The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite

By Michael Lanza

After more than three decades of exploring all over Yosemite on numerous backpacking trips, I’ve learned two big lessons about it: First of all, few places inspire the same powerful combination of both awe and adventure. And Yosemite’s backcountry harbors such an abundance of soaring granite peaks, waterfalls, lovely rivers and creeks, and shimmering alpine lakes—plus, over 700,000 acres of designated wilderness and 750 miles of trails—that you can explore America’s third national park literally for decades and not run out of five-star scenery.

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 most of the park’s backcountry isn’t crowded. I once interviewed a retired backcountry ranger who’d worked for 37 years in Yosemite, 25 years as wilderness manager, and had hiked every trail in Yosemite “probably about 10 times.” He told me that only about 10 percent of the park’s hundreds of miles of trails—from Happy Isles to Donohue Pass (mostly the John Muir Trail) and the Sierra High Camps loop—accounts for about 80 percent of all trail use. Little Yosemite Valley alone accounts for almost 20 percent. And the average length of backpacking trips is just two nights.

Consequently, he said, “There are areas of the park where you will see very few people.”


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A hiker on Half Dome's cable route in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton scaling Half Dome’s cable route in Yosemite.

Wander into the park’s vast backcountry and you will find some of the very best scenery in Yosemite—along with a surprising degree of solitude.

This article describes the seven best backpacking trips in Yosemite, 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 roughly 30 miles to nearly 90 miles, and from beginner friendly to serious adventures in the park’s wildest corners.

I’ve backpacked all of these trips—and others across Yosemite—over more than three decades of getting to know this park very well, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor with Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

Each trip described below has a link to a story about it that provides more detail (reading those stories in full, including key trip-planning details, requires a paid subscription), and some descriptions have a link to one of my three Yosemite e-guides, which provide much more detail on how to plan and prepare for that trip.

See my expert e-guides to three great backpacking trips in Yosemite—including “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite”—and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these classic adventures, variations of them, another Yosemite trip, or any trip you read about at The Big Outside.

Please tell me what you think of the trips described below, share your questions, or suggest your own favorite backpacking trip in Yosemite in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

 

A view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite National Park.
A view from the John Muir Trail of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

Understanding Yosemite’s Wilderness Permit System

In Yosemite beginning in 2022, wilderness permit reservations are issued based on daily trailhead quotas on the number of people, which vary between trailheads, with special rules for backpacking the John Muir Trail. Sixty percent of trailhead quotas can be reserved through a rolling lottery at recreation.gov that begins on the Sunday up to 24 weeks in advance of the date you want to start hiking and runs for a week, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the following Saturday.

For example, to start a trip between Aug. 7-13, 2022, submit your application anytime between Feb. 20 and Feb. 26.

You can reserve a permit up to seven days in advance of the date you want to begin backpacking. But popular trailheads—including Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and most of the trailheads in the Tuolumne Meadows area—will often fill during the first lottery week that dates become available. There are lower-demand trailheads in the park where you can more likely reserve a permit without applying 24 weeks in advance.

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Looking northeast from Mule Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Looking northeast from Mule Pass in remote northern Yosemite. Click photo to read about this trip.

Forty percent of wilderness permits are available at park wilderness centers on a walk-up/first-come 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.”

Yosemite’s Best Backpacking Trips

A backpacker hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park. Click the photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

Yosemite Valley to Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Sunrise

A hiker on "The Visor" of Half Dome, above Yosemite Valley.
Todd Arndt on “The Visor” of Half Dome, above Yosemite Valley.

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 “Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite,” and find much more 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.

I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog—and I know the tricks for getting a Yosemite wilderness permit. Click here to learn more.

 

Backpackers hiking to Vogelsang Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Backpackers hiking to Vogelsang Pass in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to this trip.

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.

Get full access to my Yosemite stories and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!

 

A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite. Click photo to read about “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

Yosemite Valley’s North Rim to Ten Lakes Basin

The 45-mile near-loop from Tioga Road may best illustrate the opportunities Yosemite offers to enjoy some of the park’s marquis scenery without running into conga lines of backpackers or dayhikers. The route scampers along one rim of Yosemite Valley—including one of the best Valley overlooks—and explores a lakes basin at 9,000 feet before finishing at one of the park’s prettiest lakes.

A friend and I spent our first evening in the backcountry alone atop a dome, soaking in a horizon that spanned from Half Dome to El Capitan and beyond; our second night beside a beautiful creek after a day of seeing few other people; and our third evening overlooking a lake, while hiking for hours at a time each day in solitude. And yet, almost incomprehensively, this area doesn’t see nearly the same demand for a coveted wilderness permit as Yosemite’s most popular trailheads. You could say this hike is hiding in plain sight.

