Backpacking from Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley is one of the premiere multi-day hikes in the United States, and also one of the most sought-after for permits. Throughout the hike you get to walk among towering granite rocks, feel the mist of several of Yosemite’s majestic waterfalls swim in alpine lakes, and smell the fresh coniferous forest, all while mostly hiking downhill (if starting from the North).  While on the hike, you’ll get to experience multiple Yosemite bucket list locations including Clouds Rest,  Half Dome (from multiple angles), Vernal Falls, and Yosemite Falls (if you return to the backpacking campground).

Overview

 

  • Where: Yosemite National Park, California, USA
  • Starting Trailhead: Sunrise Lakes Trailhead | Google Maps
  • Distance: 21.5 miles point-to-point
  • Time Needed: 2-3 Days
  • Elevation Gain/Loss: 4,010 ft.
  • Maximum Elevation: 9,931 ft.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Route: Sunrise Lakes – Clouds Rest – Sunrise Creek Camp – Half Dome – Little Yosemite Valley – Yosemite Valley 
  • When to Hike: May – October
  • Permits Required: Yes
Backpacking Clouds Rest Sunset | Yosemite National Park

This trek also allows you to summit Half Dome “the easy way.”  Well…, not exactly the easy way, you still have to climb it haha,  but adding Half Dome to a multi-day Tenaya Canyon trek drastically reduces the intensity of reaching the top of Half Dome. Half Dome as a day hike is 16 miles and 4,800 feet of elevation gain.  However, if on the route we did backpacking from Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley, you could camp at Sunrise Creek 2 weeks and do a one day 5 mile, 1,400 feet elevation gain hike on one day of your multi-day trek (or many other customizations if that’s too short). 

This was my third attempt backpacking this epic route in Yosemite National Park. 

In 2018 wildfires canceled my trip to the park at the last minute. Then in 2019, my friend Charlie and I made it to Yosemite, but there was record snowfall which changed our plans. We ended up backpacking the Hetch Hetchy loop, which was similar to Yosemite Valley, except purposefully flooded, to supply San Francisco with water.  Hetch Hetchy turned into much more of an adventure than we anticipated because we got lost in unexpected massive snow drifts.  But if you’re interested in a more secluded, less traveled backpacking loop in Yosemite National Park, I recommend giving that trip report a read.

Golden Hour Light Yosemite National Park

Permits

The permit system for Yosemite National Park is a bit more complicated than standard for NPS permits due to the extreme popularity of many of several of the hikes within Yosemite. 

The major points to consider for Yosemite Permits are:

  1. Day Hiking Half Dome and Wilderness Backpacking are 2 different permits
    1. Although, you can combine Half Dome with a Wilderness Permit (like we did)
  2. Half Dome Day Hiking Permits open up for preseason lottery for the entire month of March before the hiking season.
  3. Lotteries for scoring wilderness permits open up 24 weeks before your anticipated start date. 

Our Experience with applying for permits

Our goal was to score permits to combine Half Dome with a backpacking trek through the canyon.    

Our ideal route was winning the lottery to hike from Cathedral Lakes to Little Yosemite Valley (the entirety of Yosemite/Tenaya Canyon) while throwing in Half Dome on the second to last day.  

We applied to the lottery 5 times. 

We lost 2 lotteries and were successful (ish) 3 times.  

2 of our winning lotteries weren’t exactly what we wanted. 

One was just day hiking Half Dome. The other was the route we wanted, Cathedral Lakes to Little Yosemite Valley, but from Monday to Friday, which was going to be a PTO killer and not ideal.  We purchased both permits in case we couldn’t get anything better. 

On the last attempt, we lucked out and scored permits from Sunrise Lakes to Little Yosemite Valley over Labor Day Weekend!   Sunrise Lakes is one trail entry point closer and shaves off about 10 miles from the overall trek.  The big win here though, was that we would be hiking over a 3-day weekend.  We canceled our other 2 permits, and they went back into the reservation system.

Cancled and unclaimed permits can be reserved on a first come first serve basis.  You can also use a service like Outdoor Status to get automated notifications when sold-out permits become available. If your dates are flexible, you never know when a popular permit could randomly open up

Hazy Morning light in Yosemite Valley

Transportation

Backpacking Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley is a point-to-point hike with different entry and exit points.  Therefore, if you don’t have 2 cars, you will need to use a taxi or bus service.

If driving, there is a parking lot at either end of Tenaya Lake, and roughly halfway along it.  There’s also some additional parking along the shoulders of the road.  The ideal parking spot is at the south end of the lake, closest to the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead.  

