August 2009: Yosemite via the 'back door'

This trip took some planning, since Lórien had not tried long backpacking or high altitudes before. We did a good practice trip a week or two in advance, but at 1000 feet up - not sufficient practice for 10k passes! Since we had a weekend beforehand at 5000 feet and a cabin at 7500 to start the trip, these things would have to suffice.

After camping with the family at Crescent Lake in central Oregon, we shed some gear for the trip south. Since black bears near Yosemite have equated coolers with food-treasure chests, and much of our other gear would be useless for the remainder of our trip, we off-loaded some things on my siblings. After a few midday farewells we were headed south for an overnight stay in Susanville. Unfortunately a nearby forest-fire made visibility poor and filled my usual motel, but the newer place on the south side of town was very nice for both showering and sleeping. The adjacent restaurant was also very nice, as were the coupons that gave us discounts there! The next day was a shorter drive to Mono Village near Bridgeport, where we repacked our hiking gear and showered one last time. I took a short walk to the trailhead and found where we needed to park for the week; Mono Village charges a fee for this, but the convenience was worth a bit of cash. After a good dinner, a night’s sleep and a ham & egg omlette in the morning, we were off!

  1. The first part of the hike was a simple stroll up the pine and sage valley, with Kettle Peak looming to the SW. A left turn and some climbing brought us to Barney Lake, a popular day-hike; many young kids and their parents arrived as we ate lunch on the beach before moving on. My plans were to stop a mile or so upstream of the lake; this was merely the first of many plans to fail on this journey! We continued upriver in the vain hope of finding a flat spot, crossing the creek twice (one rock-hop, one sock-height wade) before finally breaking for an early dinner.
    Soon after we hit the Peeler Lake junction at just under 7 miles in; some other hikers had mentioned camps near the Robinson Lakes so we turned left. After refilling our water below Crown Point we found ourselves at the lakes just short of twilight. No sites were both level and away from the lake’s edge so we continued to the second lake. Upon reaching it I jumped off the trail in search of a campsite, and found the absolute minimum space of level ground near a huge boulder. Since we had already dined we only needed space for a tent, so this was it! We were decently comfy, but it was not the ideal spot – sadly, I found that the next morning when seeking a restroom, it was about 50 yards downhill and back the way we came. Oh well, we did fine at our cozy spot.
  2. Day Two: having gained a few miles more than I had planned, this would be a short and sweet day! The weather was partly cloudy but warm enough, though the SW breeze was still blowing; we were sheltered by the Sierra crest in the morning though. We packed up and moved past the largest Robinson Lake, where an early-morning fisherman was at work, and soon reached pretty Crown Lake, which we had heard was crowded with campers from a single large group; we saw no sign of them as we wandered uphill to the Mule Pass junction. As we veered right toward Rock Island Pass, we noted a group of 12-15 just below on the other trail; later we noted a large group coming down that trail as well, so we chose the less-traveled road. In fact we met nobody this day as we climbed through the steeper talus to Snow Lake, another pretty scene beneath cloudy skies and the increasingly-blustery SW wind. I had been warned of the southwest wind-flow before leaving Portland and was rather pleased to see the forecast holding; this was plan #2 waiting to fail, I would learn later. We soon reached the 10150-foot pass and Lórien entered Yosemite Park for the first time ever; I suspect that few people use this entrance for their first visit!
    Our plans were to stop below the pass near the notch leading to Rock Island Lake – a dayhike would visit that lake and possibly scale Slide Mountain (though Lórien liked the idea of scaling the Juggernaut, an imposing granite peak that practically leans over Crown Lake but is easily scaled from the SW). As we dropped into the park I noted that campsites at this higher elevation were quite pretty, and water was available; I also noted two coyotes exploring the ground and took their picture. Rather than dropping further toward the notch we steered south and set up an ideal Sierra camp at around 10000 feet. Level ground covered with needles, a cluster of pine and mountain hemlock blocking the stiff breeze, with a flat rock or two for cooking and resting upon – it’s hard to ask for more than that! We ate a tasty but starchy meal of instant garlic potatoes and freeze-dry corn before turning in, anxious to start a day without large packs strapped to us and looking forward to panoramic views from the heights.
  3. Day Three: well, skies are cloudier and the breeze cooler.. perhaps not the perfect day for a climb? Within a half-hour of awakening I note a few drifting white objects – that can’t really be snow?!? Well.. technically it wasn’t snow, more like snow pellets or very soft hail: but it’s white, solid and COLD in any case! This derails our plans in a big way, since going higher in such odd weather is a risky proposition. We decide to skip most of our breakfast in exchange for a more continuous feeding of lunch snacks (but we still had cocoa first) and walk toward lower ground. For a few minutes I feared we would have to retrace our steps; neither of us wanted to do that, and every ten minutes the skies would clear and the snowy stuff would melt away again – so we continued on our loop toward Peeler Lake, hoping to do our dayhike the following day.
