TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

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TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 2:23 pm

Trip Report: Solo backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to upper Lyell Fork Merced River, Yosemite National Park, September 1-7, 2016

It's May and time to think about summer backpack trips, so I decided to put some energy into finishing up this trip report that I started writing last fall.


Solo backpack trip from Tuolumne Meadows up Rafferty Creek; over Tuolumne and Vogelsang Passes; down Lewis Creek to the High Trail; then along the High Trail to the Lyell Fork Merced, where I explored cross-country up the Lyell Fork; return on the High Trail back to Lewis Creek; go briefly down to the Fletcher Creek trail; follow it up to Emeric Lake; head cross-country over to Nelson Lake; and then return on the use trail to Tuolumne Meadows.

Distances and elevation changes summary (based on CalTopo map measurements, which may underestimate true values):

Day 1: 7.6 mi, +1870 feet, -200 feet.
Day 2: 9.4 mi, +1955 feet, -2884 feet.
Day 3: 0.4 mi trail and 1.2 mi cross-country, +300 feet, -375 feet, plus cross-country side trip without pack of 1.2 miles with 800 feet gain and loss.
Day 4: cross-country side trip without pack of 4.8 miles with 2200 feet gain and loss.
Day 5: 8.4 mi, +2250 feet, -2700 feet.
Day 6: 5.3 mi, +1650 feet, -1150 feet.
Day 7: 5.6 mi, +850 feet, -1800 feet.

Here is a topo map overview of my trip with my route shown in red. Solid lines are trails and dotted lines are cross-country. Dashed dark-red lines are other trails from OpenStreetMap. Obvious symbols show my campsites and some excellent viewpoints along the High Trail. For more detail, see my online Caltopo map at (hint: turn off labels in the Config menu).
I saw lots of great scenery under clear blue skies. Trails were in great shape and route-finding on the cross-country sections was not difficult. Even though it was late season, streams were still flowing. Finally, I had a lot of solitude on this trip. This is my general experience in the Yosemite backcountry. Although everyone complains that it is so crowded, with careful route planning, you can get away from them all. I saw many other hikers the first day and at the end of the last day, which was to be expected in the Tuolumne Meadows area. But then I only saw a few hikers on the other trails and none in the cross-country sections. On the first and last nights others camped in the general vicinity, but not close to me. The other nights there were no other campers anywhere that I could see or hear. I did not make any campfires on this trip and was generally in bed by the time it got dark around 8 pm.

Each day of the trip will be a separate post within this topic so I can add lots of photos!


Summer 2016 was moving along at a good clip and I had managed only two short (two-night) Sierra backpack trips by the beginning of August. I was watching my calendar getting filled up with work and family events and starting to feel really bummed that maybe I wouldn't be able to fit in a longer trip (for the first time in decades). So then I printed off an August/September paper calendar (I'm an analog guy) and started marking it up with things I really could not miss, mostly at work. Finally, I realized that I could re-arrange a few work projects to add some vacation days before and after Labor Day. So my trip was set: September 1 to 7.

Although I had been collecting a "wish list" of week-long backpack trip ideas all summer, I quickly dropped all the east-side ones since I didn't to waste any of my seven days driving over there and back from the Bay Area. That put me back to my favorite stomping grounds in the Yosemite high country. This was okay, both because I love that country and because I was going solo and it seemed better to stick to familiar areas. I just started solo backpacking a couple of years ago when my wife (and backpack companion for decades) decided she no longer liked the long backpack trips (more than 2 or 3 nights).

So I started researching ideas for my Yosemite trip that would spend my time in the timberline country, in the granite, get me into a remote area, and include both familiar areas and some new spots. I wanted to get up reasonably high, so I dropped the north country from my list. Besides, I had just done a long trip there the previous year. I also liked to take it easy - 5 to 8 miles per day is my preference - so I have lots of time to stop for photography or to admire views or just laze around. And I wanted to get in some easy cross-country hiking.

I was researching both the Clark Range and the Lyell Fork Merced River when I was inspired by a detailed trip report by Doyle W. Donehoo, a member of HST, on his own "Sierra Trails" website, for his trip from Tuolumne Meadows to the Lyell Fork Merced and back. See: ... ver1v9.htm

I had lots of other reasons drawing me to the Lyell Fork as well. I read about the HST meetup that had just occurred there in July. I have been entranced for many years by the famous Ansel Adams photo of the Lyell Fork Merced meadows that is in a book of Adams' photos that I have. Finally, My wife and I had hiked the High Trail that crosses the Lyell Fork Merced River years ago, but didn't take any time (to my regret) to explore up the river. So I made up my mind to go back there and spend at least two nights on the Lyell Fork Merced so I could properly explore it. I also figured I could try out another new spot (for me) in the Cathedral Range on the way back by crossing the ridge from Emeric Lake to Nelson Lake, which looked eminently feasible on the topo and Google satellite views.

So I developed my plan for this inverted lollipop (a loop with an out and back section in the middle) backpack trip from Tuolumne Meadows that would use the Rafferty Creek trail, Lewis Creek trail, Fletcher Creek trail, cross-country to Nelson Lake, and Nelson Lake use trail to make the loop, and then the High Trail to get to and from the Lyell Fork Merced River, where I would explore cross-country up the Lyell Fork itself and hopefully up Hutchings Creek as well. This was about 40 miles total distance with a pack. If the permits were all taken for Rafferty Creek, I would do this loop in reverse, because in my experience the Nelson Lake permits are rarely all given out.

