Yosemite National Park: Clark Range Traverse

On this four-day trip through the Clark Range, push deep into Yosemite's backcountry to discover a wonderland of slickrock waterfalls, pristine alpine lakes and jagged peaks.
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On this four-day trip through the Clark Range, push deep into Yosemite's backcountry to discover a wonderland of slickrock waterfalls, pristine alpine lakes and jagged peaks.

While the crowds jostle for elbowroom at one of Yosemite's scenic but busy frontcountry vantage points, get acquainted with a wilder side of the park on this 4-day backpack through the rugged Clark Range. The lollipop loop climbs from the Valley floor (4,000 feet) to Yosemite's highest trailed pass (Red Peak Pass, 11,180 feet), winding through a myriad of emerald lakes, high-country meadows, tumbling cascades, lodgepole forests and toothy metamorphic crags along the way.
Day One From the southern edge of Stoneman Meadow, follow the Mist Trail along the Merced River to Vernal and Nevada Fall, the latter which is flanked by the polished, bell-shaped Liberty Cap. The climb to the top of the falls, which plunge over bare granite cliffs from Little Yosemite Valley, spans 3.1 steep, tourist-heavy miles before depositing you at the Merced River. The crowds thin out as you climb, at an easier grade, through a burn area, past the unmistakable Mount Starr King, and over the Clark Fork. The trail bends to the southeast while tracing the babbling Illilouette Creek through a mix of shady forest and sun-drenched, grassy meadow. At mile 15.2, trek off-trail to reach the pristine Upper Merced Pass Lake, where you’ll make camp for the night. To shorten the day, nab a spot near the Clark Fork (mile 9.1) or next to the Illilouette Creek (mile 12).
Day Two Wake up early for the steep, exposed ascent to the craggy Red Peak Pass. Begin by weaving through hardy Jeffrey Pines, clusters of lodgepole pines and monstrous boulder chunks. The trees thin out as you gain a brief respite near the granite-edged Lower Ottoway Lake, nestled under the towering south face of Red Peak (11,699 feet). Gear up for the toughest part of the climb, which carries you over a series of steep switchbacks to the crest of Red Peak Pass. Notch spectacular overhead vistas of Yosemite’s high country before descending to the pool-dotted, pine-clustered slickrock tundra below. As the trail crosses through a shelf perched above Red Devil Lake near mile 21, look for campsites alongside small emerald lakes. The exposed sites don’t provide much shelter, but open up to immaculate, star-studded panoramas at night.
Day Three Break camp and negotiate a quick but steep descent before reaching a trail junction below Edna Lake. The right fork follows the main trail for a smoother, longer route (6.1 miles), while the left fork traces a rough social trail along swimming-hole-pocketed Merced Peak Fork (3.8 miles). At the convergence of the trails, the Triple Peak Fork dramatically pours down a 600-foot slickrock waterslide into the churning Middle Peak Fork below. From the confluence, follow the Merced River past the narrow, cliff-edged Washburn Lake en route to shoreline campsites at Merced Lake.
Day Four From the tight western mouth of Merced Lake, follow the tumbling Merced River down a series of cascades and into the open Echo Valley. Weave back into a tight valley before rounding Bunnell Point (8,193 feet) toward the slick-bottomed Bunnell Cascade. Trek through the narrow Lost Valley before emerging into Little Yosemite Valley under the shadow of Moraine Dome. Pass a trail junction for Half Dome (which you’ll need a day permit to access) before returning to the top of Nevada Fall. For a longer, more gradual descent to the trailhead, use the John Muir Trail. 

PLAN IT
GUIDEBOOK AND MAP The Complete Guidebook to Yosemite National Park, 6th Edition ($12.95, yosemitegifts.com). Consult the time-tested authority on Yosemite, or plan other trips in the park using BACKPACKER’s Destination’s page (backpacker.com/destinations/category/206). Get around the park using Yosemite’s free shuttle service (nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/valleyshuttle.pdf).

FEES/PERMITS To enter park: $20 per car, $10 per pedestrian/ bicyclist. Pass is valid for seven days. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays from May through October. Reservations for a permit can be obtained no earlier than 24 weeks before the first night of your stay. Permits cost $5 per reservation and $5 per person in the party. Depending on availability, permits can also be obtained at the wilderness center on the day of your trip.

