By Michael Lanza
Under a sky lacking even one tiny cotton ball, and so blue you want to pour it into a cup and drink it, Todd and I walk across Tuolumne Meadows, carrying full but light backpacks and hearts full of anticipation. Across the creek-cut meadows, Cathedral Peak knifes into the stratosphere, and domes of polished granite bubble up above the treetops. The temperature hovers around 60° F, the air is as calm as a monk.
When you’re hiking on a September morning at 8,600 feet in the high country of Yosemite National Park, life floats intoxicatingly close to perfection.
And why wouldn’t it seem perfect? My friend Todd Arndt and I have embarked on an ambitious plan to backpack nearly 87 miles in four days through the biggest, loneliest, and most remote chunk of wilderness on the Yosemite map: a circuit north of Tuolumne Meadows through a vast realm of deep canyons, passes at over 10,000 feet, and peaks rising to over 12,000 feet.
Although I’ve been to this park several times, every visit makes me want to pinch myself. After all, this is Yosemite, the Sistine Chapel of national parks. Just uttering the name, you expect to hear heavenly trumpets and a chorus of angels singing. Half a lifetime ago, when I was a young, clueless, novice backpacker who had only barely begun exploring the rocky hills of New England, I decided to take my first big Western backpacking trip. But I didn’t want to start in the minor leagues and work my way up. Like thousands of backpackers every year, I wanted to go right to the best. So I chose Yosemite.
Now, a few decades later, I’m finally about to discover Yosemite’s farthest corners, her best-kept secrets. It’s like I’ve been hiding the map to a buried treasure for all these years and, at long last, I’m going to follow it to dig up my fortune.
Todd and I cruise the easy six miles from Tuolumne to Glen Aulin—the Gaelic term for “beautiful valley”—in two hours, knocking off nearly one-third of our first day’s mileage quickly. We take a short break beside cascades with a view down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River—which we’ll hike back up in just two days—and hit the trail again.
It feels joyous just to be out on a big hike in this park.
A Mild But Healthy Obsession
Todd and I have returned to Yosemite a year after hiking a three-day, 65-mile loop south of Tuolumne Meadows last September because we have some unfinished business. We had originally planned to complete a 152-mile grand tour of Yosemite’s most remote backcountry in seven consecutive days last year, but smoke from wildfires sent us home early (although the smoke hadn’t affected our three-day hike).
As I wrote in my story about the 65-mile, first leg of this Yosemithon, after several visits to Yosemite, backpacking, dayhiking, and climbing, I had become kind of obsessed with the fact that I had still not explored the park’s two most expansive swaths of wilderness: the Clark Range and Merced River headwaters south of Tuolumne Meadows, which we backpacked last year; and even vaster northern Yosemite, which stretches out before us now.
I should back up. For years, I’ve kept a list of ideas for trips I want to take, with brief notes about each. It’s inspirational and a resource I review whenever I’m thinking about where to go next. (Keeping such a list is tip no. 1 in my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”) And my list keeps getting longer, not shorter: It’s now well over 17,000 words.
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But I confess: I get a little overwrought thinking about a hike or climb that’s been on my trip ideas list for a while. I’ll reach a point where I can’t stop thinking about it—and the more I think about it, the more I feel an overwhelming need to get it done, and that gets me thinking about it more, which inflames my irrepressible desire to get it done. It’s a vicious cycle and often leads to me concocting a plan that involves hiking distances that only a very small group of my most, um, unique friends would view as a good idea.
My WOCD (Wilderness Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) has led to some extreme perambulations, several of which Todd has been a party to, including hiking 44+ miles across the Grand Canyon and back in a day, dayhiking 50 miles across Zion, and thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in seven days, averaging 31 miles a day. (Todd’s feet—which got so badly blistered that he had to go on antibiotics afterward—have still not forgiven me for that last one.)
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However borderline psychotic these adventures, we’ve always undertaken them with a high degree of preparedness—and yet, not without a niggling feeling of realistic uncertainty.
Our plan to walk through most of northern Yosemite in just four days feels no different. Although we managed 65 rugged miles in three days pretty well a year ago, this time we’re adding a fourth consecutive 20+-mile day to a tough itinerary that features lots of vertical relief—including today, when we’ll cross four passes, three of them over 10,000 feet. Todd tells me this will be the longest hike he’s ever done except for our JMT thru-hike.
I think my feet began a low-grade throbbing even before we started out today, as a warm-up for the next four evenings.
Matterhorn Canyon to Benson Lake
Following a clear night camped in Matterhorn Canyon, a short walk from a creek that lulled us to sleep, Todd and I hit the trail at 7 a.m. on our second morning. It’s chilly but calm. We prefer hiking while it’s cool, and we have a long day ahead of us. Besides, we both feel good after a 20-mile day yesterday. Todd recalls of our past ultra-hikes: “I remember it’s not cumulative—your legs don’t feel worse every day.”
Within a half-hour, Matterhorn Canyon opens up. Small, scattered copses of conifer trees throw spots of green on a landscape dominated by granite—stones and boulders littering the canyon bottom, rock walls stretching to the sky on both sides of us. Thanks to our early start, we’re hiking in the cool shade of those cliffs in this broad canyon. When the sun finally crests the walls, it’s warm, but not the searing heat of July or August in the High Sierra. Walking at a brisk pace with our light packs, I’m not even breaking a sweat. This is exactly how I like to backpack. (See my top five tips on my backpacking strategy.)
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At 10,650-foot Burro Pass, we drop our packs for a snack and to soak up the view of upper Matterhorn Canyon’s meadows and rock gardens embraced by an arc of cliffs, pinnacles, and 12,264-foot Matterhorn Peak. Beyond Burro, we cross a cirque below the serrated Sawtooth Ridge, followed by arduous climbs over two more 10,000-foot passes, Mule and Rock Island.
By early evening on our second day, we cross our fourth pass of the day—Seavey, at just over 9,000 feet—and stroll past quiet tarns where a few parties of backpackers have already pitched their tents in the forest. It strikes me that they are the first people Todd and I have seen all day—not an observation one expects to make in Yosemite. That’s because we tend to think of “that Yosemite”—the overcrowded park—but Todd and I are exploring “this Yosemite,” its most remote backcountry. A gargantuan moon rises over 10,000-foot peaks bathing in the last, red rays of daylight as we make the steep, quad-melting, 1,500-foot descent to Benson Lake.
At Benson, we walk up to the most unlikely sight deep in the mountains: a sprawling, sandy beach that looks like it got lost on its way to Southern California. After hiking more than 22 miles today, the cool sand and cold water feel so good on our bare feet that I swear I heard my toes sigh.
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