To truly experience the breathtaking grandeur of Yosemite National Park, it's best to take to its unbeatable, uncrowded (and sometimes unforgiving) backcountry trails. Here’s a sample three-day summer adventure (the high country is unadvisable in winter).
Day 1: Tenaya Lake to Clouds Rest
Rise with the sun and, with your bear canisters packed and your wilderness permits in order, begin your adventure in Tuolumne Meadows, at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at the west end of Tenaya Lake. It’s 3.3 miles to Sunrise Lakes. Don’t be fooled by the cruisy first bit of this leg – there’s a 30-minute, thigh-burning chunk of uphill switchbacks as you approach the Sunrise Lakes junction.
Here, descend southwest toward Clouds Rest (another 3.7 miles), Yosemite’s largest granite peak and, arguably, best panoramic viewpoint. Fifteen minutes past a shallow pond is a creek – the last water source en route to the summit, so fill up (and filter or treat it).
Enjoy the more manageable grade until the trees fall away beneath you and you ascend the ridgeline that culminates in Clouds Rest (9926ft). The trail becomes thrillingly narrow as you near the summit, so stay grounded – tough when the 360-degree views around you rival those of any you’ve ever seen!
From the top, admire breathtaking views of Half Dome (which you’ll climb tomorrow) and Yosemite Valley. Catch your breath, snap a few pics and start down the backside of Clouds Rest. Reenter the trees and, about 4 miles later, stop for the night at one of the forested wilderness campsites along Sunrise Creek, near the John Muir Trail (JMT) junction.
Warning: This is bear country. Really. Keep all of your food and toiletries in bear canisters. Your campsite will receive unwelcome visitors!
Day 2: Half Dome
To do a Half Dome day hike from the Valley, people get up at 5am and hike 14 to 16 miles in a day. Lucky for you, the most iconic landmark in Yosemite is right at your doorstep! The trail gets crowded early, so don’t sleep in too much, lest you get trapped by the crowds flooding in from the Valley.
Head west on the JMT and descend a half mile to the Half Dome Trail, then 2 serious miles to the summit. After about 40 minutes through forest and then up switchbacks , then another 30 minutes of still more rocky switchbacks, you reach an exposed 45-degree rock face of granite lined with two steel cables. Consider this your escalator! At the base of the cables are gloves. Don a pair, stifle your fear of heights and get climbing. It’s only 600ft up the cables, and you’re assisted by intermittent wooden crossboards as footholds. Your biggest issue will be crowds either holding you up – there can be long waits at the base – and ‘sharing the road’ as you ascend.
Reaching the summit, you feel superhuman and as if Everest is next. The top is a flat moonscape of sheer granite, 5 acres in size. Lunch while gazing upon Yosemite Valley, Clouds Rest (yesterday’s feat!) and the Cathedral Range. Stay after the crowds dissipate; unlike them, you have only a short walk back home!
Warning: Do not ascend the cables if there’s any chance of a storm. The cables become virtual lightning rods, as do you if you’re atop the exposed summit.
Day 3: Mist Trail to the Valley
Your legs are tired, but the hike back to your car is only about 4 miles. Take the JMT down to Little Yosemite Valley, then 1.1 miles to the Mist Trail. Bear right and shortly you’ll approach 1.6 miles of steep switchbacks and pounding granite steps down 317ft Vernal Fall along the Mist Trail. If it’s springtime, be prepared to get drenched by spray (those steps get slippery!) and rainbows.
From the Vernal Fall footbridge, it’s about a mile to the Happy Isles shuttle stop, Yosemite Village and pizza!
- For this and other backcountry hikes, you need a wilderness permit. Get info on permits, trails and all things backcountry
- Find out more about park camping at www.nps.gov
- Yosemite transport. In summer, the DNC Hikers Bus will take you from the Valley to Tuolumne
- For details on hikes, sights and everything Yosemite, tote your essential Yosemite companion: Lonely Planet's Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks guide.