For as long as I can remember I’ve been aware of Yosemite. I knew that the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails, two of the world’s most famous long distance hiking trails, run through it. I knew that El Capitan and Half Dome, two of the world’s most famous climbing walls, jut out of it. And I knew that a temperamental and foul-mouthed cartoon character is named after it. I also figured that some day I would go there.
Then about a year ago I saw Ken Burn’s documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”. In the documentary Burns draws heavily from the story of John Muir and Yosemite. After watching, and re-watching the documentary I came to understand that Yosemite is more than home to incredible rocks and big trees. Yosemite is the essence of nature untamed. It is the place John Muir, the wilderness prophet, chose as the pulpit from which he preached the gospel of nature. In John Muir’s gospel, the natural world has inherent meaning and value and beauty. Nothing needs to be added or removed to access the beauty. No lumber must be cut or land tilled to realize the value. Furthermore, Muir believed that nature’s virtues compliment humanity.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
– The Yosemite (1912), page 256
After I learned of Yosemite’s role in the establishment of national parks. And after I learned of John Muir and his pure adoration of Yosemite (following the documentary, I also read “My First Summer in the Sierra”), there was no longer any doubt that I would go to Yosemite, soon.
When I received the text from Justin, “What do you think about four days backpacking in Yosemite in October?”, I thought the timing couldn’t be worse. Work, family, money, time. All of the usual obstacles were well represented. I couldn’t say yes. But something kept me from saying no. So I didn’t say anything. For several weeks.
In late September it was time to make the call. I told myself, if the flight is cheaper than $200, I’ll do it. I definitely didn’t think the flight would be cheaper than $200! But I checked anyway, and it was. So I bought the ticket and emailed Justin that I was in.
Justin and I tried to plan the trip. But we were both busy and our planning efforts kept dead ending. Among the challenges was the park shifting to the off season, which limits overnight parking at many typical trailheads. Finally, barely before the trip began, Justin found a recommended route through the Clark Range. It was pretty long; we had 72 hours to spend on the trails and the route would cover over 53 miles. But we hadn’t found anything else, so that was it.
Upon arriving in Yosemite we visited the ranger station with our fingers crossed that we could get the necessary backcountry permit. The online permits were all taken, but we were the only walk-ups that day, so we were in. As an added bonus, one of the rangers we consulted with was none other than Ken Burns’ star, Sheldon. His poetic descriptions of Yosemite were featured numerous times in the documentary. Justin especially was starstruck. I was waiting for him to ask Sheldon to sign our trail map, but he didn’t.
We began the hike at Happy Isles at 4 pm. Happy Isles is in the Yosemite Valley. Our campground was not in the valley. In other words, the mighty granite cliffs for which Yosemite Valley is famous stood between us and where we hoped to sleep that night. We had one hour of sunlight, eight miles of trail and 3,500′ of ascent ahead of us.
We must have been completely juiced with adrenaline, as we practically floated from the 4,000′ valley to Nevada falls and up to the plateau at 7,000′. We chatted casually while maintaining at pace of 2.5 mph (that’s fast for hiking up a cliff with three days gear strapped on).
As we completed the last switchbacks out of the valley the faces of Half Dome and Liberty Cap began to glow deep pink. I knew the alpenglow wouldn’t last long, so I whipped out my phone to snap some photos. The angle wasn’t quite right, so I wandered off trail, over some rocks and past a tree or two to gain a better vantage. After fully appreciating the sunset, I headed back to the trail to rejoin Justin. I didn’t see him ahead in the settling dusk, so I power-hiked. Then I lightly jogged. Then I pretty much ran. Eventually I came to a junction. We needed to go left, but Justin didn’t have a map (I had two of them…). Did Justin take the correct trail? Or was he so in the zone that he hiked right on by the junction?
I dropped my pack at the sign and jogged the right way. The trail was soon overgrown. I concluded that he didn’t go this way – he would have waited for me where the trail became faint. I jogged back to the junction and followed the wrong trail. After several minutes of jogging, I pulled out my phone to make a video confession about losing Justin. I gave one last shout (I had been shouting and emergency-whistling the whole time). This time I heard a response in the distance. Soon we were reunited and back on the trail. Despite having hiked an extra mile plus and lost nearly a hour, on top of climbing out of the valley, we arrived at camp around 9 pm.
