Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Prepping a Yosemite Hiking Trip :: Part 1 - Itinerary

The classic view of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View
This is one of the most exciting things an outdoors-lover can do.  I can’t speak enough about how enjoyable I have found it in researching all the possibilities an avid hiker and backpacker can find when looking at Yosemite National Park.  I’ve also learned that without doing some of the homework ahead of time, endless possibilities can easily be missed.

I am presently working on my 3rd trip to Yosemite and loving every minute of it.  My wife and I took a trip there in 2008 for just a day.  We had travelled down the Pacific coast from Seattle and Yosemite was one of our last day-trips.  We hadn’t really done any homework ahead of time and so we just showed up.  It was late-May and we were lucky that the Tioga Road was just opening so we drove up to Tuolumne Meadows.  We also enjoyed the short hike to Lower Yosemite Falls back in the valley.  Time and lack of knowledge of the Park, however, left us unsure what else to do.

Half Dome as viewed from Glacier Point

In 2011 my friends Matt, Ken, and I made a very well-planned out hiking and camping trip to Yosemite for a week.  I’ll be sharing much of what we learned from that later on to explain itineraries.  We learned a lot from this trip both in the planning stages and in the implementation of those plans during our week out there. 

For 2014 my same friends and I are back at it again.  The 178% above normal snowpack of 2011 left us without a summit of Half Dome and so some unfinished business.  We have our sights set on more exciting possibilities in Yosemite this year and plan to enjoy the now 33% below normal snowpack of 2014.

Itinerary Planning
In planning for a hiking/backpacking trip to Yosemite the best place to start is to plan out the itinerary.  This involves figuring out how many days you’re going to have to work with as well as considering the abilities of the members of your group.  You will also need to factor in the time of year you will be out there and what is going to be open and available.  The Valley itself is pretty much open year-round and many of the best sights of Yosemite are found there.  However several of the trails leading out of the valley can close when the snow and ice take over.  The other great highlights of Yosemite are found along the Tioga Road and up to Tuolumne Meadows.  This road closes during the winter months and re-opens in the late spring, sometime between mid-May and late-June.

This happens to be my most favorite stage in planning, whether it be for hikes in Yosemite, mountains in Colorado, or anywhere for that matter.  I mean, what’s more fun than looking at maps and KML files on Google Earth and other sites while imagining all the possibilities of hikes and climbs.  Sometimes I think letting my imagine run wild on all the various trail combinations and places to see is the only way I don’t go crazy while waiting in anticipation for the actual hikes.

A look at the John Muir Trail heading out of
Yosemite Valley on Google Earth
When I plan out hikes I am a heavy proponent of using a tool like Google Earth.  It allows you to view the terrain in 3D and even zoom in pretty close to examine your hikes.  Alongside this, it is almost essential to be able to find a KML/GPX track of your intended hikes.  Many websites around the web, even via Google Search, can be used to track down trails., and even generic Topo maps like Accuterra are good places to start.  Google Earth even has some trails built-in to its maps.  It has a National Parks layer which has many of the trails displayed from the parks system.  Of course, one should keep in mind these maps and tracks are certainly not replacements, once you hit the trail, for good navigation skills and a compass.

In our Yosemite adventures we’ve been using Yosemite Valley as the easy base to start our hikes.  In 2011 we made hikes up and down both the north and south rims of the Valley.  A great site that helps specifically with Yosemite, and has been invaluable to us, is  If you’re looking for the basics to get your itinerary started in Yosemite that’s the place to go.

Another thing we’ve learned when planning itineraries for Yosemite is you need flexibility.  This may sound odd at first as you also need to set plans firmly in place with the permit system and other reservations. However, things can change quickly as I’ll illustrate with our 2011 story.  Whether it is about trails or roads still being closed or the availability of members in your group changing, plans are always up for grabs.

The Example of 2011

Our original itinerary for our 2011 week in Yosemite looked something like this:
  • Tuesday: Start from Sunrise Lakes TH, hike up over Clouds Rest, and camp in Little Yosemite Valley.
  • Wednesday: Hike Half Dome
  • Thursday: Hike Pohono Trail to Bridalveil Falls Creek or past
  • Friday: Hike out remaining Pohono Trail to the valley

Well, as we did our homework over the months leading up to our June trip we quickly realized that the above average snowpack was going to leave the Tioga Road closed and our intended trailhead inaccessible.  When this happened we started to explore other contingencies.  What other parts of Yosemite were high priorities on our to-do list?  What trails would give us backcountry experience but also be available in the permit system?   I came up with no less than four different Plans as to how we could now change up our itinerary for the week.  Crazy? Perhaps.

