Yosemite High Route
August 3, 2019 - August 7, 2019 and September 22, 2019 - September 25, 2019
Introduction
This trip report covers a two-part section hike I undertook in the summer of 2019 of the Yosemite High Route, a 150-ish mile off-trail hiking route circling Yosemite National Park. As far as I’m aware this is the first detailed trip report covering this newly publicized route. With that in mind, I’ll focus on aspects that I think others will interesting: route details missing or lacking in the guide, my opinion of the route, and a good collection of informative and inspiring photographs.
Context
In the summer of 2019 I had a good amount of vacation saved up. So, in the early summer I settled into the process of planning a week-long solo trip. I initially hoped to use the Fourth of July holiday week to get a full week off for the price of only three vacation days, but the spring of 2019 was not forgiving to the early season California backpacker.
I bumped my trip back by a few weeks and continued the search. I considered a number of medium-distance trail hikes: the Tahoe Rim Trail, the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail, the Big SEKI Loop. But I was most excited by off-trail routes, like the Wind River High Route which I had hiked in 2018.
As I don’t have the free time to research a new 100+ mile off trail route, I needed something requiring relatively little planning, so I decided I’d go with one of Skurka’s routes. Wanting to stay in California meant it was down to the King’s Canyon High Basin Route (KCHBR), or the Yosemite High Route (YHR). After reading both guides, I settled on the Yosemite High Route for a few reasons:
  1. I was concerned about three sections of the KCHBR in a high snow year: King Col, the Enchanted Gorge, and the crossing of the Middle Fork of the King’s River.
  2. The KCHBR looked a bit more difficult. Not enough to really sway me, but I thought it might be better to get one more high route under my belt before tackling it.
  3. Having done a fair bit of hiking in Yosemite, I was excited by a High Route in the park that contained almost entirely new terrain for me.
So, I decided on the Yosemite High Route.
The Yosemite High Route
The Yosemite High Route is the newest high route published by Andrew Skurka. This is the fourth high route for which he has published a thorough guide, the others being the King's Canyon High Basin Route, the Wind River High Route, and the Pfiffner Traverse.
The core of the YHR is 94 miles from Grace Meadow, just southwest of Dorothy Lake near the northern boundary of the park to Quartzite Peak, a minor summit at the north end of the Clark Range. Of these 94 miles, 70% are cross country, and the route gains and loses a total of 59,000' of elevation, for an average change of +/-630' per mile. The route traverses several prominent sub-ranges of the Sierra Nevada, crosses 15 passes, passes by each of the 10 highest peaks in the park, and visits the parks only two glaciers, crossing one of them. It also traverses the headwaters of two of California's major rivers, and a whopping 25 named creeks. In completion, it's a thorough tour of the park.
As the terminuses lie deep in the park’s wilderness, YHR hikers must decide how to reach these points from the frontcountry. Skurka provides several approach options from each end, adding between 25 and 80 miles, and a good amount more elevation change. With these approach options, the route can be done as a point-to-point, or most conveniently as a figure-8 out of Tuolumne Meadows.
For my hike, I opted for the "longest and most convenient" figure-8 variant from north to south, saving the highest country for last. I planned to approach the northern terminus from Tuolumne Meadows via the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and return from the southern terminus via either Cathedral Pass, Echo Creek, or Rafferty Creek, a decision I planned to make later in my trip.
Final Preparations
I packed my food and my gear, prepared a resupply and was ready to roll on the morning of Saturday, August 3.
Day 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Pate Valley
22.5 miles, +1,400, 0% Off Trail
I hit the road early and had an easy drive up to Yosemite, managing to get into the park before the 120 entrance got too busy with midsummer traffic. Then I continued to Tuolumne Meadows, parked in the lot at the wilderness center and went in to ask about a permit. Because it was a summer weekend, I had to wait for the no-shows to be released at 11, but then I was able to get my first choice permit quite easily: Glen Aulin pass through. I hit the trail just after 11, hiking towards the Tuolumne Meadows store, across the road, across the meadows, and into the woods.
Views of the northern part of the Cathedral Range from the trail.
The Tuolumne River and Cathedral Range.
The first of many waterfalls, Tuolumne Falls, above Glen Aulin. As Skurka says in the guide, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne has as many waterfalls as sunny days.
Atop another tumble just above Glen Aulin.
White Cascade and Glen Aulin.
Glen Aulin, a “peaceful pause in the tumble.” Below this point, the crowds thinned out quite a bit.
Another waterfall, I can’t recall the name of this one. Just below here I ran into a couple of men who were having the time of their lives, it offered a great reminder that even though this was just an approach to the main event, I should still do my best to enjoy it.
Double falls upstream.
Beautiful lighting as I continued deeper into the canyon.
The canyon continued to get deeper and deeper. By this point, below the junction with Cathedral Creek, it was at least 4,000’ deep.
As I continued dropping, the flora began to change, from high-country pines to some warmer-weather riparian plants: manzanita, poison oak, and other shrubs. Even the Sugar Pine trees so common in Yosemite Valley began to appear, offering a reminder that I was approaching one of the great valleys of the Sierra Nevada.
By this point, the south wall of the canyon rose more than 4,000’ above me.
Another shot of the photogenic double falls.
Below Rodgers Canyon, where Register Creek joins the Tuolumne, bear scat began to appear on the trail, with increasing frequency and freshness.
As the day edged closer to night, Pate Valley became a natural stopping point. I would reach it just before nightfall, and figured there would be a campsite or two. About half a mile upstream I passed a group of older men who warned me “there’s shitloads of mosquitoes down there.” While they had claimed the best spot upstream of Pate Valley, they offered advice about a campsite a bit farther downstream that would likely have some relief due to the river moving faster through that section. I continued on, but couldn’t figure out what they were talking about, so I decided to suck it up and deal with the mosquitos in Pate Valley.
Bats circling overhead in Pate Valley. Much to my surprise, the bug pressure was very light. I was able to sit out without a headnet and enjoy the sunset and dinner.
