Yosemite South-North Loop
Around the turn of the year each year, we start planning our weeklong trip, usually for the coming August. Having had such a great time in Yosemite the year before, we wanted to go back there again, but this time to a completely different part of the park. Also, Em and I agreed that we’d like to avoid the “freeway” (PCT/JMT) as much as possible.
Looking at the overview map of Yosemite, and idea started to crystallize, and I sat down with the more detailed map to work on a route. The original thought was to start from Mono Meadows (off Glacier Point Road), go south-east, then north, then loop back.
I had the entire route almost worked out when researching some lake I came across a great idea: let’s not even start in Yosemite National Park. Permits are much harder to get and the drive up there is always crowded, especially past Oakhurst. For our purposes, there’s a perfect entry point from the Sierra National Forest, just outside the national park: Quartz Mountain Trailhead. This point provides great access to the park, it’s much closer coming from L.A., and the permit has to be obtained from the national forest, not the national park.
I decided to plan a really long route, visiting many different places, sometimes going out of the way just for fun. When I ran the plan by our great friend and Yosemite guide, Suzanne Swedo, she had a few suggestions and I adjusted accordingly.
The final version ended up as sort of a lollipop route, meaning the first and last few miles were common, but the rest a big loop.
However, when I wanted to reserve a permit, all the spots were taken for our starting day. Highly unusual for such a non-popular trailhead, but well, it happens. We were a bit flexible, so I got a permit for the next day, but the ranger said to show up on our desired day because it’s almost assured that we can get walkup permits.
We have some dear friends who go on mule treks each year. They’ve had a group that kind of sticks together and each year they go on a 5-6 day mule-supported outing in the mountains, usually in the Sierra. When we were discussing our plans for the year, they mentioned they’re going to the south of Yosemite in August, and suggested we compare plans. To both our surprise, it turned out that they will be based at Lillian Lake and spending their last night there on the second night of our trip. We only needed to make a tiny adjustment to our plan to meet them in time.
Getting to Quartz Mountian Trailhead is a bit tricky and there are conflicting reports online. From the town of Oakhurst, it’s at least a 90-minute drive on mostly dirt roads, some of them in bad shape, but our low-clearance 2WD car had no issues negotiating them.
Of course, I can’t vouch for current road conditions, but a stop at the ranger station is mandatory anyway, and the folks there can provide up-to-date information. Here is the map (not to scale) the ranger gave us and marked the route by hand. Contrary to what I’ve read online, we followed these directions.
Day 1 – L.A. to Quartz Mountain Trailhead to Breeze Lake
After lots of preparation, we were finally on our way. Weather forecast was almost disconcertingly perfect. We got up really early, and Em slept for a few hours in the back seat while I was driving.
The ranger station in Oakhurst opened at 8:30am and we got there only 10 minutes later. The ranger lady was very helpful, she canceled our reservation for the next day and gave us a walkup permit. Then she produced the map and marked the route with a highlighter.
First, we bought gas (wanted to make sure the tank is full) and headed north, out of Oakhurst, then turned right on Bass Lake Road. She said Sky Ranch Road, the one mentioned in most reports, is in a really bad shape, especially mot much after the beginning. It’s better to go the way described below and connect to Sky Ranch much higher up (take a look at the map).
From Bass Lake Road, we turned left onto Beasore Road, still paved and in great shape. After 11.2 miles on this road, we took another left at Cold Creek Summit onto 6S10X, a pretty bad dirt road. We drove slowly and it went great. Then a right onto 5S39 (just as bad) and another right to 10/632 (Sky Ranch Road). This was still dirt, just a hair better. The surroundings are the typical dry Sierra Foothills forests with pine trees and few small meadows. The vista opens up nicely on Sky Ranch road while driving the 8.4 miles to the trailhead.
We arrived at Quartz Mountain Trailhead at 10:45am, about 90 minutes from Oakhurst, just as the ranger predicted.
The trailhead is a dirt parking lot with a few signs and bear boxes. The lot was almost completely full, not surprisingly. We had lunch and slowly got our gear together. A large group emerged from the trail, mostly kids, and said they were at Buck Camp (west of our route) for two nights. The good news was that according to them, the mosquito situation was not very bad.
Our packs were pretty heavy, despite having switched a few items to lighter versions recently. I had a feeling we became a bit too generous with food planning and are carrying more than needed, even considering the contingency.
We left a bit past noon and had about 9.5 miles to go, or so we thought.
Right past the parking lot, the trail drops a few dozen feet, first crossing a small creek, then proceeding through the dry forest to Chiquito Pass, where it gets weird.
On top of the hump, the main trail towards the pass goes left, but it’s almost perfectly obscured. We easily walked past it. What looks like the main trail veers right, dropping sharply, emerging a few hundred yards later at a meadow that also contains Chiquito Lake. When we got down here, I suspected that we’re in the wrong place, as we should not be near this lake, or even if we could see it, it should be on our right, not left. However, I convinced myself that I read the map wrong, this must be some other small body of water, whatever. We walked till the sign of the cutoff trail pointing back to the trailhead when I finally became sure that we missed the main trail. I asked Em whether she saw any trace of a route to our left in the last quarter mile, and she was sure she didn’t.
Anyway, we walked back, climbed that short, but steep hill, and on the very top I consulted the GPS, which told me we’re right there at the intersection. Upon looking very hard, there were a couple of faint footprints in that direction, so we followed those, only to emerge a few dozen feet later at the “pass” behind the rock. This “pass” is just a sign in the middle of the forest below this rock, and very hard to notice if approached from the trailhead.
