Backpacking Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley on the John Muir Trail

While a graduate student, I was fortunate to tack a couple of days in Yosemite National Park onto the end of a conference. That was enough time to hike up Half Dome (this was in the days before permits) and to explore Yosemite Valley. While stunning, I knew I had just scratched the surface of the Yosemite’s wonders.

I later saw a slide show of a hike along the John Muir Trail, which further motivated me to return. Kyle and I talked with friends–Joe and Jeremy–about a proposed trip. We decided to focus on the section from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. This would take us to Cathedral Lakes, Sunrise Lakes, Clouds Rest, and Half Dome.

We set about applying to permits by fax. On our third try, we secured permits for our desired route for 21-24 July 2016.

Note: In this post, we use affiliate links, where possible, which means that booking through them earns us a commission. 

A key challenge with backpacking and flying is buying fuel at the destination, as well as the chance that a checked bag will be delayed, disrupting plans. So, we were happy when Joe planned to drive down to the Bay Area area in advance, and said he could take our backpacks and boots. While it would have been easy to find fuel in any number of outdoor stores, this saved us the step of picking it up and of figuring out what to do with the leftovers after.

So, on Tuesday, 19 July, Kyle, Jeremy, and I flew down to San Jose with just carry on bags. There, Joe picked us up and we headed east. We somehow made multiple food stops before we reached our hotel for that night, The Hampton Inn – Merced (TripAdvisor | Booking.com | Hotels.com).

The hotel was a standard Hampton Inn, and we got a good night’s sleep and decent breakfast before continuing to the park in the morning.

Wednesday, 20 July – Getting to Yosemite

On our way into Yosemite, we stopped to see Bridalveil Fall, the first fall you come to in Yosemite Valley. This was just a short half mile loop. After, we stopped for views of Yosemite Falls.

We then visited the ranger station to pick up our permit. The ranger reminded us about bear-safe food storage, verified that we had bear canisters, and reminded us of Yosemite’s implementation of leave no trace: pack out toilet paper; camp 100′ or more from lakes, streams, trails, and other campsites; no soap.

We also picked up bus tickets for the morning. In addition to shuttles at various destinations, Yosemite has a decent, if infrequent, bus system–YARTS–connecting the various points in the park. For our trip, we would leave the car in Yosemite Valley and take the bus to our start point at Tuolumne Meadows.

From there, we headed to the backpacker’s walk in site in Yosemite Valley. People with backpacking permits can camp here for a night before or after their trip for $5/night. Though less spacious than sites in the regular campground–it resembles a group campsite–the location and price are hard to beat.

After we set up, we set out to explore some sights that we would not see on our hike. We visited Valley View and Tunnel View. Then we did the short hike to Taft Point, the fissures, and Sentinel Dome, before taking in the views at Glacier Point.

Thursday, 21 July – Tuolumne Meadows to Lower Cathedral Lake

In the morning, we woke up, broke camp, left dirty clothes in the car, and headed to the bus, which left at 8:00am. The bus took us north and then east to Tuolumne Meadows, a new part of the park for me. Along the way, we passed Tenaya Lake and many granite domes.

The bus reached the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead at 10:25am. We started out immediately.

The hike to Lower Cathedral Lake passed quickly, along a mostly level route. The trail descended a little more steeply as it approached some marshes near the lake, which we reached in 3.5 miles. We continued around the north side of the lake in search of a campsite. Before the lake’s outlet, we found a spot with good views and convenient water access.

After we had set up camp and filtered water, we explored the lakeside, retracing our steps to southeast side of the lake. We found a large granite slab on which we spread out in the sun, alternating between talking, reading, and napping.

For dinner, we returned to camp. After eating, with a while to go before sunset, we decided to ascend the ridge on the west side of the lake, heading south from the outlet. This gave us splendid views of the lake and Cathedral Peak at golden hour.

Friday, 22 July – Lower Cathedral Lake to Sunrise Lakes

Kyle and I awoke early, and decided find somewhere high with a view for breakfast. We climbed granite slabs north of camp until we reached a flat high point with views of Half Dome, Cloud’s Rest, Tenaya Lake, Cathedral Peak, Lower Cathedral Lake, and Echo Peaks.

When we went to make breakfast, we that I had left the stove back at camp. So instead of eating, we just watched a lovely sunrise.

Back in camp, we ate with Jeremy and Joe before breaking camp and setting out for the day. Our route took us to Upper Cathedral Lake and offered new vantages of Cathedral Peak and Echo Peaks as we climbed to Cathedral Pass.

