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The High Life: High Sierra Camps, CA

Hike Yosemite's granite-rimmed loop.
NOV12HUT_PColla_23218_445X260High Sierra Camps, Ca (Photo by Phillip Colla)

Had these backcountry tent cabins existed in the 19th century, John Muir might have never come down from the high country. No doubt he would have enjoyed upgrading from his famously meager rations—tea and bread—to the hot meals served here. The five camps (at Glen Aulin, May Lake, Sunrise, Merced Lake, and Vogelsang) are ideally spaced for a five-star, 49-mile, six-day loop from Tuolumne Meadows. Every day is a Sierra highlights reel—roaring waterfalls, wildflower meadows, quiet lodgepole pine forests, and jagged granite peaks—that ends with a family-style dinner. You also get breakfast, a cot in a heated, four-person tent cabin, and an ultralight bonus: bedding and a mattress. 

The High Sierra Camps are no secret, but it’s well worth entering the lottery for reservations. Scored? Here’s how to do it right. Hike the loop counterclockwise from Tuolumne to start with a bang and end on the shortest, easiest leg. Follow the Tuolumne River past Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade, two 40- to 50-foot waterfalls en route to Glen Aulin, and start early to beat the dayhikers. From May Lake on day two, climb 2,000 feet on the 3.5-mile round-trip ascent of 10,850-foot Mt. Hoffman (mostly off-trail, but straightforward) for a summit view of virtually all of Yosemite. En route to Sunrise on day three, stop on the beach at Tenaya Lake to savor a swim and views of the surrounding granite domes reflected in the waters before the steep, 1,700-foot climb to tent cabins overlooking the Cathedral Range. On day four—9.5 mostly downhill miles through hemlock and pine forest to Merced Lake—watch for excellent swimming holes along Echo Creek. 

Start day five early to avoid afternoon heat while ascending 3,000 feet along Fletcher Creek through a canyon of soaring walls and domes to Vogelsang Camp at over 10,000 feet. Many hikers ascend Fletcher Peak, right above the camp, early on the last morning. Don’t join them. Instead, bag the better (and less busy), 11,516-foot Vogelsang Peak via its east face—a nontechnical, class 2-3 scramble—for commanding views of the Cathedral Range and many other peaks. You’ll have time because the trip tapers off with a 6.8-mile descent through whitebark and lodgepole forest to Tuolumne Meadows; the last mile parallels the Tuolumne River’s plunge through a granite gorge. 

Season Happy coincidence: Demand goes down—as do mosquitoes and thunderstorms—after mid-August.

Map BACKPACKER PRO Map High Sierra Loop ($20; backpacker.com/promaps)

Get there Begin and end in Tuolumne Meadows. 

Cost/info $153-$159/night plus optional sack lunch for $16. Apply for the lottery Sept. 1 to Nov. 1 for spots the following summer. Check online starting in February for last-minute availability: yosemitepark.com/high-sierra-camps.aspx. Note: These tent cabins were not the same ones implicated in an outbreak of hantavirus last summer. While one case was connected to the High Sierra Camps, park officials didn’t close them.

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