Top

Where should the Yosemite High Route start and finish?

Harriet Lake alpenglow

As a distraction from more time-sensitive and critical work, recently I began drafting the Yosemite High Route Guide, which I’m planning to release in late-winter. This first edition will be about 90 percent right; it will need a revision after double- or triple- checking my work and field-researching some minor areas of interest in summer 2019.

As a numbers guy, I naturally start most projects with numbers. In this case, I created a best-guess primary route and multiple alternate routes in CalTopo, and then compiled distance and vertical data (e.g. on-trail, off-trail, and cumulative mileage; vertical gain, loss, and change per mile) into a spreadsheet. The resulting stats help in, for example, comparing the merits of two competing segments, and in creating recommended section-hikes that will be suitable for backpackers with different time frames, skill sets, and fitness levels.

Now with accurate data, I can confidently make final route decisions and proceed with other sections of the Guide, like the narrative description. With other high routes that I have developed, at this point any lingering decisions were pretty obvious.

But I’m still pondering fundamental aspects of the Yosemite High Route, and hoping that public feedback can help steer me.

Context

The “good stuff” on the Yosemite High Route lies between Grace Meadow in upper Falls Creek (just south of Dorothy Lake Pass, where the PCT exits the park) and Quartzite Peak (at the northern end of the Clark Range). This stretch is world-class and on par with the best sections of any other high route. It’s 112 miles (with 55 percent of it off-trail, and with up to 12 miles of continuous off-trail travel), and climbs or descends 585 vertical feet per mile. It emerges from wilderness only briefly, to cross Tioga Road at Tuolumne Pass.

The good stuff, in red

The debate is how to best access these two points, i.e. Where should the route start and finish? There are a half-dozen options, all with merits, none without flaws, and not one that is clearly best.

I suppose that the Yosemite High Route could “officially unofficially” start and end at Grace Meadow and Quartzite Peak. All the reasonable ways to reach these points could then be neutrally presented.

But I think the Guide will be more useful if it:

  1. Recommends a specific and complete route. Most people will follow the Guide exactly, so this route should be the generally best option.
  2. Provides information about alternatives, for those wanting to choose their own adventure or to tweak the route to fit their situation.

So let’s talk about these termini.

South terminus

I think the rightful southern terminus is fairly clear. But you tell me.

To reach Quartzite Peak, there are three potential routes:

  • From Yosemite Valley, via the John Muir Trail and Merced Lake Trail (13 miles).
  • From Tuolumne Meadows, via Echo Creek (17 miles); or,
  • From Tuolumne Meadows, via Rafferty Creek and Tuolumne Pass (21 miles).

The southern good stuff, in red, with three options termini options: two out of Tuolumne Meadows, and one out of Yosemite Valley.

Echo Creek would be my first pick, since it’s the most high route-like (i.e. largely off-trail, very low use, alpine terrain) and since it creates a loop, which is much more logistically convenient than a point-to-point itinerary (especially in this case, because you can “resupply” at Tuolumne Meadows by leaving food in a bear locker). However, the lower section of Echo Creek is impractical until mid-summer due to water levels (copious runoff in a tight canyon with a slab floor = major hazard), and NPS has asked specifically that I not promote it.

So that leaves the Tuolumne Pass and Yosemite Valley routes.

While the Yosemite Valley option is shorter, I’m inclined to go with Tuolumne Pass. First, it’s more high route-like, featuring several gorgeous lakes (e.g. Emeric), some alpine terrain, and big views of the Clark Range. Second, like Echo, it also creates a loop. Yosemite Valley is a tough sell for me: the culture shock and permit competition are huge turn-offs.

From the Tuolumne Pass Trail, looking south towards the Clark Range

North terminus

I’m more torn about this one.

To reach Grace Meadow, there are six options:

  • From Sonora Pass (Highway 108), via the Pacific Crest Trail (20 miles);
  • From Twin Lakes (outside Bridgeport, CA), via low-use trails (21 miles);
  • From Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, via low-use trails (23 miles);
  • From White Wolf Campground (Tioga Road), via the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (40 miles); or,
  • From Tuolumne Meadows (Tioga Road), via the Pacific Crest Trail (48 miles) or Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (50 miles).

The northern good stuff, in red, with six termini options.

The primary conflict is: quality vs. convenience.

In terms of quality, Sonora is the best mile-for-mile option: it’s twenty miles atop the Sierra Crest on grade-A trail through the Emigrant Wilderness. But it’s the least logistically convenient (no public transit, difficult hitch, and 1:45 to Tuolumne Meadows by car). And it seems inconsistent with the Yosemite High Route.

