Staying Found

posted Jun 22, 2015, 8:36 AM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Jul 2, 2015, 9:11 AM ]

A few people have asked us how we find our way when we leave the trail and hike cross-country in the Sierra.  It’s not that hard, but you do need to pay a little attention.  While we sometimes are not sure exactly where we are, we are always careful to remember how we got there---and so we can always find our way back out again!

On this last trip, we began by following Conness Creek up the canyon out of Glen Aulin.  If you look at a map, you can see that there are three creeks that come together to join the Tuolumne River near Glen Aulin, all from the north side.  But Conness Creek is the furthest south, so we stayed to the right (south) side of the creeks for a while to make sure we didn’t follow the wrong one.

And this--our first landmark up the creek ©http://ba​ckpackthes​ierra.comThen it was a question of figuring out how far up the canyon we were hiking. We normally figure that we hike about one mile per hour off trail.  That’s slower than usual, because we’re often looking for the best route through the trees, rocks, and brush that we meet along the way.  So we hiked for a couple of hours and estimated (navigators call this “dead reckoning,” after deduced reckoning) that we were about two miles up the canyon. 

From there we began to look for the large ridge on the north side of Conness Creek which would confirm our dead reckoning position.  We found that by looking between the trees in the more open spots along the creek.  Then we crossed the creek to make sure that we didn’t miss our next key landmark—the smaller tributary that enters Conness Creek from the north.  We found it, right on schedule, and followed it up the small canyon and notch that we saw on the map. 

At that point things got a lot easier, as we started to climb above treeline, where you can see where you are!  We climbed up onto the ridge above Roosevelt Lake and it was clear from there that the lake was dead ahead, down in the valley at the foot of Mt. Conness.  And it was.

And there's Mt Conness ©http://ba​ckpackthes​

The next day we wanted to exit the lake on the east side, because the west side is so steep going into the canyon (that’s why we took the route that we took to the lake in the first place.)  So we looked on the map and saw exactly where Upper Young Lake is in the cirque of ridges across the way, and took a compass reading (150) for that direction.  We also tried to keep a notch in the cirque in view as we descended into the canyon.   

But we also knew that we would not be able to see much ahead of us once we started to climb the other side.  That’s why we also took a compass bearing behind on a peak---and kept that peak at 330 as we ascended the canyon on the south side.  The result was that we hit Upper Young Lake dead center.

And clouds of mosquitoes, too. ©http://ba​ckpackthes​

When it was time to hike down to the lower lakes, we first followed the use trail.  But it was so steep, muddy, and slippery that we quickly abandoned it.  By looking at our map, we saw that the terrain was much more gentle just fifty yards to the north.  So we hiked over there, came down the easier gradient, and joined the use trail at Middle Young Lake.  From there it was simple to follow the use trail to Lower Young Lake…and eventually to the maintained trail back to Tuolumne Meadows.


None of this seems hard on paper, and it really isn’t.  But we did check our position frequently as we hiked, and we were always sure exactly how to get back to Glen Aulin if the whole thing went wrong.