CONTACT Call the Wilderness Permit Office at (209) 372-0740; nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm

CONDITIONS Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) is closed between October and May. Water is available along the trail at mile 2.8, mile 3.8, mile 5.4 (seasonal), mile 7.9, mile 11.7, mile 13, and mile 14.4.

GPS DATA Download tracks and waypoints, print or order custom topos, from the menu on the left.

-Text: Brian Beer. Map and photographs: Jeff Chow

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 83.9

Waypoints

CLK001

Location: 37.7349, -119.566108

Overnight parking is available in the lot off Happy Isle Loop Road (shuttle stop #15). To access the Mist Trailhead, walk down the road for 0.5 mile or wait for a free shuttle.

CLK002

Location: 37.732317, -119.559633

From the Happy Isles bus stop (#16), follow the crowds across the Merced River and up the thigh-burning Mist Trail.

CLK003

Location: 37.728791, -119.558566

Pass a spring on the left of the trail before rounding Sierra Point.

CLK004

Location: 37.726067, -119.548533

After crossing the Vernal Fall Bridge, bear left to stay on the Mist Trail. The John Muir Trail (JTM), forks to the right and provides a more direct, less scenic route to the top of Vernal Fall. Bathrooms are available here.

CLK006

Location: 37.726041, -119.530413

At the Y-junction, bear right to pick up the JMT for a brief stretch.

CLK005

Location: 37.726233, -119.54145

Veer left to stay on the Mist Trail. The JMT forks to the right.

CLK007

Location: 37.724617, -119.533067

Trek above the top of Nevada Fall (594 feet) as you head south on the JMT.

CLK008

Location: 37.722401, -119.535005

Turn left off the JMT and begin a steep, switchbacked climb through fire-torched forest on the Panorama Trail.

CLK009

Location: 37.719833, -119.539767

At the Y-junction, bear left as the Panorama Trail forks right.

CLK010

Location: 37.715667, -119.544883

Round a small ridge and then veer left at the Y-junction.

CLK011

Location: 37.70455, -119.543433

After rounding a small ridge, duck into a tiny grove of trees and reach this small stream.

CLK012

Location: 37.7011, -119.541483

Begin a mild descent under the shadow of Mount Starr King, which looms to the east of the trail.

CLK013

Location: 37.691217, -119.530017

Cross a small stream. Water is available here.

CLK014

Location: 37.68445, -119.520983

Take the left fork at the Y-junction. The right fork leads to Mono Meadow.

CLK015

Location: 37.682326, -119.512646

Test your bouldering skills on this mushroom-shaped rock off the side of the trail.

CLK016

Location: 37.680033, -119.502533

Cross the Clark Fork. An established campsite sits nearby.

CLK017

Location: 37.67675, -119.498367

Just after crossing the Clark Fork, cross Red Creek.

CLK018

Location: 37.650852, -119.472005

While climbing over exposed rock, pass a small pool offering a perfect break spot. An established campsite sits just a little further up the trail.

CLK019

Location: 37.630496, -119.447308

Pass a seasonal waterfall (dry in late summer) tumbling from Lower Merced Lake's outlet creek.

CLK020

Location: 37.626267, -119.443967

To reach the first night's campsite, bear right at a trail leading to Merced Pass before making a quick left to follow an outlet stream to Upper Merced Pass Lake. Good campsites are tucked into the trees on the northeastern edge of the lake. If you still have some gas in the tank, continue heading up the trail to Lower Ottoway Lake (2.5 miles away) or Upper Ottoway Lake (3.7 miles), where additional prime campsites await. The following day begins with a steep ascent to Red Peak Pass. Return to the Y-junction on the main trail and turn right to begin your climb. Along the way, hardy Jeffrey pines cling tenaciously to the thin soil.

CLK021

Location: 37.637867, -119.430633

Break out of the trees and onto exposed granite. Follow cairns to Lower Ottoway Lake.

CLK022

Location: 37.640333, -119.4285

Cross Ottoway Creek and pass a small pool as you push upward.

CLK023

Location: 37.644417, -119.420083

Reach Lower Ottoway Lake. Prime campsites are available in the meadows just across the inlet on the lake's northwest shore. Good fishing can be had on the rocky bluff at the north end of the lake. The trout in the lake respond well to small black flies. If you're continuing upward, prepare for the possibility of severe weather around the exposed pass.

