Best of Yosemite, Part 2: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite
By Michael Lanza
Under a sky lacking even one tiny cotton ball, and so blue you want to pour it into a cup and drink it, Todd and I walk across Tuolumne Meadows, carrying full but light backpacks and hearts full of anticipation. Across the creek-cut meadows, Cathedral Peak knifes into the stratosphere, and domes of polished granite bubble up above the treetops. The temperature hovers around 60° F, the air is as calm as a monk.
When you’re hiking on a September morning at 8,700 feet in the high country of Yosemite National Park, life floats intoxicatingly close to perfection.
And why wouldn’t it seem perfect? My friend Todd Arndt and I have embarked on an ambitious plan to backpack 86 miles in four days through the biggest, loneliest, and most remote chunk of wilderness on the Yosemite map: a circuit north of Tuolumne Meadows through a vast realm of deep canyons, passes at over 10,000 feet, and peaks rising to over 12,000 feet.
Although I’ve been to this park several times, every visit makes me want to pinch myself. After all, this is Yosemite, the Sistine Chapel of national parks. Just uttering the name, you expect to hear heavenly trumpets and a chorus of angels singing. Half a lifetime ago, when I was a young, clueless, novice backpacker who had only barely begun exploring the rocky hills of New England, I decided to take my first big Western backpacking trip. But I didn’t want to start in the minor leagues and work my way up. Like thousands of backpackers every year, I wanted to go right to the best. So I chose Yosemite.
Now, a few decades later, I’m finally about to discover Yosemite’s farthest corners, her best-kept secrets. It’s like I’ve been hiding the map to a buried treasure for all these years and, at long last, I’m going to follow it to dig up my fortune.
Todd and I cruise the easy six miles from Tuolumne to Glen Aulin—the Gaelic term for “beautiful valley”—in two hours, knocking off nearly one-third of our first day’s mileage quickly. We take a short break beside cascades with a view down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River—which we’ll hike back up in just two days—and hit the trail again.
It feels joyous just to be out on a big hike in this park.
A Mild But Healthy Obsession
Todd and I have returned to Yosemite a year after hiking a thred-day, 65-mile loop south of Tuolumne Meadows last September because we have some unfinished business. We had originally planned to complete a 151-mile grand tour of Yosemite’s most remote backcountry in seven consecutive days last year, but smoke from wildfires sent us home early (although the smoke hadn’t affected our three-day hike).
As I wrote in my story about the 65-mile, first leg of this Yosemithon, after several visits to Yosemite, backpacking, dayhiking, and climbing, I had become kind of obsessed with the fact that I had still not explored the park’s two most expansive swaths of wilderness: the Clark Range and Merced River headwaters south of Tuolumne Meadows, which we backpacked last year; and even vaster northern Yosemite, which stretches out before us now.
I should back up. For years, I’ve kept a list of ideas for trips I want to take, with brief notes about each. It’s inspirational and a resource I review whenever I’m thinking about where to go next. (Keeping such a list is tip no. 1 in my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”) And my list keeps getting longer, not shorter: It’s now well over 17,000 words.
But I confess: I get a little overwrought thinking about a hike or climb that’s been on my trip ideas list for a while. I’ll reach a point where I can’t stop thinking about it—and the more I think about it, the more I feel an overwhelming need to get it done, and that gets me thinking about it more, which inflames my irrepressible desire to get it done. It’s a vicious cycle and often leads to me concocting a plan that involves hiking distances that only a very small group of my most, um, unique friends would view as a good idea.
My WOCD (Wilderness Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) has led to some extreme perambulations, several of which Todd has been a party to, including hiking 44+ miles across the Grand Canyon and back in a day, dayhiking 50 miles across Zion, and thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in seven days, averaging 31 miles a day. (Todd’s feet—which got so badly blistered that he had to go on antibiotics afterward—have still not forgiven me for that last one.)
However borderline psychotic these adventures, we’ve always undertaken them with a high degree of preparedness—and yet, not without a niggling feeling of realistic uncertainty.
