Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Away from the Crowds: Murphy Creek to May Lake at Yosemite National Park

Date: September 17, 2016
Place: Yosemite National Park, California
Trailhead coordinates: 37.834501, -119.462970
Length: 11 miles
Level: Strenuous

I was very fortunate that is mid-September, three weeks into the new school year, I got one last opportunity to go hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains before the onset of winter. Leaving the chikas in the excellent care of Pappa Quail I took off to the mountains together with my god friends G (who went with me to Arroyo Seco last spring) and Y (whom I backpacked with at Mineral King last August).
My mind was set on Yosemite National Park. I've been there many times before, but here was a chance for me to go beyond the usual highlights of the park. In particular, I wanted to explore some more near the Tioga Pass.
It was already nighttime when we had left the Bay Area. I had not managed to reserve any campsite at the park so I was going on faith, hoping to find one of the park's walk in sites available. When we arrived by midnight at the 120 gate, however, we were welcomed by a sign saying that all the park's campgrounds were full. We crossed the park along the Tioga Road all the way to the other side, where after some searching time during which I resisted all prompting from my friends to park on the shoulder and sleep in the car, we found the last available campsite at one of the Inyo National Forest campgrounds east of Yosemite.
It was about 2:00 am when we finally got to crawl into the tent. There was no discussion of an early rise - none of us was up for that.
We did sleep soundly and took our time in the morning to get ready. Therefore, it was nearly noon when we finally started on our trail.
Our hike as captured by my GPS
We found parking near Tenaya Lake, quite an achievement, considering the multitudes that were visiting that place. We crossed Tioga Road, found the Murphy Creek trailhead and started walking up and into the woods.
Murphy Creek Trail
The forest we were walking through comprised of pine and fir and wasn't very dense. The bright mid-day sun had plenty of access to the forest floor. Despite the relatively plentiful light the forest undergrowth wasn't very rich, probably due to water limitation. 
As expected for mid-September, here was very little bloom to see. We did, however, see some butterflies about.
Tortoise Shell Butterfly
We were walking steadily uphill. The trail meandered through the forest, occasionally crossing wide granite clearings where few trees seemed like popping right from solid granite.
On these granite clearings the trail would disappear and it wasn't always easy to figure out where did it continue on the other side. Sometimes it was a line of cairns that marked the way. In other places it was a single footprint of a previous hiker left in a small patch of gravel. And there were those places where I trusted my intuition. Luckily, it didn't fail.

Whenever the forest opened up enough we could see the huge granite monoliths rising over the little creek we were walking along. Granite is granite - but a closer look would often show the evidence of the geological forces that had shaped the mountains we were walking on.
In the photo below - a white dike running perpendicular through the gray granite mass.
A dike in the granite
We were walking uphill for well over an hour before finally meeting Murphy Creek. The slope leveled somewhat and we took our first break, enjoying our time in Nature away from our daily worries.
It was there, along the creek, that we found a straggling lupine still in bloom.
Lupine (Lupinus sp.)
Yosemite is a very popular park. Although we were hiking away from the major attractions of the park, we were by no means alone on the trail. Every now and then we had crossed paths with other hikers. Most of them were young day hikers. Some of them obviously on a fitness quest. But there were a few backpackers on that trail as well, and they were mostly older, more seasoned folk, and nearly all were men. We would greet each other as we passed by, but occasionally we'd stop and chat a bit. Some of them were regular returnees for whom this area was an annual pilgrimage place, and they happily shared their experience with us. Others were first timers there and had the adventurer look all about them. I felt a sting of jealousy, but I was grateful to be out there even for just a day hike.
We kept going up higher and higher and even though the slope was mild we were ready to take a longer break. I had originally planned to stop an the first trail intersection but coming to a pretty forest pond we all agreed that it was the perfect place to sit for a lunch break. 

