Backpacking Yosemite National Park, CA, 26-28 August 2011

I have wanted to do some serious mountain backpacking at Yosemite for years. This year, a two-week business trip to San Diego, which had a three-day break in the middle due to the work schedule at the facility we were visiting, provided that opportunity.

Note: This blog post has only a few of the pictures I took. I uploaded the rest to Picasa here.

Hike summary

29.2 miles, from 4090 to 7983 feet altitude. Total elevation gain: 5750 ft. High waterfall climb, massive views, unexpected hordes of mosquitoes, hard walking, and great fellowship on this hike, with only minor injuries. Five guys, NO bitching (except for the comments about the hike leaders lack of consistency in what is “relative”, as in “After that little rise, it’s relatively level, guys!” 🙂 ).

We really scored well over 30 miles on this trip. The GPS noted at least an extra 0.5 miles when walking from the second camp out to the rim of the Valley several times, and we had extra mileage at lunch at Chilnualna Falls and at Glacier Point, and another 1.5 miles at the Mariposa Grove. Some serious walking, to be sure.

Getting There

We left San Diego Thursday and headed north through LA towards Yosemite. On the way there, north of Fresno, we saw an interesting smoke/cloud phenomenon. A lightning-caused fire started right outside the park a couple weeks ago, and per NPS policy, the fire is allowed to burn itself out naturally. The fire occasionally flares, and as we were outside Fresno, a flare occurred, and it got high enough to cause a cumulus cloud to form.

We got to Yosemite just before 1700 local. We had to buy a new yearly National Parks Interagency Pass; they cost $80, but are good for National Park and National Forest access for an entire year. It would cost $20 per vehicle otherwise. We hustled to Wawona, and got to the Wilderness Permit office at basically 1659. The Rangers were very accommodating, and got our permit issued, after a briefing on trail impact and sanitization (always camp or crap or pee 100+ft off any trail), fire safety, and bear safety. I also picked up three anti-bear food storage canisters (more than 1lb each).

We ended up each carrying an individual food storage canisters, since the interior was not sufficient to hold more than one mans worth of “smellables”. Each canister was $5 to rent, and they take a credit card as a deposit in case you want to keep yours. We didn’t.

One thing that I had missed was that we needed a reservation in a campsite for the first night. I had mistakenly thought that our permit entitled us to camp free the first or last night, but it turns out that only applies to a backpackers campsite in the Valley. We were cheerfully informed that we could drive the 40 minutes to the campsite in the Valley, but declined (since it would also mean a 40-min drive back in the morning).

One thing: there were only a couple available campsites at Wawona that evening, out of more than a hundred sites in the camp. Reservations in advance are taken, and I recommend making them.

We got a campsite in Wawona for $20, got set up, and then headed to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Redwoods to check out the huge trees there. When we got to the Mariposa Grove, the crew hiked up to the walk-through tree, then back down again. Those trees are amazing.

This is our campsite at Wawona; we didn’t use rainflys:

These are a couple photos of us hiking through the Mariposa Grove:

This little squirrel was eating one of the green pinecones that hung like bananas from some of the trees. He would shake the cone, throw off a “leaf”, and then eat something inside the cone, maybe a seed. A much larger squirrel came along while we were watching, and the little one started yelling in Squirrel, and eventually the little one rushed the larger one, and ended up running the larger one off. Tenacious little guy.

We had dinner at the Wawona Hotel. I wrote a blog post about it here. The staff at the Wawona were reluctant to give out the access code for their wifi, and there is no signal that my Blackberry could pick up, so I was not able to send any status message back home. I tried an ancient and formerly trusty device called a pay phone at the hotel, but it claimed that the phone I was trying to call would not receive my call, but they would be happy to connect anyway for $17. “Up yours”, thought I.

We got to camp around 2030. The sky was clear, and the stars… were… stunning!!! Even with the limited light from the other campers, the Milky way was clearly visible, and the stars were bright. I had to get up around 0200, and so had yet another group of stars visible, along with a super bright Jupiter.

