Sep 6, 2011

Yosemite High Sierras

I just returned from a 6-day, 50 mile hike between Yosemite's High Sierra camps.

Most people who visit Yosemite visit the iconic Yosemite valley, which is truly beautiful, but teeming with people.  A smaller fraction turn north as they are entering the Park and head up to the higher altitude area of Tuolomne Meadows and Tioga Pass.  Equally beautiful, although less iconic, this area of Yosemite has more limited amenities and is far less busy even in the summer months.

Fewer people still are even aware of Yosemite's High Sierra Camps.  These are 5 staffed camps (beds, cooked meals, running water, showers) that cannot be reached by road.  You can only reach these camps by trails, either on foot, or by mule.  Few people I've talked to have ever heard of these camps.  Still, availability is extremely limited so reservations are made a year in advance by lottery.  The season for some of the camps this year was less than 1 month, and they could only handle about 40 people per night.

The camps are arranged in a loop, and all of the camps can be reached via a long day hike from the road.  The most remote camp, at Merced Lake, is a 12 mile hike from the valley.  We decided to visit all of the camps along the loop in clockwise order (apparently counterclockwise is more common).  The route is below.



View High Sierras in a larger map

The days ranged from 6 - 10 miles, some of the days up days, some down.  The most elevation change was ~3000 ft.  The experience was different every day: granite, forests, meadows, waterfalls, streams, lakes, vistas, sunsets, stars, and wildlife.  I've detailed more of the trip below for those interested, but feel free to skip.

Day 1: Tuolomne Meadows to Vogelsang

The first day's issue is dealing with the altitude as we aren't yet acclimated.  We climb a modest 1,400 ft over 7 miles from Tuolomne Meadows to Vogelsang camp.  The climb is relatively steady uphill the whole way with forest cover some of the way and the most amazing meadows especially as you near the end of the trip.  Wildflowers, pikas running around, streams with fish, and granite walls on either side of the valley you are walking through.  A quick climb at the end over a lip and you are at the base of Fletcher peak at Vogelsang camp, the highest altitude camp of the 5.

Vogelsang camp sits a little above 10,000 ft on a ledge above a granite valley below with Fletcher peak above and Vogelsang Peak in the distance.  A few hundred feet away, a few of us took a brief dip in Fletcher lake, which is just above freezing even in August.  You can watch the snow melt immediately above the lake while you are swimming.  As it turns out Fletcher is a vast aquifer.  We are told that Vogelsang has the only legal non-chlorinated drinking water in California.  I didn't notice the difference.

After dinner, the stars at Vogelsang are fantastic.  Our trip chanced to schedule Vogelsang on a new moon, so it was very dark.  The milky way was quite bright and visible.

Day 2: Vogelsang to Merced Lake


We opted for the slightly shorter / easier route of the two options.  This turned out to be one of the prettiest stretches on the trip so we were happy with the decision, although who knows what the other option had in store.  This day was the biggest elevation change of the hike, dropping ~3,000 ft over 7.6 miles, but it wasn't a smooth gradual drop.  Instead it was long switchbacks alongside waterfalls interspersed with more beautiful meadows.  Very difficult on the knees.  My favorite stretch along this hike was what seemed like a half mile long water slide that just kept going forever.  The image below shows a tiny section of it, but can't really do it justice:


Merced Lake camp used to be a military post.  The tents are arranged in a half circle around a central campfire which probably was once a flagpole.  This is the most comfortable of all of the camps, with 8 showers, a warmer swimming hole in the stream, washbasins, and lots of shade.  Not much for a view though as you are at the base of a valley and deep in trees.  It's also the most remote - the nearest road is in the valley, 12 miles away.  As with the other camps, all supplies are brought in by mules.

Day 3: Merced Lake to Sunrise

Day 3 started with a few hundred feet of drop, then climbing back up 2,300 ft.  All over 10 miles.  Here again the elevation is not evenly distributed, with several switchback sections.  Only this time they are up.  It was a long day, easily the hardest of the 6, and probably the least scenic of the trail stretches, although that's relative - it still packed some amazing views.

Sunrise camp on the other hand was likely my favorite, and I spoke with several people who would agree.  The camp is perched on a ledge above an alpine meadow at ~9,400 ft.  The meadow then drops off and you can see incredible views of several mountain ranges in the distance.  The view at sunset was amazing.  Sunrise in the morning was even more so as the meadow had frosted over during the night and would sparkle in the sun.  The camp also had showers, and the staff formed a one-song band at dinner, which was a fun experience.

The photo below is from the meadow below sunrise camp.  Sunrise Camp itself is a little higher, affording good views of the meadow as well as the mountain ranges behind the trees in this photo.



