How To Backcountry Camp In Yosemite National Park

Camping in Yosemite

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 

Yosemite Half Dome

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! 

Jess Wandering 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 

Osprey Packs Exos 48L Backpack

Backpack

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.

Bear Resistant Food Canister

Proper food storage is mandatory in all areas of Yosemite. Hanging or guarding your food items is not allowed. The Bear Vault is one of the approved bear-resistant food canisters in Yosemite National Park, and it’s also a lot less bulky than the bear canisters they provide.

Tent

I purchased the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 Tent for this upcoming camping season. I’ve only had the opportunity to take it on a few backpacking trips so far - but I’m loving it! The Tiger Wall has two doors and two vestibules, double-wall construction, and a hassle-free pitch. For a completely freestanding option I own the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3. Ultra-light two person tents are pretty small, and there’s not a lot of room to spread out, so I like to take the 3 person tent on trips when I want extra storage, I’m not super comfortable snuggling with my tent partner, or I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the tent. The Tiger Wall also comes in a 3 person option!

Sleeping Bag

I run exceptionally cold in general, but especially when I sleep. Growing up I associated camping with cold sleepless nights. As a result, if there is one piece of gear that I'm more than willing to splurge on in exchange for comfort in the backcountry it's my sleeping bag. Warmth-to-weight ratio is hey here. My favorite sleeping bag right now is the Western Mountaineering Alpinelite. The Kelty Cosmic Sleeping Bag is a more budget friendly option that still has exceptional quality for the price point.

Sleeping Pad

I have two sleeping pads that I use interchangeably, The NEMO Equipment Inc. Tensor Insulated Sleeping Pad, and the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad. Comfortable and ultra-light, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLight is a mainstay in the backpacking. I've read complaints about the pad making noise when you move around on it, but I’ve never noticed. Like the NeoAir, the Tensor is a lightweight sleeping pad for minimalist backpacking. Both pads reliably hold air all night, and fold down into a compact size that easily fits inside my backpack. Plus, the insulation means extra protection against the cold ground, which we already know is a priority for me!

Stove

Jetboil Flash Stove - Small, durable, and fast. The Jetboil's all in one design makes it an easy choice for a convenient backcountry cook system. Jetboil's are designed to do exactly what the name promises: boil water quickly. The Jetboil MiniMo Stove is another very popular option if all you need to do is boil water for tea, coffee, and dehydrated meals. But I use my Jetboil to cook things like Top Ramen and Annie's Mac and Cheese, and the MiniMo isn't big enough for that.

Hydration

I’ve probably used every water filtration system out there at this point. And to be honest, I think they all have a time and a place. I’ve been using Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System on trips where I know there will be plenty of access to water, and I want to go super light weight. It was perfect for the Yosemite trip! That being said, I ALWAYS bring Purification Tablets with me as a backup. Doesn't matter if I'm on a day hike or a backpacking trip. Sure, they might make the water taste a little funny, but I think they are hands down the lightest weight, most reliable method of purifying water, and critical if your primary method breaks down.

Pillow

The camping pillow is a game changer for quality of sleep. I used to just ball up my extra layers inside my stuff sack and call it good. And that totally works. But this is way better! The NEMO Equipment Inc. Fillo Elite has pretty much everything I look for in a pillow (minus feathers) - it is soft and provides a nice amount of support. It packs down into its own internal stuff sack, and weighs next to nothing.

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.

Jess Wandering in Yosemite

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

Yosemite Camping & Jess Wandering

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 

Yosemite Falls

Pohono Trail 

Pohono Trail Yosemite & Jess Wandering

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

Difficulty: Moderate

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. 

Yosemite Pohono Trail & Jess Wandering

Mount Watkins 

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: Omsted Point 

Mount Watkins Yosemite

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

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