Backpacking North Rim Yosemite Valley

A 3 day backpacking trip up Yosemite Falls Trail to North Dome, over to Mount Watkins, and finally down Snow Creek Trail, down the side of Tenaya Canyon, back to Yosemite Valley. Doing this in the early season before Tioga Pass is open means relative solitude, with unbeatable views of the valley and Half Dome.

The weekend after memorial weekend I headed to Yosemite Valley for 4 nights, a 3 night backpacking trip along the north rim of the valley followed by a long day hike along the south rim. Due to the huge amount of snowfall at high elevations in the Sierra the rivers and waterfalls were all charged and the park service was expecting record visitors over memorial weekend. As Tioga Pass is still closed for the season, as it’s being ploughed, I hoped the north rim would be relatively quiet for backpacking, with the only trailheads coming from the valley.

I’ve got a routine for heading to the Sierra for quick weekend trips that involves packing everything up the night before, heading to bed early, getting up and leaving the house between 3:30 and 4am, pulling into Ryderz in Oakdale at opening time at 5:30, grabbing a big breakfast, and then riding into the sunrise to get to the mountains between 8 and 9, as the wilderness offices are opening for the morning.

I got to Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center shortly after 9 as it had just opened to pick up a permit for the Yosemite Falls trailhead. The day I arrived was the first day of the season that the park had put up the cables for Half Dome and was issuing Half Dome permits, and so there were a lot of people heading to Little Yosemite Valley. I parked my bike, got my gear in order, and hit the trail shortly before 10.

Upper Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Falls trail. As the trail continues to climb mist from the supercharged falls sprayed the trail.

Day 1

From the base of Yosemite Falls there’s a great view of both the lower and upper falls. At 2,425 ft Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, and the tallest in Yosemite. The trail is a short way west of the base and the switchbacks start right away, climbing all 2,425 of those feet, up the side of Yosemite valley. On the way up there are glimpses down the valley which continue to get more impressive as the trail climbs. The waterfall doesn’t become visible until the trail is already clear of the lower falls, and the curve in the trail first opens up to views of Half Dome.

Looking down at Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Point which is just above the falls.

From here there’s more and more switchbacks until, finally, the trail curves around to a granite ledge on the west side of the falls. The trail continues slightly down the granite, where the park service has put up steel railings, to overlook the mouth of the falls. There are panoramic views down to the valley floor. Up to here there are a lot of day hikers, and even though it’s only a relatively short walk up to Yosemite Point on the east side of the river most of the hikers turned around without coming here, and after Yosemite Point the day hikers disappeared, and I had the trail completely to myself.

There’s a little more climbing from here, but the steep switchbacks have finished, and it’s mostly flat over to North Dome. The trail follows through forested areas, wades through two stream crossings, through a burn area, and up a short climb to just over 7,600 ft at the end of Indian Ridge, and the trail junction. From here North Dome is visible, jutting out into the valley, with Half Dome looming tall behind. The trail drops down over clean granite, a small wooded area, and out to climb to the top of the dome.

I had the entire dome to myself, since leaving Yosemite Point I’d only seen a single pair of hikers heading in the other direction. When 120 opens I expect this is a popular day hike, but from the valley floor this is a strenuous trip. It was late afternoon so I found a campsite, set up my tent, filtered water, and rested my legs. I thought I’d managed to avoid the worst of the bugs, but by early evening I was proved wrong, and escaped to my tent to get away from the cloud of mosquitos and had an early night.

Day 2

On the second day I headed from North Dome back to Indian Ridge and along the granite ridgeline. As I got over 8,000 feet I started to hit snow. Around a mile and a half along there’s a junction and a small side trail to a natural arch, perched on the top of a large piece of rock. It was too steep and snowy on the north slope behind the arch to go around, but there was a great view from the south side.

