Yosemite: Treasure Of The Sierra

Forget what CNN and Your Daily News say about Yosemite's crowds and crime and traffic. the "treasure of the Sierra" is still a golden place for backpackers to escape.
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Forget what CNN and Your Daily News say about Yosemite's crowds and crime and traffic. the "treasure of the Sierra" is still a golden place for backpackers to escape.

My first backpacking trip into Yosemite's high country in 1959 ended in simultaneous elation and despair. I had been climbing in Yosemite Valley for two months and was getting weary of hammering pitons. My father had signed up for a Sierra Club trip in an area about 100 miles south, and I came up with the bright idea of joining him by walking alone down the John Muir Trail to his encampment. Five days of hiking would do, I figured, since I was in great shape.

The first 15 miles passed like a dream. I churned up out of the Valley and into the quietest place I'd been to in months: Little Yosemite Valley, with the languid Merced River as a backdrop. I was a tiger. Maybe I could make the trip in four days. But as I pushed on after lunch I felt a tiny needle prodding my right foot. Just a fleck of granite in my boot, I thought. On examination it was an incipient blister. Climbing big wall routes like the Lost Arrow and the Royal Arches hadn't exactly toughened my feet. By 7 that evening I was limping like a geriatric and far from Tuolumne Meadows, the goal for the night. I shed my pack, set up camp, and stared with loathing at the half dozen nickel-sized blisters covering my toes and heels.

By the time I reached the meadows the next morning, I was whimpering in pain. I made the decision to lounge around for three days recuperating, all the while cursing my hubris. But with little to do, I saw the Yosemite high country for the first time. The splendid pinnacles of the Cathedral Range rose just south of camp. I passed the hours watching shadows curl around them as if they were great sundials jutting into the sky. The domes, too, entranced me. On the third day I staggered to the top of nearby Fairview Dome and saw the northern half of Yosemite National Park spread before me. Each time I've climbed Fairview in the ensuing years-about eight times-I remember that summer day when I was so young and impetuous.

For 40 years Yosemite National Park, California, has whispered seductively to me: Come and visit, see my wonders. In the early years I was just a narrow-minded rock climber, ticking off the big routes. I loved the valley and roamed all about its lovely floor during rest days. But I realize now that I rarely saw the flowers or the birds, so intent was my focus on the cliffs. Not a bad life, to be sure, but an incomplete one.

Later, of course, I slowed down and looked around, much as I had done on that forced layover long ago. Only then did I realize what a splendid place the park is. Everyone knows about the cliffs and the waterfalls, but today I scarcely look at these. Instead, I stare at the Merced River in wonderment at how such an immense body of swift-moving water can be so silent. I walk around the sequoias, finding it impossible to believe these giants sprang from a mere seed, even if it was 4,000 years ago. I rub my hands along glacial polish, trying to imagine John Muir doing the same. I see a tiny pocket glacier nestled under the north face of a peak and imagine the renowned naturalist squatting on the ice, stroking his beard, scribbling in his notebook, and pondering how he's going to prove to the doubters that the High Sierra contains living glaciers.

I think a lot about Muir when I'm in Yosemite. He climbed peaks just to get the lay of the land. He was a self-taught naturalist, possessing a curiosity that few of us have. He was a guide and a visionary. He helped found the Sierra Club and establish Yosemite as a national park. Blessed with wanderlust, he roamed the world for decades, but Yosemite was his spiritual home. When water-short San Francisco won the right to build a dam inside the park, Muir despaired and died soon thereafter, victim, we'd like to think, of a broken heart.

Muir was a loner and a bit of a misanthrope, and as I climb the cliffs of the Valley nowadays I think of one of his finer lines: "The tide of visitors will float slowly about the bottom of the valley as harmless scum collecting in hotel and saloon eddies, leaving the rocks and falls eloquent as ever." Muir made that prediction in 1870 while lamenting the fact that "there are about 50 visitors in the valley at present."

Now, of course, you'll see 50 people lining up for the restrooms outside the saloon at Yosemite Lodge. About 4 million people visit the park each year, and what Muir would think of this I won't hazard a guess. Naturally, some big-city problems have made their way into the park. There are traffic jams-as the newspapers love to report-but these prove minor except on holiday weekends. Camping reservations on the valley floor must be made months ahead of time. So, make them months ahead of time. And sure crimes occur, but most are relatively minor, like car break-ins. The solution: Don't leave valuables in the car.

Various plans are afoot to relieve human pressure in the valley itself, which covers just 7 square miles in a park of more than 1,000. It seems obvious that traffic will have to be regulated, and surely no new buildings should be erected. Yet, incredibly, architects are even now designing large employee dormitories to be erected right next to the climbers' famed domicile, Camp 4.

If the valley is a crowded and contentious place, close by is an antidote that makes you feel alive and unfettered. Only an hour's drive from the valley, via Tioga Pass Road, is the fabulous high country, the backpackers' Yosemite. Tuolumne Meadows is the center of this activity, and it can be jammed with visitors. As I've found on my recent trips, though, if you walk a mile along a trail and then move off cross-country over easy granite slabs or through an open pine forest for just a few hundred yards, you won't see a footprint.

