Denali Wrap-up

It’s been a few weeks now since we left Denali, but I’m only just getting a chance to share some of my final thoughts on this park along with some of our experiences that I didn’t wind up blogging about earlier (I rarely blog about day hikes, and otherwise I only have one fairly embarrassing story about quitting 5 minutes into a backpacking trip).

But first, let me tell you that Denali was not our favorite National Park (our favorite so far has been Grand Teton!).  I realize that the reasons are mostly situational, but still, it’s not going high on the list of places to re-visit.

We were in Denali for 5 weeks from the 7th of August until the 11th of September.  For the entire month of August, I remember seeing the sun a total of maybe 4 times.  Otherwise, it rained, drizzled, misted and occasionally poured.  Even when it occasionally didn’t rain, it was overcast, dreary, and often threatening to rain at a moment’s notice.  As it turns out, my tolerance for 40 degrees and rain is lower than required in order to enjoy the month of August in Denali, which is the month when summer ends and winter hits.  In fact, we were told that this was one of the rainiest seasons they’ve had in a long time, and even the locals were starting to complain bitterly by the end of August.  Although we did get to live (sleep) indoors during our time in Denali, our work consisted of sitting outside 6-7 hours a day (regardless of weather) along with a much longer commute than in previous parks.  Still, you can’t complain about a job that sends you to three National Parks!

We did, however, get about 4 fantastic days during the month of August, and on those, we maximized our time hiking on the 30 miles of maintained trail within the park.  We easily covered all the available trails in Denali National Park, and then found another beautiful trail in Denali State Park where we did a day-hike on the 30-something mile trail that runs along it.  I would have liked to do the whole thing, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it in poor weather as most of the trail was quite exposed.

In fact, a lot of the best hiking in Denali National Park was on exposed ridges and these hikes are fantastic when the weather is good and miserable when it is bad.  We were lucky that when September hit, we got more days of good weather than the entire previous month, however, the temperature would plummet each evening into the 20’s or 30’s.  Our favorite hikes were Mt Healy and the Savage Alpine Trail, which were nice, short, and somewhat strenuous day hikes.

The locals along with park employees would encourage us to spend time off-trail, because this is where you can actually explore the park on your own terms.  In fact, this is what you must do in order to backpack in the park, and if you’ve been following this blog, you may remember reading about our first attempt at a backpacking trip in Denali (spoiler: it didn’t go very well).

Well, we decided to be brave and make one more attempt at a backpacking trip on a day where the weather looked slightly less miserable.  We packed, took the free bus to where we wanted to start, and got out.  Upon exiting the bus, we stood in the freezing cold with strong gusts of wind tearing through our clothing for several minutes as we poured over our map and attempted to agree on a route.  We walked for about 5 minutes towards the mountain we wanted to start climbing which was rapidly disappearing under a thick grey cloud, and then we almost immediately had to get our feet wet.  We looked at each other and decided right then and there that we simply weren’t going to do it.  We were too tired of being cold, too tired of being rained on, and not in the mood to try again to navigate by map and compass from the middle of dense clouds.  So we quit.  See?  We’re really not very bad-ass.

Much to our surprise, however, was that our absolute favorite thing to do in Denali was to volunteer at the dog kennels.  When we first arrived, we visited the kennels where they keep roughly 30 sled dogs who actually have ranger status at the park.  These sled dogs work primarily in the winter months (of which there are many) when they haul large amounts of materials around the park from debris to research equipment.  This is because much of the park is designated a Wilderness (with a capital W), and the use of motorized equipment is strictly prohibited.  We enquired about volunteering to be dog walkers and soon we were taught how to walk or run our sled dogs.  We each were given a particular sled dog, and we were only to walk that particular sled dog and we had to commit to at least 1 hour three times a week.  Each sled dog, however, could have multiple walkers so they could hope to get enough exercise.  John’s was given the most energetic sled dog on the team, a two-year-old male dog by the name of Cupcake, whom 4 previous walkers had given up on, and I was given a one-year-old female dog who was still learning the ropes named Story.

We quickly decided we would run our dogs rather than walk them.  Our biggest joy was to show up at the kennels to find 28 dogs sleeping on their kennels while Cupcake and Story jumped up and down eagerly in our direction until we put a leash on them.  Their excitement was contagious and being recognized and so much appreciated by another animal made our whole trip to Denali a delight.  We also got special privileges to cuddle with the newest sled dogs on the team, a litter of 7 puppies before we left.

