Yosemite High Country Loop, Yosemite National Park, California

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13124A, Backpack


  • Enjoy alpine meadows and spectacular wildflowers; camp at beautiful alpine lakes
  • Climb Cloud’s Rest and savor fabulous views of Yosemite’s high country
  • Learn how to plan and prepare for self-contained trips


  • All cooking equipment and bearproof canisters
  • Lightweight group equipment and delicious backcountry food
  • Information on menu planning and food preparation for future individual trips


DatesJul 14–19, 2013
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffAleta Beaupied

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Explore the most spectacular section of Yosemite’s high country on this moderate backpack. Our 40-mile all-trail trip loops through Yosemite's gorgeous alpine backcountry. First we head out of Tuolumne Meadows across Cathedral Pass to Sunrise High Sierra Camp and backpacker camp. We will enjoy views of Cathedral Peak, and may also see meadows of wildflowers around Cathedral Lake. From Sunrise we hike to the summit of Clouds Rest with its stunning 360-degree view across all of Yosemite National Park and beyond. We will then descend to the Merced River along a trail with granite slabs. After a swim and camp at Merced High Sierra Camp we then return to the high country. Before our adventure ends at Tuolumne Meadow, we will visit Bernice Lake and Vogelsang Lake, pristine alpine lakes nestled at the bottom of sheer granite walls. We pass by Vogelsang High Sierra Camp before descending along Rafferty Creek and back to Tuolumne Meadows.

In addition to experiencing some of the highlights of Yosemite’s high country, this trip will provide an opportunity for novices as well as experienced backpackers to improve current backpacking skills, in general, and to learn menu planning/food preparation for future individual trips, in particular.  


Day 1: We will meet during the early afternoon at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground (at 8,500 feet elevation). We will spend the rest of the day going through our gear; distributing the bear canisters, food packets, and group gear; and talking about some basics (meal preparation, loading packs, setting up tents, operating stoves) before cooking dinner at the campground.

Day 2: We will drive our cars a few miles to the Cathedral Lakes trailhead (8,580 feet) and begin our day’s hike of 8.5 miles along the historic John Muir Trail. We'll reach Upper Cathedral Lakes and then cross over Cathedral Pass (9,700 feet), with a stunning view of Cathedral Peak, before descending to Long Meadow and the Sunrise backpacker camp (9,320 feet).    

Day 3: We will get an early start to ensure an arrival at our campsite with plenty of time to climb Clouds Rest. We begin the four-mile hike to our campsite with a short climb to a saddle before descending to the three Sunrise Lakes and the Clouds Rest Trail. We continue along the Clouds Rest Trail to our campsite near a Tenaya Creek tributary (8,900 feet). We will set up camp and set off on our six-mile round-trip hike with light daypack to the summit of Clouds Rest (9,926 feet). The view comprises all of Yosemite's high peaks, and we will see Half Dome and Yosemite Valley deep below us. You will find this view truly awesome!

Day 4: This is a ten-mile hiking day from our 8,900-foot campsite, gaining several hundred feet before beginning our 1,900-foot descent to the Merced Lake Backpacker Camp (7,200 feet). Along the way we will cross Sunrise Creek, pass through the plentiful wildflowers in Echo Valley, and hike along the beautiful and powerful Merced River.

Day 5: Although the mileage is low (6.5 miles), the return to the high country and the pristine alpine setting of our campsite at Bernice Lake (10,206 feet) is a 3,000-foot climb along Lewis Creek. This makes for a strenuous day but nevertheless an invigorating and beautiful journey.

Day 6: Now we will be well prepared for our final adventure—an 11-mile hiking day that includes a short but steep climb to Vogalsang Lake and then a gradual descent along cascading Rafferty Creek. We'll pass through large alpine meadows abundant with wildflowers before reaching the trail along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River and, after two miles, the Rafferty Creek Trailhead. The park bus shuttle will take us back to our cars at the Cathedral Lake Trailhead. 



Getting There

We will meet at the Tuolumne Meadows Campground early on the afternoon of day one. This meeting time will assure that everyone has at least one night to acclimatize to the altitude before we begin our trek. The closest airports are located in Fresno, California, approximately 150 miles away and Reno, Nevada, approximately 180 miles away.

Alternatives include the San Francisco and Oakland, California airports, both about a 250-mile drive from Tuolumne Meadows. While there is currently no direct route to Tuolumne Meadows via public transportation, it is possible to get there by a using a combination of bus and train if you are willing to spend a couple of extra days doing so. A roster of trip members will be sent out well in advance of the trip to assist those who wish to share rides and/or rental cars.

We expect to get back to our cars by late afternoon on the final day. However, we cannot guarantee a specific time. To be safe and allow enough time for the drive out, we advise that trip members do not plan their return flights before the next day. 

Accommodations and Food

The trip price includes first night's car camping at Tuolumne Meadows Campground and all meals. Our first meal will be dinner at the campground that night. Our last meal will be lunch on the last day.

Food and drinks for all meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks) will be a hearty combination of meat, fish, and vegetables, including soup as the first course of each dinner. Every effort is made to accommodate vegetarians, however other special diets can be very difficult to accommodate on this length and type of backpack trip. If you prefer vegetarian meals or have other special dietary requirements, you are encouraged to contact the leader to see if your needs can be met.  

