Yosemite at High Tide: A Weekend of Backpacking after a Record Snowpack

Waterworks in the park were in full effect.

I was in Santa Teresa, CR in November carrying two beers and a lime past the groundbreaking of a new Selina's Hostel on my way to the still rutted, muddied footpath to the beach. I must have passed a former Wi-Fi signal saved in my cell because a message came through from my brother, Josh, suggesting we visit Yosemite's backcountry. I thought about it a second, as the forest cleared to a view of the empty sea. Josh had been on Tioga Road the year before, during the peak of a severe drought, and I knew the experience only left him wanting more.

"I think I'd like to hike Yosemite with Josh in the Spring, what do you think?" I asked Katie. 

Advance backpacking permits for the Yosemite wilderness open for our dates in December. I had never sent a fax before, but within five days was an expert and had permits granted for the High Sierra, Clouds Rest, and Happy Isles. In the coming months heavy snow filled the valley and accumulations in the High Sierra would end a decade of drought. We were reading about 20' snowdrifts, a very late opening of the Tioga Road, and our trailheads locked in ice. In March we accepted the development of a backup plan for Clouds Rest and settled on Snow Creek and the "switchbacks to the sky" then traversing to Yosemite Falls. The record snowpack would put the waterworks of the park in full effect and so our high sierra dream melted into the great opportunity to witness the power of Snow Creek, Yosemite Creek and the Merced at flood stage.  

Day 1, the backpacker's campground access was reportedly flooded out (always check for yourself example 1). It was night, we had traveled 14 hours from New Orleans and we needed sleep so we ended up in a partially flooded site in the pines and set up camp. A few hikers passed en route to the backpackers camp, wading thigh-deep in ice water. I was glad to be there and still unsure about an unfamiliar creek crossing to an unfamiliar backpacker's camp. 

We woke, obtained permits and bear canisters and set out for Mirror Lake. The approach hike featured multiple knee-deep sections of flooding and the stalking of a bear. At the eastern end, Snow Creek was visible in a powerful spectacle, booming over the rocks just above the trees. Tenaya Creek was also impressive whitewater, with a massive curtain visible beyond the Mirror Lake Trail. We filtered water at the footbridge and started on the switchbacks that would mindlessly define the rest of the morning and early afternoon. As we climbed, it took effort to notice the views improving, it took effort to listen to the roar of the falls. I mentioned we were there from New Orleans right? This was one of the few hikes any of the 5 of us had taken. Mindlessly we climbed on. A hundred ten, a hundred twenty switchbacks? The top opens to a fractured landscape of broken trees and upward slope becomes kind, running parallel with Snow Creek. My goal was the confluence with Porcupine Creek and the massive ephemeral waterfall in the Snow. The trail was shaded and cool, and we were moving fast. We arrived at the falls and took water, the snowpack behind Indian Rock was still several feet deep and continuous. After a short rest we opted to continue on for Indian Ridge, open views of the valley and full sun exposure.   

Indian Ridge represented the last few steps I could physically manage. We settled on an established campsite looking down over North Dome, Indian Arch was above us. The full moon washed away the stars but illuminated the monoliths, Half Dome was dominated the skyline to the southeast and the woods stood to our north and west. I slept like snow.

We awoke with high energy having exceeded our goals the previous day. We would only need to cross Indian Arch Creek, Lehamite Creek and find a second camp near Yosemite Point about 800 feet or so above the falls. This section of woods was incredible. Lush green colors, massive boulders housing massive root structures supporting trees, cold and clear streams. We found a camp in the boulders on the upslope of the final ridge line before descending to the falls. It was early in the day and we had plenty of energy so we dropped packs and scrambled around. One in our group went up to the ridge line and discovered staggering views overlooking Yosemite Point and an established campsite.  After a short discussion we moved camp for the high ground and what may have been the most scenic site I will ever rest. Full views of Half Dome, Illilouette Ridge, Glacier Point, Mount Star King, we could easily see the High Sierra where we originally planned to be at that moment...the Cathedral Peaks, the Echo Lake Watershed, Clouds Rest. Superimposed on this was the heavy roar of countless waterfalls entering the valley. We spent the late afternoon scrambling around Arrowhead Spire, down to Yosemite Falls and took a sunset hike up into the flooded meadows behind Eagle Peak. Soon the full moon was again rising and it was perfect. 

All that was left for the final day was to descend Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. The task proved light on the mind and hard on the knees. Several incredible viewpoints on the way down as the ascending crowd grew. Near the base of Upper Falls we found mist conditions. Further down we began seeing tennis shoes, casual shoes, people of all walks asking "how much further?", and "is it really an hour?" Every-Step-Is-Worth-It. The crowds continued to swell until we finally broke into the valley at Camp 4, laid out on the rocks in the sun and took a minute to reflect. We would spend the next days bouldering above the camp, sleeping in the backpacker's camp, then setting out up the Merced River to and beyond Little Yosemite Valley. 

We ended with the path to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls for perspective.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!