The Moron Hikers head west for the fourth time. This year’s objective is Yosemite National Park. We visited the valley last year for a day after our trip to Sequoia NP. During a brief stop at the Wilderness Center, we spoke with a couple of guys who had hiked down from Tuolumne Meadows. What an idea -- a downhill hike! The net elevation loss would be about 5,000 feet. A wonderful germ of an idea.
I took on my accustomed role of trip planner, and explored alternatives. A helpful “poster” on the Yosemite News site had me consider our ultimate route: from Tuolumne to Vogelsang, then down to Merced Lake and down through the Merced River drainage to the valley. The only appreciable climb would be up to Vogelsang, and even that didn’t look bad. Google Earth provides a great way to “view” the proposed route, and we agree to go for it. Early September it will be!
Monday, September 3
Labor Day. We have an early flight out and expect to miss the holiday crowds. We connect through LAX to Fresno, after becoming “familiar” with Fresno during our SEKI trip last year. The Delta gate agent advises the passengers to bring food on board if they are hungry; the Delta fare with a “very small box” of raisins is not likely to be enough! The flights and connections go well, and we get to Fresno on time. The first moron-like situation arises as Greg has forgotten his paperwork for the rental vehicle – and can’t remember from whom he reserved it. He calls a couple of the suspects from LA, with no luck. But when we get to Fresno, there’s also a Dollar counter and they, in fact, are our provider of choice. We switch from a small SUV to a van, a much better choice for all of our stuff.
A short stop at two sporting goods stores to get fuel bears success at Herb Bauer: canisters for Rick and me and a small white gas container for Greg. No gallon required this time. We grab a quick lunch at Jack-in-the-Box and I take my dramamine for the trip on the winding roads. The road up to Yosemite is not bad, but the folks heading the other way are many; it looks like Yosemite is emptying out on Labor Day. In the valley we stop at the Wilderness Center, get our permit, and instructions to the backpacker’s parking lot. We load the packs, empty all smelly stuff into the bear box, and take the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center, where we plan to catch the 5:00 PM YARTS bus up to Tuolumne. We get there with maybe 30 minutes to spare, as we’ve timed the whole day quite well. The YARTS bus is a large, comfortable one and we settle in for the close to two hour trip. With us is a couple who’s just finished their hike as well as a couple who are heading toward Whitney on the JMT.
We get to Tuolumne a little before 7:00 and the second moron event occurs: we can’t find the backpacker’s campground! The map indicates it’s right behind the group camping area, but it’s nowhere to be found. I finally find it way over behind the A section sites. The NPS can use a new cartographer! We set up camp and basically eat in the dark. A bear wanders through the adjacent campsites, and is a blurry shadow as he passes through.
Tuesday, September 4
Rick awakes with a headache – not a good sign. The guys next door are thru-hiking on the JMT to Whitney. They’ve come up from the valley and plan on completing the route in a total of 21 days. We go over to the Tuolumne Grill for breakfast and are a bit disappointed to find out that it’s basically take-out. But the view is great of the meadows from the tables outside.
We pack and head out for our first day. It’ll be only about 6 miles, quite flat along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. We could have headed up directly to Vogelsang on the Rafferty Creek Trail, but wanted two nights of acclimatization to the altitude before we had to climb much at all.
The trail stays away from the river until lunch, and then we walk along the river until getting to our campsite. We join our YARTS companions at a great site for lunch and then stroll along to the south.
There are a fair number of other hikers in both directions, including two young guys who are blaring Dylan from one of their packs on the way (?). I start to have some stomach problems, which stay with me for the remainder of the day.
We reach the junction of the JMT with the Vogelsang (and Ireland Creek) trail about 2:45, find a good camp site and settle in.
Wednesday, September 5
I sleep reasonably well and the stomach has generally settled down. We have a good breakfast and have avoided bears during the night; we were advised that this is a “notorious” bear hangout. It is fairly cold and turns out to be probably the coldest night (and morning) of the trip. We have to climb over 1,000 feet to reach the Ireland Creek trail. The climb is not as bad as feared and we get up to the top in good shape after maybe two hours. A break there and some good views and we head on toward Vogelsang. Another short climb brings us to great 360º views. The first opportunity for a panorama.
We go by an unnamed lake, then Evelyn Lake.
Finally a view of the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in the distance. We’re not exactly sure where the backpackers CG is. The area away from Fletcher Lake is where other tents are, but it looks very rocky. We find a good site near the lake but it’s too close to the trail and we default to the west side of the trail. Not a bad area after all, with a great view of Fletcher Peak.
There is a weird-looking privy near the sites, but it’s nailed shut! Water is obtained from a spigot by the High Sierra Camp, maybe ¼ mile away. We take some photos, have dinner, and crash. Rick is still fighting the headache a bit, but nothing incapacitating.
