The Yonga Trail

Where: Lesueur National Park
Length: 26 kilometre loop (two days with an overnight camp, or one big day)
Park hours: 24/7
Difficulty: Grade 4
Cost: National Park entry fees apply per vehicle + Yonga Campsite must be booked

Kwongan (Nyungar): …a type of country …[that is] sandy and is open without timber-sized trees but with a scrubby vegetation. It consists of plains in an Australian sense of open country rather than in a strict sense of flat country. … there are two principal plant formations in the kwongan, scrub heath and broombush thicket … both … are sclerophyll shrublands and possess a certain unity when contrasted with woodland and forest or steppe and succulent steppe communities. – ecologist John Stanley Beard, 1976

Lesueur National Park, 20 minutes from Jurien Bay, is home to a mind-bogglingly diverse community of native flora and fauna. This single park on the Coral Coast contains more than 10% of Western Australia’s known plant species, many of which are unique to this 26,987ha slice of pristine kwongan. Spring brings an explosion of colour, with an amazing variety of orchids and other flowering plants over a relatively small area.

The Yonga Trail, opened in August of 2021, is a 26km loop walk that starts and ends at the Drummond car park – just off the park’s main drive. Yonga Campsite is 14km from the trailhead if hiking anticlockwise, and 12km if walking clockwise. The 14km section comes with an optional side trip to the top of Mount Lesueur, which adds about 30 minutes to the walk.

The trail takes you on a tour of Lesueur National Park’s spectacular kwongan heathland, diving in and out of patches of wandoo woodland along the way. As well as a stunning variety of flowers, you’re likely to see pink and grey galahs, western corellas, wedge tailed eagles, and maybe even a few Carnaby’s black cockatoos. Personally, I don’t know of a hike you can do in a weekend out of Perth that shows you a richer slice of WA’s ecology.

My partner and I hiked the Yonga Trail on the first weekend after it was officially opened, and we soon realised the pitfalls of hiking a brand new trail. Instead of a well-trod footpath, most of the trail was a narrow strip of recently-cleared vegetation and rock that was rough and uneven. It is well signposted, but we often found ourselves scanning the horizon for the next marker in sections where the trail was only loosely defined. Normally I’m a fan of lightweight trail runners, but since my Altra Lone Peaks were impaled by an errant stick I’d recommend some sturdier shoes for this hike.

We opted to hike anticlockwise and summit Mount Lesueur on day one, giving us plenty of time to get back to Perth on day two. The mountain is a flat-topped mesa that juts prominently out of a basin, giving it broad views over the park and the surrounding farmland. After reaching the top – and snapping photos of dozens of different wildflowers on the way up – we headed back down to the Wandoo Lookout where the Yonga Trail diverts from the Gairdner and Lesueur Trails.

We spent the afternoon wandering through dramatic kwongan hillsides and beautifully shady patches of wandoo, first to the east before gradually turning north towards Yonga Campsite. It’s possible we’ve been pampered by the Bibbulmun Track and its relatively well-graded surface, but we found the Yonga to be a slog. It dips in and out of countless tiny valleys, gleefully ignoring contour lines. The track is often uneven on a left-right axis, meaning your left foot is regularly at a completely different level to your right. It’s a physio’s nightmare, but the views are worth it. When we finally staggered into camp just before sunset, we were spent.

The campground is unusual for WA, featuring three raised metal grille platforms on which you can pitch freestanding tents. A three-sided shelter has more metal grille, plus a small wooden platform. All must be booked in advance. The shelter looks out to a broad valley, which turned gold at sunset. It’s a spectacular spot. We’d booked one of the platforms, but opted for the shelter after finding the place deserted. There is also a water tank and a drop toilet. Mosquitos were out in force when we arrived, so we were forced to retreat to the safety of our tent. Next time, we’d bring insect repellent.

The next day we hiked an equally tough 12km back to the car, climbing several hills and dipping into valleys along the way. One of the great things about Lesueur is its bowl topography, which allows you to see for miles when you get to any sort of elevation. We arrived back at the car just after noon, and headed into Jurien Bay for a bakery lunch before the 2.5 hour drive home.

