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How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 12:06 pm
by Wandering Daisy
I was going to bump up my early season Yosemite trips, but they are such a mish-mash I though I would just describe what is possible for longer backpacks starting in Yosemite Valley (or Glacier Point if road is open)

There are 4 basic trips 1) North Rim Traverse, 2) Pohono Trail, 3) Panorama Trail, 4) Merced River. When the Glacier Road is not open you can combine the last three into one long trip. When Glacier Point Road is open, three separate trips works well- North Rim, Pohono, combined Panorama-Merced.

The North Rim Trail is about 20 miles, 2-3 days. Pohono is 18 miles, 2 days. The Merced-Panorama combination is 30 miles, 3.5 days (and includes climbing Clouds Rest). If you do not climb Clouds Rest it is a 3 day trip or 25 miles. You can delete the Merced Lake and Clouds Rest portion, camp at Little Yosemite Valley and make it a 2 day trip.

When Glacier Point Road opens, camping is very restricted. Bridalveil bridge is the approved site for the Pohono; I have used a "stealth" site that probably is legal about half a mile off the Panorama trail on the trail towards Star King. It is best simply to reach Little Yosemite Valley or beyond to camp. When Glacier Point Road is closed, you are under winter rules.

You WILL encounter snow on all these routes, so you need to be able to navigate when trails are covered with snow. Other than a few side streams that will require wading (and calf deep wading across Echo Valley), major flows all have footbridges. These routes include long days and LOTS of elevation gain. They are very rigorous. You certainly can slow them down, as long as you can figure out where to legally camp.

I have not shown side-trips to Mt Watkins or to the top of El Cap, but these can be added to the North Rim Traverse. In addition, the Four Mile Trail is another link between Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point. If your car is up at Glacier Point and you end up in the Valley, it is a very scenic 4-5 hour day-hike up to Glacier Point on the Four Mile Trail.

Shuttle busses only run between Happy Isles to the east and Camp 4 to the west. Later in the season a shuttle to El Cap Meadow is provided. The Pohono trail only has two legal places to park cars overnight- the Wawona Tunnel overnight parking and Glacier Point. You have to have a valid backpacking permit to drive your own car to Glacier Point most of the time. Also, later in the season, a concessioner bus runs many times a day between Yosemite Lodge and Glacier Point (about $25).

When the Half Dome Cables open, it is really hard to get a permit to camp at Little Yosemite Valley. Before the cables open it is quite easy. It is not as bad early because it does not get that crowded. If possible, camp farther up the Merced. You have to go above Bunnell Falls before it is legal to camp. There are established campsites uphill above the Clouds Rest-JMT trail junction. These used to be legal, not sure what the rule is now.

What I describe below will be one way to do everything, assuming Glacier Point Road is not yet open, and you would park your car in the Valley. Typically it opens mid-May, or even in April in low snow years. You would have to plan to drive to the valley, get your permits and camp at the Backpackers Campground the day before the trip. Half days back to the Valley will allow you to do some sight-seeing. I have assumed you have to get a new permit every time you return to the valley- may not bee needed for a pass-through. I also plan on resupplying in the valley- there are good grocery stores. This makes packs lighter. You could just haul all the food - which may be better if you plan on pass-through the valley instead of staying. Early season shuttle busses do not start running until about 8AM. The wilderness office closes about 4-5 pm. Camp 4 may be more convenient, but is usually full and quite noisy. I prefer the backpackers campground.

When Glacier Point is open, you would instead, park at Glacier point- go to valley via Pohono- then do North Rim Traverse, and end from Happy Isles, up the Merced (with Clouds Rest hike), out Panorama to Glacier Point.

It may take me a while to post the actual route plan and photos.

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 1:12 pm
by Wandering Daisy
Note that my "miles" are shorter than what you may see on trail signs- I just drew the route on TOPO so a lot of switchbacks are missed. Nevertheless, these are the miles that I have used to estimate travel times which vary from 2.5 mph to 1 mph (plus 1 hr per 1000 feet of gain).


Day 1. Happy Isles to Echo Valley via the Mist Trail. 9.2 miles, 3460 elevation gain, about 8-9 hours.

Day 2. Day hike to Merced Lake then cross trail to JMT, camp above JMT-Clouds Rest trail junction. 9 miles, 1430 feet elevation gain, 8 hours.