Thursday, September 6
One of our two planned “day hike” days. We figured it would be more humane to hike a couple of days with packs and then wander a bit without the weight. Rick decides to rest his head and spend most of the day fishing. Greg and I decide to head up to Vogelsang Lake and Pass, and then maybe find Hanging Basket Lake in the afternoon.
Greg and I head out (and up) sometime before 10:00 AM. The hike up to the lake is exposed, rocky, and rather warm. We wonder how it will feel with all the weight of the packs. Each of us, though, has done a good job of cutting weight from last year. I have thought about trying to climb Vogelsang Peak, because several reports have suggested it’s not a technical climb. But it doesn’t look too appetizing for novices. We make our way up, passing three women from the HSC.
The pass is somewhat reminiscent of the view from Kaweah Gap in SEKI last year, with a much more manageable climb. Views of both Gunnison and Bernice Lakes. We take some photos and retrace our steps.
After lunch and no sign of Rick, Greg and I head out to find Hanging Basket Lake. It turns out that I’ve misidentified Evelyn Lake on the way in. That’s why you actually look at your maps! That means that Townsley is off the trail, with Hanging Basket up behind it. We head off trail with the GPS as a guide. Good orientation and we find Townsley with no trouble. Surprise, surprise. Down at the lake is Rick, finishing up his day around this and nearby lakes. We join him and hear of his tale visiting a couple of lakes up above. Hanging Basket must be in the depression up above, but we decide to forgo the climb.
We head back down past the waterfall to Fletcher Lake. Our first wash-up opportunity in the lake feels real good. At dinner, Ranger Lisa stops by to check our permit and answers our questions about the privy – it was trashed about three years ago by marmots and the NPS doesn’t have the money to fix it!
Friday, September 7
A quiet night and an earlier start. The temperature is a bit warmer, and will continue to be so each day. We commandeer the bathrooms at the HSC and get water for the trip down Fletcher Creek. We had originally planned to go over the pass and hike down the Lewis Creek trail, but since Greg and I had made it up to the pass yesterday, and Rick wanted to “preserve his head,” we chose Fletcher. We knew it was about one mile shorter, and the reports were that it wasn’t as scenic as Lewis Creek. We’d find out …
A pleasant surprise. After the first mile or so in the woods next to Fletcher Creek, we came on a great open meadow.
Then the ultimate slip-and-slide, where we stopped for lunch.
We were passed by three folks who were obviously familiar with and looking for the swimming holes; we ran into them enjoying the spots over the next couple of days. After about half of the route, we turned the corner to see the drop that faced us: a significant descent to Merced Lake. Now we started to find what had been described as the “evil stairs”: cobblestones that were odd-sized and more than difficult to walk down. We persevered, with more than a few complaints. Finally, the Fletcher Creek trail intersected with Lewis Creek, with a view of Merced Lake and Half Dome as our reward. But the price was the worst set of evil stairs yet, as we trudged down about one more mile to the river valley.
Finally we made it to the Ranger Station, and I boogied on through the sandy trail to find the campground. Just past the High Sierra Camp, with downed trees serving as “room dividers.” Greg has been able to get some sunscreen at the HSC. We wash off at the convenient “pool” in the Merced. After dinner, Rick and I attend the campfire presentation by Ranger Dave. He focuses on the importance of fire in the wilderness and what we’ve learned about fire management over the years. An entertaining guy ….
Saturday, September 8
After our disappointment with the closed privy at Vogelsang, we were pleased to find an actual flush privy at Merced. I get up early and take pictures at Merced Lake. We break camp about 9:40 AM, and walk first along the lake shore, and then through a forested area.
It starts getting rocky again as we cross a foot bridge to the other side of the Merced. Then we face a pretty steep climb and then drop to another bridge, at Bunnell Cascade. A good place for lunch and to check the condition of the feet – which have actually fared better than expected with all the downhills. I’ve been pretty good about changing sock liners pretty frequently, which at least didn’t hurt.
We face maybe another 4 miles to the Little Yosemite CG. The trail is both rocky and sandy at times, not the easiest to walk on. I walk up on a bear right on the side of the trail. We stare at each other, and I signal Greg to be quiet as he comes up. For some reason my camera is set on timer, so it takes me a bit to start taking photos. Greg is snapping away as well, as the bear starts moving down from the trail into the valley. Rick comes up and gets his telephoto working. After the bear disappears, we see that Greg has captured a couple of really good shots. Thank goodness!