We also became much stronger runners and by the end of our time in Denali, John had signed himself up for an ultra-marathon (this was somewhat of an accident as he thought he wouldn’t get chosen in the lottery for the Mt Mitchell Challenge, so he somewhat haphazardly entered).  When John found out he was going to run this 40-miler, I signed up for the marathon length (the “fun run”).

Now that we’ve left winter in Denali for the locals to deal with, we have reentered fall in Europe where we are traveling around visiting friends and family while attempting to train for the Mt Mitchell Challenge, which will be in late February.  Training for a race is hard enough when you have a routine, but finding places to run in big cities like Paris is proving to be an additional challenge.

Next week we are off to hike the GR20, a 115-mile trail in Corsica (an island off the coast of France and Italy).  The GR20 is supposed to be one of the hardest trails in Europe, so we’ll give it our best shot, but given that we’re starting in October, we’re somewhat outside of the normal hiking season, so most of the facilities will be closed.  We will have to carry more food than most GR20 hikers, but we’re up for the challenge. We’re hoping that the weather will cooperate nonetheless and we will be able to complete this hike, but who knows!  As usual, I will blog so you all can follow along!

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Denali backpacking fail

Denali is an interesting National Park because first of all it is HUGE (the size of Massachusetts), and it has practically no trails (roughly 30 miles of trails mostly around the visitor’s center and other campgrounds). So, if you want to go backpacking you have to, and are encouraged to walk off trail. To most of us who are from the lower 48, this is not what we’re used to. We’re used to being told to stick to trails, mostly for leave no trace principles (walk and camp on durable surfaces) to minimize our collective impact. But in a park the size of Massachusetts, with a fraction of the number of annual visitors of most of the smaller parks in the United States, this isn’t much of an issue.

There is one road in the park, and it is 92 miles long and mostly only accessible by bus. You are allowed to drive the first 15 miles in your private vehicle, but after that, only busses are allowed, and the road is narrow and unpaved.

After reading our new friends Justin and Patrice’s blog about their backpacking trip here in Denali (they are also working for Leave No Trace on a similar project, so they are visiting the same National Parks that we are this summer), we decided to show up to the permitting office without a plan. In their blog, Justin and Patrice mentioned that they had come up with several ideas for routes, but once they got to the permitting office, none of the zones they were looking at were available.

So, going back a step- the park is split up into these zones, and the way the permitting system works here is that you pick a zone to camp in, and there are a certain number of permits they give out to each zone per night.

We decided to show up with no plan, and let the availability dictate where we go. That turned out to be a good choice since a surprising number of zones were full, and pretty much all the ones we had our eye on were in fact full.

We looked at one or two zones that were available, and talked to a ranger about possible travel within these zones, and decided on zone 18. We would have to travel through another zone to get to our zone, but it looked feasible.

We had three days off, and for most people the highlight of their trip to Denali is taking one of the park busses down the road and back. So we decided we would take the bus almost to the end of the road and then turn around and get to our designated spot. So we went off and got a bus ticket on the earliest camper bus (6:55am, $40pp).

Back at home we filled our bear canister to brim and then brought sandwiches and extra bars, too for the first day out. John is always complaining that we don’t carry enough food, so we’re trying to get better about that.

In the morning we caught the bus and settled in, knowing we would be on the bus for 5 or 6 hours to get to Wonder Lake, which isn’t even the last stop. Our bus driver was knowledgeable, telling us about wildlife and history. She was also a careful driver, going around turns at a slow pace. I was grateful.

One hour into the drive we realized that we forgot our trekking poles. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but in our case, we use our trekking poles to set up our tent. We otherwise have no other tent poles.

“We can find some sticks..?” I suggested nervously.

We stared out of the bus window watching the unforested expanse of tundra float by, and collectively wondered where on earth we were going to find a pair of sticks.

The bus took a break every 1-1.5 hours, and we could get on and off the bus to go to the restroom and take a few pictures.

The first wildlife we saw was two caribou far up on a hill and I was glad I had bought $10 binoculars off of Amazon in preparation for coming to Alaska.

Soon we saw more caribou a bit closer and before I knew it, we lost track of how many caribou we saw.

