Tuesday, October 27, 2020


Fletcher Creek flows by the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp
18 miles round trip, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Yosemite National Park entrance fee required

Vogelsang- a word that means "bird song" in German- is a name given to a peak, a pass, a lake, and a High Sierra camp in California's Yosemite National Park. It is an appropriately idyllic name for this High Sierra landscape of meadows, stream, and lakes tucked under gleaming granite peaks in the heart of the Sierra Nevada's Cathedral Range. This backcountry destination is usually visited by backpackers, as the approach hike is quite long, but I chose to hike here in a day to see the burbling streams at the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, the glistening waters of Vogelsang Lake, and the windswept granite peaks viewed from Vogelsang Pass. Day hikers can shorten this trip by turning around at the High Sierra Camp (15 miles round trip) or at Vogelsang Lake (16.5 miles round trip). While the Vogelsang area is quite pretty, there are other day hikes in the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite National Park that have better reward to effort ratios than this hike, as an 18-mile day hike can be quite taxing. This is probably a great place to backpack to and is a reasonably satisfying day hike, but visitors to the park with limited time would be better off prioritizing hikes like Clouds Rest or Mount Dana.

I hiked to Vogelsang during an August visit to Yosemite National Park. The hike starts from the John Muir Trailhead near Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, on the eastern edge of the Tuolumne Meadows area along Tioga Road. From Yosemite Valley, one can reach the trailhead by following CA Highway 140 west and then turning onto Big Oak Flat Road to head towards Highway 120. At the junction with Tioga Road at Crane Flat, turn right and follow Tioga Road 40 miles, passing Tuolumne Meadows. As the road begins to climb uphill as it leaves the meadows, turn right onto the turnoff for Wilderness Permits and the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trails. This road passes a meadow and a ranger station before coming to the parking area for the Lyell Canyon/John Muir Trailhead on the left side of the road; park here.

From the parking lot, I crossed the road and followed a connector trail which a large sign indicated was headed for the John Muir Trail, with a list of destinations and their distances enumerated. This trail quickly brought me to a wider dirt path; I turned left on meeting the wider path and followed it east. This trail became less wide as it paralleled the Dana Fork Tuolumne River for the next fifth of a mile. The river flowed through a beautiful landscape of rock and forest, collecting in placid pools before dropping down small rock ledges. At 0.3 miles, I came to a trail junction; the left fork led towards Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, while the right fork crossed a bridge over the Dana Fork Tuolumne to connect with the John Muir Trail. I took the right fork, enjoying nice views of the river as I crossed the bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge, I passed a junction with a trail on the left that led towards Gaylor Lakes. 

Dana Fork Tuolumne River
The trail passed through forest for a half mile after crossing the Dana Fork bridge. A small initial ascent was offset by a gentle descent that ended at Twin Bridges, two well-built footbridges spanning the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River. The Lyell Fork Tuolumne River was especially scenic here, its clear waters flowing through rocky channels between granite bowls and spilling over exposed granite surfaces. There were nice views upriver here across meadows to Mammoth Peak and Mount Gibbs. The meadows here are shrinking year by year as climate change makes the conditions here more favorable for tree growth: catch these views before they eventually become overgrown.

Lyell Fork Tuolumne River at Twin Bridges
Mammoth Peak rises above the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River
Just beyond Twin Bridges, the trail intersected with the John Muir Trail itself. To the right, the trail led towards Cathedral Lakes and Yosemite Valley; to the left, Vogelsang, Lyell Canyon, and eventually Mount Whitney. I took the left fork. The John Muir Trail undulated through forests and small meadows and over minor granite outcrops for the next 0.7 miles before arriving at the junction for Vogelsang, about 1.6 miles from the trailhead.

Turning right at the junction, I left the John Muir Trail and began the ascent along the trail to Vogelsang. This started a long, nearly 5 mile journey to Tuolumne Pass along Rafferty Creek. The initial half mile of this stretch involved a steeper ascent of about 400 feet, parts of which were along stone staircases that were characteristic of early trail-building efforts in the park.

