Yosemite High Sierra Camps Lottery Application Process

September 2009:
My wife and I, along with our long-time camping friends, enter the YHSC lottery by putting in a route for four people that consists of the following: 1 night at Glen Aulin, 2 nights at May Lake, and 1 night at Sunrise HSC.  We gave a primary and an alternate date to increase our chances.  Our friends put in the same route, with their primary date being our alternate, and vice versa.  We get all our paperwork submitted by the November 1st, 2009 deadline, and wait…

February 2010:
We draw a blank on all four of our lottery applications.  Not sure why we drew a blank, but we decide to try for any of the spaces remaining by calling the YHSC desk at 7:00 a.m. PST on February 9th.    We get thru to the reservations folks and give them our same plans, with flexible dates in late July and early August.  We are told they would respond back within two weeks.

Within 3 days, we are delighted to hear we have a reservation.  The route we were given was different than we asked for, and goes clockwise starting at Sunrise HSC, then two nights at May Lake HSC, and one night at Glen Aulin HSC.  Our first date in is Friday August 6th.
Yosemite High Sierra Camp Route Map

Our High Sierra Camp Route

Our route is a bit different that most on the HSC loop - we are going clockwise starting at Cathedral Lakes Trailhead (8,600 ft elevation) to Sunrise HSC (7.75 miles, 9,420 ft elevation); From Sunrise to May Lake HSC for 2 nights (7.8 miles, 9,240 ft elevation), then hiking to for a one night's stay Glen Aulin HSC (8.0 miles, 7,820 ft elevation), followed by the hike out to Tuolumne Meadows (6.0 miles, 800 ft elevation) and back to our starting spot at the Lembert Dome parking lot.   This totals 29.55 miles.

The Preparation Begins...

June 2010:
We begin preparation for the trip by beginning weekend hikes of 4-6 miles/day to get our feet in shape. Having your feet ready for a 8 mile hike every day is pretty important.  All the guides we have say that you should settle on the boots you are going to wear at least 2-3 months ahead of time.  I decide its time to get a new pair to replace my old Columbia boots, so I go off to REI in Fremont, CA to get new boots.  I get low top boots that are very light and a good fit.  My wife also gets a new pair of boots.  We begin our hiking preparation.

Most of our uphill hiking is done going up the Pleasanton Ridge  - which is a 2.5 mile fairly uphill trail.  While not 8 miles long, it does offer good elevation change (1,600 feet) in just 2.5 miles.

We continue hiking this throughout the upcoming months, with an occasional 8 mile level hike on the Iron Horse Trail.

Day 0 - Pleasanton to Groveland

Thursday August 5th:
The 'Before' Picture
To avoid driving all the way in one day, we drove from Pleasanton to Groveland on Thursday nite.  We left Pleasanton at 4:00 pm and arrived in Groveland about 6:40 pm.  Traffic was bad going east on I580 as usual.  We stayed overnight at the Groveland Hotel in Groveland, about 35 miles from the east entrance to Yosemite on Highway 120.    We had a good reasonably priced dinner at the hotel.  The room was stuffy and I did not sleep well, so I started the trip with a bit of a sleep deficit.

Day 1 - Tuolumne Meadows to Sunrise HSC

Friday August 6th: 
Breakfast at the Groveland Hotel at 7:30, departed for Yosemite at 8:15 am.  

Arrived at Yosemite park east gate (Highway 120) at 8:43.  Paid $20 entry fee (good for 7 days) and headed off toward Tuolumne Meadows (north on Highway 120).  Weather today in the park is clear and perfect temperature.
We arrived at Tuolumne Meadows (elevation 8,619 ft) at 10:11 and parked in Lembert Dome parking area intended for backpackers.  You can tell where this is by looking at the cars – all the ones belonging to backpackers are covered in a thick layer of dust.  We are planning to take the Tuolumne Shuttle bus to the Cathedral Lakes shuttle stop (#7).  Because we forgot to fill our water bottles back at the hotel, we had to stop at the Tuolumne Camp Store (stop #5) and fill up.  We missed the next bus and had to wait 30 min for the next shuttle.  At last we caught the shuttle and reached the Cathedral Lakes trailhead and began our trip officially at 11:18 a.m.
At the Cathedral Lakes Trail Head