Then, down a valley we saw a mama bear and her yearling, and the bus stopped so we could watch them for a while. These grizzlies were big, but not as big as I was expecting. It turns out that grizzlies in interior Alaska are not as big as the coastal ones, which feed off salmon. These ones were only slightly bigger than black bears.

Further along, we saw another single bear foraging for berries.

Then, as with the caribou, we lost track of how many grizzlies we saw.

We passed the Eilson Visitor’s center, which is where we were going to start our backpacking trip, but we wanted to go a little further along the road first.

On the way to Wonder Lake, three grizzlies were walking in the middle of the road in front of us. I could barely believe how much wildlife this park had. It was a mama bear and two cubs, but the cubs were probably a number of years old because they were practically the same size as their mother.

We knew that the weather forecast looked grim. In fact, we knew that it was supposed to rain more in the next day than it had rained the whole time we had been in Alaska so far, but we were not going to let that deter us since this was our one period of three days off in a row. We have one other two day off stretch, otherwise all our days off here are single days off. So we HAD to go backpacking regardless of the weather.

We were pleasantly surprised that it was not raining on the bus drive. We even got nice views before the clouds started rolling in.

Finally, the bus dropped us off at Wonder Lake, and it was already after 1pm. We decided not to stick around at Wonder Lake, since the clouds were descending quickly, and we weren’t going to see Denali (the tallest mountain in North America).

But, the campground there was forested, and I found an area where someone had cut back vegetation from the side of the road and managed to find two sticks that would have to do as trekking poles.

We caught a bus going back in the other direction. This bus was crowded and was being driven by a Latin American gentleman who was a crazy driver. The road is definitely a bit scary in some sections. It gets very steep and there is only one lane with no guard rails. Incoming busses have to yield to outgoing buses.

Our crazy bus driver screeched up to another bus on a cliff and the other bus yielded. Then, we had to pass this other bus on the cliff edge with no room for error. We passed within fractions of an inch- the bus driver stopping and inching forward while everyone on the bus held their breath. As we finally pulled past the other bus, the driver turned on his microphone and said the one and only thing he said the whole ride: “I love my job.”

Everyone breathed out and giggled somewhat hysterically.

We got back to the Eilson Visitor center and headed out. There was a short trail down to the river that we had to walk along to begin our journey.

We reached the valley and started walking along the gravel bar up the river valley. It started to rain. At first it was only a drizzle, but then the drizzle turned into a heavy drizzle.

We put on all our rain gear, and continued onward. The clouds kept coming further and further down into the valley until our visibility was next to nothing. We really couldn’t see landmarks in order to navigate, so we simply kept going along this gravel bar.

We were surprised when a group of 3 or 4 other people were walking towards us, and they told us they had just seen a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs, and decided to reroute in order to avoid them.

At this stage, the road was up above on our right, and we eventually would need to veer left up a stream called Glacier Creek. But before we even got there, we would need to cross the Thorofare River. This river is extremely braided.

So, we decided to cut across a bit early to avoid the bears.

We saw some caribou in the mist, and shouted out “Hey Bear!!” We shouted out over and over again so as not to have a surprise encounter.

We started fording sections of the river, without really knowing where we were at this stage. We were in a huge flat area with poor visibility. we looked at the map every 20 minutes, but it didn’t help much.

In amongst the braids of the river, there was quick sand, and each time my foot started sinking into it, I panicked. At one point I sank in past my knee and shouted out in horror. I was not having fun. We were lost in the middle of a huge river surrounded by willows, mist and rain, and soaking wet, and the temperature was in the mid 40’s. If you’re reading this and have any experience with wilderness medicine, you’re probably thinking “woah, that’s hypothermia weather!” My thoughts exactly.

We considered quitting right then and there, but decided we would persevere. We probably wouldn’t be able to get a bus back at this point any way.

We decided we made the turn too early, and headed back slightly.

(The chilling remains of a grizzly bear)

More quicksand, more river crossings, more rain. But finally, we saw the edge of the glacial deposits from the huge Muldrow Glacier, and we knew that this was our landmark to turn up the Glacier Creek.

We started heading up Glacier Creek. This was finally enjoyable. The going was easy enough (we have plenty of experience following a creek from our time in New Zealand.)

Didn’t eat a thing from the bear canister. The rain and cold made us loose our appetite, and we weren’t about to unpack our backpacks to get food we weren’t hungry for.

We stayed to the right hand side of the creek so that we wouldn’t accidentally take a wrong turn, and we knew at some point we would need to cross it to get to a place to camp.

