Trip Report: Scouting the Yosemite High Route

Mt. Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite. Russell Pass, a hard Class 2 over the Cathedral Range, is the low spot on the far-right ridge, to the right of the small tower.

Last month I had two goals for a 9-day backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park. First, to simply enjoy what is likely to be my only solo trip in 2018. This year I will spend about 55 nights out, but the bulk of them will be on guided and private group trips that come with responsibilities and compromises that solo trips do not.

And, second, to scout the Yosemite High Route. I went in open-minded, uncertain if it would even be merited by the topography and terrain. But I suspected that it was, and hoped that I would finish with a sense for exactly where it should go (and not go), and how it could be best completed as a thru-hike and in sections.

Upper Spiller Canyon, as seen from below Twin Peaks Pass, which probably won’t be part of the recommended route unless you adore loose scree.

I hiked through Yosemite in 2006 and 2007 on the Pacific Crest Trail, in 2008 on the Sierra High Route, and in 2011 on the John Muir Trail. But I didn’t appreciate Yosemite’s true grandeur or size — or realize the potential for a standalone high route — until 2012, when I led three week-long trips into areas I’d never been, like the Clark Range and the upper canyons of the Tuolumne River.

A bee on Sierra butterweed above Grace Meadow in Falls Creek.

The process

Development of a high route takes time. It starts with research: in this case, pouring over topographic maps and Landsat imagery in CalTopo, filling in details with the help of Secor and High Sierra Topix, and consulting rangers and other avid Yosemite backcountry users. Personal familiarity with the area made this step much more efficient — I already knew where to start looking.

Then, the fun part: weeks or months (depending on your pace and the route length) in the field, hiking a preliminary route and alternates (some of which will prove superior and become the recommended route), forwards and backwards, in different seasons (and, eventually, in different years), with other people of different abilities, and at least once in its entirety.

Chips of obsidian found below Tower Peak, a reminder that every single segment of an eventual Yosemite High Route has been traveled on before, by Miwok indians, sheep herders, park rangers, and backcountry enthusiasts.

Finally, there is the guidebook, which is a project of its own. I expect that a complete first edition — with preparatory information, a route description, datasheets and maps for a thru-hike and section-hikes, and a rudimentary GPX file — will require 100+ hours to produce. (It’ll be a good winter 2018-19 project.) As more user feedback comes in, a revised second edition becomes necessary.

Overall, it’s a lot of work, and time-wise it’d be more financially fruitful for me to focus on other projects, like guiding trips or writing product reviews. But I love every step of the process, and would do it full time if I could.

Upper Matterhorn Canyon, on the link-up between Burro Pass and Matterhorn Pass

Overview: Yosemite High Route

Where the boundary of Yosemite National Park overlaps with the Sierra Crest, from Dorothy Lake Pass in the north to Rodgers Peak in the south, there exists a world-class high route around the upper headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers that stays entirely within the park.

Fireweed in upper Stubblefield Canyon

South of Rodgers Peak, the park boundary straddles the divide between the upper Merced and the North Fork of the San Joaquin, two major west-bound rivers. This topography remains conducive to a high route to Triple Divide Peak, beyond which the watershed divide and boundary fade into less interesting foothills.

Alpenglow, with Foerster Peak prominent across Harriet Lake

Thankfully, here the seldom visited Clark Range t-bones the boundary, providing worthy terrain for another ten miles.

Obelisk Lake is perched in a hanging valley below Mt. Clark, two miles and 2,500 vertical feet away from the closest trail and guarded by sheer granite walls, extensive talus, and manzanita thickets.

North and west of Dorothy Lake Pass, the park boundary roughly follows the watershed divide between the Tuolumne and Clavey Rivers, the latter of which drains Emigrant Wilderness. I spent one day in this area and found it to be wild and pretty, but not sufficiently dramatic. Perhaps it will be offered as an Extra Credit segment.

Otter Lake, looking north towards Tower Peak. This area was pretty and wild, but not on par with the remainder of the route.

So “the good stuff” (understatement) on the Yosemite High Route runs for about 95 miles and lies between:

  • Grace Meadow, in upper Falls Creek, a few miles downstream of where the Pacific Crest Trail exits the northern park boundary at Dorothy Lake Pass; and,
  • Quartzite Peak, at the north tip of the Clark Range, which presents a commanding view of the Cathedral Range across the Merced and downstream into Yosemite Valley.

