TLDR: If you’re considering a solo backpacking trip: you should do it!
Solo backpacking in Yosemite: A first-timer’s experience
I grew up hearing stories of my audacious Dad solo-trekking through Yosemite as a twenty-something. Having an itch to be a more bold twenty-something, I decided I would follow in my father’s footsteps and embark on a solo-backpacking trip to the famed El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.
1. Educate Yourself
The first move I made is to understand what essential gear and skills I would need to make sure I came back to San Francisco unscathed. To do this, I turned to my trusty friend REI ,who provide a comprehensive set of posts on backpacking for beginners.
Tip: The single best piece of advice from these posts is: Consult with experienced backpackers (which you can find at your local REI store!)
One evening after work I waltzed into the San Francisco REI and approached a store employee at random — it so happened I found an ex-park ranger who served time in Yosemite. This led to a rich and educational hour which I came out of with a list of essential gear, an ideal trail for a first timer and most importantly, the confidence that I could do this and have an amazing time.
Since Yosemite is such a popular backpacking destination, the park limits the number of people that can enter a given trailhead each day. It may be annoying to have your ideal starting trailhead booked up, but this process ensures that everyone gets the remote backcountry experience they’re after. The process for reserving a backpacking permit is fairly straightforward. This page has all the information you will need.
Tip: If you’re headed to Yosemite, read up on bears in the park and properly using a bear canister. Despite a general fear about bears, my main takeaway is that humans are a bigger threat to bears than the other way around. Bears are not interested in you, they just want your delicious food (or really anything with a scent, toothpaste, soap, etc.) Don’t be afraid of bears, but make sure you are educated on proper food storage in their presence.
2. Practice, Practice, Practice
I know it may sound kind of stupid, but going through a dry run of all the backpacking procedures at home I found confidence boosting.
- Set up your tent at home
- Practice using your water filtration system of choice
- Experiment with different methods of packing your backpack
3. Final Gear Check
Before hopping in the car and making the journey to your trail, lay out all of your gear and supplies to make sure you have everything you need to be safe and have a good time.
Ready to go!
I took off on Friday evening after work and headed for the North Pines backpackers campground.
Tip: As a holder of a Yosemite backpacker permit you are entitled to a one night stay at a backpackers campground the night before your trip start date and the night after your end date.
I arrived to the campground around midnight. There are a few parking spots in the back of the North Pines campground that backpackers can use to unload their cars (the backpackers campground is a 5 minute walk from Upper Pines campground.) After unloading you have to park in the Half Dome Village parking lot (a 15 minute walk from the backpackers campground.) There tends to be a lot of noise as campers are setting up/tearing down their sites at all hours of the night. I wouldn’t count on a quality nights sleep here, especially on a Friday.
After picking up my backpacking permit from the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center (Opens daily at 8AM), I was finally ready to start my trek.
I stepped off at the Old Big Oak Flat Road trailhead, and strolled through a pleasant and relatively flat 4 miles until I reached the Cascade Creek crossing for a nice GORP break.
From here, the fun begins. The next 3 miles gain about 2000 feet of elevation after which things level out and you begin a nice stroll through Ribbon Meadow. The meadow provides a serene backdrop for the last 2 miles of the 9 mile journey to Ribbon Creek.
Setting Up Camp
A group of hikers I passed told me about the best spots to set up camp near El Capitan. Following their advice I decided to post up near Ribbon Creek for easy access to water. I recommend hiking about 5 minutes past the Ribbon Creek crossing before setting up camp. The mosquitoes may not endorse this decision, but your skin will thank you later! There are a number of pre-existing camp sites on either side of the trail. I headed uphill and found a nice granite slab to set up camp. Later in the evening I found a few spots downhill from the trail (closer to ribbon creek).
Tip: It’s a great idea to stop and chat with fellow hikers. These conversations were welcome social interactions for me. Everyone was more than friendly and often had helpful information about the trail ahead!
After setting up camp, I hiked the additional mile out to the summit of El Capitan for some incredible views.
After dinner I headed to Ribbon Creek and found myself wandering downstream. The farther I went, the farther I wanted to go. Little did I realize Ribbon Creek drops off into Ribbon Falls — an awe-inspiring and welcome surprise. I highly recommend this detour.
Tip: Take some time to explore the backcountry around your site. This is a great opportunity to meander around and see what hidden gems exist off the beaten path.
My campsite had a fire ring already set up and a healthy supple of kindling, so I took advantage and indulged in a fire as the sun set and the moon began to dominate the landscape.
The next morning, I enjoyed a sunrise breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee by Ribbon Creek and packed up to begin a reluctant journey back to civilization. After almost ten miles of descent in the hot hot sun, I was stoked to be back at my car.
- If you’re on the fence about a solo backpacking trip I urge you to go for it. I was nervous about being out on my own, but the confidence I gained from my research and preparation pushed me through my apprehension. If anything, I hope that this post is evidence that with the right planning, anyone can take on a solo-adventure.
- A night out on your own is a soul-cleansing experience. Although I came back to San Francisco dirty and scratched up, I felt refreshed. The time alone coupled with inspiring scenery is a recipe for healthy self-reflection. For me, this trip helped me develop some strategies to manage anxieties that have been pestering me for the past few months.
- Make preparations to enjoy yourself. My ultimate goal was to have a good time out there. I did some small things that I think really helped with that. I brought a comfortable camping chair, cooked up a delicious dinner (chili mac n’ cheese), and made sure I had my favorite treat of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for the end of the day (hey, it’s the small things in life!) Think about what’s going to make you happy at the end of a long day and bring it along! As long as it’s not too heavy…