Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite

By Michael Lanza

Under a sky lacking even one tiny cotton ball, and so blue you want to pour it into a cup and drink it, Todd and I walk across Tuolumne Meadows, carrying full but light backpacks and hearts full of anticipation. Across the creek-cut meadows, Cathedral Peak knifes into the stratosphere, and domes of polished granite bubble up above the treetops. The temperature hovers around 60° F, the air is as calm as a monk.

When you’re hiking on a September morning at 8,600 feet in the high country of Yosemite National Park, life floats intoxicatingly close to perfection.

And why wouldn’t it seem perfect? My friend Todd Arndt and I have embarked on an ambitious plan to backpack nearly 87 miles in four days through the biggest, loneliest, and most remote chunk of wilderness on the Yosemite map: a circuit north of Tuolumne Meadows through a vast realm of deep canyons, passes at over 10,000 feet, and peaks rising to over 12,000 feet.

Todd Arndt hiking up Matterhorn Canyon in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt hiking up Matterhorn Canyon in Yosemite National Park.

Although I’ve been to this park several times, every visit makes me want to pinch myself. After all, this is Yosemite, the Sistine Chapel of national parks. Just uttering the name, you expect to hear heavenly trumpets and a chorus of angels singing. Half a lifetime ago, when I was a young, clueless, novice backpacker who had only barely begun exploring the rocky hills of New England, I decided to take my first big Western backpacking trip. But I didn’t want to start in the minor leagues and work my way up. Like thousands of backpackers every year, I wanted to go right to the best. So I chose Yosemite.

Now, a few decades later, I’m finally about to discover Yosemite’s farthest corners, her best-kept secrets. It’s like I’ve been hiding the map to a buried treasure for all these years and, at long last, I’m going to follow it to dig up my fortune.

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Todd and I cruise the easy six miles from Tuolumne to Glen Aulin—the Gaelic term for “beautiful valley”—in two hours, knocking off nearly one-third of our first day’s mileage quickly. We take a short break beside cascades with a view down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River—which we’ll hike back up in just two days—and hit the trail again.

It feels joyous just to be out on a big hike in this park.

A Mild But Healthy Obsession

Todd and I have returned to Yosemite a year after hiking a three-day, 65-mile loop south of Tuolumne Meadows last September because we have some unfinished business. We had originally planned to complete a 152-mile grand tour of Yosemite’s most remote backcountry in seven consecutive days last year, but smoke from wildfires sent us home early (although the smoke hadn’t affected our three-day hike).

As I wrote in my story about the 65-mile, first leg of this Yosemithon, 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, which we backpacked last year; and even vaster northern Yosemite, which stretches out before us now.

I should back up. For years, I’ve kept a list of ideas for trips I want to take, with brief notes about each. It’s inspirational and a resource I review whenever I’m thinking about where to go next. (Keeping such a list is tip no. 1 in my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”) And my list keeps getting longer, not shorter: It’s now well over 17,000 words.

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Looking northeast from Mule Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Looking northeast from Mule Pass in remote northern Yosemite. Click photo for my e-guide to this trip.

But I confess: I get a little overwrought thinking about a hike or climb that’s been on my trip ideas list for a while. I’ll reach a point where I can’t stop thinking about it—and the more I think about it, the more I feel an overwhelming need to get it done, and that gets me thinking about it more, which inflames my irrepressible desire to get it done. It’s a vicious cycle and often leads to me concocting a plan that involves hiking distances that only a very small group of my most, um, unique friends would view as a good idea.

My WOCD (Wilderness Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) has led to some extreme perambulations, several of which Todd has been a party to, including hiking 44+ miles across the Grand Canyon and back in a day, dayhiking 50 miles across Zion, and thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in seven days, averaging 31 miles a day. (Todd’s feet—which got so badly blistered that he had to go on antibiotics afterward—have still not forgiven me for that last one.)

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However borderline psychotic these adventures, we’ve always undertaken them with a high degree of preparedness—and yet, not without a niggling feeling of realistic uncertainty.

Our plan to walk through most of northern Yosemite in just four days feels no different. Although we managed 65 rugged miles in three days pretty well a year ago, this time we’re adding a fourth consecutive 20+-mile day to a tough itinerary that features lots of vertical relief—including today, when we’ll cross four passes, three of them over 10,000 feet. Todd tells me this will be the longest hike he’s ever done except for our JMT thru-hike.

I think my feet began a low-grade throbbing even before we started out today, as a warm-up for the next four evenings.

Matterhorn Canyon to Benson Lake

Following a clear night camped in Matterhorn Canyon, a short walk from a creek that lulled us to sleep, Todd and I hit the trail at 7 a.m. on our second morning. It’s chilly but calm. We prefer hiking while it’s cool, and we have a long day ahead of us. Besides, we both feel good after a 20-mile day yesterday. Todd recalls of our past ultra-hikes: “I remember it’s not cumulative—your legs don’t feel worse every day.”