Eventually, we saw a place we could camp on the other side of the creek and decided to ford in order to get over to it.

We linked arms and crossed at a spot where the creek was widest. Still, it was up to my lower thigh and moving very quickly. Plus the water was completely grey so you really couldn’t see into it at all to tell how deep it was or where any rocks were.

I set up the tent with our sticks, but in order to make sure I didn’t break the sticks in the process, I didn’t tighten the tent much. It flapped in the wind, but that would have to do.

We had to eat any food that didn’t fit in the bear canister and store the canister 100 yards away. We walked down the bank of the creek in order to get this done, and along the way we noticed some bear scat. It looked fairly fresh. Eating just felt like a chore. We ate some bars and some nuts until we could fit everything in the canister and close it. Then we found a rock to stash the canister behind, and wandered back to our tent.

We piled layers of dripping wet clothing in either the vestibules of the tent or the far corner where my sleeping bag wouldn’t be on top of them.

We had thought ahead and brought more clothing than normal so that we would have dry clothing to change into. We did this and climbed into our sleeping bags.

We laid there listening to the rain on the nylon tent, and John said “Next time we have time off, we’ll get beautiful weather.” Then he knocked on the stick holding up our tent.

We kept warm over night, mostly thanks to the fact that we had synthetic sleeping bags. I was so thankful that we didn’t bring our down ones. Still, we slept horribly. The tent flapping in the wind would hit us repeatedly on the head, and in the early hours of the morning, the tent actually collapsed on me as the tent stake holding my side of the tent up ripped out from the ground.

We considered getting up then, as it was already light out, but I felt like I had just pulled an all nighter, and all I could think about was sleep. But, I soon realized that with the tent barely standing, more sleep was probably not going to happen.

We had to take off our warm clothes and put on our soaking wet clothing. It was probably in the high 30’s or low 40’s and I was not looking forward to crossing Glacier Creek first thing.

We packed up and started looking at the stream. It was clear that it was higher than it was the previous day. We got to a spot where I thought the stream was the widest, and let John try to cross first. He got most of the way across before the creek got to its deepest spot, and I saw him struggle to reach the bank of the river, as the water rushed up to his crotch and the rocks slid beneath his feet. He looked at me from across the stream and shook his head signaling that that was NOT a good spot to cross.

We walked down the creek checking the depth over and over again, and each time, it was too deep.

I kept walking down, and turned around to see John trying again, and to my horror I saw him fall in, and grab on to some rocks to get back up again. He was OK, but my adrenaline was starting to pump fiercely now. Maybe the water was still rising? Maybe I was stuck on this side of the creek, and John was stuck on the other side. We couldn’t even really communicate over the sound of the gushing water. I pointed upstream hoping to suggest that we try looking for a spot upstream instead of down. He nodded and we headed back.

There was nothing, and at some point my path was obstructed by a huge cliff on my side of the creek. John continued up his side of the creek in case I could climb over this hill to the other side and find a spot. I waited. Fifteen minutes later, he came back and shook his head. We would need to go further downstream instead. We went downstream further than we had before, and the creek did widen slightly to a point where John managed to cross back over. He got back to my side of the stream and I ran up to him to hug him. He told me his legs were really cold. It was good to be able to talk. We were both very nervous, wondering if we were stuck here, or what.

We continued down stream, as that seemed to be our only option besides setting up the tent again. Finally we found another spot worth trying, and we got in together. I held on to John’s arm, and John led the way, knowing that if it got too deep, we’d turn around together. It got up to John’s thigh, which was my waist, and I was no longer able to keep my footing. “It’s OK, I’ve got you!” He shouted as he dragged me to shore. There was no way I could have crossed that stream alone.

We celebrated, and I let out a few whimpers as my legs and feet were completely numb. My legs hurt, and my feet felt like giant blocks of ice. I couldn’t tell where they started or ended, and I stumbled over rocks trying to keep moving to warm up.

I knew we still had the Thorofare to cross, and that was huge.

As we walked along the creek, our legs warmed up, and we continuously shouted “Hey Bear.” While trying to keep an eye on our surroundings.

“Shit, there’s a bear” John said.

“Where? How close?” I couldn’t see it.

It was about 100 yards away, and once John pointed it out, I could see it’s blond body against the willows. Luckily I t hadn’t spotted us yet, but still we were too close.