We had breakfast (again at the Wawona Hotel) and final packing the next morning. We got another couple bear canisters (they open at 0830, not 0730 like the website says), filled our water bottles, drove to the trailhead, got our packs on, took a deep breath, and headed out.

Why We Went There, or Backpacking!

We hit the trail the first day at 0941. Our entry was the Chilnualna Falls trailhead, and the altitude was 4090 ft.

The trail was very nice along here. The trail is used by day hikers, so it is wider and smoother than a lot of backcountry trails. There was a lot of shade on the way up.

Since I had planned the route, I knew that the first day would be the hardest. It was brutal. It was hot, probably in the mid 80s, we were going up a steep path, with heavy packs. Even with the occasional fairly level places, we gained 2100 ft of altitude over about 5 hours. We took frequent breaks, but even so, it was an exercise in getting air. I don’t think any of us had problems from the muscle exercise, but getting air was an issue.

As we climbed, the view off to the west was increasingly pretty. We had a good view of Wawona Dome also. We all were thinking, “we are headed up there?”.

We also started seeing the Falls. The Falls isn’t a single or several waterfalls like Yosemite Falls, it is a series of cataracts that tumble down into the Wawona valley. The last one is as we were getting closer to the top.

Across the valley, I saw a structure on the ridge. I put my small binoculars on it, and it looks like an observation tower, maybe for fire monitoring.

When we got to the top, it was clearly time for an extended break. We had lunch, topped off our water, rested for a bit, sunburned a bit, and then explored the area.

A note here on people. On the climb up, we saw three people on horseback, about 10 day hikers, and two backpackers (and those two were headed down). On the second day, we saw not a single person on the trail until we passed Glacier Point Road, and even then, we only saw about ten people, all day hikers. For August, I expected to see more people in the backcountry.

When we were sufficiently rested, we headed back out. We soon found out we were not even at the top of the Falls. Whoops… We kept going up and up and up, and eventually found the top of the Falls, and then branched southeast into true backcountry.

We used every form of water purification on this trip. Lance had a bottle with a built-in filter. I used Aqua Mira liquid. Chuck and Brad had Aqua Mira tablets. Jason had a pump. Of course, we used the boiling method also for the dehydrated meals. The water was uniformly wonderful tasting. We didn’t have any issues finding it, except in one instance on the south rim of the valley, very high (there was a spring in the area, but we couldn’t find it, and we hiked a couple miles dry after using all our water for breakfast).

My original plan had been to make our way into the backcountry to one of the mountain lakes on the trail; Johnson or Crescent Lake. By the time we got to the second trail junction (that either went towards Bridalveil Creek Camp, or towards the lakes, we were pretty much done in for the day. If we had continued on to the lakes, we were looking at five miles or so more, which wasn’t so bad, but it was also about 1500 ft of additional altitude, up to 8500 ft. After talking it over with the team, we turned toward the north, and determined to make camp near the next trail junction, which was about ¾ mile away.

We found a nice campsite near a stream with good water shortly. It also had a fire ring (Yosemite requires all campfires to be in established fire rings). We stopped, pitched our tents, and got camp set up, all while being eaten alive by ravenous and obnoxious mosquitoes! We had limited bug spray, and basically used it all. Those blasted bugs were extremely obnoxious!

Our first day was a hike of 7.6 miles and 3365 feet (!) of altitude gain. Our campsite was at 7455 ft.

Camp was beautiful. A couple of the guys made a campfire, and the smoke helped with the mosquito situation a bit, which was very nice. There were a number of rounded rocks sticking out of the ground, which made for nice surfaces for our stoves.

We got water going for dinner, ate dinner, and then basically retreated to our tents before we became sucked dry. One of the little SOBs apparently was on me in my tent, and when I smacked it, I could not believe how much blood was on my hand.

It was cloudy that evening, and there had been a small chance of thunderstorms, so we used our rainflys. Almost as soon as we got into the tents to escape the mosquitoes, there were a couple passing spits of rain. I don’t think we would have been bothered even if we had not put the rainflys up. It was very pleasant temperature-wise, almost chilly. I was in my sleeping bag, but it was mostly unzipped.