    As we wandered downhill, Lórien had a good taste of cross-country travel as the rough trail came and went; she showed good judgment and the trail soon reappeared. Then it nearly went away for good, buried under a longer-lasting blast of snow pellets; the trail never disappeared but it did turn white for a little while. The pattern was repeating though, with showers and clearing about 10-15 minutes apart. This was reassuring but of course the next shower might not actually go away, and the temperature hovered near 40 degrees the entire morning. We reached the junction at the lower end of Kerrick Meadow and turned north, only to receive another pellet-pounding that made the trail go vague. Lórien’s pack was maladjusted in our hasty departure from camp, so despite the cold we needed to stop and reset the straps until her load was better balanced. While doing this it became clear that stopping and freezing were directly related – it would be hard to justify stopping at Peeler Lake only to sit in a cold campsite, and no sites were available from there until Barney Lake. No other trails led us to anywhere that would lead toward the car.. but one interesting option remained.
    Once upon a time when I was planning this hike, I presumed that another car would come along, and we could enter or exit via the Buckeye trail. If we continued past the Peeler junction we’d soon be heading downhill to a camp at 8500 feet, and from there we could watch the weather and choose our exit. This had the added benefit of keeping us walking north, which made the strong and cold SW wind much more bearable – so off we went on a new route!
    Snow continued to beat upon us at intervals, and blue sky even made an occasional appearance.. but five minutes later the SW sky would go white again, and soon we’d repeat the chilly pelting. We moved past our old junction and moved uphill slightly to Buckeye Pass and out of Yosemite. As we worked down the valley, snow pellets were fewer; it was as if Yosemite itself were summoning the clouds, but more likely the crest was blocking the storm again. We noted on the map that the old trail to Barney Lake joined up in the valley, and our topo map showed where it would be headed; that option was another that was available to us, but its unmaintained status put it low on our list. We didn’t see the junction in any case, but we looked.
    Even as we neared 8500 feet, snow still bounced off us on occasion – but for the most part the raw weather was truly behind us. We forded the two forks of Buckeye Creek, which was not easy: Lórien was quite proud to make it across the log that had gravel scattered on its surface from the boots of other travelers. Falling in the creek wouldn’t risk drowning, but it was still very chilly out and a cold soaking could prove dangerous. At last (after passing an old trapper’s cabin) we joined up with the Kirkwood Pass trail and began looking for a campsite. We found some spots a short way down the trail toward the Buckeye trailhead, though well away from the creek; I staggered down the steep slope and brought back a bucket sufficiently full for the night. This area is known as the Roughs, and it is spectacular in its ruggedness. Our dinner of rice-bowl soups was tasty, but the cold evening drove us into our bags before dark; it was 40 minutes at least before my feet defrosted.
  4. Day Four dawned clear and bright: at last we experienced the sort of morning that I had told Lórien were commonplace in the Sierra! However it was still quite cool, and clouds formed soon after, but now drifting in from the NNW. That told me that the pool of cold air that was supposed to hang off the coast had indeed moved inland, probably just north of us; this later proved true as Reno set or tied record cold hi temperatures on these two days. We now had a choice to make: back up to Peeler Lake, dayhike around Kirkwood Pass and Center Mountain, or head out a day early and have a full day of road-walking (or ride-begging) from Buckeye Creek to Twin Lakes? We chose the latter option and soon were heading downhill under cool and randomly-cloudy skies. The upper third of this trail is a beautiful gorge among colorful granite spires, but as we wandered the trail took a turn and lost us. We sat down on a steep slope above the creek and looked below us in vain, then I removed my pack and scrambled up-slope. The trail had indeed risen high above the creek, so I returned and regained my pack. Lórien was spooked but proved her mettle on the steep and tricksy slope, and we were both pleased to have regained the trail.
    Soon after we encountered the boundary between bright granite and dark rock of other metamorphic origins, and we popped out of the Roughs with a fine view down the valley to aptly-named Big Meadow. We now entered the second third of the Buckeye trail: true bush-whacking – more precisely shin-whacking, since we did little damage to the sage and willows that crowded into the ill-maintained trail. Every now and then we would whack some pennyroyal instead, which smells wonderful and hurt much less than the other plants! As we approached the meadow we began to look for the tall posts that supposedly show the route of the true trail, very handy since the meadow is leased to cattle-grazing and therefore has more paths than we could count. This worked for the count of two posts, and that was all we saw; later we found that the trail had crossed Buckeye Creek, so perhaps more posts would be found on that side, but we’ll never know.
    Thus we come to plan change #3: just wander along the north side of Buckeye Creek until we see something worthwhile on the other side. We hit an extremely rudimentary road and crossed a fence at a spot with a “Trail” sign attached, so at that point we must have been at the right place. Soon we crossed an active patch of cows and were eyed with interest by an extremely long-horned specimen; he was a bit unsettling to look at as we crossed that patch of ground! We later regained the ‘road’ (two parallel cow-paths with an occasional tire track) and decided to follow it as far as it went. The valley had opened up quite a bit, but all the peaks looked nearly identical, so the topo map was not helpful. Neither of us was comfy walking here, but it was the most civilized way to go so we kept it up. Finally I found a decent change in the peaks to our north which put us back on the topo map, which suggested we were almost out. Sure enough, we turned a corner and hit an empty corral, then rounded a corner, crossed Buckeye Creek on a bridge - and there was the Buckeye trailhead!