From there, the trail was very nice and obvious, but between the two points, somehow it got obliterated. Take a good look at the above photo. What looks like the main trail (though it’s not) curves to the right and disappears down the hill on the right side of the picture. The actual pass and the continuation of the real trail is behind the group of rocks in the center.
So we lost about half a mile and over 20 minutes while trying to figure out what’s going on. Frustrating, but what the heck. Chiquito Lake is pretty nice, by the way.
From the pass, which is also the entrance to Yosemite National Park, it’s about 3.6 miles to the Chain Lakes turnoff, up and down (mostly up, gaining 600’ net) in the quiet forest and past small meadows with a few ponds. It was already 2:30pm when we got there and took a quick snack break, drank some cool water, then headed on. Just past this junction, the trail drops 400’ in third of a mile, a real bummer, but again, what the heck. Another two miles to scenic Moraine Meadows follow. This is near the headwaters of Merced River’s South Fork and we were sad to see how little water there was in the creek.
The meadow is a great expanse of green, dotted with big rocks and tall pine trees. I’d love to camp here for a day or two and photo-hunt for wildlife, but at this specific time, a significant portion of wildlife was mosquitoes, so maybe some other time.
It was 4:15pm, and another section lay before us, somewhat over 3 miles, gaining 1,000’. It wasn’t steep at all, but of course all uphill, so we took it slow with the heavy packs. Arriving at the Breeze Lake/Fernandez Pass junction around 5:45 in the afternoon, we proceeded towards Breeze Lake, first downhill to a small pond (there were camp spots, but none nice enough), then uphill again to the actual lake.
The lake is of decent size and really scenic, sitting in a nice cirque with Gale Peak towering on one side (south-east) and Forester Pass visible opposite. It was past 6pm and light was acquiring that great early-evening quality we love so much.
Nobody was around, we haven’t seen people since just past the trailhead. After looking around for a few minutes, we found a great spot, about 150’ from the lake between some rocks and trees, relatively sheltered. I hoped Breeze Lake won’t live up to its name, and so far we were good, it was almost perfectly calm.
We sat down on the shore, cooked soup, relaxed. I even tried to fish, but as I suspected, there were none here.
Obviously, both of us were pretty exhausted. We had a long day – the early start, the long drive, then the hike with a total of about 2,500’ elevation gain and over 10 miles because of the screw-up at Chiquito Lake.
The evening was great, with the waxing moon setting behind Gale Peak and the low sun casting a beautiful glow on it all.
That night was also the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Later, other people mentioned the show was fantastic that night around 2-3am, but there was no way we could stay up late and watch the shooting stars. After a nice dinner we went to bed and slept deep and sound until the alarm went off at 6am.
Day 2 – Breeze Lake to Timber Creek
We had great plans for this day, namely meeting our friends, then going out of the way to see some nice lakes and finally finding our way up Timber Creek.
We tried to organize ourselves as quickly as possible, but like I always say, we’re the worst slowpokes in the morning, and despite all our efforts, we got on the road only a bit before 8am, still pretty good time for us. Yes, I know, this must give a heart attack to somebody like a seasoned PCT-er.
First, there was the business of Fernandez Pass. We walked back to the junction, turned right, and climbed up to the pass. This is a steep, but very well-built section, a bit reminiscent of the “Golden Staircase” below the Palisades, but much shorter. The views are still great, especially looking back at Gale Peak and Breeze Lake getting hit by the morning sun.
We were still in the shade, getting sunlight a bit before the pass, which we crested about an hour after leaving camp. Here we officially left Yosemite National Park and entered the Sierra National Forest’s Ansel Adams Wilderness.
The view from up there is great, especially in the half-mile right after the pass, where it stays high on the side of the ridge. You can see all the way to Post Peak, the Minarets and everything in between.
Then the trail drops sharply into a great meadow (full of wildflowers this time), goes past the Rutherford Lake junction, and keeps going down in the sparse forest that becomes drier with each step. Hurry or not, we needed to stop for a quick break, sitting on a fallen log for a few minutes and munching jerky with Em’s homemade cheese bars.
After another few miles we arrived at the junction 1.2 miles below Lilian Lake, where – behold! – our friends were waiting for us. There was no way to make exact plans, so we agreed that if all goes well, they’ll start walking down towards this junction around 10am and we’ll try our best to make it there between 10 and noon. Bad weather cancels.
No such thing happened, it was hot and dry, and there they were, saying they only waited around 15 minutes.
Together, we walked up to their basecamp at Lillian Lake. This place is beautiful with the very nice and shallow lake sitting in a small bowl, surrounded by a forest with great camp spots. However, its proximity to the trailhead (only around 7 miles to Norris) makes is a bit too crowded and overused for my taste.
Anyway, we left our packs in camp and went for a quick swim in the surprisingly warm water of the lake. It was great refreshment after the hot and dusty trail.
After the swim, we all sat down in camp for a way-too-long lunch break, enjoying unbelievable luxuries in the backcountry, namely sitting in a chair with a table and eating fresh tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, even salsa. Oh, the advantages of a mule-supported hike!
Lingering there for almost 90 minutes, we got our gear and left together, walking south. Our friends turned back at the junction to Chittenden Lake as we continued downhill towards Vanbeburg Lake, arriving there around 3:30pm. This entire south-bound circuit was completely out of the way, but we did it on Suzanne’s suggestion. It was worth it, it’s really beautiful.
