We've had quite a few questions about this topic over the years, and just got another flurry of them, so we've written this summary to help you find your way. Bear in mind that in August the waterfalls are going to be less impressive than they are in May...but they'll still be cool. And the High Sierra will be blanketed by snow in a normal year until the middle of June or so...but the mosquitoes will be fierce when the snow melts.
With that in mind, when you first plan a visit to Yosemite:
1. Don't overlook dayhiking. Many of the truly stunning parts of Yosemite are easily available as day hikes, and you should make a real effort to see the following:
> Glacier Point and its nearby hikes of Sentinel Dome and Taft Point--and if you have time, Dewey Point for a stunning view. That's the view from Glacier Point at left. The view from Dewey Point is below.
> The Giant Sequoias at Wawona--also visible in the Mariposa Grove, although that is closed this year. Add in the hike to Chilnualna Falls for a real workout near the South entrance to the park.
> Tuolumne Meadows and its local hikes: Lembert Dome, Pothole Dome, Gaylor Lakes, and Elizabeth Lake. That's a shot from near Tuolumne Meadows below, on the trail to Young Lakes.
> A day in the Valley to watch the climbers on El Capitan, view Bridalveil, Yosemite, and the other falls, hike out on the trails into the main meadows, where you will be amazed at how quiet and peaceful it all is...in the middle of everything.
> Merced Canyon past Vernal and Nevada Falls (Half Dome if you can get a permit).
> Clouds Rest from Tenaya Lake (a better hike than Half Dome, and when get to Clouds Rest you are looking down on the people on Half Dome--plus an amazing view of the Sierra crest.
> North Dome from Porcupine Creek--the best view of Half Dome in the Park
> May Lake and Mount Hoffman, one of the best views anywhere, period.
2. Now, once you've done all of that, you can look for a backpacking permit to some nice locations. You'll need a permit for a trip. The most popular sites fill up quickly, but I would recommend the following:
> Ten Lakes Basin is a great hike. And it's only two days---leaving you some time to explore the hikes above.
> Cathedral Lakes, for the same reason---explore Echo Canyon from there, just over the pass, if you have time. That's Cathedral Peak at right.
> Glen Aulin pass through permit to go downstream of the High Sierra Camp to see even more waterfalls.
>> What I would NOT recommend is a high up to LIttle Yosemite Valley where there are so many people. Not exactly a wilderness experience. But it's the most direct route to Half Dome. Which is why it is so crowded.
What you will need is a campsite, and those can be hard to find during the middle of the summer. A backpacking permit helps, because it allows you to stay in a backpackers campground the day before and after your backpacking permit. But you can probably find a site at Tamarack or Porcupine if you get there earlier in the day...
Does that give you enough to get started? We have photos of most of these hikes in the destinations section of this website...so feel free to poke around there.
We were so pleased with ourselves. We had remembered to act early and reserve exactly the wilderness permit we wanted, for Rafferty Creek in the middle of June, to get up into the upper reaches of the Merced Canyon early in the season. And we got it.
And then fate intervened. P was invited to speak at the Smithsonian about a topic near and dear to his heart...and that's an invitation he can't pass up, even at the risk of losing our permit for Yosemite.
So yesterday he called the Yosemite Wilderness office and explained the situation. And he was delighted to learn that he can apply the charges he paid for the cancelled permit towards any other wilderness permit in Yosemite this year.
No, we won't have time to get into the Upper Merced this year. But we will take a trip in Yosemite sometime later in the season. And we've already got our permit paid for!
It seems that all of our local highway passes are now closed again: Highways 4, 108 and 120 have been shut down due to the big spring storm. That means that Ebbetts, Sonora, and Tioga Passes are closed. The weather is expected to warm up eventually, maybe by next weekend, and the roads can be opened again by then.
But as long as Mother Nature keeps dropping snow on the ground, the roads will be hard to predict. And so will the conditions in the mountains. Our advice? Head for lower elevations, where you are more likely to be able to get to a trailhead, or get out after you return from the hike.
And take along a little extra clothing, so that you can put on some dry clothes in the tent.
