Backpacking North Rim Yosemite Valley

A 3 day backpacking trip up Yosemite Falls Trail to North Dome, over to Mount Watkins, and finally down Snow Creek Trail, down the side of Tenaya Canyon, back to Yosemite Valley. Doing this in the early season before Tioga Pass is open means relative solitude, with unbeatable views of the valley and Half Dome.

The weekend after memorial weekend I headed to Yosemite Valley for 4 nights, a 3 night backpacking trip along the north rim of the valley followed by a long day hike along the south rim. Due to the huge amount of snowfall at high elevations in the Sierra the rivers and waterfalls were all charged and the park service was expecting record visitors over memorial weekend. As Tioga Pass is still closed for the season, as it’s being ploughed, I hoped the north rim would be relatively quiet for backpacking, with the only trailheads coming from the valley.

I’ve got a routine for heading to the Sierra for quick weekend trips that involves packing everything up the night before, heading to bed early, getting up and leaving the house between 3:30 and 4am, pulling into Ryderz in Oakdale at opening time at 5:30, grabbing a big breakfast, and then riding into the sunrise to get to the mountains between 8 and 9, as the wilderness offices are opening for the morning.

I got to Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center shortly after 9 as it had just opened to pick up a permit for the Yosemite Falls trailhead. The day I arrived was the first day of the season that the park had put up the cables for Half Dome and was issuing Half Dome permits, and so there were a lot of people heading to Little Yosemite Valley. I parked my bike, got my gear in order, and hit the trail shortly before 10.

Upper Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Falls trail. As the trail continues to climb mist from the supercharged falls sprayed the trail.

Day 1

From the base of Yosemite Falls there’s a great view of both the lower and upper falls. At 2,425 ft Yosemite Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world, and the tallest in Yosemite. The trail is a short way west of the base and the switchbacks start right away, climbing all 2,425 of those feet, up the side of Yosemite valley. On the way up there are glimpses down the valley which continue to get more impressive as the trail climbs. The waterfall doesn’t become visible until the trail is already clear of the lower falls, and the curve in the trail first opens up to views of Half Dome.

Looking down at Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls from Yosemite Point which is just above the falls.

From here there’s more and more switchbacks until, finally, the trail curves around to a granite ledge on the west side of the falls. The trail continues slightly down the granite, where the park service has put up steel railings, to overlook the mouth of the falls. There are panoramic views down to the valley floor. Up to here there are a lot of day hikers, and even though it’s only a relatively short walk up to Yosemite Point on the east side of the river most of the hikers turned around without coming here, and after Yosemite Point the day hikers disappeared, and I had the trail completely to myself.

There’s a little more climbing from here, but the steep switchbacks have finished, and it’s mostly flat over to North Dome. The trail follows through forested areas, wades through two stream crossings, through a burn area, and up a short climb to just over 7,600 ft at the end of Indian Ridge, and the trail junction. From here North Dome is visible, jutting out into the valley, with Half Dome looming tall behind. The trail drops down over clean granite, a small wooded area, and out to climb to the top of the dome.

I had the entire dome to myself, since leaving Yosemite Point I’d only seen a single pair of hikers heading in the other direction. When 120 opens I expect this is a popular day hike, but from the valley floor this is a strenuous trip. It was late afternoon so I found a campsite, set up my tent, filtered water, and rested my legs. I thought I’d managed to avoid the worst of the bugs, but by early evening I was proved wrong, and escaped to my tent to get away from the cloud of mosquitos and had an early night.

Day 2

On the second day I headed from North Dome back to Indian Ridge and along the granite ridgeline. As I got over 8,000 feet I started to hit snow. Around a mile and a half along there’s a junction and a small side trail to a natural arch, perched on the top of a large piece of rock. It was too steep and snowy on the north slope behind the arch to go around, but there was a great view from the south side.

