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Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Yosemite/Hetch Hetchy Ranchiera Falls

Yosemite just re-opened with massive numbers of restrictions, including reservations required for day-entry, which meant that for the first time in ages, I would consider a visit in the summer. The drive-in permits are first come first serve, but I had my eyes on the wilderness permits, which are available only by lottery.

I submitted 2 applications, one starting on the 3rd (which was a holiday), and one starting on the 4th. For each one, I listed Cathedral Lakes and Sunrise Lakes as my first two choices, and Ranchiera Falls as my second. My application for the 3rd was denied, but my application for the 4th came through for Ranchiera Falls in Hetch Hetchy, a place I had never explored in Yosemite National Park. I hurriedly made arrangements to borrow a bear canister, acquire backpacking equipment for Xiaoqin, and reservations for a hotel on the 3rd, since she didn't want to stay at the Backpackers Campground the night before.

The Wilderness Permit actually lets you enter the park the day before your stay. We drove from home to the park entrance, getting there around 11:30am, but then discovered that the line at the park entrance was more than a mile long. What happened was that they're indeed checking everyone's permit against both a computer database and a photo ID before you're even allowed to buy your entrance permit.
Once in the park, the experience was wonderful compared to previous visits. Vistas like the tunnel view and Bridal Veil falls had plenty of parking, though attractions close to park lodging like the Yosemite falls were still full of people.
We stayed in the park until late and then stayed at the Yosemite West Gate Lodge, buying awful take out from the diner next door. After so long in shelter-in-place order, it felt strange to see a restaurant with indoor seating, so we opted to eat in our hotel room, after the requisite 20 minute airing out of the place.

The next morning, we woke up early put everything in the trunk, and then drove out to Hetch Hetchy. The drive through the National Forest was pretty, and one location was so stunning I had to stop for a few pictures.

I expected to be one of the first people waiting at the Hetch Hetchy entrance when it opened at 8am, but there was already a line there with 5-6 cars ahead of us. When the gate opened we all drove through but there was still a 10 minute wait, with the rangers checking on our permits even though we already had our paid for entry-permit hung on our windshield. The number of wilderness permits handed out hasn't changed despite the situation, and the backpackers parking lot was full so we had to use the overflow parking area.
Knowing what I know now, I should have just driven my family down to the dam, unloaded the backpacks, and then driven the loop back to drop off excess food at the bear lockers before hiking back down myself. It would have saved about half a mile of extra walking with packs on, which everyone complained about., Even I felt the load, since I was carrying 3 sleeping bags, 2 tents (my plan to use the hammock for camping was derailed because REI's expedited shipping option for the mosquito netting for my ENO doublenest didn't live up to its promise --- one of many reasons why I feel punished every time I buy from anyone not Amazon), Boen's sleeping pad, clothing for both kids including wet suits, and all the other sundries including the hammock and straps, which Bowen had volunteered to carry but whined so much about that I took it off him by the time we got to the dam.

Despite starting by 9:30am, the day was already warm when we crossed the tunnel onto the trail proper. I'd started everyone on relatively little water, reasoning that the waterfall was only 2.5 miles away. There were patches of shade where we could rest, but the wide exposed areas had the best views and we all ran out by the time we got to the waterfall. I dug out the BeFree water filter out of my backpack and filled everyone's bottles and brought my camelbak bladder up to 2 liters for good measure. A woman came up and asked if I felt safe drinking the water straight out of the falls: apparently the BeFree looked so much like a water bottle that she didn't notice the filter.

Past the waterfall, the climbing started, taking us over the ridgelines that characterized the area. The view of the dam started retreating behind us until it disappeared completely. The number of hikers had also dropped by a lot. When the elevation started dropping I thought we were close and was heartened by the sound of running water but it turned out to be Tiltill Creek, about a mile but some elevation away from Rancheria Falls. The trail passed through a heavily burned section, which added insult to injury as our shade was taken away from us during the hottest time of the day.
By the time we got to the view of the Rachiera Creek apron, we'd all run out of water again, but fortunately the campground was shaded. A lot of spots were taken so we had no choice but to take one within sight of the main trail. With shade, the pressing need for water was not as urgent so I setup the hammock, pitched the tents, inflated most of the pads, and then we got everything ready to go visit the river, which was full of backpackers soaking to stay cool.

It was cold as a Sierra creek could be, but with wet suits the kids could stay in there far longer than I could, and I started setting up for dinner. Once the kids saw me setup they suddenly became hungry, and we ate all the backpacking dinners I brought with us, my favorite flavor being Sweet and Sour Pork, which is sadly now out of stock and available only at exorbitant prices.

After dinner, Bowen went for another swim while Boen couldn't wait to play with the tent and went back, but when he came back and saw Bowen in the river again he insisted on joining Bowen, and what could I do but put on my swim suit and join them!
It was surprisingly late by the time we went back to the tents but now the mosquitoes were out in force, so we completely our evening setup, with the sight of bear poop on the trail making me super paranoid about putting the bear canister far away from the tents, and went to bed. Despite opening the fly on the tent to the maximum extent it still felt warm and I tossed and turned a bit before dozing off with my CPAP machine running off the battery. (I'd thought about leaving it behind and saving the 1100g, but then realized that after I was done with the trip I'd have to drive for 4 hours to get home and decided it wasn't worth the risk)

I woke up at 6:00am the next morning seeing mosquitoes gathered on the mosquito netting on the tent, justifying my decision to bring 2 tents. We ate a quick breakfast, and quickly tore everything down as fast as I could for an 8:15am start. Despite that start we still felt warm in the burnt area, but once back in the shade it felt nice, and we could feel a nice headwind blowing towards us cooling us off. It had taken us 6 hours of walking to get to Ranchiera Falls the day before, but we were going at a far faster pace today with the slightly cooler temperatures and the mostly downhill walk. I slipped on a rock and skinned my knee, but it was a minor wound and I'd luckily brought a first aid kit with antibiotic cream.

At the falls again we still had sufficient water, and so pushed on, getting back to the tunnel at noon. Being smarter than the day before, I left the backpacks, wife and kids at the dam in the shade of a tree and walked back unladened to the car to drive down and pick everyone up.
Strangely enough, the mileage yesterday was more than the mileage today, and my guess was that spending a lot of time resting in the shade causes GPS jitter that grants you more miles for the same distance.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd stay overnight at Hetch Hetchy at the backpackers camp so I could get an earlier start, and also drive everyone else to start at the dam to avoid the extra half a mile of pack hiking. I would also avoid giving Boen the Camelbak --- he'd done so well with it on the previous trip, but this time I ended up carrying it awkwardly. Nevertheless, as a 5 year old he's now already done tougher hiking trips than his brother ever did at ages 6 or 7. This was a challenging trip because of environmental conditions, and there really aren't any easier hikes in the Hetch Hetchy area, so we probably won't revisit until the kids are older.

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