Going rogue is a term I use to describe for “blazing your own trail”. The park service calls it going “cross-country”. I, recently, read Josiah Whitney’s book, The Yosemite Book that he wrote back in 1869. I posted a small biography on him a while back (July 2, 2015). He was hired by the State of California as the State Geologist back in 1860 with the hope that he could find any other “gems” or more gold hiding in its environs. It is he after whom Mt Whitney is named. But I digress. I also read John Bingaman’s book, Guardians of the Yosemite (from 1961) his memoirs of being a Park Ranger (one which he was from 1921 to 1956).
In Chapter IV of Whitney’s book, he discussed the back country and his wanderings around it. He left the valley, on horseback, up Indian Canyon (just east of Yosemite Falls and West of Teneya Canyon) to the North Rim, wandered past Tenaya Lake into the High Country back down through Little Yosemite Valley and back into the valley itself. As I read it, I was (of course), trying to picture his “week long” journey that he suggested one should devote to such a trip. I found myself bouncing around the back country between oblivion and the places I did recognize. So, upon completion, I went back over it with a map handy and still had trouble following him because the roads and trails we have today are, often, no where near what Whitney had at his disposal in June of 1863 when he took the trek. How neat was that?
In the case of Bingaman, he talked about a tour he guided from the valley floor past Vernal Falls, through to Nevada Falls, Illouette Falls, Glacier Point (now called the Panorama Trail) and down the Four-Mile trail (back in 1918). Imagine seeing all that in one day during a leisurely day trip!
In the case of the Whitney trip, I found myself feeling like I was, quite literally, going back in time. I had to find some maps of the period (I mean, in 1863, Yosemite wasn’t even a park yet). There was only one full time resident in the valley (John C Lamon). Galen Clark, who would become the park’s first Guardian (indeed, would be instrumental in making this a park at all), also lived full time out by what is now called “Big Trees” (or “Wawona”, depending on when you read this) at “Clark’s Station.” The total number of visitors that visited the region for the year 1863 was, probably, less than 150[i]. It is hard to image that anyone, outside of Whitney’s own survey team, would have been out there. Not much of an impact compared to the, probably, 6,000 people that now trample the back country daily (plus the backpackers). Whitney’s trek was done on horseback and, maybe, accompanied with pack mules.
You cannot relive that trek today, going rogue or not. Those days are gone.
First of all, those old trails or “roads” are gone (where there were any to begin with). Though it is true, you can “go rogue” to take the routes he took, there are rules about where a camp site could be set up that Whitney did not have to follow. Secondly, he was on horseback. Though you can take stock into the back country (even your own animals), there are strict rules on where livestock can go; one of which is they must stay on existing trails (no going rogue for stock animals). Also, not all trails are open to stock animals (again, the Park Rangers aren’t being “butts’; they are being realistic. I don’t care how good you are with a horse, but you’re not getting one up those stairs at Vernal Falls!). Third, with pack animals, including horses, there are logistics in the trip that I’m not sure would be very easy to handle.
But as for the Bingaman trip, this one isn’t so much going rogue as it is encompassing a lot in one day. I know that trail (actually, “those” trails). That’s just one day on horseback. I’ve done them on foot on separate (semi- grueling) hikes, years apart. How neat would that be to see Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Illouette Falls, Glacier Point, Union Point, and Yosemite Falls all from the trail in one day? I’m not sure how you could do all those sites in one day on foot. No; check that – I’m not sure how I would do that hike on foot in one day.
As for horseback, it could be done, sort of. Stock animals are not permitted on the Mist Trail. However, you could take the John Muir Trail. It takes a wide berth around Vernal Falls, but you can see it and Nevada Falls okay. Then see Illilouette Falls from the Panorama Trail up to Glacier Point then down the Four Mile Trail. Stop at Union Point and gaze across the Valley to Yosemite Falls.
Not too many people, “go rogue.” In fact, the vast majority of the 4 million visitors to the park annually never leave the valley (during their stay at the park – I don’t mean to suggest they don’t get out alive). The stats are sketchy. But overall, it appears that maybe 30% will venture out of the valley and into the back country. Probably less than a third of them will backpack (overnight camping).
