Looking for Yosemite’s roads less traveled

Standing atop a towering peak of Yosemite National Park, the air lacks oxygen, the land lacks life, and the trails lack humans.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d have no clue that only twenty miles as the crow flies to the southwest there is a valley, a spectacular one at that, teeming with humans and civilization.

There’s a grocery store selling ice cream sandwiches. Starbucks cappuccinos are prepared for drowsy visitors. Elegantly dressed waiters carefully pour wine in hopes of a justifiable tip.

But still, standing atop that mountain, if no one ever told me of the civilization, I’d never know it.

It’s these two worlds that make Yosemite a land of stark contrasts.

On one hand, you have the bustling, glacier carved Yosemite Valley, which receives the majority of the park’s six million yearly visitors.

On the other hand, you have towering mountain peaks, isolated terrain, and land that belongs to no one but the wild bears and deer.

The Sierra Nevada is full of beauty, but there is a unique magic to the sheer scale and utter impressiveness of Yosemite’s domes, peaks, valleys, rivers, and waterfalls, all crammed into a relatively small sliver of this immense range of mountains.

It’s this postcard beauty that keeps me (and everyone else) coming back.

After a three-year gap between Yosemite (summer) visits, it was time for a return. But instead of solely swimming among the crowds in the valley, this trip I wanted to experience the polar extremes of Yosemite: A day hiking the popular trek up to Half Dome, complemented and followed by three days in the remote eastern end of the park among the isolated peaks, valleys, lakes, and mountain passes.

It was a trip to taste the best of both worlds that the park has to offer.

Sunshine illuminates Half Dome as seen from the Merced River in Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite’s most recognizable feature that towers 5,000 feet above the valley floor: Half Dome.

Half Dome: The third time’s a charm

I’ve hiked Half Dome twice before, once in 2012 and again in 2015.

It’s a unique combination of distance and elevation that will also test your fear of heights. The final ascent up the ‘cables’ allows you to scale an otherwise impossible section of steep, slick granite.

My sister Anne and girlfriend Madison had never done the hike, so I was happy to do it again and share the experience with them. It’s definitely a hike that any serious hiker should check off the bucket list at some point in life.

I’ve learned a few things after summiting Half Dome twice that made it a bit easier on us. For example, if you bring a water purifying tool, you can save yourself a significant amount of pack weight both going up and coming down.

I’m not sure if it was due to carrying less water weight, or just having been more consistently doing long hikes this year, but this time around Half Dome felt much easier than it had in the past.

It took us about twelve hours round trip, but my muscles didn’t quite have the same memorable pain that I had the previous times that I completed the hike.

Half Dome falls on the busy, crowded side of the spectrum that I was talking about in Yosemite.

Only 225 permits are awarded to those day-hiking the cables, but you form very intimate relationships with many of those people as the trail bottlenecks on the cables. The hiking pace slows down to a standstill as two-way traffic cautiously negotiates the slick rock path.

We completed Half Dome without a hitch, checking off our list the most iconic hike in the park, or maybe even of the state for that matter.

But Half Dome was just a warm up for our plans to get away to a more remote trek into the wilderness of Yosemite.

The next three days were to be spent backpacking above 10,000 feet off the Mono Pass Trail, hugging the dramatic eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada.

This would be our chance to search for Yosemite’s ‘roads less traveled’ that we had been yearning for.

Madison Snively celebrates arriving at Vernal Falls.
Vernal Fall was flowing pretty good for late July — a result of the heavy snowpack from the winter.
Sunrise shines on the backside of Half Dome.
Backside of Half Dome illuminated by the sunrise.
Refilling up our water in Little Yosemite Valley.
Refilling our water at the Merced River before making our final push up to Half Dome.
Taking a break on the trail to Half Dome.
Anne (left) and Madison (right).
Arriving at the infamous Half Dome cables.
One last break before we scoot up the cables.
Evan Quarnstrom and Madison Snively take in the views atop Half Dome.
The expanse of granite in Yosemite is impressive. View from the top of Half Dome looking east.
Madison Snively peers over the granite edge of Half Dome into Yosemite Valley.
Madison getting the classic Half Dome shot with El Capitan in the background.
The infamous cables that allow access to the top of Half Dome.
What goes up must go down.
Traffic jam on the Half Dome Cables.
Rush hour on the cables.

