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.

Panorama Loop in Yosemite

A long hike with some of the best and most extensive views of Yosemite Valley. Starting at the valley floor, climbing up the Mist Trail and past Vernal and Nevada Falls, following the Panorama Trail round, over Illilouette Fall, and around to Glacier Point, before dropping back down to the valley floor via Four Mile Trail.

I did this loop on the last day of a four-day trip to Yosemite. I’ve been up the Mist Trail multiple times in the past, it’s one of Yosemite’s most popular trails, and for good reason. I got to the trailhead early to try to beat the crowds. Still, at 6 in the morning there were multiple groups of people who had the same idea and were heading up the trail alongside me. With the snow melt from the huge snowpack this winter the rivers were swollen, and the waterfalls promised to be spectacular.

The trail starts at Happy Isles as the John Muir Trail (JMT), following the Merced River up to Nevada Fall. It’s paved for the first mile, up to a bridge over the Merced. Then, as the John Muir Trail splits off, the Mist Trail turns into granite steps that climb steeply besides Vernal Fall. There was a huge volume of water pouring over the falls, and walking up the steps the spray was more like rain than mist. I was completely soaked by the time I got to the top.

Above Vernal Fall there is another steep climb that ends with another set of granite steps, alongside Nevada Fall. The trail isn’t as close to the water here, as the valley is much wider, but there’s still great views of fall on the way up. At the top of Nevada Fall there’s a bridge that crosses back over the Merced right before the river plunges over the edge.

In a little under 3 miles the trail is now 2,000 ft above the valley floor. Another short section of the JMT connects over to the Panorama Trail, and switchbacks carry up and over to Illilouette Fall. On this section of trail I had left all the people behind, and other than a few backpackers I had the trail to myself for a few miles.

On the way up Panorama Trail there are glimpses back to Nevada Fall, as it starts to recede into the distance, and some views down into the valley. It’s not until after dropping down to Illilouette Fall, and climbing back up the other side, towards Glacier Point, that the views really start to open up in all directions; up the basin of Illilouette Creek, back to see both Vernal and Nevada Falls, and, on the other side of Half Dome, up Tenaya Canyon.

Nearing the top of Panorama Trail the number of people start to increase again, until, on reaching the high point of the hike, over 3,000 ft above the valley floor, there is suddenly an explosion of people at Glacier Point. And it’s hard to fault them, the vista across Yosemite Valley and its famous waterfalls and beyond is killer. I found a shaded spot and had sat down for lunch, taking in the view.

To complete the loop Four Mile Trail drops down over 3,ooo ft in a little more than 4 miles of many many switchbacks, back down to the valley floor. The trail here is relatively exposed, and I’m glad I wasn’t one of the many people I passed, climbing up in the afternoon sun. As the trail begins there’s a fantastic view down the valley, which isn’t visible from Glacier Point, of the sheer granite face of El Capitan as the Merced meanders through the forested floor. As the trail continues to drop the valley gets closer and closer until, finally, the trail joins up to the valley loop.

From here it’s a flat 2 mile walk back around to Happy Isles. The free valley shuttle could cut out most of this distance, but I wanted to complete the loop. In total the loop is a little over 16 miles with over 4,500 ft total elevation gain, but in exchange you get unbeatable views. This time of year, with the amount of water swelling the rivers and waterfalls, it was spectacular.

Hetch Hetchy to Lake Vernon

An overnight loop from Hetch Hetchy dam, up to Lake Vernon, and back down through Tiltill Valley, past Rancheria and Wapama Falls, and skirting Hetch Hetchy Reservoir back to the start. The spring temperatures are pleasant, and the lower elevation means it’s mostly snow free.

This past weekend, for my first trip to the Sierra this year, I headed to Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. I’ve never been to Hetch Hetchy before, although I have glimpsed the reservoir from the trail, while doing the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Spring time is the most popular time to visit this entrance; as it lies at a relatively low elevation so the snow melts earlier, and, also due to the elevation, it gets rather warm in the summer.

After an incredibly wet winter in California Yosemite received record snowfall and snowpack at the higher elevations, at 215% of average, but at the lower elevations, below around 8,500 ft, warmer temperatures produced a snowpack of only 150% of average. So as of May most of Yosemite is still under snow. But Hetch Hetchy, and the areas surrounding it, are mostly snow free.

I arrived at Hetch Hetchy around 8am to pick up my wilderness permit and chat with the ranger about the wilderness conditions. The ranger suggested a couple of destinations but I had my eye on Lake Vernon. The route up was entirely snow free, save for one or two small patches in shaded areas. However, to complete the loop requires climbing up and around Mount Gibson before dropping back down to Tiltill Valley, peaking at a little over 7,600 ft. This route still had quite a bit of snow over 7,000 ft. I had my snowshoes with me and the ranger suggested climbing up and having a look.