I had managed a good day today, 22 miles after 11 AM, and with mostly very good scenery. The Grand Canyon had far surpassed my expectations. But reading the guide, I was a bit worried about the next day. Right out of the gate, I’d have to regain all of the elevation I had lost today and then some. And I had a long ways to go, 31 miles, until Grace Meadow, the start of the actual route.
Day 2: Pate Valley to Wilma Lake
25.7 miles, +8,600, 0% Off Trail
I got an early start in the morning because the day was going to start with a massive climb that would be very hot by late morning. From Pate Valley, the trail to Bear Valley climbs 6,500’ over 13 miles, with a brief drop of 1,000’ into Pleasant Valley. This climb is an ass-kicker.
Looking back at Double Rock over Pate Valley. As Skurka mentions in the guide, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is one of the deepest canyons in the United States. At 9,800’, Double Rock towers a full vertical mile above Pate Valley. This is only about 500’ less than the Grand Canyon. This photo doesn’t quite convey the immense scale.
Looking up at waterfalls along Piute Creek. The trail veers away from the creekbed here, so there weren’t many places to get water in the initial 3,500’ of the climb.
Near the top of this initial climb I came across another hiker, John. He was also out to hike the YHR. I was pretty surprised to already run into someone else doing the same route. We would yo-yo each other for most of the rest of the day.
Once I got a bit higher, the flowers came in again. Here’s a nice Indian Paintbrush.
Alpine Lily.
Not sure what this one is called.
Near the top of the climb out of Pleasant Valley, there’s a great view back towards the Sierra Crest, the first of the entire hike thus far. You can see clearly up Piute Creek, which you’ll cross again later, to the Sawtooth Ridge.
Fields of Lupine just below the top of the climb towards Bear Valley.
Overlooking Bear Valley.
Columbine in Bear Valley.
The trail through Bear Valley is not a popular one, and it fades into nothing in a few spots. I lost it crossing a meadow in the valley, but quickly regained it on the other side.
Shooting Stars.
The spire above Lake 9154 in Bear Valley.
Mariposa Lily.
A good view of Tower Peak (I think) from the descent from Bear Valley.
One of my favourite flowers, White Mountain Heather. I’ll have quite a few more photos of this one, as it is pretty common.
Pink Mountain Heather.
More Indian Paintbrush.
Below Bear Valley, the trail rejoins the PCT for the final section of “The Washboard.” Through this section, the PCT repeatedly crosses divides between creek drainages. The northernmost section of the YHR crosses these same creeks near their headwaters, and also has a very washboard character to it. I believe this photo is near the top of the climb north of Stubblefield Canyon, which I would traverse again tomorrow.
Not sure about the name of this flower.
A peaceful section of trail through some pine trees just south of Wilma Lake. Not pictured, the horrendous mosquitos. I did the drop-pack and look for headnet dance before I realized I had made the rookie mistake of putting my headnet inside of my pack.
I realized I wasn’t going to make it to Grace Meadow during daylight hours today. I had moved a bit too slowly over the 10,000’+ feet of climbing. I decided to make camp for the night on a rocky outcrop above Wilma Lake overlooking Falls Creek. The occasional breeze blowing up the creek offered some respite from the mosquitoes, which were absolutely horrendous in the marshes near the lakeshore.
This creek is noteworthy as it enters the Hetch Hetchy reservoir downstream via at Wapama Falls. This impressive cascade tumbles more than 1,000’ into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and would likely receive a lot more attention if the Hetch Hetchy Valley had been left in its original state, instead of dammed for water storage.
Sunset over Falls Creek.
I hadn’t made it as far as I had hoped today, but I think my original goal was a bit ambitious. In today's 26 miles, I had climbed and descended a total of 17,000 feet of elevation, including more than 10,000 feet climbed.
The bigger problem today was the consistently mediocre scenery. The photos tell the story, most of today's scenery was floral, with the occasional high country vista. While that's nice, it's not what high route hiking is about. Because of this and being slightly behind schedule, I was in a bit of a mental rut. I hoped I would break out of it once I got on the core route, tomorrow.
Day 3: Wilma Lake to Rock Island Lake
26 miles, +7,000, 80% Off Trail
Sunrise over Falls Creek. Shortly after hitting the trail in the morning, I saw an otter playing in Falls Creek. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture.
Just upstream from camp, there was a ford of Falls Creek. Here’s a shot of the mosquitoes that gathered on my arm when I stopped to put my shoes back on.
A peaceful section of trail on the easy few miles to Grace Meadow.
Shooting Stars.
At the edge of Grace Meadow, I came across this deer crossing the creek.
Grace Meadow, at last. After almost 2 full days of hiking, it was time for the main event. The core route departs the trail just upstream from here and climbs 1,500’ through the forest toward the saddle on the right, Keyes Peak Pass.
Pink Mountain Heather in the forest en route to Keyes Peak Pass.
The first 800’ or so to Keyes Peak Pass is a grind through the forest, then the forest opens up to a meadow. Keyes Peak Pass is at right here, above the snowfields. I was briefly concerned about encountering a large cornice here, but knew I could turn around if I felt unsafe.
More flowers.
The snowfield atop the pass, from the side. I was able to climb over the rocks to bypass it easily.
The view north to the Sierra Crest in Emigrant Wilderness from Keyes Peak Pass. Hikers who approach Grace Meadow from Sonora Pass would hike through this impressive terrain.
The view south from Keyes Peak Pass, including Tilden Lake. From here, the route descends and curves left before climbing to the next pass, Tower Peak Pass.
Tilden Lake. Some light cloud cover was beginning to move in. I wasn’t too concerned because these weren’t thunderclouds.
White Mountain Heather on the way up Tower Peak Pass. The bottom of the Tilden Creek Canyon was mostly forested, so there wasn’t too much to see down there.
Mary Lake below Tower Peak Pass.
More White Mountain Heather.
Tower Peak from Tower Peak Pass. The 1,300’ climb to this pass was pretty straightforward, just a bit of routefinding on the way down from Keyes Peak Pass.
Overlooking Stubblefield Canyon, with some moody clouds. Directly across the canyon is Shelf Pass, the next pass, and if you look very closely you can see Mount Lyell and its glacier over the ridge.
The head of Stubblefield Canyon. The descent from Tower Peak Pass was pretty close to steep enough for downclimbing.