We kept moving swiftly, but not silently so we wouldn’t have a surprise encounter. The bear was uphill from us and we were caught between the bear and the creek. We couldn’t give it any more space. Finally we moved past it without incident. Luckily it was happily chomping on berries.

We made it to the confluence of Glacier Creek and the Thorofare, and we started crossing the braids of the river.

There was so much more water this time around, it felt like we had infinite braids of this river to cross, and sometimes they were huge.

It was hard to tell how deep anything was, because again, it was all murky.

Each time we crossed several sections, we had to jump around to regain feeling in our feet.

We finally got to the widest and deepest section of the river, and although it was impossible to tell how deep the river was, we just picked the widest spot and then went for it together. We moved quickly because we knew our legs would quickly get numb, and we reached a shallow sandbar and took very little time to reassess before heading back down into deeper waters. John shouted out to me where the water was reaching on his body: “knee!” “Thigh!” “I’ve got you!” We got to a fairly deep spot, and John dragged me to the shore as the rocks beneath my feet were dragging me downstream. I grunted fiercely trying to move my legs against the current while at the same time barely realizing that my lower body had practically no feeling left.

As I got to the shore and jumped around a bunch to try to regain any feeling in my legs, we celebrated.

“I’m pretty sure that was it! That was the last hard part!”

We were going to make it, and mostly thanks to the fact that John was 6ft 4 and strong. I wasn’t complaining. I wondered how anyone else managed this route, and guessed that they probably did it in much different circumstances.

We crossed many more small sections of the river – the smaller braids and soon reached the edge of the hill on which the road was and followed the last braid down towards the visitor center.

It took a while, but eventually we could make out the visitors center in the distance. As we walked along the edge of the river we remarked on how most of this seemed to be just gravel bar the day before. Was there even water here? We couldn’t remember, but we certainly didn’t remember this quantity of water.

We found the cairn that marked the beginning of the trail back up to the visitors center and rejoiced.

We just had to climb up this trail – a trail that we knew could not possibly offer any sort of treachery. As we climbed up, I doted upon this trail. I liked trails. There was a sort of comfort that hiking mindlessly along a trail provided. Maybe I’m not tough enough to be an off-trail hiker. Maybe I’m just cut out for on-trail hiking.

Now that we were headed uphill, my body suddenly realized that I was hungry and dehydrated. I promised myself that I would drink and eat once we got to the visitor center. I also fantasized about changing into dry clothing.

I dragged myself into the dry refuge of the visitors center and unloaded my backpack with a sigh. I took my bag of dry clothing and tried to change in the handicapped stall in the women’s bathroom. I immediately made a mess on the immaculately clean bathroom floor. My shoes, socks and pants were all full of sand and pebbles, glacial deposits that were churning through the rivers that we had spent the better part of a day crossing.

Once back in the lobby, John told me we could catch a bus in 10 minutes. I quickly gathered my belongings and we ran over to the bus dispatcher to ask him which bus we were on. He told us to wait by the busses and he’d be right out.

Unfortunately, it was still raining, and still in the low 40’s and now I was wearing dry clothing and not very many layers. I jumped from one foot to the other impatiently as we stood outside waiting for further instruction.

Finally, we were allowed to get on a bus, but not before I was shivering pathetically. The bus was practically full, and we had to sit in different rows. No less than three people offered me clothing, and I stubbornly said no until one older gentleman simply put his jacket on top of me. I was irrational, tired and angry that we were made to wait in the cold out in the rain.

The bus ride back was long and tiring. I was so tired that I think I actually fell asleep as the boring bus driver told long stories about how she moved to Alaska. We did see several more grizzly bears along with several herds of caribou, but I was quite a bit less interested compared to the journey out. All I could think about was a hot shower followed by a hot meal and a warm bed.

Finally after a 4 hour bus ride back, we were dropped off where we parked our car. I cranked up the heat in the car and let John drive us the rest of the way back to Denali Education Center, where we are staying.

I stood in the shower letting the hot water ease the muscles in my neck and shoulder which at this point were all tight and knotted, and was so thankful not to be stuck out in the wilderness another night.

Once back, we tried to think about why this trip went so wrong. We realized that one of the main reasons we wound up in this predicament was because we didn’t make a plan ahead of time based on the weather, mostly because of the permitting system. We simply went on the recommendation of a ranger, who had probably done this route in good weather. The fact that we were somewhat comfortable fording rivers meant that we didn’t turn around on day one when we probably should have. In retrospect, and looking at the map, this was a pretty dumb place to be in the continuous rain that we had.

