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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hi Andrew, do you think it would be possible to do the Falls Creek to Merced Lake section the first week of June this year? I’ve heard that there is record low snowpack. Though the timing isn’t optimal for hiking the high country, it happens to be the time when I have some time off from work.
What’s your comfort on snow, and your tolerance for postholing?
I don’t know if it’s a record low snow year, but the snowpack is pretty thin and conditions will be about a month early, e.g. June is the old July.
You could certainly given it a go, and if it becomes too much you can jump on the PCT and bypass some sections.
Thanks for the reply Andrew! I’d say I’m fairly comfortable with snow. I did the SHR in August 2019, and given it was a big snow year there was a good deal of snow (mostly traveling on baked sun cups though, not too much post holing). June is the new July is helpful info!
Also thanks for all that you do! My partner and I hiked the Wind River High Route last year (with great thanks to your guide) and we got engaged on the trip. Very special route to me now!
With this perspective would you recommend ice axe or microspikes for my trip starting July 8th this year? I saw you suggested them for July but if this July is really August… I’d like to leave them. Fairly competent snow traveller with ski touring experience.
I’d be shocked if you wanted an axe or crampons on your trip.
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!
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.
Is it possible to thru-hike this with a hammock? If not, is there at least a long section of it that is?
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.
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?
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.
how do i get the guide?
If you haven’t found it already, https://andrewskurka.com/product/yosemite-high-route-guide/
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?
Here you go, https://andrewskurka.com/product/yosemite-high-route-guide/
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.
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.
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.
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.
My friends and I are considering doing the route South to North. We live in Colorado, spend a lot of time recreating in the mountains, and are pretty fit. I have backpacked extensively in Emigrant Wilderness on the northern boundary of Yosemite and think it would be a much better end to the trip than descending into the congestion of Yosemite Valley. I read through the reasons you recommend a North to South route on page 9 in the Guidebook – Part A – Before You Go. Are there other reasons you would recommend a North to South route…or things for us to consider if we ultimately decide to go South to North. We would appreciate any additional information you could provide. Thank you for putting this route together!
The recommended direction has more to do with the progression of the route, and not the experience upon your exit. It’s a longer on-trail hike to the northern terminus than the southern terminus, and the south half is higher and probably harder.
Certainly, finishing your trip in Yosemite Valley is a culture shock. But it can also be convenient, because you can easily get mass transit there.
Finishing at Sonora Pass is the opposite: it’s quiet and peaceful, but you might be waiting a while for a hitch, especially if there is more than one or two of you.
I’m having trouble isolating maps for printing. With your SHR maps, as JPGs, each one is easy to isolate when I don’t need the whole set. But with this SEKI mapsets, the maps for the loops are of a piece, and I can’t figure out how to isolate 1or 2 at time. I do not have an Adobe account. What do you suggest? I’d like to download your Yosemite HR guide as well (if it is done?) but since I’m stumped on this one, I’m hesitant.
You can open my PDFs in Chrome, then print specific pages as a PDF.
Or you can download some other free PDF-writing software. I have Primo PDF, for example, but I know there are others out there.
For Mac users, it turns out there is a much easier way to handle PDFs, as I just rediscovered. The PREVIEW app that comes preloaded with MacOS can open, slice and dice PDFs such as you include. No need to download other PDF software or futz around with Chrome.
Andrew, Is it as difficult to get permit for Yosemite HighRoute as for JMT???
No, it’s not as difficult. The popularity of Half Dome and the JMT increase the competitiveness of certain trailheads, particularly Happy Isles, Lyell Canyon, and Cathedral Lakes. But the Yosemite High Route can be accessed in lots of ways besides these trailheads, both from inside the park and outside (e.g. Inyo NF). The guide describes these trailheads in good detail.
I bought this guide because you said it would be done before the season starts. Now I see you are saying late summer. That is a bummer for us who where looking forward to the rest of the guide. It would really suck to be on one of your guided trips and be told that 15% of your food supply will be given to you well after your trip. Pretty lame since we all have spent months in quarantine and you couldn’t knock it out. I will think again before I purchase anything else again from you. Finish the guide you told us all you would.
