There are days when one is in the wilderness that the excitement of the upcoming day just wakes you up and you can’t go back to sleep. In the process of planning this trip, there were times when I would look at the route out of Merced Lake that took us up along Lewis Creek and say to myself, “that’s going to be a hard day”. In reality, that was true but I was in the best hiking shape I had been in for a while from regular training and work outs. I was awake, feeling alive and ready for the challenge.
In camp, several hikers mentioned we were going against the grain with our easterly route. Most people opt to come downhill out of Vogelsang to Merced Lake and out to Yosemite Valley. From Merced Lake we left camp heading east following signs and our GPS map toward the Ranger station about 1/2 mile away. A footbridge at the ranger station marks the start of the first big climb out of Merced lake and almost immediately the trail grew steep with the typical granite cobble, stair-stepping switchbacks. The climb out of Merced Lake one gains 1000′ in elevation in the first mile and a half. The exertion was hard and calves and thighs were burning with the ever-increasing elevation. Knowing a long day was ahead, we took periodic breaks to catch our breath. By stopping, we were rewarded with some gorgeous views looking back on Merced Lake and the river canyon that we had hike through the day before.
The steep incline lays back down a little by the time you reach the trail junction for Fletcher Creek trail that heads up to Emeric lake. We continued our climb, following Lewis creek in a east, north east direction tranverseing the steep north facing side of an unnamed mountain. Above, some movement caught my eye in the tree lined mountainside as a pair of deer transversed the same direction parallel to our trail. At mile 3 the trail steepened again into a series of switchbacks past 8700′. Soon it leveled again slightly and for the next 3 miles the trail continued to follow Lewis Creek on a transverse tact always with a slight upsweep toward higher elevation. Throughout this part of the trail, granite escarpments are line with purposely placed rocks to show hikers the path. Often, this late in the year, we found Lewis creek running thin over flat granite areas dropping over small slabs and crevices and allowing easy access to water refilling.
Beyond mile 5 we encountered another steepening slope challenging our tired legs to push on through. We decided that our goal for stopping for lunch would be the Bernice Lake trail Junction and around mile 6 the rusted metal sign for Bernice lake trail appeared. Our elevation now was 9800′. Taking off our packs and retrieving our bear cans we walked down to Lewis creek, boulder-hopping over to a sunny granite embankment where we ate in silence and rested our exerted bodies. In the back of our minds we knew we still had a real tester of a climb coming up in a mile or so. I layed back on the warm rock and let the sun bathe my body with it’s light. The sound of the creek, buzzing of bees and insects and the soft wind through the trees lulled me into a semi-sleep state of relaxation. I was soon jogged from my placidity by the stirring of my compatriots. We repacked our gear, refreshed and ready for the climb up to Vogelsang pass.
Off to our left a sheer precipice pulls the eye up to Vogelsang peak, now clearly in view. We left the Bernice Lake cutoff and continued along Lewis Creek entering a postcard worthy high alpine meadow. The trail through here appeared well-trodded and its flat path cut a foot or so deep into the meadow turf. We crossed a low-flowing stream on some thin logs, scaring up a small school of trout. The trail continues to head east through the meadow, steering one to a stand of conifers that sloped up a steep face of granite. With a quick turn of a corner we immediately ascended up the first of many steep tight switchbacks toward Vogelsang pass. The look back provided a great view of the meadow we had just past through. The extreme gradient of the rocky trail and quick turning switchbacks confirmed laborious work ahead to get to Vogelsang pass. The trail wound continuously upward and was littered with loose rock, tree roots and scree, lending to slips, trips and uncertain push-offs. Using trek poles to stabilize balance along with slippery trail conditions proved to be a concentrated effort. Taking turns, our crew would push up the ascending path as far as we could, taking periodic breaks to rest and take in the view. I found myself periodically looking up trying to determine our proximity to the apex of Vogelsang Pass. Finally, the trail flattened out to transverse westward along a granite exposed ledgy section, stepping over periodic water seeps emanating from crevices. It was here where a panoramic view of both Gallison lake and Bernice Lake as well as the Cathedral range in its magnificent starkness came into view. Distant towering peaks with remnants of snow stand in silent guard, daring one into the treeless & trail-less expanse beyond the Cathedral range, and yet only 4 miles east, as the crow flies, and behind the imposing stances of Parsons peak and Simmons Peak, lies the unseen John Muir trail.
After taking in the view and a nice rest we continued on trail. It wasn’t much longer that we crested top of Vogelsang pass. Unfortunately, their was no signage indicating our arrival or altitude. Vogelsang pass routes through a saddle between boulders and rocky, exposed peaks. The trail is well-worn, flat and snaked along in a northerly direction. Soon, we were looking down on the Vogelsang Lakes area and gazing at beautiful lake itself.
We were arriving at mid-afternoon and being mid September the sun was now low in the west. Making our way down the pass toward the lake afforded a chance to take in the view of the lake. We discussed among ourselves the idea of finding a good campsite at lakeside and stopping there for the night. The trail traverses on a moderate downslope with Vogelsang peak to the right leading us to the north edge of the Lake. Upon arriving, we dropped our packs and walked a short distance along the shore locating a nice, flat area to camp. Once again, Kevin and I eyed the still waters and the rising trout and quickly set up our tents. Soon we had lines in the water but the bites were few – the fish Gods we’re not kind to us this night. Once back to camp we settled in and watch the suns light move up the rock face of the surrounding peaks. A nice yellow alpine glow illuminated the rocky face and a brisk breeze soon started to blow in from the west.
