Third Time's the Charm: Backpacking to Glacier Point

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Over New Year’s weekend Alex and I headed to Yosemite National Park to complete a backpacking trip we’ve been trying to do each January for the past two years. Delayed flights and historic snowstorms on the previous trips thwarted our attempts, but on this third try we finally succeeded. 

There were a few spots we were considering for a New Year’s Eve trip and as the date crept closer, I monitored the weather for each location. The ten-day forecast for Yosemite seemed favorable, but we tentatively waited, given our past luck we were still apprehensive about finalizing our trip there. But, a week out the forecast still looked promising and the flights were reasonable so we booked our tickets! 

The hike we had our sights on was an overnight trip to Glacier Point. In the summer Glacier Point is an overflowing tourist hotspot, but in the winter the park closes the road to the point and it reverts back into a wilderness designation, meaning that camping is allowed, but only when permits are granted by rangers. Usually the trails are too snowy and icy to hike to the point so most people opt to snowshoe or ski along the road, but since this winter has been astonishingly dry the Four Mile Trail was open. We picked up our permit with the plan to take the Four Mile Trail up to the point and then take the Panorama Trail to Mist Trail the following morning/year. 

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The valley floor was absolutely bustling over the gorgeous holiday weekend. Traffic was congested, people were everywhere, and campgrounds were filling up. I couldn’t wait to get out on the trail. We parked our car at the trailhead and headed off into the wilderness. The Four Mile Trail is actually a bit of a misnomer: it is actually 4.8 miles of steep switchbacks and meandering forested paths. Although it’s a continuous climb nearly the entire distance, the ever-higher vantage points of Yosemite Valley and its landmarks offer welcome distractions along the way. On past trips we were confined to the valley floor, always looking up at the views, but on this trip we finally were able to look down on the valley and the views were jaw-dropping. I considered Yosemite to be beautiful, but never really understood why people held it to such a high esteem until this trail showed me. Looking out over the valley, surrounded by towering granite walls, Yosemite seemed like a place someone dreamt up. I could not get enough of it and the views only improved the higher we climbed. 

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We finally arrived at the famed Glacier Point. Despite it only being accessible by hiking, there were plenty of people who made the trek on New Year’s Eve. Alex and I explored until we found a secluded rock shelf near the Geology Exhibit. We decided it was the perfect spot to set up camp, but since there were still so many day hikers around we decided to wait until it cleared out a bit more. 

We still had a few hours before sunset so we pulled out our Therm-a-Rest Zlites, set them up directly across from Half Dome and took in the view. We read, Alex took a few timelapses, and I let myself be wowed by the view. Despite the fact that I’ve likely seen thousands of photos of Half Dome from Glacier Point, nothing prepared me for seeing it with my own eyes, for looking out onto Vernal and Nevada Falls, and the sprawling Yosemite wilderness. The options for backpacking out in that wilderness are endless. My mind was abuzz with ideas for future trips. 

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Eventually the sun began to set and the day hikers headed back towards the valley. There were only three other groups sharing Glacier Point as a campsite with us and we all spread out, making it feel as if Alex and I had the place to ourselves. We began to set up camp but then I caught sight of Half Dome, it was a vibrant orange. It was that same beautiful alpenglow that is featured in so many of Apple’s iOS systems. But, I wasn’t staring at a screen, this was was real and it was right in front of me. The tent was soon forgotten as I appreciated the sunset. I took in the view, the smells, I closed my eyes and listened to the nearly complete silence, except for Alex’s camera that kept time like a metronome it was eerily calm. In fact, the wind remained so calm throughout the night that we didn’t even fully zip our rain fly; it was like having a window with the perfect view of Half Dome. 

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While the sun was setting the nearly full moon rose. We had been keeping our eyes out for it, but clouds on the horizon obstructed our view. As the clouds were turning a pastel pink I suddenly saw the bright moon begin to peek out from a cloud. I quickly grabbed my camera. This sunset will forever be solidified into my mind as one of the best sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. 2017 treated me well and I am grateful for that. An engagement, a cross-country move, and more spectacular moments spent outside than I could ever count. This final sunset felt as if were one last gift from the year. 

Alex and I popped open our personal single-serve bottles of champagne and cheers’ed to the year. We took a few night photos and then headed to bed, with no intention of staying up for midnight. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend New Year’s Eve. 

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The next morning we watched the first sunrise of 2018. Once again the clouds turned pink and orange. After we ate breakfast we began to head back down. This time we headed towards the sign that designated the Panorama Trail. This trail lived up to its name, as there were sprawling views of the backside of Half Dome, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. Do you want to know my personal favorite part of it? We didn’t see another person until we reached Nevada Falls after 5 miles of hiking. The first person we saw was a solo hiker, who clearly started his day before the sun rose; he greeted us with a cheerful “Happy New Year!” and continued on. Then the trail made a gnarly descent near Nevada and Vernal Falls. As we carefully made our way down stone steps, day hikers were beginning to make their way up. 

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By the time we reached Vernal Falls the trail felt like the bustling valley once again. Our solitude was gone but our gratitude remained. We reached the trailhead about 4 hours after setting out. Since we hiked the trail point-to-point we caught a shuttle bus back to our car.

Too soon we were leaving with the valley in our rearview mirror. They say that how you spend the first day of your year is a representation of how the rest of the year will play out. If that’s true I’m in for quite a year!