By Michael Lanza
After years of exploring all over Yosemite on numerous backpacking trips, I’ve learned two lessons about it: Few places possess Yosemite’s breadth and variety of scenery and inspire the same powerful sense of adventure. And its backcountry harbors such an abundance of soaring granite peaks, jagged skylines, rushing creeks, waterfalls, and shimmering alpine lakes—plus, over 700,000 acres of designated wilderness and 750 miles of trails—that you can take many, many trips in America’s third national park without running out of five-star scenery.
There’s only one Yosemite, and it unquestionably belongs on any list of the best national park backpacking trips.
This article describes the five best backpacking trips in Yosemite, based on my numerous trips exploring every quadrant of the park, from the core between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—including Half Dome—to the John Muir Trail, the Clark Range and southeast corner, and the vast wilderness of northern Yosemite. These trips range in length from three to four days and roughly 30 miles (with shorter options) to more than a week and nearly 90 miles, and from beginner friendly to serious, committing adventures into the park’s farthest reaches, demanding good fitness and skills.
Each trip described below includes a link to a story about it that provides more detail (reading those stories requires a paid subscription; click here to learn more about subscribing), and each also has a link to one of my e-guides describing that trip. Look at a trail map of the park while reading these descriptions, and you will see that the extensive trail system allows for variations on these routes—longer and shorter, and even combining all or parts of these routes.
Yosemite exceeds expectations in many ways, including this truth: Its reputation for crowds just doesn’t square with the reality of backpacking throughout most of the park. Yes, Yosemite Valley sees insane numbers of tourists, and a few of the park’s trails—like the Mist Trail and Half Dome—are among the most popular in the country. But wander into the park’s vast backcountry and you will find vistas that conjure the Valley, along with a surprising degree of solitude.
Backpack in Yosemite and you will also connect with the history of America’s conservation movement and an idea that changed the world. In a real sense, this is where the 84-million-acre National Park System began.
In 1864, eight years before the designation of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to the state of California—making them the first lands protected purely for scenic value. Yosemite became America’s third national park in 1890. Walk for days through the backcountry and you will understand what inspired John Muir and others to persuade the nation’s leaders and the public that America must preserve some places in an untarnished, natural state.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
Understanding Yosemite’s Backcountry Permit System
Yosemite National Park issues free backcountry permits under a somewhat unique system based on trailhead quotas—allowing a specific number of backpackers to start their trip at each trailhead every day. For some of the most-popular trailheads—including Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and most of the trailheads in the Tuolumne Meadows area and along Tioga Road—those quotas are often filled the first day that the park begins accepting permit reservations, which is up to 24 weeks (168 days) before a hike’s starting date. (For example, to start a trip in late July, submit your application in early February.)
But you may also be able to get a permit a day prior to starting a trip. For each trailhead, 60 percent of available permits can be reserved in advance, but the remaining 40 percent are available only on a first-come, first-served basis no earlier than 11 a.m. the day before starting a hike. Learn the tricks for getting a permit in Yosemite and other popular parks in my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
Tell me what you think of the trips described below or suggest your own favorite backpacking trip in Yosemite in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
And definitely don’t plan a backpacking trip in Yosemite without first seeing my e-guides to the best backpacking trips in Yosemite (and other national parks).
Yosemite Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Sunrise
Planning your first backpacking trip in Yosemite and want to hit all the famous highlights—on a route that’s also beginner-friendly? Take this 37.2-mile hike from Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley. It loops through the core of the park, including the Mist Trail past 317-foot Vernal Fall and 594-foot Nevada Fall, the cable route up Half Dome, the spectacular summit of Clouds Rest, a section of the John Muir Trail, and a view of the Cathedral Range from your campsite at Sunrise.
This may be the most popular backpacking trip in Yosemite; it starts from the most popular trailhead, Happy Isles, and includes at least one night at the most popular backcountry campground, Little Yosemite Valley. Expect a lot of competition for this permit and plan alternative routes in case you don’t get it.
Read more about this hike in my blog post “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” and find detailed information on how to pull it off, including variations of this route and insider tips in getting a permit for it, in my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.” See also my tips on hiking Half Dome.
