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Hiking Lyell Canyon And The JMT Out Of Tuolumne Meadows

Backpackers Yosemite Lyell Canyon
Written by Charlie Pankey

Yosemite National Park – I recently posted a list of the top 10 Day hikes off Tioga Pass and in reviewing that list I realized I had never hiked one of the most famed sections of trail in the Upper East Yosemite corridor, Lyell Canyon and the John Muir Trail (JMT) section to Donahue Pass. As per all my list rules, it has to actually be a hike I’ve done to make the list, so I set out of July 4th to hike the Lyell Canyon section of the JMT in Yosemite.

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.

On this July 4th, being only the 4th day of the year that Tioga was open in 2019, the visitor count in Toulumne was really low so this section of the trail was void of people, which was odd because you could see use areas and human traffic locations along the river banks where the crowds must tend to gather.

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. I considered Hanging the hammock hear and calling it a day for this trip and the location was divine and the river was spectacular this summer with all the run off still flowing strong. However today I really wanted to experience the JMT for just a bit longer.

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. I found myself making multiple detours down to the river only to find some of the most beautiful swimming holes (Not this year as the water was Cold, and Fast) and again great location to hang a hammock and enjoy my day in the canyon. I also ran into multiple PCT 2019 hikers that had made there way through the Sierra snow packs and were getting to Yosemite on July 4th. Many Hikers from Europe on the PCT, and a couple of hikers that actually call the Sierra home, but were headed to Washington.

Lyell Canyon just kept beckoning me forward, as it seemed to suggest every time I thought of stopping that I had much more beauty to see, and boy was that instinct correct. At approximately 6 miles you reach the Ireland Creek area and trail that travels up next to Potter Peak to Ireland Lake and again a chain of lakes in the Volgelsang High camp region. This seemed to be a popular place for backpackers as I saw multiple tents set up here by the end of the day, I guess it is near the boundary of camping location in the region.

Staying on the John Muir section I traveled between the Potters Peek and South Kuna Crest for another mile before finding a great spot along the river to hand a hammock and enjoy a few hours of peace along the Toulumne in Yosemite’s High country. After a two hour Nap/Lunch break it was back on the trail towards Donahue pass. the map I was carrying suggested that there was an unnamed lake just up the trail and I decided to see what kind of views i could see from there before deciding what the rest of my day would hold.

Just like the rest of my trip the meadow lake was a great location to catch wildlife and pictures of Donahue pass, getting ever so large now in my sight. The trail beckoned me forward for a few more miles and river turns just so I could see what mother nature would provide next for my camera. but at approx 9 miles, I found myself thinking about my return trip and decided that it was a signal that I had better start my return to the car.

The return trip saw many backpackers who had finally got their permits and were headed in for their first night in Yosemite. Most that spoke with me were headed to the Potters Peak area for the first night. The trail also shared great views of the northern peaks in Yosemite.

Running low on water my tired legs made a stop at Two Bridges a great place to refill water bottles and lay on the rocks for a quick rest in the growing evening Yosemite sky. I really wanted to pull the hammock out here and take another nap, but I had friend expecting me in Bridgeport that evening for fireworks and I was getting hungry.

As I end this day hike experience and start to head back down Tioga Pass for dinner, I remind myself to add this to my List of great day hikes in Tuolumne Meadows. and now have another growing list of places yet to be explored in Yosemite’s High Country. Next Trip I think I will try Rafferty Creek and the Vogelsang high camp region.

About the author

Charlie Pankey

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