Hiking Lyell Canyon and the JMT From Tuolumne Meadows

Known for the flowing clear rivers, lush green meadows and the final exit stretch of JMT travelers heading south from the Valley floor, the Lyell Canyon trail is a popular trail for day hikers and backpackers in Yosemite National Park. Depending on the time of year it is not unlikely to see a passing through PCT thru hiker in this section of Yosemite as well as plenty of wildlife, wild flowers and Park rangers. Hiking Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park in our opinion is a Top 10 experience in Yosemite National Park.

Hiking Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park

The Lyell Canyon Trail is accessed from either the Toulumne Meadow area or the parking lot located just east of the Wilderness Permit office for backpackers. The beginning section (1st mile) alone is probably enough on this trail for the average visitor to spend most of their day, taking pictures, lounging by the river, seeing wildlife etc. A mix of forest, river and meadow settings, really makes this starting area a great high alpine Yosemite experience. You will cross both the Dana fork of the Toulumne river and the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne in the first mile.

As you venture into this pristine wilderness, you’ll find yourself treading on paths that hold both natural wonders and historical significance. Named in part honoring renowned geologist, François Emile Matthes, Lyell Canyon pays tribute to his extensive explorations of the Sierra Nevada region. But its allure goes far beyond the historical context; this picturesque canyon is an essential component of the park’s watershed, contributing to the health and preservation of Yosemite’s delicate ecosystem.

As you meander through Lyell Canyon, you’ll be enchanted by its serene landscapes and the soothing sounds of the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. This river, fed by the Lyell Glacier, plays a crucial role in maintaining the park’s water resources and providing sustenance to the diverse flora and fauna that call Yosemite home. Keep an eye out for the captivating wildlife that thrives in this verdant sanctuary – from elusive black bears to vibrant wildflowers that blanket the meadows during warmer months.

Tuolumne River July 2019
Crystal Clear Tuolumne River in Early summer

The trail merges and splits a couple times in this region as this is also an area where Rafferty Creek Trail spurs off, Elizabeth Lake Trail has an exit path and visitors can also venture up to Gaylor lakes from this trail system via a more western route. After approx. a mile you will come to a section I call Two bridges which is a beautiful spot where the Lyell fork of the Tuolumne river drops into several small cascades, and the meadow opens up on the Easter side of the trail with views of the backside of Mammoth Peak region. The location is divine and the river is spectacular especially in early season with all the run off still flowing strong.

Heading out from the river the trail temporarily leaves the river and crosses a the meadow and the edge of the forest until the river heads south along the Kuna Crest and Lyell Canyon. You cross the Rafferty Creek trail in this early section which is another popular trail that leads you up to Tuolumne Pass and the Volgelsang Camp area.

The JMT trail is mostly flat and the views on the vista just continue to grow the further you hike. At approximately 6 miles you reach the Ireland Creek area and a trail that travels up next to Potter Peak to Ireland Lake and again a chain of lakes in the Vogelsang High camp region. This is the first area you are allowed to set up camp if you are backpacking in the region, thus a popular place for backpackers.

From here is its approx. 6 more miles to the base of Donahue pass and into the Ansel Adams wilderness.

Above Lyell Canyon three backpackers
From Camp above Lyell Canyon final Morning in Yosemite

Backpacking in Lyell Canyon

Backpacking in Lyell Canyon or over to Ansel Adams Wilderness does require a permit. Donahue Pass does have exit quotas on the trail and rangers are always present as the number of guests allowed to hike over the pass in a single day is limited. These are highly sought after passes so proper planning is required. Day hikers from Tuolumne meadows are welcome on the trail but are not allowed to cross Donahue pass. Alternative routes to this region of Ansel Adams is to go around over Parker Pass to the north in Yosemite. Many backpacker choose to start on this trail and then climb near Potters peak up to Ireland Lake and the backdoor of Vogelsang region. (although i would recommend the counter clockwise loop going up Rafferty Creek and exiting Lyell canyon.

So, whether you’re a history buff eager to follow in the footsteps of pioneers or a nature lover seeking solace among Yosemite’s breathtaking landscapes, Lyell Canyon is ready to welcome you with open arms.

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