I spent some time in the tent looking at routing, and thinking about our air capacities and legs. I thought about going east-northeast towards Buena Vista Junction for our second night (which was my original plan), but it was up and over some pretty high terrain. Instead I decided we would make north through Bridalveil Camp, and on to the south rim of the Valley.

The next morning, we all woke up earlyish, got our water boiling, ate, broke camp, and got moving around 0900. Everyone was a bit stiff from the uphill walk the day before, but we loosened up pretty fast. It was clear again. And the mosquitoes were back again.

The hike to Bridalveil Camp was about 7 miles, and was level for the most part. The day started out pleasant, but it got warm quickly, and so the sweating started again. The bugs were a little less annoying while we were walking, but were still there. We really moved out along this stretch.

It was a beautiful walk to the Camp. The terrain was varied, from woods to small meadows, to domes off to both sides.

There was an amazing variety of wildflowers along the trail.

As with most trails, there were occasional obstacles. These included fallen trees; this was the biggest we encountered.

We ended up on a ridge that had amazing views of the Parks high country off to the east. We rested here a bit, and drank in the views.

We followed Bridalveil Creek after a while, it was beautiful.

We stopped for lunch at the Bridalveil Creek Camp. They had real bathrooms there! We also took the opportunity to wash up as best we could – we were really dirty. One thing that was interesting, the Camp had pretty much been dedicated to fire crews that had been staged in from all over California. I don’t know if they were all fighting the fire outside of Yosemite, or were there in contingency, but there were a lot of them.

We left the camp, crossed Glacier Point Road, and headed for the south rim of the Valley. We got to the footbridge over Bridalveil Creek, and then headed back up again.

We filled water bottles here, and I think that this would have been a good place to have an extra bottle apiece. Between dinner this evening, and breakfast in the morning, we consumed every drop we carried up there. According to our map, there was a spring very near where we ended up camping, but we never found it (it was August, and the spring might have stopped).

We walked up a couple hundred feet at this point; it was hard but doable. And it was worth it. We ended up on a large mostly open area, and decided to camp there. Walking off the trail to the north, I knew the rim of the Valley was somewhere ahead, and then saw this through the trees:

It turns out that we were right between the face of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. We stood and marveled at the view for a while. A long while, it was stunning. The pictures really do not do the views justice. Finally, realizing Sun was going down, we went back and set up our tents, then we did some exploring.

That last one, is Luke waving from the next bluff over. The cliff walls below our camp were fairly sheer, thousands of feet pretty much straight down.

Sun set behind the smoke from the fire at the west end of the Park.

Our second day was a hike of 11.7 miles and a net 123 feet of altitude loss (there was still a lot of up there); we were at 7332 ft altitude. This was the single most beautiful camp I have ever been in. You could not be there for more than a minute without looking out at the view. And then standing there for a while. We still had mosquitoes, surprisingly enough, even with the altitude, the dryness of the camp (no water anywhere close), and a nice breeze. We noticed several bats as it was getting dark, and fervently wished them to come over and scarf the darn bugs around us.

That evening, the stars were even more stunning than they were at Wawona camp. The Milky Way was so plain. We saw numerous meteors and about 15 satellites. I stayed out a bit later than the other guys, with my head craned back until it hurt. There were occasional sightings of lightning; a storm was visible off to the Northeast once, but it was on the horizon, nothing near us.

We were all up and moving around 0700 Sunday morning. We got breakfast going and kept looking at that view.

One side note. When we were at the Wawona Hotel, there was an unusual package on top of a car. I wondered if it was a folded up hang-glider, and when the owner came out, I asked and he confirmed it. He said that the NPS gave them a “launch window” for flying at Glacier Point, and that for that weekend it was Friday – Sunday 0800 – 0900. Well, shortly after 0800, we saw this from camp:

That white dot to the right of center is a hang glider. We saw three of them flying around by Yosemite Falls. It takes some cojones to throw yourself off a 3Kft cliff, held up by some aluminum poles and ripstop nylon.

No one was in a hurry to leave that view. We got breakfast done, reluctantly packed up camp, and headed out again. Very reluctantly.

