Last year’s Rim Fire, named for the “Rim of the World” vista point in Stanislaus National Forest was the largest recorded wildfire in the Sierra Nevada. An illegal campfire set by a hunter started the blaze that burned for over two months and consumed over 400 square miles of forest in the Stanislaus National Forest and northwestern Yosemite National Park. A history of fire suppression and a record-breaking draught created conditions in the forest that led to a small out-of-control fire becoming a huge disaster. As destructive as fires seem, they are part of the natural cycle of the forest. While the Rim Fire was not started by natural causes, the forest as a whole depends on regular fires and burned areas support a surprisingly diverse array of flora and fauna as the forest regenerates.
Driving to Yosemite Valley we saw patches of burned areas, but I did not realize that our entire planned backpacking trip out of the Hetch Hetchy Valley was through burned areas until we arrived at the trailhead. Hetch Hetchy has a separate entrance gate from the rest of the park, and the road is closed when the entrance gate is not staffed, so you cannot go in or out overnight. We passed the entrance gate a half hour before it closed, and arrived at the trailhead parking lot right about closing time. We were quite surprised to find a sign in the parking lot warning hikers about the area of the forest closed due to the Rim Fire. The closed area included our entire planned hike! I stood in the parking lot, staring at the sign, flabbergasted as to why I would be issued a permit to camp in an area closed to hiking.
When we obtained our backpacking permit, we arrived with two possible itineraries, one a waterfall hike, passing by three falls with impressively high drops, and the other a lake hike, camping for two nights each at two different lakes. The volunteer issuing our permit made the decision easy when he informed us that a huge rock slide a few days prior had closed the trail below the waterfalls, so we signed up for the lake hike. We discussed the trails we would be hiking with the volunteer and received our permit with no issue. But upon arriving at the trailhead, I was confronted with the news that the trail we thought was open, the one we had a permit to camp on, was closed.
We couldn’t drive back up to speak with the ranger, as he would be gone by the time we drove all the way back to the entrance. After a couple minutes not knowing what to do, a ranger happened to drive by on patrol. I waved him down to explain our situation, and he was also surprised to see the sign! The area had just reopened the previous day, and the sign had been overlooked. What a relief that we could continue as planned, but the trail conditions were certainly challenging in places.
We had no problem spending a night in our van in the parking lot of the “backpacker’s campground,” despite a warning from a fellow camper that he once got in trouble with a ranger for sleeping in his truck rather than the walk-in tent sites. Security is high in Hetch Hetchy, as the dammed valley provides a vast majority of the water supply to the San Francisco metropolitan area. John Muir fought against damming Hetch Hetchy for this purpose, proclaiming its beauty and its worth as a natural landscape garden. He described the Hetch Hetchy Valley as the “Toulumne Yosemite”, because the features of the valley are an echo of the features in the “Merced Yosemite”, the Toulumne River flowing through the Hetch Hetchy valley as the Merced flows through the Yosemite Valley. He ends his book on Yosemite with sentiment “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” He obviously lost this fight, but did not live to see his beloved valley flooded. Muir died in 1914, the same year that construction began on the dam.
In addition to the high security protecting the water supply, there are also strict regulations in Yosemite about food storage. In most parks, campers are required to keep food in their vehicle or in bear storage lockers (or hanging from trees for backpackers). In Yosemite, not even vehicles are legitimate food storage solutions and all food must be kept in storage lockers overnight (backpackers are required to carry bear canisters). While at Wawona we did not move our food out, since we were sleeping in the van, but for this backpacking trip we did need to clear out the van of food to be sure a bear wouldn’t break in. Normally clearing all the food out of a vehicle is pretty straight forward and quick to do, but not when your entire kitchen is in your vehicle. Cleaning out the kitchen was quite a task, but emptying cabinets occasionally is good practice, anyway. Otherwise you forget what is deep in the back corners, even in a small van!
