Backpacking The Backcountry of Yosemite National Park

Wander Green Yosemite Lyell Canyon

8 Days of Backpacking and 7 Days of Hiking in Yosemite National Park

With more than 800 miles of hiking trails, 747,956 acres of wilderness, over 100 lakes, and valleys lined with stunning granite mountain peaks, Yosemite National Park is a hiker’s, climber’s and backpacker’s paradise. The alpine peaks climb as high as 13,120’ and offer stunning views of the glacier-carved valleys that make Yosemite one of the most picturesque places within the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

When I was deciding where to take a high-altitude backpacking trip, Yosemite National Park was an easy pick. It is not only one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the US, but is also quite easy to reach by public transportation.

I planned an 8 day backpacking loop through the high altitude backcountry, then added a few more days of shorter day hikes in the area while staying at the park’s campgrounds. My goal was to see and explore different areas of Yosemite, experiencing the famous views of Yosemite Valley as well as more remote areas away from the crowds of tourists. I started out solo for a few days, then met with 2 other hikers for the backpacking loop, and then hiked another few days alone. In preparation, I trained for 2 months at home with daily workouts, running, Crossfit, weight lifting, and hiking with heavy packs. I wanted to be able to enjoy the trip without being bothered by the weight of my clothing, tent, sleeping pad and bag, camera gear, 4 liters of water, and 8 days worth of food in a bear box. I am so glad I trained the way I did, as the improved fitness level helped me climb with ease in the thin air of higher elevations despite the heavy pack.

The beauty of Yosemite and my experience in the mountains and on the trails was the trip of a lifetime and an incredible gift to myself. Definitely worth every penny and drop of sweat!

Some of my favorite moments of the trip included:

-The gorgeous vistas
-Getting up before sunrise every morning and watching the skies change colors
-Looking at the Milky Way every night and watching for shooting stars
-Listening to the coyotes howl at night
-The fantastic weather with sunshine every day
-The meditative hiking in silence
-The remoteness of some of the trails
-Bathing in the cold lakes and creeks
-The variety of the terrain and flora

Solo Days 1 and 2: NYC to Sierra National Forest

I flew from New York City to Fresno and from there took the bus to Tenaya Lodge near Fish Camp, from where it’s only a short hike to Summerdale Campground.

I stayed there for a couple of nights to settle in and acclimate to the higher altitude. I did some hiking in the area and visited the grand Sequoias, cooked some great meals over the open fire, and was in awe of the Milky Way at night. The campground has some pretty spacious sites that afford some privacy and feature a picnic table and campfire ring with grill. The amenities are limited to water faucets, vault toilets, firewood. But the nearby stream offered a nice refreshing dip.

Wander Green Yosemite Sunset

Solo Day 3: Fish Camp – Yosemite Valley

I hiked towards Fish Camp to catch the bus at the stop Tenaya Lodge. Such a great and convenient way to travel, and you’re able to watch the beautiful scenery become more ever more dramatic right out your window! Suddenly, there it is: The iconic Yosemite Valley! The gorgeous photos simply don’t do it justice. My breath was literally taken aay when I saw the view. I was brimming with excitement and ready to take in the beauty and remote wilderness that I had only seen in National Geographic until now. BUt boy was I naïve—I hadn’t prepared for the crowds!

Granted, I was there in late August, but as I later found out, Yosemite Valley is crowded from June to September. It makes sense that a place of such beauty attracts millions of tourists every year—5 million to be exact. But most of them remain within the confines of the Valley.

Unfortunately, when I planned my trip, the campgrounds in the Valley were already booked, so I treated myself to a tent cabin at Half Dome Village for two nights, which gave me free access to the swimming pool and showers. This place was not a bad deal! I checked in, put my big backpack into my tent cabin and headed off for my first hike along the Valley and up to Columbia Rock.

The trail to Columbia Rock is the lower portion of the Upper Yosemite Falls trail and shares a trailhead. It’s a short but moderate hike to Columbia Rock—steep and full of switchbacks. But the views are wonderful and rewarding. I spent some time up on an outlook, eating my sandwich and enjoying the sun on my skin, the fresh air, and sweeping views of the valley. Solitude, having time off, and being out in nature is the best combination!

The climb down was fast, and after strolling along the valley once more, I enjoyed a fresh made wood oven pizza at the Half Dome village and went to bed early to be ready for the next day’s adventure.

Wander Green Yosemite Glacier Point

Solo Day 4: Glacier Point

This day’s goal was Glacier Point. I awoke just before sunrise, watched the colors fade into day, ate a nutritious breakfast, filled my daypack and water bladder, and headed off. I walked to Happy Isles, took the Mist Trail to John Muir Trail, then the Panorama Trail up to Glacier Point.

From the valley this route is about 8 miles with 3,200 feet of elevation gain. I hiked it in 4 1/2 hours in the sweltering heat, but it was totally worth the sweat!

Glacier Point boasts one of the most famous and gorgeous views of the Yosemite Valley. And how truly gorgeous it was! I wish I would have been there at sunrise or stayed until sunset—the light at dusk with the sweeping backdrop would have been even more amazing.

