Where Windshield Tourists Fear To Tread
A noted guidebook author offers his take on the park’s best backcountry trails.
Choice is good, but sometimes too much can be paralyzing, which is certainly the case when you look at a Yosemite National Park map and take in the enormity of the hiking options before you: scores of trails covering 800 miles, six life zones ranging from chaparral to alpine tundra. Where do you start? To assist you, we consulted Jeffrey Schaffer, author of several noted hiking guides to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, about his favorite park hikes.
First, he advises, you ditch the crowds, which is easily done by camping 1/4 mile or more from any trail or body of water. Next, use a map and compass to get off trail. “Most of the park’s backcountry is devoid of hikers simply because the vast majority stick to trails-and select ones at that. Be adventurous. Strike out cross-country from the beaten track.”
1 Pacific Crest Trail from Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass (761/2 miles)
This lengthy, physically challenging route through prime Yosemite backcountry involves hundreds of switchbacks as it bounds from canyon to canyon. Most people make the mistake of camping along the floor of major canyons, where fast-pawed bears await. This route requires a vehicle shuttle or a hitchhike back to the beginning.
2 High Camps Loop (501/2 miles)
It’s hard to get a wilderness permit for this popular route if you try to stay at the camps. So do the loop but camp instead at a riverside flat between LeConte and Waterwheel falls, 3 miles below Glen Aulin; Raisin Lake; Tenaya Creek about 2 miles below Tenaya Lake ; Cathedral Fork Echo Creek Canyon; and Lewis Creek Canyon.
3 Matthes Lake (141/2 miles)
From western Tuolumne Meadows take the heavily used John Muir Trail to the Cathedral Lakes vicinity (a nice lunch stop), then leave the trail at Cathedral Pass to descend about 11/2 miles south to lightly used Echo Lake. This may be as far as you’ll want to go, but if not continue 1/2 mile south to a creek and follow it 1 mile east up to Matthes Lake. Hike north to the crest of the Cathedral Range for some incredible views.
4 Merced headwaters (52 miles)
From Yosemite Valley climb up past Vernal and Nevada falls to Little Yosemite Valley, then up to Merced Lake, where you’ll find nearby camping. Leave traffic behind by heading southeast up-canyon past Washburn Lake to a junction in upper Triple Peak Fork. For subalpine, isolated camping head west up the trail, then drop into either Merced Peak Fork Canyon or Red Peak Fork Canyon for an off-trail scramble back to Washburn Lake. An alternate route is to continue 2 miles past the trail junction up to the High Trail, then head north. Leave the trail for isolated, alpine camping and exploration of Harriet Lake, Foerster Creek lakes, and the myriad Lyell Fork lakes, before returning to Merced Lake.
5 Starr King Bench (13 miles)
As in the previous hike, climb to Nevada Fall, but then start southwest on the John Muir Trail. From a nearby junction make a switchbacking ascent south. Where the trail turns west, leave it for a cross-country route east-southeast up to the bench. Camp near Starr King Lake for views of Half Dome.
6 Falls Creek (231/2 miles)
The stretch of Falls Creek below Lake Vernon offers splendid, isolated camping. From Hetch Hetchy Reservoir start early to avoid searing afternoon temperatures typical on this major climb. Follow signs to picturesque Lake Vernon, about 101/2 miles from the trailhead, then head south along the east bank of Falls Creek. The farther you descend, the more isolation you achieve, especially below the gorge.
7 Rancheria Creek (22 miles)
As with the Falls Creek hike, start early from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on a 61/2 -mile traverse to Rancheria Falls, your last reliable water source. Make the 23/4 -mile climb to Tiltill Valley, leave the trail and walk to the valley’s east end. Your goal is a minor saddle, about 1 mile to the east, and although not much climbing is involved, the route among boulders, logs, and brush is tiring. From the saddle, Rancheria Creek lies just below and you can follow it downstream or upstream. Pools and rapids abound in this rarely visited paradise.