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Vogelsang, Fletcher Lake, and Elsewhere | September 2006

Every September before I head back to my teaching job I like to take a short solo pack trip, almost always in Tuolumne Meadows region of Yosemite Park and usually to the Fletcher Lake area. So this year’s trip was over mostly familiar ground, but with a few interesting variations.

(Note: I’m posting text-only now, but I’ll try to add photographs later.)

***Saturday, September 9, 2006

Normally I’m up very early for the 4 1/2 hour drive to Tuolumne, but this time I decided to get up at a more normal 5:30 a.m., thinking that I’d still be there before noon – plenty of time to get a wilderness permit and head up the Rafferty Creek trial to Fletcher Lake in time for a sunset dinner.

The drive to the park went pretty quickly, which may surprise some people given that it was a sunny weekend. However, it seems that quite a few people get out of the Bay Area on Friday afternoon and evening, and the traffic diminishes a bit after the Labor Day weekend. I arrived at the north park entrance by 10:00 a.m. or so and went to get a permit. No permits were left for Rafferty Creek today, and other alternatives I was willing to consider were also unavailable! I guess I should have gotten up at 4:00 a.m. (But, as we’ll see, this little glitch may have turned out the be a good thing in the end.) So, as I often do in the busy summer season, I simply reserved a permit for the next day and readjusted my plans to include car camping tonight. (My original plan had been to car-camp on the last night instead of the first.) One silver lining to this minor cloud was that the wilderness permit ranger spared me the rather condescending and pedantic lecture about backcountry rules she had just delivered to the previous hiker. Perhaps my knowledge of the area and the process convinced her – quite accurately – that I had heard all of this many times before.

Anyway, back to the car and on to the pleasant and now much lazier drive up to Tuolumne. I arrived there around noon and checked out the camping prospects at the main campground. The best I could do was get on a waiting list that would be sorted out around 1:30, at which point they would call names – if you were there and they called your name you would get a campsite. Since I had a good hour and a half before this event, I decided to head over Tioga Pass to each lunch (some of my excessive amount of backpacking lunch stuff) and check out Forest Service campgrounds near the park. I turned into the Ellery Lake campground and was surprised to find a vacant site right away, so I grabbed it and set up my tent. It’s not a bad little campground (though a bit close to the road) and the cost is less than in the park.

Having the rest of the afternoon free, I decided to go back into the park and head out on one of my favorite day-hike trails – the route out to Mono and Parker Passes. My vague plan was to perhaps visit Spillway Lake (where the hillsides are very colorful in late season) and then Parker Pass before heading back by way of Mono. However, this plan evolved as I wandered on up the trail. I noticed that it was still a bit early in the season for the colors I was looking for, and I thought that I might get more interesting photography light around Mono Pass early on, leaving the option of descending via Spillway Lake for later light. On the way up I spoke to a woman who recommended crossing Mono Pass and descending about 15 minutes into the eastern canyon for a good view of Mono Lake – so the plan changed again.

In the end, I did go to Mono Pass and then descend that canyon past the lake near the pass, stopping at a rocky outcropping where the canyon turns left and the view opens up. I spent some time here before going back up to the pass right on a schedule that would guarantee returning to trailhead before dark… and then decided to detour to the old abandoned cabins below the mine at the pass. After taking some photos here I began the return trip in late afternoon light that became early evening light by the time I reached the parking lot.

Being a bit tired after this quick 8 mile afternoon hike, I made excuses for not cooking my very basic camp dinner and instead went down to the ridiculously crowded Whoa Nellie Deli at the Lee Vining Mini Mart. As anyone who travels here knows, this place improbably has about the best food in the area, but it becoming way too popular and is quite a mob scene on weekend evenings. After dinner it was dark so I headed straight back up to Ellery Lake and crawled into the tent.

***Sunday, September 10, 2006

Today I was up while it was still almost completely dark. With Mono Lake only 10 or 12 miles away I was not about to miss the chance to photograph the lake at dawn. I headed down the descent to Lee Vining in the dark and turned right at Hiway 395 to reach the South Tufa area 10-15 minutes before sunrise… and join the small group of other early morning visitors, including a number of photographers. The lake was still except for the thousands of birds as the sun rose, and I spent the next hour or more taking pictures. (See the Mono Lake photography page.)

Afterwards I made a quick stop at what seems to be the only place in Lee Vining to get an espresso: Latte Da. (Bad pun. Get it?) It is a nice little place with good coffee and a small offering of good pastries, plus a great view from the seating on the front porch. Breakfast finished, I went back up to Ellery, struck camp, and got ready for backpacking.

I drove back into the park, left the car at the Lyell Canyon trailhead, and started up towards Fletcher around 11:00 a.m. This trail is very familiar ground to me – I’m sure I’ve hiked it 10 or 20 times now. The first 40 minutes are fairly level, followed by the steepest section of the trail as it ascends into the valley holding Rafferty Creek. I normally top out on this climb an hour into the hike, and I went on for another 30 minutes or so before my lunch stop about 1/3 of the way into the hike. Continuing on, the trail eventually ascends into a forested area before emerging at the base of a long meadow that occupies the upper part of this valley. After another rest stop here I moved on toward Tuolumne Pass and the final mile (shortened by a bit of cross-country hiking at the end) to Fletcher.