The folks over at Outdoor Evolution invited me to write a guest piece for them about my experience on the PCT. It turned into a post-mortem of my thru-hike, and a reflection on readjusting to society after months living on the trail.

Check it out over at Outdoor Evolution.

I tossed and turned all night at my camp by Palisade Creek. My restless mind’s focus see-sawed between the sounds of the raging torrent running by my tent, and the irregular thump…thump…………..THUMP of my malfunctioning heart. I tried to calm myself, but kept giving in to the temptation to check my pulse. My heart had naturally reverted to its normal rhythm after several earlier episodes, and I was hoping it would do so again. I wondered what I would do if it didn’t. There were no good options.

The Muir Trail Ranch, probably my closest bailout point, was on the other side of Muir Pass. To get there I’d have to climb thousands of feet over five trail miles, much of it in snow, then make a long and arduous descent on the other side. Just setting up my tent had left me breathless and exhausted, and attempting the pass would put enormous strain on my heart. If I did so, I was risking a heart attack.

A trail leading out of the mountains over Bishop Pass was two miles behind me, but it was 16 miles long and involved a similarly taxing climb. Worse, it ended at a remote trail head parking lot where there was no guarantee of finding help. The mum and daughter I was camped with were heading in that direction, but it would take them days to cover the distance and they couldn’t do much for me anyway. I knew I needed to get out of the mountains as soon as possible.

My only option was a back country ranger’s cabin that I knew was nearby, hidden just off the trail near the Bishop Pass / PCT junction. I’d been listening to an audio book about back country rangers, Eric Blehm’s The Last Season, and knew that they spent much of their time away from their cabins, patrolling their vast territories. I knew a ranger would have a radio, and could contact park headquarters about an evac. I wondered whether that was even possible in this canyon – had I seen anywhere that a helicopter might land? – but it was the best of my limited options.

My heart was still in A-fib when I woke, so I put my plan into action. I slowly packed up my gear, having to stop several times to catch my breath, and explained to the mum camped nearby what was happening. She offered to come with me, but it would take her and her daughter a long time to get moving. It was only two miles of downhill trail to the ranger’s cabin, so I told them I’d go on ahead. I figured if I ran into trouble I could sit and wait for them to arrive.

I slowly retraced my steps to the bottom of LeConte Canyon, annoyed to be surrendering the elevation I’d worked so hard to gain just a day before. I followed the trail along the banks of Palisade Creek for about an hour before I reached the junction with the Bishop Pass Trail. 16 miles down that trail was civilisation, but I knew I wouldn’t make it. Instead I headed deeper into the woods, following a marked spur trail that led to the ranger’s cabin. It was a cosy-looking wooden thing, with a pitched roof and a single window. I stepped onto the porch and found a note pinned to a message board.

As I’d feared, the ranger was out on patrol. The note explained that they may not be back for days. I knew I only had one option left.

Since I started the trail, I’d been carrying a small personal locator beacon in the hip pocket of my pack. I’d bought the device about three years earlier, and always carried it with me on the Bibbulmun Track back home – even on day hikes – in case of emergency. It required clear access to the sky, so I turned around once more and began climbing towards a treeless granite outcrop I’d passed on the way down. Fortunately, it was only a few hundred feet away from the cabin.

I reached the outcrop, removed my pack, and scrambled up to the top of a huge boulder by the side of the trail. Mountains on all sides of the canyon still partially obscured the sky, but there was still plenty of cloudless sky above me. I hoped that somewhere in all that clear blue was a satellite that could receive my signal. I gingerly unclasped the beacon’s long antenna and pointed it straight upright. I read and re-read the instructions on the back of the device before pressing the SOS button. I held it down, counting the five seconds it needed to prevent accidental activation. A small LED lit up in red, then began flashing green. It was broadcasting.

There was nothing to do but wait, so I left the PLB on top of the rock and scrambled back down to my pack, which I’d left lying in the shade by the trail. I wondered how long help would take to come. Over the next few hours, I strained my ears listening for rotor blades, but heard nothing. Morning turned to afternoon, so I had lunch under the tree.