CLK024

Location: 37.645126, -119.405637

Cross a small stream, which you can follow to off-trail access of Upper Ottoway Lake and its smaller, unnamed companion. Pushing upward, you'll negotiate a series of steep, tight switchbacks lined by orange-tinted talus. Spectacular panoramas of the Ottoway Lakes await.

CLK025

Location: 37.65055, -119.40445

Reach the saddle of Red Peak Pass, Yosemite's highest pass. Snow lingers on the north side of the pass throughout the year.

CLK026

Location: 37.653917, -119.40285

Weave through a boulder field as the emerald waters of Red Devil Lake creep into view to the north.

CLK027

Location: 37.658367, -119.385233

Weave through a wonderland of blasted granite, scattered pines and emerald lakes as you descend from Red Peak Pass. Campsites are available around some of the lakes.

CLK028

Location: 37.6528, -119.37595

Enter a large cirque. Look south for a 300-foot waterfall draining from a small pond below Edna Lake.

CLK029

Location: 37.651267, -119.374717

Reach a Y-junction between the main trail (right) and a social trail (left). The social trail, which follows the Merced Peak Fork, requires some hand-and-foot scrambling while tracing exposed rock along the creek. Numerous swimming holes and occasional campsites dot this route, which reconnects with the main trail in 3.9 miles. Bear right too stick to the traditional route, which is longer (6.1 miles) but smoother.

CLK030

Location: 37.661517, -119.368783

Pass Serenity Lake, which is blocked from view by trees until you past it. Stay high for the easiest route here.

CLK031

Location: 37.666467, -119.3646

Exercise caution while negotiating a quick but steep descent.

CLK032

Location: 37.683243, -119.351179

Keep your eyes open for a safe spot to cross the Merced Peak Fork crossing. The river runs faster as you trek lower.

CLK033

Location: 37.690986, -119.348431

At the bottom of the talus field, look for a well-travelled trail and follow it to a small footbridge spanning Merced Peak Fork. As the trail descends through a valley, gain spectacular views of the Triple Peak Fork sliding down 600 feet of polished granite.

CLK034

Location: 37.699483, -119.34855

Exposed slickrock yields to dense woods. In 250 yards, you'll cross the Merced River on a large footbridge as the route bends west.

CLK035

Location: 37.705117, -119.35475

At a clearing in the woods, nab a view of the Merced River delving into a small waterfall.

CLK036

Location: 37.710714, -119.366112

At the end of Day Two, look for campsites along Washburn Lake's flat southern shore.

CLK037

Location: 37.718383, -119.373517

Follow the Washburn River away from Washburn Lake.

CLK038

Location: 37.728017, -119.391867

As the Gray Peak Fork drains into the Merced River to your left, cross through a cattle gate.

CLK039

Location: 37.737483, -119.394183

Continue past the Merced Lake Ranger Station. Cross several footbridges while trekking through a wooded pocket just above Merced Lake.

CLK040

Location: 37.738317, -119.405083

Traverse a quick section of slickrock before reaching the Merced Lake High Sierra Camp. Bear right at the junction to stay on the main trail. Campsites for your third night are tucked into the trees flanking Merced's eastern shore.

CLK041

Location: 37.73835, -119.4182

From the western tip of Merced Lake, water spills down the smooth granite slopes you'll follow downhill.

Leave Merced Lake and watc the water tumble down a nice boulder waterslide. From here the trail traverses the open slickrock passing by small waterfalls along the way.

CLK042

Location: 37.746633, -119.4364

Cross over a truss bridge and several footbridges before reaching a Y-junction. Turn left to continue following the Merced River.

CLK043

Location: 37.738743, -119.458399

Swing through a series of switchbacks sprayed by misty waterfalls as you descend to the banks of the Merced River.

CLK044

Location: 37.744861, -119.461513

Cross the Merced River before weaving through house-sized boulders and rounding Bunnell Point. The slick, granite-bottomed Bunnell Cascade waits around the bend.

CLK045

Location: 37.73515, -119.485533

Enjoy a 1.5-mile flat stretch through the bottom of Little Yosemite Valley. No camping is allowed in this area.

CLK046

Location: 37.734117, -119.508533

While padding along the grassy valley floor, look west for a view of Half Dome.

CLK047

Location: 37.731795, -119.515157

Bear left at Y-junction. The right fork follows the JMT to the Half Dome Trail.