I hear your criticism, and also wish the guide were done. The timetable you reference is actually 2019, so I’m even later than you thought I was.
Last weekend I finished writing the route description for the Core Route, which was the last big remaining piece. I need to give it a final once-through and convert everything into PDFs. I’m working on it.
In the meantime, I’m happy to answer specific questions you have.
While I wish I could say that this spring during quarantine I was just sitting on my ass, the exact opposite has been true, so please cut me some slack, thanks. Imagine being a small business owner in the tourism industry right now — the virus was hugely disruptive, and time that could have been dedicated to secondary projects like this instead all went into responding to the fallout.
Thanks for your quick response. I have very much enjoyed reading your book and look forward to the rest of it. I have gleaned some great info from it and am sure I will use it more often in the future. I know how it is in the tourism industry, we cancelled all are spring trips and summer is wishy washy. Thanks again and Happy Trails
I planned out a shorter version of the North Loop for my first off-trail trip– Tuolumne Meadows -> Burro Pass via PCT and Matterhorn Canyon trail -> Core Route. Didn’t manage to do the second off-trail part (Virginia Canyon to Young Lakes) but the off-trail part I did (Matterhorn Pass to Virginia Canyon) was pretty exciting!
Having the right shoes for scrambling really helped– I made some navigation mistakes ascending the passes and had to do some pretty sketchy traverses. Fortunately I had GPS and was able to get back on track.
Andrew, thanks so much for the years of info!
I know you you’ve hit on the topic on here before, but I was wondering if you could give me any info on the difficulty of obtaining permits for the Tuolomne Trailheads.
I’m planning a relatively last minute week-long trip in September (your favorite time in the Sierras 🙂 ), and wondering if I have any shot getting permits for a Yosemite High Route section or if I should just do a section of Kings Canyon.
Your opportunity to reserve permits would normally have already passed, but the park changed their walk-up system and those permits can now be reserved starting 14 days in advance. You need to apply online 15 days in advance. There are details in the website.
I think in September you should be in pretty good shape for a permit, assuming that you’re not trying to get out over labor day weekend. If you contact me offline I can tell you what I think are the lowest demand permits out of tuolumne Meadows. Although, on the permit you can specify several backup options, and If you are just trying to get a permit for yourself I imagine that you’ll squeeze in.
Looking at Cathedral pass approach to Quartzite, do you think taking the Cathedral Fork past Echo lake is a worthwhile xc shortcut from Cathedral pass, as opposed to the JMT through Long Meadow? We were probably going to start with a short day on day 1 as we’ll be driving up and hiking the same day, and are looking for the best camp option less than 10 miles from the TH. Echo Lake looked great to me.
Nelson Lake would be our alternative, if that’s a better experience.
I don’t think it matters a whole lot, as you probably won’t consider either route a highlight of your experience. I’d let it come down to permit luck: put in for Cathedral as first choice, and Nelson second.
Was planning on doing Leavitt Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows the week of labor day. Do you have any insight into how you’d handle the smoke situation up there?
This is an annual problem in the West.
A tutorial for smoke mitigation, https://andrewskurka.com/tutorial-wildfire-smoke-management-backpacking/
I recently purchased the YHR. Opened the maps and I’m hesitant to ask this question but the maps I’m used to using, the grid lines run N – S and E -W, parallel with the edges of the map. These seem not to do so. The N arrow seems to be parallel with the edge of the paper which is what’s throwing me off. I don’t consider myself an expert but my training has taught me how to plot 8-digit points, shoot an azimuth, triangulate my position, take into account of magnetic N, etc. So, I’m pretty comfortable with land nav. I just want to be sure I’m preparing properly. For what it’s worth, this hike isn’t until the summer of 22 so, I’m doing this wrong now, I have plenty of time to learn!
I don’t print a grid system on the maps because (1) it steals printable real estate from the map, and (2) it’s no longer necessary.
I make this second claim because modern GPS smartphone apps like CalTopo and Gaia will display your exact location on the exact same map layer that you have printed out. In the case of the YHR, the maps are printed on scanned 7.5-minute quads, and you can download this exact layer to CalTopo or Gaia.