Our plan to walk through most of northern Yosemite in just four days feels no different. Although we managed 65 rugged miles in three days pretty well a year ago, this time we’re adding a fourth consecutive 20+-mile day to a tough itinerary that features lots of vertical relief—including today, when we’ll cross four passes, three of them over 10,000 feet. Todd tells me this will be the longest hike he’s ever done except for our JMT thru-hike.
I think my feet began a low-grade throbbing even before we started out today, as a warm-up for the next four evenings.
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Matterhorn Canyon to Benson Lake
Following a clear night camped in Matterhorn Canyon, a short walk from a creek that lulled us to sleep, Todd and I hit the trail at 7 a.m. on our second morning. It’s chilly but calm. We prefer hiking while it’s cool, and we have a long day ahead of us. Besides, we both feel good after a 21-mile day yesterday. Todd recalls of our past ultra-hikes: “I remember it’s not cumulative—your legs don’t feel worse every day.”
Within a half-hour, Matterhorn Canyon opens up. Small, scattered copses of conifer trees throw spots of green on a landscape dominated by granite—stones and boulders littering the canyon bottom, rock walls stretching to the sky on both sides of us. Thanks to our early start, we’re hiking in the cool shade of those cliffs in this broad canyon. When the sun finally crests the walls, it’s warm, but not the searing heat of July or August in the High Sierra. Walking at a brisk pace with our light packs, I’m not even breaking a sweat. This is exactly how I like to backpack. (See my top five tips on my backpacking strategy.)
At 10,650-foot Burro Pass, we drop our packs for a snack and to soak up the view of upper Matterhorn Canyon’s meadows and rock gardens embraced by an arc of cliffs, pinnacles, and 12,264-foot Matterhorn Peak. Beyond Burro, we cross a cirque below the serrated Sawtooth Ridge, followed by arduous climbs over two more 10,000-foot passes, Mule and Rock Island.
By early evening on our second day, we cross our fourth pass of the day—Seavey, at just over 9,000 feet—and stroll past quiet tarns where a few parties of backpackers have already pitched their tents in the forest. It strikes me that they are the first people Todd and I have seen all day—not an observation one expects to make in Yosemite. That’s because we tend to think of “that Yosemite”—the overcrowded park—but Todd and I are exploring “this Yosemite,” its most remote backcountry. A gargantuan moon rises over 10,000-foot peaks bathing in the last, red rays of daylight as we make the steep, quad-melting, 1,500-foot descent to Benson Lake.
At Benson, we walk up to the most unlikely sight deep in the mountains: a sprawling, sandy beach that looks like it got lost on its way to Southern California. After hiking almost 23 miles today, which will be the trip’s biggest day, the cool sand and cold water feel so good on our bare feet that I swear I heard my toes sigh.
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Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River
On our third afternoon, Todd and I discover The Worst Trail In Yosemite.
That’s what we dub the Rodgers Canyon Trail, on which we descend 5,000 feet over more than nine waterless, dusty, sun-scorched miles. As we lose elevation and the temperature soars above 80° F, clouds of gnats appear, swarming around our heads and in our eyes—something we’d expect in July, not September. Todd and I run out of water before our last hour on this trail, crossing shadeless, sagebrush slopes. I half expect to stumble upon the desiccated bones of previous backpackers, picked clean by vultures and coyotes.
Between mouthfuls of dust and gnats, I’m quietly cursing the heat, the bugs, the lack of water, my aching feet, my pack, my decision to steer us down this trail, Todd’s boundless stamina and unflappably positive attitude—until we reach the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
The crystalline Tuolumne tumbles over a bed carpeted with rounded, golden stones. Cliffs on both sides tower hundreds of feet overhead. Todd and I wade into the knee-deep waters, cooling off hot feet and achy muscles. It’s a while before we convince ourselves to leave our pristine wilderness bathtub.
Resuming our hike up the canyon, we encounter waterfalls and cascades around every corner. Boulders choke the streambed. Water pours through narrow flumes and over granite ledges scoured by ancient glaciers; its constant motion and the canyon bedrock seem like nature’s marriage of performance art and sculpture. Forest crawls up canyon walls.