(If you can tell from this map, we started at the visitors center along the road and camped near green point in the bottom left hand side of the map. We probably went about 6-8 miles each way through what looks like a mess of rivers on the map).

Yosemite: Half Dome, Clouds Rest and Echo Valley

Another post from our June 2018 trip in Yosemite!

After many attempts, we finally secured a permit to climb half-dome and camp nearby.

We climbed out of the valley after work up the popular and ever overcrowded Mist Trail, which offers views of Vernal Falls and further up, Nevada Falls.

We set up camp right past Half Dome (the permit we got was called the walk through permit), so we would need to backtrack in the morning, but I was fine with that, as it was only an extra mile or so. I was just happy we weren’t camping at Little Yosemite Valley, which is a complete zoo, and definitely the most popular backcountry camping site in Yosemite.

I was still surprised by how many people were camping near where we were set up, and even more surprised by how many people were leaving their bear canisters just a few feet from their tent (I believe the rule is you’re supposed to store them 100ft away).

I imagined that in the morning all these people would get up early to climb Half Dome, and we would be in a line of people waiting to climb the cables.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when we woke up and everyone else was still soundly asleep as we broke down camp and headed for the famous peak.

The climb to the base of the cables wasn’t bad, but did take some energy out of us. At the cables, there was only one or two people on their way down, and nobody going up.

We found some discarded gloves and made our way. This is the second time I’ve climbed the cables, and somehow I completely forgot how scary it is. No wonder people die here. It’s very steep, and the wooden boards for stepping on are placed several steps apart, so you really have to trust the cables you’re hanging onto as you pull yourself up to the next step.

I was surprised by how uncomfortable John was feeling. Usually he’s the one to boldly scramble over things that make me quite uncomfortable, but this time, as I looked down at him, he grimaced and repeated “this is so stupid” over and over.

After 400ft of adrenaline filled climbing up the final ascent, we reached the summit and were surprised to see only two other couples. We snapped some quick pictures but decided not to linger so as to be able to follow the other people back down the cables.

There’s something reassuring about looking down and seeing another human being rather than a sheer drop. We encouraged each other down, and one of the couples took a celebratory picture as we congratulated each other on making it safely back down. They took our phone number and promised to share the picture with us when they got signal.

We then pushed onwards towards Clouds Rest. What I failed to take into consideration when planning this loop was how much climbing we would have to do to get to the top of Clouds Rest after having done Half Dome. We dragged ourselves slowly to the top.

The climb was well worth it— more worth it than half dome, we both agreed. We had a great view of where we had just come from and beyond. Many day hikers were milling around, having hiked from Tioga Pass. A marmot was also milling around looking for opportunities to share a meal.

We continued on to find a place to camp near Sunrise lake. We found a spot a mile or two before the official camping area along the John Muir Trail.

When I went off to go find a place to go to the bathroom, I found a mylar balloon wedged next to a tree. Sigh. Balloons wind up in really remote places when people let them go in civilization!

The next morning we got going and quickly hit Sunrise Lake. As we got closer, we got completely attacked by mosquitos. I don’t mean that there were a few buzzing around our head – I mean that there were clouds of them so thick you had to close your mouth and squint to try to run through them. I tried in the quickest manor to rip my headnet out from my backpack, but in the 5 seconds it took me to put my pack down and open it, I could see about 10 mosquitos sucking blood out of one of my arms.

We literally ran through the meadow to higher ground, and the mosquitos persisted for quite some time, but we finally managed to escape them. Somehow their bites were not bad- they weren’t even itchy.

We were trying to do a loop but at the same time, avoid the JMT as much as possible because we had plans of hiking from Tuolumne Meadows to the Valley on the JMT as a day-hike on another day off.

So we followed some trails to Merced Canyon, which was beautiful and desolate of people. Compared to how crowded Half Dome, Clouds Rest and the JMT were, these trails offered a ton of solitude.

In Echo Valley, there had been a fire somewhat recently, and the sun beat down on us through a lack of canopy. The wildflowers were thick and beautiful and the river was beautiful too.

We decided to make a push to get back to the Yosemite Valley rather than trying to stay in Little Yosemite Valley campsite.