When I was making these trip plans, I was keeping a close eye on the wildfire and smoke reports on the internet. Really big persistent wildfires were burning in the California coastal ranges and one in the very southern Sierra, and the typical southwest summer winds were spreading a smoky haze across the entire Sierra. My shorter trips in July and early August had been marred by this smoke - at some points, it felt like I was hiking in the smoggy urban areas I remembered from my youth. I was very thankful when a windy early season low pressure system came through at the end of August and cleared out the smoke haze and then shifted the winds to the northwest. Now the smoke from the remaining coastal range fires was blowing to the south along the coast. I had beautiful smoke-free blue skies for my whole trip.

I prepared my Reconn Trip Record ( including printed detailed topo map with my planned route and left a copy with my wife and told her to contact the park if I didn't show up or call her by September 8 (one day late). I also left a copy in an envelope on the front seat of the car when I started hiking. I've thought about getting a Spot or Delorme satellite tracker for these solo trips, but haven't taken the plunge yet - I'm discouraged by the idea of adding another 1/2 pound of weight to my already-too-heavy pack!

I drove up after work on Wednesday evening (August 31) on Highway 120 and found a spot on a Forest Service dirt road west of the park to sleep in the car. I was up at 6 am, drove to the Big Oak Flat entrance station and started the line for the Wilderness Permit office at 7 am. I took advantage of the picnic table they provide there to cook my breakfast. The office opened at 8 am. They called up to Tuolumne Meadows to check for a same-day permit on Rafferty Creek and one was available, so I didn't have to make any last minute plan changes.

I drove up to Tuolumne Meadows, enjoying that beautiful scenery I have seen so many times. Can't get enough of those lovely domes around Tenaya Lake area! I parked at the Dog Lake parking area - actually, it was full so I parked on the road beside it. And I was ready to hit the trail at 10:30 am on Thursday, September 1. I took along a small notebook and pencil to keep some notes to help me write up a trip report. I hadn't done that in decades; I'd always figured I could remember my trips. But the notes were useful to jog my memory - and keep it honest. The rest of this report is based on those notes and the many photos that I took.
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 2:35 pm

Day 1 - Thursday, Sept 1 - Tuolumne Meadows to Vogelsang Lake.
Backpacking 7.6 mi, +1870 feet, -200 feet.
P1110687+Phil at the trailhead.jpg
I took off from the Dog Lake trailhead parking at 10:30 feeling pretty excited and immediately joined the John Muir Trail (the original alignment that loops through Tuolumne Meadows, not the new alignment marked on the topos that stays south of the campground), heading south. My pack was at its heaviest (37 pounds!) with all the food so I took my time, passing and being passed by many other hikers and backpackers on the way to the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River bridge which I reached in 40 minutes. Here I took a break. I really love this spot, with the river rushing over granite and the expansive views of meadows and mountains. I also like that so many people of all ages, including families, make it here on the trail.
P1110690-MtDana+MtGibbs over LyellForkTuolumneRiver from bridge.jpg
A few minutes walking from the bridge brought me to the Rafferty Creek trail junction. I headed up Rafferty Creek trail, which climbs the slope with many short switchbacks, sometimes steeply. There is much intricate stone work and stone steps to admire on this trail. The trail itself is mostly sandy all the way to the pass, some tediously soft. Not so attractive was the horse poop, which was scattered all along the trail to the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp (HSC), which is supplied by frequent mule trains. Fortunately, I didn't run into the mules themselves. I shared this trail with many other backpackers and some day hikers, going both directions.
P1110691+RaffertyCreekTrail rockwork.jpg
After topping a low rise, the trail straightened and continued up on a low to moderate grade paralleling unseen Rafferty Creek. I had been warned by the Wilderness Permit office that Rafferty Creek was dry and there would be no water between the Tuolumne River and Vogelsang, so I was carrying a full quart. This trail section runs through lovely open forest with many small meadows - all dried and yellow now.

About 1.5 hours from the Lyell Fork Tuolumne bridge, the trail enters the lower of the large meadows along Rafferty Creek, just below granite Peak 9801. I did find some pools of water here in the creek that could be filtered. Thirty minutes more hiking, as the trail ran along this lower meadow and then more steeply up to climb a forested "riser" slope, brought me to the upper meadow "step", where views started to open up and I took a lunch break off trail by the dry creek.
P1110696+RaffertyCreek meadows with red bilberry, FletcherPeak + VogelsangPeak.jpg
Because of heavy use, the trail through the miles long upper meadow has been constructed to resist erosion with many long rock and sand causeway sections. Interestingly, in the early 1970s, the Park Service tried to solve the problem of trail erosion in the meadow by re-routing the trail on a longer route completely around this large meadow in the forest on the western slope. I hiked this re-route in 1974 and it was boring, with no views. Not surprisingly, hikers and even the packers supplying the Vogelsang HSC kept using the old trail, so it was rebuilt to withstand the use and the "new" trail abandoned. You can still find traces of this "new" trail on that forest slope.
P1110697+rock and sand causeway on RaffertyCreekTrail through meadows.jpg
This upper meadow is the most scenic part of the Rafferty Creek trail, with constant views of Fletcher Peak and the cliffs to its east with their permanent snowfields, plus some views back north toward the Sierra crest, all with a great open feeling. The meadows themselves still showed green areas but also had numerous patches of low-growing bilberry in its bright red autumn colors. I encouraged some older hikers headed for the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp who seemed to be running out of steam that it wasn't far to their goal. I reached the HSC myself in one hour of hiking after my lunch break at the base of the upper meadow.
P1110706+FletcherPeak + VogelsangHighSierraCamp.jpg
---soapbox on---

I've been through the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp area many times and I always find the camp buildings, tent cabins, stock corrals, and other constructions to be a jarring intrusion on the wilderness environment, especially after the long climb up from Tuolumne Meadows. The Yosemite HSCs were a great idea when they were built back in the 1920s ( and backpacking was difficult and strenous and you needed to provide an incentive to get people out into the backcountry. But the revolution in lightweight equipment and backcountry knowledge that started in the 1950s has democratized backpacking and people get all over the backcountry now just carrying what they need. The HSCs are an anachronism with a large impact on the wilderness from the structures, the heavy mule traffic to supply them, and the concentrated human use (have a look at the giant septic settling tank below the camp!). It is time for them to go!

