Day 16: Friday, June 18, Yosemite Valley to Nine Lakes Trail

I decided to get an early start and got coffee and some breakfast at the deli in Yosemite Valley. I thought that I might be able to get all the way out of the park in one day -- 65 miles with well over 7000 feet of climbing. I don't know why I thought that, given the 40 mile days that I'd been doing to date, but I guess I was optimistic.

Just in case, though, I planned for the contingency plan of camping off Tioga Road at night. So at 8 AM I was at the Wilderness Center in the Valley to get a permit to camp. These permits are free, but you have to tell them what trail you're going to be camping along (difficult for me because I didn't know how far I'd get), and you have to agree to their rules.

Among their rules:
One, you have to camp more than one mile from any paved road, and not at all in certain areas (those with real campgrounds, for instance). This would mean that if I were to comply fully, I'd have to lug my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat at least a mile up a trail. Unfortunately, all I had to do this with was the backpack adapter that converts one of my small front pannier bags into a small backpack. This was not big enough for everything I needed to carry, I thought.
Two, you can't take a bike more than 100 yards off the paved roads. This rule is obviously to discourage mountain bikers, but I was concerned that my bike would be considered illegal too. I didn't want it confiscated.
Three, you have to use a proper method to slow down bears that want to eat your food. The preferred method is to use a bear-resistant food container, but there was no way I could rent one, as I couldn't return it. If you don't have a container, you can hang it from a tree. But the requirements are that you have to have it hung at least 12 feet from the ground, well away from other trees, and on a branch that is 5 inches thick where it attaches to the tree (so the bear can't gnaw through it), and one inch thick where you throw your rope over (so the bear can't climb out the limb). Good luck finding such trees at high altitudes among the lodgepole pines and other evergreens! And 12 feet high means that you have to find a long stick to push it up with (you counterbalance the food bag).

But I found a trail that wasn't snowed under and told them that I'd be camping along it. I was hoping I wouldn't have to.

So I started out of the Valley around 8:30 AM. The first few miles were flat or gently downhill, then the road started climbing. Route 120 -- Tioga Road -- climbs up at around a 5-7% grade for miles. I had to climb from the Valley at 4000 feet up to almost 10000 feet to get over Tioga Pass. And I had no illusions about this being a steady, gentle climb. Inevitably, mountain roads tend to go up and down quite a bit. So for every 1000 feet of overall elevation gain, you might have to do 2000 feet of climbing.

This being the weekend, traffic was relatively heavy on Tioga Road in both directions. Tour buses were going down into the valley, and other vehicles were going both ways. I even saw RV's pulling trailers! I thought I had too much stuff...

There were no shoulders on the road. Few of the drivers behaved legally or safely -- instead of slowing down to my speed of about 5 mph until they could pass safely or until I could pull over, most drivers would pass me at whatever speed they were going, even if they were on a blind curve or hill. Of course, as soon as they saw someone coming at them, they would pull back into the right lane, crowding me. I was forced off the road twice this way. I tried riding in the right third of the lane, and found people trying to share my lane and leaving me little space. I tried riding in the middle of the lane, and everyone passed unsafely.

It amazed me that people were in such a hurry if they were on vacation. After all, slowing down and waiting for a safe place to pass would only have delayed them a minute or so, at most. But this didn't seem to occur to them.

As I gained altitude, my speed decreased. When I reached 7000 feet, I was finding that I couldn't easily make the bike go more than 8 mph on level roads. Not that there were that many level parts. While climbing, I was in my smallest front chainring, and moving between 4 and 6 mph. I found that the thin air was really affecting my stamina. I had to keep resting as I went along

But the view was incredible, just like the rest of Yosemite.

I was so slow, that at one point I stopped to see if something on my bike was slowing me down. Propping my loaded bike up on the kickstand to spin my rear wheel, I broke the kickstand. I also noticed that I'd broken the metal strap that stabilizes the rear rack. I re-attached the rack using nylon cable ties.

At around 8000 feet, I started to see snow in patches. It was melting, and all the streams were full and running fast and cold. But the day was easily 80 degrees and sunny.

I could see the larger granite formations of the Yosemite Valley from above. I saw Half Dome from behind, for instance.

My legs soon started to feel like lead. I started to hate downhills, because I'd just have to make up the loss of elevation gain. After about 40 miles total (perhaps 35 miles of climbing), I was at the trail that I said that I might be camping along. I decided to stop, because I just couldn't see going all the way out of the park, and many of the trails to the east of where I was were still snowed under.

I still had the problem of following park rules. I filtered several liters of water from a stream, and considered parking my bike at the trailhead parking lot. But it was too exposed, considering that I would have to leave most of my gear out all night. I decided to take the bike back along the trail a ways, then carry the tent and other gear to my camping spot.

This was not particularly easy. My bike -- 11 feet long, heavily loaded, and not exactly a mountain bike -- is not great on hiking trails. And the beginning of the trail had a tree across it that I had to drag the bike under. But I managed to get the bike about a half mile up the trail by a combination of riding and dragging. I had to cross several small streams that were about 8 inches deep, and kept getting the trailer stuck on rocks. Finally I couldn't drag the bike any more, and found a good place to hide the bike.

The next job was to hang my food out of the reach of bears. Although this altitude -- 8500 feet -- was above the normal range of the black bears, some Yosemite bears have learned to frequent the busier areas along Tioga Road. I was hoping that my location, well away from the Tioga Road campgrounds, would not have bears. But I hung my food, not exactly following the rules. I couldn't find a good branch or stick, and ended up hanging the food only about 9 feet high, and only about 6 feet from another tree.

Then I packed what I needed for the night into one of my panniers, using its backpack adapter. I hung on the sleeping bag, and carried my handlebar bag, as well. I started up the hill, to go another half mile.

I walked a while uphill, until I found a spot where I could pitch a tent. By this time, I had no idea if I was actually a mile up the trail, but I was ready to stop. There had been a sign at the trailhead that said to only camp in "designated campsites", but I had no idea where these were. I pitched my tent while I still had plenty of light, and sat on some rocks overlooking a stream far below, reading a paperback book. I was glad I didn't try to ride any further.

Camping here was very different from the noisy, busy Yosemite valley. I couldn't hear any sounds from the road, and there were no other people around. The only sounds were the birds and the stream below. I was glad I stopped here.