This summer, my wife and I sat down to plan an epic running vacation. We had heard of people taking trips where the main activity centered around running. Although a grueling and pointless activity to some, running has always held a special appeal for us. We each have extensive backgrounds in endurance sports and a love for racing. My wife, Kristin, has qualified for the Boston Marathon 3 times and I have been just a few minutes shy on 3 of my 10 marathons. Running has contained an element of competition for us for a long time but this summer we wanted to see what it would be like to let go of timing chips and race bibs and just run like Forrest. Even with the best of intentions and a history of long-distance racing, nothing could have prepared us for thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss through the Yosemite Valley and up El Capitan, Half Dome, and Glacier Point.
The logistics of such a large endeavor were daunting. We wanted to experience the intoxicating nature of Yosemite while staying relatively comfortable after each day’s run. We decided to stay at Curry Village, a collection of tent cabins at the base of Glacier point equipped with common showers, electricity, and a provisional store. The rustic feel of the un-air-conditioned canvas cabins and the untamed surroundings, hinted at by individual bear-bins to keep out the wildlife, were just what we were looking for. After renting a car in San Francisco and driving 4 hours to the the heart of Yosemite we unpacked, inventoried our supplies, and basked in the grandeur of the surrounding peaks.
Day One: Glacier Point
This was by far the most beautiful run of them all.
We took off at 0700 heading southwest along a bike path paralleling the main road to Curry Village. After two miles we hit the trail head for Four Mile Trail. The trail immediately soars into repeated switchbacks, winding its way up lung-busting grades, revealing more jaw-droppingly gorgeous views of the valley. El Capitan can be seen looming to the west, while Half Dome casts a shadow to the north. We were greeted repeatedly by friendly foreigners, vacationing in the iconic valley to get a sample of the beauty of America’s national park system.
After soaking in a few more views along the way we hit the 7214 foot Glacier Point. Although accessibility is what keeps parks like these alive, it was a little anti-climactic being greeted at the top after our arduous run by a white-haired grandma with a walker, fresh off the tour bus that drove up the paved backside of the mountain. The panoramic scene from the top is breathtaking, especially looking down the face of the granite monolith. Curry Village can be viewed from this height by looking straight down the 90 degree flat wall that shoots downward in a perfect line.
We wound up running down the backside of the mountain to get away from the crowds via the Panorama Trail. This trail rapidly descends for a couple of miles to a bridge above Illilouette Falls. At this point, the trail ascended again, making us wander just what we had gotten ourselves into.
The trail reconnects with the John Muir Trail at Nevada Falls. The final four miles back down to Curry Village were a little congested, as this portion connects with Happy Isles Trail, the most popular starting point for the Half Dome hike. The entire route spanned 17 miles of ups and downs, taking us approximately 8 hours to devour. We slunk back to our cabin feeling weary and tentative about our commitment to run two more challenging peaks before weeks end.
Day Two: El Capitan
Our earlier drive past El Capitan on the way into the valley was a humbling experience. We stopped to peak through a set of telescopes set up by local climbers. Through them you can view the various climbers in different stages of elevation along their multi-day ascents. Our little running adventure didn’t seem as extreme after seeing this!
We hopped in our rental and drove 45 minutes to Tamarack Flat campground, three miles past the Crane Flat intersection. The trail begins along an old logging road. We were immediately aware of how much more isolated this trail was than the others. Kristin made sure I was sporting my bear bell to warn any potential predators of our approach. It turns out I didn’t need the bear bell as I promptly tripped over the trailhead sign, bringing the entire metal apparatus crashing to the ground. Seeing as it was 0600 and a campground was situated right at the trailhead, I was a little embarrassed to have probably woken up the entire site with my noisy exploit.
The trail starts with a two-mile drop to Cascade Creek. We learned quickly that the quadriceps muscles are much more prone to fatigue, especially on downhill sections. We were tired from the day before but also filled with reverence for the enormous sequoia trees that loomed large above us. After crossing Cascade Creek we went left onto a single track trail. The gradually climbing trail is marked with cairns, or small rocks stacked to mark the way. Before opening up to reveal the face of El Capitan, the trail winds through mossy areas filled with hanging branches giving it an eery feel. It’s difficult to appreciate the peak of El Capitan because, unlike Glacier Point, it slopes gradually without providing a definitive drop off point over which you can ogle in amazement. The clearest view of El Capitan is about a mile before reaching it, as the tip of the face comes into view above the valley below.
This run was much more isolated, methodical, and reflective. Without photo-ops every half mile and fellow hikers eliminating the need for a selfies, the trail takes on a more meditative nature. Viewing Half Dome and Glacier Point across the valley is an overwhelming sight well worth the long haul to the top. The run back to our car was swift and uneventful, save for the overwhelming amount of mosquitoes. We eventually snapped off a couple small pine tree branches to use as bug swatters. The entire run took us 7 hours. Throughout the entire 17.5 miles we saw only one other hiker.
Day Three: Half Dome
We saved the beast for last. Half Dome is a legendary hike and climb combination that draws enthusiasts from all over. Most people hike half-way up, and with a back country permit, camp out overnight to get an early crack at the last section the following morning. The lucky few, like us, entered a lottery and won a permit to climb the last portion. The final 1000 feet is a greater than 45 degree angle scramble along a set of wooden foot holds and cables set up by park officials. There are piles of rubberized gloves discarded by previous climbers that are free for the taking at the base of the cables to enhance grip. However, no rangers or park personnel are present beyond this point to regulate hiker activity, for better or worse.
Since arriving early is essential to get up and down the cables without a bottle-neck effect, we woke up at 0430, boiled the water for our oatmeal, and strapped on our headlamps before setting off. We ran one mile from Curry Village to the Happy Isles trailhead. The paved portion up to Vernal Fall Bridge is quite steep and has restrooms available before it splits between the Mist and John Muir Trail. We ran up the Mist trail as pitch darkness and stunning views of the stars gave way to sunrise. Unfortunately, the California drought has depleted the once mighty falls that used to emit a vivid spray, lightly coating hikers along the path. What remains is but a trickle. In any case, the scenery was still amazing as we climbed 4000 feet to Nevada Fall.
Beyond the falls, the Mist Trail turns back into the John Muir Trail. Entering Little Yosemite Valley, the path opens up creating a nice flat stretch for easy running. This brief interlude is quickly interrupted by more steep switchbacks. The soft dirt that was so forgiving on our mileage-addled joints disappeared and was replaced with pure granite.
After being fooled by a false summit we finally reached the base of the monolith. As the first hikers/runners to reach the base, we had first choice of second-hand gloves, slipping into the best fitting ones that we could find and setting off up the horizontally placed foot boards while gripping the cables on either side. After about 1000 feet of terror-inducing climb, we finally reached the top. We basked in the view of the valley below and reflected on our long run while being harassed by partially domesticated marmots vying for our trail mix. After eating a little lunch we headed back down. Several astonished hikers asked if we’d already been to the top. We would briefly stop and give a trail report before resuming our slow jog back down the mountain, reveling in our bad-assery. Half Dome was a formidable foe, taking 8.5 hours over 18 miles.
Before leaving Yosemite we made sure to take a leisure day that ironically involved belaying one another with a guide as we crack climbed in our harnesses suspended over 800 feet in the air. So much for a relaxing day off! Looking back on the adventure, most people would doubt that it had anything to do with nursing. I believe that it is a testament to how hard work, persistence, a belief in oneself, and the support of a loving wife and friends can get any nurse to the top of the world.