As the sun set, I clamored up a granite knoll-like area north of our campsite to look west at the setting sun. From this vantage point, the mountains were basked in the golden glow. To my surprise the distant view rewarded me with views of Half dome & clouds rest, where days earlier we crested and my compatriots had cable-climbed Half Dome up to the top. I sensed a long time had passed, confirming the effect solitude and natural beauty has on those who spend days out in nature.
It was a clear night and we had anticipated it to be a cold one given the time of year and altitude. Surprisingly, the wind continued to picked up to a gusty blow and I weighted down the vestibles of my tent fly with small bounders to create a seal with the ground and prevent the wind from blowing in. Perhaps it was the wind, or my adaptation to days on the trail but that night of sleep was the best I had on the trail. This was our last night in the Yosemite. Tomorrow would be our last day on trail and the finish of our trek. Rafferty creek trail & the 9 mile hike to Toulomne Meadows awaited us and its surprisingly pretty meadows and easy course home.
This recap is a synopsis of a backpacking trip that took place from Sunday, September 11th 2016 through Friday September 16th, 2016. I wanted to document it for a variety of reasons, one being BETA for those who may have an interest in doing this loop. We experienced some fabulous Yosemite back country at the onset of fall in near perfect conditions. Finally, as a cautionary tale because we made some judgement errors along the way that can serve as a good lesson from which to learn. The participants included myself (Will E Cronan) and my good hiking buddy Jeff H. In the course of planning this trip, Jeff invited his brother Kevin H. from Ohio and I invited my cousin John H. from Houston, TX.
The planned route was ambitious for us older guys who do larger treks maybe twice a year. That’s not to say we don’t have experience as both Jeff and I are avid hikers and do our share of overnight trips in our local coastal mountains and Los Padres National Forest. But this is the Sierra and preparation is key. Knowing your limits is as important as wilderness experience. Kevin has some experience backpacking in Glacier National Park but would admit to not being a regular backpacker. For John, this was his first backpacking trip in the Sierra but came in trained-up and ready. Fitness-wise we had all prepared months prior to be in shape for the physical challenge ahead.
In the planning of this trek, we were interested in the High Sierra loop and looked at ways to incorporate parts of that trail into our plan. First, we wanted to arrive a day early so we could acclimate to the altitude. We opted to stay at Tuolumne backpackers camp ground on Saturday evening before our Sunday start (Sept 11, 2016). Next, we decided to at the Sunrise Trailhead at Tenaya Lake because both Jeff and I wanted to “bag” Clouds Rest (CR) and experience the view down onto half dome and the surrounding terrain. Once over CR, we would make our way down to Sunrise Creek situated at the CR/JMT junction. The following day would be a day-hike up to the dramatic views on top of Half Dome, then return to Sunrise Creek camp, where we would then break down camp, pack-up, and head out through Little Yosemite Valley to camp at Merced Falls. Day three would incorporate a hike from Merced Falls through both Echo Valley and Lost Valley. We would be following the Merced River through gaps and canyons up to beautiful Merced Lake where we would camp for the third evening. Day four would be our most strenuous of the hike. We would leave Merced Lake, elevate quickly up along Lewis Creek trail traversing over 8 miles to another impressive climb over Vogelsang pass. We would then descend into the Vogelsang Lake area to camp. Rising early on Day five, our wanderings would take us on to Vogelsang High Sierra camp, catching a junction that would take us past Evelyn lake toward Ireland lake. Our intent was to stop at the Ireland Lake Junction and day-hike the out and back to Ireland Lake. We would then finish the day by trekking southeast down the trail to Lyell Canyon and a forecasted camping spot at the JMT junction. To wrap up the trip, Day 6 would be a long but relatively easy slight downhill on the JMT into Tuolumne Meadows, effectively cinching the loop. All told the proposed route was nearly 50 miles. Included in the route were major climbs at Clouds Rest, Half Dome, the climb out of Merced Lake toward Vogelsang pass and Vogelsang pass itself. As you will see we had to alter this route on the fly due to some unforeseen circumstances. I hope you enjoy this write up which I have broken up into six parts, each focusing on one day’s events.
Saturday, September 10th: Today was the culmination of a copious amount of planning and coordination heralded by our arrival at Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. After securing our requisite permit and rules lecture from the Ranger we drove over to Glen Aulin Road and parked the car. We unloaded our gear and headed over to Tuolumne Grill for a tasty burger, knowing that the next six days would consist of snacks and dehydrated mountain house meals. Spirits were high among the group and if truth be told we were anxious to get rolling down the trail. But that would have to wait until the next morning. To be honest, I always prefer a day to acclimate to the altitude especially since we drove up from coastal sea level. After eating, we walked the short distance to Tuolumne backpackers campground to secure a campsite and set up our tents. Sites appeared to be filling up fast. Luckily, we found a great site right off the main trail. Some yellow hazard tape across the bear box must have scared off other potential campers as it appeared to have a broken lock. Jeff put his mechanical skills to work and soon had the temperamental bear box key working fine. Once camp was set up, we had some time to kill so we made fire in the fire ring, talking and getting to know each other in more detail. A few nips of our favorite spirit soon loosened the lips and good conversation and jokes were flying around. Kevin had come in from Ohio, taking some time off from his business and family. John came in from the flat lands of Houston Texas. He had prepared and trained hiking trails around his hometown. To mimic the climbs, he loaded up his backpack, hiking up and down the stairs of the 33 story office building where he worked. Jeff and I are long time friends and had started hiking together as a way to “get back into shape”. We both have experience hiking in the Sierra and teamed up to planned this trip. A big day and an early start lay ahead of us so with great anticipation we retired to our tents.
