Aug 132012

We recently set out on a running adventure that we’d been planning for almost a year. Although all of us have done a fair amount of mountain and distance running, we’d never done anything like this before. The plan was simple: circumnavigate the Yosemite high country via the High Sierra Camp loop. The whole loop is almost 50 miles long, so to make the experience more “relaxing”, we would split it up into 3 days, spending 2 nights on the loop, one each at Merced Lake HSC and May Lake HSC. The High Sierra Camps are awesome because you get a bed in a tent cabin and they feed you a delicious dinner and breakfast, plus the camps we stayed at also had hot showers! Although this brought the daily mileage down to more reasonable amounts (16mi, 18mi, 14mi), there was no denying it was going to be difficult and tiring to run mountain trails three days in a row.

Well, we did it. It was beautiful, incredible, challenging, and exhausting. The staff at the Merced and May Lakes were awesome. I had some unusually bad blister issues (especially by the end of day 3), probably related to the fact that my left knee hadn’t quite recovered from our Tahoe 50k (and I therefore had a messed up stride). Rather than trying to describe the experience in any more words (and failing hopelessly), we put together a video of our adventure, with serious props to Luke for taking so much video. Julie and I will have to work on that skill… Check it out:

Running the Yosemite High Sierra loop from Lizzy Trower on Vimeo.

If you’re curious about the logistical info, you can apply for space in the camps via a lottery – applications are available September 1 – November 1. We actually missed the lottery and managed to get in off cancellations, but we had to be flexible, staying Saturday and Sunday nights and having our last running day on a Monday. Merced Lake is the largest High Sierra Camp and hence the easiest to get a place at. Some camps don’t have hot showers for guests. It would probably work just as well to run the loop in the opposite direction – you’ll have a long middle day and a hard climb out of Merced Lake either way. It seems like most hikers were doing the loop counter-clockwise (we went clockwise) so as to have the elevation high point (Vogelsang) on the last day, but at the same time, it was nice to get that over with early for us relatively fit and acclimatized runner types. We did spend the day before we started acclimatizing by climbing Cathedral Peak, which is 10,912ft tall and has ~5 total miles of hiking for the approach and descent.

Here are the Garmin GPS tracks from our three days of running:

Toulumne to Merced Lake
Merced Lake to May Lake
May Lake back to Toulumne


Finally, a little PSA:

If you are inspired to run this loop yourself (spending the night and eating delicious dinners at Merced and May Lake HSCs), YOU MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO NEXT YEAR!!! 4 out of 5 options for the Merced River Plan would either eliminate or drastically reduce the Merced Lake HSC, and Glen Aulin HSC is affected by the Tuolumne River Plan. Based on our recent experience, the High Sierra Camps provide an amazing opportunity for people to get out and enjoy the high country of Yosemite, and are by far a benefit to the environment by creating more appreciation of this beautiful area. If you want to make a difference, please check out:

Merced River Plan:
Tuolumne River Plan:

  10 Responses to “3 Days of Transcendence – Running the High Sierra Camps”

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  1. I love love love that you guys did this! You guys are, as always, awesome!!!!

    • thanks Nina! If you want to do any runs in Yosemite this fall… let me know, I’d be psyched to do Tuolumne to Yosemite again!

  2. Wow. Awesome. I’m coming out to Tuolumne for some late climbing and have been plotting some high sierra trail runs but this looks fantastic. I may have to see about an end of season cancellation. Any chance you could post more about your logistics? What was in your pack? Did you just go with the one set of running clothes and rely on swimming (not such a good option in September :)? What about the sleep sack for the camps? What did you use?

    • Sure. Luke and I both had 12L running packs and Julie’s was 15L. We were all carrying 1.5-2L of water; we had iodine and a steripen but never had to use them (we filled up water at the HSC we passed in the middle of each day). We also each had our own food (I had cheezits, shot bloks, apple sauce pouches, and salt pills; plus we had sandwiches – we made them the first day and ordered from the camps the other days), a partial change of clothes (I had clean underwear, clean socks, a lightweight pair of pants, a light down jacket, a long sleeve running shirt, a small rain jacket), a sleepsack (sleeping bag liner – we got the silk and silk/cotton ones, they sell them at REI in the sleeping bag section). We also had one of those camping towels – they had showers at the two camps we stayed at (Merced Lake and May Lake) but they don’t have towels for you to use. Both of the camps also had some sinks where you could wash clothes, but we didn’t bother. We set up a resupply for ourselves at the Sunrise trailhead (near the west end of Tenaya Lake) with more food and a change of clothes – this was located about 15 miles in to the 2nd day, so we got to change and eat and then had about 3 more miles to go that day to make it to May Lake.

      Let me know if there’s anything more you want to know! I think the camps usually close in mid-September, but some of the higher ones (Vogelsang, Sunrise, May Lake) might close earlier.

    • Julie used this pack:
      Lizzy and I ran with this pack:

      We were pretty limited on space. Essential items:
      Ultralight Down Jacket 6-12 oz
      Ultralight Rain/wind Shell 4-8 oz
      Sleep Sack 5-7 oz

      I brought no change of clothes and it would have been nice to have clean shorts or underwear to sleep in. I had extra socks which was very nice! We also brought a good number of snack foods to supplement the sandwitches that we bought at the HS camps. This was another large weight item.

  3. Inspired by this I tossed in an application for next year and just found out I got in! sadly now I have to wait almost a year, but that will give me time to toughen up. thanks for posting this!

  4. Hey Luke and Lizzy:
    We are heading to Yosemite this year in late May. Based on the low snow year, you think this loop would be largely devoid of snow, or likely still not runnable yet? If its still socked in, any other runs in the area you’d recommend in the 20-50 miles?Thanks.

    • It’s hard to say for sure. In 2012 (also a low snow year, but not quite as bad as this year) there was still a decent amount of snow above ~8500 ft when the Tioga Road opened in mid-May, meaning there could still be snow on the high points of the route (Vogelsang, Sunrise, May Lakes). However, our biggest problems with snow were typically route-finding, so if you have a GPS track to follow it might not be too bad. One of my other favorite routes (although it requires a big car shuttle since it’s point to point) is this one which is basically a grand tour of Yosemite: If snow is an issue, Cloud’s Rest could also be problematic, but you can bypass that part (making the route a little longer) either just behind Clouds Rest or by starting from the Cathedral Lakes trailhead. Luke and I have done some of that trail in (early) winter so it might not be too bad even with a touch of snow. We haven’t done it yet, but the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is supposed to be really scenic. It’s also lower elevation (no snow issues) and is about a ~50k, although a car shuttle is required. See Leor’s blog about that one: Finally, the Panorama Loop is one of my favorite shorter (but lots of climbing) loops from the Valley. You climb up out of the Valley on the 4-Mile Trail to Glacier Point, take the Panorama Trail over to Nevada Fall, and descend the JMT back into the Valley. That’s about 16 miles if you complete the loop or 14 if you ride the shuttle in the Valley floor to connect the loop. It’s a great way to see a lot of the classic Yosemite scenery from one run – Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Sentinel Rock, Nevada Fall, etc.

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