I know there are not that many pix from Half Dome. I was having a tough enough time just doing the hike without taking pix. I’ll get better at this the more I do it.
We were testing out some new equipment for this trip:
1. Gregory Z-30 daypacks – Awesome! Light, small, comfortable. The pack is held away from your back so you don’t get “pack sweat back” so easily. Lots of freedom of movement with these. Along with our tent, probably my favorite piece of outdoor equipment we own. Citron Yellow is a great color too. [Editor’s Note: In the three years since this article was first published, we have continued using these packs and still love them. The Z-30 in the link above is the newer version as our exact model is no longer available. We really like the longer narrower profile of these packs. They hold as much stuff as a standard day pack without limiting the range of motion of your arms. We still love the curved frame to hold the pack away from your back but have noticed it makes accessing smaller things in the bottom of the main compartment more difficult. They are sized right holding as much water and other stuff as you’d comfortably want to carry for a day. The well-designed shoulder straps and waist belt allow you to distribute the load comfortably across your torso. On the downside, these packs are expensive. For us, being able to hike with the stuff we want to carry for a day without ending up with a sore back, shoulders or neck has been worth the price.]
2. Camelbak 2L water bladders – Highly recommended. The biggest size that would fit our packs. 3/4 of the people we saw hiking had these and with good reason. They make drinking water fun and easy. 🙂 The weight stays centered on your body and you are more likely to drink more often because of the convenient drinking tube. Nice large mouth that you can fit your hand in for cleaning. Con’s: Still a pain to clean. No locking “off” valve (although you can buy one for it). I read that you can just toss them in the freezer rather than cleaning in between uses on longer trips. This is what we did and it worked great. [Editor’s Note: The link takes you to the newer version of this bladder. You’ll see that these now come with a locking on/off valve standard. We still love these bladders and have had no leaks with our bite-valve-only versions. Part of the trick seems to be pushing the tubing far in to the bite valve. This way the bite valve and the tubing must be compressed a little for water to flow (more resistance so more force is needed for a leak). We’ve come up with a pretty easy cleaning routine: 1. Fill part way with soapy water, shake, drain through valve. 2. Clean any dirty areas inside and out with remaining soap. 3. Rinse thoroughly. 4. Dry inside and out with a towel. 5. Stuff interior with two paper towels to hold it open for drying. 6. Remove bite valve and spin hose (like you are cowboy getting ready to rope a steer or a kid playing jump rope). 7. Let everything completely dry. 8. Replace bite valve and store with lid unscrewed. It sounds much more complicated than it is. It takes about as long as washing and drying a dirty dish.]
3. Marmot PreCip rain jackets – More affordable that the Goretex alternatives but much more breathable than standard nylon or coated nylon. Available in lots of colors. Cut large enough to cover a couple layers of clothing. Pitzips are nice for ventilation and work well. Stuffs in on itself with one of the pockets forming a stuff sack (handy). Overall this product was a good match for us. I’ve read that the waterproofing doesn’t hold up a super long time. Didn’t break the wind all that well. The hood works well but the feature to roll it up into a collar is a joke. If you are a woman, skip the lady’s version. The men’s design is better and available in more colors. [Editor’s Note: The link now takes you to a newer version of the same product. We still really like these jackets. The waterproofing has not failed, but that could easily be because we are intentionally babying them. They stay stuffed in our day packs and are only used when we are hiking. Since we try to hike when it isn’t raining, they see little use. We’ve probably only used them 5 or 6 times total. We’ve also added long rain pants to the ensemble. We usually hike in cooler weather and having dry legs is nice (in the summer we just wear shorts and don’t care). As noted in the Yosemite write up, nylon running or hiking pants don’t cut it. They let the water right in.]
