Yosemite National Park’s High Sierra Camp Loop
49 miles and 8k feet of gain in the Yosemite backcountry that loops through the 6 High Sierra Camps: Tuolumne Meadows, Vogelsang, Merced Lake, Sunrise, May Lake, and Glen Aulin.
Resource links (maps, history, current news):
Note: Since I’ve suspended my Garmin subscription plan, the viewing map is no longer available as of Oct 22nd, 2019.
I don’t have access to a scale anymore, so some of the items (like food) are just estimations. Once I started, I regretted wearing my Patagonia R1, even though it was 19-degrees F out. I only wore it for the first hour!
October 2nd, 2019
I had no idea how cold it was outside when I stood by the wood sign in the Tuolumne Lodge parking lot, but there was ice pooled at the edge of asphalt and dirt (I later learned that it was 19 degrees F). “John Muir Trail” and “Pacific Crest Trail” were carved into the sign in large capital letters. The first High Sierra Camp I would be passing through, Vogelsang, was listed directly underneath. All three trails converge, end or begin, in this area and all are significant in their own ways for me. It came as no surprise that the faint glow of first light would be just as cold as the darkness. Which is to say, the natural world hasn’t changed as much as my perceptions of it and me have.
In 2014, I hiked the first 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Upon arriving at Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierra Nevada section (and only a few days before the PCT meets the John Muir Trail), a fellow hiker excitedly ran up to me from the camp area. “Sara! I have a trail name for you! You’re Sierra Sara!” I hugged him and nearly cried. “But I’m leaving,” I told him. He looked at me with a kind of horror akin to hearing of a death in the family. My partner and I had finally ended our college-born, tumultuous 5-year dance of a relationship five days prior, just north of Tehachapi. My leaving was the only proper solution, for the sake of my new mental state and for the sake of a shoulder injury I’d been ignoring for 39 days.
Before I hopped into my friend’s truck the next morning, I gave the fellow hiker one last embrace. He could barely look at me, he was so red with grief. And so was I. We’d met somewhere near the L.A. aqueduct outside of Lancaster, CA, I think, and had passed each other briefly, back and forth, over the following 200 miles. I remember the way he balanced his trekking poles over his shoulders when he wasn’t using them. I never learned his real name, and now, years later, I sadly can’t even recall his trail name. But I’ll never forget his enthusiasm and surprise, and the name I was gifted too late.
The High Sierra Camp Loop was something I’d heard of while working in Yosemite National Park for the concessionaire, which back in 2012 was still Delaware North Co. I thought it was neat that the High Camp workers spent all summer in the backcountry. When 2014 became my third season working for the Park, it was an unexpected return to a place that nonetheless felt the most like home. A trail running friend expressed the desire to do the loop in a single day. I wasn’t in such running shape then, so I declined his invitation. Yet, I had to redefine who I was and what I wanted out of life. Inspired by friends and a true sucker for endurance, I decided very last minute to run the loop anyway but by myself and over a few days. As in, I’d leisurely run then bivy, repeat. This experience, significant for being my first solo backcountry adventure, was both revelatory and terrifying.
Now, five years later, I was back, smiling beneath a Buff that covered half my face. At 6:36 A.M. I started the watch and the InReach, gave Patrick yet another hug and kiss, then faced the dimly lit trees. I wasn’t exclusively here to confront memory or the past, though maybe it was, in-part, a reclamation. I see it more as a reintroduction. I’d moved to Colorado, come back to Yosemite, moved again. This place will always be land for my soul but every time I return, I’m different. So I’d come to express the latest version of me, to see the land and myself and how far I’ve come with life; and since I’m currently dabbling in the realm of FKT’s, I was finally up for the challenge presented to me all those years ago: can I run this loop in a day?
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I whispered to Patrick before I left. Up to this point, I’d only ever run 31 miles in a single day. But training is not necessarily about replicating with exactness, it’s about building well-rounded resilience in your body and mind: hours spent on legs versus miles covered with a healthy balance of recovery routines. Endurance is about how you talk yourself through the seemingly impossible, right?
So off I went. The sun had risen but the mountains locked me into the shade for the first two hours or so. The cold air stung my nostrils and lungs if I let the Buff fall away from my face. It had snowed four days earlier and I crossed many thin patches. My water hose froze before I thought to stuff it beneath my layers. I arrived to Vogelsang and briefly admired the granite cliffs. The sun was hitting Vogelsang Pass so I trudged on, wanting to defrost my water as soon as possible. Luckily the nipple to my electrolyte flask was only half frozen, so I was able to sip enough to keep my throat happy.
