With over 800 miles of trails to choose from in the park, there is one fifty mile loop that holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Yosemite ‘s devoted. It is a route that gives an up close and personal view of the mountains that John Muir dubbed “The Range of Light.”
I have friends who have done it in a single day “for fun” though most people take a week to ten days to cover the same terrain. I’d take even longer if I could. I am referring, of course, to the High Sierra Loop, a series of connected trails that take in some of the best scenery the park has to offer, mixed in with the type of rustic luxury that backpackers dream about. Hot meals, occasional showers and a night’s sleep in a real bed can be had in Yosemite ‘s high country by staying in a High Sierra Camp. Likewise, one can simply hike the Loop on their own, camping as they go.
It is not that I don’t appreciate the challenge of covering nearly fifty miles and over 10,000 feet of elevation changes in a single day, but this is country to stroll through, to ease into and to sit and admire. It is a different beauty than that of Yosemite Valley , which is a vertical world. Here the same materials that compose 3,000-foot vertical walls in Yosemite Valley are spread horizontally over miles in a sweep of sinuous granite slabs stitched together with a network of spirited streams. It takes time to properly explore.
The High Sierra Loop with its five camps spaced six to ten miles apart are clearly intended to ease one’s journey so that it is as comfortable as it is memorable. Due to their popularity, most of the camp accommodations are allocated early in the year through a lottery, though it is worthwhile to check for random openings mid-season due to cancellations, especially midweek. And the chance of scoring a meals-only reservation for one of the family style dinners makes it at least worthwhile to carry a credit card into the backcountry. Call (559) 253-5674 from May through September to make reservations.
While the camp accommodations can be hard to come by, there is no shortage of opinions about whether one should proceed clockwise or counter- clockwise for the most enjoyable circuit of the loop. The proponents for each are evenly divided and equally passionate. Finish at Vogelsang or Glen Aulin? Start in Yosemite Valley or the high country? It is hard to go wrong and in my opinion, if you can’t secure one of the coveted spots in a camp itself, try splitting the loop into segments that can be hiked as day trips or two- and three-day backpacks over the course of several visits.
For the sake of this article, we’ll move counter-clockwise on the loop to each of the five camps.
At 7,800 feet in elevation, Glen Aulin is 5.7 miles distant from and nearly 1,000 feet lower than Tuolumne Meadows. Water is only a whisker away from camp, with the roar of White Cascade practically drowning out conversation in this picturesque spot at the confluence of Conness Creek and the Tuolumne River . The name Glen Aulin means “beautiful glen” and refers to the quiet glade just below the camp where the river takes a break from its riotous journey to meander through aspen and waist high lupine.
Likewise, the upper section of the trail, between Tuolumne Meadows and Twin Bridges is a long, leisurely passage through a parade of pines that occasionally open to frame views of the river. Below Twin Bridges, however, everything changes. For over five miles, between the bridges and Return Creek, the trail parallels the river’s plunge into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne . It is an unforgettable stretch of whitewater rushing over exquisitely polished granite that includes Tuolumne Fall, White Cascade, California Fall, Le Conte Falls, Waterwheel Fall and myriad other unnamed cataracts. Early in the season, the water races through the canyon like an Olympic bobsledder with each cascade seemingly determined to outdo the one above it. As summer progresses, the pace slackens and the delicate beauty of rivulets and eddies is a worthy substitute for the raw power of spring snowmelt. When asked to choose one place in a region overflowing with superlatives, many Yosemite devotees consider this the finest trail in the park.
Continuing in our counterclockwise direction, the next leg of journey is to May Lake , which is 1,400 feet higher than Glen Aulin, an elevation gain that is spread out over eight miles of trail. The lake, which is situated at 9,200 feet in elevation at the base of Mt. Hoffmann , was named for Lucy Mayotta Browne, the future bride of Charles Fredrick Hoffmann, for whom the peak is named. Hoffmann was cartographer for the geologic survey team that mapped out much of the Yosemite region between 1863-67.
Mount Hoffmann is an impressive and surprisingly accessible peak. It rises in an imposing granite wall that forms the entire western shore of May Lake . But the granite palisade can be skirted to the south and the 10,850 summit gained via a hike of just over a mile up its sandy slope. The geographic center of Yosemite, the peak offers spectacular views of Half Dome to the south and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne to north, and a herd of bear-sized marmots to greet you at the top.
