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Tuolumne Meadows Backpacking

Updated on August 6, 2013

Backpacking The Best Of Yosemite

There are some trails that cause your heart to race just thinking about them, and Tuolumne Meadows backpacking is one of those hikes. Yosemite National Park, and this area in particular, is one of the most majestic places on earth. With breathtaking views, great trails and a climate favorable to backpackers, it's easy to see why it's among the favorite hikes for many backpackers.

Because this trail is so popular it's also well mapped and routes are clearly established, making it suitable for almost every hiker. Easily accessible by road from late May to November (weather permitting), you can also catch a free shuttle from Olmsted Point from June to September, to various spots in the area, including the only local store for any last minute items you might have forgotten to pack.

Whether you're looking for a scenic day hike or a multi-day backpacking adventure, the Tuolumne Meadows will provide it. There is a lot of information available on this area, and my hope is that I am able to provide a valuable compilation of some of the best, and offer my own insights and opinions. If you enjoy this article, please bookmark it and share with your friends who also hike. I appreciate your support.

Image via Creative Commons - Jeff Gunn

The Pacific Crest Trail Is A Backpacker's Heaven

Enjoys Dozens Of Destinations Similar To Tuolumne Meadows

While we're talking specifically about Yosemite backpacking in this article, it's worth noting that there are endless backpacking opportunities along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and in the Yosemite National Park. While I spend most of my hiking time along the Colorado Trail or the Continental Divide, the PCT is incredibly vast and offers enormous opportunities for spectacular views and awesome trails; backpackers travel from all over the world to hike sections of the trail.

Stretching from Mexico all the way to Canada, the PCT offers hikers every imaginable altitude and climate, from deserts to snowy peaks, from the relative lowlands near the Oregon and Washington border to its highest elevation of 13,153 feet at Forester Pass (Sierra Nevada). While at Yosemite National Park there are 1200 square miles of incredible outdoor opportunities, and this lens discusses just one of them.

In terms of trail space, Yosemite National Park is host to about 70 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. While you won't be summiting record setting peaks in Yosemite (highest point is 11,056 feet at Donohue Pass), you will be enjoying views of granite peaks and wildlife that will never leave you. Now let's take a closer look at our featured destination.

Photo taken by Johannes Brenner


The Pacific Crest Trail Association has an awesome brochure and large, detailed map.

Pacific Crest Trail

A Hike through Toulumne Meadows, Beautiful Valley and the "Grand Canyon of Tuolumne" - This Is An Awesome Video Slideshow

Area Elevation And Weather

When planning your trip you're most likely interested to know about weather trends and elevation for the area. This information will help you to schedule your trip during the most likely periods of good weather, and knowing elevation information is important for backpackers so they can map out the best camp locations.

It's important to note that the primary road providing access throughout the Meadows is Tioga Road, and it typically opens in late May or early June, depending on conditions, and closes for the winter at some point in November.

In Yosemite the weather varies greatly throughout the year, as seen below. For elevation concerns, relating to route planning and camp sites, visit this page at www.MyTopo.com.


Monthly Weather Averages For Tuolumne Meadows

Please Share With Us So We Know Who Is Visiting This Lens

It's nice to know about the people who stop by, whether they've been to the area, are planning to, or whether they just surfed in. Please take just a second to share with us.

Have you been to this part of Yosemite before?

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Photo taken by Sarah Lewis

Visitors to the area come from all over the country, and even the world, to hike in this incredible part of Yosemite. Having hiked all over the country myself, I have to agree that this is perhaps some of the most coveted backpacking for those more interested in beauty than bagging peaks (though Half Dome is a worthy trip for any adrenaline junky - see photo below).

You should know that if you plan to camp overnight in the Yosemite Wilderness Areas you need a "Wilderness Permit". The permits are free, but LIMITED. If you're on a day hike then you won't need a permit (except for Half Dome), but everyone else, planning to camp there, do yourself a favor and apply for the permit early (as soon as you know you're going). You can book up to 24 weeks ahead of your trip, so use it. They limit the number of permits in order to keep the trails solitary and to allow hikers the opportunity to truly enjoy the natural beauty (it's also the law to limit the number of hikers on Wilderness Area trailheads - Wilderness Act).

Get Your Wilderness Permit Here

While the permits are free for walk-in requests, if you chose to make a reservation early there is a fee ($5 per reservation and an additional $5 per person). The Park Service says "Of each daily quota for a trailhead, 60 percent can be reserved ahead of time while the remaining 40 percent is available on a first-come, first-served basis no earlier than 11 am the day before your hike begins as long as permits are available."

Half Dome - A Majestic Part Of Yosemite

Photo by Creative Commons - Victor R. Ruiz

The National Park Service provides a wealth of information for this area, simply click on the image below for a larger map and hiking brochure.


Tuolumne Meadows Map and Area Information - NPS

If you're looking for a multi-day hike in Yosemite that's mapped out for you, and which includes backpacking in this area, then you should check out a Backpacker.com recommended trip, a nearly 66 mile beauty. Here's what they say about Pacific Crest Trail: CA Section 21: "TUOLUMNE MEADOWS to SONORA PASS: This 65.8-mile section travels the remote regions of Yosemite. Our advice: Pack a good camera (the scenery is five stars), extra sunscreen (it's the High Sierra), and water shoes (swift rivers)." They also provide a detailed list of way points and trail tips.


Watch This Amazing Video Of Hiking Half Dome

If you're physically capable, and in the Yosemite and Tuolumne area then you should really consider tackling this iconic beauty. Half Dome is the stuff memories are made of!