These apps will also give you your exact lat/long position, which you could translate over to a map with a grid system, but I think nearly everyone (or just everyone?) would agree that seeing your position on the map is just as useful and more efficient.
I am considering one of the YHR loops for a 7-10 day trip (slow pace) in July 2021. I am concerned about permits and will purchase the YHR Guide to align details. Though, I don’t want to purchase the YHR Guide to discover that I am too late for permits. @Andrew, can you comment on this? How hard is it to get permits in this area? I am in Oregon and our first season of limited access permits was scheduled for 2020 and then delayed due to the pandemic.
Thanks for the awesome work on these super fun routes!
The guide discusses permits in-depth, but briefly:
60 percent of permits in Yosemite are available for reservation 24 weeks in advance. So today, for example, you can reserve permits for September 21. The other 40 percent are “walk up” permits that are available at 11am the day before the trip starts (so 11am on September 20, for a trip starting September 21), or if they keep their Covid system those permits will be available online starting two weeks in advance.
Most of the popular Yosemite trailheads are full reserved. But a few still have openings if you are willing to be flexible with your dates.
The YHR can be access from adjacent USFS lands. The permits out of Humbolt-Toiyabe and Inyo are less competitive and you can probably find much more availability. Another option is Stanislaus NF, and that is a guarantee — there are no quotas and no reservations for permits.
What Andrew said. Except to correct: a walkup the morning of 9/20 (get there by 10am) will get you an available permit for 9/21, probably not 9/20.
I’m doing a modified north loop out of Tuolumne this year in July, by going first to Young Lakes rather an approach through Glen Aulin. It was the only option available when I booked a couple weeks ago. So I’ll do the “end” of the loop first, going by McCabe lakes and then hopping on the PCT to Stubblefield; doing the YHR back to below McCabe where I left off, and hop back on the PCT the other way through Glen Aulin. Waterwheel falls ought to still be great in July even in this low snow year. Well worth a stop!
I did a modified south loop last year, and recommend getting the Guide whether or not you come down this year. Its well worth it IMO.
I fixed that date error, thanks for pointing it out.
Thanks Andrew and Ken!
This is very helpful. So, it sounds like walk-up permits are a good possibility at Tuolumne as long as you are there early and probably not around a weekend.
Good point on the Humboldt-Toiyabe and Inyo NFs.
Thanks for the itinerary notes Ken. Yes, the guide looks like a great read, planning or reading 🙂
If they are true walk-up permits, yes, they are a very good possibility. Like, I’d be shocked if you don’t get a permit that works for your itinerary.
Note that it’s not been decided if these permits will be available for in-person reservation or if they will be made available online starting 2 weeks before the trip (like last year, a Covid protocol to avoid in-person interactions with NPS staff).
Another permit question. As long as you secure a permit for an entry point, you can go anywhere from there, right? e.g. if I get a permit staring at Leavitt Meadows, I’m good to go into YNP?
With some limits, yes.
The specific limit that comes to mind is that Stanislaus National Forest will not issue a permit for you to go south of Tioga Road.
First, hope things are well!
As I get closer to my YHR trip, I’ve heard a few people say that because of the low snowpack this year that water may be scarce come August/September. I plan to start at Tuolumne Meadows, head north on the Core Route, link at the Northern Terminus to the PCT and essentially back to my start point where I’ll then head south on the Core Route where I’ll link up with the Cathedral Lakes Trail back again to the starting point making a figure eight. I start mid-August.
Should I be concerned about water flow?
How are the mosquitoes this time of year (August).
You’ll find water in all the lakes, and at least pools in any of the perennial streams (marked as a continuous blue line on the maps).
I am planning to cover a portion of the YHR (next week), looping from Tuolumne Meadows. I don’t think I have time to do the entire northern loop. Can I shortcut via Stubblefield Canyon? Your guide answers the hard part of my question, with the route from Stubblefield over to Thompson and Kerrick Canyons. (woohoo!). What about Stubblefield Canyon itself? Is it possible to hike from the PCT up Stubblefield Canyon to your CR-04? It looks flat and easy, but no trail marked on any map and my Google searches haven’t turned up anything.
