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 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.)


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Hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

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 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.


Click here now for my e-guide to “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, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.


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.

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.


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Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

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.

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.

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


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


Thanks for asking a good question. Good luck.



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You are so AWESOME. I am sharing this with my friend David, ret. U.S Navy. He is my fellow adventurer.



I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.

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—Michael Lanza


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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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