According to irma.nps.gov/stats/SSRSReports, the number of back packers in 2014 was about 190,000 out of about 3.9 million visitors[ii]. That is less than 5%. Going on our 30% assumption above, 25% is left leaving the valley for day hikes. In that case, we have about a million visitors traipsing around the back country during the year. Since the back country is practically inaccessible for 6 months out of the year, then we are looking at about 6,000 day hikers in the back country on any particular day.
You could just wander the back country and see what there is to see, but you have to hike and/or backpack while you brush elbows with about 6,000 other people that day. Aside from being crowded, it takes too long. Most people only have a long weekend or, maybe, a week. How about horseback? I have been on a horse twice in my life (not counting those things outside of barber shops that you put a quarter in). The last time was the summer of 1972. I wonder if, at my ripe old age, I could do it again.
A quick check shows that rates are about $35 an hour to rent a horse. They point out that you must be at least 7 years old, and 44 inches tall (I qualify so far), plus, cannot be over 225 pounds (damn!). But I don’t know if that is for a guided tour or for just portal to portal, on your own. If it is unguided, is there is some kind of qualification to pass to ride unaccompanied? Not at this time. Again, according to the Park Ranger I talked with, he said, “You have the freedom to make bad choices.” You really need to know how to ride a horse if you’re going to hire one. But they don’t require licenses or tests to rent a horse.
Okay, so much for the horsey. What about actual “day-hikes”? Well yes, the park rangers allow you to take full advantage of your park. You can go “rogue” on a day hike and don’t even have to file a permit. It’s called going “cross-country.” How adventurous to pick out your own path and walk as if you were the first to step foot upon it? I look forward to go going rogue in the back country one day.
As it happens, on my last trip to Yosemite, I did “go rogue” in the valley. As with any hike, there’s always something you forget to bring (or discovered you should have brought). This was an unmarked, unnamed trail right in the valley. The trek started off at the Camp Curry parking lot and went south, in the snow and ice, uphill, to Tent Cabin 470. I was all about the outdoors that day! The first obstacle (good adventures are all about the obstacles you overcome) was the snow near the Handicap Parking spot. With the first two of my bags in hand, I successfully navigated over the hump of the snow plowed berm to almost slip on the ice on the side walk. Actually, I had the two bags and a map to the cabin. Once I got purchase on the snow field just past the side walk, it looked like clear sailing, but Nature is a fickle friend. I was soon greeted with frozen tire tracks in what appeared to be made in yellow snow. I sure don’t want to fall here! I carefully navigated them without twisting an ankle or (horror upon horror) falling. It was grueling. As is always the case, I wished I brought more water. So, waterless, I took my first break. I looked around. One of the things I love about hiking Yosemite is that regardless of the physical challenges the hike presents, you can’t help but be overcome by its beauty. This time, however, the beauty escaped me because it was 6 o’clock at night, in January, in the dark and in the cold.
After my well deserved, albeit, waterless break, I trekked on (I should have brought my walking stick). I followed what looked like a natural curve in the terrain, and there, on the left was the cabin! What a sight for sore eyes! And lungs. I was bent over, hands on my knees now, huffing and puffing and wheezing. I sounded like a kid’s friction toy from the forties or fifties I was tired, exhausted and lonely. If I had any breath at all, I would have belted out a lamenting chorus of They Call the Wind Miriah:[iii]
Mariah blows the stars around
And sends the clouds a-flyin’
Miriah makes the mountains sound
Like folks were up there dyin’
But, I digress.
I finally make it to the cabin, with my first two bags, shivering, ice in my beard and moustache, my good eye was frozen open. I then realized the key to the cabin was left in the car.
[i] According to James Hutchings, the total number of visitors to the valley between 1855 and 1863 was 653, making an average of 56.22 per year. In 1864, 147 visited the valley (see In the Heart of the Sierras James Mason Hutchings, 1888 Chapter 10. Early-day Reviewals. Digitized by Dan Anderson, 2004, from a copy in the San Diego Public Library. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice is left intact. —Dan Anderson, www.yosemite.ca.us)
[ii] The numbers on different reports vary, sometimes, significantly. The stats page at NPS.GOV/YOSE says there were 4,029,416 visitors and 56,308 “overnight hikers”, irma webpage cited above shows only 3,882,642 visitors for the year and 61,924 Overnighters for July!
[iii] The Call the Wind Miriah (from “Paint Your Wagon”) lyrics by Alan J. Lerner, music by Frederic Lowe from the 1951 play Paint Your Wagon