Yosemite National Park backpack
An approximately 28 mile semi loop 3-4 day moderate backpack, including a short, roughly two mile section, of off trail travel for those who want to get their feet wet at traveling by map and compass!
Off trail for the initiated is pretty much the only way to hike. The solitude, the peace, the chance to see wildlife grows exponentially when you get off the beaten path. And, off trail is pretty much the only way my husband and I hike anymore. You will find stories in these pages more and more about off trail hiking if you stick around long enough. A few hours up a known and marked trail....then we hop off the path for adventures unknown and hike by map and compass only. We haven't gotten a GPS yet, and after this experience I am about to share, we learned it is best to be knowledgeable enough to navigate without GPS even if you are going to carry one.
The Sierra (notice I did not say "The Sierras" as that is a misnomer as there is only one mountain range, not several, thus the name is correctly "The Sierra," but I digress...) is the ultimate playground for backpackers. Folks chomp at the bit all winter long if they don't winter camp and they can't wait for the roads to open and the trails to start peeking through the snow. In fact many hardier backpackers start their season as soon as the first road opens and head for the high country while snows still blanket the land. My husband and I are among those hardier backpackers. We are just impatient enough to head out as soon as we can possibly get anywhere near a trailhead. In the spring of 2000 on Memorial Day, our first hike of the Sierra season was to be theoretically a mostly on trail hike with just a couple miles off trail in one little section. Notice my use of the word theoretically, as any backpacker knows that if you hike early season, snows can turn any "on trail" hike into a map and compass "blood, sweat and tears" extravaganza. Our trailhead this year was out of Wawona, heading up to Chilnualna Falls where you better have your camera out and ready as the rainbows down canyon from the falls as you are hiking up canyon are simply stunning.
Chilnualna Falls Rainbows...
For those who don't want a swashbuckling adventure, but just a nice early season getaway, Chilnualna Falls are a lovely overnight early season destination. However, this trip, we bypassed the falls and pushed on heading North and slightly West "on trail" towards Turner Meadow, then East to Ostrander Lake, going off trail for a short distance to catch the Buena Vista Trail to Buena Vista Lake then Buena Vista Pass to Royal Arches, Johnson Lake then ultimately back to Chilualna Falls and back to our car. Nice little loop with lovely country, views of the breathtaking Clark Range along the way, and mostly "on trail" for an "easy" first season warm up trip.
By the time we had gotten just a short way past the Falls heading to Turner Meadows though, the snow was starting to get thick on the ground. We weren't yet postholing, that would come later. But, we were already starting to look for patches of trail and cut logs indicating trail under the snow, and the park's old pathfinder "i" marks carved in the trees. However, since we were in the trees we weren't too worried about the snow, as once we got back out in the open and especially in the sections above treeline, the sun would have helped us out, and we'd have plenty of snowfree trail patches peeking through the snowcover to keep us on route. The morning was a bit of a slog though, and postholing began in earnest at some point before lunch. By the time we called a halt to break for lunch, I was beginning to wonder what this trip had in store for us!
Sitting on a log in the trees enjoying a large juicy orange after our cheese and crackers brought us back to battery though, and we set off once more. The snow piled deeper and deeper as we went higher and I was quite grateful for my gaiters. After spending the better part of the day in the trees and snow, we finally broke thru the trees into the open. And by this time, having clawed our way through deeper and deeper snows as we navigated higher and higher, it was no surprise to find the entire untreed landscape was solid white! Snow covered everything ...so much for the sunbaked areas blessing us with snow free patches of trail! In fact, there was enough snow that there were still cross country skiers about! We joined the handful of skiers milling around Ostrander Hut briefly, then left them behind as we headed off trail for Hart Lake not too far away.