A rarely seen sight: the headwaters of the Lyell Fork of the Merced, as seen from Foerster Ridge Pass.

The route is majestic, remote, and largely off-trail, but still technically practical for a backpacker. It shares just one pass with the Sierra High Route and utilizes the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail for only a half-mile. The wilderness experience matches and sometimes exceeds that of other established high routes like Roper’s, the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, Wind River High Route, Glacier Divide Route, and Pfiffner Traverse.

Alpenglow on Mt. Conness, a prominent peak on the Sierra Crest north of Tuolumne Meadows, with a perfectly split boulder.

Tioga Road (CA-120), the east-west tourist highway that traverses the park, splits the Yosemite High Route in half. At Tuolumne Meadows, a broad plain at 8,500 feet through which the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River meanders, there is a wilderness permit station, post office, store and grill, and multiple trailheads.

A typical camp: cowboy camping (no shelter), tucked in among trees for wind protection and thermal cover. I carried a mid tarp and didn’t set it up once.

The dilemma that I am currently pondering is where to start and end the route. Logistically, Tuolumne is the best option. From there, the route can be undertaken as a North Loop or South Loop, or in its entirety in a figure-8. In this latter case, Tuolumne can serve as a mid-trip resupply.

By starting and finishing at Tuolumne Meadows, you can undertake the Yosemite High Route as a North Loop, South Loop, or Figure 8 with a resupply in the middle.

Qualitatively, Tuolumne is probably the rightful southern terminus, too. An excellent low-use route via Echo Creek can be followed for 15 miles to the base of the Clark Range, avoiding the dusty stock highways over Cathedral, Tuolumne, and Vogelsang Passes. The alternative is Yosemite Valley, but I’m reluctant for many reasons.

Echo Creek offers a quiet route between the Clark Range and Tuolumne Meadows, and is more consistent with a high route than the dusty horse highways over Cathedral and Tuolumne Passes.

The northern terminus is more up for debate. The two closest options are on Highway 108, Leavitt Meadow and Sonora Pass, at 17 miles and 21 miles. It’s a little bit further to Grace Meadows from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, 23 miles, but it’d be an easier hitch or shuttle. Finally, from Tuolumne Meadows there are two possibilities, both 48 miles: the Pacific Crest Trail and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.

I chose the Grand Canyon, because Tuolumne Meadows is the most logistically convenient option and because I — probably like most other prospective Yosemite High Route hikers — have already completed the PCT through the park. Even in late-August after a dry winter, the Grand Canyon is spectacular, with countless waterfalls, lovely riverside camps, and imposing granite walls.

Waterwheel Falls. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne has countless slides, drops, and pools, and more swimming holes than there are summer days.

26 Responses to Trip Report: Scouting the Yosemite High Route

  1. HUNTER HALL September 4, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

    Can’t wait! Love that part of the park.

  2. Michael September 4, 2018 at 4:46 pm #

    Any chance we could see a gear list from your high route exploration? Just out of curiosity.

    • Andrew Skurka September 4, 2018 at 4:57 pm #

      Yes, I’ll try to get it posted soon.

      • Alex Wallace September 5, 2018 at 12:29 pm #

        Speaking of gear, do I spy a Hanchor Marl?

        The headwaters of the LFMR are absolutely sublime and one of my favorite areas in the Sierra.

  3. dgray September 4, 2018 at 5:41 pm #

    This looks like it will be an exciting new option. You have mentioned that the wilderness experience of this high route will rival or exceed others you have developed, but I was wondering if you could say something about how it compares in terms of difficulty. I realize you don’t have concrete numbers on metrics (like avg. elevation change per mile) since the route is not finished, but subjectively does it feel harder/easier/same ballpark as the others? Is the amount of class 3 terrain about the same? Does the limited distance on trails make it feel more physically taxing than other high routes? Thanks again for all the work you put in to these routes. For many of us they are a stimulating, “next step” extension of our backpacking.

    • Andrew Skurka September 4, 2018 at 9:38 pm #

      There are three hard passes:
      Matterhorn (loose Class 2 or airy Class 3 with fall consequences)
      Stanton (Class 3 scramble) or Twin Lakes (loose Class 2), and
      Russell (a lot of talus if it’s not snow covered)

      The others are not easy, but they’re not as technical or tedious.