Twin Lakes and Hetch Hetchy are logistically easier than Sonora (still no public transit, but easier and shorter hitches). However, these low-land routes are unexceptional. Hetch Hetchy at least has thematic appeal: it’s the collection point for all the tributaries explored by the Yosemite High Route, and could be one end (along with Yosemite Valley) of a valley-to-valley adventure.

White Wolf is shorter than the routes out of Tuolumne Meadows, but it misses out on the Tuolumne’s breathtaking waterfalls, and does not have the same logistical conveniences, which I think are worth another 10 miles of hiking.

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

That leaves the two TM routes: the PCT and Grand Canyon. I’m leaning towards the latter, but not without reservation. I think that many backpackers who undertake the Yosemite High Route will have already done the Pacific Crest Trail through northern Yosemite, whereas they probably have not hiked down the Grand Canyon. But the Grand Canyon bottoms out at 4,300 feet among black oaks and ponderosa pines, which is far below normal “high route” life zones.

Whatever way, you can see these routes are all imperfect.

Your thoughts?

Remember, I’m looking to identify a single route with specific termini that will be best overall for most backpackers. Information about other routes will still be presented.

If you have questions about any of the possibilities that will help to inform your thoughts, ask. I don’t expect everyone to be as intimately familiar with Yosemite.

 

17 Responses to Where should the Yosemite High Route start and finish?

  1. Vinny Mullin October 10, 2018 at 1:01 pm #

    Hey Andrew!

    Looking forward to this route immensely (I’ve mentioned this to you several times now on different social platforms), and I think it’s great that you’re sourcing crowd opinion! My thoughts, from what I’ve experienced in the Yosemite/Tuolomne area via the PCT and solo trips:

    Southern Terminus:
    – Tuolomne Pass sounds best! I personally don’t mind encountering huge crowds at the start or end of a hike, but I think a lot of people are annoyed by how crowded the JMT and the Valley are in summer. The loop is convenient, but high routes aren’t convenient by nature, so I’d avoid that draw to convience.

    Northern Terminus:
    – Grand Canyon sounds like the best call here, and all your comments regarding the other options make sense! It’s Yosemite High Route – keep it in Yosemite. Also, I feel like most trails don’t start and end in a Grade A location; as long as the route has the stunning views we know are there, a few finish miles that are through nice forest are totally fine. People are tired at the end of a tough hike, and some cruiser miles to finish isn’t a big deal.

    IMO, you should name Tuolomne Pass as the S Terminus, Grand Canyon as the N Terminus, and at the back of the guide mention 1 alternate terminus each, for convenience etc.

    Looking forward to getting the guidebook and doing it!

    • Andrew Skurka October 10, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughts and enthusiasm.

      Re the Grand Canyon, it’s more than “a few finish miles through nice forest.” It’s 50 miles total from TM to Grace Meadow: 17 miles are down the GC, 17 miles are through pretty and super low-use upper Montane areas, and then 13 miles on the PCT from western Kerrick Canyon to Grace Meadow. That’s a long warm-up or cool-down! By starting from Sonora, Hetch Hetchy, or Twin Lakes, you cut the warm-up by more than half, and you endure no additional so-so miles.

      I’m not saying that I disagree with you, but I think it’s worth pushing back and really considering each option.

  2. hunter Hall October 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    ^^^ What he said.

    In all reality though, I’d suspect most people, myself included, would want to just park at TM and do either the northern loop or the southern loop. If one wanted to do both, they could just resupply at TM. Super convenient and accessible.

    I avoid the valley at all costs. It’s a circus.

    REALLY looking forward to this…

    • Andrew Skurka October 10, 2018 at 1:49 pm #

      You’re right, and I hadn’t really thought of it from that perspective. Given the convenience of being able to undertake a North or South Loop, I bet the Yosemite High Route is done more often as a section-hike than a thru-hike.

      While I could start the Primary Route at a point besides TM, I would need to thoroughly address this user group in the Guide, i.e. dedicated narrative and datasheets for the north and south loops. I could simplify things immensely for myself by developing a single Primary Route that was equally useful to thru- and section-hikers.