Park day three started with an early alarm buzzing in my ear. We didn’t know if we’d be able to hike Half Dome today or not. The night before we were both completely spent and knew we were not going to feel our best in the morning. Yosemite Falls was a “strenuous” 7-1/2 mile hike but doing Half Dome as a day hike would be a “very strenuous” 16 miler (for us actually 18 mile but more on that later). If we were going to do it at all we needed to be out the door by about 5am. The shuttles don’t run that early so we had to drive to one of the other campgrounds to park. Unfortunately, I misunderstood what the ranger was telling me the day before and we parked in the wrong lot which was at least a mile from the trailhead. I would curse this decision before the day was out. I was already weary and so convinced that I wasn’t going to hike the whole thing I didn’t bring any extra water and I left my gloves (needed for the final push) in the room.
Our thought was to hike to Vernal Fall on the Mist Trail (supposed to be the best and most popular hike in the park). This would get us maybe a quarter of the way up to Half Dome and would be a fun little hike. As popular as this trail is I’m surprised at how steep it is. Nothing like Yosemite Falls but certainly enough to give a couch potato thoughts of cardiac arrest. One huge help is that this portion of the trail is paved making walking fast easy and soft underfoot. There are even bathrooms and water fountains along the way.
We quickly reached the bottom of Vernal Fall which is quite beautiful. It is a nice change from Yosemite Falls because it is one free-leaping fall as opposed to Yose’s two steps. Again the temp dropped (and it was already a cold morning) and the pavement ended as we approached the fall. We donned our rain jackets and were thankful to have long pants.
Sidebar: I had hoped that jogging pants would work like hiking pants so I wore them over my shorts. They kept me warmer but they got soaking wet anyway. I will definitely get a pair of hiking pants if we are going to be in a wet situation like this again.
Now it was time for the signature section of the Mist Trail. We would climb a staircase cut into granite that hugs very close to the side of the fall. Later we would find out that nature was aligned perfectly so the fall was at maximum force that day. There were parts of the climb that were a driving “mist” that felt like someone was pointing a garden hose at us. I thought it was neat but Melanie wasn’t having as good of a time here. She doesn’t like to be cold or wet and she was both. Additionally some of the steps were almost waist high for her so she got a tremendous leg workout.
Once we reached the top of the stairs and the trail veered away from Vernal Fall we stopped on a big rock that was in the sun so Melanie could thaw out and I could strip down to shorts and T-shirt. We continued the climb to the last bathroom just past the top of Nevada Fall. It was at this point that we decided that we would make an attempt to hike Half Dome. Maybe the beauty and coolness of getting to walk over the top of Nevada Fall inspired us. I’m not sure. We had worked out the soreness from yesterday’s hike and were feeling pretty good. If we didn’t make it all the way, we would still get to see some nice scenery.
As the hike continued we spent a mile or two in that soft granite sand again. Unlike before this wasn’t a problem at all because the trail was almost completely flat and wide open giving us some nice views. Next up were switchbacks in the trees that went on for a long time. As we continued to climb the wind gusts became more frequent and I had to put my fleece back on. We passed (and were passed by) several groups of people young and old from all over the world. We talked to a Korean couple when we stopped for lunch. There was a man from Taiwan that was retired and hiking this trail for the second time. We ran across a Vietnam vet (Army) and his wife. I picked out an Australian accent and one that was probably German.
Around this time I ran out of water. Luckily for me Melanie still had a little more than half of hers left. We would have to ration it, but I hoped that I could make it the rest of the day without a bad headache. I knew I was in no danger of problems related to dehydration. I’d pounded down 2.5L already and if I got REALLY thirsty I could always put snow in my water bladder and treat it. Still I had to smile to myself. The biggest thing they caution on this trail is carrying enough water. If I had planned on hiking Half Dome from the start that morning I would have had at least 1L more (perfect) or 2L more (overkill). This may sound like a crazy swimming-pool-sized amount to you hiking pros, but I’ve noticed that I need more water than the average Joe. Keep in mind too that this was a tough all day high up a mountain in a very dry climate. I’m just lucky it wasn’t a hot day.
