Summer Solitude in Yosemite? Quite Possible

I have been wanting to take a break and get back to Yosemite for a couple of years now. The prospect of summer crowds not that appealing, I started looking for a good solo hiking trip in the Yosemite wilderness that I could complete in less than a week and that would afford some solitude. It took just a couple of weeks planning. Because I was purposefully avoiding the more popular options, such as the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra camps, I was able to secure a permit just a couple of days in advance. I called the Wilderness Reservation line and booked a 6-day, 5-night stay in the park’s southern backcountry, timing the 50-mile loop so as to hit the remotest sections over the weekend and get in and out Yosemite Valley during weekdays. Oh, and I travelled from SF to the park (and back) by train and bus.

So, here is the log.

Thursday, Aug 27, 2009 – Day 1

7:40 am: Board Amtrak “San Joaquin” in Emeryville heading to Merced. Mostly commuters around me. Clean cars and comfortable ride, as we coast along the Bay profile and head into the Central Valley.

11:20 am: It is noticeably hotter in Merced. Fortunately YARTS bus to Yosemite is air conditioned. Riding the bus on the way to the park gives me an opportunity to look at the Californian landscape as it changes from flat to hilly and from dry to green. As we enter the Yosemite Valley along Merced river, a haze, due to a fire on Highway 120 miles away, envelops the air.

2:30 pm: After a stop at the Wilderness Center, and now armed with my permit, I head out to Happy Isles Trailhead and up the Mist Trail.

4:50 pm: It’s a tough hike to the top of Nevada Falls with a loaded pack. The sun light filters through the smoky haze produced by a large fire miles away on Highway 120. As I leave the falls trail junction headed to uncrowded Ililouette Creek, the foot traffic evaporates.

8:00 pm: I have now walked in complete solitude for several hours and reach the Ililoutte/Mono Meadow Trail junction. It is getting dark and I set up camp about a mile down, in a flat grey meadow just below a gigantic granite dome. The silence is dense in the trees, as darkness thickens and the breeze dies down. I take in some quick meal and get to sleep, exhausted.

Friday,  Aug 28, 2009 – Day 2

3:00 am: The moon has set and I wake up to a beautifully clear, star-studded sky.

6:30 am: Wake up, coffee and a solid breakfast. I pack up and head back early on the trail. It’s now in the 40s but rapidly warming up, as the sun rises over the Clark Range.

1:50 pm: After a couple of detours to higher ground to catch some vistas, I continue my slow ascend to Ottoway Lake and Red Peak pass and reach Upper Merced Pass lake. It is a perfect spot for my lunch and I take advantage of the most obvious campsite not to far from the shore. I have not seen anyone now for a good full day.

4:40 pm: For a moment I had considered overnighting at Upper Merced Pass Lake, such was the beauty of the place, but I am glad I did not. Ottoway Lake, another fairly strenuous 3 miles up the trail at 9,700 ft, is just stunning! I setup camp as close to the water as I can, on a grassy bluff just above one of the streams that flows into the lake.

6:30 pm: Happy after taking in a earthy enchilada, I survey the surroundings and spot a handful of tents around the lake. The area is so large that we hardly notice each other. Campfires at this altitude are not permitted, but I do not miss one, sipping a cup of tea by the water. A very peaceful, warm and calm evening.

Saturday,  Aug 29, 2009 – Day 3

6:45 am: It was a clear, still, starry night and now the sun is rising from behind the range. Blueberry granola and coffee taste so very good as I prepare the final push to Red Peak Pass, my trip’s highest point.  A short yoga routine by the lake shore and I am ready to go.

8:45 am: It is a tough ascent to the pass, but the views are truly rewarding as I emerge above the tree line into a lunar landscape of red rocks and granite boulders. Curious marmots get out of their burrows to check me out.

11:40 am: Top of Red Peak pass. From up here, looking North, a commanding view of the eastern park valleys and peaks opens up. Magnificent. I meet a fellow hiker from the Bay Area, C., the first real conversation in three days.

1:00 pm: After a rough, step and rocky descent leaving Red Peak to my left, I reach a small alpine lake, still above tree line and wide open under the vertical sun. Perfect spot for lunch, some rest and a dip in the chill water.

