Backpacking Yosemite National Park, 22-28 September 2012

Summary: 60+ miles and 8300+ of altitude gain over six days, beautiful weather, stunning terrain, critters, and great fellowship.

The photos from this expedition are here on Google Plus.

My buddy Chuck also posted photos on Google Plus.

Getting There And Preparation

We headed out Saturday to Fresno via American Airlines, arriving there around 1330. After lunch at Irene’s, and stops by REI and WalMart to buy food and last minute supplies, we headed out to Yosemite, getting into the Park around 1800.

We checked into two cabin/tents in Curry Village. These are pretty basic Baker tents on wooden platforms. They are in a shady area, and stayed nice and cool for us. Each has a number of bunks with mattresses, sheets, pillows and pillowcases, and blankets and towels. Most of the beds are singles (twins?), and one is a double. The tents each have a bear-proof food storage container, and is lockable with a padlock.

We unloaded, had buffet dinner in the Pavilion (open until 2000), checked out the Lounge (wifi, but only a T-1 shared amongst everybody there), and then racked out.

Day 1

Awoke all excited!

We were all in the showers at 0645 and out shortly thereafter. There are 500+ cabins in Curry Village, and there are 35 showers scattered around. We were able to jump in each time we showered with no wait, but the Village was not terribly full, I think, so I suspect that if you try to shower in the summer rush, you are looking at a wait. The showers were nice, each had an alcove for you to stash your stuff and get undressed, and the shower area itself was big enough where you don’t feel cramped. The water was nice and hot and had good pressure. Each shower had two big containers of liquid soap and shampoo, which was nice when I really needed it later. Towels are provided by Curry Village. I took two towels, and used one as a washcloth.

We ate breakfast buffet in the Pavilion; it was good. Afterward, we loaded up all our stuff in the car and headed over to Yosemite Village and the Wilderness Center to get our permit. We got a mission briefing (very detailed) from one of the Rangers, picked up an anti-bear food canister each, loaded up again, and drove to Glacier Point. We got there around 1115, and walked over to look at the views from the east edge, and then the Point. We filled our water bottles from a faucet, loaded up our backpacks, stashed the extra food and fuel in one of the trailhead storage lockers, took a deep breath, and shouldered our packs and headed out, at 1155.

We started out on the Panorama Trail, heading down the steep slope towards Illilouette Falls. We passed above the Falls and continued above Illilouette Creek, descending gradually until we met up with the Creek. From that point, we were steadily climbing. We saw a bear (about time!), had a deer walk through our lunch site, and generally steadily walked for six hours.

We passed under Mount Starr King, seeing it from three sides, which was pretty cool.

My original target was Merced Pass Lake, but we were starting to lose light while we were still several miles away, and at one point ran into a very nice open area right next to the Creek, with a perfect cooking area right by the Creek. We decided it was home for the evening, and set up camp. There had been a few cumulus clouds to our east, but nothing developed from them, and they evaporated at sunset.

Camp was very nice. There was a nice, sandy, soft dirt over most of the area, that was a wonderful sleeping surface. We didn’t put the fly on the tent, and most of the upper part of the tent is netting, which meant that Dave and I had a wonderful view of the sky all night from inside the tent. Everyone cooked and ate dinner (mostly in the dark), and then we all pretty much crashed. I woke up around 0200 to pee, and the view of the sky was absolutely stunning, with the sky full of stars, the Milky Way clear across the sky.

Gosh, it was beautiful.

I had a Backpackers Pantry Chicken with Dressing and Potatoes for dinner. I added a bit less water, and the consistency was good, but I was hungry and started in on it after the standard cooking time of 13 minutes, instead of waiting a bit longer due to the extra altitude. As a result, some of the veg and stuff was not fully rehydrated. It didn’t matter much, the stuff got eaten anyway. I’ve had better tasting backpacking meals, though. I think I will not take that one again.

I had brought my 20F sleeping bag for the trip, or so I thought. As I climbed into it, I noticed it was my 0F bag. Oh well, a bit more weight, but I was never cold.

Our distance for the day was 9.4 miles. We started at Glacier Point at 7200 ft, and dropped down to 6100 ft very quickly. At that point we had a (relatively šŸ™‚ ) level walk for a bit, and then started back up again, ending up at 7400 ft, for a gain of 1300 ft.

