Every night for the last year, I have slept surrounded by the Yosemite Valley peaks. To the left of my bed is El Capitan; Half dome and Cathedral Rocks are above the headboard. It took me five hours to hang the giant mural on my apartment wall—121 sheets of paper carefully aligned to create a single fifteen-foot by ten-foot picture. Every time I came home I was presented with a stunning landscape. And every time I wondered if I’d get to see it in person.
• • •
I read that some people try for years to get a Wilderness Permit to backpack in Yosemite. Permit applications are accepted six months in advance and awarded on a dumb-luck lottery system. Many trailheads are capped at 20 people per day. When I started doing research on the park in the spring of 2015, I had already missed the window for an August visit—the best time of year for my work schedule. My hiking dreams faded until February, when one day I did some math and suddenly realized I was going to miss my window yet again. Starting from square one, I opened Google and started researching.
Two years earlier, in the wee hours of the morning on July 21, 2014, my brother, Sam, and I reached the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. We had hiked 600 miles across three states on the Appalachian Trail. For a few hours, we were alone as the sun rose over the horizon and burst through the clouds. It was a perfect way to end our trip—some time to reflect, relax, and mentally adjust to the next task: hitchhiking and assimilating back into civilization. We thought back on the previous six weeks—mountains conquered, physical and mental challenges overcome, and many friends and memories made. Our parents had even come out to hike with us for a few days in Vermont. It was like our camping trips as a family when we were growing up, only without the flimsy camp chairs and bulky propane Coleman stove. And one other thing was obviously missing. Our younger sister, Maddie, hadn’t been able to get time off of her summer job, working in the reptile lab at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. When I put together a recap video of the hike and posted it on Youtube, I dedicated it, “to our parents, who took us on our first hike. And our little sister, who will join us on our next one.”
On that February afternoon, after a few hours of searching National Park Service sites and amateur travel blog articles, I emailed my brother. “Ok, I think we need to actually talk about this. It’s a LOT of planning and details and BS with permits so we have to literally plan the hike 6 months in advance.” In his reply the next day he concluded with, “Maddie coming on this one?”
I sent in the permit application request for three people for six days, on a 65-mile loop from Sunrise Lakes trailhead to Rafferty Creek trailhead, with a lot of hope but no expectation to get in. I had a six-day window that I could start the hike in August so I figured we’d apply six times and see if we got lucky. Yosemite uses a fax-only system so even after filling out the application sheet and figuring out how to work my office fax machine, I had no way to know if it had been received or properly filled out. I guess the NPS really is serious about preserving things for future generations to enjoy.
The following afternoon I received an email (not a fax) confirming all three spots secured, plus permits to summit Half Dome—a very popular and iconic side trail, capped at 75 people per day. Maddie still didn’t know we had requested a spot for her so I gave her a call to inform her of her upcoming vacation and made her promise to keep her calendar clear. The M-B kids were going to Yosemite.
• • •
The day before our hike, Sam’s flight from Seattle and Maddie’s flight from Minneapolis arrived in San Francisco within five minutes of each other. I had arrived from Virginia the night before so I picked up the car and then my siblings. After pricing out a few options, we agreed to rent a car for the week, leave it at our exit point and take a Yosemite hiker shuttle to our starting point at Sunrise Lakes trailhead. Our first order of business was to get a few last-minute items at Safeway, REI and BevMo! (because a pull of whiskey after a day of hiking as the sun sets behind the mountains is just about perfect). Then we headed east toward the mountains.
That night we stayed in a simple little cabin behind the Priest Station Cafe, 25 miles from the entrance to the park. We dumped all our prepackaged and dehydrated food on a bed and divided it between our three BV500 bear canisters. Yosemite, like a number of other national parks, requires that all overnight hikers keep food in bear-proof containers that must also be stashed at least 100 feet from tent sites. We calculated that we would be on the trail for 18 meals each, plus we wanted an extra day (three more meals) for safety. Striking a balance between nutrition, weight, volume, price, and ease of preparation is a challenge that leaves no perfect options. We had a mix of pricey but tasty just-add-water Backpacker’s Pantry meal pouches; some classic mac-and-cheese with tuna; Pasta Sides, Rice Sides and instant potatoes; and few pouches of a relatively new meal replacement powdered drink called Soylent.