---soapbox off---

I did not linger around the Vogelsang HSC but left all the hikers and the horse poop behind and continued on a steep 30 minute climb to Vogelsang Lake. It was now 3:20 pm. I debated whether to keep going over Vogelsang Pass to upper Lewis Creek. But, I like to have some time to rest and explore my camp surroundings without that heavy pack. And I had never camped at Vogelsang Lake before. So I followed Donehoo's example and looked for a campsite on the broad ridge that slopes up southwest of the outlet. I found a nice spot on a sandy flat among granite slabs and scattered whitebark pines with open views in all directions. Now this was attractive! And I had sun until very late in the afternoon, even as the lake itself was shadowed.
P1110722+My camp at VogelsangLake.jpg
P1110716-west across FletcherCreek valley from VogelsangLake camp.jpg
After setting up camp, I went down to the lake to explore, take photographs, and fill up my water containers. I was pleased to see that the meadows fringing Vogelsang Lake were still green and even had a few blooming asters. I drank the water from the lake with no treatment, as I always do in the true High Sierra (your mileage may vary). It's always delicious. I didn't see any other backpackers at the lake. Several day hikers from the Vogelsang HSC came up in the afternoon to see the lake - one even went swimming. I saw a small group come up just before sunset who had to walk back in the dusk.
P1110712+green meadow at VogelsangLake.jpg
I was apparently the only one camped at the lake and looking forward to total solitude as the day hikers left. But two male backpackers arrived late (about 6 pm) coming down from Vogelsang Pass. I figured they would be joining me on the southwest slope, but instead they found a campsite at the edge of the damp meadow down by the lake. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the long shadows of the very late afternoon light and subtly colored sunset on the Sierra Crest and the local mountains.
P1110723+MountConness from VogelsangLake camp, evening light.jpg
P1110730+sunset light on FletcherPeak + VogelsangLake.jpg
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 2:46 pm

Day 2 - Friday, Sept 2 - Vogelsang Lake to "waterfall camp" along the High Trail.
Backpacking 9.4 mi, +1955 feet, -2884 feet.

I got up about 7 am, but there was no sun at my campsite or anywhere around Vogelsang Lake until 8:15 in the morning. However, there was lovely bright early morning sunlight on the Sierra crest visible to the north from my campsite.
P1110747+MountConness from VogelsangLake camp, morning light.jpg
While I was preparing breakfast, the older backpacker I saw last night came over to see the view and chat with me. He revealed that he was 73 and was finishing up section 5 of Secor's High Route, from Devil's Postpile to Tuolumne Meadows, with his early 30s son.

I left my camp at 9:25 am and ascended an easy to moderate grade for 25 minutes to Vogelsang Pass with good views back over Vogelsang Lake. I rested at the pass for about 15 minutes and enjoyed the great view of the Lewis Creek headwaters and down to the Clark Range.
P1110749+FletcherPeak over VogelsangLake+meadows, morning light.jpg
P1110757+GallisonLake + upper LewisCreek from VogelsangPass.jpg
P1110756+ClarkRange over LewisCreek from VogelsangPass.jpg
A group of six middle aged hikers caught up with me at Vogelsang Pass and chatted a bit. They were from Albany, New York, doing the High Sierra Camps loop. Last night they were at Vogelsang HSC, and were now heading to Merced Lake HSC.

From Vogelsang Pass, the trail first contours down the slope with good views and then switchbacks down to beautiful meadows along Lewis Creek, which I reached in about 20 minutes. This upper part of Lewis Creek still had lush green grass even in September. Lewis Creek and its tributary from Bernice Lake were both flowing vigorously. I left the trail and walked across the meadow and creek to a secluded area where I just rested and enjoyed the lovely alpine view while snacking for about 30 minutes in perfect solitude. I'm not a fisherman, but I couldn't help but notice many six to eight inch trout in the stream.
P1110767+LewisCreek in upper meadow, looking east.jpg
P1110768+trout in LewisCreek.jpg
As the trail descended Lewis Creek, the environment became dryer and below 9,600 feet elevation, about 50% of the lodgepole pines were dead snags. Other species such as mountain hemlock and western white pine were fine, with no significant mortality. I had forgotten how much bare granite was exposed in the walls of the Lewis Creek canyon. Though the flow was diminished in September, I still enjoyed the cascading waters of Lewis Creek on smooth granite and the falls of Florence Creek, which I reached in less than an hour from the meadows on upper Lewis Creek. I also found tasty ripe currants just before Forence Creek.

At about 8,800 feet elevation, the trail came close again to Lewis Creek in an open area of smooth granite slabs that the creek slid down with deep pools. I ran into the Albany hikers again here and took a long lunch and foot soaking break of about 40 minutes. They were awfully impressed with the scenery.
P1110778+pools on LewisCreek.jpg
Continuing down the Lewis Creek trail, I reached the High Trail junction at 1:30 pm. I remembered from a previous trip that the High Trail makes a tiring ascent, so I got started on a slow but steady pace. The High Trail first attacked the steep slope in western white pine and red fir forest (shaded) on short steep switchbacks. After about 30 minutes (about halfway up), the trail encountered a bench and followed it on an easy grade for 1/4 mile before resuming the climb with more steep switchbacks. In this section, there were filtered views through the forest of Merced Lake, Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Fletcher Creek canyon, and even Cathedral Peak. I reached the top of the climb at 2:30 pm.
P1110785+BabcockDome+EmericCreek valley from HighTrail.jpg
Two unnamed mapped creeks flow from drainages on either side of Cony Crags. I call them North Cony Creek and South Cony Creek. Once it ascends out of the Lewis Creek canyon, the High Trail undulates thru dry open forest with no understory, going over spur ridges and crossing these Cony Creeks. A slight downhill for a few minutes from the top of the climb led to the crossing of North Cony Creek which had good flow and cold water and provided a good spot for a short rest.