(I’m also planning to shortcut the eastern section of the northern loop. Departing at CR-13 up to Tallulah Lake, hoping to see the owls (!) and then back to the PCT near Benson Pass.)
Thanks for your work!
Yes, it goes. Brushy at first when you leave the PCT, and you might get pinched between a wall and the creek, so think twice if the water is running high. Gets better as you go up.
Thanks for the prompt reply! I am looking forward to my trip!
Belated followup: Thompson Canyon helped me complete my loop, thanks!.
I went down-canyon in Thompson Canyon, from the upper end near Peeler Lake down to the PCT. Easy meadows/forests at the top, then narrower with rocky ledges and scrambling (beautiful pools and cascades). Last portion was indeed brushy and involved much cursing. That was the third day in a row where I didn’t see another person!
Pro tip — Crossing Piute Creek in Pleasant Valley not recommended! It is calm and safe, but DEEP. I had to swim across with my pack on my back.
PS Later last year I used YHR CRs to get from Lyell Canyon across Hell Hole to Gallison Lake; good way to create a loop back through Vogelsang.
With this year’s low snow pack, should I be concerned about water for my upcoming YHR trip that begins mid August? I will be starting at Tuolumne, heading north on the core route, connecting with the PCT/Grand Canyon route, back to the midway point at Tuolumne, south on the core route, then connecting with the Cathedral Lake’s route to finish back at Tuolumne making a figure 8.
Thank you in advance!
All of the lakes in the larger creeks should have water in them, but you might want to not plan on there being any unexpected water or even water in the perennial sources.
We were in the Clark Range July 4-10. There is almost no snow left. Many smaller streams were dry. Major streams and lakes were fine. Though, even the Triple Peak Fork of the Merced was barely moving.
I’m a vivid hiker in Europe and love to go “off track” (i.e. cross country) whenever possible. I usually wear hiking shoes but more and more would like to move to something lighter. What type of shoes do you usually recommend for something as the Yosemite High Route? Do you recommend FTX trail runners or would you steer away from waterproof shoes entirely? I just wonder how you deal with wet grass in the morning when going off piste… will the wet shoe/foot not have a strong tendency for blisters?
Thanks for your feedback – much appreciated
Some reading for you, https://andrewskurka.com/recommended-footwear-for-high-routes-alaska-and-early-season-conditions/
Firstly, thanks for putting up such a great route. My wife and I did this last year and, excluding Tuolumne and the surrounding area, we only came across 3 people on the entire Core Route; none of which were doing the YHR. The solitude and scenery were, as you described, world class.
I will say, some of the passes could perhaps use a little more detail. For example Stanton Pass, we certainly went up it incorrectly, leading to a “the only way out is up, and if you fall you’re F’ed”. Before the ascent we had scoped it out and thought we were going up the ‘right’ way. A couple of other passes had varying degrees of sketch and in those moments a tad more knowledge is always welcome.
But I do understand the desire to keep it an adventure with minimal notes so up to you if you think it necessary. Nearly a year later and it’s all normalized in my memory to ‘easy enough’.
We started a Twin Lakes, not sure when you were last in there, or anyone – the first off trail section is pretty overgrown and some points require a bit of bushwhacking; I loved it, the wife, not so much. The worst experience on the whole trip was the monopoly the campground owners have on the access to the National Forest; having to pay private to access public land always leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
The Question: Having done the YHR (Core – 8 days) in ’21 and the WRHR (AAlan – 7 days) in ’20, what do you recommend next? The front runner is the Pfiffner Traverse followed by KCHBR. Given our pace, any ideas how many days we should allow for those two routes?
For everyone else: support the bloke, buy the guide and get out there. 10/10 recommend the YHR as one of the best routes you can find anywhere.
I’d do the KCHBR last, as a grand finale. From a wilderness perspective, it’s better than Pfiffner. And the Pfiffner will get you prepared for the increased vertical change per mile over the YHR and Alan’s WRHR, but with 50 fewer miles than KCHBR.
When scheduling high route itineraries, there is only one number that matters: how much vertical feet can you sustainably climb each day? Progress is poorly correlated with horizontal mileage.