Backpack Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley
Yosemite › Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center
Added by Kevin Abernethy
This will take 5-6 days, with well marked trails with incomparable views. You will have isolation from the crowds in Yosemite Valley, but be prepared for grueling hikes with immediate payoff from surrounding scenery and the chance to see several iconic Yosemite landmarks in one trip.
Yosemite is an iconic park, and if you are looking for isolation with spectacular views of the backcountry this trip is for you. The trail itself is approximately 33 miles and can be done in 3-4 days, but I recommend a 6 day hike to enjoy the scenery and to have the opportunity to soak in each location you visit.
June through September, YARTS has a shuttle that will take you from the Yosemite Valley to the start of the trail at Cathedral Lake Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows via Tioga Road. If you are planning on making this trip outside of those months you will need to park your car in the valley and find a ride to Tuolumne Meadows. You can also park your car 1 mile east of the trailhead at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and then find a ride back when you finish back down in the valley. Tioga Road closes in the winter, so always check with the park on road conditions. If the road is open finding a ride shouldn’t be difficult. The road from Yosemite Valley to the Cathedral Lake Trailhead is approximately 50 miles and will take you about an hour and half to get there. I drove my car to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center parking lot and found a ride to my car when I ended up back in Yosemite Valley.
Day 1: Start off Cathedral Lake Trailhead to Lower Cathedral Lake (3.5 mi/5.6 km). You start the trip with a beautiful view of Tuolumne Meadows. You are headed in the opposite direction of the meadows and other than the lush forest there is little to see in the first mile of the trail. The forest will eventually start to open up and you will have great views of the beautiful Sierras. The trail is a part of the historic John Muir Trail and after 3 miles in you will take the half mile route to the Lower Cathedral Lake. The fork is well marked and you can't miss it from the main trailhead. Cathedral Peak is a sight to see and is honestly worth the visit to Yosemite. There is something majestic about the structure of the peak and setting up camp near Cathedral Lake makes it even more spectacular. I recommend getting here in time to set up camp and to be able to relax to watch the sunset over the meadow and lake. To get a bird’s eye view you can spend the afternoon hiking to higher locations on the southwest side of lower Cathedral Lake. There are beautiful sites to set up camp on the southeast side of the lake.
Day 2: Lower Cathedral Lake to Sunrise Lakes (6.3 mi/10.1 km). You'll start with a half mile trek back to the John Muir Trail. As you head south you will quickly have great views of Tresidder Peak west of you, Echo Peaks on your east, and Cathedral peak to your south. The trail is fairly easy to move through, the hardest part is not constantly turning around to look at Cathedral Peak. 4.1 miles in you will reach the Sunrise High Sierra camp, during the summer months you can stop here for water or to use the restroom. They close this camp down in late September/early October. Approximately one mile after the Sunrise High Sierra Camp you will reach a fork in the trail; the John Muir trail continues south, but you will want to head west towards the Sunrise Lakes. The trail soon moves north and about one mile in you will run into the first of the three lake’s. I didn’t see too much information about the Sunrise Lakes and this trail takes you off of the well-trodden John Muir Trail, but the isolation is well worth the detour. If isolation is what you seek there isn’t a bad choice, but I recommend setting up camp at the second lake. There is a great spot about 100 yards directly south of the lake with a fire ring and plenty of space for camp. There is a small island in the center of the water that serves as a great spot for an afternoon nap or merely a spot to soak up the sun. If the weather has turned cold you can lounge on the bank and watch the sunset over the glass like water of the lake. I encourage you to wake up early to watch the sunrise. The area is so serene it seems if you step on a twig you will wake up the entire forest.
Day 3: Sunrise Lakes to Cloud’s Rest (5.8 mi/9.3 km). When you are ready to leave Sunrise Lakes you will head southwest on the trail and quickly pass the third and final lake. You will head south for about 2.2 miles and then continue southwest towards Cloud's Rest. The trail winds through the forest and the elevation gain is slow and steady until the last half mile. The final portion of the trail narrows to about 20 feet in diameter as you reach the summit. Cloud’s Rest sit’s at 9,926 feet so it gives you a great view of the surrounding area, which includes Tenaya Canyon and the iconic Half Dome. As you descend the south side of the mountain there is a great spot to camp about half a mile down from the summit. You are low enough on elevation where you can start a fire in the existing fire ring, and you can go to sleep and wake up with a front row view of Half Dome. This campsite is easily recognizable and is approximately 200 feet west of the main trail.