From here the trail starts to drop down to the divide between two creeks and another trail junction. Taking Snow Creek Trail, which true to its name was covered in snow, there were a couple of sets of footprints already in the snow. The trail follows Snow Creek down, as it continues to grow in size, eventually to a footbridge, and over to the other side. Right as the snow started to peter out the trail butted up to the creek, and it was really flowing. At the steeper sections, as trail switched back, the water roared as it cascaded down small waterfalls and rapids.

Water cascading down Snow Creek, there were multiple mini rapids in the steeper sections.

The footbridge is a little way down the trail and as it crosses over, the trail heads back up the other side. I was originally considering aiming towards Olmsted Point, but was playing it by ear; Olmsted Point is a known avalanche hotspot and I didn’t want anything to do with potential avalanche zones, so I was going to play it cautious and see what the conditions looked like when I got there. As I was heading up I ran into another backpacker going the same direction who had started from the valley that day and was spending multiple days in the backcountry. She was heading up to Mount Watkins on the first night, and I decided to change my plans and hike up alongside, and stay here instead, and when I arrived I was glad to have made that decision.

Snow Creek Cabin, a winter cabin that was still surrounded by snow.

As we got up to the creek crossing we decided not to cross, the creek was running quite quickly and the trail along the other side was covered in snow anyway, so there was no reason to do so. It wasn’t long until we came across the snow cabin, originally built in the 1920s with the idea for being the start of a ski resort, the resort was never built, but the cabin survives, and the park service fixed it up a few years ago for winter use for backcountry hikers. By May it was already closed for the season.

The hike up to Mount Watkins is easiest to first follow the trail/creek up to the ridge, and then along the ridge to the peak. As we neared the top the sun had already melted all the snow on the south side and walking again on granite instead of sun cupped snow was a relief. From the top there were amazing views up Tenaya Canyon and across the snow-capped peaks of the high country, as well as over to Half Dome and up Yosemite Valley. Every 20 minutes or so sounds echoed around Tenaya Canyon of falls, either rock or snow, each time we tried to look for the source but couldn’t quite discern it. It wasn’t until later, in the early evening, that I finally caught sight of snow sliding off a ridge and crashing down into the canyon, exploding over the rocks below.

Day 3

The first section of the last day is retracing the steps back down to the footbridge over Snow Creek, and from here the trail starts to rapidly lose all the height gained on the first day, with an equally large number of switchbacks. All the way down there are great views of Half Dome and down into Tenaya Canyon. In contrast to the path up to Yosemite Falls though this trail was deserted, I passed a couple of backpackers and a lone day hiker. The views were just as impressive, but there’s no great payoff at the destination, as with the falls.

The trail eventually drops into the canyon floor and joins up with Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. Around a mile from the junction it arrives at Mirror Lake. By this point we’re basically back to civilisation again, and the trail is abound with day hikers. Mirror Lake is a popular destination, but after the scenery I experienced in the backcountry it just seemed overwhelmingly crowded.

From Mirror Lake the Yosemite Loop Trail leads all the way back around to the start, to complete the loop. I have never been on the loop trail before and it sounds quite magical, but it’s anything but, there’s not really great views from along it, it’s just a way of getting from A to B, it’s mostly just long and flat.

This was the end of my backpacking trip, but I stayed overnight at the backpackers’ campsite to do the south rim hike the following day. The campsite is north of Tenaya Creek from North Pines Campground, and normally there’s a footbridge over the creek to get to the site, but the large amount of water caused the creek to overflow its banks and spill out on the campsites on both sides. It was only a few feet over the banks so only a few campsites were closed but the detour around was not welcome after a long day hiking.

A family of deer crossed over the flooded Tenaya Creek at the Backpackers campsite in Yosemite Valley just as I was leaving in the morning.

