like a ghost town with the log cabins still standing. A foreign couple who didn't know what the high sierra camps were asked us what the deal was with all of the abandoned buildings, so we explained the concept to them. Meanwhile, I couldn't help but wonder what this all would look like if the camps had opened this year and what our experience would be like. It would have been so crowded! We spent a good deal of time lounging by the water, filtering it, taking photos, and soaking our feet. If the camps were open, it would be so loud, and we definitely wouldn't have had our little waterfront spot all to ourselves!
Another oops, but we accidentally set up our tent in a non-camp spot. Enter: backcountry ranger. The first ranger we saw our whole trip! He very nicely informed us we weren't allowed to camp there (thank goodness we just set the tent up), and then we talked to him for over an hour! We had so many questions for him about his job, and he happily dealt with our interrogation. We also inquired about the Vogelsang conditions, and learned he did the whole loop (over 14 miles) with a couple of spur trails today (WHAT. He didn't even look tired.). He told us the trail was free of snow, but the water crossings were thigh-high and strong. We were happy with our decision to bail out to the valley, and felt more confident in our decision after talking with the ranger.
So, we went about the rest of our evening as usual, but definitely enjoying our last night camping a little bit more, knowing it was going to be the last night. Also, like clockwork, the smoke from the fire rolled in and made for another glowing sunset.
Food and water brought to you by JetBoil, Good-To-Go dehydrated foods, and Sawyer.
Our last night in the tent (hopefully!)
Our last day on trail! Even though we'd be finished today, we actually had more miles to hike today than what would have been the next two days combined. Whatever. So in order to get a jump start on those 13.1 miles and hopefully get to the valley in time to get our things sorted out, we needed an early start, so we were on trail by 6 am.
We waved good-bye to Merced Lake and killed the first two miles in less than 45 minutes. I kept a pretty quick pace because we were walking through some prime breakfast territory for bears and I just wanted to keep moving! Plus, it was the first morning I was actually cold!
Soon enough, we were back to following the Merced River. I absolutely loved being by the Merced. I've seen it plenty of times in the valley, I've seen it topple over Nevada and Vernal Falls, but I hadn't seen it in it's own canyon. And it was so gorgeous!
We also saw many beautiful wildflowers again today. This trail is so lush! Also, I really wish I knew more about plants. And I wish I could identify them.
I was able to figure out though that this mega-pinecone belongs to a sugar pine tree!
We were making such good time. We rarely had to stop because the trail was so gradual. It took me a while to remember that the majority of the elevation loss would come once we reached Nevada Fall. But that was fine with me!
The whole morning I had my sights set on one area: Little Yosemite Valley. LYV has a backpacker's campground, and most beginning backpackers use it as a first night stop or a basecamp to do Half Dome or Cloud's Rest over multiple days. For us, it meant a pit toilet, and the satisfaction of basically being done for the day! We had been to LYV multiple times before, and I was craving the familiarity it offered.
But first, we had to traverse the Lost Valley, which is a badly burned section of trail.
It really wasn't too bad (it was still the morning), until we got to the GIANT SINKHOLE right smack dab in the middle of the trail. It literally looked like a whale had body slammed the earth. I glumly looked at the trail on the other side of the massive chasm. If only I could fly over there. I was so dumb-founded that I couldn't even take a picture. The morning had gone too smoothly, we decided, for there not to be some sort of obstacle we had to maneuver. What was difficult about this was that the ground cover was very lush and very tall, and the ground was not stable near the break. There was also a small waterfall that was feeding into the sink hole and little tributaries had fanned out. Long story short, we went way off trail to get around this large hole, got charred tree all over our clothes, were temporarily "lost" in Lost Valley (props to Gaia for helping us out), but we eventually got back to the trail after a half hour delay.
Let's just say I was beyond stoked to see this view about 30 minutes later after basically sprinting away from the pit.
Not only did this mean that we were soooo close to Little Yosemite Valley, but I was pretty confident there would be no major surprises the rest of the day (spoiler alert: I was right!). Before we knew it, we were in Little Yosemite Valley, admiring the backside of Half Dome, and munching on the whole bag of dried cranberries we hadn't touched until today.
We were in our element now. And almost out of water. So we moseyed on over to our favorite water-filtering spot on the Merced, just off trail a bit. We hung out, I soaked my feet, we ate some packaged tuna (actually, really yummy), and got ourselves some water.
And now, we were about to enter a different world. Nothing could have prepared us for the amount of people we were about to encounter. It was easily 50 times the amount of people we had seen total over the last 5 days. We did some yogi breaths and tried to remember that "patience is a virtue". Nevertheless, I was skipping (and singing!) all the way to the pit toilets at the top of Nevada Fall, and Mom was super happy because she was passing people (this is a rare occurrence, folks)! We were (basically) in the valley! Our day is almost over! Curry Village pizza, here we come!
