Ask Me: Is Early June Too Early For Hiking Mount Whitney and in Yosemite?
My wife and I, mid-30s, are planning a getaway week (from our kids 3 and 5) for the first week of June. We’ve booked cheap round-trip flights from Cleveland (900’ above sea level) to Las Vegas. I scored permits to overnight on Mount Whitney June 8-9. Our itinerary includes Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, hike to Cathedral Lakes (or beyond), backpack over Clouds Rest, camp near junction with John Muir Trail. Half Dome early a.m., descend Mist Trail to Yosemite Valley. Free Day in Yosemite (North Rim dayhike?). Summit Whitney.
Understanding that a delayed snowmelt could throw a wrench into any plans I make, I’d like to plan this assuming that the high-elevation snowpack will be manageable. Since putting together the initial itinerary, I’ve spent hours and hours on this site (The Big Outside) reading, and I feel like I’m in a place where I could use some input. My wife and I have been training, but we can’t simulate 10,000 feet (in elevation). I’m up for a challenge, but not if it means I can barely put one foot in front of the other, and can’t soak up the view.
Should I consider scrapping my Whitney permits, and save the summit for when I take my kids on the JMT in 2022? Then take a longer Yosemite backpacking trip (Red Peak Pass loop) or another overnight somewhere else in the Sierra?
Should I see how we handle the elevation at Half Dome and Tuolumne, and then decide on Whitney?
Should we just dayhike, and sleep comfy after sampling the Valley’s bars?
All right then, maybe I scared all my help away with the long post, but I’m very interested in your advice!
Thanks so much,
Your California itinerary looks great, but my initial reaction is that it would look more enticing in late August than in early June. Are you prepared to hit a lot of snow? I haven’t checked on snow levels in the High Sierra parks this spring; the Sierra, as you probably know, had record-low snowfall through much of the winter, then much more in late winter. But one would normally expect to encounter significant snow at higher elevations until sometime in July.
In early June, you might still need some kind of crampons and an ice axe; heavy-duty crampons may not be necessary, you may be fine with Kahtoola Microspikes or something similar. That’s assuming you have ideal conditions: clear, freezing nights that firm up the snow for fast walking. If the freezing line is above the lowest snow elevation, you may be sinking fairly deeply into wet snow, which is strenuous, slow, and wet. Coming down during the warmer hours of the day, there will be more melting and softening of the snow, too. You’d want a very early start for Whitney, well before dawn.
I’m honesty not sure how much snow you’ll encounter on Whitney, and people routinely climb it in spring, April being a good month; but they plan it as a snow climb, and probably encounter areas where the sun has already melted snow off the rocks, even up high. I’m just saying you have to be prepared for mixed conditions. If you are, and you get the right weather, it could go very well and be wonderful.
It’s hard to anticipate how well you’ll react to the elevation. Fortunately, you’re going to Whitney after being at moderate to high elevations in Yosemite. I expect you’ll probably be pretty well acclimated by the time you head to Whitney; and when you get above 10,000 to 12,000 feet on Whitney, your reactions to the elevation will be very individualized and impossible to predict. When I thru-hiked the JMT, north to south, we were quite acclimated by the time we reached Whitney. We hiked slowly through the higher passes of the southern Sierra, but didn’t feel sick.
Having just gone over Clouds Rest last September, and being reminded of how exposed the summit ridge is, I suggest you only do it if you have traction devices and are comfortable walking over frozen or soft, wet snow on a knife-edge ridge. I’m not sure what kind of cornice you might encounter up there at that time. Given how exposed it is to sun, if it has been warm, the ridge may be snow-free. You can probably find out from rangers. I see in the conditions report at the park website that the Half Dome cables are already up. [The lead photo at top of story shows a hiker on Half Dome’s summit.]
Of course, you can always head out and attempt any of these hikes and turn around if needed. Or just talk to some rangers for a conditions update right before you head out, and decide what to do then. There are middle-elevation hiking alternatives. I expect you’ll hit alternating patches of snow and dry ground on many trails at 9,000 to 10,000 feet, sometimes deep snow. But that can vary quite a bit from year to year.
One thing about your plan to camp near the junction of the trail descending off Clouds Rest and the JMT: You probably want to camp at Little Yosemite Valley (if you haven’t already secured a permit for there). Established campsites in that area would be hard to find.
I backpacked a loop from Tuolumne Meadows around to Red Peak Pass and through Vogelsang last September; it’s amazing. I think you’d encounter a lot of snow in early June that would make for slow going.
As for hustle and bustle, you are going to popular areas where permits usually sell out. Personally, that wouldn’t dissuade me from climbing Whitney or Half Dome. I went up Half Dome again just last September, it was busy and we enjoyed every minute of it. If it’s been warm in Yosemite Valley, you might find the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail mostly snow-free, and it’s a classic hike.
If you haven’t already read my post “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself,” you might find it helpful in making decisions.
What would I do? I would be prepared for whatever conditions we might encounter and try to go through with my plans. If you’re feeling good and conditions look right for Whitney, go for it. I would also get as much information about current conditions as possible, and I’d bag any plans that don’t look like they’d be much fun, like a long backpacking trip in a lot of soft, wet snow.
I hope that’s helpful.
Note: In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at email@example.com, message me at facebook.com/TheBigOutside, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I’m receiving an increasing volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.