After about 15 minutes trudging through the snow, we noticed that two guys we had seen at Ostrander Lake were also headed off in the direction of Hart Lake. They were roughly 30-40 yards below us traversing the same slope about the same pace, and we had intermittent views of them and had given each other grins and nods as we all slogged through the melting deep snows of spring. Gary and I had actually never been to Hart Lake before. Generally it's a good idea to hike to a place in summer that you plan on hiking with snow still on the ground...but then we hadn't planned on all this snow! Oh well, we learned long ago to be flexible and roll with the punches. And if it got bad enough, we could double back the way we came from, and jettison our trip plans if need be. So far though, our spirits were high, so we kept on hauling ourselves through the snow. As the daylight starting getting short and the sun started dropping in the sky though, I chanced to look over at the two guys we had been mirroring and noticed that they were waving us over. They were studying the terrain ahead and had some concerns about the route to take. Gary and I pulled out our map and took a look...we were right on target. We knew we were close to Hart Lake finally, and it being obvious by now that we were all headed to the same destination, we decided to go the last bit together. Probably no less than 30 minutes later in fact we were standing by the shores of the lake admiring it's smooth clear reflections!
Hart Lake With Enough Melted Snow to have a section of the lake showing lovely reflections....
The kids we had been hiking with decided to set up camp by the water. Gary and I long ago decided we did not like to have lakeshore camps as they tend to be colder and buggier, so we bid our friends adieu and headed around the shore to climb the little ridge on the north side and catch the last warming rays of the setting sun while we set up camp. As we began to part ways, I heard one of the kids say "wasn't it great that we made it as far as Buena Vista Lake already?" Warning bells went off in my head as I spun to look at Gary, and caught him glancing nervously at me. We both thought the same thing...how could we have so misread our map! We thought we were at Hart Lake...which is a good two miles before Buena Vista Lake! Wow! Over all the years of off trail hiking we've made just about every bonehead mistake we can make reading a map. But...we thought we were finally getting so good at it, how could we be so off this time. Suddenly worried about being off trail without knowing exactly where we were, we hustled around the shore and up the ridgeline and dropped our packs to figure things out. Gary and I both grabbed at the map and stared at it! No... there was the ridge depicted by the squashed contour lines on the map. And... the lake in front of us with it's distinctive shape matched exactly the Hart Lake drawn on the map. The open plateau we crossed between Ostrander and Hart Lakes was unmistakable too. It was clearly obvious that we knew where we were, and that was right at Hart Lake! I told Gary we needed to go talk to those kids and show them the map. Gary offered to go talk to them while I stayed and started setting up camp and getting dinner ready while I still had some sun to help me. Once the sun goes down, fingers get too cold to be out trying to work zippers on bags and turning knobs on stoves! So, I began working on camp chores as Gary began picking his way back down the ridgeline.
Gary was gone quite some time, but by the time I had tarp and bags out and dinner about ready, Gary finally wandered back up the ridge to our little flat spot we called home for the night. "Did they believe you? What did they say? Are they still thinking they are at Buena Vista Lake?" The words rushed out of me, as I stood impatiently waiting to hear what happened, for it is no simple thing to be lost in the wilderness thinking you are one place and are really at another! Gary had delicately explained to the kids that it might be a good idea to look at our map. He pulled it out and showed the boys the ridgeline, the lake, the plateau and a few other features displayed on the map that were quite prominent in the landscape around us. At first they didn't want to believe him. It meant they had farther to hike tomorrow. And they pulled out their GPS to get a reading. It seems you need 3 satellites to triangulate your position and they could only get 2. Their GPS was useless. And....they didn't really know how to read a map well having relied on their GPS. But, they did end up seeing what Gary and I saw on the map and knew for sure that we were all at Hart Lake! Thank goodness. We relaxed then, enjoying our quiet supper and warm cups of cocoa as we sat in our bags watching the stars unfold in the inky black sky. Finally, we snuggled down in our bags and nodded off watching shooting stars streak across the night sky above us.
Lazing around our little flat spot on the ridge
With the morning's light we were up and at it and on the trail first, pausing to say goodbye to our new friends as we left the lake bowl. They were headed in a completely different direction than we and we would not cross paths again, or so we thought. Sauntering off in the warm morning sun, Gary and I had an "easy" downhill stretch for an hour or so as we dropped down to a creek crossing, both enjoying the long downhill before our eventual climb back up for our midmorning snack on Buena Vista Pass. At the bottom of the slope we actually came across about 2 feet of exposed trail! Hallelujah! We were on the right path! It is amazing when you are going by map and compass how such a little thing like a sawn log (The only reason for cut logs in the backcountry is for trail clearing) , an "i" blaze on a tree, or a tiny short section of exposed snow free trail can boost your spirits as you realize you are right where you thought you were! In fact, it's quite a feeling of empowerment to wander through the wilderness by map and compass and pass from one landmark to another knowing you can go where you want and always find your way home. And that's exactly how we felt this lovely morning. We reached the creek and criss crossed right over the top of it...walking on snow laid so thick over the top of the creek that we had no fear of falling through and into the water. And knowing exactly where we were made the morning that much sweeter. Too bad that feeling wouldn't last!