We got lots of funny looks from the day hikers (who were probably offended by our body odor), but its amazing how many people (day hikers) treat you like queens of the trail, the ultimate information source of Yosemite. It must be the backpack. And the SOS device secured to the strap. Everyone asked us "How was Half Dome?!" (psh... we didn't backpack Half Dome. We're legit and did it as a day hike last year. Backpacking Half Dome is totally unnecessary unless you NEED to be there at sunrise or something or couldn't get a cables permit) Needless to say, it was funny looking at their confused faces when we said we had come from Merced Lake. We got many questions about the trails we were currently on (aka the JMT, a connector trail, and the Mist Trail. Does anyone carry a map?), and honestly, its really easy to get a "backpacking superiority complex". But then I reminded myself that I am a day hiker 99% of the time and the superiority complex vanished. But, I do study the trails of Yosemite like its my job, so we were actually able to offer some good advice. And the very nice day hikers were finally able to answer our questions about the fire! Thank you day hikers!
Now, we started out going down the JMT. But I still had some PTSD from the tail end of the JMT switchbacks from our Half Dome hike last year, and I really didn't want to end our trip with those (lack of) views. Also, we had every intention of not hiking for the rest of our time in Yosemite, and I really wanted to see Vernal Fall after this snow year. So, we decided to take the connector trail from Clark Point to the Mist Trail and then battle the day hikers down the infamous granite steps.
It was so #worthit. Having seen these falls during their peak flow last year, I can attest that it was a million times fuller this year, and this is now about 3 weeks after peak flow for the year. Basically, crazy.
After we got to the top of Vernal Fall, we stopped to rest in the shade and regroup. We had a lot of energy, mainly because we were so close to finishing, but we were still pretty tired, as we had already walked about 13 miles to get to this point. So we sat and admired the Silver Apron and Emerald Pool (from afar) and I watched many tourists get way too close to the swirling waters (most people who get in the water here end up getting out of the water at the bottom of Vernal Fall in a body bag - PSA: never go swimming above a waterfall! Even if it looks like a beautiful, giant, natural waterslide).
After resting our legs and preparing them for the 100 (200? whatever it is, its a lot. And when you're tired and carrying 20 lbs on your pack, requires a great deal of concentration) tall granite steps of the Mist Trail, we started our descent. I was actually pretty impressed with how everyone managed to self-regulate the flow of up and down traffic over these steps. Good job guys! And soon, we were done with the steps, and at the footbridge, and then DONE! Just done!
We had a lovely chat with the volunteers of PSAR, and then made our way over to the shuttle stop. HA. The. Shuttle. Stop. We then saw the line at the shuttle stop, smelled ourselves, and then decided we'd just walk the last mile to Curry Village (you're welcome, day hikers/ tourists of Yosemite). We didn't take any time to rest: after all, we were in business mode now. First order of business: how the heck will we procure our car in Tuolumne Meadows? Solution: YARTS. Thank god for YARTS! The only time YARTS makes this trip however, is at 5 pm. We had 1.5 hours to get ourselves over to the bus stop. OK, sweet. Second order of business: Where are we sleeping tonight? We had a reservation at Curry Village (aka Half Dome Village) starting on Thursday night, which was great if we had stuck to our original plan. But it is Wednesday. So Mom got in line, still decked out in her backpacking gear (and smell) and worked her Mom charm on one of the receptionists. And just like that, we got a tent cabin for tonight. Score. We were just really happy we didn't have to go slum it in the backpacker's campground or Camp 4 for another night. We hustled over to our tent cabin, threw all of our scented products into the bear box, and hopped onto the first shuttle to the visitor center to pick up YARTS. We were a little early, so we grabbed our favorite beef jerky, sour gummy worms, and hummus and stuffed our faces while we waited with the rest of the dirty backpackers at the bus stop.
Soon enough, we were loaded on YARTS and headed up Tioga Road back to Tuolumne Meadows. We had really wanted to stop by some viewpoints once we got our car (see Tenaya Lake, Olmsted Point, etc.) but this was the view, thanks to the fire:
So once we got our car, we hit the road and didn't stop until we got back to the valley. We were desperate for pizza and a shower (my hands were actually pretty clean here).
Finally, we were back at our lovely tent cabin, freshly showered in clean clothes, and bellies full with our favorite pizza. It was a wonderful backpacking trip, but we were so happy to be done.
We lived it up in Yosemite Valley as complete tourists the next few days. We walked around our favorite meadows, ate breakfast at the Ahwahnee, took a valley floor tour, drove up to Glacier Point, and just chilled out. It was really nice to just hang out in Yosemite, with absolutely no agenda, and no real hiking! We had a great time in our favorite place, reminisced about the backpacking we had just done, and made fun of ourselves for turning into total tourist sloths after backpacking more than 50 miles.
Did I feel a little bad about not completing the full high sierra loop? Only a little. The pizza is just that good! Plus, that just means another backpacking trip to see Vogelsang! And hey, maybe we'll do a couple of nights there and explore all of the awesome lakes along the way! We have no qualms about how our trip panned out, and even though we were so tired and a little over it, it was so gorgeous and I would still do it all over again.
Next time, Vogelsang!