I planned this big loop to cover a lot of trails and areas I had never visited in Yosemite and to test my ability to spend a long time in the wilderness without seeing a hot pizza or real bed. Originally, I planned to do it in 2017, but the massive amount of snow that year made that impractical.
I planned to start in Tuolumne Meadows, hike down Rafferty Creek, through the Volgelsang area, over Volgelsang Pass and down Lewis Creek.
From there I’d go along the ridge on the Isberg Pass Trail over to Red Peak Pass Trail.
Up and over Red Peak Pass was the primary goal. Scrambling over to the actual Red Peak Summit was also a desired challenge.
From there, it was down along Illilouette Creek and up towards Half Dome to climb the cables there. Up and over Clouds Rest and then to Sunrise and Cathedral Lakes. And completing the loop in Tuolumne Meadows.
I hoped to do this in 7 days, but had a little extra food and could handle 8 days if needed (and 9 days if I begged for food from other hikers or caught some squirrels 🙂 ).
I picked up my permit in the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. Unfortunately, this usually takes an hour or so even though I had a reservation, so it was past 9:30am before I hit the trail starting at the Dog Lake Trailhead parking area.
The hike up Rafferty Creek started nice, but soon started to climb sharply. Fortunately, it leveled out a bit as the day went on.
My plan was to make it to Booth Lake or Vogelsang Lake in the Vogelsang area, but with the day getting late and my legs still getting used to the extra work (it usually takes a day or two for my legs to get the idea that they have to walk more than normal) I found a nice meadow with great views of the Tuolumne Meadows mountains and Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks for the night. Plus, people were saying the mosquitoes at the lakes were REALY bad.
There were some mosquitoes in the meadows, but I could cope with them. That is until I realized I forgot my mosquito head net. Oops. Not a good thing to forget for this time of year in the Yosemite wilderness. My heavy duty insect repellant would have to do double duty I guess and I ended up spending a little more time in my tent than usual.
Besides that, the sunset and sunrise was very nice from there.
On the second day, I made my way up and saw Booth Lake and thought I made a good choice. It looks very enclosed and probably didn’t have much of a view.
Making my way through the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp and Backpackers Camp, I thought that the area was pretty nice. While I sometimes avoid camping at the established High Sierra Camps in the Yosemite wilderness, this area had a pretty nice view of the surrounding area.
A quick trip to Fletcher Lake was enjoyable. Then it was a climb up to Vogelsang Lake. Very nice climb and views all around (including a view of Half Dome and Clouds Rest). This was one of my possible spots I was thinking of camping and if I had the energy to go further the day before it would have been a nice place to stop. Maybe the next time I’m in the area.
I thought about going up Vogelsang Peak, but the most common path up it (there was no formal trail) looked like it still had a decent amount of snow covering it and without my ice axe, I didn’t think it was worth the extra time it would take out of the main hike towards Red Peak Pass.
So I made my way over Vogelsang Pass (a very spectacular view from he top) and down Lewis Creek.
As the day grew late and I found a spot to pitch my tent that overlooked Mt Clark for some color at sunset and sunrise, I settled in for my second night.
I started down Lewis Creek in the morning and soon turned onto the Isberg Pass Trail.
From this point, I could have descended down towards Merced Lake and hiked towards the Red Peak Pass trail along one of the many forks feeding into the Merced River, but the elevation I’d have to descend and later reclimb made the ridge overlooking this area the better choice. Plus I’ve always enjoyed grand vistas over forest and lake scenery.
This trail was obviously not used as often as some of the other trails in Yosemite, since I would occasionally not be able to see where the trail was.
The first part was a fairly strenuous climb up switchbacks, but the occasional views of Half Dome and Merced Lake helped soothe my tired soul.
Usually the first day or two of a big trek like this was the most tiring as my body adapts to the elevated activity and altitude. That seemed to be the case this day as I got into a great stretch when I just enjoyed the hike and the beauty surrounding me.
I was expecting to make it 10-12 miles with how well I felt.
Then I stumbled upon paradise.
I found a fantastic overlook that had sweeping views of the back of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Merced Lake, and almost the entire Clark Range. I could even see Red Peak and Red Peak Pass from there. I was a little put off by the fact that I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to get from where I was to Red Peak Pass. Nothing new there. Yosemite seems to like playing tricks on your perception of ‘scale’ and ‘distance’. 🙂
I was only 4 miles into the day’s hike, but I knew that I had to camp here for a night. The fact that Half Dome would soon be out of sight behind Mt Clark if I continued down the ridge line also played into my decision to stop early for the day and enjoy a spectacular view.
