By Adam Costa
Over the past several years I have been fortunate enough to live and work in Yosemite, both as a cook in the Tuolumne Meadows area, and as a tour guide leading hiking tours.
I’d like to share with you several hiking routes you may not have considered before, in the hopes you will gain a deeper understanding, and with it respect, for one of the finest National Parks in the United States.
I have included several day hikes that can be linked together for a three or four day trek. It is my opinion that even one night spent in the higher regions of Yosemite allows you time to acclimate, and therefore enjoy the rest of your trip even more.
Also, the hikes outlined here focus on the region I lived in for over four months: Tuolumne Meadows. It is said that well over 90% of the five million visitors to Yosemite each year never leave the valley; use this to your advantage and explore the road less traveled.
Prior to Hiking
Before you start your trek, make sure to pick up your wilderness permit. You can reserve them ahead of time (up to 24 weeks) and pay a processing fee of $5 plus $5 per person. Alternatively, you can also pick them up in person the day before or the morning of your trek (though I recommend booking in advance for Tuolumne as the quota fills up early. Learn more at the National Park Service website.
Additionally, prepare for all types of weather. This region of Yosemite has several microclimates, ranging from snow to sunshine to thunderstorms all in the same day (especially if you’re trekking over a pass!). Pack several warm layers, including rain gear, even if the weather report predicts sunshine for days.
Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake
John Muir, a famous American naturalist, once referred to this area as a cathedral to God. After hiking this trail half a dozen times, I tend to agree with him. There are three Cathedral Lakes as well as Cathedral Peak, which stands 10,911 feet.
You can hike up to the Cathedral Pass from Tuloumne Meadows off Highway 120 (keep an eye out for the sign on the right coming from the valley) and is about seven and half miles round trip. Be sure to take it easy, as the high elevation tends to affect a lot of people!
If you have an additional day or two, consider continuing on this trail towards Yosemite Valley, with a stopover at Half Dome.
Cathedral Lake to Yosemite Valley
From the Cathedral Pass, continue past Sunrise campground and heads towards the valley. You’ll find many places to stop and set up camp (just make sure you have your wilderness permit as well; rangers scour the area and levy large fines on hikers without them).
As you head towards the valley, a short though arduous detour takes you up to the top of Half Dome (a must-see for anyone who hasn’t done this before).
The first mile and a half are a steady incline, and the final half mile features challenging switchbacks and a nerve racking climb up the side of Half Dome with metal wires running up on either side. Gloves are providedat the base for free (just remember to drop them off when you leave!) and the climb rewards you with a jaw dropping view of Yosemite Valley.
Following this trail allows you to see the Valley from the top, before descending into it. Most people drive into the valley and take a day hike up, which fine; however, I recommend taking this route as it allows you to experience a wide range of environments that Yosemite offers.
Once you arrive in the valley, you can either spend the night there, take a shuttle back up to Tuolumne (be sure to check the times, they vary throughout the year) or hitchhike (which is very safe in the Park).
Day Hikes in Tuolumne Meadows
For those who aren’t interested in long hikes, but are looking for scenic rest spots, I highly recommend Olmstead Point (named after Frederick Law Olmstead, creator of Central Park in New York City) and sitting on the sandy shores of Tenaya Lake.
Both offer free parking, and are a delightful way to spend an afternoon. Check out Olmstead Point first, then have a nice lunch along the beach. There is also the Tuolumne Grill located seven miles down the road which offers cheeseburgers and chili (go for the veggie chili, it’s delicious!)
Just outside the Grill are several beautiful day hike options. The first is a round trip four mile hike up to Lembert Dome, which affords beautiful views of Tenaya Lake. Alternatively, you could park in the Tuolumne Lodge parking lot and hike down to the twin bridges.
From here you can follow the trail towards Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, or take a leisurely stroll along the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River (an all time favorite walk of mine, and not just in Yosemite!). Follow the river upstream for several miles and enjoy the postcard perfect scenery. Keep an eye out for a yellow bellied marmot, a large member of the squirrel family; they tend to live around the granite slabs that run along the river.
Just Outside Yosemite
As you head east on highway 120, you’ll leave the park and drive the down the beautiful Tioga Pass towards Mono Lake. A haven for photography buffs, this alkaline lake is not hospitable to fish (due to a high pH of 10 and tremendous levels of salt), though it is the only place in the world where you can find the tiny sized Mono Lake brine shrimp.
The main draw to Mono Lake, however, is the large calcite formations known as “tufa”, which cast long shadows along the water, resulting in breathtaking sunrises and sunsets.
At the very end of route 120, overlooking Mono Lake, there’s a Mobil Station unlike any other. It is home to some of the best cooking around, from shrimp tacos to BBQ chicken and pesto pizza.
Yes, it’s a gas station. But it’s still a GREAT restaurant. No matter how many times I stop there with people for the first time, they always look at me like I’m crazy. After they see the food coming out, they’re sold.
Heading south on Highway 395 will take you to the Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to the oldest living creatures on earth. The oldest tree in the forest, known as the Methuselah Tree, is over 5,000 years old.
Many other trees are between three and four thousand years old. Caveat: In order to protect the tree, the Methuselah Tree is not labeled, so you can be sure if you’ve really seen it or not. Still, walking through the oldest forest in the world is not to be missed.
Two Days Or Two Lifetimes: You’ll Never See It All
Many people only spend a few days in Yosemite. As someone who has lived and worked there for months at a time, I still have experienced only a small percentage of what this wondrous park has to offer. My advice is to travel slowly, and enjoy as much of Yosemite as possible. Try out some of these hikes to get away from the crowds, and see for yourself the majesty that is Yosemite.
Adam Costa is the guiding creative force behind travel-smarts.com , a website dedicated to informing travelers how to travel the world without breaking the bank.