In 2018 I vowed to introduce as many friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends as possible to backpacking, with the hope of spreading the gospel of Leave No Trace and helping it propagate. This trip was the second trip of the summer with relative newbies who I’d met through DSA, and we took a classic route in Yosemite from Tuolomne to the Valley via Cathedral Lakes and Clouds Rest. We also visited my favorite campsite on Echo Creek, where we saw a pair of bears! I am still learning how to gauge how much people who aren’t used to backpacking can do comfortably, and this trip was a learning experience for me in that vein.
Oakland to Yosemite Valley to Tuoulumne Meadows
I role-played bus driver skittering around Oakland picking up my three hiking companions and squeezing them into my little Honda Fit. We drove from Oakland down to Yosemite Valley on a sunny Saturday, stopping for mango chili lollipops at a gas station in the central valley and encountering the usual high-season traffic driving into the park. We picked up our permit at the Big Oak Flat entrance before driving down into the valley proper. We finagled our way through some blocked off roads east of
Curry Half Dome Village, telling the ranger we were backpacking and wanted to leave our car at the Happy Isles parking lot. Thank u blessed ranger for letting us through!
After stashing the car, we did a final gear check and then caught a shuttle over to the main visitor center area of the valley. We ate some mediocre sandwiches and fries and then hopped aboard the YARTS bus up to Tuolumne. I got to sit next to Miles, who only proved himself to be just that perfect combination of chill, humble, and funny that I’d though the was. Have I mentioned that I didn’t know these three guys all that well? It’s normal to go backpacking with three dudes you don’t really know super well, right? YOLO. Meanwhile, Dom + Max proved again what nerds they are—they talked about freakin’ programming The Entire Way. I kept being like “Hey look it’s Clouds Rest! We’ll be up on that in a few days!” and they were just like “oh! cool! so like xyz bitcoin 0101000010101” Nerds.
We weren’t sure if Tuolumne Meadows backpacker campground was open yet, and it wasn’t really officially, but there were plenty of backpackers staying there already. I’d gotten some Secret On the Down Low info from a dude I “know” from my favorite Sierra message board that it’d still be chill to camp there. And it was, indeed, chill. We hopped off the bus at the Tuolumne Meadows store, where we bought provisions for the evening (so glad society has decided it’s ok to put wine in cans nowadays) and I even got to take a photo with my informant. Oh wait, are you not supposed to out your sources? I’m a mathematician, not a journalist ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Anyway, Mark rules and I’m so glad he spends time On Line.
Provisions in hand and fangirl photos taken, we headed over to the backpackers section of Tuolumne Meadows campground. We set up our tents and set about gathering firewood as dusk fell. This turned out to be a great night of campfire camaraderie with the wine and visits by neighboring backpackers. Eventually we slithered into our tents and sacked out.
Tuolumne Meadows Backpacker Campground to Sunrise Mountain
10.5 miles, +2,050ft/-600ft
There’s a shuttle that runs between various Tuolumne locations, but we thought it wasn’t running yet, so once we’d packed up camp and made our way over to the Tuolumne store to confirm this, we trudged our wine hangovers off on on the roadside trail from the store two miles or so west to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead. We reached the Cathedral Lakes trail soon enough and began the ascent. The climb up is basically your average forested Sierra hiking—some pretty trees, ascending at an appropriately moderate rate so that you just feel tired doing it but also make your way up pretty quickly. Soon enough the trail flattened out and opened up and we had our first glimpses of Cathedral peak.
We skipped Lower Cathedral Lake since it’s a mile round trip detour and instead headed around the north side of Upper Cathedral Lake to a rocky outcropping I knew about where would take a break. I made the boys promise not to look back at the gorgeous peak behind them until I said so. You can’t quite tell in this photo but I’m sure they were brimming over with excitement. Right? Surely.
Good boys they were, they obeyed and were rewarded with WOW THIS upon tuning around.
