Yosemite NatioNal Park
Yosemite National Park is world famous for its awe-inspiring landscapes with soaring mountains, lush wilderness, and iconic landmarks like El Capitan and Half Dome. The history of the National Park system in the United States started at Yosemite when John Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a guided hike throughout the park in 1903, trying to plead with the president that government action is needed to protect America's natural treasures. The trip worked.
"There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias...our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their Children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred," Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt definitely got this one right. The natural gem of Yosemite National Park is the property of all citizens and is rightfully protected. I was lucky enough to get to spend a week hiking throughout this national park. In this guide, I will give you all the information on how to hike a particular portion of the park that we were lucky enough to explore. Yosemite covers hundreds of square miles, only allowing us to scratch the surface in what it has to offer.
Getting To Yosmemite
Definitely, the easiest way to access Yosemite National Park is by car. From San Francisco, it is about 3-4 hour drive. But for those hoping to utilize public transportation, it is definitely possible.
Getting Your Permits
Yosemite National Park covers nearly 1,200 square miles. There is a great variety of trails available to backpackers looking to get away from the tourists that occupy Yosemite Valley. So there are tons of different trails that you should consider.
STEP 1: Determine potential routes
The Mono Meadow to Yosemite Valley trek I completed was an excellent option. But there are plenty of other routes to consider. Different sections of the park vary significantly by terrain, length, and included sites. I cannot claim to be an expert to all the different areas of Yosemite, but will guide you to the helpful resources I used in planning this trip:
A great resource to select different trail options. Use this as a starting point to determine a priority list for potential itineraries.
National Geographic's Map of Yosemite is essential for planning your adventure to Yosemite. Very helpful to get a detailed overview of the park!
STEP 2: Check Availability for the Trailhead
For backcountry permits at Yosemite National Park, you only need to specify your trailhead to enter the park. It is not necessary to know beforehand where you will be camping along the way. The National Park Service regulates the amount of people in the park by limiting the people that enter a trailhead every day. For most areas of the park, you can camp anywhere you like, provided you follow all the regulations.
Check out the National Park Service's Resources:
STEP 3: Apply for Wilderness Permit Reservation
You can apply for the permit reservation lottery 24 weeks in advance of the hiking date. Popular trailheads will fill up very quickly, so it is important for you to plan far in advance. But if you within 24 weeks of departure, you will likely find a route, but it won't be your number one choice. I would suggest calling their office at 209-372-0740, the rangers know in real time what is booked and what isn’t, and can make suggestions based on your itinerary.
We didn’t get our “first choice” for trailhead but still were able to do the hike we wanted to do. Just look for nearby trailheads and adjust accordingly!
If you're not able to secure a reservation, permits are available on a first come, first served basis starting at 11 am on the day before the intended hiking date.
If you want to include the Half Dome hike, you need a Half Dome Permit. When you submit your wilderness permit reservation, indicate you want the half dome permit included. This is VERY POPULAR, and involves a serious lottery system. We unfortunately did not plan far enough in advance to secure the permit ourselves. To climb half dome, you need to either get an advance permit, or get lucky and secure one of the 25 available "First Come First Serve" permits that can be claimed one day in advance. The lottery wasn't an option for us since the day before we would be at Half Dome, we would be inside the park and nowhere near the ranger station to try to claim a permit. So the lottery will only be an option if the day before you climb half dome you will have access to the Ranger Station.
Full details on reserving wilderness permits can be found HERE
Mono Meadow to Yosemite Valley Itinerary
Day 1: Yosemite Valley to Mono Meadow Trailhead
Mono Meadow Trailhead
From Yosemite Valley, there are no shuttle routes to get to the Mono Meadow Trailhead. If you traveled to Yosemite Valley via Public Transportation, the best way to get to Mono Meadow is by hitch hiking. This was actually recommended directly from the park rangers. Hitchhiking is pretty common throughout Yosemite Park, but of course is always a safety risk. To get to Mono Meadow, we waited by the west exit of the park, where cars were either returning back to San Francisco, or were driving to other sections of the park. Glacier Point is a popular site in Yosemite. Anyone traveling from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point will pass the Mono Meadow Trailhead. So we had a cardboard sign with Glacier Point written on it and were quickly picked up by a nice couple heading that way.