5am! “Rise and shine, the birds are singing and the sun is shining and it’s a brand new day in the world,” as my father used to say. We needed to be the Tuolumne Grill shuttle stop for our ride over to Tenaya Lake and Sunrise Trailhead. It was still dark when we awoke. By the time we made our way to the grill, the yet-to-rise sun was beginning to lightened the Yosemite sky. Like clockwork, the shuttle arrived and grabbing our gear from the nearby table, we boarded. We were the only people on the shuttle and the driver clairvoyantly asked, “Sunrise Trailhead”? We confirmed her premonition and were soon driving west down Tioga road for the 30 minute trip to Sunrise. Everybody was quiet, surely going over their personal checklists in their mind, double-checking they had not forgotten anything. Placid Tenaya lake showed up on our left. Driving past I glance up at Tenaya peak looming over the lake. I’ve driven by this spot over the years and often wondered to myself “what’s on the other side of that peak”. Today I would start to find out and with the shuttle pulling over to the side of the road my thoughts returned to getting on the trail.
We quickly disembarked from the shuttle, wiggled into our backpacks and scrambled across Tioga road to the Sunrise Trailhead. Taking some quick pictures at the trailhead, we secured our trek poles and took our first steps down the Sunrise Lakes trail. We made our way past the western end of Tenaya Lake. The first mile of the trail was wide, straight and flat. Invariably, whenever starting a long trek, I habitually do a quick physical assessment. My left knee usually shouts at me with sharp arthritic pains, letting me know it’s not to happy to be carrying the 40 lbs of weight. My shoulders are usually pulling back, feeling the load and my hip belt is asking for constant tightening to secure the pack and carry the load over my hips. The first mile of any hike is always a settling in process. My breathing is usually labored as my body works to adjust to the load, exertion and altitude. Constant adjustments continue until you fall into rhythm and pace that your body agrees with. So it was during the first mile on the forested trail and presently we ascended slightly into a vigorous climb up the rocky, root straddled trail. Periodically, we caught glimpses through the trees of the granite landscape toward Olmstead point. These sneak peaks afforded an opportunity to catch our breath and to look back toward Tenaya Lake and our point of origin. The climb steepened and we push on up a series of switchbacks eventually cresting a ridge line at the Sunrise Lakes trail junction. At one point during our early planning, Jeff and I had entertained the idea trying to secure a walk-in permit and hiking to the lakes for our first night, but time and logistics worked against us, so we stayed at Toulomne campground to acclimate instead.
Clouds Rest was still four miles away and from the Sunrise Lakes junction the trail descended down into a wide canyon with sunrise mountain south of us. Our southerly progression now turned slightly westward through an undulating series of ups and downs that wound through trees, tiny open spaces, an occasional small vernal pond and bushy meadows. Clouds Rest imposing prominence could be seen ahead and announcing the climb that was sure to come.
One of the basic tenets of backpacking is to expect the unexpected. We were about at the 3.5 mile mark of the days hike when we experienced the unexpected. As John stepped over a tree root that crossed the trail, his left foot landed on the edge of trail concavity. The awkward placement of his foot, the shifting of his body, coupled with a glance at the view, all conspired so that the load-bearing weight on that foot caused him to rolled his ankle and fall. We rushed to his aid and as John collected himself, he muttered “It’s my ankle, I rolled it pretty good”. Jeff encouraged John to take his time as we all helped him unbuckle his pack and to get if off him. It was at this point where our collective thoughts started to process our predicament. Three and a half miles into a week long trek and we had a injury and a lot of uncertainty as to our next course of action. John took off his shoe and looked at his ankle – no swelling…yet. First indications were that the sprain may not be serious. John stood on it and took a few steps. He walked a few yards up and back on the trail to see how it felt. He winced but said he thought it would be okay. At some point I asked if he felt he could continue. He responded that he could. It was decision time and a choice had to be made. Either turn around and hike back and regroup at Sunrise trail head or continue on up and over Clouds Rest to our eventual camp at Sunrise Creek. At this point, I’m sure John was thinking that he did not want to be the guy who had to bomb-out on this trek. He was toughing it out. After taking a couple over-the-counter pain medications and with his positive affirmation we continued on. We were working under the assumption that John had dodge a severe sprain. We helped him get his gear back on and resumed our hike.
In the meantime, I was watching the eastern sky closely. In the distance I could see clouds building up toward Tuolumne. At this point, I could not tell if a storm was in the offing, but it warranted watching. Back on the trail, John was struggling and his pace slowing. We were into the meat of the Clouds Rest climb, so around mile five we stopped to reassess. It was becoming obvious that John’s sprain was worse than hoped and he was struggling to push-off with any strength. At some point a good Samaritan saw John languishing and offered him an ice pack for his ankle which he gladly took, stuffing it into his sock. Even more frustrating, though we all had fairly extensive first aid kits, none of us had brought an ankle-wrap bandage. We did have duct tape and suggested to John that we could wrap his ankle using his sock as a buffer to the skin but John said he wanted to continue without. To speed up the pace we decided to try to lighten John’s load. I took the loaded top cover which coverts to a hip belt off his Osprey backpack and attached it to my pack. Jeff volunteered to carried John’s fully loaded bear canister weighing at least ten pounds in his arms and in doing so used no trek poles for the climb up to CR. Kevin carried John’s tent and some other weighty items in his already heavy pack.
