Yosemite Highlights Loop – Yosemite National Park (40 mile loop)
Looking back at Merced Falls
Panoramic view showing the Merced River valley to the left and Bunnell Point and the Lost Valley to the right.
View from the south end of Tenaya Lake with the Polly Dome and Pywiack Dome in the background.
Sunset over Bunnell Point and the Lost Valley
View from Clouds Rest looking into the Tenaya Canyon and Yosemite Valley and showing Half Dome and Mount Watkins
Along the way down the trail you get some awesome views of Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick, and Half Dome.
View of Half Dome from the Snow Creek vista point
Trip Overview: This backpacking loop itinerary starts/ends within the famous Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park and traverses several of the highlights within the park. Along this loop you pass by the beautiful Tenaya Lake, hike over Clouds Rest, take in several great views of Half Dome, and hike through Little Yosemite Valley and the Lost Valley. The route has a peak elevation of 9,900 feet (atop Clouds Rest) and you climb roughly 9,000 vertical feet over the course of the ~40 mile trek. Highlights include epic waterfalls, expansive views of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding granite peaks and domes, alpine lakes, grassy meadows, and up close views of iconic Half Dome from all sides. We hiked this route on July 4th weekend in 2019.
Permits: Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular backpacking and hiking destinations in the United States, so permits are required year round for overnight camping and the number of permits is limited. You will want to secure a permit as early as possible to do this hike in either late June, July, August, or September. The peak hiking season is generally mid July through early September and many trailhead quotas fill up very early for these dates. In May or early June, trails may still be covered in snow in many parts of the park depending on how much snow fell in the winter that year.
60% of wilderness permits are available for advanced reservation and the remaining 40% are saved for first-come, first-serve walk ups (starting 11am the day before you start the hike). Wilderness permit applications for any given trek start day are processed (via random lottery) starting 24 weeks before the hike start date, so you want to submit an application at least 24 weeks in advance of your hike. Permit applications can be easily submitted online (info here) and the cost is $5 per confirmed reservation plus $5 per person on the permit. You only pay the fee if you permit application is accepted and confirmed.
Prior to submitting an application for a permit, check the Yosemite National Park trailhead map and trailhead permit availability report (if applying fewer than 24 weeks before your start date). Note that each trailhead has a designated direction you must hike. For the specific Yosemite Highlights Loop described in this report, you want to start at the Mirror Lake Trailhead and must hike towards Snow Creek. You exit the wilderness via the Happy Isles Trailhead, which is very close to the Trailhead Parking Lot where you can leave your car during the trek. This allows you to avoid having to take a shuttle at the end of your hike. A similar itinerary (slightly longer) could also be put together by exiting Yosemite Valley via the Yosemite Falls Trail rather than the Snow Creek Trail.
If you are able to reserve a permit and pay your fee, the next step is to pick up the permit from the wilderness permit station the day before or up to 10am on the day of your hike. If you will be arriving at the wilderness permit station later than 10am on the day of your hike, you must arrange for a late pickup or your permit will be given away. There are wilderness permit stations at the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Center and at the Big Oak Flat Road Information Station. For information on the other permit stations check online (here).
Along this itinerary, you pass near Half Dome and have an opportunity to take the ~5 mile round trip detour up the Half Dome cables. A special permit is required for backpackers to ascend the cables. 75 permits are issued to backpackers each day (50 reserved ahead of time / 25 first-come, first-serve) and they cost $10 each. You can specify whether you want to apply for a Half Dome permit when you submit your wilderness permit application. Note that the Half Dome ascent is not for the faint of heart and is very steep.
Click here to read more about Logistics
Logistics: If you have a wilderness permit, you may camp at one of the Yosemite backpackers’ campgrounds the night before and night after your wilderness trek. This means you do not need to acquire a separate camping permit if you want to stay the night near the trailhead. For this specific itinerary, it is easiest to stay at the Yosemite Valley backpackers’ campground, which is just north of the North Pines Campground in Yosemite Valley. This campground is very close to the Mirror Lake Trailhead, so it is convenient for this backpacking loop. Backpackers must pay $6 per person to camp and you pay with exact cash at the campground.
