Little Yosemite Valley
Trip Duration: 3 Days
Distance: 22 miles
Total Vert: 4,500 ft.
This was my second time visiting Yosemite National Park, but the first time I would venture off into the backcountry. If I'm being completely honest, I really wasn't sure where to go at this time of year (late May). I had booked the time off work a couple of months ago, but left the decision about where to go hiking until the last minute.
PRO TIP: In my experience, flights to the Western US (not sure if this applies everywhere else) tend to be cheapest at approximately three weeks before departure. The early bird doesn't always get the worm.
Late May through mid-June is just a difficult time of year to go hiking. The deserts of the American Southwest have started to get uncomfortably hot, while the snow on the higher altitude (>8,000 feet) mountain ranges has not yet melted. After hours upon hours of research on snow levels coupled with on-the-ground beta from some fellow Reddit users, I was left with a small handful of viable options that, admittedly, I was not very crazy about. As I was soon about to learn firsthand, in these shoulder seasons one has to be prepared for almost any type of weather.
As is the case for most travelers, the cheapest flight to California (from Toronto) was to LAX. Geographically, San Francisco is closer to Yosemite, but the flights were almost double the price. I toyed with the idea of taking the Amtrak from LAX up to Yosemite, but neither the schedule, nor the cost made any sense (From LAX one would have to take a bus to Union Station to catch the Amtrak train followed by two transfers onto Amtrak buses - this route would have involved predominantly overnight travel/transferring with very little sleep). So, I instead rented a car at LAX and drove north. I slept at a rest area off the highway just outside Fresno, grabbed McDonalds in the morning, and then caught the 3.5 hour YARTS bus directly to the Yosemite National Park Visitor Centre. This option actually ended up being a few dollars cheaper than the red-eye option with Amtrak.
Upon arriving at the Park, I went directly to the Ranger Station to pick-up my backcountry hiking permit which I had pre-purchased online for $10 to avoid disappointment. If one is more inclined towards risk-taking, the option exists to try to get a free walk-up permit, but this is probably only advisable during the shoulder seasons when fewer hikers are in the park. With an overnight backcountry permit, the holder is entitled to a one-night stay in the Backpacker's Campground on both ends of the trip for $6 USD per person per night. This was incredibly helpful as a way to rest up for one night before starting my hike, and to leave the Park freshly showered.
My plan for the first day was not at all grueling. As the first 'real' backcountry trip of the season, I planned to ease into things. My desire to push hard was also hampered by my permit requiring me to stay the first night in the Little Yosemite Valley Campground (a way for the National Park Service to control the impact of hiker traffic on the wilderness). The route up to Little Yosemite Valley involved taking the Mist Trail up to Vernal Falls and then up past Nevada falls, spending the majority of the time on trails overrun by tourists in gym shorts and sandals, or the latest version of Nike whatever's. That being said, these trails did provide the first sampling of the raw beauty that Yosemite had to offer. As I climbed higher and up past Nevada Falls, the crowds dwindled.
At the top of Nevada Falls I had the area completely to myself. However, given that this trail leads up to Half Dome, I would imagine that it wouldn't have been nearly as quiet just a few weeks in the future once Half Dome opened for the season. As someone who actively tries to explore areas with no crowds, the recent snow storms that had recently hit (delaying the opening of Half Dome and making many higher elevation trails more difficult), came as a blessing. Once above Nevada falls, the hike into Little Yosemite Valley was relatively flat and easy.
My Park-prescribed night in Little Yosemite Valley Campground was remarkably unremarkable. The campground was empty enough for everyone to space their tents sufficiently far apart, and the primitive bathrooms were a great way to conserve the toilet paper I had just hauled 3,000 feet up out of the Valley. In the morning, I was free to travel any which way I desired on any of the numerous trails that spur outwards from the campground. Some pre-departure conversation with one of the senior park rangers suggested that the best route to take from the campground was the southern east-bound trail towards Merced Lake. According to the Ranger, a small amount of flooding would likely be present, but the trail was much more picturesque than the section of the John Muir Trail that lay to the North. I would agree wholeheartedly.
PRO TIP: Beware of some of the advice of park rangers. On more than one occasion I was given erroneous information regarding both park rules and conditions. Always double-check information before going into the backcountry.
The trail initially leaving the campground was relatively flat running parallel to the Merced River with the Cascade Cliffs providing a dramatic backdrop for the two mile hike through an old burned-out forest.
As I proceeded eastward, Little Yosemite Valley narrowed significantly before morphing into Lost Valley. The landscape here changed appreciably and one was reminded that they were, in fact, in the Sierra Nevada.
Progressing eastward, Lost Valley became Echo Valley. The Merced River through this section was much more forceful than it's west-lying downstream version of itself. Footbridges in this area mercifully kept my feet dry and without them, passage would have been much more dangerous, if not impossible. Unlike the burned out trees already passed, the ones in this section were noticeably taller, and more lush. It appeared as if the entire area had been spared by the fire that burned most of earlier section.
After passing the Burnell Cascade, the first meaningful, but moderate, climbing of the day took place up the north-facing slope of the southern terrain. The snowline perpetually looked as if it would soon be encountered, but never was. The only felt effect of the snow was numerous miniature waterfalls running across, and cascading down, the trail. During this section, I saw the first, and only, group of hikers I would see all day. Despite it being a National Park, the backcountry permit system appears to keep the crowds to an absolute minimum and provided a true wilderness experience.
Even once reaching 7,100 feet, on the north-facing slope, I never did hit the true snow line. This was probably for the best since snowline estimates the week before my departure indicated that snow gear would not be necessary, and thus I had, perhaps unwisely, not brought any. If I were to do an early season trip in Yosemite again, I would definitely bring more snow gear as insurance against late-season freak snowstorms hampering my intended route of the trip. For someone who loves hiking, but isn't so fond of lying around in camp, being unable to continue to hike due to a limiting snowline, makes trip planning difficult.
PRO TIP: When travelling during the shoulder seasons, be prepared for all four seasons.
By 12:30pm, I had finished the 8 mile hike from Little Yosemite Valley Camground to Merced Lake. Being the restless, impatient person that I am, I couldn't fathom spending 8 hours lying around camp just waiting to go to sleep. Having heard from some other hikers that the snow east of Merced Lake became difficult to navigate without snow gear, I was apprehensive to go much further east. The option to head north-west to connect to the John Muir Trail seemed viable, but with elevations around 7,800 feet on this section of trail and many blowdowns (as per multiple Park Rangers and hikers), I decided to change my goal for the day from exploration, to 'training for future hikes'. So, I turned right around and walked the 8 miles back to Little Yosemite Valley Campground to get an early start in the morning exploring the trails to the north. Nothing too eventful occurred on the return trip as it was really just all of the above in reverse.
Before wrapping up this trip review, however, here's a quick PSA on how to choose the best spot to cross a stream. Smart choices are especially crucial during early season trips when the snow run-off is high. I highly encourage you to seek out other resources to learn more about the proper technique to use when crossing streams.