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Yosemite National Park: Clark Range Traverse

ca

Star Star Star Star Star

Distance: 52.1 miles


On this four-day trip through the Clark Range, push deep into Yosemite's backcountry to discover a wonderland of slickrock waterfalls, pristine alpine lakes and jagged peaks.
  • Toward Red Peak Pass
  • High Sierra Loop Trail
  • Climbing Toward Vernal Fall
  • Nevada Fall
  • Approaching Nevada Fall
  • Liberty Cap
  • Merced River
  • Merced River: Rest Spot
  • Burn Area
  • Mount Starr King
  • Bouldering Spot
  • Clark Fork
  • Red Creek
  • Fall Colors
  • Golden Ferns
  • Approaching Ottoway Lakes
  • Trees Thin Out
  • Lower Ottoway Lake
  • Sunset
  • North Of Red Peak Pass
  • Above Serenity Lake
  • Serenity Lake
  • Returning To Main Trail
  • Merced Peak Fork: Waterfall
  • Washburn Lake
  • North Of Washburn Lake
  • Merced River Slide
  • Granite Slopes

While the crowds jostle for elbowroom at one of Yosemite's scenic but busy frontcountry vantage points, get acquainted with a wilder side of the park on this 4-day backpack through the rugged Clark Range. The lollipop loop climbs from the Valley floor (4,000 feet) to Yosemite's highest trailed pass (Red Peak Pass, 11,180 feet), winding through a myriad of emerald lakes, high-country meadows, tumbling cascades, lodgepole forests and toothy metamorphic crags along the way.

Day One From the southern edge of Stoneman Meadow, follow the Mist Trail along the Merced River to Vernal and Nevada Fall, the latter which is flanked by the polished, bell-shaped Liberty Cap. The climb to the top of the falls, which plunge over bare granite cliffs from Little Yosemite Valley, spans 3.1 steep, tourist-heavy miles before depositing you at the Merced River. The crowds thin out as you climb, at an easier grade, through a burn area, past the unmistakable Mount Starr King, and over the Clark Fork. The trail bends to the southeast while tracing the babbling Illilouette Creek through a mix of shady forest and sun-drenched, grassy meadow. At mile 15.2, trek off-trail to reach the pristine Upper Merced Pass Lake, where you’ll make camp for the night. To shorten the day, nab a spot near the Clark Fork (mile 9.1) or next to the Illilouette  Creek (mile 12).

Day Two Wake up early for the steep, exposed ascent to the craggy Red Peak Pass. Begin by weaving through hardy Jeffrey Pines, clusters of lodgepole pines and monstrous boulder chunks. The trees thin out as you gain a brief respite near the granite-edged Lower Ottoway Lake, nestled under the towering south face of Red Peak (11,699 feet). Gear up for the toughest part of the climb, which carries you over a series of steep switchbacks to the crest of Red Peak Pass. Notch spectacular overhead vistas of Yosemite’s high country before descending to the pool-dotted, pine-clustered slickrock tundra below. As the trail crosses through a shelf perched above Red Devil Lake near mile 21, look for campsites alongside small emerald lakes. The exposed sites don’t provide much shelter, but open up to immaculate, star-studded panoramas at night.

Day Three Break camp and negotiate a quick but steep descent before reaching a trail junction below Edna Lake. The right fork follows the main trail for a smoother, longer route (6.1 miles), while the left fork traces a rough social trail along swimming-hole-pocketed Merced Peak Fork (3.8 miles). At the convergence of the trails, the Triple Peak Fork dramatically pours down a 600-foot slickrock waterslide into the churning Middle Peak Fork below. From the confluence, follow the Merced River past the narrow, cliff-edged Washburn Lake en route to shoreline campsites at Merced Lake.

Day Four From the tight western mouth of Merced Lake, follow the tumbling Merced River down a series of cascades and into the open Echo Valley. Weave back into a tight valley before rounding Bunnell Point (8,193 feet) toward the slick-bottomed Bunnell Cascade. Trek through the narrow Lost Valley before emerging into Little Yosemite Valley under the shadow of Moraine Dome. Pass a trail junction for Half Dome (which you’ll need a day permit to access) before returning to the top of Nevada Fall. For a longer, more gradual descent to the trailhead, use the John Muir Trail. 

PLAN IT
GUIDEBOOK AND MAP
The Complete Guidebook to Yosemite National Park, 6th Edition ($12.95, yosemitegifts.com). Consult the time-tested authority on Yosemite, or plan other trips in the park using BACKPACKER’s Destination’s page (backpacker.com/destinations/category/206). Get around the park using Yosemite’s free shuttle service (nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/valleyshuttle.pdf).

FEES/PERMITS To enter park: $20 per car, $10 per pedestrian/ bicyclist. Pass is valid for seven days. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays from May through October. Reservations for a permit can be obtained no earlier than 24 weeks before the first night of your stay. Permits cost $5 per reservation and $5 per person in the party. Depending on availability, permits can also be obtained at the wilderness center on the day of your trip.

CONTACT
Call the Wilderness Permit Office at (209) 372-0740; nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm

CONDITIONS Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) is closed between October and May. Water is available along the trail at mile 2.8, mile 3.8, mile 5.4 (seasonal), mile 7.9, mile 11.7, mile 13, and mile 14.4.

GPS DATA Download tracks and waypoints, print or order custom topos, from the menu on the left.

-Text: Brian Beer. Map and photographs: Jeff Chow

Trail Reviews & Comments

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Greg
Jul 18, 2013

Just did half this hike over a very extended July 4th, 2013 weekend. Even though the park was packed I only saw 6 people in passing over a 3 day stretch once I got past the day hike areas. Scenery is amazing and there are backcountry waterfalls, streams, and wildflowers aplenty. However, the mileage is off in a few places and with the elevation gains factored in and the amount of food and equipment needed for such an excursion I averaged about 1 mph. It took me 2 days to get to the "Hard Presser" day 1 campsite at Lake Ottoway, which was beautiful. Because I only had 2 more days before I had to leave and 3 days worth of hiking by already suspect beta I made the difficult decision to turn around instead of ascending Red Peak Pass and heading on to Lake Merced. Based off of NG topo map and other guidebooks I would put this down as a 52 mile hike, even taking the suggested social trail scramble (56 miles if you follow the trail). If I had to do over again I would definitely have scheduled 5 days. The only saving grace is that I took advantage of the downhill to backtrack to the Little Yosemite Campground on my third day and then used my 4th day to climb Half Dome, which was definitely worth it, and ensured I made it onto my plane the following day.

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