There is a variation to this loop that doesn’t go over Vogelsang Pass and follows Fletcher Creek instead, meeting the trail again east of Merced Lake. I’ve never been that way, but I’m assuming it’s not much different in terms of distance and lowers overall elevation gain by maybe a few hundred feet. I keep choosing Vogelsang Pass not only because it’s the outermost option but also because of the aesthetic. There’s a certain satisfaction gained when crossing over, a symbolism of transience and change, of then and now, before and after, foresight and afterthought…
The first time, I ran counter-clockwise from the Sunrise trailhead, so it was an interesting perspective to head the other way and from a different point. The forest was just as dense and lush as I remember, even if the creeks weren’t as full and the ferns were already changing colors. I kept looking to the right to spot the place I bivied alone for the first time. I remember being so conflicted then. I recognized the general area, but of course, wasn’t about to go off-trail to find it. Merced Lake wasn’t as enomrous as it once had appeared to me. I’ve seen many large lakes since then, but I smiled when I glimpsed the tree I sat beneath to write a poem at its shore.
Going up towards Sunrise was as sweeping and rocky. The meadow was as brown and as vast. When I reached the Sunrise trailhead parking lot, Patrick was waiting to cheer me on. He embraced me and I let myself go limp in his arms. I smiled like an exhausted but happy puppy. My watch had me at 31 miles and something like 7.5 hours. “I have no idea what I’m capapble of,” I said. I was about to embark upon uncharted body territory. The remaining section seemed so daunting and committing. Once I crossed the road and gained the elevation towards May Lake, I felt like there was no turning back. It wouldn’t be easy to bail at all, especially without phone signal. The most realistic options were: continue and finish, no matter how long it takes, or stop now. My legs were starting to feel tired and heavy. I wasn’t eating as much as I knew I should yet my appetite was nearly nonexistent. I was afraid of finishing in the dark. Nonetheless, I knew I had to try. That’s all I can ever ask of myself.
My energy quickly returned the more candy I ate. Skittles, man. I couldn’t stop thinking about them, but I made myself ration them. My mind was ready to give a grand final push, but my body was beginning to implement other plans. My right I.T. band was tightening too much and beginning to inflame the knee. My whole leg ached at times, locking up slightly. I took more Ibuprofen and kept moving, but I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted to. My dreamy 11-hour finish quickly dissipated into a 12-hour finish or possibly more. I stopped around mile 42 to take some photos and my leg throbbed with a vengeance, causing me to limp for a while, which meant, no more stopping for me. It’s crazy that running creates the pain and then becomes the pain-free solution after a while. So masochistic.
But when I reached Glen Aulin and saw that Tuolumne was only six or so miles away, I felt the relief of being almost done. I was so close! I began chanting to myself out loud, became my own cheerleader. “You got this!” “You’re doing it!” “Come on!” No one was around anyway, so grunting was likely appropriate to alert any sauntering wildlife. I pushed up the gradual incline, coyotes yipped in the near-distance, I cheered and never looked back.
I finally passed a backpacker near Soda Springs. He had a fat but short stick in his hands that he held like a baseball bat. I startled him when I announced myself to pass him. “I thought I heard something, ” he said, “Did you see a black bear?” “No,” I replied. “Oh, well, there was one back there.” I didn’t stop to chat, of course, so I smiled and nodded, laughed to myself. Did I really pass a bear? Or maybe the bear had already moved on. Regardless, I thanked the wilderness for granting me safe passage, just as I had done in the Wind River Range. Every handful of miles actually, when exhaustion seemed to overhwlem me, I would repeat those mantras of gratitude. At some point, I made sure to include gratitude towards myself. I was impressed, amazed, proud, just as I had been back in 2014 for taking on the given challenge, for confronting fears, for commiting myself to these solitary experiences with nature.
Dusk came and I emerged from the forest with the last light, audibly grunting with every breath. Patrick excitedly ran the last ten yards or so with me, camera ready to capture me touch the trailhead sign. Both of us were in awe: 12 hours 22 minutes. Far from as fluid as I would have liked, but I was more than content.
What’s done is done. The blessing of age is the practice of letting go. My past still haunts me at times, but I gave what I had to give and the mountains saw me as I am. Maybe someday I’ll live up to all that the Sierra Nevada mountains stand for, symbolize, embody. That’s a lot to ask for, but I wish to honor the gift and power of connection. And maybe someday I’ll be seen by others as I feel: a work in progress, always, but resilient. A whisper from beneath, quiet and laden with memory, a soft thing, like the creek or the fern. How they change but how they rise. How they shake with life, are never questioned about whether or not they belong.