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Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

Yosemite National Park

Climb classic Sierra passes, ogle granite monoliths, and camp above treeline in John Muir's second home.

by: Tim Shisler

The Trip
Following Ansel Adams's path to inspiration
Catch Yosemite's classic granite vistas and greatest secrets on this 60-mile loop.

To find the best hike in Yosemite, you could bribe a backcountry ranger with a keg of Sierra Nevada. But he'd only tell you what we already know–that the ultimate trek here starts in the high country, ends in the Valley, and includes a highlight tour of alpine creeks, jagged passes, glass-clear lakes, seldom-seen views, and quiet campsites. So save your beer money for a post-hike pint at the Awahanee Hotel and follow this plan.

Start by leaving your car at the Valley floor and hopping on the hikers' shuttle to Tuolumne Meadows and the Rafferty Creek-Vogelsang trailhead. Your first nine miles gain roughly 2,000 feet, passing expansive views of the Cathedral Range en route to Vogelsang High Camp: It's the highest designated backcountry campsite in the park, but it's usually packed with one-nighters and families. Skip it–and crest 10,125-foot Vogelsang Pass instead, dropping down a steep 1,000 feet over two miles into granite-lined Lewis Creek drainage. There are no designated campsites here (and very few people), so pick any spot among the enormous boulders.

Rise at dawn to catch the day's first rays hitting the sheer walls on both sides of the creek, then pack up and follow the drainage roughly 2.5 miles to a well-marked three-way junction. Turn onto the so-called High Elevation Trail (most trails in Yosemite are only unofficially named) and begin a series of relatively steep switchbacks toward Lyell Fork. When you hit the creek, turn left and head about a mile up an old fisherman's trail to camp at one of Ansel Adams's favorite spots: Ringed by Mount Lyell, Rodger Peak, and Electra Peak, it's where Adams told Georgia O'Keefe he would someday have a mountain named after him. He did; you can see the pyramid-shaped, 11,760-foot peak to the east.

Think Yosemite is all gleaming granite? Not so. Day three's 14.7-mile hike threads through rock that looks more Zion than Sierra. After heading back down to the High Elevation Trail, continue south toward Isberg Peak. At the Isberg junction, veer southwest to Red Peak and the deep red rock of the Clark Range. Head up to 11,699 feet over Red Peak Pass and camp at Lower Ottoway Lake. Eat dinner out on the peninsula, where the sun dyes the water a deep orange-red.

Day four is a pleasant change of pace: a consistent, 10-mile descent past Lower Merced Pass Lake toward Glacier Point, where the land is in various states of regrowth–saplings mixed with toasted lodgepole piles–after repeated years of wildfire. At your campsite along Illilouette Creek, you'll start seeing more people; snag a quiet site above the Mono Meadow trail junction. Your finale? Wake up early and hike five miles to Glacier Point for unobstructed views of Yosemite Valley. Here's where you can catch the classics all at once: El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Nevada Falls. Continue your descent on the steep but little-used Four-Mile Trail, then walk up along the Valley floor back to Curry Village and your car.

>> Plan B: Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne Hike the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (and avoid the throngs leaving from the meadows) backward by starting this 31-mile, four-day hike from White Wolf Campground rather than Tuolumne. Spend your first night high above Hetch Hetchy Reservoir at Harden Lake, and then head northeast, paralleling the Tuolumne River as it rumbles over mammoth boulders. Sleep along the river's edge each night, spending your last one next to either Le Conte Falls or California Falls. Hike out past Tuolumne Falls to Tuolumne Meadows on the final day, where a shuttle ($14.50/person) will return you to your car.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Zapato Brie
Jul 07, 2014

Just did a longer variation of this 2 weeks ago, starting and ending at Tuolumne Meadows for a 93 mile loop. Tough hike, but definetely worth the effort! Got things broken down by day with lots of pics, elevation profiles and panorama views here:

Oct 25, 2011

Debbie Hoffman
Mar 21, 2011

Hi Tim:
Could you elaborate on the part of the trip where the Ansel Adams campsite is located? Approximately how far from the junction of the High Elevation Trail is the creek and the fisherman's trail? Looking at a map I'm seeing 4 creek-crossings before arriving at the Lyell Fork. I'd love to find the campsite! Thanks!

Scott Sanders
Sep 05, 2008


You ARE TOTALLY RIGHT. Thanks so much for your info. Just got back from Yosemite. AWESOME!!!!

You saw my pic's but here's the website for anyone else who's interested.

Click the Yosemite link.


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