In February 2020 when I booked this trip to Yosemite National park for my annual backpacking adventures with friends, I had no idea on how the world would have changed in 6 months. Fast forward to the first weekend in August 2020 and myself, three friends and my two sons would enter a world and a timeline like no other in one of the nations most visited national parks.
Yosemite National Park hosted over 57,000 overnight hikers in 2019 and with trail quotas in place Yosemite maximizes the 800 miles of trails to the best of its abilities each year. That being said in August backpackers often find isolation in wilderness a rarity. However in 2020 with the trail quotas still in place but he added restrictions found in California for the Covid 19 pandemic our crew headed off to Yosemite for three day two night adventure uncertain what to expect for crowds in Yosemite high country.
Vogelsang High Sierra Camp is one of the busiest backpacking destination in Yosemite with large trail quotas and the variety of exit points one can take once they are there, plus the standard Yosemite high camp experiences such as covered tents, and real food prepared for visitors. Vogelsang High camp is located just above 10,000 feet at the tree line and besides cross-country backpackers, weekend warriors it is a favorite for fisherman who like to get access to multiple high alpine lakes in Yosemite on one trip.
Booking this years adventure to Vogelsang region of Yosemite I understood that finding solitude on this trip was not the overall goal. I instead focused on seeing a famed region of the park and the opportunity to climb up Vogelsang pass to get a great view of the Clark range and several backcountry lakes seldom visited by many in Yosemite with my two sons was the memory I was seeking.
Backpacking in Yosemite has become a tradition for me in the short 4 year span of my backpacking life. I have seen amazing sights and met my first Yosemite bear at Young lakes, I have climbed off trail over rigelines to see Nelson and Matthes lakes and I sat in pure joy as I watched sun rise at Echo lakes. However this year would be special as it would be my first backpacking trip with both boys and my oldest son’s first backpacking experience.
When i began backpacking in Yosemite in 2017 I jumped into a tend of hammock camping and fell in love with not only the comfort of sleeping in a hammock but the opportunity to watch the night sky through the tree line where I hung. however Hammock camping in Vogelsang made me do a bit more research than normal, as being a hammock camper the one thing that was required is trees. not only trees but trees large enough to hang from adn close enough to get a good set up. And this year I was not looking to one spot but three and both my boys would hammock camp as well.
After researching with Google maps (3D) and reviewing visitors blogs and images online I choose Boothe Lake as a safe destination for our first nights visit. Getting to Boothe lake would require us to use the Rafferty Creek trail out of Tuolumne and as a novice backpacker this was one case where reading others blog reviews was not a good idea. So many posts about how hard this route was with its 4.5 mile of steady climbing up to Vogelsang. yet as we set out on our trip it was quickly obvious to me that this would be the easiest route i have done to date in Yosemite.
Approximately 1 to 1.5 miles from the Wilderness Permit station up the Lyell Canyon trail Rafferty Creek trailhead splits off to the south and starts is 4.5 steady climb to Vogelsang region. The first mile is the steepest section and will require novice backpackers as myself to stop for several gasps of air as you not only accumulate to the altitude but get your body adjusted for the workout of the day. The trail is well used and features a tree covered hike for the first 3.5 miles or so before breaking out into a large meadow that bleeds upward to your first real views of Fletcher peak. This high alpine meadow slope is stunning area with panoramic views that include the White mountain range to the North. Overall as you will find later in my review this is by far my recommended route to take to Vogelsang region. On a normal year there are 12 reservable permits for this trail daily and another 8 walk ups available daily.
After 4.5 miles of climbing the trail to Boothe lake veers West and down off the ridge. you can take this trail also out to Emeric lake a couple mile further (Recommended to me by @lakesofyosemite) but we had chosen Boothe lake for this trip and would not be disappointed. It is not often in Yosemite that you get to a Lake in the high country and not see another sole while you swim and set up camp. But on this weekend boothe lake was all ours until sunset (1 vistitor) and throughout the night.