Day 4: Sunrise to May Lake


Day 4 was an 8 mile hike that was fairly easy except for a painful ~2 mile stretch of rapid descent along switchbacks above Tenaya Lake.  You begin by climbing over the ridge behind sunrise camp and dropping down gradually past several photoworthy "sunrise lakes" that might have been great for swimming had we had the time.  Immediately before the painful descent is a trail marker for Clouds Rest.  At the recommendation of someone at Sunrise, we took a side trip out a few hundred feet along this trail to be rewarded with a fantastic view down into Yosemite Valley, including the back side of Half Dome.




The switchbacks were panoramic as well, although overlooking the Tuolomne area and Tenaya lake rather than the valley.  At about the 6 mile mark, we reached our strategically placed car at Tenaya Lake, the only road crossing for the hike.  We switched out for some fresh gear and finished the rest of the hike uphill to May Lake.

May Lake is nestled halfway up Mt Hoffman, which a staff member from Sunrise mentioned is the geographic center of Yosemite.  The camp lies between the lake and a short granite lip.  Scrambling up the lip affords a panoramic view of the ridge you just climbed down as well as many other peaks, as seen in the photo below.  May lake is pretty comfortable too.  The manager, Brian, treated us to some colorful historical stories of the camp as we enjoyed the delicious salmon dinner.




Day 5: May Lake to Glen Aulin


Day 5 was pretty mellow - a gradual downhill, mostly flat, over 8 miles.  We got into camp fairly early as a result.  Most of the day is within forested areas, so there is little to see.  The only challenge was a few patches of mosquitos and flies.  We donned some mosquito nets and moved on - I've seen much worse.  The only real vista was early in the morning, but  it was fantastic - you could almost see all the way to the next camp, below is a fraction of that view.  Glen Aulin is just behind that small mountain almost in the center of the photo, right behind the first forested saddle.


Glen Aulin itself is in an amazing location.  It sits directly beside a large waterfall on the Tuolomne River.  You can barely see some green benches and one or two of the white tents on the opposite side of the river in this photo.


Downstream a short bit, we took a swim in the river, below yet another waterfall.  Still cold, but much warmer than Vogelsang.  Glen Aulin has no showers, so this was the only option for washing off.

Day 6: Glen Aulin back to Tuolomne Meadows


The final day is also pretty easy, you follow the Tuolomne river upstream for a little under 6 miles back to parking lots at Tuolomne Meadows.  For the first few miles, it's literally one waterfall after another and progress is slow due to enjoying the views and taking photos.  After a while, the river slows down, flattens out, and widens into a Tuolomne Meadows.  A different type of amazing view, more relaxed.  Overall, this hike is just a wonderful finale.





I'll eventually upload some more photos and I'll post a link on Google+ if you want to follow along there.

I also thought I'd share a few boring notes on logistics, as I had a little bit of a hard time figuring out much of this online.  Only read the remainder if you are planning on making this trip yourself and have questions about the camps and what you need to bring:

  • The camps are tent cabins.  4 (usually) spring cots with matresses.  You'll share with strangers depending on your party size.  Each bed has 2 army blankets and a heavy comforter.  This was plenty to keep me warm at night and it got below freezing at least one night.  The only other thing you'll need to bring is a sleep sack or sheets, no bed linens are provided.  The beds also have a pillow and a pillowcase that gets washed.  Don't bring pads/sleeping bags/pillows.
  • Except for Merced Lake which is lower elevation and warmer, every tent has a wood burning stove and you'll be provided with wood, starters, matches, candles.  Everything you'd need to start a fire.
  • As for temperature, it seemed plenty warm as long as the sun was out.  After sunset but before you climb into bed, you'll be chilly and the morning will be chilly.  Still, all I needed was a light jacket.  Unless you plan on staying up late and watching stars, my experience was that lots of heavy clothing was unnecessary.  The Yosemite packing list suggested a down jacket, fleece, mittens and thermal underwear. It was nowhere near that cold, but check your weather forecast I guess.
  • Speaking of weather forecast, use NOAA and click on the map where your hike is - the nearest station which is what weather.com and others use is too far away to be useful.
  • Merced Lake, Sunrise, and May Lake have showers.  You will want to bring a towel and soap/shampoo, although you may be able to buy a towel from the camp store if you forget.  A small washcloth is provided at every camp, but that's it.  Other than sunrise, all of the camps have great nearby swimming options which might cover for a shower depending on your preferences.  Best to bring some kind of shoes you can wear into the water though as the rocks can be a little annoying.  Flip flops worked for me.  You might need these for water crossings on the trail anyway.
  • Either carry lots of water (4 liters) for the day or carry a filter.  We toted a filter and were rarely far from water, so we didn't need to carry as much water weight.
  • On food, breakfasts and dinners are plenty of food and wonderful.  Best backpacking food ever.  Bag lunches include a decent sandwich and optionally fruit, trail mix, cookies, and a fruit drink.  You can order it all or a la carte.  You order at the camps the night before, not much advanced planning required.  Credit Cards are accepted if you don't want to tote cash.  Basically, you don't need to bring any food, or just some snacks if you would like.