With a lighter load, John’s speed improved and he was pushing through the pain. But the additional weight was taking a toll on us and the group stopped frequently to rest. We arrived at sign that indicated that we were 1.2 miles from the summit of CR and we decided to rest and eat some lunch. We could see on our topo maps that the climb was about to get steeper. We had lost time and had fallen behind schedule and it became clear that the gathering storm was coming our way. The once distant rumbles of thunder were getting louder and sheets of rain could be seen falling over the mountains to the southeast on its approach toward us. Eating quickly, we pushed on trying to beat the storm to the summit. As we closed in on the summit of Clouds Rest, day-hikers were scurrying down. It was getting windy and sprinkles were starting to fall even though we remained in bright sunlight. John and I had gotten ahead of Jeff and Kevin arriving at the summit together. The last 100 yards to the top of the summit of Clouds Rest is a bit of a boulder scramble. Exhausted, John and I crested the east side of Clouds Rest. The summit of Clouds rest resembles stacked granite slabs that taper to a narrow ridge which extends about 600′ from east to west. As we moved across the summit, the path across the ridge narrowed to a thin strip of uneven granite, with precipitous granite walls dropping off on either side. With the wind gusting and sprinkles turning to drops, we made our way gingerly across this narrow stretch. Without taking my eyes off the trail, I could see in my peripheral vision to the right the 3000′ drop into Tenaya Canyon. Looking left I could see the 2000′ foot drop where the unseen the John Muir trail paralleled our position below. I whispered a quick prayer for protection from lightning or any other worrisome danger and made my way across this narrow isthmus to the point where the path widened to a safer flat section. My enthusiasm at making it to the top of Clouds Rest was short-lived and tempered by the storm that was upon us. It had been a hard climb, and a cardinal rule in Yosemite is to never be on top of a high granite place during a thunderstorms. Yet here we were, doing something I have criticized others for doing. Jeff and Kevin had just crested the top about 200′ away from us. The view of the oncoming storm from the direction of Sunrise lakes was incredible. The clouds were low in the sky and the falling rain faded out the background mountains. Looking west, we could peek into Yosemite Valley and directly adjacent loomed mighty Half dome, at a slightly lower position. On Half Dome, we could clearly see the sub dome and just beyond the polished granite path where the cables guide hikers to her summit. To the north we viewed the deep drop into Tenaya canyon and in the distance Olmsted point. To the south the back country surrounding Little Yosemite valley and in the far distance the Ansel Adams wilderness. It was simply spectacular!
Jeff and Kevin cresting the east side of Clouds Rest. Note the rain fading out the background.
With clouds directly over us now, the concentrated center of the storm was still to the east but its proximity to Clouds Rest still presented a danger. John and I took in the view and snapped some pictures. Knowing we had pushed our luck, I said to John, “we need to get off this rock” and proceeded make our way to the western side of the summit. We found the trail descending down the west side of Clouds Rest. John gingerly started down the 3 mile descending trail toward the JMT junction. The immediate descent from the summit on the westside is scary steep and John, with a his hurting ankle, made slow but careful progress down. In the meantime, as I gestured to Jeff & Kevin to come over, a loud rumble of thunder echoed up the nearby canyons and a little to close comfort. I signaled to them I was going down. Doing my best NOT to rush, I carefully stepped my way through the steep decline and soon joined up with John. Not long after, I could see Kevin and Jeff descending through the steep descent. Knowing they were moving our direction, John and I went ahead of them toward Sunrise camp. The hike down from CR to the JMT/Sunrise is a series of long switchbacks that look south over the Yosemite back-country. Rain was soon falling with enough volume to warrant putting on our rain shells and applying our backpack rain covers. Looking south into the Yosemite back country from this vantage point brings into view a vast expanse of domes, distant peaks, valleys, and canyons. I could clearly see Moraine dome and an unnamed dome near our future camp site at Merced Falls. Looking south-west, Mt. Starr King could be seen in the distance past Little Yosemite valley.
The long, switch-backing trail from CR to Sunrise was well-traveled and in good shape and during this descent, I ran through various scenarios regarding John’s situation. First my goal was to get to sunrise camp and access our situation and regroup. With that goal in mind I moved ahead of John and was first to the JMT/ Sunrise camp Junction. Arriving a sunrise camp I sat down on a rock, contemplated the predicament. I was pretty sure John’s hike was done. There simply appeared no way John would finish the remaining 5 day trek with the distance and climbs that were planned. My mind raced with thoughts. Was this the short finish to our long-planned trip? Would Kevin & Jeff have to continue alone? Or, could we formulate an extraction plan to safely get John out and possibly salvage the trip? As I sat there, worn out from the days events, I check my cell phone and surprisingly discovered I had cell service. It was at that point a plan started to formulate in my mind. Day two would prove to be interesting as you will read in the next section.
Post script: So at this point and speaking for myself, I will sheepishly admit to some iffy decision-making on our part. We let the excitement and anticipation of a long-planned trip potentially get in the way of safety. First, when John injured himself we were only 3.5 miles from our start, Sunrise trailhead. We could have simply hiked out and regrouped at Sunrise. No one wants to be “that guy” who is responsible for throwing a wrench into long-made plans. As our scenario unfolded, that factor edged us toward decisions stay on trail. Secondly, the decision to go back should have been a no-brainer with the approaching storm, yet we went on. Third, not having a ankle wrap (ace bandage) in our first aid kit was a big miss – inexcusable really. In retrospect, I think we all agree that it was a series of questionable decisions, one leading to the next, that led us to keep pushing to keep this trek alive. We took some risks, got lucky, and made it through. We walk away a little smarter and better prepared for next time.
