Yosemite Valley visitors know that the park has a popularity problem, especially in summer when traffic and crowding hit their peak. But informed aficionados know that Yosemite has abundant rewarding outings outside the valley that most visitors never see.
For instance, late summer and fall are excellent times to visit Tuolumne Meadows. Not only is this high country far less populated than the valley, it’s generally 10 degrees cooler on hot days. Here are a few suggested outings for those new to the area.
Lembert Dome looks like a big mountain and feels like one from its summit, but requires just a fairly short and gentle trek to stand atop it. This slopy peak gets its name from hermit John Lembert, the first white settler in Tuolumne Meadows, who claimed 160 acres and built a log cabin there in 1885.
From Highway 120, turn south onto Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Road and park in the Dog Lake trailhead lot. Hike north, cross Highway 120 and join the trail that climbs switchbacks up Lembert’s southeastern slope.
You’ll quickly climb above the lodgepoles to the shoulder of the mountain’s eastern side. Leave the dirt trail to climb a westbound use path up the granite slope. Glorious views of Tuolumne Meadows get better with every step as you traverse the mountain’s rocky spine. Cathedral Peak, Mount Conness, Mount Lyell and Tuolumne River are a few highlights.
This 2.2 mile round trip hike gains about 500 feet and takes about two hours.
This lake is pretty as its name and would attract thousands of visitors if it wasn’t in Yosemite where excellent scenery abounds. As a short day hike with minimal elevation gain, it’s an excellent choice for those looking to acclimate to the altitude and get acquainted with the area. A member of the U.S. Geological Survey named the lake in 1909 for the daughter of a Sacramento doctor.
Park at Tuolumne Meadows Campground by the restrooms on B loop. Our trail leads south through a lush forest to a glacier-carved lake. For a better view of the northern mountains, scramble any distance up the neighboring Unicorn Peak.
This five-mile round trip hike gains about 800 feet, mostly in the first mile. A use path that surrounds the lake is worth a lap and adds about a mile. Most people take two or three hours to make the trip and return.
Tuolumne Falls, White Cascade and Glen Aulin
Those who know only Yosemite Valley’s scenic waterfalls miss out on many watery wonders elsewhere in the park, including the high country. For instance, Tuolumne Meadows hikers can trek to Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade, both near Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp.
Park beside the highway near Lembert Dome or beside the dirt road leading towards the stables. Our hike follows the dirt road to a gate and continues past it towards Soda Springs. Pause here to try the naturally carbonated water bubbling from the ground.
Soon our route approaches and then parallels Tuolumne River. After a climb, the trail descends into a wooded area. Shortly after crossing a footbridge, you’ll see Tuolumne Falls and later White Cascade, which flows into a pool perfect for swimming on hot days.
Many visitors spend a night at nearby Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Its name is Gaelic for “beautiful valley.” If you’re looking for an introductory overnight trip, this is a great choice. Though this year’s big snowpack forced the cancellation of the camp’s normal food and lodging services, it remains open to backpackers, and its bear-proof food lockers and toilets are convenient.
This hike totals 11 miles round trip to Glen Aulin and slightly less for those who turn around at Tuolumne Falls or White Cascade, with around 500 feet of elevation gain, taking most folks from six to eight hours.
Notes of note
Tuolumne Meadows has an average elevation of about 8,000 feet. So those coming from sea level should take time to acclimate, go easy at first and drink plenty of water.
None of these outings require permits for day use. Overnight campers to Glen Aulin (and anywhere in the Yosemite backcountry) need wilderness permits, which are available at Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center. Camping is not allowed at Elizabeth Lake or on Lembert Dome.
Don’t wait too long to visit because Highway 120/Tioga Road generally closes after the fall’s first significant snowfall, often in November. After that, you’ll have to either make a long trek on cross country skis or else wait for the road to reopen next spring or summer.
Matt Johanson is the author of the new guidebook, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”