Stone staircases along the Rafferty Creek Trail
The trail leveled out a half mile after leaving the John Muir Trail. The three miles that followed were the least interesting of the hike. The trail ascended gently through forest, gradually making its way uphill through the valley of Rafferty Creek towards Tuolumne Pass. The forest was not dense, so there were partial views along the way of Mount Dana and Mount Conness to the north and of the nearby granite ridges that formed the valley around Rafferty Creek. This trail is frequented by horses that carry supplies to the High Sierra camps and is frequently rocky or sandy, making it somewhat unpleasant to hike on for extended periods of time. Occasional views also popped out of the dark form of Parsons Peak ahead. In August, the meadows along the trail had all turned brown and Rafferty Creek had dried up completely; perhaps I would have enjoyed this stretch of trail more earlier in the season with more water and greenery. The trail crossed the creekbed of Rafferty Creek twice, although this was not particularly notable when the creek was dry.

Parsons Peak rising over the trail near Rafferty Creek
At five miles from the trailhead, the trail finally began to emerge from the forest as it arrived at a long meadow filling the top of the valley near Tuolumne Pass. The next mile and a half to Tuolumne Pass was along the meadow, which delivered pretty views to the north of Mount Dana, Gaylor Peak, and False White Mountain. 

Tioga Pass peaks from the meadows below Tuolumne Pass
As I ascended further, the core peaks of the Vogelsang area emerged in front of the trail: the dark rock of Parsons Peak and the granite of Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks. This stretch of the hike was fairly enjoyable as the trail continued to ascend gently until it arrived at Tuolumne Pass at 10000 feet, about 6.5 miles from and 1300 feet above the trailhead. A pond filled a basin near the pass, which had nice views both north and south. Tuolumne Pass is quite flat; you might not even realize that you arrived if it weren't for a trail junction here. The right fork led down to Boothe Lake; I took the left fork, which continued towards the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp.

Fletcher and Vogelsang Peaks above the meadows near Tuolumne Pass
Leaving Tuolumne Pass, the trail stayed level as it contoured along slopes above Boothe Lake, which I glimpsed below in the forest. Impressive views of nearby granite peaks and faraway Mount Conness kept this stretch of trail interesting.

Granite landscape above Tuolumne Pass
Continuing onwards, a short uphill brought me to a meadow at the base of Fletcher Peak. At the far end of the meadow, I arrived at the cabins of the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, 7.3 miles from the trailhead. There are five backcountry High Sierra Camps in Yosemite National Park- Vogelsang, Sunrise, May Lake, Glen Aulin, and Merced Lake- which can be combined with the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge to form a six-day loop hike through the high country of the park. Extremely popular, these High Sierra Camps provide lodging in canvas tents and meals, allowing hikers to experience the magnificent Yosemite backcountry in relative luxury and comfort and without having to carry the heavy loads of a typical backpacking trip. Predictably, the camps are extremely popular and are difficult to book. During my visit, the canvas tents had not been set up for the year- all of the camps were closed for the season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vogelsang High Sierra Camp at the foot of Fletcher Peak
The camp area itself is not much of a destination in and of itself, but hikers who want a shorter hike can enjoy the nearby scenery at two spots. At the trail junction right in front of the camp, the left fork leads towards Fletcher and Evelyn Lakes while the right fork leads to Emeric and Merced Lakes; the trail straight ahead continues towards Vogelsang Lake. While hikers to Vogelsang Lake and Pass may choose to skip this detour, hikers ending their journey at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp should make the 0.1 mile detour to see Fletcher Lake.

I took the left fork for a brief visit to Fletcher Lake. The trail cut through a meadow; after three minutes, I spotted Fletcher Lake off to the right. A social path led to the lakeshore, where I admired Fletcher Peak towering directly over the lake and Vogelsang Peak's unique profile rising to the south.

Vogelsang Peak rises over Fletcher Lake
Returning to the junction in front of the High Sierra Camp, this time I took the fork towards Vogelsang Pass. The trail passed by the camp and came to Fletcher Creek flowing through a meadow at the base of Vogelsang Peak, a very idyllic mountain scene that was perhaps the most beautiful spot on the hike. If you hike only out to the High Sierra Camp, make sure to come this far- Fletcher Creek is only a hundred meters past the camp- because this spot is what makes the long slog to get here worth it. I sat by the banks of Fletcher Creek (still flowing when almost all other creeks in the park were dry!) and enjoyed seeing its waters plunge into a calm pool in the meadows, its burbles complementing the songs of the birds in the trees in this alpine dream. Vogelsang Peak's glowing granite form rose above it all.