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Tuolumne Meadows to Tenaya Lake
The roughly 30-mile traverse from the Rafferty Creek Trailhead at the eastern end of Tuolumne Meadows to the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at Tenaya Lake features not only those two amazing spots, but the panorama of mountains from Vogelsang Pass, the beautiful canyon of the Merced River, the view of the Cathedral Range from Sunrise, and relatively quiet sections of trail.
This hike passes three of the park’s High Sierra Camps— Vogelsang, Merced Lake, and Sunrise—where you can stay in tent cabins and have all meals prepared for you, or stay in DIY backpacker campgrounds. This route is popular because it’s relatively accessible, scenic, and offers the convenience of using the free shuttle buses that operate between trailheads throughout the Tuolumne area.
This is described as an alternative route in my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite,” which provides a wealth of information on how to prepare for and take a backpacking trip in Yosemite.
See some of Yosemite’s best scenery on any of “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite.”
The Clark Range and Southeast Yosemite
This 65-mile hike south of Tuolumne Meadows is arguably the best trip in the park for backpackers who are ready for a remote wilderness trek but still want to tag some iconic, must-see landmarks like thunderous, 594-foot-tall Nevada Fall and two of Yosemite’s best summits: Half Dome high above Yosemite Valley, and Clouds Rest, with a 360-degree panorama from its nearly 10,000-foot summit that encompasses most of the park.
It shows off granite domes and peaks in places like Tuolumne and Vogelsang and crosses Red Peak Pass in the Clark Range—the highest pass reached by a trail in Yosemite—and the granite basins and tarns, lakes, and creeks at the headwaters of the Merced River.
I wrote about this trip in my feature story “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” which has many photos and a video as well as trip-planning information. You will find much more detail on planning this trip in my e-guide “The Best of Yosemite E-Guide, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows.”
I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River
Think of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River as a wilderness version of Yosemite Valley—without the roads, buildings, cars, and throngs of people—that’s twice as long. The Tuolumne River plunges through innumerable waterfalls and swimming holes between towering walls of granite, and the trail variously follows the river and climbs high above it. With a shuttle between trailheads, you can hike the canyon on a three- to four-day traverse of a bit over 30 miles from Tuolumne Meadows to White Wolf (west of Tenaya Lake) via Glen Aulin; or in the other direction, White Wolf to Tuolumne.
Or hike from Tuolumne Meadows down as far as you like into the canyon, then turn around and retrace your steps back out. That option is not only logistically easier, but it allows you to backpack partway down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, grab one of the many great campsites for two nights, and dayhike farther down the canyon with a light pack on your middle day. If you hike from Tuolumne Meadows all the way to Pate Valley, at the southern end of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, and return the same way, the total out-and-back distance is 39 miles.
I wrote about the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne as part of a longer trip in my feature story “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” which has many photos and a video as well as trip-planning information. Backpacking the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is also included in my e-guide “The Best of Yosemite E-Guide, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.”
Make your next backpacking trip better with my “Top 5 Tips for Better Ultralight Backpacking.”
When you’re ready to explore as deeply into the Yosemite backcountry as a person can wander, this 87-mile trek is the high adventure for you. It follows a meandering route north of Tuolumne Meadows, diving into the park’s biggest, loneliest, and most remote chunk of wilderness.
Its many highlights include the rock gardens of Matterhorn Canyon beneath 12,264-foot Matterhorn Peak; three 10,000-foot passes (including Burro Pass, shown in lead photo at top of story); the sprawling, sandy beach at Benson Lake; the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River; pretty May Lake; and the 10,850-foot summit of Mount Hoffmann, often described as having “the best 360 in Yosemite.” While you are likely to see other backpackers in camps, especially at lakes, northern Yosemite also gifts you with the longest stretches of solitude.
I wrote about this trip in my feature story “Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.” You will find much more detail on planning this trip in my e-guide “The Best of Yosemite E-Guide, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.”
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Find more details about how to get a wilderness permit in Yosemite at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm, and see my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.” And see all of my stories about Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.