Backpack to Lake Vernon in Yosemite National Park

Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Campground

Enjoy a beautiful backpacking trip to a lesser-visited part of Yosemite.

Getting There:

This hike is in the Hetch Hetchy area of Yosemite National Park. Please note that the gate actually closes here, so you must enter (and leave) the Hetch Hetchy during open hours. More information about road hours can be found here. If you are backpacking, park your car in the backpacker's campground parking lot so your car isn't towed! Note: as of 2017, the backpacker's campground is available the night before and after your wilderness permit dates, and costs $6/person/night.

The Hike:

Note: Wilderness permits are free and required for backpacking in Yosemite National Park, see this page for more information.

Day 1: 11 miles, ~4,100 ft elevation gain

From the backpacker's campground, follow the social trail or the road to O'Shaughnessy Dam, the beginning of the trail. Be on the lookout for a bathroom and water spigot right off the road near some buildings before you reach the dam: this is your last chance to get filtered water before hiking.

Continue walking on the dam, and through the tunnel blasted into the granite. In about 0.5 miles, you'll reach a trail junction. Stay left towards Beehive Meadows/ Lake Vernon. You'll start switchbacking up the side of the valley walls, for about 2 miles, and have beautiful views of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

At the next trail junction, continue straight along the trail, again following signs to Lake Vernon. Soon the trail will open up from the forest, and you'll keep ascending through a rocky meadow (keep an eye out for bears!), and later, a meadow and burn area that has fantastic colors in the fall! At approximately 6.5 miles, you'll reach Beehive Meadows and the junction to Laurel Lake. Detouring to Laurel Lake would add ~2.25 miles to your day. At this junction is a great big log, perfect for resting and having a lunch break!

After you're done snacking, continue ahead for the last ascent of the day, only about 300 feet, before descending to Lake Vernon. After the forested ascent, the descent opens up to a large granite area, and then you've only got about 1.5 miles to Lake Vernon!

There are a few options for camping: follow signs to Lake Vernon, leading to the northwest side of the lake. There are many LNT friendly campsites if you walk about 0.5 miles down this trail. Or, you can continue forward at the final trail junction, towards Tiltill Valley, cross the footbridge and hike along side Lake Vernon and find a LNT friendly campsite on this side. There are definitely more campsites on the northwest side. Remember: camp 200 feet away from the water, on durable surfaces, and do not build your own fire rings!

Day 2: 16 miles, 4,750 ft gained, 7,500 ft loss

You have a few options: you can go back the way you came, or you can complete the loop via Tiltill Valley and Rancheria Falls back to the trailhead. Day 2 is a long day, and if you'd like to shorten it and turn this into a 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip, I'd highly recommend spending your next night near Rancheria Falls.

After packing up, leave the camp the way you came, and follow signs to Tiltill Valley. You'll cross a footbridge over the Lake Vernon outlet, which eventually runs to Wapama Falls! Soon after, you'll begin switchbacking up the mountain, gaining about 1,000 ft (up to 7,500 ft) in 2 miles. Best to start early, so you'll be in the shade the whole time! Once you start to level out, you'll enjoy a nice forest and also a meadow recovering from fire. Once you get views of the western hills, you'll start descending exposed switchbacks to Tiltill valley. This time, you will lose about 2,000 ft in about 3 miles. Your next water filtering opportunity is in Tiltill valley: consult a good topo map for the location of water. You will cross at least one stream as you make your way through the valley. Make sure you filter your water!

After about 0.75 miles of walking through the valley, you'll start climbing up again, but just about 200 feet. Once the forest opens up, and the landscape turns more desert-like, you'll know you're getting closer to Rancheria Falls! After another 1,000 ft descent over 1.5 miles, you'll come to the trail junction at Rancheria Falls. Continue straight to stay on the trail. After a few minutes, you'll pass a nice, wide open area with tree coverage. This is where I would set up camp if doing a 2-nighter. It gives you easy access back to the trail, so you can go above Rancheria falls.

After passing the open area, you will hike a moderate path for 3.5 miles to Wapama Falls. Don't be fooled: it looks flat, but you'll gain and lose about 1,200 ft of elevation. Once you pass Wapama Falls, you're almost done! Just another mile to your first trail junction on day 1, and another mile to the trailhead!

Remember, you can stay the night after your trip at any backpacker's campground in Yosemite, so head down to the valley, up to Tuolumne Meadows, or chill at the Hetch Hetchy campground to relax! 

Pack List

  • Backpacking pack: 45-65 L
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Bear canister
  • Water filter
  • Water bottles/ bladders
  • Food
  • Stove
  • Layers depending on the season: the lake is at 6,500 ft.
  • The Ten Essentials
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RT Distance 25.6 Miles
Elevation Gain 8830 Feet
Activities Camping, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Trail Type Loop
Features
Forest
Lake
River
Scenic
Waterfall
Swimming Hole

Reviews

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Overall rating: 

Great Beginner Trip

This was the first trail I packed at age 12. I have packed it five times since and it never disappoints. The trail is easy to follow, there are several available options if you want to venture off to another lake, and the camping at Vernon is priceless.


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