Fastpacking in Yosemite

The author feeling unburdened in the Yosemite backcountry. Photo by Meghan M. Hicks.

With a small pack and willing feet, it’s easy to escape Yosemite’s summer crowds

Story and photos by Meghan M. Hicks

On this hot August afternoon, Yosemite National Park tourists course like a herd of sweating turtles on the paved path leading to iconic 2,425-foot tall Yosemite Falls. Scanning the faces of this streaming tableau of vacationers, I see it all — joy and awe, discomfort and heat exhaustion, feigned happiness and teenage boredom.

I work as an outdoor educator and it’s my job to provide these folks with opportunities to get up close and personal with the park’s natural features. With games and activities, I try to pique the crowd’s interest in learning about the waterfalls they’re about to visit. These visitors want little more from me than a drink of water, someone else to entertain their child, or to not lose their spot in the moving mass.

I don’t blame them, can’t blame them. They are among the 4,047,881 people who will visit Yosemite in 2010, what will become the most-visited year in recent history. I struggle to enjoy moments like these, too. When my work shift ends, I shrug out of my uniform, grab my friend and coworker, 21-year old Bekah Henderson, and a little backpack, and make fast for the wilderness. I will seek refuge and renewal out there.

Though I carry a backpack into Yosemite’s backcountry, it’s light and lean in comparison to the average backpacker’s burden. We turn our toes up the trail into a welcome evening chill settling around our skin. Bekah and I, two friends with wild hearts and muscled legs, begin a three-day, 50-mile fastpacking journey in the Yosemite backcountry.

Fastpacking, the art of traveling light and fast through wild spaces, is backpacking’s skinny cousin. By carrying lighter gear and less of it, fastpackers move speedily and with generally less duress than a heavily-provisioned backpacker.

Our packs are so light that we’re able to run up the trail for a few hours and a few thousand feet until it’s just us and our headlamp beams. When we call it a night, absolute darkness has dropped into every corner of the sky. We pitch an ultralight tent on a rocky platform above 10,000 feet near Parker Pass, southeast of Tuolumne Meadows. We level our heads to our foam sleeping mats, then watch stars blaze like lighthouse beacons until sleep overtakes us.

In theory, Yosemite has room for almost everyone in its granite-and-evergreen girth of more than 760,000 acres, a land area about the size of Rhode Island. But most visitors spend their time in the park’s developed areas, and more specifically, the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley. A super-sized majority centers its vacation around this tiny corner of this huge park, an admittedly spectacular divot in the earth but one that suffers from all the ills associated with a concentrated over-abundance of humans and their vehicles.

Summer, of course, only exacerbates the problem. Last year, 60 percent of Yosemite’s tourists visited from June through September, just a third of a year. On a typical August day, more than 20,000 people wander the valley, putting its population density on par with some major American cities. Welcome to the wild, America. File along now.

Meanwhile, most of the park’s land area is true wilderness, devoid of human influence besides the occasional trail. Virtually no one goes there, though. Yosemite National Park reports that only three percent of park visitors spend a night in the backcountry.

If the night sky was lit up with dreamy wonder, then the morning view of the red-rock amphitheater in which we unknowingly camped is a visual revelation. When Bekah catches a glimpse, she jumps from her sleeping bag and runs around on the rocks, pumping her fist like an excited sports fanatic. Under the morning sun, I see and feel that both of us have recovered from the harried pace of the humanity we left behind.

We make coffee and clink plastic mugs to the mountains encircling us. Our breakfast is brownies, dense and hearty, which we consume while giggling like kids with a secret. Once we’ve packed camp, we shoulder our 15-pound packs and hoof it uphill. The trail dips momentarily into a series of ponds and a creek. Here we purify a liter of water each to hydrate us as we cross Koip Pass.

At the top of this 12,500-foot pass, we’re well above treeline and can’t find much of anything resembling life. Instead, we’re surrounded by a sea of softball-sized rocks and a view so far we can see the curvature of the earth. The air is thin enough to breed headaches, but the view so good that we debate whether or not this is the most amazing spot we have ever stood upon. Neither of us picks favorites well, so we dive-bomb the descent from the pass at a good runner’s clip.

