On August 15, 2016, my husband, Len and I went off the grid to spend five nights and six days backpacking along Yosemite's High Sierra Camps loop. Simply put, the experience was humbling and awe-inspiring. It's been a little over a week since we returned and I've been wanting to share my travels before the memories and emotions fade away. I discovered so much about myself on the trail and my hope in writing this is to save these feelings for a rainy day.
WHAT ARE THE YOSEMITE HIGH SIERRA CAMPS?
When I first heard about Yosemite National Park's High Sierra Camps, it sounded too good to be true. Five camps located in the Sierras which provide backpackers with tent cabins and meals? And some of these camps have showers and flush toilets?! Where do I sign up? Apparently, I'm not the only person enchanted by the idea as reservations for the trip are very hard to come up. The main way* to secure a camp spot is to enter their lottery at the end of the summer season and the park will notify the winners the following spring. For the past 10 years, Len had entered the lottery every year but never lucked out.
Until this year. The other way you can get a spot for the High Sierra Camps is to have a very flexible summer schedule and be vigilant in checking their waitlist for last minute cancellations. After noticing availability open in all five camps, Len immediately contacted the reservation waitlist on a Monday morning and we were booked for our adventure the following week!
*Another way you can do the loop with relative ease is with the "meals only" plan. You'll need your own tent but still have access to the mess halls for meals. All you need is a wilderness permit. Definitely a great option and we met several groups along the trail who opted for this.
PREPPING & PACKING
Prior to this trip, my backpacking experience had been limited to long weekend trips (2-3 nights max) in Point Reyes National Seashore and Desolation Wilderness near South Lake Tahoe. While not having to carry the weight of a tent and food (including a bear canister) was going to make the trip a lot easier, I still had never backpacked 6-10 miles for six days straight. Never really considering myself as a "strong" person, I hoped that my frequent day hikes, morning runs around Lake Merritt and regular yoga practice was enough fitness to prepare me for the physical challenge ahead.
When deciding what to pack, I knew that even though we didn't need a tent or food, I still had to carry everything else on my back. I had to weed out the essential from unnecessary. For me, I had two priorities: taking photos and staying warm.
For clothing, I packed my Patagonia down jacket, two baselayer leggings, two baselayer tops, two tank tops, two t-shirts (one for sleeping, one for hiking), three pairs of Exofficio travel underwear, three pairs of Darn Tough Socks, two sports bras, a lightweight button-down long sleeve shirt, gloves, knit winter hat, Keen watershoes (as my camp shoes), and my trusty Lowa Renegade boots that I've worn for over a year and a half now (they came with me to Iceland, Norway and Sweden last summer!) If I could do it all over again, I would have packed only quick drying clothing items. We were able to wash our clothes along the trail and having items that dried quickly really came in handy.
LET'S GO ON AN ADVENTURE!
DAY ONE: LEMBERT DOME/SODA SPRINGS to GLEN AULIN
Getting a late start to our day, we headed out towards Glen Aulin slightly nervous for the week ahead but overall in good spirits. The trail ran along side the Toulumne River which made it easy to keep our bearings. The hike itself wasn't too bad, especially as the first leg of our trip. We arrived at Glen Aulin camp just before dinner at the mess hall. We had just enough time to settle in before our delicious three course meal. Not sure how dinner on the trail would be, I was pleased to see that our meal included fresh vegetables and salad, a luxury as most meals I've had in the backcountry consisted of a lot of meat and carbs (easy to keep and transport). The High Sierra Camps are serviced by a mule train that brings in fresh supplies and hauls away waste every few days. Truly the hardest working mules this side of the Mississippi!
After dinner, we set out to explore the camp. Our tent cabin was close to the river which had a shallow rock beach that would be perfect for wading and soaking. Unfortunately, by the time we got to camp, the warm summer sun had already dipped low in the sky so the alpine water was just too cold for my comfort. Following the Toulumne River north, the trail divided off around a beautiful look out point that faced northwest. We found a spot upon some rocks to take in our first Sierra sunset of our trip.
DAY TWO: GLEN AULIN to MAY LAKE
Fueled by a delicious breakfast of oatmeal, pancakes, and fresh fruit, we set out on our second day to May Lake. As we adjusted to the elevation, we got into a comfortable rhythm for our second day of hiking. The majority of the day was spent climbing in elevation with several breaks to take in the scenery.
We arrived at May Lake mid-afternoon and settled into our tent cabin before exploring. I knew that this camp had showers so I was eager to try them out. The simple bathrooms were relatively clean and provided a fair amount of privacy. The shower nozzle was on a timer (like the sinks in public restrooms) which would limit your water usage. Considering the California drought, I understood that this wasn't going to be a leisurely shower. I turned on the water and was met with an ice cold stream that never warmed up. I made the best of the frigid temperatures with a very brisk wash, thinking to myself "Well, these cold temperatures are another way to make sure we don't waste water." As it turned out, I later learned from our camp host, Brian, that I was one of the sacrificial campers who got a cold water shower as it takes some time before the hot water reaches the pipes. Meaning, don't rush to shower until other people have taken their turn!
