Backpack to Nelson Lake

Rate this Adventure Yosemite Elizabeth Lake Trailhead

Added by Emily Noyd

Legendary off-trail backpacking in Yosemite without the crowds. Best kept secret for getting a permit in Tuolumne even during the busy season.

Head to any Yosemite wilderness station for a map, bear canister, and permit for Nelson Lake. The trail itself starts in the Tuolumne Campground at Elizabeth Lake trailhead. Follow the trail 2.2 miles up to Elizabeth Lake and remember the lake itself is in a no-camping zone, so you must continue before setting up camp. 

Continue off trail following Unicorn Creek south to a small pass between Johnson Peak and Cockscomb. Stay low and descend southwest along Echo Creek. After approximately 3 miles, veer east and uphill towards Nelson Lake. Sometimes there's cairns marking the path, but a map and navigation skills are crucial.

Nelson Lake is a beautiful spot to camp, with Rafferty Peak looming to the east. To continue the loop, follow the drainage north and northeast to Reymann Lake. Directly east of Reymann is a small pass between Rafferty Peak and Johnson Peak. Ascend for about a mile, then descend towards Rafferty Creek trail on the eastern side of the pass. Once you hit the well-worn trail, it's approximately 4 miles north to the junction with the JMT and an additional 2 easy miles back to the car.

Pack List

  • Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad
  • Bear canister and food for an epic backcountry meal
  • 10 Essentials and first aid kit
  • Sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, hat)
  • Fishing gear and CA State license 
  • Map and compass
  • Warm clothes for high elevation camping
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More



Backpacking, Camping, Chillin, Fishing, Hiking, Photography, Swimming

Skill Level:




Trail Type:



17 Miles

Elev. Gain:

1000 Feet


Swimming Hole

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Added by Emily Noyd

Wilderness ranger in Yosemite National Park. Raised by Washington mountains and Puget Sound islands. I live for sunrise, backcountry cooking, climbing, roadtrips, and coffee.

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