Our route for the first day was to take the John Muir trail from the Cathedral Lakes trailhead to the Sunrise HSC.  This would be 7.75 miles and would take us past Lower and Upper Cathedral Lakes.  It would have about 800 ft vertical elevation change.  The route starts off thru the forest on a good trail, and eventually makes it way up to Lower and Upper Cathedral Lakes.  We stopped for lunch at 12:25 pm near Medicott Dome.  We reached the trail junction of the John Muir/Cathedral Lakes trail at 2:05, which is just west of Lower Cathedral Lake.  From here it was 3.8 miles to Sunrise HSC.  We continued on to Upper Cathedral Lake and stopped to replenish our water by using the water filter our friends brought (one of the things on our 'must have' list).  The rest was welcome as the altitude effects were noticeable.  The view from Upper Cathedral Lake was gorgeous.  We pushed on past Upper Cathedral Lake, going a bit uphill and walked thru a large level meadow before ascending gently in treelined ridge.  
Upper Cathedral Lake
Catheral Peak in background as we reach far end of Cathedral Lakes Basin

Our 4 person tent cabin at Sunrise HSC

One of the meadows on the way to Sunrise HSC
This continued until reached the end of the valley.  We dropped down into a meadow and walked thru it, eventually going back into the trees.  We reached a trail junction for the trail that goes to Merced Lake HSC, and this sign indicated it was 0.9 mi to the Sunrise HSC.  We walked the length of the meadow, eventually swinging west at the far end of the meadow to arrive at the HSC.  The camp is up on top of the rocks and almost not visible until you are right upon it.  There was a short final climb up some rock stairs to reach the office.  We arrived at 6:00 pm.

Accomodations at Sunrise HSC:

The Sunrise HSC is located up on a rock outcropping in the back corner of a meadow.  It consists of multiple tent cabins, with most housing 4 to 6 people.  There is one two person cabin that was built for the founder of the Sunrise camp, and this is affectionately called the 'Honeymoon Cabin'.   
Typical setup inside 4 person tent cabin
The tents have metal frame beds that are about 24 inches off the floor, enough room to store backpacks.  The beds have 3 wool blankets and a top comforter.  A sleep sack is required and you can purchase one if you do not bring one.  You sleep on top of one blanket and the other two are used for cover. A single pillow with pillowcase and a washcloth are provided.   
 A small wood stove is in the tent cabin, but there is generally only enough wood provided to have a fire for 2-4 hours. We did not know it at the time, but the overnight temperatures at Sunrise would be the coldest of our trip.  We used all the warm clothes we brought to sleep in, along with the sleep sack, and it was just enough.  We estimated temperatures were in the high 30's or low 40's overnight.

There are no electric lights at Sunrise HSC, so you should have a headlamp or flashlight to walk around after dark.  The bathrooms are located centrally and require a key that resides in your tent (probably so the backpackers do not use the facilities).  There are two showers each for men and women - we were told them temperature gets warmer if both the mens and womens showers are used at the same time, but my wife and I did not find this in our case.  

Evening Dining at Sunrise HSC:
The dining routine at each HSC is the same every day - hot drinks (coffee, tea, hot chocolate) are served 30 min prior to the meal, followed by the respective meal (breakfast or dinner).  Dinner is served at 6:30 pm, breakfast at 7:30 am.  A customized announcement is made at each camp with their own style of flair (conch horn, bugle, etc) prior to the start of the hot drinks and dinner.  Dinner this night was tomato bisque soup, salad, chicken, pasta, spaghetti squash, and Boston cream pie for dessert. It was outstanding.  After dinner everyone gathered on the rocks to watch the sunset.  If you need a bag lunch for the next day's hike, you order it at dinner time.  The full lunch is $14 and includes a sandwich, fruit, trail mix, and can of juice.

