Backpacking Yosemite

date June 08, 2019 location Yosemite, California

Pre trip
For my 35th birthday this year, I decided to scratch an itch that I've had for quite some time, and try my hand at a multi-day backpacking trip in the mountains. As I am admittedly a novice in backpacking, and fearing the worst possible outcomes, I decided it would be best to find a backpacking guided tour group. After discovering Wildland Trekking, a well-reviewed company offering both domestic and international guided hiking trips (they don't sponsor this site), I researched their offerings. I was looking for a trip that would be both physically demanding enough to take the place of some marathon training runs, and would offer good photo opportunities, preferably in a location I haven't previously been. After some research, I decided on the Half Dome Backpacking trip offered in the first week of June, which would fit in nicely with my marathon training schedule and take place during the new moon phase allowing the best possible conditions for astrography. The ascent to the summit of Half Dome includes a final 400 or so feet of a near vertical climb made possible by the presence of a cable system drilled into the face of the mountain. The cables are removed and repaired before being re-affixed to the mountain each year in early summer, and as Yosemite endured a heavy snow season this year, we were informed a few days before the trip that the cables may not be applied in time for our visit. While it would be a little disappointing to make the trek to Yosemite and to the near top of Half Dome without officially completing the mountain, making the climb on the cables would be a nice-to-have cherry on top of the sundae, and not something that would ruin my trip if we weren't able to do.

Day 1
I flew into Fresno the previous night and stayed at a nearby airport hotel. After getting in a quick 5 mile run (my training would not suffer for this trip), I enjoyed the $5 hot breakfast and was on my way to Yosemite. I had a few hours to spare before meeting the tour group which I spent photographing Yosemite Valley which is the most accessible part of the park and also among the most photogenic so long as you're able to keep all the tourists out of your photos. One of the very first pullover points from the south entrance on Highway 41 is Tunnel View, a magnificent vista made famous by Ansel Adams, showcasing the valley and its famous landmarks including El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Falls.

The famous "Tunnel View" of Yosemite.

Upon entering the valley I stopped at the Visitor Center, gift shops, Ansel Adams Gallery, and even had time to watch a short film about the park at the Yosemite Theater. There I learned that Yosemite is truly a one of a kind place on earth having been formed by a unique combination of sedimentary rock, volcanic eruption, tectonic plates, and glacial formations. The resulting output results in a huge lush valley surrounded by massive bald mountains with steep, polished drop-offs.

Yosemite Falls from the road into the valley.

Half Dome from Yosemite Valley.

After the movie, I captured a few more photos before meeting up with my tour group. The group met at the pizza parlor in what is known as Half Dome Village, what is essentially the Half Dome trailhead located in the valley. I took a risk when booking the trip that I might be paired with a group that I didn't get along with, and have to spend the next 4 days doing my best to keep to myself. It didn't take long after meeting the other hikers, a bachelor party of 4, to realize that we not only had similar goals for the trip but we also had a lot in common, making for a great group dynamic. The group was led by Kevin, a chill Californian with a natural appreciation of the outdoors and an easy going demeanor that would set the proper tone for the rest of us. We signed our waiver forms and took care of a few formalities before finally grabbing our bags and heading into our night 1 campsite in Yosemite Valley. The sunlight was now almost completely gone as we took the nearby trail just a few hundred feet into the campsite. The camp was flooded in a few areas and we were forced to take our boots and socks off and walk through ankle high freezing cold water in darkness to our tents. What did I get myself into?

Day 2:
Total Steps: 18,040
Total Calories Burned: 3,412
Hiking Distance: 5mi

After a 7am wake up, we grabbed a quick breakfast of yogurt and oats and started the daunting task of packing our backpacks. Our packs consisted of a mattress pad, sleeping bag, tent, large bear canister filled with food, clothes, cookware, clothing, and personal items. On top of this, I packed my camera, two lenses and travel tripod.

The heavy pack I trekked several miles from campground to campground.

Though I never measured it, the pack had to weigh about 50lbs, and while I was confident in my cardio fitness, the new dynamic of carrying this heavy pack up a mountain was a challenge that I had no idea whether or not I was prepared for. We began our hike towards our campsite in Little Yosemite valley along the Mist trail. Though the trail was steep and our packs were heavy, we were rewarded with a rainbow at the base of Vernal Falls, and spectacular light at Nevada Falls.

Vernal Falls

Nevada Falls

We took a few stops along the way before reaching our campground in Little Yosemite Valley after a hike of about 5 miles and an elevation gain of about 2000 ft. While the distance we covered was relatively short, the heavy packs and elevation gain made the hike seem rather strenuous. Our campground was near the Merced River which was absolutely freezing cold, and though I am sensitive to cold temperatures, I barely hesitated joining the rest of the hikers in a quick submersion in the icy stream. The dunk was bittersweet, on one hand extremely refreshing to my sore legs, shoulders and back while simultaneously causing cold shock and the inability to think for several seconds. We set up camp, and had a delicious dinner of pesto pasta before making a campfire and heading to bed just before 10pm. The stars weren't quite out yet so I figured if I woke up and had the motivation to get out of my tent in the middle of the night and try for some photos of the stars, I would, but I didn't set an alarm. As I was still getting used to sleeping in a tent, sure enough,I woke up at about 12:30 and after some internal debate, I grabbed the camera and tripod and headed for a nearby clearing to see what the stars looked like.

