Yosemite National Park is known for its beautiful granite peaks, idyllic grassy meadows, and some of the most picturesque lakes in the country. It’s beauty is no secret, making it one of the most visited National Parks in the US. A lot of the crowds congregate in Yosemite Valley or in other nearby popular destinations. Luckily there are tons of places within the park that receive less attention. Making them some of the best backpacking spots in the entire Sierra Nevada mountains.
Compared to the hustle and bustle of Yosemite Valley, the northern and eastern parts of the park feel like a peaceful respite in paradise. You will find sprawling valleys littered with alpine lakes all to yourself. For backpackers, you will also have a much easier time obtaining a backcountry permit from one of the many lesser-used trailheads.
Table of Contents
- Total Distance: 53 Miles
- Elevation Gain: 11,553 Feet (high point: 12,266 ft.; low point: 8120 ft.)
- Days to complete: 3-6
- Best time of year to complete: June-September
- Terrain difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous
- First part of loop (clockwise over Parker Pass is not heavily trafficked creating a feeling of being out in nature.
Incredible views throughout entire loop
- Trails are well-maintained
- Plenty of campsites along the entire route
- Great for a beginner or experienced backpacker
- Higher trafficked areas along the JMT/PCT (day hikers around Devil’s Postpile)
- Scenic campsites taken early in the day (have to stop early to get)
Section 1 – Mono/Parker Pass Trailhead to Gem Lake (15 miles)
Probably my favorite section of the loop. Not heavily trafficked, well-maintained trail. There are multiple options of where to stop along this section. You can do as little as 11-12 miles or as many as 20+.
From the trailhead there is a slow, steady climb through the woods to the wide-open Parker Pass. You will then continue to the base of Koip Peak Pass. Once there you will be able to see the entire switch back climb. It looks daunting, but the switchbacks are not very steep. Once you get halfway up you will start to really see the incredible views. On a clear day, you will be able to see Mono Lake along Highway 395.
The hike down from Koip Peak Pass to Alger Lakes was probably my least favorite mini-stretch of the loop. You can see the lakes the entire way down, but it feels like you will never reach them. A lot of the trail is rock scree and can be steep at times. It is all worth it though once you reach the lakes.
We stopped at the furthest lake and planned to camp there that night. After an hour or so we decided to continue since it was only 2:00 in the afternoon. The trail from Alger Lakes to Gem Lake is up and down, mainly in the forest. We arrived at Gem Lake a little late, so the majority of good spots were taken. There are plenty of spots, though, along the stretch coming into and along the lake. Easy access to the lake and a creek makes getting water and washing off very simple.
Section 2 – Gem Lake to Emerald Lake (14 miles)
From our campsite on the north side of the lake, the trail winds around Gem Lake and slowly climbs up to the Clarks Lake and Agnew Pass area. This was probably my favorite area of the entire loop. Very serene and calming. If you have the ability to stay a night here or hike through in the morning, I highly recommend it. You then cross over the PCT and descend to the River trail along the Middle Fork San Joaquin River. This will be the first time along the loop you will start to encounter heavier traffic.
As you get closer to the Devil’s Postpile area, day hikers will also start to become more prevalent. At a lower elevation, the trail conditions start to become different with the trail becoming sandier. Also, this section is where you can start to add or use alternate trails to lengthen or shorten the overall loop.
We decided to use the Shadow Creek Trail to get over to the JMT. It is a short but steep climb up to Shadow Lake. (One thing of note, there is no camping within the Shadow Lake area) That is very unfortunate because the area is absolutely beautiful. After meeting up with the JMT, the trail climbs up and over an unnamed pass to Garnet Lake. Personally, I preferred Garnet Lake to the much more popular Thousand Island Lake. The views are just as incredible, and it is much less busy.
After winding around Garnet Lake, there is a small climb and descent to pass Ruby Lake and get to Emerald Lake. I would also recommend staying at either Ruby or Emerald Lake over Thousand Island Lake. We found a beautiful spot tucked away in the trees and had no one around us all night. It is about ¼ mile to get to Thousand Island Lake, and there are many areas to explore without having to battle the crowds for a camping spot.
Section 3 – Emerald Lake to Mono Parker Pass Trailhead (24 miles)
From Emerald Lake, you continue around to Thousand Island Lake and slowly climb to Island Pass. I will say, this is not really much of a pass so you may completely miss it. The views from the initial climb out of Thousand Island Lake were some of my favorites of the loop. You can see the entire lake with the backdrop of Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter.
