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.

34 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.

  8. Tim McDougall on January 13, 2020 at 6:11 pm

    Andrew,

    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!

    • Andrew Skurka on January 14, 2020 at 9:12 am

      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.

  9. Ken Bradford on April 20, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Andrew,

    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.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 20, 2020 at 3:55 pm

      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.

      • Ken Bradford on April 20, 2020 at 8:18 pm

        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.

  10. manUmikeWinters on April 24, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    Andrew, Is it as difficult to get permit for Yosemite HighRoute as for JMT???

    • Andrew Skurka on April 24, 2020 at 1:31 pm

      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.

  11. Bart R Brown on June 19, 2020 at 2:29 pm

    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.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 19, 2020 at 3:21 pm

      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.

      • Bart R Brown on June 21, 2020 at 1:48 pm

        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

  12. Zi Dong on June 25, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    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.

  13. David Wiens on July 5, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    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.

    Thanks,
    David W

    • Andrew Skurka on July 5, 2020 at 6:39 pm

      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.

  14. Jon Gray on July 24, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    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.

    • Jon Gray on July 24, 2020 at 5:03 pm

      Nelson Lake would be our alternative, if that’s a better experience.

      • Andrew Skurka on July 24, 2020 at 10:06 pm

        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.

  15. David on August 25, 2020 at 3:01 pm

    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?

    Thanks!

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