So I set up my tent, took a lot of pictures, had one of my dehydrated dinners (Lasagna, I believe), and took a lot of pictures.
Then came the sunset! I had chosen my camping spot well. The sunset was spectacular! And colors it blasted across the surrounding mountains and granite walls were even more spectacular!! Words can’t describe it, so so have a look at the photos and movies I took.
After that enjoyable light show I finally got to bed, making sure to set my alarm to be up for sunrise in anticipation of another great show.
I didn’t meet a single person on the trail this day, which goes to show you how infrequently used this trail was and how remote I was.
Alas, my first view of Half Dome pre-dawn had a lot of haze covering it to the point you could barely pick it out from he surrounding area.
The sun came up and was still spectacular, but the colors were muted by the haze filling the valleys before me.
I believe it might have been smoke from fires down near Mammoth Lakes and it stuck around for most of the day, unfortunately.
Undeterred, I had breakfast and broke camp and headed south again.
Shock! A person passed me going the other way. After chatting briefly and getting some trail info, we went our separate ways.
Then I hit the Lydell Creek crossing.
I couldn’t find a log or any stones to cross the creek nearby, so I’d have to ford the creek. It was running pretty strong and high, so off came my boots, socks, and lower part of my hiking pants (they unzip).
Ran a trial run without my gear to find a safe path and found a mild zone just below a rough spot. Then I took two passes to get my gear over in two bundles (so that if I lost one bundle, I wouldn’t loose everything).
Then I washed my pants and underwear (unplanned) when I slipped a bit when I was getting my pack onto the opposite side of the creek. Since I was pretty wet anyway, I ended up washing myself down and even a couple of my t-shirts.
After 3 days in the wilderness, this was refreshing.
Then what would be the worst climb of the trip towered in front of me.
Almost a thousand feet to climb in what looked like just a half mile of switchbacks on my map. Switchbacks are a necessary evil and make climbing up steep cliffs much easier, but they are a bear to navigate without cursing someone out (the designer of the trail, Mother Nature, the mosquitoes swarming around you, or anyone who ever pissed you off in your life). Climbing so much in such a short span was grueling and I started to wonder if I should have gone down the the valley instead. But then I saw more grand views from he ridge line and all was forgiven (by me, my feet are still holding a grudge against those switchbacks).
I continued down the ridge, catching beautiful sights as I went. And saw my second, and last, person for the day. Since I had a short day the day before, I wanted to push myself to get to the end of this trail and down as near to the junction where the Red Peak Pass Trail began climbing towards the pass.
Reluctantly, I passed up a nice spot with a good view (partly because it had no shade and the afternoon was already very hot) and started descending towards the junction. I ended up in a forested area for the night without much of a view, but it allowed me to get a complete night’s rest without having to worry about seeing the entire sunset, night skies, and waking up early for the sunrise.
With about 8 miles to hike and 2,000 feet to climb to reach RedPeak Pass, I expected to only make it close to somewhere near the top of the pass and then camp for the night.
Fortunately, the trail was mostly a gentle slope past beautiful alpine lakes and creeks. I did have to ditch my boots and socks for a wade across the Merced Peak Fork creek, but it was nothing compared to the challenge of crossing Lydell Creek the day before (not even up to my knees).
I took some time to rest by one of the lakes and enjoyed the scenery as I went, but was making very good time towards the pass.
As I reached the last area with any flat surfaces (barely) that I could camp on, I felt that it was still too early to stop for the day, so I decided to just go for it and head up to the pass.
The only problem was that I couldn’t quite make out where the trail to the pass was from where I was. It’s always a little unnerving when you are approaching a steep climb and can’t make out where the trail actually winds up the cliffside.
Finally, I started to see hints of a man made trail and trudged forward.
Then I hit the snow. The switchbacks on this side faced North, so there was still some snow fields left covering several of the switchbacks. A couple spots I could use nearby rocks to detour around, but there were still at least 3 or 4 patches of snow to make my way over. Being late afternoon, I worried about the snow being too soft, but I managed to make my way through them without too much problem. After climbing through deep snow up to Helen Lake near Lake Shasta in May, this was nothing.
Then, at last, the Red Peak Pass!!! Gorgeous views from the top. The whole day had great views of the mountains surrounding me (in particular the Cathedral Range around Tuolumne Meadows), but from the top of the pass, it was even more spectacular.
