Trail running in Yosemite National Park

The four day Yosemite Backcountry trip is an incredible addition to the Aspire calendar. It’s hard to put into words the immediacy and immensity of this place. I really wanted to give anyone interested in the trip a better sense of the flow and what to expect, so I’ve written this post with my inherent biases, interspersing my own experience and presumed the perspective of someone showing up for the trip. Enjoy!

Day 1: Intros

Pleasantries were lubricated by drinks pulled from the ever-present, ever-cold cooler and the plates of appetizers really hit the spot after the long drive to the park. It’s simultaneously impressive and obvious why a dozen runners from Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington states all converged on this campground with the same purpose: 100 miles of backcountry trails in one of the most iconic landscapes on the planet.

a woman grilling chicken

Tamarack Flats is one of the quietest campgrounds in all of Yosemite. 52 sites, no RV’s, no local store, and it’s well away from the hoards of people crammed into the valley floor. This little piece of the park would be home for the next five days. Rolling into camp, a few things were immediately obvious. There was a ton of firewood. There’s a lot of food packed into those beefy bear-proof coolers. That big tent would keep us us dry and cozy if the weather turns. And everyone here was speaking the same running language. 

The Aspire crew facilitated introductions, gave some valuable background on the park, and then dove deep on the details of the routes, safety plan, logistics, and flow of the trip. In essence, each day we would get shuttled to a different trail. Everyone would run at their own pace, and our guides/crew would consist of a “Sweep” who would always run behind the group at whatever pace and a “Super” who started their run at the “finish.” It was expected that runners would spread out and there was no expectation that we traveled together.

Dinner: Grilled Chicken or Tempeh, Rice Pilaf, Green Salad and Cheesecake. 

Day 2: Porcupine Creek to Tamarack Flat  22 Miles, Elevation Gain: 3,500′ Loss: 5,200′

Breakfast: Heaping plates of French Toast, homemade jams, yogurt, fresh fruit, and nut butters.

Waking up in the woods to a day of running sure beats the alarm cry for the office. The energy among the group at breakfast was palpable. Between bites of french toast there are the last clarifying route, gear, and preparation questions and suddenly it’s 8:00 and we’re piling into the shuttle van. 

a group of happy runners in front of a trial sign.

After a short drive to the trailhead and the obligatory group photo, we’re off. No ready–set–go, no pistol firing, no race clocks, just running.  It’s three miles of gritty single track to the first real views of the trip. The conifer forest of Lodgepole Pines and Red Firs fell away as the dirt trail turned to granite dome. Cresting a small rise, the valley appeared. Half Dome loomed large on the horizon with a deep chasm separating the south end of the valley where we stood, and layers upon layers of views. Granite cliffs, waterfalls, alpine peaks and winding rivers create a full frontal assault to the visual cortex. 

This was just the beginning. Our trail turned west, following the north rim of the Valley. Before the day was over we’d visit Yosemite Point, filter water from Yosemite Creek before it plummeted 2,425 feet to the valley floor, and stand on the summit of El Capitan. If all of that wasn’t enough, we finished the run with a swim in Cascade Creek, just two miles short of our finish at Tamarack Flat Campground where dinner was waiting.  

Dinner: Spaghetti with homemade meat or vegetarian sauce, Green Salad, Chocolate dipped Strawberries

Day 3: Ten Lakes Basin, 21 Miles, Elevation Gain:  +6,000′ Loss: -5,200′

Waking up the second day the edge of newness was gone. The uncertainty of “What am I getting into” was replaced with confidence and eagerness for more views. 

Breakfast: Breakfast Burritos w/ eggs, hash browns, bacon, avocado, salsa, and fresh fruit. 

The shuttle ride from camp to the May Lake trailhead was great for digestion. Clear skies and smiles on our faces were the norm. Our trip through the Ten Lakes Basin was marked by a lingering snowpack that required attention to navigate, but provided a landscape devoid of any other travelers. We kept the group tighter, route finding together and chatting as the miles unfolded.

