I studied the National Park Service website with a concerned look on my face. Sarah and I had been planning a Yosemite backpacking trip for months, and I was just now trying to reserve a wilderness permit. Popular backpacking locations like Yosemite Valley and Cathedral Lakes were booked solid through October. Most other spots in the park didn’t have the specific days that I needed.
In almost any other park this wouldn’t be an issue, but I was trying to reserve in Yosemite during peak tourist season. Park authorities strictly limits the number of backcountry visitors to prevent overuse, and my procrastination had left me with just a couple locations to choose from. After a moment of consideration I picked a spot with a funny sounding name – Chilnualna Falls.
Arrival and Planning
Chilnualna Falls is actually a series of waterfalls on the Chilnualna River which descends thousands of feet from the Yosemite high country. It eventually reaches the historic Wawona Hotel on the southwestern boundary of Yosemite National Park. Thats where Sarah and I arrived on Sunday night to begin our backcountry adventure.
Chilnualna Falls may not be the the most popular backpacking site but it was breathtaking to look at. A huge snowpack and long June days had turned the falls and river into a nonstop torrent. To the right of the falls is the Wawona Dome – a helmet-shaped rock face that dominates the landscape. On the left side we could see our trail running all the way to the top. After that it disappeared into the distance towards the uninhabited Yosemite wilderness.
We had 6 people for the trip: Sarah’s parents Tom and Sue and our friends from Oakland, Sam and Monica. Sam and Monica were driving up on Monday morning, so we wouldn’t get started until midday. The rest of us got busy organizing gear and supplies while we waited.
Even a short backpacking trip requires a lot of planning. We considered every item that would be needed; A single oversight could have serious consequences in the backcountry. Tents, sleeping bags, stoves, fuel, water filters, and cookware were distributed evenly and then packed away. We choose lightweight food, but in accordance with park regulations it all had to be carried in bulky bear-proof canisters. Even small items – water bottles, soap, our hammock – added up to several pounds. We were certainly not traveling light.
By the time everyone arrived and was ready to go it was nearly 2 pm. The pleasant morning air had turned oppressively hot. Just hoisting a pack onto my shoulders was enough to bring a bead of sweat on my forehead. It took a few steps to get my balance with the pack but I soon fell into a rhythm and just like that we were on the move!
Everyone knew there was a tough climb ahead, but for the moment the river distracted us. In some places it flowed briskly through open meadows and at other times it churned impatiently through rock strewn bottlenecks. The sections of waterfalls were my favorite. Freezing water poured off sheer cliffs by the ton, falling hundreds of feet before crashing onto the riverbed below. Clouds of chilly mist blew across the trail giving us all some much needed relief from the heat.
Sarah, Monica, Sam, and I were moving faster than Tom and Sue, so we went on ahead. Our group stopped occasionally for water, snacks, and the occasional dunking in calm sections of river. Each time we checked back down the trail for Tom and Sue, they were nowhere to be seen.
The first couple hours of hiking were hard but exciting. We had passed the time discussing the coming days and taking in the scenery. Two miles stretched into three and by mile four I was really starting to feel the weight on my back. The uphill steps burned my thighs. I fidgeted with straps to find a more comfortable position for my pack. Sweat poured from under my sunhat and stung my eyes but I kept moving. Surely we were close to our destination.
Then There Were Four
The top of Chilnualna Falls was a welcome relief for all of us. The 5 mile hike had ended up being tougher than any of us had expected and it had taken nearly four hours. The sun was starting to go down below the mountains and we hustled to find a campsite. Another quarter mile brought us to a clearing with a stone fire ring and we got to work setting up tents and cooking dinner.
While this was going on, I began to walk back down to find Tom and Sue. I was certain that they were still on the trail somewhere and wanted to make sure that they would be able to find us. Without a pack I could move quickly, but it soon became clear that Sarah’s parents were not going to make it to our campsite. Daylight was fading fast and hikers coming up couldn’t remember passing anyone on the trail. Reluctantly I turned around and headed back up to deliver the bad news. Our party of 6 had been reduced to a party of 4.