Day 3. Climb Clouds Rest, back to LYV, JMT to Panorama trail junction, camp along trail to Star King about half mile off Panorama. 11 miles, 3530 feet gain, about 8 hours.

Day 4. Panorama Trail to Glacier Point, Pohono Trail to Bridalveil Footbridge. 10 miles, 2525 feet gain, about 8 hours.

Day 5. Pohono Trail to junction with old Glacier Point Road, down the road for 2 miles to Bridalveil Falls parking, valley trails to Camp 4. Shuttle to Backpacker's campground. 12 miles, 1175 feet gain, about 7 hours plus about 2 hours getting permit, groceries, and shuttle.


Day 6. Backpacker's CG to Snow Creek above bridge. 7 miles, 3200 feet gain, about 6 hours

Day 7. Snow Creek to Canyon Creek (or dry camp up on the buttress above Yosemite Point), plus side trip to North Dome. 8 miles, 2200 feet gain, about 7 hours. Could also camp on North Dome and have a longer next day.

Day 8. Back to Valley via Yosemite Falls trail. Be sure to go out onto the viewpoint. 6 miles, +800 feet, -4155 feet, about 4-5 hours.


Day 1. Glacier Point to Stanford Point, Pohono Trail, 9 miles, 2000 feet gain, about 7 hours. (accounts for slower travel with snow)

Day 2. Stanford Point to Backpacker's CG. Pohono Trail, old Glacier Point Road, and valley trails plus shuttle. 9 miles, 300 feet gain, about 4 hours hiking plus 2-3 getting permit, sight seeing groceries, shuttle to BP campground.

MERCED-PANORAM SECTION -- this would be the same as the first four days of the route when the road was not open. You then would drive your car back to the valley, camp at backpackers campground. Then either end the trip or do the North Rim traverse.

NORTH RIM TRAVERSE (you could do it the opposite direction - just showing here different from before)
Day 3. Yosemite Trail to North Rim and camp near Canyon Creek crossing. 7 miles, 4260 feet gain, about 8 hours, including shuttle to TH at Camp 4.
Day 4. North Rim Trail to North Dome, intersect Snow Creek Trail, camp near footbridge. 8 miles, 2000 feet gain, about 7 hours (includes slow travel in some snow). Could also continue to Valley (combine days 4-5)

Day 5. Snow Creek trail to valley, 5 miles, 2.5 hours, all downhill.

More photos later. These two are just to remind you to take some photos while in the Valley!

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 2:47 pm
by Wandering Daisy
Pohono Trail view.jpg
Stanford Point.jpg
View Panorma Tr.jpg
Halfdome Panorama.jpg
Illoutte Falls.jpg

Vernal Falls.jpg
Top of Nevada Falls.jpg
Merced River on trail to Echo Valley.jpg

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 2:54 pm
by Wandering Daisy
EchoVally Bridge.jpg
Pro_4872_Merced Lake.jpg
Cross trail.jpg
Clouds Rest view.jpg
Snow Creek Trail.jpg
Yos Falls overlook.jpg

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 4:01 pm
by c9h13no3
Great pics Daisy, I love the flooded pic of Merced Lake. :)

I've only day hiked to these places. The lure of a heated tent cabin and hot food at the Ahwanee has always won out. Course, I've only been to the valley in December & April.

Ever done Old Big Oak Flat road? I've heard of people using that to start the North Rim traverse, past El Cap to Snow Creek.

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 8:00 pm
by Wandering Daisy
The problem with the trail from Big Oak Flat road is that there is no public transportation to return. No problem if you have two cars, or do not mind hitching. I am not certain, but I think some of that area has burned and is not as nice as it used to be. It is about 10 miles and 3800 feet gain to the top of El Cap. You would probably run into more snow and more creek crossings in early May. Another 4 miles and 600 feet gain to the top of Yosemite Falls. Eagle Peak Meadows is snowy and tends to post-hole and be soggy. You would do it to extend the standard North Rim Traverse, not to save any time or effort. As shown on the photos below, it was quite snowy (April 1-2 2002, a 95% snowpack year). But there will be dry spots to camp.

