Elizabeth and I decided to take advantage of the warm, clear weather this weekend by doing a last minute backpack of the popular Vogelsang loop in Yosemite National Park. We needed wilderness permits to spend the night in the backcountry. They are notoriously difficult to get in the summer—you’re allowed to reserve them up to 6 months in advance—but this time of year the Yosemite backcountry is out of mind for most, and when I called on Wednesday there were plenty of permits available.
We left home at 6:30 on Saturday morning and got to Tuolumne Meadows, 8,660 feet, at 11:00. When we stepped out of the car into the sun, we instantly got hot. It was much warmer than I’d expected for our elevation. I’d forgotten my Chrome Dome, which had served me so well on our Red Slate Mountain trip, and resigned myself to getting by with just my hat.
We took the John Muir Trail south, crossing the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River over a pair of well-built bridges. The river was slow and broad, its emerald water gliding easily over polished granite.
We followed the Lyell Fork upstream through Lyell Canyon. The canyon’s bottom was wide and nearly flat, split down the middle by the sinuous Lyell Fork. Next to the river were blond grass and willows with fading leaves. Farther away were groves of conifers that became thick on the mountainsides. To our left was the attractive Mammoth Peak, its summit a mound of white granite surrounded by shrubby conifers.
After 5 miles, we left Lyell Canyon to cross over to the Rafferty Creek watershed. The forest was thicker and provided almost continuous shade as we climbed. The trees were all lodgepole pines, but I did see a few mountain hemlocks. The understory had labrador tea, currants, and heather. Their blooms had long since gone, but a few of the currants still had berries.
At the pass, 10,600 feet, we had excellent views of the high country all around us. We could see the Kuna Crest to the northeast and the Cathedral Range to the south. We were near timberline and the exposed terrain above us was beginning to glow in the late-afternoon light. The lodgepole pines that had dominated the forest east of the pass gave way to whitebark pines to the west.
We got to Evelyn Lake at 6. Our timing was perfect; we had about an hour to set up camp and make dinner before sunset, then it would get dark just as we prepared for sleep.
The lake was big and dark blue. Its south side was bordered by a granite ridge framing high, ragged peaks. Its east side, where we set up camp, was a gentle slope covered in a woodland of whitebark pines among short, golden grass. Across the lake, to the west, were more peaks, silhouetted against the sunset.
We walked to the lake and were delighted to find a sandy beach on its shore. We took off our shoes and waded into the water. We rinsed off our feet, then sat in the sand and watched the sun set over the lake.
Back at camp, we heated up dinner. I’d made a cat-can stove months ago and I’ve been using it with an MSR Simmerlite as a backup, but this weekend I was confident enough to leave the big stove at home. The cat-can stove weighs 1 ounce and needs only a little denatured alcohol in a plastic bottle for fuel, making it much lighter and simpler than the MSR stove. Success! The little stove worked perfectly.
As we ate, Clark’s nutcrackers flew between the pines, calling to each other with loud ‘kraa-kraa-kraa’s. By the time we finished eating, the sky had grown dark and the half moon in the southwest was casting shadows on the ground.
We went to bed at 9. We were entirely alone at the lake. With no wind, the night was utterly silent. I held my breath in the tent and could hear only my heartbeat and the ringing in my ears. Outside, the cold, clear air was perfect for watching the night sky. We got up to watch the moon set, a big, orange half-disc hanging over the lake. Afterward, we could see the Milky Way and shooting stars.
I woke up at 5:30, which was as late as I could manage considering how early I’d gone to sleep. It was 33 degrees and still dark outside, so I just lay in my sleeping bag until the sky began to get light. At sunrise, we got up and packed our gear.
We left Evelyn Lake at 7:30. The air was brisk, but the sun warmed us as soon as it rose over the mountains. As we walked, our shadows stretched for a good 10 yards over the grasslands.
Vogelsang High Sierra Camp was closed for the season and had been taken apart. All that was left of the white canvas bungalows that had housed trekkers all summer were their wooden frames. The showers were partly dismantled, and their interiors were so rusty that Elizabeth suggested a tetanus shot before anyone used them. Vogelsang Peak was quite prominent from the camp, and I took a good look at it to see the routes we could take to its summit if we came this way again.
The descent to Rafferty Creek was scenic, passing through more lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and whitebark pine, with more views of towering silver peaks.
Down in the canyon, we walked through meadows that were golden and scarlet in their fall colors. The forest on either side of the meadows was nothing but old-growth lodgepole pines. But as the day warmed past 80 degrees, the heat and the monotony of the landscape conspired to make me dislike the last few miles of the hike.
Elizabeth noticed lots of lodgepole snags obeying a right-hand rule, their bark twisting counter-clockwise up the trunk. We wondered if this was true for all lodgepole pine snags and talked about why it might be so. But in the end we saw a few obeying a left-hand rule, disproving our theory.
We got back to the trailhead at 12:45. On the way home we stopped at El Agave in Oakdale for a burrito and enchiladas.