Where should the Yosemite High Route start and finish?

Harriet Lake alpenglow

As a distraction from more time-sensitive and critical work, recently I began drafting the Yosemite High Route Guide, which I’m planning to release in late-winter. This first edition will be about 90 percent right; it will need a revision after double- or triple- checking my work and field-researching some minor areas of interest in summer 2019.

As a numbers guy, I naturally start most projects with numbers. In this case, I created a best-guess primary route and multiple alternate routes in CalTopo, and then compiled distance and vertical data (e.g. on-trail, off-trail, and cumulative mileage; vertical gain, loss, and change per mile) into a spreadsheet. The resulting stats help in, for example, comparing the merits of two competing segments, and in creating recommended section-hikes that will be suitable for backpackers with different time frames, skill sets, and fitness levels.

Now with accurate data, I can confidently make final route decisions and proceed with other sections of the Guide, like the narrative description. With other high routes that I have developed, at this point any lingering decisions were pretty obvious.

But I’m still pondering fundamental aspects of the Yosemite High Route, and hoping that public feedback can help steer me.

Context

The “good stuff” on the Yosemite High Route lies between Grace Meadow in upper Falls Creek (just south of Dorothy Lake Pass, where the PCT exits the park) and Quartzite Peak (at the northern end of the Clark Range). This stretch is world-class and on par with the best sections of any other high route. It’s 112 miles (with 55 percent of it off-trail, and with up to 12 miles of continuous off-trail travel), and climbs or descends 585 vertical feet per mile. It emerges from wilderness only briefly, to cross Tioga Road at Tuolumne Pass.

The good stuff, in red

The debate is how to best access these two points, i.e. Where should the route start and finish? There are a half-dozen options, all with merits, none without flaws, and not one that is clearly best.

I suppose that the Yosemite High Route could “officially unofficially” start and end at Grace Meadow and Quartzite Peak. All the reasonable ways to reach these points could then be neutrally presented.

But I think the Guide will be more useful if it:

  1. Recommends a specific and complete route. Most people will follow the Guide exactly, so this route should be the generally best option.
  2. Provides information about alternatives, for those wanting to choose their own adventure or to tweak the route to fit their situation.

So let’s talk about these termini.

South terminus

I think the rightful southern terminus is fairly clear. But you tell me.

To reach Quartzite Peak, there are three potential routes:

  • From Yosemite Valley, via the John Muir Trail and Merced Lake Trail (13 miles).
  • From Tuolumne Meadows, via Echo Creek (17 miles); or,
  • From Tuolumne Meadows, via Rafferty Creek and Tuolumne Pass (21 miles).

The southern good stuff, in red, with three options termini options: two out of Tuolumne Meadows, and one out of Yosemite Valley.

Echo Creek would be my first pick, since it’s the most high route-like (i.e. largely off-trail, very low use, alpine terrain) and since it creates a loop, which is much more logistically convenient than a point-to-point itinerary (especially in this case, because you can “resupply” at Tuolumne Meadows by leaving food in a bear locker). However, the lower section of Echo Creek is impractical until mid-summer due to water levels (copious runoff in a tight canyon with a slab floor = major hazard), and NPS has asked specifically that I not promote it.

So that leaves the Tuolumne Pass and Yosemite Valley routes.

While the Yosemite Valley option is shorter, I’m inclined to go with Tuolumne Pass. First, it’s more high route-like, featuring several gorgeous lakes (e.g. Emeric), some alpine terrain, and big views of the Clark Range. Second, like Echo, it also creates a loop. Yosemite Valley is a tough sell for me: the culture shock and permit competition are huge turn-offs.

From the Tuolumne Pass Trail, looking south towards the Clark Range

North terminus

I’m more torn about this one.

To reach Grace Meadow, there are six options:

  • From Sonora Pass (Highway 108), via the Pacific Crest Trail (20 miles);
  • From Twin Lakes (outside Bridgeport, CA), via low-use trails (21 miles);
  • From Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, via low-use trails (23 miles);
  • From White Wolf Campground (Tioga Road), via the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (40 miles); or,
  • From Tuolumne Meadows (Tioga Road), via the Pacific Crest Trail (48 miles) or Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (50 miles).

The northern good stuff, in red, with six termini options.

The primary conflict is: quality vs. convenience.

In terms of quality, Sonora is the best mile-for-mile option: it’s twenty miles atop the Sierra Crest on grade-A trail through the Emigrant Wilderness. But it’s the least logistically convenient (no public transit, difficult hitch, and 1:45 to Tuolumne Meadows by car). And it seems inconsistent with the Yosemite High Route.

Twin Lakes and Hetch Hetchy are logistically easier than Sonora (still no public transit, but easier and shorter hitches). However, these low-land routes are unexceptional. Hetch Hetchy at least has thematic appeal: it’s the collection point for all the tributaries explored by the Yosemite High Route, and could be one end (along with Yosemite Valley) of a valley-to-valley adventure.

White Wolf is shorter than the routes out of Tuolumne Meadows, but it misses out on the Tuolumne’s breathtaking waterfalls, and does not have the same logistical conveniences, which I think are worth another 10 miles of hiking.

Waterwheel Falls. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne has countless slides, drops, and pools, and more swimming holes than there are summer days.

That leaves the two TM routes: the PCT and Grand Canyon. I’m leaning towards the latter, but not without reservation. I think that many backpackers who undertake the Yosemite High Route will have already done the Pacific Crest Trail through northern Yosemite, whereas they probably have not hiked down the Grand Canyon. But the Grand Canyon bottoms out at 4,300 feet among black oaks and ponderosa pines, which is far below normal “high route” life zones.

Whatever way, you can see these routes are all imperfect.

Your thoughts?

Remember, I’m looking to identify a single route with specific termini that will be best overall for most backpackers. Information about other routes will still be presented.

If you have questions about any of the possibilities that will help to inform your thoughts, ask. I don’t expect everyone to be as intimately familiar with Yosemite.

 

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