A Yosemite National Park Backpacking Trip Memory by Bill Finch
Sometimes the Sierra Nevada plays tricks on you and sometimes you come out on top. This is a story about a reversal of fortune during a
planned Yosemite backpacking trip in late September 2007.
A friend would travel out from Washington D.C. to backpack with me once sometimes twice a year when he could get away from his pressure cooker D.C. Government responsibilities. Our treks helped him receive badly needed wilderness healing. Sometimes we went on treks in Desolation Wilderness and other times in Yosemite.
We usually experienced the best of everything the mountains had to offer for which we were always grateful. We knew we might be pressing our luck this time though – especially this late in the season. We already had a hint that rainy weather might be in the cards, but a few little showers wouldn’t keep us away. On this long weekend, we had planned to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows south into the backcountry beyond the Vogelsang High Sierra camp.
When we arrived in Tuolumne, it was raining heavily. We talked to a Ranger and learned that rain was forecast to rain continuously without a break the next several days. On that news, we decided to forego our backpacking plans and decided to drive down to the valley where we were told we could expect breaks in the weather that could allow for a day hike or two. So we got back on Tioga Road and proceeded on to the valley through more pouring rain.
Luckily, we managed to get a place in the Curry Village Housekeeping Camp. The canvas like structure is a novel arrangement. We shared half of an H-shaped cement walled structure with a very large canvas secured above and over the two compartments. Each unit had three walls and pull curtains both for privacy and to keep the rain out — and our unit faced the Merced River. We secured our gear on the beds in our half of the H and went to the Curry Village Dining Pavilion to eat and decide what we were going to do. While we were eating that afternoon, the sound of the rain on the roof above us helped shape our strategy.
First, we were not going to leave Yosemite. We were going to make the best of the hand we were dealt. We decided we would become tourists by day and spend the nights in our H space in Curry Village. That night more heavy rain pounded on the canvas above us but we managed to sleep well once we fell asleep. The next morning while eating our “easily obtained hardy breakfast,” we joked about how much fun it would have
been trying to make breakfast in the rain in the Tuolumne backcountry – if being able at all.
After breakfast, we got down to the business of being tourists. We took in the visitor’s center and went for some valley hikes expecting to get rained on and we did. But they were just showers not the soaking deluge we would probably would have experienced in the high country. So the morning went. The rain was intermittent with a few decent breaks even with a little sunshine every now and then. In the afternoon, we decided to hike past Mirror Lake along the Loop Trail and then come back on the other side. As we got to Mirror Lake … there was no Mirror Lake! It was completely bone dry so we hiked the lake’s length walking on its level bottom before returning to the trail. By that point, we were into the Tenaya Canyon that was mostly covered by low hanging dark rain clouds that obscured the views up above. And yes, it rained on us quite often – more on than off.
To improve our views we turned and hiked up the switchbacks trail toward Hwy 120 just high enough to touch the bottoms of the clouds. We took pictures of the weather clouds and rain looking up and down Tenaya Canyon and toward Half Dome whose face we never did see as it remained obscured by low clouds. Up the canyon, as far as we were able to see, very dark low clouds were releasing heavy amounts of rain as the clouds were
being forced up slope.
After a while, it began to clear just enough for us see up Tenaya Canyon. As we watched, the afternoon sun began to just peak out on the west facing eastern slopes of the canyon to the north of us. To our continued surprise, the full sun came out from under a low cloud layer and revealed five heavily flowing waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls – all resulting from the rainstorm we had just witnessed! They remained illuminated in bright sunlight for about 30 minutes. We captured some extraordinary pictures. What a scene we had watch unfold! We marveled at how lucky we were to have been there at that moment! The scene reminded me of the multiple waterfalls I often saw descending from the mountains above Hanalei, Kauai following heavy rains up above.
With that slight break in the weather, we were able to hike out of the canyon without encountering any more rainstorms that afternoon. We made a note of the fact that none of the water from that heavy storm had reached the empty Mirror Lake before or as we were leaving the area? I wondered where it went?
After another great meal, we again retired to our little tent complex. More rain during the night thundered at times on the canvas above us, we were used to it now and easily drifted off. We awakened early the next morning to the promise of a better day. From the valley, we could see Glacier Point intermittently through hovering clouds so we felt there might be some good views from up there. And maybe we could even climb Sentinel Dome. We would see. Sentinel Dome might be off limits due to storm and lightning concerns at the higher elevation.
When we first arrived at Glacier Point, the face of Half Dome was mostly shrouded but as the day progressed the clouds lifted from the face and moved to the east. Still, though, there were layers of clouds below us partially obscuring the valley. The cloud scene from Glacier Point was unusual (to us anyway). The valley was partially cloudy and the majority of those clouds were below us. From the sides of the valley walls, wispy tendrils of cloud rose up from the valley like smoke from a chimney.
Every now and then a wisp of rising cloud would stream up toward the overlook at Glacier Point and seemed to peek just over the edge where we were standing and then fall back down toward the valley. Thin remnants of clouds were still caressing the edges of Half Dome.
The sky above us seemed to be getting a little friendlier so we decided to hike up Sentinel Dome. No problem at all. By the time we reached the top, it was sunny where we stood and the clouds were not interfering with any views. How awesome they were – in every direction!
What a beautiful experience. A first for me. (In the twenty past years I had been visiting Yosemite showing visiting friends and relatives all the great sites, we had never gone to the top of Sentinel Dome. What an oversight on my part.)
We spent the better part of two hours up there just soaking it all in and taking pictures. The clouds played an important part in our picture taking with their added drama, not only to the sky above but below us as well! Again, some wisps of rising clouds rose up to the top of canyon walls just below our dome position. Some clouds were bunching up on the top of El Capitan threatening to slide or flow over edge into the valley (just like molasses bunches up just before pouring over the lip of a jar) — but they never did.
The skies cleared to such an extent that we decided to hike over to Taft Point via the Pohono Trail along the top of the south rim of Yosemite Valley. It proved to be an amazing first time discovery for us. The views of the jagged pinnacles along the trail beside and below us along with views straight down to the valley floor and across were amazing. What an unanticipated exciting trail hiking experience!
Taft Point proved to be something else again. Totally unexpected. The views beyond words: El Capitan across the valley, the Taft edge – straight down several thousand feet, the Fissures – big cracks in the granite extending back in from the edge. Through the cracks (the fissures), you can see straight down probably 900 feet! No words are adequate in attempting to “show” what we saw and experienced at Taft Point. You have to visit this place yourself. We spent a good amount of time there absorbed in the views, lounging in the sun, and taking more pictures of our surroundings before calling it a day and heading for the car.
We enjoyed one more evening meal in the Dining Hall and a last night in our sleeping bags under the canvas that had kept us dry for a couple of nights in the valley. We woke up to a beautiful view of a vertical cliff, valley trees, and morning clouds reflected on the still water of the Merced River. After breakfast, we packed up and headed out of Yosemite and back into the world. That weekend went down in our “Annals of Best Hikes Ever” as the best experience we’ve had together in either Yosemite or in Desolation Wilderness. Hiking to the top of Sentinel Dome and then taking the Pohono Trail loop around to Taft Point surpassed all expectations we created beforehand. We have had some wonderful experiences in both places. Prior to this weekend, the experience that ranked highest on our “Bests” list was standing atop Cloud’s Rest and looking down at Half Dome. We agreed that “the tourist route” we chose was a hundred times more rewarding than being wet and cold in pouring rain with a lot of forced “in the tent time” on a backpacking trek south of Tuolumne Meadows.
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