2:15 pm: As I continue my descent to Triple Fork creek, the landscape turns to picture-perfect quintessential Yosemite. Granite inclines dotted by round gigantic boulders, pools, streams, isolated junipers, pines and hemlocks, against a blue sky.

4:50 pm: After having reached the Triple Fork trail junction, I set to find a suitable camp site further downstream and east of the trail and select a most perfect spot on a tree-rimmed flat just above the river. It has been a fairly strenuous 9 miles from Ottoway Lake and I am glad I can finally pitch my tent, rest and get some dinner. C., who I crossed paths with again at the junction, pitches his on the other side of the river.

8:30 pm: It is the perfect night for a campfire, cold and dry. C. and I exchange backpacking stories in front of the crackling flames. Looks like the temperature is going to fall into the 30s during the night.

Sunday, Aug 30, 2009 – Day 4

6:15 am: The second part of my loop will be mostly flat or downhill and, with a lighter pack, I expect to move much faster, so I am in no hurry to get back on the trail. It has been a very chilly night and although I still woke up at least four or five times, I feel very well rested. Mount Florence is now clearly visible straight ahead as I sip my coffee and prepare breakfast. Plenty of time to wash socks, light a fire and toast-dry them.

9:45 am: I finally leave camp. One last look to fix in the memory the beauty of the place and off I go. Following the creek downstream and off the trail, through marshes and meadows, something one could not quite do in early Spring, I pass by waterfall after waterfall.

1:40 pm: Back on the trail for several miles now, I reach the south end of Washburn Lake. Wedged between steep, polished granite domes, it offers plenty of campsites, a shore and, a good 3 days away from the nearest road, tranquility. I coast the lake to reach the north side to find a ranger-led fishing party, there for the day. I decide to not push forward, and spend the night here. After backtracking the trail to the south shore and setting up camp, the fishermen leave. No one else would come by through the rest of the day and the following night. An entire lake, all for me. What a privilege.

6:10 pm After a swim in the freezing lake waters, a tea and some reading, I lit a fire. The sun is setting behind the west ridge, while I prepare my meal and throw the fly over my tent to protect me from the steady wind from the north. I retire early, ready for the sleeping bag by 8:30.

Monday, Aug 31, 2009 – Day 5

5:45 am Early rise and ritual breakfast. The only sound is the one of pine cones falling to the ground under the wind.

7:40 am Off to Merced Lake. It is mainly a steady slow descent from this point on, so I make very good time even as I take breaks to enjoy the scenery. I am at Merced Lake by 10 am and cross paths with several mule convoys bringing supplies up from the valley. Cumuli are forming overhead, threatening thunderstorms.

12:30 pm Brunell Cascade is a sequence of several rushing whitewater falls over and around massive granite slabs and crevices. Must be quite a spectacle earlier in the season, but still manages to produce impressive cascades this late in August.

3:15 pm Here I am at Yosemite Valley backpackers campground. I have covered 12 miles today and feel it in my feet. I take over a large site and pitch the tent. The camp has certainly a very different feel than the sites I have been stopping at for the last few days. I need to really worry about bears and squirrels adept at getting food from less than careful campers. Plenty of parties stopping for the night on the way to Half Dome or the John Muir Trail.

10:45 pm It did not rain in the end. The moon sets, giving way to the usual clear, starry night sky.

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009 – Day 6

6:00 am Short day. I need to get back to Yosemite Valley in time to catch the early YARTS bus to Merced. A quick breakfast and I am ready to go.

8:45 am The descent to Happy Isles Trailhead is fast and I am really feeling the 6-days worth of walking in my legs now. I reach the valley before 9 and hop on the shuttle to the Visitor Center. It is a pleasure to talk with strangers. The deli BLT sandwich I get at the Visitor Center tastes absolutely delicious.

11:15 am After a whole 6 hours on bus, Amtrak and BART, I am finally back home. Filthy, tired and with a satisfied grin on my face.

UPDATE 11/10/2009

My fellow backcountry enthusiast Charles Hodgkins has done a much better job at describing the Southern Yosemite wilderness experience than I did. He is the guy I met on top of Red Peak Pass.

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