OAKHURST – You gaze, mesmerized, at the scene before you: majestic Half Dome — known as Tis-sa-sak to the first settlers of this valley — crowns Tenaya Canyon leading to the Yosemite high country. El Capitan, sentinel of Yosemite Valley, guards the western edge. The scene is pure majesty, a valley ringed by mountains approaching 10,000 feet in elevation. You stand in the shadow of giants.
Then you step out of your vehicle after finding that elusive parking spot — onto asphalt.
While travelogues and brochures claim this is Yosemite, Yosemite is so much more. The real land, the wildness, the beauty lies on dirt, outside of the usual tourist destinations readily available to visitors of all abilities and interests.
A number of local companies provide tours to the most popular parts of the park and these are most worthwhile. These generally don’t venture far from the usual valley destinations or far from pavement, both due to time constraints and often the physical ability of the participants. One company who provides the ultimate wilderness experience is Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (SYMG).
Many — maybe most — first-time visitors don’t realize that Yosemite is huge. At 1,200 square miles, it is the size of Rhode Island, and most of it is unexplored by visitors.
If you want to see the “real” Yosemite, unspoiled Yosemite, there are ways to do so safely and at the same gain knowledge of the geology and ecology of some of the less-visited portions of the park, in depth and up-close.
Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (SYMG) has been exploring the national park and its surroundings for decades. Based in Oakhurst, the company birthed itself thirty years ago over a drink and a contract inked on a napkin between three friends: Ian Elman, co-founder and current president, Dan Braun and Mike Maciazek. The three share a passion for where they live and work and a mission to impart their knowledge with those intrepid enough to set foot on trails or rocks beyond the normal visitor destinations. They recruit guides who embody their same knowledge and passion for the areas in which they lead.
While they do touch on areas populated by visitors, such as the storied trek up Half Dome, they do it in a way that provides knowledge and safety and the unique beauty that lies where fewer footsteps fall. For anyone who has walked any part of either the John Muir Trail or the Mist Trail, both of which lead to the summit of Half Dome, it is common to see hikers in shorts, tank tops, flip flops and a 16-oz water bottle, intent on cresting the iconic landmark. Each year multiple injuries and deaths occur on Yosemite and Sierra Nevada trails because hikers were ill-prepared or took chances. Booking a trek with a company such as Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides means you embark with information, equipment and knowledgeable guides who are, at the least, wilderness first responders.
This year (and last) Yosemite National Park has added a new wrinkle to any visit to the park between April and September: the necessity of reservations to enter the park for anyone not having lodging reservations within its borders. Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of Visit Yosemite Madera County, the visitor center located in Oakhurst, reports that this year has been marked by huge numbers of visitors arriving lacking the necessary reservations only to be turned away or finding themselves making alternate, less satisfactory, arrangements to enter the park.
Visitors who book with tour companies, including SYMG, avoid that issue because the companies include the reservation in the tour package. It should be noted that with SYMG, they obtain the day-use reservation, but visitors still need to pay the $35 park entry fee.
For any visit to Yosemite National Park, planning is essential. Know where you want to go, what you want to see and research conditions to make sure your fitness allows you to accomplish your goals.
Better yet, book a tour through a local company, matched to the level of activity you desire. They take care of the details; you take the adventure, assured of being led by the best in the business. Better yet, they provide a safety net in case of issues. I could have used them the two times I did Half Dome, as well as my trip-the-light-fantastic slog down Shuteye Peak in the dark with a barely functioning flashlight. Needless to say, these were not professionally led hikes. Each year local search and rescue organizations are kept busy extracting unlucky climbers or hikers, sometimes with disastrous results.
For hikes beginning and ending the same day, SYMG recommends their guests come prepared with the following:
- Two to three liters of water per person
- Lunch & snacks for the day (they can provide suggestions)
- A warm layer and/or rain shell
- Camera (optional)
From personal experience, I’d add at least a headlamp and or flashlight and extra batteries to that list.
If hikers wish, SYMG can provide them with LEKI trekking poles and Deuter day packs, upon request. For Half Dome hikes they also provide gloves to use on the last 400 feet of the journey up the cables.
Hikes of this type generally last eight hours and may include destinations such as Half Dome or the south rim of Yosemite Valley, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley.
In addition, SYMG obtains the required permits to climb the Half Dome cables, a system the park instituted several years ago to limit the traffic on the trail and especially the cables.
But as noted earlier SYMG treks are not limited to Yosemite Valley. Ian Elman states, “Essentially we work from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. This includes three national parks (Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon), two National Forests (Sierra and Inyo) and five wilderness areas (Yosemite, Sequoia, Ansel Adams, John Muir, and the Golden Trout). The ability to offer trips throughout the High Sierra is one aspect that really distinguishes us from other guide services and outfitters.”
Longer offerings include a Yosemite Grand Traverse Backpack (8 days), the John Muir Trail (23 days) and the Trans-Sierra Trail to Mt. Whitney (10 days) and much more.
Visit their website to view current offerings.
An SYMG specialty tour developed a few years ago is the “Ales and Trails” backpacking adventure. Created in conjunction with South Gate Brewing Company in Oakhurst, it is a gourmet cuisine-cum-craft beer fest diving deep into the Ansel Adams Wilderness (5 days, 4 nights). This trek features pack mules, a chef and a brew master plus from three to twelves hikers. This could be called the ultimate wilderness experience. One of the “Ales and Trails” biggest fans, Ian claims, is Casey Hawkins, owner of South Gate Brewing Company.
They offer prepackaged journeys, per their website, or they can plan hikes or backpacks to suit the number of persons traveling to destinations the travelers themselves designate. For overnight wilderness trips, SYMG provides guests with the essential equipment they will need for their trip at no additional cost, including backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and trekking poles. They include a comprehensive gear and equipment list that is sent to guests with a trip confirmation. All the gear used or recommended is specifically chosen based on what is best for that particular trip.
They can plan group explorations involving hiking or climbing, which add more value to the adventure.
With an extensive and extremely experienced guide roster, according to Ian, “some of the best and brightest individuals in the Yosemite area with extensive resumes,” they can also offer guided trips to worldwide locations including Europe, South America and Antarctica. If you have a destination in mind, chances are SYMG can get you there in style. In fact any journey with SYMG, from within Yosemite’s boundaries to the tip of Patagonia, often consists of like-minded, outdoor enthusiasts from around the world, and it’s not uncommon to come away from a trip with lifelong new friends who now share a common bond.
Although SYMG business fell by about 35 percent during 2020 due to the shutdown, they were able to implement a comprehensive plan with specific policies and procedures to ensure the safety of both staff and participants. Many of those policies remained in place when things began to open back up. With the rise of the Delta variant, they have further increased precautions. Because so many people experienced a desire to “get out there” after being cooped up for months, they have experienced an increase in demand during 2021.
Early reservations are suggested for SYMG because space and dates may be limited.
All this expertise does come with a price, but if your goal is to dig deep into the history and geology of your destination, to learn as much as possible and be safe as you hike or climb in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, the price may just be a drop in your bucket (list).