Star Trek: Yosemite to the Moon

From the July/August 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Dusk. Lodgepole pines stand silhouetted against a darkening purple sky. The wind has died, and the forest is utterly still, as if time itself is holding its breath, waiting for night and not yet certain it will come. A faint ribbon of trail switchbacks up the mountainside between volcanic boulders and prickly manzanita until it fades from view. An unseen bird calls, the only sound at all besides the crunching of boots.

It’s midnight when I emerge from the forest atop a plateau beneath an infinite canopy of blackness and stars. The terrain ahead glows under the moon as if lit from within. Moving slowly, I cross a meadow and pass clusters of wizened mountain hemlocks. To the right something glimmers white, drawing me magnetically. Soon I stand transfixed by reflected moonlight that sweeps across an alpine lake to the base of a snowy massif. A light breeze drops to nothing, ripples in the lake go still, and the light coalesces into the single dot of the moon, the water around the reflection so placid that it reveals the pinpricks of stars.

This view at Island Pass in California’s High Sierra is sublime and rarely witnessed, too, though not for lack of hiker traffic. Every summer hundreds of people follow the route I’m hiking—the John Muir Trail (JMT), which runs for 211 glorious miles from the base of Half Dome in the Yosemite Valley to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. En route are a dozen major passes, alpine lakes photographed by Ansel Adams, and granite whipped skyward like the surface of a giant lemon meringue pie. The trail is well loved—too well loved, if you value unbroken solitude in the wilderness. But almost nobody sees Island Pass like this, when scenery that’s merely pretty during the day becomes downright magical at night.

I’ve made moonlit hikes before, out-and-back walks of only a few miles. Those jaunts were so memorable that I was inspired this past summer to tackle the entire JMT that way. My plan was to sync my movements to the rise and set of the moon, which would typically encompass late afternoon, dusk, and several hours of moonlit night.

This would be no expeditionary stunt, like unicycling to Everest. Night hiking, whether for 200 miles or just a couple, is something that many people are finding addictive. Hiking after hours, arguably more than any other way, would get me close to the wild heart of the Sierra—as John Muir himself experienced it.

Muir (1838-1914), hailed as an eco-hero and mountain messiah, was a bearded wanderer who spent years exploring the Sierra before coming down from the heights to successfully lobby for its protection. The first president of the Sierra Club, he worked to establish Yosemite as a national park and shaped the world’s view of what a protected wilderness could and should be.

Less well-known is that Muir wasn’t naturally inclined toward advocacy; friends had to prod him to assert himself publicly. But his ability to share his passion for wilderness was organic. In a typically rapturous passage from his book My First Summer in the Sierra, he praised the Sierra’s “domes and cañons, dark upsweeping forests, and glorious array of white peaks deep in the sky, every feature glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire.”

The Sierra still radiates beauty, but four million visitors now flood Yosemite every year—six times as many people as lived in the entire state of California when Muir first arrived in 1868. But most of them confine themselves to the relatively small Yosemite Valley. And the long swath of the range covered by the JMT—set aside in three national parks and four wilderness areas totaling over 3,000 square miles—is better protected from logging, grazing, and development than it was in the 19th century. As you hike the length of the trail, your feet touch a road only when you pass through Tuolumne Meadows.

What has changed over time are the people. Even JMT through hikers, a hardy lot going all 211 miles, are marshmallows compared to Muir. He didn’t have a GPS, an 800-fill down sleeping bag, or three-course dehydrated meals. Instead, he spent hundreds of days wandering alone, off trail, without a map, a stale loaf of bread strapped to his belt for nourishment and a pine thicket awaiting him for a bed. Some of his feats were extreme. He logged the first recorded ascent of icy Mount Ritter and once charged a bear just to see how it would react. He was no adrenaline junkie, though. He merely wanted to get as close as possible to nature, to take in its untamed essence through his every pore.

A Muir-like connection to nature is harder to establish in an era when JMT hikers can check work e-mails or play sudoku on their iPhones. Hiking at night promised to get me closer to the earlier, wilder spirit of Sierra exploration. There would be more unknowns and less control—but an enhanced sense of discovery. Like Muir, I wanted to not just see the mountains but to feel them.

IT'S 7 P.M., AND THE SUN is rising over Yosemite. My friend Tom Colligan and I have set out on the opening stretch of the JMT in late afternoon, scaling a mountainside so steep that, from our increasingly elevated perspective, it appears that the sun is climbing from the western horizon rather than sinking. But time runs backward only for so long, and as we head northeast, color drains from the sky until it is ashen, then black.

I’ve timed the three-week-long trek to maximize the light of the moon, which will grow larger and stay up later each night. Tonight, though, a fingernail crescent provides only a few hours of illumination before retiring below the horizon. Dense forest crowds the trail, leaving only a band of starry sky visible above. I can’t deny the obvious. It’s dark. Really dark.

