All alone in Yosemite Valley

posted Jan 6, 2012, 9:51 PM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Jan 7, 2012, 9:14 AM ]
Between Christmas and New Year's Day we were up in Yosemite, looking for some nice hikes and hoping to avoid most of the crowds.  And we were pretty darn successful.  Here are two hikes that gave us hours of enjoyment, and we didn't meet another soul.  And yet the trailheads are right in the heart of Yosemite Valley. 
In fact, on our way to one hike we heard a couple of people on the shuttle bus complaining about the crowds and the crush.  Fifteen minutes later we were alone in the woods, and didn't see anyone else until we returned to the trailhead three hours later. 
So where did we go? 
lllilouette Canyon: The rangers in the park will not recommend this one. In fact, we know at least one person who was told that you need ropes and climbing gear to get here. You don't. You need arms and legs, and an indomitable will to plug away uphill through some dense brush and really big boulders. And you need to be smart, not stupid.
There is no trail. You start by the Happy Isles Nature Center, and follow the Panorama Trail there up into the canyon. But when you get to first bridge across Illilouette Creek; stop. Do not cross the bridge.  There should be a huge water tank on your right.  Turn right and go past the tank and keep climbing up the canyon, always staying to the right of the creek. There is no trail. It gets steep. It gets brushy. But you eventually get up above most of the trees, and at that point you have some great views of the back of Half Dome, and up Merced Canyon above Vernal Falls.
Illilouette Falls themselves are lovely, but that's not the real reason for this hike. The real reason is to get away from everyone in the Valley and see a part of Yosemite that very few people have ever seen.
It's only about three miles round trip, but we recommend at least three hours to make this scramble/trip. And be careful. There is plenty of evidence of bears in this area...and if you get hurt up here, it will be reallly hard to get you out of here. Be safe.
Ribbon Falls: Speaking of getting away from it all...there are people who rock climb all over Yosemite Valley, and they don't see many people at all! This "trail" is a use trail that was created by some of those climbers on their way to climb the Golden Wall--a section of granite just west of El Capitan. They've left a ducked route that you can follow, if you pay a lot of attention, and it goes just about straight up. This is a very steep trail, as these guys don't believe in switchbacks. They just go straight up the side of the canyon, and so do you if you follow them!
Ribbon Falls from the foot of the falls
But it's easy to get started. As you drive west past El Capitan, look for the dirt road V9 that goes up off to the right. Sometimes you can drive up this--other times it might be closed. Either way, it's not far to the "trailhead." The road switchbacks twice, and just as you complete the second one (near a large woodpile) and turn left to head off on a long straight section going West, look for a small cairn on the righthand side of the road. That's it.
By the way, this road is the old road into Yosemite from Big Oak Flat--and it does run for quite a while to the West of here. You won't meet many people on it, and if you work your way through the slides, it will take you all the way out to the new road into the park, many miles to the West.  It's a good choice for an easy Yosemite Valley hike with plenty of solitude.  But we were going to work harder than that.
From the cairn, follow the trail as it goes straight up to the base of the cliffs, and you will have climbed up about 1400 feet in about a mile. That's STEEP. It took us more than an hour to climb that mile. Good thing those cairns were sometimes hard to spot---because that gave us a chance to rest and look for them.  The trail always stays to the West, left, of Ribbon Creek.
But once you get to the cliff, you can bushwhack your way through some California Bay trees to the right towards the creek...and it will take you over to the foot of Ribbon Falls. That's only a hundred yards or so...and then you are out on a rocky slope underneath these towering cliffs, with a waterfall on one side. and the Valley and Cathedral Rocks all in clear view. Yowza!
Coming down is a LOT easier--but take your time. If you get hurt up here, it's no joke.