Sunrise at Sunrise HSC - Note path to camp in foreground
After dinner most everyone is in their tents sleeping by 9:00 pm.  Because of the high altitude, my heart was beating fast even laying at rest in bed.  A day spent in Tuolumne Meadows adjusting to the 8,000+ altitude would have been a good idea (on the 'next time' list).   
Breakfast at Sunrise HSC:
Before breakfast everyone gathered on the rocks to watch the sunrise over the meadow - this was around 6:00 am.  The temperature rises quickly with the sunrise. Hot drinks (coffee, tea, hot chocolate) are served at 7:00 am.  Breakfast was at 7:30 am and consisted of oatmeal, fruit, eggs, and sausage.  People are seated 8 to a table - very cozy but it makes for great conversation.  Everyone is very friendly and meeting new people is one of the best parts of the HSC camping experience.  If you ordered a bag lunch it will be available for pickup after breakfast.

Day 2 - Sunrise HSC to May Lake HSC

Saturday August 7th:
With perfect weather, we depart Sunrise HSC at 9:30 following a wonderful breakfast.  We exited the camp going up the hill behind it, climbing until we reached a plateau, where we then went downhill for about 5 miles.
Trail across plateau leaving from Sunrise HSC
Steve and Jenny Grau at Upper Sunrise Lake
Along the way we stopped at Upper and Lower Sunrise Lakes, and decided to take a break and had a short swim in Lower Sunrise Lake.
We continued on and reached the junction of the Clouds Rest, Tenaya Lake, and Sunrise HSC at 1:30 pm.

Trail junction sign near overlook 'knob'
We got a tip from a hiker that about 100 yds from this trail junction was a fabulous overlook down into the valley where you could see Clouds Rest, Half Dome, North Dome, and other peaks.  We walked up the 'knob' to the right at the junction and the overlook was amazing.

After some pictures we started down the trail to Tenaya Lake and it was knarly.  It consisted of a whole bunch of rocky switchbacks, and made me glad I was not going up this trail.  It was very slow going and the hiking poles we had really helped a good bit.  We reached the junction of the Tenaya Lake trailhead at 4:00 pm.  We had stashed some 'wine in a box' in the bear box at the Tenaya Lake trailhead on Tioga Road.  From here our climb to May Lake HSC was 1170 feet over 2.8 miles.

View from the overlook into the valley - Half Dome on left
Our group at the overlook
We started up the May Lake trail from Tioga Road - it was 1.5 miles uphill all the way to the 'official' May Lake trailead.  We reached the May Lake Trailhead at 5:10 - only 1.2 miles to the May Lake HSC, but it was a long way, mostly uphill, in fading light where it started to get cold.  We finally arrived at the May Lake HSC at 5:57, and were assigned Cabin #1 right in front of the lake.   Our stay here would be for 2 days, so we were looking forward to some extended rest.

Evening Dining at May Lake HSC:

After hot drinks at 6:00, dinner began at 6:30 and was clam chowder, salad, fresh bread, steak, and baked potatoes.  Dessert was a banana cake with chocolate sauce.  
 About the May Lake HSC:
  • Tents were the same as Sunrise, with same amenities - washcloth, 3 blankets, pillow with pillowcase, and comforters.
  • The overnight temperature at May Lake HSC was noticably warmer than at Sunrise HSC.  I went out to the bathroom at 2:00 am in a sweatshirt and stargazed for a bit - it was almost comfortable.
  • The Camp Manager - "Brian" - was a very engaging and interesting person.  He knew alot of HSC history and was happy to share it.  He's also an ambulance driver in Yosemite Valley when he's not managing a HSC.
  • Behind the camp towards the valley is a rock outcropping that provides a great vantage point for sunsets and starwatching.  We went up stargazing one evening at 10:30 and saw the Milky Way like we have never seen it before.  The stars were amazing.
  • There is a single shower for each men and women - let it run about 5 min and it gets warm 'enough'.  Soap was provided.  
  • There is a washbasin for washing clothes with a wringer and soap - we washed socks and shirts and hung them to dry on hangers in the sun outside our tent from the tent poles.  They did dry over the next two days, with some help from the wood stove.