2.6 miles past Vandeburg, at the junction to Norris trailhead, we turned north, dropping about 600’ in 1.5 miles. This portion of the trail is simply horrible. It’s in really, really bad shape with loose, fist-size rocks littering the trail, making for a miserable hike. We went slow and took a snack break to rest our knees. 5:30pm found us at the junction to Clover Meadow, and we continued north, looking for the Timber Creek trail. There was a sign saying “Joe Crane Lake”, but I completely forgot that it’s on the way to Sadler Lake and kept walking past it, expecting a sign mentioning Timber Creek or Sadler Lake. We went at least a quarter mile out of the way (uphill!) by the time I realized my mistake, turned around, and finally walked onto the Timber Creek trail.
This is like an enchanted forest. Huge trees, thick underbrush, dead silence, the flat evening light creating deep shadows everywhere. No wonder people imagined fairies and elves in places like this (maybe after sampling the local mushrooms?).
The trail drops two hundred feet or so, with the going getting harder and harder, the trail being overgrown in some places and blocked by fallen logs. However, it was still pretty easy to follow, we only lost it briefly when it got down to the creek. It was 7pm, time to find a spot for the night. We’ve had a long day, having hiked over 15 miles, a lot for us, especially with full packs.
We found the trail again, followed it for another 10 minutes, and got to a really nice place at the bottom of the incline (from where, according to the map, the trail begins a relentless climb for the next 4 miles or so).
There were several great spots for camping, most close to the creek, but we chose one a bit further away, right next to the trail because a lot less mosquitoes were around there. Being close to the trail didn’t matter, there was zero traffic here, it looked like nobody came this way for a long time. Oh boy, we had no idea how true that was and what awaited us the next day.
So we settled down, pitched the tent, got water, even took a shower, because lake swim or not, we got really dusty and sweaty again after another 10 miles on the trail.
It was a beautiful evening, really quiet and pretty warm (the lowest elevation of the whole trip). Thankfully, there were almost no mosquitoes. We tried to go to bed early (early for us) and managed to do so at 10pm.
Day 3 – Timber Creek to Lake West of Isberg Pass
Somehow everything went really slow in the morning, even slower than usual. We left camp only a bit before 9am. Had we known what’s coming, we would have left much earlier, I’m sure.
We started moving up the hillside among thick manzanita bushes, then came to another great camp spot and crossed the creek. This is where for all practical purposes, the trail ceased to exist. First there were small hints here and there, a few cairns and threads, but soon every trace vanished in the thick underbrush, amongst the fallen logs and huge boulders. Also, it was really steep uphill. We kept climbing, going in the general direction we knew was right.
I checked the GPS a few times, and once I even made the mistake of not believing it, and arduously crossing the bed of Timber Creek needlessly. I thought the GPS is wrong, and that the gully in front of us is only some side-creek. It was completely dry, and I simply didn’t want to believe that Timber Creek has no water. Well, it didn’t have any. However, imagine a schism about 30 feet wide, at least 10-12 feet deep, strewn with huge boulders and overgrown with thorny bushes.
We somehow worked our way across the gully, started climbing again, but soon the brush got too thick to pass. After I realized the trail should be on the other side anyway, we clambered over the creek bed again, found easier going, then even got on the trail for a bit. The forest becomes less dense here and the terrain almost horizontal. The trail crosses the dry creek, then continues in a bit upwards to another jungle-dense area.
The direction of travel was obvious and the trail was visible now and then, but it was impossible to follow it, as immense fallen trees blocked the way, sometimes three or four in a row. It took forever to find a way around the huge trunks, the bushes and the boulders. We traveled the first 1.5 trail miles in more than two hours.
Then the forest thinned out a bit and the climbing started again, but at least the trail was visible. There are no switchbacks whatsoever and it’s terribly steep here, but we didn’t mind because at least we didn’t have to keep looking for the way or climb over dead trees.
The top of this incline is sort of a pass, a great, remote saddle west of Timber Knob. There’s a small pond on top and the vista opens up a bit later, affording amazing views of Post Peak and the Minarets. It was late, but we took a snack- and photo break. The pond was really dirty and we didn’t have a lot of water, but there was no real cause for concern.
From this "pass", a really steep descent followed, again alternating between seeing some kind of trail and looking for the way. Some parts were cairned and that helped a lot, but for example there was this place where it was obvious that we have to go downhill, but there were two choices: a sheer rock wall or an impossibly steep dirt hillside with no markers whatsoever. I can’t be sure, but it looked like the mound gave way in sort of a small landslide.
Somehow we got down and found the trail again, eventually arriving in this amazing, huge meadow below Joe Crane Lake. It is a fantastic place. Rocks towering above, green grass, thick clusters of bushes, a creek meandering through the middle of it all.
At one point the trail was next to the rock face and a huge, really thick bush grew right up to the stone, blocking the way. We could see the trail 30 feet in front of us, but the bush was impassable save for serious hacking with a machete. Eventually it took us almost half an hour to walk around it, following the semi-dry creek bed for a while, clambering over thigh-deep meadow grass and breaking through a few bushes less dense. We got back on the trail almost exactly on the other side of the original thicket. Nice. 50 yards of trail in half an hour. Things like this can’t frustrate us, though, both of us were laughing our butts off, actually.
From this meadow we walked past the junction to Joe Crane Lake (from down there it looked like it’s another great place), the trail became really obvious, and then joined the main thoroughfare that connects Cora Lakes and Sadler Lake/Isberg Pass. We turned left towards the latter.
About two hundred yards beyond the junction, we got to the bank of the creek and took a really long break. We needed water, we were hungry and exhausted. The creek was almost dry, but it was still flowing enough so we could get sediment-free water to filter. Great trout were running around, but there was no time for fishing.
We cooked soup, ate putella (pita with Nutella) and rested our weary legs. Today it was the time, not the mileage.
