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.
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.
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.
Get my expert e-guides to backpacking the 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows and the 87-mile hike through northern Yosemite (which includes shorter options).
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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Red Peak Pass
Sucking air while climbing through switchbacks on our second day, I look up at Todd and Mark, chugging on ahead of me, wondering how they maintain that pace. That’s the trouble with having strong partners: You can get an inferiority complex. Before long, we reach a narrow notch that looks like it was chopped into the ridge by a hatchet—11,500-foot Red Peak Pass, the highest pass reached by trail in Yosemite. Getting here was worth struggling to breathe.
A stunning landscape spreads out before (and mostly below) us: the busted-up, burgundy face of 11,699-foot Red Peak; the Ottaway Lakes, inviting a swim and looking like a great spot to camp; and awaiting us on the other side of the pass, a constellation of smaller lakes sprinkled across a starkly barren plateau of reddish-orange rocks.
These are the headwaters of the Merced River, which, many miles downstream, thunders over 594-foot Nevada Fall and showers heavy mist onto hikers below 318-foot Vernal Fall, before meandering peacefully through Yosemite Valley. There, thousands of people file nose to butt along popular trails. Here, we see no one. When Mark says, “I’m feeling pretty good, actually,” he gets only agreement from Todd and Jeff.
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Moments like this validate for me our strategy of packing really light—taking only essentials—and hiking long days, the only way we’d see so much terrain in so little time. The bonus in our approach is seeing wild country at times of day, early morning and evening, when most other backpackers are still snoozing in their bags or sitting around camp.
Our ultra-hiking adventures share one common denominator: me as Planner-in-Chief. Truth be told, I have perhaps occasionally pushed us beyond everyone’s comfortable physical limits. (After six days averaging 30 miles a day on the JMT, the final day’s 35 miles, with two 13,000-foot passes, left us all with open, bleeding blisters.) Still, we all look forward to the next one, knowing the payoff far exceeds any pain.
I suppose there’s another instigating factor behind our mega-treks: I get obsessed with hikes I haven’t done, especially a peak or trail that’s been on my list for a while. Case in point: About five years after my wife and I moved to Idaho, I could not stop thinking about the fact that I had yet to climb the state’s high point, 12,662-foot Borah Peak. How could I have let that happen??? But as usual, my summer was completely booked—except for a 24-hour window in July. So I left home at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, alone, drove four hours to camp at the trailhead, got up at first light, made the 5,300-foot, nearly eight-mile hike and descent in five hours, and got home an hour before I had to pick up our son at daycare at 5 p.m. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders—briefly.
We hike into our second evening across a 9,500-foot plateau above the Merced Canyon, through a forest of widely spaced pine trees, glacial-erratic boulders, and deafening quietude. After a steep, 1,000-foot descent at dusk into the canyon of the roaring Lyell Fork of the Merced River, flanked by towering cliffs, we find a granite slab bigger than my back yard sitting midstream. It’s a clear night, so we lay out our pads and bags on the clean rock and watch the tracer fire of shooting stars light up the sky.
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On our third and final morning, I wake at 4:45 a.m. Mark’s already stirring; Todd and Jeff rise soon afterward, as I fire up the stove. By 6 a.m., we’re on the trail, wearing headlamps for only about 15 minutes before we have enough daylight. We all love hiking at this time of day, when dawn light first begins poking its way across the landscape, sparking mountaintops with small blazes of orange light, when we might see a deer or two, or a black bear gorging on berries.
We climb several hundred feet out of Lyell Fork, traversing cliff ledges with views overlooking the Merced Valley and the jagged skyline around Red Peak Pass, then hike through more blissfully quiet pine forest. After a couple of hours, Todd says, “This was the best morning besides going over Clouds Rest.”
On these trips when we’re hiking more than 20 miles a day, there are always extremes of emotion. There are moments near the end of a long day when your body and feet feel beat up and you’re wondering why you’re doing this. But there are also moments of powerfully positive feeling—at an awe-inspiring view, or on one of those peaceful afternoons or early mornings of walking through quiet forest—when I’m reminded of exactly why I like hiking long days in the wilderness.
Around 10 a.m., as we’re starting our last climb, to Vogelsang Pass, I’m reminded again of one significant benefit of hiking in the cool hours of early morning: Some four hours and nearly 10 miles into our day, I’ve yet to really break a sweat. We’ve also just passed by the seventh or eighth deer we’ve seen on this trip; and moments later, we walk past three bucks, each sporting a rack of eight or 10 points.