Up and over Parker Pass

Our three days and two nights spent in the wilderness would commence from Tioga Pass and see us go up and over the 11,100-foot Parker Pass on our first day.

A longtime friend, Kai, and his girlfriend, Kiara, joined us for this hike, making us a solid group of five.

Yosemite backcountry trips start off with picking up a permit and receiving an orientation-like speech from a park ranger.

A ranger, tall and thin as a stick with a bushy brown beard, gathered the group of hikers picking up permits. The man, who I could not picture doing any other job on the planet, spoke through the shadow cast by his wide-brim ranger hat about the do’s and don’t’s of hiking in the backcountry.

The name of the game is learning how to protect the bears from you. The bears themselves are not thought of as dangerous, but mismanaging your food is a problem because it trains bears to follow humans for food and makes them ‘problem’ bears that run the risk of getting put down if any altercations occur.

This was actually my first backpacking trip in bear country. My handful of trips before this one had always been in non-bear areas, so I learned a thing or two from this orientation.

Everything that has scent — food, toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, etc. — needs to be put into a bear canister, which is a tough, cylindrical container that has a bear proof locking system.

The point of the bear canister is not to keep bears away. A bear’s sense of smell makes a dog’s look like amateur business, so keeping a bear away from your food is nearly impossible. The goal is to not let the bear actually get into your food. You don’t want to train a bear to correlate backpackers with an attainable food source.

As uneasy as it sounds to have a box full of bear-attracting items next to you, awake or asleep, you can’t actually let the bear canister get beyond your reach. You need to scare bears away that get any smart ideas with your canister, for bears have been known to roll them away, throw them off cliffs, or just do mischievous things with these canisters when they don’t feel the threat of humans.

So, bear canisters packed and spirits high, our group of five set out from the safety of our parked vehicles into the wilderness in search of the solitude of Yosemite.

Our goal for day one was to climb up and over Parker Pass in search of an adequate campsite that would serve as a basecamp to out and back the 12,968-foot Koip Peak the following morning.

We had about six miles and a little over a thousand feet of elevation to climb, a relatively mellow hike as far as backpacking trips go.

Heading out for a backpacking trip at the Mono Pass trailhead.
Morale is always highest before backpacking trips begin. Here is the crew from left to right: Kai, Kiara, Madison, Anne, Me.
Heading out for a backpacking trip over Mono Pass.
The Mono Pass Trail starts out meandering through lush meadows.
Crossing a creek near Mono Pass in Yosemite.
The streams were running high, and a few technical crossings were necessary to avoid getting wet.
Old mining log cabin near Mono Pass in Yosemite.
There are a few old remains of log cabins that were built by miners looking to strike it rich out here in the 1800’s. The cabins and mines were abandoned before the turn of the 20th century.
A deer seen at Mono Pass in Yosemite.
We came across a few deer on the hike.
Madison Snively smiles at Mono Pass in Yosemite.
The trail opens up to expansive views once you gain a bit of elevation.
Hiking over Parker Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Entering Parker Pass. The green pastures make it feel more like the Swiss Alps than the Sierra Nevada.
Posing for a group photo at Parker Pass in Yosemite.
Group photo at Parker Pass. This is the start of the watershed for Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which quenches the thirst of San Francisco.
Parker Pass, Yosemite National Park.
This part of Yosemite is interesting, as it acts as the intersection between the granite dominated formations of the western Sierra and the metamorphic rock of the eastern Sierra.
Panorama shot of Parker Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Parker Pass panorama.

The mosquito invasion

Mosquitos are no joke in the high Sierra. I can attest to this.

The snow melt creates a plethora of stagnant water that is extremely conducive to their reproduction. After what I saw going over Parker Pass, I am convinced that a night outside without a tent would lead to death due to mosquitos sucking your blood dry.

There were that many.

The first five miles or so of the hike were a dandy. We strolled through forests, open meadows, and patches of snow while admiring the pristine mountain scenery that surrounded us. It was a steady incline the whole way to the expansive grass lands of Parker Pass, but nothing too exerting.

Once we went over the pass was when the mosquitos descended on us in droves.

Now, I’ve been to many tropical corners of the world where mosquitos are a real annoyance, but I’ve never seen mosquito swarms as thick as what I saw over Parker Pass.

When I had become overrun by the insects, I quickly opened my bag and began throwing on clothes to act as a barrier. That hardly helped, as the mosquitos could bite through your clothes anywhere that they were flush against your skin, such as your shoulder blades.

