Yosemite Adventures: Merced Pass Lakes

Sidelit Pines on Upper Merced Pass Lake by John P. DeGrazio

Hike the Extra Miles to Reconnect with Friends, Yourself

By John P. DeGrazio

Sometimes it takes extraordinary circumstances to bring two parties together. Other times, it’s a simple meeting in a familiar setting. My friend Evan and I have hiked much of the Yosemite backcountry in the past several years, but we both recognized we were long overdue for our next adventure and had a plan to remedy that oversight. Evan and I like to embark on journeys that require covering over 20 miles in a day and have created our very own “Marathon Hike” series. From Merced Lake to the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne on snowshoes, we have covered a lot of ground together in Yosemite National Park.

Our goal last week was to hike from Mono Meadows to the Merced Pass in a day. It was actually our goal 3 weeks ago before an early snowstorm temporarily closed the Glacier Point Rd. With clear skies and mild temperatures, our plan was back on track. The Merced Pass hike is a 27 mile round trip adventure from Mono Meadows along the Illilouette Creek behind Mt. Starr King and towards Mt. Clark, Red Peak, and Merced Peak. The elevation gain was probably somewhere around 3000 feet for the day so it was not unthinkable to tackle this hike in a day.

Traditionally, this is my go to area for seeing bears, and like a backpack trip here in August, we were disappointed once again to spend the hike alone. Although, we did see lots of scat everywhere, just no furry creatures besides a couple of squirrels and chipmunks. That was our only disappointment, however. We moved quickly and covered the first 10 miles of the trek in great time. This set us up for a pre-dark return, and we were already making our dinner plans back in the Valley. In case you haven’t noticed in prior posts, food is a major motivator for me. Shocking, I know. I always recommend bringing comfort food along on every excursion and dinner plans always help to provide the much needed boost to end any journey regardless of how disappointing the pizza really was that night.

Looking lost (not really) in the Yosemite Backcountry at Merced Pass

We arrived at Merced Pass shortly after 1pm and remained well positioned to hike out during daylight hours. Then we got an idea. An awful idea. We got a wonderful, awful idea! Don’t know how that Grinch reference really fits into this, but I’m sticking with it in the context of getting back before dark. After we ate our lunch at the pass, we decided to visit each of the Merced Pass Lakes. We figured we could hit each lake and still get off the trail as the sun was setting. Both were easy cross country traverses to reach and probably shaved about a half mile from our original route, but we learned quickly why we would be leaving the trail chaperoned by the moonlight.

Arriving at Upper Merced Pass Lake by John P. DeGrazio

The Upper Merced Pass Lake was the smaller, more enchanting of the glacial depressions. Our brief photo stop turned into a one hour impromptu session of abstracts and side lighting. We were so excited to reach this lake at such an opportune time that we decided to reach into the lake to splash into its welcoming water.

Icy Reflection in the Upper Merced Pass Lake by John P. DeGrazio

Evan’s initial inclination was to possibly take a quick dip into the lake to provide some refreshment from a long hike, but he quickly came to his proverbial senses after experiencing numbness in his fingers. Sometimes we may appear to be rugged mountain men. This was not one of those instances.

Glowing Pines at Upper Merced Pass Lake, Yosemite National Park by John P. DeGrazio

Happily photographing several subjects at the Upper Lake, we then moved to the Lower Lake for more excitement. The lighting conditions were not as favorable there, but we still managed to take a few snaps. On our way back we realized there was no way to return in the light, but we welcomed the moonlight as it rose from behind us. Although, we only hiked for a total of 12 hours, the darkness made it seem longer. The return was filled with movie quotes, funny jokes, tall tales, and a smattering of politics. The breadth of our political discussion centered around our disbelief that anyone who could spend a day in the wilderness would turn a blind eye toward protecting it. We were both hopeful I could somehow enlighten a certain disbeliever who currently represents the area containing Yosemite National Park and its surrounding area yet continues to try everything in his power to denude this beautiful land. I digress.

Lodgepoles in Upper Merced Pass Lake, Yosemite by John P. DeGrazio

It turns out I took my own dip crossing a stream on our return. Hiking out in soggy socks is no way to complete a trek, but crossing streams in the dark will sometimes have unintended consequences. Because it is virtually impossible to fill a 12 hour hike with stimulating conversation, we often spent stretches alone with our own thoughts. This is one of the biggest takeaways I advocate for activities like hiking and biking. I relish valuable time spent gathering my ideas on these extended excursions. I am able to draft blog entries, plan calendars, and augment offerings while away from the office in an ‘unplugged’ outdoor setting. We ended our day tired but energized; fulfilled but craving more adventure. We felt as if we could solve the world’s problems and planned our next trip while assuring each other we would not let as much time pass between outings. Maybe the U.N. or U.S. Congress can book a future Yosemite Tour with us? Just an idea.

Row of Lodgepole Pines at Upper Merced Pass Lake, Yosemite National Park by John P. DeGrazio