Our level path eventually starting climbing, all good things must end, and so the climbing began. I don't remember the particular details of how steep that climb was or how long, but it was a workout. In due time though, we topped through the thinning trees obtaining wonderful views from the top of 9,040 foot Buena Vista Pass. Spotting a nice exposed dry spot on a large flat car sized boulder, we clambered up and sat down stretching our legs out to a midmorning snack with some absolutely magnificent views! Most times we seem to eat fast and move on quickly, but this day we truly enjoyed our rest. Finishing, we packed up and started off to go down the South side of the pass and had gone a couple hundred yards when all of a sudden I realized Gary was waving at someone! I spun around to see who on earth could possibly have hiked as hard as we had through all that snow and gotten way out in the middle of nowhere as we had. Due to the distance, it took me a minute to recognize who it was. Coming up the last few feet of uphill towards us, the two figures hollering out hellos and waving vigorously, were the kids at the lake from the night before! Puzzled, we both headed back to where we had stopped for lunch and met them. "We're Lost," they both exclaimed. Gary and I took off our packs once again as obviously we needed to help them, we weren't just going to leave them stranded out here. As their story unfolded, they apparently had packed a short time after us and headed out on their path, but had quickly gotten hopelessly lost. So, they managed to backtrack back to where they had last seen us, and had followed our tracks all morning, catching us finally all the way up on top of Buena Vista Pass! And we thought we had worked hard that morning! Looking at the map, Gary and I spent some time figuring out a route for them to follow out. Their car was left at another trailhead in an opposite direction from ours, so they didn't want to follow us all the way out. But, we found a nice ridgeline that slanted down into an obvious valley that should lead them right back to their car. They thanked us profusely and headed on their way. That truly was the last we saw of them, but we thought of them the rest of our trip, wondering if they had had any more difficulties finding their way, and wondering if they made it out to their car. We even checked Yosemite websites after to see if any missing hikers had been reported! Thankfully, none had been.
Finally Gary and I were making our way off the pass and into another drainage. What a beautiful morning! The sun's warmth kept us company all that morning as we had an easy stroll down a gradually sloping valley. At one point we were amazed to realize that though we were walking on a thick snow blanket covering the entire valley, we could hear water quite clearly rushing underneath our feet! The crusty ice on top was thick enough and hard enough that it kept it's form and the water melted and ran under the crust! Hiking down a large granite slab, we had no fear of falling through the icy crust, as we would just hit solid rock, but it was quite interesting to realize we were literally walking on water!
After a couple hours of moving down valley though, things started not adding up. We kept expecting to find a little lake. Also, we kept expecting to see the Royal Arches, a landmark that should be carved in the cliff faces to the left of us by rockfalls. But, neither of these landmarks showed, and the landscape just kept looking the same...snow and trees. In fact, all we saw were trees, trees and more trees on the sides of us with the neverending steady roar of rushing water under the snow below our feet. When you are offtrail and not finding what you expect to find, after awhile you start getting irritated and concerned. We inspected the map repeatedly, but it didn't change a thing. I wore my compass on a string around my neck and checked it, and rechecked it to no avail. Finally Gary called a halt. Suggesting we stop for lunch and get fuel on board while we scrutinized the map more thoroughly, we pulled over and dropped out packs and both slumped down on a pair of downed trees facing each other. After a few minutes we called on our mental and physical reserves and started putting together some lunch. We pulled out our humus and pita bread which helped immensely, the map study did not. I told Gary though, that I bet within 20 minutes of restarting, we would find the arches and lake. Our spirits recovered somewhat due to the fortifying lunch, and we resolved to stay upbeat and find our lake.