For overnight parking during your trek, you will want to insure that you are parked in a legal overnight area. Two areas where you can legally park overnight are at Half Dome Village (aka Curry Village) and at the trailhead parking lot southeast of Half Dome Village. There are food lockers at both parking locations, so leave any extra food or scented items in the lockers to avoid bear issues while you are away.
Click here to read more about Weather and Trail Conditions
Weather and Trail Conditions: It is important to check the trail conditions before taking off on this trek. You can find some reports on wilderness conditions here. The main concerns for this itinerary are typically the snow level once you hike out of the valley and the creek crossing at Tenaya Lake. The Tenaya Creek crossing can be waist high early in the season and can be swift in snowy years. Additionally, snow can linger on sections of the trails near or above 9,000 feet late into the season. Check with the rangers before heading out on the hike to make sure you know what conditions to expect.
Weather is Yosemite National Park is similar to the rest of the Sierra. In the mountains you can have afternoon thunderstorms, but the weather is typically good in the summer. Temperatures can be hot in Yosemite Valley but decrease as you go higher in elevation. This Yosemite Highlights Loop itinerary does not spend too much time at high elevation (>9,000 feet), except when you hike over Clouds Rest.
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Difficulty: If you are doing this loop in 4 days, expect a tough hike. Each day will be close to 10 miles and 2 of the days will have serious climbs. If you want to include the hike up Half Dome (permit required), it would be wise to build in an extra day to the itinerary unless you are a very fit hiker.
Supplies: There are active black bears in the Yosemite National Park, so you need to bring a bear canister to store food and scented items. Bear spray is not allowed and hanging food is illegal throughout Yosemite. If you do not own a bear canister, you can rent them from the various Wilderness Centers in the park for $5 per week.
You likely will want bug spray because the mosquitoes can be out in force in certain areas of the trek. I prefer a picaridin based spray because it does not damage plastics and synthetic fibers like high concentration DEET sprays can. I also like to pre-treat my clothes and tent with permethrin spray repellent. The permethrin treatment stays on your clothes for up to 7 washes, so it helps reduce the amount of spray you need to put on your skin.
Below is a list of the gear I brought on this backpacking loop in Yosemite National Park:
Day 0: Arrival at Yosemite Valley Backpackers’ Campground
We arrived in Yosemite National Park the day before starting our backpacking trek on the Yosemite Highlights Loop. On the way into the park we paid the $35 entrance fee and picked up our wilderness permit at the Big Oak Flat Information Station. The permit station here is open until 5pm and you can ask the rangers questions about trail conditions and regulations. You then drive into the park and get your first glimpse of some of the beautiful sights within Yosemite National Park.
The Yosemite Valley Backpackers’ Campground is conveniently located close to the Mirror Lake Trailhead and to two overnight parking lots. To get to the camp, either drive or take the shuttle to North Pines campground. The route to the Backpackers’ Campground is located across the bridge in the back of the camp.
After setting up camp, go to the information board, register your party, and pay the $6 per person fee. There are vault toilets and bear vaults for food storage at the backpackers’ campground, but there is no potable water (you get water from the nearby North Pines campsite). The camp is also located within walking distance of Half Dome Village if you want to buy dinner instead of cooking at camp on the night before the trek.
The morning of our trek, we made breakfast at the Backpackers’ Campground and filled up our camelbaks at the nearby North Pines Campground. We then packed up all our gear and set out on the Mirror Lake Trail, which leaves right from behind the Backpackers’ Campground. The hike on Day 1 is relatively short (7 miles) but is quite tough. There is a lot of climbing and the trail is exposed to the sun, so you want to get off to an early start. Since you only need to cover 7 miles, there is plenty of time to take breaks and enjoy the views of Yosemite Valley and Tenaya Canyon along the way. The views get better and better as you climb up the Snow Creek Trail.
We chose to continue hiking roughly 2.5 miles past the Snow Creek footbridge before making camp. We camped near a stream crossing north of Mount Watkins and before another set of switchbacks. There was water access from two nearby streams, but check with the rangers beforehand to insure the streams are still flowing if you do this trek later in the summer or in a drought year. We found an area that was suitable for making camp, but note that it was not exactly easy to find sites. There are no markings indicating campsites and you need to go off trail and search around.