Day 2

We all started waking up around 0700 or so, but moved slowly. After breakfast and packing up, we headed out around 0900, again slowly and steadily upward. The first order of business was to knock of the mileage to Upper Merced Pass Lake. We got there around noon; everybody needed water, but the lake, which was on the map, pretty much didn’t exist, not even as a dried up lake. Dave took an expedition overland about a half mile due west to Lower Merced Pass Lake, finding it easily enough, and getting all the water bottles filled up. We had lunch, and then headed out, almost due east towards Ottoway Lakes.

This was some serious altitude increase now. We were all exerting pretty well, but staying pretty cool. There was a series of switchbacks alternated with consistent rises. After about three hours, we got to Lower Ottoway Lake. The lake was beautiful, clear and cold. There were a couple people camped near the shore. We took an extended break and thought about swimming.

One cool thing, a raptor launched from the trees across the lake, and flew over the lake and over us only about 20 ft overhead. It was an owl, reddish brown. Very cool. [08 Oct 2012 update: after looking online for a bit, I am of the opinion that we saw a Flammulated Owl. The color and head shape are diagnostic, and the size was about right.]

We had a short debate about where to camp. The lake would have been a very nice choice, and our target was Upper Ottoway (about three miles and 500 ft of altitude gain farther), but we had a long walk for tomorrow, and didn’t want to extend it. But the water issue at Merced Pass had us a bit concerned also, and we didn’t want to get up to Upper Ottoway and not find water. We could see that there were lines of green coming down from the rocks to our east, indicative of at least some water up there, so we decided to take the gamble and press on. We made sure our headlamps were easily available, and headed out.

Walking around Lower Ottoway was pretty easy. On the east side, we started up. It was a tough climb, I was sweating a lot and starting to tire. It was about 1.5 hours of exertion, and as Sun started below the ridge far to our west, we got to Upper Ottoway Lake (or rather, Lakes; there were two of them, which we took to calling Upper Upper Ottoway Lake and Lower Upper Ottoway Lake, where we camped).

It was starting to get dark and chilly as we made camp. We got the tents up and the water started heating, but ate dinner by headlamp. I had my Mountain House Chili Mac for dinner, and once again, it was the perfect backpacking dinner, just the right consistency, just the right spicy, and just the right amount of food. Yum! Everybody pretty much crashed immediately after dinner. Again, we left the fly off, and the stars were stunning. It was in the lower 40s when we went to bed.

Our mileage for the day was 8.5 miles. The impressive number was our altitude gain, which was 3100 ft! Camp was at 10500 ft. The altitude gain was fairly steady over the day, but that still adds up.

It got down to 30F overnight by the thermometer Chuck carried. Polar Bear patches for all!

Day 3

This day started chilly. We didn’t get Sun for a while due to the rock wall to our east. Everyone took a bit to get the kinks out from the long climb the previous day. The view down to Lower Ottoway Lake was stunning.

We got started about 0830 on the walk up to Red Peak Pass to our north. The trail was fairly short in distance, but steep! We all had a lot of appreciation for whoever had built that trail. It was a combination of switchbacks and steps. The first couple switchbacks were each a couple hundred feet long, but quickly shortened as we got higher.

As we climbed, we were able to see the Upper Upper Ottoway Lake that we had suspected. The UU lake was much larger than the LU lake. Turns out the LU lake we had camped at had another arm around a U turn we had not been able to see from camp.

After a 600 ft climb, we arrived at the Pass. The views to both sides were wonderful. We met another crew of three from SoCal who had come up the east side of the Pass. While we were up there, we had a day-early celebration of Chucks 50th birthday. I had put some medium Hostess cupcakes in a cleaned-out Pringles can to keep them from getting crushed, along with a birthday card Raegan had ginned up, and a candle. I figured a day early at 11200 ft and the top of our world was better than the actual day and a forest trail.

We had thought about side hiking to Red Peak, but it would have involved boulder scrambling that looked positively dangerous without ropes, so we decided to skip that.

After a while, we started down the east side. It was just as steep down. We also had a lot of places where we were walking on big rocks, that reminded me of walking towards Jicarita in Pecos Wilderness. As we got lower, we made better time.

We had lunch on the shore of a very pretty lake.

We started walking again, had one ridge crossing, and then started walking along a creek, steadily going down. We had one serious 500 ft of down to reach the Merced River, and then walked along it for a while. Our target for the day was Washburn Lake, and we reached it as we were losing the Sun again.