When we reached Little Yosemite Valley, I was glad we made that choice because of how crowded it was. It was a tent city – with people acting like they could be as loud and obnoxious as they wanted while their neighbors were only a few feet away.

We hurried past and took the JMT for the last little leg back into the Valley (the other option besides the Mist Trail). This was significantly less crowded than the Mist Trail, yet had some great views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.

We got back to the Valley go find that our bikes, which we had left chained to a bike rack, were missing! We speculated that they were returned to the bike rental company because typically people are only allowed to rent bikes for a day (we were renting them for a month).

We took the bus back to our campground and were thankful that we came back early so as to sort out the bike problem before our work shift the next day.

All in all this was a great trip with lots of rewarding views and challenging climbs!

Yosemite Valley North Rim East Bound Backpacking Trip

This trip took place when we were working in Yosemite Valley (June 2018).

As a part of our goal to hike every trail immediately surrounding Yosemite Valley during our month residency, we decided that the North Rim of the Valley was best attacked as one backpacking trip rather than having to hike in and out of the valley multiple times.

We told our friend Meredith, the Volunteer Ranger Camp Host about our plan of hitchhiking over to Old Big Oak Flats Trailhead after taking a 45 minute shuttle bus ride – all this after our morning shift at work, and she kindly volunteered to drive us all the way to the trailhead.  We are still eternally grateful for the ride.

Along the way we saw amazing views that we had been missing out on because of our lack of motorized transportation during our stay in the famous valley, including Bridle-veil Falls and the Great Central Valley.

Once we got to the trail we found ourselves in a recent burn area. The trail was lined with beautiful purple lupine flowers (which are nitrogen fixers) as a result.  Despite the lack of living trees, the area had plenty of streams for us to fill our bottles in.

We spent a number of hours trying to hike as far as possible into the evening and got to Ribbon Meadows where we were treated to a display of shooting star and white buttercup flowers and surprisingly few mosquitos.

After passing through the meadow we set up camp a few hundred feet off the trail up on a hill after passing a pretty large pile of bear scat/poop.  We went to sleep wearily.  John didn’t wear his earplugs so that he could hear the bear if it entered the area.

After waking up a to a loud cracking noise, John wandered around to see if a bear was nearby.  Finding no animal in sight, he went to check on the bear canister (for food storage) and found it undisturbed. Trying to find the tent in the dark, he spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around looking for it.

We woke up in the morning with no further incidents. When we got to the first water source of the day, we met Kenny and Andy who were from Maryland and on the same trip as us.

We went our separate ways and headed up to our first viewpoint of the Yosemite Valley, KP Peak which is actually on top of the famous rock face El Capitan.

On the top John couldn’t help but notice a sleeping bag barely hiding under a couple rocks.  He decided that because of the short length of the trip, his pack was empty enough to carry this cheap Coleman Brand sleeping bag for the rest of the trip.  After stuffing it in his Mariposa backpack, his pack was still not completely full.

On the way back to the trail from the view point we saw the guys from Maryland again.  They weren’t kidding when they said they were going on the same exact same trip as us.

Moving on we walked a little further to the next viewpoint: Eagle Peak.  Eagle peak had the best view we saw in the whole park! Again we saw Kenny and Andy and we decided that we would walk with them and chat along the way.

Further up the trail we went to the top of Yosemite Falls.  For those of you wishing to peer directly off a 2,500 foot cliff, there is a railing so you can do exactly that!  It certainly is an interesting way to look at the tallest waterfall in North America.

We continued down the trail towards Indian Canyon and soon found ourselves well off the trail. We were able to figure out where we were pretty easily using map and compass  because of the open landscape and traveled cross country to the trail further along.

Next we went to North Dome where we had an amazing view of Half Dome.

Afterwards we went up to the natural arch above the Dome which was also an incredible sight to see.  One of very few natural arches I’ve seen in my life.

Finally after 16 miles, we settled in at a campsite well off the trail near Snow Creek an area with a known “problem bear”. After we setup the tent we noticed a pile of bear scat within 15 feet of our tent.  We were really tired so went to sleep around 7pm and within an hour we heard something that sounded like artificial noises. I got up and looked around and noticed (since it was still light out) that there was a bear about 100 feet away from us.  I tried my best to scare it away by making a lot of noise and it wandered away slowly its legs bow legged.  It certainly wasn’t in a hurry to get away and looked like and old tired bear.  It look us a while to fall back asleep.

