El Sobrante Press ESP
A. Hiking the Yosemite Backcountry (Parts I and II)
B. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
C. Zion National Park, Utah
In my first year of living in California I paid a couple of visits to the back country of Yosemite National Park. It all started when a runner friend in Maryland asked if I’d be willing join her in a multi-day hike into the wilderness along the John Muir Trail. Backpacking was new to me, but I was eager to give it a try. To avoid the usual Yosemite crowds, we settled on a date in early-September when most vacations were ending, and students were back to school. I submitted a request to the National Park Service and got a permit for a 6-day wilderness hike on September 4-9, 1996.
After much discussion with experienced hikers at work, the plan was to enter the wilderness boundary at the 8,200 ft Cathedral Lakes Trailhead off Cal Rt 120, northeast of the Yosemite Valley. From there we’d follow the John Muir Trail southwest over hill and dale, mountain and valley, down to the iconic 8,800 ft granite Half Dome monolith. We’d climb Half Dome and afterwards spend the night outside the wilderness at a nearby campground. On day 7 we’d hike into the Yosemite Valley and complete our adventure with a shuttle bus ride back to our original trailhead. A 4-hour car ride and we’d be back to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Having none of the proper equipment needed for such an adventure, I’m sure I spent well over $1,000 on the camping gear: large size, heavy-duty backpack, 3-person tent for extra space, a ground cloth, sleeping bag, lightweight cooking and eating utensils, water purifier pump, hiking shoes, sleeping bag, stove and fuel, topographical maps, first aid kit, flashlight, sandals, backpacker’s trowel, etc. Since we’d be carrying everything on our backs for several miles every day, it was essential that everything be as light as possible but durable and easy to assemble.
A Field Test
Two months prior to the planned September hike, I was invited to join several of my work colleagues on a Yosemite backcountry expedition for a long holiday weekend beginning on Thursday, July 4th. This provided an excellent opportunity to test my stamina and check out the new equipment in actual field conditions.
This backcountry excursion began south of Yosemite Valley at the Ostrander Trailhead off Glacier Point Rd. After assembling our gear and donning our packs, we headed into the wilderness on a 6-mile hike to our campsite near the ski hut at Ostrander Lake. The ski hut was built for use by cross-country skiers in 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s not open in the summer months. Our hike through the forest took us from 7,000 ft to the mountain lake at 8,600 ft.
The hike to the lake proved instructive in terms of how to organize the large backpack to provide access to gear and food, particularly what items could be hung on the outside and which were best stored in the pouches. The boots got their first workout and proved kind to my feet. Once the camp set-up was complete some of us hiked the local area, including the lake and high ground, checking out the scenery and wildlife. Now and again, we encountered other hikers or campsites, but these were sparse.
The weather was kind to us, no rain, mostly sunshine and temperatures in the 80s. Although I didn’t partake of it myself, there was plenty of hard liquor brought along to ease the transition from city life to wilderness camping. On one occasion I volunteered for an ice retrieval expedition—climbing up a nearby summit to fill a backpack with snow, making cool drinks a real possibility. Even though the calendar indicated early July, snow and ice was still prominent in the shadows at the upper levels.
There were lots of opportunities for exploratory hikes around the lake and into the high mountains
At the end of our stay, we packed up our gear, cleaned the area of any trace of human habitation and headed back to the hustle and bustle of civilization.
Along our return path, the lead person in the group came to an abrupt halt, he turned and held a finder to his lips with a “Shhhh.” There about 20 yards off the path to our left was the biggest deer I had ever see—a large buck with a full head of antlers. After a few seconds, the deer turned back into the forest and we continued on our way. A respectful confrontation of man and beast.
September in the Wilderness
It wasn’t long after the Ostrander hike that I got some bad news from back east. Joanne, my would-be Maryland hiking partner, had broken her ankle and would be in a cast for 8 weeks. The early September Yosemite hike was in jeopardy. Luckily, I was able to get a 2-week extension on the backcountry permit. Our hike was now scheduled for September 18-23. We assumed her ankle would be healed and the fall weather would be kind to us.
On Wednesday, September 18 we arrived at Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows Cathedral Lakes Trailhead and began our early afternoon excursion along the John Muir Trail into the wilderness. The trail had been getting so much use over time that it was severely rutted in places to a depth of 6-8 inches. The erosion probably took years to develop. A slow 3.5-mile hike got us to our first night’s stop at a rough campsite near the Cathedral Lakes. I carried the tent, cooking utensils, and a 15” bear canister, plus each of us carried a sleeping bag and pad, food, water, changes of clothing and miscellaneous gear. I estimate my pack at around 40-45 lbs. The weight of the packs would take some getting used to and there’d be no high-speed running up and down this trail.