CLK048

Location: 37.726381, -119.52992

Reach the Mist Trail junction. Turn right to follow the Mist Trail back to the trailhead, or re-cross the top of Nevada Fall and pick up the John Muir Trail for a gentler trip downhill.

MTR001

Location: 37.658619, -119.344464

Bear left at the Y-junction.

Toward Red Peak Pass

Location: 37.645789, -119.409757

Snag prime aerial vistas of Lower Ottoway Lake as you push toward Red Peak Pass.

High Sierra Loop Trail

Location: 37.73025, -119.558167

Your next stop -- Vernal Fall Bridge -- lies 0.8 mile away.

Climbing Toward Vernal Fall

Location: 37.726686, -119.545927

Climb a steep stone staircase leading to the base of Vernal Fall.

Nevada Fall

Location: 37.726228, -119.536035

Nevada Fall, flanked by Liberty Peak to the north, plunges 594 feet from the Merced River.

Approaching Nevada Fall

Location: 37.726092, -119.534039

The Mist Trail traverses exposed rock en route to Nevada Fall.

Liberty Cap

Location: 37.724217, -119.533367

Gain up-close vistas of Liberty Cap from the top of Nevada Fall.

Merced River

Location: 37.72475, -119.533033

Cross the Merced River as it spills toward Nevada Fall.

Merced River: Rest Spot

Location: 37.724497, -119.533052

Broad granite slabs along the Merced River make for good rest spots.

Burn Area

Location: 37.718283, -119.54055

Trek through burn area as you head south from Nevada Fall.

Mount Starr King

Location: 37.701367, -119.541833

The bell-shaped Mount Starr King looms over the trail to the east as you swing downhill on an unnamed trail.

Bouldering Spot

Location: 37.682583, -119.512833

Test your bouldering skills on this mushroom-shaped rock off the side of the trail.

Clark Fork

Location: 37.67955, -119.501333

Cross the Clark Fork. An established campsite is situated across the stream.

Red Creek

Location: 37.676841, -119.498312

Just after crossing the Clark Fork, cross Red Creek.

Fall Colors

Location: 37.637259, -119.457822

Most trees in Yosemite stay green through the year, but the occasional Aspen adds a splash of fall color to the forest.

Golden Ferns

Location: 37.63615, -119.457967

Low-lying vegetation brushing the trail transforms from green to gold in fall.

Approaching Ottoway Lakes

Location: 37.636317, -119.432967

Lodgepole pine and cracked granite line the trail to Ottoway Lakes. The trees thin out as you climb higher, leading to increasingly revealing panoramas.

Trees Thin Out

Location: 37.637933, -119.430583

Scrappy Jeffrey pines cling to life through cracks in the granite.

Lower Ottoway Lake

Location: 37.645466, -119.419541

Nab spectacular panoramas of Lower Ottoway Lake from its pointy, northern shore.

Sunset

Location: 37.645134, -119.419685

Sunset casts a dramatic tint over the exposed granite features surrounding Lower Ottoway Lake.

North Of Red Peak Pass

Location: 37.657443, -119.385402

Emerald lakes dot the granite-blasted, pine-dotted alpine wonderland north of Red Peak Pass.

Above Serenity Lake

Location: 37.661571, -119.367549

Employ some basic route-finding skills while scrambling off-trail above Serenity Lake.

Serenity Lake

Location: 37.661809, -119.366734

Lined by a stunning ring of smooth granite, Serenity Lake comes into view near mile 24.2.

Returning To Main Trail

Location: 37.688283, -119.3499

As you near the main trail, descend slickrock granite slopes adorned with clusters of trees and chunks of boulder.

Merced Peak Fork: Waterfall

Location: 37.694416, -119.349632

While trekking downhill, look east to catch the Merced Peak Fork sliding down 600 feet of smooth granite.

Washburn Lake

Location: 37.714483, -119.36945

Flanked by towering granite cliffs on its western edge and sandy shoreline on the east, Washburn Lakes rests in a narrow valley at 7,606 feet.

North Of Washburn Lake

Location: 37.719217, -119.374167

Cut across a steep slickrock granite slope as you push north from Washburn Lake.

Merced River Slide

Location: 37.738317, -119.44805

Water from the Merced River slides over smooth granite on the north side of the trail.

Granite Slopes

Location: 37.73865, -119.458358

Majestic granite cliffs slide into the valley carrying the Merced River.