Our hike started by crossing the O’Shaughnessy Dam followed by a tunnel through the mountainside. The ground around the tunnel was so wet that the water dripped from the walls and ceiling, raining down on us even as the sky outside the tunnel was blue and clear. We enjoyed making loud sounds and listening to the echo back through the tunnel. From the tunnel we started on switchbacks, climbing about 1300 feet in under two miles. This was the most strenuous part of the hike, and really it is best to get the climb out of the way while you are fresh!
Two stream crossings loomed ahead of us, and we did not know what to expect. Being spring, water levels might be high, but with the dry winter they may be nothing to worry about. Who knows, sometimes there are even bridges! So we pushed forward, anxious about what was to come (well, I was anxious…as John always says, I worry enough for both of us!) . The first stream crossing was an easy rock-hop to the other side, but the second was a bit more adventurous. We waded across 25 feet of rushing, ice-cold water. It was so cold, and the crossing so wide, that our feet hurt by the time we got out! Once dry and shod on the otherside, we discovered a log-bridge a little way down stream that we could have easily walked over instead of wading through that cold water! Oh, well…it was a good adventure.
Adding to the adventure, the trail was very hard to follow in some places. Some sections were exceedingly overgrown, so we had to push our way through spindly bushes and guess at where the trail went. Other places were so marshy with spring runoff that we had to detour around the vernal pond and re-find the trail on the other side. Eventually we made it to Laurel Lake, our first destination. We planned to camp for two nights on the lake shore.
It took a lot of searching to find a campsite that met the regulations (a previously impacted campsite at least 100 feet from any water source or trail), that was also flat (it is hard to sleep on angled ground) and shady (even in mid-April the sun was pretty intense). We eventually found a good spot, complete with a fire ring. John started a fire from a spark and set up camp while I was away getting water from the nearby stream.
We put out the fire to go to bed about 9:30 pm. As soon as we quieted down in the tent, we heard twigs breaking and looked up to see a herd of deer headed to the lake for a drink. Shortly after, a couple smaller creatures caught our attention. It was hard to see in the tree-obscured moonlight, but John thought their movements were canine. I could only make out a light-colored coat. Perhaps a fox? Sadly, we will never know.
A beautiful, sunny, zero day. Well, zero for John who chose to relax at camp while I set out for a “short walk”. While the distance wasn’t great, the adventure was. The trails in Yosemite Wilderness are not blazed (aside from the occasional metal tab nailed high on a tree trunk, which are a mystery to me) or maintained. Add a massive wildfire followed by months of trail closures, and following the path was a challenge indeed! And then there was *the* stream crossing.
My plan was to turn around if the crossing was too difficult, but after the difficulty following the trail I thought it best to push ahead through the freezing water. Forward was the trail that we had come in on the previous day, which was a lot easier to follow than the one I had just meandered my way around. The crossing was foreboding, but turning back would be to risk getting lost. The sound of the water over an upstream drop made the current seem faster than it really was, and the water was deep, but the crossing was not too wide. After hesitating on the bank of the stream weighing my options, I went for it, and walked into the cold, cold stream. It was so deep that it reached the bottom of my shorts, but it was not moving very forcefully and I was quickly on the other side, safe and dry.
After that ordeal, I was ready for a break. I climbed a 20 foot boulder to lunch with a view of the treetops. I feel at peace in the forest, where the trees stand tall and silent, providing protection from wind, rain and sun, guarding over the life below like stoic sentries. The desert was beautiful in its own way, and the open, clear skies played out the most spectacular sunsets and provided a window into the galaxy beyond the sun, but the forest feels like home to me.
After my adventure led back to the “Beehive” rock formation, I attempted to return to camp via a trail south of the lake. The stream crossing on that trail was at least chest deep and I saw no natural bridge, so I turned back to the north-of-lake trail and crossed on the log we had spotted the day before. I was very happy to reunite with John back at the campsite, and hear about his day. He had a great time observing odd wildlife behavior at the campsite. Specifically, watching ants collecting dead spiders and struggling to get the bodies into their log home through too-small entrances.