Imagine Yosemite Valley, but twice as long, with most of the people and all of the buildings and cars removed—that’s the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
Several miles up the canyon, hiking into the evening, we climb some 600 vertical feet through numerous switchbacks above the impassable narrows called the Muir Gorge. Just as I’m getting a little tired of the uphill, we top out on a broad ledge high above the canyon, with a view that makes us feel as privileged as Greek gods.
We stand silently for a few minutes, just gawking. Then Todd says, “I’m glad we hiked the worst trail in Yosemite, because it brought us here.”
May Lake and Mount Hoffmann
In late afternoon on our last day, Todd and I put our hands on rock to scramble up the steep, final 200 feet to the crown of another peak just about smack-dab in the middle of Yosemite, 10,850-foot Mount Hoffmann. Like Clouds Rest—which we can see slicing into the sky only about six miles south of Hoffmann as the crow flies—this peak’s exciting finish and jaw-dropping prospect reduces us to giggling children. Todd—a Midwest-raised, mild-mannered physician—hops around burbling, “This is unbelievable! It’s incredible! What a view!”
However hyperbolic, he has a point. From this windy summit—often described as having “the best 360 in Yosemite”—we look out over virtually the entire park: from Half Dome and Yosemite Valley to the Clark and Cathedral Ranges and the peaks of northern Yosemite.
I know Todd’s thinking the same thing I am: We’ve done it. Over seven glorious days last year and this week, we hiked throughout this vast landscape that we can see now.
Think about Yosemite, and you probably first think of Yosemite Valley, where most visitors go without seeing any other part of the park. I think of The Valley as Yosemite’s polished gemstone. Deep in the backcountry, you find the rough cuts: cliffs shattered by time’s harsh hand, boulders strewn about meadows like discarded beer cans at an outdoor concert. That is Yosemite’s unglamorous, wild, starkly beautiful side that’s only visible to people willing to walk for days with their home on their back.
Before this trip, and our three-day hike south of Tuolumne Meadows last year, I thought I’d seen the best of this flagship national park. I was wrong. Sure, Half Dome, the JMT, and The Valley all merit your time and attention. But the remotest corners of the park are where backpackers find the raw Yosemite—and the reasons why we go out there and live minimally for days: the quiet forest, the random sighting of a black bear, the solitary campsite, a glassy lake reflecting a rampart of granite pinnacles, and the quad-flaming ascent to a high pass where you stop cold before a turbulent ocean of stone rolling away to distant horizons.
I suspected this whirlwind tour would achieve a rare combination of attributes: remote, uncrowded, and jaw-dropping. I had no idea how much so.
Standing atop Mount Hoffman, I breathe a sigh of relief. Now that I’ve seen that Yosemite, my mission is complete; my WOCD has been satisfied—for a little while, anyway. At least until I check my trip ideas list again.
See my story about the 65-mile first leg of this 151-mile hike, “Best of Yosemite, Part 1: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and all of my stories about Yosemite National Park and adventures in California national parks at The Big Outside.
GEAR TIP: I find long trips like this one much more enjoyable when I’m carrying a light pack—weighing not more than 25 pounds. See my story “The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun,” and all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear, ultralight tents, backpacks, and lightweight hiking shoes, as well as menus of my numerous stories offering tips on gear at my Gear Reviews page and my Ask Me: Gear page.
See also my stories:
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR experienced, fit backpackers ready to step up their game and explore beyond the most-accessible trails. Trails are well marked and obvious, so navigation isn’t an issue for anyone capable of reading a map. Challenges include long climbs to passes over 10,000 feet and the fatiguing character of the typically hot High Sierra afternoons; I recommend traveling with as light a pack as possible. (See my ultralight backpacking tips.) If you’re planning your first multi-day hike in Yosemite and have a good base of experience, this hike is a good choice. Otherwise, see my story “Ask Me: Where to Backpack First Time in Yosemite” for a five-star route that hits highlights like Clouds Rest and Half Dome but is shorter and less committing and remote.
