|Backpack||59.94 Miles||5 Days |
|10,900 ft AEG|
|9L asked me if I'd be interested in this one and despite being off my peak hiking form, I figured, what's a 50-60 mile backpack trip? The clincher was that I couldn't refuse his offer to drive somewhere (anywhwere, ever), so I shuffled my calendar to make it work. After looking at the route, I proposed starting with two shorter days with optional day hikes rather than knocking out one big uphill day right out of the gate. I'm pretty happy with how that turned out, especially with the abundant monsoon moisture that dumped on us each day of the trip. I could have easily spent another night or two along the spectacular Merced River and do a couple of basecamp dayhikes from there. Perhaps another visit is in order...|
Day 1 - Mono Meadow to Clark Fork (6.4 mi, 1200 aeg)
We got started around 2pm on a rather warm sunny afternoon. Mono Meadow was dry enough for mud-free crossing. We took quick breaks at the first creek crossing (west fork Illilouette?) and at Illilouette, where we were able to hop across keeping our feet dry. From here it's all uphill, and we knocked out the remaining 3 miles to camp without much problem. Shortly after we got camp setup, some storms rolled through allowing for a pleasant pitter-patter for an early evening nap. The skies cleared and we settled in for an enjoyable couple hours around the fire.
Day 2 - Clark Fork to Upper Merced Pass Lake (7.8 mi, 2100 aeg)
With another short day we slept in and were in no rush to get started. This was another all-climb day but the trail is extremely moderate. It's not typical Sierra hiking, just nicely wooded, not much granite, with few views. Along the way we chatted with some SAR folks who were out looking for a hiker who had been missing for 5 days. They informed us that the SAR base was set up at our planned camp at Lower Merced Pass Lake, so that threw a little wrinkle into our day. Fortunately, when we stopped to chat with them, one of the searchers pointed us to a fantastic alternative at Upper Merced Pass Lake. We set up camp with plans for a good day hike, but before we could get started, the skies opened up with one of the best storms I've ever camped in. Hail and lightning, with at least 2"-3" of rainfall resulting in flooding that had both of us relocating our tent locations, and not a whole lot of actual sleep during afternoon storm naptime!
Dayhike - Buena Vista Crest (3.5 mi, 1000 aeg)
When the rain finally stopped after a few hours, we tried to dry some things out and I decided we had enough daylight to make a modified dayhike to the Buena Vista Crest. I had hopes to hike more of the crest and drop into the Hoover Lakes, but we had to cut that short. Nonetheless, we climbed above camp which opened up some outstanding post-storm views across the Clark Range and down the Illilouette valley back to Half Dome, Hoffman, and Clouds Rest. This is a very worthy side trip. Despite the torrential rain earlier, 9L got his merit badge by getting the fire started for another evening of drying out. An orphaned hiker latched on to us and seemed happy to have some company. He spent the evening making up for apparently not having spoken to anybody for several days.
Day 3 - Upper Merced Pass Lake to Triple Fork (14.2 mi, 3200 aeg)
This was always going to be our biggest ascent day as we needed to get over 11,200 foot Red Peak Pass. It started with a moderate climb up to Lower Ottoway Lake, which is an absolute stunning alpine lake. From there the climb begins in earnest, passing by Upper Ottoway Lake above the treeline. The final 500 feet follows switchbacks through a talus chute that features construction as nice as any trail I have ever hiked.
Cresting the pass there was a group of 12 boyscouts. Kelly (our chatty magnet hiker) and I reached the pass when one of the scout leaders commented that it was suddenly crowded up there. I politely pointed out that people numbers 13 and 14 were not the ones who made it crowded. Following my comments about lawsuits, abuse, and surprise that the scouts still exist we quickly made our way down the north side of the pass, leaving the actual crowd behind. Until camp in LYV, that group was more people than all the others we encountered combined.
Heading down Red Peak Pass, the first couple of miles of trail are above the treeline with stunning views and unique red colored rock amongst the typical gray granite. Again, the trail construction through this boulder field is impressive. The forecast called for strong storms again today, beginning around noon, and we had made a solid effort to get over the pass before then. The clouds were building and thunder rumbled around us. Rain was visible in the distance and a few drops landed from time to time, but we threaded the needle and were able to get well below the treeline before the heavy rain began.
Fully geared up and splashing through the rain, dodging lightning strikes and ducking wind, we reached our planned night 3 camp. With nowhere to shelter and no possibility of setting up camp in the storm, we opted to just keep walking, hoping to knock off another mile or three until the storm passed. It didn't pass, but we saw a suitable camp at some point, and the rain had let up enough to get a tent set up without getting soaked. Just in time, too, as a new round of rain came in and it poured for at least another couple of hours.
When the storm cleared, it was another beautiful evening with late day sunlight, clouds and fog, and a river adjacent to camp whose level increased by more than a foot as I filtered water. It took a little longer to get the fire started after this storm, but after some effort, another enjoyable night at camp was at hand.
Day 4 - Triple Fork to LYV (18.4 mi, 800 aeg)
After a morning fire and waiting for the sun to rise high enough to give some time to dry out our wet tents and footprints, we packed up and headed downstream. It wasn't far before the trail drops to where the various forks join to create the start of the Merced River. This is an absolutely spectacular drop and the next 15 miles is as nice as any I've ever experienced in Yosemite.
Waterfalls, cascades, lakes, placid pools, forests, granite cliffs, creeks, and views in every direction. We took a break at Washburn Lake, and stopped briefly at the Merced Ranger station and Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, both of which were completely deserted due to Covid. Below Merced Lake, we opted to continue past one of our night four camp options with the mandatory camp now being at Little Yosemite Valley due to year-round camping restrictions.
Below Merced Lake the river carves a deeper gorge and passes over a couple of huge cascades. The trail takes a high route above one of the narrow stretches and here is where the rain began. Unlike the past two days though, it only rained lightly for a half hour or so before stopping altogether.
In addition to the miles piling up on the day, the last couple of miles were really devastating as the 2014 Meadow Fire has completely decimated the valley and shows very little sign of recovery. Tree cover returned just minutes before arriving at the campground, where our late arrival made finding a great spot challenging. Nonetheless, I was able to do enjoy some swimming in the Merced and a pleasant night sleep, surrounded by hundreds of people who have apparently never stayed up past 8pm.
Day 5 - LYV to Mono Meadow (9.0 mi, 2600 aeg)
With many of our Half Dome hiker neighbors getting up before dawn, our exit day started early, heading in the opposite direction as the occasional dayhikers heading toward Half Dome. There were only two others at Nevada Falls, which is by far the best way to enjoy it. From here, we climbed up toward the Panorama Cliffs rather than heading down to the valley where the masses could be found. The climb was more pleasant than I was expecting and we quickly dropped down into the Illilouette Creek drainage. We encountered a rare sight (twice) along the way. Dogs! Unfortunately, SAR was still actively searching for the missing hiker, and two teams had trained dogs working with them. It's always a surprise to see man's best friend on the trail in the backcountry of a national park. After a quick break at the creek we retraced our steps from five days earlier on the final climb back to the trailhead.
After a few minutes to get organized, we climbed into the HMS 9L and began the long drive back to Arizona.