It was past 2pm by the time we got going, but we were in great shape again. A 2+ mile hike to Sadler Lake followed – uphill, but not steep at all. Our friends we met the day before came mule-packing to this lake the previous year and mentioned several times how breathtakingly cool is was. They were not exaggerating, it really is marvelous. The lake is pretty big, surrounded by meadows, forests below and Sadler, Isberg and Post Peaks (counter-clockwise) above.
We haven’t met anybody for over 26 hours, and we didn’t see anybody here, either, but we could hear a group camped in the forest.
After wandering off a bit in search for good photo spots, we reconnected with the trail again and started climbing towards Isberg Lakes. We had about 3.2 miles and 1,200’ to the pass, with the first lake about a mile up.
At this first lake (another very beautiful place) we met the first people since last day, two guys camped right next to the trail. One was down by the lake getting water, the other by the tent, chatting with us. He told us they came down from the pass earlier in the day and there’s no more water between here and the crest. That sounded strange to me, as I was sure I saw at least another creek and lake on the map, but well, I’ve been wrong about simpler things before.
So we went to get some water, and when we realized how warm the shallow lake was, we couldn’t help but taking a quick dip. The place looked fantastic with the moon rising over it and the light of the low sun.
I swam in for a few dozen yards, but Em just got a rinse and was drying herself quickly in the light breeze.
As I was getting out, the guy we talked previously came down to us and apologized. He said of course there’s water uphill from there, he just forgot about it. Well, it would have been better get water later, but then I’m sure we would not have gone for a swim.
The climb to the pass is simply gorgeous. Talus, lakes, creeks, the view of the forests and the mountains, all in the glow of the warm afternoon light.
We got to Isberg Pass a few minutes after 7pm and re-entered Yosemite National Park. The view to the other side is just as amazing. Right in front is the Merced River Triple Peak Fork’s drainage, a huge, surprisingly green valley with two lakes on a wide “shelf”, the Clark Range beyond, Triple Divide Peak to the left. The setting sun was right in our eyes, making the scene pretty surreal.
There was about an hour of light left, so we needed to find a spot quickly. The plan was to descend somewhat and look around those lakes below. As the crow flies, the lakes were north-west, less than half a mile away, but 500’ lower, with a really steep rock face in between. Without packs, well rested, and not around sundown, I would have loved to go that way, but this time, we had to take the trail which goes south first, making a huge half-circle, slowly descending on the side of the cirque.
The first 200 yards or so just south of the pass are insane. The trail stays on the ridge, steeply rollercoastering up and down 20-30 feet four or five times on a trail that must have been built for giants, as the steps are two feet high. It’s really, really frustrating. Then it evens out a bit and crosses a small meadow on the hillside where the wildflowers glowed in the light of the setting sun. The place looked so amazing, it really gave our weary souls and bodies a great boost.
Then was downhill again, finally circling back northwards, down into the huge main meadow, like something out of storybook. By this time, the sun disappeared behind the Clark Range and it was getting dark quickly.
We cut cross-country towards the lake and went to the east side to where it looked like there could be suitable camp spots. We passed by one end of the lake, and our mouths watered at the sight of dozens and dozens of trout jumping around in the evening light.
It took a while to find place. The one we ended up choosing was a bit too far from the water, but at least level, sheltered and with great views west.
We quickly pitched the tent, I left to get water, Em prepared the bed and dinner. We realized that two other people are camped on the other side of the lake, but never really laid eyes on them, only heard their voices and saw the beams of their flashlights.
It was a wonderfully clear night, a little bit breezy and chilly, but not terribly bad, we just had to place the stove carefully and sit at the appropriate angle while eating. The moon was getting closer to being full and by 10pm, the meadow and the mountains looked breathtaking in the “silver” glow (moonlight is actually not silver at all, but very yellow. Our eyes can’t see color well in low light).
Day 4 – Lake west of Isberg Pass to Bernice Lake
The morning was even better. As soon as we emerged from the tent, lovely alpenglow lit up the Clark Range with wispy clouds lingering above the peaks. Perfect morning.
After the usual two-hour morning futz, we left camp at 8am, walked across the meadow, past the lakes, back to the trail, and turned north.
If you look at the map of this place, there are two trails running almost parallel to each other. One (western) is down in the canyon, the other (eastern) higher up on the ridge. We took the latter, and the plan was to eventually return via the other one and cross Red Peak Pass. At the junction we were a scant 1.2 miles from where we’ll be three days and some 40 miles later - if all goes well.
The view from up there is hard to describe. In front of you lies the Merced River’s canyon, with views all the way to Matthes Crest, Unicorn Peak, then Tuolumne Peak, and even some really faraway mountains, I think West Peak and Volunteer Peak.
The trail descends a bit first, then starts its rollercoaster ride on the ridge. Up and down it goes several times, climbing small mounds of a few dozen feet, sapping the hiker’s energy. We knew there’s a huge drop coming when we get to the Lyell Fork and planned on taking a lunch- and water break there. It seemed like a long time, but we got to the top of the drop-off around 10:45am and were rewarded with some more views of the Clark Range and down below even a glimpse of Washburn Lake, our planned camping place for night 6.
An almost impossibly steep, but quick decent into Lyell Fork followed. The trail drops over 1,000’ in a mile or so. A big maintenance crew was working on the trail, a dozen-ish guys and girls, all hardened and sunburned. They were the first people we met in since last afternoon. We exchanged pleasantries briefly, then continued down.
The creek below was great, with shady rocks at the crossing where we took our shoes off and soaked our feet while eating lunch.