After reaching the modest Island Pass, you descent into the Rush Creek area. If you are looking to do more miles the 2nd day, the Rush Creek area would be a great option to look for a spot. It also sets you up well to conquer Donahue Pass early in the morning. From Rush Creek, you start climbing up to Donahue Pass. It is a pretty moderate climb; it winds around a bit but isn’t very steep.
The views from atop Donahue are well worth the climb. You can see your entire future journey down Lyell Canyon. The initial descent from Donahue Pass is very rugged and steep. Once you complete the initial descent, you will cross Lyell Fork and the majority of the remaining downhill is under the cover of the forest. Once you fully complete the descent, it will really open up into the canyon and the trail is very fast and flat.
The trail winds in and out of the forest line on the west side of the canyon, and you can see Lyell Fork flowing to your right. (if you decide to camp anywhere in Lyell Canyon, make sure you do so at least 4 miles from Tuolumne Meadows as there is a 4 mile camping restriction in every direction from Tuolumne) Once you reach the outskirts of Tuolumne, you will start to encounter more side trails. Make sure to pay attention to all signs and follow the JMT/PCT to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center.
Once you start approaching the Tuolumne Wilderness Center/Lodge area, you will be on the lookout for the Dana Fork Trail (should mention Mono Park Pass TH also). You will follow this until you get to Tioga Pass Rd. From there you will cross the road and briefly follow the Lower Gaylor Lake Trail. This will only be for a short amount of time, and then you will turn right onto the Dana Fork Trail once again. It will cut east and follow a slight ridge along Tioga Pass Rd. You will again cross the road and hike a short distance through the forest. You should see the trailhead and parking lot shortly, and then you have completed this amazing loop!
There are many alternate/additional trails that you could take, so I will just go through a few that would seem to be the best options:
- Continue down the River Trail into Devil’s Postpile. This would add about an additional 14 miles and 3,100 ft of elevation gain. Main upsides for this would be to see Devil’s Postpile, and resupply at Red’s Meadow if needed.
- If traveling down to Devil’s Postpile, looping around the Minaret Creek Trail for an additional 9 miles and 2,700 ft of elevation gain. This would be leaving the JMT around Johnston Lake and meeting back up just north of Shadow Lake. I am not familiar with this area, however, I do know there are camping restrictions once you get to Ediza Lake. I believe this would be a good alternate if you wanted to avoid a lot of people hiking out of Devil’s Postpile.
- If you are looking to shorten the loop, then the best option would be to cut off the River Trail. Once you reached the Agnew Pass area, you would just follow the PCT north until it re-joins the JMT at Thousand Island Lake. There potentially could be some even more alternatives off of this, but following the PCT would be the most direct and efficient way to shorten this loop. With these changes, it would make the loop 44 miles with just over 9,100 ft of elevation gain.
Another option would be to start this loop for another trailhead. Options would include Lyell Canyon TH in Tuolumne Meadows, Rush Creek TH in Inyo NF along the June Lake Loop Road, and any trailhead in the Agnew Meadows area (just north of Devil’s Postpile). For any of these options, the actual loop would remain the same. You could also do this loop counter clock wise if desired.
Campsites along route
The great thing about this loop is you will never be without campsite options. If starting from Mono Parker Pass TH, be advised that you will need to at least hike out of the Yosemite boundary before overnight camping is allowed.
There are numerous spots after Parker Pass and before the ascent to Koip Peak Pass. Alger Lakes has quite a few spots once coming down from Koip Peak Pass. The section from Alger Lakes to Gem Lake can be scarce for spots, but once you reach Gem Lake they are plentiful. From there, you will be able to find spots every few miles for the rest of the trail.
Top Camping Spots/sites:
- Emerald Lake – just south of Thousand Island Lake. A lot of sites all around the lake, and many were open all night. Quieter and more serene experience than camping at the more popular but busier Thousand Island Lake.
- Clark Lakes area – We did not camp here but it would have been one of the best spots to stay. Hiking through in the morning around 7:00 we saw minimal people staying in this area. If you are looking for solitude, this would be the spot.
- Rush Creek area – like Clark Lakes, we did not stay in this area; however, hiking through in the morning was a very pleasant experience. It seemed that a few more campers stayed in this area, but it is very spread out with many options for all.
You can obtain a permit from any trailhead from recreation.gov. Below are instructions on how to option a permit from each area (Yosemite and Inyo NF):
Yosemite – This has changed in the past few years. You used to obtain the permit directly from the Yosemite NP website. However, they have revamped their process, which includes a lottery system for all permits.
