Last month, I achieved a personal milestone in completing the hike of the fifth - and final - camp of the Yosemite High Sierra back country loop. I would have achieved this last year, however; due to fire, Steve and I were forced to end our excursion at the Tioga Road and retreat to the safety of the Yosemite Valley. This year's hike was to start where we left off last year and I was eager to get going.
Our first night - Mount Dana, at Sunset. Mount Dana is located East of Tuolumne Meadows.
First, let me start with saying that I know that what I am about to express is going to sound messed up. Please remember to take this in the spirit that it is meant and do not think poorly of me. OK. Here it goes. I AM GLAD YOSEMITE BURNED LAST YEAR. OK? There...I said it...and of course, I don't mean it an ounce. For truth in reporting, the drought in the West is very concerning and saddening. I will say that I am glad that I did not have to do the hike from May down to the Tioga road and then back up to Sunrise High Camp. What a grueling - grueling - hike. Even just shlepping up from the Tioga Road (which knocks off about 1/2 of the hike), it is a killer. While it is a relatively short 5.8 miles, it has over 1,350 feet in elevation gain (remember, elevation is not linear when hiking). Steve and I were two exhausted dudes when we limped into Sunrise High Camp.
Now, this may not seem like a lot to experienced hikers, but you also have to remember that we had about 50 pounds of gear on our back. Carrying a big pack, one thing you notice quickly is that most people doing on the trail are carrying little day packs. Somehow, someone thought it was a smart idea to bring some camera equipment. I was so beat that Steve and I joked that someone would be throwing away their underwear, just so I one have one less thing to carry. Throughout the afternoon, Steve and I would look at each other and say "Who thought this was a good idea????"
No matter how exhausted you are though - when you get in, much of the fatigue melts away. Usually you have some time before dinner and before peak light for photographing. It is great to just sit and reflect on the day that you had. Even the 'easy' hikes are pretty amazing. That sense of amazement gets compounded when you sit with everyone at dinner, during the family style meals that are provided by the high camps. You can definitely see the amazing sense of accomplishment that everyone who is there has from having this rare opportunity.
Sunrise High Sierra Camp at Sunset. For pixel peepers, you might see some dots out in the field. Those are some of the camp workers playing Frisbee. I wish I had known about places like this at that age.
The big reward though, besides a cot to sleep in and a hot meal, is the amazing views of the park that you just cannot get by driving around in your car. If you want to take photographs of the icons differently - there is no question that this is how you do it. While most parks have back country trails, there is nothing that I know of as extensive as Yosemite's, with the option to not have to carry the additional weight of food and shelter. If I were doing that, I probably would definitely have to re-examine my camera rig.
Unicorn Peak from Sunrise Campground, in the late afternoon.
When people ask me which high camps that I like best, I am generally very evasive. Each high camp offers something truly unique, and I do not think asking 'which one' is the 'right question.' Sunrise has a view of the Clark Range that is pretty unbeatable. Also, as it was the last of the high camps to be opened, it is the most modern and has a functioning shower..and aesthetically that means a lot to me.
However, it has so much more than that. All of the tents are located on a shelf that feels very private yet open. It is a really lovely setting. I know I said this before, but I wish I knew about these places when I was a teenager. What fun.
The Clark Range at Sunset
The Clark Range - Take 2.
Steve and I hiked up behind the kitchen and photographed the Clark Range at sunset. This was a sunset that would not stop setting. Beautiful light and clouds. I have both vertical and horizontally oriented shots that I really like. While I have a penchant for verticals, I am working really hard to improve the quality of my horizontal photos. This is one that I liked from the series.
Another Hiking Trail.
Having had two amazing nights at Sunrise, I was ready to get moving to Merced Campground. The hike to Merced is another difficult one, being about 10 miles long with an elevation drop of over 2,200 feet. Again, this does not sound terrible, but I sure had some blisters on the balls of my feet when I hiked into Merced.
Merced campground used to be where the military barracks was located. It still has that feel compared to the other campgrounds. There are probably double the number of tents, though it is always really well run when I have stayed there. It also has a shower. Hey, I like not smelling from downwind. Given the low elevation, it is also warm. Steve refers to it as 'the Banana Belt.'