After two nights at Laurel Lake it was time to move on…to another lake! We didn’t have much ground to cover to Lake Eleanor, so we had an easy morning and started hiking about 10:00 am. We traveled through many varied landscapes: burnt forest, a marshy area with carpets of tiny wildflowers, shady forest with a soft mat of pine needles covering the ground, mossy green areas, and a butt-deep stream crossing. We settled in at a beautiful campground at the mouth of Frog Creek, where it flows into Lake Eleanor. The campground has a building (some kind of ranger/rescue station), fire rings and bear lockers, but very little suitable ground for a tent. We found one spot, but if anyone else had joined us I am not sure they would have found a place to pitch their tent.
After we set up camp, I explored the campground. While standing by Frog Creek I saw a huge bird alight from a nearby tree and land high on a branch across the creek. It was too far away to see clearly, so I ran back to the campsite to look through the binoculars. I was so glad we carried that extra weight, because I was able to clearly see the bald eagle! I had never seen one in the wilderness before, since they tend to stay too far away to see with bare eyes. I showed it to John, and we were both excited.
In the morning we heard a call from our tent that sounded like a seagull. A surprising sound, given that there are no seagulls at the mountain lake. We later realized that the sound was from the eagle. One of the best parts of camping is the opportunity to listen to the sounds of the creatures around you, without the competition of traffic sounds.
We spent the morning sitting on a sand bar in Lake Eleanor with a fantastic view, reading and building sculptures from rocks and driftwood. And looking for turtles. I swear that several times I glimpsed a turtle nose, but they are so elusive that they know when I spot them and immediately slip under the water. I scanned the lake with the binoculars trying to confirm what I saw, but they are just too sneaky. John thought I was crazy, but I did verify that there are indeed turtles that live in this area, so it is not unreasonable that I saw them.
Eventually I set out for a walk while John stayed at camp (notice how I like to hike, hike, hike, while John is better at relaxing). I hiked to the west end of the lake, where I realized that the lake is formed by a dam! The lake was dammed to create energy to build Hetch Hetchy dam and is used as secondary water supply for times of drought. Some of the views along this trail are so picturesque it was hard to believe they were real, views of a waterfall draining into a large lake dotted with tiny tree-covered islands, and snow-capped peaks rise up in the backdrop.
Meanwhile, back at camp, John watched the eagles fly around and discovered the location of their nest! He also observed some interesting behavior. When the eagles saw him watching, they would not land in the nest and instead would circle it making short, high-pitched sounds, different than the gull-like caw that is their normal call. After dinner we sat by Frog Creek until I had a chance to observe the same behavior. We didn’t watch long, though, because we did not want to disturb them any further. We figured there must be eaglets in the nest that the parents were talking to while circling around, and left so the parents would land and care for them.
On our final morning in Yosemite, we were awoken by a squirrel alarm clock. We rose late and relished our last morning at the beautiful lake, lingering late into the morning. The water was still, reflecting the trees and fluffy white clouds. We set out to hike back to the van about 10:30.
Much of our hike out was on the road leveled to build the Eleanor dam, so the walking was easy. We took a small detour to examine the remains of a ranger station destroyed in the fire, leaving only rusted and bent bed frames and kitchen equipment. We could already see the regeneration of the burned areas, which were coated in baby green plants, primarily ferns. Wildlife also abounds, and we saw three deer, a few lizards, along with many prevalent birds and squirrels. The land surrounding the switchbacks descending back into the reservoir had not been burned, and flowering bushes crowded the sides of the trail. So many flowers were blooming that the air was thick with their scent.
We arrived back at the van around 4:30. It was waiting peacefully for us, sporting no bear-created holes. We had just enough time to shower, restock our kitchen from the bear lockers and drive out to the entrance gate before it closed. We ended the day with a huge meal at a nice restaurant in the Evergreen Lodge.
Spring is a wonderful time to visit Yosemite, when the waterfalls are flowing in their full glory and flowers abound. It is also a limiting time to visit, with higher lands still covered in snow and streams running high. Some areas are closed still for the season, accessible only to those prepared to hike in icy conditions and camp on the snow-covered mountains, and other areas may be dangerous to hike to due to high-water stream crossings. Despite the challenges of the season, the beauty is certainly worth the spring-time visit!