Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.

Backpacking 150 Miles Through Wildest Yosemite

In Backpacking, National Park Adventures   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,   |   2 Comments

By Michael Lanza

In early evening on a bluebird September day, deep in the wilderness of northern Yosemite National Park, my friend Todd Arndt and I—with legs feeling a little weary—reached our fourth pass of that day. We had hit the home stretch of the 23-mile, second day of a four-day, 86-mile hike; only a steep, quad-melting, 1,500-foot descent stood between us and soothing our very tired feet in the cool sand and cold water at Benson Lake (possibly the most unbelievable mountain lake I’ve ever seen).

Just beyond the pass, we strolled past quiet tarns where a few parties of backpackers were camped. And it struck me that they were the first people Todd and I had seen all day. That’s not an observation one expects to make in Yosemite. But we were exploring the “other Yosemite”—not the overcrowded park, but its most remote backcountry, on one of the most scenic multi-day hikes I’ve ever taken.

There’s a back story here. After several visits to Yosemite, backpacking, dayhiking, and climbing, I had become kind of obsessed with the fact that I had still not explored the park’s two most expansive swaths of wilderness: the Clark Range and Merced River headwaters south of Tuolumne Meadows, and even vaster northern Yosemite.

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So I set out to finally fill in that glaring omission in my backpacking résumé, concocting an ambitious plan to make a 151-mile grand tour of Yosemite’s most remote backcountry in one week, divided into two legs, resupplying between them.

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite.

First came a three-day, 65-mile loop south of Tuolumne Meadows, including two of Yosemite’s most spectacular summits, Clouds Rest and Half Dome, plus walking through the Clark Range and tagging the highest pass reached by trail in the park, 11,500-foot Red Peak Pass.

That would be immediately followed by a four-day, 86-mile walk through the biggest and most remote chunk of wilderness on the Yosemite map: a circuit north of Tuolumne Meadows through a vast realm of deep canyons like the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River—which is sort of like Yosemite Valley, but twice as long, with most of the people and all of the buildings and cars removed. We crossed passes at over 10,000 feet below peaks rising to over 12,000 feet, and stood atop a peak often described as having the best summit view in Yosemite.

Smoke from wildfires sent three friends and I home after completing the 65-mile hike. So Todd and I returned to Yosemite a year later and knocked off the 86-miler.


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Scroll through the photo gallery below and you’ll see why that 151-mile grand tour of Yosemite’s most remote areas ranks among “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips.”

And bear in mind that it’s not too early to apply for a backcountry permit reservation for Yosemite this year: The park accepts permit applications six months in advance of the date you want to start backpacking. That’s January for trips starting in July. (See the links below for more about permits.)


Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today, a Trip Advisor site, and others. Get email updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, in the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.


See my stories “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” about the 65-mile first leg of that grand tour of Yosemite, and “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about the 86-mile second leg. Both stories have many photos, videos, and detailed info for planning each hike—in however many days you’d like to take (most backpackers would probably take six to eight days on them).

See all of my stories about adventures in California national parks and about Yosemite National Park, including “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite,” “The Magic of Hiking to Yosemite’s Waterfalls,” and “Thru-Hiking the John Muir Trail in Seven Days: Amazing Experience, or Certifiably Insane?

See also the following stories at The Big Outside:

Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites
The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest
My 25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever
10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit
The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun


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2 Responses to Backpacking 150 Miles Through Wildest Yosemite

  1. Craig Reynolds   |  January 16, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Great articles! On the Yosemite trips, if you could only choose one of the options, would you recommend the north or the south?


    • Michael Lanza   |  January 16, 2017 at 9:22 am

      Thanks, Craig. Honestly, both trips certainly have lots to recommend them. I suggest you decide based on how long and difficult a trip you want to take; the North Yosemite hike is longer and, I think, more difficult. If choosing between them based on character and specific highlights, the hike south of Tuolumne does hit Clouds Rest and Half Dome, which are spectacular and also, in the case of Half Dome, much busier; while North Yosemite is more remote.

      I’d also suggest that, given the challenge of just getting a backcountry permit in Yosemite, if you’re interested in both, submit a permit reservation application that lists both as separate alternatives, in hopes of getting one of them.

      See my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit:”

      Good luck.

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