High Sierra Camp Loop

August 6-8, 2002

Sometime in 2000, after having fallen in love with Yosemite, I learned about the High Sierra Camp Loop, which is a roughly 49 mile trail passing through five camps (plus Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, also a HSC) spaced 6-10 miles apart.  They have canvas cabins with beds in them (so you just need to bring a sleeping bag liner), serve dinner and breakfast plus make sack lunches for purchase (so you don't need to bring any food), have restrooms and drinking water, and most have showers (although you need to bring a towel).  So the idea is that one can explore the high country bringing little more than a daypack.  This sounded like a fantastic idea.  Unfortunately it's very popular, so they have a lottery.  I forgot to apply in late 2000 for the 2001 season, but remembered in 2001 and managed to get in for August 2002.

My usual day hike is 15-20 miles, so the distances between the camps seemed a little short to me.  Also I didn't want to spend a long time in the wilderness.  So I thought of skipping every other camp: starting in Tuolumne, going to May Lake, then Merced Lake, then back.  So three days of 15-19-15 miles.  The first day looked to be pretty easy.  The second day though was quite worrisome being 19 miles with a lot of up and down.  I'd done harder things: the North Dome loop which was 21 miles with a lot more climbing, but that was just a day trip and I was exhausted afterwards.  This time I'd be tired from the previous day, and still have to have energy for a third day which although it was only 15 miles featured the most intense climbing of the trip--over 3000 feet up to an elevation over 10,000 feet.  The only multi-day hike I'd ever done was a lightweight backpacking trip with Mike Vermeulen--we did Skyline to the Sea in reverse (uphill) with days of 12 and 19 miles.  There we were carrying more weight (tents, sleeping bags, and food) but there was less climbing.  Also we were completely exhausted at the end of the second day.  And this was at much lower elevation--the altitude was also a big worry.

In fact when my reservation was accepted the woman at the HSC desk called and asked if I really wanted to do this--did I realize how tough it was going to be, especially that 19 mile second day.  I said I understood and wanted to give it a try, but I was still very worried.  I figured I should stay at the Tuolumne HSC Monday night before starting off to get used to the altitude, and called up to find they were full!  However when I mentioned I was doing the loop they said to call the HSC desk and sure enough they had extra spots for people doing the loop, so I was set.

I didn't do a whole lot to get in shape, which was also worrisome since I had to abandon a planned bike ride to Salt Lake City in the middle due to not being in good enough shape. I also have problems with my knees and the arches of my feet and was very worried one or more would give out in the middle of the trip.  I cycled a bit including a trip to Half Moon Bay and home a couple days before the HSC trip.  Also I walked a fair amount (but not carrying much weight), including to work and back my last day (28 miles total), from home to San Jose (19 miles) and Hillsdale to San Francisco (19 miles).  I also went to Yosemite three times over the summer and did the Yosemite Falls Trail (and beyond a bit) once and Half Dome twice (the second time with friends was aborted in the middle).

They send a recommended packing list and although I looked it over I didn't actually try packing until the last minute.  It thought I could just use my normal backpack which I use for day hikes and everything else, but you needed to bring more than I thought and the pack was too full (and I hadn't even bought the towel and sleep sack).  I possibly could have left some stuff behind and just barely made it, but fortunately I had a bigger backpack that I'd used for the Skyline to the Sea trip.  This one was just the right size for the trip and had the advantage of a good hip belt so all the weight is on your hips instead of shoulders.  It was heavier, but turned out to be absolutely the right choice.  I carried two liters of water, which except for the last day was too much (it was cool enough that I could get by with a liter or less at a time and refill at the intermediate camps) but better to be safe.  I didn't weigh the pack but would guess it was 20-25 pounds.

For shoes I just used my normal lightweight hiking shoes, which are similar to running or walking shoes.  I had two different arch supports and was glad I brought both and could change the third day.  I also brought my trekking poles which helped enormously keep my knees and feet from hurting too much.

Right before the trip I was busy with packing and moving worries, and wasn't in the mood to go at all (the disadvantage of having to reserve so far in advance).  However once I got to Yosemite I quickly got into the mood and was very happy to be there.

