How To Backcountry Camp In Yosemite National Park
In partnership with Backcountry
Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock
Every time I post a camping photograph in Yosemite I inevitably get a handful of people letting me know—in no uncertain terms—that camping is illegal within the park. I’m not sure exactly where they got that idea from, but I sure am glad that they are wrong. Not only can you camp in Yosemite, you should! Leaving the valley, escaping the masses, and sleeping under the stars, is the absolute best way experience the type of wilderness and solitude that the park was intended to provide.
Yosemite has some of the best backpacking and overnight backcountry camping opportunities in the world, and it’s actually relatively easy to take advantage of! All you have to do is get your hands on a Yosemite Wilderness Permit, and follow the Wilderness Regulations. A lot of resources make the permit process seem next to impossible, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s my a straight forward guide on how to backcountry camp in Yosemite National Park!
How to get Backcountry Camping Permits
All the information in this section is taken from the National Park Services site, and are subject to change. Please make sure to check for updated policies and more detailed information before planing your trip.
Wilderness permits are required year-round for backcountry camping in the Yosemite Wilderness. Permits are issued to a limited number of people based on the trailhead that you wish to start your trip. The permit system insures that these wilderness areas are not overcrowded and offer opportunities for solitude, as required by the Wilderness Act.
There are essentially two ways to secure a permit for your desired trail: 1) you can reserve permits ahead of time, or 2) you can get get permits on a first-come first-served basis no earlier than 11 am the day before your hike begins. Note that for each daily trailhead quota, 60 percent can be reserved ahead of time, while the remaining 40 percent are available to walk-ins.
My personal schedule is not very conducive to making commitments far in advance. Jobs pop up last minute, and I rarely know where in the world I’m going to be more than a few weeks before hand. As a result I’ve never gone through the traditional Wilderness Permit reservation process. Instead, I’ve always gotten permits the day of. Flexibility is key here! My first choice hasn’t always been available, but I have ALWAYS been able to get permits. Sometimes that means hiking a little further than expected, or going to a completely different area of the park than I planned. But I’ve never been disappointed! The staff at the Yosemite Wilderness Centers are incredibly knowledgable about the park, and as long as you are not dead set on a specific location, they can almost always point you in the right direction.
Follow These Steps To Get A Wilderness Permit
1. Decide where you will begin your overnight hike.
Once you know where you would like to camp, use the trailheads map to determine the name of the trailhead you’d like to start from. If you are going for first-come, first-served permits you may want to be ready with alternative trailheads that might work for your desired location.
2. Check if there are any reservations available for that trailhead.
Use the trailheads report to see which trailheads are available for specific dates.
3. Apply for a wilderness permit.
Wilderness permit reservations are processed by lottery 24 weeks (168 days) in advance of the hiking start date from mid-November through October. Popular trailheads generally fill up the day that permits become available, so if you have a very specific day and trail you are interested in, put a reminder in your calendar now!
4. If there are no permits available to reserve, consider a first-come, first-served permit.
Wilderness permits are available at any of the Yosemite National Park Wilderness Permit issuing stations on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 11 am the day before the intended hiking date. I have only used this last minute method for getting permits, and it has never been an issue! While the most popular trailheads may fill up, there always seems to be space available on other trailheads in the park. And there is no such thing as a bad trailhead in Yosemite!
Where To Camp In Yosemite National Park’s Wilderness
Once you have a wilderness permit you will have free rein over some of the most stunning backcountry wilderness you can imagine. Essentially the only thing holding you back from your dream camping spot, is the distance you can hike. As I previously mentioned, the trailhead quota system limits use based on where you begin your hike, and in some cases, on where you camp the first night of your trip. After that though, you can camp wherever you can hike to within the wilderness. It still blows my mind every time I think about the possibilities!
Because there are only a few designated campgrounds, you can camp anywhere you like, provided you follow all the regulations. Please always follow Leave No Trace Principles!
Essential Backcountry Camping Gear
The Osprey Exos 48 has been my go to backpacking pack for a few years now. Osprey recently came out with a women's model of this pack - The Eja. I have not had the chance to try it out, but I hear good things. The Exos and Eja have a sturdier frames than most lightweight packs, carry heavier loads comfortably, and are also a pretty good value for the quality of backpack. If you don’t mind a heavier pack in exchange for a little more support and a larger carrying capacity, then I’d highly recommend looking into the Gregory Zulu 55L.