We took our time, spending almost an hour there, then got ourselves together and climbed out of the canyon. The bad news was we had to gain back almost all that lost elevation, but the good news was we knew it will be way less steep. This climb is gorgeous, it traverses the sparsely forested side of the canyon, finally arriving at the ridge where creeks from the lakes above create small waterfalls and even bogs. The view west to the Clark Range is ever amazing.
Then yet another rollercoaster ride for another 3-4 miles, up a hundred, down a hundred feet in the forest, past Cony Crags. At the crossing of an unnamed creek we ran into the base camp of the trail crew with huge tents and tarps set up to make the long stay in the backcountry as nice as possible.
Another drop-off awaited, this time into Lewis Creek. From the top, the almost-weird sight of Half Dome’s back awaited us with Merced Lake in the foreground. This time the descent was “only” 800' or so to the trail junction on the side of Lew Creek’s canyon, where we turned right. It was relatively late, around 3:30pm, and we were getting tired from all the up and down, but were determined to make it the other four miles or so to Bernice Lake. Several people extolled the virtues of this place, it was supposed to be really pretty and not very crowded, despite being so close to the high camp circuit.
Lewis Creek is fantastic: beautiful bristlecone pines on the shore and a wide creek bed with not much water, allowing for great photos ops. About halfway up, Florence Creek joined Lewis from the right with a very cool little cascade and a boggy, but OK-looking campsite next to the trail. Not much later, we met two guys coming down from Vogelsang Pass, they said they’ll try Florence Peak the next day and were looking for a campsite. We directed them to the cascade, but I also told them I saw a use trail going up on the far side of the creek.
It was not very steep going, but constantly uphill, so with a snack break, it took almost two hours by the time we did the 3 miles to the turnoff to Bernice and started the short, but steep climb. This lake was out of the way by a mile, but we hoped it will be worth the trouble. When we arrived up there a few minutes before 6pm, we knew it was a good decision. The lake sitting right around the tree line, with all the peak towering above it in the warm early evening light, was simply magical.
A few campsites were right next to the trail, and though we couldn’t see anybody, we decided to explore further. A breeze blew, feeling like it can strengthen into real wind anytime, so finding a lee was important, too.
Em sat down to rest, and I ventured to the far side of the lake to look. I got lucky, there was an ideal spot, out of view, protected from the wind, perfect distance from the water, great clean rocks to spread our gear out. After leaving the backpack, I ran back to get Em, we set up camp and cooked soup quickly.
We went down to the lake for a rinse, but I didn’t take a proper bath as it was windy there and I simply hate being cold from the wind chill.
However, there was movement in the lake, and though it was pretty late and we were tired, I decided to fish as we didn’t have fresh trout on this trip yet. Thank goodness, it went really quick, it was the active hour and the fish are always hungry anyway at this elevation, so it took me only 10 minutes to catch enough for dinner. I cleaned them a bit later in the dying light with the headlamp on. Then we had a huge dinner in the dark, really enjoying ourselves.
Thankfully, the wind had stopped completely and the surroundings looked gorgeous in the moonlight. We stayed up really late and yet again I took a few long-exposure pictures.
Day 5 – Bernice Lake to South of Washburn Lake
The day started with brilliant sunshine again, but the weather forecast we got mentioned the possibility of thundershowers starting in the next 12-24 hours. There was not much we could do other than keep walking with an eye on the weather. We considered the possibility of staying an extra night here at Bernice Lake, extending the trip, but the forecast made us abandon the idea and we packed up.
First, we descended back to Lewis Creek, followed it a little bit, passing by a few trail camps, then climbed up to Vogelsang Pass. Needless to say, this is yet another place with impossibly cool vistas all around. All the high lakes (Bernice and beyond), then many huge peaks, like Mt. Florence, Mt. Lyell (highest point in the park, 13,114), Simmons Peak, Parsons Peak and of course, Vogelsang Peak right above us. Plus, the never-tiring Clark Range in the back.
The pass is unmarked, by the way, and we crested it around 10am, then followed the trail as it wound through the high country for a bit, dropped to Vogelsang Lake (really, really pretty), and going around Fletcher Peak, dropped some more to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp.
Around the pass, we started running into more and more hikers, all out for the day from the camp. By the time we got there, we saw more people in less than an hour than on the entire trip combined (even considering the “crowd” at Lillian).
Vogelsang Camp is nice, but eh… I’m not saying I would mind spending a night or two there… but rather not. The camp itself was surprisingly deserted, I guess everybody was out and about. There was nothing for us to do there, we took a few pictures and moved on towards Tuolumne Pass.
We met a guy just outside the camp who was hiking through there, and when we talked, it turned out he’s one of the supervisors for that trail maintenance crew we met a day earlier. He explained that they start early in the season at low elevation (Hetch Hetchy that year), then continue to move higher as the snow recedes. The people working on the crew usually sign up for an entire season and spend 3-4 continuous months out there. I never had much knowledge about this, so his info was very appreciated.
Moving on, first we took a quick look at the backpacker’s campground, which again was completely deserted, then descended the .8 miles to Tuloumne Pass. This is not much of a pass. It’s an intersection of three trails in the middle of the sparse forest, with the main trail continuing north for 6.3 miles to Tuolumne Meadows.
This was a high moment for us, the far-away point of the trip. We’ll be going back from here, though on an almost completely different route.
We snapped a few photos, then turned around and took the low trail, first stopping for water and a snack at Boothe Lake, a scenic little spot right below Vogelsang. We knew we had a lot more miles to cover, so we kept the break short (short for us – 35 minutes) and continued downwards in the great forest of Emeric Creek’s watershed, passing little ponds on the way.
