YOSEMITE HIGH SIERRA CAMPS — AUGUST 2016
By Rachael Swift
I recently completed a 6 day, 5 night ranger-guided group hut-to-hut hike to four of the Yosemite High Sierra Camps. I was accompanied by my husband Bill and our 23 year old son Tom. We started at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and from there hiked to Sunrise, Merced Lake, Vogelsang, and then back to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. We did not go to the camps at May Lake or Glen Aulin which I am now really looking forward to seeing at some future time.
Reservations are by lottery through the National Parks Service concessionaire website.
We entered Yosemite from the entrance on Tioga Road on the back side of the park which we had never done before (we drove from Reno). This saved us a considerable amount of time as we did not have to drive up to the high country from the valley floor. The mountain pass we drove through as we entered the park was jaw dropping – huge peaks all around us. When we were almost to Tuolumne Meadows near Lembert Dome, we made a left turn and followed the road about 2 miles to the end to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. This is the largest of the High Sierra Camps and is where most people begin their hut to hut treks. I am guessing there were well over 50 tent cabins. Most cabins sleep 4, but a few are larger for groups or families.
The tent cabins have single cots along the sides with mattresses, pillows, and several wool blankets to keep warm. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge cabins also have sheets and towels which the cabins at the other camps did not have. The other camps just had wool blankets. So we brought lightweight sleeping bag liners to sleep in under the blankets as they are not washed during the course of the summer. The cabins have no electricity. Each has a lantern and a small wood burning stove at one end with a bucket of firewood next to it.
There was only one bathhouse for the whole camp, which concerned me at first. However, I found it to be clean and never had to wait in line to use any of the facilities. The men’s and women’s sides each have 5 sinks, 5 toilets, and 4 showers with hot running water.
Dinner at this camp is by reservation only as the dining hall is not large enough to accommodate all of the guests at once. We made reservations when we arrived late in the afternoon. We were seated at a large round table for 8-10 people. It was quite interesting to talk to other people at our table about what they were up to in Yosemite and where they were from. We all shared a salad and bread family style and then ordered what we wanted off of a menu. I had trout and it was surprisingly good.
At 8 pm that evening, there was a ranger program at the campfire. This is where we met Adrianna, who would be our ranger guide for the next 5 days. We sang camp songs and listened to her tell stories about John Muir. Afterwards, she gave those in her group an explanation of the logistics for the next day. There happened to be a full moon that night which illuminated the night sky. However, once the sun went down the temperature dropped down into the 30s. Brrr… So I slept with a wool cap on and my long underwear. The stove kept us warm most of the night until the wood burned out.
The next morning, our group met Adrianna outside the Lodge after breakfast with our packs on just before 9 am. We took the park shuttle bus from there to Tenaya Lake where we started our trek. There were 8 people in our group — 3 couples, plus our son Tom and the ranger. I think groups can be as large as 12-15, so I am not sure why ours was so small. Everyone was very relaxed and friendly and happy to be there.
Adrianna told us that today our hike to Sunrise was only about 6 miles, the shortest day in terms of mileage. I was expecting it to be fairly easy because of this, but I was wrong. It was a very challenging uphill slog most of the way with lots of switchbacks. Thank goodness I had hiking poles. During one of our rest stops, we came upon a large tree trunk laying along the side of the trail with a large cluster of mushrooms growing out of it. Adrianne cut off some of these and put them in her pack. She said these mushrooms were called “chicken of the woods” and she would ask the camp staff at the next camp to cook them up for us to try!
We finally got to the top of a ridge where we stopped for lunch. Bag lunches were provided by for us by each camp which we ordered the day before. We ate at an overlook with Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest in the background. It was stunning! The rest of this day’s hike was more moderate. We passed lower and upper Sunrise Lakes before getting to camp. We took a break at Upper Sunrise Lake and took off our packs and hiking boots and dipped our tired feet in the water. It felt great. Tom even went for a swim.
Sunrise Camp was just over a ridge looking out over a huge meadow at 9400 feet elevation. The meadow reminded me of Tuolumne Meadows without all the people. There were huge pointed granite peaks surrounding the meadow – just breathtaking stuff. Some of the foliage in the meadow was beginning to turn red as fall comes early in the high country. There were adorable ground squirrels with long skinny tails scurrying in and out of holes all over the meadow – very fun to watch. I even saw a coyote walking through the meadow with a ground squirrel in its mouth!
