Waking up Wednesday morning at our June Lake campsite, we already knew our plans for the day. Yosemite. We cooked up some breakfast sandwiches on the stove as the campground yawned and folks rose from their tents around us. It was a beautiful clear morning, brisk and fresh. Birds were singing their morning songs, all was well. Then, of course, somebody’s car alarm chimed in. Half a minute later it ceased. Then again. And again. Five times in all, as we wondered what the hell could possibly be keeping the campers from figuring it out. There goes our peaceful morning.
We have a morning ritual that includes unzipping all four windows to Nancy the Nest and letting the air rush in. Condensation inevitably fills the interior plastic roof with water droplets from our heavy sleep breaths. After about 30 minutes, while we make breakfast, the tent dries out.
We hit 395 again, heading north. We’d be saying goodbye to California’s scenic interior highway, cutting west on CA 108 up and over the Sonoran Pass in the Sierras. Rocking out to the latest Black Keys album, Delta Kream, Jamie played captain and steered us up winding routes that had Archie struggling to maintain 15mph.
All the while, we’d yet to secure jobs in our eventual destination, Seattle. And our excursion into the mountains had us off the cellular grid for almost the entire drive. We maintained our hope that we’d land something before disappearing into the greater Yosemite wilderness for the next couple days.
I had a coworker from our time back in Seattle two years prior that I reached out to a couple weeks ago to see if she could be of any assistance. Boy, that was a good move. She was more than willing to help us try to return to Harborview, King County’s hospital in Seattle. After several inquiries to her coworkers, she was certain she could help us find jobs.
Alas! As we drove down from the Sonoran Pass in the Stanislaus National Forest, my phone rang with a Seattle area code. I pulled over on a highway turnout among the towering pines, and answered the call, with one fragile bar of cell service connecting us.
Unbeknownst to us, the manager was ready to interview. We conducted the interviews right there, on some nondescript pullout somewhere in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. It went well, we thought.
We received a call from our recruiter an hour or so later, as we were filling up Arch at a gas station in the lowlands before climbing back up toward Yosemite. We secured the contracts and had employment again for the summer in Seattle.
As celebration (and necessity, in fact), we booked two nights at the historic Hotel Charlotte in Groveland. We dropped Charley off at Big Creek Boarding in the town, with her friend Bonnie, that watched her last October when we came to the Park. Groveland is a mountain town in the Stanislaus National Forest that serves as the last real village as you approach Yosemite from the west gate. We were thrilled about the jobs, and I had a gentleman’s pour of some fine bourbon at the recommendation of the hotel owner.
But we needed our rest that night, so we turned in just after 9pm. You see, two days prior, Jamie had entered us in the lottery for permits to hike half dome on Thursday. We figured, “if we don’t get them, it wasn’t meant to be, and that’s ok. Plenty to do in the park and its all nature’s holy ground. But if we do get them, we’ll be set to summit arguably the most iconic rock in the country.”
We scored the permits the day before setting out to the Park, and were mentally preparing for the day it required.
Thursday morning we rolled out of bed at 4am. After a couple hot showers, seemingly long overdue, it was time to load up and head to Yosemite. An hour and a half drive from Groveland and we were in Yosemite Valley.
We were excited to see the valley without the haze that accompanied us last October during our visit. But as we pulled through beneath the towering pines in the valley, we saw…not much. It was hazy. Smoky. The valley was experiencing a “managed burn” as crews worked to clear out underbrush from the floor and prevent a larger wildfire. Piles of logs and branches smoldered and shook with intense flames, just off the roadside as we pulled through. Pretty wild to see, as a northeasterner.
Arriving at the trailhead around 615am, we took our pantry box and other food items and placed them in the provided bear boxes. We prepped for the hike. Boots, snacks, water, camera.
At the end of the hike I’d clock 17.25 miles with 5,200 ft of elevation gain. A beast. It’d take us 12 hours in all, with plenty of stops.
A steep paved path carried us over the Merced River. Stairs, twice as high as they were deep, cut into the granite, brought us to the top of Vernal Falls via the mist trail. A gentle foggy coat surrounded us as we climbed. Few people were out this early. The ones we did see were certainly headed for the top of half dome as well.
Sunlight had yet to enter the valley, but it was already well acquainted with the high Sierra wilderness above.
To get up to the base of Nevada Fall required another steep climb, zagging up switchbacks in a sort of ping ponging fashion. We stopped to take in the massive waterfall from below. It always seems more majestic from the bottom of the waterfalls.
Climbing yet more rocky switchbacks with Nevada Fall to our right, we reached the top. Right about 3 miles or so into the hike got us to the top of Nevada Fall and the end of the Mist Trail section of the hike.
A left turn at the trail junction pulled us away from Nevada Fall and its buddy, the Liberty Cap (a shark-fin looking formation flanking the left side of the Fall) and up toward Little Yosemite Valley. A backcountry campground is situated in the valley there, and it seemed like a pretty wonderful place to spend the night, had we a spot. We filled our canteens with cool fresh Merced River water (Sawyer filter too, of course).
4.5 more miles to go from there.
Gentle switchbacks took us out of the sparsely wooded valley floor and into softly lit forests of fir and old redwood. It was an unassuming trail that could’ve led anywhere.
Keeping in mind that the total climb was over 5,000 feet, we liked the gentle elevation gain but knew that each gentle step meant a more severe incline later. Half dome started to pop through the trees as we could make out the early morning hikers, mere pinpoint dots on the massive granite canvas.
Arriving at half dome’s little brother, sub dome, we presented our permits to the park official and continued, onward and upward. Again, rocky switchbacks greeted us. These ones were even steeper!
They brought us up and over sub dome. Half dome was in sight. Cables and all.
See, the last push to half dome (some say its 400 feet, feels like an eternity more than that), is completed via cables. Metal poles drilled into the granite, in two rows about 4 feet apart, all the way up the backside of the dome. Cables run along this track, allowing folks to summit this monster when, according to physics, it shouldn’t be possible with just 2 arms and 2 legs.
People coming down off the dome were thrilled- they’d just done perhaps the most incredible thing in their lives. It’s a bit terrifying though, to see just how ecstatic they are, when you are just preparing to do it yourself.
Jamie and I looked at each other. No words. No stopping. Just dropped our trekking poles and swapped them out for gloves (to endure the cables). We got going.
It’s steep, and gets steeper fast. Wood blocks served as resting points every 10-15 yards. I reassured Jamie. “You’re doing great. I’m gonna pop up to the next block. You ready? Let’s go.”
The experience is a collective effort. Everyone is encouraging each other, and courteous too, as folks passed us on their way back down. We stopped when we needed to rest. The tilt is about 45 degrees, and in some spots even greater. Collecting energy and courage periodically is a must.
High fives were in order when we summited. Euphoria and relief blanketed us. We spent 1.5 hours at the top, wanting to never leave. The sun warmed us, and a soft breeze leveled it out. The massive bald peak had endless room to spread out and take in the endless vistas. El Capitan and the valley below, and the rolling High Sierra.
We had lunch at the top, snapped a million photos. Then we went off down a side slope, away from the groups gathering at popular lunch spots. We sat, for what I wished could be days, and drank in the specialness of where we were. My Uncle Mark, whose climbed it a couple times, told me before we set out, “Take pictures and have a great time! It may be a while before you get back there.” I tried to heed his advice. It may be the first and last time. A sweet sadness overcame me. That’s the only way I can describe it, if at all.
When we’d decided we better get heading back down (8.5 miles back, after all), we made a careful descent of the cables. Safety by precision, with each step. We allowed many folks to pass, as the incline group far outnumbered the decline group.
After that, we threw our legs on auto pilot down the steady grades. The waterfalls at the end tested our knees and our will to finish the hike sans injury.
When we finally reached the trailhead, after 6pm, another high five was in order. We just completed one of the most memorable experiences of our lives, together. Our mental memory card was as full as our camera’s. It was a good day.
A 1.5 hour drive back to Groveland, and quick well-earned meal of pizza and beer before falling into sleep.
Our bodies felt hung over the next morning. We had planned to get up again around 4-430, to start early in the Park and avoid the inevitable crowds that accumulate by mid morning. We ended up leaving for Yosemite a bit after 530. But both Jamie and I decided that a big breakfast outweighed the desire to arrive early, so we stopped in Buck Meadows, a town of less than a hundred, and had a thoroughly heavy meal at the diner. We were calorie deficient from the prior day, after all.
Sentinel Dome was our plan that morning. The trailhead for both Sentinel Dome and Taft Point is located up on Glacier Point Rd, only a few miles from Yosemite Valley, as the crow flies. But as the car drives, it takes nearly an hour. But its a phenomenal drive, if you can manage to stay awake despite the gentle sleepy curves back and forth on the winding road.
The hike to the dome was only a bit over a mile, climbing around 400 ft, most of it at the end when you ascend the granite cap. And the views were outstanding for the little effort it required. Sweeping views of Yosemite falls, both upper and lower, Nevada Fall, Half Dome, and the High Sierra. Arguably as good of a viewpoint as the top of Half Dome, but with a lesser feeling of accomplishment.
After a good 45 minutes at the top, we retraced our route back to the trailhead, climbed aboard the Archie Express and made the short drive farther along the road, to Glacier Point. It was mobbed, as you can imagine, on a Friday afternoon in May. But it’s so crowded for a reason, the vistas are spectacular, and no work is needed to get to the best spots.
After a short while, we’d had our fill, and we left for Yosemite Valley and the market. It was time to restock on some food items for Chilly Willy (our fridge). The market was also packed, but we stayed there and planned our next moves for the trip. We needed to find a dispersed campsite that evening.
Stanislaus National Forest had some spots we found on the iOverlander app, along Hardin Flat Rd. That’s where we’d find ourselves that evening. Making our way down the road after leaving Yosemite, we continued to get denied- camp spots were all taken already. Eventually we found a rather large pullout, grassy and relatively level. It’d be home for the night.
We slept soundly that night, as we fell asleep with dreams of Yosemite, nature’s holiest cathedral.