A Yosemite Grand Slam: Running from the Valley to Three Amazing Peaks
Tuesday, August 24th, 2010
Five full days with the kids at sleep-away camp. What were Morgan and I to do with ourselves? Run!
We settled on Yosemite because of its proximity, and because of the diversity and drama of its environment. We also decided we wanted to stay in one place and take day trips, rather than carrying our gear from point to point and camping, so that we could run without being weighed down and recover with a hot shower and cold beer at day’s end.
Yosemite National Park is so vast — 1,169 square miles — that the options for running and hiking seem as limitless as the view from the top of Glacier Point. Planning where to go in a limited number of days inevitably makes for tough trade-offs. We consulted lots of helpful resources, such as iRunFar’s Yosemite Guide and the park service website.
We wanted to go everywhere, from Tuolomne Meadows to Wawona, but given our training level and the park’s jagged elevation profile, we knew we should limit ourselves to “only” 15 – 20 miles per day. We also didn’t want to spend an hour or more driving or riding a shuttle bus on windy roads to trail heads. We therefore decided to stay in Yosemite Valley at Curry Village and focus on the valley’s renowned trails and summits (Half Dome, El Capitan and Glacier Point), saving destinations like Lyell Canyon, Clouds Rest and Buena Vista Peak for another trip.
(Note: for a review of Curry Village lodging and tips on what to bring, please see our travel blog post.)
Day One: 4-mile Warmup
After driving a half day and checking into a Curry Village tent cabin, I got acclimated with a 4-mile run on the mostly flat bridle path to Mirror Lake and back. The valley’s bike paths and roadside trails offer endless combinations for easy runs. It’s not difficult to look past the cars parked along the road and the hordes of peak-season tourists and focus instead on the smell of pine needles, the sound of the Merced River and the sight of the valley’s chiseled granite walls. The crowds thin out as soon as you get more than a mile past any major intersection or trail head.
On our first night, Morgan and I laid out our gear for the next day’s long run. Most of these things are obvious essentials: water (60 liters each in a hydration pack plus extra in a hand-held bottle); at least 1000 calories each in the form of gels, bars, trail mix and sports drink; blister care, toilet paper, ibuprophen and other basic first aid; sunscreen, sunglasses and hat. The less obvious things we brought were: a safety whistle and pepper spray for use on large animals (thankfully we never needed to use either); iodine tablets to treat stream water in case we ran out (also never needed to use those); and a camera. We left the cell phone behind because we wanted to be “unplugged” and there’s no reception on most of the trail anyway.
Day Two: Half Dome via Mist Trail, returning on the John Muir Trail (18 miles)
Getting an early start to Half Dome during summer months is essential; otherwise you’ll get caught in the early-afternoon rush of fatigued hikers clogging the final climb to the peak. We left our cabin by 7 a.m. and ran the mile from Curry Village to the Happy Isles trail head. From there, the first mile is a paved climb up to Vernal Fall Bridge, an always-crowded stretch of trail. No worries, only a fraction of the people hike past the bridge.
Vernal Fall Bridge is the last point to refill water, and then the trail splits between the Mist and John Muir Trail. We went up the Mist, though it’s less runnable, to get close to the falls and climb all those slippery steps. You go up, up, up from the Valley Floor, elev. approx 4000 ft., to Nevada Fall (5900 ft.) on the way to Half Dome’s peak (8836 ft.).
After the falls, the Mist Trail rejoins the John Muir Trail, and Little Yosemite Valley opens up for a blissfully runnable, mostly flat stretch. Enjoy it while it lasts, because the trail again turns to steep switchbacks, and the dirt gives way to sheer granite. The last half-mile up the dome gave me a touch of vertigo as I took in the vast views of the massive, glacier-sculpted formations, which alternate from smooth to serrated. One misstep, I worried, and I would tumble down hundreds or thousands of feet.
Finally we reached the base of the summit, where a pair of vertical cables and a series of horizontal wooden rungs help hikers pull themselves up the last quarter-mile. (Note: permits are require on Fridays – Sundays to climb the cables.) An ominous sign warns not to attempt this in inclement weather, as lightening regularly strikes the rock. A pile of thick gloves sits at the base of the cable for hikers to borrow; we found a pair and began the climb.
After just 50 feet or so, I realized this would be harder on my hands and arms than on my legs, since my hands aren’t used to gripping for an extended period. Slowly we inched up, and though I never felt exactly scared, I felt the seriousness of the task; that is, I had to concentrate fully and watch every step to stay safe.
It was 10 a.m., still uncrowded enough that we could move at the pace we felt comfortable rather than having to stop and wait for those ahead to move higher, but we saw on the descent a half hour later that the line of people had grown thicker, and several people looked scared and overexerted as they hung on to the cables and waited to move ahead.
We reached the top and sat down to eat a snack. When Morgan got near the edge to have this picture taken with the valley in the background, all of a sudden I began to feel sick.
I felt lightheaded and started coughing in a shallow and wheezy way. Attempts to breathe deeply and relax just brought on more coughing. I didn’t know if I had a touch of altitude sickness, anxiety or asthma — perhaps all three — and I reminded myself that bodies can do unpredictable things in the most unexpected moments, and all you can do is try not to freak out and tell yourself the symptoms will pass.
Five minutes later, I felt more or less normal, though when we posed for this next photo and I saw people sitting so close to the edge, my dizziness and rapid breathing returned. I heard a guy nearby, who looked like a Men’s Health fit and fashionable type, breathing hard into his cell phone and saying, “Man, I just did the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and there was a dude on the way up who lost his backpack and it tumbled all the way down!” Strangely, seeing him rattled made me feel calmer.