We aren’t hardcore ultralight hikers. I firmly believe in extra socks, extra underwear, and some comfort items. My load is further increased by a couple cameras, batteries and chargers. For the hike in 2014 I bought a Sony RX100 II camera which is amazingly tiny for it’s capabilities and the perfect size to attach to my backpack’s chest strap. I brought that camera again this time, with an extra battery and extra memory card. I also brought a GoPro with a weatherproof case, my iPhone 6s, and a small flexible tripod. And I hoped that a couple portable USB chargers would store enough juice to last the week.
Nowhere online does it say that the Yosemite permit office opens at 8 a.m. By some stroke of luck, however, we arrived at 7:57 a.m. and we only had to wait a few minutes to check in and pick up our permits. And then we were off. The hiker shuttle that we had counted on ran every 30 minutes but, as of last year, charges $3 per rider. Also not mentioned online. Our driver was just as upset about the new fare as we were so she let us ride for free.
• • •
At 2:30 we started walking the 7.1 miles to Clouds Rest summit. All uphill. I don’t remember ever having so much weight on my back. But I knew we all felt the same struggle so I kept putting one foot in front of the other. When backpacking, every destination is one mile farther away than you’d like it to be. And that was certainly true on the way to Clouds Rest. The view at the top instantly dissolved our fatigue, however, and we were awestruck by the landscape. We had 360 views as the sun set and were surprised to find only two other people there to enjoy it. Nice guys equally awestruck by the scenery, neither had bothered with the permit process. So it goes.
The forecast was all clear so we decided to set our sleeping bags out in the open air and sleep under the stars. We made sure to keep a few good-sized rocks between us and the 3,000-ft drop off nearby. The Perseid meteor shower was supposed to offer some action between 1-3 a.m. but by 10 we were ready to pass out.
No one sleeps well the first night of a trip. I love my Thermarest NeoAir XLite pad but it’s no spring mattress and, with aching muscles that I forgot I had, I tossed and turned most of the night. I did count upwards of 25 meteors, however, so I’ll say it wasn’t a total waste.
Unbeknownst to us, as we slept, a number of hikers began the same 7.1-mile hike in the dead of night around 2 a.m. They arrived at the summit as we were heating our coffee and packing up our sleeping mats, the sun rising over the jagged horizon. It was a magnificent sight, watching Half Dome slowly turn from slate blue to peachy orange as the light spilled into the valley below. I sipped some steaming coffee as the new arrivals took selfies.
I find 2.5 mph to be a pretty comfortable backpacking pace over average terrain. We had averaged about 1.5 mph our first day, but it was a steady incline and our packs were at maximum weight. Still, I knew we’d have to improve on that to make this trip’s mileage line up. I had no immediate concerns for day two; it was to be our shortest day by far—only 4.5 miles to the junction of the Half Dome trail and all downhill. On the AT, Sam and I averaged 14 miles per day. Our longest day in Yosemite looked about 13 miles with an overall average of 9.5 miles. Even so, I knew this hike in the woods wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
I am blessed to come from a family with some natural athleticism. My day job as a photographer keeps me on my feet, carrying equipment, and I enjoy running, hiking and rock climbing. Sam rock climbs as often as he can, at an indoor facility on weeknights and frequent weekend trips that include hiking and camping. Maddie was a captain of her high school cross country team and she hikes and runs regularly. Although she has less backpacking experience, she might have the best endurance of the three of us. (When the Twin Cities half-marathon was cancelled earlier this year, Maddie, who had trained and registered for it, drew up her own course and ran it anyway.)
• • •
Before long, our trail had merged with the John Muir Trail. The JMT is a 211-mile trail that starts in Yosemite and passes through stunning areas of John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. It is understandably heavily trafficked and, as expected, we found plenty of established camp sites at the point where the Half Dome trail splits off. From there, it is a two-mile hike to the Half Dome summit, rising 2,800 vertical feet. Many people start the Half Dome summit hike from the valley floor, which adds six miles and an additional 2,000 feet. Each way. Our hope was to get up and out the next morning before the exposed rock summit got hot and crowded.