We encountered a few hikers on that first day, but none were staying at the lakes. By the time we found a good camping spot, set up the tent and began cooking our spaghetti dinner, it was near 5:00PM. Sundown came at 7:30PM, providing time to clean up and store our food. Any edibles that wild critters might seek had to protected. Our technique was to tie them up and hang the bag and bear canister over a tree limb—high enough so that large animals such as bears could not reach them. We never did encounter a bear during this hike, but the threat was always there.
By 8:00PM nightfall had arrived with a dark, steely blue sky and crescent moon. Stars were making their appearance here and there. The temperature had dropped considerably and, since no fires were allowed in this area, it was time to turn-in and test out the sleeping bags. I would find, to my annoyance, that the mummy-style bag I had purchased was not particularly suitable for extreme cold. It was a tad too light and, to make matters worse, the mummy-style did not allow drawing the legs up into a much warmer fetal-style position.
That first night was instructive. The prohibition on fires, the drop in temperature, and only limited battery power for flashlights meant turning in early. If I had a book to read, I couldn’t read it anyway. The extreme cold was evident when I awoke late in the night to take care of nature. As I returned to the tent, I grabbed a water bottle sitting on the ground and put it to my lips for a drink—nothing came out! The water had frozen solid. Never mind; get back in the mummy bag...
The second day took us 5 miles south to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp at 9,400 ft elevation. There we pitched our tent at about 1:00PM, and I took off on my own to explore the local area. Unfortunately, Joanne’s broken ankle had obviously not completely healed. She had been in considerable discomfort all day as we hiked into the higher elevations. At one point the trail reached 9,800 ft. This High Sierra camp is a favorite stopover point along the John Muir Trail—even featuring canvas tents that can be reserved through the Park. On this day, however, the site was completely empty, no tents, no people. I suspect they had already shut down for the season and cleared everything out.
We had our first campfire that night, although firewood in the area was scarce. Another thing that was hard to find was suitable drinking water. Our bottled water had already run out. I had the water purifier pump, but this late in the season running water was hard to find. The pump instructions suggested the best and safest water to filter was water that was moving along in a stream, as opposed to still water in a lake. Eventually, I did find a small stream with maybe an 8-inch wide, 2-inch deep, trickle of water. Nevertheless, I lowered the plastic tubing into the stream and began pumping. Eventually, cool, clear water began filling the bottles. Our water supply was replenished. If a stream was not found or the pump failed to produce, we’d have been in a world of hurt. There are no 7-11’s or camp stores in the wilderness.
My local discovery hike included a visit into a nearby meadow and then a brief climb partway up a granite dome. In the meadow, a herd of deer munched on short grasses and took little notice of my presence. After dinner that evening, Joanne and I sat around the miniscule fire as the night closed in around us. The crescent moon had grown a little larger; the stars were more plentiful. A shooting star even made a brief appearance. We took it as a good sign. Things would be Okay—cold, but Okay.
Time for Plan B
The next morning Joanne and I had a serious discussion about her fitness to continue, specifically how the ankle was holding up. I felt the previous day’s 5-mile trek had taken its toll on her. Throughout that hike, she trailed behind me, trying to hide the discomfort. She never complained, but it was obvious she was laboring. A lot of expense and planning had gone into this adventure—not to mention her flight to the west coast from Maryland. She is a real trooper and did not want to be the one to back down.
But the truth was, we had three more days and many miles of rugged trails ahead of us. Without considerable rest, her condition would only worsen. That’s when I brought out the large-scale geological survey map. We needed the shortest route back to the trailhead and this map showed all the established trails. We would abandon our southerly course on the John Muir Trail and, instead, head west past the Sunrise Lakes, then north to Tenaya Lake. This plan would require a 4-mile hike of ups and downs between 9,400 and 8,200 ft. Joanne will still be hauling her full pack, but we would take as many as rest stops as needed along the way. Tenaya Lake was one of the most popular bodies of water in Yosemite. We’d camp there overnight. The following morning, I would make a solo run/hike from the lake, along the Tioga Road Highway (Cal Rt 120), to retrieve our car at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead.
And so, that morning of the third day we broke camp and set out for the Sunrise Lakes. Although you’d think the 4-mile distance was but a hop, skip, and a jump—particularly for a pair of runners—Joanne’s ankle pain, the altitude, the rugged up and down terrain, and the weight of our equipment all contributed to a slow, measured pace. We paused a few times for rest breaks and to enjoy the beauty of the environment we passed through. On one occasion we set down the packs and relaxed for several minutes on a sun-warmed boulder. Lunch was in order, so we munched on peanut butter crackers as we took-in the scenery around us: the gray, sloping, rocky ground, the craggy mountain peaks and high buttes. Here and there clumps of mountain pines occupied the lower levels.
On resuming our trek we’d reattach the heavy packs by sitting on the ground with our backs to the pack, placing our arms in the loops and rising with the pack in position. Once beyond Sunrise Lakes we began heading north. Forestry workers were manicuring this part of the trail and other hikers were encountered heading south to Half Dome. That’s Okay, Half Dome wasn’t going anywhere. We’d be back for another try, on another day.
