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.

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 95 miles, between upper Falls Creek near the park’s northern boundary and Quartzite Peak at the tip of the Clark Range. Two-thirds 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 hiker fitness and the chosen termini. It will be 125 to 162 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, it’s generally blissful 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 (which 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.

2 Responses to Yosemite High Route

  1. David 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 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.

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