The next morning as I packed up I decided to just wade over to the bridge, which itself wasn’t submerged, and then wade across the other side. Just as I was about to step in a large family of deer came ambling through the campsite in single file and crossed the bridge ahead of me. Usually deer flee before you get anywhere near but the deer in Yosemite have little fear of humans, and mostly ignore park visitors, as they carry on their way. The water across was frigid, my feet hurt by the time I got to the other side, but I saved a mile detour, as I headed out for the day.

Backpacking to Robinson Mountain in Orestimba Wilderness

Robinson Mountain Trail could be more accurately described as a suggested route rather than a trail, but the views on the way up are really pretty. Deep into Orestimba Wilderness it’s a long walk in, and back out again, to get to this rarely walked trail.

For the second year running, I threw my backpack on the back of motorcycle, and headed down to Henry Coe to visit Orestimba Wilderness. I was a little better prepared after my experience last year and stuck to the trails I knew were easily navigable. My goal was to try to get to Robinson Mountain Peak right in the center of Orestimba Wilderness. The trail up to the peak is from the east so I had a long hike from park headquarters just to get to the base of the mountain.

I took the most direct route to get to Orestimba Wilderness from the Park HQ, heading to Mississippi Lake via Poverty Flat Road and Willow Ridge Road, and then dropping down Hartmann Trail and following the Orestimba Creek up to Rooster Comb, where I spent the night. The rivers were pretty full of water and the scenery was very green this time of year. From Rooster Comb it’s a few miles around to Robinson Mountain Trail, just past Lion Canyon.

Robinson Mountain Trail is more of a suggested route than a trail. Like many of the trails at Henry Coe, it walks straight up a ridge to a sub peak of Robinson Mountain. There was only one small section where the trail seems to have been man-made, where it tracks around a particularly steep ridge. The views over the valley on the way up are really pretty. The entire path up requires scrambling through waist to chest high coyote brush, but it’s pretty easily navigable.

After getting to the top though, it’s another story. The chaparral is really thick and has grown well past head height in places. I could see across to Robinson Peak, but there was no obvious path over without crawling through some very thick shrubbery. I was quickly approaching my turn around time, so the summit and views over the western section of the wilderness will have to wait for another year. I turned back, and retraced my steps to Mississippi Lake. The views on the way down the mountain trail were even better than on the way up.

On the way back I met two volunteers trimming and flagging Hartmann Trail, in preparation for the wilderness weekend the next week. This is where Dowdy Ranch is opened to vehicles one weekend each spring, which makes visiting Orestimba a lot more attainable. The volunteers were a couple, both around 80 years old, out maintaining one of the steepest trails in the park, I take my hat off to them.

I also got to talk to a volunteer in park HQ at the end of my trip, a guy named Ken, he explained to me that the ridge roads are actually old fire roads which is why they so strictly follow the ridge lines. Willow Ridge Road is nicknamed the rollercoaster because it goes up and down do many times as it traverses the ridge. It was another fun trip, and I suspect that I’ll be back again in the springtime next year.

Suunto Ambit for Hiking and Backpacking

I never go hiking without my Suunto GPS watch, having accurate distance and altitude on your wrist helps with navigation and on the long days can be satisfying to see

I first got a Suunto Ambit2 for use hiking and backpacking a few years ago and I’ve since replaced it with Suunto Ambit3 Peak which is functionally identical. The core feature of both watches is GPS tracking and they also have a barometer and temperature sensor. For hiking the two most useful pieces of information (besides telling the time) are the distance and altitude.

Suunto Ambit2 at the peak of Mount Diablo showing the time, altitude, and total ascent

The distance is tracked by GPS; Suunto is known for its accuracy and fast to acquire GPS. The frequency of logging can be configured per “activity” with intervals of 60s, 10s, and 1s. The higher the frequency the more accurate the distance and recorded tracks but the more drain on battery life. For hiking 60s is usually more than adequate however I usually use the 1s logging for day hiking as the battery will easily last and it provides for more accurate routes.