The camp was quite small compared to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. I am guessing there were only about 10 tent cabins and a small dining hall and a bathhouse. Dinner was served at 6:30 for the whole camp at large tables, family style, and the food was very good. There were 6 people in our tent cabin that night, the only night the 3 of us did not have a cabin to ourselves. I am glad I brought ear plugs with me to use at night because other people make all sorts of noises while sleeping!
The bathhouse seemed quite new and had men’s and women’s sinks and showers. There were 4 or 5 compost toilets where you dump a cup of sawdust into the toilet after each use. I was pleasantly surprised there was no odor. There were many backpackers who passed through the camp. They had their own campsite over to the right of the meadow. They were not suppose to use our bathhouse, so each tent cabin had its own key to get in.
All of the supplies for these camps are packed in by mule train every few days. This includes all food, water, bedding, and misc supplies. All waste products are also trekked out by mule.
The next day we began our trek from Sunrise to Merced Lake. It was 10 miles which was the longest distance we would be covering in a single day. It was mostly downhill, so I was grateful again that I had hiking poles for balance.
I was also glad I was wearing a good hat because at one spot a pinecone fell out of a tree and landed right on top of my head. Ouch! The terrain was quite challenging. I had to pay attention to every step. The scenery was stunning! We hiked along Echo Creek which ran down along a huge granite rock face for quite some time. At one point we lost the trail and had to back track to find it again. We made several stops along the way to dip our feet in the creek water. I also drank creek water that the ranger filtered for us and it was very refreshing. It made me feel like I was really part of Yosemite now. There were huge granite peaks all around us as we hiked. The ranger took us on a short ¼ mile detour off the trail to “Fern Grotto”, a ranger secret. It was a small beautiful waterfall and wading pool with large ferns growing out of the rocks.
We finally reached the Merced River, not far from camp. There were sections where the water ran down huge granite slabs that we walked right next to. At one steep section, we came upon a family of four inner-tubing down the river and having a ball! Our son Tom decided to join in this fun (which gave me a heart attack!). The ranger informed us that if there is a life or death emergency in high country, the only way out is to be evacuated by helicopter at a cost of $10,000…If it is not a life or death emergency, the injured person must wait for a mule train to take them out which could be days of waiting. Not sure this made me feel better, just more knowledgeable.
As we neared camp, the landscape became much more lush, and we came upon quite a bit of wildlife. We saw a family of five grouse, several mule deer, lots more ground squirrels, and some interesting birds. We arrived at camp at about 5:30 that evening tired and hungry. The camp was in a large flat area at the far side of Merced Lake with a pretty waterfall cascading into it. The camp sits at 7250 feet elevation. It had flush toilets, sinks and hot showers – what a luxury. At the back of the women’s showers was a room with a large laundry sink and a washboard. Outside were lots of clothes lines and clothes pins that many of us utilized. We learned that about 6 of the tent cabins here had been removed from last year in an effort to downsize this camp and return it to the wilderness. So I think there were only about 10 active tent cabins.
After a great steak dinner at 6:30 sharp, there was another ranger led campfire program. We sang camp songs and learned about the “mycorrhizal fungi” which lives under the surface of the earth. Some people from the backpacker’s camp joined in on the campfire and had interesting tales to tell of getting there.
The next day was a rest day. After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, pancakes, and a cheese omelet, Bill, Tom and I decided to take a side trip to Washburn Lake which was about 3 miles away. Most of this hike was along the scenic Merced River. It was nice to hike without our packs and it was fairly easy and flat compared to the previous 2 days. For a while, we were able to follow a mother duck and her 7 ducklings upstream. We also saw several more mule deer and a large black gardener snake. Washburn Lake was beautiful and peaceful once we got there, and there were almost no other people around. We saw a small bear track in the sand by the water which made us gulp hard. We found our way to a grassy area with a small sandy beach at the far side of the lake. Bill got excited seeing so many rises on the water. He spent about an hour fishing while Tom and I sunbathed at the beach. Bill caught 5 brown trout, so he was feeling really good about life.
