Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

By Michael Lanza

Ready for your first backpacking trip in one of America’s greatest national parks for backpackers, Yosemite? Having backpacked several times all over Yosemite, my advice for a first-time backpacker in Yosemite who wants to hit highlights like Yosemite Valley and Half Dome is close to what I did on my first trip almost three decades ago—but modified because I know better now.

This magnificent, beginner-friendly, four- to five-day, 37-mile loop from Yosemite Valley through the core of the park includes following the Mist Trail past 317-foot Vernal Fall and 594-foot Nevada Fall, ascending the cable route up Half Dome, reaching the equally spectacular (but much less busy) summit of Clouds Rest, walking a section of the world-famous John Muir Trail, and overlooking the jagged Cathedral Range from a campsite on the edge of alpine meadows at Sunrise.

Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley is probably the most popular trailhead in the park, and the park issues backcountry permits based on a daily quota of people starting from each trailhead, so it’s hard to get a permit to start at Happy Isles. But if you get it, hike up the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley (also hugely popular) to camp your first night.

Get an early start that first day so you can get ahead of the Mist Trail crowds and hike Half Dome (lead photo above is from the top of Half Dome) without your gear that first afternoon; by then, most hikers are coming down, you’ll share the summit with fewer people (but make sure no afternoon thunderstorms are threatening). Or even better, hike Half Dome really early on day two, ahead of just about everyone—I’ve done that, it’s when you’ll share Half Dome with the fewest people. (Check the Half Dome hike option when applying for your permit.)

Click here now for my detailed, expert e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

A backpacker hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
A backpacker hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Day two, head north on the John Muir Trail to camp at Sunrise. Day three, from Sunrise, hike over Clouds Rest, one of the best summits in the park, and descend to camp again in Little Yosemite Valley.

Last day, hike down the John Muir Trail back to Happy Isles, passing a classic view of Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the backside of Half Dome (the photo below).

My downloadable e-guide to that route describes it in far greater detail, including suggested daily itineraries for hiking it in four or five days, plus alternate itineraries for backpacking trips in that spectacular core of Yosemite, between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. It shares my insights on getting a coveted permit in Yosemite and my experience of multiple trips in this area of the park.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.

 

Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.
The view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.

On this hike, you won’t go more than a couple hours without passing water except on one day: hiking over Clouds Rest. We didn’t hit any water source in September. I don’t know of any seasonal source that would be available along those trails earlier in summer, either. Carry three liters when you start that day.

By the way, apply for your permit as soon as you can; they’re available 24 weeks (168 days) in advance, meaning you’ll want to apply sometime between late January and late March for trip dates between mid-July and mid-September. See this page at the park’s website for more info.

Check out my picks for “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite.”

Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.
Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

If you can’t get a permit to start at Happy Isles, you can do almost the same route starting at Glacier Point, following the Panorama Trail to Nevada Fall.

See all of my stories about Yosemite, including “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows” and “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about gorgeous, long trips in the park’s two most remote areas—trips to consider when you’re ready for a bigger adventure in Yosemite.

Yearning to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.

Those stories about trips in the park’s two most remote areas, like most stories about trips at The Big Outside, require a subscription to read in full.

My e-guides to those two long hikes south of Tuolumne and north of Tuolumne tell you everything you need to know to plan and successfully pull off either trip.

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

 

You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there. Join now and a get free e-guide!

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24 thoughts on “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite”

  1. Hi Michael,

    I downloaded your E-Guide to “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” and enjoyed it very much. I have been dayhiking in Yosemite years ago, but never backpacking. My buddy and I are both fit military guys in our 30s, and I was wondering if you think we could do the loop in 3 days based on what I’ve laid out below. Looks like there are no shuttles this year due to COVID, and we’d only have one vehicle, so a point-to-point hike is out. I’ve hiked Half Dome before, but he’s never been to the park.

    I plan on going for a wilderness permit for Labor Day weekend, which will be tough to get. I’m not sure if you saw, but there are no walk-in permits this year; the remaining 40% are released 15 days before via online lottery.

    I was wondering if you thought it would be doable to hike the Half Dome, Clouds Rest, Sunrise Loop in 3 days? I was going to put Happy Isles/Little Yosemite Valley as my primary route: Day 1: Half Dome and camp at LYV, Day 2: Sunrise, Day 3: Clouds Rest and all the back to Happy Isles.

    My alternates would be starting at Sunrise Lakes trailhead: Day 1: Sunrise, Day 2: down to LYV and Half Dome, camp at LYV, Day 3: Clouds Rest and all the back to Sunrise trailhead.

    or

    Cathedral Lakes trailhead: Day 1: Cathedral to Sunrise camp, Day 2: down to LYV and Half Dome, camp at LYV, Day 3: Clouds Rest and all the way back to Cathedral or Sunrise Trailhead.