I’ve never seen mosquito swarms as thick as what I saw over Parker Pass.

We had only a rough destination in mind, just looking for a nice place to camp in the general vicinity. Overwhelmed by the mosquitos, we settled on a rocky hill overlooking an ice-cold lake at the end of the pass.

The campsite had incredible scenery, but its qualities were less than ideal in that the ground was sharp and uneven with loose rocks.

Out of desperation we threw up our tents and jumped inside to eat lunch and take a break from the incessant mosquito attacks.

Once my blood wasn’t being removed from my body, I could relax and enjoy the peaks that surrounded us and lake that sat just below us. It was not a bad place to take a nap.

We got comfortable in our new home, continued to battle the persistent attacks from our insect cohabitants, made some meals and tried to get some rest for a big day of hiking ahead of us.

Crossing a snow field over Parker Pass near Yosemite.
Descending Parker Pass and into the land of mosquitos.
Crossing a snowfield near Parker Pass in Yosemite.
We had to navigate a few snow patches, but nothing that required us to put on our microspikes.
Hiding from the mosquitos near Parker Pass.
Kai and I brought mosquito nets that came in handy. They don’t look super cool, but the joke is on people that don’t have them.
Camp set up with our tents at Parker Pass.
This was camp for night one. You can see that I came up with a new technique for staking a tent, by tying rope to a stick and putting heavy rocks on it.
Hanging out in our tent over Parker Pass.
Lunch in our tent to avoid the mosquito swarms.
Kai Borer fishing in a pond over Parker Pass.
Kai and Kiara brought a fishing pole and gave it a go in the lake. We don’t think the lake actually contained any fish though.
Beautiful scenery over Parker Pass.
We camped above this unnamed lake. Not a bad view to relax and soak in the nature.
Parker Pass looking east towards Mono lake.
Our campsite had an open window to the east with a view of the White Mountain Range that runs from Nevada to California. The tallest peak of this range, called White Mountain, is 14,252 feet tall, making it the third highest peak in California.
Filtering water in a creek near Koip Pass.
We used a UV pen to sterilize our water, but as these pens tend to do, it eventually failed and we ended up borrowing Kai’s water filter.
Sunset over Parker Pass.
The sunset did not disappoint and lit up the sky over the Sierra Nevada.

A new record high

During our first night spent out in the wilderness, I woke up early to try to get a glimpse of the Milky Way.

I was disappointed to find that the stars were nowhere to be found, blocked by an impressively bright waning moon.

Having missed my chance for stargazing, I got out of my tent in the dark to watch the rising sun illuminate the mountain ranges of Nevada to the east.

Sunrise watching was followed by exploring some nearby waterfalls, and then documenting all the wildflowers that grew in the area.

I’ve always been an early bird since I was little, so I am accustomed to killing time in the wee hours of the morning.

Best of all, I was pleasantly surprised to emerge from my tent in the morning to discover that the mosquitos were nowhere to be found.

My elation was cut short as soon as the first sliver of sun shone over the horizon. The mosquitos returned in full force and I retreated into my layered clothing.

To reach the peak, you need to go over Koip Peak Pass — a series of 22 switchbacks carved by humans in loose scree.

As the rest of the group began to rise, we prepared for our day. Our plan was to summit the nearly 13,000-foot Koip Peak, return to camp, pack up, and head back over Parker Pass to Upper Sardine Lake.

It was definitely going to be a tougher hike than what we did the previous day.

We took only our bear canisters and water to Koip Peak, leaving the unnecessary weight behind.

To reach the peak, you need to go over Koip Peak Pass — a series of 22 switchbacks carved by humans in loose scree that get you onto the ridge. From there, it’s a trail-less scramble up the side of Koip Peak to reach the summit, which sits at 12,968 feet above the sea.

I realized that I was going to break a new record of personal elevation. I had hiked the 11,500 foot Graveyard Peak in the Sierras the year before, but I had never stood on land above that elevation.

I set off from camp intending to add another 1,500 feet to my personal record for elevation.