Unlike regular Sierra Club National Outings ‘central commissary’ trips, this trip will be run as a ‘hot water commissary’ trip. It's the same experience that leaders enjoy while trekking through the mountains on private trips when they prepare hearty and healthy meals by simply adding hot water to food packets prepared before the trip start. The leader, working with each participant to ensure sufficient calories and selecting from a pre-set menu, will prepare individual food packets for all meals for each participant, who will be responsible for carrying his or her food packets/drinks/snacks and, as a Leave No Trace camping experience, his or her own trash. Trip members will share the responsibility of performing various camp chores and carrying all group gear—pots, stoves, fuel containers etc. 

Trip Difficulty

The trip is rated M (moderate). This rating reflects an average, and also needs to be put in relation with the whole spectrum of backpack trips that the Sierra Club National Outings program is offering. That means that you might find some days to be much harder than others, despite the rating. For example, on our shortest hiking day with a full pack we will cover four miles with a 600-foot elevation gain. On a more difficult day we will cover 6.5 miles and ascend 3,000 feet. The total distance of our trek is about 40 miles. All of our hiking will be on established and pretty-well-graded trails. Wet creek crossings are possible.

Carrying a heavy (40-45 pound) pack for several days, especially on prolonged uphill stretches, is a strenuous aerobic activity and is not suited for everyone. In order to enjoy this trip, participants need to be in excellent physical condition. Regular aerobic exercise (such as treadmill, running, swimming, biking, or hiking) during the 3-4 months before the trip is essential. The best physical preparation for a backpack trip is doing serious day hikes. Make sure your hiking boots are well broken-in. Include in your conditioning plan an occasional long walk, while carrying weight on unstable terrain. As well as endurance, you need leg strength; be able to lift yourself and your pack the equivalent of two stairs at a time.

Some of our campsites are between 8,000 and 10,000 feet, so acclimatization to the altitude is also essential. If you are not used to these elevations, you might want to consider arriving a couple of days earlier and acclimatizing by doing easy day hikes in Yosemite National Park. There is plenty to see and to do. 

Equipment and Clothing

In addition to all food, the Sierra Club will also provide all cooking gear (stove, fuel, and pans), chlorine tablets for water treatment, group first-aid kit, tarp, and the bearproof canisters that we will use to store our food. A detailed equipment list will be sent to those who sign up for the trip.

All trip members should try to keep their personal pack weight below 25 pounds (not including hiking boots and water). The weight of the packed bear canister and group gear is about 15 pounds per person. We will weigh all packs before we start, and people whose personal gear is too heavy might need to leave some non-essential items behind. Please think ahead about what you need to bring.

Please also keep in mind that you must have the additional capacity in your pack for about 1½ large grocery bags. This will be the volume of the bear canister and group gear for each person. Most of it is sturdy (non-squeezable).

Your gear will be much easier and safer to carry if it is tucked away inside your pack and not dangling on the outside. 



  • Muir, John, My First Summer in the Sierra, 1917.
  • Muir, John, The Mountains of California.
  • Storer and Usinger, Natural History of the Sierra Nevada.
  • Wiese, Karen, Sierra Nevada Wildflowers


Tom Harrison’s Tuolumne Meadows & High Sierra Camp Loop Trail Map is available at outdoor stores or http://www.tomharrisonmaps.com


  • Information on Yosemite can be found at www.nps.gov/yose
  • Information on Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps can be found at http://www.yosemitepark.com/high-sierra-camps.aspx


The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward greater understanding, advocacy, and participation in the goals of the Club.

Many consider Yosemite National Park to be the crown jewel of the national park system. John Muir's struggle against the devastation of the sub-alpine meadows surrounding Yosemite Valley by flocks of domestic sheep ("hoofed locusts") led to the establishment of the park on October 1, 1890. But Muir realized that an organization would be necessary to ensure Yosemite's protection. Two years later, he joined with others in the San Francisco Bay Area to form the Sierra Club. The Club was instrumental in expanding protection for Yosemite in the 1890s, in the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940, and more recently in passing the Wilderness Act of 1964, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System and afforded much of the High Sierra the highest level of protection possible. As Club members, we have reason to be proud of this accomplishment when we hike through the region.

The Sierra Club Outings program provides an excellent opportunity for us to discuss current problems while also celebrating past conservation victories. You are encouraged to come prepared to discuss issues affecting your home communities. We will follow Leave No Trace principles on our hikes and in camp. And since any traveling leaves a carbon footprint, check out the information that the Sierra Club offers about carbon offsets at: http://www.sierraclub.org/outings. And finally, on this trip we will spend some time discussing the National Park Services’ blueprint for its second century—A Call to Action—focusing on its goals related to Preserving America’s Special Places. A Call to Action may be accessed on-line at http://www.nps.gov/calltoaction/PDF/Directors_Call_to_Action_Report_2012.pdf


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



Aleta Beaupied began her backpacking adventures during the summer of 2000. Over the ensuing years she has taken many hikes in the Sierra Nevada and in other areas within California. For the past several years she has been a backpack leader with the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter. She has also backpacked in the Southwest U.S. and done hut-to-hut trekking in the European Alps. As a leader, Aleta claims no special knowledge of flora, fauna or geology. What she loves about the Sierra is the beauty and serenity of it all, and being able to share her enjoyment of the wilderness with others.

Assistant Leader:

Thomas Meissner has been backpacking in the Sierra Mountains, Northern California, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and on the East Coast since 1994. This includes a through-hike of the John Muir Trail, and several large sections of the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He has led Sierra Club trekking trips into Europe and more than 100 backpack trips into California's High Sierra and coastal mountains. Thomas has also been organizing and teaching the annual backpack beginners course of the local San Francisco Sierra Club Bay Chapter since 2001.

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