Our group’s proposed backpacking trip this September showed the potential to be a memorable sufferfest – 5 days, 60 miles, 5 passes on a route called the Clark Range Circuit in southern Yosemite and Ansel Adams Wilderness. But, it also promised fewer crowds and I’d never been to this area so couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
We started from Glacier Point Road and went counterclockwise around the circuit.
Our permit was for the Mono Meadows trailhead on Glacier Point Road, so we had a much longer trek into the main circuit than the southern route shown on the All Trails map. The goal for the first day was Lower Merced Pass Lake – about 13 miles, just shy of the main loop. After a few steep descents early on and getting through muddy Mono Meadows, the trail was mostly a fairly gentle, forested climb with occasional stream crossings.
Early trail miles...
It was a long first day – leaving home at 5 a.m., hiking for 7 hours and arriving at the lake fairly trashed, but with enough daylight to set up camp. Day 2 was a 2-pass day, although the first one (Merced Pass, 9300’) wasn’t much of a climb from our camp. The trail stayed mostly forested, saving most of the fun for the last mile of the climb to Fernandez Pass (10,200’), with steep pitches and still-too-heavy packs. At the top of the pass, the trail enters Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Rest stop at Fernandez Pass
The trail made a long winding descent for about 2 miles into Ansel Adams before we caught a side trail to Rutherford Lake, our destination for Day 2.
Morning at Rutherford Lake
Day 3 started with some beautiful hiking through Ansel Adams Wilderness, with several stream crossings, small ponds and lush, green meadows.
Ansel Adams Wilderness
The pass of the day was Post Peak Pass, at 10,800’. During the long climb, we encountered several groups descending, all attesting to incredible views on both sides of the ridge at the top. Their descriptions were accurate, unlike the tip we got that with a short, 15-minute diversion we could bag Post Peak from the pass. I’m sure Alex Honnold could, but for the two of us aging, occasional hikers who went to the top of this narrow, exposed 200’ boulder pile, it was a much longer, mentally and physically exhausting climb. But, the views were spectacular.
View from Post Peak
Post Peak summit
Post Peak in background
After recovering at the pass about an hour-and-a-half after starting our “15-minute diversion”, we continued along the ridge, crossed back into Yosemite and descended to a lake for the night’s campsite.
Looking back towards Yosemite. Day 3 camp was at the far end of the larger lake
Day 4’s challenge was the highest point of the circuit – Red Peak Pass at 11,200’ – coupled with a forecast of a front moving in with high winds. After a descent through forests, we began a long, gradual climb towards Red Peak, passing various small ponds and streams before starting the more serious climb towards the pass as the weather got more blustery.
Heading towards Red Peak Pass
Plentiful switchbacks and somewhat lighter packs made the final climb to the pass much more manageable than feared. Views from the top were again spectacular.
Top of Red Peak Pass
Upper Ottoway Lakes descending Red Peak Pass switchbacks
Red Peak was our last pass of the trip. From here it was a couple miles to descend to Lower Ottoway Lake, our camp for the last night. This was a beautiful setting at the lower end of a bowl with large granite peaks surrounding most of it. We arrived around 3:00 so for the first and only time of the trip, had a couple hours to just kick back. Couldn’t think of a nicer spot for it.
Lower Ottoway Lake
The concern for Day 5 was surviving the 16-mile descent on grumbling knees and progressively more beat up feet. We started at first light and made the best time we could to try to beat the afternoon rain and get home at a reasonable hour. The weather stayed cool and breezy – agreeable hiking weather – and we made good time. Almost missed the large black bear that blended in with the dark tree trunk he was scratching at. Couldn’t get much of a shot with my wide angle lens as he slowly ambled away, totally unintimidated by us.
Large local fauna
We had lunch at a stream about 3 miles from the trailhead. The next 1+ mile was a rather grueling climb that I just had no memory of from Day 1. That was followed by some rolling terrain through a previous burn with various patches of wildflowers and fall color, back through the muck of Mono Meadows, and then a final steep climb to the finish line.
After some clean up, we joined the throngs at Glacier Point to take in the views. It was hard to believe we had been way out beyond Red Peak just the previous day.
View of the Clark Range from Glacier Point Road
Although not in a class with some of the epic Cake postings, this was a memorable trip and a step up from our typical 3-day, single campsite trip. It was great to see some incredible Sierra backcountry with nowhere near the crowds of the usual popular Yosemite routes.
I’d love to hear any tips from the more experienced backpackers how to make these trips easier. Obviously, pack weight is the biggest obstacle and the great equalizer. I’ve found that people of a sturdier build who I might easily outrun on a road can crush me when we put packs on. But, packing in Yosemite means bear canisters are required, I used all the clothing I brought except the rain jacket, and had too much food but not to the extreme. I had considered a bivvy instead of my solo tent, but the only time I used that I ended up pretty wet and we had potential rain at the end of the trip. So, it wasn’t obvious how to save weight except maybe bring a little less food. I’d guess my pack weight was in the low 30’s by the end of the trip and that felt ok. But, it was 5-7 lbs heavier at the start, and pretty oppressive.
The second major impediment I have is aging knees without much shock absorption. I use hiking poles everywhere it’s not level, but still take slow, halting, lurching steps on steep rocky descents that others seem to just cruise through. I bought some stretchy neoprene-like knee braces and tried them on a test hike but they just seemed to bruise the tendons at the back of my knee so I left them home. I used a less restrictive Incrediwear brace on one knee that I had strained a few weeks prior and that seemed helpful. Any thoughts on handling rocky descents on rocky knees other than planning shorter hikes?
Another problem for me me on this trip was abused toes. I know the spots that tend to get irritated and should have stayed on top of it, but on 3-day trips it’s never been a big deal. This time, once things started hurting, band aids and moleskin just got pushed aside and the damage got progressively worse. By the finish line, my feet were pretty much a bloody mess. I’ll also lose a couple toenails, which is a first from backpacking. Not sure why, maybe just a lot more up, down and total miles than I’m used to.