I think we were having dinner when my wife mentioned that we didn’t have any plans for the weekend of 25th. “We should go hiking”, she said. And that’s about all it took. This was gonna be our first hike as a family, finally! Me, my wife, and our three daughters, ages 7-12, in Yosemite. The kids squealed with excitement, I might have squealed a little bit too. Dude, this was gonna be so..much..fun.
Just two weeks to get ready though. Not very long considering I didn’t have much gear besides my two-person kit. My wife had that Jam I bought from the BPL firesale a while back, and my two oldest daughters had some Walmart specials from our previous hikes, and recently I scored some sleeping bags from BPL and my buddy Craig. Other than that, pretty much everything needed to be hacked, and quick-like!
First off, none of my wimpy ultra-light packs can handle the burly load I’ll need to carry, which will include shelter, food, water and cooking gear for five plus my own clothes and stuff. My beer can stove, two-man pot and Golite SL3 seemed like knives at a gunfight. Being broke meant that buying a bunch of gear was a no-go, which might be the best thing about broke-ness. You’re forced to keep it real. I mean, that might sound a bit silly, but I’m pretty sure much of the satisfaction we felt in pulling this off would have been diminished had we hit the trail looking like an REI poster. To make it even more interesting, our crazy schedules meant my wife and I would end up with just two long evenings to actually gather the necessary clothing, utensils, bowls, cups, toiletries, and the rest of the 110 essentials, and cram it all into our packs.
Here and there I peeked at the thrift stores on my lunch hour and somehow scored a Frankenstein-looking external frame pack which featured an old vintage Kelty pack bag mounted on a plastic Coleman frame with all the straps and buckles chopped off. Nine bucks, baby! All the other gear was basically stuff we had laying around the house or cheap plastic tableware from the 99 cent. Late Wednesday night, after the coffee had long since worn off, we stared at our rag-tag row of packs along the wall and wondered if we missed anything. The following evening, when I got off work, I would rush home to load the car and drive us as far as I could up the 395 and find us a place to sleep along the road somewheres.
Early Friday morning, with my neck still tweaked from sleeping in the driver’s seat, I shuffle into the ranger station in Tuolumne Meadows. My wife follows me in a minute later and can see by the look on my face, something is wrong. I pulled an Adan. The road to the trailheads was closing the next morning, no parking was allowed anywhere along the road. Dylan had turned me onto this trail and it was perfect, with virtually no elevation gain and just meadows and lakes and granite for 10 miles. We had a couple backup routes in mind, but they were all along this same road..hehehe. I couldn’t hold back a dumb smile as my dad’s voice popped into my head, “como eres vivo, buey!”, which is his way of congratulating me on yet another brilliant move. We would have to choose another trail right there on the spot. Amazingly, my wife doesn’t miss a beat, she doesn’t even shoot me the teeniest little look. “So…we’re in Yosemite! Let’s pick another trail!” Wow, how can you not love a girl like that.
The Mist Trail in Yosemite Valley is drop dead gorgeous, but it climbs 2000 feet in the first 3 miles. I never would’ve picked such a steep trail for my family’s first hike. All our family hikes lately had been easy hikes, and we didn’t get even a little shakeout hike with the gear we were carrying. Still, we were feeling pretty chill. I was high as Cheech just to be going, my girls make everything look easy, and my wife is always down for a challenge. Friday at around 10am, we were at our trailhead and making our way up the Merced River toward Vernal Falls.
Not being properly schooled in the magic of foto-graffy, I haven’t any close-up pictures of these falls worth sharing. Trust me, they are spectacular showers of thundering light and rainbows. They pound and hiss and blow their wet, misty breath all over you. Oh, and this shoulder season trip meant the crowds were rather light too. Bonus!
The climb wears on, up the chiseled steps on Vernal’s sheer cliffs, past it’s jaw-dropping brink and on to Nevada Falls. I keep checking on my gang expecting tired faces. They seem to be going along bumper-car style, scrambling up a rock, jumping off, crashing into each other and laughing like the seven dwarves or something. I try to get a handle on the situation. Holding my finger up, I tell them that this is no joke and that hiking is too serious for their horsing around and their bumper-car antics. They respond by pulling back on my heavy pack until I almost fall over and then throwing pebbles at me as I try to give chase like an overloaded mule. They caused other problems too, like intentionally waiting until I came close and then releasing a bent branch so it smacked me. Rascally rabbits! Soon we stop for a break. I guess mischief is tiring work, I know being on the receiving end certainly is.
