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Route Overview

This page gives a broad tour of the Yosemite High Route, for an improved sense of its basic line, terrain, and highlights. For a step-by-step description that is suitable for field use, consult the Yosemite High Route Guide. For an approximate topographic reference, use this map.

The core of the Yosemite High Route spans 95 miles between Grace Meadow in Falls Creek near park’s northern boundary, and Quartzite Peak at the tip of the Clark Range. Per mile, the best route to Grace Meadow starts at Sonora Pass, and follows the Pacific Crest Trail south. The approach from Hetch Hetchy also looks very good — it’s a similar distance, and it follows endless granite slabs through the Emigrant Wilderness.

Sonora Pass in full early-season conditions

I like starting at Tuolumne Meadows, however. It’s logistically simpler, and I feel like the Yosemite High Route should stay within the park boundaries. From Tuolumne, Grace Meadow can be reached by two excellent routes: north on the Pacific Crest Trail, or down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and up to the Pacific Crest Trail. Both will be hazardous during peak run-off, which is usually in June.

A swollen Tuolumne River as it plummets from Tuolumne Meadows into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne

From Grace Meadow, the Yosemite High Route remains off-trail for the next 12 miles, and for 20 miles out of the next 22. Its behavior is consistent: from the bottom of a deep U-shaped valley, it climbs over a steep-sided alpine ridge at its weakest spot, and descends into the next glacier-carved valley. From Jack Main Canyon, the route tracks east-southeast to Tilden Creek, then to my favorite Stubblefield Canyon, to Thompson Canyon, and finally to Rancheria Creek.

The spectacular and remote upper Stubblefield Canyon

From Kerrick Meadow in upper Rancheria Creek, the topography lends itself to a more customary pass-and-valley pattern. The Yosemite High Route visits Rock Island Lake, passes by The Slide, and undertakes Burro and Matterhorn Passes in quick succession.

Rock Island Lake, a rarely visited alpine basin

At the head of Spiller Creek, the Yosemite High Route joins the Sierra High Route to tackle the most technical feature on the route, a short Class 3 scramble up Stanton Pass. Twin Peaks Pass is a novel alternate, but it’s no less difficult.

Upper Spiller Creek, as seen from below Twin Peaks Pass

The two high routes split in the bottom of Virginia Canyon. Roper climbs towards Sky Pilot Pass and its endless talus, while the Yosemite High Route heads towards three lovely lake basins: McCabe, Roosevelt, and Young. The two routes will intersect again in the upper Merced watershed, but never again follow the same path.

Upper McCabe Lake and the Shepherd Crest

From Tuolumne Meadows, which is a convenient resupply point, the Yosemite High Route endures relatively mediocre mileage over the Cathedral Range via Rafferty Creek and Tuolumne Pass to Merced Lake. Alternatively, follow one of these routes:

  • John Muir Trail over Cathedral Pass, which is one mile shorter but more heavily used;
  • Echo Creek via Nelson Lake, which is largely off-trail but which has a very low daily permit quota; or,
  • South up Parker Pass Creek, taking on the route clockwise, and then exiting to Yosemite Valley after reaching Merced Lake.

From Merced Lake, the route gets exciting again, and remains that way until arriving back at Tuolumne Meadows. It starts by climbing to Quartzite Peak, and then fighting its way along the Clark Range to Red Peak Pass.

From Quartzite Peak, the view of the Cathedral Range across the upper Merced is stunning.

A few hours on low-use trails is an opportunity to recharge for the final push. From the Isberg Pass Trail, the Yosemite High Route is off-trail for 18 out of the next 19 miles, as it explores the alpine benches and upper headwaters of Foerster Creek, the Lyell Fork of the Merced, Hutchings Creek, Maclure Creek, Kuna Creek, and Parker Pass Creek. Shade and protected campsites are sparse through this section.

A rarely seen sight: the headwaters of the Lyell Fork of the Merced, as seen from Foerster Ridge Pass.

At Russell Pass, the Yosemite High Route attains its highest elevation, 12,240+ feet above sea level. It’s only Class 2, but the rapid melting of the Macclure Glacier has made it more difficult, because the recently exposed talus and blockfield is not yet stable.

Russell Pass, the low spot on the skyline, to the right of Mount Maclure and the Maclure Glacier, as seen from Maclure Lake. Mount Macclure is the fifth highest peak in the park.

It’s all downhill after the Yosemite High Route crosses the Kuna Crest. From Spillway Lake, it follows the trail to the Mono/Parker Pass Trailhead on Tioga Road, or finishes at Tuolumne Meadows after a few plesant off-trail miles along the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River.

Helen Lake from the Kuna Crest, looking at Mount Gibbs and Mount Dana, the sixth and second highest peaks in the park.

Comments or questions about the route? Leave a comment.

3 Responses to Route Overview

  1. John Dittli December 8, 2018 at 8:59 am #

    the actual historic Yosemite High Route of course stays much higher and closer to the rim of the park. Interesting route though.

  2. Benjamin Wells December 12, 2018 at 7:14 pm #

    Hi Andrew!

    I also use CalTopo and I’ve managed to create a similar route using what you’ve written that has personalized routes from what features I found interesting. I was curious if you plan on making your CalTopo map accessible for others as you have with the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. (That one in particular because it’s currently my contingency plan).
    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka December 12, 2018 at 7:31 pm #

      I will include PDF’s of my maps in the Yosemite High Route Guide, but I don’t share publicly my master CalTopo map — too much data could be downloaded and used as a crutch in the field (e.g. my GPX tracks from recon trips).

      If you have found CalTopo pages for the Kings Canyon route, they’re not mine. I occasionally ask Matt Jacobs of CalTopo to contact account owners who have replicated my printed maps and shared it publicly (usually accidentally, because they don’t realize that “Private” is not the default sharing option) if I think it has too much proprietary or actionable information.

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