Vogelsang Peak above Fletcher Creek
After enjoying the pretty scenery by Fletcher Creek, I rockhopped across the creek and followed the trail uphill through progressively rockier terrain towards Vogelsang Lake. The trail stayed out in the open, providing nice views back to the north of Mount Conness. To the southwest, I spotted Emeric Lake nestled in a granite basin. As I continued to climb towards Vogelsang Lake, I noticed some oddly familiar granite forms emerging behind Emeric Lake. I quickly realized that I was looking at the backsides of Clouds Rest and Half Dome, with Sentinel Dome just a bit farther in the distance.

Half Dome and Clouds Rest rise above Emeric Lake
About 0.6 miles from the High Sierra Camp, I arrived at Vogelsang Lake, a sparkling alpine lake surrounded by green meadows and shining granite peaks. The trail crossed the outlet and then followed the west shore of the lake briefly, delivering beautiful views.

Vogelsang Lake
The trail then left the lakeshore, beginning a fairly gradual ascent to cover the final 300 feet of elevation gain to Vogelsang Pass. The final mile of the hike to the pass climbed up wide granite benches on the west side of the lake. There were a couple more glimpses of Mount Conness here- the last views of Conness before the return journey- and constant beautiful views over the lake itself, which was dotted with a number of granite islands. 

Vogelsang Lake from Vogelsang Pass
Finally- after a long and tiring journey from Tuolumne Meadows- I arrived at Vogelsang Pass. This pass was a little better defined than the flat Tuolumne Pass earlier, although here, too, the saddle was wide enough to hold a small pond. Mount Florence was visible out the other side of the pass. While it might have been tempting to turn around here, I knew that the best views of the hike were just ahead, so I pushed on for just a bit more.

Mount Florence rises across from Vogelsang Pass
As the trail left the other side of Vogelsang Pass, I found nice views of the Clark Range to the south. A few snowpatches still adorned the northern aspects of the peaks of this range, which included Mount Clark, Gray Peak, Red Peak, and Triple Divide Peak. 

The Clark Range from Vogelsang Pass
I hiked forward just a bit more to a point where the trail made a broad turn to the east. All of a sudden, a sweeping view of the tallest peaks of the Cathedral Range came into view. Barren alpine peaks, many still exhibiting intact moraines that hinted at the region's recent glacial past, filled the eastern skyline. Most dominant of these peaks was Mount Maclure, the lesser sidekick to Mount Lyell, the park's high peak, which was out of view from here. Gallison Lake filled a grassy alpine basin to the east while Bernice Lake was nestled in a rockier basin beneath Mount Florence. The streams draining these lakes flowed through forests and meadows in the valley below, eventually feeding the Merced River.

Gallison and Bernice Lakes below the highest peaks of the Cathedral Range
The mountain views here were very enjoyable; I sat on an exfoliating layer of granite nearby and ate my lunch while admiring these mountains. Vogelsang Pass is the highest point along the High Sierra Camp loop; my intention in doing this hike initially was to enjoy the best of that loop in a day hike. After soaking in the views for a while, I retraced my steps to the trailhead. The return down Rafferty Creek was long and became quite tedious.

In a normal year, this part of the park, though a bit remote, would see plenty of hikers journeying through the High Sierra camps. I'm sure that the timing of my visit- during a period of limited visitor entrance due to Covid-19 restrictions on Yosemite National Park- made my hike much more quiet than it usually would be. I didn't run into too many hikers along this trail and saw especially few people after leaving the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp for Vogelsang Pass. There were few day hikers in the Vogelsang area- almost everyone else had backpacked out.

This was a scenic hike, but it was also a very long hike that was a bit of a slog at times, especially during a three-mile stretch of trail along Rafferty Creek that was dusty and rocky and not particularly pretty. The destinations at the end of the hike- Fletcher Lake, the spot along Fletcher Creek at the High Sierra Camp, Vogelsang Lake, and Vogelsang Pass- were all beautiful, but there are many other hikes in the park that deliver alpine lakes or views from high peaks with less of an investment of time and effort. It's worth hiking out here, but most visitors should check out other nearby hikes like Cathedral Lakes, Gaylor Lakes, Clouds Rest, and Mount Dana instead for classic High Sierra scenery without having to go through a day hike of this length.

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