Within a half-hour, Matterhorn Canyon opens up. Small, scattered copses of conifer trees throw spots of green on a landscape dominated by granite—stones and boulders littering the canyon bottom, rock walls stretching to the sky on both sides of us. Thanks to our early start, we’re hiking in the cool shade of those cliffs in this broad canyon. When the sun finally crests the walls, it’s warm, but not the searing heat of July or August in the High Sierra. Walking at a brisk pace with our light packs, I’m not even breaking a sweat. This is exactly how I like to backpack. (See my top five tips on my backpacking strategy.)

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At 10,650-foot Burro Pass, we drop our packs for a snack and to soak up the view of upper Matterhorn Canyon’s meadows and rock gardens embraced by an arc of cliffs, pinnacles, and 12,264-foot Matterhorn Peak. Beyond Burro, we cross a cirque below the serrated Sawtooth Ridge, followed by arduous climbs over two more 10,000-foot passes, Mule and Rock Island.

By early evening on our second day, we cross our fourth pass of the day—Seavey, at just over 9,000 feet—and stroll past quiet tarns where a few parties of backpackers have already pitched their tents in the forest. It strikes me that they are the first people Todd and I have seen all day—not an observation one expects to make in Yosemite. That’s because we tend to think of “that Yosemite”—the overcrowded park—but Todd and I are exploring “this Yosemite,” its most remote backcountry. A gargantuan moon rises over 10,000-foot peaks bathing in the last, red rays of daylight as we make the steep, quad-melting, 1,500-foot descent to Benson Lake.

At Benson, we walk up to the most unlikely sight deep in the mountains: a sprawling, sandy beach that looks like it got lost on its way to Southern California. After hiking more than 22 miles today, the cool sand and cold water feel so good on our bare feet that I swear I heard my toes sigh.

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6 thoughts on “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite”

  1. Planning to do a similar trip later this year. What do you think the conditions would be like mid-June? Is there likely to be snow on some of the higher passes?

    • Hi Shannon,

      Short answer: yes. Those passes top 10,000 feet and there’s likely to be snow above 8,000 feet, on much of the terrain north of Tuolumne Meadows and in Tuolumne. Mid-June is still “late winter” in Yosemite (and the entire High Sierra above around 8,000 feet). While summer ’21 saw snow melt out so early that backpackers could easily hike in June (although mostly at middle elevations, there was probably still snow at 10,000 feet), that’s rare.

      The peak backpacking season in Yosemite’s high country begins when most of the snow has melted off higher-elevation trails—usually by mid-July (earlier at lower elevations)—and usually extends through September and not infrequently into October. Although an early-season snowstorm can hit in September or October, those are relatively rare.

      I suggest you look at later dates, unless you’re prepared to hike in a lot of snow. Good luck.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I cannot tell you how much relief I feel right now after reading about the Yosimete trips in this article. At least now I finally have a name for my incurable disease…WOCD (Wilderness Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.) Now I have a way to explain my “condition” to my wife and family members that just can’t seem to understand why I am the way I am. I’ll never again have to hear my wife ask me “why do you have to plan constantly and why do you have all these lists of trip ideas? Why can’t you just go with the flow and get to whatever trip you get to?”😳🙉

    Thanks buddy for giving me a way to respond ha!

    Happy birthday!


    • Hey Slade,

      Thanks for a good chuckle. I’m happy to offer these counseling services. Consider it a benefit of your Annual subscription to The Big Outside.

      Of course, the best therapy is just getting out there!

      Take care.

  3. Hi Michael, I’ve been a big fan of The Big Outside for a couple years now but have never commented before, I don’t think!

    This post brought back so many good Yosemite memories for me. Only visited the Park for the first time in July and already can’t wait to come back. You are so lucky to be so close to it! I estimate that I am probably about at least 20 hours from it, from Sydney!

    What you wrote about the vicious cycle and the irrepressible desire for adventures really resonates with me. I definitely obsess over my own outdoors dreams until it gets too much and I just have to drop everything and book it in.

    I loved the Yosemite wilderness. The Valley is beautiful but the crowds definitely turn me off a little. I did Clouds Rest in July and Mount Hoffman was second on the list – will have to do it next time. There was also a moment on our hike where we ran out of water and I had the same “WHY?!” thoughts running through my head!

    Love reading your stuff and thought you should know 🙂

    • Hi Thuc, Thanks very much for the kind words (and I hope you subscribe; see box above, at the bottom of the story). And good on you for making the effort to travel to Yosemite. You will be able to return there many times and that park will continue to amaze and inspire you, as it does me. Keep in touch.