The switchbacks went on for a very long time. I kept thinking we were going to get above the tree line any minute. I also knew that we had a couple miles hiking along the ridge of the area right below Half Dome before we actually got to the granite outcrop itself. When were we going to get to that flat part?! Finally we did but it still had a lot of trees. Eventually they thinned out until they were downright sparse. Half Dome was directly in front of us and if you looked closely you could see people working their way up the switchbacks on the side of it. What a feeling of accomplishment. What a feeling of freezing. It was getting relatively windy and much colder. Time for more clothing.
When we reached the base where the switchbacks started there were many small clumps of people eating, relaxing and resting up for the rest of the climb. I’m guessing many camped in the higher meadow we passed on the way up. I can’t believe that all of them started that much earlier than us for a day hike.
Once we had rested a couple minutes we decided to give it a try even though we didn’t have gloves. My muscles were very tired and this part of the trail was extremely narrow, steep, and uneven. It required a lot of leg strength and coordination. It is like the difference between squatting down quickly and doing it very slowly. Going slow is a lot more effort. Anyway, my balance isn’t so great anymore and I was tired so this was quite a challenge. Once we climbed above the trees on the ridge below the wind really started gusting. It was freezing cold and with every gust I felt like I was wearing a sail on my back or that some giant was grabbing me and twisting me or nudging me off balance. We kept climbing but at almost exactly the halfway point Melanie cried uncle which was definitely for the best. We worked our way back down the side of Half Dome and for about the 1st mile or so back down the mountain we were stopped by people we’d passed on the way up. They would have an excited look on their faces thinking that it was going to be a quick trip to the top from where they were. Once we told them we didn’t make it they would usually look concerned or surprised.
The rest of the trip back down the mountain was uneventful with the density of people on the trail increasing with every step we took. Overall it was a beautiful hike with spectacular and changing scenery. In Yosemite Valley I don’t believe there is a nicer hike and recommend the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall to everyone. For those in good shape, continuing on to Half Dome is very rewarding. Even though it used up more of our energy reserves, I think this hike is less strenuous than the Yosemite Falls trail.
I’d heard that all marathon runners have to learn to deal using up all available energy reserves at about mile 17. I definitely hit the wall almost exactly at mile 17. It was very strange. We were jogging down the paved trail because it was easier on our legs than trying to walk. We got to the first bathroom and I decided to make a pit stop. While standing still in the restroom my entire body started to vibrate slightly. It was like a full body muscle spasm and it felt like being in a bathroom on an airplane. After that I went out to the water fountain and drank as much water as I could. Trying to move after that was almost impossible for me. I guess when I stood still my body decided that it had had enough. I don’t know how I walked from the water fountain back to our car. I really felt like I did not have a drop of energy left. I have only been more tired one time in my life. Of course Melanie the dynamo was just fine and kept wandering off ahead of me for that last segment of the walk. “Why can’t you keep up?” “What is taking so long?” “Should I go get the car and pick you up?”
Needless to say we had a big dinner that night and I ate two breakfasts the next morning. What was weird was that even after a pancake breakfast (including eggs, bacon, etc) and an egg, hash brown n’ more breakfast I didn’t feel stuffed. Just pleasantly full.
Sidebar: I forgot to mention that the day before we also stopped to see Bridalveil Fall on our way back from Glacier Point. This is a really tall single fall and quite beautiful. It is exceptional because it is one of the only waterfalls in the park the flows year round.
After checking out of the lodge we decided to give Yosemite Falls another quick peek. We were surprised to find that the water flow had decreased significantly since the beginning of the week. We were so happy that we visited when we did.
All week we had been hiking and driving by these cool looking wooden elevated paths across the delicate still-developing fields in the valley and decided to see where they lead. They didn’t really go anywhere and it was a really short walk but really cool experience. If I had a house on the marshes around here I’d want something like this to stroll around on.
Then it was time to get back in the rented Hundai (a surprisingly nice car) and head for civilization. It started raining which turned to snow flurries as we climbed out of the valley. Traffic was much heavier on the other side of the road between the park and the interstate. It was approaching bumper to bumper as folks worked to pack the park for a Memorial Day frenzy.
