The Pohono Trail in Yosemite National Park, California, USA is one of the most beautiful places in California, the States, and indeed, planet Earth. It is also connected to one of the highest-tracked tourism destinations in California—Yosemite Valley & Glacier Point. Overnight reservations are mandatory for this trail and usually booked throughout the year. I was lucky enough to be able to ride the coattails of my girlfriend, Amber, who at the beginning of the year booked reservations for two, for two nights, on the Ponono trail. On Memorial Day weekend. One of the busiest times of year.
We planned to enter at the Wawona Tunnel trailhead to begin our 3400 ft, 13 mile hike, with two days in provisions and not much else in the way of planning. Pohono Trail, if starting from Wawona Tunnel, is one of the more physically challenging routes in Yosemite, so we were not sure exactly how far, given our current training and experience, we’d make it before having to hunker down for the night.
On Friday we left as soon as the work day ended. We booked a place on AirBnb in Jamestown, southwest of Sonora to stay so we’d be closer to the trailhead and could head out at a more predictable time. Our host was gracious and had two adorable Corgi rescues. She made some delectable Zucchini bread of which we snagged two pieces before heading out at 7am.
Once in the park we stopped at the first ranger station to gather our reservations, since what you buy on the internet is only a confirmation and not the reservation itself. Don’t be caught out there with just the confirmation. The rangers want to tell you all about bear safety and how to poop before you head out. Also, you can’t bring your bear spray or any firearms, bummer. Good news: you’re allowed to start a camp fire! The trail head was another 30 minutes or so of curvy roads and gorgeous views.
At the Pohono Trail head, we parked in the parking lot dumped any smelly stuff in a bear locker so bears wouldn’t come pulling the piping off my windows to get at a piece of spearmint gum. I only have liability insurance and I’m pretty sure bears don’t have insurance, so any mitigation of bear damage is definitely worth the effort.
Immediately, the trail starts to climb and pay out some incredible views of the valley floor. You don’t know it yet, but looking east from the first view on this trail, you’ll be hiking almost the entire length of the visible valley
Inspiration Point is the first spot you’ll hit along the trail. As one gentleman we met up there described to us, “It isn’t very inspiring.” The foliage has grown over and hidden much of what might be the view. It’s a fairly dark spot and the underbrush is picked clean from campers scouring for firewood.
Soon after, the trail continues climbing aggressively. About 5 miles in and you hit a stretch through which you’ll be able to walk onto Stanford Point, Crocker Point and Dewy Point, encompassing some of the most incredible views of rock formations in the entire world. Matterhorn shit.
There’s lots of interesting foliage up here. This one caught Amber’s eye. Neither of us knew what it was until we got back and could look it up on the ‘net. It’s called Sarcodes—or Snow Plant—and is a creature somewhere between plant and fungus, forming a symbiotic relationship between the plant and it’s host. Due to it being unable to photosynthesize nutrients, it both receives and gives them to its host.
Up on Stanford point is a small camp site people seem to have been using a long time, though its use is significantly less than Inspiration Point. The last occupants got a little creative with some pine cones.
It’s important to note that until this point, there is no water along the trail. Amber and myself only drank about 1 litre of water, but you may well want to bring more, especially if you aren’t starting out well hydrated. Most hikers may drink 2-3 litres along this section. Fortunately, not long after Stanford point you hit Artist Creek which is a good place to filter some water.
Another mile or so after Stanford point, the trail begins to open up and you can tell you’re nearing another vista. Not knowing what to expect, we walked right up on it. Fucking amazing. This is truly one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. So beautiful it hurts. Life-changing, anxiety-inducing, call-your-grandma beauty. You have never been, nor will ever be this drunk, or this high. It’s medicine. Something everyone in the world needs to see, and pictures can’t even scratch the surface. You have to experience this enormity.
Walking out of there I felt the biggest lump in my throat. On the spot I couldn’t immediately process what I had just saw. Even several days later, as I write this, I’m still trying to integrate the experience into the rest of my brain pieces.
It isn’t long before Dewey Point, another of the incredible vistas along this trail, and the highest point before Taft and Glacier points. Another section of strenuous uphill, and then you’re pretty much there.
We stopped here and ate some granola bars. Until this point, we had not been eating or drinking much so the break was much needed. After about a half hour of dilly-dallying and contemplating the world, universe and everything, we picked up and started back on the trail again. At this point in the trail, it starts going downhill gradually, for several miles. Several times, you walk past/through these neat little meadows filled with lush foliage.
