Wawona Loop, Yosemite NP, May 2006

Trailhead: Chilnaulna Road Min El. : 4065 ft Max El. : 7983 ft
Duration: 4 Days El. Gain: 6465 ft El. Loss: 6465 ft
Distance: 46 Miles Difficulty: Moderate Off Trail %: 25

Overview: This may not seem like the most interesting territory of Yosemite to explore, and truth be told, the route shown here is not. The route I had planned involved hiking a lot further east and crossing Chilnaulna Creek to see Buena Vista Lake and some of the other lakes around it (something like this), and I'm pretty sure if you did this it would be a really great trip. But my plan didn't work out like this. Instead, I spent most of my time leaving lovely trails of blood in the snow. Sounds nasty, right? Well, the bleeding was all a result of my inexperience, but I'll get to explaining that later.

The reason that I chose this route in the first place was that I was looking for a backpacking route to do in early May, and other than reading about potentially lethal spring run-off stream flow and abundances of snow at high elevations, I was pretty unfamiliar with what the Sierra Nevadas were like during springtime. So I was mainly looking for a backcountry route that would "break me in": one that didn't get too high in elevation and didn't require fording any ridiculously powerful rivers. I didn't have a pair of snowshoes, so I wanted to keep the amount of hiking in neck-deep snow to a minimum. I figured I'd try to get up around 8000 feet and see what things were really like and how easy sleeping on a bed of snow really is.

Before I start describing the trip in detail, I should say that if there was one central, gleaming mistake that I made, it was not bringing a pair of snowshoes. I was being a bit of a cheap bitch at the time and convinced myself that $200 for something I was only going to use once or twice a year wasn't worth it. But boy was I wrong. I've been on half a dozen snowshoeing trips since this blunder, and in some ways I prefer it over a summer trip. There's something incredibly satisfying about being able to glide over a flat layer of 8 foot deep snow instead of carefully stepping your way on uneven ground or huge roots or goddamned talus or whatever else is on the ground,

All you experienced high country roamers reading this are probably going to be like 'God this kid's a dipshit'. I don't blame you. But then maybe you had a similar experience in your early days and you'll have some sympathy. I'm mainly writing this for those of you considering doing a trip in the Sierras during April or May for the first time, so that you can learn what not to do from my story. I'm writing this four years after I did the trip, so my memories are a little foggy. I've still got some decent notes and pictures, though.


Elevation Profile

Day 1 : Chilnaulna Road Min El.  : 4065 ft Max El. : 7090 ft
Night 1 : Along Chilnuana Creek El. Gain : 3100 ft El. Loss : 75 ft

I left my apartment around 4:00 am so that I could get started on the trail with a full day ahead of me. One of the things that I was loving was that I didn't have to stop at a ranger station to get a permit. That's one of the beauties of off-season camping. Sure, it doesn't take more than 20 minutes to get a permit usually. But sometimes it involves going out of your way, and when you're itching to start a hike it seems like it takes forever. I did fill out a trip form at the station outside the Wawona visitor center and drop it in the box there. I arrived at the trailhead shortly after at around 10:00.

As you can see from the elevation profile, the trail starts climbing right away. It's a pretty nice blend of manzanita and oaks along the path, with occasional views of Chilnuana Falls high above. Eventually you get up to a nice flatenning of granite with some great views up and down the falls. Shortly after the falls I came upon a trail sign and I was feeling pretty good. No snow so far and I was following the path without any difficulty.

This all changed when I got to Chilnuana Creek and found it was moving swiftly enough to be a legitimate danger for crossing. I remember wondering how the hell you could call it a creek and not a river for awhile and then deciding I'd head north and see if there was a better place to cross. Somewhere along the way I came upon this wicked cool rock. I'd just love to see a time-lapse video of the last few eons to see how on earth that thing wound up there. The Chilnuana River, I mean Creek, wasn't getting any more docile. At its tamest looking point I could have made it across, but it was getting cold and the snow on the other side looked uninviting. I figure I'd camp right around this spot and decided what to do in the morning.