If you have extra energy after completing the hike on Day 1, you can leave your pack at camp and do the ~2 mile hike up to the summit of Mount Watkins. From the summit you get great views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and Pywlack Cascade. Just be sure to properly store any food you leave at camp in bear canisters so that you do not risk having your backpack carried away by a bear!
The hike on the second day of the Yosemite Highlights Loop heads from camp on the Snow Creek Trail past Olmsted Point and Tenaya Lake and up to Sunrise Lakes. This hike is less tough than Day 1, but still involves a steep climb near the end of the hike. That said, this is probably the easiest day out of the four described in this itinerary. The views are great along this route and you get some very expansive views of Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome, and Clouds Rest. Note that this section of the hike is the most likely to cause issues early in the hiking season. Snow frequently lingers on the trail before Olmsted Point and after Tenaya Lake. Also, the Tenaya Creek crossing can be waist high and very cold early in the season. You will want to check with the rangers and make sure you understand the current conditions before starting your trip. If snow persists on the trail, you may need a GPS, compass, and map to follow the trail.
On the third day of the Yosemite Highlights Loop, you have the choice of hiking a couple different routes. The goal is to reach the third night campsite near Echo Valley. To get there you can either hike up and over Clouds Rest and meet up with the John Muir Trail or hike towards Clouds Rest and then take the Forsyth trail that shortcuts around Clouds Rest and meets up directly with the John Muir Trail. If you have the energy and stamina, the hike up and over Clouds Rest is well worth the effort. The views from atop Clouds Rest are amazing. That said, it adds roughly 4 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation gain compared to the Forsyth route. We decided to do the hike up and over Clouds Rest so I will describe that route. Overall, the hike on this day was quite tough. The climb over Clouds Rest is not too bad, but the descent from Clouds Rest to Sunrise Creek is steep and really pounds at your knees. The great views on Clouds Rest and at the beginning of the descent make it all worth it though. As you approach the campsite, there are also great views! Just be aware that this is a long day of hiking.
On the last day of our trek we hiked out of wilderness from Echo Valley to the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley. Although the hike is mostly downhill, the 13 mile length makes this hike reasonably tough. The views throughout the Merced River Valley are phenomenal and the Lost Valley and Little Yosemite Valley are also quite interesting. The hike ends with great views of Nevada and Vernal Falls from the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail. Overall, this was one of the more beautiful hikes I have been on. Afterwards, you can make a quick stop at Half Dome Village for pizza and beer!
View of Nevada Falls from the footbridge over the Merced River. You can see Grizzly Peak and and Glacier Point in the background. You cross the bridge over the falls to access the John Muir Trail.
Along the way down the trail you get some awesome views of Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap, Mount Broderick, and Half Dome.
This Yosemite Highlights Loop itinerary passes nearby Half Dome, so backpackers have the opportunity to summit Half Dome on Day 3. To do so, you need to have a Half Dome permit. It is a roughly a 5 mile round trip hike from the junction where the Clouds Rest Trail meets the John Muir Trail by Sunrise Creek.
If you decide to summit Half Dome, you may want to add an additional day to this itinerary, otherwise the hike on Day 3 will be very long at over 16 miles with >4,000 feet of elevation gain. One potential option is to add one day to the itinerary and set up camp on night 3 near the junction where the Clouds Rest Trail meets the John Muir Trail. This will allow you to summit Half Dome on the morning of Day 4 and then move camp to the suggest campsite near Echo Valley for the 4th night. On day 5 you would hike out via the Lost Valley and Little Yosemite Valley. This option also gives you the possibility to hike Half Dome on either the end of Day 3 after you set up camp or the morning of Day 4 before leaving camp. Thus, you have two chances to secure a permit.
To get to Half Dome, you take the take south from Clouds Rest until you reach the junction with the John Muir Trail. Then, take the John Muir Trail west for roughly 0.5 miles until you reach the junction with the Half Dome Trail. Continue up the trail along a moderately steep incline for 1.5 miles (up ~1,000 feet). At the 2 mile mark, you start the steeper ascent up to the top of the sub dome (about 0.3 miles). Then, at the ~2.3 mile mark, you reach the famous Half Dome cables that lead up the final extremely steep ~500 foot climb to the top of Half Dome. The cables are there to help stabilize hikes during the ascent. At the summit, you get great views of Yosemite Valley. On the descent, you follow the same set of cables.