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General, The Outdoors, Travel

A Week in the Yosemite Backcountry

I’ve done my share of backpacking over the years, but most of them have been long weekend (3-4 day) jaunts. Last summer, I did an (epic) 5 day Yosemite trip, and realized that there’s something special that happens on longer trips. The more days you spend out there, detached from the distractions of modern life, the more you’re able to disconnect.

So what does a week in the backcountry feel like? I wanted to find out this summer.

The original plan was to head to the Eastern Sierras (we a had a permit for Little Lakes Basin) but there was still so much snow up there from this past heavy winter that we pivoted to Yosemite last-minute. Not too shabby for a backup plan.

We drove to the Yosemite Valley and stayed in North Pines for our night zero. Protip: skateboards are a lot of fun in national parks, particularly those with lots of paved roads.

Day 1: Lyell Canyon (6mi, 492 ft)

We drove up to Tuolumne Meadows and secured a JMT permit on Monday morning and entered the backcountry on the PCT. As usual, once we got a few miles from the trailhead, it felt like we were the only people out there. I suppose that’s one of the reasons we backpack, right?

We stopped at a river crossing a few miles in for a very chilly swim. This past year, I’ve incorporated cold exposure into my routine most days, so I’m always excited for a cold plunge opportunity. The water was insanely cold.

We found an epic campsite a bit before dusk and decided to snag it. We were perched up on a big rock shelf not far from the trail and within earshot of the river. There was a fire ring and plenty of dry fuel laying around… it was like someone prepared the spot for us ahead of time.

We had a bear visitor that hung out along the treeline for a bit that first night. He didn’t seem too fazed by all the noise we were making.

The stars were wonderful that night, and we opted for no rainfly on the tent, which is always incredible.

Day 2: Lyell to Vogelsong Camp (7mi, 1,765 ft)

Our second day started off with some climbing right off the bat. We got up into some snow… and some bugs. Lots and lots of mosquitos.

Once we got up over the first pass on Evelyn Lake Trail, the scenery was stunning. We passed through a mushy meadow with snowy mountains in every direction, and it felt like heaven.

Further along in this meadow there were a few water crossings. I took my shoes off at the first one, and then started getting absolutely swarmed by bugs. I couldn’t fathom standing still enough to put my shoes back on, so I hiked/jogged for a good half mile or so in my bare feet. Probably not the wisest idea in retrospect, but I couldn’t deal with the mosquitos.

The bugs just got worse from there. From that point in the day point on, we were power walking and constantly swatting at our heads. We were applying picardin multiple times per day, and it seemed to help a little bit, but they were still so aggressive.

After awhile, the bug situation got so bad that we decided we needed to just set up the tent and get inside it ASAP. Setting up the tent while getting swarmed was a challenge. We’d spend 10-15 seconds unfolding the tent poles, and then drop them in frustration and run around in circles a bit to try and get some of the bloodsuckers off. It was not the most coordinated or graceful effort, but we got it done.

Getting out of the tent for any reason meant letting ~20-30 mosquitos inside, so we did a stoveless dinner that night (salami/avocado tacos, pretty damn good actually).

We’d actually planned to stay at the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp that night, which was right around the corner, but the situation was simply untenable. Aside from the hundreds of bloodthirsty hellspawns patiently waiting just outside this thin membrane, it was a peaceful night in a pretty spot.

Day 3: Vogelsong Camp to Echo Creek (12mi, 843 ft)

We set an alarm for 5:30am alarm in hopes that the bugs wouldn’t be so bad at dawn. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We haphazardly rolled the tent up into a ball and ran down the trail with it. We didn’t plan any further than that, it was just “get away from these swarms of bugs as quickly as possible”. It was an extremely peaceful start to the day.

We hiked up toward Vogelsong Pass, and the bug situation seemed to improve a bit as we climbed, but as we got closer we realized that there was quite a bit of snow up on the pass, so we stopped for a quick breakfast with a view before backtracking a bit.

We settled on an alternative route, Rafferty Creek Trail. This proved to be a much buggier route. We were silent for a bit, just focused on covering some mileage. I think we were both feeling a bit exhausted by the bug situation. It was really wearing me down.

When we got to Lake Merced, we stopped for lunch and a quick dip. The bugs were slightly less aggressive there (although there’s a biting fly headed directly for my face in this photo), but we sent up the tent to relax bug-free for a bit.

As the day went on, I was feeling more and more exhausted. Jeannine pointed out that perhaps we were both a little fried from dealing with nonstop mosquitoes. I think she was right. Despite my exhaustion, some sections of the trail that day were absolutely stunning.

We passed a few hikers, and each time they’d immediately bring up the bug situation and how crazy it was. One couple mentioned that they’d been coming to the park the same time every year for decades and had never seen anything like it. I felt a bit of relief that I wasn’t being overly sensitive about the situation. It’s not just me – other people are struggling with this too.