Looking down Stubblefield Canyon. This canyon contained much less vegetation, so its U-shape was much more obvious. All of the canyons traversed in this part of the YHR were carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. It’s very impressive to imagine this terrain covered with a thousand feet of ice, slowly scouring the rock away.
The initial climb out of Stubblefield Canyon toward lake 9774 (“textbook hanging valley”) was much looser than advertised. After knocking a couple of microwave-sized boulders loose, I did my best to skirt the talus on its edges, testing rocks before trusting them with my weight. A tumble here would be bad news.
Pink Mountain Heather in Stubblefield Canyon.
Looking up Stubblefield Canyon from the climb to Lake 9774. Tower Peak is plainly visible, as is the climb to Tower Peak Pass, through and upcanyon of the darker (looser) rock.
More White Mountain Heather, under moody skies.
When I stopped for water at Lake 9774, I saw this creature flying around. I wasn’t sure if it was a moth or a hummingbird, but I got a few pictures of it. Later research tells me it’s the somewhat common White-Lined Sphinx Moth.
Lake 9774, “textbook hanging valley.”
The sandy washout below Shelf Pass, some of the easiest walking on the core route thus far.
You should know the name of this flower by now.
And this one.
Overlooking the hanging valley, and Stubblefield Canyon, from near the top of Shelf Pass.
The view north from Shelf Pass. Finally, after more than half a day Traversing canyons, I was getting closer to some big mountain scenery. From here you can see Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure on the right, as well as Matterhorn Peak on the left.
I could also see two other hikers descending the ledges below Shelf Pass. I caught up to them on the way down and learned their names were Jordan and Jose, and they were also hiking the YHR. I would later connect with Jose on Instagram, and see that they were probably the first pair to complete a full hike of the YHR. We commiserated a bit more, they had some trouble with the talus field in Stubblefield Canyon as well, and were having a tough time with the ledges below Shelf Pass. Then, we went our separate ways.
By this time, I was starting to realize that this wasn't as obscure of a trip as I had thought. Maybe it was the accessibility, the fact it was a newly publicized route, or something else, but it was a bit busier than the WRHR.
Looking east from Shelf Pass.
A neat shot West from Shelf Pass. If you look closely you can see Jose and Jordan descending.
Another couple of shots west of Shelf Pass.
Overlooking Thompson Canyon, with Willow Pass in the foreground. Thankfully, this pass was a shorter climb than the previous three, which had all been almost 1,500' of ascent and descent.
A snow wall on Shelf Pass. The drop off was at least 30 feet.
Impressive relief in the open forest of Thompson Canyon.
More Pink Mountain Heather.
Willow Pass, a straightforward, but somewhat brushy walk up.
Overlooking Thompson Canyon from near its head. By this time, the stratus clouds that had covered the sky for a few hours were fading, leaving only some high cirrus clouds.
Atop Willow Pass, a broad plateau dividing these two canyons. I was excited to hit a trail at the base of the next canyon, having been off trail since this morning.
A neat rock formation stop Willow Pass
Ponds on Willow Pass.
Overlooking Upper Kerrick Meadow with Crown Point in the background. This was a familiar area, as I had hiked the trail past Peeler Lake a few times.
On my descent from Willow Pass, I noticed that my wedding ring had fallen off my finger. I wasn’t sure exactly where this had happened, but believed it was somewhere in a ~200 meter stretch. Twice I retraced where I thought I had walked, and then once more on hands and knees, but was not able to find it. By this point, I was unsure which route I had originally walked, and knew the ring was lost. I was pretty upset about this, I don’t like losing things, and this seemingly minor accident was causing me to rethink the purpose of this whole trip. I did my best to set this aside and move on.
The subtle trail junction in Kerrick Meadow. This is not a very popular trail, but I was happy for a bit of relief from the mental burden of solo off trail travel.
Looking up the chute towards Rock Island Lake Pass. It was a bit sandy near the top, but nothing too rough.
Looking back north from near the top of Rock Island Lake Pass.
Rock Island Lake from the pass. The daylight was fading, so I figured this would be a good spot to stop for the night.
Another of Rock Island Lake.
Looking back at Rock Island Lake Pass.
Rock Island Lake and the peak behind from its inlet stream, near my camp for the night.
I had done very well today, clearing the first off trail section and making it all the way to one of the “highlights” of the north part of the route. Twenty-six miles with a good amount of off trail was a pretty significant day. But, honestly, I still wasn’t enjoying the route as much as I expected. I had spent more time thrashing through brush and route finding through the forest than enjoying alpine terrain. Except for a couple of spots, this didn’t feel like true high-route style hiking. I was beginning to question my desire to complete the route.
Day 4: Rock Island Lake to Virginia Canyon
19.5 miles, +4,900, 80% Off Trail
By this morning, I had decided that I probably wasn’t going to start the south loop of the YHR. I was not enjoying this hike as much as I had hoped and was having a hard time pumping myself up for 5 or 6 more days.
Rock Island Lake in the morning. As I was packing up, Jordan and Jose walked by. I walked with them around the lakes edge before we naturally separated again.
Looking down the descent chute into Crazy Mule Gulch.
Crazy Mule Gulch from above.
Ponds in Crazy Mule Gulch. From here, the route takes a hard left, climbs to a saddle, and descends 1,000’ to Piute Canyon. This descent was very tricky. I had a hard time following the hints in the guide and found myself cliffed out, thrashing through brush, or skidding down sketchy steep slabs a number of times.
The Slide, an impressive rockslide that threw enormous boulders clean across this canyon. In the guide, Skurka calls this a “highlight” of the north loop. I thought it was neat to see, but not quite worthy of that distinction.
The snow sensor in Piute Canyon.
More Pink Mountain Heather.
At the head of Piute Canyon, the high route rejoins a trail to cross Burro Pass. This meant some more easy walking and crossing paths with a bunch of people. It also meant I was nearing Matterhorn Pass, the technical crux of the route, and I was getting nervous about that.
Here is Sawtooth Ridge from the meadow below Burro Pass.
A large snowfield atop Burro Pass. I passed a few large groups on the trail ascending the pass.
