This is a guest post by Adam Costa.
Yosemite is the second oldest national park in the US and is unquestionably one of the world’s most beautiful places. Its collection of granite domes, alpine meadows, and high-altitude lakes draws 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 on 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:
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.
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 starts with a descent down the Tuolumne River for 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.
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)
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 — 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 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.
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.