One hike that to me typifies the essence of the Yosemite backcountry is the jaunt to the Gaylor Lakes, close by Tioga Pass. Here, via a good trail, you'll find variety and splendid timberline country only an hour's walk from the car. Finding the forest monotonous? Gentle meadows and sandy lakeshores lie just ahead. Jaded by the somber gray granite? Relax, soon you'll thread your way across blood-red slate. From the upper lakes you can see glacier-clad Mt. Lyell, at 13,114 feet the park's highest point, far to the south. Around you, all is wilderness. This is the real Yosemite.

In four decades of visiting Yosemite, I've seen the man-made part of the valley grow from a village to a city. This bothered me greatly once, but I've calmed down. After all, I don't have to visit the supermarket and the gift shops. Instead, I can walk along the river at dawn while campers are still yawning in their sleeping bags. Even a few hundred yards from the posh Ahwahnee Hotel I can lean up against a 1,000-foot cliff of the smoothest granite-and not see a soul. True, valley life was less frenetic in the old days. But if you want to catch the essence of the Valley, you can-and you must, for it's still one of the seven wonders of the world. Just don't go on a bus tour on Memorial Day weekend.

The high country may be more populated now than it was back in the late 1950s, but here again, creative planning can land you in your own private Yosemite. To be alone, you might want to avoid the John Muir Trail, as well as the justly famous High Sierra Camp circuit, a lovely but overcrowded five-day trek. Many alternate trails exist (see "Where Windshield Tourists Fear To Tread," on page 52).

Last year a few friends and I did a four-day walk in the southern part of the Cathedral Range, never straying farther than 5 air miles from Tioga Road. The middle part of the trip was trailless but quite easy, and the only two-legged creature we saw was a bear straining futilely to reach our food sack. One night we camped below Matthes Crest, a soaring shard of granite, last climbed by me during that far-off summer when my blisters had barely healed. I'd traveled far in the meantime, but in a way I was back where I'd started from, full of wonder, staring at yet another of Yosemite's endless treasures.

Where Windshield Tourists Fear To Tread

A noted guidebook author offers his take on the park's best backcountry trails.

Choice is good, but sometimes too much can be paralyzing, which is certainly the case when you look at a Yosemite National Park map and take in the enormity of the hiking options before you: scores of trails covering 800 miles, six life zones ranging from chaparral to alpine tundra. Where do you start? To assist you, we consulted Jeffrey Schaffer, author of several noted hiking guides to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, about his favorite park hikes.

First, he advises, you ditch the crowds, which is easily done by camping 1/4 mile or more from any trail or body of water. Next, use a map and compass to get off trail. "Most of the park's backcountry is devoid of hikers simply because the vast majority stick to trails-and select ones at that. Be adventurous. Strike out cross-country from the beaten track."

1 Pacific Crest Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass (761/2 miles)

This lengthy, physically challenging route through prime Yosemite backcountry involves hundreds of switchbacks as it bounds from canyon to canyon. Most people make the mistake of camping along the floor of major canyons, where fast-pawed bears await. This route requires a vehicle shuttle or a hitchhike back to the beginning.

2 High Camps Loop (501/2 miles)

It's hard to get a wilderness permit for this popular route if you try to stay at the camps. So do the loop but camp instead at a riverside flat between LeConte and Waterwheel falls, 3 miles below Glen Aulin; Raisin Lake; Tenaya Creek about 2 miles below Tenaya Lake ; Cathedral Fork Echo Creek Canyon; and Lewis Creek Canyon.

3 Matthes Lake (141/2 miles)

From western Tuolumne Meadows take the heavily used John Muir Trail to the Cathedral Lakes vicinity (a nice lunch stop), then leave the trail at Cathedral Pass to descend about 11/2 miles south to lightly used Echo Lake. This may be as far as you'll want to go, but if not continue 1/2 mile south to a creek and follow it 1 mile east up to Matthes Lake. Hike north to the crest of the Cathedral Range for some incredible views.

4 Merced headwaters (52 miles)

From Yosemite Valley climb up past Vernal and Nevada falls to Little Yosemite Valley, then up to Merced Lake, where you'll find nearby camping. Leave traffic behind by heading southeast up-canyon past Washburn Lake to a junction in upper Triple Peak Fork. For subalpine, isolated camping head west up the trail, then drop into either Merced Peak Fork Canyon or Red Peak Fork Canyon for an off-trail scramble back to Washburn Lake. An alternate route is to continue 2 miles past the trail junction up to the High Trail, then head north. Leave the trail for isolated, alpine camping and exploration of Harriet Lake, Foerster Creek lakes, and the myriad Lyell Fork lakes, before returning to Merced Lake.

5 Starr King Bench (13 miles)

As in the previous hike, climb to Nevada Fall, but then start southwest on the John Muir Trail. From a nearby junction make a switchbacking ascent south. Where the trail turns west, leave it for a cross-country route east-southeast up to the bench. Camp near Starr King Lake for views of Half Dome.