The lottery system can be confusing, but their page on recreation.gov does a great job of explaining the step-by-step process. For any lottery permits, you are basically signing up for the chance or opportunity to “win” the right to those permits. That being said, less popular trailheads often are easier to win (making the Mono Parker Pass TH the ideal starting spot for Yosemite). As with any trailhead permit, there is still a daily quota. This just dictates how many backpackers can leave from a given trailhead each day. They also have restrictions on how large a party may be (usually 8-12, depending on the trailhead).
Inyo NF – This is by far the easiest area to obtain a permit from in my opinion. You will just need to enter the dates you are wanting to go, your group size, and then you can view in real-time all the trailheads in the Inyo NF system to see how many permits are left. Popular trailheads will get snatched up quickly. The reservations open 6 months in advance on a rolling calendar. Ex. If you are wanting to leave August 1st, those permits will open on February 1st to reserve. Once you find your trail and see there is availability, simply fill out the reservation and submit. As long as there are permits available, you will be guaranteed one.
There are many options to consider when planning for this loop, especially where to stay and how to get to the trailhead. Below details areas to stay and transportation options.
Places to stay:
- Lee Vining – A surprising amount of hotels in this small town along Route 395. Many food options as well for either dine in or to pick up supplies.
- June Lake – Options are a little more limited, no major hotels. There is a general store for supplies and many good restaurant options.
- Mammoth Lakes – Definitely has the most options for lodging in the area. Perfect if you are starting in Yosemite or near Devil’s Postpile. Lots of great restaurants and many stores if you are needing to get supplies.
- Any campgrounds in the area – if you are feeling adventurous and not wanting to spend for the luxury of a hotel, campgrounds are always a great option. Whether in Yosemite or the surrounding area, there are plenty of campgrounds around.
If you are needing to fly into the Eastern Sierra’s, any of the major airports around are good options (Reno, Sacramento, Bay area). A couple of the lesser-known options may be able to save you some time. Both Mammoth Lakes and Bishop offer flights into their small regional airports. They are limited on the days of the week and times, so be sure to check their websites for exact details.
Once in the area, you then have many options as well to get to the trailhead. Some of those are listed and explained below:
- Having your own vehicle to drive to the trailhead – whether it’s your own car or a rental, to me this is the best and easiest option to travel to a trailhead. You don’t need to wait on any public transportation or rely on someone to pick you up.
- Public transportation – probably your 2nd best option. The eastern side of the Sierra’s surprisingly has quite a few ways to get you to either Yosemite or Mammoth Lakes. If you are flying into Reno, you can take the Eastern Sierra Transit down anywhere along 395. Once there, you can catch the YARTS into Yosemite. Both will come with a small fee, but both are very reliable when it comes to getting you where you need to in a timely manner.
- Private shuttle services – this can be hit or miss, and honestly very pricey. They do offer the convenience of knowing you have a private ride set up, but I have heard many horror stories with these as well (people making reservations and the person not picking them up). Depending on where they pick you up/drop you off, it can be anywhere from $75-$200. We personally had a fantastic experience with one of these (more down toward Lone Pine, CA with Lone Pine Kurt), but they are just hit or miss in my opinion.
- Hitchhiking – last on the list for obvious reasons. People around any heavy backpacking areas are very familiar with hitchhiking backpackers, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the safest option. Hitchhiking into Yosemite is even more difficult because of the road conditions and that you must either pay or have a permit to enter the park. Like the last option, we have personally hitchhiked twice from trailheads, but that was much easier said than done. If you do choose this option, just be extra cautious.
Day 1 – Mono Parker Pass Trailhead to Gem Lake, 15 miles, 3,650 ft elevation gain
Day 2 – Gem Lake to Emerald Lake, 14 miles, 4,200 ft elevation gain
Day 3 – Emerald Lake to Mono Parker Pass Trailhead, 24 miles, 3,850 ft elevation gain
3-day Itinerary (mileage more spaced out)
Day 1 – Mono Parker Pass Trailhead to Gem Lake, 15 miles, 3,650 ft elevation gain
Day 2 – Gem Lake to Rush Creek area, 17.5 miles, 4,750 ft elevation gain
Day 3 – Rush Creek area to Mono Parker Pass Trailhead, 20.5 miles, 3,350 ft elevation gain
Day 1 – Mono Parker Pass Trailhead to Alger Lakes, 11 miles, 3,200 ft elevation gain
Day 2 – Alger Lakes to Clark Lakes area, 7 miles, 1,600 ft elevation gain
Day 3 – Clark Lakes area to Thousand Island Lake, 11.2 miles, 3,125 ft elevation gain
Day 4 – Thousand Island Lake to Base of Lyell Canyon, 11.1 miles, 2,215 ft elevation gain
Day 5 – Base of Lyell Canyon to Mono Parker Pass Trailhead, 12.5 miles, 1,625 ft elevation gain