Plan A Yosemite Backpacking Trip

National Parks
Oct 2019
Backpacking through the Yosemite high country, photo by Tyler Gates.

Located in the stunning and serene Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Yosemite National Park is the image of a lush American Valhalla. Waterfalls feed the crystal clear Merced River as it meanders through Yosemite Valley. The pines smell like butterscotch and provide a soft carpet of needles to cushion your walk. The towering cliffs are hard to look away from; proudly exhibiting the largest sheer faces of granite you will ever see. Yosemite Park has enchanted wilderness lovers since its discovery, including the famous preservationist John Muir, President Teddy Roosevelt, photographer Ansel Adams, rock climbing wonders like Alex Honnold, and generations of travelers who come to the Sierra to experience the stunning granite landscape.

View of Yosemite National Park lake landscape.
Hikers sit next to pond on Mono Pass Trail at Yosemite.

What to See in Yosemite National Park

What To See

There is much to see and much to do in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Valley is the part of the park that most visitors see. This is where you will find most of the Yosemite Park hotels and the most accessible of Yosemite’s trails. In the Valley, visitors can spy rock climbers ascending iconic walls like El Capitan and Half Dome, or take a refreshing dip in the Merced. If you look at a Yosemite National Park map, you’ll see that there is a lot to see outside Yosemite Valley as well.

  • Explore Yosemite Valley
  • See the High Country of Tuolumne Meadows and the Tioga Road
  • Drive or hike to Glacier Point
  • Walk among the Giant Sequoias in Mariposa Grove
  • Visit Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

Getting to Yosemite National Park

Directions to Yosemite

Many people have heard of Yosemite but you may not know exactly where Yosemite is in California. The park is located in central California, east of the San Francisco bay area. There are a few different options for airports you can fly into. The one you choose may depend on what else you want to see during your trip to California. Timelines are approximate and focus on the driving time to reach Yosemite Valley.

  • Fresno to Yosemite – 2.5 hours
  • San Francisco to Yosemite – 3.5 – 4 hours
  • San Jose to Yosemite – 3.5 – 4 hours
  • Sacramento to Yosemite – 4 hours

Yosemite Camping & Hotels

Where To Stay

There are a number of options for accommodations in Yosemite National Park. If you are planning a backpacking trip, you may enjoy spending a day in Yosemite Valley before or after heading into the backcountry. You can camp in one of the campgrounds, stay in a cabin, or at one of the Yosemite National Park hotels like the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (previously known as the Ahwahnee).

Hikers use cable railing to navigate Yosemite ridge trail.

Planning Your Yosemite Own Backpacking Trip

Yosemite has 1,100 square miles of designated wilderness (about 94% of the park), making it the perfect destination for your next backpacking trip. To avoid the crowds in the Valley, try going to the High Country in Tuolumne or to Wawona. Don’t forget to drive slow for bears!

Hiking Half Dome

Of course, the most coveted backpacking permit is the Half Dome Permit. The quota is now only 75 permit are available every day for backpackers, 50 are reserved by lottery and 25 are offered first-come first-served, one day in advance. Some People hike to the top of Half Dome and back in one extremely long day. Instead, we find that a Half Dome summit is much more rewarding when backpacking. Learn about our Half Dome Backpacking trip.

More Yosemite Backpacking Routes

Don’t let the permitting system scare you out of your Yosemite backpacking trip. Half Dome permits are hard to get, but there are many more backcountry options as well. You can send in a wilderness permit reservation request here, as far in advance as 24 weeks before your trip. All permits are awarded by lottery. Yosemite backpacking permits are limited by the trailhead you begin your trip at, not the backcountry campsite you stay in. If your lottery request is denied for one trailhead, try a different one nearby.

Here are some of our favorite Yosemite backcountry places to camp:

  • Cathedral Lakes
  • Elizabeth Lakes
  • The Cathedral Range
  • Young Lakes
  • Chilnualna Falls
  • Dewey Point
  • Ten Lakes
  • Merced Lake
There is always a backcountry trail with permits available somewhere. If you’re flexible, arrive at the Wilderness Office on 11am the day before you would like to begin your hike, and ask what’s available. Start with something like “Hello! I’d like to spend two nights out near Matthes Lake starting tomorrow. What’s available?” The ranger might have some options for your preference but, if not, will almost certainly have some alternative routes or available destinations to suggest. They know the best hikes in Yosemite.

Hikers help each other across field stream at Yosemite.

Yosemite Wildlife

Bear Safety in Yosemite

Be advised that bear spray is illegal in Yosemite National Park, and bear canisters for food and all “smellable items” are required for everyone in your party when backpacking. You can rent them at one of the wilderness offices for $5 per week when you pick up your permit. The bears may open up your vehicle like a tin can if you leave smellables inside, so be sure to use the brown lockers in the parking lots and at the trailheads to lock away things like hand sanitizer, food wrappers, chapstick, or anything else with a scent that you might be tempted to leave in your car.

Yosemite Wildflowers

Yosemite Wildflowers

If the wildflowers are calling and you must go, aim your visit between late May and early July. Go to elevations between 10,000-13,000 ft where the snow has recently melted and soak in the colorful display. Soda Springs, Lyell Canyon, Elizabeth Lake and Chilnualna Falls are all fantastic places to enjoy the wildflowers. Bring the John Muir Laws Field Guide! It is undoubtedly the best book for in-field identification in the area and, best of all, it’s light.

Yosemite Weather

Yosemite has a snowy winter season, and Tioga road (which leads to the High Country) is closed due to snowpack, so planning for the weather is especially important here for backpackers. It varies depending on amount of snowpack, but Tioga road is typically closed from about mid November to mid May. The National Park Services lists the current status of Tioga road and Glacier Point listed here.

When your date to travel Yosemite gets nearer, take a look at the forecast at NPS’ useful weather map here. Remember that you are headed to the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, so take a rain jacket regardless of what the forecast says.

In addition, with the changing weather comes the mosquitoes. Usually, mosquitoes are most active from late May through late June, but their season changes to when the air is most moist which may be affected by that year’s snowpack and temperature.

Deer standing in the woods of Yosemite.
Yellow flower seen on Yosemite National Park backpacking tour.

Leave No Trace (LNT) in Yosemite

On your Yosemite National Park camping trip, help keep our treasured wilderness areas healthy and beautiful by practicing Leave No Trace principles.

Plan Ahead & Prepare

  • Bring a map and compass or GPS to eliminate the use of rock cairns or tape.
  • Avoid heavily trafficked areas.

Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Walk on trails or rock, rather than grass.
  • Camp at least 200 feet away from water sources.
  • Do not build a fire ring. Find one.

Dispose of Waste Properly

  • If you packed it in, pack it out, this includes your used toilet paper.

Leave What You Find

  • Leave rocks, flowers and other natural items where you found them. Do not take them as souvenirs. Yosemite gets about 5 million visitors a year. Imagine what it would look like if everyone took a stone.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Campfires in Yosemite are prohibited above 9,600 ft.
  • Use wood that is already dead and down. Do not break branches from a tree.

Respect Wildlife

  • Watch from a distance and do not feed wildlife, it teaches dangerous habits.
  • Protect your smellables in NPS approved bear proof containers. It protects the bears themselves.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Avoid loud noises to respect others’ experience. Yield to uphill hiking traffic. Camp away from trails and other campers.

You can learn more about good stewardship of our parks and wilderness at

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.John Muir