Overlooking Matterhorn Canyon, with Matterhorn Pass, the leftmost low point.
Looking down Matterhorn Canyon from where I left the trail.
White Mountain Heather.
Fields of it!
Matterhorn Pass from below. This isn’t the tricky side, but it still looks pretty steep! On the other side, Skurka describes a class 4 slab downclimb, or an unverified loose class 3 chute.
The view north from Matterhorn Pass.
Looking down the route I ascended the pass. These kinds of things are always easier going up than down, but I don’t remember it being very loose or scary.
Looking directly down the class 4 downclimb. Pictures usually look worse than reality, but even so I thought this was pretty steep.
Looking across and down Spiller Canyon at the next pass, Stanton Pass. The loose chute descent option is visible to the right.
I climbed across the ridge, as described in the guidebook, until I found the top of the chute. Here’s a view looking back at the other route, the class 4 slab downclimb. I think it descends slabs next to one of the seams that’s visible near the low point.
Looking directly down the chute. It was steep and loose, but went easily with some careful scrambling.
Mid way down the chute.
Looking up the chute.
A good view of the entire chute. The bottom wasn’t too bad, there were a couple of class 3 downclimbs which should be pretty obvious in this picture. The rock was a bit better than I expected. I didn’t think this descent option was particularly difficult, just a little bit slow.
Looking down Spiller Canyon. Here, the route briefly intersects the Sierra High Route, which also crosses from Return Canyon to Spiller Canyon via Stanton Pass. North of here, the SHR crosses into Hoover Wilderness from Spiller Canyon via Horse Creek Pass.
White Mountain Heather again.
Indian Paintbrush.
Matterhorn Peak from midway up Stanton Pass.
Stanton Pass was probably the most sustained section of talus on the entire north loop.
The incredible view from Stanton Pass, the best of the route so far. The ascent was a little bit tricky, the guide instructions weren’t super clear. I stuck right on the ascent. After a bit of talus hopping, the slope steepened to a class 3 climb for the last 100 feet or so. I found the top pitch of climbing a little bit tricky.
Virginia Peak from Stanton Pass.
Looking back at Stanton Pass and Virginia Peak from the contour to Soldier Lake. The descent of Stanton Pass was also a bit tricky, it was quite ledgy and some vegetation made for a little bit of routefinding.
Return Lake, the upper reaches of Return Creek, and the Sierra Crest. Summit Lake is just visible as well in the saddle at center.
More White Mountain Heather.
Grey Butte and the impressive high contour to Soldier Lake.
I ran into a northbound hiker while crossing the snowfield, Josh. He was hiking the northern half of the Sierra High Route. We chatted for a bit, relating experiences -- he called the SHR the “best hike he’d ever done,” but validated me with an “anything from Skurka must be pretty out there”; discussing the difficulties of off trail travel -- “you have to pay attention to every single step”; and he shared the harrowing story of aiding in the recovery of a body at Iceberg Lake near Mammoth. Having hiked that section last year, I knew it was prone to accidents, especially during a snowy year like this. Here’s a photo of Josh crossing the snowfield with his impressively small backpack.
The Cathedral Range comes back into view at the saddle above Soldier Lake. Even Clouds Rest is visible at right.
Shepherd Crest and Mount Conness across Virginia Canyon.
The remarkable Soldier Lake. There was a spot or two where you could probably scratch out a campsite just north of the lake outlet.
Another shot of the peaks across Virginia Canyon.
The gorgeous broken slabs south of Soldier Lake. Except for the steep angle, the hiking here was as easy as a stroll down the sidewalk.
More White Mountain Heather.
Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, and a couple other peaks of the Cathedral Range visible downcanyon.
As I entered the forest again, I tried to avoid the avalanche chute marked on the map, but couldn’t find any particularly easy route. My excitement also faded again, as I exited the most beautiful section of the route thus far.
I made camp along Return Creek near the junction with the next climb, ate dinner, washed my feet, and enjoyed the sunset. In my stroll down the trail to this point, I had decided that I would end my trip at Tuolumne Meadows, instead of continuing on to the South Loop. With the exception of a couple of spots, I was not particularly enjoying this route. It was difficult, without the rewarding high mountain scenery I had expected. I was also affected by Josh’s story of the fallen hiker, having already had my fair share of mis-steps, dislodged talus blocks, and small tumbles. I convinced myself that I was pushing it a bit too far and wasn’t as comfortable with this style of hiking as I previously thought. So, I figured I’d just go home, end my vacation early, and find something else to do. With only about 15 miles to go, I would probably be back at Tuolumne tomorrow afternoon.
Day 5: Virginia Canyon to Tuolumne Meadows
16.6 miles, +3,400, 60% Off Trail
I started today crossing Return Creek and beginning up the 1,000’ climb to McCabe Creek.
Trying to “follow fall line through firs” proved more difficult than expected. The first 600’ of this climb was mostly like this.
The view back across Virginia Canyon when the forest opened up.
McCabe Creek. The clouds overhead indicated an afternoon thunderstorm was possible today. I knew I would be fine because I would cross Don’t Be a Smart Pass well before noon.
More White Mountain Heather along McCabe Creek.
Talus, White Mountain Heather, and awesome views at Upper McCabe Lake.
The view of Shepherd Crest across Upper McCabe Lake.
On the shore at left, you can see the tent of a group taking advantage of the “grand, but exposed camping.”
Awesome perspective from the peninsula in Upper McCabe Lake.
View from partway up Don’t Be a Smart Pass.
Most of the way to the top of Don’t Be a Smart Pass. The climb up the snowfield got a little steep near the top, but it was more forgiving to the left, and the snow was quite soft.
Awesome views of Roosevelt Lake, the Cathedral Range, and even Half Dome from the top of Don’t Be a Smart Pass.
Awesome views above Roosevelt Lake. In the second photo, you can clearly assess the difficulty of walking each side of the lake. I chose the right (west) side. The descent from the pass was straightforward.
Pink Mountain Heather again.
I saw some things floating in Roosevelt Lake, and then noticed these rocks. I guess it’s not such a good spot for fishing anymore!
The view back across Roosevelt Lake, with Don’t Be a Smart Pass in the background.