Finally, we crest Nevada Falls, the last steep section for the day and just as the last bit of light fades from Little Yosemite Valley, we come trampling into camp, all good and tired and hungry. A quick supper of potato burritos, a visit to the cushy, solar-powered john, and we tuck the girls into bed for a well-deserved na-night. As I pitch my tarp nearby, I chuckle a bit as all four of them thrash inside the tent with their headlights on making the yellow, pyramid-shaped tent look like a laser show, eventually quieting down and giggling themselves to sleep.
The next morning is all silly, busting jokes, remembering our crazy hike the day before, slurping oatmeal with gobs of butter and brown sugar, coffee for mama and me. Everybody’s feeling good, we did it!! I’m so proud of my tough, little princess troop. Over at the community fire we meet all kinds of interesting characters from the UK, South America and even some from that strange, weirdo-filled place, the “Bay Area”.
“Daddy, come look at the map with me, I know where we should hike today”, Frankie, my navigator, sprawls the map out on the ground and we lay down in the dirt as she traces the squiggly lines with her finger. Day two will be an easy day, two miles to the little black triangle on the map, Moraine Dome. A campsite that none of the other hikers camped nearby had ever heard of, we had no idea what to expect. We trotted along at an easy pace, gawking at the massive granite domes and snapping into our Slim Jims.
We arrived by lunch time and the girls squeal at the sight of a three-story cascade crashing into large emerald pool, just steps from a perfect campsite. Not another hiker in site. We swam and splashed about, slid on granite waterslides, did some bouldering, gathered Manzanita berries for tea, and enjoyed some killer curry noodles around the fire.
At one poing we were all laying about taking in the sun and Emma knocked a pack over which bumped the bear can off the ledge and sent it rolling and tumbling down the granite and into the river! I got freezing wet all over again but reached it just in time before it got away. We could've starved!!! Oh, and in the chaos of packing I forgot my spoon, but a couple twigs served nicely.
That night turned out to be something real special for me. We decided the big granite slab overlooking the waterfall would make a superb bed, with a commanding view of the white cascade and under the full glory of the spangled night. The sky put on a brilliant show, the little cotton-ball clouds passed slowly over the moon like sheer curtains, the stars twinkled and twinkled. Well after midnight, we talked about the stars, the clouds, glaciers, John Muir, bears, mom’s Manzanita jelly, just about everything their little star-struck imaginations could dream up. At one point I noticed my youngest, Lula, got real quiet, and when I leaned over I noticed a tear on her cheek. “It’s beautiful here daddy, I don’t wanna leave”, she sniffled. My heart glowed in my chest, golden like the moon.
Sunday morning my two oldest daughters popped up before dawn, they wanted to climb up high on the dome and watch the sun rise. We snapped our headlights on and hiked off in the dark, scrambling up a steep shoulder and onto a ledge. Seriously, the best feeling in the world is to watch the Sierra sky at night and to watch the Sierra sun rise, and the fact that my kids love to do both with me just stokes me up to levels unknown.
By the time we returned, mom was getting the oats and coffee ready. Soon we were headed back, easy pace, dandy weather, a perfect fairytale ending. On the way back we opted for the milder John Muir Trail instead of going back down those big rocky steps down the Mist Trail. This decision worked out well. Not dusty at all as everyone kept saying, and yeah, the waterfalls are not as close, but the huge vistas on this one are very cool.
Gear info. I was all ready for a comedy show on this trip, mickey mouse gear choices, rushed packing in the middle of the night, disaster. No dice though, everything went smooth. Even my forgotten spoon turned out to be a fun thing for us. Multiple shelters did the trick, SL3 for the family, tarp for me. Cooking on a fire helped since my stove was too small. My youngest daughter carried my light sleeping bag and all her own clothes in her school backpack, worked perfectly. The kids wore my down jackets, some of them heavy and retired long ago, my wife had hers, and I wore a thick wool sweater. Kids carried their own bowl, cup and utensils. This was our first time trying the P-style, a girl’s stand-and-pee contraption which worked really well. My family liked it and it made our rest stops along the trail almost an afterthought.