It is the third week of September and I am at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, getting ready to embark on my first backpacking trip in nearly 35 years. The setting is familiar, as Tuolumne Meadows was the starting point for several backpacking trips in my 20s and 30s, but my anticipation for this journey is tempered by doubt. The young backpacker from those earlier trips has become a guy in his mid-70s and backpacking can be physically challenging. I am about to find out whether I was up to the challenge.
After hearing I was planning this trip, a few friends asked why. Unlike George Mallory’s quip a century ago about why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there” wasn’t my motivation. Mine was “Because I can.” Decent health, halfway decent fitness and free mid-week days made it possible. There also was some carpe diem in my decision; I could have delayed the trip, but to not go relatively soon might mean not going ever.
Other old stuff would be tested as well. I took my ancient Kelty backpack and – with a prediction of nights in the 30s – my old down sleeping bag, both purchased in the late 1960s. My backpacking stove from the 1980s also came along, though with a new pump and gas canister.
The trip was straightforward: three days and two nights, from Tuolumne Meadows (elevation 8,600 feet) to Glen Aulin and returning via the same route. The distance is approximately seven miles each direction, with 800 feet of elevation change. Piece of cake, right?
Well, yes and no. Even after leaving a few things in the car, my pack was heavier than expected. Hiking with a heavy pack - especially downhill - was hard on the knees. Runoff from this year’s massive snowpack made crossing Delaney Creek – no bridge, just rocks and a log – dicey. I got lost briefly when the trail crossed a stretch of blank granite. And the trail’s steep sections feature cobble stairs (to prevent erosion); nice for someone with small feet, but not so nice for someone with big ones (i.e. me).
I arrived at Glen Aulen after 5 p.m., later than anticipated and completely beat. Dinner featured a chocolate bar. Bedtime was at dusk, with the sound of nearby California Cascade to lull me to sleep.
Seriously sore muscles the next morning prompted a change in plan. Rather than remain in Glen Aulin and take a day hike downstream to see Waterwheel Falls, I hiked upstream two miles and found a campsite. The prospect of hiking the entire seven miles back to Tuolumne Meadows and then driving home to the Bay Area in a day made this two-day option an easy decision.
I woke the next morning to temperatures near freezing and a scattering of rain. Rather than hang around, I packed and got moving. The hike back to Tuolumne Meadows was slow but uneventful. A hailstorm hit as I arrived at my car and it rained the entire 40-mile drive to the park entrance on Highway 120.
Overall, I fared well. Bruises on the inside of my elbows from swinging the pack on and off. Sore shoulders from its weight. Sore leg muscles that lasted a couple of days.
Those who backpack do so primarily for the scenery, not for the challenge (folks tackling the Pacific Crest Trail being the exception). Scenery is where Yosemite backcountry excels, with sculpted peaks, shining granite domes, pretty lakes, clear streams, dense forests and impressive waterfalls. The massive 2023 snowpack, which delayed the opening of Highway 120 over Tioga Pass for nearly two months, made the backcountry particularly beautiful this year. Also less crowded, according to many.
A few notes for those considering a backpacking trip in Yosemite.
Most national parks now requires a wilderness permit for backcountry camping. Creating an account at www.recreation.gov proved easy; actually booking the Glen Aulin campsite proved impossible. I finally got my reservation at the park entrance. However, that could be a problem during the summer, especially for popular backcountry campsites. The National Park Service has strict limits on the number of people who can camp at each site. By the way, the fee for a wilderness permit is $15.
Yosemite requires all backpackers to store their food in bear canisters. This concerted effort to keep bears from raiding campsites for food seems to be working; I didn’t see one during my three days. That said, a bear canister is a pain to pack: both with food and in a backpack.
Highway 120 through Yosemite – typically open from late May until the first snow in November - offers lots of great scenery. Unfortunately, most turnouts have cars parked from one end to the other, with no place to wait.
During the summer months, there is a Hiker’s Bus that runs from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows and back, stopping at various trailheads along the way. This bus would be perfect for one-way backpacks from Tuolumne Meadows to Tenaya Lake, May Lake, Ten Lakes Basin or White Wolf.
Yosemite backcounty weather is unpredictable in summer and weather predictions are unreliable. Afternoon thunderstorms happen often enough in the High Sierra to suggest caution, especially when backpacking in exposed locations. They also can make backpacking and camping miserable. On the first day of my trip, there was thunder, lightning and rain just a few miles to the north – close enough to see and hear.
Would I backpack again? Health, fitness and time permitting, absolutely! However, I would make a few changes. A new backpack, for starters. Also, packing lighter; fewer clothes and only essential stuff. And maybe convince a friend to share the experience.
Next year is right around the corner. Time to start planning.