    I’d appreciate the insight. Thanks!

    Best,
    Dave

    Reply
    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for buying my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” and following my blog, I appreciate it.

      I did see the permit changes Yosemite implemented for this summer. I’ve helped several readers with a Yosemite custom trip plan this summer, so I’ve been monitoring that situation. Yosemite’s handling of permits during the coronavirus seems pretty good and better than what some other parks have done, in my opinion.

      There is huge demand for permits in this core area of Yosemite, so you’re smart to list those various starting trailhead options. I’m not sure whether Yosemite’s two-week rolling lottery for permits is causing fewer people to apply, or whether the inconvenience of not being able to plan further ahead is eclipsed by the demand of more and more people trying to get into the wilderness during the pandemic.

      Yes, I think very fit people can do the 3-day hike you’re considering, and all of your itinerary options look rigorous but realistic to me (for fit hikers). Starting the hike and getting up and down Half Dome on day one is a big day but realistic, as would be going from Sunrise over Clouds Rest and all the way to Happy Isles in one day, which is mostly downhill. The most demanding day among the options you’ve listed is probably going from Little Yosemite Valley over Clouds Rest and back to Cathedral trailhead in one day–but again, that’s realistic for fit hikers. But it’s a big climb from LYV over Clouds Rest, so do that in the cool temps of early morning.

      In fact, I’d start early every day because the afternoon sun in Yosemite can be wilting and you’re at 9,000 to 10,000 feet on long stretches of that hike. Carry plenty of water over the long, dry sections of trail, like Clouds Rest (which is amazing).

      Good luck getting a permit and thanks for the question. I hope you have a great trip.

      Reply
  2. Michael,
    Great guide. Wondering if this trip could be condensed to 3 day (3 night) trip? Arriving on a Friday afternoon and departing Monday mid day. I’m an active hiker and used to elevation gains, I believe I could average 14 miles per day on Saturday and Sunday..
    This trip would be in early august. Any tips or alternate ideas would be awesome. I would really like to experience half dome, waterfalls, and Taft Point if possible.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Joel,

      Thanks for the question, and yes, you could fit this trip into that timeframe. It would certainly be a burly, rigorous hike, but a reasonable plan for someone accustomed to big days with a lot of elevation gain and loss. These trails are good and navigation won’t be confusing at all. I’ve backpacked 20+-mile days in Yosemite numerous times.

      You’ll find lots more advice on planning that trip, when to go, and alternative itineraries in my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

      Normally, it’s very difficult to get a permit for backpacking in this popular core area of Yosemite without making a reservation months in advance, but the park has implemented a two-week lottery system for this summer in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Click here for more info.

      I could help you plan the best itinerary for pulling off that trip in the timeframe you’re hoping for, and advise you on how to get a permit for that trip, as well as answering all of your questions, see my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can do that for you.

      Good luck. It’s an amazing hike.

      Michael

      Reply
  3. Hi Michael – love your site, thanks for the fantastic content! I unexpectedly got a 3-night permit for Happy Isles – Little Yosemite Valley May 9-12. I want to take my 11 yr old, we’re novice-intermediate backpackers (~5-6 trips), both in good shape. I’m a little worried about acclimating to the elevation after a cross country flight & then likelihood of snow on your LYV-Sunrise-Cloud’s Rest loop. Should we just stay at backpackers’ camp & Little Yosemite Valley & do day hikes? Are there any other campsites that you think would keep us out of the snow? Just pass on the permit & go in fall? (I didn’t buy plane tix yet) I would appreciate any recommendations & alternative itineraries you may have, thanks Michael!

    Reply
    • Hi Ryan, thanks for reading The Big Outside and for your question. Unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you. May 9-12 is very early for trying to backpack into the high country of Yosemite; often, snow covers higher trails and summits into July, and this winter has seen high snowfall. You might not even been able to reach Little Yosemite Valley, and Clouds Rest, Half Dome, and Sunrise are extremely unlikely.

      You could go and see what route options are available at lower elevations when you get there, but if you have flexibility with dates, I suggest you postpone until later in the summer—at least late July, but late August is better for fewer mosquitoes. It may not only be more enjoyable but much safer.

      You’ll find lots more advice on planning that trip, when to go, and alternative itineraries in my e-guide my ““The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

      Good luck and good for you taking your daughter out backpacking. Those are the best times together with kids.

