As we continue planning for the PCT, long weekend backpacking trips are proving to be a helpful way to test our new lighter weight gear. It’s not a big deal to carry a few extra ounces or pounds for a couple days, but it’s significant if we were to carry that extra weight for 2600 miles. We’re using these long weekend trips to truly figure out what we can and cannot live without. Plus, of course, we’re exploring and having a great time on whatever length trip we take!

This four day trip was a 29 mile loop near Hetchy Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Becky, Chris’s sister, joined us for her second ever backpacking trip. We left after work on Wednesday with the intention of camping at the Hetch Hetchy campground. However, within several miles of the campground, an NPS gate blocked the way with a sign stating “Day Use Hours 7am-9pm. Gate locked at night”. Well, that information wasn’t on the map or in the permit! So the first night we camped next to the road.

Thursday morning we started off hiking next to Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which supplies San Francisco and several other cities with water. Throughout our trip, we explored areas that drain to Hetch Hetchy reservoir and eventually flow into San Francisco homes. Most of us living in developed countries take clean water flowing out of our shower heads and faucets for granted. Seeing the origin of all our water reminds us how much we depend on nature to survive and how important it is to protect our waterways. If you don’t already know, I challenge you to figure out where your city’s drinking water comes from.

As we continued around Hetch Hetchy reservoir, we passed Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls. Both were beautiful, but Rancheria Falls near our campsite took the cake.

Becky and Anna pump water from Rancheria Falls.


On day 2 we had two steep uphill climbs nicely separated with flat ground through a marsh in Tiltill Valley. This was my favorite spot of the trip. The variety and vivid colors of the wildflowers were stunning.

Here are some of my favorite flowers from the trip:

One of our weight-reduction gear changes turned out to be very helpful today. The marshes were filled with tons of wildflowers…and mosquitoes. We had removed our backpack lids to save weight, but I still needed a place to store commonly-used items. The  built-in hip-belt pockets on my Osprey Talon were promising, but their small size and open mesh made them less than ideal. I cut them off and replaced them with larger waterproof Mountain Laurel Designs pack pockets. This lighter weight setup was also surprisingly better than the original setup with pack lid, since everything I desired (including bug goop) was easily accessible without needing to take off my pack to get into the lid. Shoo bugs!

We ended the day descending across massive granite slabs towards Lake Vernon. We camped on the granite near the lake (fewer mosquitoes and fewer bears on that side of the lake). The lake and Falls Creek, which flows out from the lake, are each powerful in their own ways.

Day 3 was relaxing and we only hiked a few miles to Laurel Lake. Becky braved the chilly water and took a nice long swim, Anna learned some new wildflower names, Chris wandered with his camera, and we all cooked a yummy dinner and dessert.

Our pop can alcohol stove and caldera cone windscreen have worked wonderfully so far. The caldera cone is also designed to be used with a small twig fire so we tested out this setup to make brownies. The fire was easy to start and keep going. The caldera cone reduced the wind nicely and funneled the heat towards our pan. However, the cookware got covered in soot, which made packing up the next day more difficult. So ultimately, we decided that alcohol fuel is the best way to go, but it’s good to know we have a solid backup option in case something happens to our pop can stove.

After dinner, Chris set up three trekking poles into a tripod formation using a rubber band around the handles. We hoped for a nice clear night, and wow did our wish come true! The milky way was beautiful and the  image below was made possible by the trekking pole tripod.

On day 4 we walked down, down, down with numerous viewpoints of Hetch Hetchy. It was very cool to see the types of wildflowers change as we dropped to lower elevations and dryer climates.

On the way home we stopped at a local creamery. Mmm ice cream is perfect after a hot backpacking trip.

More photos from this trip here.


    1. So true! That is some real backcountry luxury. It is great how being out there helps you appreciate the beauty in little things. I think it’s having a clear, focused mind that allows that to happen. Or maybe everything really is more beautiful out there!


  1. You mentioning Hetch-Hetchy and how it made you appreciate nature made me think of a book I recently read: A Passion for Nature, a book about John Muir’s life, written by Donald Worster. Part of the book deals with his struggle (ultimately unsuccessful) to save Hetch-Hetchy from flodding. Before it was flooded, it was a beautiful valley, often described as a sister to Yosemite. If you haven’t read that book I would highly recommend it!


    1. Yes, a very good point. I almost wrote about the original Hetch Hetchy valley and how it was dammed, but decided to keep CA water wars out of the blog…at least for now. Luckily the movement to restore Hetch Hetchy has been gaining momentum. A recent poll showed 76% of SF voters would be in favor of removing the dam if it only resulted in a small water rate increase. Thanks for sharing the book recommendation.


  2. I did this loop some (ie many) years ago, counter-clockwise as documented here. The bridge at Wampana(sp?) Falls was out, so we roped up my petite traveling companion and she went first. The rope came into play. Then I roped up, crossed with less drama, and we proceeded. Lost over half our food at Rachiera Falls to a bear (rookies…), pushed to Tiltill day 2, crashed, and hit Lake Vernon day 3. Marched out sans food day 4. Best hike of my life, and I’m planning on a redux this month to make some lemonade out of the poor snow pack. Great pics. Thanks!


  3. This sounds like a great loop! I’m thinking of doing it with my 14-year old son. We are relatively new to backpacking, and looking for a 4-day, 3-night trip.

    If I follow your post correctly, not including the first night (note to self!) at the gate, the first night was spent at Rancheria Falls, the second night at Lake Vernon, and the third at Laurel Lake. But you said you only went a few miles on day 3 – how many miles did that leave you for day 4, and if you went a little further on day 3, is there another camp with water that you could have reached?

    The one trip we’ve done so far is the Ohlone Trail, from Sunol to Lake Del Valle, about 19 miles in 3 days/2 nights, at about half the elevation of this loop. Can you/do you recommend this loop for relative backpacking newbies?

    Great post, I look forward to reading your others! Thanks!


    1. Hi Dave, We did this hike five years ago so we can’t remember if there were other potential campsites near the end of the loop. I would recommend looking for flat areas with adjacent water on a topo map. Calling Yosemite’s backcountry office will likely also be helpful.

      This trip was Chris’s sister’s second backpacking trip ever. She did great, though I remember one of the sunny longer climbs was tiring. Take breaks, bring chocolate, and plan for a reasonable number of miles per day, and you should have a fun time.


  4. Was this trail super busy? I’m thinking about doing the same 29 mile loop and it’d be great if it was relatively empty.


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