Yosemite High Route

A circumnavigation of the remote upper headwaters of the Tuolumne & Merced Rivers, encompassed within America's third national park. Can be undertaken as a thru-hike (125 to 162 miles in length) or in shorter sections.

Overlooking Roosevelt Lake, on the descent from Don’t Be A Smart Pass

The Yosemite High Route explores remote canyons, expansive alpine areas, and pristine lakes in the upper headwaters of the Tuolumne and Merced Rivers. It’s encompassed entirely within America’s third-oldest national park, and can be undertaken as a thru-hike or in shorter sections.

The core of the Yosemite High Route spans 94 miles, between Grace Meadow near the park’s northern boundary and the base of Quartzite Peak at the Merced River. Seventy percent of this section is off-trail; it climbs or descends 630 vertical feet per mile, and crosses just one road.

A complete thru-hike of the Yosemite High Route is a one- to two-week project, depending on your fitness and on the approach distances to the Core Route. It will be 120 to 160 miles in length, and have 34,000 to 46,000 feet of vertical gain. Section-hikes are suitable for weekend- to week-long itineraries.

During the off-trail segments and in the route’s more remote pockets, hikers will probably go several days without encountering other parties.

Harriet Lake alpenglow

The Yosemite High Route hovers between 8,000 and 11,000 feet above sea level, usually hopping between deep glacier-carved valleys via unfrequented passes just below the park’s highest points like Mt. Lyell, Mt. Conness, and Matterhorn Peak. While the route includes some tedious talus-hopping and Class 3 scrambles, the travel is generally blissful even when not on well maintained trails: through open lodgepole forests and wildflower-specked alpine tundra, along the shorelines of fish-filled lakes and the edges of lush meadows, and across grippy granite slabs.

Only intermediate and advanced backpackers should undertake the Yosemite High Route. It demands similar fitness and backcountry aptitude as the Kings Canyon High Basin Route and Sierra High Route (with which it shares five miles). But it’s more committing and skill-intensive than other long-distance endeavors like the Pacific Crest Trail, High Sierra Trail, and John Muir Trail (which it overlaps for less than a mile).

In addition to Yosemite’s normal adverse conditions — including altitude, lingering snow, high run-off, mosquitoes, and occasional monsoon weather — the Yosemite High Route presents hikers with extra challenges. Extensive off-trail navigation, attention-demanding terrain, exceptional vertical change, and its general remoteness and obscurity top the list. Most will find that the extra effort and risk is entirely justified by this lifetime wilderness experience.

16 Comments

  1. David on November 14, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    How will this compare to the Sierra High Route? Who would you recommend it to? Also, two-thirds on trail seems like a lot, especially considering off-trail travel in the higher areas of Yosemite generally seems to be pretty reasonable.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 15, 2018 at 9:06 am

      Compare how? In terms of logistics, it’s much easier. In terms of quality, it’s comparable.

      A Yosemite High Route thru-hike would be appropriate for anyone with the fitness and skills to undertake an off-trail route up to Class 3 in difficulty, at altitude, with constant ups and downs. If you’re not sure, undertake a section-hike to test the waters first.

      The on-trail/off-trail ratio varies significantly depending on the selected termini and route used to return to Tuolumne Meadows from the Clark Range.

      The thru-hike sequence with the highest portion of off-trail travel starts at Sonora Pass and returns to Tuolumne Meadows via Echo Creek. It’s 130 miles (with 55 percent off-trail) and has 575 vertical feet of gain or loss per mile. Among high routes, those are mid-pack stats.

      The most logistically convenient thru-hike starts and finishes at Tuolumne Meadows, and per NPS request the route returns to Tuolumne via Rafferty Creek instead of Echo Creek. This route is 162 miles and is 38 percent off-trail.

      The “good stuff” on the Yosemite High Route is between Falls Creek and Merced Lake, at the base of the Clark Range. This 94-mile section is 66 percent off-trail and has 630 vertical feet of change per mile. So once you’re on the heart of the YSR, the going is world-class. The miles to and from its core are merely good.

      Yes, off-trail travel in the Yosemite high country is generally excellent, and I could have created a route that would have even more off-trail travel. But the route needs to feel natural and to maintain a threshold of quality. 55 percent off-trail is about the max of what the landscape would support.