After crossing North Cony Creek, I started to get filtered views of the Clark Range as the trail climbed slightly to the spur ridge coming off Cony Crags. This area was more open with lots of bare granite, so I decided to see if there would be a good viewpoint out on the lip of the Merced River canyon. By walking west on the spur about 200 to 300 yards, I reached a good viewpoint on the cliff top directly above Washburn Lake, where I rested and took photos at about 3:30 pm.
P1110792+WashburnLake from ConyCragsRidge overlook by HighTrail.jpg
I returned the same way to the High Trail, which then dropped a few hundred feet elevation heading south to a crossing of South Cony Creek, which I reached in 25 minutes from the viewpoint over Washburn Lake. This creek had a stronger flow than North Cony Creek and many spots for camping in open forest. The largest spot was occupied by the huge tarps, tents, and equipment of a trail crew camp. A single woman was in camp and indicated that the rest of crew were out working on the High Trail further south. I never saw them, nor anyone else on the High Trail.

The High Trail continued south from South Cony Creek climbing gradually up the slope to another spur ridge, where it dropped more steeply with a couple of switchbacks to a broad ledge system. Along the edge of this ledge at the rim of the Merced River canyon, anywhere from 50 to 200 feet west of the trail, there are numerous excellent viewpoints of the entire Clark Range and the river canyon. I passed them all without stopping because I knew the view would not be good for photography in the late afternoon, looking into the sun. I planned to return in early morning which would have better light. And besides, I was getting tired and wanted to get to camp.

Less than an hour from South Cony Creek, the High Trail reaches the last permanent mapped stream, this time flowing off the south face of Mount Florence and forming a small waterfall on the cliff face that bounds the narrowing ledge system, directly above the trail. The stream was just seeping over the cliff, but collected into a sufficient creek at its base to refill water bottles. Just 100 feet beyond this stream crossing there is an obvious flat camp spot with room for two tents on the downhill side of the trail, which Donehoo calls the "waterfall camp". The campsite is of dubious legality. Although it is 100 feet from water, as required, it is less than 20 feet from the trail. You can't get any further from the trail because you are on a narrow bench at this point. I thought about continuing a couple more miles to the Lyell Fork Merced River to camp, but it was already 5 pm, I was tired, and there was an outstanding view from the bench edge right next to the camp spot. So I setup camp at the "waterfall camp".
P1110796+IsbergPeak to MercedPeak from WaterfallCamp.jpg
After setting up camp and eating dinner, I went looking for a good spot to watch the sunset. About 100 yards east of this camp along the High Trail, there is an obvious open rocky knob just below the trail. I walked over there and enjoyed the sunset colors on the Lyell Fork and surrounding mountains.
P1110800+MercedRiverCanyon,MercedPeak-evening light from overlook east of WaterfallCamp.jpg
P1110806+sunset light up LyellForkMercedRiver from overlook east of WaterfallCamp.jpg
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by rlown » Thu May 11, 2017 2:56 pm

About that soapbox thinggy.. I know people who I've invited on backcountry trips (even there) and are scared to death to even consider it. But, at the same time, they booked a trip to Vogelsang HSC (hiked in; no gear) and stayed for a couple days. Sometimes, its simply the nature of the beast that drives you.

Keep going.. Good report!!

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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 2:57 pm

Day 3 - Saturday, Sept 3 - Camp on High Trail to east meadow, Lyell Fork Merced River.
Backpacking 0.4 mi trail and 1.2 mi cross-country, +300 feet, -375 feet, plus cross-country side trip without pack of 1.2 miles with 800 feet gain and loss.