Our route took us around Tuolumne Peak and deep into the South Fork of Cathedral Creek Canyon. By mid-day we were scanning the long blue horizon with lines of receding peaks in the background and a foreground full of deep granite valleys. 

It’s easy to feel small and vulnerable wearing only a vest in this wild remote place. The three big climbs of the day challenged our legs, but as we reached every high pass, dropped into a new river valley, or stumbled upon an alpine lake, the hard work was absorbed by the beauty of the scenery.   

Dinner: Burger Night! Meat or Vegetarian. Corn on the Cob, home fries, and Dutch oven Apple Crisp. 

Day 4: Pohono Trail, 18 Miles, Elevation Gain +2,000’ Loss: -4,500’

In 2019 the Sierra’s experienced a record snowpack. Heavy winter accumulation and late season/spring storms left the high country blanketed in snow well into July. This led to some variations in our original itinerary. Rather than a 30-mile day through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, our route would take us along the South Rim of the Yosemite Valley. While there were no complaints, it didn’t reflect the backcountry feel we were shooting for. Note: We’ve adjusted this day’s itinerary for 2020, check out the details on the Yosemite Backcountry Course Page

Breakfast: Pancakes, from regular or GF flours, Yogurt, Fruit,  Maple Syrup, and all the fixins with sides of Bacon or Veg Sausage

In 1903 John Muir spent 3 days camping with President Theodore Roosevelt atop Glacier Point. It’s the trip in which Muir convinced Roosevelt to protect and preserve Yosemite as a national treasure. It’s a cool spot, and the start of our 18-mile run along the South Rim of Yosemite Valley. Here the exposure of the valley is BIG. Taft Point sits 3,500’ above the valley floor and juts out of the rock face like a diving board. Stepping up to the edge, or a close as is reasonable, the reality of life, death, and gravity are all mashed into one clear line. 

From Taft, it was a net down runnable day on trail that felt fast and smooth after a day deep in the backcountry.  Since this was the short day of the trip, we capped off the afternoon with lunch spread out under a large oak tree on the bank of the Merced River while we lazily swam, ate, and drank with El Cap Looming over us.   

Dinner: Bratwursts (Meat or Vegetarian), baked beans, and coleslaw with Dutch Oven Brownies

Day 5: Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley, 21 Miles, Elevation Gain: +2,500 Loss: -6,500′

Waking up on the last day of the trip, time was all skewed. The rhythm of existing to run and explore felt normal. The body was sore, but the soul was full. The other runners are friends, a gypsy trail family brought together under a tent for a week of trails, laughter, and good food. It didn’t really seem possible that the real world was looming somewhere outside of this magical park. 

A man gazes over an alpine lake in the High Sierra

Breakfast: English Muffin and Egg, Ham, or Veggie patty, with greens, salsa, and heaps of Avocado washed down with Orange Juice. 

a man running down a rocky trail with a waterfall in the background.

This day was a classic. Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Here we followed the same path by which ancient alpine ice fields spewed forth from the Sierras and formed the deep glacial chasm of Yosemite. It’s a special run. Following the creeks and drainages of the high country, runners find themselves along the shores of the Merced River and the steep granite steps alongside Nevada and Vernal Falls. Reaching the falls puts the valley floor into view and a long sightline of granite faces glowed in the setting sun. 

Having reached the Valley, drinks, appetizers, and the abundant dinner fare that’s become a norm of the trip was waiting at a nearby picnic area. It was a celebratory scene as runners finished, then headed off to the nearby Curry Village for showers, gift shopping, and merged with the rest of the crowds who had been drawn into the Valley’s tight orbit. 

Finishing hardly seemed real. The juxtaposition of so much beauty in larger world paved over with progress and a simplicity of purpose contrasted with the responsibilities of an outside world. It’s a hard reconciliation and it’s precisely this disorientation of re-entry that marks the certainty of having been away from it all. What a fantastic feeling to have at the end of four of the most incredible days of living. 

Dinner: Tacos w/ Chorizo and Vegetarian fillings, Rice, Fresh Salsa, and bottomless Guacamole.

Sign up to run with Aspire in Yosemite National Park this summer.