Hiking at night isn’t as dangerous as it may sound, but it’s probably not well suited for novice hikers. Even if you’re experienced, plan on moving slowly—stumbling off the top of Half Dome or into a waterfall isn’t likely, but twisting an ankle or getting lost is if you’re careless.

I switch on my headlamp’s red light, which gently illuminates obstacles underfoot but doesn’t obliterate natural night vision. The minutes pass, and my latent superpower gradually kicks in: By starlight alone I can see. The formless darkness around the trail sharpens into looming columns of trees, each seemingly as thick as a Saturn V rocket. The stars become more numerous, variable, and bright to reveal the three-dimensional depths of the universe. The trail shows up as a pale stripe across the forest floor. “It feels like we’re just dreaming this,” Colligan says. “I think we’re both actually asleep in a ditch five miles back.”

The forest opens up to a grassy clearing. To the north a granite mountain arcs high into the Milky Way. The map lists Moraine Dome at 8,005 feet, but the mountain hulking before me is a larger, more mysterious presence than what any chart could convey. The vertical striations on the rocky face are vivid, while the forest below lurks in inky shadow. Muir appreciated how nighttime vistas such as this one were revealed artfully and selectively rather than with the bland equality of daylight.

“This evening, as usual, the glow of our camp-fire is working enchantment on everything within reach of its rays,” he wrote of a night in Yosemite. “Lying beneath the firs, it is glorious to see them dipping their spires in the starry sky...How can I close my eyes on so precious a night?”

After the openness of the clearing, the forest once again seems forbiddingly dark. But with vision imperfect, my other senses become hyperaware. A twig snaps somewhere off in the trees—too light to be a bear, probably a raccoon or deer. Next comes the fresh, green smell of water, followed minutes later by a trickling sound. A stream must be close. Make that a river, as the trickle becomes a gush. The gush grows into the roar of water blasting against rocks—a major waterfall. I’ve seen plenty of waterfalls but never fully heard one until now, the sound suggesting a fearsome, animate presence. Muir believed that what we think of as fixed in the natural world is in fact the mutable creation of our perceptions. Alter those perceptions by, say, hiking at night, and you can create a strange and wonderful new reality in your mind. “If the Creator were to bestow a new set of senses upon us...” Muir wrote, “we should never doubt that we were in another world.”

A WEEK AND A HALF LATER, hiking alone now, I follow Evolution Creek as it flows through lodgepole pine forests and skirts pale green meadows. Waterfalls plummet from cliffs on either side of the valley. After several flat miles the trail climbs nearly a thousand feet in a series of dusty switchbacks, then levels out as it enters the Evolution Basin in Kings Canyon National Park.

The basin is one of the most spectacular—and popular—parts of the JMT. During the afternoon I saw at least a hundred hikers, which made the hallowed terrain feel less like wilderness than like Sierra Disneyland. Now, though, at sunset, the people are out of sight, huddled around camp stoves and soon to be snoring inside tents. I tingle with a selfish thought: Nobody else in the world will see what I will tonight. I have Disneyland all to myself!

Peaks flank the narrow hanging valley. Carved millennia ago by glaciers, the basin today shelters a string of glimmering alpine lakes on benches that stairstep to Muir Pass, at just under 12,000 feet. As the sun melts into the horizon, the valley is flooded with light as rich and thick as syrup. I freeze in place. Every pine needle is tinged orange. The pinnacles blaze with fire. Only a few minutes later the show of alpenglow ends, peace following drama. As Muir memorably wrote of this transition: “The daylight fades, the color spell is broken, and the forest breathes free.”

The sky deepens to midnight blue. Evolution Lake is so still as to appear frozen. The night’s dramatic lighting stimulates my perception and imagination: The twin pyramidal mountains rearing up behind the lake suddenly look like temples erected for extraterrestrial worship.

As the JMT climbs, a brilliant light spears over a mountaintop to the east, suggesting imminent moonrise. But the brightness turns out to be from the warm-up act, Jupiter. Half an hour later the moon itself appears, too giant, bright, and full to be viewed directly. The moon will be my companion on a long overnight hike, just as it once was for Muir. In My First Summer he recalls when “the full moon looked down over the cañon if she had left her place in the sky and had come down to gaze on me alone, like a person entering one’s bedroom.” To modern readers the passage might seem overwrought. But tonight I know exactly how he felt.

I climb into cratered, treeless terrain, with black, backlit peaks to the left, and gray, moonlit ones to the right. I hop from boulder to boulder over raging creeks, the moonlight-reflecting water the color of mercury in a thermometer. Nearing the pass, I lose the trail and clamber over rocks and stomp across crusty snowfields. Finally, at nearly 4 a.m., I crest the pass. The stars and planets are close overhead; a savagely beautiful and uninhabited world lies below. Triumphant, I feel less a hiker than an astronaut.