The Milky Way from Little Yosemite Campground

Day 3:
Total Steps: 29,537
Total Calories: 4,388
Hiking Distance: 10mi

We woke up at 7am once again as Kevin was preparing breakfast burritos with chorizo and some local coffee. In the original itinerary, today would be the day that we hiked to the top of Half Dome, but since the cables were still down, we opted for a hike to another nearby peak, Cloud's Rest, and saved the ascent up Half Dome until our last day. The summit of Cloud's Rest sits at 9,931', more than 1,000' higher than Half Dome, and although the round-trip hike would be several more miles than we had hiked the day before, I was comforted by the fact that we could leave our heavy packs at camp, carrying a day pack with a few snacks and my camera gear.

A group photo at the Cloud's Rest Trailhead

The hike began rather easily with a mild ascent along a well-maintained trail. The trail wasn't clearly marked, and Kevin saved a few other hikers from making a wrong turn as they mistakenly headed towards Half Dome instead of Cloud's Rest at the crossroads of the two trailheads. About four miles into the five mile hike to the peak, the trail went from a little sketchy to near treacherous as snow got heavier along the trail with each foot of elevation gain. After several wrong turns corrected by consulting the GPS, a few missteps into knee deep snow, and multiple falls turned into baseball style slides, we finally reached the top of Cloud's Rest where the 360 degree views made up for the tough terrain along the way.

Yosemite is huge

Amazing Views in every direction from Cloud's Rest

Even the birds come to view Yosemite from this perspective

A view of Half Dome in the distance from the top of Cloud's Rest

A better view of Half Dome in the distance from the top of Cloud's Rest

A curious marmot trying to get our food.

I conquered the mountain!

The hike back to camp was much easier with several calculated slides in the snow getting us down to the dry trail quickly where we enjoyed lunch (Tuna wraps with black olives, mayonnaise, and Cheez Its, yum!). I grabbed a couple more photos on the way down.

A bent tree framing Half Dome on the way to Cloud's Rest

A view of Half Dome on the way to Cloud's Rest

Before we were back at camp, we stumbled on a rattlesnake just off the trail and uncomfortably close to where we were sleeping. Despite their reputation, rattlesnakes don't want much to do with humans and most reported bites occur due to unknowingly stepping on or near them, or overconfident outdoorsmen purposefully getting too close, approaching or even handling the serpents.

A rattlesnake on the trail

After another dip in the river, we cooked up some chicken curry which really hit the spot after what would be our longest hike of the trip. As we were finishing up dinner, we heard a loud scream, “Bear, Bear!”¯. Camera in hand, we ran towards where we heard the screams, and saw the four legged beast before he left the area. The bear was tagged which means this wasn't his first appearance near a campsite and was probably interested to see if any campers left some goods out for him. While bears are mostly harmless to humans, we pose a big threat to them, as any food scraps left out risk luring them near humans. After a number of encounters near humans, the bears have to be moved or eventually euthanized if they don't break their habit of seeking human food.

A bear near our campground

A bear butt

After dinner, Kevin went out to the ranger station to check on the status of Half Dome's cables. To our misfortune, we then learned that the cables were up, but still required some repair which would not be completed by morning. While we all would have loved to make the trek all the way to the top of Yosemite's most iconic peak, we were enjoying our trip so much that settling with a morning hike to Sub Dome, a flat summit where the cables to the actual mountain peak are, would suffice. After playing some dice, we headed to our tents around 9pm ready for an early start in the morning.

Day 4
Total Steps: 35,595
Total Calories: 3,760
Hiking Distance: 12mi

After a 4am wake up, I ate a Clif Bar and some coffee and we headed for Sub Dome. The trail towards Sub Dome was similar to that of Cloud's Rest, sharing the first mile of path upwards. As we approached the top, with the sun peaking over the horizon, I let the group go on as I captured a few photos.

I caught up with the group as we summited Sub Dome taking in more amazing views as Kevin cooked up some killer blueberry pancakes. Though we weren't able to climb the cables to the top, the silver lining was that due to the repairs we had the mountain to ourselves which is a rarity for this time of year.

On top of Sub Dome

A candid shot of the rest of the crew atop Sub Dome. Would make a good album cover.

The cables to the summit of Half Dome

We headed back down the mountain towards camp and on the way bumped into a worker that was about to make final repairs to the cables which would be ready just two days after our summit.

A selfie on the way down the mountain.

Once we made it back to camp, we tore down our tents, filled our packs, which would be slightly lighter on the way down due to having eaten most of the food that we brought up, and headed for the valley. We took a slightly different path on the way down, opting for the John Muir Trail instead of the Mist trail once we reached Nevada Falls. The JMT offered a perfectly framed view of Liberty Cap and Nevada falls.

Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls

The last couple of miles back to Yosemite Valley had a much different feel to them than the first miles up. As we approached the bottom, where we started to once again see more tourists, having trekked nearly 30 miles and acquiring a gnarly stench that can only be obtained after a few days of hard work without showering, I felt much more comfortable and confident, and had a swagger to my gait for the final steps back to the parking lot. After a quick beer, charcuterie plate, and goodbyes to Kevin and the rest of the group, I was on my way to the airport.

My trip to Yosemite was an amazing experience that I will never forget. The trip blew my expectations out of the water, providing a challenging physical experience, beautiful sites, and a welcomed break from technology. While a four day backpacking trip isn't for everyone, this intensity level isn't required for Yosemite, and one can have an equally rewarding experience staying at a hotel in the valley and casually wandering the nearby trails. Yosemite is a place that can be enjoyed in a day, a few days, weeks or even months. Even though I checked off a lot of the most famous attractions in just a few days, I feel like I only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer. I'm not sure what my next adventure entails, but whatever it is I'll have more confidence going into it.