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? Having backpacked several times all over Yosemite, my advice for a first-time backpacker who wants to hit highlights like Yosemite Valley, the Mist Trail, and Half Dome is nearly identical to the itinerary I followed on my first trip more than 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 very pretty 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.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. 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 for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park. Click the photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

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 at top of story 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.

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

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.

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.

My downloadable e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” describes that route 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 over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in Yosemite.
Want my help with yours? Click here now.

A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite. Click photo to read about “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

How to Get a Yosemite Wilderness Permit

In Yosemite, wilderness permit reservations are issued based on trailhead quotas, with special rules for backpacking the John Muir Trail. Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the next Saturday. You will be notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes.

The remaining 40 percent of permits are made available at recreation.gov at 7 a.m. Pacific Time up to seven days in advance of a trip start date.

Check out “The 8 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite.”

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

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

The non-refundable permit fee is $10 for each lottery entered or a walk-up permit plus $5 per person if you get a permit. Permits are valid for continuous wilderness travel from the park into adjacent wilderness areas; similarly, wilderness permits issued by other agencies for beginning a trip in an adjacent wilderness area and continuous wilderness travel into Yosemite are honored by Yosemite National Park.

See “How to Get a Yosemite or High Sierra Wilderness Permit” and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”

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 backpacking in Yosemite, including  “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip,” “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about gorgeous multi-day hikes in the park’s most remote areas—trips to consider when you’re ready for a bigger adventure in Yosemite. (Most stories about trips at The Big Outside require a paid subscription to read in full.)

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

You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there.
Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide and member gear discounts!


The 10 Best Hikes in Zion National Park

The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite


Leave a Comment

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

  1. Would you recommend this route in Yosemite for a 10 and 12 year old with VERY little backpacking experience? I tested my boys out last summer on a one-nighter in Red River Gorge but was hoping to find a trail that was more rewarding for them with greater scenery. Thanks

    • Hi Doug,

      I think most 10- and 12-year-old kids would find backpacking this entire route hard and maybe not very enjoyable. You might consider, though, getting just one or two nights at Little Yosemite Valley and maybe dayhiking Half Dome from there (if you can get that permit and everyone’s comfortable with the exposure on the cable route; but that’s a great hike even just to the bottom of the cable route) and/or dayhiking up the Merced River Valley from a camp in Little Yosemite, which is easy and amazing.

      I could offer other ideas for you in Yosemite and elsewhere if you’re interested in my Custom Trip Planning. I’ve helped many parents plan a first backpacking trip with young kids. See my “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trip.”

      Thanks for the question and good luck. Get in touch anytime.

  2. Mike,

    Love the website and your enthusiasm for the great outdoors! I’m wondering if you can offer any insight on a good route to take for wilderness backpacking in Yosemite in late May.

    • Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the nice compliment. In late May, even the lowest elevations in Yosemite will be mostly snow-covered, making hiking and following trails very difficult. Yosemite Valley is accessible year-round, and its trails may be mostly snow-free by then (the Valley is at 4,000 feet), but hiking up into the backcountry gets you to 6,000 feet and higher pretty quickly. Those middle elevations will be snow-covered until maybe mid-June at around 6,000 feet and mid-July above 8,000 feet (varying somewhat year to year).

      It’s best to plan Yosemite backpacking trips for between mid-July and late September. See my e-guides to three backpacking trips in Yosemite and several in other parks. And I can help you plan any trip you read about at The Big Outside. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how.

      Thanks for the comment and keep in touch.

  3. 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.


    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!


    • 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.

  4. 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.


    • 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.


  5. 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!

    • 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.

  6. 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.


    • 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.

  7. 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?

    • 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.

  8. 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?

    • 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

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


  13. 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.

  14. 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?

    • 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.

  15. 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!