Friday, February 3, 2017

Yosemite Birthday Backpacking - Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

Yosemite mountains

Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter. - John Muir

I decided this past year that for my Birthday I was going to celebrate by taking a kick-ass solo backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park, one of my favorite places in the world and also where my ex took me on my very first backpacking trip for my Birthday a few years back that pretty much changed my life. I kinda decided to just drive up there last minute and figure out what route I was going to take whenever I got there or at least close.
Although this was the scene of my first backpacking trip I've only been on one backpacking trip in the park so therefore there is still so much territory to be explored! I literally ending up finding my itinerary by scrolling through a few adventure companies' trips that they offered to take clients on. I figured if they charged people for it, it had to be good. And this was Yosemite. I don't believe you can go wrong here whatever or wherever you choose, am I right?
Yosemite B&W Granite Mountains
The sun about to descend behind the great granite walls
When planning the trip I did see that the weather was going to be less than ideal for a Fall backpacking trip, aka there was a chance of snow on my first day out, but I said whatever, I was already well on my way and I was going backpacking in Yosemite or bust! And so I pressed my adventure-mobile on, got my permit after speculation of which route to do because my initial plans both required buses and/or shuttles that were currently not running because it was officially October. Blast. Didn’t think my birthday was really that late in the year, but apparently everything shuts down at the beginning of October here in terms of transportation. Hmmm.
Yosemite Fall Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne
Purdy fall colors along the Tuolumne
I decided on doing the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne route that would start around White Wolf where recently a guy named Peter Jackson, ( missing from, down to Pate Valley and then head up to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp meandering by the Tuolumne River almost the whole way. I got this permit after some speculation because I would have to hitchhike to get back to my car, but finally I said screw it, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, do one thing every day that scares you. Not that hitch-hiking entirely frightens me but Iʼve only done it once, and with great success I do say, but I think the fear is from watching too many horror movies and being too many of the stereotypes (solo, female, etc...).
Yosemite Pate Valley 12.2 Sign
Catching those snowflakes
at the beginning of my hike
Grand Plan:
Day 1 - Hike down to Pate Valley - 12.2 miles - 3,500ft. elevation loss
Day 2 - Hike along the Tuolumne River to Glen Aulin - 14.5 miles - 3,600ft. elevation gain
Day 3 - Hike from Glen Aulin to May Lake - 8.0 miles - 2,254ft. elevation gain
Day 4 - Hike to peak of Mount Hoffmann and out to Tioga Road - 5.9 miles - 1,586ft. elevation gain
Totals - 40.6 miles, and 7,440ft. elevation gain

Yosemite Pate Valley Trail
Of all the paths you take, make sure a few of them are dirt
- John Muir
I realized when I finally started hiking that I was going to have to book it and book it fast if I wanted to get to my first campsite at a reasonable hour because White Wolf was closed I had to drive further down Tioga Rd. and deposit my smellies in a bear box several miles away, then park at a parking lot a few miles closer to White Wolf, but still further away from my original starting point than I thought. This meant a 12.2 mile day instead of 10. NBD. Except that it started snowing. F. Do I really want to go on this trip? Not a big fan of the cold over here, ain't gonna lie. I may have thought this briefly in my mind, but the rest of my mind ruled out, I was determined to do it, I needed it, and a little snow wasnʼt going to stop me! Besides, I was starting up at a higher elevation and going down about 3,500 ft. It was bound to be warmer down there and then the temperature was supposed to increase in the next few days. Hike on y'all, hike on!
Yosemite Tuolumne River

It was a tad chilly to start, but really not that bad, despite the snow. It was actually kinda fun to hold my tongue out and catch snowflakes...I feel like itʼs been a while since Iʼve really appreciated the snow and the cold weather. I did see one couple at the beginning of the trail and that was it, it was just me, myself and I for the rest of the day and most of the next one as well. I was aching to get out there in the backcountry away from it all and I think I had made the right choice of which route to take.
Yosemite Nature Collage
Trail Treasures
My first campsite was divine. A pretty decent sized clearing across from the water, and yes, it wasnʼt the required distance away but there was also a granite wall on the other side where you couldnʼt go any further so.... I had the campsite and probably the surrounding 10 square miles to myself for all I knew. I could totally peel my clothes off and run around naked and maybe a deer might see me. Maybe. If only it weren't so darn cold...

Yosemite Glen Aulin Sign
Glen Aulin just a mere 14.3 away...
The next morning was pretty brisk getting out of my coccoon, but since I went to bed shortly after 8 I was up by 6:30, before the sun even showed its timid face. Today was my day yo. It was my birthday!! Hellz to the yeah! Today was going to be a grand day.

I started out hiking shortly after 8 am. I got to the Pate Valley intersection that I didnʼt quite hit the day before in not too long of time and that's where I took the split on the trail to head to Glen Aulin and make my way along the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. I was anticipating all kinds of illustriousness to unfold before my eyes today.