My activity home screen shows the distance in the main section with the time above and altitude below

The altitude is tracked by combining both the GPS and barometer sensors, which Suunto calls “FusedAlti”. GPS by itself is much less accurate for altitude than it is for longitude and latitude so having the barometer significantly improves the accuracy. The reading is accurate to within 3ft (1m) and in my experience it’s very accurate (in the photo above at the peak of Mount Diablo the altitude reads 3,835 and Mount Diablo is actually 3,848 so it’s only ~10 feet out).

In addition to providing the distance and altitude the watch will also calculate extra of data from these; the activity time, current and average speed, and total ascent and descent, which are all useful to know as you go. The temperature sensor will show you the current temperature.

One of the activity screens can show a graph of the recent altitude change

The watch comes preprogrammed with a set of activities but you can configure your own to show whichever information you want. The watch face is capable of showing three lines, one enlarged one in the center, a smaller one above, and a paginated smaller one below which can be toggled using the view button over 4 different metrics. For hiking I have 3 screens configured to show:

  1. Time; Distance; Altitude, Average speed, Current speed, Battery
  2. Time; Altitude; Ascent, Descent, Temperature
  3. Altitude graph, which also includes activity time

I find more screens than this a little unwieldy to manage.

Showing the altitude, time, and ascent at Monument Peak in Fremont

The battery estimates that Suunto provides are pretty accurate, it will easily last two days entire days without recharging at the highest frequency. Having a watch that’s designed to record GPS is far more battery efficient than doing so on my phone.

The recorded tracks, or “moves” as Suunto calls them, are synced via a USB cable that clips onto the watch’s side and saved to Suunto’s Movescount website which then displays the tracks on a map along with trip statistics.

The watch also has the ability to preprogram a route and provide simple directions on-screen although I’ve never used this functionality, preferring instead to use the GPS on my phone with offline maps and regular old paper maps for navigation.

The Suunto Ambit range has a plastic nub on the underside that houses the GPS antenna, and the watch is pretty bulky, however it fits comfortably on my (small) wrists. The newer Suunto Traverse, which I believe has all the same functionality and is more targeted towards hiking, now has the antenna built into the body of the watch.

I love my Suunto Ambit and am addicted to it now, I would feel naked without it. It’s really satisfying to be able to glance at your distance and ascent and is a really useful navigational aid.

Motorcycle Backpacking

Have motorcycle—will travel; combining my two hobbies of motorcycling and backpacking.

For many years now my motorcycle has been my only (powered) form of transport. My first motorcycle was a Kawasaki Ninja 250, just about the smallest practical motorcycle you can get away with but still looks the part. It certainly wasn’t ideal for going long distances but they always say the best thing is the one that you have, and a Ninja 250 is what I had.

Ninja ready to hit to road

I loved my Ninja though, and took it to the Sierras multiple times, including a trip all the way to Big Pine in the eastern Sierra. I also rode it on a handful of backpacking trips, loading it up with my backpack bungee corded to the back of the bike. As you can see in the picture I also took an empty waterproof holdall to stash my riding gear and padlocked it to the bike while I was away. I usually took my bike cover as well because I was a little nervous about opportunists seeing the holdall on my bike and figured they’d be slightly less likely to look underneath a cover, but at the end of the day if someone wanted to mess around with my bike there’s not much I can do about it.

A couple of years ago I sold my Ninja 250 and replaced it with a Suzuki V-Strom 650. As well as being a larger bike the features I most wanted were the ABS brakes and fuel injection (my Ninja still had a carburetted engine and when getting into the mountains the oxygen lean environment tested the already small engine on the steep inclines).

The other difference between them is the V-Strom is styled as an adventure bike whereas the Ninja as a sports bike, this meant the V-Strom has a more upright seating position (good for longer trips on the highways) and much more luggage options (the Ninja effectively having close to zero) which meant I now also have a hard top case.