Around 2PM, a young ranger came scrambling up the granite. She was facing away from me, searching for the PLB, so I called out to her. “Are you Ben?” she asked. I’d registered the PLB with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority before I’d left. Obviously, she’d been relayed my information. She introduced herself as Ranger Muller. “Sorry I took so long, I was on top of Bishop Pass when you activated it,” she said. “Hey, it’s the back country,” I replied. “That’s part of the deal.” She asked what was wrong with me, and I began to explain about atrial fibrillation. To my surprise, she knew about it. Another hiker with the same condition had suffered an episode on Kearsage Pass, but had been close enough to the trail head to evacuate himself.

Ranger Muller led me back to the cabin and unlocked the door. Inside it was just as I’d imagined, with a sleeping loft, a basic kitchen, books stacked to the ceiling, and a pantry packed with tinned food. Ranger Muller sat me down at the table and gave me a basic physical. She stepped outside to radio the results back to park headquarters. When she returned, she told me the park service was going to evacuate me by helicopter.

Ranger Muller led me up a hill to another granite outcrop, the designated landing zone for LeConte Canyon. I sat on a rock while she cleared the area of tree branches and rocks, then we sat and waited. She told me she was in her early 20s, and was originally from Colorado. She’d joined the park service only a couple of years earlier and worked as a ski guide in the winter and a back country ranger in the summer. What a life. I kept thanking her profusely for coming to my rescue, which she appreciated. She told me there was a growing sense of entitlement among people who visit America’s national parks, and a lack of respect for what being in the wilderness really means – that you’re knowingly going far away from help, and any you receive should be taken as a blessing.

20 minutes later, we heard the drone of helicopter rotors in the distance. A minute later, a small, green rescue chopper appeared over the trees. It swooped down over the outcrop before gently touching down on the rock, kicking up dust in all directions. As the engine wound down, a medic hopped out and conversed with Ranger Muller. The pilot hopped out too, and handed the ranger a handful of mangos. Back country rangers live most of their seasons off non-perishable foods, so my SOS created a rare excuse for a fresh produce delivery.

The medic, a friendly-middle aged woman, gave me another physical on the ground before donning me in a flight suit and hooking me up to an oxygen tank. She gave me a quick safety briefing and told me how to work the headset. I said goodbye to Ranger Muller and climbed into the back seat of the chopper. The pilot spooled up the engine and gently lifted us off the ground. As we got higher I could see LeConte Canyon spread out before me, while more mountains revealed themselves in the distance. I could see the spine of the Sierra Nevada range stretching southward. I wondered where the trail I’d hiked for the past week wound its way between the peaks.

We flew over the top of Moro Rock, then dropped thousands of feet into park headquarters at Ash Mountain. It had only been moderately warm on the trail, but even before we landed I could feel the air outside was scorching at this lower elevation. An ambulance was waiting for me at the helipad.

I was transferred into the ambulance, where the EMT hooked me up to a heart monitor. “Right now you’re in sinus rhythm,” he told me. At some point between activating the PLB and landing at Ash Mountain my heart had cardioverted on its own. I could have been annoyed, but I was just glad to have made it out safely.

I turned on my phone and it blew up with messages from my dad. I’d forgotten I’d listed him as the emergency contact when I registered the PLB, and he’d received a phone call the minute I activated it. The call came in the middle of the night back in Australia, and he’d got no sleep after that. I reassured him I was fine and called my mum.

The ambulance took me to Visalia, a town with a major hospital in California’s central valley, on the west side of the Sierra. They checked me out, confirmed I was no longer in A-Fib, and discharged me.

I’d woken up in the high Sierra wilderness, and by the afternoon I was standing on a scorching sidewalk in a dusty desert town. I had no idea what I would do or where I would go, but decided I’d leave that for tomorrow. I booked into a hotel next door, ordered pizza, and slept.

Mount Whitney (my mile 1530, trail mile 767) to LeConte Canyon (my mile 1600ish)

I was up before dawn the day after my Whitney summit, determined to get over Forester Pass early in case the previous day’s afternoon storm was repeated. At 13,153 feet above sea level, Forester is the highest point of the PCT and probably the most notorious pass on the trail. It’s also the first major pass that northbound hikers have to tackle, so there’s not exactly much of a learning curve.