The view from the other side looking down on Ottoway Lakes was also spectacular. This is the highest trail pass in Yosemite at 11,078 feet. It’s also the highest point that I have ever been in Yosemite!
Then my desire to make my way over to the Red Peak summit itself became my next goal. It’s not a formal trail and lots of it is class 3 scrambling and making your way across rocks and boulders that make up the side of the ridge.
After starting down the obvious part of the trail, it soon got trickier to find the next foot and hand hold.
And then the winds started to try and blow me off the ridge line. After several attempts to make my way across, it became clear that the strong wind was going to either kill me or at least do it’s best to stop me from getting over to the summit.
Alas, I decided to abandon my attempt at the actual summit of Red Peak. Maybe if I had waited for morning it would have been possible on fresh legs.
After taking yet more pictures, I looked at my options. I could go back down the way I came up to the last tarn area and pitch my tent to try to make it to the summit in the morning or go down the other side of the pass towards Ottoway Lakes.
I decided that Ottoway Lakes would be a better choice and that I still had the option to climb back up the pass in the morning if my body and conditions allowed me. It was a fairly easy hike down via some switchbacks.
So after reaching the upper Ottaway Lakes area, I cleaned up with a nice (but cold) swim in one of the upper lakes. I tried to setup camp in a great spot with views of the whole area. Unfortunately, that strong wind was still blowing so hard it wouldn’t even let me get my tent setup long enough for me to tie it down to some boulders to keep it in place.
Reluctantly, I headed down further towards Lower Ottaway Lake and found a more sheltered spot overlooking that lake (a very popular location for people to camp who have come up from Yosemite Valley).
I did see signs of humans around he lake, but with my main goal behind me I settled in for a enjoyable night and some color at sunset and sunrise.
This day started by exploring Lower Ottoway Lake in more detail and then starting the long decent towards the Valley along Illilouette Creek.
Down is always nice after a long hike.
Since I was almost 2 days behind my original schedule I had pretty much given up the plan to climb Half Dome and Clouds Rest before completing the loop to Tuolumne Meadows.
So with it mostly downhill from his point, I may have actually been able to make it to the Valley if I made good time and hiked late into the evening. It was 18 miles, but being mostly downhill I may have made it.
But then I found a perfect camping spot with view of Sentinel Dome and the Glacier Point area in front of Mt Star King, which loomed over me for the night. I couldn’t pass that up and didn’t really want to do a long hike that day anyway.
Hot pizza would have to wait for another night. 🙂
But it was worth it. The sunset and sunrise cast it’s light over all of the surrounding mountains and cliffs in a spectacular show. Mt Star King also wore it’s best colors. It was a great way to end the trip.
After enjoying the sunrise and my breakfast, I set off towards Nevada Falls. Then I had a hard choice. Half Dome loomed over me and I still would have loved to do the full loop. That would require up to 2 more days on the trail and scrounging up some additional food from fellow hikers along the way.
So as I rested above Nevada Falls and enjoyed the raging water and sights, I flipped a coin.
Hot pizza won. I decided I had done the primary goals of the trip and Half Dome and Clouds Rest would still be there. Plus I had climbed them several times already, so that part really wasn’t new to me like almost ALL of the rest of the trails I had hiked over during this trek.
So after enjoying Vernal Falls along the Mist Trail on the way down, I saw my first bear of this trip… from the Valley shuttle bus. Go figure. Not that you’d want to see it in the wilderness (especially going through your food), but I found it ironic that I saw it right after getting down to civilization after 7 days in the wilderness.
So one hot pizza and several Diet Cokes later, I tried to find a bed for the night in the Valley. I almost got one (expensive), but they wouldn’t let me check in without a drivers license. I try to only bring the bare minimum when I backpack, so one credit card and a few $20 bills was all I had.
So instead of relaxing in the Valley for the night, I got on a YARTS bus to Tuolumne Meadows and reached my Jeep before sunset. I did pause up there to see a very nice sunset from Olmsted Point, then decided to call my trip done. I stayed in an Hostel on the way back to the SF Bay Area (a REAL bed!) and finished the drive home the next morning.
Overall, a great trek and well worth the aches and pains that caught up to me after about 3 days. I have to say days 3 and 5 were my favorite of the trek, but every day brought beautiful, new vistas that I’ll remember forever.
57 miles over 6 nights and 7 days. Longest solo backpacking trip of my life. (So far)
I’ll have to at least triple the time and quadruple the distance to do the entire John Muir Trail someday.
Flicker Collection of photos for all 7 days, including separate albums for the best highlights and all the rest of my pictures: