Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows

By Michael Lanza

I am floating in the stratosphere.

The feeling reminds me of childhood dreams of flying, but this is no dream. We are hiking across the slender, granite spine of 9,926-foot Clouds Rest, between sphincter-puckering abysses of deep air in the heart of Yosemite National Park. Below my left elbow, the rock drops off like a very long and insanely steep slide for several hundred feet before reaching forest; and that’s the side that feels less exposed. Below my right elbow, a cliff face sweeps downward a dizzying, stomach-churning 4,000 feet—that’s a thousand feet taller than the face of El Capitan.

Strolling over this airy catwalk toward the top of Clouds Rest (lead photo, above), seeing the world the way that soaring hawks and bald eagles see it, feels about as close to flying as a terrestrial creature can get while keeping at least one foot reassuringly attached to solid earth. From the expressions on the faces of my friends Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, and Jeff Wilhelm, I can see they’re thinking the same thing.

Todd Arndt on the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt on the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite.

Ahead of us, just a few miles away, Half Dome and Yosemite Valley look surreal—like an Ansel Adams photograph blown up to full-Earth scale. Farther off, the Cathedral Range, Clark Range, and the peaks of northern Yosemite point sharpened knives at the sky. It’s one of the best views reached by trail in a park overstuffed with world-famous scenery. And while hundreds of hikers will file up the Mist Trail and Half Dome today, we have Clouds Rest to ourselves.

Clouds Rest marks an auspicious start to an ambitious trek I’ve wanted to do for a long time: a 152-mile grand tour of the most remote reaches of Yosemite, hiking through much of the vast sweep of far-off mountains and canyons sprawling before us.

And we’ll do it all in a week.

We are seven miles into the first morning of the first leg of my plan: a 65-mile backpacking trip south of Tuolumne Meadows, which we intend to knock off in three long days, hitting highlights such as Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Vogelsang Pass and Lake, and remote Red Peak Pass in the Clark Range. We’ll follow that with an 87-mile hike north of Tuolumne in four days.

Backpacking 152 miles in seven days will certainly challenge all of us, but we’ve done this sort of thing before. Todd, Mark, and Jeff share my enthusiasm for hiking distances that most people associate with forced marches or bird migrations.

We’ll travel very light and hike 12-hour days simply because we want to see as much of Yosemite as we can in the limited time we have. And our agenda promises big rewards. We’ll explore the wildest wilderness in the very landscape that inspired John Muir to commit his life to preserving places like Yosemite—that helped popularize the very idea of national parks: In 1864—eight years before the designation of Yellowstone National Park—President Abraham Lincoln signed a law granting Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to the state of California to protect. A generation later, Muir’s dogged activism led to the 1890 designation of Yosemite as our third national park.

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A backpacker on Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton backpacking up Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Having hiked quite a lot with my three companions—including the John Muir Trail, Timberline Trail, dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim and across Zion National Park, and trekking in New Zealand and Patagonia—I’m pretty confident that we’ll make it.

But from Clouds Rest, looking out over much of Yosemite’s 1,169 square miles and contemplating that we plan to hike through most of what we can see over the next week leaves me feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation. It all looks very far away. I know we’re all wondering: Can we pull this off?

Depending on your perspective, you might think our agenda has a dreamlike quality—or sounds like a nightmare.

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Hiking Half Dome

I’ve returned to Yosemite on a mission. After several visits, I’ve seen a fair bit of this flagship park: three previous backpacking trips in the park’s core, summiting Half Dome (a couple times), thru-hiking the John Muir Trail (about 37 miles of which are in Yosemite), dayhiking the Mist Trail and Upper Yosemite Falls, and rock climbing Cathedral Peak and other routes. A lot of people would probably feel satisfied that they had covered Yosemite fairly thoroughly.

But not me. I have an irrepressible fear that I might not hike every worthwhile trail and peak in America (or, I suppose, the world) before I’m old—at which point I’ll live out my tragically sad, last days drowning in regret over the life that might have been. That might sound like a severe case of WOCD (Wilderness Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), but the more I get out, the more I crave the next adventure.

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Setting aside whether that’s totally healthy from an emotional standpoint, more than 20 years after my first visit to Yosemite, I found myself haunted by frustration over having still only scratched the surface of this nearly 750,000-acre crown jewel of the National Park System. How could I have let that happen?

For years I’ve yearned to explore the two biggest swaths of wilderness on the map of Yosemite: the Clark Range and Merced River headwaters south of Tuolumne Meadows; and northern Yosemite, a vast reach of deep canyons and sub-alpine lakes and meadows hemmed in by an arc of 12,000-foot peaks.

Now, with a bold plan, seven days blocked out, and hopefully enough stamina, we just might complete that mission.

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Later that first day, beyond Clouds Rest, we stash our packs in the woods and start up the Half Dome Trail—of course. Scaling Half Dome is a rite of passage for Yosemite hikers, so even though we’re just halfway through a day that will stretch more than 20 miles and not end until dusk, we’re going up. Beneath a clear sky, gusts of wind buffet us as we haul ourselves up the cable route, scaling several hundred vertical feet of severely angled granite.