Because of dense tree cover on the bench, there was no early sun at the "waterfall camp". Even open rocky areas did not get sun until 8:15 am. I packed up and left camp at 9:00 am, continuing east on the High Trail which dropped gradually on the ledge system towards the Lyell Fork Merced River.
P1110815+down LyellForkMercedRiver to ClarkRange from overlook east of WaterfallCamp.jpg
After about 25 minutes, I reached the point on the High Trail at approximately 9200 feet elevation where it makes a 90 degree bend to the right (south) to head down to cross the Lyell Fork. Here I started my easy class 1 cross-country hike on open low-angle granite slabs, heading gradually uphill paralleling the Lyell Fork. These granite slabs have the largest area of glacial polish I have ever seen. Huge expanses of this smooth rock were punctuated with lone trees or small tree clusters where a bit of soil had collected in a crack. I began to think of this as the "granite savannah".
P1110817+glacially polished granite slope above LyellForkMercedRiver.jpg
I was aiming for the big meadows along the Lyell Fork Merced River around the confluence of Hutchings Creek and further upstream. Just before reaching the "west meadow" on the Lyell Fork, I encountered two deep ravines in the granite bounded by cliffs. I took a long detour upslope to find places where the cliffs broke down and I could cross the ravines. I reached the southwest corner of the west meadow at 9:50 am and rested 10 minutes. Here I found and followed a faint use trail running in the forest along the edge of the meadow heading upstream. Old horse poop showed that packers made it up here. I quickly passed a "packer camp" that was occupied by a single small tent. I saw a single man - presumably the tent's occupant - off in the forest possibly gathering wood. He is the only person I saw all day, but I don't think he saw me.
P1110820+looking up LyellForkMercedRiver canyon from west meadow.jpg
From the west meadow, the use trail climbs up a bit through the forest to the edge of the open granite slopes where it crosses Hutchings Creek (large flow). This trail then continues heading a bit upslope along the edge of the granite to head a ravine with a small flowing creek. The trail then contours slightly up to cross another creek (moderate flow) and then pick through a log jam to cross a granite rib at a low spot. From this gap in the rib, the trail heads directly east through a swale and between more granite ribs to hit the northwest edge of the larger "east meadow" on the Lyell Fork Merced. It took 20 minutes to get here from the "west meadow".
P1110823+Peak12113 from camp at east meadow.jpg
I found a camp spot by going behind the prominent granite rib at the meadow's edge heading south to the southwest corner of the meadow where the stream starts to drop down slope. I made my camp in a small forested flat there next to open granite with good views. Unlike Lewis Creek, I saw no dead trees here in the Lyell Fork valley. I took my time setting up camp and washing some clothes. They were all dry by 5:00 pm, even though it was cloudy all day.
P1110860-my camp by LyellForkMerced east meadow.jpg
Saturday had started with scattered high clouds and lots of jet contrails. The clouds gradually thickened and lowered during the morning. My plan had been to try ascending Hutchings Creek today. By the time I setup camp it was completely clouded over and some parts were getting dark, looking like they could generate light rain, but no rain fell. I postponed my side trip and took a walk around the entire east meadow. While returning, I found ripe tiny blueberries near the stream by my camp. The bushes were non-descript and you wouldn't notice them except for the berries. I picked a bunch and put them into a extra plastic bag to keep in the bear canister overnight to have with breakfast the next morning. They were good.
P1110861-blueberries along LyellForkMerced.jpg
I waited until clouds were starting to break up into separate pieces with bits of blue in between about 3 pm before deciding to try to get up to Hutchings Creek. After taking the use trail back to the Hutchings Creek crossing, I started walking up dirt and broken rock strips between the large areas of slippery glacially polished slabs just west of Hutchings Creek. As the slope became very steep ahead - almost cliff-like - I contoured up to the west across slabs and dirt/rocks to the base of a ravine between rock ribs. I ascended dirt and rock in the ravine almost to the top, where I found a low spot on the west rib that I could go over to come out on slabs just below a large 3-trunked lodgepole pine at approximately 9900 foot elevation. From the pine, I contoured northwest to a forest patch, skirted its east edge, then ascended talus made of large pieces of exfoliated granite slabs to about 10,200 foot elevation. Here I turned around due to lack of time to continue on, and returned to camp the same way. I was gone 1 hour and 50 minutes on this excursion.
P1110828+glacially polished granite slope along HutchingsCreek, looking to ClarkRange.jpg
P1110833+MountAnselAdams+east meadow from granite slope by HutchingsCreek.jpg
P1110834+MtAnselAdams over LyellForkMerced in east meadow.jpg
After resting, taking photos, and having a leisurely dinner, I found a good spot out in the meadow by the river to watch the sunset show on Mount Ansel Adams and the other peaks around the Lyell Fork Merced basin. The clouds from earlier in the day were mostly gone, with just a few wispy ones for added interest. Long shadows started to streak across the meadow and the valley sides as the afternoon turned to evening, interweaved with a beautiful golden light bathing the valley, and turning into red sunset colors on the peaks.
P1110835+LyellForkMercedRiver in east meadow.jpg
P1110844+MountAnselAdams over LyellForkMercedRiver in east meadow, evening light.jpg
P1110853+MountAnselAdams over LyellForkMercedRiver in east meadow, sunset.jpg
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 3:06 pm

Day 4 - Sunday, Sept 4 - Layover day at east meadow, Lyell Fork Merced River.
Cross-country side trip without pack of 4.8 miles with 2200 feet gain and loss.

Sun hit my camp at 7:30 am. I just love the way it instantly warms everything up. The sky was clear of clouds. After breakfast, I washed my hair and some more clothes and then left camp at 10:20 am to explore upstream in the Lyell Fork Merced River basin.

I walked back north to the faint use trail. Horse poop was scattered about 100 yards from my camp on the way, so packers get here, too. Faint traces of the use trail continued around the north side of the east meadow, mostly just in the forest edge. At the east end of this meadow, I started climbing through open forest with granite outcrops and ribs, staying 50 to 100 foot elevation above the Lyell Fork. As the grade steepened, I stayed closer to the north canyon wall while climbing.
P1110869+ascending granite slopes along LyellForkMerced.jpg
P1110909-typical terrain on route up LyellForkMerced.jpg
In the upper part of this climb, where the river is falling and cascading, I used outcrops, ravines, and ramps in fractured zones to move up in rough switchbacks. When I was close to the elevation of the largest waterfall, I followed a ramp heading north along the base of a cliffy headwall to a break where I could scramble up by a grove of pines. I reached the top of the headwall a couple hundred yards north of the river and above the level of the upper falls at 11:30 am. Here I took a rest and snack for 30 minutes.
P1110907+ramp along headwall of LyellForkMerced.jpg
P1110876+view west down LyellForkMerced to meadows and ClarkRange from top of headwall.jpg
The grove of pines at this break in the headwall was a good landmark to remember for the return trip. From here, I doubled back toward the river, slowing gaining elevation while walking mostly on exfoliating granite slabs, reaching Lake 10217 in 20 minutes. This lake is very deep and clear, with fringing meadow, including some patches of red bilberry, and a few whitebark pines adding to the scenic views across it of surrounding peaks, including a closeup of Mount Ansel Adams directly to the south.
P1110879+west view over LyellForkMerced from just below lake10217.jpg
P1110906+MountAnselAdams over Lake10217.jpg
P1110882+Peak12113 to RodgersPeak over lake10217.jpg
The northeast side of Lake 10217 had lakeside cliffs, so I went around the south end to keep exploring up the basin. The lake outlet was easy to cross because it was flowing underground through a boulder field. It should be crossable even in high water due to large rocks. The route around the south end of the lake led through minor talus. The talus was smallest close to the lake water. Some easy stuff that I crossed would be underwater at the lake high mark. At the southeast corner of Lake 10217, I climbed up a low ridge paralleling the east side and then crossed the inlet stream above the waterfall/cascades.