An awesome view of Ragged Peak above Conness Creek. The creek was easy to cross, I didn’t even get my feet wet.
Mount Conness above its namesake creek.
The Roosevelt Lake basin again.
Ragged Peak and one last view of Half Dome.
Mount Conness above a meadow, with some lovely lighting. This face of Mount Conness is famous for its technical rock climbing, including a 1,200’ route directly up this face.
After this, I entered the forest again and made my way to Young Lakes. The forest was a little bit thick, which made for a bit of routefinding. It also began to sprinkle off and on, so I was glad to be down low. After finding the outlet creek, I made my way up to the lowest Young Lake and picked up the trail. From here, it was only on-trail hiking back to Tuolumne!
The view from “View South to Cathedral Range” was pretty impressive. Here are Mount Ritter and Banner Peak framed by pines.
And here is the Cathedral Range, as promised.
Looking south from the clearing, Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure are clearly visible, the large snowfield of the Lyell Glacier makes Mount Lyell very obvious.
Lupine.
After another hour or so, I reached the road again, crossed it, and walked back to my car. As thunder rattled overheard, I didn’t even consider heading east towards Parker Pass Creek, I got in my car and turned west, towards home.
Interlude
I didn’t really question my decision to bail until a few days later. Sure, I was disappointed that I had abandoned my pursuit of a goal, but I felt like I made a reasonable decision with the information available.
So, what changed that lead me to go back and finish the route? I did more research about the southern loop. I reviewed it carefully on Google Maps, found Jose’s pictures on Instagram, and found a few trip reports from this area. After doing this homework I realized that the south loop had much more of a “high route” character than the north loop. There were fewer miles down low in the forest, no long approaches, and most of the hiking was in the high mountains of the Cathedral and Clark Ranges. It seemed likely that the south loop would be much more enjoyable.
But, life happened for a little while, and due to a variety of circumstances I couldn’t get back to the park for some solo hiking until late September. Fortunately, that’s still backpacking season here in California.
Day 1: Tuolumne Meadows to Merced Lake
15.7 miles, +1,800, 0% Off Trail
Like previously, I got up very early this morning and headed up to Tuolumne. By now, most of the summer tourists had gone home, so the park was a bit quieter. I arrived at the wilderness center at 10, picked up a permit for Rafferty Creek (no waiting for no-shows this time) and hit the trail.
The Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River along the JMT.
Mount Dana in the distance.
A meadow near Tuolumne Pass. The scenery clearly reflected the changing seasons.
Looking back over Tuolumne Meadows.
Boothe Lake.
Vogelsang Peak over a pond along Emeric Creek.
A lovely stretch of trail on the long descent to the Merced.
Craggy peaks along the canyon’s edges.
Some classic Yosemite views in a meadow near Emeric Lake.
Below the trail junction to Babcock Lake, the Clark Range comes into view. At far right is Mount Clark, with Quartzite Peak obscured just a bit farther right. The entire traverse that I would do tomorrow is visible here.
Half Dome peaks out along the descent to Merced Lake.
The Merced Lake Ranger Station, in a beautiful pine forest.
The Merced Lake High Sierra Camp, which didn’t open this year. It was a bit odd to see such development deep in the wilderness.
The bathrooms all had these cute drawings on the doors. They were locked, as were the outhouses at the backpacker’s camp.
Just below here, I ran into a couple of folks camping at the backpackers camp. I hoped to go a bit farther, so I asked if there was reasonable camping in Echo Valley, they said it was pretty rocky whereas Merced Lake was “set up for camping.” So I decided to set up here a couple of hours before sunset. I figured that continuing to Echo Valley would only save me about 30 minutes in the morning.
Sunset over Merced Lake. I was excited to get off trail into the high mountains again tomorrow.
Day 2: Merced Lake to Triple Peak Fork
19.9 miles, +6,500, 60% Off Trail
Beautiful sunrise light over Merced Lake.
And the Merced River just downstream.
A deer wandering down the trail in Echo Valley. By the way, Echo Valley was not at all rocky and there were plenty of great campsites, although the views were better upstream at Merced Lake. If you’re hiking a high route, your standards for campsites are probably a bit more relaxed than someone doing the High Sierra Camps loop.
Here’s the southern terminus of the YHR, along the Merced River just upstream from the small aspen grove. For me, this marked the start of an almost 4,000’ climb.
After thrashing through the brush for the first 600’ of the climb, I reached the large bench and began to traverse. Here, I came across a couple of other hikers, also making their way up through the brush. We chatted briefly, and I learned they were from France, and were hiking the south loop of the YHR. I wondered if I would run into many other groups on this loop.
Views of the Cathedral Range from the bench.
The pine tree in the crack described in the guide. I didn’t think the terrain here was steep enough that your route choice really matters, so don’t sweat it if you can’t find the tree.
Impressive antlers.
Nearing the top, I guess this is why it’s called Quartzite Peak. The climb to Quartzite Peak was tough. It was mostly in the forest, requiring a little bit of route finding. The sustained, steep climb took me almost 3 hours of hard hiking to the summit of Quartzite Peak.
The view west from Quartzite Peak, Half Dome and Clouds Rest are clearly visible, as is the burn scar from the Meadow Fire.
The Cathedral Range from Quartzite Peak.
The Lyell Group from Quartzite Peak.
One more of the Cathedral Range.
I stopped to read the summit register for Quartzite Peak. It looked like the peak received little attention before this year, maybe a couple of summits per year. I even found the old register entry from the “Convoluted Bliss” trip, a 51 peak linkup joining the Cathedral Range, Isberg Divide, and Clark Ranges. There were about 20 entries this year, all citing the YHR, including 5 or so thru hikes, a pretty big increase in visitation for this minor peak. Several of these register entries referenced the difficulty of my next pass, Lemonade Pass.
Continuing up south of Quartzite Peak, into the Clark Range. The forested hump in the foreground is Quartzite Peak.
Obelisk Lake from the ridge north of Mount Clark.
The ridgeline, and summit of Mount Clark behind. The top 200’ of the drop off of the ridge were as shitty as promised, but it improved after rounding the corner below point 10987.
