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High Sierra Camp loop
Don't have to wait for the lottery, you know
There are five High Sierra Camps in Yosemite High Country that are managed and run during the season each year by the vendor. These are pre-pitched tent sites with running water and food available to you. You simply hike from one high country camp to another.
These camps are available at these following locations:
May Lake and
However, there is a lottery to access these campsites. After trying to win the lottery for many years, I gave up and decided to backpack the camps instead. This was in 2020, as the pandemic was in peak force.
There are many entry points to do this hike as a loop, but the only permit I got was Lyell Canyon, starting at Tuolumne Meadows, which meant that I would be hiking this in the clockwise direction, starting at Vogelsang.
This was the trail we were planning to hike.
The itinerary was fairly straightforward. Start at Tuolumne Meadows Campground.
Night 1 at Vogelsang
Night 2 at Merced Lake
Night 3 at Sunrise Lake
Night 4 at May Lake and
Night 5 at Glen Aulin
On the sixth day, we would hike back to Tuolumne Meadows and return.
What we ended up doing was something shorter as seen in this Strava recording.
If you are a visual person, here is a video of the hike.
Day 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Vogelsang
We stayed at an Yurt in Yosemite Pines RV Resort at Groveland the previous night. We had a reasonable early start to the day, picked up our permits and started the hike out of Tuolumne Meadows. I typically use Melatonin on backpacking trips, but for the first time, I had a 10mg Melatonin pill. I didn’t have a full night’s sleep, but didn’t think about it much. I have obstructive sleep apnea and use a dental appliance to sleep on the trail, so I was starting to worry about this a bit.
We got spectacular views of Mt. Dana (that wretched hike!) from along the trail.
Once you branch off from the John Muir Trail, the steep climb towards Vogelsang begins. After a mile or mile and a half of climbing, you turn back and look at where we came from.
We also get to see the first views of Vogelsang peak.
Our campground was directly under Fletcher Peak and it was a pleasant sunset.
This was the second night I took 10mg of Melatonin. I slept early at around 8:30PM and I woke up with a hyperactive brain at midnight and couldn’t go back to sleep. Given that I was away from my family for the first time during the Pandemic, a part of me started to worry about them a lot and just could not go back to sleep.
Day 2: Vogelsang to Merced Lake
The hike from Vogelsang to Merced Lake is a gorgeous hike, mostly in a shade and right next to Lewis creek all the way. However, you lose nearly 3,500 feet or more on that day and my knees were getting hammered.
Mount Fletcher looms over us for miles and we got some fascinating reflections.
After hiking along the crest for a while, we get to see Half Dome from an angle we generally do not see it. We also get to see Merced Lake, the birth place of Merced River. This was a nice moment along the hike. There is a sharp downhill staircase from here. I was thankful that I was not doing the trail counter clockwise.
The second night at Merced Lake HSC, I was running on fumes due to two sleepless nights on the trail and stupidly I popped 20mg of Melatonin. This time I woke up with intense brain activity within 4 hours. I was awake from midnight to 7am and I decided I have had enough. I just could not calm my mind down to relax. I can usually meditate my way to sleep, but not this time. I decided that I have to return to civilization as soon as possible and Merced lake is probably the worst place to make that call since that is the farthest you can be from Tioga Road along the trail. I started looking at alternatives and after discussing with my friends, we started considering exiting through Cathedral lakes instead.
Day 3: Merced Lake to Upper Cathedral Fork
We started to hear that there is no water at Sunrise Lakes HSC. Day 3 was a hard day to start with since we had to gain almost 3,500 feet on this day from Merced lake, rejoin the JMT and get to Sunrise HSC. Hiker after hiker who came in the other direction told us there is no water at the HSC and we have to hike another mile, mile and a half to Sunrise lakes.
This also turned out to be an exceptionally hot day. We were hiking at 85-90F heat but along the granite and it felt as if we were hiking at 105-110F heat. We would soak a bandana in water and tie it around our head and it would be bone dry within an hour.
We hiked directly West for a couple of miles and then the trail forks. You can turn South and head towards Little Yosemite Valley or you head North towards Tuolumne Meadows. We turned North and walked into this gorgeous Lupine blossom.
We had significant elevation gain but had Redwoods for company.
We had Cockscomb range as our destination.
We found large wild mushrooms along the trail. If there is one thing I need to level up my skills on, it is identifying what wild food that grows on the trail is edible and what is not.
Based on the feedback we heard from hikers going in the other direction, we decided that we would camp on the last available water source before we had to do the steep mile long climb to JMT. Just before the trail turned west, we found a clearing and camped by upper Cathedral Fork. Stupidly we pitched our tent on the river bed. It did not occur to us much later that it was a stupid thing to do and a flash flood could have take us with it.
We were exhausted at the end of this day. We had nothing left in our legs to attempt the next 2-3 miles and try to get to Sunrise HSC. This section of the hike was hard to do on a hot day.
I was exhausted in the evening and I was fed up trying to setup my Tarptent Stratospire Li on hard ground. I was thinking about my sleep issues and trying to eliminate what I was doing on the trail. I realized that it was most likely the 10mg Melatonin I was popping each night. I decided to not eat Melatonin that night (and I have not taken a Melatonin since that night). Something to remember, at least for me, at the 10mg dosage level, Melatonin fired up my brain and woke me up at after 4 hours.
For the first time in four nights, I had a reasonable sleep.
Day 4: Upper Cathedral Fork to Upper Cathedral Lakes
By Day 4, we were already behind, we had not reached Sunrise HSC. We confirmed our decision to turn at Cathedral lakes and cut short the loop. We would miss Sunrise HSC, May Lakes and Glen Aulin, but we could spend good amount of time at Cathedral Lakes. We were all fans of Cathedral lakes and we decided to head back there.
The mile out of Cathedral fork was a steep climb. We rejoined the JMT and saw the fork on the road towards Sunrise HSC.
I have seen Tressider Peak from afar, but we were now walking very close to the Peak, crossing it and hiking by the peak.
As we crossed Cathedral Pass, we had fantastic views of Echo Valley towards the East. We saw Cockscomb range, Mattes Crest and many mountains we typically see from the other direction.
It is one of my pet peeves that folks who hike the JMT do not consider Cathedral Pass as one of the passes they cross. They start with Donahue pass as the first pass. Cathedral Pass is beautiful, challenging and leads us to one of the great views of Cathedral Peaks.
When we get down from Cathedral Pass, we get to a meadow and some stunning views of Cathedral peak with Lupines in the foreground. The meadow is about half a mile long and is gorgeous.
We had a hot lunch at Upper Cathedral lakes, pitched our tents by 2pm, had a bath in the lake and relaxed rest of the day. We witnessed a gorgeous sunset.
Day 5: Upper Cathedral Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows
The final day was a short hike back to the car at Tuolumne Meadows. Lembert Dome gave us a sense of direction and scale.
On the way down, a Park Ranger asked us to show us the permit. We told him that we are cutting our hike short and returning through Cathedral lakes. He wanted to make sure we will not be entering Glen Aulin from Tuolumne meadows, which would be a violation of the permit. We did not plan to.
Overall, it was a great hike under some challenging conditions, but now I have to go back and finish Sunrise HSC, May Lakes HSC and Glen Aulin HSC at some other time.