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Alone in a Crowd: Hiking Yosemite’s North Rim

Yosemite Valley may be popular–rightfully so–but it still holds secrets. Hike this long-forgotten trail on the North Rim, and you'll have the granite icons to yourself.

I’m standing by myself on top of El Capitan with a lump in my throat as big as Half Dome, but heights aren’t my issue: It’s the complete absence of another person. All alone on the most photographed rock face on the planet? Impossible! Even crazier: I hiked here on a Muir-worthy trail that threads through the heart of Yosemite Valley and hasn’t appeared on a map since 1990. I’d always wanted to hike in the Valley, but had avoided joining the legendary throngs: Yosemite attracts 3.6 million visitors annually and sells out of popular backcountry permits from Memorial Day to Labor Day. My boycott would last until I discovered a way to find real solitude–not just smaller crowds. Then I caught wind of a secret trail, an unknown, heart-of-the-valley path that was dropped from park maps almost 20 years ago. It helps that I’m here in October, after the summer rush and before the late-autumn snows. But damned if I didn’t find it: the perfect backpacking adventure–complete with starry skies, staggering views, and crowd-free streamside campsites–smack in the middle of America’s third-busiest national park.

Since I arrived in Yosemite Valley yesterday, I’ve managed to elude the crush of humanity that’s as much a part of this place as its supersize waterfalls and granite monoliths. Each summer some 95 percent of park visitors squeeze into the Valley’s seven square miles–an area that amounts to less than one percent of the park’s total size. That’s 13,571 people per square mile, per day–and about 13,570 more than I like to include in my backcountry adventures. But in two days of hiking I’ve passed just a couple other hikers, and I’ll encounter only a handful more over the next several days. My secrets: a local named Pete Devine, and that invaluable, out-of-date map.

A 25-year resident and outdoor educator with the Yosemite Association, Pete had regaled me with stories of a secret trail known only to a handful of locals. With the flatulent name OBOFRT–for Old Big Oak Flat Road Trail–it isn’t officially a trail at all, but an abandoned road. Once the main tourist route used by travelers coming from the west and dropping into the Valley, the OBOFRT became a secondary byway after the current Big Oak Flat Road was built in 1940. Then, in 1943, rockslides buried portions of the historic road beneath truck-size boulders, and the OBOFRT was retired. Today, occasional patches of asphalt are all that remain of this idyllic, unsigned footpath.

“Even in August, you’ll almost never see a car parked here,” Pete says, as he edges his minivan into a nondescript pullout on the main Valley road. A ranger had scrawled “Rockslides” on our permit as our originating trailhead, but no sign marks the spot where we start our trip. We’re just west of El Cap Meadow, where scores of people are gaping at the climber-dotted monolith. But here–no one. In fact, I’ll see just 12 people on my entire four-day trek, which follows the OBOFRT for 4.5 miles before connecting with the informally named North Rim trail and heading east, past El Cap, Eagle Peak, and Yosemite Falls. Even without our sneaky start leg, though, this version of the North Rim traverse would be life list-caliber: Solitude extends all along the North Rim, except for pockets of people at Yosemite Falls and North Dome, accessed by shorter spur trails from the opposite end. It also helps that most backpackers favor routes that beeline away from the Valley. But hike above the crowds instead of racing away, and you’ll enjoy some of the most epic views in the park.

Pete and I set out on the roadbed late in the afternoon. We revel in its gentle grade (the rest of the trails out of the Valley are elevator shafts) and make good time striding along manzanita-covered hillsides. Berry-studded bear scat is everywhere, indicating Yosemite’s bruins have been gorging themselves before winter puts the kibosh on good eats. Pete smiles as he points to the faint outline of a bear track headed in our direction.

Everything–not just bears–seems to thrill Pete, who possesses a scholar’s curiosity about the entire natural world. But his muscular legs suggest his learning isn’t all logged at a desk: His 6-foot-5-inch figure practically floats over the landslides we encounter, leading the way until we arrive at the hike’s first overlook–a gem of a vista juxtaposing the impossibly sheer faces of Half Dome and El Capitan. “What I love about this view is the way it hides all traces of development,” Pete says, pointing out how campsites, houses, and even the Valley Loop road remain obscured from our vantage point.

Continuing on, we camp near Cascade Creek, still on the OBOFRT and not far from where John Muir himself traveled during his first visit to Yosemite. For nearly 150 years, people have been coming here to admire this place–longer if you consider the Native American tribes that once migrated to and from this oasis along the Merced River. So after a dinner of Indian curry, as we perch on our bear canisters and count the stars, I ask Pete if he ever feels the Valley’s many visitors are loving it to death.

“Oh, some people think there should be a daily quota on the number of visitors allowed in the Valley,” he says. And yes, those crowds have an impact. But Pete says the bigger threat to the landscape is generated far beyond its granite domes. “Climate change has the potential to impact the park more negatively than the cars or hikers,” he explains, adding that 25 percent of the park’s pollution comes from China and its appetite for coal. He sees the effects of that carbon output every time he visits Lyell and Maclure Glaciers, where he’s been measuring the ice’s retreat since 1999. Compared to 100 years ago, their surface area has shrunk by 60 to 65 percent. “The factors causing the biggest changes here may be the hardest for us to control,” he reflects.

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