Eventually, not much past the turnoff to Emeric Lake, we got back into the Fletcher Creek watershed and continued the journey south. This place is pure bliss. Like so many other Sierra meadows, it’s El Dorado for me. Others would say Disneyland. Perfect weather, easy hiking on a great trail, amazing sights all around in the wide canyon with lush green grass and trees, a creek in the middle, bare rocks on the side.
After about a mile of this wonderland, the canyon narrows, first presenting a few more photo ops with the creek, then the trail continues in the forest, past the turnoff to Babcock Lake. Not much after this junction, a dramatic drop follows back into the drainage of Lewis Creek. A huge bare rock is on the west side (not named on my map - anybody?) with the trail zigzagging down at a seemingly impossible angle on the other side. It was a bit similar what we experienced a day before, namely dropping about 1,000’ in not much more than a mile.
It was already 3pm, so we took our overdue lunch break at Lewis Creek, only one mile from the point where we were last afternoon. A fellow hiker warned us he ran into a bear at this exact same spot the year before, but no such thing happened this time.
Another descent followed, this time only about 500’ in a mile, with great views of Merced Lake and Half Dome beckoning beyond.
However, we didn’t even go as far as Merced Lake, instead planned on turning south at the intersection with the ranger station and going up the Merced River watershed towards Washburn Lake.
From half a mile away we could hear the buzz of chainsaws and it sounded that there’s a lot of activity going on. Indeed, soon we saw a few freshly cleared stumps on the trail.
The ranger station looks like a pretty big hub with several buildings and a huge horse corral. A mule-pack team was already there, getting ready for the evening and some other people were obviously part of a trail crew.
When a pretty young girl appeared with a huge chainsaw, I remarked to her that I always suspected the infamous chainsaw killer of Merced Lake to be a woman. She just laughed and thank goodness refrained from chopping me up. With intact bodies and souls, we kept walking south.
The forest here looks amazing with relatively sparse underbrush and really tall, old pine trees. It was beautifully quiet after all that noise and there was nobody around. We had about two miles to go to near end of Washburn Lake, but had no idea where we’ll find camping.
When we arrived, at around 5:30pm, the great sight of the lake with Post Peak in the back awaited us. It was pretty windy, though. There was a site right next to the trail, and though we were a bit exhausted, we decided to go up further and look for something better.
No such luck. After keeping our eyes peeled all the way, we got to the southern end and still didn’t see anything suitable. Here, about 200 feet of bush and bog separate the trail from the lake, and it didn’t look like a very pleasant place. We saw a very dismal site, but again, right next to the trail and pretty far away from the water. Then I found a faint stock trail leading towards the bog and the bushes, so we followed that. When we emerged on the shore near the inlet, really strong winds buffeted us, but we were treated to a great show: two ospreys were playing around in the breeze. They kept chasing each other and doing all sorts of maneuvers, head against the wind and sometimes even flying a bit backwards.
There was no place for camping, though. Seeing all the hoof prints and the horse poop, I kept hoping we’ll run into a nice big stock camp, but no such luck. The trail petered out after a few hundred yards and we were back in the woods.
After a quick discussion, we decided to keep going up the canyon, see if we can get out of the wind and find something further along the way. It was the direction of travel for the next day anyway.
Luckily, a bit further up, around 6pm, we found a really great place. There was a small cascade on the river, right below it a small pool, followed by a shallow runoff. On the bank, halfway in the forest, a nice, sandy “beach” with lots of level ground for tents. Somebody already had the same idea, a few pieces of older horse poop were laying around a long unused fireplace. Also, the entire neighborhood was completely calm, no trace of the strong winds lashing the lake less than a mile away.
This was not a site I’d choose when serious rain is on the horizon, but the sky was clear, and the forecast mentioned a 20% chance of storms for the next afternoon, so we were confident we won’t be washed away.
We set up the tent, cooked soup, and I even went for a quick swim in the river. It was coooold… but oh, how refreshing!
It was a perfect evening, nobody around, no wind, beautiful surroundings. I even tried to fish, but only tiny trout were around and they didn’t care much for my lure.
We took stock of our food, realizing we got extra for at least two, if not three days. After a big dinner and some moonlight photos, we went to sleep around 10pm.
Day 6 – South of Washburn Lake to Below Red Peak Pass
Despite setting the alarm for 6am, of course it took us almost two hours again to get going. We left camp around 8, walking uphill in the Merced River watershed.
The first two miles were gentle uphill, we passed the Red Peak Fork, then, soon after the point where the Merced Peak Fork and the Triple Peak Fork merge (nice footbridge here), the serious climb began to get up the hump and on the other side of the “small” ridge that separates the two forks.
The route ascends about 1,200’ in a mile or so, ending up in the canyon of the Triple Peak Fork. The trail is very well made and maintained, and – needless to say – awesomely scenic.
During the next two-mile section, it follows the river only climbing about another 150’, making for great and quick hiking. Puffy clouds started appearing, the promise of possible trouble for later, so we picked up the pace and arrived at the junction at 12:15pm. Here, if we would have gone left (south-east), after 1.2 mile and 900’ gain, we would have ended up were we were on day 4, leaving our camp below Isberg Pass and looking down on this place.
We stopped for lunch, filtered water, and ran into a surprising number of people. Two big groups were coming down from the west, some youngsters going towards Isberg, and some retirees down to Merced. There was a third group, too, but I don’t remember where they went.
The junction is a very, very pretty place, by the way. There’s a perfect combination of gently-flowing water, nice trees and great mountains in the distance. If not for the crowds, I’d love to spend a day or two here, just chillin’.