To start out, it was perfect fall hiking weather; cool and not too sunny. The sun would all of a sudden appear when you really needed it and the wind would just rustle a wave when you were getting too hot. It was grand. Except when it wasnʼt. Iʼm not going to lie and tell you it was all peaches and rainbow unicorns. At times it sucked. I drudged up 3,600 ft in elevation over about 15 miles and I wasnʼt in that great of backpacking shape. And then my iPod died, I know, poor, poor me, waaaaahhhhh. But I am a music lover and I love to have my jams on when Iʼm hoofing it up some heavy switchbacks. At least there was the river whirling, swirling and splashing playfully at me all day.
Yosemite Stone Staircase Trail
Stairway to Heaven?
And hoof it up switchbacks I did. All. Day. Despite it being a hard hiking day, it was magnificent in terms of scenery. I stopped for lunch at a point where there were ridges in front of me, mountains behind me, waterfalls to the right of me and the river down below. Not a soul in sight. Who could ask for more? I found a perfect little rock chair and just really enjoyed what my eyes were feasting upon as I feasted on a special birthday lunch with fancy cheese and olives.

Yosemite Grand Canyon of Tuolumne View
My lunchtime view - not too shabby!
Yosemite Lone Stone with Ray of Sun
And then I continued. I started climbing up and up and up and out of this gorge. And it was gorge. The Gorge Gorge was my little nickname for it. Waterfalls just started to sputter out from the hillside and I wasnʼt sure ever if I had encountered one that they had actually named on the map (California, LeConte, and WaterWheel Falls are the most popular) because every one seemed grander and more voluminous than the previous.

Yosemite Waterfall

Yosemite Waterfall Grand Canyon

Yosemite Waterfall Grand Canyon
I kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing, and finally when I thought I was almost climbed out of that there Gorge Gorge I finally saw two other human species. And they was on a day hike down from Glen Aulin, the camp where I was headed. Wahoo! My feet were dancing in delight. Not that today had been super particularly hard, but it was a sufficient enough of a challenge and I was ready to kick back, kick up those tired and weary feet and relax. Ahhhh.

Yosemite Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne View
Looking back into the gorgeous valley
Yosemite Granite Views
At the campsite there were a couple of couples and a couple of South Bound PCT hikers. I chatted with one about his worry that it already started to snow and they were just about to hit the JMT section, notorious for its super high elevation passes you have to go over for about 3 weeks straight. I wished him luck and gifted him one of my lighters since he had none (his friend accidentally hiked out with his) until his next re-supply. I believe in good hiking karma. I do. I do.
Yosemite Fall in the valley
Autumn had finally arrived in the valley
So that was a pretty chilly night. Think it got down into the 20s, not sure. Things froze. I could barely muster the courage to get out of my sleeping bag, you know, the usual. Wanted to warm up a bit before moving on and decided to have my breakfast on the bridge while looking at the waterfall that the campground is named after. And of which I got zero pictures of because I was there at horrible times for photos. But I swear, it was gorgeous. You’ll either have to believe me, or just go see it for yourself….or both. 😉
Yosemite View May Lake
Yosemite View May Lake
Yosemite View May Lake
Views by the May Lake Camp
The hike to May Lake was a nice, relaxing (compared to the day before) 8 miles and a shorter elevation gain of 2254 ft. and one of the best things happened on the way there. At a trail junction I ran into this girl and as we exchanged hellos she asked if I had begun my trip a few days ago by the Lukens Lake trailhead in the snow. I said yeppers, that was me, and she continued to tell me how I was an inspiration to her and how she looked at me getting ready by my car and said if she is doing it, screw it, I’ll do it too and still continued her trip and was so grateful that she had. I was stoked. I had been an inspiration and a good influence for someone to go choose adventure. Hell yeah. Best Birthday present ever.
Yosemite May Lake
May Lake
When I arrived at the May Lake High Sierra Camp it struck me that I was heading back into civilization soon. There were multitudes of day hikers with small backpacks and little worries of the temperature dropping below the 20s that night. But it was still serene and definitely had that backcountry vibe, especially after the day hikers left and the handful of us backpackers remained.
I decided to scramble up this random pile of rocks opposite the lake by the campground and was graciously rewarded. All of a sudden Yosemite Valley just opened up her trenches and lay everything out in the open to see. Half Dome was bam straight in the middle of everything and views generated for as far as I could twist my hips to catch sight of. I was excited to return to this spot in the morning to study and read and write and lounge and really anything in life that I like to do I would like to do at this very spot. Ahh, magical.
Yosemite View May Lake

Yosemite View May Lake
Views from my 'secret' spot across from May Lake
The next day I went back to my spot as anticipated after packing everything up to have my breakfast there and study a bit before I hiked down. I was going to re-certify my Wilderness First Responder certification a day after this trip ended and I was farther behind in my study guide that I would’ve liked but I also really wanted to enjoy my time here. I wasn’t too old to pull a semi-all-nighter, was I??