One of the nearby tributaries of Sunrise Creek was flowing pretty well so we followed it back a bit to a spot where we could take a dip and rinse off our sweaty clothes. Park regulations prohibit soap within 100 feet of water but we found that, by wearing odor-resistant clothing and rinsing it out every day or two, we didn’t need to do any actual washing. After selecting and setting up our campsite, we climbed on some boulders, played some cards and sipped some whiskey until it was time to make dinner.
• • •
When planning what gear to bring, we found that three people is an awkward number for tents to accommodate. We considered buying a three-person tent but we worried about finding flat spots large enough to set it up. Sam wanted to bring his Eagles Nest Outfitters hammock, gambling that he’d be able to find suitable trees at each campsite, leaving Maddie and I to work out our own plan. By chance, we both had friends willing to lend us REI Quarter Dome 1-person tents—hers brand new, mine an older version. Tent makers seem to treat pole design as an abstract art form and I was never able to develop an efficient process for assembling mine. Maddie’s seemed to go up much more smoothly and it had considerably more interior space. And was lighter. And looked cooler. Good for her.
The next morning we stashed all our gear near our camp site except some water bottles and nutrition bars, which we divided between two day packs. This was possibly the best decision of our entire trip. The final 400 feet to the top of Half Dome are straight up a sheer rock face, at an angle too steep to walk or scramble. This led to the installation of heavy steel cables in 1919 which are permanently anchored into the rock and propped up like railings by a series of metal poles (during summer months). The week before flying to California, I went rock climbing with some friends in North Carolina’s Stone Mountain State Park. We did a 600-ft climb up a similarly steep face and had plenty of cams, nuts, and other gear to protect ourselves from a fall. On Half Dome, unless you decide to clip into the cables with carabiners and a harness (which I saw one hiker do), all you have are your own two hands to keep you from tumbling. I found six accounts of hikers who lost their grip, slipped and died.
Two-thirds of the way up the cables, in the steepest section, I braced myself on a rock ledge and paused to let my heart rate settle. I am not afraid of heights but I am not unafraid of heights either. I turned to rest my back against the rock and looked out at the terrain around and below me (while maintaining a death grip on the cable). Sam and Maddie had gone ahead and were likely already at the top so there was no one else in sight. How humbling, peaceful, and terrifying to be alone in a place like that. When my breathing was under control, I checked my footing, stood up and finished the last 150 feet.
The Half Dome “visor” is a little section of rock at the summit that juts out over the 2,000-foot vertical face and Yosemite Valley. I am not an adrenaline junkie but I was curious to see how gut-wrenchingly precarious it was for those bolder than myself to sit out on it. I guess some adrenaline kicked in because I told my brother to get a photo of me out at the edge. He weakly pleaded for me not to but I promised him that the footing looked solid and I wouldn’t linger. He got a photo and I got back to safety. With a stern look he said, “I’m really not happy that you did that.” Fifteen minutes later he had me get a photo of him out on the visor, too.
A few more people arrived and we finished our snacks. Going back down the cables is the same process as going up. But backwards. You do the math.
Thinking it would save us some time, we decided to make the Soylent for lunch back at camp. An online reviewer recommended adding cocoa power to give it a better flavor. Mixing all the powder with water did not go smoothly and we ended up a with a dull brown, runny, lumpy batter. Unappealing to the eyes, it also had no redeeming odor or taste. I recalled the bland, gruel-like food eaten in The Matrix. We all managed to chug a good amount of it but were left feeling quasi-queasy due to the texture. If blended evenly and possibly enhanced with some other flavoring ingredients I would try it again. But we decided that the remaining Soylent would be best set aside as our emergency backup rations.
We picked up our full packs and continued down, down, down toward Nevada Fall as Half Dome day hikers passed us on their way up. It felt good to know that the hardest part of our day was done and we weren’t going to be hiking for 8 more hours like many of them. The forecast for our week was 90’s and sunny during the day and 50’s at night. At our elevation it wasn’t stifling but the sun seemed extra intense. I have a Barmah Squashy bush hat that nicely shades my face and neck, Sam and Maddie had bandannas as sweatbands. And thankfully we all had sunglasses.
As we neared the Merced River we all agreed that a swim was in order. A short side trail led us to a fairly secluded pool and we stripped off our outer layers and waded in. I was again struck by the scenery, standing in crystal clear water with mountains rising over the surrounding pine forest. I started to worry that my picture-taking was not on a sustainable pace considering my battery reserve.
Just past Nevada Fall we briefly followed the Panorama Cliff Trail (which might have some good views, not sure) before turning south, away from the valley, and into the backcountry on an unnamed trail. We knew we were leaving the crowds and day hikers behind as the trail immediately narrowed and the plant life changed. I am always amazed at the natural boundaries between habitats (micro habitats?)—the point where a forest becomes a meadow or a thick underbrush gives way to mossy rocks. Walking into this new area put me a bit on edge, however, thinking that if I were a bear this would be a lovely place to live.
For camp that night, we had our eyes on a spot about two miles in that appeared to flatten out, according to the topographical map, below Mount Starr King. (Fun fact that I just learned: Mount Starr King is named for Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian preacher and political activist. It has historically been known by various names including Kings Peak, See-wah-lam, South Dome, and Tis-sa-ack.) Weaving through thorny bushes, we searched for an area with two tent-sized flat spots and a set of trees one hammock-length apart. Before long, we came upon a recently-used fire pit which reassured us that we had the right idea to camp there. Or others had had the same dumb idea.
Day four we expected to be an A-to-B kind of day: 12 miles, slightly uphill overall, nothing really noteworthy on the map apart from a stretch next to Illilouette Creek. After a midday snack and rinse break in a frigid creek pool, we figured we’d have ample water stops as we made our way to Lower Ottoway Lake—our destination for the night. A few hours later, however, we couldn’t place exactly where we were on the map as we hadn’t encountered a couple streams that we had expected to cross. We thought we’d be able to get our bearings when we came to Lower Merced Pass Lake, which would also be a safe bet for more water. Passing an area that should have been the lake, we found nothing except a dry creek bed and some exposed bedrock that looked like a dry waterfall. We weren’t out of water completely but we didn’t want to take any risks in the heat. A trail intersection at another dry creek let us know where we were and we walked up the creek bed to find Upper Merced Pass Lake. Judging by waterlines on the rocks, it was 14-18” low and stagnant but certainly better than nothing.
Our expectations for Lower Ottoway Lake were low after our stop at Upper Merced Pass Lake, so we were completely stunned when we arrived. Surrounded by impressive, rocky peaks, Lower Ottoway Lake is a pristine alpine oasis. We dropped our packs at the first campable site we found and instantly felt better. I went off to explore along the water’s edge and ended up walking around the entire lake. It was a relaxing walk without my pack, even though I had been walking all day. I enticed Sam to jump in with me before the sun set and we dried off on a rocky island as Maddie rinsed out her sweaty clothes.
• • •
Prior to starting the hike, Sam had studied the map more closely than Maddie or I and he warned us about Red Peak Pass. At 11,300 feet, it is the highest pass in the park and we would endure two miles of rocky switchbacks to cross it. We were psyched up to tackle it first thing the next morning so we got up and out by 8 a.m. It was no less steep than we expected but we made great time, reaching the pass in an hour and a half. From there, we could see the next several hours of our day as our trail wound its way down the other side through a reddish, rocky moonscape with small ponds scattered far below.
We hadn’t heard any updates on the forecast since we started so we weren’t sure what to think that afternoon when ominous clouds started to appear from over the ridge we had just descended. The occasional shade was appreciated but not really celebrated as it could indicate rain was on the way. We increased our pace and talked about the possibility of camping earlier than we planned. We got a sprinkle as we approached the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River but thankfully nothing more. Still, that evening we selected a spot with moderate tree cover and put up our rainflys.
After setting up camp and feeling good about our storm preparations, I walked through the most postcard-esque, Bob Ross-meets-Ansel Adams landscape I’ve ever seen. The Triple Peak Fork seems straight out of a fairy tale, or perhaps vice versa. For several miles, the stream winds through a grassy valley, bubbling over rocks and pooling up in eddies draped with bright green mosses and petite wildflowers. In the distance, perfectly proportioned and capped with snow, Triple Divide Peak anchors the scene. I used up a good bit of my camera battery there without a second thought.
Dinner was mac and cheese with tuna and quinoa. Did you know that wasps like tuna? We watched as one examined a small piece of tuna that had fallen on the ground, chewed off a piece and carried it away. A couple minutes later it returned, and proceeded to do this three more times until the piece was gone. I expect that was a once-in-a-lifetime treat for the nest. I’m glad they had a memorable evening as well.