  2. David on January 10, 2019 at 8:43 pm

    Thanks for the detailed response! Plans have changed so I’ll be traveling in May and early June, which is a little early in the season for must high routes I assume.

    I’ve been a big fan for a long time. Thanks for all of your hard work and great content!

    • Andrew Skurka on January 10, 2019 at 9:11 pm

      Assuming a normal winter, that’d be early. Even after a dry winter, there will still be snow lingering up high — it’s just not warm enough in May to really melt things off.

  3. Randy on April 1, 2019 at 9:10 pm

    Is it possible to thru-hike this with a hammock? If not, is there at least a long section of it that is?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 2, 2019 at 8:52 am

      It could mostly be done with a hammock. There is one section that’d be a challenge, from the Isberg Pass Trail to Tuolumne Meadows, on the South Loop.

      This section is 28 miles and has 8400 vertical feet of gain (2-2.5 days for most people). There are two spots where you could drop off-route a little bit to find some trees, at about Mi 1.0 and Mi 13.5, but that’s it.

  4. Tonopaw on May 11, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    Hi Andrew–is there actual Class 3 climbing on the Yosemite High Route–or was that a measure of fitness needed? I’ve done about 15,000 miles in Tahoe and Yosemite the past 7 years–all pure hiking up to 12,000 feet (and yes spending many miles on the dusty horse trail up to Cathedral–but i got lots of nice pics of our four footed friends like King–an NPS horse–and many, many loyal mules)–so yes real 3 Class climbing–rope and all?

    • Andrew Skurka on May 12, 2019 at 12:09 pm

      There is some Class 3 scrambling, and a lot of Class 2 (some loose and/or steep). No ropes should be necessary. It’d hurt if you fall but it probably wouldn’t be fatal, and it’s not that likely if you are reasonably for and agile.

  5. Tony Giacalone on May 18, 2019 at 10:44 am

    how do i get the guide?

  6. Larry Giacomino on June 21, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    Any chance of publishing a book of the route?
    I don’t carry a gps, just map and compass.
    Not too computer literate and like maps in my hands.
    Would the dvd be better for me?
    I could get my kids to download and print the directions, I guess.
    Anything like Rogers “Sierra High Route” handbook planned?
    Thanks,
    Larry Giacomino

    • Andrew Skurka on July 1, 2019 at 10:21 pm
    • Joseph on August 2, 2019 at 4:17 pm

      Andrew,

      How do I know if I’m ready to do something like this? I’ve done a fair bit of trail hiking where I’m on trail for 10+ days and I’m confident in my navigation skills (taught navigation in the military). I also see where you mention class 3 items… is it just the scrambling? I know you suggest doing some sections to get an idea but seeing as I live in Pennsylvania, it’s not as easy just jump over onto a trail. I’m planning on flying out to Yosemite next summer. I plan to purchase your YHR guide as well. Outside of gear and travel, am I missing anything? I’m fairly new to this type of “backcountry” hiking and want to be sure I execute properly. Thank you in advance.

      • Andrew Skurka on August 2, 2019 at 5:37 pm

        Great question.

        High routes are best suited for those who feel confident with on-trail trips (e.g. navigate proficiently, know what to pack and eat, etc.) and who have sufficient physical fitness for the increased rigor of a high route (e.g. more vertical per mile, uneven footing, occasional talus hopping or scrambling).

        High routes require some mental re-calibration, too, https://andrewskurka.com/high-route-mental-adjustments/

        If you’re just getting into high routes, my recommendation is to plan a loop itinerary that includes a section of one. A loop gives you flexibility — you can shorten it as required, or lengthen it if you are ahead of schedule. Know these options before you go, and be conservative — you’ll have more fun if you can take the time to do it right, versus rushing to keep pace.

  7. Christopher Guichet on August 11, 2019 at 10:36 am

    Hi Andrew, just bought the guide and off to do the “Lakes Weekend” right now! Do you think there is a way you could set it up so that we can use the 2016 forest service maps instead of the USGS quads where available? No worries if not, I understand that it would be a lot of effort.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 11, 2019 at 5:29 pm

      When I finally finish up this Guide, which is now looking like a late-summer project, I’m thinking that I will use the FS 2016 layer for USFS lands. But the layer does not cover Yosemite or the Core Route fully, so most of the maps will be the 7.5-min scans.

      For Lakes Weekend, I know the 7.5-min layers are good, since that’s what we were using in July when we were running trips there.

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