From the inlet stream of Lake 10217, I walked for about 40 minutes straight across a nearly flat expanse of shattered rock - mostly metamorphic - towards Lake 10400. The few bits of grass were dried up, giving a very austere look. Except for a small amount of green fringing meadow around Lake 10400, the view is rock in every direction. I decided that this upper basin was really too austere for my aesthetic tastes, and decided not to try to go any farther than Lake 10400. I like to see some greenery mixed in with the rocks.
P1110891+Lake10400, looking north.jpg
I took a 30 minute lunch break at Lake 10400 and then traced my route back to my camp, which took about two hours. I was pleased with my day's explorations up the valley in perfect blue-sky Sierra conditions. I had no real route-finding problems. The walk was mostly class 1 on slabs and open forest, with only occasional class 2 sections and almost no talus. I saw no one all day.

I lazed around camp, took some photos, made dinner, and then waited for the sunset show on the peaks surrounding the Lyell Fork Merced basin. The colors were every bit as good as the previous night. I decided that these sunset shows were the very best part of camping here and well worth the long trip to get to the Lyell Fork.
P1110918-reflections in LyellForkMercedRiver.jpg
P1110920+MountAnselAdams over LyellForkMercedRiver, sunset.jpg
P1110924+MountAnselAdams over LyellForkMercedRiver, sunset.jpg
P1110928+MountAnselAdams over LyellForkMercedRiver, sunset alpenglow.jpg
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 4:33 pm

Day 5 - Monday, Sept 5 - East meadow Lyell Fork Merced River to Babcock Lake.
Backpacking 8.4 mi, +2250 feet, -2700 feet.

Now it was time to start my return to the trailhead. The nights had been getting gradually colder, and last night it froze. I woke up to find a layer of ice (about 1/8 inch thick) in my water bucket and bottles, and much frost on my tent fly and in the meadow. I would guess that the low temperature had been in the high 20s F. I woke up a couple of times in the night feeling a bit cold, but not enough to motivate me to raid my "pillow" (extra clothes) to put on more clothes.

My morning plan was to check out multiple viewpoints above the Merced River canyon as I returned along the High Trail in order to get that good morning light for photography on the Clark Range. I was packed up and out of my camp by 9:15 am. It took about 20 minutes to return on the same cross-country route over the granite slabs to the High Trail. The lone tent I saw at the west meadow two days earlier was gone. I never had any contact with or evidence of that camper's presence while I was camped my two nights at the east meadow.
P1110932+runoff stain on granite slope by HutchingsCreek.jpg
Once I reached the High Trail, it was a quick 15 minute walk back to the "waterfall camp". Just about 1/4 mile further, in a relatively broad section of the ledge system, reddish rocks (rust stained granite) were visible off to the south by the canyon rim. I took a 10 minute detour out to the edge at what I call the "red rocks viewpoint".
P1110934+morning view of LyellForkMerced+ClarkRange from viewpoint east of WaterfallCamp.jpg
P1110938+MercedPeakFork from red rocks viewpoint.jpg
Back on the main trail, in another 1/2 mile, I reached the prime viewpoint described in Schaeffer's book. At 9600 feet elevation just before the trail starts up its only switchbacks of the whole section between the Lyell Fork and the Cony Creeks, I headed straight out to the canyon rim through open forest and then across a broad flat. I worked down some rock ledges to a point directly on top of the cliff with its magnificent view of granite canyons and mountains. I could see a long stretch of the deep Merced River granite canyon directly below me, the many forks of the Merced River in the upper watershed up to Isberg Pass, and the entire Clark Range. From this viewpoint, the Triple Peak Fork and Merced Fork streams looked bone dry. There was a dark streak indicating a possible trickle flow on Red Peak Fork.
P1110942+ClarkRange+RedPeakFork over MercedRiverCanyon from main HighTrail viewpoint.jpg
P1110944+down MercedRiverCanyon to WashburnLake from main HighTrail viewpoint.jpg
P1110945+RedPeak+RedPeakFork from main HighTrail viewpoint.jpg
After a long rest and snack break at the viewpoint, I made good time back on the High Trail and down the switchbacks to the Lewis Creek trail (about 1.5 hours). I had seen no other person yet today.

Below the High Trail-Lewis Creek Trail junction, I started to see red firs. Their seedlings were everywhere among the dead lodgepole pines. I was of course annoyed that I was losing elevation that would just have to be regained, but I did appreciate the views of the granite canyons on Lewis and Fletcher Creeks and the nearly perfect conical shape of Babcock Dome. I reached the Fletcher Creek Trail junction in about 50 minutes, and then 5 minutes more on Fletcher Creek trail to the Lewis Creek bridge. This was a good place to rest, soak my feet in the creek, and have lunch.
P1110951+MercedLake+HalfDome from LewisCreekTrail.jpg
My old edition of Schaeffer's Yosemite guide mentions campsites here at the bridge. Camping is no longer legal here - all possible sites are right next to creek. There are possible campsites on benches next to the trail about 100 yards north of the bridge.