The clouds kept coming, so we tried to keep the break short, then walked west on the trail towards Red Peak Pass. The plan was to find good camping near some water on this side of the pass, preferably before getting drenched by a deluge and - even more preferably - before getting fried by lightning.
The trail keeps climbing and climbing, offering really cool views towards the west, first only to Isberg and Post Peaks, then beyond them. In front, the Clark Range looms with Merced Peak, Triple Divide Peak, Red Peak et. al.
Eventually, after a small drop, it crosses back to the Merced Peak Fork again and keeps climbing towards the pass.
It was almost 3pm by this time, and the clouds looked more menacing by the minute. We knew there are quite a few tarns and small lakes before the pass, so we didn’t get very discouraged when we saw some people at the first one. It’s not raining yet, so let’s keep going!
Sounds of distant thunder reached us, and far away it looked like it’s coming down hard. Luckily, the worst of it seemed to move parallel to us, not coming very close.
At 3:30pm, we got to this nice shelf with a few more tarns and decided to call it a day. The thunder was closer and though it still wasn’t raining yet, it felt like it could start any second. The only problem was, there was no level ground for the tent. Everything was either rocky or boggy or both.
After both of us running around for a few minutes, I got lucky and found a really nice place next to a cluster of trees and rocks, not very far from the water and out of sight of the trail. Not to mention that the view from this place was simply amazing.
It started drizzling, and everything pointed towards an imminent shower. We pitched the tent as quick as we could, got inside, prepared for everything… and nothing really happened. It kept drizzling, but only a tiny little bit.
Let’s go wash up then! We took most our clothes off, and carrying only stuff that can get wet, we trudged down to the tarn. The drizzle stopped, then picked up again, but it didn’t turn into rain. Even the sun came out briefly.
The tarn was home to a sizable population of the endangered Sierra yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae), but there was enough room for everybody. The water was cool, but not very cold, so we both rinsed off, then I carried water in the shower back to camp and we both washed ourselves with a bit of soap.
Side note: the recovery of the Sierra yellow-legged frog from near-extinction is hailed as a landmark effort of successfully saving a species by careful management of threats (e.g. removing nonnative trout from many bodies of water and other measures).
It was not even 5pm, we didn’t have a care in the world, so we crawled into the tent and took a satisfying, hour-long nap. While we were in there, the weather kept getting better and better. By all indications it seemed that a small thunderstorm passed us by a mile to the south. The sun was out, dramatic clouds were racing each other, and a much bigger sky party was going on in the east, but really far away, towards Mammoth.
We walked around all “our” tarns, marveling at the huge numbers of frogs, then climbed a tiny hill so we got an even better look at the surroundings, including Red Devil Lake down below. Sitting on the rock, the setting sun warming our backs, watching the storm hitting the mountains in the distance… it was a perfect evening. I’ll always remember it as one of our best days in the backcountry.
A bit after sunset, we went back to the tent, organized ourselves for the night, then ate a big dinner. The sky cleared up almost completely, the moon came up and we stayed up late to take some cool night pictures, even going back to the overlook rock. It was past 10:30pm by the time we finally went to bed.
Day 7 – Below Red Peak Pass to Lower Ottoway Lake
Oh, how we love waking up at such a place in the morning! Those views!
The sky was completely clear, and we knew another storm could hit or miss us by the afternoon, however, we slept late as we planned on walking only about 4 miles that day, just to Lower Ottoway Lake on the other side of the pass. Taking our time, we only left after 9:30am.
The next “shelf” contained another small lake, with an enormous toad guarding the outlet’s crossing. I don’t know how big the yellow-legged gets and whether this was one, but it was almost three times the normal size. At least he let us cross in peace and didn't behave like the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie.
A few dozen yards further up, some campsites sat next to the trail, but all were really exposed and not very nice. We were very happy with our choice for the previous night. Moving on, the view got better and better with each step, everything opening up to the east (in the back) and Ottoway Peak and Read Peak towering in front.
The high country here is simply amazing, as soon as the trail leaves the tree line, it becomes of dense jumble of huge rocks, dotted with tarns and patches of wildflowers. Some of the rock is red from iron (I guess hence the name), some the typical gray granite.
Without a trail, it would be really tedious to navigate this terrain, but thank goodness the trail is in great shape, winding its way slowly to the pass. The parts further away are almost always completely obscured by all the rocks - if you’ve never been here before, it’s really hard to guess which way you'll go and where the pass is. Hint: it’s in a notch on gray rock, left of the red rock.
We got to the pass around 11:20am and sat down for a snack break. It took us a bit over 90 minutes from camp, mostly because of all the photo breaks. The sky was still clear, but a few tiny telltale puffs appeared, harbingers of the afternoon monsoon patters. A brave pika kept running back and forth, taking small bunches of grass back to the den.
A large group was laboring up the pass from the far side, and when the first person appeared, it turned out it was a guided group on their way from Lower Ottoway to Red Devil. They said there’s lots of fish in the lake (hurrah!) and not many other people were around, but it’s a popular place, so it’s likely it will be more crowded in the afternoon.
We didn’t linger much and started the really steep descent towards the west. Upper Ottoway Lake is nicely visible from here, but it’s off the trail and by the looks of it, not a very camp-friendly spot. Also, as far as I understand, it's fishless.
Then Lower Ottoway comes into view, another mile away and a few hundred feet lower.
12:30pm found us on the near shore of the lake. We saw an illegal, then a legal campsite, but that end looked like it’s windier, so we walked some more and found the large group camp area, the “village” with space enough for 8-10 tents if pitched very close to another. Thankfully, nobody was there.