      Reply
  4. Hi Michael,
    I am so excited to have found your blog! This will definitely be a reference for my husband and I, especially as we are planning a trip to Patagonia in the next couple of years.
    We have a last-minute, 4-day break towards the end of September that we want to use for backpacking, but the trailheads mentioned in this article are full (understandably). What other trailheads would you suggest for a fun 3-4 day adventure? I am looking at the White Wolf trail heads as a option.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Kelsey, thanks, I’m glad you found The Big Outside. Yes, permit reservations generally have to be made about six months in advance for Yosemite. In late September, you can probably show up and get a walk-in (first-come) permit for a trailhead along the Tioga Pass Road. Go to my All National Park Trips page (https://thebigoutside.com/all-national-park-trips/) and scroll down to Yosemite; read the Best of Yosemite stories in particular, which describe hikes from Tioga Pass Road.

      Yes, White Wolf could be a good spot to start from. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is spectacular. If you want more detailed trip-planning help from me, read my note at the bottom of this story (scroll up from these comments) and send me an email.

      Reply
  5. Hi I am looking to do the last hike you described from Tenaya Lake to Cathedral lakes trailhead. I am reading conflicting information about when you can reliably hike this section of trail without snow being a huge problem. A little snow is fine as long as trail finding isn’t too hard. Would June 1st be too early to start a hike?

    Reply
    • Hi Jordan, the timing of snow melting out of the Yosemite high country varies greatly from year to year. Tenaya Lake is at over 8,000 feet and Tuolumne Meadows is at about 8,600 feet, while the summit of Clouds Rest is near 10,000 feet. On top of that, accessing that area of Yosemite depends on when the Tioga Pass Road opens, which as you can see from this page can range from May to June: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tiogaopen.htm.

      In an average year, snow covers much of the ground in the Yosemite high country until early to mid-July. But Yosemite and the High Sierra are having a high-snowfall winter this year, so I would expect Tioga Pass Road to open later than usual, possibly not until sometime in June, which means you wouldn’t even be able to drive in there. But that really depends a lot on spring weather, too. And if the current weather patterns continue, the Yosemite high country may not melt out significantly until later in July.

      In short, I wouldn’t expect to be able to backpack without seeing a lot of snow in early June this year, and you may not even be able to drive the Tioga Pass Road by then.

      Good luck with your trip planning.

      Reply
  6. Hello! Thanks so much for the detailed information.

    One quick question, what do you think are the total trip lengths of your two suggested trips above?

    Reply
    • Hi Tabatha, you’re welcome. To get precise measures of the trails I described above, pick up a map of the park from Trails Illustrated or Tom Harrison Maps, Jeffrey Schaffer’s “Yosemite National Park–A Complete Hikers Guide,” and/or check the park’s website.

      Reply
  7. Hi Alex, I’m glad you found my website, too. I think you’ll find it easier to use the Yosemite Valley shuttle buses than to drive and park. There are areas in the valley where the Merced River is calm enough to swim and play in. You can definitely bike around the valley.

    You’ll find ideas on what to do in Yosemite in the articles listed under Yosemite at this page: https://thebigoutside.com/all-national-park-trips/.

    Have a nice trip.

    Reply
  8. So happy I found your website! Great information!

    My family and I are traveling to Yosemite end of June from Boston. We are renting a place in Yosemite West and we’re interested in biking, hiking, swimming, etc. We will be there for only 4 days. Can you recommend a few day trips? We want to get the most out of our visit and I have no idea where to start. Should we utilize the buses? Our kids are 7 & 8.

    Reply
  9. Hi Kimberlee,

    Jeffrey Schaffer’s “Yosemite National Park–A Complete Hikers Guide” has long been the most comprehensive and best guidebook to the park’s trails. It has a map, but the Trails Illustrated maps of the park have better detail. Good luck with your first trip in Yosemite!

    Reply
  10. Planning a trip (probably this one) in September. Are there any guides/maps that you prefer or recommend for a solo first timer?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  11. Hi Rob, Yes, going from Little Yosemite Valley over Clouds Rest to Sunrise is a totally reasonable day of hiking. For very fit hikers traveling light, it might be a short day, but for many backpackers, it would be an average day. Good luck on the JMT.

    Reply
  12. Awesome site man!
    I am planning to do the JMT this year from Happy Isles, lots of the guidebooks focus on Half Dome, but I want to do Clouds Rest – is it possible to camp at Little Yosemite Valley, then do Clouds Rest the next day and end at Sunrise for the night?
    Cheers!

    Reply
    • Hi, I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you what water sources will be reliable at a given time of year unless I’ve been there recently. I suggest you call the park’s backcountry office and ask about conditions.

      Reply
  13. This is so informative! I wish i had come across your page, when i took my first trip to Yosemite.
    But better late than never.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    Reply

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