After my nice break at Lewis Creek, I started that long climb up Fletcher Creek. Thankfully, the weather was cool, because I was hitting this open southwest slope in mid-afternoon with plenty of reflected heat from the granite. I passed a small group coming down the trail - the first (and only) people I saw that day. After a few stone step switchbacks, I crossed a small flowing unmapped stream at approximately 8400 feet elevation. The mapped stream at 8700 feet elevation also had a small flow.
P1110955+stone work on FletcherCreekTrail.jpg
P1110960+ClarkRange+BabcockDome from FletcherCreekTrail.jpg
I arrived at the Babcock Lake trail junction at 4 pm. I decided this was far enough for the day and I would camp at Babcock Lake. It only took ten minutes on this little-used trail to the Babcock Lake outlet. The trail crossed Fletcher Creek on a section of solid granite. There was a sheet of flowing water less than 1 inch deep that I just walked through in boots. Earlier in the summer, you would have to remove boots and wade, which would be fine barefoot due to the smooth gently sloping rock.

At the Babcock Lake outlet, I followed Donehoo's example and crossed the dry creek and headed over to granite outcrops on the north shore to camp. I made camp among trees between the granite and the large meadow to the north that was still somewhat green. Unfortunately, the sun went behind the western ridge putting the entire lake area in shadow by 5:30 pm. After dinner, I explored the north side of the lake to the west end - lots of exposed granite outcroppings. I appeared to be the only one camped at the lake. This evening was a bit warmer than others so far (due to lower elevation?), so I stayed out until 8:30 pm to see some stars.
P1110971-grasses in BabcockLake.jpg
P1110972+my camp at BabcockLake.jpg
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 4:43 pm

Day 6 - Tuesday, Sept 6 - Babcock Lake to Nelson Lake.
Backpacking 5.3 mi, +1650 feet, -1150 feet, most of it cross-country.

The sun hit my campsite at 7:30 am, announced by woodpecker drilling. There was frost during the night, but no ice in my water bucket or bottles. The night had been windless, and there was almost none in the morning, either.
P1110968+Peak9890 above BabcockLake, early morning.jpg
I took my time getting going and left camp at 9:50 am, heading back to the Fletcher Creek trail and then continuing the climb up the valley. Just a couple of minutes up the trail I saw a large ptarmigan on the trail. It ran off when I was about 15 feet away.

This section of trail above Babcock Lake heads gradually uphill through a wide and nearly flat valley. All the large lodgepole pines in this area are dead, with some or all of their bark missing. Young lodgepoles are everywhere, 10 to 15 feet tall. The large trees were probably killed by needle-miners 20 to 30 years ago, not by the current drought. This regenerating forest fills the valley from Babcock Lake up to where the grade steepens to get up to Emeric Lake. The western slope of the valley is mostly bare rock; the eastern slope has a forest of older red firs, mountain hemlocks, and western white pine with no dead trees.

My plan for the day was to find my way cross-country from Emeric Lake to Nelson Lake. I decided to shortcut from the Fletcher Creek trail by heading cross-country up Emeric Creek, rather than continuing up to the official Emeric Lake trail. I reached the junction of Fletcher and Emeric Creeks about 45 minutes after leaving Babcock Lake. I left the trail and walked across the slope to Fletcher Creek, which was flowing broadly here on steeply sloping slabs, but only about 1 inch deep, so I could just walk through it with boots. Emeric Creek immediately beyond was bone dry. In early season, Fletcher Creek could be impassable here.
P1110975+FletcherCreek by dome 9640+.jpg
A fifteen minute walk cross-country (class 1) up the west bank of Emeric Creek brought me to the outlet of Emeric Lake at 10:50 am, where I rested and had a snack for about 30 minutes. I was disappointed to see four men camped right at the outlet on the east side less than 25 feet from the water and smack in the middle of everyone's view. They could easily have found a legal and more secluded campsite on benches above the west side of Emeric Lake near the outlet. The outlet had a fabulous view in both directions - down Fletcher Creek canyon to the Clark Range, and across Emeric Lake to the peaks around the headwaters of the creek.
P1110980+east up EmericLake from near outlet.jpg
I could see that the east side of Emeric lake was composed of steep slabs and talus and would be difficult to get around. But on the west shore, a good use trail picked up right at the outlet. A 25 minute stroll on this use trail brought me around the lake to the north corner; the trail was faint in the big meadow southwest of that corner. I could see see that the use trail appears to turn southeast and cross the big wet meadows northeast of the lake within 100 feet of the lake shore. It does not go around the meadows as I would expect. But I left the use trail at the north corner of the lake to start my cross-country route to the unofficial "Emeric Pass" north of the lake that leads to Lake 9637 and then eventually to Nelson Lake.
P1110991+EmericLake and meadow from bench route to EmericPass.jpg
P1120004+VogelsangPeak, EmericLake+meadow from EmericPass.jpg
I have written up the route description over Emeric Pass to Nelson Lake already in the Cross Country Passes forum of HST. See: ... 31&t=15229

I will not repeat the route description here, except to say that the terrain was not difficult and the route-finding was fun. I saw boot prints on the slope up from Emeric Lake and on sandy areas along the pass ridge, but no other evidence of people on the rest of the route. The pass had good views, including all the way over Tuolumne Pass to the Kuna Crest. The big meadow I passed along Echo Creek was aflame with red bilberry.
P1120015+MatthesCrest, Cockscomb, and EchoCreekCanyon while descending spur ridge.jpg
P1120020+red bilberry in meadow on EchoCreek.jpg
After I finished the cross-country route to Nelson Lake (nearly five hours from Emeric Lake, including lots of rest stops), I headed around the west shore on the use trail to my favorite camping area at the edge of forest on the northwest side. I had seen no one else all day, except the group camped at Emeric Lake (who I did not talk to), and felt a great sense of solitude while finding the route from Emeric Lake. Based on my previous camping experiences at Nelson Lake (four other times over two decades), where I had never seen any other campers, I expected to finish my day in quiet solitude. But only 5 minutes after I found my campsite, I headed down to the lake to get water (now about 5 pm) and there were two women who had just arrived after me. They were a middle-aged mother on her first backpacking trip with her experienced 30 year old daughter, who had spent the summer living in Tuolumne Meadows and working on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team. She said that during most of July and August, they were doing at least one rescue (generally finding lost hikers) every day.
P1120023+southeast over NelsonLake to Peak11357 from near outlet.jpg
Later, about 6 pm, an older woman and man (more my age!) arrived coming down from the meadow above Nelson Lake. They walked right past my campsite on a faint use trail that ascended the ridge to the west above the lake and camped on the ridge. There is a good view up there, but it is awfully far to get water! I talked to the man - he said they had come in on the "high route" from the Elizabeth-Echo Pass. He described it as contouring south on the ridge from the pass on a route with "cairns" that dropped over the ridge and down to the Nelson Lake meadow. He said it was much shorter than the regular use trail to Nelson Lake.

