The Valley is Yosemite’s big draw, but readers like Dave Miller know that 33.6 miles of golden meadows, granite walls, and thundering waterfalls in Lyell Canyon offer bigger rewards. The trail starts and ends at busy hotspots, but you’ll drop crowds fast in the middle: “You’re in Yosemite, but you’re not really seeing a lot of people,” says Miller (next page), of Newark, California.
Grab permits (see Trip Planner for details) at the wilderness center and get an early start into Tuolumne Meadows (1). A three-way intersection (2) appears at mile .8; head right toward twin-peaked Vogelsang. After six more mild miles, the hardest, steepest part of the trip jumps from 9,000 feet to 10,600 feet in 3.1 miles (3). Beyond this highpoint, the trail mellows for 1.8 miles to Evelyn Lake (4); camp near the northern bank’s sandy shores. Day two leads to Fletcher Lake (5), tucked under its towering namesake peak. Look for a picturesque cascade on Fletcher Creek (6), 1.5 miles later. Next, the trail deepens to narrow ruts through long meadows (7). Here, the trout-laden Merced River and red elderberry shrubs attract wildlife from deer to bears. Crossing Fletcher Creek (8) usually requires an easy, calf-deep ford (but check conditions in early summer). Exit the meadows (9) toward Merced Lake; glimpses of Half Dome pop up on the horizon. The trail descends 2.9 miles to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. Spend the second night at Merced Lake (10) watching osprey fish. Next morning, head into Echo Valley, an area once devastated by fire where now young ponderosas poke through naked granite. After 2.6 miles, the trail drops back to the Merced River. Watch for Bunnel Cascade (11); the thundering waterfall becomes a 53-foot natural waterslide in late summer. Ease into a final descent on the Mist Trail’s (12) stone steps, with views of Nevada and Vernal Falls. End at the Mist trailhead (13) and get a park shuttle back to Tuolumne.
Trip Planner Get there Take Yosemite’s Tioga Pass Road 39 miles to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. The trail starts behind the building at the John Muir Trail sign.
MapsBuy the BACKPACKER PRO MAP
Permit Required (free, day before trip). Reserve trips 24 weeks in advance starting in January ($5, plus $5 per person). nps.gov/yose
Gear up Tuolumne Meadows General Store, across from the Wilderness Center