I hit the trail as the first rays of sunlight hit the top of the western peaks, and soon came across my first real Sierra creek crossing. The water was only up to my calves, but it was freezing.

I’d downloaded the Lord of the Rings soundtrack in preparation for the Sierra, and listened to it as the mountains rose up from the horizon to meet me. I passed many JMT southbounders over this stretch, all nearly at the end of their 200-mile journeys.

I was amazed at the variety of people that tackle this difficult, remote trail, including many parents with their young children. Kids can be tougher than they get credit for.

I met a JMT northbounder from Boston (whose name I’ve since forgotten) about five miles out of camp, and walked with her for the next couple of river crossings. She fell behind as we began the long climb towards the pass and told me to go on ahead. I’d have liked to keep hiking with her as she was a good conversationalist, but clouds were beginning to form overhead and I was fearful of getting trapped above treeline if a storm rolled in. I hurried to the pass.

After a few hours of steady but not overly difficult climbing, I reached the base of Forester. Huge peaks walled me in on two sides, while the pass loomed ahead. I reached the start of the switchbacks that mark the final ascent and began climbing.

Halfway up I came across a memorial to trail worker Donald Downs, who died at age 18 in a dynamite accident while building this section of the trail in 1930. Beneath the plaque, an assortment of rusted tools that look like they might belong to that era were lying on the ground. Could they be?

Forester Pass

I laboured up the last mile of steep ascent before I came across the infamous chute, essentially a steep funnel of loose talus above a dizzying void. I could see why it would be absolutely terrifying when covered in snow, but thankfully I’d waited long enough. The chute was clear.

I could feel the lack of oxygen in the air as I huffed up the last switchback and reached the top of the pass. I got my first glimpse of the valley on the other side, which was still heavy with snow.

The chute

A father and his young teenage son who were going southbound reached the top a few minutes after me, their ascent having been much more difficult. They’d scrambled up the snow-covered north face all the way from the bottom, as their lower vantage point meant they couldn’t see the well-formed bootpack that led to a snow-free talus field on the opposite side of their approach. I took the talus field down, and spent the rest of the day spreading the word to every southbounder I came across. I felt like a backcountry preacher.

I descended towards Vidette Meadow, where a perfect half-pipe of mountains framed a spectacular view. I stopped for a late lunch at ledge and took a time-lapse.

I wanted to get as close to Glen Pass as possible to give myself a chance at getting over Pinchot, the following pass, by the following afternoon. I spent the last two hours of daylight huffing up the long climb out of Vidette, then made camp at a site about a mile from the top.

It was the perfect spot to watch the sun sink over the horizon, turning the mountains gold and then blood orange as it did so. I could see why John Muir referred to the Sierra as the “range of light”.

I made it over Glen Pass without too much difficulty early the next morning, then began the long descent towards Rae Lakes. The lakes, fed by pure snowmelt, were crystal clear and stunningly beautiful. They were also freezing. I stopped at the shore of one and attempted a swim, but only made it up to my waist before chickening out.

I followed the valley for the rest of the morning before crossing a suspension bridge that swayed wildly over the rushing Woods Creek. Then I began the climb to Pinchot, which felt like the longest and most arduous of all the passes. I spent hours and hours wheezing my way up the steep trail, seemingly climbing endlessly. Awesomely powerful tributaries of Woods Creek rushed beside the trail.

I finally hit the top of Pinchot as the mountains began to cast their shadows over the trail. I descended to the next valley, and made camp next to a pristine alpine lake. Again I was treated to a spectacular sunset.

I woke the next morning to find a layer of crunchy frost covering my tent, my shoes and my bear can. Not wanting to numb my hands as I had before, I waited for the sun to rise over the mountains and dry out my gear.

I began the climb towards Mather Pass, which required me to scramble on a log over the south fork of the Kings River. An array of colourful wildflowers followed the trail as it wound its way up. I reached the top of Mather Pass just before 11AM, and met a backcountry ranger who was waiting to radio in her daily check-in.