Despite the few straggling wildflowers we saw here and there, everything else was way into fall by that time. Evidence for that were apparent all around us. It shan't be long before the first snow now.
Autumn gold
We reached our first trail intersection and immediately continued to the next one of the trail that would take us to May Lake and eventually back to Tanya Lake. Others we shared the road with went on further out into the wilderness, sweating under their heavy packs. My heart went out with them. The rest of me continued with my friends up the May Lake trail, higher and higher, until we broke out of the trees again and were looking upon the roof of the world.
 The continuous climb started to have its effect on us and our little company slowed down. It was a good thing that the view was now open wide because how can one be concerned about the pace when walking in the level of the sky?
The skyline was jagged with tantalizing peaks, many of which require special skills to summit.
View southwest: Mt. Clark (11,400 ft), about 11 miles as the crow flies, image taken in full zoom.
We had no summit plans for the day. We were going up higher and higher, but about a mile before May Lake the trail leveled off into a small, hidden meadow that had some dogwood bushes in fruit and many herbaceous plants.
Western Dogwood (Cornus sericea ssp. occidentalis)
There in that little meadow I saw the farewell greeting of the summer of 2016, now all but gone into memory.
Fleabane (Erigeron sp.)
We didn't linger much at that little meadow. It was already late in the afternoon and we still had much distance to go. I promised my companions a long break at May Lake, and so we went on, and uphill once again.
We turned the curve and saw a glitter far below - Lake Tenaya where we had started and where we would finish our hike.
Lake Tenaya
We were now walking on a huge dome of granite, its outer coat of large slabs flaked off and cracked into large boulders. In the cracks grew trees of a species now familiar to me - the foxtail pine I got to know on my backpacking trip at Mineral King. The foxtail pines I saw ear May Lake, however, were smaller and looked less majestic and venerable than the trees I saw near Spring lake last August.
Still, they were very pretty to look at, and seemed healthy and thriving.
Sierra Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana)
May Lake is nestled in a granite nook on the slope of Mount Hoffman. While we weren't going on the immediate slope of that mountain, we were still quite impressed by the wall of granite that towered over the trail.
It looked like something that, given enough time, we would have had fun climbing.

A few meters up that wall grew a stunted and deformed foxtail pine. It must have been at least 200 years old, likely older, all gnarled and twisted by the elements, and still much alive and vibrant.
It reminded me of some of the Bristlecone pines I've seen in the White Mountains earlier last summer.
Sierra Foxtail Pine (Pinus balfouriana)
There's granite and there's granite. Most if the granite we were walking on was the grainy type composed of bits of quartz, white feldspar, and black biotite.  Every now and then, however, we saw other rocks which, while made of similar mineral composition, were obviously formed under different conditions. My geology is lacking but, hey, there's room for growth here :-)
Not the usual Yosemite Granite
We were going up still. We knew that May Lake isn't far at hand, but the trail seemed endless and the sun was already westerning.
Two men passed us quickly from behind. They didn't have backpacks, but each carried an armload of dead and downed wood and they told us that they were camping by the lake. There was no collection of firewood there, so they went down to where it was ok to collect to gather their wood. Encouraged by their promise that the lake wasn't far off we continued on with renewed spring.
Pines are very beautiful trees, and the pines of the High Sierra are the most beautiful of all. Even their old, used up cones are pretty.

And wherever there are pine nuts there are those who would eat them. We encountered a small squirrel that was hopping about between the rocks, careful to keep out of full sight. I was happy to see a completely wild squirrel that observed people as a threat and not as a potential food source.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
At last we'd made it to the highest point of our hike. The view opened up again and we could see far and wide. I stretched my zoom to get close up of some of the interesting-looking peaks to the east.
Tresidder Peak
I am not a rock climber. Not by a long shot. The most I'd do is scramble up a rocky slope where there's plenty of hand and foot holds. These peaks, however, looked so beautiful and inviting that I have my plans to see which can be ascended by plain hiking and go there next summer. I already told Pappa Quail that he and the chikas will be coming along :-)
Cathedral Peak
It was getting late and we pressed on. I already knew that we wouldn't complete the hike before nightfall but I wanted to be down and by the road by then. I didn't share my thoughts with my friends yet, but I was driving them hard, promising them a long, nice break when we arrived at the lake.
Where did the sun go?
We were descending towards the lake. I didn't see it yet, but I could tell by the leveling of the ground and the change in the vegetation that the longed for  body of water was near, hidden among the trees just ahead.
We curved with the trail and suddenly we were walking through a red carpet - the best show of fall the Yosemite forest put up (I won't say for us but we certainly felt it was). The photo doesn't do it justice at all - the red was so intense and lovely! Despite being pressed with time we stopped to appreciate this beauty and to take photos. It wasn't a large area but it was definitely a highlight of that hike.
Red mats of Dwarf Bilberry, Vaccinium cespitosum
When we finally saw the lake we made straight for it on a narrow unofficial path through the woods. There on the rocky shore of May Lake we sat down for a long-awaited break.
May Lake
I sat closest to the water on a large, flat-topped rock. Suddenly I noticed some movement on the rock face. I watched, mesmerized, by an inch worm that was inching along the rock and I though how that rock's surface that felt fat and smooth on my behind was actually a rough terrain for the little critter that was transversing it. All of a sudden I became very appreciative of that tiny bug, making such a long journey to get to, I don't know where, but must be a better location to justify all that effort. And then again, it might have been, just like us, simply going on a fun hike.
Inch Worm

