Yosemite is at its heart a hiker's park and with such an extensive network of trails, the only way to see even a fraction of it is to backpack. You can only see about 5% of the park from the road.
Fondest memory: The cacophony was incongruous with the beauty surrounding it. We sat in Yosemite National Park and expected some type of peace if not quiet. Surely in its 1200 square miles of varied terrains there is solitude but oddly we had chosen to join most of the park's current visiting population in what must not be bigger than a city block. Curry Village not only maintains much of its rustic former glory but also a rag tag shanty feel that lends itself to an overly boisterous camaraderie of those assembled. Think the New Jersey boardwalk or Coney Island and you wouldn't be too far off base. Kids licking soft serve ice cream, families scurrying about with pizza boxes and two liter bottles of soda. Everyone in shorts, tan and looking like, well they're on vacation. Not that we were much different, woofing down pizza and slugging beers with gusto. We might have looked a little less squeaky clean than everyone else but then again we had just spent three days walking in Yosemite's extensive and slightly less busy back country. A much needed shower, shave and a change of clothes were in the offing but after three nights of freeze dried food our priorities were perhaps not quite aligned with our fellow diners. Not that everyone was enamored with our appearance but Yosemite is one place that looking like you just came from the wilderness is a Muir-ish badge of accomplishment. While true that most people who visit the park never stray into its vast back country and try their best to avoid pit toilets, there is a decided curiosity about those who do. There's nothing quite like walking around with your bear canister in hand once you're secured your back country permit. Now, getting that permit is another story. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
First, we had to take everything from our locker at White Wolf and put it back in the car. We also packed our backpacks for the trip. Arriving at Curry Village parking area an hour later, it was still early so there were plenty of spaces. Finding an empty bear locker was another matter. After unlocking and re-locking quite a few, we found one but it wasn't big enough to store all of our food, cooking items, and toiletries. Remember, anything with a sent has to be taken out of your car lest a bear tear it open looking for a treat. So, we crammed whatever we could in and looked for yet another locker for the remainder. .With everything safely stowed, we locked up our car and put our packs on. Now, all we had to do was grab a shuttle bus over to the trail head and oh, hike about six miles up three thousand feet, carrying all our gear and food for three days. That would put us in position to climb Half Dome the following morning.
The trail up was not overly busy but I assumed many people would have started earlier than us especially if going all the way to Half Dome and back in day. It was hard work carrying the pack but we were in no hurry. We took rests, enjoying the stunning scenery despite a slight haze on the otherwise clear horizon that I wrongly attributed to LA smog gone astray. Once at Nevada Falls, we caught up with humanity, well all of it that was out hiking in Yosemite Valley that day. It seemed that the haze was not the only thing making a bid to spoil paradise. While the hike to Nevada Falls is not anything extreme, it's not exactly a short flat stroll either. It's a testament to the hiking mentality that invades Yosemite that so many people could be in a place not accessible from a parking lot viewpoint. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
After a lengthy break and snack, we pushed further up the trail with the crowds thinning out considerably. We reached the Little Yosemite Valley Campground in no time but had been told we would have to camp up the trail due to it being full. There certainly seemed to be plenty of open spots and one big group of boisterous guys told us to just set up next to them. While a sure way to have some fun, it did not seem like a great idea with two more days of backpacking ahead of us.
