The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite

By Michael Lanza

After years of exploring all over Yosemite on numerous backpacking trips, I’ve learned two lessons about it: Few places inspire the same powerful sense of adventure. And Yosemite’s backcountry harbors such an abundance of soaring granite peaks, waterfalls, and shimmering alpine lakes—plus, over 700,000 acres of designated wilderness and 750 miles of trails—that you can take many trips in America’s third national park without running out of five-star scenery.

This article describes the five 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 as a past field editor for 10 years with Backpacker magazine and for many years running this blog.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. 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 to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


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

Each trip described below includes a link to a story about it that provides more detail (reading those stories in full requires a paid subscription), and each also has a link to one of my e-guides that provides much more detail on how to plan and prepare for that trip.

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.

See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these classic adventures, variations of them, or any trip you read about at The Big Outside.

Please 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. 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 Backcountry Permit System

Yosemite National Park issues backcountry permits based on trailhead quotas, allowing a specific number of backpackers to start their trip at each trailhead every day (and the number varies between different trailheads). For some of the most-popular trailheads—including Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and most of the trailheads in the Tuolumne Meadows area—quotas are usually filled on the first day that applications can be submitted for a trip, based on the starting date.

The park processes permit reservations up to 24 weeks (168 days) before a hike’s starting date, and accepts them up to 169 days in advance. For example, to start a trip on July 27, submit your application on Feb. 8 or 9. See a listing of dates to submit a permit application, according to your preferred date to begin a trip, at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermitdates.htm.

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Looking northeast from Mule Pass in Yosemite National Park.
Looking northeast from Mule Pass in Yosemite National Park. Click photo for a menu of all Yosemite and other e-guides.

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 walk-in, or 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.”

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 to “The Best First 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!

 

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 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 Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.”

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

A backpacker in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in Yosemite’s Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Click photo to get my help planning 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, 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.”

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A backpacker in Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking in Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park. Click photo for my e-guide to 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, Part 2: 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 Yosemite National Park at The Big Outside.

Tell me what you think.

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8 thoughts on “The 5 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite”

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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

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