Route Overview

This page provides a broad tour of the Yosemite High Route, so that interested hikers can get a better sense for 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 heart of the Yosemite High Route spans 94 miles between:

  • Grace Meadow in Falls Creek near park’s northern boundary, and
  • The base of Quartzite Peak at the Merced River, a few miles downstream of Merced Lake.

These are can’t-miss miles. The Core Route is seventy percent off-trail, and gains or loses 630 vertical feet per mile.

It’s less important how you reach and return from the Core Route. Per mile, perhaps the most standout option to reach Grace Meadow starts at Sonora Pass, and follows the Pacific Crest Trail south. Access from Lake Eleanor also looks very good — it follows endless granite slabs through the Emigrant Wilderness. The approaches from Hetch Hetchy, Leavitt Meadow, and Twin Lakes are a similar distance.

Sonora Pass in full early-season conditions

I like starting at Tuolumne Meadows, however, because it’s the most logistically convenient. I fly into Reno, rent a car, drive to Tuolumne, complete the North or South Loop, resupply at my car, complete the other loop, and then drive back to Reno.

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 Young Lakes the Yosemite High Route descends to Tuolumne Meadows, and then ascends the Dana Fork and Parker Pass Creek. But it’s more practical for thru-hikers to temporarily leave the Core Route here. The exception is if you plan to exit at Yosemite Valley.

Aim for the base of Quartzite Peak by one of these approaches:

  • Over the Cathedral Range via Rafferty Creek and Tuolumne Pass;
  • 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.

At the base of Quartzite Peak, regain the Core Route, which remains exciting all the way back to 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 throughout 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 pleasant 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.

5 Comments

  1. John Dittli on 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 on 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 on 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.

  3. John Addison on June 14, 2019 at 2:52 pm

    Andrew,

    Ive got an AT thru-hike and years of backpacking experience under my belt. In top physical shape and usually do mileage in 20s on east coast. Ive got one weekend (two full-days of hiking) to dabble with the sierra high route..what are your recommendations?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 15, 2019 at 11:51 pm

      Do a section as a loop. Hike north out of Tuolumne.

Leave a Comment