Obelisk Lake again, with Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure behind. I didn’t take a close look, but it looked like there was plenty of good camping at this lake.
Another view of Obelisk Lake from the slabs above.
Great views over a small tarn above Obelisk Lake.
The east face of Mount Clark rising above the unnamed lake above Obelisk Lake.
Another great view of the Merced-Tuolumne divide from the saddle directly east of Mount Clark. You can even see Banner Peak and Mount Ritter from this angle.
The imposing cliff face above “clean slabs.”
Lemonade Pass from the north. It looks pretty loose, but not terrifying.
Looking back across “clean slabs,” a lovely section of walking.
The view back over the Cathedral Range from partway up Lemonade Pass. Note the dark rock underfoot here, it was a bit more crumbly than the granite all around.
I followed the instructions up Lemonade Pass and made it without incident. The talus in the bottom section was a little bit teetery, but if you expect that it’s easy to manage. The top 50’ were a steep sand slope, which is difficult but not dangerous. That said, it’s always easier climbing than descending on loose stuff like this.
The descent from Lemonade Pass, pictured here, was also pretty tough. It was a little loose and a little brushy, and ended with a contour over a pretty good stretch of talus. I was happy to reach Adair Lake, where I stopped for some food and water.
Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure over Adair Lake.
Overlooking Adair Lake, Lemonade Pass is the notch on the left.
Lake 9705 and peaks behind. There might be a lower route across the ridge above this lake, rather than climbing all the way to Sue Pass.
A tarn en route to Sue Pass. The initial climb from Adair Lake had some ribs and gullies that required navigation to get around, but after reaching the tarns, it was pretty straightforward.
Ponds, pines, and peak.
The full Cathedral Range comes into view again near the top of Sue Pass.
Overlooking Red Devil Lake, Banner Peak, Mount Ritter, and the Minarets.
From Sue Pass, there’s a great view of the High Sierra to the south.
The red rocks which give Red Peak its name.
The cluster of tarns on the descent from Sue Pass.
One of the many lightly forested lakes on the trail descending from Red Peak Pass. My initial thinking was that I’d stop and camp at Red Devil Lake, but I still had a bit of daylight remaining, so I decided to put back some of the 9 or so trail miles ahead of me. The upper parts of this trail were very pretty, with light forest and great mountain scenery.
I pushed on until Triple Peak Fork, where I made camp under fading light. I was pleased with my progress today, having completed the first of three long off trail legs on the south loop, and really enjoying the scenery. I thought that tomorrow I would try and get across Russell Pass and camp in the Lyell Fork area, which Skurka explicitly recommends in the guide. While today was one monster climb and then a lot of traversing, tomorrow was going to be a more consistent climb-descend pattern.
Day 3: Triple Peak Fork to Lyell Fork
15.4 miles, +6,000, 85% Off Trail
I got up and moving around the usual time. It was fairly cold this morning, so I moved quickly on the climb away from the Triple Peak Fork. The temperature rose as I climbed higher, and soon it was time to leave the trail again. Note that it’s a little bit tricky to precisely locate the spot where you’ll leave the trail here (CR-41), but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you wait until you’re in the gently sloping forest past the second mapped creek.
As I walked through the quiet forest, I was startled by the sound of something running ahead. I looked up and saw a big, furry, black butt running away. The young black bear ran away very quickly, so I couldn’t snap a photo.
The lowest pond on the climb to Harriet Lake, with Foerster Peak above.
It looked like the bear had explored the marshy area near this lake, leaving footprints everywhere.
Overlooking the first pond, and the south half of the Clark Range. Red Slate Peak and Sue Pass are at the far right.
Harriet Lake and Foerster Peak. The choice presented in the guide is very clear here, with the lower angle slabs at left, and the tundra/slab ascent to the right. I opted for the right route, as it looked a bit easier to me. Rather than walk all the way around Harriet Lake to get there, I shortcut across the talus on the south shore of the lake, this route might not go earlier in the season.
Overlooking Harriet Lake and the full Clark Range, from Mount Clark at far right, to Merced and Triple Divide Peak, somewhere at the left end of this photo. From this perspective, it’s clear that yesterday’s hike really only traversed about half of the Clark Range. Look at a topo map of the southern half to see why.
Another shot of Harriet Lake and the south end of the Clark Range.
I ran into this grouse on my way up to Foerster Pass.
The view of Mount Lyell and the Lyell Fork of the Merced River from Foerster Pass. While the climb up the west side of Foerster Pass had been fairly reasonable, it was obvious that the descent was going to be a bit trickier.
The view of Mount Ansel Adams directly across from Foerster Pass.
Lake 10217 and the “austere basin of rock and water.” This area was remote, and very beautiful.
Looking back up the talus field towards Foerster Pass. This was the easy part. The first 400’ of descent were much trickier, with large talus on fairly steep terrain. Sticking to the rib on the left (climber’s right) after the initial drop in seemed to be a bit easier. I didn’t get a good picture of the upper portion. I don’t recall any “slabs and tundra” on the entire descent.
The waterfall into Lake 10217.
Skate park slabs on the way up to Sluggo Pass. This was some very easy walking through beautiful terrain. Sluggo Pass is the low point on the ridge ahead.
Mount Ansel Adams, directly across the basin.
Electra Peak rising above an immense field of granite.
On the way up Sluggo Pass, Mount Clark and Quartzite Peak briefly reappeared.
Looking across the basin at Mount Ansel Adams.
Looking up at Sluggo Pass as the slabs gave way to more talus.
The view north from Sluggo Pass, to another basin of rock and water.
The descent of Sluggo Pass was a bit more straightforward. I stuck to the right to avoid a gully. Near the bottom is this impressive example of lateral glacial moraine. These rocks used to sit at the edge of a glacier. When the glacier melted, it left this enormous pile of rocks, nearly 50 feet high.
Looking back up at the north side of Sluggo Pass. Note the gully coming down the middle, which I passed by scrambling down the slabs to climber’s left.
Rather than try and contour, I dropped to the lakes for a rest, some water, and lunch. I was glad I did, as these lakes offered a few special Sierra treats. First, the remarkably clear water of alpine lakes rarely touched by humans.