Fuel For Vehicles

There are no gas stations in Yosemite Valley, so plan accordingly and fuel up on your way in. Coming in on 120, then the last fuel is at Crane Flat Gas & Convenience Store.

Here is a list of the 3 places to gas up in Yosemite National Park.

If you're planning a trip to Yosemite then you should take a short 2 - 3 hour hike through the grove of Giant Sequoias. There are 3 groves in the Yosemite National Park, and while this one at Tuolumne isn't the largest, it's spectacular none the less. The Sequoias grow to an amazing average height of 160-279 feet, and have an average girth of about 20-26 feet! If you've never stood beside one of these, be prepared to have your breath taken away.

Photo via Creative Commons by Dcrjsr

Trailhead For Tuolumne's Grove Of Giant Sequoias

From this trailhead you'll go north on an old road that is no longer used. You'll hike for 2 - 3 miles through forested areas, but it's not until you near the end that you'll strike Giant Sequoias gold, making the trip worth every step. Watch the video below and you'll see what I mean.

A markerTrailhead and parking -
37.758149,-119.805608
get directions

Hiking Through The Tuolomne Grove of Giant Sequoias

This is an awesome video that shows you the hike through to the Tuolumne Sequoias.

Here's a large map provided by the National Park Service of the

Yosemite National Park Wilderness Trailheads.

Great Osprey Backpacks For Any Length Of Trip

A Good Backpack Can Be The Difference Between Pleasure And Pain

If you didn't already know, Osprey gives an incredible lifetime warranty on all their products... not only on material or workmanship, but period. If you damage it, however, whenever, they repair or replace it free. So not only is Osprey on the leading edge of industry innovation, they take care of their customers, too. See my article on the "Best Backpack Brands" to read more about why Osprey is tops.


You have a choice when buying your gear, so choose a company which stands behind you, ALL THE TIME. BackCountry.com is a top online retailer for all outdoor gear for a reason. They offer a 100%, anytime, any reason return guarantee. They say "We guarantee complete satisfaction and an unlimited lifetime warranty. If at any time -now, next month, in 30 years- you're not 100% satisfied, send your gear back for a full refund. No questions asked." So it makes sense to buy Osprey and to buy it from BackCountry.

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Photo by Creative Commons - Irene

Depending on your group, your itinerary and time (or comfort level), spending your nights in a lodge and then striking out each day for incredible day hikes may be for you. If that's the case, then consider the TM Lodge. Nestled at more than 8,000 feet, the lodge is made up of permanent tent "cabins" that have metal frames, hard doors and cement floors.

It is no hotel by any stretch of the imagination, but outside of roughing it on your own the Lodge is the only option in Yosemite Valley. In this photo you can see that there's a wood burning stove for heat and there are also candles provided for nighttime lighting. Some people who have to travel long distances in to the park may choose to spend their first night at the lodge while they catch their breath and before they take of for their backpacking adventure.

For me, if I were going to Tuolumne for backpacking I wouldn't spend the time or money on one of these lodge tents, I'd simply pitch my own tent somewhere near the parking area, catch my breath, and then start my trip the next morning. I really only mention the Lodge for those who are planning day hikes only; there are some awesome hiking opportunities really close by.

Find out more about the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

One of the most gorgeous day hikes in the area is to Cathedral Lakes. A short 7 mile roundtrip route (under 6 hours for most), you'll see some of the most incredible views and wildlife. With a mild elevation gain of just over 1,000 feet, the hike is suitable for nearly everyone. The trail begins near Tioga Road, just off shuttle stop 7 about 1/2 mile west of the Visitor Center. I'd take the shuttle and just get off at this stop and not worry about fighting traffic, since this is one of the most popular trails and parking could be a problem. Just be sure to note the shuttle schedule and be sure to return in time.

You'll walk along the John Muir Trail and gain some elevation on your way to Upper Cathedral Lake. Just before getting to the Upper Lake you'll see a side trail that is a mere 1/2 mile to Lower Cathedral Lake. If time permits you can visit both lakes, but the route we're discussing is a simple hike to the Upper Lake and following the same trail route back. See the map below... if you have more time then make this a multi-day trip and see Half Dome, or climb it if you're up to it.


Upper Cathedral Lake At The Foot Of Cathedral Peak


Photo by Creative Commons - Alaskan Dude


The NEMO Espri

The Ultimate Backpacker's TentRead Review

Stop By The Visitor Center - Backpacking To Cathedral Lake, Half Dome, And More...

Southwest of the Visitor Center is the John Muir Trail. You'll walk about 1/2 mile west of the Visitor Center along the road and there you'll see a sign for the Trailhead. Follow that trail to Upper Cathedral Lake, and keep on the trail to see Half Dome (climb the Dome if you have the mojo and time). You can easily make a 2 - 3 day trip out of the 20 or so miles from the Visitor Center down to Half Dome and the surrounding area, or simply make a day trip to Cathedral Lakes and back... either way the route is awesome and the views gorgeous!

Trimble Outdoors has a great trail map of this route with GPS coordinates if you backpack with one.

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Please share your comments, thoughts or even your experiences at Tuolumne

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      lionmom100 4 years ago

      I went to Yosemite for the first time last August (very hot). I had flown over it several times and saw Half Dome from the air. NOTHING prepared me for how incredibly Awesome Yosemite is from the ground. I would love to go back and spend more time.

    • Scotties-Rock profile image

      Clairissa 4 years ago from OREFIELD, PA

      Looks absolutely beautiful!