Missing the Turn: Yosemite 11/23/2012

The day after Thanksgiving, while many of countrymen apparently were lining up to fight over consumer electronics, I took advantage of the extra day off work to wake up at 4:30 AM and drive straight to Yosemite National Park. My plan was to run that day, camp that night, run the next day, and then drive home. Depending on how much time I had on Friday, I would either go for a long but gentle run on Friday followed by a short but steep run on Saturday, or vice versa. Yosemite had a few tricks up its sleeve for me, and things did not work out exactly as planned, but for such a loosely planned solo trip I have no real complaints.

I made it to Hodgdon Meadows inside the park boundaries and had my camp setup by around 9 AM, but with one key element missing that would come back to haunt me later: no firewood. I figured I’d either swing down through the valley for dinner or stop at the Crane Flat gas station after my run to pick some up since gather wood at such a heavily used campground is a bit of a fool’s errand. Judging by the temperature at that hour, it was going to be a chilly evening, and I was definitely going to want a fire to sit by before crawling into my tent.

The good news was that with such an early, I’d be able to get my long run in that day. The route I had picked out would take me from the Foresta trailhead on Big Oak Flat Road up and over the sub-alpine shoulder of the north valley wall to the summit of El Capitán ten miles out, where I would have my lunch and turn around.

I started my day heading up switchbacks at 5,000 feet, through scrubland that was burned out twenty years back, with views of the eastern side of Yosemite Valley and the snowy mountains beyond. A couple miles later I was weaving through dense pine with a couple of trick stream crossings. cruising along but struggling a bit with the thinner air.

At four miles I came to the only major junction on my map. The trails here were clearly marked, both on paper and in the real world. I took the right branch, which was marked El Capitán. Unfortunately, there was another turn off to the left which I never saw (even on the way back, when I knew to look out for it) and the more obvious path I stuck to is not marked on any of the four maps I looked at that day, so I didn’t know to watch out for a second junction. By the time I realized I was headed toward the base of El Cap rather than the summit, I was worried about how long it would have taken to backtrack and finish out the run rather than continuing on and turning back at a good halfway point.

I had hoped to run on the North Rim Trail, but instead found myself descending 2,000 feet on Old Big Oak Flat Road, once the main route into the valley. As it has been so thoroughly abandoned, it looks as though the park service is trying to encourage reclamation of some the upper sections of the paved road. For me, this meant jumping and climbing over downed logs and whole trees for more than a mile, which look as though they will be left to mulch.

The reason Old Big Oak Flat Road can’t be used anymore is that most of a half-mile section was completely buried in rockfall in 1945. This doesn’t make for good hiking, let alone running, and seems like a good invitation for a permanent road closure. This is probably why they don’t bother putting it on any of recreational maps, which is why I wasn’t watching out for my turn off to the North Rim Trail.

Old Big Oak Flat Road
Can you spot both trail markers?

Even with all the downed trees and the growing suspicion that something wasn’t right, I had a great time cruising down the busted old road until I hit the wide, exposed, somewhat unnavigable and slightly terrifying talus field. I’ve been rock climbing and boulder hopping before, but this wasn’t clearly stable. There were occasional ducks to mark the general direction across the slope, but they were very hard to pick out in the monochromatic jumble. When I finally emerged from the rockfall, I popped out about sixty feet uphill from the road.

Old Big Oak Flat Road
I generally prefer trail running to road running to running sixty feet above the road.

On the way back I tried a different tactic, sticking with the road and ignoring the markers, which seemed to get me through with far less boulder hopping. However, it quickly became clear that I must have skipped the biggest section of scrambling by emerging into the woods below the road. After scrambling up a steep embankment, it seemed I was off by at least 100 vertical feet.

After all the unexpected climbing, both on my feet and all fours, the last leg of the run was harder and slower than I’d hoped for, and I finished the last two miles in the moonlight. I quickly changed into warmer clothes and headed back in the direction of my campsite, stopping only at the Crane Flat gas station. They were closed – there would be no firewood for me.

I was uninjured. I felt accomplished, but also exhausted. Yosemite and I had fought each other to a draw. Did I really need another day of this?

By the time I got back to my campsite it was 6:30pm, dark, and getting cold fast. I quickly broke camp, packed up the car, took some caffeine and drove back to Oakland. This might not have been the best decision at that moment, but at least I knew where all my turns would be.