Day One From the southern edge of Stoneman Meadow, follow the Mist Trail along the Merced River to Vernal and Nevada Fall, the latter which is flanked by the polished, bell-shaped Liberty Cap. The climb to the top of the falls, which plunge over bare granite cliffs from Little Yosemite Valley, spans 3.1 steep, tourist-heavy miles before depositing you at the Merced River. The crowds thin out as you climb, at an easier grade, through a burn area, past the unmistakable Mount Starr King, and over the Clark Fork. The trail bends to the southeast while tracing the babbling Illilouette Creek through a mix of shady forest and sun-drenched, grassy meadow. At mile 15.2, trek off-trail to reach the pristine Upper Merced Pass Lake, where you’ll make camp for the night. To shorten the day, nab a spot near the Clark Fork (mile 9.1) or next to the Illilouette Creek (mile 12).
Day Two Wake up early for the steep, exposed ascent to the craggy Red Peak Pass. Begin by weaving through hardy Jeffrey Pines, clusters of lodgepole pines and monstrous boulder chunks. The trees thin out as you gain a brief respite near the granite-edged Lower Ottoway Lake, nestled under the towering south face of Red Peak (11,699 feet). Gear up for the toughest part of the climb, which carries you over a series of steep switchbacks to the crest of Red Peak Pass. Notch spectacular overhead vistas of Yosemite’s high country before descending to the pool-dotted, pine-clustered slickrock tundra below. As the trail crosses through a shelf perched above Red Devil Lake near mile 21, look for campsites alongside small emerald lakes. The exposed sites don’t provide much shelter, but open up to immaculate, star-studded panoramas at night.
Day Three Break camp and negotiate a quick but steep descent before reaching a trail junction below Edna Lake. The right fork follows the main trail for a smoother, longer route (6.1 miles), while the left fork traces a rough social trail along swimming-hole-pocketed Merced Peak Fork (3.8 miles). At the convergence of the trails, the Triple Peak Fork dramatically pours down a 600-foot slickrock waterslide into the churning Middle Peak Fork below. From the confluence, follow the Merced River past the narrow, cliff-edged Washburn Lake en route to shoreline campsites at Merced Lake.
Day Four From the tight western mouth of Merced Lake, follow the tumbling Merced River down a series of cascades and into the open Echo Valley. Weave back into a tight valley before rounding Bunnell Point (8,193 feet) toward the slick-bottomed Bunnell Cascade. Trek through the narrow Lost Valley before emerging into Little Yosemite Valley under the shadow of Moraine Dome. Pass a trail junction for Half Dome (which you’ll need a day permit to access) before returning to the top of Nevada Fall. For a longer, more gradual descent to the trailhead, use the John Muir Trail.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAP The Complete Guidebook to Yosemite National Park, 6th Edition ($12.95, yosemitegifts.com). Consult the time-tested authority on Yosemite, or plan other trips in the park using BACKPACKER’s Destination’s page (backpacker.com/destinations/category/206). Get around the park using Yosemite’s free shuttle service (nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/valleyshuttle.pdf).
FEES/PERMITS To enter park: $20 per car, $10 per pedestrian/ bicyclist. Pass is valid for seven days. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight stays from May through October. Reservations for a permit can be obtained no earlier than 24 weeks before the first night of your stay. Permits cost $5 per reservation and $5 per person in the party. Depending on availability, permits can also be obtained at the wilderness center on the day of your trip.
CONTACT Call the Wilderness Permit Office at (209) 372-0740; nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm
CONDITIONS Tioga Pass Road (Highway 120) is closed between October and May. Water is available along the trail at mile 2.8, mile 3.8, mile 5.4 (seasonal), mile 7.9, mile 11.7, mile 13, and mile 14.4.
GPS DATA Download tracks and waypoints, print or order custom topos, from the menu on the left.
-Text: Brian Beer. Map and photographs: Jeff Chow
Trailhead: From CA 120 E, turn left at CA 140 E/ El Portal Rd. and follow for 6.1 miles. Continue onto Happy Isle Loop Rd. Overnight lot is on left side of road in 0.7 mile.