Boothe Lake is in a bowl surrounded by ridge lines on three sides and a valley that escapes to the west on the other side. The water is deep and clear and made for a cool swim but a mix of rocks to jump from and sandy shores to sit on made spending a day at the lake enjoyable for our party. We found several camping locations up the ridge to the south and after walking around the lake more camp spots located on each side of the lake. (Unused camp spots on this weekend)
A 3 pm thunderstorm rolled in providing a little rain and my first ever experience of Thunder in the granite wilderness of Yosemite. It was quite powerful as the sound rolled off the rock peaks and echoed for miles. August is great time to backpack in most of Yosemite, because we also had limited issues with mosquitos which can be problematic in early season hikes. bothe lake does not provide the best location for Alpine glow but there is a short window to watch Fletcher Peak and a bit of Vogelsang Peak ot the south turn orange in the evening sky.
The evening would be filled with laughter as we skipped rocks in the lake, had traditional trail food for dinner and welcomed the night to rest our tired bodies. The evening was pleasant 40 degrees with a low of 36 this weekend and we thought maybe we would be serenaded by yellow Legged frogs seen at the lake shore earlier, but instead were greeted with one of the quietest night I have ever heard in the Wilderness.
Vogelsang Pass and Vogelsang Lake
The next morning we would awake early at Boothe lake and pack up for a what was certain to be our toughest and most rewarding day in Yosemite. By map the Vogelsang area looks like it fits in a very small Geographic region but upon arriving to the region you really get a sense of the scale of the region and the climbs that were about to attempted in the day. We set a goal of climbing vogelsang Pass early then getting a visit to as many of the Vogelsang akes as possible in the day and ending up over near Ireland lake and Lyell Canyon by night fall.
Climbing out of Boothe lake up to Vogelsang base camp was pleasant way to get the blood flowing for the day. Instantly we started to notice that our trip would be different than expected. It was early but there seemed to be no one around. We eventually saw two ladies starting their hikes for the day after staying at the camp. Of course in 2020 the High camp did not open for various reasons so the food service and normal activity was expected. However trail quotas we were certain to still be filled so limited people was surprising.
A quick stop at fletcher lake for photo opps before heading up to vogelsang lake and eventually the pass. The climb upto Vogelsang lake features a creek crossing, deer and marmots, plus fantastic surprise views to the west of Emeric Lake, clouds rest and half dome. Its a short moderat climb up to vogelsang lake and at first glance i can tell you that on many of my trips this would be a world class destination that i might spend most of the day playing in the water and enjoying the wilderness. vogelsang lake is beautiful with crystal clear water and a nice meadow shore line.
We stopped for a few photos but the Pass was the goal and the team seemed focused to get going to tackle this 1800 foot climb as early as possible. The trail is gradual as it climbs the ridge line to the West below Vogelsang peak and transitions between switchbacks to climbing over granite slabs before dropping across a meadow saddle region and giving visitors their first peaks at the ranges behind.
The vista view from the top of Vogelsang pass is one of my all time favorites. Views of the Clark range, Gallison Lake and Bernice lake, Lewis creek basin and a variety of other peaks dressed in glacial snow pack were simply stunning as we sat together eating snacks and each of us picking out our favorite locations. As my team packed up and headed back down the pass for the next part of our days adventure i stayed behind for another 20 minutes for a little solitude in wilderness on the pass. such a stunning area and one i hope to return to someday to explore further into the Yosemite wilderness.
The trip back down the pass is filled with it own inspiring views of the Northside of Tuolumne and is a great reminder that no matter how far you travel into Wilderness there is always more areas to discover. Great photo shots of Vogelsang lake with the Northern wilderness dressed in the backdrop were to be had but the team broke now into several little groups who where all taking in the Yosemite wilderness in there own way. We had one climbing up vogelsang peak for a better view of half dome Two boys finding shade and relaxation on the shores of Vogelsang lake and a father sand son enjoying the variety of Rock and features to explore int he basin. And me draggin behind as I saunter down the slope towards the group enjoying a little alone time of the trail.