We hiked along close to the Valley edge for the most part. The views were amazing. Eventually we came to The Fissures. The Fissures have two interesting sets of things: the actual Fissures, but also some sheer walls. And I mean SHEER:

There is a railing there, but it doesn’t protect much area.

There is a place marker up there, and I had to compare the reported GPS altitude with the altitude measured by the surveyors who were up there before Oklahoma became a state. They did very well!

After the Fissures, we hiked another bit, and finally found a stream. It was small, but it was flowing and tumbling along, and we pumped everybody a couple full bottles of water, took big drinks, and topped them off again. The water was especially good tasting!

We walked under Sentinel Dome, but we were concerned about the time, so we bypassed walking up it. It’ll be there for another trip!

Below the trail to the Dome, and before we got to Glacier Point, we got this view. Staggering.

The path down to the Point was steep, and much of it was exposed. Hooray for sunblock.

The view from the Point is one of the most beautiful on the entire planet.

The hiking snob in me sort of wishes there was not a road to the Point.

Half of us decided to take the shuttle bus from the Point down to the Valley. The other half decided to finish the weekend out with a hike down 4-Mile Trail. It is STEEP. Luke got a burst of energy and jogged down most of it, wow! Lance and I jogged a bit, but going down is hard on a different set of muscles, so we ended up fast-walking most of it. Along the way, I got this view of Half Dome and the area of the Mirror Lake Trail; I decided this is one of my favorite views of the Dome.

Most of the way down has great aerial views of the Valley, and of course Yosemite Falls is part of that. You don’t usually get a view from directly across the base of the Upper Falls.

And of course here are the Fissures, and the area where we camped the night before. Amazing.

Eventually, we reached the bottom. And a good thing, too, since we were literally footsore. I had to take the obligatory “We were up there?” shot.

Our last day of hiking was 9.9 miles, and we had 3470 ft of altitude loss, ending up on the floor of Yosemite Valley.

Once we got down, we met up with the rest of the crew at Yosemite Lodge. I had three bottles of Lipton Iced Tea from the shop there (that stuff, by the way, is pretty good for mass-manufactured tea). We also went over to the Merced and waded a bit to wash the crud off our feet. And a lot of crud there was. That water was cold, wonderfully cold. I didn’t stay long, as I had washed off my sunblock along with the dirt. I used the bathroom at the Lodge to re-up deodorant, and we waited for my friend Jim to arrive from Fresno to shuttle us back to Wawona.

BTW, the black canisters on the ground in front of us are the anti-bear food canisters we carried. A little over a pound of extra weight.

The timing of our exit from the Valley was such that we got a wonderful backlit view of the entrance to the Valley. Not a bad way to call it a day.

We got our van from the trailhead, had dinner, and headed back to San Diego, arriving at 0400 Monday morning. The next day (or rather, the rest of that day) at work was kind of tiring, but no one crashed, at least until that night.

Here is our hike path over a topographic map, a Google Earth terrain, and an altitude plot. I broke the topo maps into the entire trip, then to zoom in on each days hiking.

This is the same altitude plot, but the waypoints from the GPS are annotated. I also took off the last part of the plot to accurately show that our end point in the Valley was higher than our starting point in Wawona.

Metrics

I was looking for some good metrics from this trip. I calculated the following for this group of guys in decent but not spectacular shape on average.

    Average speed over level ground: 1.75mph

    Average speed up hill: 0.87mph

    Average speed down hill: 2.4mph

This includes breaks. Level is relative, of course ( 🙂 ).

I was interested in how much fuel to bring for my MSR stove. In the end, I brought way too much! I used the smaller bottle first, it has 11 oz of fuel. Chuck had an MSR alcohol stove also, and we used them in tandem. Mine heated water for 1 dinner, 1 breakfast, and part of a second dinner, and his worked for 2 dinners and 1 breakfast, and part of a second breakfast. I should have only taken the larger (20 oz) bottle, filled half way or so. That would have saved 1.2 lbs.

