By Michael Lanza
Ready for your first backpacking trip in one of America’s greatest national parks for backpackers? Having backpacked several times all over Yosemite, my advice for a first-time backpacker in Yosemite who wants to hit highlights like Yosemite Valley, the Mist Trail, and Half Dome is nearly identical to the itinerary I followed on my first trip three decades ago—but modified because I know better now.
This magnificent, beginner-friendly, four- to five-day, 37-mile loop from Yosemite Valley through the core of the park includes following the Mist Trail past 317-foot Vernal Fall and 594-foot Nevada Fall, ascending the cable route up Half Dome, reaching the equally spectacular (but much less busy) summit of Clouds Rest, walking a very pretty section of the world-famous John Muir Trail, and overlooking the jagged Cathedral Range from a campsite on the edge of alpine meadows at Sunrise.
Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley is probably the most popular trailhead in the park, and the park issues backcountry permits based on a daily quota of people starting from each trailhead, so it’s hard to get a permit to start at Happy Isles. But if you get it, hike up the Mist Trail to Little Yosemite Valley (also hugely popular) to camp your first night.
Get an early start that first day so you can get ahead of the Mist Trail crowds and hike Half Dome (lead photo at top of story is from the top of Half Dome) without your gear that first afternoon; by then, most hikers are coming down, you’ll share the summit with fewer people (but make sure no afternoon thunderstorms are threatening). Or even better, hike Half Dome really early on day two, ahead of just about everyone—I’ve done that, it’s when you’ll share Half Dome with the fewest people. (Check the Half Dome hike option when applying for your permit.)
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Day two, head north on the John Muir Trail to camp at Sunrise. Day three, from Sunrise, hike over Clouds Rest, one of the best summits in the park, and descend to camp again in Little Yosemite Valley.
Last day, hike down the John Muir Trail back to Happy Isles, passing a classic view of Nevada Fall, Liberty Cap, and the backside of Half Dome.
My downloadable e-guide “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite” describes that route it in far greater detail, including suggested daily itineraries for hiking it in four or five days, plus alternate itineraries for backpacking trips in that spectacular core of Yosemite, between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. It shares my insights on getting a coveted permit in Yosemite and my experience of multiple trips in this area of the park over the past three decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
I’ve helped many readers plan an unforgettable backpacking trip in Yosemite.
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How to Get a Yosemite Wilderness Permit
In Yosemite, wilderness permit reservations are issued based on trailhead quotas, with special rules for backpacking the John Muir Trail. Sixty percent of permit reservations are available by lottery at recreation.gov beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on the Sunday up to 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the date you want to start hiking, with the lottery for each specific window of dates closing at 11:59 p.m. the next Saturday. You will be notified of whether you get a permit reservation within two business days after the lottery closes.
Assuming normal operations in 2022, 40 percent of wilderness permits are available at wilderness centers on a walk-up/first-come basis one day before the hiking start date. The non-refundable permit fee is $10 for each lottery entered or a walk-up permit plus $5 per person if you get a permit. Permits are valid for continuous wilderness travel from the park into adjacent wilderness areas; similarly, wilderness permits issued by other agencies for beginning a trip in an adjacent wilderness area and continuous wilderness travel into Yosemite are honored by Yosemite National Park. Find more info at nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm and nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermitdates.htm.
Check out my picks for “The 6 Best Backpacking Trips in Yosemite.”
Yearning to backpack in Yosemite? See my e-guides to three amazing multi-day hikes there.
For this trip, you must specifically request adding Half Dome to your permit, at a cost of $10 per person. (The park also requires dayhikers to obtain a permit for Half Dome and sets a daily quota of dayhikers and backpackers.)
See “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
If you can’t get a permit to start at Happy Isles, you can do almost the same route starting at Glacier Point, following the Panorama Trail to Nevada Fall.
See all of my stories about backpacking in Yosemite, including “Yosemite’s Best-Kept Secret Backpacking Trip,” “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking South of Tuolumne Meadows,” and “Best of Yosemite: Backpacking Remote Northern Yosemite,” about gorgeous multi-day hikes in the park’s most remote areas—trips to consider when you’re ready for a bigger adventure in Yosemite. (Most stories about trips at The Big Outside require a paid subscription to read in full.)
My e-guides to those two hikes south of Tuolumne and north of Tuolumne tell you everything you need to know to plan and successfully pull off either trip.