Day 4: Clouds Rest to Little Yosemite Valley (5.8 mi/9.3 km). I recommend skipping Half Dome this day and setting up at the backpacker’s camp at Little Yosemite Valley. This will give you a chance to rest and wake up early enough the following day to beat the crowds to Half Dome. There are steep switchbacks to follow getting down Cloud's Rest, but once you make that descent it is all a leisurely downhill hike. Once you arrive at Little Yosemite Valley you have the opportunity of using a bear box and the beautiful Merced River is just south of the camp. You lose the isolation aspect at this camp site, but it’s nice to talk with the other campers to hear where they are coming from and what location they are headed to. The camp site has two public fire rings and they are both great meeting spots to talk with other campers in the evening. If you have the time you can make the short one mile trek west of the campsite to Nevada Falls. You will see the falls on the trail back to Yosemite Valley, but it gives you the opportunity to lay around for the afternoon with one of a kind views. When you settle down for camp fill up on water at the Merced River so you can head to Half Dome early in the morning.
Day 5: Little Yosemite Valley To Half Dome and back (7 mi/11.3 km) Have your day pack ready the prior evening so you can start to Half Dome well before first light. Everyone anticipates reaching the Half Dome cables, but the hike up the sub-dome is steep and the stairs are narrow. Once you are at the peak, you understand why Half Dome is so popular. The view is indescribable, and if a picture is worth a 1,000 words that view is worth double. You can see the iconic Diving Board on the southwest side of the peak, as well as the valley floor and El Capitan. I recommend taking your time at the peak, you will have the opportunity to take great pictures, but you never know what may happen. I saw a young man spread his grandparents ashes at the edge of the diving board, a Thunderbird jet flew through the valley, and a man proposed to his girlfriend all during the 3 hours I lounged at the top. Once you get your pictures and soak up the experience you have to descend the cables; I recommend going forward to take in the view on the way down, but it seems most people opt to go backwards down the cables. Don't forget your Half Dome permit! There was a park ranger at the cables on my way down checking to ensure all hikers going up the cables had a permit. There are no spots to refill your water from Little Yosemite Valley to Half Dome so make sure you have plenty of water, I brought 4.5L and it was just enough for me.
Day 6: Little Yosemite Valley to Happy Isles/Yosemite Valley (4.9 mi/7.9 km) You no longer feel isolated on the way to Happy Isles, but after the journey it’s nice to see other people heading to the falls or Half Dome. You will have non-stop views of Nevada and Vernal Falls along with the Merced River, it’s almost like the park is giving you one final show to finish your trip. There are steep descents, but you follow a series of stairs almost the entire way. You can also take a short detour to get right up to Vernal Falls. After you pass the falls you really start running into the crowd that is heading in the opposite direction. The Happy Isle’s shuttle stop is just at the end of the trail and you can take a quick ride to Curry Village for great pizza and some local beer or to the Village Grill for a cheeseburger and fries.
If you have the time you can camp one final night at the backpacker’s camp that is located just north of the North Pines campground. This campground is easily accessible and only costs $6.00 for the night. You can also pay $5.00 to take a warm shower at the Housekeeping Camp that is located just north of the LeConte Memorial Lodge. If you have the extra time you can enjoy a leisurely day in Yosemite Valley, you can see iconic spots such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome all while walking around the valley floor.
- Depending on what time of the year you go, I would get a report on water levels along the trail. I filled up at Sunrise Lakes, but the next chance for water was at the Merced River in Little Yosemite Valley.
- Plan early! You have to obtain a Wilderness Permit through the park and there are only a select number of spots available.
- Don't forget your permit to Half Dome. The park rangers will ask you if you want to add Half Dome to your trip when you pick up your Wilderness Permit.
- You are required to have a bear canister while backpacking through Yosemite. If you don’t have one you can rent one at the Wilderness Permit office for $5.00/week.
- Yosemite Valley has a great shuttle system that will take you almost anywhere in the valley.
- You can check on the status of the shuttle system on the YARTS website.
- Bear canister with appropriate amount of food
- Rain gear
- Sleeping bag
- First-aid supplies
- Water filtration system
- Day bag for hike to Half Dome
- Gloves for Half Dome cables
- Half Dome permit
- Wilderness Permit
- Money to camp at the backpackers campsite ($6.00)
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Very thorough description of this popular route backpacking from Tuolumne to the Valley. This 6-day trip is pretty mellow, it can also be accomplished in fewer days (as the author said). Cathedral Lake trailhead or Sunrise trailhead are both options to do the same route via Cloud's Rest. Note, these trailheads are two of the most popular in Yosemite. Attempting reservations 6 months ahead is highly recommended. First-come, first-serve walk up permits can be obtained at the Tuolumne Wilderness Center the day prior to your trip at 11 am. I highly recommend this route as a 3-day trip for first time visitors to the park!
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