I’d recently been listening to The Last Season, a book about a Sierra backcountry ranger who disappeared in the mid 90s, and was fascinated by the lifestyles of these rangers who spend entire seasons living in remote cabins to protect their patch of wilderness.

The descent from Mather Pass was the diciest of all, winding down steep banks of loose snow above fields of sharp rocks. I put my microspikes on and picked my way down at a snail’s pace, often stopping to consider each individual step before committing to it. Once I cleared the worst of it I took the spikes off, then began the long descent past Palisade Lakes and into LeConte Canyon.

I came across dozens of southbound JMT hikers, nearly all of whom quizzed me about the conditions on the pass. I was shocked by how many of them had found room in their packs for books, umbrellas, camp chairs and even a ukelele, but almost none had thought to bring microspikes.

A miles-long staircase led down into LeConte, where Palisade Creek was gushing down from the lakes above. It was deafening. After a few bone-jarring hours of descent I finally made it to the bottom of LeConte Canyon and began the gradual climb towards Muir Pass.

I passed the Bishop Pass trail junction and stopped a couple of miles later by the JMT rock monster (see below), where a mum and her daughter of about 12 had made camp for the night. They were hiking a section of the JMT southbound, and quizzed me about my experiences on the PCT before snapping a picture of me being devoured by the monster.

I ate mac and cheese for dinner and crawled into my sleeping bag. I spent a few minutes reading on my phone before I felt my heart skipped a beat, and then struggle to find a rhythm. It thumped irregularly, the rate rising and falling without provocation. My A-Fib was back.

Kennedy Meadows (my mile 1465, trail mile 702) to Mount Whitney (my mile 1530, trail mile 767)

I got a dose of Southern California’s searing August heat the second I stepped onto the air bridge at Burbank. The sun beat down on me as I crossed the street to the rental car garage, but I was thankful for it. Those warming rays had spent the past two months slowly thawing the huge volume of snow that had been dumped on the Sierra the past winter. Now, finally, the trail in the High Sierra was passable again.

On my way out of Los Angeles I stopped at a Von’s supermarket and bought supplies for the first stretch out of Kennedy Meadows. The trail in the Sierra is as remote as it gets on the PCT, making resupply a much greater challenge than elsewhere. Most PCTers resupply by hiking one of several long exit trails over mountain passes to reach towns in the Owens Valley, over 8,000 feet below. The Kearsage Pass trail, one of the most popular exit points, is nine miles long each way. Add a hitchhike in and out of town and your grocery trip is likely to take at least a full day.

I was determined to reach Canada by the end of September, but my two hospitalisations had cost me valuable time. In a bid to make it up I purchased enough food to get me all the way from Kennedy Meadows to Vermilion Valley Resort, 176 miles away. I planned to do the stretch in 10 days, including a day off-trail to climb Mount Whitney, and bought enough food for 11 days. It would be my longest stretch without resupply, and by far my heaviest carry.

With a car boot full of groceries I drove three hours to the desert town of Ridgecrest, where I’d arranged to stay with local trail angel Sandy before she gave me a ride up to the mountains in the morning. I spent the evening trying to cram my huge pile of food into my bear can, repackaging items and arranging them like Tetris blocks.

In the morning, Sandy and two other trail angels drove me up to Kennedy Meadows. We stopped at Grumpy Bears for a pancake breakfast – my last fresh meal for 10 days. I hauled my pack onto my back at the trailhead and felt it sag under its own weight. Buckles audibly creaked under the load, and the straps bit into my chest and shoulders like pincers. Seriously overburdened, I lumbered my way up the trail.

The going was slow and painful, made worse by the rising mercury. Kennedy Meadows is the official start of the Sierra section but I was still basically in the desert, following an exposed, sandy trail as it climbed to 9,000 feet. I stopped for lunch on a bank of the Kern River, and massaged my aching shoulders as I tried to force food into my face to lighten the load.

By late afternoon the desert had been replaced by grassy meadows and rolling hills, a prelude to the high alpine range I knew was just ahead of me. The heat, the climb and the crippling weight of my pack had slowed my progress, and I’d barely made it 18 of my planned 20 miles when I staggered into a campsite in pitch darkness. I tried to make myself eat more, but the exertion had killed my appetite. I felt dejected as I crawled into my sleeping bag. Canada seemed to be slipping farther and farther away.