While eight miles from Glen Aulin, May Lake ‘s idyllic location is deceptively close to the Tioga Road , boosting its popularity as a destination. A one-mile spur off of Tioga Road ends at the trailhead (elevation 8,400 feet). From there, it is a little over a mile to the lake.
The youngest of the High Sierra Camps (established in 1961), Sunrise sits astride broad granite benches on the western edge of Long Meadow, with the upraised Columbia Finger and razor thin Matthes Crest to the east and the Clark Range to the south. The trail from Tioga Road to Sunrise crosses Tenaya Creek and gains over 1,700 feet steadily before dropping down into the meadow bowl and the camp at about 9,400 feet. An early morning start is advisable for this hike, as it can be a hot climb up the exposed ridge from Tenaya Lake in the afternoon. No matter the time of day, the views of Tenaya Lake and Half Dome along the way are exceptional. Many hikers opt to stop at Sunrise Lakes , three small lakes on either side of the trail, rather than continuing on to the Sunrise High Sierra Camp itself. Hidden roughly a mile from Sunrise Lakes is Mildred Lake, tucked like a blue gem set in a ring of granite below 10,560 ft. Tresidder Peak. Facing west, Mildred Lake is far enough off the beaten track to provide solitude and a supreme Sierra experience.
Established in 1916, Merced Lake High Sierra Camp is situated at 7,214 feet in elevation, and is the oldest, and the last of the original three camps.* There is no easy way to get to Merced Lake. It is a three thousand foot elevation gain in thirteen miles from Yosemite Valley, ten miles and 2,200 feet downhill from Sunrise and roughly eight miles and 5,000 vertical feet of uphill and downhill hiking to get to/from Vogelsang. Distance alone makes each of those hikes challenging on a good day. Factor in the elevation gained or lost, depending on which direction one comes from, and it can be an epic journey.
My first impression of Merced Lake was that it paled in comparison to its counterparts. After multiple trips, I grew to appreciate both the hikes into Merced Lake and what the location has to offer. It is a subtler beauty and slower paced location than the other camps, that, because of the scale of its elements, feels like a trip backward to prehistoric times.
Hiking the thirteen miles stretch from the trailhead at Happy Isles, past Vernal and Nevada Fall and through Little Yosemite Valley to Merced Lake is a long journey. It is also beautiful. The long gradual ascent is much like the Tuolumne River between Glen Aulin and Return Creek, only in reverse. But here, the canyon walls are even taller and the surrounding features even more impressive. Sheets of water slide down granite slabs, slamming from one side to the other and the cascades are too numerous to count.
Merced Lake itself is a quiet stretch between cascades that is surrounded by steep granite cliffs and is home to some of the largest trees and bears in the park. While many of the other camps are destinations unto themselves, Merced Lake is a terrific base camp for accessing surrounding terrain. Popular day hikes include the summit of 11,522 ft. Mount Clark, the Lyell Fork of the Merced (one of Ansel’s favorite spots), and Washburn Lake .
If there is one location that fits the image of a “High Sierra Camp”, it is Vogelsang, which is the highest of the camps, at 10,300 feet in elevation. The complex is at the base of Mt. Fletcher alongside Fletcher Creek, which wraps around the camp, its gentle gurgles providing a pleasant backdrop to dinner.
There are actually two trails between Merced Lake and Vogelsang, but my personal favorite is the Lewis Creek Trail, which climbs nearly 1,000 feet in about half a mile to a pass from which one can gaze upon Vogelang Lake to the west and Gallison and Ireland Lake to the east.
It is a view that will easily take your mind off your trail weary bones, and call to mind a passage from a 1932 Sierra Club Bulletin:
“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. There are some that care not to listen but the disciples are drawn to the high altars with magnetic certainty, knowing that a great Presence hovers over the range.” –Ansel Adams
From Vogelsang back to “civilization” in Tuolumne Meadows is a seven-mile, gradual, downhill hike via the Rafferty Creek Trail, or if you aren’t in a hurry, you can take the longer route past Evelyn Lake over to Lyell Canyon.
* The other two charter High Sierra Camps, Tenaya Lake and Booth Lake no longer exist. Tenaya Lake High Sierra Camp was removed, and the camp at Booth Lake was moved to present day Vogelsang.