We have a group of recommended hikes for early in the season on our destinations page:
But even if the highway is open, be careful out there. As we noted in our last post, snow is NOT your biggest concern in the spring. High water and roaring streams are a bigger worry. Take it easy, and don't be afraid to be smart. If the stream looks to big and fast to cross, it is. Look for another option, or head in another direction.
That's P's brother at right, crossing a small creek about this time of year. As you can see, the creek wasn't very deep, but the approach was down a steep snow bank. Not all fun and games, but we did it slowly and carefully. And we had a great time.
But it's springtime in the Sierra, and that means that the snow is melting like crazy. Our route took us up Arnot Creek, and the creek itself was roaring, as was the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River. And a couple of miles later, when we came to our first ford, we decided that we didn't want to get our feet wet on a simple day-hike, and so we turned around.
It's not the first time that we've done that. The creek in the photo at left convinced us to take another route entirely.
The biggest single cause of death in the backcountry of the Sierra is not bear attacks, or axe-murderers. It's people getting into high, fast water, and not being able to get out again.
So we encourage you to get out and hike this spring. And we encourage you to do so with caution and common sense. As an old rock-climbing partner of P's used to say: "Summits are all in the mind." The only place you really HAVE to get is home, and safe.
Good news out of Cal-Trans this week. Ebbetts pass is now open, giving hikers access to some wonderful country along the Pacific Crest Trail.
"Highway 4 (Ebbetts Pass)
[IN THE CENTRAL CALIFORNIA AREA]
NO TRAFFIC RESTRICTIONS ARE REPORTED FOR THIS AREA."
And Sonora Pass is scheduled to open later this month. The projected date is May 18.
In fact, the last and highest High Sierra Pass,Tioga Pass may well be open before Memorial Day. And that means that the official summer backpacking season is in session!
So where are you headed?
Normally, we wouldn't give idiots like this any attention at all, because we're afraid that we would just be encouraging more idiocy. But we would love to see these idiots get caught and punished. With that in mind, we're hoping that someone will see this and make a connection between the idiots who did this and the large reward for turning them in.
They entered a restricted area, damaged an extremely sensitive habitat for an endangered species, and seem to be perfectly capable of doing this again unless someone stops them. Please share this with everyone you can, and let's get these clowns put somewhere they can't damage anything or one except themselves.
Are you busy making plans for a backpacking trip? Want to know how much snow is in the Sierra right now?
The Pacific Crest Trail Association has a great website with all kinds of information. Check out this interactive map which shows you snow depths everywhere along the Sierra...and the rest of the USA. (Click on the SNOW DEPTH button for that version of the map.)
What you'll see is that after this last storm, there is still significant snow in the Sierra, although in the southern part of the range the snow levels are lower. And if you're looking for a destination for Memorial Day weekend, you're options are still quite limited. Much of the Sierra still has three feet or more of snow on the ground.
One other element really stands out when you look at the snow level map--the huge swath that the San Joaquin River cuts into the Sierra. That massive canyon, lower than most of the rest of the range, clearly shows up. And it's almost that obvious when you see it from the air...
Next time you fly, ask for a window seat!
In time for a Mother's Day blog, we've had quite a few questions from women who want to know how M manages to spend a week in the woods with her backpacking husband. And we've had a few questions from men asking how they might construct a scenario that would encourage their wives or significant others to join them on the trail.
So here goes. First draft by P, with comments added by M.
First of all, P never forces M to tackle anything. No trail, cliff, or bushwhack is sacred. We've turned back at rushing streams, steep granite, and long climbs just because M didn't feel like doing that. That has to be part of the rules, because if one of you is worried and unhappy, it isn't going to be a good trip. Any time the going gets rough, P lets M call the shots, and set the pace. He may walk ahead of her, but he doesn't leave her behind, and he is always ready to bail out of a situation if she calls for it. And we've done that more than once.
Second of all, P always carries a heavier pack. He is bigger and stronger than M, and he eats more. So while her pack might come in at about 20 pounds, his is going to be 25-30 or more. That's fair. And if taking a bit more weight is all that it takes to get her to go backpacking, pile it on.
M’s observation: The comments of a wise man!
That's us below, posing for a "selfie" in Death Valley.