Wildlife

After the incessant bear briefings, we saw: NONE. There were two deer, both within 300 yards of Glacier Point. A number of squirrels. A fair number of birds, including the beautiful Stellar’s Jay.

Things That Went Right

Food was pretty much right on target. I used a variation of what I called Tracy’s Menu from a previous trip to the Ozarks, and it kept me and the guys fed and going without any problem. Lunch was a tuna salad kit that had three ounces of tuna; they are perfect with the included mayo and pickle relish. One of the other guys had some that was pre-mixed, I might have to find out how those are.

I used two Backpackers Pantry meals for dinner; the Backpackers Pantry Shepherd’s Pie was good, but so soupy it was hard to eat. I’d reduce the water for that by ¼ cup to thicken it up. But the Chili Mac from Mountain House was PERFECT. The perfect amount of food, with decent sized meat pieces in it, and it had just the right amount of chili spice to it. I’d like that for dinner at home every once in a while, great stuff.

I used two Backpackers Pantry meals for breakfast. The package for Granola and Blueberry recommended cold water for rehydration, but hot is much better! The blueberries (and there were a lot of them) were a good flavor for the morning. Peanut Butter Raisin Oatmeal was decent, thick and hot and pretty good taste.

The Katadyn Hiker PRO Water pump for water purification worked well; we used it for the majority of water purification. With a strong pumper, it will fill a Nalgene in about 1 minute. I’ve had those break on a trip, though, so carry backup purification. I prefer the liquid Aqua Mira, since it gets the job done in 30 minutes. The tablets take hours.

Things That Went Wrong, Or At Least Not So Right

I carried too much! I took my pack apart post-trip, and I estimate that there was about seven pounds of stuff that I carried to no good use. I brought and carried a sweatshirt and sweatpants in anticipation of possible low temps, but a last-minute weather check would have showed that those were not needed. It got down to about 60F at the coolest, and the sweatstuff was not needed, is bulky, and fairly heavy. I had also bought a pound bag of M&Ms for snacking, and then packed them into the bottom of the bear canister, and carried them the entire time. So extra load, and didn’t get the benefit of the snack energy: not terribly smart.

I ran out of the powdered lemonade I like to flavor the water with, but it was not a big deal since the water from the streams was wonderful to taste!

I didn’t bring enough bug repellent. I had bought a small spray tube of DEET, and I carry a couple moist towelettes that are DEET soaked, but when shared among six guys that are being eaten alive by mosquitoes, they were used up quickly. All of us should have had the small spray tubes.

This was a first – I got not one, but three blisters while hiking – two big and one small. I never got the predictive hot spots, and when I checked my feet at the end of the trail there were not blisters. But when I woke up the next morning, there they were. They are long gone now.

My Navarros boots failed, both in the same way. The left boot split from the heel to arch, along the foot (not side to side, surprisingly). The right boot was cracked the same way, and was miles away from splitting wide open. That explained the huge amount of dirt in my boot, and why my sock and foot was so dirty (I had thought that it was due to dust leaking in from the ankle).

I had been checking the weather, and the forecast the week before had been for chilly nights in the 40Fs range. In reality, it was in the 60Fs. I had brought a heavier sleeping bag, and should have brought the liner I use in warmer weather – it’s also much lighter. Bring both next time, and select which to take the day before.

During trip planning, I was overconfident of our ability to scale the waterfall the first day. We made it, of course, it just took longer than I thought it would. I had already looked at multiple routes when doing trip planning, so it was easy to reroute us, and the reroute to the rim of the Valley was spectacular, so nothing was lost. The metrics I collected will help for next time.

Would I Do It Again?

YES! This was wonderfully refreshing for me. I love the mountains, and Yosemite in particular, and I almost hurt my neck swiveling around to see all the sights while we walked. I would have liked to see some of the wonderful mountain lakes, but now that is on the list for next time. Staying on the south wall of the Valley due to the reroute we did was a stroke of luck; the views were worth the sweaty walking needed to get there. It was hard walking, but I find that refreshing and uplifting (especially after the pack is on the ground and the tent is up!).

I am already looking forward to my next backpacking trip there. It might take five years, but it will happen.

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