Camping Gear

Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

Posted On February 5, 2017 at 5:12 am by / Comments Off on Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite

Hi Michael,

Going to Yosemite this year, 4-day trek. The Valley and hopefully Half Dome. Never been. Any suggestions?

Cibolo, TX
[Originally sent as a message to]

Hi Jody,

Yup, here’s what I’d do on a first-time trip to Yosemite if you want to hit the classic highlights like The Valley and Half Dome. This is close to what I did on my first backpacking trip in Yosemite, long time ago, but modified because I know better now.

Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley is probably the most popular trailhead in the park, and the park issues backcountry permits based on a daily quota of people starting from each trailhead, so it’s hard to get a permit to start at Happy Isles. But if you get it, hike up the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley (also hugely popular) to camp your first night. Get an early start that first day so you can get ahead of the Mist Trail crowds and hike Half Dome (lead photo above is from Half Dome’s summit) without your gear that first afternoon; by then, most hikers are coming down, you’ll share the summit with fewer people (but make sure no afternoon thunderstorms are threatening). Or even better, hike Half Dome really early on day two, ahead of just about everyone—I’ve done that, it’s when you’ll share Half Dome with the fewest people. (Check the Half Dome hike option when applying for your permit.)


Hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Hiking over Clouds Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Day two, hike over Clouds Rest, one of the coolest summits in the park, to camp at Sunrise Lakes. Day three, hike south along Echo Creek to the Echo Valley, then west to camp in upper Little Yosemite Valley (below Moraine Dome rather than in the busier camping areas down valley). Last day, hike down the John Muir Trail back to Happy Isles, passing a classic view of Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the backside of Half Dome.

If you can’t get a permit to start at Happy Isles, you can do almost the same route starting at Glacier Point, following the Panorama Trail to Nevada Fall.

Here’s another option to explore basically the same area on a horseshoe-shaped hike from the Tuolumne Meadows area that’s arguably even more scenic. There’s a free, frequent park shuttle bus between the starting and finishing trailheads.

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Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall, from the John Muir Trail in Yosemite.

Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall, from the John Muir Trail in Yosemite.

Start at Tenaya Lake—gorgeous spot—and hike over Clouds Rest the first day to camp at Little Yosemite Valley; it’s a big first day, but amazing. (Camp in Tuolumne the night before to help you start acclimating.) Day two, hike Half Dome really early, then pack up and head to Nevada Fall. Stash packs in the woods, hike with water, snacks, and a jacket down the Mist Trail (it’s steep) to Vernal Fall and back up; or if you have the energy, hike from Nevada Fall down the JMT and back up the Mist Trail past Vernal Fall and below Nevada. Grab packs and head east up Little Yosemite Valley to camp below Moraine Dome. Day three to Echo Valley and Sunrise Lakes to camp. Last day, hike north on the JMT to Tuolumne, passing Cathedral Peak.


You deserve a better backpack. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”


Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

Hiking the John Muir Trail below Cathedral Peak, Yosemite.

In fact, if you reverse that hike, it probably gets more spectacular every day. You’ll have a harder climb up the south side of Clouds Rest than coming from the other direction, but your pack will also be lighter. And you can finish the hike with a swim in beautiful Tenaya Lake.

Look into the park shuttle buses in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows area.

On those backpacking routes in Yosemite, you won’t go more than a couple hours without passing water except on one day: Hiking from Tenaya Lake over Clouds Rest down almost to Little Yosemite Valley, we didn’t hit any water source in September. I don’t know of any seasonal source that would be available along those trails earlier in summer, either. Carry three liters when you start that day.

By the way, apply for your permit as soon as you can; they’re available 24 weeks (168 days) in advance, meaning you’ll want to apply sometime between January and the first half of March for this summer. See this page for more info:

You may find it helpful to scroll through all of my stories about Yosemite.

Good luck!



You are so AWESOME. I am sharing this with my friend David, ret. U.S Navy. He is my fellow adventurer.


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