Yosemite NP - Eagle Peak Panorama

24 Days to WSER: The Captain and His Woeful Navigator

I had planned my runs around Yosemite National Park as a series of loops but unfortunately it is impossible to complete a loop that starts and ends within the valley that includes taking in the summit of the famous climbing peak, El Capitan. It was possible to run up to El Capitan and back directly from behind the campground where I was staying, but I had also come up with a point-to-point option. However that required getting a lift out of the valley to the campgrounds at Tamarack Flat.

The previous night I had discussed my planned route with a couple of the climbers staying in my campsite and found out that they would be heading out to Tuolumne Meadows, and would therefore take the road past Tamarack Flat. To avoid requiring them to take the 3-mile out-and-back road to the campgrounds I had found a trailhead that would allow me to run 2.5 miles out there after being dropped off directly on the road. The guys were planning a lazy wakeup, then had to pack up their gear and head over to the Yosemite Lodge to hop online for some research of the climb they were planning for the following day. It meant that I would set off much later than planned, but I still had plenty of time and unfortunately beggars can’t be choosers.

We set out from the valley just after midday, I ate my lunch in the car, and after missing the trailhead and having to turn around I was eventually dropped off at my starting point. It was 1PM and there was light until 8:30PM so I had plenty of time to complete my roughly 20-mile (32-km) run.

The trail was clearly not often used, and therefore a little difficult to follow, but I had checked out the topographic map that I was carrying and knew the route the trail would follow. I would start off to the left of a creek, cross over to the right side, cross a tributary feeding the creek, and then continue alongside it all the way until I reached the Tamarack Flat campground. I set off as planned, easily following the grassy meadow that had formed along the creek, crossed over the creek, and continued along the other side. I crossed over a tributary stream, but then a short while later the path crossed over the creek once again and started to head back in the direction I had just come from.

Yosemite NP - Giant Pinecone
Yosemite NP – Giant Pinecone

I crossed the creek, looked at the direction the path was heading, and decided that something was wrong. I knew I should not be crossing again so I looked for signs of the continuation of the trail on the same side I had been on. I could not find any clear trails so I decided to follow alongside the creek, knowing that I should have a little over a mile until reaching the campgrounds. I needed to climb away from the creek due to the steep bank alongside it but was easily able to follow its direction both visually and by its sound. I reached the distance at which I expected to find the campground but nothing was in sight. I continued a little further but then decided to re-consult my map. I was situated inside a triangle formed by two roads and the creek, so it was impossible to get lost without crossing one of them, so I decided to continue on further.

I reached a large meadow area and then crossed a ravine, and had to climb away from the meadow since it was too moist. I pulled out the map again, and I could hear the sound of cars on a major road too close to my right. I then realised my mistake: the first tributary stream I had crossed was not marked on the map and the “creek crossing” I had avoided had actually been the tributary that I needed to cross. I had managed to make my way back towards the major highway. The easiest way to Tamarack Flat campground would now be to follow parallel to the highway and take the road turnoff. I angled myself slightly towards the highway and came out just before the turnoff to the campground. I then had my longest road run of the trip, a 3-mile run down to the campground.

I pulled into the campground with 7 miles on my watch. I had added 4.5 miles to my plan for the day, but due to the off-trail running had also added over an hour. I then recommenced on my planned route. I had started from Tioga Road, which is the only pass over the mountain range in the park, and is therefore well above the valley floor. From the campgrounds I would descend for a while before ascending around El Capitan and then reaching the peak from the rear.

I started my descent along what was an old road that obviously previously lead into the valley. It was now only used as a hiking trail and was crumbling and collapsed in places. I reached a section that was full of fallen trees, and it was necessary to duck under, climb over or clamber around each one. It continued for a couple of miles with well over a hundred fallen trees, and when I looked at my watch I realised that I had descended below the elevation at which I should have started to re-ascend for the climb to El Capitan. I pulled out my map but could not understand where I had gone wrong so I decided to continue on a short while longer.

I reached a rock slide, continued past it, but then reached a massive rock slide where over 300 feet (100 metres) of rock slide had wiped out the old road. I pulled out my map once again and was able to identify exactly where I was based on my position within the valley … and the marking on the map of an area called the Rockslides. I had overshot a turnoff and would need to turn around, ascend back to the turnoff and then continue.

I had lost yet more time so I evaluated my options. I still had a chance to return to Tamarack Flat but that would require that I either hitch a ride back into the valley or find a place to stay overnight and retry the following morning. I could head back up to an earlier turnoff to the valley floor, but I had skipped that as a possible route option since it reached the valley floor so far out of the serviced area that it would be necessary to hitch a ride back to my campsite. I still had sufficient time to get through the rest of my route before light failed so I decided to push on. I was also aided by the knowledge that I had a jacket and space blanket that would handle the overnight low, and that I was carrying sufficient water (plus purification tablets) and extra food that I could always find some shelter and manage a night outside if really necessary.

The ascent was gentle enough that I was able to run back up, and in the end I managed to easily spot my missed turnoff. There was a sign to one side of the trail, and some tree branches had been deliberately placed across the trail to mark the turnoff but it was in the area full of naturally fallen trees so I had not noted them as signifying the turnoff. Additionally there was a couple of large fallen trees just after the turnoff so I would likely have already been evaluating how to pass those as I easily jumped over the placed trees.

Now I turned back onto the trail and started the climb up to El Capitan. I reached the top and stopped to check out the view and take some pictures. Unfortunately the rock doesn’t reach an edge but just continues to drop at a steeper and steeper angle so it didn’t provide the great views I had hoped for. So I turned back away from the edge, rejoined the trail and continued along the top to reach my descent alongside the Yosemite Falls. I reached another turnoff for a short hike up to Eagle Peak for another viewpoint, and decided that I still had time to fit it in. So I climbed up, took in the view, had something to eat, and decided to time my descent from there.

Yosemite NP - View from El Capitan
Yosemite NP – View from El Capitan

I descended from the peak, ran to the top of Yosemite Falls, and then started the steep descent down to the valley floor. I took a couple of photos of the falls during the descent, but really had to concentrate on the fairly vicious trail. Unfortunately the National Parks Service in their attempt to make the trail easier had installed steps on many sections of the trail, but rather than being horizontal steps each step was sloped. There was a lot of small stones and dirt on the sloped stones which made for treacherous footing. I ran down at a fair pace but was still quite conservative, and I noticed that the quality of the light was starting to fail. Slightly after 8PM, with less than 30 minutes of light remaining I reached the bottom of the trail, which was thankfully right beside my campground.

Yosemite NP - Yosemite Falls
Yosemite NP – Yosemite Falls

I had managed to add in approximately 9 miles (14.5 km) through my two wrong turns. For details of my misdirection you can check out my eventual route on MovesCount.com here.

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