10 Things I Learned About Life While Backpacking in Yosemite

By: 
Kelly M. Smith

In just a few days in Yosemite National Park this spring, I discovered a little about an iconic America landscape and even more about myself. Backpacking does that for me. While it couldn't be more different than daily life, backpacking nevertheless teaches me how better to live day by day. Here are 10 life lessons I learned while backpacking in Yosemite.

1. You can't control the weather. I made backcountry reservations more than six months in advance, as the guidebooks suggested. Yes, reserving a spot reached by Glacier Point Road in early June was a bit of a gamble. Sure enough, when we got to the park there was still five feet of snow over our originally chosen trail and Glacier Point Road remained closed. No worries. The backcountry office found a new trail for us, and we were on a revised path without a glitch, our packs ready with rain, snow, and sun gear, knowing each type of weather is as likely as the other in Yosemite.

2. Don't carry more than you need. And need is a matter of perspective, changing depending on your circumstances. What you think you may need at home means nothing in the wilderness, and things I take for granted on a normal day mean everything out there, like water, food, warmth, energy, and a deep breath.

3. Go beyond the crowds. One of the best moments while backpacking in a national park is crossing that threshold between the well-traveled path and less-traveled trail. Crowds clear out almost instantly. Vernal Falls offered an amazing view, but the path was packed. Journeying beyond this popular spot, we had more breathing room. Ironically, the fewer the people, the more opportunity there is for conversation. When backpackers converge on the trail, they're happy for the opportunity to stop and chat a bit about what's ahead. It's as much about information as it is about an excuse to rest.

4. Look up. Enjoy the view. In the midst of a steep climb, it's sometimes easier to focus straight ahead at the path before you, but that misses the point in Yosemite, where some of the grandest images of American wilderness hang all around you, not like paintings in a museum but for real—as real as it gets.

5. Explore home. (Your temporary home on the trail, that is.) Make camp early enough to discover the uniqueness of the place you've chosen to be your home for the night. We camped at Moraine Dome near Bunnell Cascade. The Cascade stretches across a rock platform in the middle of the Merced River, its origin visible hundreds of feet above in the snowmelt off Bunnell Point, one of Yosemite's granite peaks. Near our campsite, moss-covered rock illuminated soggy vernal streams. Patches of snow clung to shaded stones. On Moraine Dome above, a whole mini habitat grew from the rock face, pines holding onto the rock for dear life. The larger lesson? Explore your own permanent home, wherever it may be, after your trip. There is much to discover, everywhere.

6. Choose your friends wisely. It helps to hike with people who know what they're talking about. I'm lucky to have friends who are very qualified to answers all my questions about flora and fauna. Jeremy works for the National Park Service at Lassen Volcanic NP, and Becky works for the National Forest Service. They both taught me little bits of knowledge I would otherwise only have gotten with several guidebooks. Since I don’t actually have to carry my friends on my back, I think they’re a much better option. One of their lessons: How do you tell the difference between Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine? Smell the bark. Really dig your nose in. If you smell vanilla, you've just hugged Jeffrey. (For those who aren't lucky enough to personally know someone who works for the NPS, remember that all NPS staffers are your friends, and check out the interpretation that each national park offers.)

7. Look down. All kinds of cool organisms populate the ground, especially as the snow melts and seasons change. Along the wooded, shaded trail through Little Yosemite Valley, I spotted Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea). The bright, chili-red flowers pop up from the snow, one of the first blooms of spring. Becky informed me that this plant contains no chlorophyll and feeds off fungi in the soil. The plants may reach a few feet tall. For me, these red cones poking through the snow were a talisman, a parasitic jewel predicting the coming of spring in Yosemite.

8. There’s no use in complaining. My feet hurt. Everyone’s feet hurt. It won't help to talk about it.

9. Celebrate little victories. After a tough climb toward Nevada Falls (though not there yet), Jeremy says, "We made it.” “Made it where?” Becky asks. “Here," he explains. Each switchback is a victory, no matter the path. Reward yourself.

10. Unplug. By the second day in Yosemite, I didn't know what day it was. I didn't think about work or e-mail. Even though I carried my cell phone, I used it only to take pictures. It’s a good feeling, forgetting what day it is, even what time it is. I think I'll try it more often.

Photo: Setting up camp below Moraine Dome, near Bunnell Cascade, in the Yosemite National Park wilderness.
Credit: Derek R. Trimble