The top case I use is a 52 liter Givi Trekker which nicely fits my riding boots, riding suit (an Aerostitch Roadcrafter), and gloves. I then lock my helmet to the bike (usually I will also put my helmet in a trash compactor bag to keep it dry if it rains and also keep it slightly out of sight). I also leave a wheel lock on the rear disc brake.

In terms of security a bike is definitely slightly more vulnerable than a car (if a few people had a truck lifting it into the back and driving off is possible) and I have considered also taking a sturdy chain to lock it to something anchored, but in reality I haven’t had any problems on any of the trips and in a lot of ways it’s just as easy to steal stuff from a car.

Riding a motorcycle in many ways is much less practical than a car; you need special safety gear, you’re much more exposed to the elements, the cold and heat and the rain, and it can be less comfortable when doing the big miles on the freeway. But on the flip side you can lane split to beat the traffic, it’s a lot more fun and nimble on the windy roads that approach most trailheads, and it’s a lot easier to squeeze into popular parking lots when you get there.

Also if you cross over into motorcycle camping (which is a natural fit) backpacking gear is ideal, just like with backpacking space and weight come at a premium on a motorcycle, having smaller gear means you can load up on some luxury items, my favourite one being a camp chair which is bliss to settle into with a hot or cold drink (depending on your mood) after a long day in the saddle.

Backpacking in Henry Coe and Orestimba Wilderness

Henry W. Coe State Park is rugged and Orestimba Wilderness feels remote; outside the heat of summer it’s a great destination for a short backpacking trip.

Henry Coe State Park is the largest State Park in Northern California (the second largest in the California Park system) just south of San Jose. With over 250 miles of trails and the nearest place to the bay area that allows dispersed camping it’s a popular destination for backpacking, particularly in the Spring, which is the best time to visit the park.

Henry Coe covers a large area of the Diablo mountain range that was previously used for ranching. A lot of the trails in the park are old farm roads and many of them are maintained as dirt roads, and the small number of lakes are all artificial. The terrain is rugged and the trails, not being designed for people, are typically steep. There is a saying that you don’t go to Coe to train for the Sierras, you go to the Sierras to train for Coe.

I’ve gone on multiple backpacking trips in Henry Coe and hiked over 100 miles of its trails. The climbs can be punishing and the heat can be brutal, but the terrain is beautiful and it’s easy to find solitude once you get away from the perimeter of the trailheads.


Hunting Hollow trailhead

There are 4 trailheads at Henry Coe park, the park headquarters is located at the top of a ridge in the northwest of the park, Coyote Creek and Hunting Hollow trailheads are located along Coyote Creek in the southwest of the park, and Dowdy Ranch which is a seasonal trailhead in the south of the park.

The headquarters and Hunting Hollow are open year round for overnight parking, Dowdy Ranch is open seasonally and only at the weekends, and Coyote Creek only has limited day street parking. The headquarters is the most popular entrance to leave from and at popular times has a manned ranger station where the rangers can offer route advice and water source status in the drier months. The headquarters is at the top of the ridge so the journey home will involve a climb. Hunting Hollow is self registration and is located in a valley.


A lot of the trails in Henry Coe are old ranch roads and most of them either follow ridgelines or valleys. There are also some newer purpose-built hiking trails, like China Hole trail which switchbacks up to park headquarters. Some of the farm roads are still used as maintenance roads and some are now delegated as trails and are mostly overgrown, like Rat Spring or Live Oak Spring trails.

Trail marker for Hartman Trail into Orestimba Wilderness indicates that the trail is unmaintained. Though ribbons marked the trail the entire way.

A lot of the trails are open to horseback riding and mountain biking and the park is popular with mountain bikers. The further from the trailheads the trails are the less travelled they are, to get deep into the park requires traversing many ridges. The trails in Orestimba Wilderness are mostly not maintained, in particular the northern section of the wilderness which is the deepest part of the park are quite overgrown and can be hard to navigate.