Pretty soon, we heard some loud claps of thunder and dark clouds rolled in. It started to rain, so we put on our rain jackets and decided to head back. It rained gently for about an hour as we walked and the rain was actually quite refreshing. I took a nap when we got back before dinner and this felt just great. After another good dinner, the ranger led our group down to Merced Lake. She read us poetry while we sat in the tall grass by the shore and watched the sun set over the lake. Wow! What a great rest day this was! We went right to bed as the next day we knew our hike up to Vogelsang would be challenging.
After another hearty breakfast, we headed out at 8:30 am for our 8 mile hike to Vogelsang. It is the highest of the camps at over 10,000 feet. The sky was overcast that day and it was considerably cooler than the previous days, so we all put our rain gear at the top of our packs in case we needed to get to it quickly. The first part of the hike was up a very rocky staircase with many switchbacks. When we stopped to rest and looked back, we had a great view of Half Dome and many dark, foreboding clouds. At one of our breaks, Adrianna read us more poetry and shared some sketches of Yosemite that she had brought in her pack. They were by a Japanese-American artist named Obata, and they really captured the colors and rugged beauty of Yosemite.
We ate our bag lunches early that day in case it started to rain. We ate on a granite slab next to a waterfall with clusters of yellow and pink flowers growing out of the rocks.
The landscapes we hiked through that day were the most varied and the most beautiful of the whole trip. We passed through meadows of wild flowers and a “dead forest” ravaged by a beetle. For a while, we hiked “off trail” following along the creek cascading over another huge granite rock face.
This lead us to Emeric Lake, the most breathtaking part of this hike. This peaceful lake was surrounded by gorgeous meadows and 2 jagged granite peaks in the distance, Fletcher Peak and Vogelsang Peak. We came across a huge sawtooth mushroom about 2 feet in diameter – the largest the ranger had ever seen.
We arrived at Vogelsang Camp at about 3:30 and checked in. This camp seemed smaller than the others and it was a bit more primitive. There were compost toilets and no showers. The other campers there looked like very hardy people who were happy to have made it to such a beautiful place, just like us. After a brief rest, most of the people in our group decided to hike up over Vogelsang Pass as it looked so dramatic towering over us. First we came to Vogelsang Lake. Bill stayed there at the lake to try his luck at fishing again. Unfortunately, he did not have much luck fishing this time. The higher the rest of us climbed, the more barren and rocky the landscape became. We were well above tree line and it was very windy. After about an hour of hiking, we finally arrived at the top of the pass. On the other side of the pass we could see 2 small, remote mountain lakes in the distance. We also had a nice view of the backside of Choo-Choo Ridge (so named as it looks like a row of train cars). We all felt like we were on the top of the world!!
Dinner that night was delicious, as usual. The camp staff was mostly male and they had big personalities. After dinner, they played the drums for us in the dining hall– very entertaining. We got the stove in our cabin heated up that night as the temperature really dropped after dark. About a half hour after we fell asleep, the smoke alarm in our cabin went off. So we opened up the flaps in the canvas covering to get better ventilation. Amazingly, no one else in the camp heard our smoke alarm go off.
On our 5th and last day, we got a late start leaving camp so we could enjoy the scenery at Vogelsang a bit longer. We walked over to Fletcher Lake which was only a 5 minute walk from camp. It was a small, serene lake with Fletcher Peak towering over it. The peak reflected beautifully in the lake.
The hike back that day was about 7 miles downhill on a mostly sandy trail. There were a lot of other hikers on the trail. We passed a mule train of about a dozen mules going up to Vogelsang. The mules had huge jugs of water and other supplies strapped to their sides. We passed through lots of meadows on our way down. The scenery was pretty and peaceful, but not quite as dramatic as it had been on previous days.
We arrived at Twin Bridges at about 1:30, near our end destination. We stopped here on the banks of the Tuolumne River for our last lunch together. We said our good byes, and Adrianna gave each of us a certificate. I passed! We walked the last half mile in silence so we could reflect on our experiences together. When we got to our car, it felt great to put on flip flops and a clean t-shirt.
We drove away feeling fantastic with big smiles on our faces. How lucky we were to have had this opportunity to explore the backcountry of Yosemite! We very much want to return and experience this awesome place again.