Hiking up Clouds Rest with deep snow
Atop clouds rest in the snow
We considered different combinations of how to hike out of the valley along either the Pohono Trail or Mist Trail so that we could still get a good backpacking trip in as well as a hike of Half Dome.  These intentions were changed even further when we learned that the Half Dome cables would not be up.  See how the Yosemite snowpack can wreak havoc on plans?

This is what we ultimately ended up with, and if I may say so, it turned out to be pretty awesome:

  • Tuesday: Hike Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley [trip report]
  • Wednesday: Hike up/down Clouds Rest and then descent of John Muir Trail to valley [trip report]
  • Thursday: Hike up Yosemite Falls Trail, on to Yosemite Point, then on to North Dome, traverse around North Dome to the north, then descend the Snow Creek Falls trail and by Mirror Lake (this has henceforth become known as our “Epic North Rim Hike”) [trip report]
  • Friday: Hike down Panorama Trail to Illilouette Falls and back up to Glacier Point, and hike up Pohono Trail to Inspiration Point [trip report]

Quite the far cry from our initial itinerary, so you can see how flexibility becomes a must.  In my later installments of Prepping a Yosemite Hiking Trip I’ll highlight for the Yosemite beginner how to handle the permit system and make epic hiking weeks a reality for you as well.

The How's and Why's of a Good Itinerary

Aside from being flexible, one must also be realistic when going about putting together an itinerary for hiking in Yosemite. We had four days to deal with in 2011 and we wanted to take advantage of every waking minute. This led us to put together a pretty ambitious week. That may not be for everyone.

There are several things to consider when planning out your trip. What elevations will you be hiking at? How much weight will you be carrying? What is your past experience? What is your fitness?

It is pretty much essential to have an understanding of your ability and how far you can go before setting out onto the trails, especially if you're going to backpack or dive into a long day-hike like Half Dome.

When backpacking its easy for the weight you carry to double when compared to your typical dayhike. This shouldn't be underestimated when considering how far you're going to hike with a large backpack. If you are up to 10 mile day-hikes it may be prudent to consider 5-6 miles a day with the big pack.

The elevation also adds to the challenge. Hikes in Yosemite Valley start at 4000 feet which is about the point where you may just start to notice the elevation. At the rim of the valley, such as at Glacier Point, the elevation is up to 7000 feet where you'll definitely notice it. Hikes from Tuolumne Meadows start at 8500 feet. The elevation will make your daily strain even more than normal so distance becomes more of a challenge. The elevation will also dehydrate you faster causing you to need to carry more water.

We consider our group to be fairly fit. This has put us in the range of 8-12 miles a day when backpacking. Our 2014 trip will have a couple of days with full packs in that range. We've done dayhikes of even longer distances. Our Epic North Rim hike was nearing 17 miles and almost 5000 feet in elevation gain. But everyone is different. We were also pushing our limits and using our full days to accomplish what we wanted. If you want to slow down and enjoy the sights and just relax you may want just a 4-5 mile hike each day to take it easy.

In the end, the itinerary needs to be what suits you. Be realistic but also don't be afraid of challenging yourself and making the most of the time you're given. Its also not a bad idea to research your friends and other sources like forums on the web to find out what to expect on the trails you intend to hike.

The Master KML of Yosemite National Park Hiking

No talk about itinerary planning for Yosemite would be complete without sharing the master KML file I’ve put together over the years of all the main trails, trailheads, and other significant points throughout the Park.  Its taken a lot of work and research from various resources to put this all together, with a lot of fun along the way.

As aforementioned, while these tracks are very useful in planning out itineraries and doing basic preparation for the hikes, these tracks should not be relied upon when actually hitting the trail.  You can load these on your GPS devices but I strongly urge you to understand that you do so at your own risk.

My friend Matt and I when we did our “Epic North Rim Hike” in 2011 encountered several foot deep snow from Yosemite Point all the way to North Dome, and around North Dome til we neared the Snow Creek Falls Trail.  The GPS track of the trail was useless through there as the trail was under 2+ feet of snow.  It took every bit of our navigational skills and compass to safely navigate our way to where we wanted to go.  So extreme care and caution are urged when putting good resources like this to use.

Standing on North Dome with Clouds Rest and Half Dome behind

Yosemite Falls was *roaring*
Deep snow near Indian Rock

Here is the link to my Master KML of Yosemite:  [updated as of 5/7/2014]

Or I’ve also embedded it via Google Maps for a quick viewing:

View Larger Map

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