We decided to follow our permit and make our next day's climb a bit easier but ran into a backcountry ranger as we exited the campground. He said we could indeed stay the night there but we were already mentally prepared for next slog up and didn't want to backtrack even a quarter mile from which we had just come. Of course, the section up to the John Muir Trail that followed was the most difficult of the day and we cursed our stubbornness for not just taking advantage of a good fortune below. It was June so daylight hours were long and we arrived at the turn-off quickly if with much effort. We turned off the Half Dome Trail and trod down John Muir's namesake in search of Sunrise Creek and a place to pitch our tent. It was a flat walk of about a mile to what was certainly a nicer and more remote area than what we had passed up. Now, that the work was behind us we patted ourselves on the back for our good decision but we soon realized all of the nicest spots were already taken. We found a suitable place, set up camp and went about the business of gathering water and making up dinner. It was a fair walk to the creek but without our packs not an unpleasant one. It's amazing how light you feel when you take 30 pounds off your back! (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Fondest memory: We efficiently ate, cleaned up and readied ourselves for a well-deserved night's sleep and were safely in our tent before nightfall. It was still early but a bit buggy so by taking the fly off the tent, we could lay there observing nature around us without the nuisance of buzzing mosquitoes. Peace was however short-lived when we soon heard the banging of pans and agitated shouts from our fellow backpackers. Up on a nearby hill that was a prime camping spot, we saw a mother bear with a cub playing decoy with a few of our neighbors. The mother was distracting them and the cub went for the food, making off with a bag of chips in no time. This was the last straw and they chased the bears with more might, making them scamper down the hill. Unfortunately for us, that was right in our direction! There wasn't much we could do but sit tight as they ran right through out little area, knocking over the bear cannister I had carefully placed a fair distance from our tent. They jumped right over a log that we had sat on while eating not more than an hour previous. As you can imagine, despite our being exhausted, it was not easy to fall to sleep but knowing we had not left any food or scraps to entice them made it possible. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Half Dome is a very slick oddly shaped mountain. It's like a rounded peak, broke in half and what remains is a true rock climber's delight on the nearly vertical north side of the dome. The “easy” side is not exactly a routine walk either and the park has installed two sets of cables that are lifted and held in place by metal poles, forming a loose railing of sorts. These were the very cables that were down when I had to abort my climb in 1994.
We went over to a pile of gloves left over the years by climbers, picked out a pair each, and looked up. I relished redemption but it didn't look any less scary with the poles in position. It may have helped mentally that there was a line of people going both up and down but once we became a part of the slowly moving snake, we found it was not so nice having to worry about others who's fear of heights were far greater than ours. We also soon found out that we were in better shape than most of our comrades and had to make more stops than we would have otherwise liked. These stops left you hanging onto a pole and digging your boots into small crevices. The views straight out were marvelous but looking down was pure vertigo. It seemed to take forever but soon I was on top and waited patiently as Doreen pulled up the rear, snapping shots of her for posterity. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
We passed an older bear along the trail that was feeding on insects in a fallen tree by peeling the bark off, something bears naturally do when not “hooked” on backpacker's potato chips. It was nice to see a bear in the wild and to feel so little fear. It seemed in no way interested in us, surely the best thing for the bear who's only real enemy is man. The walk back after that was easy though marred by day hikers still intent on conquering Half Dome. They all asked us how much farther and all we could honestly say was not so far in distance but still quite a climb. Many were obviously unprepared both physically and with regard to necessities like water. One guy even asked us if there was a water fountain up there as he carried a 16 oz bottle of water half empty. This is up to a 14 hour hike. How can anyone think one small bottle of water will last through a day of tough hiking?
We were glad to make the turn down the John Muir Trail towards our already set up camp at Sunrise Creek. It meant we would not see any more day hikers. We went looking not for a water fountain but for a stream. Sure, we would have to purify our water but we were prepared for that. Going into the mountains unprepared is a sure way to trouble. We wondered sadly about people walking back through the forest surely in the dark, even in spring there is only so much daylight.
There was no bear to excite us that evening but I was already planning my own. I told Doreen that I would climb Half Dome again the next morning before hiking back down with all our gear to the valley. I did it half jokingly and used a few ifs to make it sound not entirely for sure, but she knew very well that she would wake up to find me gone. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
While Yosemite's vast backcountry is not quite as popular as the Ansel Adams-made-famous Yosemite Valley, it is quite possibly the busiest backcountry anywhere in the world. A complex scheme of permits does its best to keep those numbers down but with 30 million people within a few hours drive, and Californians known for their love of the great outdoors, there are many people vying for those little slips of paper. The park is run very efficiently, almost on a par with Disney World and there are times when you almost expect them to turn Yosemite Falls on and off with the flick of the switch but this is in fact, a large tract of wilderness however hard man has tried his best to tame.