One of the main reasons I like to camp at Nelson Lake (besides the normal solitude and easy-to-get permits) is the wonderful sunset light show on the great granite cliffs that rise up from the east side of the lake to Peak 11357. So I finished up my dinner early and then parked myself down by the lakeshore with my drink to watch the show. As you can see from the photos, I was not disappointed.
P1120029+Peak10787 over NelsonLake, late afternoon light.jpg
P1120032+sunset light on Peak11357+NelsonLake reflection.jpg
P1120040-sunset light on Peak11357+NelsonLake reflection.jpg
P1120044-fading sunset light on Peak11357+NelsonLake reflection.jpg
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by wildhiker » Thu May 11, 2017 4:50 pm

Day 7 - Wednesday, Sept 7 - Nelson Lake to Tuolumne Meadows.
Backpacking 5.6 mi, +850 feet, -1800 feet.

I had been feeling cool in the night for several nights and had been gradually wearing more clothes to bed each night. On this last night I wore a couple of extra layers and finally felt warm all night. There was frost in the meadow in the morning, but no ice in my bottles.

I always end a long backpacking trip with mixed feelings. I love being in the mountains and feel sad that my time there will be ending. On the other hand, I'm running out of food and feeling dirty, which are powerful draws to finish up the trip. I did linger in camp a bit to enjoy the beautiful scenery and peacefulness at Nelson Lake and finally left at 9:30 am.

I had better luck following the use trail down from the lake outlet than I did finding it yesterday at the end of my cross-country trek from Emeric Lake. The tread is faint in several places and disappears entirely after the trail crosses the dry ravine west of the lake and then heads up the broad granite ridge separating the Nelson Lake outlet from the main fork of Echo Creek. There were only a few ducks on this granite slope - I added a few to make the route more obvious. Once on top of the granite ridge, the trail turns sharply right (north) and becomes more and more obvious as it diagonally descends a gentle open forested slope. When it reaches the big meadow along Echo Creek, it becomes a very well defined tread. I took about an hour to get from Nelson Lake to this meadow on Echo Creek - part of that time was adding ducks on the route. Echo Creek was dry in this lower section of the meadow.
P1120056+north from ducked route across broad ridge east of EchoCreek.jpg
P1120057+looking up EchoCreekCanyon from pt where use trail from NelsonLake comes in.jpg
The trail is obvious heading upstream along the meadow in Echo Creek Canyon. There is very obvious worn tread all the way back to Elizabeth Lake and the main trail from there to Tuolumne Meadows. In the higher meadow at approximately 9450 foot elevation, Echo Creek had a low flow, but it was dry again at about 9500 feet elevation, where the stream bed is gravel. I reached the upper end of the big meadow (about 9600 feet elevation) in about 1.5 hours and took 25 minutes for rest and snacks. I saw two piles of recent coyote scat on the trail in the lower meadow. A marmot on a rock across the creek along the upper meadow made loud chirps at approximately 1 Hz frequency - it sounded just like your smoke alarm when the battery is dying - but louder.
P1120066+west side cliff, EchoCreekCanyon.jpg
I reached the Elizabeth-Echo Pass after another hour and 20 minutes and rested and ate lunch for 1/2 hour.
P1120074+MountConness+SierraCrest+LembertDome from Elizabeth-EchoPass.jpg
It only took 30 minutes to drop drown from the pass to the big meadow south of Elizabeth Lake. The trail on this forested slope alternates between 200 to 300 yard stretches where it contours gently down low to moderate grades, and short (less than 100 yards) stretches heading steeply directly down slope. The creek in the meadow above Elizabeth Lake had very low flow between big pools. The meadow itself had large areas of bright red bilberry.
P1120083+red bilberry near ElizabethLake.jpg
Fifteen minutes of walking through the meadows brought me to Elizabeth Lake, where I saw the first people of the day - many day hikers.
P1120081+UnicornPeak over ElizabethLake.jpg
Below the lake, the trail is quite beaten down and averages 5 feet wide. It goes through typical subalpine Yosemite "lush" lodgepole pine forest with continuous ground cover of bilberry (much turning red), grasses, and forbs.
P1120086+ElizabethLake trail.jpg
I reached the trailhead in the Tuolumne Meadows campground in less than an hour from Elizabeth Lake. I walked quickly over to the store and grill and had an ice cream cone and a cold beer, in that order. I just relaxed at the store for a while, talking briefly to some German tourists, before catching the shuttle bus back over to Dog Lake parking. I threw my gear in the car and made a leisurely drive home to the Bay Area, trying to preserve that peaceful mountain feeling as long as possible.
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Re: TR: Tuolumne Mdws to Lyell Fork Merced, Sept 1-7, 2016

Post by maverick » Thu May 11, 2017 6:34 pm

Wonderful trip report, see you took some photo's from exactly where we camped at during the 2016 Meet-up, beautiful place. :)
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I don't give out specific route information, my belief is that it takes away from the whole adventure spirit of a trip, if you need every inch planned out, you'll have to get that from someone else.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member:

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