Our adventure really began at 2:30 eastern time when we left our house in Virginia to go to the airport, but that part was mostly dark and involved reading Harry Potter in the car, so I’ll jump to the part when we landed in Sacramento.
Day 1 (7.5 miles)
We landed in Sacramento, collected our bags, obtained our rental car, went to Walmart (fuel, snacks, sunscreen, etc.), and drove the 4 and a half hours to Yosemite National Park. Before we even entered the park I greatly enjoyed the sheer magnitude of the vertical cliffs surrounding us on all sides on the drive in along a winding road that paralleled Merced River for much of the journey. We were racing against the clock to get our wilderness permits before the ranger station closed. If we made it, we would be able to follow through with our plan to hike past the Happy Isles trail head (6ish miles) and camp in the backcountry. If we didn’t make it, we didn’t have a back up plan and Dan’s stress about this was palpable. He only let us stop for 1 bathroom break.
This was the start of our incredible good luck, though, and we made it with some time to spare. We got our wilderness permits and ate a black bean burger and some fries before we packed up our backpacks and hit the trail around 6:30.
Starting out, our backpacks weighed 45 and 50 pounds respectively. We were both equipped with micro-spikes, an ice ax, trekking poles, 5 liters of water, a bear canister with enough snacks and dehydrated food for 6 days, sleeping bags, 2 spare shirts, 1 pair of spare shorts, 1 pair of pants, 1 black long sleeve pullover, 3 spare pairs of socks, flip flops, a camp stove, a bowl and spoon/fork/knife utensil, a headlamp, a rain jacket, a down jacket, toiletries, batteries to charge our phones/headlamps/watches, books, and maps. Dan carried the tent, I carried the inflatable sleeping pad.
After the mile walk from the parking to the trail head it started to sprinkle a little and we heard some distant thunder. We covered our packs with the rain covers and donned our rain jackets because we had to make it past the trail head before we could set up our campsite no matter what. From this point, it seemed like everything was uphill. We walked up the Mist Trail and Dan called back that it got its name because hikers get soaked from the mist coming off Vernal Falls. I assumed this was only those who ventured close enough to the falls because that was my experience with waterfalls, but there’s actually no way to avoid getting misted.
The sprinkling stopped and the slow uphill climb eventually led to us taking off our rain jackets, but it was lucky we left our rain covers on our backpacks because otherwise they would have gotten soaked! The water is from snow melt, so you can imagine how icy cold it felt. There are over 600 steps carved into the granite to reach the top which would be difficult without hefting a huge pack and getting blasted with icy mist.
Since we got a late start, it got dark before we hiked far enough to set up our camp. Somewhere along the way we also missed an important turn off that would take us past the trail head and to a backpackers’s camp, so we ended up taking the longer way by accident. I can’t complain because we got a special view of the sun setting on the granite walls, and a view from above of some pretty impressive waterfalls. We walked over Nevada Falls (by bridge) once it got dark and we weren’t able to get the best look with just our headlamps.
We finally made our camp by 10 o’clock and we were both cold, tired, and ready to sleep by the time we set up our tents.
Day 2 (10 miles)
Today we climbed the cables to the top of half dome, and then went up what seemed like a never ending series of switchbacks to get closer to Cloud’s Rest for the following Day.
We were lucky again because the heavy snow this winter deterred a lot of people from hiking in the sierras which meant a lot of passes for half dome were still available. This climb was slightly terrifying at first, but fortunately some very nice strangers gave us their work gloves so that our hands wouldn’t get torn up by the cables. On the way up, there were points you had to use your arms to pull yourself up, but there were little boards to stop and rest on as needed. The top of half dome was huge, with plenty of space for the other hikers to enjoy lunch and just relax in the sun. One part was still covered in snow even though it was over 80 degrees nearly every day. The way down was like repelling and didn’t seem to require as much strength, especially with the work gloves to slide your hands down the cables. Once we got to the bottom, we gifted our sweaty work gloves to the next 2 people and scrambled back down.
The rest of Day 2 was spent ascending the switchbacks. All I can say it was hot, mostly in the direct sun, and we gained a lot of elevation. There were long stretches when I would count my steps to 50 before I could stop to take a break.
Day 3 (13.1 miles)
Today we went up to Cloud’s rest, went down, down, down the switchbacks, and then hiked out to Merced Lake.
One really great thing about California is that there is NO humidity. Without the sun, the early mornings and evenings were a crisp 50 degrees, sometimes even cooler. I love Virginia, but I did not miss the humidity while we were away.
All mornings started with Dan cooking our breakfast oats while I packed up the sleeping pad and our sleeping bags, and then we folded up the tent together. We were usually ready to go right around 7.
This mornings we had a few more switchbacks to climb before reaching Cloud’s Rest. Like the name suggests, this was a very HIGH point, and the high altitude made breathing difficult as we continued to climb up and up and up. Most of it was winding uphill through trees and around rocks, but the last stretch was climbing up more stone steps to reach 9,931′.
