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.”
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.
Understanding Yosemite’s Wilderness Permit System
In Yosemite, 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. Beginning in 2022, 60 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.
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For 2022, 40 percent of wilderness permits are available on a first-come basis at recreation.gov up to seven days in advance. 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.
Yosemite’s Best Backpacking Trips
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 “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.
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.
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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.”
The Clark Range and Southeast Yosemite
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.”
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.”
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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.
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.”
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: 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.