The loop starts right at the dam, crossing over and into a short tunnel blasted into the granite. After around a mile the trail starts switchbacking up, with pretty views of the O’Shaughnessy Dam, and then the reservoir falls out of sight as the trail continues to climb up to Beehive. Here is a trail junction to Laurel Lake, however the ranger had said the lake was closed, due to snowmelt, and he wasn’t wrong, this area was very very wet with pooled water and streams.

From Beehive there’s another gentle incline, over the drainage basin, and then the trail is mostly flat, walking across a large granite basin where the creek from Lake Vernon drains to become Wapama Falls. After around a mile the lake falls into view, and with the snow-capped mountains surrounding it, it was beautiful. The weather was warm, and I spent most the afternoon dozing on the warm granite with the view of the lake. I dropped down to the lake to filter some water and take a look from the shore, but headed a little way back up to camp overlooking the lake.

The route next day first crosses over the drainage from the lake, over a footbridge. The lake was completely overflowing, with the surrounding trees partially underwater. To get to the bridge I first had to wade through water spilling up before it, and boy was it cold. A shock to the system first thing in the morning. The water was really gushing underneath the footbridge, turning white as it cascaded over the granite below.

The trail then switchbacks up the slope of Mount Gibson. There was a fast flowing stream cascading down the granite, just past the apex of the switchbacks. There were great views across the lake and down the drainage from the trail.

After about 800 ft of climbing I hit the first patches of snow, and then as the tree cover started the trail disappeared under the snow completely. I strapped on my snowshoes, this was the first time I’ve used them. As the trail skirts around Mount Gibson there’s a further few hundred feet of climbing and then it contours around. Due to the snow no one else was coming this way so I got a real wilderness experience on this section of trail, which was a real treat, as Yosemite is usually teeming with backpackers.

I travelled a lot slower across the show, having to navigate without being able to see the trail. But it was only for around 2 miles, before crossing over a lush green meadow, and popping out of the treeline, and then the snow suddenly disappeared, replaced with dusty chaparral. From here the trail switchbacks down, dropping 2,000 ft from the peak, to the green meadows in Tiltill Valley.

From the valley there’s a small climb before another steep set of switchbacks down to Rancheria Falls, feeding into Hetch Hetchy. With the snow melt the falls were also gushing and white, with a huge volume of water emptying into the reservoir. There’s great campsites at Rancheria Falls, so long as you don’t mind falling asleep to the sound of waterfalls, but I was only spending one night, so I started the 7 mile trip around the side of Hetch Hetchy and back to the entrance.

As I was leaving the Rancheria Falls area I passed 2 day hikers and a pair of backpackers, but then for a few miles saw no one else. Considering it was just past midday on Sunday there were suspiciously few walkers here. After a few miles Tueeulala and Wapama Falls popped into view, and boy were they flowing. There was a huge amount of spray pouring off of Wapama Falls, not surprising considering the amount of water I saw flowing out of Lake Vernon.

The trail had been following around a few hundred feet above the reservoir, and just before the falls drops down a little to a series of bridges crossing over near the base of Wapama Falls. As I got closer I could see a group of people on the far side of the falls, but I still hadn’t seen a single hiker since the few near Rancheria Falls. I crossed over the first couple of bridges, and around a boulder, and the final bridge was inundated with water.

As no one was coming over I wasn’t sure if it was safe to cross over the bridge, so I backtracked and waited on the far side of the bridges. I figured either someone would cross over, or the day hikers I’d seen earlier in the day would come back and I’d be able to ask them how the bridge was like when they came across earlier in the day. I didn’t much fancy the idea of the alternative, which would be to retrace my route, 24 miles and over 7,000 ft of climbing back around. But I also didn’t much fancy attempting to cross a bridge that wasn’t safe.

It was only about 20 minutes later that the day hikers both happened to arrive almost at once, and had no fear walking straight over the bridge. They said it had been flooding when they came. So I followed suit, and got a soaking walking to the other side. In the end it didn’t feel unsafe as the water flooding across the bridge was mostly coming down and not flowing sideways. But on the other side, with the group of people, there were two park service rangers and a “trail closed” sign, which is why the far side was so free of people. The rangers said it was a “soft closure”, but that they were recommending against crossing given the conditions. The Wapama Falls had the most water they’ve had in many years. In the end it was all fine, and the quick rest combined with the soaking was very refreshing given the mid afternoon heat and sun beating down, and gave me a second wind for the final few miles back around to complete the loop.