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Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

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.)


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


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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 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.


Do this trip right. Click here now for my e-guide to “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”


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.



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—Michael Lanza


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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor and primary gear reviewer for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.


  1. Avatar

    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!

    • Avatar

      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.

  2. Avatar

    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

      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.

  3. Avatar

    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

      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.

  4. Avatar

    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

      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.

  5. MichaelALanza

    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.

  6. Avatar

    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.

  7. MichaelALanza

    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!

  8. Avatar

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


  9. michaellanza

    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.

  10. Avatar

    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?

  11. Avatar

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

    • MichaelALanza

      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.

  12. Avatar

    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

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


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