Going down the cables turned out to be easier than it looked, and then the run home was uneventful. At Nevada Fall we took the John Muir Trail back to Clark Point rather than the Mist Trail, which is longer but easier to run. The rest of the way was smooth sailing — until we hit the final mile between Vernal Fall Bridge and Happy Isles, where teenagers and families walking five abreast clogged the path. We ran the final mile back to Curry Village and finished the 18-mile loop in around five and a half hours.
Day Three: El Capitan from Tamarack Flat (17 miles)
The next morning we drove 40 minutes to Tamarack Flat, a campground on Tioga Road about three miles past the Crane Flat intersection. We really didn’t know what to expect from this outing; we just knew we wanted to get up El Cap, and other than climbing the face, this backwoods route was the best way to get there.
We started on an old logging road that’s on the edge of a burn zone from a big 1990 blaze. Tamaracks – a type of pine — are everywhere, dropping their pretty, football-sized cones. Massive boulders sprout from the earth, which our guidebook says are not boulders that tumbled down from a glacier but rather protruding outcroppings anchored in the ground, leftover from ancient layers. Less sturdy rock eroded over time and left these big guys standing proud.
Our guidebook indicated it would be “only” 7.5 miles one way to El Cap, but the trailhead sign a ways past the parking lot said 8.4. “Oh great, it’s even longer,” Morgan said. “My legs feel a hundred years old.”
We both took it easy from the start since our bodies had a Half Dome hangover. Thankfully, this trail starts easily, with a two-mile drop on the logging road down to Cascade Creek. As soon as we entered the dense forest, I was struck by how remote and isolated it felt — so different from the hordes of hikers taking off from Happy Isles. We saw no one, and I had to admit it felt a bit spooky. Just relax, I told myself — and then, only about a mile into the run, I heard a rustle to my left. I grabbed Morgan’s arm, pointed and said, “A bear!”
Up the bank, about 50 feet away, lumbered a roly-poly medium-sized bear. Its brown fur rippled as it ran — and thank goodness he or she was running in the opposite direction. The bear tore through branches to get up an embankment, clearly more scared of us than we were of it.
We crossed Cascade Creek and turned left onto a single track trail (all these trail intersections are well marked; just follow the signs to El Capitan). Aside from two groups of hikers, we saw no one else along the way. The trail climbed steadily and at times disappeared, but trail markers — stacks of rocks — guided the way.
The trail hit the marshy Rainbow Meadows, where branches covered with fuzzy moss look like giant green pipe cleaners, and then it climbed more and — ta, dah! — opened up near the face of El Capitan. The best view of El Cap comes a half mile or so before reaching it, when the forehead of the rock face emerges and the valley spreads out way below. We got near the edge here to take in the view and then ran the final stretch to El Cap’s top.
“Awesome” is a terribly overused word, rendered almost meaningless, but sitting on El Capitan and looking at Half Dome across the valley (our previous day’s destination) and Glacier Point on the side (where we planned to go the next day) was awesome, pure and simple. Humbling, too. It’s times like that, in places like that, when you can’t help but feel like a blip in the span of time.
The run back was, predictably, easier and faster — just be prepared for the final two-mile climb from the creek back to the campground. The whole outing, including breaks, took us about six hours since we hiked rather than ran much of the uphill.
Day Four: Glacier Point via Four-Mile Trail, returning Panorama and JMT (17.5 miles)
We saved the best for last. If we had to choose just one of these three long runs to recommend, this would be it.
We ran westward along the bike path just over two miles from Curry Village — a nice warm up — and picked up the misnamed Four Mile Trail, which is 4.6 miles to Glacier Point. The trail was first built in 1872 and originally four miles long, then rerouted and lengthened to 4.6 in 1929. Every switchback reveals more drop-dead-gorgeous views of the valley. El Capitan rose to the west across the river, while Half Dome emerged on the east end and the contours of Yosemite Fall sprang out straight across the valley. Morgan said for at least the third time, “Have I told you how much I love this trail?”
About two miles from Glacier Point, near the top of the switchbacks, the trail makes a little detour for about 200 feet to Union Point. Be sure to go there to the edge to check out the view. Then continue on to the 7214-ft. Glacier Point. The ribbon of trail uncurls for a lovely, mostly flat runnable mile to the peak.
Glacier Point itself is a bit of a disappointment because the Visitor Center attracts such a mass of people who arrive by car or shuttle, and it’s unsettling to encounter such a crowd and so much concrete after the peacefulness of the trail. Still, the grandeur of the lookout is undeniable. I stood there, looking across the point to Yosemite Fall and Half Dome, and paid homage to those who had the foresight to preserve the park little more than a century ago — my heroes, John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt.
We left the lookout, ran past the Visitor Center and took off down the Panorama Trail. Whoo-wee, this is a fun stretch to run! It descends gently for a couple of miles to a bridge above Illilouette Fall, where the river widens to fast-moving pools.
From there, the trail goes up again for another couple of miles — not too steep to run, but it is taxing on the legs. At this point Half Dome comes into view from the backside — a strange perspective, like a giant thumb, with its sheer face hidden from view.
Soon the sound of Nevada Fall comes into earshot, and the trail reconnects with the John Muir Trail. From there, it’s a steep, rocky four miles back down the same route as the return from Half Dome, reconnecting with the Vernal Fall Bridge and Happy Isles and, finally, the last mile back to Curry Village, returning about five hours after starting out.
Day Five: Recovery Run on the Valley Floor
I woke early and ran a five-mile loop from Curry Village to the meadow by Sentinel Beach, near the Four Mile Trail, and looped back through Yosemite Village. The Merced River’s sandy banks beckoned to take off my shoes and soak my legs. We checked out of Curry Village early in the day.
After five days and some 60 miles on the trail, I felt far more fulfilled than fatigued, perhaps because, as John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”