Close your eyes and imagine the world’s most beautiful place. Picture soaring cliffs, domes, and peaks of granite so clean you could eat off them. See an incandescent sky of blue and more alpine tarns than the Milky Way has stars. Now add rivers that spit foam and roar like madmen as they leap from chasms hundreds of feet high. Wait-cripes! Creeping uninvited into your idyll are crowds of tourists spilling from trailhead parking lots. Suddenly, it looks a lot like Yosemite, doesn’t it? But don’t despair. The world’s most beautiful busy place has a side entrance where lines never form. Back there, you can hear yourself think Muirish thoughts about the otherworldly light and color this land seems to emit. Like that image better? Make it real by hiking any of these off the beaten tracks.
High Passes Loop
With Yosemite proper attracting so much attention, it’s easy to forget that the park is surrounded by some of the most breathtaking mountain wilderness in the country. This 48-mile hike takes in a few of the highest trails in the park and the southwest corner of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Lillian Lake sets the tone early, reflecting the rock-carpeted slopes of 10,552-foot Sing Peak in a scene worthy of America’s greatest landscape photographer. At Fernandez Pass–the first of four passes–you enter Yosemite amid hemlocks, and lodgepole and whitebark pine. Just before the pass, you’ll get an effort-rewarding view eastward of ragged Banner Peak, the Ritter Range, and central Sierra Nevada. It only gets better at 11,180-foot Red Peak Pass–the highest point on trail in the park–with views as far as Matterhorn Peak on Yosemite’s northern perimeter. Drop your pack for an easy off-trail scramble up nearby 11,699-foot Red Peak. Potential campsites abound, from Lower Ottoway Lake to a constellation of alpine lakes and tarns, some unnamed, speckling the Clark Range.
Beyond 10,750-foot Post Peak Pass, you’ll wander through a landscape unique in all of Yosemite: the beachball-like rocks dappling the Porphyry Lake area. Then, enjoy colors and quiet as you follow the wildflower-lined South Fork Merced River. Budget at least 5 days, with more time for side trips to lakes.