But according to most of the questions we get, the three big issues are privacy, safety, and hygiene. Let's talk about them one by one.
Privacy: While it may seem more comforting to take your first trip in a larger group, or in a popular hiking area, M suggests just the opposite. "I'm not worried about you," she says, "and I'm not really worried about animals. But I don't like the idea of other people around when I am going to the bathroom or washing in a stream or lake."
The first trip we took together was to a very quiet stream about five miles in. There were no people around at all, and we spent an idyllic two days living out of the tent, wandering around the stream. She read books, I fished, and we agreed that it was so much fun that we started planning our next hike on the drive home. And we left the next day for the new trailhead.
Going to the bathroom is pretty straightforward. We take along a small plastic trowel and some toilet paper in an opaque plastic bag. And we take along a second opaque bag for the used toilet paper--because we follow Leave No Trace rules about that. When it's time to go, one of us takes that bag out into the woods as far as one needs to go for privacy, and takes care of business. The bag goes back into the outside pocket of one of the packs when we're finished. See below for a note about handiwipes---a nice accessory.
The worst case scenario, for her, was backpacking next to a group of ten Boy Scouts. In that case, she actually asked P to stand guard between the scouts and her bathroom area, just to make sure that she had privacy.
In a secure spot you can actually enjoy answering a call of nature outdoors. The mountains and trees are glorious, the birds are singing, and you are there being a part of it all. It sounds kind of unbelievable, but it can be lovely.
Once you accept that you will be packing out your toilet paper, adjusting other habits isn’t hard. You can still be fastidious. I am a big fan of thickets for privacy: Wade in there among the heavy brush and hunker down. No one else will be blundering past and they can’t see in even if the path is nearby. (It also helps to wear natural-colored clothes so you blend in with the scenery. Once I realized how conspicuous it was, I never could relax in that bright red fleece I had imagined would be "cheerful.") Where the terrain is more open, back up against a big rock or thick tree and you only need to be aware of what’s in front of you.
Indelicate as this sounds, you don’t need TP if you’re only going to pee. Dry leaves and sticks don’t have to be packed out after use. So that part can be taken care of pretty fast. Please don’t hold back on drinking plenty of water in order to pee less; it isn’t worth it to get dehydrated or sick. Consider where you’ll go if you need to get up in the night, and have a headlamp and supplies nearby. On our first overnight I wandered off into the woods and was heading over the hill and downstream when P woke up and called me back. Otherwise I might still be out there.
Safety: The best advice we can give here is to suggest you read our website sections about dangers on the trail: https://sites.google.com/site/backpackthesierra/home/general-information/dangers-on-the-trail. If you are worried about lions, tigers and bears, that should help put it all in perspective. Again, avoiding areas with lots of people will mean that the wildlife is much wilder--and more fearful of you.
The only time the fear of bears kept us awake was one night in the John Muir Wilderness when M woke up P and asked him if he heard "that noise." He didn't. She went back to sleep for the rest of the night, and he stayed up for hours trying to hear the noise. True story. (It was a deer.)
Stay hydrated. Stay found (i.e., participate in the navigation, so you don't feel as if you are simply a passenger on the bus). Stay warm, fed, and well-rested. And stay out of fast, high water, please.
The most dangerous thing you'll do on a backpacking trip is drive to the trailhead. In the Sierra, you won't run into many people once you get a couple of miles away from the trailhead, and the ones you do meet will almost all be charming people just like you. Only maybe a little dustier.
Hygiene: Let's face it, keeping clean on the trail is a challenge. You can't stop in at a restroom and wash up whenever you feel a little bit bedraggled. The good news? Nobody is there to see you, and if they do see you, they don't care. So it's really just about keeping clean "enough." It's not about being presentable. It's not about smelling good.
On our trips, M always takes advantage of the lake or stream at the end of the day to rinse off her feet and hands. And if there is nobody else around (which is often the case) she rinses off a lot more. And taking along a small pack of handiwipes makes it easy to do the basics even when there is no water at all.