Fletcher Lake was surprisingly uncrowded with the exception of the large and rowdy Vogelsang High Sierra Camp crew, who seemed to be (excessively) celebrating the seasonal closure of the camp after the previous night.

***Monday, September 11, 206

I was a lazy bum this morning – not crawling out of my bivy sack until about 8:00 a.m. after the sun finally came over the ridge near Townsley Lake. The plan for today was to take one or more day hikes; my initial thinking was that I might visit Vogelsang Pass, return to camp, and then visit the plateau above Townsley in the late afternoon and evening – but I also had vague ideas about visiting Gallison Lake, the ridge above Vogelsang Pass, Ireland Lake, or even stringing several of these together.

So I started out mid-morning on the trail up to Vogelsang Pass. I spent some time there in conversation with some other hikers and admiring the view up toward Gallison and Bernice Lakes and the peaks beyond. I made a semi-decision to head off toward Gallison, since that is an appealing area that I’ve always wanted to investigate. I even had a vague notion about ascending a saddle below Parsons Peak that I visited once before from the other side, and perhaps even completing a loop back via Ireland Lake. But my plans were so ill-formed that 100 feet down the other side of the pass I spontaneously decided instead to head up the mountain to the left and visit the ridgetop running between Fletcher and Parsons peaks.

The route-finding on the ascent was a bit interesting as I threaded my way among rocks, sandy sections, and through brush. Occasionally I would find a rock duck or some footprints, but there was not obvious “right way” to ascend this ridge. (In addition, I was extra conservative since I was travelling solo.) A good ways up this spur ridge I decided that it actually made more sense to descend to the right into a sandy/gravelly gully that ran straight up to the ridge… and was not filled with rocks and brush. A bit of tricky work (and rock duck trail marking so I could retrace my steps) got me here and I quickly ascended to a saddle on the ridge.

The view from the saddle was spectacular. To the south and south-east I could see nearby high peaks of the Sierra crest, the more distant Clark Range, and even closer Vogelsang Peak. On either side talus fields ascended along the ridge. To the north I looked down at Hanging Basket Lake (I may have the name wrong) along a descent that looks do-able. Beyond was the plateau above Townsley and further in the distance were the upper reaches of the Tuolumne area and then Sierra crest peaks like Dana and Conness.

I decided to try a slightly different route on the descent, since I had seen a way to the Vogelsang Pass trail when I descended into the last gully during the ascent. I headed quickly down the gully to where I had left some rock ducks, but this time followed another ducked route down the right side of the gully, mostly sticking to the rocky areas at the base of the ridge. This route followed a circuitous path down to the point where it finally leveled out, leaving a short walk on granite slabs to reach a bend in the trail, from which it was a short hike back to the pass. Here is talked to some other hikers who were admiring the pass, and then I spent a good half hour waiting for good light to photograph the Gallison/Bernice area. Finally, I packed up and headed back down towards my Fletcher Lake campsite, arriving in time to make an early dinner and then take some photographs as the sun went down.

***Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Having no need to rush, I again got up after the sun hit my camp site. I spent a lazy couple of hours fixing breakfast and breaking camp before finally loading up the pack and heading back to the high sierra camp to pick up some water for the hike back down Rafferty Creek to Tuolumne.

While I stopped for water, one of the camp employees wandered over and we struck up a conversation. In the next 10-15 minutes I think I heard more about hiking routes in this area than I would get from a full day of guidebook reading. From what I understood, he had worked in this area for some time, and eventually learned all of the shortcuts and climbers’ routes in the area. His philosophy more or less boiled down to “if you are above 8500′ you can pretty much go anywhere you want.” He described ridgetop routes among the high sierra camps and over ridges in the Mt. Lyell area, and gave me more information than I could retain about travel in the Cathedral Range area.

Loaded up with water and lots of new route information, I began the descent to Tuolumne. One notable thing about this particular walk down the Rafferty Creek trail was that it was quite different from most days earlier or later in the season. Earlier one would see many backpackers, but there were not that many today – with the exception of a school group on a Yosemite Institute trip. Later in the season, one can hike this trail and see very few people – the number of visitors really drops after mid-September, even though this is arguably the most beautiful time in the backcountry. But on this day, the trail was (relatively) full of people and stock, apparently engaged in the business of closing down the High Sierra camp for the season. There were many strings of pack animals going up, along with a large group of hikers carrying almost no gear, who apparently worked for the camp operators.

I arrived back at the car around 1:30. I remained in the park long enough to get a “backpackers’ shower” at Tuolumne Lodge and grab lunch at the Tuolumne Grill before heading home in mid-afternoon.


September 15, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary

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