    It was late on day four, and we were out of the wilderness – but we had a long way to go before reaching the car. Worse still was the fact that we were at a pay campsite, and our cash was securely locked in the car! All we could think of was to ask folks at the Buckeye campground if anyone was heading for Mono Village – not likely at dinnertime, but worth a try. Our alternate plan was to beg the hosts to let us stay the night, then get our car and pay them the next day. We met the hosts and asked about who might give us a ride, and asked a couple of people with no success. The hosts met us again and Cal agreed to take us to our car while his wife kept the peace at camp. This wonderful gesture was accepted, although we had promised him more cash tham we had in the car (and the ATM at Mono Village was closed by then). We felt lousy backtracking on our promise, but he was most cheerful about it – what a couple! We then sped to Bridgeport for a room, only to find that it was too late in the day to get one; after a couple of failed attempts we hit a store with an ATM then drove back to the Buckeye camp for a night’s sleep. They were most surprised to see us again the next morning, but again chose not to accept our offer of more money for their chauffer work on our behalf.

  5. The trip was essentially over, but we had a reservation at Mono Village for that night when we had expected to come out – so we wandered around the area, revisiting the ranger station and soaking in the nearby Travertine hot springs on BLM land. I had planned to visit the Buckeye springs near camp, but two people had mentioned the Travertine site as a better option; it felt mighty good in any case, and the terrain looked much more like Yellowstone Park than anything near Yosemite. We finally returned to Mono Village, cleaned ourselves and our clothes, and slept in a real bed again. That was beneficial, for the next day we had a 420-mile drive to our reservation at Crater Lake Park! We reached there by 7PM and hastened up to the rim for the amazing view. We then came down to set up camp and buy firewood, only to find we’d missed the last bundle by a minute or less; we made do with kindling bundles and had a nice (but very small) fire to end the day.

    Our "last" day on the road (remember, this is still trip 3 of four!) dawned bright and clear. We dined at the Crater Lake Lodge, wandered the rim a bit longer, then departed for Portland. The drive was uneventful - although the Willamette Valley was aflame in spots with grass-seed burning (for the last time if I correctly recall when the new law takes effect) - and we were home early that evening. The next day we posted bail on the cats’ room at the kitty-condos, and they were grateful.. for about a week, when we put them back again!

    Best Memories:
    Watching coyotes scout the ground below Rock Island Pass
    Dashing through the snow?!?
    Soaking at the Travertine hot springs after the hike!
    The amazing views at Crater Lake: no matter how often you see it, it still surprises

    The hassles of buying a camera lens for the trip, then hardly using it
    Weather-related modifications to the Sierra hike = missing the views from nearby peaks