Neither of us had been particularly concerned about being solo. We just didn’t want to screw up our ambitious hike so soon with such a rookie mistake. Going forward, we both carried a map and we agreed on rendezvous points in case of later incidents.
Friday we got up and got on the trail quickly. We had 45 miles to cover before Sunday afternoon, and the bulk of the climbing still lay ahead.
We had a big day planned: hike 12.5 miles up to Red Pass at over 11,100′ and then continue another two and a half miles to Red Devil Lake, losing about a thousand feet of altitude to keep from completely freezing at night. But the going was slower than hoped. At 4 pm we came to Lower Ottoway Lake. We had the choice to either push hard, hike through dusk and into the night again, and make our objective. Or just call it good at the lake.
Throughout the day I had summit fever. I wanted to make the pass. Justin was more cautious. In the end, all I had to do was lay eyes on Lower Ottoway Lake, and the fever broke in an instant. The view from where we pitched our tents could hold its own against anything anywhere. And it was completely and utterly ours. A pristine campsite, dinner on the bank of the lake and front row seats to a spectacular sunset. Yeah, the pass could wait.
Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.
– My First Summer in the Sierra (1911) chapter 2
Eight miles on Thursday (excluding getting lost). Ten miles on Friday. That left a day and a half to cover 35 miles, and we were 1,500′ below the pass still. It was time to get back on track.
Yet we didn’t get started until 11 am. And we didn’t float to the pass the way we floated out of the valley. And then the view from the pass was so incredible, we soaked it in for three quarters of an hour. Now we were ready to to move!
Except, we didn’t realize that the next several miles would be through a fantastic martian world. The red rocks and formations that got Red Peak and Red Devil Lake their names could not be rushed even if we tried. Everything looked so intensely alien and we moved so slowly, as if to avoid waking some lurking otherworldly beast. But there was no beast, just as at Ottoway Lake, we had this world all to ourselves.
As the sun began to set again, we calculated that we had still ten and a half miles to go before our goal of Merced Lake. We first attenuated the goal to Washburn Lake, eight miles away. Then we started beating trail.
We hiked a beautiful drainage to a thousand foot descent on narrow trails on granite cliffs and into the forest along the Merced River’s path. The moon being two days shy of full, and the granite nearly glowing in its bright white light, we left our headlamps off and we deftly and pensively navigated the mystically monotone world almost the entire eight miles to camp.
When one is alone at night in the depths of these woods, the stillness is at once awful and sublime. Every leaf seems to speak.
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938), page 295
In the morning we crawled out of our tents to the view of a 1,500′ wall of tree-bespeckeled granite reflected in Washburn Lake’s glass-like surface. The only indication of where the lake and granite met was a picture-perfect queue of trees along the west shore.
After breakfast Justin and I were filtering water. Justin mentioned briefly that some animal was rustling around in the bushes near his filtering spot. Later, after packing up my things, I was exploring the shore of the lake and I heard the rustling, too. At first there was a little movement. Then a lot. Then, fifteen yards away, a black bear popped its head out of the thicket!
“Hey bear!” burst out of my mouth like a reflex (thanks to days of practice in Glacier last year). Justin, 40 yards away in camp, heard me and apparently dove for his bear spray. I cautiously moved along the lake toward Justin and the spray. But we didn’t need to defend ourselves. The bear just wanted to get by, and we had bottle necked the passage. We pulled out the phones and recorded as it scampered past.
We still had over 13 miles to cover by midday. It was all downhill – 3,500′ downhill. Just as each prior day we hiked awestruck at the beauty of the high sierras. Aside from old growth forests, lakes and cliffs, we passed through miles of heavily burned forest in Lost Valley and Little Yosemite Valley.
We descended back into the valley even faster than we had climbed out. In fact jogging down more than a thousand feet of stone steps from Nevada Falls is the only part of the hike that caused us any physical soreness. We both ended up with knots in our calves. Our final stop on the trip was Priest Station restaurant for delicious local beef blue cheese burgers.
Yosemite completely exceeded my quite high expectations. Yosemite Valley was all that I imagined, but of course far more impressive in reality than in my mind’s eye. What really excited me was the land the lies beyond. It is just as grand as Muir boasted. And being in it made me feel just as Muir described.
Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938) page 350