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Winter in June: Backpacking to Yosemite's El Capitan

While Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point Road are beautiful, nothing compares to the Yosemite backcountry. We were excited to camp on top of El Capitan, but waking up to a fresh dusting of snow turned this trip into one for the ages.

By: Will Cebron + Save to a List

When my buddy Jess asked me if I wanted to join him for a backcountry adventure in Yosemite, I couldn't say no. He had done all the groundwork and would even be in the valley to reserve us wilderness permits ahead of time. All I had to do was show up on Sunday to hike.

I couldn't leave Los Angeles until Sunday, the same day we'd be starting our hike. Knowing this was a rare chance to explore a different side of Yosemite, I begrudgingly set my alarm for 2:45am. After a brutal wake-up, I hit the road at 3am, made a brief stop for coffee at 5:30am and pulled into the Half Dome Village parking lot at 9am.  

Our plan was to hike from the Old Big Oak Flat Road up to El Capitan where we would spend the night. The next day we'd continue our loop and come down the Upper Yosemite Falls trail (about 17-18 miles all in). After parking my car at the trailhead, we began a gradual ascent into the forest.  As we made our way higher, we wandered through meadows bursting with color and hiked across banks of snow leftover from the record winter. It was easy to forget we were in Yosemite. Everything was peaceful and silent. No cars and traffic jams in the valley. No selfie sticks at Glacier Point. We saw four people the entire ten miles up to El Capitan.

After reaching the top of El Cap and marveling at the views, we set up camp and devoured our freeze-dried mountain chili (shockingly good). We were hoping for a sunset, but a storm was approaching from the west, so we hunkered down in our tents to get some sleep. It was a long night as we were battered by the wind and temperatures dropped below freezing. As dawn approached, Jess yelled from his tent to wake me up. Unzipping my tent, I was speechless at the scene before me. Fresh snow covered everything. We had gone to sleep with no snow on El Cap and now it was everywhere. It was the middle of June!

After a few hours of enjoying the snow, we packed up camp and hit the trail towards Upper Yosemite Falls. At one point, the only tracks on the trail were fresh paws from a momma bear and her cub. We cautiously followed the bear tracks, breathing a sign of relief as they eventually veered off the trail.

Our next stop was to Eagle Peak, which boasts views surpassing even those from El Cap. You can make it up here for a day hike, but it's pretty long. From Eagle Peak, you can see Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and Nevada Falls. It's breathtaking. We cooked some breakfast, sat back and enjoyed the scene.

After leaving Eagle Peak, we had a few miles to reach the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. It was hard to find the trail, and we ended up crossing over fallen trees and wading through a few streams before we were back on track. From there, it was a quick stop at the top of Upper Yosemite Falls and then we made our way down the endless switchbacks to the valley. After a good 36 hours in solitude, it was a bit of an adjustment being back in the valley with all the cars and people. I felt extra sorry for everyone who had to squeeze in next to me on the shuttle back to Half Dome Village. We packed up our gear and I hit the road for the drive back to Los Angeles. I pulled into my driveway around 11pm, bringing my whirlwind adventure to a close.

Why am I sharing this story with you? If you've been to Yosemite (or any other National Park), you know what a special place it is. This was my fourth trip to Yosemite in the past year, and it was hands down my favorite. I'm still captivated by the waterfalls and the views throughout the valley, but spending time in the backcountry is on another level. By putting in a little extra effort and planning (please make sure to get a wilderness permit), you can have an entirely different experience in the park. Personally, I'm already thinking about my next backpacking trip. Any suggestions? Follow along on Instagram at @wcebron.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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