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TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:53 pm
by kpeter
7 days
56.8 miles
Gained and lost 12394 feet
lowest 5947
highest 11158

Purpose of Trip

I have spent most of my prime backpacking time on the east side of the Sierra, and had never seen much of Yosemite beyond passing through on an Agnews to Tuolumne trip, the occasional dayhike from the valley, and the Kibbie/Boundary lake areas in the extreme NW of the park. When the HST meet up was scheduled for this region I thought I would plan a trip around the meet-up that would help me see this territory for the first time. Furthermore, based largely on advice and trip reports here on HST, I discovered that this region is among the most spectacular and least visited areas of the park.

Later, when mentioning my plans at a New Year’s party, a colleague expressed his interest in coming along. Despite my warnings, this first time backpacker resolved to accompany me on this demanding trip. By the end, he was easily outhiking me–and I hope he has become a convert to the wilderness.


This was complex. If I had the trip to do again, I would start from Glacier Point rather than Mono Meadows and take the Glacier Point shuttle from the valley to the top to start the hike, leaving the car at the bottom to be available at the end of the hike. This would cut out some fairly dreadful hiking through an open burned forest that was necessary to complete the loop for me. Taking the shuttle to Mono Meadows can be done, apparently, although I worried that the bus might not reliably stop there. And the trail out of the Mono Meadows trailhead is steep and fairly uninteresting. I have not been on the trail out of Glacier Point, but it has to be more interesting.

Unfortunately, I waited too long (as in more than a couple of days after they became available!) for trailhead reservations and could only get Mono Meadows. And I waited too long for shuttle reservations (be sure to get them at least a couple weeks in advance, 10 days might not be enough) and could not get the two seats on a bus we needed. I learned the hard way that reserving anything in Yosemite needs to be done at the first minute possible.

Starting the Trip–Day 1

I picked up my friend and we drove from the Bay Area to the Park boundary, entered on 120, and picked up our permit easily immediately after paying our park entrance fee. We drove down into the valley and up out the other side to the Glacier Point road, and were at the Mono Meadows trailed and hiking by about 1:30 in the afternoon. It is one advantage that Yosemite has over the east side destinations–shorter drives to get started.

The Mono Meadows trailhead is relatively dull, a dirt parking lot just off Glacier Point road. It is a trailhead that is not popular for dayhikers or for people doing short backpacks, since nothing is all that close to it. The parking lot holds about 15 cars and it was half empty on a weekend.

From the trailhead the trail descends to Mono Meadows, a longish swath of green interupting the forest. A pleasant meadow but nothing to compare with others in Yosemite.
Shortly after leaving the meadow the trail climbs gradually and then descends a hill to Illilouette Creek. That hill, and most everything to its south, burned a number of years ago, leaving the hillside choked with spiny shrubs that have in some places completely overtopped the trail. Do not wear shorts on this trail!

It is about 2 miles to Illilouette Creek, which is a good sized stream and felt like an oasis. We forded it and it was knee keep. There is camping available there, but we thought stopping after just two miles was not in the cards, so we continued on.

The trail climbed out of Illilouette Creek through open Ponderosa forest, keeping some impressive granite on the left. The first decent campsite we found was at the Clark Fork, where a nice stream crossed the trail and shot out over a slab of granite in one of those spectacular sheeting effects.
We stopped here, which seems to be a popular camp. The views were not impressive, but it was the nicest camping spot yet and the water provided the music for our evening.

Carrying 8 days of food, lots of water, and all the supplies for the trip gave us heavy packs, and the first day coming from sea level was a hard one for us. The entire trip was made more difficult by a massive heat wave, which raised temperatures into the 100s in the Valley and the 80s in the Sierra. That and a lack of breeze made for the hottest Sierra trip of my life. We sweated copiously and our clothes could stand up by themselves by the end of the trip. Not at all a normal weather trip.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:54 pm
by kpeter
Day 2

Today the object was Lower Ottoway Lake. We left the Clark fork early and headed gently up to where the trail parallels Illilouette Creek.
This began a long steady grind upwards toward the Merced Pass Lakes. We were hot, tired, and exhausted and looking for Lower Merced Pass Lake to get water, but it was unmarked and unseen from the trail and we wound up overshooting it and reaching the intersection above.

The intersection is a three way, but before turning left to continue on to the Ottoways, we found a good use trail slightly to the right that led to Upper Merced lake. Continue on it until it reaches the marshy outlet end, cross right across the outlet, and continue as the use trail takes you to an excellent camp on the western shore. This as not where we were headed for the day, and the lake looked a little buggy, but this would be a relatively pleasant stopover destination if needed. We stopped, got water, ate, rested, and recharged for the next push.
The trail up from Upper Merced to Lower Ottoway was probably our hardest stretch. The scenery gets prettier the further from Mono Meadows you get, but Day 2 was our first full day of hiking and the steady climb wore us down. There was a campsite at a stream crossing before the final push to Lower Ottoway, but we kept going.