M’s comment: If you can concentrate on just hygiene and basic comfort, living outdoors becomes much simpler. I don’t bother trying to look as polished as I (think I) do at home – that’s way too much work in the wilderness, and nearly everything else is easier and a more interesting way to spend the time. The bare minimum that my self-respect can stand for is sunscreen, a tiny soap, toothbrush, hand cream, Vaseline, lipstick/balm and a tiny mirror. (Okay, also eyebrow pencil.) Sanitizer is good, but only a very small bottle, as that stuff is heavy. A nice soft all-cotton bandanna is wonderful for wiping face or hands, and many other things.
The best campsites are those that are off the beaten path, so that you can actually skinny dip if you want. You can also rinse out your clothes pretty easily while you're backpacking. You will be thoroughly surprised at how quickly things dry at 10,000 feet.
The other option is to take a cooking pot full of water into the tent with you, and give yourself a sponge bath. It's amazing how much cleaner you can feel after using only a quart of water to rinse off the trail dust and sweat.
Below, one of M's least favorite photos of herself, as she applies sunscreen in the morning at 10,000 feet.
In some ways, most of the dirt you'll see is "clean dirt." Yes, your feet and ankles are going to be a different color at the end of the day. But that's just dust, and it won't make you sick. It feels great to wash it off!
After a long hike I’m usually desperate to get the salt and sunscreen off my skin, but it’s miraculous how much better I feel after a simple wash of face, hands, neck and feet. Anything more is a bonus. Soaking my tired feet in the stream is grand to start. I’m not brave about mountain lakes so most times I use a wet washcloth (ours are black!) to scrub off sunscreen, then wade into the nearest stream or lake and splash around till I get cold. (Rinse the cloth out in the grass far away from water.)
Hair washing remains the big deal because my hair isn’t very wash-and-wear. It’s great if you can make do with braids, a headband or scarf (maybe a second bandanna?). At a lake or stream you can rinse your hair with no soap and it gets clean enough. When it’s really necessary, we make do with the pan of water and a cup. Walk away from the stream, shampoo a tiny bit, and rinse into the grass. Have a pal bring you more rinse water if you can.
Washing the dishes is actually a pleasant task on the trail. You have warm water, a bit of soap and you get to wash your hands (and maybe your face!) as you wash the dishes. Just remember that soap DOES NOT belong in the water in the wilderness. Wash yourself and your dishes far (200 feet) from any stream or lake, to keep that water pristine.
So the solution? Pick a hike that isn't too challenging for the first trip. Make the destination somewhere you'll have a bit of privacy. And take it easy. Nobody should go on some 75-mile ten-day trip as their first outing. Make it an overnight, make sure that everyone has a really good time. Eat well, stay hydrated. And you'll be amazed how everything comes together after dinner, as you sit on a log or rock, watching the sun go down, and appreciating the fact that this is a very special moment.
Here are some of our favorite quotes about travel--which apply to hiking as well:
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” from Ibn Battuta, the remarkable Arab who toured the known world 1200 years ago.
“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous
“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” – A great line that explains why large groups always travel slower, by Henry David Thoreau, who supposedly was roughing at Walden Pond. But his sister brought him fresh baked cookies every day...
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien. And we've wandered many times, on our trips.
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.” – Herman Melville--which is just the excuse you need to get off-trail and explore a little bit.
And an all-time favorite from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
We've added one more item to our first aid kit for backpacking, but it's not something we suggest for everyone.
As you know if you've been reading this blog, P is an avid cyclist. He tries to ride just about every day for 15+ miles, and has regularly ridden over 5,000 miles a year. But over the past few years, he's been stung by bees a few times, and each time the reaction to the sting has become more pronounced.
The last time he was stung, about month ago, it was on the thigh, and his entire thigh swelled up to about 150% of it's normal size. That's when he decided it was worth going to the doctor about this. The doctor prescribed some massive dosages of prednisone, and then asked P what he liked to do for fun.
When P mentioned backpacking, the doc immediately prescribed a couple of epipens. He was concnered that if P were stung near his head by a bee, the reaction could easily prevent him from breathing. There's a happy thought.
So we've added this to our FAK for in the mountains, even though it adds a few ounces to our packs. Wonder if there is an ultralight version?