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Benson Circuit: Yosemite Hiking Without The Crowds


Benson Circuit: Yosemite Hiking Without The Crowds

I have been blessed so far. I’ve much of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, New Mexico…

I have never been to Yosemite and this thorough trip report from RGJ has inspired me to check it out.

No crowds? Sounds awesome… Enjoy!


All the beauty of Yosemite National Park without the huge crowds? Yes, please.

The apprehension started to kick in when we took our first real break of the day at the top of Mule Pass, which marks the border of a remote section of Yosemite National Park. The real worrying came later.

Reaching the top of the pass, which is at about 10,500 feet in elevation, after climbing about two miles and 1,000 vertical feet from Crown Lake, in the Hoover National Wilderness Area, meant we’d made good time in clearing the day’s first major obstacle.

But as nice as it was sitting in the sun and contemplating the talus through which we’d ascended and beautiful, blue alpine lake we passed along the way something bigger loomed on the horizon about five miles to the west.

It was the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range and, more specifically, Matterhorn Peak.

The peak marked the entrance to Burro Pass which, at about 10,700 feet, was where we needed to cross to reach Matterhorn Canyon and the second camping destination of a five-day, 55-mile backpacking trip.

We were doing a trip on what’s known informally as the “Benson Circuit,” a cherry-stem-and-loop route from Mono Village near Bridgeport, Calif., up and over Mule and Burro passes, past Matterhorn Peak, Smedberg and Benson lakes, over Seavey pass and back out through Kerrick Meadow and past Peeler Lake.

To reach Burro Pass from Mule we would need to drop about 1,000 feet in elevation into slide Canyon and hike along Piute Creek then back up to the top of the pass.

From there the plan was to hike as far as we could into Matterhorn Canyon before we needed to set up camp for the night.

The plan for the day looked reasonable on paper, hiking about 10 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation gain was well within my range of ability, even with a 30-pound pack on my back.

Looking at the route from the top of Mule Pass, however, was a different story.

For starters, the trail between the top of the pass where we were resting and the bottom of the canyon below was in rough condition. Beaten by stock animals and washed out from erosion just getting to the canyon floor would involve navigating loose soil and steep drops.

Accomplished backcountry explorers and climbers might not give it a second thought. But I’m no expert and cautious by nature so I figured it would be slow going.

The trail conditions weren’t my biggest concern, however, during the food and water break on top of Mule Pass. My biggest concern was the remoteness of the canyon into which we were about to drop.
Once we reached the bottom of the canyon there was no getting out without going back over Mule Pass or through the Sawtooths. That meant if we ran into any trouble from that point forward we were on our own to deal with it.I wasn’t expecting any trouble. After all when it came down to it all we had to do was hike through a valley and over a pass on an established trail.

But for me anxiety is a frequent companion, especially when I’m heading into unknown backcountry terrain.

So we descended to the canyon floor, trundled a few miles along Piute Creek, enjoyed some amazing views of the Sawtooths and Matterhorn Peak before making the final ascent up Burro Pass.

And that’s where the real worrying began.

It was only mid-afternoon when we reached the top of the pass and I already felt like I was hitting the wall.

My legs were wobbly and my appetite was non-existent. Beneath us Matterhorn Canyon was rolled out like a gorgeous, green carpet but I was focused on how I would make it to the campsite and whether I would have the strength to make it another three days and 30 miles on the trail.

Part of my mind was (irrationally) wondering what would happen if I couldn’t continue. But I forced myself to stop and take in the scene looking south into Matterhorn Canyon.

The upper end of the canyon is a place of stunning beauty.

Over my left shoulder was Matterhorn Peak. Below me the trail wound down slope into a huge meadow before straightening and rolling down the west side of the canyon.

On the east side there was a creek rushing through the meadow and over smooth, granite boulders.

We managed to hike about two miles down the canyon before setting up camp at about 9,800 feet in elevation.

With ridges rising above 11,000 feet on the east and west sides the canyon floor is in shadows hours before sunset. We arrived early enough to set up camp then hike over to the creek to rinse off and refresh.

The combination of the cool creek followed by a hot meal resulted in a quick recovery from the fatigue and concern I was feeling earlier.

After a good night’s sleep we set out eager to tackle the rest of the circuit.

From camp two we hiked down the remainder of Matterhorn Canyon until the trail reached a large stream and an intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail.

We would remain on the Pacific Crest Trail for the remainder of the day and most of the following day.

From the stream, at about 8,500 feet the trail ascends for the next four miles to the top of Benson Pass, which is at about 10,100 feet of elevation.

The trail descends to Smedberg Lake which, if you’ve been following this space in recent weeks, you’ll recognize as the location we deemed the best campsite in the Sierra Nevada.

Along the way we would make a short side trip to Benson Lake which is one of the more unique hiking destinations I’ve encountered in the Sierra Nevada – a classic alpine lake deep in the mountains but with a huge, sandy beach that gives the shoreline a resort vibe without the resort.

For a typical backpacker who might cover 10-14 miles per day in the backcountry, Benson Lake is a multi-day hike from any direction.

This trip is now on my bucket list. Continue reading and see the awesome images here



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