Thru- and Section-Hike Itineraries

Rock Island Lake, a rarely visited alpine basin that is part of three section-hikes: the full North Loop, the Northern Canyons out of Twin Lakes, and Roosevelt Riviera.

For the fullest experience, the Yosemite High Route is best completed as an end-to-end thru-hike.

For most backpackers, however, it will be more practical to undertake the route in more bite-sized pieces. These section-hikes are:

  • More compatible with family and work commitments;
  • Loops, and therefore logistically simpler than point-to-point itineraries; and,
  • Less physically difficult, due to relatively short durations and lighter food loads.

Time management

The horizontal distance of a Yosemite High Route thru- or section-hike is almost irrelevant. It’s all about the vertical. When creating your itinerary, consider the total vertical change on the route in relation to the vertical change that you can handle each day. Add some cushion to account for off-trail travel, altitude, and perhaps weather delays.

For a thru-hike, allow yourself:

  • 11 to 15 days, if you can sustain about 6,000 vertical feet of change each day; or,
  • 7 to 9 days, if you can sustain about 10,000 vertical feet of change per day.

The shortest section-hikes can be completed by endurance athletes as very long day-hikes or adventurous trail runs. But generally they will be multi-day efforts, ranging from two to ten days.


In the chart below, I have provided details for featured thru-hikes and recommended section-hikes.

If the listed itineraries do not match perfectly your ideal mileage and vertical, you can shortcut and/or extend most of them. This is not difficult, since Yosemite has an extensive trail system and blissful cross-country terrain. Thru-hikes can be additionally modified by using different approaches to the Core Route.

Route difficulty

I have assigned a difficulty rating to reach thru- and section-hike. The rating is a function of its most difficult feature (e.g. a Class 3 pass) and its stats, notably the total distance, total vertical change, and off-trail percentage.

Moderate. Best for strong on-trail hikers who want limited moderate off-trail travel.

Difficult. Best for strong and experienced hikers ready for more extensive moderate off-trail travel.

Extreme. Best for very strong and highly experienced backpackers who can manage difficult off-trail travel.

Of course, I expect some backpackers to take on more than they probably should, because they want to get the full experience and/or to accelerate up the learning curve. This is common and entirely understandable, but it’s not on me.

The Yosemite High Route is not suitable for backpackers who have little backpacking experience, poor fitness, or heavy packs.

More information

In the Yosemite High Route Guide, I have included route descriptions, topographic maps, and datasheets for all recommended itineraries.

For an approximate topographic reference, view this map and read the route overview.

Recommended thru- and section-hikes

Questions, or have an experience to share? Leave a comment.


  1. Nathaniel Sousa on December 2, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    This looks awesome. Thank You Andrew

    I did 9 days on the Sierra High Route 3 years ago, thanks to your guide. Would that trail also rate as “extreme” in your measurement system?

    • Andrew Skurka on December 3, 2018 at 6:25 am

      Yes, definitely. If you have done a sampling of the SHR, the YSR is within your wheelhouse.

  2. Brad R on December 5, 2018 at 10:11 am

    I did the Wilson-Dixon version of the WRHR this September in 7 days and am looking for something of similar difficulty. Would you have anything in particular you would recommend from your trips (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Phiffner, or other)? I don’t want anything over class 3, and though I have crossed glaciers in Alaska and WRR, and have Microspikes, I have never used an ice ax. I could do the trip any time in July or August.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 5, 2018 at 10:37 am

      Overall, if you were able to do Alan’s route in the Winds you should be able to do these other routes, too. You might find them marginally more challenging, specific sections or overall, but you’re also more experienced and confident now; you could also find them to be marginally less challenging. My guess, you’ll conclude that it will still hard, but just different. There is nothing on these routes that exceeds Class 3 (and most of it is Class 2).

      In July and August, the Pfiffner usually has afternoon weather issues, similar to the Winds (although if you were there in Sept you might have avoided that).

      The Pfiffner has one pass that is probably hairier than anything on that Winds route, the Northeast Gully, After a normal winter it’s full of snow through July. The pass immediately before it, Paiute, is no gimme either, but I don’t think it’s that much worse than some of those on the Winds. Northeast Gully can be bypassed, but I’d discourage it.

      In July the High Sierra can be buggy. It’s not Alaska, though, and it can be successfully managed.

      The KCHBR has one pass that hangs people up, too, King Col. Sometime in July the “plug” melts out and you can get around the cornice that blocks the entry. It remains steep and loose though.

      I have only seen a little bit of the Yosemite High Route in early-season conditions, so I’m not sure where all the snow hazards are. I’m speculating that none of them will be as bad as Northeast Gully or King Col, at least at the same time of year.

  3. Ben Wells on December 5, 2018 at 5:50 pm

    Two Summers ago I planned and completed an 18 day trip summitting New York’s 46 high peaks. The mileage added up to 200 and elevation gain just shy of 70,000. Undergoing planning for this magnificent looking trip now for next Summer! Looking at the longest itinerary as of now. Thanks Andrew I’ll email or comment somewhere if I have any questions. Looking forward to purchasing your guide later in the winter.

  4. max on September 2, 2020 at 9:12 pm

    andrew. inspired by you we just did five days out of Twin Lakes exploring horse creek pass into Spiller canyon around to Matterhon, burro pass, slide canyon, rock island lake then down past Snow Lake and back to Twin Lakes. good times. highlights were Piute creek and off trail to Rock Island from there. hungry for more up there now

    • Brian Larson on October 9, 2020 at 9:16 pm

      Hey Max,

      I think we are headed down to Yosemite next week and have about 5 days or so for some off-trail backpacking. Your route looks like a nice mix of on-trail and easy to navigate (?) off-trail hiking. Do you have a guesstimate of your daily average mileage or hours spent hiking per day? Would you recommend your route to others? Anything you’d do differently in hindsight or advice to others?