We dropped our packs and I told them they should think about going for a dip. We had a couple of day-hiker onlookers but that didn’t stop me of stripping down to my birthday suit to dunk myself in the surprisingly-not-as-frigid-as-I’d-thought-it-would-be-water. “C’mon in boys, the water’s fine!” I hollered as I managed to stay submerged just long enough to yelp the backcountry equivalent of a five star review and convince Miles to have a go at it. After that, Dom and Max were convinced and stripped and dunked as well. We even managed to get one of the three day hiker onlookers to do it! He was SO THANKFUL, just saying wow man thank u for doing this, without you I never would have tried it, I feel so good! Swimming in icy lakes. It rules, y’all.
[[MORE PHOTOS OF OUR BUTTS WITH A BEAUTIFUL VIEW]] REDACTED :P
After our refreshing swim and snack, we headed up towards Cathedral Pass. It’s just a few hundred feet from Upper Cathedral Lake, nothing serious, though there was a bit of snow we postholed through. I remembered a magnificent spot where I’d taken a break when I was last on this trail, so I motivated the guys with tales of rock formations where you can look down Echo Creek all the way across to the Clark Range.
We hiked on and on past places where I wondered.. is this the spot? Not wanting to pass it and be stuck taking a break down in Sunrise Valley, I called it (just a little too soon, I’d later note) and we stopped for a short break alongside the trail. We ate some snacks, stretched, and some of us, well, some of us just had to outdo everyone else.
Yeah, that’s Miles doing pushups. Sorry, ladies, he’s spoken for. Gratuitous glamour shot:
Even though the spot we stopped wasn’t exactly the optimal spot I’d planned, we still had magnificent views, and not just of Miles. We could see Cathedral Peak and the Matthes Crest.
But we had more miles to cover before camping, so we got going on. We’d heard that there might be some quite vicious mosquitos down in Sunrise Valley and my god those rumors were more than true. We basically ran through the valley, swatting at any exposed skin the whole way. I could tell some of the guys were gettin a bit tired by now, but I urged them to keep on trucking because lord knows I did *not* want to experience dusk in this valley.
We started up the trail towards the little pass that would lead us to Sunrise Lakes, with Miles and me leading the way. I told Miles to hang out and let Dom and Max know that I was heading on up to scope out campsites. I ascended a few hundred feet, looking out on the side of the trail to see if there was an appealing spot to camp. I’m a bit picky about campsites. I know. It’s annoying. But if I’m going to haul a pack all this way, I want the spot where I rest and spend at least 12 hours to not be just any old flat spot amongst nondescript trees! So I headed on up. I noted a stream not too far to the left of the trail and a series of slabby cliffy bits with altitude-stunted trees up to the right. I dropped my pack and waited for Miles. Once he arrived, I had him drop his pack too and ascend the ridge with me to scope a spot to camp. A hundred feet or so up we found a couple flat spots that would work just fine and dandy for camp. Miles and I descended to meet Max and Dom and then brought them up to the spots. We set up camp and then all descended to the creek to gather water.
We lugged our water back up to camp and puttered around for a bit. Miles and I decided that we would try to continue up the ridge line to Sunrise peak proper. As we climbed up, we saw some wildflowers and got wider and wider views of the Matthes Crest and peaks to the northeast.
Of course, the view to Mt Clark in the south didn’t disappoint either.
Once atop Sunrise Mountain proper, we had magnificent views over the peaks to the northeast, plus most of our day’s route.
After puttering about on the peak and taking pictures of each other, which of course I don’t have for you here (do you really need selfies of me on a peak? probably not), we descended back to camp with a view of Mt Clark in the waning sunlight. We scarfed down some dinner after returning to camp, and then hit the hay.