In Yosemite Valley, there are many more parking options, but you will need to make sure to camp in a designated overnight parking area near the backpacker’s campground. 

A few weeks ahead of the trip, we booked tickets on the Yosemite Tuolumne Meadows Hiker Bus. It picked us up in the Yosemite Village at 8 am and took about 2.5 hours to get to the Tenaya Lake Trailhead.

Another option is the YARTS 395/120 E Bus. Tenaya Lake is not an official stop on the route, but is possible by request.    

The last option is hitchhiking, which is fairly uncommon/popular in the US, but doable.  You might just be waiting a while for pickup.  

Day 0 – Flying into Fresno

We arrived in Fresno in the evening and got a hotel in the area before getting last-minute supplies (fuel + snacks) and heading out to the park in the morning. Whenever you’re in Fresno gearing up for some major hiking, some restaurants I highly recommend are Dog House (get the tri-tip steak sandwich) and House of Juju (in my personal top 5 burger list). I try to go to both every time I visit.

Day 1 – Picking up Permits in the Yosemite Valley

With our permits we couldn’t actually start backpacking until Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, so we had time to sleep in, grab some breakfast, and get our last-minute shopping in. 

We arrived at Yosemite National Park Saturday afternoon via Tunnel View and it was hazyyyyy and hot!   There had been a lot of wildfires and accompanying smoke in the area. And it seriously smelt like a campfire and BBQ outside.  

We picked up our permits and then headed to the backpacker’s campground.  The backpacker’s campground is available for one night the immediate day before and after your wilderness permits (not including Half Dome Day hiking permits), which is clutch since it’s about a 3-hour drive back to Fresno from the valley. It costs $8 per person in cash, which we didn’t realize upon arrival, but we luckily had to make it work.

Hazey Yosemite Valley

Day 2 – The Trek Begins from Tenaya Lake!

The hiker bus picked us up in the Yosemite Village at 8 am and took about 2.5 hours to get to the Tenaya Lake Trailhead. We finally started hiking at about 11 am. 

It was a very moderate and peaceful hike to start.  We made it to Sunrise Lakes in about an hour and a half and then stopped for lunch.  While shuffling some of my packing around, I accidentally left my stove behind… Luckily Ian had his and we made lunch. 

Sunrise Lakes looked like an awesome spot to camp,  but it was so close to our starting trailhead, and not on our timeline for this trip. Maybe next time from a Cathedral Lakes start!

Sunrise Lakes | Yosemite National Park
Sunrise Lakes | Yosemite National Park

When we picked up our permits, the park ranger told us that water was scarce and most creeks were dry. They recommended packing more water in than we usually did.  Many of the waterfalls in the park also had unusually low flow for this Labor Day Weekend. 

As we passed day hikers that had gone to Clouds Rest we asked them how the water situation was. They all confirmed there was one trickling stream that would be hard to fill up on.

Because of water concerns, we decided to cook our dehydrated meals ahead of time at lunch and eat them cold later on, just in case we never saw water again.  We took our time at Sunrise Lakes, enjoying a nice view with lunch followed by a chilly alpine swim.  

After lunch, we pushed on to Clouds Rest.  And it was intense, just like camping 😉

Backpacking from Tenaya Lake to Yosemite Valley

The 360 views from Clouds Rest were incredible.  Laffy Taffy Granite waves in every direction. 

We stayed at the top for about 2 hours, watching the sunset. 

Clouds Rest Sunset | Yosemite National Park
Backpacking Clouds Rest Sunset | Yosemite National Park
Half Dome Sunset
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As it darkened, we could see forest fires in the distance. 

Forest Fires | Yosemite National Park

We poorly judged the time it would take to descend down the switchbacks to our campsite and ended up hiking about half of it in the dark with headlamps.  Also, unfortunately, Molly sprained her ankle while hiking down.

Day 3 Part 1- Hiking Half Dome

Molly’s ankle got more swollen overnight, and unfortunately, she made the tough decision to skip out on Half Dome to not make her ankle worse. After all, we still had a big hike to get back to civilization without Half Dome. 

We didn’t find out until we got back several hours later due to no cell service, but while the rest of us were hiking to Half Dome, 2 small black bears came and wandered around our camp while Molly was in her tent.  We had all our food properly stored, and after a few minutes of sniffing around, they left.  Molly said it was a scary experience. 

We set off for Half Dome shortly after sunrise, around 6 am, to beat both the summer heat and the crowds. 

