Go West Young man (and women): help planning a backpacking trip in CA!
March 14, 2017 8:22 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I are planning our first backpacking trip out West this September and could use MeFi guidance from anyone who has been out there before.

Our level of hiking/backpacking experience is average to slightly above but we are by no means experts. We have experience backpacking in the White Mountains, Adirondacks and the Grand Canyon and my husband climbed Kilimanjaro.

We’d like to see both Yosemite and the High Sierra Trail and have about 2 weeks to do so. Our goal is to find an itinerary that gives us 2 nights 3 days in Yosemite, including Half Dome, and then do the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadows to the Whitney Portal.

Right now we’re thinking of the following

Day 1: DC (where we're from) to FAT (Fresno) airport, rent a car and drive to Yosemite National Park and pick up permits. Leave car at Little Yosemite Valley
Day 2: Hike from Tuolumne meadows to camp #1 (Sunrise Lakes?)
Day 3: Camp 1 to Little Yosemite Valley
Day 4: Little Yosemite Valley to Half Dome back to car
Day 5: Drive to Crescent Meadows with a stop to see the sequoias on the way.
Day 6: Crescent Meadow to Bearpaw Meadow
Day 7: Bearpaw Meadow to Big Arroyo Junction
Day 8: Big Arroyo to Upper Funston Meadow via Moraine Lake
Day 9: Upper Funston Meadow to Junction Meadow
Day 10: Junction Meadow to Crabtree
Day 11: Crabtree to Guitar Lake
Day 12: Guitar Lake to Trail Crest to Mt Whitney to Outpost Camp
Day 13: Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal and back to FAT airport area
Day 14: Back to DC :(

So that’s what we came up with. Would you change anything? Specifically, we’re looking for thoughts on the following:

Will our Yosemite route work? I was having problems finding a good rest area for the first day - would you recommend a different route?

Would it be better to reverse the entire trip and do the High Sierra Trail before Yosemite?

We can't seem to find a way to do this trip without renting a car for 14 days, making car rental the second biggest expense behind airfare. Is there any way to reduce the car rental period by using shuttles to various trailheads?

Is FAT the best airport to fly in and out of? Would it be better to fly into FAT and out of LAS (Las Vegas)?

What mistakes do most first-time-West-Coast hikers make?

Thanks in advance!
posted by kitkatcathy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You can't leave a car at Little Yosemite Valley (it is miles from the nearest road). Do you mean Yosemite Valley?

There is a hiker bus that will take you from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows.

-Sierra hiking, while beautiful, is HARD. I joke 1 Sierra mile is like 1 1/2 - 2 normal hiking miles.
-Have bug spray and face nets
-You will need a bear canister, you can not hang your food.
-Do you have your permits for camping/Half Dome?
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 9:35 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]

Bear in mind that Tuolumne meadows is around 8,500 feet elevation (and a lot of the HST is higher) so the air pressure is less than half of sea-level pressure; it's thin air and you'll find exercise harder until you acclimatize. The first few days I have to stop and breathe quite a lot while backpacking up there.

Sorry, I don't have pertinent travel info.
posted by anadem at 9:54 AM on March 14

You may have heard that the Sierras have had a record amount of snow. It may still be there this Summer or it could melt off causing all sorts of flooding.

Yosemite is also one of the busiest parks in the country and you will need reservations if you plan on staying in the Valley. I don't think you will be able to leave your car in the Valley. I took a bus from Fresno back in '86 when I hiked there. It took us up to Tuolemne and we hiked up to Vogelsang and around Cloud Rest, Half Dome and Merced Lake.

Nthing the advice from CHNW. Little Yosemite is bear central. We encountered them almost every evening on the 2 weeks I was there. And as anadem points out, altitude will be a factor. You will want to allow a few days to get used to it.

Yosemite is one of the most beautiful places on earth and I'm so glad I got to hike it… definitely worth it.
posted by jabo at 10:09 AM on March 14

I love backpacking the Sierras. If you go after Labor Day you reduce the crowds and mosquitoes and make getting permits easier. You will definitely need a bear canister -- both to keep your food from the bears and to keep bears from becoming habituated to people and at risk of euthanasia. You can rent bear canisters online, from REI, or possibly the parks. Something to research. Everything smelly needs to go in the canister. This includes hygiene products. Double bagging in plastic keeps smells apart.

There is quite a bit of driving distance between the start and end of the High Sierra Trail. It's not clear to me how you are going to get from the end of the trail back to your car and then the airport. One way people do this is take 2 cars and set up the shuttle themselves. You might consider checking other backpacking-focused forums perhaps on reddit or Facebook or elsewhere. I live in Portland OR now and we have a Portland Hikers Field Guide which has a forum where people ask stuff like this.

As far as which to do first, I would check your elevations and choose the lower elevation hike first.

If you aren't totally wedded to these two hikes, you might want to check out loop or semi-loop hikes in Sierra North and Sierra South. I've been using these guidebooks since the 70's when I started backpacking in my teens. There are some awesomely beautiful trails -- the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon NP or the Minarets. If you do loop or semi-loop hikes you remove the shuttle problem since the car is parked where you left it :). If you plan to hike the eastern side of the Sierras (my favorite), you could fly into Reno. It might be more direct than Fresno. That would make it easy to get to Desolation Wilderness area as well.

Have an awesome trip!
posted by elmay at 10:50 AM on March 14

The good news is the current snowpack means that September in the high Sierras is going to potentially feel a lot more like July in a typical year. I think the typical dates for meadows clearing of snow and waters receding will be pushed back by a month or two. But the lakes and streams will have more water than they typically do in September, which will be great for you!

Uh, seconding the thought that you should allow more time to acclimatize before hitting the high, hard stuff (based on my own experiences backpacking in the Sierras). You don't have to, but you'll have a more enjoyable time if you do. When I'm backpacking above 8000 ft., I like to spend at least 12 - 24 hours at elevation just letting my body get used to things (hydrating, sticking to day hikes or short distances if I have to start backpacking, and generally not overdoing it).

Bears in the park can be aggressive and are smart adversaries, 24/7, so bear canisters are mandatory. Similarly, don't leave ANY food in your vehicle, even if you hide it. Yosemite bears can open cars like they are opening a bag of chips. They aren't rabid killers by any stretch, but they are big and can be persistent when they smell food. Follow the rules to the letter and you shouldn't have any significant bear trouble.

I have not hiked the route you're proposing, but I have done several backpacking trips from Tuolumne Meadows (typically heading south over Donahue Pass), and will just say that the scenery is every bit as spectacular as you've read and seen in pictures. I will add, there also some beautiful and less crowded hikes on Sequoia and Kings Canyon Nat'l Parks (less crowded when compared to Yosemite hikes, at least). Florence Lake to Evolution Valley and South Lake is a personal favorite and a hike I'd recommend to anyone.

Not my site/no affiliation, but this is a good description of that hike and area: https://llmswamy.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/backpacking-trip-from-florence-lake-to-south-lake/

It leads towards Whitney Portal, too.

Sorry this answer isn't more on point with your exact questions. I hope you guys have a great trip!
posted by mosk at 10:51 AM on March 14

Reno might be another airport option to consider. The drive will be more scenic than from Fresno.
posted by janell at 12:49 PM on March 14

Not sure if you know you need a permit to climb Mt. Whitney, it is a lottery.
posted by gryphonlover at 2:36 PM on March 14

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