For a more comprehensive gear list, check out my complete Hiking and Camping Gear Guide! In that guide you will find everything you need to get out into the mountains safely and comfortably. Please note that I do not buy new gear every year, so some of the gear you see photographed may be older versions of a product than is linked.
Favorite Backcountry Camping Spots in Yosemite
My happy place isn't really a specific physical location, but rather an idea, or perhaps an ideal intrinsic to all those places that remain wild and untamed. There is no better way to experience the full force of Mother Nature's power to heal and inspire than by throwing on a backpack and making her your home - even if for just one night. Here are a few backcountry camping spots in Yosemite that made me more than a little bit happy to wake up to!
Eagle Peak is the highest of the Three Brothers rock formation. The peak is located just east of El Capitan, and was described by John Muir has having the “most comprehensive of all the views” available from the north wall.
The most common way to reach Eagle Peak is by following the Upper Yosemite Falls and Eagle Peak trails. The hike is 6.0 miles (9.7 km) one way with a climb of over 3,500 feet (1,100 m). The trailhead is located at Camp 4 near Yosemite Village. It passes near Yosemite Falls and features beautiful views of the valley on the way up.
If you are unable to secure Wilderness Permits for the Upper Yosemite Falls trailhead, the peak can also be reached from the Tamarack Flat Campground located off the Tioga Pass Road. Another route starts at Yosemite Creek Campground.
Distance: 6.9 Miles / 11km
Elevation: 7,779ft / 2,371m
Difficulty: Difficult / Strenuous
Trailhead: Upper Yosemite Falls
Most commonly hiked one-way (downhill) from Glacier Point to Tunnel View, the Pohono Trail rewards hikers with stunning viewpoints of Yosemite Valley from the south rim. In order, these views include Taft Point, Dewey Point, Crocker Point, Stanford Point, and Inspiration Point. An optional 0.5 mile (0.8 km) side trail will take you to the summit of Sentinel Dome. When we did this hike we camped at Crocker Point. If you are short on time, can’t get Wilderness Permits for the Glacier Point Trailhead, or have already experienced Glacier Point and Taft Point, a good alternative is to start at the McGurk Meadow Trailhead.
Distance: 12.9 miles (20.8 km) one way
Elevation: 2,800 ft (850 m) elevation change
Trailhead: Glacier Point, McGerk Meadow, or Tunnel View
Logistics: During peak season parking is limited at both Glacier Point and Tunnel View. You may need to use some of the overflow parking areas near Glacier Point such as the Washburn Point or the Sentinel Dome parking lot. We parked at Tunnel View and then hitchhiked up to Glacier Point to begin our hike.
The most difficult part of this hike is simply finding it. The trail is not always super clear, and you might have to reroute a couple times along the way. But hopefully not! The best parking area for this hike is at a pullout on the side of Tioga Road just before you reach Olmsted Point. You will see a path to an abandoned rock quarry, walk past the gate and follow the path up and around the left of the quarry. From there you should be able to follow the trail towards Mt. Watkins. About 2 miles in you will turn left down hill. If you keep your eyes peeled you will see the occasional cross country ski route markers up in the trees. Eventually the forest will begin to thin out as the trail heads up to the Peak of Mount Watkins.
You continue on the trail through the thick forest until you start going up hill towards the peak of Mt. Watkins. Before too long you will see the top of Half Dome come into view. Continue uphill until you reach the edge of Mt. Watkins. Set up camp and enjoy expansive views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, North Dome and Basket Dome.
Distance: 3 miles (4.8 km) one way
Elevation: 500 ft (152 m) elevation change
Difficulty: Easy Moderate
Trailhead: Olmsted Point
Leave It Better Than You Found It
No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced. - David Attenborough
There is little question that social media plays a role in exposing various outdoor locations, and in some cases, this has led to significant resource and social impacts. That being said, I personally believe that without a connection to nature, people are much less likely to stand up for, and protect our world’s remaining natural spaces. For that reason, I have chosen to share some of my favorite backpacking locations in Yosemite National Park.
It is my deepest hope that by sharing these beautiful places, I can help engender a type of ownership and concern for our wild places. I believe that we all have the capacity to act as stewards for the environment now, and well into the future. Part of our responsibility as stewards is to always practice “Leave No Trace” principles. For more information please visit The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and I may earn a small commission on any purchase made - at no additional cost to you. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own. Thanks for your support! - XO Jess