We reach Vogelsang Pass before 11 a.m. and stop to take in the view down to Vogelsang Lake, nestled in an expansive granite basin. We exchange looks and grins, and 20 minutes later, we’re all diving into the lake. After a hot, dusty, mostly shadeless hike down the Rafferty Creek Trail, we take one more dip in Lyell Canyon—a fitting finish to the glorious first leg of my Yosemite obsession.
But my mission isn’t over yet. Ahead of us awaits the tougher, 87-mile hike through northern Yosemite—a trek that will forever change how I look at this park.
See my story about our 87-mile, second leg of this 152-mile tour of Yosemite, “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” and all of my stories about Yosemite and adventures in California national parks, and my stories about ultra-hiking at The Big Outside.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR experienced, fit backpackers ready to step up their game and explore beyond the most-accessible trails. Trails are well marked and obvious, so navigation isn’t an issue for anyone capable of reading a map. Challenges include long climbs to passes up to 11,500 feet and the fatiguing character of the typically hot High Sierra afternoons. I recommend traveling with as light a pack as possible (see my ultralight backpacking tips). If you’re planning your first multi-day hike in Yosemite and have a good base of experience, this hike is a good choice. Otherwise, see my story “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite” for a five-star route that hits highlights like Clouds Rest and Half Dome but is shorter and less committing.
Make It Happen
Season The higher elevations and passes in Yosemite generally become mostly snow-free by early to mid-July and summer weather usually lasts well into September and sometimes into October—but watch the forecast in fall, because a first-of-the-season snowstorm could dump several inches or more.
The Itinerary We took three days, but many backpackers would prefer to take five to seven days for the 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows.
From the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at the west end of Tenaya Lake, hike over Clouds Rest and continue to the Half Dome Trail, which you’ll do as an out-and-back side trip. Many backpackers will want to spend a night at Little Yosemite Valley, the only designated camping in the area and the most popular backcountry camp in the park; reserve your permit six months in advance (see Permit section below). Continue past Nevada Fall, and then hike up the Illilouette Creek Valley and along Ottoway Creek to Red Peak Pass. At the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced River, head toward Isberg Pass, but turn north before the pass onto the trail following the rim above the Merced River (past Cony Crags).
Turn up the Lewis Creek Valley to Vogelsang Pass, then descend to Vogelsang Lake and follow the Rafferty Creek Trail to the John Muir Trail/PCT to Tuolumne Meadows. Finish at the Rafferty Creek/Lyell Canyon Trailhead.
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Getting There Leave your car where this trip ends, at the Rafferty Creek/Lyell Canyon Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows (down the road past the Wilderness Center). Then take the park shuttle bus to the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at the west end of Tenaya Lake on Tioga Pass Road to start the hike.
For information about public transportation options in and around Yosemite, see nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/publictransportation.htm.
Shuttle Service Tuolumne Meadows has a convenient shuttle bus connecting trailheads that operates from June through mid-September.
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 following Saturday. You will be notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes and will have three days to accept the permit (or lose the reservation).
Forty percent of wilderness permits are available on a first-come basis at recreation.gov up to seven days in advance. 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.
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• A bear canister is required for food storage when backcountry camping in Yosemite or anywhere in the High Sierra. Canisters are available for loan at the park’s Wilderness Centers, including the one in Tuolumne Meadows, where you will pick up your backcountry permit.
• Water is plentiful enough along the route, but there are waterless stretches, including for several miles going over Clouds Rest; between the Merced River at Nevada Fall and the Merced Pass Lakes; and between Triple Peak Fork (Merced River headwaters area) and the Lyell Fork of the Merced. Estimate how long it will take you to hike those sections and carry enough water.
• High Sierra summer afternoons can be very hot, and high elevation and the dearth of shade magnify the effects of the heat. Wear a wide-brim hat, stay well hydrated, start early to hike in the cool morning hours, and don’t overpack. I also prefer wearing lightweight shoes or boots on trips that are hot and often dry. See my ultralight backpacking tips and my “10 Tips For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier” and “7 Tips For Avoiding Blisters.”
• Mosquitoes are thick in summer until mid- to late August.
Good Eats Post- and/or pre-trip, scarf a dinner of the world-famous fish tacos and a breakfast burrito at the Whoa Nellie Deli, in the Mobil station at the junction of CA 120 and US 395 in Lee Vining, 30 minutes from Tuolumne outside Yosemite’s east entrance; whoanelliedeli.com.
Contact Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200, nps.gov/yose.
You want to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.