Of all of the different campgrounds, Merced is the one where I have had the most difficulty getting solid compositions. It is odd because Steve has traditionally had some of his strongest material from here. This time at Merced, I still struggled.
Where is the bear in this photo?
We stayed at Merced for one night and left the next morning. I stopped to photograph this mountain range - one that I still do not know the name to. This is where I encountered the bear. I had just taken the photograph above and was rushing to catch up to Steve, who was up ahead of me. I was flying up the switch backs and startled a largish black bear who had just come down the trail.
Just like us, most animals function with one of two reactions when startled - fight or flight. This black bear decided to come at me...something that was a new experience for me. Given that I had my backpack strapped to my body, I was particularly feeling vulnerable. One good push and I would have fallen. Fortunately, Steve had made me watch some bear encounter videos before we did a workshop in Glacier a few years back and that information popped into my head.
I raised my arms as loud as I could and I screamed at the bear. I think I yelled all sorts of things...I may even have used the terms 'Anchor Baby' and 'Republican,' - but that just might be a flight of fancy. I do know that the bear stopped its march and turned off the path. However, it stopped and looked at me as if trying to figure out if leaving was the right course of action. Making my body as large as I could, I screamed again...I let out such a burst of noise that I had nothing left in my diaphragm. Some part of me realized that if that did not work that I was going to be in trouble. The bear looked at me again and left the trail. I gave it a few seconds to make sure it was really gone and bolted up the trail as fast as I could. Scared, but alive. In all my years of dealing with bear - and I have dealt with many - I have never been in such a position before. So are the issues you deal with when you are in their territory and by yourself.
Fletcher Peak at Vogelsang high Camp
Fletcher Peak at Vogelsang High Camp
Fletcher Peak at Sunset at Vogelsang High Camp
The hike to Vogelsang is another killer. It is a hike from 7,150 feet to 10,300 over about 7.3 miles. Much of the hike is shear vertical. I had taken a photo with my iphone of the Merced lake, but it did not come out. I wish I had taken the time to pull out my rig, but after the bear, I was still a bit shaken. It is a long and exhausting day, but the reward is Vogelsang...perhaos one of the most beautiful places in the world. I am sorry that there are so many different compositions of essentially the same location above. I had a real difficult time chosing which I wanted to show. Did I mention that Vogelsang might be one of the most beautiful places in the world? Lol.
The Vogelsang High Camp is the highest of the five back country camps. Given that it is right on the water, there are no showers. We spent two days in Vogelsang and I think I got some new views. Unfortunately, the wildflowers were all gone from Townley lake and I did not bring as much back as I had hoped for. There was also no snow - which there was the time prior.
Fletcher Peak with Dear Grazing
We had just finished sunrise and were heading back, getting ready to go have breakfast when we came across this small heard of deer grazing in front of Fletcher Peak. It was so lovely that we pulled out the cameras and launched off another bunch of frames. I used a Neutral Density filter to hold the sky so that I could photograph the dear. We had them to ourselves for about 2 or 3 minutes until some other guests came in from behind them and spooked them by getting too close. What a beautiful site. I wish that we could have watched for longer.
Fletcher Peak at Vogelsang High Camp
Steve and I spent two nights in Vogelsang and hiked down to Tuolumne Meadows. We were tired and eager to get home and we flew down the trails in a way that we did not two years prior when we went up them. We went so fast that I barely remember looking at the amazing sites...and that is too bad. The hike to Vogelsang up the river is just beautiful.
We landed in Tuolumne Meadows and I felt so proud that I had finally had the opportunity to hike all of the camps and all of the primary trials of the loop. I am not sure how often that this will be an opportunity for me in the future - but I do know that I will always have amazing memories and hopefully some nice photos to share.
For people who have thought about doing something like this - take the time and do it. Getting out of the car and moving by foot provides a sense of accomplishment that you can not replicate. Also, the photographic opportunities cannot be beat. You really do see the world in a different way.