Day 2 (Monday September 12, 2016): Sunrise camp at the Clouds Rest / John Muir trail junction is a well used camping area for backpackers heading out on the John Muir trail. Our camp was located here, adjacent to the JMT. Sunrise Creek nearby provides a good source for water for filtering.
(Evening day 1) It was clear after the struggles over Clouds Rest that John would not be able to continue on for another 5 days that included, a half-dome climb, long, uphill miles that included several mountain pass climbs and rocky, rough trail. Not that he wasn’t willing, but even John acknowledged that he could be doing more damage to his ankle if he continued. Originally, in the permitting process, we had recieved permissions to do the Half-Dome cables and day 2 was slated for that adventure. The original plan was to day-hike from Sunrise camp to the HD junction and up to the cables onto the top of Half-Dome. Once completed, we would hike back to Sunrise camp, lunch, break camp, hike on to Little Yosemite Valley and head out east along the Merced River to Merced Falls.
That evening in camp discussions took place as to our situation. At present, the completion of the whole trip rested on our ability to somehow extricate John. John was adamant that he did not want the rest of us to quit the trip on account of his injury. He insisted that he would do what he needed so we could continue on. None of us were comfortable with him walking out by himself. We knew that he needed someone walk him out, carrying his backpack to keep pressure & weight off his leg. This led to discussions of ways to safely get John out AND salvage the trip for the rest of us.
As good luck would have it, we were about 7.5 miles away from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. The discussion turned to walking John out via John Muir trail to Happy Isles through Little Yosemite Valley. A few things worked in our favor. The main advantage being it was mostly downhill from Sunrise into little Yosemite Valley. The subsequent two miles to Nevada Falls would be flat, and the final 3.6 miles downhill to HI. Working against us was the fact that the hike from Sunrise camp to Happy isle was about 7.5 miles one way. In my thinking, if I was going out, that is to say to Happy Isles, then my backpacking trek would be over. The thought of a 16 mile roundtrip to HI and back to Sunrise then back down again to finish out the day was not in the cards for me.
Another option took shape that seemed to offer a better solution. We surmised that if I could walk out John 3.5 miles to to Nevada Falls, we could have someone meet us there and help John the rest of the way out. In turn, I could reverse and hike back to Sunrise, doing a total of 7 plus miles instead of the 16 mile round tripper to Happy Isle. Just when it seemed that the trip would have to be called, a viable option saved the day. As I mentioned earlier, I discovered we had cell phone service from Sunrise camp. A series of calls to my wife allowed us to come up with an exit plan for John. It went like this; Since I had previously done Half-dome I would forgo my day up there. I felt it not only my obligation to escort John out, but to make sure we did it safely. I was to carry John’s backpack and walk him down the JMT, through little Yosemite Valley to Nevada Falls. He would carry my day pack with minimal water and some food. From Nevada Falls, John would continue the rest of the 3.5 miles down the John Muir trail to Happy Isles. My brother-in-law, Gary (who lives an 1.5 hours out of Yosemite) volunteered to drive up to Yosemite Valley to pickup up John. From there, they would get him to a doctor for treatment & recuperate at their home. In the meantime, Jeff & Kevin would go ahead and hike up Half-dome as it would be Kevin’s first time. We would all meet back at Sunrise later that afternoon. We all agreed to this plan and set about coordinating the details.
On Monday morning we executed the plan flawlessly. I walked John out to Nevada Falls where we switch packs and said our regretful goodbye’s. I was sad that John’s trip was ending this way. John is a fighter and not one to walk away from a challenge. It was the right decision albeit a disappointing one. Not long after heading down the John Muir trail from Nevada Falls, John was met by Gary who had walked up a couple miles from Happy Isles. Gary carried John’s pack the remaining miles down to the car. John was safely returned to civilization and medical care. Meanwhile, I hiked back up to sunrise camp from Nevada Falls, lighter John’s backpack and relieved to know he was in good hands. A few hours after arriving back to camp, Jeff and Kevin returned from half-dome and we shared stories of our respective days events. Kevin’s was excited at his first experience on Half Dome. Unknown to me, Kevin is not exactly comfortable with heights and the climb up half dome was daunting for him. But once on top, the sense of accomplishment and awe overrode the fear and he and Jeff exhaulted in the thrill of being on top of this impressive wonder of nature. Back at camp, we were all exhausted from the days events and the extent of morning hiking that was already done. Jeff suggested we stay one more night at Sunrise camp get some needed rest and head out early the next morning for the next leg of our trek. We all agreed, knowing it would mean altering our route somewhere along the way to make up for the lost day. It was one of the better nights of sleep I have ever had on trail.
We awoke at Sunrise Camp with a sense of renewal and positivity that our trek into the Yosemite backcountry was back on track. We had slept in a little this morning and a few early goers were already passing our camp on their way up the JMT or to Clouds Rest. Our goal today was Merced Falls and this hike would be the shortest of our trek encompasing only about six and a half miles. We broke camp and hit the trail around 9AM heading down toward the Half-Dome/ JMT Junction. The mile and a half hike to the junction offers splendid views of both the subdome and Halfdome. One can clearly see the cables on HD and the early-risers working their way up the face of the dominating monolith. Looking left one is treated to a spectacular view of the back country domes; Moraine dome is nearby, in the distance Mt. Starr King can be seen. Further out, in a southernly direction, distant domes, peaks and mountains stand invitingly. On this day wisps of smoke from an unknown fire were wafting in from that southernly direction filling Little Yosemite Valley with a smoky haze and soon visibility and air quality was poor. I felt some empathy for those people climbing half dome as the magnificent views were sure to be affected by the hazy smoke.
Once past the HD junction the traffic on trail increased as the morning groups made their way up out of Little Yosemite Valley up toward HD. Within the tree line smoke interspersed with shafts of sunlight streaking through the pines and made for a surreal mid morning glow. We soon emerged from the tree line onto Little Yosemite Valley’s flatter ground and made our way southward past the ranger station trail toward the
Merced River.Using our pre-routed GPS maps on our cell phone, we navigated through the camp ground area to the Lake Merced trail. A quick turn on a corner and we were heading east, parallelling the Merced River and heading east toward Merced Falls.
The well-marked track thorough this area is flat but made up of an aggravatingly soft sandy river scree. Walking with weight laden legs through this sand forces one to change their gait from a stride to shorter, purposely placed steps with little heal-toe push-off. You find yourself constantly looking for more solid tred on the periphery of the sandy sections of trail to ease the effort on the calves. As we continued to make our way through the narrowing eastern end of Little Yosemite Valley, we came upon the remnants of the 2014 Meadow fire that had burned through this area. Blackened, leafless skeletons of trees stood in silent testimony to the destruction of the fire. But the resiliency of mother nature was clear as the floor of this forest showed the signs of regeneration with broad-leaf greenery and colorful yellow flowers. Because the trees were bereft of pine needles we were able to see the granite structures of the cascade cliffs that rose up on the south side of the Merced River.
The hike to Merced falls is pretty flat and begins in earnest at the eastern-most edge of Little Yosemite Valley. Here, the southern walls of the valley start to converge toward the southern facing base of Moraine Dome and a adjacent unnamed dome to form a narrow funnel. The l;ate year, low flowing Merced River leaks over a granite escarpments into the slow, meandering Merced through Little Yosemite Valley. Initially we walked past the falls seeking a flat, non-burned area to camp, but it became evident that the fire had burned through this area as well and the narrowness of the canyon did not offer any reasonably flat ground. With this knowledge we decided to backtracked to a previously observed flat ground at the base of the falls. This camp site, despite being in the burn area, proved to be a great spot and our first opportunity to fish. The falls flow with a small rush of water that emptied into a large, crystal clear pool at its base. It was not hard to imagine and envision the spring volume of water being exponentially heavier and the roar of the falls reverberating off the surrounding granite walls.
We quickly set up camp with a fisherman’s eye on the clear pool at the falls. With our tackle in hand Kevin and I boulder-scrambled to the granite escarpment where the water coursed down to the pool. My first cast into the riffles behind the white water yielded a strong bite and I reeled in a smallish Brookie. It was beautifully spotted and colored and I gently released him back to the water. Almost immediately Kevin yelled “fish on” and his bent pole indicated that he had a good size fish on the line. Kevin’s catch was a foot long brook trout as well – a beautiful fish indeed. The fun continued with hit after hit of small to medium trout hooked, reeled in and released back to the cold waters. Even Jeff got into the act catching small trout. The setting sun, the glow on the nearby dome, the rush of water on rock nearby and the good fishing made for a Muir-like idyllic setting that I will remember for years to come.
Later, we took the opportunity at the pool to refresh in the cold waters and clean off the grime. Lying on the granite and letting the sun dry my body afforded the opportunity to take in the sounds of the falls and the surrounding beauty of the landscape. For me, it’s these moments of peace and solitude that I cherish when in the wilderness. These stress-relieving, mind-emptying seclusion is what I hearken back to when in civilization. I never miss a chance to enjoy it or take it for granted. Back at camp, Kevin capped the evening “happy hour” with a evening “toast” and a treat of sardines in mustard with cheese and crackers before we ate our dinners. All I can say is that it was absolutely delicious and something I will do again. As the campfire dwindled, our camp banter subsided into individual thoughts and soon we were thinking about tomorrows hike to Merced Lake. It was feeling like a backpacking trip should.
Bidding adieu to Merced falls we were early on the trail continuing east toward Lost Valley. Another short day of relatively flat hiking lay ahead of us to our goal of Merced Lake. It is a slight climb out of Merced Falls on a north easterly tack that skirts the base of an unnamed dome before you enter into Lost Valley. Lost Valley presented a narrow, flat forested area walled in by high granite edifices. Lost Valley was also a victim of the fire and in a renewing stage of plant growth. Emerging off the unnamed dome, a granite northern wall frames the north side of the valley. This wall steeply ascends, to a lipped edge that rolls beyond on a upward tract and is capped by trees. We were treated to a cascading stream that fell from the lip of this ridge, its waters hitting outcroppings on the descent and deflecting down to the valley floor to eventually meet with the Merced River.
A mile into the hike we came upon the Bunnell cascade. During the spring, this impressive gap forces the waters of the Merced into a narrow crevice dropping with force and determination to another beautiful emerald color pool. However, this late in the year the cascade is tame and the flow of water a mere trickle. The steepness of the cascade can be measured by the climb one has to make to ascend along this bottleneck of granite, water and height. We stopped to explore around this area for awhile taking in the falling waters and imposing walls of the surrounding granite.
Onward we trudged now in an easterly direction, a slight uphill climb through the squeeze of the Bunnell Cascade gap. Along the trail we were met by a family of deer coming down the trail. A young buck was in the lead followed by a doe and a fawn. We stopped to look at them and they at us. The confidence of their walk led us to believe that they were going to come straight down the trail to us but soon the buck left the trail to clamor across the granite to our left, leading the party to circumnavigate our position. It was a thrill to observe this cautious act in nature’s theater as a quiet observer.