We woke up the next morning without incident and headed down Snow Creek Trail a long steep downhill.  By the time we got to the bottom we felt the extreme heat of the valley before heading off to work again.

Tetons: Paintbrush Canyon to Cascade Canyon

Before heading out on this 19 mile loop, we were advised that ice axes and maybe even crampons would be necessary for Paintbrush Divide, which is a high elevation pass that allows you to travel from Paintbrush Canyon over to Cascade Canyon.

Since we failed to pack this gear, we asked John’s mother if she could kindly send it to us in the mail, since we left those items behind. I’m sure this isn’t kind of phone calls most mothers are used to getting, but within a few days she had found an appropriate sized box and posted the items in the mail.

The morning of our hike, we got a fairly late start. I was a bit nervous about how long these 19 miles would take, but I was also glad to have been able to sleep in slightly for a change.

We got to the String Lake parking area and got moving up Paintbrush Canyon.

As we climbed, the miles went by faster than I had anticipated. We weren’t the only ones out, we kept leap frogging another girl who was hiking solo up the canyon. As we approached Holly Lake, got chatting and found out that her name was Erin, and she was a traveling nurse with some time off between jobs.

We crossed paths with a backcountry ranger, and asked him what the divide was like, and he told us there were a few “tricky moves” near the top. We wondered what that meant, but he told us we probably wouldn’t need our ice axes. I was glad to have mine anyway just in case.

Erin had no ice axe or crampons, and had also been told beforehand that she probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the pass without that gear, but decided she would just go as far as she could and turn back.

I told her if it made her feel more comfortable, we could walk in front of her, and make sure there were good footsteps in the snow, and she could always turn around when she felt uncomfortable.

As we climbed, there were patches of snow, but nothing like what I had expected. This was obviously a well traveled trail since each time the trail passed through a patch of snow, there were well defined, easy to follow footprints which made it absolutely unnecessary to wear crampons or take out the ice axe.

We had almost made it to the top when Erin said something along the lines of “we made it!” But, she spoke too soon. Right before the top of the divide was a very sketchy spot where there was a patch of snow that was practically vertical and there were rocks all around it, also practically vertical. Most of the rock was loose rock to make things more interesting.

John went first, scrambling across a few small but very sketchy crevasses where a wrong step on a loose rock could send you tumbling many feet down. Based on how nervous he was, I almost figured I wouldn’t be able to make it across, but with a whole lot of courage and knowing that if I were to freeze up at any point, I’d be done for, I made a butt slide followed by a few steps that were way too large for my comfort and way too unstable for my comfort. But I made it. Behind me, Erin took her turn, and I was very surprised by how easy she made it look. She had about 3 inches on me, and she must have been made of pure courage. She admitted that she wouldn’t have done that alone and thanked us for our company. We were thankful for hers as well.

We reached the divide and were on top of the world with stunning snow covered peaks in all directions. A few people were milling around up there, and we traded notes on the sketchiness of the climb we had just done.

From here, the decent into Cascade Canyon was a piece of cake, and absolutely covered in beautiful wildflowers. Our progress was slow since every few feet, one of us felt inclined to take a picture.

Just a short distance down, we hit Lake Solitude, which, ironically was the most crowded spot we had been all day. There were dozens of people sunbathing, picnicking, and even a volunteer ranger talking to folks. I couldn’t believe we saw a second park employee on the same trail.

While we joined the crowds to stop for a snack, John decided to take the opportunity to jump into the lake, letting out a quick yelp at the frigidness of the glacial lake. He plunged in a few more times just to make sure.

We traveled down the canyon with ease. Grand Teton loomed over us majestically and various flowers lined the sides of the trail. We often followed a stream which cascaded down the canyon, presumably giving its name, Cascade Canyon.

The number of people on this trail was astounding. We were right behind a big group and right in front of another group, but if we stopped, it seemed like another group would quickly catch up. There was no solitude to be found here. We swatted at horse flies, which seem to be ever present as the mosquitoes are slowly dying off, and the temperature slowly creeped up as we descended.

We quickened our pace as we got closer to the parking lot, and the miles seemed to drag on a bit as our legs started to fatigue. But, the trail continued in ease, and soon we were crossing the bridge back to the String Lake parking lot before trading information with our new friend and heading our separate ways.