Bright Moon in Yosemite.
The moon was surprisingly bright considering it wasn’t full.
Waterfalls near Parker Pass in Yosemite.
Exploring unnamed water falls near our camp before the sunrise.
Yellow Frosted Buckwheat blooming in the Sierra Nevada.
I did some research online to identify the wildflowers. Here you see Frosted Buckwheat.
Alpine Daisy blooming in the Sierra Nevada.
This appears to be an Alpine Daisy.
White flowers blooming in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Couldn’t find this one.
Heading to Koip Pass in the Sierra Nevada.
This is the start of Koip Peak Pass, with the twenty-two switchbacks winding up to the left of the snowbanks.
Crossing a creek near Koip Pass.
A fairly wide river crossing on the way.
Scree field over Koip Pass in the Sierra Nevada.
Starting the switchbacks to the pass. The nice thing about this area was that there were no mosquitos, a win in my book.
Purple sky pilot flowers blooming on Koip Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
These purple Sky Pilot flowers are amazing in that they grow only in high elevations above 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada and mainly in areas where no other plants can take hold, such as this steep scree hill. From what I read the flowers only open for a few days, so we came across these at the perfect time.
The top of Koip Pass looking east towards Mono Lake.
As you ascend up the switchbacks, Mono Lake comes into view to the east and dominates the horizon.
Madison Snively takes a break on Koip Pass.
Quick snack break after completing the switchbacks.
Taking a break at Koip Pass.
Anne and Kiara hung out here at the top of Koip Pass, while Kai, Madison and I went for the top of Koip Peak, seen in the background. One other group was also up there, heading over the pass.
Posing for a photo stop Koip Peak in the Sierra Nevada.
Top of Koip Peak at 12,968 feet of elevation. The views stretch for dozens of miles in all directions.
Views of Algers Lake and June Lake from Koip Peak.
Looking down at Alger Lakes and even further beyond that, Mammoth Mountain area.
Evan Quarnstrom on top of Koip Peak.
My Harbor High volleyball warmup, now over a decade old, has logged some serious miles on multiple continents of the globe.
Crossing a snow field on top of Koip Peak.
The trail up to Koip Peak was mostly clear of snow, except for this short 50 meter or so stretch. The snow was firm enough to make walking not too difficult. Poles, however, were necessary.
Resting at Koip Pass.
California, or Mars?
Tending to blisters at our campsite near Parker Pass.
Back at camp and tending to blisters before moving on to Upper Sardine Lake. I don’t understand why, but for some reason I have been blessed with feet that almost never blister.
Packing up our tents near Parker Pass.
Making sure to leave no trace at our campsite as we packed up.

In need of a bath at Upper Sardine Lake

By the time we summited Koip Peak and returned to our basecamp, I had been in the wilderness for over 24 hours, surrounded by crystal clear water, and I still hadn’t jumped in the water.

For me, that was a problem. You don’t go hike in the Sierras to avoid swimming in the lakes!

The problem was that the water on the north side of Parker Pass is part of the Hetch Hetchy watershed — San Francisco’s water source. Going in the water there is a no-go.

The lake at our campsite, which was ice cold, but inviting for a swim, was not an option due to the ravenous mosquitos. The ten seconds of drying off with exposed skin would have been greatly regretted.

Our next destination was Upper Sardine Lake, where I was hoping I would get my first bath and chance to jump in a water hole.

You don’t go hike in the Sierras to avoid swimming in the lakes!

We were to retrace our steps back over Parker Pass, hang a right to the east, cross Mono Pass, and continue on to the slightly lower elevation at Upper Sardine Lake, a lake which we had heard contains fish.

What a difference 24 hours can make.

The same section of Parker Pass where we had been devoured by mosquitos the day before, this time was mosquito-free. It was probably due to the slight breeze that causes the mosquitos to look for cover.

We could hike comfortably in short sleeve shirts, which is a major plus, and traveled the six miles or so to Upper Sardine Lake, which sits lower at about 10,300 feet.

We were able to find a much more adequate campsite on soft ground and I took a refreshing dip on the sandy edge of the ice cold lake. That bath could not have come a second sooner.

Another group of campers were already established in the trees on the east side of the lake, so as to not bother them we set up camp on the north shore of the lake.

Mosquitos were at a manageable rate and outside temperature was nice and mild — a perfect night to be spent under the stars.

We cooked our meals and slid into our cozy sleeping bags, exhausted from a full day of hiking.