  3. Dirk October 10, 2018 at 3:19 pm #

    As an observation, I honestly would prefer the route that provides a longer entry into the high country. The reason has everything to do with acclimatizing. As a long-ago PCTer, the climb into the Sierra was a fairly seamless transition after all those miles. A couple of years later I hiked the JMT, the effect was more far more profound. As a lowlander, starting in the Valley and a couple of days later being at 10,000 feet was challenging… in fact, one person in our party developed symptoms consistent with pulmonary edema after a few days and we had to get her to lower elevations quickly. Now I am under no illusion that to tackle such an ambitious hike, one should spend time in the high country before embarking on such an adventure. But a number of people who may attempt such a route won’t have access to high elevations before their trip. My feeling (and i certainly could be convince that I am indeed, mistaken) is that a longer approach on foot with a more gradual elevation profile, would be beneficial to some.

    Keep up the great work! This really interests me and makes me want to grab the pack now and go!

  4. Emily October 10, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

    I’m thinking along the same lines as you. I think with the “Yosemite” high route, you should keep the route within Yosemite. I like the idea of it starting and ending in Tuolumne Meadows just because it’s pretty convenient, and the permitting will be way easier. There’s also a more robust trail system leaving from Tuolumne, so in the case of competitive permits, it would be easier to get a permit from a less-visited trailhead and hook up with the high route (possibly). As others have said above, the ability to do it in 2 sections, as a Northern or Southern loop, would be appealing to people, I think, especially if they can’t do the whole thing in one go. Using the Rafferty Creek trail seems to be the way to go “officially”. I think it would be unwise to directly go against the NPS. But, it could be an alternate! I think the Geand Canyon of the Tuolumne is very pretty, but I see where you’re coming from. You could always have the “good stuff” have it’s own northern and southern terminus, and then recommend possible routes to the real N/S termini?
    This looks awesome though! Once I get better at cross-country travel, I’ll definitely be excited to do it!

  5. Mike D October 10, 2018 at 6:08 pm #

    Interesting challenges! I agree with you on TM to Rafferty Creek as the best option for the southern terminus. I would also think Echo would be ideal but not if it’s unsafe until mid-summer.

    For the northern, after looking at all these options, honestly I think I’d start out of Twin Lakes or Sonora Pass if I were attempting the whole route. I personally haven’t hiked the PCT through Yosemite, and I’m sure I’d love it, but for me, that’s another two full days of hiking just to get to the start of the route. I’m also pretty indifferent to keeping it all in Yosemite for the sake of it. Twin Lakes is just outside the park, and get you right to the good stuff. My two cents.

    In all likelihood, you are right in that I (and most others?) would do this in sections, North Loop and South Loop. In that case I would go with the PCT purely because it stays higher, which for a high route is what I’m going for.

    So in other words, I get what you’re going for but if it included the options, I’d use the guide to determine the best way to/from either terminus that works for me. Official start be damned! 😉

  6. David Rogers October 11, 2018 at 1:10 am #

    For the southern terminus, what about starting at Tuolumne Meadows going up Budd Creek to Cathedral Peak, then across to Echo Peaks, Rafferty Peak, down to Tuolumne Pass, then on to Quartzite Peak?

    That is a few more miles than just up Rafferty Creek, but less people and less trail.

    Of the southern options you listed, Rafferty Creek sounds the best.

    • Andrew Skurka October 11, 2018 at 10:28 am #

      When I look at the Cathedral Range, I don’t see a natural high route-like line between Cathedral Peak and Rafferty Peak. You could put something together, but I think it would feel like you’re fighting the topography, which I try to avoid if possible.

      The other issue with this proposal is permitting — NPS does not issue overnight permits out of Budd Creek. So, at best, it could be a listed alternative (and perhaps of interest to someone who jumps the road after completing the North Loop, because this person has freedom to roam because they already completed the NPS requirement that your permit be for your starting trailhead).

    • Sean M October 11, 2018 at 1:01 pm #

      I think it will depend based on your intended audience. For instance as a weekend warrior the two factors most important to me are logistics to and from and length in order to get time off. As others mentioned I would complete in two sections since time is a concern and logistically it would be best to start both at Tuolumne.

      Have you thought of continuing over Tuolumne Pass to Vogelsang Pass then down Lewis Creek instead of Fletcher? The addition of Vogelsang Pass would be a nice addition and stays true to your ‘high’ concept.

      On the other hand for those less concerned about time restrictions and who will ‘thru hike’ the trail I don’t think an extra ‘few’ miles will be a deterrent if both are at Tuolumne. Plus as a traditionalist I like the idea of the Yosemite High Route staying within the boundaries of Yosemite. Additionally as you mentioned Tuolumne could be used as a re-supply area as well.