The next day we drove to the park. About half the drive was on a small two-lane road out in the middle of nowhere. This surprised me considering all the traffic it must get from Sacramento and San Francisco. I can only imagine it packed with cars and RV’s because it was almost empty when we drove it. We stopped to get some cherries and strawberries from a farmer’s fruit stand. The strawberries were just average but the cherries were delicious.
As we worked our way into the park things just kept getting more and more beautiful. I knew that our hotel was near Yosemite Falls but I didn’t really understand just how close it was. The views just from the hotel parking lot were amazing. Melanie and I were stunned at the beauty of it all. Really stunned – like stopped walking and just stood and looked. I was now officially jazzed about this place and wanted to get out in it as quick as possible.
We arrived at the lodge too early to check in so we left the car in the lot and took the valley shuttle over to the Mirror Lake trail. This was a relatively short, flat and easy stroll. Unfortunately I’d never seen pictures of Mirror Lake beforehand or I would not have been expecting an alpine lake experience. What we got was a small marshy overgrown slow spot in the Merced River. In Florida this would be referred to as a drainage ditch or retention pond. Luckily the guidebook told us that the best part of the hike was the Mirror Lake Loop that goes past the lake. This was actually very nice. We got to cross the river two times on footbridges and it was a good time. It was nothing spectacular to see but a pleasant stroll without many people once we got past the “lake.” I was happy to be hiking and it was helping us adjust to the dry air and higher elevation.
After that we hopped on the shuttle and went to the Ahwanee hotel. This is the really expensive hotel that was built early on in the park’s life to attract big bucks big city folk from the coast so that they would support the park with their money. Guess what? It worked. It is still a nice hotel some 80 or 90 years later but I can’t see spending the money to stay there. We had free reign of the lower floor so we strolled around and checked out the cool architecture.
To finish the day off we walked from the lodge where we were staying to the Lower Yosemite Falls. What a spectacular sight! I am so glad that we stopped at REI before this trip and picked up some good rain jackets. In the following pictures you can’t really tell but the water coming off the falls is like a fine wind-driven downpour. I imagine it would take less than a minute to be soaked to the skin standing in front of this fall without something waterproof. The wind generated by the falling water was amazing. The only place it was windy was right at the base of the falls.
*** Part 2 of 6 in the 2008 Yosemite Adventure. Next week, we enter the park and you guys get to see some pix. Thanks for bearing with me. Believe it or not, I’m still sick! ***
Jump ahead a year and we were all geared up, packed up and ready to take to the skies. Melanie was determined that we’d stuff everything into our daypacks and carry them on with us. It was surprisingly easy to do this and we only needed one additional bookbag-sized pack between the two of us. It is absolutely true that the more you travel the less you take with you. Our previous Italy adventures had helped us pare things down.
The trip out was quite uneventful with the exception of a very brave bird in the Dallas airport and the car rental. The agent lied right to my face which momentarily upset me. “Have you rented from us before?” “I dunno. Not in several years if at all.” “Which of the three protection plans would you like?” “Do I have to get one of these?” “Yes, you must pick one.” “Ok, I’ll take this one.” “I’ll just need you to sign here.” “Wait. This is more expensive than the quote I got online.” “That’s because you selected the optional insurance.” “I already have my own insurance and I don’t want to pay this additional fee.” “Ok. Let me just reprint your rental agreement without the extra insurance.” I don’t mind the would-you-like-fries-with-that style sales tactics so much. I understand that they are a business trying to make money, but don’t tell me something that is blatantly not true to get a sale.
We got checked in to the room and went to a nearby restaurant (The Rusty Duck) for “linner” (3 hour time difference). After that we went to Old Towne or whatever they called the preserved portion of downtown Sacramento. The buildings were neat to look at for a little while but the shops were a waste. It was Panama City Beach – saltwater taffy, t-shirts, crush a penny, etc. I would definitely not recommend going here to anyone. Sacramento seems like a very nice place and there must be better stuff to do that this.
