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.
Kerrick And Matterhorn Canyons
Nowhere in Yosemite's north country does the scenery match the ragged grandeur of these canyons. The 13-mile-long Matterhorn takes first prize, with its rock-strewn meadows, toothy skyline, and smooth granite cliffs. Kerrick's domes mirror another, more-famous, corner of the park, minus the traffic jams. This 54-mile loop begins at busy Mono Village, passing views of Victoria, Hunewell, and Kettle Peaks on the way to Barney and Peeler Lakes--both set in classic Yosemite basins below razor-edged peaks. In Kerrick Canyon, head .75 mile off the trail for your pick of splendid campsites around Arndt Lake.
Just beyond Seavey Pass, at more than 9,000 feet on the Pacific Crest Trail, you'll gaze through impossibly clear air at Benson Lake and numerous summits beyond. Instead of camping at popular Smedberg Lake, take a side trip to secluded Rodgers Lake--its north shore has excellent campsites with views across the water to Regulation Peak. The climb to Benson Pass concludes with an airy alpine panorama, including Volunteer, Doghead, Quarry, and Virginia Peaks. Descending again, the hanging valley of Wilson Creek empties into Matterhorn Canyon; hike north between walls rising as much as 3,000 feet. On a clear day from Burro Pass, just below 12,264-foot Matterhorn Peak and the broken smile of Sawtooth Ridge, Clouds Rest and Half Dome are visible to the south.
Lake Vernon-Tiltill Valley
If abundant wildlife and scenery of Yosemite Valley caliber don't interest you, skip this hike. Otherwise, endure the hordes at the Hetch Hetchy trailhead, because you'll drop them within the first few switchbacks above the reservoir, their cacophony disappearing in the roar of waterfalls upvalley. Watch for deer and, in early evening, black bears on the trail to Lake Vernon, a broad puddle spanning a canyon floor once buried under 1,600 feet of ice. Make your way across the polished granite slabs to a campsite on the north or south shore. Plan time to explore the granite flumes and tributary creeks of the basin upstream from Vernon. Sitting by the lakeshore at dusk, you'll be treated to the sight of hundreds of bats swooping through the air for their nightly mosquito dinner.
From Lake Vernon, the trail climbs through about three dozen switchbacks, with the views of this corner of the park expanding until the trail enters a fir forest. Soon, you'll begin a long descent through the Tiltill Valley nearly to the shores of Hetch Hetchy. Turning back toward the trailhead, you'll hike below Wapama Falls, a two-drop, 1,400-foot cascade.
This roughly 28-mile loop stays well below 8,000 feet, making it a good early-summer option.
Expedition Planner Yosemite National Park, CA
The hikes described here are accessed by CA 41 (Southeast Yosemite), CA 120 (Lake Vernon), and US 395 (Kerrick-Matterhorn). Check in advance about road conditions.
Camping within the national park requires a permit. For all areas, a percentage of backcountry permits are offered through advance reservations, which are recommended to guarantee your itinerary.
Campers should use bear canisters for food storage; bears routinely get food that's properly bear-bagged. Rent canisters for $5 per trip or purchase them at locations in the park. Never store food in your vehicle (this includes your trunk); bears will break in if they smell food. Season Creek crossings can be dangerous or impossible in early summer. The Southeast Yosemite and Kerrick-Matterhorn loops maynot be snow-free until July; the Lake Vernon-Tiltill Valley loop may be passable by June.
Yosemite National Park, by Jeffrey Schaffer ($19). Trails Illustrated #206 map ($10).