      Hope it helps.

  7. Gabriel Bridges October 11, 2018 at 6:04 pm #

    Very excited about this route!
    I think my vote for the northern terminus is Twin Lakes, primarily because of how it dovetails with the Roper High Route’s endpoint.
    Rafferty Creek for the southern terminus seems best.

  8. Lange October 13, 2018 at 8:04 am #

    My personal northern terminus vote is Sonora Pass, for the quality of terrain. I’ve started many Emigrant trips nearby (Leavitt Lake over Big Sam) – Sonora Pass gets reasonable traffic and shouldn’t be too hard a hitch. Leavitt Lake would actually be my first choice for accessing Dorothy Lake, but getting a hitch up the 4WD track to the lake would be tough.

    Personally I would do a Tower Peak “peak bag” variant in that northern section. It’s a great mostly Class 2 peak with beautiful views. And there are golden trout in Tower and Mary Lakes…

  9. Chris October 13, 2018 at 8:16 pm #

    Tualome Pass for one, and Hetch Hetchy for the other.

    1) As beautiful as Yosemite Valley is, it’s crowded and congested.
    2) Hetch Hetchy should be more promoted, as I believe eventually the dam will be removed and the valley restored. So if you can get 100 people a year to experience it, that’ll add to the supporters of removing the dam:)

  10. John October 15, 2018 at 9:01 pm #

    I’m with Sean; for practical reasons I’m going to figure out a place to stash the vanagon in the Meadows and try this route out as a loop, resupply, loop.

  11. Charles H. October 15, 2018 at 11:49 pm #

    I think the logistics of a northern terminus at Sonora make comparatively more sense when flying in and out of Reno (which I suspect many would do coming from the east). Not to mention, only half of this exit/entry route is on the PCT – it looks like your screenshotted google maps route goes by Grizzly Peak and over Big Sam, instead of passing by Dorothy Lake into the valley to the east – so I think issues of repetitiveness are minimized. Of course, the logistics point assumes use of public transit and hitching, instead of a rental car.

    Also, I think most wouldn’t mind if the guide lists the official end of the route as Grace Meadow, listing a (possibly slightly curated) list of alternates in/out. Especially for completionists, it could be disappointing to miss out on needlessly “official” route because you feel compelled to choose a direction in particular.

  12. Karl Wilcox November 5, 2018 at 10:33 am #

    Here is my idea of an ideal Yosemite High Route ideal terminus:

    Begin at Dorothy Lake. Access Dorothy via the excellent ridge traverse from Sonora Pass or from Hetch Hetchy. End route at Ostrander Lake by traversing from the Clark Range to the Buena Vista Crest then on to Horse Ridge and the Ostrander Lake and Hut (very nice terrain). The Yosemite ski ‘High Route’ begins at Ostrander and then traverses Horse Ridge and Buena Vista, etc., so I think it might be a nice idea to incorporate the ski High route into the summer High route, as it were. For not a few of us, it is logistically more feasible to either plan in a loop such that one can loop back to one’s car (this is how I did the entire Sierra High Route in sections with loops back to my car) or plan the route such that one can use public transport. One can, I believe, get a shuttle from Glacier Point road back to Hetch Hetchy or at least back to Crane Flat. Trekkers could park at Hetch Hetchy, do the entire traverse, and upon reaching Ostrander Hut, they could hike out the the Glacier Point Road and from there get a shuttle down to the Valley, and then a shuttle on to Hetch Hetchy backpackers’ parking lot (might have to hitch a ride to actually get down to the Hetch Hetchy parking lot– at least that is what I have done before without much bother.

    In brief, I am suggesting a terminus at Ostrander Hut because this preserves a “High Route” experience by linking the Clark Range to the B.V. crest and Horse Ridge. The Ostrander Hut is a very nice end point, and it skips the crowded, hot, and foot torturing descent into the ‘big ditch’.
    Cheers,
    Karl Wilcox

    • Andrew Skurka November 6, 2018 at 5:53 pm #

      Novel ideas, thanks.

      Hetch Hetchy cannot be accessed by public transit, but the YARTS bus can get you close to the turn-off on Tioga Rd.

      I think most thru-hikers will start out of Hetch Hetchy or Sonora, and finish at Tuolumne or Yosemite Valley. Most section-hikers will complete the route in two or three trips — a north loop out of Twin Lakes or Virginia Lakes, another north loop out of Tuolumne, and a south loop out of Tuolumne.

Leave a Reply