Summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.

Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

In Ask Me, Backpacking, National Park Adventures   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   16 Comments

Hi Michael,

Going to Yosemite this year, 4-day trek. The Valley and hopefully Half Dome. Never been. Any suggestions?

Cibolo, TX
[Originally sent as a message to]

Hi Jody,

Yup, here’s what I’d do on a first-time trip to Yosemite if you want to hit the classic highlights like The Valley and Half Dome. This is close to what I did on my first backpacking trip in Yosemite, long time ago, but modified because I know better now.

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 Half Dome’s summit) 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.)


Hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Day two, hike over Clouds Rest, one of the coolest summits in the park, to camp at Sunrise Lakes. Day three, hike south along Echo Creek to the Echo Valley, then west to camp in upper Little Yosemite Valley (below Moraine Dome rather than in the busier camping areas down 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.

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.

Here’s another option to explore basically the same area on a horseshoe-shaped hike from the Tuolumne Meadows area that’s arguably even more scenic. There’s a free, frequent park shuttle bus between the starting and finishing trailheads.


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Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall, from the John Muir Trail in Yosemite.

Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall, from the John Muir Trail in Yosemite.

Start at Tenaya Lake—gorgeous spot—and hike over Clouds Rest the first day to camp at Little Yosemite Valley; it’s a big first day, but amazing. (Camp in Tuolumne the night before to help you start acclimating.) Day two, hike Half Dome really early, then pack up and head to Nevada Fall. Stash packs in the woods, hike with water, snacks, and a jacket down the Mist Trail (it’s steep) to Vernal Fall and back up; or if you have the energy, hike from Nevada Fall down the JMT and back up the Mist Trail past Vernal Fall and below Nevada. Grab packs and head east up Little Yosemite Valley to camp below Moraine Dome. Day three to Echo Valley and Sunrise Lakes to camp. Last day, hike north on the JMT to Tuolumne, passing Cathedral Peak.


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Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

In fact, if you reverse that hike, it probably gets more spectacular every day. You’ll have a harder climb up the south side of Clouds Rest than coming from the other direction, but your pack will also be lighter. And you can finish the hike with a swim in beautiful Tenaya Lake.

Look into the park shuttle buses in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows area.

On those backpacking routes in Yosemite, you won’t go more than a couple hours without passing water except on one day: Hiking from Tenaya Lake over Clouds Rest down almost to Little Yosemite Valley, 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 January and the first half of March for this summer. See this page for more info:


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You may find it helpful to scroll through 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 two long trips in the park’s two most remote areas, adventures to aspire to when you’re ready for a bigger adventure in Yosemite.

Good luck!



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16 Responses to Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

  1. Kelsey Smith   |  July 13, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    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.


    • MichaelALanza   |  July 14, 2017 at 6:49 am

      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 ( 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.

  2. Jordan   |  February 10, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    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?

    • Michael Lanza   |  February 10, 2017 at 5:22 pm

      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:

      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.

  3. TabathaH   |  March 15, 2016 at 11:27 am

    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?

    • MichaelALanza   |  March 16, 2016 at 7:50 am

      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.

  4. MichaelALanza   |  February 26, 2016 at 9:51 am

    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:

    Have a nice trip.

  5. Alex Sheasgreen   |  February 25, 2016 at 10:00 am

    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.

  6. MichaelALanza   |  January 21, 2016 at 7:50 am

    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!

  7. Kimberlee   |  January 20, 2016 at 9:05 pm

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


  8. michaellanza   |  January 1, 2016 at 5:44 am

    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.

  9. Rob   |  January 1, 2016 at 3:43 am

    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?

  10. amitshay   |  July 13, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Can you please add some details about water sources in these trails?
    we want to go on early October.

    • MichaelALanza   |  July 22, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      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.

  11. Reetika   |  February 18, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    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!

    • michaellanza   |  February 18, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      Hi Reetika, I’m glad you found The Big Outside. Get in touch anytime.

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