After Cloud’s Rest, we originally planned to continue on towards Sunrise Lakes, but since a lot of the trail beyond Cloud’s Rest was covered in snow, we decided to head back towards the valley. All of the switchbacks we worked so hard to come up the day before were pretty enjoyable on the way down.
Once we got down towards the John Muir Trail, we ate some lunch and planned our next destination: Merced Lake. The trail marker said it was just 6.7 miles, but after all of the elevation gain from the previous day, we decided that a mostly flat 6.7 mile hike would be easy enough. We didn’t know we would actually hike closer to 8 miles, or that a good portion of it would be through a scorched forest and a boulder field (with no shade), and into the land of many mosquitoes.
One of the eventful parts of this section of the trail is that we saw a “black” bear. “Black” because it looked pretty brown/cinnamon colored to me and the only brown bear I could think of in the moment was a grizzly bear, but it really was a black bear. It just turns out that they’re brown in California? It was about 200 feet away when we saw it, and it was like one of those movie moments. We locked eyes for a split-second, and then both parties, equally frightened of each other, took off in opposite directions.
We had THE best campsite at Merced Lake: a fire pit, walking distance to a beautiful lake, shaded by huge trees, and completely flat. However, being so close to such a beautiful lake had one major drawback–mosquitoes like I’ve never seen before. Walking to get water, we would swat our arms and legs and get 10 mosquitoes with one blow. They seemed to go for the softest tissue and I easily had 15 bites on the backs of my arms alone. Despite the misery of being outside of the tent, this is when I decided to test out our camp washing machine and camp suds. I washed and line dried all of our shirts, shorts, socks, and underwear, and I washed my hair with the icy lake water. The 50+ mosquito bites I got in the process were worth it for the level of clean I achieved after 3 full days of backpacking and backcountry camping.
Seeking refuge in our tent, we ate dinner in there and didn’t get out again until morning. A few mosquitoes followed us inside and their blood was streaked on the tent walls and our sleeping pad. It might never fully wash off, but we will let it serve as a lasting tribute to the mosquitoes of Merced Lake and a warning to all the other mosquitoes in the adventures to come.
Day 4 (16 miles)
We hurried out of our campsite in the morning to escape before the mosquitoes woke up, and we were nearly successful. Today we hiked alllll the way back to the valley floor because since we were planning our honeymoon adventure as we went and decided that day 4 would bring us back to the beginning-for real showers, black bean burgers, and french fries.
Reading the Yosemite website days before our trip, there were many warnings about how dangerous the water was this year because there was so much snow and it is slowly continuing to melt which is making the rivers exceedingly dangerous. We were careful of course, so really this just meant we were fortunate enough to see the power of the river and so many incredible waterfalls.
Once we got away from the water, we were back into a scorched forest with very little shade. We lathered up with sunscreen and just powered through 10 miles until we came to the first bit of real shade we could find near a creek-like offshoot of the Merced River to refill our water supply.
I didn’t take many pictures after lunch, mostly because we were going back down the steps by Vernal Falls and the camera was tucked away to avoid getting wet. We were also met with hundreds of people going up and down and it was a little slow going. Plus, we already saw those views on the way up and those french fries were calling my name.
We ended our night in the Yosemite Lodge, because we were both ready for real showers and real beds and a bug-free space. There was no air conditioning, but that wasn’t a major deterrent after sleeping in the great outdoors for 3 nights.
Day 5 (10 miles)
Today we set out to hike Yosemite Falls and to Mirror Lake, but we didn’t take into account that this was a Friday and thousands of new visitors would be pouring into the park by the bus-load. Luckily we had parking at our hotel so we could hike up to Yosemite Falls, but by the time we finished and started to look for parking near the other trail, there were literally no spots available. This was true for the visitor center/camp store too. Dan had to drive laps around the parking lot while I shopped for souvenirs, and vice versa. My advice: visit Yosemite mid-week!
The hike to Yosemite Falls kind of tricked us. Normally trail signs indicate the number of miles you will hike round trip, but they don’t do that in Yosemite. The trail sign read 4.5 miles, and about 3 miles in we realized that sign was telling us how far it was to the top. This was probably the most difficult of all of our hikes, and I’m so glad we didn’t have our huge packs. It was absolutely beautiful and I was obsessed with the rock walls and the blue sky all the way up and all the way down, but it was hard!
We hiked all the way to the overlook thinking that would overlook the falls, but it actually overlooked the valley. Dan was a little leery about getting close to the edge (2,415′ drop). It was very windy up that high, which made tracing along the edge of a rock face on some stone steps even more exciting.
After the overlook, we headed to a bridge that overlooked the actual waterfall, and it’s power was breathtaking.
The way down I was still obsessed with the rock walls and the distant waterfall, but down was such a blast compared to the up. There were so many switchbacks and rocks. On a particularly gritty rock (off the trail) is where Dan earned his trail name “Billy Goat.”
So we didn’t get to hike a section of the PCT like we originally planned because of snow, but what we got to do instead ended up being so much better. Just looking at these pictures, I already can’t wait to go back.