Make It Happen
Season The higher elevations and passes in Yosemite generally become mostly snow-free by early to mid-July and summer weather usually lasts well into September and sometimes into October—but watch the forecast in fall, because a first-of-the-season snowstorm could dump several inches or more.
While we took four days, many backpackers would prefer to take seven to 10 days for this 86-mile hike north of Tuolumne Meadows.
From Tuolumne Meadows, hike a counter-clockwise route of 86.2 miles, finishing at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at the west end of Tenaya Lake, with options for a shorter last day. (You could reverse the direction of this route, too, starting at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead; but hiking nine waterless, hot miles up Rodgers Canyon would be even harder than descending it.) Follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) north to Glen Aulin, Virginia Canyon, and Matterhorn Canyon. Then hike up Matterhorn to Burro Pass, swing west to Mule Pass and Rock Island Pass—leaving the park and passing through a corner of the Hoover Wilderness—and hike up the Rancheria Creek Valley and over a low divide into Kerrick Canyon.
Turn south on the PCT to Benson Lake and the junction with the Rodgers Canyon Trail, and follow the latter southwest to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Continue up the canyon back to Glen Aulin, then turn west for May Lake. I highly recommend making the optional 3.6-mile, 1,600-foot, out-and-back side hike up 10,850-foot Mount Hoffmann, following a steep user trail not shown on maps but marked by cairns. Backtrack to May Lake, descend to Tioga Pass Road, and walk east less than a mile along the road 1to your car at Sunrise Lakes Trailhead.
Getting There Leave your car where this trip ends, at the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at the west end of Tenaya Lake. Then take the park shuttle bus to the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center, cross the road, and walk a short distance east to start the hike at the Glen Aulin/PCT Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows.
For information about public transportation options in and around Yosemite, see http://ift.tt/2cdGvSD.
Shuttle Service Tuolumne Meadows has a convenient shuttle bus connecting trailheads that operates from June through mid-September. See http://ift.tt/2cdFtWU.
Permit Yosemite issues backcountry permits based on a quota system of hikers starting at each trailhead. You can reserve a permit up to 24 weeks (168 days) before your hike’s starting date; fax in your permit application early on the first day they begin accepting applications for your dates. For each trailhead, 60 percent of available permits can be reserved in advance, while the remaining 40 percent are available on a first-come, first-served basis no earlier than 11 a.m. the day before your hike begins, as long as permits are available. (See http://ift.tt/2cdFHNR and my “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”)
Map Trails Illustrated Yosemite no. 206, $11.95, (800) 962-1643, rei.com.
Guidebook Yosemite National Park, by Jeffrey Schaffer, $20, Wilderness Press, (800) 443-7227, wildernesspress.com.
∞ A bear canister is required for food storage when backcountry camping in Yosemite or anywhere in the High Sierra. Canisters are available for loan at the park’s Wilderness Centers, including the one in Tuolumne Meadows, where you will pick up your backcountry permit.
∞ Water is plentiful enough along much of the route, but there are waterless stretches, the longest of which are the nine miles from Rodgers Canyon to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and along the PCT north from Glen Aulin to Virginia Canyon. Estimate how long it will take you to hike those sections and carry enough water.
∞ High Sierra summer afternoons can be very hot, and high elevation and the dearth of shade magnify the effects of the heat. Wear a wide-brim hat, stay well hydrated, start early to hike in the cool morning hours, and don’t overpack. I also prefer wearing lightweight shoes or boots on trips that are hot and often dry.
∞ Mosquitoes are thick in summer until mid- to late August.
Good Eats Post- and/or pre-trip, scarf a dinner of the world-famous fish tacos and a breakfast burrito at the Whoa Nellie Deli, in the Mobil station at the junction of CA 120 and US 395 in Lee Vining, 30 minutes from Tuolumne outside Yosemite’s east entrance; whoanelliedeli.com.
Contact Yosemite National Park, (209) 372-0200, nps.gov/yose.
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