7 Gorgeous Hikes Around Yosemite Park

By Nomadic Matt | Published August 16th, 2012

This is a guest post by Adam Costa.

Yosemite is the second oldest national park in the U.S. and is unquestionably one of the world’s most beautiful places. Its collection of granite domes, alpine meadows and high altitude lakes draw roughly four million visitors a year.

For me, it was my home for three months as I served burgers and fries by day and hiked the vast landscape in the afternoons and weekends. I lived in Tuolumne Meadows, located along the eastern portion of Yosemite in California.

Most visitors to Yosemite only flock to Yosemite Valley to see the park’s most popular attractions: Half Dome (a large granite dome carved in half by glaciers) and Yosemite Falls (North America’s tallest waterfall). Yet there is much more to the valley than just those two places. Tuolumne is the perfect place to hike in peace and quiet without overflowing crowds of tourists.

After spending a summer living in and hiking Tuolumne Meadows, I’ve compiled a list of my seven favorite hikes for all skill levels:

Ireland Lake
Gushing water flows at Ireland Lake in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite
Looking to get away from it all? Then look no further than Ireland Lake, a spectacularly secluded destination surrounded by granite peaks.

The hike begins at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and the trail is well-marked and easy to navigate.

Ireland Lake is undoubtedly the quietest place on the trail and you can meander around the lake for better views of Parsons Peak, Amelia Earhart Peak and the rest of Yosemite before heading back down the same route to Tuolumne Meadows.

Cathedral Lakes
The Cathedral Lakes  with a gorgeous white mountain at Yosemite
John Muir spent years hiking through the Sierra Nevada mountains, so it’s no small claim when he wrote the following about Cathedral Peak:

“I never weary gazing at the wonderful Cathedral. It has more individual character than any other rock or mountain I ever saw, excepting perhaps the Yosemite South Dome. This…is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper.”

I’m inclined to agree with him.

After seeing the Himalayas, the Andes and the Rockies, there’s something that makes Cathedral stand out among them all.

The Cathedral Lakes trail is one of the most popular hikes along Tioga Road and is part of the John Muir Trail. And while there will be others on this trail, it’s nowhere near the crowds you’d find in Yosemite Valley.

Glen Aulin
The rapids gush at Glen Aulin in Tuolumne Meadows
Glen Aulin starts with a descent down the Tuolumne River just over five miles until you reach the Glen Aulin campsite.  The first part of the hike descends along a number of pools that branch off from the river.  For the next few miles the trail levels off and meanders through the forest and meadows, providing great views of the Cathedral Range.

The last mile before you reach the Glen Aulin campsite is a challenging descent, dropping 450 feet. Trekking poles are recommended!

Here at the campsite you have a choice: you can either turn around and head back or (if you’ve got time) push on for another two miles to see Waterwheel Falls. In my opinion, it is very, very worth it, but this does make for a long day’s hike.

Clouds Rest
Clouds Rest is a popular photo opportunity while hiking around Yosemite Park
Yosemite Valley is known for its hike to the top of Half Dome, where you can look down and appreciate all of the Valley’s scenery below.

However, in my opinion, hiking to Clouds Rest (9,926 ft / 3,025 m) is even better.  You actually get to look down on Half Dome with 360 degree views of Yosemite’s famous landmarks including Tenaya Lake, Sentinel Dome, North Dome and Mt. Hoffman.

The entire seven mile route to Clouds Rest includes three trails: 2.7 miles on Sunrise Trail, 2.3 miles on Forsyth Trail, and 2 miles on Clouds Rest Trail.

Olmstead Point (The Better Way)
Olmstead Point has a great view of the valleys around Tuolumne Meadows
While most people simply drive to Olmstead Point, get out of their cars and snap a few photos of the admittedly gorgeous scenery, you can take it a step further.

While everyone else is looking at the view from the parking lot, turn around. You’ll see a big dome just across the street.  A quick quarter mile hike up the dome will offer some of the best views in the entire park.

You’ll see Half Dome, Tenaya Lake and a seemingly endless procession of granite domes.  Plus, there’s hardly anyone up there so you get some peace and quiet as you stare out upon this beautiful scene.

Mono Pass
The Mono Pass in Yosemite Park is a very steep and arduous hike
Mono Pass – at 10,599 feet (3,230 m) – is the highest hike listed here. It’s so high that if you’re coming from sea level, I wouldn’t suggest trying it until you’re fully acclimated.

The first part of the hike winds through alpine meadows, granite domes and streams, while the second part winds through barren, rocky lands reminiscent of Tongariro National Park in New Zealand, the area that served as Mordor in the movie trilogy The Lord of the Rings.

The trail continues over a few moderate ridges before hitting the valley of Parker Pass Creek.  The creek meanders through the wooded pine trees with a great trail (without rocks) that’s flat and easy for walking.

North Dome
The North Dome in Yosemite looks spectacular on a clear day
North Dome is a quiet, quasi-challenging hike that offers unparalleled views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome.

Once you reach North Dome you’ll be greeted with a panoramic view of Yosemite. You won’t see many people on this hike, so feel free to take your time. I’ve saved it for last because – in my opinion – North Dome is an incomparable mix of great views and solitude.

Logistics

When to Hike – The best time to hike around Tuolumne Meadows is during the summer months (June to September) when the snow has melted and the weather is warmer. On average, temperatures in Tuolumne Meadows are typically 10 F to 20 F cooler than in Yosemite Valley.