One has the option to hike up and down or take the a bus from the valley to Glacier Point then hike down – this is what most visitors will do. One could also hike up and take the bus down to the valley, but there might not be a seat left and there are no reservations for the return bus.

After enjoying the views, I made the trip back down to Half Dome Village, took a refreshing dip in the pool, had a good dinner, and met with my hiking buddies to prepare for our backpacking adventure.

Wander Green Lyell Canyon

Backpacking Trip Day 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Lyell Canyon

Distance: 6.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 200 feet

We got up early and took the bus from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. There is a free Hikers Bus that connects both areas.

Tuolumne Meadows is located in the eastern part of Yosemite National Park and is one of the largest sub-alpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada. The Tuolomne river winds through the meadow at 8,600’ high, and it hosts a visitor center (where you can obtain wilderness permits), a campground, a lodge, a restaurant (the Tuolumne Meadows Grill & Cafeteria), a gas station, and an outdoor gear outfitter. Many hiking trails cross through Tuolumne Meadows, as if it is the center of a hiking trail spider web. The vibe here is clearly “Hikers and backpackers only,” which means it’s away from the tourist crowds and there’s a limited number of people in the area. Exactly what I was hoping for!

After a hearty picnic, we took off for 6 days out in the backcountry. We started out at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and hiked along the John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail into Lyell Canyon.

It is a beautiful and easy flat hike into the valley along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The views are lovely as the trail follows the river with gentle granite cascades, passing pleasant meadows surrounded by light forests of pines and firs. We set up camp under the trees, took a dip in the very cold water of the Tuolumne River, and enjoyed a healthy one-pot meal while watching the light change from dusk to night. The air light and silent, the sky dark with a rising moon at the mountain crest, surrounded by the glow of the stars and planets…a beautiful day came to an end.

Wander Green Yosemite Backpacking

Backpacking Trip Day 2 – Lyell Canyon to Vogelsang Lake via Evelyn Lake

Distance: 7.0 miles
Elevation Gain: 2000 feet
Elevation Loss: 300 feet

May the climbing begin! What a wonderful hike up from Lyell Canyon at 8,800 feet to a completely different world at 10,350 feet. At first the trail follows Ireland Creek, then winds through some forested areas and up into a more dry and rocky landscape until it reaches the crest of the Cathedral Range. Sweeping views of the Cathedral Range and the rocky, beigeon-beige, prairie-like climate are uniquely beautiful. The air is pretty thin up there and the hike can be strenuous just for that reason.

Evelyn Lake is a great lunch-and-nap spot under the pines, where a nice breeze provides a lovely break from the strenuous climb and an opportunity to take off those heavy packs.

From there it is a moderate hike to Vogelsang Lake via Fletcher Lake. The trail affords wonderful views into the Rafferty Creek Valley and of the Cathedral Range. There are many great spots surrounding Vogelsang Lake to set up camp, and after another very cold dip in the clear water we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and views of the night sky while filling our tummies with a healthy and hearty meal.

Wander Green Yosemite Lewis Creek

Backpacking Trip Day 3 – Vogelsang Lake to Merced Lake

Distance: 8.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Elevation Loss: 3500 feet

Another gorgeous sunrise, a morning meditation on top of the rocks, a short yoga session, and a nurturing breakfast helped to get a great start for this long hiking day. From Vogelsang Lake we climbed up to Vogelsang Pass at 10,679 feet, where we enjoyed some gorgeous views of the Cathedral Range, the Vogelsang area, the south-west Yosemite Wilderness, Lewis Creek Valley, and Gallison and Bernice Lakes. From there it was all down, down, down until we reached lovely Merced Lake at 7216 feet. What a great leg workout! On the way we passed the beautiful cascades of Florence Creek and sleek granite formations that make great rest stops. Towards the end we crossed a small foot bridge with a beautiful view of a cascade where Lewis Creek flows into the Merced River.

We set up camp a little bit after Merced Lake on a plateau overlooking the dramatic Merced River. A nice ice-cold bath in one of the river’s natural basins helped to wash away the sweat. The sun shone on our cold and wet skin after the dip and we didn’t have a care in the world – life couldn’t get any better! After another great meal and sunset we fell asleep early to rest our legs from the day’s workout.

Wander Green Yosemite NP Merced River

Backpacking Trip Day 4 – Merced River to Sunrise Creek via Echo Valley and John Muir Trail

Distance: 6.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 800 feet
Elevation Loss: 800 feet

Sunrise, stretching, and morning meditation before eating breakfast and packing up ensured a great start. Another day with gorgeous views and hot weather was awaiting us. I really liked this portion of the trip because we walked through the most varied terrain. The trail led first through forested areas, up onto big and smoothly rounded granite peaks and flat rocks, then through a forest with blackened trees and green ferns. This area of the forest had burned down a year ago and made for dramatic and unique scenery. We had great views into Echo Valley and onto Bunnell Point, Morraine Dome, and into Little Yosemite Valley. We set up camp for the night somewhere along the John Muir Trail at Sunrise Creek after a dip in the cold refreshing water. But no matter how often we washed our hands, we never seemed to get rid of the dust and dirt of Yosemite.