We had stopped at Fletcher lake earlier for photos but we’re excited to return for a lunch and a little water fill up. the morning had been glorious but the adventures of the day were not even half done. We ran into Ranger Dan at the lakeshore and as he checked our permit we asked him about the crowdless trails this weekend. he seemed as amazed as we were saying we picked the right weekend as he had never seen it so slow with visitors. After giving us tips on the route upto Towsley lake we said by and finished our lunch at Fletcher. fletcher lake is meadow and lined with short trees on the Northwest edge of the lake. Fletcher Peak shoots out of the Water practically on the South side and on the East side the slope is dressed with a small waterfall and a vista where Towney lake sits.
By this time the group was getting a feeling of anxiety as we started to understand what was still ahead of today. so our visit to Fletcher lake was too short, as we once again found our self at a beautiful location with no visitors. But townsley lake and hanging basket lake were destinations highlighted on most of our trip checklists so we left for townsley on the next leg of our adventure.
Townsley Lake and Hanging Basket Lake
Ranger Dan had told us, that although there was no real trail between the lake that once we started climbing we would find human use trails made by fisherman over the years at townsley was a popular place for fisherman. As we headed up out of the Fletcher lake basin this actually felt like the hardest climbing of the day to many of us, surely a sign that we did not rest long enough at fletcher after our morning adventures adn a sign that the afternoon temperatures would start os zap our energy.
Cresting over the final hump to see the entryway into Townsley lake did not disappoint. A collective Wow could be heard from the group as each individual who emerged from the bushes said it at about the same spot. the lake gives way to a meadow like river system that heads West toward Fletcher Lake and int eh backdrop a Crystal clear blue water shimmers with the Black and Granite colors in the backdrop.
I really don’t know what overcame me at this moment as i barely made the main lake shoreline before I dropped my pack and started taking off my boots for a swim, before any of my crew even got to the lake. I had seen pictures online and for whatever reason this was the location i most wanted to see and take a swim and I saw nothing stopping me from enjoying this experience completely. Of course the Cold water reminded me quickly as I dropped into the lake that my swim would be short as the cold water quickly cooled my body temperature and gave me that refreshing feeling that I seek each time I hike in wilderness.
As my sons informed me that their destination was Hanging Basket Lake I decided to cross that adventure off my list and to enjoy Townsley lake a bit longer today, so they broke off and headed around the lake to their next climb 500 feet straight up a boulder field, to Hanging Basket lake to the south.
After a couple more dips in the lake and a couple snacks the clouds above started to get that look of an afternoon thunderstorm so I started to pack up and get ready to move, but realized that I now had three packs as my boys had dropped their packs for their adventure so I now had to wait for their return. Hopefully they would see the clouds as well and be headed back soon.
Crossing the Wilderness to Lyell Canyon
My sons would return in the next 30-40 minutes also realizing that the weather was about to change and we best get started on our craziest part of the adventure soon. For our next stage included many off trail unknown aspects of our trip, relying only on our maps to guess on the best route as we crossed over to the north of Townsley lake and headed back to a trail that went by Evelyn Lake and over to Lyell Canyon near Ireland Lake trailhead.
the climb out of Townsley was pretty straightforward and we began to climb we heard the first rumblings of Thunder and a warning for the storm headed our direction. We crossed the mountain face a climbed up out of the Townley basin to find a high tundra plain that had tremendous 360 views and several little ponds left over form the season snowpack. With Thunder rolling behind us each of us picked up the pace and rarely stopped for a quick photo shot. After the trip several of our crew named this tundra ridge their favorite location on the trail not only for the 360 views but the race against the thunder was exhilarating.
As we reached the Northern edge of the tundra the ground gave way to a nice rocky slope into Evelyn lake. From here the lake still was reflecting the Blue sky above, but be the time we reached the shore the water changed to that grey sky afternoon look as the Thunder clouds were winning the battle in our afternoon adventure. Evelyn lake was the busiest place we visited today and was much larger than expected. We saw several couples at this lake and once we hit the trail saw our first real traffic of the weekend.
