Yosemite Backcountry Loop
ElevationAscent: 10,264' 3,128 m
Descent: -10,264' -3,128 m
High: 10,100' 3,079 m
Low: 4,368' 1,331 m
GradeAvg Grade: 6% (4°)
Max Grade: 57% (30°)
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“An epic jaunt through the remote northern reaches of Yosemite National Park.”— Nate Porter
Features Birding · Cave · Fall Colors · Lake · River/Creek · Swimming · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife
If you wish to parcel this sufferthon into an easier to manage, multi-day trip then you should go to a Ranger Station to obtain the necessary permits. Once this has been obtained you can freely camp just about anywhere along this route. I recommend camping around Smedberg lake as this pristine location is actually the remotest lake in the park. It may be difficult to find a place to camp in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne so if you do not think you can make it through then it would probably be in your best interest to sack out in Pate Valley
From here, continue straight instead of taking the right that leads to the stables. In 0.4 miles there will be an option to continue straight in order to go to Young Lakes. Make sure you save that for another day and instead follow the signs to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. The next 4 miles are a gradual downhill that present some of the most picturesque views in the park. The trail provides the hiker a series of cascading waterfalls and views that are too perfect for words. The composition of the footpath thus far will primarily be a loose, sandy substance that is gently sprinkled over the granite, which can be very slippery at times. There is also heavy mule traffic to the High Sierra Camps.
As you head further out, enjoy the last remnant of civilization and quite possibly, the last human encounter you'll have the rest of the day. Realize that from this point, one is totally self-supported as you ascend the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that leads northwards out of Glen Aulin. After climbing for a bit, the trail will open up into a beautiful meadow that eventually becomes Cold Canyon. As the trail begins to descend, one is filled with a sense of majestic awe as the treeline on the left will often give way to majestic views. After 7 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) there will be a river crossing that comes from McCabe Lakes. Be aware that the river may be flowing, even late in the year.
In one mile the trail will split and one must take the left fork and follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) as you DO NOT want to go into Virginia Canyon. For the next 5.8 miles follow the trail exactly (without cutting switchbacks). There is plenty of tree cover to shade you as you make the climb up to Miller Lake on this difficult trail that is interspersed with some technical rock. If you think this section of trail was tough, the next 7.5 miles causes one to question their sanity as a descent into Matterhorn Canyon is required. This is directly followed by the grueling and painstaking slog up Benson Pass. It is here where one is totally exposed as the sun, and progress can feel slow. The integrity of the trail here is poor, and the loose sand is not user-friendly.
From the top of Benson Pass, the descent to Smedberg Lake is much appreciated as it is not terribly technical. After a dip in the cool waters it is time to get back on the pony and struggle on around Volunteer Peak. It is here where you can forlornly wave goodbye to the well manicured Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). To cut off a half mile take the trail to the right and continue south through Rodgers Canyon.
From here it is all downhill to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne...figuratively and literally. Although navigable through Rodgers Canyon, the trail becomes a nightmare going down into Pate Valley as it's overgrown with weeds and prickers and one wonders if this trail sees any use at all.
The switchbacks that lead into the canyon leave visitors exposed to the merciless rays of the sun and you'll want to bring you own sun protection with you here. Make sure you keep an eye on the trail (and use the Hiking Project mobile app) as sometimes it is hard to distinguish between animal trails.
From the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne you have 14 miles to Glen Aulin. This section is composed of technical rock and enormous effort is required to climb up to Glen Aulin. However, the beauty of this section is surpassed by none as the canyon is filled with beautiful flowers and the roar of the Tuolumne.
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Land Manager: NPS - Yosemite