Before dinner, we had a chance to explore the area around camp. The proximity to the Highway 120/Tioga Road mean that this was a much busier location than most. Lot of hikers and campers hung around, setting up camp, reading in the sun or exploring the lake. Behind the mess hall was a large granite hill that was an easy scramble up to climb. Once you reached the top, you were greeted with stunning views of Tenaya Lake and the valley below.
This vantage point was also one of the few places that also had cellular reception so I took that as an opportunity to download Avenza Maps app, recommended to me by a fellow hiker. It's a map application that uses your phone's GPS without cellular data to pinpoint your location on maps you download. It came in handy during particularly grueling days to know just how far we were along the trail.
Dinner was just as delicious as the night before with three courses and dessert. Campers joked that this was one trip where you could end up gaining weight if you weren't careful. After dinner, our gregarious camp host, Brian, told us a few stories about Yosemite National Park and its history.
The next morning, I woke up early to scramble back up the granite rocks to catch the sunrise. The air was still and the world was quiet. It was absolutely breathtaking watching the sun peek out from behind the mountains, slowly illuminating the valley below. The mountain range in view was where we were headed for the next leg of the trip.
DAY THREE: MAY LAKE to SUNRISE CAMP
It's okay to have a really bad day. That’s the big lesson I learned on our hike from May Lake to Sunrise Camp. Studying the map before heading out on our third morning, I foolishly thought, “Pssh, today’s hike is going to be easy! We’ll probably even get into camp early.” All I saw was a shorter trail and overlooked the quick elevation gain. (Oops.) The lack of oxygen at high altitude paired with summer heat and switchbacks that seemed to climb on forever kicked my presumptuous ass. My ego propelled me up the trail at unnecessary pace, ignoring the need to slow down, take a good long rest and hydrate properly. By the time we arrived at Sunrise Camp, I was absolutely cooked and near tears. Len offered to cut the trip short and leave the next day, but my gut knew the misery was only temporary. I didn’t want to quit. After talking with my fellow hikers, turns out I wasn’t the only one who struggled. It's a difficult trail! A good night’s sleep reset my spirits and the next morning we pushed forward, a bit wiser and a lot more humble.
If I had given up, we would have never found this incredible view of Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome and Yosemite Valley tucked away off an unofficial trail. Long after the pain and frustration of that difficult day fades away, what will endure is magical moments like this.
DAY FOUR: SUNRISE CAMP to MERCED LAKE
After the humbling hike from the day before, I approached this day with caution. It was going to be a long day but at least the trail was all downhill as we descended back down to 7100 feet in elevation.
DAY FIVE: MERCED LAKE to VOGELSANG CAMP
Having learned my lesson with Sunrise, I faced our final hike with caution. A 3,150 foot elevation gain over 7.8 miles seemed daunting. There were two routes to Vogelsang, one 0.8 miles longer up through Vogelsang Pass. Listening to my body and not my ego, I chose the shorter alternate route following Fletcher Creek as opposed to the Lewis Creek Trail with its mountainous views. I braced myself for a strenuous day and was delighted to discover the trail really wasn't that bad. The elevation gain was gradual and manageable.
About 3.5 miles in, the landscape opened up into a lush green alpine meadow. Peaceful storybook scenes lulled me to linger on the trail just a little longer. So I stayed, breathing it in.
Each of the High Sierra Camps has their own personality. May Lake had camp host, Brian and his captivating storytelling and warm demeanor. Merced Lake reminded me of summer camp in the 1980's and Sunrise kept things quirky with their live music. But my favorite was Vogelsang. Other hikers described them as the Haight-Ashbury of the High Sierra and perhaps because I spent three years living in that San Francisco neighborhood, I felt right at home. The high elevation made ancient trees twist in squat forms while Fletcher Peak, still spotted with small patches of late season snow, towered over the camp. All around me the landscape offered quiet reflection as there was magic to discover. And I was more than happy to oblige.
DAY SIX: VOGELSANG CAMP to LEMBERT DOME/SODA SPRINGS/HOME
As we made the last trek home from Vogelsang, I spent the hike reminiscing about the past week. Sure the landscapes were absolutely incredible. However, the most unexpected part of our Yosemite backpacking experience was the warmth and kindness of the people we met along the way. Between the couple from Bakersfield who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, the family from the Bay Area with two teenagers in tow and the group of four women in their 60s from Seattle, we never felt like we were alone on this journey. Seeing a friendly, familiar face on the trail as well as around camp provided much needed comfort, especially during grueling moments. Meal time quickly became my favorite part of the day (and not just because the High Sierra Camps provided delicious backcountry feasts.) Breakfast and dinner were a chance for us to gather and swap stories, share hidden vista points and blister remedies, reflect on the wonders of Yosemite and joke about aches and pains of 2.5 miles of switchbacks. Camp life was a consistent morale boost that kept me going.