The slight climb out of the cascade continued for a half a mile or so eventually opening up to another small flat area interspersed with small meadows and granite escarpements. I love these hidden gems of beauty knowing that what I’m seeing today will be different in winter and spring. It’s this ever-changing dynamic of weather and condition in the Yosemite that acts as a lure for backpackers to come back to see it in a different light. We soon crossed a footbridge and turning south soon launched into an 800′ climb over the next mile. A series of challenging switchbacks pulls you upward and eastward on these southern cliffs that navigate over impassable areas of the Merced river now to our left and well below us. The trail is a combination of carefully placed cobbles, periodically transected with step-up-and-over granite stairs, clearly design with pack trains in mind. In fact, we saw pack trains of mules coming and going from Merced Lake and the smelly evidence of the Mules efforts lined the trail. At the apex of this climb we flattened out and hiked across open areas of granite that tendered to us vistas and views of the canyon we were navigating through. Looking back – the views to Merced Falls. Looking ahead – the views of high peaks and promises of further climbs.
We soon started to descend and came across early evidence of fall in a small grove of yellowing aspens whose quaking leaves were starting to drop upon the trail. We met up again with the Merced River and another footbridge that led us into Echo Valley. The map showed Echo creek merging with the Merced River after spilling out of the south-facing cliffs and Clark canyon creek coming into the Merced from the North-facing cliffs . Appearing to be a wide and vigorous creeks were bone-dry, a testament to the continuous drought conditions in California. Fortunately, our water supply was adequate and we were not relying on Echo Creek to replenish. We opted to take advantage of the shade in this valley and stop for lunch. Once sated, we continued on our easterly route toward Merced Lake. The trail here is clearly evident and gave us more of that sandy scree indicative of the tread adjacent to the Merced for most of this trek. Of note, we passed a trail Junction that directed adventurous hikers out of Echo Valley, north toward Cathedral peak area or if desired, to rejoin the JMT.
We were now within a mile of Merced Lake passing through dried out marshlands. The trail followed a flat plain east with slight curves around the contours of the nearby granite walls. Soon, the welcomed site of Merced Lake and the river head waters appeared. Arriving at the lake source of the Yosemite’s Merced river was inspiring. The Merced River; the iconic river of the Yosemite Valley, whose waters rush over both Nevada and Vernal Falls and meander through the Grand Valley itself is fed from the collected waters of Merced lake. Above the lake the Merced river courses down from Washburn Lake and beyond. Waters collected here build in volume not only from this beautiful lake but also from gushing tributaries and springs emanating from the cliffs. Our path to this point had shown us the life-giving benefits of these waters in the nourishment of trees, flowers and shrubs. It showed us natural artistry in its beauty and grandeur in the carving of granite. It was quite a treat to be at this spot and understand its importance to the whole of the Yosemite National Park.
We continued the final mile toward camp along the north shore of Lake Merced. A tree marker indicated the lake elevation to be 7250′. Over the course of the 6 miles we hiked today from Merced Falls, we had gained about 1000′ feet in elevation. None of us felt particularly exhausted and soon Kevin and I were discussing possible shoreline access points to try our luck fishing. Camp Merced is a “surprise” of a camp. First, there is a High Sierra Camp here at Merced Lake, one of five in the Yosemite park. Secondly, the spacious camp areas for backpackers are well maintained. A looming, redwood tree landmarks a spigot from which running water can be gathered to utilize for cooking. It also has a drinking fountain. Nearby there is a restroom with a flushing toilet. It felt a little like cheating to utilize these amenities but we got over that rather quickly. We found a great campsite and erected our tents and soon were heading down to the lake shore to beckon the fishing Gods for some action. I found a spot along the shore lined with lodgepole pines and a small beach area. Looking across the lake at the towering precipices while fishing simply was incredible. Several casts into the clear waters yielded no action at all. I cast out near some visible underwater reeds and immediately felt the hit of a strong bite. Tip up and reeling vigorously, I brought in my first small brown trout. After releasing him I cast again into the same area – again I was rewarded with an even stronger bite and reeled in another beauty of a fish. This brownie was gorgeous, yellow in hue with dark speckles and spots and every bit of 10 inches in length. I gently unhooked him and released him back to the waters, overjoyed with the fight and effort he gave. Several more strikes and catches fulfilled the evening for me and I headed back to camp and satisfied dreams of Sierra fishing.
Back at camp darkness came quickly. We stacked wood for a nice fire and the three of us talked in low voices as the camp quieted down. The night was clear and stars shone in bright light and a waxing moon showed through the trees. Our discussion soon led to tomorrow’s hike. It would be nearly 9 miles, with two big climbs and a continuous uphill gradient for nearly 8 miles. We agreed that we should start early with 7AM being our start time. The goal; Vogelsang pass and the high Sierra camp area. At backpackers midnight we all went to our respective tents and retired for the evening.
Friday September 16 and our final day on the trail. We awoke before the sun came up over the nearby peaks to the east. Though not visible yet, the rising sun cast a morning glow onto the tip Vogelsang peak. Last evening a gusty wind blew well into the early morning. Remnants of that wind, calmer now rippled the waters of Vogelsang lake. It was an idyllic Yosemite back country morning and in the quiet I sipped a cup of coffee and contemplated the five days in the wilderness. Man, how I love it. Out here, I’m always drawn into contemplation, to thoughts of my parents, my family and my life. I think of my father, who as a young adult, earned his eagle scout badge in the Sierra’s in the 1920’s. I like to think he’s walking with me, hand on my shoulder, safely guiding me along the trail in some ethereal and spiritual way. My mother, on my other shoulder, who always was there to carry me through the tough days of life. Thoughts of next year and my youngest son getting married and my plans to backpack with him, my other son and daughter. How cool will that be. I thought of my wife, who fully supports my outdoor obsession and time away in the mountains. I have a lot to be thankful for and being in this beautiful country reminds me of those blessings.