Day 3 - May Lake Day 2

Sunday August 8th:
Brian the camp manager told us the sunrise on May Lake was amazing and he was right - the reflection on the lake of the mountain with all its colors was the best picture I took the entire trip.  It was definitely a 'money shot'.  This happened between 6:10-6:25.  It was worth getting up for.  I took some pictures that I hope to stitch together in a panoramic shot.
Mount Hoffman and May Lake sunrise - awesome

Breakfast at May Lake HSC:
The temperature rises quickly as the sun comes up, just like at Sunrise HSC.  The camp is more shaded so you have to seek out the sunny spots. Hot drinks (coffee, tea, hot chocolate) are served at 7:00 am.  Breakfast was at 7:30 am and consisted of oatmeal, french toast, omelete, sausage, and fruit. We had a seat right at the window and had a million dollar view of May Lake from our window seats.

We hung out and rested/read during the day, except for Steve Grau, who climbed up Mount Hoffman (10,800 ft) in about 75 min.  During the late afternoon a thunderstorm formed and dropped a short intense batch of rain, with hail in some spots according to the hikers coming in from Glen Aulin.  We huddled in our tent and started a fire in the wood stove, which was quite cozy.  The heat from the fire helped us dry out our clothes.

Evening Dining at May Lake HSC:

After the usual hot drinks at 6:00, dinner began at 6:30 and was vegetable soup, rolls, salad, turkey, dressing, cranberries, corn, and cake for dessert.  My apetite returned and I ate heartily.  After dinner we went up on the rocks to watch the 'alpin glow', which was not as good this night as yesterday.

Day 4 - May Lake HSC to Glen Aulin HSC

Monday August 9th:
Overnight temperature was very mild - did not use my sleep sack and slept very well. Took more amazing sunrise pictures this morning.  Breakfast was great as usual - we had scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit, cream of wheat, and coffee.
Viewpoint on Trail from May Lake to Glen Aulin

We departed May Lake HSC bound for Glen Aulin at 8:40 am.  The trail was mostly downhill the entire 8 miles.  We had some amazing views as we descended just past May Lake.  When we reached the forested area we stopped for lunch break at noon.  We arrived at the Glen Aulin HSC at 2:50 pm.  The camp was located next to a serious waterfall and was very sandy - much different than the other camps.  It had some close hikes down to Waterwheel and California Falls.  My wife and I choose to soak our feet in the water and relax.  Swimming was allowed, but it was very cold.

On the switchbacks between May Lake and Glen Aulin
Down the trail from May Lake on way to Glen Aulin
Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp
Evening Dining at Glen Aulin HSC:
After the usual hot drinks at 6:00, dinner began at 6:30 and was potato soup, salad, rolls, green beans, and chicken, followed by cake for dessert.  We sat with two couples from Fredericksburg, TX who part of a large party of 14 going thru all the camps, with a ranger leading them.  After dinner we went up on the rocks behind the foot bridge to hear a ranger led talk, followed by another talk at the campfire.   We crashed by 9:30 pm.

About the Glen Aulin HSC:
  • The overnight temperature at Glen Aulin was noticably warmer than at May Lake. 
  • Tents were much closer together than at Sunrise or May Lake (1-2 feet apart). Same amenities - washcloth, 3 blankets, pillow with pillowcase, and comforters.
  • The camp is very sandy - the effect of water runoff in the spring.
Around the campfire at Glen Aulin
Alpin glow on Yosemite Mtns from Glen Aulin
Waterfall at Glen Aulin - you hear this all night - very soothing...

Day 5 - Glen Aulin HSC to Tuolumne Meadows - the end...

