Alpine Lakes Odyssey, Yosemite National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14127A, Backpack


  • Visit remote areas of Yosemite National Park
  • Admire the rugged peaks of the Clark Range and the Minarets
  • Camp by soothing alpine lakes and cascading streams


  • All meals and snacks, from breakfast on day two through lunch on day nine
  • Group equipment
  • Campground site near trailhead


DatesJul 19–27, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffDave Bugay

Trip Overview

The Trip

Bask in the glorious light of mid-summer on our eight-day 50-mile loop into southern Yosemite. To begin our trek in Tuolumne Meadows, we hike to Cathedral Lakes, taking in stunning views of Cathedral Peak and the Mathes Crest along the way. We then head south toward the headwaters of the Merced River, enjoying the Clark Range in the distance. Layover time near the southern border of Yosemite will allow us to explore the meadows in the shadow of Mt. Lyell and climb the park's southern passes, with their amazing views of the Minarets. We will then hike north, crossing the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River and continuing to our final camp at Emeric Lake. We will exit along Rafferty Creek as we return to Tuolumne Meadows.

"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves." - John Muir

John Muir loved to roam this magical region of fabled beauty and we will have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.


Day 1: Our official meeting time is 5 p.m. on July 19 at a campground at or near Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. At that time we can eat, get further acquainted, acclimatize, and engage in our "trailhead talk." There are no restaurants in the vicinity so please bring your own dinner to the campsite.

Day 2: After our provided breakfast, we start our adventure with a short hike, 5.5 miles and 900 feet in elevation gain, to reach our lakeside camp. There we hope to admire alpenglow on Cathedral Peak.

Day 3: We continue over Cathedral Pass and down along Cathedral Creek to Echo Valley and our camp near the Merced High Sierra Camp. This will be a long hiking day in terms of miles. We will cover about 12 miles, but apart from 300 feet of uphill at the beginning and 200 feet up along the Merced River at the end, the rest will be a gradual descent of 2,700 feet.

Day 4: Today will be an easy day as we follow the Merced River for four or five miles to our riverside camp, which is only 400 feet higher than the night before.

Day 5: We will continue to follow the Merced River as we climb up 2,300 feet in about eight miles to camp at a high alpine lake that's nestled against the southern border of Yosemite Park.

Day 6: This is a planned layover day, allowing us to hike up to Post Peak Pass and its spectacular views of Ritter, Banner, and the Minarets, or just enjoy the lakeside beach near our campsite. 

Day 7: We will have a short four-mile backpack, with good views of the Clark Range, down to our idyllic camp along the Lyell Fork of the Merced River. We will have the afternoon to explore the meadows below Mt. Lyell and Mount Ansel Adams.

Day 8: An 11-mile hike with a combined ascent of 2,000 feet -- mostly along the cascades of Fletcher Creek -- brings us to our campsite at Emeric Lake. There we'll enjoy the sunset panorama of Vogelsang Peak.

Day 9: We will hike eight miles as we cross over Tuolumne Pass and return to our cars by early afternoon.

The above itinerary is not rigid; how far we get each day and where we camp depends on how we feel, the weather, and other factors outside of our control. Yosemite National Park allows a maximum group size of eight for off-trail hiking; our group size is projected to be 12, hence we will be backpacking on trail (and for dayhiking off-trail, we will set out in groups of no more than eight hikers).



Getting There

The closest major airport is at Reno, which is about a four-hour drive from Tuolumne Meadows. Trip members flying to California should consider flying to Reno or the San Francisco Bay Area (about a five- to six-hour drive) and sharing a rental car with other participants. Another possibility is Fresno, although flying here may mean an additional flight stop. The trip leader will provide directions and a trip roster well before the trip to assist participants who want to share rides. Participants looking for public transportation to Yosemite can check Participants who want to pursue this option should plan to arrive in Yosemite at least one day before the trip starts.

Trip members should schedule their return flights no earlier than the day after the trip ends.

Accommodations and Food

We will be providing all meals and snacks; note that the first trip meal will be breakfast on Sunday, July 20, and the last meal will be a light lunch on Sunday, July 27.  All the meals will be pesci-vegetarian (but not vegan and not gluten-free). However, optional bacon will be provided at some breakfasts, and optional salami at some lunches.

We will plan a diverse and appealing menu to accommodate both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. One leader is vegetarian, the other is not -- they both intend to eat well! Any food allergies or limitations, including being vegetarian, should be indicated to the leader as far in advance of the trip as possible. Responsibility for cooking will be shared among the trip members. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated a 3 (on a 1 to 5 scale), but on some days the route will be strenuous. Maximum single-day elevation gains will be up to 2,000 feet and maximum elevation loss in a day will be up to 3,600 feet. We will generally hike 5 to 12 miles on travel days. On most days we will be hiking for 6-7 hours (including breaks), or longer if unforeseen difficulties arise. There will be some stream crossings on potentially slippery rocks or across narrow logs. Since our trip is at high elevations, very good aerobic conditioning is essential. You must have the ability to hike at high altitude with a backpack that weighs as much as 45 lbs. 