I left Em at this site and walked some more, looking for a perhaps even better spot, but only found a few more illegal sites next to the trail or right on the water. Another couple appeared, coming from down below, and we discussed options. In the end, we all went back, Em and I settled in the group area, and those guys a bit further up, close, but out of sight. They were nice couple, Canadians, returning to the Sierra after many years.
The puffs turned into real clouds, but no storm was close yet, so we went down to the lake. I carried water in the empty Bearikade far enough so Em could do some laundry, then some more in the shower for the two of us to wash up properly. I even took a swim – the water was great, surprisingly warm for a big lake that also looked deep.
It was only 2pm, we went back to camp, hung the clothes out to dry and retreated to the tent for a nap. I couldn’t sleep, so I left Em there and went to catch a few fish for dinner. Big clouds were coming over the mountain and it looked like it’s raining on the other side, just where we were yesterday. I even heard some distant thunder.
The trout weren’t very active, but I didn’t mind, I just enjoyed the quiet afternoon of walking up and down the lakeshore and catching a fish now and then.
After 3pm, a very light patter started, but it didn’t last more than few minutes. I went back to check on the clothes, Em got out as well, and we were having fun watching our stuff “drying” in the rain. No, really, the precipitation was really light and as there was no wind, so every drop was falling completely vertically, meaning the clothes on the thin line didn’t present a profile and only got a few drops. The drizzle soon stopped, giving way to a bit of sunshine. Em went back to the tent for another half-hour catnap and I resumed fishing.
The entire afternoon went like this – five minutes of patter, half an hour sunshine. A trout on the hook every 15-20 minutes. It was gorgeous. The last bit of rain came around 6:30pm, when the sun shone below the clouds, nicely illuminating the Clark Range. The sky cleared up completely afterwards.
We went for a walk on the lakeshore, and even found a stupidly illegal, but really scenic campsite at the end of a small peninsula, on a flat rock jutting out into the water. Some oh-so-wise guy even built a fire there.
After dark, we ate the fish with some more food, then went to bed happy and sad at the same time. We knew tomorrow’s going to be the last day of the trip.
Side note: the fire situation here is weird. Yosemite National Park’s wilderness regulations allow fires in the backcountry below 9,600’. On the Tom Harrison map, Lower Ottoway Lake is shown as 9,563’, so just below the limit. However, there’s a sign on the lakeshore saying the elevation is 9,700’ and Google Earth pegs it at around 9,686’. Somehow I’m sure that the rangers would say fires are illegal here, but of course that doesn’t stop many people here and elsewhere. We keep seeing quite a few fire rings well above 10-11,000’ in the Sierra. Let me spell it out for all the idiots: fire restrictions are not some whim of the rangers. At high elevation, plant growth is extremely slow and every scrap of biomass is needed to replenish nutrients in the soil. Burning wood removes these nutrients. Be smart about how you stay warm and cook your food!
Day 8 – Lower Ottoway Lake to Quartz Mountain to L.A.
Our plan was to drive all the way home and had about 13 miles to walk to the car. We got up at the usual 6am and tried to get going quickly. This, at the speed of Em & Steven, means we left camp at 8am. Sigh. It think I can safely say that if we didn’t improve at this in many years and 25-30 nights a year in the backcountry, we’ll never get any quicker.
First we descended for about two and a half miles to the junction where you can either go south toward Merced Pass and Chiquito Pass (our route) or north-west to Glacier Point and Yosemite Valley.
Two small lakes are in the area, Lower and Upper Merced Pass Lakes. They look great on pictures I found on the internet, but we couldn’t see them from the trail in the forest.
On the way up to Merced Pass, we got some great views to the north, with Mt. Starr King and Half Dome sticking out from the landscape, looking invitingly close.
The pass itself if nothing much, the climb is not steep at all on either side, and here’s no sign. We saw fresh bear tracks in the soft ground as we were descending, but no signs of the bruin.
The forest got denser by the minute, eventually turning into a beautiful, thickly overgrown meadow and riparian area, but the trail was very well visible, not like in Timber Creek. We met two really nice guys who camped in the area the night before and were on their way to Lower Ottoway Lake. They called us “animals” for hiking 13 miles in a day, but then I don’t know what they would call the real though hikers who easily do 20+ miles.
It was easy going, so at 11am, we arrived in Moraine Meadows and walked into the “handle” of our lollipop loop. We had lunch at the creek crossing, then started the last leg of 6 miles back to the car.
Just past the Chain Lakes junctions (where we stopped for a break on the way in), a huge pine tree fell during the last few days, right on the trail, covering almost a hundred feet of it. It’s really luck nobody where there when it happened.
From there, the hike back was quick and uneventful. At Chiquito Pass, we marveled yet again how easy it is to lose the trail if approaching from the south.
At 2:20pm, we were at the trailhead, our dusty car waiting for us in the parking lot. We retrieved our cooler from the bear box, briefly talked to a ranger, then washed up a bit. A young guy, who was about to head in, gave us a bottle of Gatorade, saying he has too much and we must be parched. Well, we weren’t, but we sure appreciated the cool drink.
We ate another snack, packed the car, and started the slow drive back to civilization. Clouds to the east looked menacing, it was almost sure that our route only a day or two was getting drenched. Unbelievable luck with the weather.
This trip ended up being around 100 miles, maybe a few more. It was pretty arduous, but not terribly so, and we saw some incredible sights. As we suspected in the beginning, we over-planned our food contingency, we ended up with at enough for at least two more comfortable days. This can be done better next time.
Take a look at the tons of pictures in the full gallery.