Monday, August 5

I drive to Tuolumne Meadows in the afternoon, arriving around 6pm.  A propitious start as I'm assigned cabin 63 (my major was 6-3, computer science, even though I'm about to study 18, mathematics).

I get this cabin to myself, a luxury not to be repeated. You also get sheets and towels unlike the other camps; I buy my "sleep sack" and "trek towel" at the store.  I just buy a sandwich for dinner and some snacks for breakfast, so I don't start off eating well.  I ordered a sack lunch for the next day which turned out to be excellent--the best of the three sack lunches I'd get.  It even included a hard-boiled egg, a nice touch.

They have a sign posted saying there are openings at the various HSCs--quite a few, for example 10 openings some days at Merced Lake.  Perhaps most due to cancellations.  So I guess one could potentially do a last-minute trip.  Apparently I did have good luck with the lottery, as I talked with other people who had a very tough time (one family finally got in on their 6th attempt).  However being a single hiker, just stopping at two camps, and being flexible about my schedule (although I got my first choice of days) helped a lot I'm sure.

Tuolumne was freezing cold at night--it must have gotten down to the low 30s, and these canvas cabins provide little insulation.  My cabin had a wood-burning stove but I was worried I wouldn't use it right, so I was extremely cold all night and hardly slept.

Tuesday, August 6

Tuolumne Meadows to May Lake, 15 miles

Fortunately by 8:30am it was warm enough that I could start hiking in just tee shirt and shorts, my usual outfit.  Indeed the daytime weather for the whole trip was just about ideal for hiking.  As usual for a long trip, things started out wonderfully.  Tuolumne Meadows was beautiful as always.

I ran into quite a few day hikers on the way to Glen Aulin, and some people on a mule trip.  I didn't actually see the Glen Aulin HSC, the only one I missed, because it was 0.2 mile out the way and I wanted to take it easy and not add another 0.4 miles to my trip.  As it was it wouldn't have mattered, but I don't mind having saved it for a later treat.  From what I've heard the setting is beautiful.

From Glen Aulin to May Lake I ran into almost no one.  It was fantastic having the trails all to myself.  And indeed most of the whole trip I saw few people, even though there were a lot out there.  This was one advantage of doing things at double speed.  I'd leave camp before the others and so be ahead of them, and arrive at the intermediate camp after the people had left there and so be behind those people.  About the only people I'd see were those going in the opposite direction, and there weren't that many of those because counterclockwise was the "standard" way to do the loop (and I'd say by far the better way).

The first day was indeed pretty easy--a fairly gradual descent to Glen Aulin (8800 to 7800 feet) and then a fairly gradual climb to May Lake (9200) feet.  I'd acclimatized well to the altitude the first night (I noticed my heart was racing when I went to bed, but when I woke up was fine) and didn't have any altitude problems.  The first day had a lot of hiking through woods, which were nice and cool but no view, and in general not too much scenery.  But every now and then you'd find some spectacular vistas.  I didn't take many pictures because there was no way for the camera to capture the beauty of the scenery, but here is one attempt.

The May Lake HSC was in a stunning location next to the lake; right across was Mount Hoffmann.

This was apparently a not too difficult climb by going around the left side.  Indeed I learned an advantage of doing one camp per day was that one could do all sorts of interesting side trips like this.  Well, I figured this was like one of those one-week trips to Europe where you visit a country a day.  I'd get an overview this time and could come back to explore much more later.

I was assigned to cabin 6, one of apparently only two 6 person cabins (almost all cabins are for four), and so had five guys with me.  Like my cabin at Merced Lake to come (which was cabin 12) this one was the furthest away from the facilities, which was a bother when you wake up in the middle of the night and want to use the bathroom.  Three of my cabin mates were part of a ranger-led 7 day tour of the loop, and two were staying here as part of a self-designed loop that included camping at Clouds Rest and Half Dome.  An advantage of cabin mates when you're traveling alone (and I was just about the only person hiking alone) is that you make instant friends, and indeed everyone I met was was very friendly.

Most of the people I met were either older couples (perhaps 50s or higher) or families.  I think the younger people were more inclined to backpack.  For the older people just doing the 6-10 miles a day was a big deal, so as soon as they found out I was doing twice the distance this became a big topic of conversation.  Most people were also from the Bay Area.