Camp was on the shore of Washburn, and was beautiful, if a bit tight. Yosemite wants you to camp 100 ft from water sources or trails, and it just was not possible in this case, as the ground to the east of the lake went up at a 30 deg angle. So we camped between the trail and the lake shore, about 30 ft from each. Dinner this evening was beef stroganoff with noodles. I let it cook 21 minutes instead of 13, and it was pretty darn good. I note that each of these backpackers meals were supposedly two servings, but they made a good meal for one hungry walker. We talked for a while, and then headed to bed with a beautiful Moon and stars overhead.

This was a long day. We had 13.8 miles of hiking, Our net altitude loss was 3500 ft, but we also had about 900 ft of gain, so we had lots of aerobic activity.

Day 4

We were up and moving by about 0845. The walk started along the shore of Washburn, and then followed the Merced down to a backcountry ranger station. There was a trail crew camped there, and some horses that were very friendly and curious.

We continued along, steadily but gradually losing altitude, until we got to Merced Lake. There was another trail crew working there. I don’t think we saw the High Sierra Camp hut. The lake was very pretty.

My original plan had been to hike along this trail until we got to Echo Canyon, then go to Half Dome via Little Yosemite Valley (LYV). After some map reading the evening before with Jason, we decided to take the trail up towards Sunrise Creek and the John Muir Trail, and so knock off some of the climbing we would otherwise have had to do tomorrow. This was a good plan on several levels, but the one variable was whether we would be able to find water up there. If not, then we would have to continue on down to LYV, where we knew we would have water from the Merced. We were not encouraged when we got to the trail junction, and the creek there was completely dry. Dave led a crew about a half mile down the trail to LYV and found water in the Merced.

We headed up towards the Muir Trail. It was hard! The altitude gain was almost 900 ft. When we got up there, the scenery was breathtaking. We walked along a series of granite domes that formed steep cliffs above Echo Valley, Lost Lake, and LVW. Eventually, we could see Half Dome looming ahead of us behind a ridge. We crossed the ridge and intercepted the Muir Trail, at a beautiful campsite in an area with huge trees. We were in camp, set up, and done with dinner before Sun set. Clark made a campfire, and we spent a nice couple hours sitting and talking.

Dinner for me was Backpackers Pantry Shepherd’s Pie. It was really, really good. I used a 1/2 cup less of water than the package called for, and let it cook 20 minutes instead of 13. The consistency was perfect, and it had great flavor.

Our gamble paid off in that there was a stream at the Muir trail junction. It was a very low flow stream, but we got the water.

Our mileage for the day was 11.4. We had a net altitude loss of 500 ft, but the profile was a 700 ft loss, followed by a 1000 ft gain, then another loss of 800 ft to camp, so we were seriously tired.

Day 5

Half Dome!

We woke to see the sun lighting up the south side of Half Dome in the short distance to the NW. We had breakfast and packed up, headed back up to the water and topped off bottles, and headed out. It was about 0900.

It was only about a half mile to the Half Dome trail junction. We dropped our packs and headed up the trail. It was two miles to Half Dome. We had made a conscious decision to leave our water bottles with the packs to lighten our load on the climb it. Here is my advice:


From the trail junction, it’s 1700 feet to the top of Half Dome, and you need your water on the way up. We didn’t get dehydrated, but we needed the water, and probably some snacks.

It’s a hard walk up the dome. When you get to the bottom of SubDome, you leave the shade of the forested path, and start on rock steps, in unrelenting sunlight. It was hot and sweaty work. We got to the base of Half Dome at 1100.

We had brought carabiners and rope. I cut a loop of rope and made a sling; when I did rappelling frequently, we called it a diaper sling. The sling was attached with a three foot section of rope to the biner. The two cables going up the Dome make a great place to put the biner as a backup. At each step (which is a 2×4 placed between the cable stays) I would switch the biner to the next segment of cable. It was a bit of a pain, but I am really glad I had the protection in place.

Going up the cables was hard work. You don’t have that much traction to walk up with your legs, so you have to use your arms a lot to pull along the cables. It’s hard on the hands also, since you are in serious grip mode.

It took a bit, but we got to the top. Half Dome has two “points”. The eastern point is the high point, and the western point is more gradual, and slopes off fairly gradually. We walked over all of the Dome, and after an hour or so, headed back down.

It was harder going down the cables. I tried forward, sideways, and backwards. I think the easiest way is backwards, using the cables in the same manner as a rappelling rope and working down it hand over hand.

When we got down to the base of SubDome, there was a Park Ranger checking permits.

We headed down, got to the trail junction, took long drinks, put on our packs, and headed down. The trail down was rocky, with lots of steps, lots of dust. We hiked down to Little Yosemite Valley, passed through the backpackers camp, and walked down the trail until we met up with the Merced. Water was topped off and snacks consumed. We headed down the trail, past Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. That is a very hard walk down. We got to the bottom at 1700.