*** I am running an old story I wrote about our trip to Yosemite in 2008 for the next couple of weeks. I enjoyed reading it again and looking at the pictures. If you’ve seen it before, I hope you enjoy the encore presentation as much as I did. ***
After some careful planning and reservations a year in advance, we made it out to Yosemite National Park. Being such a highly photographed location we felt like we knew it well but were really excited to get out, hike in it and see it with our own eyes. If we learned nothing else from the Grand Canyon, we learned that seeing these spectacular places in person is so much more than a photograph can convey.
Other folks that had visited before recommended that we go in the spring to see the waterfalls and to avoid some of the crowds. We knew that this would limit our hiking opportunities somewhat because much of the park would still be inaccessible due to snow.
Yosemite has some pretty drastic geography (which is a pretty big part of why it is so beautiful). The bulk of the touristy stuff rests on the valley floor which is a small portion of the park nestled in a drastic V-shaped slot of granite. The remainder of the park is on top of this granite where Little-House-on-the-Prairie-style alpine meadows perch waiting for summer flowers so small girls in pigtails and bears can romp and play. In addition, mountains rise from these meadows creating a breathtaking backdrop (even from the valley floor).
Because of this tremendous change in elevation in such a relatively small area, you get some big differences in weather. Most of the time that we spent in the valley the temps ranged from the 70’s to the upper 80’s. The higher elevations that we climbed to were typically 20 degrees cooler than this but in some instances they got even colder (and much windier). In one car drive or hike you could go from shorts and sunscreen to every layer of clothing you had and snow on the ground. It was warmer than usual when we were in the park but not warm enough for the northernmost road (Tioga Pass to Reno, NV) to be open. This cut our day hiking choices in half and eliminated the possibility of flying in to Reno and driving by Lake Tahoe on the way to the park.
We got a guidebook succinctly titled “Yosemite” from Moon Handbooks. I looked at several before settling on this one and I heartily recommend it. If Rick Steves did US guidebooks, they would be like this. It strongly recommended staying in the park if we could afford it. Our friends also cautioned us against staying outside the park. Yosemite is not a small place but even more importantly it is a slow moving place. The roads are small and very twisty and the speed limit is 20 mph in many places but I imagine that during most of the year when traffic is bad you can’t even go that fast. Trying to commute to the park every day would have been terrible. I really think it would have ruined the trip for us. It would have been like staying in Ponte Vedra and driving downtown via rush hour JTB and I-95 every day of the trip. No thank you! For you non-Jaxvillians that is a slow 45 minute drive.
So step one was reserving a room. After reading the reviews from Moon it was obvious that we wanted the Yosemite Lodge. Real beds. Real walls (not a tent). Not as expensive as the outrageous super duper high end hotel. I got online and looked at availability. It was almost exactly a year before our trip to the day and there was only one availability for one week for the spring season left! It turned out to be the perfect time to go. It would be the week leading up to Memorial Day. Sane people did not want to visit anytime around then. We would be getting out of the park on Friday morning. Hopefully this would keep us out of the clutches of the angry horde of summer tourists. We would also potentially have the warmest weather possible when the waterfalls were still cranked to 11. Most folks choose to wait until after Memorial Day because most of the summer-only amenities open that weekend such as the swimming pools, snack shacks, etc.
Step two was figure out our path to the park. Initially we thought Fresno made sense. We’d never been there and it was the closest bigger city. After checking ticket prices it became apparent we’d be going via Sacramento. We’d been to Sacky before for a wedding but the cost difference made this a no brainer. Maybe we’d be able to find something else to do besides tour the capital (which we’d done previously).
We chose to stay at the Governor’s Inn for a night on the way in and out of the park. The guidebook highly recommended this place. We thought it was decent but nothing special. Ok price. Good newer Hampton Inn-ish room. Good location. Pretty crappy breakfast bar. I can forgive no make-your-own-waffles and no hot items like eggs or biscuits, but no cereal?! Come on! If generic Tang and a generic Svenhard count as a continental breakfast they must be thinking a sub-Australia-sized fictitious continent.