I wore a compass around my neck and checked the map repeatedly
Standing once again, we pushed off to find our route. The landscape began flattening out a bit and the tree cover thickened. I told Gary I wanted to aim left a little bit and check out what was on the other side of the trees as it looked like they were thinning to the left of us. About five minutes had passed after leaving our lunch stop and as we shot left through the trees, all of a sudden I saw a tiny patch of turquoise about a foot in diameter at my feet....staring at it a minute, I suddenly realized we were standing at the edge of the lake!!!! We had found it! We knew where we were! Looking up across the snow covered lake we recognized the arches etched in the cliff face! They waited patiently through the ages for just that moment of us finding them! If you've ever been lost, and then found your way, you know how excited we got! There really was no lake to find, as it was covered in snow, thus we never would have been able to see it through the trees. Only in varying our route slightly and edging closer to the cliffs were we able to spy the one tiny corner of the lake that had turqoise ice showing instead of snow. Talking a mile a minute, we reveled in the beauty around us, enjoying the exhilaration of finding our way!
Royal Arches on the far side of the snow covered lake....
Eventually it was time to push on, as we had a few miles left to go before setting up camp for the night. Still with no trail showing though, we slid through the trees looking for the creek crossing we knew was not too far ahead. This creek crossing would mark a change in scenery that would lead us down a newer and easier section of route. We would be tracing a watershed downhill until eventually we'd come out of the backcountry to Chilnualna Creek near where we began our journey a couple of days ago. I don't recall it being more than 30 minutes later when we found something we absolutely did not expect to see...we came across a trail sign! An honest to goodness trail sign peaking thru the snow right in front of us! Snow was still our constant companion, and this was the first real sign of trail we had seen since what felt like days ago, but was really only hours ago. The last sign of trail we had found being that tiny patch of snow free trail by the creek below Buena Vista pass. Yahoo! A real trail sign!
Kissing the trail sign!:)
Spirits up, we continued down slope and shortly thereafter we started dropping elevation quickly and could hear the water roaring louder and louder. Uh oh...we could hear the water "roaring." This was supposed to be an intermittent seasonal creek, a dotted blue line on the map, a creek that in some seasons was completely dried up. Getting closer to the roaring water whose noise drowned out all other wilderness noises, we were chagrined to see our seasonal intermittent creek was a frothing, leaping, foaming white water river! And, to top it off, this roaring, frothing unexpected river blocked our way, and we absolutely had to cross it to get where we needed to go. The only other option being to turn around and backtrack, retracing our entire trip...but we were two thirds done with our trip! We had hiked almost two full days in some not so easy hiking conditions, and all we had left was a bit more today and then a long next day and we'd be back to the trailhead. Determined to cross, we spent quite some time trying to find a way. We did find one tiny snow bridge left that really wasn't an option for me. The "creek" was about eight feet across and several feet deep. A fall into the water would be quite ugly. The day was late and the water swift and a dunking could mean being flushed downstream uncontrollably, or at the very least suffering life threatening hypothermia. So, we went about a half mile upstream....then a half mile downstream. We found not one fallen tree to cross over on, we found not one spot where the creek widened enough to allow the water to get shallow enough to wade through. We were getting desperate! Light was fading fast and we just had to find some way to cross! Finally, Gary decided he wanted to cross at the little snowbridge we spied when we first came out to the "creek." So, we went back once again to look at it. It is true the snow bridge was fairly wide where it attached to the banks, maybe even five feet wide, but in the middle the bridge narrowed to about a 12 inch waist! I was just plain scared. Broad jump was one of my events in school long ago, but my life never depended on how well I jumped back then! After debating several minutes, Gary asked me, if he crossed it first successfully, would I try. I grudgingly consented. What was I thinking?! So, giving himself some room, Gary backed up and took a running leap. He flew through the air landing on the far side of the snowbridge. But, he missed landing solidly on the bank by about a foot. With one foot on the bank, he was not in danger of falling in, but as he landed, the foot dragging behind jammed harshly onto the snow bridge. The concussion of his weight and his leg punching down on it left a gaping crack running the entire width where the snow bridge attached to the bank. Gary was now on one side, and I on the other. And we both stared at the damaged snowbridge with it's obvious break running along the bank's edge where it once attached solidly to the bank and realized it would break completely free at any moment and be swept downstream. Gary was yelling something at me, but