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National Parks: Yosemite

Enjoy this legendary park (without the legendary crowds) on a four-day trip through the Clark Range.

Yosemite Valley occupies less than one percent of the park’s 761,268 acres, yet it attracts an estimated 95 percent of its 3.9 million annual visitors. And why not? The granite landmarks and waterfall-striped cliffs are so iconic that they literally inspired the creation of our national park system. But how can you see these classics and ditch the hordes on one efficient trip? I found the answer on this route in Yosemite’s secret south: a 46-mile loop that links the Merced River’s famous falls with the secluded Clark Range and high-alpine lakes and meadows rarely seen by Valley visitors.

Day one With 2,800 feet of gain in the first five miles and 2,300 more in the final 10, this 15-mile day provides an adequate barrier of entry. Hit Happy Isles trailhead by 8 a.m., and you’ll nab the Valley views before the daytrippers arrive. Pause at Illilouette Falls Vista, one mile in, for a panorama of Yosemite, Illilouette, Vernal, and Nevada Falls. Then thigh-burn to the top of Vernal (tip: in hot weather, take the Mist Trail for some natural A/C). After clearing the lip of the falls, head uphill, away from the raging Merced River, on the Mono Meadow Trail through a burn zone where matchstick timbers frame the sky. At mile six, pass beneath the double-humped dome of Mt. Starr King (9,092 feet) before hopping Clark Fork to reach the Illilouette’s main channel. After a series of falls near mile 12, ascend to Upper Merced Pass Lake (9,120 feet) to camp among Jeffrey pine on the granite-chunked northeast shore.

Day two Begin with a climb northeast up boulder-riddled slopes to Lower Ottoway Lake (9,653 feet). Take a breather; the next landmark is 11,180-foot Red Peak Pass, the park’s highest, with views of the Minarets, Matterhorn Peak, and Ritter Range. Descend into the route’s most isolated stretch, where smooth granite surrounds emerald pools lined by gnarled pines. Near mile 21, cross a shelf above Red Devil Lake. Camp on nearby slabs. 
Day three A mile below Red Devil Lake, detour onto a social trail for a scrambly 6.1-miler along the swimming-hole-rich Merced Peak Fork (a trail crew favorite). After dropping down a talus slope, rejoin the main trail and follow it to a footbridge spanning Merced Peak Fork. Continue a relatively easy six miles along the Merced River to Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. 
Day four The final 12 miles are all downhill. But don’t rush. After you pass between granite cliffs to Echo Valley, the terrain opens up and the trail winds below waterfall-sprayed switchbacks around Bunnell Point. In late summer, stop in Lost Valley at slick-bottomed Bunnell Cascade—it becomes a natural waterslide. Drop into Little Yosemite Valley to meet the John Muir Trail. You’ll pass dayhikers from here to Happy Isles, but your grin will stand out in that crowd.

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