Participants must maintain a regular fitness program, supplemented with weekend practice hikes while wearing the boots and pack (loaded with at least 40 pounds) you plan to bring on the trip. Also, it's recommended that you take at least one "warm-up" backpacking trip prior to this outing, at altitude if possible. If you are not in good shape, you just won’t have a good time. Be honest with yourself about your high-altitude capabilities. Altitude sickness is unpleasant and can potentially be a serious condition. Trip participants are encouraged to arrive in the area a day or two before the trip in order to begin high-elevation acclimatization. Camping reservations will need to be made early as the campsites in Yosemite fill early.   Some sites are available on a daily basis -- first come, first served.

The High Sierra is renowned for its excellent summer weather. However, extended storms can occur at any time of the year. Afternoon thunderstorms, with sudden cloudbursts of wind, rain, hail, and even snow are not uncommon. Be prepared for extremes: high temperatures can reach 80 degrees F during the day and fall to the 20s at night at the higher elevations.

Participation in this outing requires that you be in shape and have reasonable expectations for the trip. Recent backpacking experience and good physical conditioning are essential. A sense of humor and a patient, tolerant attitude are required for when the going gets tough. Our objectives are to enjoy the experience of spectacular alpine majesty and to complete the trip safely.

Equipment and Clothing

We provide the following group equipment items: pots, utensils, stoves, fuel, first-aid kit, repair kit, trowel, ropes, and tarp. Trip members should bring their own lightweight spoon and a cup and/or bowl. Bears are present, so we will carry our food in bear-proof canisters, which will be provided as well.

Plan to provide your own water treatment option. Choices include water filters, water treatment tablets, and UV  light purifiers. We will have a Platypus filter for in-camp use. 

Limit your personal gear to no more than 25 pounds -- each participant's share of the commissary load could be 15-20 pounds at the start of the trip.

Make sure your backpack is large enough to carry the required loads, which on any given day could include both a large bear canister and a pot set or other bulky commissary gear.

Sturdy, fully broken in boots with rubber lug soles that provide good support are required. For shelter, tents with rainfly are strongly encouraged, and lightweight waterproof tarps are the required minimum. For rain gear, we recommend a waterproof jacket and rainpants rather than a poncho. We may encounter some dry stretches along our route, so a water-carrying capacity of at least two liters is required.

Please check the equipment list at



  • We suggest that you bring your own map and compass; not only is this a matter of safety, but you will have a better appreciation of where we are going and where we have been.
  • The Tom Harrison Maps "Yosemite National Park" covers the entire route. Much of our route is on the USGS 7.5 minute maps Mt. Lyell and Vogelsang Peak, and crosses short sections of the Tenaya Lake and Merced Peak maps.


  • Muir, John, The Mountains of California.
  • Storer and Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History.
  • Swedo, Suzanne, Hiking Yosemite National Park.
  • Winnett, et al, Sierra North.



"Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending our resources as we should -- not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water." - Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico in American Forests, July 1963

This year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System, originally protecting nine million acres of national forest lands. In this Act, "wilderness" is defined as "an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor." Today more than 106 million acres are encompassed by the system. We should each consider the level of protection that the Wilderness Act has given to this area and give thought to how we will pass these areas on to future generations. 

The leaders will initiate discussions -- usually while relaxing after dinner -- about Public Lands and Wilderness Protection. Discussion topics will include specific wilderness legislation before Congress, recently added wilderness in California, and the need to protect our nation’s magnificent wild public lands.

We will also discuss the history of the Sierra Club and its founding members and the role of Outings in furthering the cause of conservation. The Sierra Club's history is steeped in efforts to preserve endangered habitat and wilderness. The Club was instrumental in expanding protection for Yosemite a century ago, establishing Kings Canyon National Park and passing the Wilderness Act. As Club members, we have reason to be proud of these accomplishments when we hike through the region.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Yosemite National Park.



Dave is a relative newcomer to backpacking, having led a group of Boy Scouts through Philmont in 1998. Dave resumed backpacking in 2001 as a Sierra Club participant, and has been on several trips since. Dave has led or assisted Sierra Club trips each year, starting in 2007. Each year Dave looks forward to trekking the High Sierra with like-minded people from around the country.

Assistant Leader:

Growing up on a farm in the flatlands of rural Iowa, Tom Miller enjoyed exploring the outdoors, even though there weren't any mountains nearby. After college he joined some friends for a week of backpacking in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and was hooked immediately. Since then Tom has backpacked throughout the West. His first Sierra Club outing was as a participant on a backpacking trip to the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Since 2006 he's volunteered as either assistant or leader each year for national Sierra Club backpacking outings, often completing multiple trips.

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