Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tamarack Flat to El Capitan



View east from El Capitan

It seems that there is always another awesome hike to be discovered around Yosemite Valley beckoning a hiker’s spirit to get boots on the ground. If Half Dome is the most iconic feature of Yosemite Valley, then the runner up for that honor must (arguably) be mighty El Capitan. The Ahwahneechee name for the rock is Totokonoolah, which probably means something like “The Chief” or “Rock Chief”. The name El Capitan comes from the Mariposa Battalion being a loose Spanish translation of the native moniker, of which “The Captain” is truly worthy. In the early days of Yosemite as a national park, the original Big Oak Flat road (wagon road) had a very sharp curve which was referred to by guides as “OMG point”. As a wagon negotiated the curve approaching from the west, El Capitan in all its glory would become immediately and suddenly visible from a short distance, inspiring wide eyed surprise and gaping awe. Even today the same sort of effect takes place on the modern paved road as the immense granite face appears through the trees on Southside Drive. Like Half Dome, it was once considered to be impossible to climb, but today El Capitan’s 3000 foot high granite wall has become a personal challenge for accomplished technical climbers from around the world with dozens of established climbing routes. And like Half Dome, the summit is also accessible to hikers by trail.

Zoom to the Clark Range
 Lots of backpackers visit the summit of El Cap along with other points of interest while hiking some variation of the north rim trail, after first obtaining a wilderness permit. For day hikers there are actually 3 possible routes, but I would guess the most popular route must be by way of the Yosemite Falls trail from the valley floor. I hiked that route back in 2005 (pre-blog), visiting the top of the falls, and Eagle Peak along the way, which was a fantastic day of magnificent sights and great challenging hiking. My wife and I also had a memorable hike in May of 2009 on that route, but could not make El Cap due to deep melting snow that was too unstable. But there is another approach from the west which I had never done before this hike. I had planned on hiking the route from Tamarack Flat during my trip in 2012 but had a really interesting day then. On this trip we (my wife and I) finally got it in our trail log.

  
Jeffery Pine
Tamarack Flat is one of Yosemite’s non-reserved campgrounds. Campsites there are first-come first-served. To reach it you need to drive a narrow, rough, winding little road for about 3.5 miles from Tioga Road not far from Crane Flat. There is a small general parking area which can serve as trail head parking, but as I found out on my last trip, there are no bear lockers except for those in the campsites. On the far end is a gated trail head at about 6,165 feet. The first section begins as an old road, and is probably still used for fire access if needed. Despite the namesake, my observation of conifer populations were approximately equal amongst tamarack/lodgepole, sugar pines, and white fir. Near the campground are a few burned areas showing good recovery, but most of the forest is tall and fragrant, with quite a bit of thick lichens, and showing evidence of weathered patina common at this altitude.

After roughly half a mile you pass the first of several little creeks and begin enjoying seasonal wild flowers, most prevalent near the riparian areas (see my photos). The trail continues descending gently all the way down to Cascade Creek where there is a backpacking trail camp about 2.5 miles in. Some Yosemite hiking guides have this little hike to Cascade Creek listed as a short day hike by itself. This is a pretty area with a nice little cascade down a narrow little canyon, a beautiful little pool upstream, some rocks to explore, and abundant greenery and wild flowers. Continuing on, the trail heads gently downhill toward the junction with part of the old Big Old Flat road where there is a junction to head toward Foresta. Bearing left on a short section of the old road you finally reach the low point of the hike at 5863 feet just over 3 miles in, and bear left again to begin a rather relentless uphill.

The next section of trail climbs about 1,890 feet in roughly 2.85 miles using GPS data, and as always, GPS margin of error applies. This hike is interesting because the summit that is your destination is actually not the high point of the route. You reach the highest point at approximately 7,753 feet just before descending again to Ribbon Creek. Some portions of the trail are quite steep, while others are gentle, but the route is scenic and will keep your mind busy taking in the sights. At one point you spot what looks like a high granite ridge ahead reaching above the trees, but your ascent will eventually bring you well above that point and into the subalpine. Along one section the trail follows up along a rock slope with sparse weathered jeffery pines scattered about, some of which are very stately looking, and you can spot mariposa lilies and other wild flowers that like sun. The next section levels out somewhat and brings you through a dense wooded area which shows lots of white fir and incense cedar, and you can spot lots of pine drops and spotted coral root. Soon after cresting the top of the route the trail descends toward Ribbon Creek and along Ribbon Meadow with more wild flowers that like moist areas. After passing a boggy area with questionable water, you eventually get access to the Ribbon Creek further along where you can filter water for drinking. Ribbon Creek is the source of Ribbon fall, and is usually down to a trickle by mid summer. We found there was plenty of water flowing even though this was a very dry year. The only other potential drinking water stop is all the way down at Cascade Creek.

Alpine Lily (Lilium parvum)

Hiking on from the creek you begin climbing again and soon can begin to see across the chasm of Yosemite Valley and the immense rock structure that is abutted by  El Capitan. As you hike up along the side of the rock ridge admiring the displays of stonecrop, you eventually break out onto “The Captain” and the long range views are simply tremendous. From the top of the rock you can see its true shape. From the bottom it looks like it must be flat on top but it isn’t. El Cap is dome shaped on top and it would be foolhardy to attempt to get near the edge. This will limit the dramatic effect of being able to look over a very high precipice like you can at Eagle Peak, Half Dome, or the top of the falls. Since you cannot see straight down, you cannot even see the valley floor at all, but the long range views will be worth the effort. You also get the satisfaction that you are standing atop a genuine icon; a natural wonder. The cool mountain breeze feels really great on your face, and the mountain spirit will fill your senses. The day we did this hike there was a fire burning near Yosemite Creek deemed the “forbidden fire”, and it was high in the no-fight zone. This was making a lousy haze effect that you can spot in my photos from this hike. The total round trip elevation gain was 3,711 feet with a distance of 17 miles. I uploaded a photoset on flickr, and created a trip report at EveryTrail if you want to see more.