High Sierra Camp Loop 1/7-Sep-2015

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

In 2013, we’d backpacked two of the five High Sierra Camps (HSC) in the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park. These camps have been in operation for 99 years – they’ll celebrate their 100th anniversary along with that of the National Park Service itself in 2016.  They form one of the classic backpacking loops in the Sierra Nevada. By availing ourselves of their tent and food services, I was able to make my backpacking load manageable and thus show the LovedOne the interior of the Sierras (which made this spendy option more than worth it to me). This year we got lucky in the lottery and were able to get the whole loop (map) for the two of us plus Wayne and Diane, our two long-time friends. We also went goldilocks with the weather – not too hot or too cold.  The winds kept shiftng in our favor so that we only had noticable smoke from the 100,000 acre Rough Fire in Sequoia National Park our first and last mornings on the trail. No biting bugs either!

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Everyone is always so neat and tidy at the start

DAY 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Glen Aulin (7.3 miles; 700 feet elevation loss)

We got a reasonably early start and swung around Tuolumne Meadows on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) heading north, with Cathedral Peak prominent in the distance on the right (I’d climbed its southeast ridge – left skyline – years ago).

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Tuolumne Meadows

After a visit to the Sierra Club’s Parsons Memorial Lodge,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The refurbished Parsons Memorial Lodge

we continued north alongside a seriously diminished Tuolumne River,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The LovedOne on the banks of the Tuolumne

past Tuolumne Falls (also diminished),

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Tuolumne Falls

over lots of granite,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

On granite – North Peak and Mount Conness on the horizon

to Glen Aulin HSC,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The store, kitchen, and dining room at Glen Aulin

right next to the White Cascade of the Tuolumne River.  After a great dinner and some stargazing, we packed it in for the night.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The White Cascade at Glen Aulin

DAY 2: Glen Aulin to May Lake (8.2 miles; 1,400 feet elevation gain)

After a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast, we turned off the PCT and headed southwest,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River

past McGee Lake.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

McGee Lake

A lot of this trail is in the trees but it does eventually break out on to the granite for a big view of northern Yosemite.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Along the eastern slope of Tuolumne Peak

We then passed Raisin Lake,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Raisin Lake

and soon arrived at our second HSC,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The kitchen and dining room at May Lake

on the shores of May Lake.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Mount Hoffmann stands over May Lake

DAY 3: May Lake to Sunrise (8.7 miles; 1,900 feet elevation gain)

One great meal and a sleep later, we were up to catch the sunrise on May Lake.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Early morning at May Lake

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Mornng light on Mount Hoffmann

After breakfast, we set off for Sunrise HSC. To reach it, we first had to descend 1,200 feet on part of the old Sierra Highway (replaced in 1961 by today’s Highway 120),

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Descending to Highwat 120

past Tenaya Lake,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Tenaya Lake

run across Highway 120 like crazed squirrels, and then regain that 1,200 feet plus 700 feet more,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Climbing up from Highway 120

past the Sunrise Lakes,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

One of the Sunrise Lakes

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Another Sunrise Lake

to reach our third HSC, Sunrise,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Dinner options at Sunrise HSC

with its expansive view of Long Meadow.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Long Meadow from Sunrise HSC

Because of California’s drought, water supplies at Sunrise were severely restricted for personal use – enough for a face wash, tooth brush, and full water bottles. But dinner was great regardless!

DAY 4: Sunrise to Merced Lake (9.8 miles; 500 feet elevation gain)

This was supposed to be our easiest day in that it is technically “all down hill” (not exactly true but we let ourselves think that). So we got off to a good start across Long Meadow,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

On the John Muir Trail in Long Meadow

with Columbia Finger in the distance.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Columbia Finger at the east end of Long Meadow

After a short climb, we started a long descent down the Echo Creek drainage, through seemingly endless granite cliffs and exfoliations.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Granite in the Echo Creek drainage

Two things caught our attention in this stretch – a coyote chasing a young deer (the LovedOne thought the deer got away; I said think of the really, really cute coyote pups that will be having vension for dinner…) – and a small grove of very old, very large, and very convoluted junipers.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The trail passes ancient junipers

The trail then leveled out a bit through a meadow,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

A level stretch of trail through a meadow

before starting its final descent into the valley of the Merced River.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The valley of the Merced

Once on the valley floor, we still had some – fortunately not too steep – climbing to do,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Across granite alongside the Merced River

to finally reach Merced Lake,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Merced Lake

and the Merced HSC, where we’d spend the next two nights (you’re a little more likely to win the lottery for the whole loop if you agree to two nights at Merced, which is no hardship at all).  There was plenty of water at this camp – more than enough for solar hot showers!

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Merced Lake HSC store and dining room

DAY 5: Merced Lake – Sloth, idleness, and dissipation

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Slack water on the upper Merced River

DAY 6: Merced Lake to Vogelsang (7.8 miles; 2,800 feet elevation gain)

The hike from Merced Lake to Vogelsang HSC is the single biggest climb on the loop and one that a lot of people worry about. But it’s well graded and overall a lot easier then the sometimes abruptly steep climb from Tenaya Lake to Sunrise HSC. As we climbed out of the valley of the Merced, there was that one spot where we could see both Merced Lake and Half Dome.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Merced Lake with Half Dome beyond

There are two options for the Merced to Vogelsang section and we chose to ascend Fletcher Creek because that way is more open with bigger views. The trail climbs steadily to a point,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Viewpoint (arrow) on the Fletcher Creek trail

where we could look back south toward the Clark Range.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The Clark Range from the viewpoint on the Fletcher Creek trail

Past this point, the trail levels off a lot, enters a long valley,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Emeric Meadows along Fletcher Creek

and climbs rather gently through meadows and up a slope,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Further up Emeric Meadows

to Vogelsang HSC where we’d spend our last night on the trail. We had arranged our schedule to arrive at Vogelsang on its last day of operation for the 2015 season, so as to partake of the traditional “Last Supper” of turkey and fixings. Yumm!

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

At Vogelsang for the Last Supper

DAY 7: Vogelsang to Tuolumne Meadows (7.2 miles; 1,400 elevation loss)

After the Last Supper came the cold and clear Last Morning,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

The Last Morning at Vogelsang HSC

and then the Last Breakfast (which seemed redundant given all the turkey we’d consumed the night before). But despite some bloating, we bravely laced on our boots one last time, said goodbye to Vogelsang,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Farewell to Vogelsang HSC

and started down to Tuolumne Meadows.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Downward bound

After another crossing of the Tuolumne River,

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Lyall Fork of the Tuolumne River

we reached our cars at the trailhead just west of Tuolumne Lodge.

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Not as neat and tidy as when we started!

A stunning trip (49 mile loop; 6,600 feet elevation gain) through unrelentingly beautiful scenery with amazingly excellent friends! Probably a once in a lifetime trip but worth every footstep (and dollar) expended!

Yosemite High Sierra Camps California

Our track: Day 1 (red), Day 2 (yellow), Day 3 (white), Day 4 (purple), Day 5 (rest), Day 6 (black), Day 7 (green)

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