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, the Mist Trail, and Half Dome is nearly identical to the itinerary I followed on my first trip 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.
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.”
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 (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’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in Yosemite.
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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. Permit reservations are processed online by lottery 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with a 7:30 a.m. Pacific time deadline. You can apply online up to 169 days in advance and you will get a response within about two business days. For example, to start a trip on July 27, submit your application on Feb. 8 or 9. Permits are issued based on trailhead quotas and the fee is $5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person. The park accepts reservations for 60 percent of permits in advance and the other 40 percent are available no more than one day in advance of starting a trip. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wpres.htm and nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermitdates.htm and see my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Check out my picks for “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in 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.
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