This marks the third time I’ve hiked the cable route on Half Dome. (See my tips on hiking Half Dome and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”) Biggest surprise this time? How steep it seems to me. Looking up and down the cables, I wonder whether they felt this steep those previous times and I just don’t remember—or age is making me more conscious of the peril of defying gravity. Either way, a little healthy respect for gravity isn’t slowing us down—although the column of people is.

Despite the inevitable traffic jams, though, a block-party atmosphere prevails. Complete strangers exchange “Well, gee, look at us!” expressions. Jeff, Todd, and Mark are grinning like boys sprinting into the surf at the beach. Halfway up, we chat with three sisters, well into middle age and none of them much for hiking, but one decided they needed to share some big adventure together and, by gosh, now they’re going up this thing. On top, we take the requisite photos standing on “The Visor”—a ledge jutting out over a vertical half-mile of thin air above Yosemite Valley. Then we chat with a couple just finishing their two-day rock climb of Half Dome’s famous big wall.

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While you won’t find anything approaching solitude on Half Dome, here’s what I think is wonderful about hiking it (besides the thrill and the views): Even though we’re on a 150-mile odyssey, we’re no less excited for the three sisters on possibly the biggest one-day adventure of their lives. And even though that climber couple just lived for two days on a 2,000-foot cliff, they’re no less pumped for us. Half Dome—like Yosemite itself—is a great, big melting pot under the Sierra sun, where people from all walks and all over the world cross paths in pursuit of their own favorite adventure flavor.

By that evening, we’re many miles from where we started the day, at Tenaya Lake. The sun begins its final descent as we cruise along the trail high above Illilouette Creek, hoping to find a campsite before dark. Mark stops abruptly, points, and calls out, “There’s a bear!” The large black bear sprints away from us in the sparse forest, and then stops some 50 yards off, sits and stares back at us—as if reconsidering who should be running from whom. That’s when we notice the little trickle of water nearby—not much, but the only water we’ve seen on this high plateau for miles; the bear is waiting for us to leave so he can get back to slaking his substantial ursine thirst.

So in the interest of being good neighbors—and avoiding any unnecessary rough stuff—we move on.

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18 thoughts on “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows”

  1. Hi there – Happy New Year! I love your site and all your information! What would you recommend for Yosemite backpacking wise if only have 3-4 days? Planning trip with my sons who are all in there 20’s so there would be 5 of us. Thanks!

  2. Hi Michael,

    I came across this post a few months ago and knew immediately this was the trip I wanted to do in Yosemite – my first time visiting the park. About two weeks ago I completed an 85mi loop (slightly longer then yours as the only permit available was starting/ending in Happy Isles) that was without a doubt, the most awe inspiring, challenging and beautiful backpacking trip I have ever taken. Thank you for this wonderful write up and being the catalyst for a trip of a lifetime.

  3. Hello; just wanted to stop by and say thanks for all the great articles and pictures! I got my permits and will be trying out this route in two weeks. Thank you very much for the inspiration!

  4. Hi JZ, thanks for writing. As to minimum age, I’d say keep in mind that parts of this hike are fairly remote–or a long day’s hike from help. That said, I think it depends on the comfort level of parents and their ability and willingness to carry everything you need for a little kid that far, and their experience anticipating all you have to watch out for with a little kid in the backcountry. If a young kid is hiking most of the time, then it’s about the kid’s limits. If the kid’s still so young that the parents are really doing all the work, then it’s about the parents’ limits.

    Have you seen this story of mine yet?

  5. This looks incredible. Those photos are epic! Looking forward to round two. Thanks for stoking our fire to gear up, get fit, and get outdoors! The more we read your blog, the more places we need to come home to the US and hike. Do you have a recommended minimum age for this one, or does it depend on their willingness to remain in the backpack carrier?

  6. Thanks Will. In a year of average snowpack, the higher-elevation trails (generally above 7,000 to 8,000 feet) will become adequately snow-free for hiking by mid-July, maybe early July. So far, this winter is well above average for snowfall; so while it’s hard to predict how the rest of the winter will go, or how warm spring and early summer will be for melting the snowpack, I would still plan on going after mid-July to avoid a lot of deep snow.

    That said, the mosquitoes in Yosemite in mid-summer are thick. So for many years, I’ve considered late August to mid-September the ideal time to backpack anywhere in the High Sierra, both for few bugs and afternoons not as hot as mid-summer. The waterfalls usually aren’t as robust by then, but they will probably still be flowing pretty well later this summer. Post-Labor Day is a bit less busy, too. Great weather can last through September and well into October, actually, but there’s also a chance an early snowfall could trash your trip. I’d only plan on a fall trip if you can go there on short notice, with a good weather forecast. If you have to travel a distance and plan time off in advance, go in that late August to mid-September timeframe.

    Good luck, you’re planning a fantastic trip.

  7. Love your blog post as well as your write up in Backpacker about your week hiking through Yosemite. I have recently been researching and looking into the 65 mile leg of your hike, south of Tuolumne Meadows. I would like to take a trip out to Yosemite this summer and was wondering what your suggestions would be as far as the best time to go, considering snowfall, etc. I am in good shape and have been backpacking for several years all over the US and some in Australia. I’ve never been to Yosemite, so any other advice you could add would be greatly appreciated!

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