The last stretch before Lower Ottoway finally felt like high country, as we left the big trees below and the trail crept over rocks. Over the top and the lake suddenly came into view! A pretty, large lake with mixed rock and forest.
I learned here on HST that there was a good campsite on the far (east) side, but we met a photographer who told us that it was taken. However, there are quite a number of camps on the NW side of the lake, many just slightly uphill from the lake and with views. We took such a camp and settled in for rest and dinner. A short while later we were startled when a handsome six point buck sauntered through the camp. Later, we watched the alpenglow on the opposite shore of the lake.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:54 pm
by kpeter
Day 3

We got an early start as we tried to get over Red Peak Pass before the afternoon sun. The walk around the edge of Lower Ottoway was serene and beautiful in the morning. The trail up to Upper Ottoway was a fun trail–festooned with grass and flowers as it worked its way over ledges and under cliffs. It was not a large, highly engineered trail, and was steep at times.
Upper Ottoway is actually bypassed–the trail comes much closer to a smaller unnamed lake and Upper Ottoway does not become visible until the trail climbs a bit more toward Red Peak pass. Fortunately, at the point the trail turns north toward the pass there was a happy sounding rivulet of snow melt. We drank, snacked, and rested for the push up.
The trail from Upper Ottoway to Red Peak pass was a true marvel of engineering. Ramps of fill took it over talus and it managed to find the sandiest part of the hillside–meaning that the walking was more on earth and less on crushed rock than is usual in such settings. It was impossible from below to predict where the trail was going–but it went through a tiny notch at the top that seemed wildly implausible when viewed from the bottom. This must have been a difficult cross-country pass before this trail was constructed. The last dozen switchbacks or so had large stone retaining walls and completely filled the notch from side to side. Finally we made it to the top, and it was about six paces across before it headed back down. Four backpackers from Chicago caught up with us in the pass, and there was hardly enough room for us all to stand there. They were the last people we saw before the meetup two days later.
Coming down from Red Peak pass we had views of the Minarets, Banner and Ritter, and all the rest–the first time I had seen them from the West.
There was still a little snow to cross on the North Side of the pass, and my friend learned how to kick steps. The trail moved down to a Martian landscape, full of red rock, with little springs popping out of the rock from time to time and feeding small tarns where we stopped for lunch and water. No tree cover or shade, though, and we moved further down the path as it descended toward a plateau of meadows and shallow lakes.
Gradually a view of Red Devil Lake emerged–a very interesting complex of connected waters and peninsulas.
When we reached the outlet to the first lake on the plateau, we turned north and descended cross-country, coming out along the south shoreline of the western lobe of Red Devil. This was probably a mistake–we found a much better access to Red Devil on the way out.

We set up camp on the SW shore of the main lake, where we had a spectacular view across the bulk of the lake to the NE.
There had been a fire at the lake years earlier and there were quite a few dead snags around, but the fire also left enough trees for comfort. We saw a mountain bluebird late in the afternoon, and that night we heard coyotes barking and whining across the lake from us.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:55 pm
by kpeter
Day 4

Leaving Red Devil Lake was easier than the route we took to come to it. I set a GPS waypoint for the lowest/nearest part of the main trail to the SE of Red Devil, and simply headed up from the SE corner of the lake. Along the way we saw a few ducks, so it is obvious that others have also used this straightforward route.

Picking up the main trail, we entered one of the most entertaining regions of the hike. The trail descended in front of an impressive cliff to a beautiful meadow holding the headwaters of the Merced. Cliffs, meadows, splashing water, green grasses all competed for attention within this cirque.
Camping along the stream somewhere would be awesome, and it would be nice to have time to explore the many lakelets and pools sparkling below. Sadly, the trail pulled us up and out of these headwaters and over to the Triple Peak Creek valley.
Triple Peak Creek was going to be with us for a long time to come. The trail down in to it seemed long and relatively boring. The granite at the bottom of the valley and the creek itself were attractive to us, and we stopped for lunch next to the babbling stream on a carpet of green.
We were at the intersection with the trail that ran north along the creek all the way to Merced, and our trail–which ran up the east wall of the canyon to the Isberg Pass Trail that paralleled the stream up on its high eastern side. The connecting trail to the Isberg Pass Trail was a fairly dull grind up a steep forested hillside.