These lakes also hosted a huge population of Sierra Nevada Yellow-Legged Frogs, an endangered species which is absent from most of the frequently visited (fish-filled) lakes of the Sierra. Walking along the shore of these lakes, an endless stream of frogs leapt into the water just ahead of me. The tadpoles swimming around near the shore weren’t quite as fast.
After a break, it was time to climb again. The next climb to Russell Pass was a big one, 1,500’ up to the route’s high point at 12,000’. The first 1,000’ up “slab ramp” were somewhat rough as the temperature had warmed up a bit beyond my comfort level.
I stopped in the “talus” basin for more water and found the unnamed lake with the marked snowfield on its south side was nearly entirely frozen over already, a clear sign that it was autumn in the High Sierra! Naturally, I threw a small rock into the lake’s center, just to be sure.
The view of Russell Pass. Passes always look most difficult from below, but this one looked especially steep. Don’t worry, it’s only the top 400’, and with a little care and some hands-and-feet, it goes.
Looking over the ridge to Peak 12358 from near the top of Russell Pass.
Atop Russell Pass. The climb was a little bit tricky, with a few loose sections, but fortunately that part wasn’t too far.
Skurka doesn’t mention it in the guide, but Russell Pass (like Tuolumne or Cathedral Pass) is an important hydrological divide. Here, you cross from the drainage of the Merced River to the drainage of the Tuolumne River. The Merced continues downstream over Nevada and Vernal falls, and then through Yosemite Valley. The Tuolumne descends through Lyell Canyon and then Tuolumne Meadows before tumbling down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and then being interrupted in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The two rivers independently join the San Joaquin, another great river of the Sierra, before flowing to the Pacific Ocean. Both the Tuolumne and Merced are nationally-designated wild and scenic rivers, which flow through remarkable glacially-carved canyons, thousands of feet deep. Only the Tuolumne, however, still has glaciers at its headwaters.
Partway down Russell Pass, with the Maclure Glacier front and center. From this angle, you get a sense of the steepness of the snowfield off the top of the pass. The talus on this side of the pass was very loose and very sharp. The best descent route that I found cut hard left until the slope eased about 100’ lower and then descended the snowfield of the glacier directly.
Looking back up at the sharp and loose talus on the east side of Russell Pass. I took one tumble and cut my hand on the edge of a sharp rock.
The “funny business” in the main body of the Maclure Glacier. You can clearly see bare ice, crevasses, and the bergschrund. You can also see signs everywhere of this glaciers retreat.
Maclure Lake and Kuna Crest.
More glacier scenery.
One last view of Mount Maclure and the Maclure glacier.
Extensive glacial silt near Maclure Lake is evidence that the Maclure Glacier covered this terrain fairly recently.
After crossing Maclure Creek at the outlet of Maclure Lake, I was very surprised to see this bright orange arrow. I had no idea what this could be for.
It indicated the location of a survey marker.
After some pleasant walking high above Lyell Canyon, I crossed the rib and got my first views of Mount Lyell and the Lyell Glacier. From this vantage point, the glacier was about 1,000’ above me, but its size (at least by the standards of the Sierra), and especially its thickness, are evident even from far away.
Thousands of feet below, the Tuolumne lazilly oxbows through meadows. The JMT follows the Tuolumne all the way up Lyell Canyon.
Another view of the Lyell Fork (of the Tuolumne River, this time). Many hours earlier, I had been directly on the other side of this mountain, admiring a different beautiful basin of rock and water.
As I traversed down the ridgeline to find a place to drop in, I found this somewhat fresh skeleton of a Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. I was very surprised to come across this, as I thought the sheep’s habitat was much farther south, in fact I’ve seen sheep before, 200 miles south on Mount Langley. But the evidence was quite concrete. It looked like this guy had expired sometime recently, maybe this summer.
Descending to the Lyell Fork. I still had some daylight left in the day, but Skurka mentioned this was a good camping spot, and I was easily in reach of Tuolumne Meadows tomorrow, so I stopped to camp in this basin.
Sunset over Kuna Crest. Tomorrow’s route would walk a large loop around Lyell Canyon, then cross the crest at the rightmost point before it becomes craggy, and descend Parker Pass Creek to Tuolumne Meadows. I sipped some whiskey and tucked in to enjoy another night of stargazing from my cowboy camp.
Day 4: Lyell Fork to Tuolumne Meadows
18.6 miles, +2,200, 60% Off Trail
I wasn’t about to miss sunrise today, so I was sure to be up early with my coffee and camera ready.
Clouds and colours over Kuna Crest.
The first sunlight of the day on Mount Lyell.
From this angle, just downstream, you get a slightly different view of the glacier, and a clear view of the typical climbing route up Mount Lyell.
Looking down on a little meadow along the JMT.
Looking back up at the 200’ of descending over talus and through brush along the Lyell Fork to join the JMT.
The view of Mount Lyell from the JMT.
Another great vantage point along the JMT, with Mount Maclure coming back into view. I thought that I’d run into a group or two along the JMT, but I didn’t encounter anyone.
Overlooking Lyell Canyon along the JMT near Donohue Pass.
The view of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak from the tarn just north of Donohue Pass. I had cell reception here, so I checked in with my wife and told her I’d reach Tuolumne Meadows this afternoon.
The only really tricky bit on the contour to Kuna Creek was the “steep slab wall.” I found a gully that I could scramble down, as the slabs were a bit too steep.
Kuna Peak above the distinct meadow.
The section along the west side of Kuna Crest had endless amazing views of Mount Lyell and Mount Macclure.
Banner, Ritter, and the glacier in between them poking through a notch on the ridgeline.
A great view of the Lyell Group from near the top of Kuna Crest. Yesterday afternoon’s route is plainly visible, descending the far right side of the Maclure Glacier and then contouring across the slabs to a bench below Mount Lyell.
At top of Kuna Crest, I noticed this wildlife camera.
Overlooking Helen Lake and Parker Pass Creek, with the red peaks of Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs above.
The talus on the route down to Helen Lake was somewhat tricky to navigate.
Helen Lake and the Sierra Crest behind.