In this stage we passed a few day hikers who were going all the way through the trail, starting from Glacier Point. This is the way many hikers approach this trail, from the west, because for the most part, you are going downhill, and the hike is much more easygoing. They didn’t look nearly as gassed as we were quickly becoming.
After about 3 more miles we hit Bridalveil creek (yes the one that ultimately becomes Bridalveil Falls, pictured earlier). Marked by a footbridge, it was a perfect spot to hunker down and camp for the night. There was water, a clearing for the tent and even a fire ring. We staked out the spot and went about preparing dinner—rice and beans, again. Truthfully, it was the best tasting thing ever and no meal could have better hit the spot at that exact moment.
While preparing dinner we met some of the other campers, all of whom came through “the easy way”—opposite of ours. Everyone chose a private camping spot some ways off the trail, and some ways away from ours, so the night was spent pretty much just the two of us. The temperature quickly dropped, and we started a camp fire.
Overnight, I realized something about my what I brought to sleep in: it was not enough. Both Amber and I were quite cold through the night as temperatures dipped down close to freezing. So cold, in fact, that neither of us slept more than 20 minutes at a time, and infrequently at that. We both got up at 5am freezing and started another fire to warm ourselves. Given that it was supposed to rain Monday, and the weather was to get no warmer at night, we decided we’d hike out Sunday instead of Monday, and come back again with warmer sleeping gear.
Leaving on Sunday was a bummer, because we had secured such a great spot to camp, and there were many day hike options from where we camped. Next time, we are going to be sure to bring much warmer night clothes, and probably purchase some bivy sacks for our quilts, an inexpensive way to make a quilt+uninsulated sleeping pad combo much warmer.
Taft Point was next on the trail, and after some strongly caffeinated tea in the morning, it was easily reached. Once Taft Point is hit, the feeling of being isolated in the wilderness pretty much ends. Glacier Point to Taft Point is an incredibly popular, and pretty easy hike for most people. Sunday it was fairly busy. Regardless, Taft is an amazing outlook. There was a group of guys who were slack-lining between cliffs, which I didn’t believe at first, then nearly shit when I saw it.
Don’t look down!
Despite there being many more people, the views continue to pay off along the trail. From Taft to Glacier, you ascend another several hundred feet, walking closer and closer to Half Dome, and past several of the beautiful waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls (upper & lower). Amber and I both agreed that we’d do the Yosemite Falls hike next, and camp high up on the other side of the canyon.
At one point, not long before exiting the trail, you get an incredible view of half dome. We had to stop and take the obligatory picture.
When we got to the trailhead, it was time to decide what to do about not having a car, or any obvious way back to ours. The staff at the gift shop was of little help, and looked upon us as if we were insane. Her gaze didn’t lie, I felt a little insane, sleep deprived up an 8000 foot mountain and 15 miles between myself and my car. Several times per day, a tour bus will drive through here and to the valley floor, passing by our car, but we were uncertain of their willingness to stop and let us off, not to mention the next bus was hours away.
So we did the next best thing: hitchhiked! For the first time in my life, I hitchhiked. Initially I was intimidated by what a task lay ahead of me. My appearance haggard, my odor near unbearable and my speech short and only just intelligible. Amber and I trolled the parking lot asking people where they were going and if they would be willing to give us a ride.
Few people responded, and one did but wasn’t going our direction. Then we decided we’d just stake out the exit to the parking lot and thumb it. Surprisingly, within 5 minutes a young Indian-American couple drove up and asked us if we needed a ride, and themselves needed directions. Luckily, I had a map of the whole area which we could use to navigate by.
Unfortunately, I read the map wrong, we went down the wrong road, and ended up making a 40 minute detour down the wrong direction. The drivers we gracious enough to not kick us out there, or just drop us off at their destination, and drove us up to our car. When I tried to give the guy some money, both for the ride and my route finding fuckup, he refused to take it. I was so grateful I made a swear to consider picking up hitchhikers in the future, where before I never had. The sentiment still stands. Backpackers, skiers, snowboarders… look for a silver A3 and wave. It might be me, and I’ll stop for you.
Allow me to leave you with a bit of wisdom that I learned while backpacking in Yosemite:
GO THE FUCK TO YOSEMITE ALREADY