Day 2 : Turner Meadow Min El.  : 7150 ft Max El. : 7983 ft
Night 2 : Along an unnamed creek El. Gain : 1400 ft El. Loss : 400 ft

Despite sub-zero temperatures, I slept really well in a new Marmot Pinnacle sleeping bag that I had just purchased. So I woke up feeling refreshed and happy I dropped $300+ on a decent piece of equipment. I decided I'd try to follow the creek north to Turner Meadow where it ends. The going was lovely at first. There was a huge granite highway for awhile that put me in a pleasant mood. If I was forced to make a slogan for hiking, it'd be "Granite: it's where hiking was meant to be done". The stuff's just got the perfect balance of smoothness, reflectivity, and friction to make walking feel more enjoyable than any sidewalk I've ever been on.

At around 7500 feet, the sweet granite slope disappeared under a substantial layer of snow. It was nice and stiff snow, and since I could easily walk on top of it I figured I'd keep climbing higher. When I got to the meadow I had a nice view to the north provided by a decently steep slope in front of me. The stiffness and slippyness made it difficult to descend by walking, so I used my ass as a sled and had a fun time making it down to another meadow. I could tell the snow was getting deeper, and when I came upon a stream I realized it was probably about 4 feet deep at some points. So far so good, though. The snow was holding up just great under my feet, and for some reason I naively thought that it would stay like this.

After a brief lunch, I continued northward ready for some more fun in the snow. But the snow was starting to give way under my feet every dozen steps or so. And that's when I started to appreciate the enormous variation in the firmness of snow during a daily thawing cycle. I'd hit patches where I could easily walk four feet above the ground, patches where I'd sink all the way to the ground with every step, and patches where half of my steps kept me above the surface and half brought my foot crashing down 2 or three feet.

I figured "No big deal, right?". So my socks get a little soggy and my progress gets halved or something. I've dealt with that before. But somehow, after a half a mile or so, I managed to find myself in the middle of a "tree killzone". I swear, it seemed like somebody came in there with a chainsaw and some meth and just lit the place up. So I was walking on top of four feet of snow, below which were huge fallen pine trees and an assortment of branches and rocks. Every one of those steps where my foot would break through the surface was a gamble. Sometimes I'd come down on a flat patch of granite or grass, but sometimes I'd come down right alongside a branch that ripped into my leg with a vengeance. And that explains the trail of blood I left in the snow. Not every cut was awful, of course, but I do remember having at least 4 that didn't heal until late June.

I was so sick of the cruncy, false floor snow that I eventually started walking in the creek I had been following. My boots were already soaked, so I figured what the hell. At some point I lost one of my two Nalgenes. I probably made a whole 1.5 miles of progress since lunch. Fed up and exhausted, I decided it was about time to call it a day. I got a huge fire going to dry things out, and appreciated all the talk about fire being a huge morale booster as my mood drifted upward as sure as the rising smoke.


Day 3 : Glacier Point Rd. Min El.  : 6200 ft Max El. : 7150 ft
Night 3 : Alder Creek El. Gain : 1000 ft El. Loss : 1200 ft

According to my GPS, I was only a few miles away from Glacier Point Rd. Anxious to get away from the snow before midday, I decided I'd hike to the road and follow it down to a suitably low elevation free of sinkhole snow. It didn't take me long to get to the road, and it was kind of fun walking along and seeing the progress the plows were making.

I hiked along the road for a bit before breaking off to join the Alder Creek trail. Once I got to 6700 feet or so, the snow was sparse enough to put my apprehension of more blood stains to rest. At Empire Meadow I took a nice break and thought about how nice it would have been to have a pair of snowshoes with me. What a damned amateur I was. I made it a bit further down in elevation and lost the trail somewhere along the way. But I was pretty content just following the creek for the moment. I ended up camping somewhere just north of Turner Ridge. Looking back, this would probably rank dead last in interesting days of hiking.


Day 4 : Alder Creek Min El.  : 6200 ft Max El. : 7150 ft
El. Gain : 1000 ft El. Loss : 1200 ft

The last day of the trip brought some rather unexpectedly nice views of a waterall along Alder Creek. When I joined back up with the trail (this is the trail just east of route 41, north of Wawona), there were some great little spots nestled in by oaks, but the trail was pretty uneventful for the most part.

When I finally got to my car, I was dying to take a shower and give a good washing to some of my cuts. I asked a couple of people if they knew where to find showers, and this one guy told me that the nearest public shower was way up north along 41, but that there was also one at the Wawona Country Club that I could use if I looked like I was trying to play some golf. I took my chances at the country club and managed to find the locker room just east of the main parking lot. If you pretend like you know where you're going, I don't think anybody there would bust your balls about using the showers.

On the drive home I decided I'd buy a pair of snowshoes and do it right next year.