In the wet season you should be prepared to get your feet wet when following trails along valleys. From the Hunting Hollow trailhead the path immediately crosses a tributary to the Coyote Creek that requires wading through, and then proceeds to cross it again numerous times.


All of the lakes in Henry Coe are man-made, with dirt dams across rivers. Mississippi Lake is the largest, and one of the furthest from a trailhead. There are trails around the entire lake and to do a circuit of it is almost 2 miles. Coit Lake is the next largest lake further to the south and is a popular destination. Kelly Lake is a little smaller. Other than the lakes there are also many ponds, which are also mostly manmade.

The lakes and ponds are established into the ecosystem at this point and support the wildlife. They’re popular destinations for camping and Mississippi, Coit, and Kelly lakes all have pit toilets nearby.

Orestimba Wilderness

I took a multi night backpacking trip into Orestimba Wilderness this spring and as I left park headquarters was teaming with backpackers heading out to the nearby sites, the ranger told me all the western sites were occupied. However after about 5 trail miles from headquarters I didn’t see another person for almost the next 50 trail miles and 3 days, not a single soul in the wilderness itself.

I entered the wilderness from north and had planned to hike up Mount Stakes, the highest point in the park, via Pinto Creek trail. The trails in the northern, most remote section, were all very overgrown and in places the levelled surface of old roads was still visible. After over an hour try to break through a steep section of Pinto Creek I gave up and turned around, instead opting to follow Robinson Creek to Orestimba Creek.

Orestimba Creek Road is obviously still used by the ranches on either side of the wilderness and defines the wilderness boundary farther to the south. As it cuts across private property Rooster Comb trail takes you around the private section, this is the best graded and maintained single track in the wilderness and is fun to hike round. The trail is clearly visible however the trails in the southern section of the wilderness are also indicated by ribbons.

Hiking through the wilderness in spring means a lot of walking through knee-high grasses and the seeds would work their way through the mesh of my shoes sticking into my socks. There’s very little wild oak in this section of the park, I suspect because it is so hot and dry much of the year, and walking through large amounts of grass I was a little concerned about ticks but in the end I only caught one or two and none got a bite of me.

If you like solitude and striking landscapes Orestimba Wilderness is a great place to visit. I imagine it will be very hot dry in the summer but in the springtime there is water in the streams, green vegetation, and pleasant weather. The trail system is not maintained, and I found it particularly overgrown in the north so have a good map (although like the rest of the park the indicated trails mostly follow ridges and valleys which make them a lot easier to find when you lose them).


There is a large amount of wildlife in Henry Coe, near the park entrance I have seen wild turkeys on multiple occasions, sometimes blocking the path. You can see throughout the park many signs on the feral pigs snouting through the dirt, in the wilderness I actually came across an adult pig exploring a valley and later on a family of pigs including piglets resting by a stream.

Crossing over the streams at one point I startled a pair of fish which proceeded to startle me as they shot away at high-speed. As I was filtering some water at a stream a coyote came bounding down the hillside out of the trees chasing a bird, unaware of my presence, before bounding back into the wooded section again. In the undergrowth a lot of small reptiles and grass snakes will rustle as you go past, and I’ve seen many rabbits, including one that came hurtling past my tent one morning as I was packing up.

Aside from the animals, in the spring there are a large variety of wildflowers that cover the hillsides and valley floors, red, yellow, orange, blue, violet, every colour. The oak trees dot the grass-covered hills, it’s a classic California landscape.

As with many parks in California you should be aware of ticks, poison oak, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions, but if you are prepared sunburn and sore legs are much more probable enemies.

Into the Wild

I’ve backpacked in Henry Coe multiple times and each time has been very rewarding; the hills are punishing but reward you with gorgeous vistas from the peaks, the sun can be brutally hot (make sure you take sunscreen!) but makes for beautiful sunsets and sunrises. The wilderness lives up to its name, it really is wild, and it’s a trek to reach, but once you get there chances are you have most of it entirely to yourself.