Soon after climbing out of the Evelyn Lake basin the skies opened up. first with large drops of rain and then a 30 minute hail storm that sent our crew seeking safety inside a large High Alpine tree well as we were pelted even through the canopy of the tree, waiting out the storm.
After 30 minutes of soak and hail we were able to fill our water bottles in unnamed lake along the trail (whatever its name this lake was a swamp and mosquito pit). the strain of the extra speed racing the storm and the long day started to have impact on our team at this point and it was decided that on this final ridge ahead that as soon as we found suitable camping location for the day that our adventure needed to end for the safety of the crew. We all decided that Ireland lake would be crossed of the do do list and that a night at camp was in order.
Another 30 minutes of climbing we crested over the last ridge and got a peak at the Kuna crest across Lyell canyon below. I have never camped in Yosemite when I was not next to a lake but soon after the crest of the ridge found an epic flat area on the ridge to set up three hammocks and two tents giving everyone a great vista view to enjoy for the evening of Kuna crest. It had been a solid 8 hours of hiking and adventure in the day the sense of accomplishment and exhaustion at 4:30 pm on the Eastern ridge was smothering. We gathered slowly placing our individual sleeping areas together, some sat on rocks and looked at the vista others lie in their hammocks tempted to skip dinner to go fast asleep.
Dinner on the rock was followed up by a friendly game pf Pine Cone Poker and watching the alpine glow turn the Kuna crest soft orange colors slowly turning purple over the next 30-40 minute into the evening. a peaceful setting for certain that might be my favorite camp spot I have enjoyed backing to date. The night again was so quiet after the 10pm Airplanes flew through we didn’t hear a sound again until the birds starting stirring around 5 am. The near full moon was especially bright on tis ridge adn at 2 am in the morning i found myself sitting up in the hammock to see as far as I could at 7pm with nearly perfect clarity.
Ireland Lake Trail to Lyell Canyon
There is an odd element to all my backpacking adventures in Yosemite to date. Although home is only a short 2 hour drive home and we have all day again in Yosemite, we always seem to wake early eat pack and get going on the final morning. Something about Cheeseburgers and Milkshakes I think is motivating after three days in the wilderness. Packed and feed early the team headed down hill towards Lyell canyon. We discovered quickly that we were probably only 1/3 of a mile form the Ireland lake trail spur but as we looked back up the trail towards the lake which was only 1.5 miles we chuckled at the thought that we were going to accomplish that last night.
The trail leading down to Lyell canyon floor was steep and long. It does feature full tree cover and running water for much of the trail, but as i hiked down this ridge I agreed with my team that I would never take this route up to Vogelsang or Ireland lake. With 35 daily permits for backpacking allowed on the Lyell Canyon trail i cant imagine ever wanting to go upto Ireland Lake or Vogelsang area via this route. That being said it was plenty busy with runners an hikers going up while we were headed down. Ireland creek is a beautiful area and in spring Ill bet is fairly loud rushing down the canyon. Im certain this route is an old horse route as at times the trail goes straight up.
Reaching Lyell Canyon almost 2 hours after leaving camp was exciting and we all looked forward to many stops along the river, swimming and finally reaching the car for our annual cheeseburger run in Lee Vining. Typically i finish ever backpack trip with a trip to Tenaya lake for a swim but this year we decided a cold dip in the Lyell fork of the Tuolumne river was special enough. Of course once we hit the JMT/PCT running through Lyell canyon it was a little like being in the valley as people seemed to be everywhere. I for one longed to be back up top in solitude, where masks were not important and noise was limited to small group of chatter on the trail.
Looking back I realized that this trip allowed me to cross of the last trail from the eastern gates to Tenaya Lake that had not hiked. And though there are numerous place still to see there is a great since of accomplishment knowing that if I stood in Tuolumne meadows that i have explored every trail connected location within approximately 8 miles in circumference. I will however need to update my top ten list for hikes off Tioga Pass after this hike.