We found an excellent campsite that night with a fire ring, not far from the trail.

Day 4: Echo Creek, Clouds Rest, Sunrise Lake (12.5mi, 3,701 ft)

This was a great day of hiking. The first few miles took us through some recently-burned sections of the JMT. It always feels a bit eerie to be around extensive wildfire damage, but the lack of trees also made for great views of the surrounding peaks and domes.

We stopped at a peaceful (albeit very exposed) water crossing for lunch. It was a hot day with no shade and a cold dip in the river felt incredible.

We left the JMT for Forsyth trail, which led us to the Clouds Rest junction. We decided to stash our packs and run up and around Clouds Rest.

It felt so good to move quickly without a big heavy pack. I had been feeling tired earlier in the day, but running was energizing and I felt like I could’ve gone for hours, especially with those views. The run slowed down into a power walk once we reached the “spine” of Clouds Rest. There were only 2 other people up there when we summited, a far cry from the crowds that I found up there last time.

We ran down the other side of Clouds Rest (towards Little Yosemite Valley) and circled back around on the bypass trail. Here’s some video of the incredible views on that section of the trail.

Running felt great. Putting our heavy packs back on after didn’t feel as great. And as we made our way toward Sunrise Lakes, the bugs were out in numbers once again. We found another awesome campsite right off the trail and set up shop for the night.

Day 5: Sunrise Lake to Tenaya Lake (3.4 mi, 433 ft)

We woke up to swarms of aggressive mosquitos again, and at this point I was starting to feel “over it”. I was doing my best to stay positive, but the constant swatting around the face, buzzing inside the ears, and power walking to get away from swarms was both physically and emotionally draining.

As we approached Tenaya Lake, we started to kick around the idea of exiting the backcountry and hitchhiking on Tioga Rd. I’d never hitchhiked before, but I’ve had Yosemite Rangers recommend it as a viable/safe option in the park several times in the past.

We passed some folks on the trail who were coming from the opposite direction, and in each instance, they’d just ask us whether the bugs were “any better” where we were coming from. No, they were not.

Folks were distressed. The ridiculous swarms waiting for us as we got closer to the lake made it an easy decision for us. Getting out of the backcountry was now the #1 priority, and we’d figure out how to get back to the car later.

Without giving much thought to a strategy, we hopped off of the trail and onto Tioga Rd and put our thumbs up. Two cars passed us, and the third slammed on his brakes and motioned for us to get in. I was shocked by how quickly this happened.

The driver was a younger guy, and the situation felt pretty safe, so we hopped into his truck. He was listening to some great music (Viagra Boys) so we hit it off right away. He worked for the fire service and was living in the park. He said that he had hitchhiked so many times in the park that he wanted to start giving folks rides to keep his karmic balance in check.

Before I knew it, we were back at the car. We were both so stoked with how easily we got a ride, and to be away from the bugs that’d been hounding us for a good portion of the trip. We made the right decision by calling it early.

We headed back into the park, stopping at Tenaya Lake for a refreshing swim. I wanted to make the most of our last night in the park, so I suggested that we get a fancy dinner at the Awahnee. I was able to get us a reservation for The Ahwahnee Dining Room, which has been on my bucket list for a while. Dinner was buffet style, and it was delicious!

A fancy dinner after 5 days of eating backpacking meals (of varying quality) was such a treat.

The following morning we got one last trail run in (around Mirror Lake) before heading back to the Bay.

We were in the park for a week, but I never did find out what a full week in the backcountry felt like. There’s always next time! And when I do plan another trip like this, I will absolutely pack a mosquito net for my head, as well as lightweight, long-sleeve pants and a shirt to minimize exposed skin.

Reflections on writing (on the interwebs)

This trip was 3 weeks ago. I tried to write and publish this as quickly as possible, instead of letting the draft sit unpublished until I gave up on it. Life is busier than ever these days, so why am I prioritizing this, writing a blog post that less than 100 people will see per month (and most will “skim”)?

Once upon a time, an early version of this website received thousands of visits per day. I had a very engaged audience and a feedback loop well before the dawn of social media. The web was a different place back then, and I was writing about whatever mischief I got into in high school that day, but it was exciting and energizing. My formative experiences blogging and interacting on the web undeniably changed the course of my life and career, and I look back on those years fondly.

When I do make time to blog nowadays (once or twice per year), I’m mostly just doing it for myself. I’m not optimizing these posts for search visibility, and I don’t expect many people to find them. I don’t aspire to be a travel blogger. This will not go viral.

The internet has a better memory than I do, so these trip recaps exist as “time capsules” for me. I certainly don’t make the time to write after each backpacking trip (I wish I did), but sometimes the urge to write and reflect is strong. This type of experience somehow feels more “complete” once some amount of reflection has occurred, and this is a way for me to reflect. It also gives me an opportunity to put some beautiful photos out into the world, since I don’t do the Facebook/Instagram thing much these days.

Thanks for reading!

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