May Lake had showers (just one each for men and women) and although I was warned they were cold the water turned out to be pretty warm.  Being able to take a shower after a long hike was very important.  Also it turned out the two camps I stayed at were the two that had wash basins for laundry.  I'd brought enough socks but tried washing my pair.  They didn't quite dry in time but dried by the next day so I wore them the last day.  I also washed more socks at Merced Lake and only the liners dried in time for use the next day.  My shorts I never washed.  I wore my UCLA math tee shirt the first two days and then a May Lake HSC tee shirt that I bought there (thus adding to the weight I carried) the third day.

There was a big hot dinner at 6:30 which was excellent.  There was to be a campfire and ranger talk, but I think this was skipped because some people from the nearby backpacker camp came and said one child in their group was lost (and this was right as it was getting dark).  It turns out it was a 15 year old boy who had deliberately wandered off looking for something to climb.  Rangers found him on the trail at about 8:30.

Surprisingly I was able to get weak cell phone reception at May Lake and called Kyoko, only to find that Kyle was sick with a fever, so maybe I didn't want to know that.  Reception was very good at Tuolumne Meadows; other places I tried had no reception.  I have AT&T and several people asked me which carrier I used.  One guy who had Sprint was able to get good reception at May Lake; another guy with Verizon got nothing (and at Tuolumne as well I think he said).

I and most people in my tent went right to bed after dinner, at around 8pm.  We decided not to make the same mistake as before and lit the stove this time--the other guys knew more about how to use it.  Soon it was nice and warm.  The fire would eventually go out, but for some reason despite the elevation May Lake never got terribly cold that night.  Apparently that is typical; Tuolumne, Sunrise and Vogelsang are the really cold ones.

Wednesday, August 7

May Lake to Merced Lake, 19 miles

An excellent big breakfast at 7:30, and I picked up my sack lunch.  Eating so well was a big key for success, I think.  I felt good but a little sore and was constantly worried about this day.  I'd picked up a guide with elevation profiles of all the stages, which was very helpful.  This day started with a nice descent to Tenaya Lake at about 8100 feet, then a climb to about 9600 feet and then down a little to Sunrise HSC at 9400 feet and 9 miles in.  Then back up to 9600 and a long descent (10 miles total) to Merced Lake at 7300 feet.  I figured it would just be a grind and a long day, and it was.  I left a little after 8:30am.

I ran into some women on the way to Sunrise who asked me if what they could see off in the distance was Half Dome.  Sure enough it was--the NE tip where the cables are.  They took my picture in front of it but it didn't come out that well so I'm not putting it up.  I don't have any especially good pictures of the segment to Sunrise, and was concentrating more on getting through the day than taking a lot of pictures.

Sunrise was a very strange camp with different facilities scattered all over the place.  Here's a picture but it doesn't give a good feel for the camp at all.

The camp was eerily empty when I arrived, and I ate my lunch at their campfire area.  I also filled up on water and used the restrooms.  I asked the manager if I could throw away some trash (from the sack lunch) but he said no and to pack it out.  I guess he thought I was some backpacker.  I could have explained but didn't bother.  He didn't seem terribly friendly and I was glad to skip this camp.

Right after Sunrise you descend into a huge, beautiful meadow and circle around part of it before going over a ridge on the other side.

After this was a long descent into Echo Valley.  The trail from Echo Valley to Merced Lake was the strangest I saw in the entire loop.  The scenery felt very surreal; I didn't take any pictures, however.  Finally I made it to Merced Lake.

I had hoped to make it by dinner (6:30), and in fact arrived at 5:30, which gave me time for a shower and to wash my socks.  They had quite a few showers here, but the women's ones were broken so the men's were being time shared.  Luckily the 5-6:30 slot was for men.  I was put in a tent cabin with three beds and only one roommate--another solo hiker named Chip.  He was a very nice guy from San Francisco who had been laid off by IBM 6 weeks ago.  Apparently there were a lot of Bay Area computer people who had either quit or been laid off and were hiking around the high country at this time.  Chip was doing the loop for the 8th or 9th time, but he always did a camp at a time plus side trips.  In fact he said he'd never even heard of someone skipping every other camp (however some women I passed going the other way that day said they'd met a couple people who'd done May Lake to Merced Lake the previous day, and I'm sure it's not too uncommon).  He loved the high country and had a lot of good advice for what to see.  One thing that many people told me is that Clouds Rest (which I've yet to hike to) has some of the best views you'll find.  Also everyone seemed most enthusiastic about the area around Vogelsang (of this loop) so I was looking forward to that.