Transferring to our light daypacks filled with water and snacks for the Half Dome hike, we flew down the first part of the trail.  We got to the base of the initial Half Dome ascent about an hour later.

Morning Light at Sunrise Creek | Yosemite National Park

The stairs reminded me of the hike up to Mordor but with much prettier scenery and golden hour light shining down. 

The Stairs to Half Dome | Yosemite National Park
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We arrived at the cables portion of Half Dome around 7:30 am. The crowds were light and the weather was beautiful,  not too hot yet.  

We put our gloves on (BRING GLOVES) and began the ascent.  The cables can be slippery and hard to get a good grip on, even with no moisture in the air or precipitation.  There’s also a pile of leftover gloves people leave in case you forgot some, but you might be risking getting some nasty hand fungus, who knows how long those have been there and how many terrified sweaty hands they’ve touched. 

The cables section was not what I was expecting physically.  It was much more of an arm workout than a leg workout.  Because of the large spacing between the footholds, you pull yourself up the mountain with your arms rather than climbing steep steps.  I had to rest many times on the way up because my arms were burning out. 

The Half Dome Cables | Yosemite National Park

But eventually, we made it to the top and the views were incredible! 

We hugged it out and cracked open some breakfast celebratory beers.

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The hike down was lot easier than the way up, but also scarier in my opinion.  I flipped back and forth between my descent strategy depending on the steepness (going face first or in reverse (most people go in reverse the whole way).  It had also gotten much more crowded by the time we were descending, and so we did a lot of passing people on the way down, which was the worst part.  

Just take it slow!

Descending Half Dome | Yosemite National Park

Day 3 Part 2 – A change of plans 

When we got back from Half Dome to our campsite from the night before, the sky was orange and smelled like a potent campfire from the nearby forest fires.  We packed up camp and pushed on toward our last campsite in Little Yosemite Valley.

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The remainder of the hike from Half Dome back to the valley was almost entirely downhill.  This is why we chose to backpack from the northern part of the canyon down.  You shave a ton of elevation off of doing Half Dome as a day hike, and also mostly descend the backpacking trail once past Clouds Rest (and if you add on Half Dome). Backpacking the other way around would be brutal, and not enjoyable for the average backpacker in my opinion. 

By the time we got to the Little Yosemite Valley Campsite, Molly’s ankle was really hurting.  She wanted to finish up the hiking today and get it out of the way, rather than having it potentially swell up even more overnight like it did the night before.  We discussed splitting the group in 2 with Ian and Molly heading down a night early and Mike, Taylor, and I sticking with the original plan, but we did not want to split the group up.

So we pushed on.  It was all downhill back to the valley, so couldn’t be too bad, right?

The distance really took a toll on all of us. Our feet and knees were hurting. We weren’t originally planning on having a 14-mile day (including Half Dome no less).

Top of Nevada Falls | Yosemite National Park

As you approach Nevada Falls, there are 2 trails you can take to get back down to the valley, John Muir and the Mist Trail.  The Mist trail is more direct but is much steeper and can be slippery from the waterfall mist, which didn’t sound great for descending.  Taking the John Muir Trail instead adds an additional 1.5 miles, but is much more moderate.  

I felt this section of the John Muir Trail was one of the most scenic parts of our entire hike.  We were gifted with beautiful views of Half Dome and Nevada Falls from a side vantage point at Clark Point.

Clark Point Nevada Falls | Yosemite National Park
Clark Point | Yosemite National Park

Once at Clark Point, there’s again a trail divergence with 2 ways to get down to the Valley.  One way leads down to Vernal Falls but includes over 600 steep and uneven steps, whereas the other direction continues down the John Muir Trail with 10+ switchbacks.   Since Vernal Falls was reported to be a trickle, and Molly’s ankle was hurting, we continued down the John Muir Trail. The difference in distance between the 2 routes is about .5 miles. 

We eventually made it down and crushed some pizzas in the village. 

Summary

Hiking Tenaya Lakes to Little Yosemite Valley with the Half Dome Valley is one of the premier backpacking routes in the US National Parks.  By starting at the north end of the canyon, once passing Clouds Rest (and not including Half Dome), almost the whole trek is downhill through the beautiful Yosemite/Tenaya Canyon.  The permit lottery is very competitive, but once secured, there’s a lot of flexibility and customizations you can make to this route.  

With more time you may consider starting at Cathedral Lakes and camping there one night, and then Sunrise Lakes one night.  With even more time, you could add on Illiouette Falls via the Panorama Trail to your descent back down into the valley or as a side day trip. 

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