HIKING AT NIGHT wasn’t my idea originally. It was Dan Duriscoe’s. He’s a scientist with the National Park Service who several years ago led me on my maiden night voyage in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. We scaled glow-in-the-dark mountains of sand. We hunted for constellations over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And we admired our shadows on the dunes, cast by the light of Mars. That I could see so capably was a revelation, like discovering I had an extra hand. Duriscoe also gave me the gift of time—no longer would night always be wasted, not when the world’s most beautiful wildlands could be mine alone to explore.

Duriscoe lives in California, and in the waning days of my JMT trek, he meets me for a couple days of hiking. As we climb toward Mather Pass, he gestures west to a pointy summit. “That’s Observation Peak,” he says. “I once spent a whole night up there.”

On the peak, Duriscoe says, he experienced a “macroscopic” view of the universe. “I could see why rocks formed the way they formed, why plants grew the way they grew. I could see that the atmosphere was just a thin blanket, vital and life-enabling, wrapped around Earth.” He perceived that the universe was not a faraway abstraction but rather something that included our planet and him. No mere optical illusion, it was an existential revelation that would inspire his later scientific work.

Duriscoe is the co-founder of the park service’s Night Sky Team, devoted to protecting a natural resource that he believes is as vital and majestic as the geysers of Yellowstone or the forests of Shenandoah. Vital—and threatened. Analyzing sky darkness using photo mosaics and customized software, Duriscoe and his colleagues have identified where artificial light is blotting out our view of the heavens over national parks. They’ve also singled out the darkest, least disturbed night skies in America, such as over Big Bend National Park in Texas or Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. Stargazing has connected mankind to the universe for millennia, and Duriscoe hopes to keep it that way.

We reach the crest of Mather late in the afternoon and look south over an expansive landscape known as the Upper Basin. The view could just as well be that of the Tibetan Plateau. The Basin is high, barren, and beautiful, dotted with lonely lakes; flanking the broad valley are rocky summits still patched with snow even at the end of July. We will explore this enticing terrain overnight, but for now Duriscoe is ready for a refreshment break. “Let me see that whiskey,” he says, reaching for my flask. A couple of sips later, he unleashes a wilderness epiphany. “Women, career, none of it matters! They’ve just tied me down, kept me from being out here!” His words are barbed, but his face looks content. “I’ve wasted my life on bullshit!” he says happily and sets off downhill.

LIGHTS OUT AT 6 P.M. Beeping watch alarm at midnight. The last night of the trip has arrived, and with it comes the climax of the JMT—climbing 14,494-foot Mount Whitney. For the last few days I’ve been joined by a friend from home, Erik Stromberg, and we hit the trail before other campers have even completed their first REM cycles.

From our campsite at Guitar Lake, a billy goat trail etched into the mountainside snakes upward. The route is precipitous and exposed with the ground underfoot as dark as the sky, making the hike feel like we’re going through the stars rather than below them. We hike past the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, wind through Sagittarius and Scorpio, and head down the Milky Way.

In the dead of night conversation subsides, and the mind is content to wander. I’ve been reading Muir in my tent and think about the contrast between his earlier, more emotionally plaintive work and the later material, which can be scientifically stiff. Want to learn about, say, Pinus lambertiana, the sugar pine? The bard of the Sierra will give you several pages on that. Though his contributions to natural history were undoubtedly important—especially the evidence he found for Yosemite Valley’s glacial origins—his older writing is perhaps even more valuable. It reminds us that nature is not just rocks, trees, and species but also something more holistic with unequaled power to stir your soul. The takeaway for my own after-hours quest is that wilderness is not a place you go but a feeling you seek—electric, aware, beyond yourself, alive.

The time slips by as we walk in meditative rhythm, and after a couple thousand feet of steady climbing, we reach a key junction. To the right, the path drops down the eastern slope of the Sierra all the way to the exit trailhead—to Stromberg’s car, a pancake breakfast, and the trip home. To the left, the route climbs another two miles to the summit of Mount Whitney, the official finish line of the JMT. We turn left, hiking just below a ridgeline that leads to the summit. We pass craggy pinnacles separated by couloirs that seem to slice down to the eastern desert floor, more than 11,000 feet below.

The horizon is brightening when we reach the summit, the stars fading. A jumbled procession of peaks marches northward under the purpling sky, and for a fleeting moment I experience Duriscoe’s macroscopic view of creation. I imagine that I’m seeing every step of the JMT, over mountains, around lakes, and through forests, leading all the way back in space and time to Yosemite.

The plan had been to wait for sunrise, but after 20 minutes, I no longer feel the need. “Sunrises are overrated,” I tell Stromberg, reaching for my pack. “Let’s head down.”

Freelance writer James Vlahos, based in El Cerrito, California, has written for the New York Times Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Outside, and Esquire. This is his first feature article for Traveler.
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