In the night I got up to pee and noticed the amazing brilliance of the stars and the Milky Way on this moonless night. I poked Dom and walked up to Miles and Max’s tent to let them know about the spectacle of heavens opened up wide above us. We ogled the impossibly thick Milky Way and spotted Mars and Venus and a couple of shooting stars, one of the many joys of sleeping out in the Wild. No photos for you armchair adventurers, you’re gonna have to get out there and try that for yourselves :)
Sunrise Mountain to Echo Creek, with a side trip to Clouds Rest
11 miles +1,000ft/-3,600ft with packs, plus 3.5 miles +1,050ft/-1,050ft summit trip
We awoke early and in good spirits. We made breakfast and shivered a bit in the early season predawn before breaking camp at a reasonable hour of around 9am. I was a little apprehensive of the ambitious itinerary I’d planned for us for the day, but I figured it’s mostly downhill so we shouldn’t have too much trouble. We ascended the pass on the way to Sunrise Lakes and then boot-skiied down a few snowfields on our way down to Sunrise Lakes, where we couldn’t help but take a mid-morning swim.
The water was surprisingly warm (well, I thought so, at least), and I taught the guys about proper LNT principles for swimming: wet your bandana and use it to wipe the gross icky sunscreen / bugspray / sweatyick / whatever from your body, then use your stored water to rinse this out in the dirt at least 100 feet away from the lake. Once you’ve cleansed yourself of the nasty chemicals, JUMP IN MOTHERFUCEKR!!!! What, u scared?
I was too busy enjoying myself to photograph our adorable butts in this beauteous environs, but if you’re sleuthy enough to figure out who Max is, you might get to see his butt on Instragram. You’re welcome.
We reluctantly donned our hiking gear and departed from Sunrise Lakes. The trail descends somewhat steeply for a bit before ascending, most of the way through the forest. We mostly just trudged along, trying to make mileage knowing our day ahead wasn’t just a cakewalk. At the junction with the JMT, we dropped our packs (of course making sure to secure all our food and scented items in our bear cans a few hundred feet away), and began the ascent to Clouds Rest. I was feeling a little worse for the wear at this point and lagged behind. Good thing I have the excuse of taking breaks so I can take pictures. That’s definitely why I was behind. Yep. For sure.
Around 1pm we were all on the summit of Clouds Rest. We weren’t alone. There were about a dozen other hikers and probably just as many marmots enjoying the view. It’s my humble (lol) opinion that the view from Clouds Rest is far and away superior to the view from Half Dome. I mean, from Clouds Rest you can see the entire valley plus Half Dome, and you can see the high country to the east that’s obscured if you’re lower down there on Half Dome. But Half Dome is one of those bucket list things for people… to each their own, I guess.
The next photo shows what a magnificent view you can see from Clouds Rest… see that beautiful fuzzy guy beached on a rock in the bottom left corner? Yeah! A marmot! … .. . .. Oh, yeah I guess you can also see that glacially-sculpted knob that everyone wants to ascend. Cool.
After about an hour on the summit of Clouds Rest taking photos, snacking, and defending our gear from marmots, we got a move on back down to pick up our packs and then head east above the Merced towards Echo Creek. The stretch of trail we’d head down was ravaged in a fire about ten years ago, so it was exposed, sandy, and hot. As always, the burn area made for an interesting juxtaposition of apocalypse and beautiful wildflowers.
The exposed trail gave us magnificent views across the Merced canyon above the Bunnell Cascade.
Spirits were waning as the afternoon drew on and I dragged my boys further up along the shoulder of the Merced. I tried to keep their spirits high by recounting the encounters I’d had with two bear cubs at the oasis of a campsite I was leading us towards. They felt some kind of way about it.
I told my companions to keep quiet as that gave us better odds of meeting some bears. We didn’t meet any on our way to camp, but I did spot some bear tracks along the trail. “They’re here!” I said. My friends believed me, though with some skepticism.
We set up camp at my favorite spot in this area. I mean come on, just look at this place!
After dinner we enjoyed the alpenglow on the upper Merced canyon.
