Poach Camping in Yosemite
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but-”
Tyler and I sat in the Forks Resort diner with a map of Yosemite Valley sprawled across the bar, listening intently as our friendly waitress drew her own map on the back of a receipt. The restaurant was wedged in the corner of a quaint general store, the kind of place that adorns the walls with animal trophies and neon fishing signs. “Keep driving until you reach cabin seven. From there you’ll have to park and walk the rest of the way to Jumping Rock,” she finished, handing us the slip. We thanked her for the lead on the local swim hangout, finished our famous Forks Burgers and left in search of a new campsite for the night.
We had arrived in Yosemite Valley the previous night after a six hour drive, the first two hours of which were spent gridlocked on the 405. Nothing inspires the urge to unplug and run for the woods quite as efficiently as LA traffic, but by the time we reached camp near Shuteye Ridge I had little energy left for exploring. I hastily set up my tent in the dark, fumbling to arrange the poles without a headlamp and not bothering to affix the rain fly before crawling under my sleeping bag/blanket. Sleeping beneath the stars without fear of getting wet might be the only benefit to California’s drought.
The next morning we left our camp to a group with ATVs piled high in the back of their lifted trucks and drove down to Bass Lake to take a dip next to more lifted pickups plastered with Trump 2016 stickers. While the majority of our group went into the park, Tyler and I agreed to scout the area outside the park for campsites. Google Maps was little help finding gas, but a Park Ranger directed us to the Forks general store for hand pumped gas and a good burger. We searched the map for potential locations near the park as we waited for our food, setting our sights on the network of fire roads that leads to Star Lakes and Raymond Mountain.
We wanted to have easy access to the park for a sunrise trip to Glacier Point, so we backtracked from the park entrance and turned onto the first fire road we came to for Raymond Mountain. About a mile up Forest Service road 5S06 Tyler and I found a site with a teardrop trailer parked beneath a clearing in the pine trees, many of them sickly or dead from bark beetles. We continued marking sites as we drove, until a little over four miles in we stumbled on Long Meadows. Unsure if my truck could make it all the way up to Star Lakes, we climbed down to the stream below on foot and then headed back down the fire road to claim our site.
Our campsite, later dubbed Culvert City, sat near the bank of a small creek that flowed under a switchback three miles up from CA 41. We found several promising tent spaces tucked neatly beneath the old pines, as well as some less encouraging evidence of previous campers and a carefully-constructed fire pit. We pitched Tyler’s tent to serve as a marker for the rest of our group, then drove into the park until we reached the Chilnualna Falls Trailhead at the back of a small residential area in North Wawona. I had a feeling we missed a crucial part of our waitress’ directions to the secret swimming hole, but I was ready to settle for a more traveled location if it meant swimmable water.
Note: To reach the Chilnualna Falls Trailhead from the Wawona park entrance, take your second right onto Chilnualna Rd. after the Wawona Visitor Center and follow it through North Wawona. The hike weighs in at 8.4 miles round trip and takes approximately 4-6 hours to complete, featuring a variety of falls, cascades and pools. Alternatively, explore the Wawona Swimming Hole by taking your first right after the visitor center onto Forest Dr. and continue until you reach Camp Wawona. From there park and follow foot paths to the river.
We ditched our shoes and shirts mid-way up the first set of falls and continued our ascent, jumping and climbing from rock to rock rather than following the trail cut into the loose dirt of the bank. The falls were low and the rocks scalable, but it was easy to imagine the torrent of spring snowmelt that carves through the cliffs following a good winter. The fading light filtered through the treetops as we pulled ourselves to the top of the granite outcrop, a deep pool fed by a pristine waterfall at our feet. Though we hadn’t reached Star Lake or the infamous Jumping Rock, it felt hard to chalk our adventure up as a failure as we stood beneath the falls watching the sunset.
Eventually we returned to camp to share stories and pictures from our day with the rest of our group while we ate and drank by the glow of a set of string lights draped across the fire pit, a tapestry serving as our communal dining area. We had all experienced a rewarding day of exploration but knew that we would barely scratch the surface of what Yosemite Valley has to offer in a weekend trip, and were grateful for a peaceful campsite to recharge at for the long days to come.