      The route down the Tuolumne and up to Grace Meadow is entirely on-trail, but there’s a lot of vert, and it can get very hot at the lower elevations.

      From Grace Meadow to TM the route is like a sawtooth, up and down up and down up and down. Often the next pass is staring you in the face from the pass that you’re on, across the canyon.

      The South Loop has three big ups: to Russell, to the Clark Range, and over the Cathedral Range.

  4. Sonja September 4, 2018 at 6:26 pm #

    Game on summer 2019!! Amazing Andrew, totally excited!

    • Dave September 4, 2018 at 7:10 pm #

      We’ll have to race each other to get there Sonja!

      • Sonja September 4, 2018 at 7:59 pm #

        Oooo.. but i live in Cali… #closer

  5. Paul McFarlane September 5, 2018 at 8:27 am #

    This sounds great! We did 3.5 sections of Roper’s SHR NOBO this summer (had to bail over Paiute Pass to Bishop for 2 days because partner got AMS at Mesa Lake, resumed at Devil’s Postpile). We are finishing it next summer, and can’t wait to try a new high route! Thanks Andrew (BTW your mapset was great, also customized your databook and used your Suunto watch system).

  6. Doug September 5, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    Looks like an interesting route and certainly sounds like you’ve had a good time out there. Unfortunately, I fear that wilderness becomes less and less wild with every one of these “guides” that comes out. The traffic these things generate isn’t trivial by any means. There are places in the Wind River Range where I never saw other people but now I see them all the time. They all say, “oh I’m doing the high route!” Which is good and bad. I’m glad they are able to experience many of the same places I also enjoy, but now there are fire rings, trash, poop and all sorts of things that go against basic leave no Trace principles. I am not arguing against the creation of these “routes” or with the sharing of certain details, but I do wonder how we can do so with the least unintended consequences and harmful impacts. One option is the “sierra high route” approach where a philosophy and a general route are given as inspiration and limited beta, without camp sites being specified, or exact tracks being provided. I don’t know what level of detail you intend to get into here, but that decision could be very consequential for the wilderness and the hiker’s experience of it.

    • Andrew Skurka September 5, 2018 at 9:06 am #

      I share these concerns, and think it’d be very worthwhile to have a conversation about how information can be shared without contributing unnecessarily to the effects of more use, which definitely does happen when guides like this are published.

      Thanks, BTW, for seeing both sides of this issue. Some take the position that (to paraphrase), “The Winds and High Sierra were perfect when I first found them, and you all are ruining it.”

      I wonder if there’s more that can be done besides what you listed. My guides don’t list campsites, provide a recommended itinerary, or include a GPX file with an exact route. This is intentional, because of the overuse concerns and because I think guides should be helpful and instructive without robbing the user of flexibility and adventure.

      • PackmanPete September 8, 2018 at 12:41 pm #

        I say, the more routes, the better. Anything to get people off the JMT/PCT. In the early 80’s, before the days of permits, I would go to Roads End in Kings Canyon, hike up the trails, then use the topo map to explore the high country. Even then you could come across cairns, fire rings, TP and garbage. It is what it is. Keep up the good work.

        • Andrew Skurka September 11, 2018 at 11:33 am #

          I’ve heard that too, from Brian Robinson and Alan Dixon, who started backpacking in the High Sierra in the 1970’s as kids. More of a free-for-all back then, and much better distributed use. Now, it seems that particular corridors get hammered, but it’s a giant wilderness everywhere else.

    • Adrian September 5, 2018 at 6:17 pm #

      I 100% agree – I have seen the SHR change over the years. Use trails are developing and trash is being left behind. I love Roper’s approach, however, it is very easy to find GPX files and maps with the basic route.

      I don’t fool myself thinking I should enjoy it alone and no one else, however, I usually do not publicly share information about x-country routes. I prefer to let others self-discover which is part of the fun and challenge.

      Andrew – regardless of coordinates, the overview map you provided (as well as this write up) is enough info for most to figure it out. As you sell guides as well as services, there is definitely a profit motive for sharing this info.

  7. Joe September 5, 2018 at 8:12 pm #

    …I am once again planning my next western trip and Cali is looking pretty high on the list.

