Trapped By Bears on a Granite Pinnacle in Yosemite

What happens when you’re camping under the stars on a dead-end dome and hungry bears want your dinner?

The author in pre-dawn light, unmolested by bears.

I’ve been going to Yosemite Valley since 1976 when my mom was still pregnant with my little brother, staying in every spot from the funky cots of Curry Village to the sleeping bags of Camp 4 and luxuriating in the down comforters of the Ahwahnee Hotel. It took 25 years to get out. Like so many others, I always fell into the valley’s trap, so it was with great enthusiasm that I accepted my friend Steve’s invitation to backpack the north rim instead of staying within its sheltering arms.

Starting high off Tuolumne Road, we headed south through towering ponderosa pines and scrubby manzanita bushes. The sound of the highway was quickly subdued after crossing our first stream within what seemed yards but could have been a half mile. Hours went by and not a soul had been seen when the loamy forest floor finally gave way to massive slabs of granite. We crested a small rise and there was Half Dome in the fading afternoon light, less than a mile across a 2,000 foot gorge. As we settled into camp – a fire ring and a flattish spot for sleeping bags – North Dome gave me a fresh perspective on Yosemite for the first time in many years.

We cooked up a meal among the boulders strewn along the wide summit of the granite bulb, watching the last traces of golden light disappear. Slowly eating our meals from our respective pots, we wandered south to a rocky ledge looking down into the valley as if it were an obscure terrarium, a different world detached from the one we were currently visiting.

Before long, it grew rather dark under the moonless sky and I left my companion to enjoy some solitude on the walk back to camp. I clicked on my headlamp and slowly retraced my steps back to the summit, stopping every now and then to get another look west. As I approached the small boulders that marked our camp, I froze in my tracks as the light from my headlamp reflected back two sets of glowing eyes. One pair of eyes was noticeably larger than the other, and instantly I knew it was a sow and her cub, the worst scenario possible. In that split second, my mind raced back to Steve, the distance, the mess of food we’d left in our post-hike hunger daze. Below, the only escape was the Royal Arches, a sheer climbing playground unnavigable without ropes. In every direction were cliffs, except one, and that one was blocked by hungry bears. Mistakes were made.

I turned off the light and slowly backed away, the sound of my boots on the decomposed granite seemingly loud enough to be heard in the Ahwahnee dining room far below, with accompaniment from my pounding heart. It was dark and I was scared. When I finally turned around I saw Steve’s headlight in the distance. I made my dash, at first a fast awkward walk then a full fledged run as I ignited my light. As soon as he saw me high-tailing it toward him, he quickly turned his light off.

“Bear?” is all he asked.

“How…did…you…know?” I asked through labored pants.

“Because you’ve told me a hundred times you only run if you’re being chased.”

We grabbed rocks and slowly approached camp banging the bottom of our bowls. Much to my relief, when we could spy our bags, there were no bears nearby and from what we could tell nothing was disturbed. Still, we stuffed our remaining food into the bear cannister and stuck very close together as we tiptoed a hundred yards toward the trailhead, away from camp and in the direction of our furry friends.

I couldn’t sleep. Those glowing eyes were burned into me, and I spent a restless night feeding small twigs to my safety fire and keeping an eye cocked for the sound of an approaching bruin, probably impossible over Steve’s snoring. Some time deep into the night I passed out.

In the morning as we packed up and started our day, Steve stopped and asked, “So, where do you think those bears were?” After looking around, breaking down some geometry and taking my best educated guess, I replied, “Right about here…” We looked down into patch of sandy granite and sure enough, there were the tracks. But they were cloven, just two sets of deer tracks, and not very big ones at that.

“Yep, that seems about right,” Steve laughed as we shouldered packs and started off the granite dome.


Showing 15 comments
  • NEG

    FYI The word “your” in the headline needs to be “you’re.”

    • Derek Taylor

      Thanks! Fixed it.

  • Matt Rind

    Interesting article. If you’ve been camping in Yosemite for 40-odd years you should probably know by now that black bears are not a real threat to humans. There have been Zero bear related human fatalities in Yosemite Park history. Some Bears might want to steal your food. They don’t come to eat you in the night. 90% plus of bear related human injuries are a result of the human doing something really dumb.(playing with the cubs, etc.) Also,building a fire in a mostly treeless area (a granite dome) probably isn’t a good idea.

    • Rocky

      Mr. Xavier probably doesn’t need a fact check lecture; just my thought. I think it was a great story and very relatable to nearly anyone who has thought they were being ‘stalked’… He already is putting himself out there by sharing this and making himself the butt of the joke. Please. Laugh a little.

  • cliff kingston

    What was this story about? Leaving food unattended, a big no-no and some all park permits and information points, eg., website, signs, pamphlets, say never do. Or you encountered friendly bears?

    The truth of it is the bears are so accustomed to us, but unfortunately they have lost the natural fear of us… were you using a bear canister?

    Hopefully this experience doesn’t deter Your Love of Yosemite.

    I visit Yosemite every year, and that surely is a wonderful spot North Dome have been there many times…

    But I may brush up my backpacking etiquette in Yosemite before writing about it.


  • john smith

    2 people didn’t get it…

  • Matt Rind

    Get what? Camping like a cubscout in the wilderness?

  • Matt Rind

    Anyhow, I’ve been right there, North Dome, at least, 8 times. Regarding title of article: he wasn’t ‘trapped’, there weren’t ‘bears’, & he wasn’t on a ‘pinnacle’. YES, I see the tongue in cheek humor. also the cluelessness. ha-ha.

  • Tom

    The author did confess that “mistakes were made.”

  • John R

    It’s very easy for all you armchair hikers to make fun of this guy, laugh about how the black bears of Yosemite are harmless. But I seriously doubt any of the commenters have been far to face with a sow and her cub in the middle of a dense thicket, or in a confined area as the author described. I had this same exact scenario on my JMT hike, and yes, I knew that black bears were harmless, I knew all the things being said in the comment section. That being said, it scared the holy hell out me, and was something I will never forget.

  • jim

    Ha! aren’t we the more-outdoorsey-than-thou crowd. 🙂
    anyway it was a funny story and I’m glad it was posted. it gives us all a chance to remember our first back country trips as we sit in front of our computers…

  • Roman Dial

    My wife says that snoring is an evolutionary adaptation to keep predators at bay while we sleep: it sounds like we’re perpetually growling, so that as the predator approaches it then hears the growl and retreats.

    As a snorer I like the sound of that explanation and it means I’m actually doing my campmates a service. But they’d be smart to bring ear plugs, too, maybe.

  • Jordan Ring

    Very Interesting story! I am just getting into hiking with my wife, and I admit to being afraid that a bear will be just around every corner… I guess as long as you take the proper precautions there really isnt anything to fear? Still, I would have ran too!

  • Chet

    Did anyone get that there was no bear? It was two deer. That’s what makes it funny. All the comments about bear seem to indicate that it went right over your heads.

  • Volaine

    That picture might have more “harmful bite” than the dreaded Yosemite deer!

    But before anyone else gets upset about making fires above alpine level in Yosemite (a big no-no) you can see there are no coals in the fire ring, so it probably was not used by the authors except as a wind break. And in fact, the authors went the “Leave No Trace” way by breaking up the ring to use the rocks as a weapon against the phantom bears.

    Thx for the story. Miss being able to call the lodge Ahwahnee.

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