Soon my mind jostled back to the task at hand and getting packed up. With camp broken down and backpacks loaded up we head down the trail. Within a quick mile we come to an empty an Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. The camp has been disassembled and stowed for the winter but one can easily imagine the spring time conditions at this beautiful expanse, with its rushing creeks burgeoning with snow melt. Now however, late in the throes of an ongoing drought, the creeks were trickles and easy to step over. Vogelsang High Sierra Camp is also the junction for many different trails and like spokes on a wheel, meet at this hub. To the east, Evelyn and Ireland Lakes and eventually Donohue Pass. To the Southwest, Booth, Emeric and Babcock Lakes and the junction to Merced Lake. But our travels will be taking us down Rafferty Canyon and our terminus at Toulumne Meadows.
5 days earlier we extricated John due to his ankle injury. You may recall we ended up laying over another night at Sunrise camp (we had planned on being at Merced Falls that night). That decision put us a day behind in our original plans. To gain back that lost time we change our final plans. Originally, we had intended to hike southeast, past Evelyn Lake to a campsite in Lyell Canyon. On the way we would hike out and back to Ireland lake. The following day (what would have been today), we would have hiked out to Toulumne meadow to complete our trek. Instead, Vogelsang Lake became our last campsite and today’s hike cut off the original outward hike toward Ireland lake. It was unfortunate because I really wanted to explore that area.
Following our GPS maps on my cell phone we navigated the many trail crossroads and soon found the our new detour, Rafferty Creek trail. Since Rafferty Creek trail was not part of the original it was unknown to us. I knew it was a primary route up to Vogelsang out of Tuolumne. Rafferty Creek Trail not disappoint as it’s course along bone-dry Rafferty Creek was quite scenic with breath-taking distant views of the eastern spine of the Sierra. Coming out of Vogelsang HS camp, the trail descends at a fairly steep incline through a forest of lodgepole pines and a boulder-laden landscape. To our left, unseen Boothe lake lays nestled in the lowland beneath an unnamed peak. The trail advances through Tuolumne Pass on its northerly descent, eventually flattening out along the water-less creek. The well-traveled trail is cut deep into the sod and we followed a trajectory across a wide area carpeted with red splotched heather-filled meadows and sporadically place erratics (glacier deposited boulders).
Our pace was steady, not particularly difficult and I was soon lost in the usual backpacker’s concentration of step and pole placement and the rhythmic sound of my breathing. As we closed in on the John Muir Trail and Lyell Canyon we started to see more people coming up the trail – day hikers and backpackers alike, asking for trail intelligence and information. At times, I walked ahead of my friends, intentionally giving the two brothers some time to converse along the trail and enjoy some trail solitude myself. As we skirted along Rafferty creek we descended steeply through switch-backing, rocky steps in a forested area. Without looking at our maps, we sensed that the John Muir Junction was close and this proved correct as the headlong trail quickly leveled off and intersected the famous John Muir Trail. A few steps to the left on the John Muir Trail a footbridge crossed the bleached river rocks Rafferty creek and with several miles left to Toulumne Meadows we stopped to gobble down our last meal on the trail. After lunching, we put on the packs. continuing on side by side at a comfortable pace along the wide path of the John Muir.
We talked about favorite parts of the hike, the effort put forth and the beauty of the area. I thought about how important it is to know you trail buddies. Everyone has their idiosyncracies as do I and a level of acceptance and tolerance is important for a successful trip. Jeff and I have hiked together a long time and know each other well. Kevin fit right in as did John (who left earlier due to injury). John and I had planned this trip for nearly a year and he had spent alot of money for equipment and travel to come from houston for this trek and I felt a pang of guilt that he was not able to finish with us. But such is the vagary of backpacking. Nature is in control and often reminds us of that in unpredictable ways. After several miles we arrived at the pacific trail and veering right headed toward Toulumne meadows lodge. Unfortunately, we should have keep going down the John Muir toward Lambert Dome and Glen Aulin Road where the truck was parked…we unwittingly added an additional mile to our hike! That last mile is always the longest. Jeff appropriately called it the aggravating mile to which we all laughed and agreed. After 6 days, we were ready for some good food and a long warm shower. That reality lay 2 hours away at my sisters house where she kindly allowed us to stay overnight. We arrived at the car, unloaded our well worn gear into the back, climbed into the car and headed back to civilization.
We made it!
Epilogue: Many thanks to my wife Annette who encourages this old guy to take a week out of each year to do these backpacking trips. I know the other guys feel the same way about their wives too. Each year gets a little harder on the body, but the mind remains optimistic and excited everytime I head out. Many thanks to the “Medi-vac” Millers! Celia (my sister) and Gary (brother-in-law) were instrumental in helping extract John H after his ankle sprain. Since they live in the Sierra foothills, their home has become a convenient stopping point for us on our trips.The Millers are always ready to provide a hot shower, a great meal, fine wine and a soft bed. If not for them, it’s a good chance that my trek would not have continued. I also need to thank my hiking guru Curt Cragg who lent me his Delorme Inreach for the trek and two bear canisters. I’ve learned alot from that guy and his willingness to educate and share gear save me expense and time in hunting down the gear. Thanks to all who express their like of my photos and stories of the trail. I hope I don’t bore you to much with my stories & photos of life on the trail but love it so out on the trail…Thanks for listening!