Day # 1
Elevation Gained-3056 ft
Elevation Lost-1371 ft
Fun Fact for the trip:
When I started the trail head it was 36°. When I came out of the trail head it was 73°.
The drive to Hetch Hetchy was beautiful. Believe it or not, with all my trips to Yosemite National Park, I’ve never turned off on the road to Hetch Hetchy. My love of Yosemite Valley and all the trails leading up to the canyon rim always call me further down into the valley instead of stopping here.
Pulling into the parking lot at about 3 PM I got all my gear ready and set off. The road into Hetch Hetchy is only open from 8 AM to 5 PM daily. This means that outside of those hours, the gate is closed and nobody can enter or exit. This makes planning a backpacking trip, and day hikes as well, a little bit tricky. With that said, driving in through the gate at around 2:30 meant the majority of other people, day hikers, were going to be driving out fairly soon. This paid off as the first 2.5 miles are a day hike mecca to a series of waterfalls. Within the first half mile I saw about 25 people coming out. After that, I only saw a handful of other day hikers and no backpackers at all. Once passed Wapama Falls, I saw no more day hikers.
In all this time it went from being sunny to cloudy to foggy to raining to hailing to snowing. It was absolutely beautiful. My rain gear kept me completely dry and warm and able to fully enjoy my surroundings.
At the bottom of Rancheria Falls I found two backpackers standing on a rock admiring the beauty. I spoke quietly as I approached to not scare them as there was no one else around. They were from San Diego doing a one nighter back to the waterfall. We talked, shared some stories and I continued. As I got to the top of the falls I saw at least two other tents tucked away in the forest. I continued up the trail wanting to camp alone.
Tiltill Valley was my goal.
I gained about 1000 feet more of elevation and then dropped into Tiltill Valley. The valley was flooded and I had to walk about 150 yards to the other side in shin deep water. It took a while of careful walking to get to the back of the valley. Tiltill had a secret. It was bear country. I’ve never seen so many piles of bear scat in one place. I stopped counting at 30. All the scat was new to this season which meant that it had been “deposited” here by bears in the last month (since the snow here melted.)
And this was where I was camping. I was very careful, making sure I cooked far away from where I slept and also making sure that everything with a scent was in my bear canister and the canister was some distance from my bivy.
It was an amazing sunset with the lingering clouds from today’s storms. I drifted off to sleep seeing no bear. At least not today….
Day # 2
Elevation Gained-1986 ft
Elevation Lost-491 ft
Woke up to shoes frozen solid and a thermometer that read in the mid 20s. I stayed toasty warm last night.
I stepped out into the icy morning and really took my time getting organized, eating breakfast and finally packing up. A 9:30 departure is a late one for me for sure, but I felt good in the warming air.
Being on the north side of the meadow I was spared walking through the water again. I began ascending a difficult to find trail immediately. The trail climbed through many different fascinating rock formations as it zigzagged up the hill. During the next mile and a half, I’d get sporadic views of Hetch Hetchy and saw multiple stellar campsites. I planned to remember those for future trips.
The trail was in and out of a canopy of oak trees and Manzanita. Later, I would enter a forest of Jeffrey Pine and Ponderosa nestled in low ground covers. I stopped at a beautiful creek to fill some water and have some snacks. When I was packing up, I realized that I had forgotten to start my tracking. I figured that I had walked about a mile and a half to get to this very spot. By the time I started up again, my feet had finally warmed up.
As I started walking again, I realized that the beautiful creek I had gotten water from was actually running on the trail. Thus, began my day of walking parallel to the trail a lot of the time.
At about 8100 feet snow patches began to appear here and there on the trail. As I gained elevation, I gained more snow as well. About an hour later I sat down on a snow free rock to take a break. As I sat there I noticed movement in my peripheral vision in all directions. Quickly, I discovered it was simply snow falling out of trees. I sat for a few more minutes and enjoyed nature’s show.
Now that I was walking in the snow 100% of the time, at 8600 feet, navigation became challenging. The micro navigation needed to stay on or close to the trail when it’s covered in snow can be mentally exhausting. This doesn’t take into account that walking in softening snow is much like walking in sand, physically demanding. Many times I walked directly on what was the trail while other times the trail was a creek with a thin layer of snow covering it. On those occasions, I walked parallel to the trail staying within view of it but also staying up on solid snow. I didn’t want to break through any seen, or unseen, snow bridges.
The trail dropped back down to about 8100 feet and I got a break as the trail was only about half under snow. The lack of snow didn’t last long as I climbed back up to close to 9000 feet and was once again in 100% snow.
About an hour later I came to a very narrow canyon with what looked like the trail leading down through the middle. As the snow got steeper, I decided to put on my crampons for the first time on this trip. It made an incredibe difference as walking downhill now became fun instead of sketchy as my crampons bit into the soft upper layer of snow.
In what seemed like no time at all I was down through the canyon and hiking uphill the 3/4 quarter mile to Avonelle Lake at 8336 feet. It was stunning. With the east side still under snow and the west free of snow, I headed west to find a camp spot. It was 4 PM.
I’d built three possible routes for this week‘s trip. Route A would’ve had me cutting off on a separate trail after last nights campsite and doing about a 25 mile loop. Route B was about a 40 mile loop camping at Avonelle Lake and finishing the loop through a place called Jack Main Canyon. I was shooting for Route C. Route C would continue another 7 miles north of where I turned off and lead me to Tilden Lake for the night. From there, I would join Jack Main Canyon higher up and descend in the same way as the other two routes.