I wrote about this trip in my feature story “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip,” which includes my tips on planning it yourself.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

 

Backpackers hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt and Jeff Wilhelm backpacking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite. Click photo for my e-guide “The Best Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

The Clark Range and Southeast Yosemite

A backpacker at dawn above the Lyell Fork Canyon of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton at dawn above the Lyell Fork Canyon of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park.

This 74-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: 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 Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

See some of Yosemite’s best scenery on “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite.”

 

A backpacker in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River

The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.
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: 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 Prettiest, Uncrowded Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. 
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A backpacker hiking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking Indian Ridge, overlooking Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Valley’s North Rim

The area from Yosemite Valley’s North Rim to Tioga Road attracts little attention from backpackers—who tend to focus on the trails and highlights on the other side of Yosemite Valley, including Half Dome—making it easier to get a wilderness permit reservation for backpacking there. And yet, this area is easily accessible from several trailheads and offers a variety of opportunities for three- to four-day, family- and beginner-friendly, moderate backpacking trips with stunning scenery and a surprising degree of solitude, given the difficulty of reaching most of the North Rim on a dayhike.

Yosemite Creek in Yosemite National Park.
Where we camped by Yosemite Creek in Yosemite National Park.

Backpackers traverse the Valley’s North Rim from North Dome—known for having one of the best views of the Valley and Half Dome—to Upper Yosemite Falls, where you can stand near the brink of a thunderous waterfall that plunges a sheer 1,430 feet. When a friend and I backpacked through here, we camped one night by ourselves on an unnamed granite dome overlooking the Valley and another night—again, with no other backpackers anywhere near us—by an energetic creek.

Numerous itineraries are possible from trailheads west of Tenaya Lake on Tioga Road or in Yosemite Valley—the former much less busy and entailing less elevation gain and loss, the latter logistically easier thanks to free shuttle buses but physically demanding because your first day requires hiking at least 2,500 feet uphill.

Read about and see photos of backpacking through this area in my story “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip.”

A backpacker in Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park. Click photo to read about this trip.

Northern Yosemite

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.

A hiker on the summit of Mount Hoffmann, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt on the summit of Mount Hoffmann.

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: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite.” You will find much more detail on planning this trip in my e-guide “The Prettiest, Uncrowded Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

See all of my stories about backpacking in Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.

Tell me what you think.

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12 thoughts on “The 7 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite”

  1. Michael,

    Not that I want more people to “discover” Yosemite, but it’s important for folks to know “you can’t go wrong” in Yosemite. It is truly awe-inspiring. I love the Northern Yosemite suggestion you make as it is far less traveled. My challenge with “best hikes in Yosemite” is they generally all include the same handful of famous locations/treks.

    Last year—in search of something “new”—I pulled a permit to solo hike the rim around the valley. I entered near Bridalveil Falls hiking to Inspiration Point and along the rim hitting Glacier Point, Panorama Trail to Little Yosemite Valley, over Clouds Rest to Tenaya Lake, Olmstead Point to the Snow Creek Trail, North Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Cap, and down by Cascade Creek. I intended to take Rockslides trail, but the condition of that trail is horrendous.

    All in about 65 miles, 19k feet up and 19k down. Brutal, but worth every step. If you’re looking for something different, but hitting all the highlights—this is it.

    Mike

    Reply
    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for that excellent suggestion, sounds like a beautiful hike. I agree with your points that you can’t go wrong in Yosemite and northern Yosemite is less traveled—partly because it requires time and effort and people have more space to spread out. I love the hike you described, too, all great terrain. I’ve hiked much of that and, coincidentally, I have a permit for later this summer for a four-day hike starting at the Snow Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road and looping down along the North Rim of Yosemite Valley and north of Tioga Road. I’m really excited about that and will, of course, write about it here.

      Keep in touch!

      Reply
  2. Hi Michael!

    My name is Yana! My group and I (3 people) are coming to Yosemite in about two weeks and plan to stay in the wilderness for 5 nights. We’ve received a wilderness permit starting from and coming back to Yosemite Valley. We do have all the needed equipment and food but just need some creative itinerary ideas! We are experienced hikers and been to Yosemite previously, however, this time we will spend much more time in the wilderness than before.

    Would you mind helping us out with the trip itinerary?

    Thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Hi Yana,

      Congrats on your Yosemite permit and upcoming backpacking trip. It’s one of my favorite parks (as it is for many backpackers) and I also have a permit for a trip there later this summer.

      You’re arriving early in the season, when there’s still a lot of snow in the high country, which may affect your plans, although I know the High Sierra has had low snowfall this year.

      I can help you plan that trip itinerary. See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how. It may be best if we communicate via email first about your permit details. You can contact me at michael@thebigoutside.com.