Our original route for day six had us following Lewis Creek to the base of Vogelsang Pass, where we would camp and cross the pass on our final day. After some mileage and elevation calculations, however, we decided to alter our plan and instead follow Fletcher Creek with the intent of camping at Lake Emeric. It only saved us about a mile overall but it cut the amount of up and down considerably, leaving us with a very moderate nine miles on our final, seventh day. The vote passed unanimously and we went to sleep in preparation for the longest and most difficult day of the trip.
• • •
I am always on the lookout for the perfect swimming hole, especially one with waterfalls, rock slides and jumping cliffs. It was difficult to pass so many tempting pools as we walked by the Merced Peak Fork but I knew we had miles to put behind us.
As we descended from 9,100 feet to 8,000 feet the terrain changed quickly from an exposed rocky mountainside to a lush, shaded forest. A few hours later we reached our lowest point of the hike, 7,300 feet at the Merced Lake ranger station. We braced ourselves for the next four miles, over which we would climb back up 2,000 feet before camping at 9,300 feet. None of these numbers mean anything on their own but all the elevation change was an aspect of the trip that I hadn’t fully appreciated when looking only at the mileage. Doing 400 flights of stairs in one day carrying a 30–40-pound pack is a substantial feat.
The very first night I felt a little queasy from a combination of altitude sickness and dehydration and Maddie’ stomach felt off the night we stayed near Mount Starr King. Other than that we had no major physical issues. Sam and I developed a mantra during our first big hike together, in 2010, when we spent two weeks on the Pactific Crest Trail: Every step counts. A twisted ankle in the woods is worse than a broken leg at home. We shared it with Maddie on day one and repeated it often. Every step counts.
The mantra also applies to making slow progress up a steep section of trail. Hiking switchbacks for hours is mentally and physically exhausting but eventually every trail levels out. Every step counts. We neared the top of our climb and were stunned when the landscape opened up into a huge grassy meadow surrounded by mountains. It had been several hours since we passed another hiker and it felt like we were the first ones to come upon this place (notwithstanding the fresh horse tracks on the trail). I imagined we were in Switzerland.
I convinced Sam and Maddie to take a celebratory final night plunge in Emeric Lake when we arrived. It was also a much-needed break after our intense climb. We dried off and warmed up as we watched the sun set across the lake.
The last three days had definitely been different than the first three. We had settled into a kind of rhythm, up with the sun, to bed with the dusk and make every step count in between. Our legs and lungs were feeling stronger. Maddie said she was glad we had chosen this length of time instead of just two or three days because she would have gone home only knowing the worst parts of backpacking. I think it definitely takes a few days to adjust to living on trail and I’m very glad she kept with it and found her stride.
• • •
The storyteller part of me really wanted to see a bear on the last day, ambling off in the distance, just so I could say we did. But we didn’t. And the non-storyteller part of me is totally fine with that. Our last day was hot and dry and felt almost effortless, even though we covered nine miles. We encountered a few groups on horseback which intrigued me. I can’t image that horses are able to negotiate all the steep turns and rocky passes that we hiked so I don’t know where all they go. I got a little jealous at the idea of seeing all the amazing sights we had without all the effort. But I realized I would very much miss the experience of feeling the ground change beneath my feet and the satisfaction of carrying my own supplies.
A mile from the end, we went for one last swim in the Lyell Fork where the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail overlap and lots of day hikers come for some easily accessible views. Our celebratory beer was waiting for us in the steel bear-proof storage locker outside the ranger station and our rental car was just a minute away where we had left it on Tioga Road. Mission complete. Next stop: pizza, showers and AC.
• • •
When I got home to Virginia, I stood in front of my mural and felt a totally new appreciation for the dramatic peaks and valleys. It was no longer just a stunning landscape. When I looked at Clouds Rest and Half Dome I could feel the rocks and the wind. Backpacking is the best way to get to know a place—immersed in the environment, at the mercy of the surroundings, constantly “discovering” it. And by leaving these places as undisturbed as possible when we pass through, we preserve them for the next group of adventurers to discover. I’m not in a rush to take this mural down but I can’t help starting to think about the next one.