From here the trail starts to drop down to the divide between two creeks and another trail junction. Taking Snow Creek Trail, which true to its name was covered in snow, there were a couple of sets of footprints already in the snow. The trail follows Snow Creek down, as it continues to grow in size, eventually to a footbridge, and over to the other side. Right as the snow started to peter out the trail butted up to the creek, and it was really flowing. At the steeper sections, as trail switched back, the water roared as it cascaded down small waterfalls and rapids.

Water cascading down Snow Creek, there were multiple mini rapids in the steeper sections.

The footbridge is a little way down the trail and as it crosses over, the trail heads back up the other side. I was originally considering aiming towards Olmsted Point, but was playing it by ear; Olmsted Point is a known avalanche hotspot and I didn’t want anything to do with potential avalanche zones, so I was going to play it cautious and see what the conditions looked like when I got there. As I was heading up I ran into another backpacker going the same direction who had started from the valley that day and was spending multiple days in the backcountry. She was heading up to Mount Watkins on the first night, and I decided to change my plans and hike up alongside, and stay here instead, and when I arrived I was glad to have made that decision.

Snow Creek Cabin, a winter cabin that was still surrounded by snow.

As we got up to the creek crossing we decided not to cross, the creek was running quite quickly and the trail along the other side was covered in snow anyway, so there was no reason to do so. It wasn’t long until we came across the snow cabin, originally built in the 1920s with the idea for being the start of a ski resort, the resort was never built, but the cabin survives, and the park service fixed it up a few years ago for winter use for backcountry hikers. By May it was already closed for the season.

The hike up to Mount Watkins is easiest to first follow the trail/creek up to the ridge, and then along the ridge to the peak. As we neared the top the sun had already melted all the snow on the south side and walking again on granite instead of sun cupped snow was a relief. From the top there were amazing views up Tenaya Canyon and across the snow-capped peaks of the high country, as well as over to Half Dome and up Yosemite Valley. Every 20 minutes or so sounds echoed around Tenaya Canyon of falls, either rock or snow, each time we tried to look for the source but couldn’t quite discern it. It wasn’t until later, in the early evening, that I finally caught sight of snow sliding off a ridge and crashing down into the canyon, exploding over the rocks below.

Day 3

The first section of the last day is retracing the steps back down to the footbridge over Snow Creek, and from here the trail starts to rapidly lose all the height gained on the first day, with an equally large number of switchbacks. All the way down there are great views of Half Dome and down into Tenaya Canyon. In contrast to the path up to Yosemite Falls though this trail was deserted, I passed a couple of backpackers and a lone day hiker. The views were just as impressive, but there’s no great payoff at the destination, as with the falls.

The trail eventually drops into the canyon floor and joins up with Yosemite Valley Loop Trail. Around a mile from the junction it arrives at Mirror Lake. By this point we’re basically back to civilisation again, and the trail is abound with day hikers. Mirror Lake is a popular destination, but after the scenery I experienced in the backcountry it just seemed overwhelmingly crowded.

From Mirror Lake the Yosemite Loop Trail leads all the way back around to the start, to complete the loop. I have never been on the loop trail before and it sounds quite magical, but it’s anything but, there’s not really great views from along it, it’s just a way of getting from A to B, it’s mostly just long and flat.

This was the end of my backpacking trip, but I stayed overnight at the backpackers’ campsite to do the south rim hike the following day. The campsite is north of Tenaya Creek from North Pines Campground, and normally there’s a footbridge over the creek to get to the site, but the large amount of water caused the creek to overflow its banks and spill out on the campsites on both sides. It was only a few feet over the banks so only a few campsites were closed but the detour around was not welcome after a long day hiking.

A family of deer crossed over the flooded Tenaya Creek at the Backpackers campsite in Yosemite Valley just as I was leaving in the morning.

The next morning as I packed up I decided to just wade over to the bridge, which itself wasn’t submerged, and then wade across the other side. Just as I was about to step in a large family of deer came ambling through the campsite in single file and crossed the bridge ahead of me. Usually deer flee before you get anywhere near but the deer in Yosemite have little fear of humans, and mostly ignore park visitors, as they carry on their way. The water across was frigid, my feet hurt by the time I got to the other side, but I saved a mile detour, as I headed out for the day.

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