      Thanks for the question.

      Reply
  3. Hi Michael, I’m planning a short solo trip on the North Rim Trail of Yosemite for 2021 (3-4 day getaway from my hometown of Sacramento). Even though the demand for this section of the park is not as high as the other side of the valley and JMT, I’ll still apply for a permit 24 weeks ahead of time. I’m flexible on timing. So, in your opinion, when is the ideal time to take this trip?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks for the question and for your past purchases of a couple of my e-guides.

      Yea, Yosemite Valley’s North Rim is kind of overlooked by backpackers and it’s pretty nice. You’re still smart to apply for the permit 24 weeks in advance to get the itinerary you want.

      My answer to your question would be the same for anywhere in the High Sierra: late summer, between roughly the third week of August and the middle to third week of September (even though there’s a low chance of snow as you get deeper into September). The clouds of mosquitoes of July and early August are usually greatly dissipated or gone, snow has mostly melted out of the high country, and the afternoons aren’t quite a baking hot as mid-summer. It’s not terribly unusual for the nice weather to last into October.

      For Yosemite’s North Rim, you may want to go in August while waterfalls and creeks are still relatively full. Upper Yosemite Falls is a great spectacle and it does often dry up by late summer or fall.

      Have a great hike.

      Reply
  4. Hi Michael,

    Was happy to find you and your site while doing research on a (hopefully) upcoming Yosemite High Sierra Camps Loop early July ?. I read and enjoyed your article in Backpacker “The High Life: High Sierra Camps, CA”.

    Finally pieced together reservations for a full High Sierra camp loop that I am planning on doing with my 3 kids, ages 17-21.

    My question: I am not able to find a descriptions of the loop going clockwise: Tuolumne, Vogelsang, Merced, Sunrise, May Lake, Glen Aulin, then out. All articles including the one in Backpacker are described going in the counterclockwise direction.

    Can you imagine the trip in reverse (clockwise)? Seem like a winner? Any other thoughts on this?

    Up until a couple years ago I was in the (mostly) International adventure travel biz (Trekking, climbing non-tech peaks , etc). Worked with Scott Fischer at Mountain Madness until 1996. I had my own company, Rare Air expeditions, until recently.

    I love your model. I will certainly use you for upcoming trips with my kids (seems like a bargain to work with you).

    Thank you.

    Best,
    Tom

    Reply
    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the kind words, I’m glad you found my blog. I’ve backpacked throughout the area of Yosemite you’re referencing and past all of the High Sierra camps (and stayed in the backpacker camps at a few of those places). It’s beautiful hiking. I’ve also hiked most of the trails to those camps in both directions, and I don’t see any reason to recommend one direction over the other—either direction is fine and probably no harder or easier than the other.

      One consideration might be that if you finish at Glen Aulin, you’d have an easy, almost flat hike of two to three hours out to the road in Tuolumne Meadows. If you finish at May Lake, the side hike up Mount Hoffmann would put an excellent exclamation point on a fine trip, and the hike from May Lake down to the road is easier and probably two hours or less. See also my story “The 10 Best Dayhikes in Yosemite” for details about Hoffmann.

      I believe you were probably referencing my Custom Trip Planning service, and I’d be happy to help you plan a future trip.

      Get in touch anytime, and have a wonderful hike on the Yosemite High Sierra camps loop.

      Reply
  5. Any good spring backpacking recommendations for Yosemite in a low snow year? Thinking of going next month. Definitely don’t want anything super technical, nothing more than crampons/snowshoes and an ice axe. Just 1-2 nights.

    Reply
    • Hi Bill,

      I’ve heard the Sierra snowpack is lower than normal so far this winter, but I have not done any research into actual snow levels in Yosemite, so I don’t want to make absolute suggestions to you without that information. Limited road access to the park will greatly limit your options, maybe just to the Yosemite Valley environs, and I have not looked into winter regulations on backcountry camping there. Snow will certainly cover the ground, and fairly deeply in the higher elevations around Yosemite Valley. My best suggestion is that you contact the backcountry office and talk to a ranger about safe options that are free of avalanche hazard. Good luck.

      Reply
  6. Thanks so much for the article…awesome…I am looking for a loop backpacking options in Yosemite. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • I’m glad you found this story helpful. Read the trip descriptions above closely and you’ll see that four of the five are either loops (beginning and ending at the same trailhead) or are served by the park’s free shuttle bus in the Tuolumne area along Tioga Road, so effectively are like loops in that the transportation logistics are easy. Look at a trail map of the park and you’ll see there are variations off these routes that are true loops.

      If you’d like my help planning your trip, see my Custom Trip Planning page for more on that. Thanks for reading my blog and for your comment.

      Reply