I ended up talking to this dude that was camping at May Lake the night before as well and had told him to come check out this spot before he left and he showed me on his map how there was a trail up Mt. Hoffman, which wasn't on my map for some reason, and which was looming over us at May Lake and was apparently 2 things: 1. The epicenter of Yosemite Park and 2. One of John Muir’s favorite spots. And then another lovely couple came up to my special ‘hidden’ spot and the husband told me of a quote that John Muir had said about Mt. Hoffman when asked if one only had one day to spend in Yosemite what should they do Muir said: "I would go straight to Mount Hoffman, spend the night on the summit, and the next morning go down by May Lake to Tenaya Lake."

That was it, I decided that I had to hike to the top of it before I left. YOLO, right??!! The stats said that it was only 1.5 miles to the top with a 1,500ft. elevation gain so I figured that mofo wouldn’t take too long. However, I already started the hike at 9,270ft. elevation and I was climbing to a nice hefty 10,856. And then there was the rocky section where you couldn’t tell if you were on the trail or not because there were about 12,345 different sets of cairns. And then a well-laid out trail again. And then more cairns. And more cairns. And then some more cairns. But then you were practically at the top and it was just a matter of finding out which way you can slog your butt to the peak over some 400 feet of boulders. And then boom, Top of the World!!!
Yosemite View from Mount Hoffmann
Yosemite view from Mount Hoffmann
Views from the top of Mount Hoffmann - breathtaking!
The 360 degree view was ridic and of course made every hill escalating step worth it. Not too long after I arrived that same couple came to join me at the peak. The lady arrived first, husband a few minutes after. She entertained me with stories of how she’d approached this peak from so many different areas, most of them off trail and how much her and her husband used to hike and how they would practically jog up here. They were both at least in their 60’s. Loves it. Feed me more. These are the stories I delight in hearing, such an inspiration. But alas, I had to go. I had many miles to go before I even got to my car that afternoon. And then the drive back…oooh I didn’t even want to think about it. So I started hiking.

Hiking down went rather fast except that darn rocky section where I believe I went down a completely different route on the descent. But before I knew it I was back to camp and then found the trail that I needed to take down the mountain. It was only supposed to be 1.2 miles to the trailhead but I didn’t realize that was only to the parking lot. The road where I could actually start hitching would be another 1.7 miles away. I tried to not battle in my mind about being stupid and hiking that peak because I knew I would be in bed around midnight or later, but I didn’t regret it. I would do it over and over again. The whole darn thing. From start to finish. It was an amazing birthday trip!!

My anxiety about hitchhiking didn't have long to wander and float around in my mind because I ended up getting picked up by one of the first cars that I raised my thumb at. It was a JMT hiker and his friend he met on trail. I was so ecstatic, not knowing for certain how long it could've possibly taken me to get back to my car, but now I was making moves!
Yosemite View May Lake from Above
View of May Lake from the trail above it
Alas I arrived at my car, my backpacking trip was over and it was time to return to the stresses of the 'real' world. Looking back though I learned a few things on this trip:

  • When adventure is an option, and your mind has one ounce of doubt, always chose adventure!! And adventure is always an option 😉  I had several times on this trip where I wavered in my mind about doing certain things (what to do for my birthday to begin with and the final pondering of whether I should climb Mount Hoffmann) and I chose adventure. And I was graciously rewarded. Go with your instinct and go out there and keep choosing adventure!!
  • Embrace the unknown. I'm not a huge fan of the unknown but I'm learning more and more to embrace it and the challenges and rewards that follow when you do. That is why I hesitated to do this trip in the first place because it had some of those ‘unknown’ elements. But, I like to continuously challenge myself, and what better way to do it than with a solo backpacking trip (btw did I mention that this was my first solo backpacking trip?) that started in the snow and ended with a hitch-hike? I felt Muir influenced my mind a lot on this hike and I am grateful that I decided to go for it.
  • Charge your damn ipod

Here ends my forever memorable first High Sierra excursion. I have crossed the Range of Light, surely the brightest and best of all the Lord has built. And, rejoicing in its glory, I gladly, gratefully, hopefully pray that I may see it again. - John Muir

If you want to follow in my trail footsteps there are a few things you'll need to do, starting with:

  • Get a wilderness permit at either of the wilderness permit locations (Tuolumne Meadows or Yosemite Valley) in the park. You can also get your permit by phone or fax and just pick it up when you get to the park. 
  • You'll also need to rent a bear canister ($5 at the same place you pick up your permit from) if you don't own one already as that is the approved method of protecting your smellies from Yogi's cousins while out on the trail. 
  • You will also need to deposit anything that has any type of smell in your car into one of the bear boxes at the trailhead parking lot. This proved to be somewhat difficult for me since I live out of my car, but so worth it when you come back to your car that wasn't broken into by a bear! 
  • Definitely don't leave home without a map and compass and knowing how to use them. I used National Geographic's for my hike and it worked quite well. 
  • If you have 2 cars you can definitely shuttle if you have the time just be sure to check out road conditions since Tioga Pass does not stay open all year round. Or if you wanna roll solo like me then either go when the shuttles are still running or exercise that there thumb and hope for the best!
Have you done this route? If so share your experience in the comments below I would love to hear them!

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