backpacking edition: Yosemite

Marriage is compromise. We have all heard this over and over again and D and I see it playing into our lives now more than ever. When talking about vacation ideas for the summer, D's idea was backpacking through Yosemite and my idea everything else but that. Not that I didn't want to, but going backpacking is never my first choice. I am always (or almost always) glad we did it in the end, but I have always gravitated toward cities and hotels. Since we have gotten married, we have split our trips into my half and D's half...compromise. This has worked like a charm for each of us because we both enjoy each half, but we both feel like we get to enjoy our preferences. For this vacation we compromised and spent half our week in Yosemite and half of it in San Francisco. It was the perfect mix.

We flew into San Jose, rented a car through Turo (would highly recommend), and were on our way to Yosemite.

Yosemite uses permits to regulate the number of backpackers in their wilderness areas and most popular day-hiking trails. It's smart to plan ahead and apply early if you're wanting to get a high-demand permit. For example, on a summer Saturday hike of Half Dome, over 12,000 people apply for the lottery to get one of 225 day hiking permits or one of the 75 reserved for backpackers. For the late planners or those who don't get the permit they apply for, there are certain number of permits reserved for walk-ups upon arriving to the park. When first dreaming about our trip to Yosemite, D had mentioned his dream backpacking itinerary would be starting out at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead, hiking to Clouds Rest, and then hiking Half Dome on the last day. Admittedly, this is also the dream itinerary for many others backpacking and applying for permits in Yosemite. We put in a permit request weeks in advance to hike this specific itinerary and were denied, so we accepted a less popular one and were happy to just be going. If you would like to know more about the permit process, click here.

Upon arrival to the park, we stopped at the wilderness center to pick up our designated permit. On a whim we asked about what walk-up permits they had available and to our surprise, they had our dream itinerary starting at Sunrise Lakes available. We snatched that up right away. Then, they asked us if we wanted to hike Half Dome and our response was "can we?" (Along with a backpacking permit, an additional and more restricted permit is required to hike to the summit of Half Dome). The ranger made a quick call and let us know they had one available. D and I took one hesitant look towards one another and decided it was something we could not pass up. I think D understood what we were getting ourselves into more than I did, however we left the wilderness center with a little pep in our step ready to conquer our itinerary the next day. The google maps view shows our route starting at the trail head, hiking to clouds rest, up to half dome, and then back into the valley. Below you can see the elevation change throughout the hike. 

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Mariposa Grove

After we got the permit, we went to set up our tent, which I'll talk about later, and then were on our way to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias that just reopened in June 2018. It was closed for several years for a restoration project and we were lucky enough to be there when it opened! The Mariposa Grove now has a welcome area that allows people to park and use the free shuttle to get to the actual grove (one of the systems enacted through the restoration project).

Some of the trees in the grove are 1,800 years old and are among the world's largest living things. It was absolutely breathtaking to see these trees in person and pictures do not do it justice.


We left the grove having a new perspective of "Giant Trees".

Glacier Point

After the grove we drove to Glacier point, walked past the barriers to get away from the crowds, and propped ourselves up for the most epic sunset of our lives.

Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada Range, so D was pretty pumped to wear his hat there. You can get the hat  here .

Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada Range, so D was pretty pumped to wear his hat there. You can get the hat here.

This sunset view is my favorite sunset to date, so make it a priority!

Backpackers Camp Ground

As you can imagine, finding a place to stay in Yosemite is both difficult and expensive. However, if you have a wilderness permit then you can stay in the backpackers camp ground one night before and one night after a wilderness trip without any reservation for a fee of $6 per person. There is no parking at this campsite, so you do have to unload your gear, park the car in an overnight area, and then walk to your campsite. We intentionally went earlier in the day so we could set up camp in daylight and get a good location. I'm glad that we did because it was dark by the time we were down from watching the sunset. These camp grounds also have bear lockers, which is very convenient because all food in Yosemite has to be stored in a bear canister or a bear locker due to their "bear problem".

What to Pack

A question that I get all the time is "what do you pack??" After doing this a few times, we have a good idea of what is actually needed and what to forget in order to make our packs lighter. Here's the overview of what we packed in no particular order.

  1. Fire Starting Kit

  2. Detailed map(s) and compass

  3. Headlamp

  4. Bear canister and all necessary foods (Dehydrated meals, beef jerky, apples, trail mix, protein bars, etc.)

  5. Hydration pack, ie. Camelback/osprey hydration system and water purifier/treatment

  6. Toiletries. I brought a travel sized toothbrush and toothpaste, body and face wipes, deodorant, sunscreen, BUG SPRAY, and toilet paper.

  7. Two pairs of clothes. I really struggle with this one. D typically only brings one pair of clothes, which I just can't do. Bring what you feel comfortable in, but remember every ounce counts that you're carrying on your back. I typically wear some sort of yoga pants and an athletic shirt.

  8. Sleeping pad, sleeping bag/quilt, and inflatable pillow

  9. Tent and/or hammock with rain cover

  10. Necessary layers for rain and cold (Rain Jacket, Regular jacket)

  11. Hiking boots and wool socks

  12. Backpack and Day pack (for when you want to leave your larger backpacks somewhere)

  13. First Aid Kit - stripped down to the essentials

Getting on the Trail

The next morning we were up bright and early with the rest of the backpackers camp ground to start our adventure. We ended up leaving our car where we parked it the night before at the Happy Isle parking lot, which is where our trail would actually end in the valley two days later. The park is quite used to backpackers, so they have a shuttle that runs from the valley floor up to the different trail heads called Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows Hikers Bus. Tickets are hard to reserve once you are already there, so make sure to call ahead and reserve them here before you go and pick them up the day before. We got picked up at Half Dome village, which was about a 5 minute walk from our car and hopped on the shuttle there. It took a good 3 hours on the bus to get to our trailhead, but it also meant we would be able to hike right to our car when we were done backpacking.