A good night’s sleep gave me a renewed energy the next morning, and I made the rest of the climb to 10,600 feet elevation in good time. I had lunch in a green meadow, and watched a pair of deer chase each other up and down a rocky slope as I ate. I saw only two other hikers all day, and camped alone in a forested area by the trail. Being alone made me more concerned about bears than I had been, so I cooked my dinner far away from my campsite so as not to attract them.

I reached Cottonwood Pass the next morning, where I got a sliver of phone reception at a spot overlooking the Owens Valley. The loneliness of this section of trail had left me feeling more isolated than ever, so I appreciated the opportunity to check back in with the real world. I’d hoped by this point to have teamed up with other PCTers flipping back down to hike the Sierra, but apparently I was the only one out here.

Chicken Spring Lake, just after the pass, is the spot where many hikers say they feel like they’ve arrived in the Sierra. I stopped there for lunch, and marvelled at towering rocky peaks reflected in the lake’s glassy water. Patches of snow still clung to the slopes, adding to the spectacle. A group of trail riders came by on their horses and quizzed me about the PCT.

My plan was to reach Crabtree Meadows, near the base of Mount Whitney, by the end of the day, but the terrain proved tougher than expected. I reached lower Crabtree – about a mile short of my target – at 9PM, and decided to call it a day. I wanted to summit the mountain for sunrise, which requires a 1AM start, but I knew as I flopped onto my sleeping pad that that wasn’t happening.

I woke instead at 4:30, and was on the trail by 5:30. I stopped by the Crabtree ranger station just as the sun was rising and stashed most of my gear in a bear box. I set off carrying only my lunch, my med kit, a water bottle and rain gear. It was a huge relief to my aching shoulders, which were still suffering from the bite of my overburdened pack straps.

The sky was blue as I made my way up through the valley that leads to the base of Whitney, but the surrounding mountain range still blocked any direct sunlight. I was passing Timberline Lake when the first rays hit the peaks of the range. The light reflected off the lake’s perfectly-still waters, which were partially shrouded in mist. I couldn’t recall ever seeing anything so beautiful, on the trail or elsewhere. It felt like this was the reward for everything I’d been through in over 1500 miles of hiking. The diagnosis, the two hospitalisations, the endless pain and sweat. This is what it was all for. Tears welled in my eyes as I climbed.

The sun appeared over the range as I reached the start of the grueling section of the ascent. The long, gradual climb was replaced with a series of steep switchbacks winding their way up the mountain. Slowly I worked my way up from 12,000 feet to 12,500, then 13,000, then 13,500. I could feel the air getting thinner, and I had to stop for breaks more regularly as I climbed higher. The last climb from 13,500 feet to the summit at 14,505 is made along the length of a cresting ridge. I passed a gap in the trailside cliff face about half a mile from the summit, and was confronted with a dizzying view of the valley miles below me.

I negotiated a steep snowy patch just short of the summit and then, all of a sudden, I was there. I passed the stone Smithsonian Shelter and reached the peak – the highest point in the mainland United States. The Sierra Nevada range was spread out before me in one direction, the Owens Valley in the other. I was looking down at the summits of some of the highest mountains in North America. I saw Crabtree Meadows, thousands of feet below. For the first time in a long time I allowed myself to feel proud.

It was a beautiful day, so I lingered on the summit for over an hour. Clouds began to form on the horizon as I began my descent. By the time I stepped off the last switchback, dark storm clouds were rumbling overhead. I was grateful I hadn’t started any later. Freezing rain began to pelt me as I reached Guitar Lake. 20 minutes later it was replaced by marble-sized pellets of hail. I spent the last mile back to Crabtree dashing from tree to tree.

I’d planned to repack my backpack and make it another eight miles or so down the trail that afternoon, but my feet were aching and I just didn’t feel like wandering out into the storm. I retrieved my stuff from the bear box and set up camp next to a group of JMT hikers. I watched some Netflix on my phone, grateful for my first early finish in a while.