Backpacking in Yosemite National Park is perhaps the closest thing Americans have to a religious right of passage. If you haven’t been starstruck by the towering granite cliffs of El Capitan, gawked at the cascading power of Yosemite Falls, or toyed with death on the precarious cables of Half Dome — are you really American? It’s a place that has roots in indigenous culture, philosophy, art, poetry, sport, and the tenuous relationship between conservation and progress. If there’s any place that epitomizes the American experience, it’s Yosemite.
This isn’t exactly classified information. In fact, visiting Yosemite Valley in peak season may bring you closer to the obnoxious mouthbreathers you were wholly planning on leaving behind. That’s where backpacking comes in. With the park preserving a whopping 1,100 square miles of pristine wilderness, limiting yourself to the Starbucks and gift shops would be doing it an injustice. In order to make things easy, we’ve compiled a concise rundown on how and where to go backpacking in Yosemite. For everything from transportation to permitting, bear protocol, and the park’s best hikes, look no further.
Glen Aulin Trail
Starting from the Tuolumne trailhead, the six-mile trek along the Glen Aulin trail is one that leads you along some of the most diverse landscapes in the park. There’s expansive exposed granite, mini alpine lakes, thick evergreen forest and dramatic views of adjacent mountain ranges. The farther you go along the trail, the more waterfalls you’ll stumble across. Eventually, you’ll end up at the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, an idyllic spot beneath the White Cascade waterfall. From here you’re within reach of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and the north side of the park for longer excursions.
Because Cloud’s Rest is a 14-mile round trip hike, it tends to weed out most day hikers. If you score a permit, this is a great option for a simple overnight trip with stunning views of Glacier Point and El Capitan. The hike starts out from Tenaya Lake, which many seasoned Yosemite veterans consider the most beautiful lake in the park. The ending is a fun scramble up to the peak where you can relax and try to catch a glimpse of climbers on the face of Half Dome.
Benson Lake Loop
The northern part of Yosemite receives far fewer tourists and boasts some of the most beautiful high alpine landscapes in the entire park. The trek through Benson lake is especially great if you’re a lake lover. With a big stretch of sandy beach, it’s a peaceful backcountry location and a great place to unwind. Along the route, Smedberg Lake is an isolated spot perfect for cliff jumping and skinny dipping. If you start out from the Twin Lakes trailhead, the 45-mile trail takes most hikers about five days, two of which are spent on the historic Pacific Crest Trail.
Hetch Hetchy to Jack Main Canyon
At a lower elevation on the west side of the park, Hetch Hetchy is one of the most underrated places in Yosemite. Prior to the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the early 20th century, this was John Muir’s stomping ground and the place where he used to spend weeks with nothing but a wool blanket and sack of dried rice. Today — although Mr. Muir would beg to differ — the reservoir is something of beauty. Start out at the trailhead and ascend towards Lake Vernon, steer left towards Moraine Ridge and descend into Jack Main Canyon. Jack Main has tons of character. The river winds through hidden campsites, the trail is built with impressive, generations-old rock work, and there usually isn’t a soul around.
Big Oak Flat to Yosemite Falls
This route hugs the ridgeline north of the valley and offers amazing views of Yosemite’s big ticket items. Tiptoe your way towards the edge of El Capitan and congratulate climbers on their ascent, then make your way along gushing rivers and moss-covered forests en route to Yosemite Falls. At 2,400 feet, Yosemite Falls is easily one of the most powerful falls in the world. The Falls trail that descends (or ascends, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious) along the waterfall is breathtaking. Be careful here as the steps get slippery from the misting and splashing.
Tips and Tricks
If you’re coming from out of state, the closest airports are Sacramento (three hours away) and San Francisco (four hours away). Take either the Highway 140 or Highway 120 to enter the park and pay the $30 entrance fee.
Yosemite is the third-most visited national park in the United States, so the NPS has implemented a pretty selective permitting process. No matter where you camp in the park, a permit is required. They’re free, but you need to register your exact route that includes daily itineraries with park rangers. For a thorough rundown of the exact policies, check out the National Park Service’s website.
The best part about backpacking is the mental tranquility that comes with fitting your livelihood into a 60-liter pouch. This may sound counterintuitive, but when you’re car camping, the question of “what should we bring?” often warrants a much larger and more complicated answer. When your only obligations are to walk, eat, and sleep, things stay pretty simple. For a straightforward list of essentials, check out REI’s backpacking checklist.
Mountain Etiquette…and Bears
“Leave No Trace” policy, or LNT, is the national park equivalent of the 10 biblical commandments. When backpacking, these are rules to live and die by. Some are very reasonable — don’t poop in the water. Others may require some conditioning — don’t camp on grass, don’t construct your own fire pit, and don’t take little off-trail shortcuts before switchback turns. If there’s one truism in Yosemite backpacking, it’s that if something smells, it needs to be properly stored in a bear canister. We’re talking toothpaste, chapstick, ramen packets, sunscreen, and the melting block of cheese that probably should have been left at home. Speaking of bears, no matter their color, all bears in Yosemite are Black Bears. Which is to say, if one sneaks up on your camp, your go-to protocol is to scream, throw things, and essentially act like a crazy person. Good luck out there!
Fire Update — August 2018
In July 2018, the Ferguson Fire blazing in central California forced the evacuation of Yosemite Valley. For nearly three weeks the park has been eerily empty in a time of year that usually sees thousands of national and international visitors. However, as the fire inches towards full containment, the park is set to reopen this coming Tuesday, August 14th. If you plan on visiting the park, be aware that the air quality is still less than optimal — many iconic views are shrouded in ash and anyone with respiratory problems should reconsider travel.
Going forward, the Ferguson Fire is teaching us that we may need to become more comfortable with controlled fires, or “prescribed burns.” Although it seems contradictory, national parks and other public lands are often more vulnerable because they’re overprotected and filled with susceptible woodlands. Because many ecosystems actually rely on semi-consistent fires, facilitating prescribed burns may be our answer to defending our national parks.