Smith Peak P900

Wed, Jun 12, 2013
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

A week after my first visit to Hetch-Hetchy in more than 20 years, the mosquito bites had healed and I was itching (pun intended) to come back for more. Not on a backpacking visit this time, however. My plan was for two half days of hiking, sleeping in the van during the one night I would be in Yosemite. Selling this to the Park Service was another matter. When I pulled up to the Hetch-Hetchy entrance/permit station around 4p, I explained very honestly what I wanted to do: Hike to Smith Mtn in the afternoon/evening, sleep in the backpackers' camp, then do a dayhike the next morning before leaving the park. The ranger listened with interest, then informed me it wouldn't be possible. The backpackers' camp can only be used by those spending time overnight in the Wilderness. He offered the alternative that I could hike to Smith Mtn from outside the gated entrance, but this would be a longer hike than the one starting from the inside. I wanted to have a discussion about the purpose of the regulations and how my impact on the environment would be less if I didn't spend the night out, but I knew this would get nowhere since the rangers aren't in a position to modify park policy. So I simply lied. "Ok, how about if I spend the night on Smith Mtn?" That was a great idea, I was told, better than my original plan. I lied again when asked if I needed a bear cannister, and after my permit was written up and handed to me, I was off to the Smith Meadow TH.

It was 4:50p when I started off from the TH a few miles down the road. There is enough parking for two are three cars, but it was empty on a Wednesday afternoon. Having never used this trail before, I was looking forward to the small adventure. The whole hike would be on trail to the very summit, making for a tame outing, but the newness of it has its own charm. The trail switchbacks for 1,300ft over the course of the first few miles up the eastern slopes of the canyon forming Poopenaut Valley, just below O'Shaughnessy Dam. The trail passes mostly through forest, though with numerous short grassy sections with plenty of wildflowers in bloom along the way. After the initial climb, the trail inconspicuously crosses a ridge and turns east, then northeast as it follows at a more gentle gradient up the Cottonwood Creek drainage. There is a mix of burned forest, heavily grown over with brush and more healthy sections that appear to have avoided or been saved from the fires that swept through here sometime in the past ten years. I came suddenly upon a young bear that didn't notice me though I was within 10 yards of it. It was busy looking for insects in the bark of fallen trees. My first reaction was to look around and see if Momma bear was somewhere nearby, but this one appeared to have been left to his own devices, perhaps recently. My next thought was to get out my camera and take a picture which I did. The bear didn't respond despite the flash going off. I was preparing to take a better photo when it suddenly noticed my presence and shot off in the opposite direction at high speed. I saw a second bear some time later, and then on my way back would come across this first bear for a second time. It seemed I was in Bear Country this evening.

Not long after 6:30p I was approaching Smith Meadow and reached the trail junction for Smith Mtn. 1.5 miles still to go. The trail grows moderately steep here once again, moving out of healthy forest into the broader burned section surrounding the summit. Thick chaparral covers much of the terrain making cross-country difficult. I had wondered if this trail might be used to reach Kolana Rock to the north, but the effort to cover the several miles appears excruciating. I was happy to simply follow the trail to the rocky summit which I reached around 7:15p. There was still more than an hour of daylight, so I wouldn't be getting any sunset photos today, but the views were outstanding. There is a clear view in all directions though some late afternoon haze had settled in. Most of the summits within Yosemite can be seen, including Tower Peak almost 25 miles to the northeast, Conness some 28 miles to the east, and the Clark Range the same distance to the southeast. Portions of Hetch-Hetchy can be seen, including the east end looking up the Tuolumne Gorge, and another section looking north where Rancheria Creek cascades down to the reservoir. There is a 1956 USGS benchmark found among the summit rocks, but no register that I could find. Judging by the many footprints in the sand around the place, it appears to be a very popular mountain.

On the way back I took some wildflower photos in the late afternoon sun, watching shadows fall over Smith Meadow and the sun set through the trees as I retraced my steps. For the most part the trail is well-maintained and there has been some heavy maintainence over the past few years to removed large logs that have fallen across it. I had a laugh noting one point where two cuts were made in a log to remove the section over the trail. Evidently, the cuts weren't angled enough to allow the middle piece to be rolled out, with the result that the log got stuck and the trail crew must have given up for the time being. Overhead, a crescent moon made itself known as twilight descended upon the forest. By 9p I could no longer navigate the rough trail through the trees in the fading light, so a headlamp was needed for the last 10 minutes. A millipede scampered across the trail in my path, eager to get somewhere other than underfoot. Lucky for him I had the headlamp.

I got back to the TH about 10 minutes after the entrance gate was scheduled to be locked. Several Park Service vehicles went by as I went about removing my pack and boots. I thought they might stop to see what my plans were, but they had more important things to worry about. They were the last I'd see for the night. I showered in the middle of the road, dressed, then enjoyed a movie in the van while I ate sushi for dinner. The spot I had parked in was fairly flat and it seemed a good place to spend the night, so I didn't bother driving down to the backpackers' camp. And not a single mosquito bite - life was good...


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