Fees – Vehicle entrance into the park is $20 USD and good for all passengers for seven days.  If you walk or bike into the park it’s $10 USD per person. For campground camping, make a reservation far in advance as things fill up quickly in the summer. For wilderness camping, you need to obtain a wilderness permit for $5 USD.  It’s recommended you make your reservation in advance for the wilderness permit as well, though they charge an extra $5 USD for doing so.

Food Storage – Yosemite does have bears so you’ll need to store your food properly (especially overnight). There are food lockers near parking lots and campgrounds.

Altitude – The hikes described here are all at elevations exceeding 6,000 feet. You should arrive a few days early to acclimate. If you feel the effects of altitude sickness – ranging from shortness of breath to severe headaches or loss of appetite – descend immediately.

If you’re planning to visit Yosemite, give yourself more time to enjoy it. It’s truly an incredible spot and – even after traveling these past few years – it remains my favorite place in the world.

Adam Costa lived in Yosemite for three months and did a lot of hiking while he was there. Now he is Editor-in-Chief of Trekity.com – a crazy new travel site. You can also follow him on Twitter for photos, adventures, and witty commentary.

comments 21 Comments

Joey

I spent 3 months working in Yosemite as well (though down in Yosemite Valley) and hiked over 200 miles and didn’t do many of these hikes. This is great inspiration for when I head back!

He’s absolutely right about Cloud’s Rest being better than Half Dome. Especially with the permit hassle for Half Dome, Cloud’s Rest wins by a landslide for me. Start your hike up at 1 AM under a full moon if you want a really incredible experience!

Hey Joey,

Glad you liked it – and nice mention on hiking under moonlight!

Yosemite is so fantastic. Love the shots Matt! It does however get pretty crowded in the summer, I would recommend going in the fall…the leaves are amazing.

Hola Mike,

Yep, Yosemite in the fall is great, but these hikes are at higher elevation and close early (Octoberish).

The cloud’s rest hike looks fantastic. I’ll have to add that to my place-I-want-to-hike list. I love hikes that lead to an amazing viewpoint.

This kind of beauty’re eternal so I hope to see them soon! Your pictures are amazing & your advice will help me for sure!

Perfect timing for this post! My sister and I are going to Yosemite next month and trying to decide what hikes to do. That Cathedral lakes hike sounds like one not to be missed for sure.

Glenn

All excellent hikes! But many I found a bit of a challenge once I got into my 40s and beyond. A couple less strenuous alternatives with great payoffs:

1) Elizabeth Lake. Trail head at back of Tuolomne campground. Half the distance of Cathedral Lakes and less elevation gain.

2) Lembert Dome from Glen Aulin/Dog Lake trailhead (easier way) is only two miles one way with great views of the meadow and Cathedral peaks.

3) Lylle Canyon hike is one of the most beautiful hikes in the high country and is pretty much flat as far as you want to go … noted as one of John Muir’s favorite places in the entire Sierra range.

Andy,

Great summary. One correction: Half Dome was NOT cut in half by glaciers. They did not touch the upper 800 feet. It was exfoliation that peeled 20% of the rock off in vertical sheets.

Rick
Mr Half Dome
HikeHalfDome.com

Hi Rick,

Good looking out – Yosemite valley was created by glaciers but the rock itself was exfoliation.

Cheers!

Hey Adam, Great post! And perfect timing as well, since I’m flying to California next week. So looking forward to see Yosemite!!!

Wow the photos are so impressive and this place looks SO unspoilt.

Went to Yosemite about eight years ago for a full week. Truely breath taking landscape.

We did the hike up yosemite falls, Glacier point and the Mariposa Grove (with the huge sequoia trees)

Awesome list of hikes that beat the crowded Yosemite Valley.

Kim

Having lived and worked in Yosemite for 12 years, I love any of the hikes that are not in the valley. The valley gets so many visitors during the summer that any of the hikes in the hike camps like Glen Aulin or in Tuolumne are perfect. Or if you do want to be down in the valley during the summer, there is one hike I love that takes you from behind the Ahwahnee hotel and over towards lower Yosemite Falls. You gradually have an incline as you are hiking towards the falls. But if you are looking to add miles and not merely taking a walk in the valley then there is Upper Yosemite Falls which is about 7 miles and there is Vernal and Nevada Falls as well as a hike down from Glacier Point. One hike I have never had a desire nor will ever want to do is the one from Half Dome which is about 17 miles.

Sally Stretton

Hi Matt,

The US has so many beautiful places to see! Its amazing when I go somewhere in the US that I have never been before and I see something completely amazing that has been around for hundreds of year, it makes me proud to live in such a great country. I have never been to Yosemite, but I am adding it to my list of must travel to places! Great pics…keeping them coming!

Sally

Your pictures are breathtaking! I went on a road trip a couple years ago trying to see every National Park we could: Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Kings & Sequoia, etc. but we missed Yosemite! It’s on my checklist now! :)

For the most amazing hikes in Tuolomne: Get a topo map, look for the far apart lines, follow the water. Breathtaking!

Alex

Does anyone know if it is possible to get to cathedral lakes, starting at the Glen Aulin trailhead?

Yanina Salerno

I have plans to visit Yosemite later this month and now with the parks closing I dont know what to do! Are all these trails within the National Park? Are there any nice trails I can hike that I dont have to go into the park to access?

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