When we reached the Isberg Pass trail we had a decision to make. Should we take a short detour south (and a bit higher) to reach lake 10005 to camp for the night? A HST trail report had lauded its beauty. But it was early in the afternoon and we thought it too soon to stop. We headed north on the Isberg pass trail, thinking we would find some attractive stream to camp at along the way.

Well, we immediately hit a pretty, 12" wide snow melt stream no more than a couple of hundred yards north, along with a possible campsite with a view. Alas, still too soon, so we forged ahead. As we plowed north I was not terribly impressed with the trail. It was an old trail that has been poorly maintained, although it was easy to follow it. That was not the issue. I had expected a high trail to have high views, and it mostly did not. It was mostly in forest and well back from the canyon edge. I began to think that hiking along Triple Peak Creek would have been more enjoyable, except that would not get us to where we wanted to go. Doing a little research, it seems that the river trail along Triple Peak Creek was created in 1930 to replace the “fatiguing high route” and shorten the distance to Isberg pass. We were on the “fatiguing high route” marked with gargantuan, tree scarring T blazes.

Finally we stopped to camp just north of Foerster Creek where there was a small stream and some relatively flat ground on a ledge a hundred feet below the trail. It was purely a utilitarian campground, although we could walk out onto some granite and get some views that were only slightly obscured by the trees.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:56 pm
by kpeter
Day 5

This was an extraordinary day–the day of the HST Meetup. We broke camp and headed back north on the Isberg Trail toward our destination of the Lyell Fork. The trail became quite interesting when it headed down into the Lyell Fork Canyon–twisting and switchbacking in short order down into the Lyell canyon, and offering many views across the way. At the bottom we found and forded Lyell fork, which was swift and came to the knees. A couple of hundred yards later we left the trail and headed upstream, staying mainly on granite slabs and avoiding the forest and brush around the stream.

We found our friends at the HST Meetup site and enjoyed their company that afternoon, evening, and the next morning. I will leave a description of the people and the Meetup to a different, more appropriate thread. The Lyell Canyon is spectacular and was a favorite of Ansel Adams, for whom the dominate local peak is now named.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:56 pm
by kpeter
Day 6

Leaving the meetup we headed north. Just as described here in another thread, we came across the spectacular campsite on a ledge with a waterfall at the first stream crossing after Lyell Fork. Rarely do you see a combination of spectacular grandeur and charming intimacy, but this campsite had the grand views and the musical water to go with some nice flat tent sites. It is definitely a transit camp, though, given that there is really no where to explore from the location.
The trail did give up a few more views than it had done south of Lyell Fork, but by and large, we found it pretty unremarkable. As it neared the Vogelsong Trail it switchbacked down through some very dry, old decomposing granite. Finally as we neared Lewis Creek we heard the water and gained a far more manicured trail.

Heading west toward Merced we made good progress at first, with little views of Merced Lake occasionally popping into view.
The trail never got particularly close to Lewis Creek until it was all the way down, giving no easy water source on a hot day. Then, for the first time, we hit the cobblestones. Much of the descent to the Merced Ranger station was over very uneven cobblestones, with seemingly no effort to choose flat stones. It forced us to slow to a crawl, and we found ourselves cracking dark jokes. Elsewhere Yosemite uses flat steps, and also some cobblestones have been made with shaped rock designed to make the trail at least a little bit flat. But this seemed like a technique deliberately designed to pain hikers.

At the bottom we reached the ranger station and the three footbridges across the Lewis creek delta. There we filtered water and went on. The trail now was as wide as a jeep track and sandy, and we made good time coming into the Merced High Sierra Camp. It was jarring to see kids swimming in the inlet and all the people looked incredibly clean to us. But I thought that this might be a fun place to bring families who are not into backpacking as much as I am. A little further along, the backpacking camp looked quite serviceable, with bear boxes and tap water, but we passed it by.

We hiked late in the afternoon, and thoroughly enjoyed the trek around Merced lake and down the Merced River. I did not expect Merced Lake to be much–but I thought it was pretty, with its green borders on the east and the large granite sheets framing its south. The outlet, though, was spectacular. The sight of water doing acrobatics as it rushed down the granite was entertaining and rejuvenating.
We had thought to camp in Echo Valley, but we passed up some serviceable sites at the east end of the valley that were near the Merced and discovered that the rest of the valley was choked with small living trees and carpeted with larger dead ones, no doubt recovering from a fire a couple of decades ago. It was not an attractive place to put a tent. At the intersection near the footbridge it was dark and junky looking. So we staggered on after a very long day. Finally, as the trail came back to the Merced at the very western edge of Echo Valley we found our site, tucked away between the trail and some granite and within easy access to an attractive cascade. Actually, a very beautiful spot. So the day ended well.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 6:57 pm
by kpeter
Day 7

We were not sure if we would make it out today but decided to give it a try, and stop just short for the night at Illilouette Creek if we could not. We started extra early to give ourselves a chance to make it, getting up by flashlight.