We reach Little Yosemite. A very large backpacker’s CG, with the advertised two-story, solar composting privy. We finally settle on a great site in the back, with a view of Half Dome looming over us. We get water and wash off at the river. Cold, but feels great. We’ve had good access to water the entire trip. A squirrel is after my stuff as we get dinner ready. I decide to try my phone again, and I get a signal for the first time. A call home reaches the girls as they have left the Dave Matthews concert at Piedmont. I’m able to share the “phone wealth” with Rick and Greg.
Sunday, September 9
The day to hike/climb Half Dome – hopefully. We get up early (about 6:15) to get a decent start. We grab coffee and tea, but no real cooked breakfast. A blue jay steals my Clif bar when my back is turned! The Half Dome trail is about 3.5 miles; all uphill, but a pretty easy grade. The first view of the back side of Half Dome is tremendous.
Then we get another, closer view and start to climb the “shoulder.” This climb up granite cut-outs is not something we’d fully anticipated. I’m using my hands to keep balance frequently, since we left the poles back at camp, not wanting to mess with them on the cables.
Finally up over the top of the shoulder, and the cables are right there. Straight up. Not spending much time to think about it, we head up: Rick, then Greg, then me.
There are two cables, run through supports placed maybe 15 feet apart. There are 2x4’s between each set of supports. We quickly figure out the technique is to dig your toes in, pull hard on the cables, make a burst from one set of supports to the next, then rest. The incline is amazing, and afterwards we all agree we were focusing on one step at a time, not thinking about just where we really were. Greg is taking it easy, and I don’t complain. Finally, relatively near the top, I pass him and make it to the top to join Rick as the slope gets a bit more manageable. Greg follows over the top and we catch our breath, then start to explore.
A great view of Yosemite Valley, as well as the Merced drainage and Tenaya Canyon.
I try my phone again and leave messages for Denise and the girls. I am able to reach my Dad directly and share the phone again with Rick. We stay on the top for at least an hour, exploring and getting some energy back. Now to head back down the cables. This is actually easier than I thought it might be. The gloves come in real handy, as we slide the cables through our hands and lean back as we walk down, taking very small baby steps. We’re glad we’ve left as early as we did, for the crowd is quite manageable. We only have to stop several times to let folks heading up go by.
A short break at the bottom and then heading back down the granite cut-aways on the shoulder. This is also easier than I anticipated, but not as easy as the Tinkerbelles skipping their way down made it seem! On our way back down we grab some water at the spring on the side of the trail, then down to the campground. All the way down we pass folks still making their way up the trail. Most all these folks have come up from the valley – a round-trip of over 16 miles. Many of them don’t look too happy (or prepared) at this point. We can’t help but pick out those that we don’t think can (or should) make it to the top.
Back at Little Yosemite we visit the river for another short swim and wash up.
I finally eat breakfast back at the CG (at about 3:00 PM), then find Rick who’s gone fishing up stream. No real luck. We see our first serious clouds and the sound of thunder. I decide to head back to camp to get the fly on the tent, although it proves unnecessary. At dinner, Ranger Dan (from North Carolina) stops by and checks in on us.
Monday, September 10
A bittersweet final pack as we head out to the valley. All downhill, with some rocky areas again, interspersed with the remnants of what appears to have been a paved trail. After we hit the top of Nevada Fall we run into more and more people. A few are heading to Half Dome, but most are just day hiking out of the valley. The trails we’ve been on are pretty popular, so we’ve seen a good number of folks on the trip, but this starts to be a crowd. Many of them don’t look all that happy to be on the trail. A good view of Liberty Cap and Half Dome from the bottom of Nevada Fall, then a view of Vernal Fall.
Finally we get down into the Valley, pass Happy Isles, and find our parking area pretty easily.
A bobcat is going after some squirrels underneath a nearby car.
We recover our stored stuff and take the short drive to Curry Village, check in, and get to our tent cabin.
Not bad accommodations at all. The first order of business is the long-delayed shower. Feels great. Then a pizza and a brew, and we finally feel how tired we really are. Dinner is the buffet at Curry – and I get what I think is my first senior’s discount!
Tuesday, September 11
Our “free day” before flying back. Breakfast is another buffet at Curry, with ridiculously small coffee cups. We drive up to Tuolumne to explore more than we had been able to last week. Olmstead Point provides some great views of Tenaya Canyon and the side of Half Dome that we had climbed.
We visit the Tuolumne Grill again, the adjacent store, and then see Tuolumne “Lodge” – a pretty fancy name for some tent cabins. We go as far as Tioga Pass and retrace our route.
We decide to take an alternate route back to Fresno and pass the big rock slide that wiped out a section of Highway 140; the detour doesn’t take too much time. Then back into Fresno, checking in to our “familiar” Holiday Inn, and we gorge out at Outback.
At breakfast the next day Rick actually gets blueberries in his pancake batter this time. They must have waited all year for him to return! The flights back are uneventful and reasonably on time.
Another great adventure!
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