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Insider’s Guide: Yosemite National Park

With these top day, weekend, and week-long hikes, you'll see more than your fair share of Yosemite's wonders.
Yosemite Half DomeYosemite's Half Dome (Kelly Bastone)

TOP TRAILS

DAYHIKE
Mist Trail

"If you can do just one dayhike in Yosemite, it should be the Mist Trail," recommends Pete Devine, who says this path packs in more spectacular scenery per mile than any other hike in the park. Start before 7 a.m. to get a jump on the 3,000 hikers that depart from the Happy Isles trailhead each summer day. The eight-mile horseshoe gains 2,000 feet and skirts 320-foot Vernal Fall, which douses hikers in spring and early summer, then tops out above 597-foot Nevada Fall. Hang a right on the John Muir Trail, which serves up a prize view of Half Dome and Liberty Cap towering above Nevada Fall’s torrent of water. Continue on to Clark Point and more views of pounding cascades before descending to rejoin the Mist Trail.

WEEKEND
Mt. Lyell Yosemite’s highest summit, 13,114-foot Mt. Lyell, isn’t easily bagged: You’ll need two days and a measure of grit to climb this trail-less heap of rocks that includes class III scrambling. Up top, you’ll savor solitude and views of the Cathedral Range in the west clear to the Nevada desert in the east. From the John Muir trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows (Shuttle Stop #2), follow the John Muir Trail up Lyell Canyon for 9.5 miles; camp near Kuna Creek, where sparsely forested sites offer sweeping views of Lyell’s U-shaped glacial valley. Day two, continue two more miles on the JMT until it halts its southbound course and curves eastward. Here, leave the maintained trail and hike cross-country up Lyell basin, following the creek to the foot of the rapidly shrinking Lyell Glacier. It’s a 45-minute scramble around the right side of the glacier to Lyell’s summit, which looks out over watersheds of three rivers. Retrace your steps to the trailhead.

WEEKLONG
Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley
This 46-mile, five-day route penetrates the heart of Yosemite’s high country, slipping among the jagged towers of the Cathedral Range, skirting Half Dome, and ending in Yosemite Valley. While autos stream into the Valley from the west, you’ll enter this temple from its roadless east end. From Tuolumne Meadows, take the JMT, then the Rafferty Creek Trail, for seven miles; camp near Rafferty’s headwaters. Next morning, hike past Vogelsang Lake to watch the sunrise spotlight Vogelsang Peak, then follow Lewis Creek Trail, sampling its granite-bottomed swimming holes, to a solitary camp at Echo Valley (10.5 total miles). Day three, hike seven miles to Sunrise Camp at Long Meadow and siesta in this grassy oasis surrounded by steely peaks. Continue past Sunrise Lakes and make the breathtaking dash across the top of Clouds Rest, where the open air of Tenaya Canyon swirls beneath you. Camp by Sunrise Creek, near the JMT junction. Wake before dawn on your last day to climb Half Dome before the hordes arrive from Happy Isles, then descend via the Mist Trail for crashing waterfalls and an invigorating shower at hike’s end. Take the shuttle to Yosemite Lodge and catch the Tioga Road bus back to Tuolumne Meadows.

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