Hiking in the Sierra Nevada to Sardine Lakes.
Up and over Parker Pass again, now aiming for Mono Pass.
Crossing Mono Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Once you cross Mono Pass, there is a series of lakes that cascade into one another until the fresh water meets its demise in the saline waters of Mono Lake.
Upper Sardine Lake just over Mono Pass.
This was home for night #2. Camping in a pine forest on the shores of Upper Sardine Lake.
Tent set up near Upper Sardine Lake near Yosemite National Park.
Not too shabby, eh? Trees to protect from the wind, flat ground for a tent, a lake less than 100 meters away, and (relatively) few mosquitos to disrupt the peace. No complaints from me.
Lower Sardine Lake with views east towards Mono Lake.
View from Upper Sardine Lake looking towards, Lower Sardine Lake, Walker Lake, and, finally, Mono Lake. Mono Lake has no outlet to the sea, so this water will sit in that lake until it evaporates.

A successful expedition in Yosemite’s backcountry

Day three was our last day of the trip, requiring just a quick four-mile, mostly downhill hike back to the parked cars before we commenced our day of driving back to our various locations — Santa Cruz for Anne, Santa Barbara for Kai and Kiara, and San Diego for myself and Madison.

Like the previous morning, I woke early to explore a bit of Upper Sardine Lake.

I crossed a stream, walked to the other side, and discovered a little pond that was out of view from our campsite’s perspective. There were some new wildflowers around this lake that I hadn’t seen on the rest of the hike, so that was nice to find.

Before packing up and heading back home, I went for a final dip in the lake. The water had significantly cooled overnight and the ice plunge was more shocking than the previous afternoon.

Kai and Kiara gave fishing another try, and got a few bites, but nothing was ever reeled in.

Our time in Yosemite had come to an end, but our mission was certainly accomplished.

We had managed to scale the world-renowned Half Dome in Yosemite Valley, and then escape to a not-so-distant solitude that felt like it was lightyears away.

I don’t get flustered about the crowds in Yosemite. Anyone who has ever laid eyes on the valley walls can attest to the mystical allure that keeps visitors coming back. It surely keeps me coming back, and it never fails to impress me.

I suppose what I learned from this trip was more of a confirmation, that outside the well-trodden trails of Yosemite lie other roads less traveled. Roads that provide just as much beauty and excitement, roads that are certainly worth exploring.

Alpine Lily blooming near Upper Sardine Lake.
During my morning stroll around Upper Sardine Lake I observed some new wildflowers. These appear to be a type of Alpine Lily.
Red and yellow flowers blooming in the Sierra Nevada.
This might be the same type of flower with a different color.
Mule deer curiously looking at the photographer in Yosemite National Park.
Mingling with the locals on our way back to the car.
Backpacking group saying goodbyes at the trailhead.
One final group photo before we all parted ways to different corners of the state.
Storm clouds roll over the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
As we were driving back home, some tropical moisture moved north into California and dumped rain up in the Sierras / Mojave Desert. I saw this rain in the forecast before starting the hike and was happy that we got out in the nick of time.

5 thoughts on “Looking for Yosemite’s roads less traveled

  1. Holy cow! Breathtaking photos! I have a hard time picking favorites, but at the top would be the sunset from night one, the panorama from Koip Peak, and the shot overlooking Mono Lake. Absolutely incredible. Great writing as usual. I’ve only been to the top of half dome once, as a teenager, which was long before the lottery was a thing. I still remember it like it was yesterday, what an incredible experience. But I prefer less populated areas, so your backcountry hike was more my style. I try to do most of my hikes and backpacking in the late summer or shoulder season…I hate mosquitoes with a passion. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spectacular pictures and engaging commentary, Evan. We looked from afar at the peaks you hiked during our trip to Devil’s Postpile last spring. Thanks for showing it to us up close; we had no idea that it was so moonscape-like in places nor the variety of wildflowers to be found at such altitudes . It must have been an exhilirating trip.

    Sorry we will miss you at the wedding. Would love to meet Madison sometime. xo Shelley and Dan


  3. Thanks again for the vicarious adventure…all the prep for bear encounters probably discourages many to venture too far away from the valley, and out into the woods. I take it you saw no bear? They always left me, whenever stumbled upon while hiking in wilderness, in awe of their actual, physical presence… Dad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Dad, we didn’t see any bears. Rangers told us that at that point in the season the bears were foraging around 4000-7000 feet. We were up at 10,000-13,000, so the bears hadn’t made it up that high yet.


  4. I have backpacked up in the Mono Pass area. This was many years ago. I caught some nice fish in Sardine Lakes–but again, that was years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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