We kept our eyes peeled and soon enough Miles hollered out: “BEARS!!!! BEARS, OVER THERE!!” I managed to swing my camera around just in time to catch these cuties meandering up the cliffs. I wonder if these are the same two cuties that I saw as cubs two years before in this same spot.
After that sudden excitement, we needed a bit of relaxing humanity and friendship, so we built a (terrifyingly large imho) fire in the existing campfire ring at our site. We passed the time reading, chatting, and waiting for-fucking-ever for a pot of water for hot chocolate to boil atop this expertly built fire.
Echo Creek to Happy Isles
11 miles, +200ft/-3,300ft
Knowing that I’d wrecked my buddies, I let them sleep in on this last day. We just had to descend to the valley, so it shouldn’t be too much of an adventure today. I awoke when I felt like it and crawled out of the tent to find Miles awaiting the sunrise proper and reading, cuddled in a little gully of granite.
I puttered about taking photos, then asked Miles if he’d like to go quietly ascend the trail near the stream in hopes of perhaps spotting some animals.
Of course we had bears in mind after the previous night’s spotting and after my last experience in this campsite, but alas all we found was some snow plant.
We headed back to camp and roused our lazy buddies. We took our time with breakfast and then descended the trail, which was littered with mule poo. Once we joined up with the main trail in the Merced canyon, we were greeted with fold after fold of granite slabs, evidently glacially polished and gushing with the artery of the Merced River.
The trail cut up and down, finding the easiest path through this raw landscape. We were treated to views of trees growing on impossibly steep cliffs, seemingly clinging to just an inch of soil gathered here and there.
The name of the game today was descent, and we marveled at the trail construction as we went down down down.
We followed the trail as it rose and descended cliffs alongside the Merced. I found a sugar pine cone and couldn’t help but document it. They are just SO HUGE.
Unfortunately, on this part Dom’s knees started to hurt and we had to slow down to make sure he was ok. I had tried to explain to everyone that even though this trip might seem easier than some others since it was mostly downhill, that is not the case. Descending thousands of feet over miles and miles can wreak havoc on a person’s knees, and it’s important to train, even if you think you are in shape. It’s also super important to walk properly, putting your weight on the balls of your feet rather than you heels, so that you can use your ankles and knees to absorb the impact of your steps. Using trekking poles to control your descent also helps a ton. Well, it doesn’t always work out, no matter how much the group prepares and how much the leader gives advice. Sometimes people just get hurt. And that’s what happened to Dom :(
We took a break a bit below the Bunnell Cascade. We decided to hang out for a bit and we’d found a lovely calm pool of the Merced where we could swim. We were naked and happy, dunking our bodies in the frigid water and then basking in the sun. All of a sudden, we heard a squirrel completely losing its shit, just straight up freaking out. And then we noticed why. THIS GUY:
We had seen a rattlesnake earlier and were just like wow whoops ok pay attention, but having this buddy so close to where our naked bits were just basking in the sun.. we got a little unnerved! Thank you Mr Squirrel for alerting us to this huge snake, and thank you for chasing it away. We owe you one, Mr Squirrel. You’re braver than you know.
After our “rest” break, we packed up and descended through the burned out and gross upper reaches of Little Yosemite Valley. We got a bit spread out at this part, with Miles and Max trudging ahead quickly, me getting distracted by photographing every. dang. flower. as it was in bloom in the burn area, and Dom holding up the rear with his knee injury.
Before too long, though, we arrived in Little Yosemite Valley proper, and were greeted by some deer friends.
We knew we had to descend, get the car, and drive all the way back to the bay area, so we made quick work of the impressive trail that leads down from Nevada Falls to the Valley.
We took a bit longer than planned since Dom’s knee got worse rather than better (we ended up making him split his load between the 3 of us who weren’t injured), but finally we made it back down to Happy Isles. We were all happy and feeling good—well, except maybe Dom. Lol our expressions! They tell all.