It was about an hour’s hike beyond our lunch break location when I realized my hat was no longer on my head. Since this was my favorite Oriole’s cap, I decided I needed to retrieve it, while Joanne continued to our next rest stop. After depositing the backpack behind a tree some distance away from the trail, I tightened up my hiking shoes and took off running. While there was always a possibility some other hiker would confiscate my cherished souvenir before I got there, that never happened. The cap was there on the boulder, still taking in the view, exactly where I left it. But this little side trip did not stop there. On returning to the wooded area where the heavy backpack was hidden, everything looked the same—the trail, the trees, the underbrush. Exactly where was that pack? Did someone take it? The infamous Sasquatch perhaps?
It took half an hour to retrieve the cap and return to the area of the backpack. It was almost another half hour before the pack was found. What looked like an area I would easily recognize, appeared totally different when returning and looking from the opposite direction. A lesson learned. I donned the pack and set off to find Joanne.
We reached the beautiful blue Tenaya Lake by mid-afternoon and set up our tent. Although there were no other occupants there, this was a well-used, formal walk-in campground on the south side of the lake. The lake water was clean and not as cold as I expected. With the sun still high overhead, I decided to strip down to my running shorts and take a dip. I got in as far as my waist, splashed around a bit, and that was enough for me. It was refreshing, nonetheless.
The next morning there was time-enough for a few sips of coffee before heading north paralleling the Tioga Rd. Not much was stirring at 6:45AM; however, it wasn’t long before I met a half dozen-runners preparing for a 13-mile trail run into the Yosemite Valley. In an item for the small-world category, all the runners were strangers to me, but I was surprised to hear they knew two of my fellow Bay-area runners from Alameda.
I arrived at the trailhead shortly after another detour to help a lady in distress. She had lost a hubcap from her vehicle and I paused to help her find it. We never found the hub cap, but she did give me a ride for the remaining 2 miles to the trailhead. The Bonneville started right up and I was on my way.
In a matter of minutes, I was pulling up along the shoulder near the Tenaya campsite. After a small breakfast of dry cereal and coffee, Joanne and I began breaking down the campsite. Our 6-day hike had been reduced to 4 days. We did eventually make it down to Half Dome, but we’d only see it from across the valley. After breaking camp, we drove to Glacier Point—the scenic overlook directly across the valley from Half Dome. The Point provides an iconic view of the granite monolith and much of the Yosemite backcountry. After a late lunch in the valley, our return trip to the San Francisco Bay area was underway. I would make that summit to the top of Half Dome, wearing that same Orioles cap, but it would be a lot more civilized and not occur for another 2 years.
In the latter part of October 2015 JB and Jane packed a lunch and loaded our bags into the SUV for a trip from the San Francisco Bay area into the great American southwest. The goal was to see a little more of this country and to visit a few relatives along the way. JB was two weeks out of thumb surgery, his left forearm in a cast. But there was a pressing need to test some new trail running shoes while the sun was shining and the temperatures were still moderate. The 11-day, 1,500-mile sojourn took us into southern California, Arizona, Utah, back to southern California and finally a return north to the SF Bay area and El Sobrante.
The major hikes on this trip were both in Utah--Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.
The first stop in Bryce Canyon was at Farview Point
View from Inspiration Point
View from Inspiration Point
Jane: One small step for women, one giant step…
Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trails, 3.1 miles
Switchbacks down to 5.5 mile Peekaboo Trail
Bryce Canyon hoodoos
Jane on Bryce Canyon Fairyland Loop Trail
Bryce Canyon, JB and a nearby hoodoo
Bryce Canyon, Navajo Loop Trail--and a dog standing
Zion National Park--a view from Observation Point
Jane prepares for the first hike of the day
Jane on 5.4-mile round-trip West Rim trail to Angel’s Landing
JB on trail to Angel’s Landing
Jane near top of Angel’s Landing
Security chains near top of trail to Angel’s Landing. As we eyed the steep drop to the valley below and hung onto the chain for dear life, two young runners came scampering by, not holding on to anything, leaping from rock to rock--the fearlessness of youth.
Angel’s Landing, the last 200 yards. Too dangerous for a one-handed climber.
JB on West Rim trail coming down from Angel’s Landing
The next day: Zion National Park, Virgin River access to River Narrows Trail
JB on the Virgin River near the entrance to the Narrows. There was no hiking the waters of the Narrows on this day for JB and Jane. Threat of flash floods, 12-foot walls of water and death meant we would hike elsewhere.
The switchbacks of Zion’s Observation Point Trail
JB on the 8-mile round trip to Zion's Observation Point
JB on Zion Observation Point Trail
In the clouds at the pinnacle of Observation Point. By the time we reached the top it was noticeably colder and raining.
JB and Jane bundled up against the weather at Observation Point
Looking down at the river and shuttle bus in the valley below
The trail down from Observation Point
The next day: On the road from Utah to southern California