It will take almost an hour to drive from the valley to the Mono Meadow trailhead. After the time required to arrive to Yosemite Valley and acquire our permits, it was almost 4:00PM by the time we arrived at the trailhead.
Yosemite has a four mile requirement for all backcountry camping from any trailhead. So we had to hike at least four miles before we could set up camp. The hike is relatively flat, and is the one place where we encountered a bear! Once you get to approximately four miles, keep your eye out for a good place to set up camp. You should be able to find a stream nearby to fill up water.
Day 1 Campsite, 4 miles from Mono Meadow
Day 2: Hike to Royal Arch Lake
Day 2 of our Yosemite journey was a great test of our endurance. With a nice steady uphill for almost 8 miles, this was a tough first full day. The diversity of the terrain in this area of Yosemite National Park is truly amazing. The hike moves from thick luscious forest to arid fields to rocky mountain faces. We stopped for lunch around mile 5 and needed a good break to get our energy back for the rest of the day. At mile 7.2 you will find the beautiful Buena Vista Lake. Take a break here and take a swim!
Buena Vista Lake
Finish Day 2 with another 2.5 miles to Royal Arch Lake. There are not any designated campsites, but you will be able to see spots that previous hikers thought was a good idea.
Royal Arch Lake
Day 3: Royal Arch Lake to Lower Ottoway Lake
Day 3 is a 10 mile day with a series of ups and downs, and ends at the incredibly beautiful Lower Ottoway Lake. Start the day early, making it to Upper Merced Pass Lake a little after lunchtime.
Upper Merced Pass Lake
From Upper Merced Pass Lake to Lower Ottoway Lake is full of "False Summits." You will think you are reaching the finish line, but up comes another hill to climb. But after between 1-2 hours your hard work will be rewarded with one of my favorite campsites of all time.
Lower Ottoway Lake
Day 4: Lower Ottoway Lake to Mystery Lake
Day 4 doesn't cover a lot of mileage, but the elevation gain makes this the most physically intensive hike of the trip. The hike from Lower Ottoway Lake to the Red Peak Pass Summit will take you up endless switchbacks with incredible views of the surrounding mountains.
Hike up to Red Peak Pass Summit
Red Peak Pass Summit
We didn't know exactly where we would camp that night, but happened to find a beautiful, unnamed lake that became our home that night. The flexibility of choosing your campsite is one of the great parts of backpacking in Yosemite. We could have gotten more miles done this day, but the ascent to Red Peak Pass was very taxing and caused to to stop a bit earlier than we expected. See my google map to see exactly where this lake is located.
Day 5: Mystery Lake to Merced Lake
Day 5 from the Mystery Lake to Merced Lake is a lot of downhill that will test your knees. You will finish the descent from Red Peak Pass Summit and hike almost 9 miles before reaching Washburn Lake. Washburn was one of the largest and most beautiful lakes we encountered.
Merced Lake Campground is one of the few sites in Yosemite where you are required to camp within their designated area. Unfortunately you cannot put your tent up wherever you like, but there are a few resources such as fresh water and an outhouse that are convenient.
Day 6: Merced Lake to Little Yosemite Valley Campground
If you have trekking poles, you will certainly be using them heavily today. Overall the day will put 8.5 miles on your boots and lose over 1100 feet of elevation. It took us most of the day to finish the day and our legs certainly took a beating. But the views of the valley were absolutely gorgeous and make you forget about how you've been hiking for six days.
The arid landscape on this section of Yosemite was striking to us. Similar to Merced Lake Campgound, Little Yosemite Valley Campground requires you to camp in a designated site. This is a very popular camping spot and will be a striking difference compared to the rest of the trip because you are getting close to the valley where all the tourists take their day hikes. Enjoy the solitude along the hike today before you meet the masses at Little Yosemite.
Day 7: Little Yosemite Valley Campground to Yosemite Valley
Some of the best views of the trip will be found on the section between Little Yosemite Valley Campground to Yosemite Valley. There are spectacular waterfalls and views of Half Dome. But since you are now in an area that can be easily accessed from Yosemite Valley, the crowds will be a turnoff. Those that have permits for Half Dome will find the entrance to Half Dome a mile or two away from the campground.
Little Yosemite Valley