Wander Green Yosemite Backpacking Hygiene

Backpacking Trip Day 5 – Sunrise Creek to Half Dome and back to Sunrise Creek

Distance: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1600 feet
Elevation Loss: 1600 feet

I must admit: I am not a fan of crowds. Also I am afraid of heights. I can deal with the heights as the love for the mountains is bigger than the fear for heights. However, if you combine crowds with heights then I can’t take it!

Half Dome is one of the most famous peaks of Yosemite National Park and a bucket list item that makes it a highly visited tourist destination (over 800 visitors per day). The top of Half Dome provides a truly amazing 360-degree view of Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Valley. And because it is such a high-traffic place with a very narrow trail to the peak, there is a special permit needed for the climb.

Since my two hiking buddies absolutely wanted to experience it, I joined them until the Sub-Dome at 8,839 feet, which is the peak just before the real deal. The climb from Sunrise Creek to the Sub-Dome was quite steep and strenuous, and although we left early to be there before the crowds, it was already hot by the time we reached the base of the Dome and the trails were filling up with hikers fast. The last part up to the Sub-Dome was very steep with granite steps on certain parts to aid in the climb, but the path was pretty narrow challenging for people who are afraid of heights.

Once on the Sub-Dome, one is rewarded with amazing views of the stunning valleys and surrounding peaks. Since the view was so incredible, I decided to just stay there and let my buddies deal with the crowds up to Half Dome.

From the Sub-Dome, there is a 400 ft ascent up the sleek granite rock and the steep narrow trail offers two steel cables that are used as handholds for climbers. The problem is: no more than two people can safely pass each other, the trail is crowded, and some people are faster than others. Then someone will try to pass even though it is too narrow…Enough said.

After my friends returned from their Half Dome adventure, we took the steep climb back down and back up following Sunrise Creek along the John Muir Trail into Sunrise Valley.

Wander Green Yosemite Long Meadow

Backpacking Trip Day 6 – Sunrise Creek to Long Meadow via John Muir Trail

Distance: 7.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,500 feet
Elevation Loss: 500 feet

An early start helped us complete this long hiking day. The climb up to the foot of the Sunrise Mountain was quite strenuous, with switchbacks that seemed interminable, but thanks to the tree cover it was not too hot. The trail eventually leads up to Long Meadow at 9,400 feet, a beautiful open meadow with lovely views of the surrounding mountains. This route is a part of the High Sierra Camp loop and also trafficked by mule treks. The air was crisp, which helped us get a restful sleep as we spent another beautiful night under the stars.

Backpacking Trip Day 7 – Long Meadow to Cathedral Lakes

Distance: 3,5 miles
Elevation Gain: 800 feet
Elevation Loss: 200 feet

After morning yoga and stretching, we headed out the trail to Cathedral Pass. It was quite rocky but not too steep, and the views from the pass to the surrounding peaks were simply stunning. From there it was an easy descent to the Upper Cathedral Lake, where we set up camp on top of a rock formation that gave sweeping views of the Lower Cathedral Lake and surrounding domes. It was a short day and we could have easily hiked all the way to Tuolumne Meadows, but we wanted to enjoy another night out in the backcountry. A dip in the cold lake helped to wash some of the dirt off our skin. After the sun sank and the valley turned from a bright magenta into a dusky rose, we enjoyed our last night out in the wild. That night it was pretty cold, and hot cocoa helped us stay warm while watching the stars.

Wander Green Yosemite Cathedral Lake

Backpacking Trip Day 8 – Cathedral Lakes to Tuolumne Meadows

Distance: 3,5 miles
Elevation Loss: 1000 feet

Feeling sad that the trip is coming to an end, we packed up our gear and started our easy descent through the woods back to Tuolumne Meadows. It was a short and easy hike. Once back at our starting point, we shared a final lunch together and said our goodbyes.

I took the short hike to the Campground, checked in, and set up my tent at a spacious campsite. It felt so wonderful to make a fire and warm myself while enjoying the views of the flames.

Wander Green Yosemite NP Cathedral Lake

Solo Day 5-7: Tuolomne Meadows

While staying at Tuolumne Meadows Campground, I enjoyed a few more day hikes in the area. Sadly, there was a forest fire nearby which totally killed the views, and the as the smoke became thicker and I decided to leave the area earlier than planned. So I took the bus to Fresno and from there took the train to Sacramento, where I could enjoy a well deserved hot shower and a deep tissue massage. Since Sacramento is famous for its farm to table restaurants, I was able to pursue my foodie passion and indulged in some amazingly delicious and healthy meals. And back to New York I went from there.

Since my return to NY, I have been dreaming of going back to Yosemite’s backcountry for many more backpacking trips in the wilderness. I hope I can make another trip soon. It is a spectacular place, and a visit to Yosemite is sure to provide lifelong memories.


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