The Start

We got dropped off at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead and after being on the bus for 3 hours, we walked to Tenaya Lake, which is about .2 miles down the trail and filtered some water from there for lunch.


We got all my dehydrated meals from Packit Gourmet and I loved all of them! I love their family story of wanting to create more whole meals that were as fresh as possible for the trail. I got their smoothies that you just add cold water to for my breakfasts, ate trail food for lunch, and some pasta/chili meals for dinner. We also got a couple of their desserts to curb our sweet tooth at night. In hind sight, I wish I would have gotten a little hardier meal for the morning, but all in all, I will absolutely order from them again!

After our pit stop to eat lunch, we were on the trail and headed up and up. This day was harder than I think we anticipated because of all the elevation gain. For me, I'm also always shocked at how much harder the hike is with my backpack on. Adding an extra 25-35 pounds will really make a difference. We also got rained on plenty, which never helps the situation, however there were some really pretty vistas and a few nice patches of scenery.


Around 4pm we came across a camp site that was a few hundred feet away from a creek and was a good starting location for us for our Clouds Rest summit the next morning. We posted up camp, got rained on a little, made dinner, and rested before we went to bed around 8pm before the sun went down. While this campsite was in a great location for water availability and launching into our hike the next day, it was swarming with mosquitoes. We had only packed insect repellent wipes and weren't adequately prepared for pests that intense. Make sure to bring actual spray!


Day Two/Clouds Rest


A lot of people make the hike to Clouds rest in a day, which puts them all at the summit around the same time (noonish). By waking up early and camping along the trail, we were able to make it to the top before most, which was a win in my book. The trail to clouds rest definitely has it's elevation gain but also some amazing views along the way. 


Cloud's Rest is considered the best view in the park and I could not agree more. It's a 360 view of God's creation that never gets old to look at.


After we spent an hour or so at the top, it was time to go down and head to our next campsite before we conquered Half Dome the next morning. Most people hike half dome by starting at the valley floor, or by camping at Little Yosemite about halfway up. In my personal opinion, we did it the best way, by camping right next to the trail head for Half Dome. Like literally right next to it. We could see the trail head sign from our campsite.

Day Three/Half Dome

By camping right next to the trailhead, we were one of the first groups on the trail. The hike up was a lot of elevation and resting, however we left our backpacks at the camp site, so our load was MUCH lighter. We were on the trail by 5:30am and watched as the sun hit the mountains through the morning.


The Half Dome trail includes a stretch called the "sub-dome trail" which is the section you get to before the cables. This part was steps on steps with some scrambling in between all with an immense amount of elevation gain. We took this part slow and were fairly exhausted by the time we saw the cables.


Upon first glance of this, I thought "Nope." Then, I started thinking about how far we had come and how much I would be kicking myself a week later that I didn't do it. Doing hard things is good. It pushes us past our comfort zone and helps us emerge on the other side as a better and stronger person. So, up we went.


Make sure you wear gloves when climbing the cable section of Half Dome. The cables will rip your hands if you don't have something protecting them. There are typically a pile of gloves at the bottom of the cables for others to use, so make sure you grab a pair! Specifically look for some that have a rubber layer that will help you grip the cables.

Most of the climb is using your upper body strength to pull yourself up since the granite underneath is so slick from being used. The wooden planks help you rest in between, but make sure you also are wearing a shoe with a good sole, preferably hiking boots. My boots are linked here and I have loved them for all my hiking adventures so far.

After our arms were fully exhausted, we made it to the top! The views were definitely beautiful, but did not even compare to Clouds Rest. Like I said before, Half Dome is for the experience and Clouds Rest is for the views. Make sure to take that into consideration when deciding what to hike.

"Diving Board" on Half Dome

"Diving Board" on Half Dome

As we descended back down, there were quite a few people in line going up the cables, so we had to stop and hang out on the side while we let other's pass by us. This can get pretty tricky, which is yet another reason to be some of the first on the trail so you don't have to worry about passing people on your way up or down.

We made it down to our campsite, packed up, and started the trek down to the valley floor where our car was. This section down was by far my least favorite of the entire trip. From Half Dome to the car we went about 7.5 miles descending 5,000ft of elevation. It was ROUGH. Your thighs are on fire and your knees feel like they are going to give out with every step. Not to mention, the farther down you go, the more people you come across from doing day hikes and the temperature increases. I was over it and needed a shower and a bed. There were some gorgeous views, however we really only captured one because taking a picture was the last thing on my mind.


If you end up taking the same trail we did, make sure you take the Happy Isle bridge that will lead you straight to the parking lot. We stayed right and walked a good extra mile that we didn't have to.

Once we got to the car, we grabbed some much needed gatorade and fresh foods from the village store and headed off to San Fransisco for the next leg of our trip.

Let me know what you thought of this backpacking edition! Have you done this hike before? Would you ever do it? Let me know in the comments below.