Our daily walk was 10.5 miles. We had 1700 ft of altitude gain, followed immediately by 4600 ft of loss, from the top of Half Dome all the way to the floor of Yosemite Valley.

The total hike was 56.5 miles (that doesn’t include some of the side hikes for water and the like). We had over 8300 ft of altitude gain for the entire trek.

We got checked in to Curry Village, and took quick showers, putting on our still-dusty from the trail clothes, and took ourselves to a steak dinner. Following dinner, Clark and Gayle drove Shawn and I up to Glacier Point to get the cars we had left at the trailhead. We had a rude surprise: someone had taken the stuff we had left in the bearproof containers. We had left some extra food (like trail bars), a partial can of stove fuel, and a couple of shaving kits. So, if you were up on Glacier Point the week of 22-27 September, and you got stuff out of the bear containers up there, doubtless inadvertently, please let me know so I can let you know where to send it (you can keep the stove fuel, we were going to donate it to the Backcountry Office anyway so others could use it).

Driving back down to the valley, I had a Ringtail Cat run across the road in front of me, the first one I have seen in the wild. The moonlight on the granite was stunning! We got down about 2230, I went to the Curry Village Lounge to get some wifi and email before hitting the sack.

Day 6

We got up lateish this morning, had showers and breakfast. We went over to Yosemite Village to turn in the bear canisters, check to see if the Rangers had taken our stuff from Glacier Point, checked out the Visitor Center, and the like. After lunch, we went to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Redwoods and hiked there a bit. We had dinner in Wawona, and headed back to the Valley.

One cool thing. As we drove into the Valley, there was a flash of light from the dark face of El Capitan. We pulled over and got out, and watched for about 10 minutes; there were at least eight groups of lights on the El Capitan wall. I’m guessing these were headlamps being worn by climbers. Very cool.

After doing some packing, and spending some time at the Lounge, and spending some more time on the bar patio, we all hit the rack around 2300. The next morning it was up, finish packing, drive to Fresno, and fly home.

The Route

Here is the route we took, overlaid on a Topographic map, and Altitude. I annotated the Altitude map to show our locations.

Things That Went Well

The weather was beautiful! We had sunny days, clear nights, great temperatures.

Sleeping was easy! In every case, we had semi-soft ground to sleep on, that was very comfortable.

Every day, as soon as we got into camp, I would change my tshirt, underwear, and socks, and rinse the stuff I just took off. It was dry by the next afternoon, and I would do the change cycle again. It helped me keep from getting chilled in camp. I also really enjoyed having a hoodie to wear.

Things That Could Have Gone Better

I screwed up my food packing a bit. I need to always go with the following: Breakfast, two packages of oatmeal and a Quaker Oats bar. Lunch: Tuna or PB and crackers, along with a Quaker Oats bar. Two more Quaker Oats bars for snacks (or a bag of M&Ms).

I need to carry some insulated pants; it was chilly a couple of mornings.

I probably need to carry hot chocolate instead of tea.

We probably ought to have done the hike in six days instead of five.

I got a blister on Day 1! I learned to stay off that thing. I don’t understand why I got it; my boots were in great shape, and I walk a lot in them. I used a couple good-size pieces of moleskin, and the blister slowly shrank over the hike.

We had our stuff taken at Glacier Point.

Equipment Notes

I carried a SPOT beacon. I sent locations and we-are-OK signals at the start of each hike, at lunch, and finally at dinner. I haven’t completed my analysis yet, but it seems that some of the signals did not make it. I will update this post later with results.

I carried a bit too much. Again. My 0F bag is about a pound heavier then the 20F bag I thought I had brought.

I carried a small frying pan/dish that I never used. Not all that heavy, but I didn’t need it.

The Cabelas pack worked out very well; it was comfortable and held all my gear internally, except my closed-cell plan.


This was an amazing trip. I could not walk very far without turning my head constantly to check out the views. We probably could have shortened each segment so that we had a bit more time in camp each evening. The walking was hard, but the guys all did really well!

I think next time, it’ll be the North Rim area.

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One Response to “Backpacking Yosemite National Park, 22-28 September 2012”

  1. Denise Says:

    Saw your post about hiking Red Peak pass over on girlycamping and had to come over to check it since I did the same hike over 5 days in July last year ( ). I love the hike, but once you get over the pass pounding out those miles is tough! Plus and then you did half dome?! Kudos.

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