Below us, the broad valley containing the strung-out series of Alger Lakes is filled with waves of colored wildflowers, like a smeared painter’s palette. The faster we run, the stronger we feel, and so we are among the flowers in no time. Lunching next to Waugh Lake, we fire up the stove for hot food and wade thigh-deep in the water.

Refueled and refreshed, we run and hike until early evening, mostly on trails, with a few off-trail exploratory miles here and there.

Our second night’s camp perches roughly 100 feet from a cliff face in a vertical world. A thousand feet below the cliff, the upper reaches of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River makes its gravity-driven voyage. I know this not because I see it, but because the rumble of its tumbling waters echoes off the cliffs.

After dinner, I survey our campsite: a tiny tent, two small backpacks, two pairs of running shoes, and little Bekah saluting the sunset with some yoga. In this last light, the world turns rusty red and Bekah says what I am thinking, “We have nothing, yet, everything.” Gentle human companionship, immersion in a beautiful place, and some tasty food are, it seems, all it takes to put us in a state of bliss.

Despite the fact that only a smidge of Yosemite’s millions of visitors spend a night in the backcountry, due to their shear numbers some of them are bound to hemorrhage into select wild places. Indeed, some of Yosemite’s higher profile backcountry areas are seeing traffic like never before.

Faith Hershiser, a 60-year old Yosemite lover from Bellaire, MI, has visited the park dozens of times. “Back in the day, we would see no one on a hike from the Glacier Point Road to Taft Point (a famous viewpoint into Yosemite Valley). Not anymore. It gets more crowded each year.”

Jeff Halsey, a 26-year old Fresno resident and Yosemite frequenter, concurs. Of the park’s Mist Trail, one of the routes leading from eastern Yosemite Valley into the park’s deep wilderness, he says, “It can be unpleasant when sharing it with too many people who don’t show respect for wilderness.”

The third day of our wilderness journey dawns with pink sunrise light on Mount Ritter and the other jagged peaks west of our campsite. We wait for it to arrive to our cold cliff top by scooting around like epileptic inchworms inside our sleeping bags. Our movements are awkward but effective, and we manage to eat breakfast in cozy warmth.

When the sun reaches our camp, its radiant heat feels like a miracle as it heats us from the outside in. Powered by the sun, we stuff gear into our packs and hit the trail. Waist-high wildflowers lean into the path, and their dew on our thighs serves as a second wake-up call.

Our journey winds down in Devil’s Postpile National Monument on the backside of Mammoth Lakes. The monument’s trails are thick with tourists, from fly fishermen headed to their lucky holes to football-sized dogs on purple leashes. Humanity, once again, lays a heavy hand on us. We come to rest next to a lazy eddy of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, where we reflect upon our experience.

“Fastpacking should, inherently, be hard,” Bekah says.

She’s right, any trip in which one travels a long, wild way necessitates physical and mental endurance. Yet we feel more refreshed and invigorated by our journey than worn down. We agree that the throngs of tourists at Yosemite and here at Devil’s Postpile deplete us more than the endurance requisites of our trip. In this moment, I’m starting to understand that less somehow means more.

Over the last 50 years, visitation to Yosemite National Park has essentially quadrupled. Visitation first hit the one million mark in 1954, two million in 1967, and three million in 1987.

Last year marked Yosemite’s first year since 1996 — the year the park achieved it highest level of visitation with nearly 4.2 million visitors — that visitation crested four million.

The park has developed some decent coping mechanisms for dealing with its wicked popularity. Of note in Yosemite Valley is a free shuttle bus system, about two-dozen miles of paved paths for pedestrians and cyclists, and rangers who direct traffic through the valley’s most congested intersections.

Like most national parks, Yosemite uses a backcountry permit system to control the number of people venturing into the wilderness. Last year, the park instituted a day-use permit system for Half Dome, an abundantly popular chunk of what some might consider backcountry.

And this summer, they’re experimenting with a park-and-ride bus from the tiny town of El Portal outside the park’s west entrance.

