By Michael Lanza
A bit over a mile into our first day backpacking in Yosemite, as we round a bend in the trail, Half Dome suddenly rears up in front of us, looming over the horizon like an asteroid just seconds before it impacts the planet. “Wow!” bursts from my mouth involuntarily, sounding very inadequate for the majestic scene before us.
Jeff, who’d stumbled upon this apparition a minute ahead of me, chuckles and says, “I thought you’d want me to wait.” One of my most cooperative photo models, Jeff’s hiked enough miles with me—and backtracked a section of trail enough times for my camera—to sense in advance when I’ll require his services.
Our vista from high above Yosemite Valley frames Half Dome and a constellation of distant peaks—that kind of scene I’ve learned that backpackers come upon countless times throughout this park and the High Sierra. Almost every time I’ve enjoyed a view like this one overlooking the Valley, I’ve been surrounded by other hikers—sometimes dozens of them. And yet we’ll encounter just a handful of other people over more than five hours on the trail today—and surprisingly few over the four days of this loop hike, considering its proximity to both the Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.
My friend and regular backpacking compadre Jeff Wilhelm and I have come to Yosemite in late September—luckily, during a respite from the smoke hanging over another grim fire season in California (yet another stark reminder of how little time humanity has to take aggressive action to minimize climate change). Our plan: to hike a four-day, 45-mile loop that 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. And yet, this area doesn’t see nearly the same demand for a coveted wilderness permit as Yosemite’s most popular trailheads, even though it’s just as accessible and only moderately difficult.
You could say this hike is hiding in plain sight.
At midday, we stop for lunch beside Snow Creek, still flowing in late September in one of the West’s hottest and driest years on record. Numerous large, flat granite boulders straddle the stream, inviting us to sit—one of several common characteristics of High Sierra creeks that border on perfection and I wish could be copied and pasted to mountain streams everywhere.
Later, as our first afternoon slides toward evening, we hike uphill with packs that have suddenly gained more than 10 pounds, burdened with the weight of 11 liters of water between us in anticipation of a waterless campsite on Indian Ridge. After dinner, we walk out onto a nearby, unnamed granite dome overlooking Half Dome and the Valley—and watch, transfixed, over the course of about an hour as one of the finest sunsets and dusk skies I’ve witnessed in a while patiently unfurls before us.
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Lovely, low-angle sunlight and the deep silence of a calm morning accompany Jeff and me as we hike down the nearly treeless southern end of Indian Ridge. To our left, the sheer face of Half Dome looms enormous just across the deep chasm of Yosemite Valley. The trail drops steeply into a saddle and then we stride up onto the broad summit of North Dome—stepping into a heart-stopping panorama.
I’ve seen the Valley and its world-famous cliffs from numerous angles and points of view over the years. But with the scarcity of human traffic here, standing on North Dome feels a little like stumbling upon a well-preserved little secret: Other than a few dayhikers, we have it to ourselves on a spectacular morning when I’m sure the usual hundreds of hikers are parading up and down the Mist Trail.
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Dropping from North Dome to Lehamite Creek, we’re relieved to find it flowing, though shallow. From there, we continue hiking through forest along the Valley’s North Rim, reaching Yosemite Point, another stirring overlook from the brink of sheer cliffs 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. We can see there’s no water pouring over Upper Yosemite Falls—which historically dries up by late summer—but when we reach its source, Yosemite Creek, a little while later, we find good news: large, standing pools of clear water.
In fact, we pass standing pools of clear water for the next several miles of hot afternoon hiking upstream along Yosemite Creek. By early evening, we find a great spot to settle in for the night. Jeff sets up his backpacking cot on one flat spot beside the creek and I lay out my air mat and bag on a slab in the middle of the creek, with shallow, gurgling braids flowing very close by on either side of my bed.
Nightfall brings a black sky riddled with stars and the foggy streak of the Milky Way—but only until the nearly full moon rises, illuminating the land so brightly that we would need no headlamp to walk around.
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The Yosemite Backcountry—A Granite Wonderland
For much of our night on Yosemite Creek, a chilly wind races down the narrow little canyon we’re sleeping in, prompting Jeff and me to mummy deeply inside our bags—which actually feels like a relief compared to our unusually warm first night. In the morning, the wind continues blowing fiercely. Bundled up in down jackets, we gobble down breakfast, eager to get out of camp and warm up on the trail.
Continuing up the Yosemite Creek Trail, we traverse a granite wonderland, intermittently walking through airy forest of widely spaced pine trees and some burned areas. The creek still has pools and flows in places as we steadily gain elevation. We even cross one small tributary that has a good flow—and guzzle water there, knowing we will, at some point today, hike miles under a hot sun without seeing water before reaching our next camp on a lake.
A trip like this goes better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents.”
In late morning, we run into a young woman on her first day of a solo backpacking trip and talk for a few minutes. She’s the first person we’ve seen since we left the vicinity of Upper Yosemite Falls yesterday afternoon and we won’t see another human until encountering just a few parties of backpackers later this afternoon.
Over the course of more than three decades and numerous backpacking, climbing, and dayhiking trips in Yosemite, I have observed this park’s multiple personalities. While most visitors confine themselves to Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, and famous hikes like Half Dome and the northernmost section of the John Muir Trail, I’ve had the good fortune to explore much of the park’s backcountry.
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In remote corners like the Clark Range and the canyons south of Tuolumne and east of the Valley, as well as northern Yosemite’s vast wilderness of deep canyons, 10,000-foot passes, and 12,000-foot peaks, I’ve hiked for hours or even entire, gorgeous summer days without encountering another person (outside my own party)—a counterpoint to the usual narrative of crowds in this flagship national park.
One lake in Yosemite ranks among the best backcountry campsites I’ve ever had among countless nights over four decades of wilderness travel; I’ve also lamented not camping at a spot I hiked past in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
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And that canyon—which I’ve compared to Yosemite Valley, if the Valley had no roads and buildings and was twice as long—was one of many highlights that have disabused me of any notion that, after several trips, I’d already seen all there was worth seeing in Yosemite. Not yet halfway through this hike, I’m already sensing that it will only reinforce that impression.
My experience in Yosemite’s backcountry has informed my conviction that this beloved park, with over 700,000 acres of designated wilderness and 750 miles of trails, offers a lifetime of exploration.
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See my expert tips in these stories:
“Bear Essentials: How to Store Food When Backcountry Camping”
“How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking”
“8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking”
“5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking”
“7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry”
“How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be”
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”