The view back up at Kuna Crest. The YHR crosses just right of the left snowfield. This steep descent is a bit easier by cutting to the descender’s left, and then back across once on the tundra.
I came across another skull today, this one from some kind of rodent.
Overlooking Spillway Lake, with the peaks of the Mount Conness / Saddlebag Lake area in the background.
Some neat contrasting rock types along Kuna Crest above Spillway Lake.
Butterflies along the trail.
Back on the trail again, with only one brief off-trail connection ahead, I was nearly finished!
The guide isn’t very specific about where you should leave the trail to cross Parker Pass Creek, but I found this abandoned cabin to be just about right.
Parker Pass Creek flowing through a meadow.
And through a forest. The cross country travel through this section wasn’t difficult, but the forest became thick in a couple of places as I got closer to regaining the trail.
Parker Pass Creek with the Cathedral Range in the background and the sounds of Tioga Road just 200 feet to the north.
Mount Dana above the meadows.
Last views of the Cathedral Range before reentering the forest.
It was slightly tricky to find the trail again, but once I did it was an easy cruise back to Tuolumne Meadows. Here’s one of the many bridges over the Tuolumne River. I reached Tuolumne mid-afternoon, hopped in the car and headed east, bound for Mammoth.
Stopping for a late lunch at the Whoa Nellie Deli.
I capped off the day with a sunset from Minaret Vista in Mammoth.
Epilogue
I was very happy to have finished this route. I believe I’m one of the first 10 or so people to complete the full route in any style. While it obviously would have been nicer to complete the thru-hike I had planned, I’ve accepted my decision to take a break in the middle, and I have some healthy perspective on this decision.
In this section, I’ll reflect on the route as a whole, highlight specific sections that I think deserve a bit more attention, and compare this route with other notable thru-hikes I’ve completed.
The Yosemite High Route
If you read this full report, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that the Yosemite High Route didn’t quite meet my expectations. In particular, I thought the northern third of the core route left a bit to be desired. In my opinion, everything north of Matterhorn Pass could be skipped without any sacrifices in high route scenery. That’s 27 miles of core route hiking, plus approach miles. For me, that totalled two and a half days from Pate Valley.
South of Matterhorn Pass, the route improves with some nice sections over Stanton Pass, past Soldier Lake, and from McCabe Lake over Don’t Be A Smart Pass to Roosevelt Lake. After this, there’s one more good vista before Tuolumne.
The South Loop is a whole different story and is much more interesting and exciting. It feels entirely different than the canyons of the North Loop. Except for some bland approach miles and a brief on-trail connector, the South Loop is sustained, difficult, and remarkably scenic. The section from Quartzite Mountain to Lyell Canyon is especially spectacular. While I’d recommend folks skip most of the Northern Loop, I’d happily hike the South Loop again.
With that said, I think there’s one framing under which the Yosemite High Route truly excels, and that’s as a geological tour of Yosemite National Park. If you utilize the Grand Canyon of the Tuolume and Yosemite Valley approaches, you will visit two of the great valleys of the Sierra, carved by glaciers many thousands of feet into hard granite. You’ll traverse the drainages of the two major rivers of Yosemite National Park: The Tuolumne and Merced, and the countless creeks that comprise their headwaters. You’ll visit the park’s only two remaining glaciers, the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers, walking across the ice of latter. You’ll see granite cliffs thousands of feet tall, countless perfect-U-shaped canyons, and full 360-degree views of the domes and crags of the Cathedral Range. You’ll see remarkable waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, in the Grand Canyon, and along the Merced River. All of this terrain carved by glaciers over numerous ice ages. And while these glaciers once blanketed the Sierra from the peaks of the Cathedral Range, the Clark Range, and the Lyell Group to valley floors in Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valleys, only a small trace of these glaciers still exist, and not for much longer. Framed that way, the Yosemite High Route offers a remarkable tour.
Comparison with the Wind River High Route
Having completed the Wind River High Route last summer, I feel I’m in a good position to offer a comparison between these two routes. I’m not convinced it’s possible to compete in scenery with the WRHR while staying within Yosemite National Park, but the southern loop of the YHR is a reasonable attempt. The WRHR boasts more impressive scenery, more solitude, and a greater challenge than the YHR. But, the YHR has a lot going for it as well, the logistics are much easier, the season much longer, the exposure is less, the conditions generally more favourable, and there are better opportunities for link-ups and extensions. Briefly, logistics are easier on the YHR, but the WRHR is more scenic.
Attempting the Yosemite High Route
So, should you do it? Like the Wind River High Route, I wouldn’t recommend this as your first multi-day backpacking trip, or off trail hike. But it’s not a bad option for your first high route, or multi-day off-trail backpacking trip, even if just for a section. The YHR has a few things going for it: the access is relatively easy (permits are competitive, but they’re not that competitive), the weather is generally great, and the southern half of the route is quite enjoyable.
The Approaches
For my trip, I used the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne to approach the northern terminus, and Rafferty Creek to approach the southern terminus. I’ve also done some of the other approaches in the guidebook.
Despite the initial impressive scenery, I wouldn’t recommend the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. I think you should save it for a standalone trip. I think that the Sonora Pass approach is much more in the spirit of the high route, and will save you a couple of days of hiking, if you can figure out a car shuttle. If you shorten your trip, you can join via Twin Lakes and Robinson Lakes, or via the Sierra High Route in Spiller Canyon.
The southern approaches are a bit more of a tossup. Depending on your situation, I’d recommend the Yosemite Valley, Cathedral Pass, or the more adventurous Echo Canyon route. Rafferty Creek was fine, but the scenery on some of the other options will be a bit better.
Guide Materials
This isn’t Skurka’s first guide and it shows. The mapset is detailed in all the right places, but leaves room for adventure. The guidebook wasn’t quite finished when I used it, so I don’t know what the official first version will hold, but it was only really helpful in a couple of places, and left a lot of interesting history and science out, in my opinion. Hopefully it’ll be improved in the next version.
Conclusion
Phew, that was a long one! Thanks for looking, even if you had to skip around a bit (I don’t blame you). I hope you enjoyed this trip report and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me, my info is in the header at the top of this page. Happy hiking!