After the amount of snow I’d had on the trail thus far, and the temperatures that were warming up considerably and forecasted to get even warmer tomorrow, I decided that instead of hiking that extra mileage and pulling into camp at a late hour, I would choose Route B instead and head to Lake Avonelle.
After setting up camp, making some water, having a snack, I decided to wander around. I climbed the rocks behind my campsite to get views of the canyon below. All of my routes planned would lead through Jack Maine Canyon about 1000 feet below me. The trail itself runs through this narrow canyon right next to a creek called Falls Creek. Falls Creek is what feeds the major waterfall into Hetch Hetchy, Wapama Falls. I’ve been told by Rangers that the river can flood the canyon and a hiker may be walking in water for miles upon miles, if lucky. If unlucky, the trail is impassable. With the amount of snow left and the amount of water I saw in the waterfall, not to mention the increasing temperatures, I chose to go back the way I came and make this my final spot. Out and backs are never optimal for me and I always try to plan loop trips, but when safety is in play, out and back it is. My plan was to leave the next day around mid morning and take a slow leisurely day back to those amazing campsites I saw just before the creek. That would give me some beautiful views of Hetch Hetchy and a beautiful sunset. The next day I should have about 12 miles back to the trail head.
Sometimes trips don’t turn out the way you plan for various reasons. But putting safety before everything else is always the most important thing out there.
Sitting there after dinner, listening to ice break off the cliffs and roll down the mountains. Very peaceful. I had a full belly, a hot cup of tea, and I was warm.
Day # 3
Elevation Gained-601 ft
Elevation Lost-3404 ft
It was a beautiful warm night and in the early morning before the sun came up the temperature dropped. I changed my quilt back into a sleeping bag and was cozy till I got up at 7:30 am. I broke camp about 9:15, enjoying my time in this beautiful place. About 200 yards in to the hike, I strapped on my crampons and got going on full snow that was rock hard in sunny places and like mashed potatoes where the sun had warmed it.
I headed up to the overlook I saw yesterday that looks down in the Kerrick Canyon. It was spectacular. On the rocks, I was able to takeoff my crampons and once I got going again I got back into the snow but it never got steep again requiring my crampons. I was done with the jaws of life on this trip.
All my hard work and micron-navigation paid off yesterday as following my footsteps today made it much more possible to enjoy everything around me. Of course, there were times the sun had melted out my steps from yesterday and I had to be vigilant to stay on track.
The melt is on. As night time temperatures warm up, the water doesn’t have a chance to refreeze in the darkness and the creeks swell bigger and bigger. Crossing a few today, that I crossed 24 hours earlier, that looked larger indeed.
Winding through the forest with a snowy ground, I noticed movement about 40 yards in front of me next to the trail and in some foliage. It was a bear. He saw me too. I stopped and he stopped. We looked at each other for a moment and then he turned around and started walking the other way. Just as I was about to get my phone out to try a picture, he turned back around and took a few steps towards me. My phone was now in my hand and I said loudly, “Hey bear.” He turned around again and lumbered away. He was big and he was beautiful.
My next goal was the creek I stopped at yesterday out of camp. When I arrived it was as beautiful as I remembered. I got some water, had a snack and soaked my feet. I’d been wearing my Rocky waterproof socks and they were performing extremely well. Walking through snow and streams all day and still no water was getting into my socks. When I took them off, my inner socks were damp from perspiration but not wet from snow or water. Technology is amazing.
I’d seen a spot on the edge of the wall looking down at Tiltill Valley that I thought looked like a good camp spot yesterday. When I arrived, I got to work setting up camp. I’d noticed a few ants, but I am in nature so I didn’t think much of it. As I got set up, I noticed more and more crawling on everything. As I finished setting up I looked over to see hundreds covering my water bottle, hiking sticks and all the clothes I’d hung in the tree to dry and air out.
Looking at my watch it was 4:05 and I knew I was only 30-40 minutes from my previous camp spot in Tiltill. I decided instantaneously to get out of there. I packed up in a flash and was back in the trail.
Three turns in, a massive deer jumped out of a rock overhang not 15 feet from me just off the trail. After seeing the bear I was a bit on edge. The deer and I played leapfrog down the side of the mountain and into Tiltill.
I got camp set back up in a flash and had plenty of time just to sit and enjoy the meadow.
As I was laying in my bevy doing a bit of reading, I noticed movement in the corner of my eye. As I looked up, I realized that another bear was walking directly at me and by this time it was only 15 feet from me. I instinctively yelled, “Hey! Get out of here!” I hadn’t even finished yelling and the bear literally jumped straight up and then tore off into the trees beyond. Adrenaline!
Tomorrow is the hike back to the trailhead of almost 10 miles. I plan to get an early start if possible.
Day # 4
Elevation Gained-1366 ft
Elevation Lost- 3092 ft
Daily Miles- 9.7
I set my alarm for 5am and hit the trail 57 minutes later. The first order of business was to walk back through the 150 yards of swampy meadow. Once across, I started ascending and seeing newts everywhere. All the new snow melt brought out these little orange salamanders. They were fun to see, but I had to walk carefully as they were very slow to get out of my way. Helped keep me very present.
Once back at Rancheria Falls, I stopped for coffee and oatmeal. I saw no one and just took in the power of the falls.
Once going again, I ran into a rattlesnake sunning itself on the trail. I made my way quietly around it and the snake never moved.
As I got back to Wapama Falls, I started seeing weekend day hikers as well as backpackers. In the two miles from the waterfall to the trail, I must have seen 50 people. It’s always a shock coming out of the backcountry to hoards of people. It makes the time deep in the backcountry just that much more special.
Amazing trip and area. Looking forward to coming back and exploring at other times of the year.