If you are the type that plans your trips months (or years) in advance, you can reserve a spot in the most coveted backcountry areas online, by mail, fax or phone. They charge you $5 per reservation and $5 for each person in the hiking party for the privilege and peace of mind. If you are traveling around the country and have no idea when you will arrive, you can just walk up and hope for the best as they keep 40% of the permits for walk-ins and these are free. Of course, if you want to camp on the most popular trails, you'll have to get up pretty early in the morning and wait till the backcountry offices open. Oh, and be sure to sort out which office to wait at as the ones closest to that particular trail head get more of the permits for that specific area. Getting complicated enough for you? Yes, this park is so big that there are backcountry offices for each section that are sometimes hours drive away. The area is immense and once in the backcountry, you will smile at all those loonies in the Valley that think Yosemite can be done in a day. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
We had been camping up at White Wolf Campground up on the Tioga Road for a few days. The spots in the Valley were full and we were lucky that White Wolf had just opened the day we arrived. It was a great campground and made for easy enough exploration of the first half of the Tioga Road which is only open in summer. We did one long hike and felt ready to tackle Half Dome. I had attempted it in the late fall of 1994 only to find its infamous cables down for the season. This return trip was very much about remedying that missed attempt. That had been a day hike, and a very long one at that. This time around, I wanted to do it as a multi-day hike to not only make it less of an ordeal but also to be in position for some optimum photo opportunities in early morning and late evening light, something day-hiking at such long lengths preclude. Obviously, this is the most popular backcountry area in the whole park so we knew getting permits would be tough.
Undeterred, we drove down into the Valley to scope out the situation and soon found ourselves face to face with a short snappy young female ranger who was perturbed with our audacity to think we could just march right in there and get a permit to do Half Dome. She huffed as she went to her online system and lo and behold, there were some spots for the very next day. She nearly rolled her eyes as she explained that someone must have canceled out last minute and that we better jump on them as they would not be there long. We did and asked for one of the park's bear cannisters for good measure. She was so flustered she forgot to charge us the $5 rental fee. We walked out smugly and proudly paraded to the “regular” visitor center with our trophy in tow. If we could have emblazoned “We are climbing Half Dome tomorrow!” on our foreheads, we surely would have. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
We still had to drive some 30 miles of winding ascending mountain road to White Wolf. We had left all our camping gear there assuming correctly that the Valley's campgrounds would be full. But first, we grabbed showers and some ice cream while in civilization. Such treasures are non-existent on Tioga Road. The Valley was beautiful but crowded so we enjoyed getting back to our little camp and readying ourselves for the ensuing three day hike. Laying all our gear and food out on a large tarp, we meticulously put everything we would need in bags to be packed the next morning on top of our camping gear which we still had to use that evening.
Anticipation made sleep uneasy but we were up early as we had not only the hike ahead of us but also taking care of the “car problem.” Now, the real work of Yosemite would rear its ugly head. All food and anything with any kind of sent must be locked in bear storage containers at all times. This is necessary due to the bear's notoriety for breaking into cars. It may not sound bad when you read it but when you start to live it, you realize what a hassle it is. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Fondest memory: Up early the next morning, I rambled down the trail looking for a clearing and soon spotted Half Dome very much surrounded by blue sky. I scampered back to wake my wife who slept deeply after the previous day's physical expenditure. We make breakfast in relative solitude as most of the rest of camp had already got on their various ways. Finally on the trail, it was steady and steep which made for slow progress. This coupled with our late start had us at the Half Dome cables just before noon. A couple we had met the day before was on their way back down and they explained it was getting progressively less clear due to the wild fires on the coast. What I had thought was smog was smoke from Big Sur being blown east, now trapped in Yosemite's considerable valley. I was silently kicking myself for not getting on the trail earlier and my wife, knowing me all too well, kept silent, and eyed the foreboding cables that we were about to embark on. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
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