I could not hear him over the roar of the water. Gesturing wildly, he was telling me to go ahead and jump! No way! I couldn't do it! I'd fall in! I'd die! He then mimed at me to throw my pack over first, that I could do the jump if I had no pack. Maybe he could pull that off, but even if the broadjump was among my best event in school, the softball toss and shot put were my worst events. I'd throw my pack right in the water if I tried that! I went up stream and down yet again looking desperately for any way at all to cross. But, I found absolutely no other way across. I suddenly realized I had no choice other than to jump, and the longer I stood debating and looking and hoping, the more scared I was going to be. I backed up several feet and without thinking another thought, I ran as fast as I could and jumped! Disaster! I landed sprawled on the broken snow bridge that at any moment was going to break free completely and be swept downstream with me on it! With my feet dangling dangerously in the water, not able to get any purchase on the snowcovered bank, it would be only moments before I was swept away if I couldn't get onto the bank. Suddenly, Gary reached down and I felt his solid hands under my armpits as he yanked me up, pack and all, right out of the water and off the snowbridge and onto the far bank! Shocked, I lay in the snow shaking with the aftermath of fear and adrenaline coursing through my veins. I dared not try to stand. When finally I did manage to gain my feet, my legs were pure jelly and I could barely take a step. I'd never experienced that depth of fear and adrenaline before, and have not since. Finally though, I recovered enough to walk and we pushed off slowly, moving faster as my strength returned, looking to find a place to set up camp and get me dried off before complete darkness overtook us and hypothermia set in.
It never ceases to amaze me how cozy and homey the backcountry becomes once groundsheet is laid, bags are fluffed out and warm clothes donned. All the travails of the day slide away and aches and pains go from a dull roar to a simmer taking a backseat to yummy warm food being prepared and eaten, as the dark curtain of night drops down over the surrounding landscape and stars start making an appearance on nature's overhead stage.
The rest of the trip was anticlimactic except for a couple of small events. As we made our way downstream, the snow cover got thinner and easier to slog through and by midafternoon we came out of the wilderness and towards a guy and a girl sitting on the banks of Chilnualna creek soaking up the sun. As we approached, we gave them a jolt, a s we were the last thing they expected to see. The guy looked at us briefly before blurting out "You came out of there?!" with total amazement. We just smiled and said that yea, there was a bit of snow back there as we continued quietly past them. Ah, we had found other backpackers... we made it. But...we were a bit premature in our congratulations to ourselves as suddenly we noticed that the one last creek we had yet to ford seemed about 50 feet wide and about 3 feet deep and MOVING! And, we also realized that this same "creek" was the lovely Chilnualna Falls with five tiers of falls, the first fall being about a hundred foot drop! And we weren't sure exactly how far away the falls were, but we were guessing not more than a few hundred feet downstream! Not again! But, continuing a few minutes downstream, thankfully we came to a downed tree across the creek. Thank goodness! Thinking what a piece of cake this was going to be, I hopped up on the tree first and started to cross. I didn't get too far though before I realized the water was deep and swift below me and this log had been used as a crossing for a very long time as it was slick and smooth and hard to get a grip on with my shoes. In addition, there were a couple of branches sticking up on the way across that made it even more difficult to cross due to having to twist and turn to try to slide my pack through the branches. Finally I gave up and started backtracking pushing Gary back to the shore we had just left. Deciding he would give it a try then, Gary hopped up and after a couple of minutes, was safely across. Then, he turned to wave me across. But, the more vigorously he waved at me to cross, the more vigorously I shook my head no. I knew I could not do it, at least not with my pack on. He tried yelling helpful instructions to me but it was no use, the roar of the "creek" drowned out all voice. Finally, leaving his pack on the far bank, Gary came back across the slick downed tree to me. He gently took my pack from my shoulders, put it on his back and made a second trip across the log. Taking a deep sigh of relief, I hopped up behind him and slid across the tree ...on my fanny! There are times in a marriage when you are so grateful for your partner, and I will never forget the help mine afforded me that one spring in Yosemite hiking in the snowy backcountry above Chinlualna Falls!
Try this loop sometime for a bit of offtrail exploration and solitude. While the rest of the hordes of Yosemite backpackers head for the true high country of the Clark and Cathedral Ranges east of this area, with the exception of the Chilhualna Falls and Ostrander Lake, this area remains lightly traveled for most of it's route. Experienced offtrail backpackers will enjoy this trip very early season, "creek" crossings and all...and for the rest, I would suggest waiting til mid June at least!