Nothing’s perfect, though, including the way humanity is managed in Yosemite. I’ve seen traffic jams, collisions among cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, overworked and stressed employees, wildlife clobbered by speeding drivers, nasty cases of road rage, and tourists just plain struggling to enjoy themselves.

“It’s not uncommon to be gridlocked for 30 to 45 minutes in Yosemite Valley,” says Jeff Halsey. “This overcrowding can be frustrating and prohibitive of the right we all have to experience the park.”

Faith Hershiser hasn’t let the crowds detract from her visits. “Attitude is everything,” she says. “I’ve adopted tunnel vision. I just see Yosemite, not all the people, and I almost feel alone.”

I can’t help but think that Faith’s optimism would benefit almost everyone who visits the park, including me.

After returning home from our fastpacking trip, I read the words of famed explorer and conservationist John Muir. He made epic-distance forays through the Sierra Nevada with only a wool jacket, a loaf of bread, some tea leaves, and his journal. He was a fastpacker long before the sport had a name. About these trips, he said, “Only by going … without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.”

I’m confident that Muir was referring to leaving behind both literal and figurative baggage. As I read his words, I also understand that this is precisely why some four million folks visit Yosemite every year: for a few days, we all want to leave our burdens behind.

In spite of the efforts that Yosemite’s administration has made to reduce overcrowding in the park’s frontcountry and select areas of its backcountry, the problem remains. Just ask Faith, Jeff, and the folks with whom I shared that jam-packed path to Yosemite Falls. Nearly everyone who’s visited Yosemite during the summer in the last 20 years has a story about people, too many people.

When the National Park Service was established by Congress in 1916, it was endowed with the mission “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

That is, the National Park Service’s job is to protect the natural resources of parks like Yosemite so that visitors of the past, present, and future can enjoy them similarly.

Whether the Park Service will continue to be able to achieve that mission with the crush of visitors Yosemite attracts is debatable.

But if you’re willing to carry a small pack into Yosemite’s wilderness, there’s little doubt you can find the same sort of respite about which Muir wrote.

Meghan M. Hicks is a writer and outdoor educator who now calls Park City, Utah home. From 2008 to 2010, Meghan worked in Yosemite Valley and spent much her free time exploring the 800 miles of trails in Yosemite National Park.

Navigating Yosemite’s Crowds

When it comes down to it, Yosemite is a must-see national park. It will wow you with its granite topography and, at certain times, its waterfalls. When you do go, follow these tips for navigating the crowds:

  • Start early. Hit the hot spots before Yosemite Valley gets cooking around 10 or 11 a.m.
  • Pack a day pack and wear good walking shoes for self-contained sightseeing. Include food, water, a rain jacket and a camera.
  • Go straight to the valley’s Day Use Parking Areas, then use the free shuttle bus system.
  • Use the middle hours of the day to visit the valley’s secret spots, like the cemetery and the unpaved trail connecting Mirror Lake and The Ahwahnee.
  • Venture to the park’s other natural attractions beyond Yosemite Valley.
  • Bring your patience and a low-key attitude.

fastpacking in yosemite, bear canister

A well-stocked bear canister. Photo by Meghan M. Hicks.

My Fastpack

In fastpacking, bring what you need to be comfortable, and not much more. For example, I can wear the same clothes every day for a week, but I’m an unhappy camper when cold and hungry. In exchange for extra clothes, I bring a warm sleeping bag and lots of food.

For every trip, the composition of my fastpack varies based upon terrain, climate, and what I share with my traveling companions. Here are the main components of my Sierra fastpack:

  • Inov-8 Race Pro 22 pack with included hydration bladder
  • Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent
  • Western Mountaineering Highlite sleeping bag
  • Small square of foam sleeping pad long enough to pad my hips and shoulders
  • Jetboil stove
  • Aquamira water purification chemicals
  • Cloudveil wind jacket
  • Moonstone ultralight down jacket
  • Under Armor tights

Note: Bekah carried our bear canister, a required piece of gear for the Sierra Nevada.