The hike out of Echo Valley was scenic, as it crossed a footbridge and gained elevation to get around an incredibly tight granite canyon.
But descending back to the river, we began to get signs that our lovely riverside walk was going to take a depressing turn.
In Bunnell cascades, Lost Valley, and most of the way across Little Yosemite Valley we were in a burn zone–and not just any burn zone. The Meadow Fire of 2014 devastated these areas. Except on the periphery, not a single tree was left alive, and I saw no signs of any small trees growing anywhere yet. In Lost Valley there were huge gullies from erosion, and a few signs of rockwork being installed to lessen the damage. The understory was beginning to come back, with fireweed in places and some ferns. And of course reducing all the trees to sticks left unobstructed views of all the granite. But it was unremittingly sunny and hot, and it felt like walking in a graveyard.

Crossing Little Yosemite Valley we did see a deer standing in some cattails–so there is life in these places. But we did not return to shade and forest until just before the backpacker campground. The firefighters on the Meadow Fire took their stand to protect the campground and the trail up to Half Dome, and they succeeded in halting the fire there. But we walked through miles of burn zone. Only an expert in fire ecology (my brother!) would be interested in seeing that much burned ground.
My friend had never seen Nevada Falls, and thus began an adventure. Approaching it from the top means you don’t get the usual glimpses along the way as you would if you come up from below. He was suitably impressed. More shocking to us was the sudden return to civilization. As we filtered water and ate lunch we were surrounded with tourists. Three pack trains went over the bridge.

Now the rough slog began. Leaving Nevada Falls, we headed up the JMT for a couple of hundred yards to the intersection with the Panorama Trail. Before starting the climb out, we continued just a short distance along the JMT to get to the point behind the stone railing where you can look back at the front face of Nevada Falls. Every time I see that scene it feels like I am looking at something too perfect to be real–did someone photo shop that part of the world?
The rest of the trip back to Mono Meadows was very, very hard. Up the canyon–at least mostly in forest. Then a very long plod over a slightly older burn on the Mono cutoff trail that takes you directly to Illilouette Creek. Then another 600 feet up a thorny burned hill, a trek on the level to Mono Meadows, and that final, brutal pitch up 250 feet to the trailhead. Doing this in the middle of the afternoon necessitated that we haul extra water–we each carried about 3 liters of water uphill in the hot, breezeless sun. That day was among the most psychologically demoralizing hikes I have completed–a veritable tour of past burns. But we made it! The car started and we were on our way home.

The last day aside, the trip was filled with beauty, enrichment, and friendship. I'd do it with a shuttle from Glacier Point and squeeze in a layover day or two if I could. On the other hand, I can take some pride in completing what I think was my hardest hike--the North Lake to South Lake Loop I did was longer but relatively much easier with far better trails. But now I feel I have really seen the Yosemite high country.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 7:32 pm
by rlown
wow. ok, nice report, but you need to slow it down. It's not about walking a trail (my words). Guess that's why I choose to fish. It gives me pause; time to think, reflect and do what i love. Works great as you age.

Haven't been a slave to time as I've hiked. It is what it is.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Sun Jul 31, 2016 8:56 pm
by kpeter
rlown wrote:wow. ok, nice report, but you need to slow it down. It's not about walking a trail (my words). Guess that's why I choose to fish. It gives me pause; time to think, reflect and do what i love. Works great as you age.

Haven't been a slave to time as I've hiked. It is what it is.
I agree. The problem is that I want to see new places, and I have already been to most of the easy ones. That means covering more distance in the limited time and taking a few of these "tourist trips" which allow me to get deeper in.

I tend to alternate these with basecamp trips where I set up, don't move except to dayhike, and do my photography or read a book. I like those trips too.

I've been thinking about taking up fishing again. I did it extensively as a kid growing up in Idaho--my Dad was very good and we spent most of our summers fishing together. One problem--I got so sick of eating trout that I have little taste for it even now. But maybe 40 years has been enough abstinence to let me eat it again.

Re: TR: SW Yosemite Loop Trip from Mono Meadows

Posted: Mon Aug 01, 2016 8:59 am
by Jason
A fantastic post! I love following along with Caltopo open on another tab. Reading these from my cubicle is always a bit bittersweet though, as I'm stuck here in my cubicle with no backpacking in the near future. Still......... great photos and I appreciate you taking the time to post a trip report.