      Thanks for any input,


      • max godino on October 13, 2020 at 10:11 am


        Sounds great! Colder now and maybe precipitation but I say go for it. Navigation was pretty easy. Caltopo map mixed with Gaia gps (especially from Paiute Creek to Rock Island Lake) did the trick.

        We definitely did not hike a ton of miles per day and could’ve done the whole route faster if that was what we were after. Didn’t really calculate miles but basically took it easy until the last long day back to the trailhead.

        All in all a great trip. Would recommend doing it in the direction we did: clockwise up Horse Creek first, rather than towards Barney Lake. This way you get directly into the mountains and off trail way faster. If you go towards Barney Lake (counter-clockwise) there’s way more people and you’re slogging up the trail on endless switchbacks forever. On our way back down this trail for many miles there were people with 40 lb packs who tried to look happy while we passed them but inside I knew they were cursing.

        First day was from Twin Lakes up Horse Creek canyon for maybe three hours. We got a late start (3pm) after driving from the Bay Area so basically went from sea level to nearly 10k with a full pack (22 lbs or so). Camped at a nice flat spot and got hailed on! Fun times retreating to a large rock overhang for better shelter. Found a big boulder with some chalk on it next to an old sign saying “no camping” so boulderers have been here.

        Next day up and out and over the pass. Faint trails through the talus. Stay left near the pass (away from Matterhorn peak) and you’ll see the opening. Glorious on the other side- Spiller Canyon. Great views of mountains and valley and glacial erratics. We opted to hike down the valley because we wanted to fish and we were tired- looking up at Matterhorn Pass seemed daunting (should’ve gotten pack weight down to 18 lbs or less!) We hiked down to the creek, killed an hour or more fly fishing in the stream (small creek, small fish: caught and released a dozen or so). We only hiked this second day until 3pm or so and camped near the creek. There was a bubbling spring coming out of the ground nearby for super clean water. No trails in Spiller Canyon but no need of one, just head downhill and you’re fine.

        Next day hiked down to the PCT and up many switchbacks then down many more to get to Matterhorn Canyon. Kind of boring and I suppose the “worst” part of the trip. Saw three people on the trail. Where the PCT meets the bottom of Matterhorn Canyon we took a right and went upstream (gets nicer and nicer the higher up you go). We arrived at really the only good campsite a couple miles below Burro Pass at 2 or 3pm. Debated huffing up and over in the afternoon sun and opted instead to camp there, fished some more and relax. Good times.

        Next morning up and over Burro Pass- easy trail and amazing views (especially being fresh in the morning). Ran into a trail crew on the other side of the pass while dropping down into Slide Canyon. Used Gaia gps to head off trail again, stayed to the left of the creek and ran into the rockslide. We fished a little on the north side of the slide and caught another dozen little brook trout. There’s a faint use trail that keeps to the far (east) side of the slide- use this and don’t try to negotiate the rocks! It’ll spit you out into an amazing valley.

        Again we debated whether to go up and over to Rock Island and instead camped near Piute creek at the base of the climb that would eventually take us over to Rock Island. Surprisingly saw a group of 4 people with HUGE packs headed for Doe Lake. We dayhiked down the valley, catching another couple dozen fish (8″ or less), lounged in the sun next to the water, scouted out the route to Rock Island, climbed some boulders, watched the sunset- usual stuff.

        Next morning we were up and out early: pretty easy scramble up talus/dry creek from the canyon. We stayed left and off of the granite slabs until we got higher up. You reach a high meadow at about 10k. Traverse this but don’t go down into Crazy Mule Gulch! You’ll just have to climb back out again. There were some routefinding challenges getting from here to Rock Island but Gaia gps, maps and common sense won out and we scrambled down to the lake by 9am or so. Nice spot and feels remote. No other footprints in the sand except animals.

        From Rock Island you head towards the obvious low pass and from there stay high and traverse directly to the trail and the pass above Snow Lake. Snow Lake is gorgeous and you could loop around the other side and find a secluded campsite. We kept going and eventually knocked it out all the way back to the trailhead. Long day all the way from Piute Creek to Twin Lakes but when we have a head of steam and its downhill and we’re smelling the barn there’s no stopping us.

        From Snow Lake down past Crown Lake to Robinson Lakes is really nice: lots of granite, steep switchbacks (glad we were going down!), came across a half dozen spotted grouse who are super funny and nearly tame. From Robinson Lake all the way down down down to Twin Lakes is fine. Saw more people of course but what’re you gonna do? Made it down well before dark for much deserved beer and surprisingly excellent burger at the restaurant there.

        We could’ve gone faster by taking Matterhorn Pass and not stopping to camp at 3pm every day . If I did it again I would pack better (took too much food cuz I thought we might be out for another day). If you want to fish bring a tenkara rod and you’ll catch more tiny fish than you can count.

        When I go back to this region I’d like to link up to the Sierra High Route from Tioga Pass to Stanton Peak but that’ll have to wait until next year.

        • Andrew Skurka on October 13, 2020 at 12:22 pm

          Thank you for not posting a track of your route, thereby helping to disperse use and maintain the sense of adventure for others.

          • max godino on October 13, 2020 at 12:29 pm

            Thanks Andrew. Hope you’re not being sarcastic! Tried to be informative but not giving too much away. I got Brian’s message just this morning so maybe he’s already on the trail cuz he posted 4 days ago.

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