Getting a permit for the North Rim from Snow Creek or Yosemite Falls trailheads has never been a problem in early to mid May. If you drive into the Valley early AM, particularly on a Monday or Tuesday, the traffic can be avoided. Or drive in later in the evening. On Sunday everyone is going out, not in. Pick up your permit at the Big Oak entrance and then drive directly to the Backpackers Campground. \\
Half Dome Gothic.JPG

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 9:16 pm
by balzaccom
Nice. Of course, you could also hike out of Hetch-hetchy in May. Maybe not to Rancheria Falls, depending on the Wapama Bridge, but certainly up to the Beehive and maybe Lake Vernon...

And in some years you can get out from Bridalveil trailhead to Grouse Lake...or at least to Chilnualna Creek.

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 9:18 pm
by maiathebee
You've inspired me to switch up my usual early season trip to the Trinity Alps with one to the Valley. Perfect as always, WD.

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 11:58 pm
by levi
Wandering Daisy, thank you so much for this! 2017 was a relative bust of a year for Sierra backpacking (and peakbagging) for me, repeatedly stymied by snow and inexperience with it, but I finally have more of the right gear, and these routes look tractable. Time to plan!

Re: How to do Yosemite in May

Posted: Sat Feb 23, 2019 10:14 am
by Wandering Daisy
Note that before May 1, you self-register and write your own permit; logistically easier. The photos above were taken on several different trips, some as early as April 1, some as late as early June. This year, April may be too early with all the snow.

May and June are a bit awkward logistically because the summer camping restrictions apply yet the shuttle bus system is limited to the upper valley only. The key to a successful Yosemite Valley backpack is to really nail down the logistics before you start. It took me a while to get this all figured out. Reserving a permit takes away some uncertainty and may be wise if this is your first Yosemite trip. I have always just used a first-come permit, but I have the luxury of entering mid-week. The 40% first come and cancelled reserved permits are available at 11AM. This works out really well if you have a 4-5 hour drive.

You have to get quite a ways up the trail to legally camp so staying in the Valley the night before a trip usually works out well if starting from the Valley. Camp 4 is easier logistically because you can park nearby, but nabbing a permit is difficult, almost impossible later in the day. Your backpack permit IS your camping permit for the backpackers campground, so you will always have a spot. You technically are supposed to park in the backpacker's parking lot, but I have parked in the far end of the Curry Village lot with no problem. Although tempting to bring more plush car-camping gear into the backpacker's campground, it will really slow you down to take it all back to your car. Better to just bring in dinner and breakfast, having nothing extra the next day when you start. Strong hikers CAN make it up onto the rim from the Valley via all the routes starting about noon. But I find that logistics work out better for a full first day. There is plenty to see and do with your first day's afternoon.

If starting from Glacier Point, or Wawona Tunnel (I did not show a trip from Wawona Tunnel), staying in the Valley the night before is very awkward. In that case, I either walk in the same day as driving or spend the night before camped on FS dispersed camping areas near the Big Oak entrance. I have made it from Glacier Point to LYV leaving my car at 1PM, but you have to have a LYV permit, not a pass-through permit. LYV can be a zoo, but it is logistically handy; it is only one night so I just put up with it.

If you never have been to Yosemite Valley, be sure to pick up a good valley floor map. It really helps to know where things are located. Shuttle busses run loops and really do not pay that much attention to being on time. Sometimes the first bus is full so you have to wait for another. Often, it is faster just to walk. Picking up permits at the entrance stations, at least for your first leg, will save time. The Yosemite Village store has better selections (including butane cannisters) but the Curry Village store is not that bad.

These trips are typical spring melt conditions, creating some challenges. Take dedicated wading shoes. Rather than constantly take shoes on and off, I just keep on the wading shoes. You will get soaked on the Mist Trail so have a pack cover or waterproof inner (such as garbage bag). And the Mist Trail is TOTALLY backpackable, shorter than the JMT, and much more scenic; always my first choice. The Merced River part between Little Yosemite Valley and Merced Lake can be particularly soggy. Unfortunately, fires have burned an area along the Merced and the JMT above LYV. But I would not let that deter a trip up the Merced. The little-used cross-trail between Echo Valley and the JMT is very difficult to follow in snow. A GPS helps All the other trails get quite a bit of day-hike use so generally a foot path through snow has already been established. Creeks are overflowing, often making them too soggy to camp by so I always carry two 2L Platypus so I can haul water for short distances and "dry camp". Mosquitoes have not been a problem, but there will be those nasty in-your-face gnats, so bring a head-net. Trekking poles are really helpful.