Tuesday August 10th:

Today is our last day - we are sad to leave such beauty but are looking forward to seeing our families.  Temperatures overnight were the warmest of all the camps, obviously due to the elevation.  Breakfast was OK - not as good as at May Lake or Sunrise. 
Steve and Jenny Grau on bridge leaving Glen Aulin HSC

At the top of the falls above Glen Aulin HSC
We had a 6.0 mile hike up the Tuolumne River canyon back to Tuolumne Meadows.   We departed Glen Aulin at 9:10, heading up the trail. The elevation change was about 800 feet, with 500 of that being in the first 1.75 miles.  We reached the top of the falls in about 40 min.  The hike up the canyon alongside the Tuolumne River and was gorgeous - many beautiful views of the river and scenery along the way.  It took us 80 min to reach the Tuolumne River Bridge.

Janis and Jenny hiking on the TuolumneRiver

At 1:15 we reached the trail junction for the Stables (0.7 miles) and Soda Springs (1.3 miles).  We went left and proceded up and down a trail with lots of horse poop, which should not be a surprise.  We should have went right here and on to Soda Springs.   At 2:08 pm we reached the end of our hike, getting back to our car in the Lembert Dome parking lot.
On the way back to Tuolumne Meadows
At the end - still standing!

Things I'd Do Differently Next Time

Now that we have completed our first HSC, we have a list of things we would do differently/better the next time.  Some of these are equipment related, others are logistics, etc.  Hope this helps you on your trip.

  1. If you are not experienced in camping above 8,000 feet elevation I would seriously suggest acclimatizing for a nite or two at Tuolumne Meadows.  Going from sea level to 9,200 ft in one day, with a 8 mile hike thrown in, will tax even the most fit person.
  2. Get an early start on your first day - we started from Tuolumne Meadows and hiked to Sunrise HSC on the first day and did not get started on the Cathedral Lakes trailhead until 11:15 am.  We reached the Sunrise HSC a few minutes before "hot drinks" started, with a long day of hiking to get there. 
  3.  We were fortunate that our route was clockwise from Sunrise - May Lake - Glen Aulin, which included two days of mostly downhill hiking.  If you are new to hiking at high altitude, I would suggest this route, rather than the traditional Glen Aulin - May Lake - Sunrise- Merced Lake route.
  4. Consider putting any food, clothes, or other things that you don't need right away (wine -why not?), etc in the bear boxes that are easily reachable by car - the May Lake parking lot, and Tenaya Lake trailhead to Sunrise (next to Highway 120).  We stored some boxes of wine in the Tenaya Lake bear boxes and picked it up on the way from Sunrise to May Lake.
  1. It goes without saying that you should pack light, and although our main pack with most of our clothes was only about 25 lbs, it could have been alot less. 
  2. Absolutely take the advice on HSC website and hike for a month or two in the boots you plan to wear - this hike will severely tax your feet and any rubbing or discomfort will become evident right away and excruciating over the course of the trip.
  3. We had warm clothes, but could have packed clothes less bulky.  A good light waterproof shell (Marmot Precip Rain Jacket is my choice for next time) with a few layers that could be added/subtracted would have been a good choice.  Avoid cotton shirts - they don't dry very quickly.
  4. Get some good long underwear as the overnight temps require it.
  5. At least 2 pair of socks - we washed socks at May Lake and were good - I'd go 3 pair if I went any more than 5 days.
  6. We carried Nalgene bottles - but a 1 liter Aquafina bottle would be sufficient.  They are tough and light.  I'd attach a string to the cap and you would be good to go.  I will probably use a Camelback/Platypus reservoir next time as my Gregory Baltoro 70 pack as a reservoir for it, and it would remove the hassle of reaching for a bottle every time.
  7. Trekking poles - an absolute must.  With all the rocks and uneven terrain you will be going over, having trekking poles are a must for balance and less stress when you are going downhill.
  8. Small camera - I took my Canon EOS Rebel XTi on this trip and got some fabulous shots, but unless you are a serious photographer, a compact camera will be best.
  9. Mosquito dope is a must for going thru the wet wooded areas - the bugs can be thick.
  10. Check out this link for some other tips on lightweight backpacking.