  8. sadface September 6, 2018 at 4:50 am #

    At this point in time (since you havent created the guide yet..), how many options do you foresee there being for section hikers? People who want a taste of a high route but wanna take it easy and take photos, for instance

    • Andrew Skurka September 6, 2018 at 7:23 am #

      I think there are about six section-hikes: the full North and South Loop, plus two halves of each loop (so four total) = 6.

  9. Christy Rosander September 6, 2018 at 8:30 am #

    Thank you for the enormous amount of work in creating this route. I have longingly looked toward the Clarke Range from winter trips from the Glacier Point Road. Now that might become a reality. I am looking forward to hiking the route! Thank you again.

  10. John Dittli September 24, 2018 at 1:47 pm #

    Been doing the Crown of Yosemite (HR) for years, nothing new, but a nice trip.

    • Andrew Skurka September 28, 2018 at 10:17 pm #

      It’s too obvious of a route for people not to have done. But I have yet to find any good info about it. Any links?

      I met an old couple out there, Buck and Judy I think their names were. They had hiked out of Twin Lakes and I crisscrossed them west of west of Kerrick Meadow. They were heading north towards Tilden on the same route. Said they’d done it about 20 years earlier, too.

  11. Luke October 7, 2018 at 4:00 am #

    What does airy class 3 (in your comments above) mean and in general do you have resource describing the class rating system? Thanks

    • Andrew Skurka October 8, 2018 at 4:12 pm #

      Class 1 = maintained trails
      Class 2 = uneven surfaces, rock-hopping, no hands
      Class 3 = scrambling, with required use of hands

      Airy = sense of exposure

      Some passes are airy even if they are not technically difficult.

  12. Chris Ramias October 12, 2018 at 10:26 am #

    Curious if you have stumbled across the Weminuche High Route that was published some years ago in Backpacker. It appears very much in the veins of these routes you’re developing, but has flown under the radar compared to the Sierra or Wind River high route.

    • Andrew Skurka October 12, 2018 at 12:15 pm #

      Steve Howe has been ticking off high route-type routes for a while, too.

      I have looked extensively at the San Juan’s with an eye for this type of route, but haven’t gotten down there to field research anything. The huge vertical relief and sharp ridgelines make it difficult — very often, you need to fight against the grain in order to stay high, because there are few soft spots in the ridges or pass-and-valley routes parallel to the crests.

      I don’t know of anyone who has tried this route. It goes to show that for it to be a “thing,” it really needs to have developed resources. Without a print-ready field guide, each person has to take on a huge amount of work (e.g. making the maps, researching the route, figuring out the logistics). Some will do it, but a lot of people don’t have the skills, patience, or free time for that.

  13. Tyler Meester December 26, 2018 at 6:38 pm #

    Just my personal opinion, but one of the things I (and most people, I suspect) cherished most about the Sierra High Route was the isolation. Not seeing anyone made it feel so… adventurous and wild. My group and I voluntarily used only map and compass, along with Roper’s book, to navigate the terrain despite the fact that we could easily use phone GPS and downloaded maps to (almost) mindlessly stumble through the route. My fear is that continued development of online resources will popularize these areas to the point that they will all be blown out like the John Muir Trail, and that they will attract people who have no business being in the true backcountry (people who ought to be sticking to the JMT). I’m sure we have all had the experience of being thankful to get off the JMT after dealing with the hordes of hikers while doing the SHR. In Roper’s book he describes his uncertainty about even publishing his book for similar reasons, but was confident that those with the skills to navigate using map and compass would respect the remoteness and serenity of the adventure. When it comes to GPS maps, though, there is not that filter of skill/ability. Yes the hikes may still be physically demanding no matter what resources you use, but it is still opening up the floodgates to many more inexperienced and uneducated hikers with these sorts of guides, and THAT destroys one of the most beautiful aspects of these adventures. I’m not trying to be some elitest dickwad, but these are serious concerns I have and I just felt compelled to share my thoughts. I guess, in my eyes, I can get more behind a guide that is more akin to what Roper made for the SHR, because at least the people who don’t know how to respect these areas and navigate confidently will be scared off. I’m sure these are things you have contemplated, and I don’t want to rain on your parade. Just, please, don’t make these things too easy. You may be able to pull in some income doing what you love, but at what cost to the rest of us? No hard feelings, just expressing my concerns.

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