Just over the pass, we entered a meadow filled with lupine. It was magical. At the other end, another small pass provided  excellent views of Echo Peaks.

From there, the trail continued through less lush meadows, past the Sunrise High Sierra Camp and various granite domes. We then turned off to ascend Sunrise Pass. This short climb felt much hotter and dustier than our progress so far.

Quickly after the pass, we reached our destination for the night: Sunrise Lakes. The mosquitos were ferocious at the first lake, so we continued on. At the third lake (which I think is actually Sunrise Lake #1), a gentle breeze was keeping the bugs at bay. We decided to set up there, making our distance for the day about 7 miles. Sadly, the breeze dissipated before we had even finished setting up our tents.

Because the mosquitoes made camp less enjoyable, we left in search of a more comfortable place to pass the evening. Our wandering took us past Sunrise Lake #2 to a series of granite outcroppings. These offered a view of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. We spent the rest of the afternoon there, playing cards, taking, and reading. We had dinner and watched another lovely sunset before returning to camp.

Saturday, 23 July – Sunrise Lakes to Clouds Rest, and on to just north of Half Dome

In the morning, Kyle and I were again the first to awake. We walked back to our dinner spot for sunrise and a hopefully mosquito-free breakfast. This turned out to be the right call: we returned to camp to find Jeremy and Joe hurriedly eating bites in between removing mosquito netting.

We quickly took down camp and set out. The trail continued south, passing some tarns (mosquito breeding ponds). We soon began to ascend, reaching Clouds Rest mid-morning, having traveled about 5 miles.

The summit of Clouds Rest is a stunning, narrow ridge of granite, with a 5000′ granite face dropping off to the northwest. This makes for stunning views of Yosemite Valley and surrounding peaks, and we took our time here.

Eventually though, it was time to descend. The route down from Clouds Rest switchbacks past some interesting beehive-like rock formations. It then descends through forest to a junction, rejoining the John Muir Trail alongside Sunrise Creek. We continued a bit further until we saw several campsites to the left of the trail. They offered views of Half Dome as well as shade, and we soon found a nice spot.

After setting up, we returned to the junction to clean up and filter water. Shortly after we got back to camp, a ranger stopped by carrying a paintball gun. He warned us that in previous days, backpackers in this area had encounters with a bear that seemed too habituated to people. After reminding us of proper food storage and how to create an “aversive experience” for a bear that seems too interested in us, he headed out.

No bears visited us that night. We had a quiet evening hanging out on boulders in camp as the sun set behind Half Dome.

Sunday, 24 July – Half Dome and Yosemite Valley

We awoke early in the morning, with a goal of beating crowds up Half Dome. Because we had camped so close–just two miles from the cables and only four tenths of a mile from the Half Dome Trail junction– we decided to leave camp set up while we hiked Half Dome.

We made it to the sub dome and start of the cables before many others. We put on our gloves and got ready to ascend. As we did so, a marmot and squirrel fought each other over who would get to tear into packs that someone had left on the subdome. The marmot won, at least until we chased it off. Even when you are just day hiking, proper food storage matters!

When I had visited previously, the cables made me uncomfortable. This time they did not. I attribute that to knowing what to expect, better gloves, and, most of all, to the cables being less crowded. With more space, I could focus on what I was doing and not worry about how someone else’s mistake or dropped water bottle could turn into a bad day.

At the top, Half Dome’s summit was specular. The lack of crowd also made for a more enjoyable experience here. We lingered, going to various viewpoints and taking in the views.

Back down, the subdome was more crowded.  We descended past Nevada and Vernal Falls, each stunning. The crowds increased, a consequence of it being a weekend and us being closer to the valley. I think we each became impatient here, and the number of people was a bit jarring even after a few days in the backcountry.

Once down, our attention turned to food. We decided on pizza and beer at Curry Village. I remember it as delicious.

After we ate, we left, heading back west. Joe and Jeremy dropped Kyle and me at an airport hotel. In the morning, we took an early flight back to Seattle, arriving in time for work.

Resources

We relied a lot on various blog posts and the national park website. Additionally, we bought:

  • a Yosemite High Country map (Amazon) from Tom Harrison Maps.
  • We pre-treated our clothes with permethrin (Amazon) to deter mosquitos. If you are visiting in mosquito season, I recommend this.
  • Nitrile Work Gloves like these from Amazon, for the cables. These were pretty light and decently grippy. My biggest complaint was that little cable strands could be a bit stabby, but I am not sure I would trade that for heavier gloves.

View my complete set of photos on Flickr.

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