Here's a pictures of the dining room cabin at the camp.  You can see Chip's back (the guy with the blue backpack).

I had dinner with Chip and a family from New Jersey he'd met earlier.  They were very nice and also big Yosemite fans.  The father was a professor of psychology at Rutgers and had taken a sabbatical at Stanford 89-90 which is when they discovered Yosemite.  There were two sons of about college age and one was in fact just about to start at Stanford this Fall.  Dinner was even better than at May Lake and in particular the vegetable soup (broccoli and mushroom maybe) was some of the best I've ever tasted.  Everyone thought it was excellent.

There was a campfire that night with a ranger (leading another group) telling stories and singing songs.  I passed but could hear most of it as it was not far from my cabin.  Merced Lake being at lower elevation did not get so cold and so cabins didn't have stoves.  It seemed it would be a pretty mild night but in the middle it still got very cold.  As usual I had trouble sleeping.  Around midnight I went out and saw the stars, which were fantastic.

Thursday, August 8

Merced Lake to Tuolumne Meadows, 15 miles

Although I'd survived the toughest day and felt I would make it to the end, I was very sore after the second day, especially my feet, so that was worrisome.  Perhaps this third day would be the hardest after all.  It did feature a big steep climb to Vogelsang (7.5 miles), but then there was a long gradual downhill to the end and it seemed that shouldn't be too bad.  There were actually two paths up to Vogelsang, one of which was both shorter and had less climbing, so that's the one I chose of course.  According to Chip that one actually had the better scenery as well.

Again an excellent breakfast with Chip and the family.  Chip was going to stay at Merced Lake another day and relax; the family was going on to Vogelsang and seemed to have lost some of their enthusiasm--they weren't looking forward to the climb.  I left a bit late this day (8:50am) and hoped to be done by 5 or 6.

Everyone was right--the scenery this third day was by far the best of the trip, so great to save it for the end.  I had to resist stopping too much to take photographs, but here are a few good ones.  First of all climbing up and looking down at Merced Lake.  The monolith to the right is none other than the SE face of Half Dome.

Various cool mountains I should identify sometime:

You get a break from climbing and go through a huge and stunning meadow which is a mile or more long.  Incredibly I had this meadow all to myself when I was there.  I stopped in some shade in the trees at the far end of this picture (which are only halfway into the meadow) and had lunch.  One group of hikers passed the other way when I was eating; otherwise I saw no one else the whole time I was there.  Just incredible to be alone here.

Then more climbing to Vogelsang HSC, which at the base of Fletcher Peak was in the most spectacular setting of any HSC I saw.  This one deserves a bigger picture (reduced only 1/9 versus 1/16 for the others):

I rested here for a bit, and headed off for the final stretch.  This started out with a long slanted sort of meadow, and again fantastic views.

In the distance Mount Dana (13,053 feet), which I've climbed before with Jon Degenhardt, stands out:

After a while the great scenery mostly goes away (although there are good places again) and it's a bit of a slog to get down.  I ran into the most people along this stretch, and given its beauty I well understand why!  Finally I made it to Tuolumne Meadows at 5pm.  I stopped at the store to buy another shirt.  I wanted to get one for Merced Lake, but it was about the same color (blue) as the May Lake one, so I got a Vogelsang (red) shirt instead, as that was my favorite HSC that I didn't stay at.  Then I walked back to where the car was parked and took one final picture of the trailhead.

I then drove home, leaving about 5:40 and getting home about 9:45pm.  A hot night in Palo Alto, so a big contrast from my last three nights, but nice to sleep in my own bed again.

In summary although I was tired and sore at the end it was a fantastic trip.  I can't imagine a better three day hike.