6 Falls Creek (231/2 miles)

The stretch of Falls Creek below Lake Vernon offers splendid, isolated camping. From Hetch Hetchy Reservoir start early to avoid searing afternoon temperatures typical on this major climb. Follow signs to picturesque Lake Vernon, about 101/2 miles from the trailhead, then head south along the east bank of Falls Creek. The farther you descend, the more isolation you achieve, especially below the gorge.

7 Rancheria Creek (22 miles)

As with the Falls Creek hike, start early from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on a 61/2 -mile traverse to Rancheria Falls, your last reliable water source. Make the 23/4 -mile climb to Tiltill Valley, leave the trail and walk to the valley's east end. Your goal is a minor saddle, about 1 mile to the east, and although not much climbing is involved, the route among boulders, logs, and brush is tiring. From the saddle, Rancheria Creek lies just below and you can follow it downstream or upstream. Pools and rapids abound in this rarely visited paradise.

John Muir, Trail Guide

Widely known as a naturalist, Sierra Club founder, and ardent defender of all places wild, John Muir receives scant attention for his stint as a Yosemite tour guide. Granted, he didn't ride a park bus with microphone in hand, but he did devote a chapter of his book The Yosemite ($10, Sierra Club Books, 800-935-1056) to great hikes in the park, several of which have been updated at right.

The Valley to Mt. Hoffman

Exit the Yosemite Valley via Snow Creek Trail to May Lake. Muir approached the peak on a cross-country route from Porcupine Flat, but thick brush makes the climb from May Lake a better option. Follow trails to Tenaya Lake, Clouds Rest, Nevada Fall, and Happy Isles. "From Mt. Hoffman nearly all the Yosemite Park is displayed like a map," wrote Muir.

Illilouette Basin

Exit the valley via Happy Isles and the John Muir Trail and make your way to the Illilouette Creek Trail, which you follow upstream to a trail junction at Lower Merced Pass Lake. A modern-day shortcut is to drive to the Mono Meadow trailhead along Glacier Point Road. Take the Ottoway Lake Trail into the basin between Red and Merced Peaks. "The most interesting glacial phenomena of them all," said Muir about the basin. Make a loop by following trails past Washburn and Merced lakes to Happy Isles.

Tuolumne Meadows to Mt. Dana.

For Muir, the climb to Mt. Dana was the capstone to an 80-mile circuit that started in the Valley. You can reach the summit from Tioga Pass entrance station in about 3 hours. "The view from the summit is one of the most extensive and sublime to be found in all the [Sierra] Range," said Muir.

Expedition Planner: Yosemite National Park, California

Doing the homework: Begin your pre-trip planning by loading up on maps and guidebooks. For maps, you have a number of good options:

  • Trail Illustrated's #206 "Yosemite National Park" ($8.99, 800-962-1643).
  • Tom Harrison Map's "Trail Map of the Yosemite High Country" ($7.95, 800-265-9090). Shows the high ground east of the valley and from just north of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River to the southern boundary.
  • Wilderness Press' "Topographic Map of Yosemite N.P. and Vicinity" ($6.95, 800-443-7227). It's published as a companion to the guidebook Yosemite National Park, by Jeffrey Schaffer ($16.95, Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227).

Another helpful, backpacker-oriented guidebook is Yosemite Trails by Ginny Clark ($12.95, Western Trails Publications, 520-453-5064).

Getting a permit: You must have a wilderness permit to camp overnight in the backcountry. You can get one at Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, Hetch Hetchy, and elsewhere the day you arrive, but this isn't advisable. Routes have quotas and you may find that yours is booked. Avoid disappointments by making a reservation in advance through Wilderness Permits, P.O. Box 545, Yosemite, CA 95389; (209) 372-0740. Have several routes in mind in case your first choice is taken. Permits can be reserved up to 24 weeks in advance. The permit is free, but there is a $3 processing charge.

Outwitting the bears: Yosemite's black bears are ubiquitous and talented at relieving hikers of their food supplies. Popular campsites have bear-resistant metal boxes, but the Park Service suggests using bear-resistant food canisters, which you can purchase or rent for $3 per day in the park. I've logged thousands of hours hiking in the park and prefer storing food bags in a crack about 15 feet up a cliff. Bears can climb trees, but not vertical rock. Never leave a pack loaded with food untended.

Seeing the Valley: Going to Yosemite without seeing the valley would be like visiting Rome and bypassing the Forum. Your best bet is to avoid the summer months, when the valley is overwhelmed, and choose from the following:

  • May through mid-June, when the waterfalls are near their maximum volume.
  • Mid-September through October, when the waterfalls are dry or nearly so, but fall colors abound.
  • December through March, when Ansel Adams shot many of his best-known photos of Yosemite.

If you do visit during the Memorial to Labor Day mayhem, head straight for Sentinel Dome, which serves up 360-degree views of the valley and the high country beyond, or Taft Point for its condor's-eye perspective on the action below. Both are reached from Glacier Point Road. Pohono Trail, from the east end of Wawona Tunnel up to Stanford, Crocker, and Dewey points is hot, hard hiking, but the fine views of Ribbon and Bridalveil falls, El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks make it worthwhile. While none of these routes can be labeled uncrowded, they experience far less foot traffic than other valley paths.