I used to think hiking downhill was much easier than hiking uphill. I also used to think I could hike just fine without a pair of hiking poles, which I considered the requisite sign of bad knees and getting old.
Ah, to be in my 20s again.
The jaunt from Cloud’s Rest to Little Yosemite Valley isn’t particularly difficult; and in fact for the first mile or two, we skipped happily down the trail, our backpacks several pounds lighter, eager to hit the campsite early and float in the river all day.
West of Cloud’s Rest, the trail was wide open, lightly traveled, and had views of Half Dome at every turn. And I do mean every turn. I was so excited at my first Half Dome sighting that I stopped to take several pictures, only to realize I’d have that view for most of the hike.
We descended easily on a series of gradual switchbacks until we were halfway down, deep in the woods, when whoever had built the trail seemed to just dig in his shovel and say, Screw it, let’s get this over with and make the trail go straight down.
And down, down we went… on a hill so steep, I thought every step would bust my kneecap or break the ball of my foot. Even with the little zigzags I was making, I had to keep my speed in check lest I end up running wildly down the hill! (In hindsight, I should’ve rolled a stone down the trail to see how far it would’ve gone.)
But once we connected with the John Muir Trail, it was smooth sailing to the Little Yosemite Valley campground.
Compared to our other camps, this place felt like a resort. It’s not especially scenic and definitely not private, but it was the closest starting point to Half Dome and it had amenities. There were proper restrooms with toilet paper, designated campsites with built-in bear boxes, and just like a resort, travelers bunking up right next to you. Thankfully, the neighbors weren’t of the raucous, party-till-the-wee-hours type; being backpackers, most of the campground was snoring by 10 pm and off on their all-day hikes by 8 am. It was the quietest campground I’d ever stayed in!
But the real amenity of Little Yosemite Valley was a short stroll down a dirt path, past the campground, past the restrooms, and into the crystal clear waters of the Merced River.
After a kneecap-busting, ball-of-the-foot-breaking descent of nearly 4,000 feet, the Merced looked like Shangri-La. Let me tell you, I couldn’t my drop my backpack and strip to my skivvies fast enough!
The river was much colder than all the lakes we’d swam in, but after a week of being sunburnt, sweaty and dirty (the dirtiest I’d ever been, with layer upon layer of zinc sunscreen caked on over the dust particles that were now a part of my skin), I thought I was at the spa.
In true backpacking fashion, we inflated our Thermarest pads and jumped into the water, Southern Comfort in hand. We spent most of the afternoon lazing by the river, washing our laundry, making some lunches, and falling into food coma.
Before dinner, we went back to the campground to set up our tents and build a communal dining table. The resident deer, nicknamed Campy by the rangers, even stopped by for a visit. (Look closely and you’ll spot him behind the tree.)
By the time the sky was dark, we were crawling into our tents… relaxed, recharged, and ready to meet our friends for the next day’s adventure, climbing the Half Dome cables!