It was a cool, beautiful time that I wish could have lasted longer, but the sun was already quite low. The light grew dim for awhile when the sun went behind Mount Hoffman.
The sun hiding behind Mount Hoffman

The evening sun rays skipped across the lake's gentle ripples. I could have watched this sun dance until nightfall, but we weren't about to camp there. It was time to move on.

At last, we were going down hill. Not so noticeably at first - at the south tip of May Lake we came upon a resort of permanent tents, huts, and other structures. The resort was already closed for winter but there were quite a few people hanging around there. Some were day hikers who had stopped to use the still available restrooms and water spigot, and others were obviously planning to stay for the night near the lake. We didn't stay there more than we needed to - we had 3 more miles to go.
As we left the resort area the trail dropped into a steep grade. All that altitude we had slowly gained for eight long miles we were now about to lose in three.
We were still high up when we cleared the trees and the view opened up to the south. At last we could see and appreciate Mount Clark in all its grandeur.  That peak is now on my agenda for next summer.
Mount Clark
But it was another buttress that had made my heartbeat skip - for now we were in clear view of Yosemite's most famous monolith - the Half Dome. Morning the eastern edge of the lower Yosemite Valley, Half Dome is a signature sight of the park, and the most popular peak to summit. And there are quotas of permits to go up there, which is one of the reasons why I haven't been all that eager to go there. As much as I'd love to climb Half Dome, I don't think I'd relish doing so with hundreds of other people.
From the distance we were at, however, we could barely see the line of cables with a pair of strong binoculars.
Half Dome zoomed close
I don't know when, if ever, i would ascend Half Dome. I have, of course, seen it from below many a time, and I had plans to take my friends over there on the morrow. But for now, we were enjoying the spectacular view as we were trotting quickly downhill.
Indeed we had to rush, for the light was quickly fading.
Last sun rays in the tree tops
The May Lake trail has an upper parking lot that's about a mile and a half from Tioga Road. One of my companions had slowed down considerably - she had feet pain. When we arrived there I suggested to run quickly down on my own and get the car up, but they declined, opting to go down all together. And so we went on, albeit slower.
Before long darkness was upon us. The trail from the parking lot to Tioga Road used to be an old road too that had fallen in disrepair, but was still wide and clear and easy to walk on, so I wasn't concerned about getting lost. We could still see the way clearly even in the dim dusky light.
My camera was sensitive enough to capture some photos even in that poor light, so I snapped a few shots on the stride. Some of them even came out in focus :-)

Finally we were in clear view of the road and of Tenaya Lake. Above the lake, Tenaya Peak was still painted with the last light of the dying day. We halted to savor the moment, then rushed down towards the road.
Sunset over Tenaya Lake
The road wasn't the end of our hike for we still had almost a mile ahead to get back to the car. We walked briskly, getting on a trail that seemed to be going in our direction.  When we reached the water, however, the trail disappeared and we found that there was no easy way along the shore. Soon it was too dark to make out any obstacle on our way such as fallen logs or deep ditches. Also, we had no flashlights (which I would probably had avoided using anyway since they impair the natural night vision). Eventually we made it back to the road and walked along the shoulder hoping that no car would run us over, all the way to the parking lot.
We crashed wearily in the car. What ever plans we had for the rest of the evening were now moot. We filled up on water at Tuolumne Meadows and drove back to our campsite where we lit a fire, had dinner and crashed into our sleeping bags (after drowning the fire, of course).

I loved that loop trail. I wish that we had had more time to do it. That we wouldn't have had to rush our hike. But it was my first Yosemite hike away from the usual and expected in a long, long while, and I cherish it. And from that trail I've seen the potential of many, many more to come.

Thank you, Pappa Quail, for identifying Mt. Clark for me! Next summer we'll see it from up close :-)