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I was more stumbling than taking controlled steps. It had been about thirty minutes ago when I left the PCT/JMT along Lyell Canyon, took a right at a Y junction in the trail, and made my way uphill on Ireland Lake Trail. The open views from the meadow canyon below had disappeared. I was now inching up on a well-maintained trail through a pine forest, beams of autumn sunlight piercing the foliage. I stopped briefly to tie the shoelaces of my hiking boots, resting my backpack stuffed with gear for an overnight in the backcountry on a nearby boulder.
As I straightened out my body, raising my torso from the crouched position, I felt a stinging pain, first in my temples, then seemingly all across my head. The byproduct of coming straight from sea level to over 9,000 feet. The high point at 10,500 feet, at this point, felt lightyears away. I knew I would get there. Eventually.
I arrived at Tuolumne Wilderness Center right at 8 a.m., opening time. The brisk morning temperatures in the low 40s surprised me, forcing me to put my down jacket on already. From the Dog Lake Trailhead parking lot, I made my way up Lyell Canyon on a section that is part of the John Muir and the Pacific Crest Trail (JMT/PCT). Lyell Canyon is a sub-alpine meadow following the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The highlights of the first few miles are a couple of river crossings and sturdy bridges, most notably Twin Bridges, only about one mile into the hike.
Conditions were ideal for an autumn hike in the Yosemite backcountry: Sunny, with an oh-so-thin cloud layer preventing the sun from exerting its reduced power in early October. I puttered along Lyell Canyon for just over seven miles, taking in the views of the surrounding ridges and Donahue Peak in the distance to the south. The calming sound of the flowing river was never too far away, beckoning the weary hiker to dip their feet into the cold stream.
Eventually, I left Lyell Canyon and headed uphill on Ireland Lake Trail. I started to feel the effects of the altitude, my steps not as confident as only a little while ago. I took breaks to catch my breath every 100 to 200 feet of elevation gain. It took me over two hours to reach the ridge line and high point at just over 10,500 feet, with sweeping views towards the Cathedral Range to the east.
The three-mile roundtrip side excursion to Ireland Lake had been a stretch to begin with. I was too exhausted, and it was already too late in the day for it. I continued west on Evelyn Lake Trail, passing a smaller lake to the south before entering a vast open meadow and spotting Evelyn Lake to my left, nestled in a small basin. The lake’s waters were crystal clear and bitterly cold. Little foam clusters had formed on the eastern shore of the lake, caused by constant agitation from the wind, brushing across the open meadow.
I pitched my tent behind a small group of trees, hoping they would provide some protection should the wind pick up at night. Which it did, of course. For most of the night, the tent fly flapped violently, and the tent shook noticeably with every 30 to 40 mph wind gust, hitting the open meadow periodically. As soon as the sun had set, temperatures had plummeted to just above freezing. I had to wear almost all the clothing layers I brought to stay comfortably warm.
After a night with little sleep, I emerged from my tent shortly after dawn, desperately waiting for the sun to come up behind the ridge and provide warmth. Eventually, the sun appeared, painting the eastern faces of the surrounding peaks in yellow hues. I took my sweet time and went through my morning routine, preparing breakfast, breaking down camp, and spending a few calm minutes by the lake shore.
I continued west on the trail, knowing that the second day would mostly be downhill to complete the loop back to Tuolumne Meadows. It took me less than an hour to reach the site of Vogelsang High Sierra Camp (currently not in operation) and the adjacent Vogelsang Backpacker Camp. I chatted briefly with one member of a six-man backpacking group, themselves on a more extended backpacking trip, taking them from Tuolumne Meadows all the way to Yosemite Valley via Clouds Rest.
The thin cloud layer from the previous day had disappeared entirely, and the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky. Rafferty Creek Trail took me north to Tuolumne Pass. From that point, it was a steady downhill back to the meadows, passing a handful of smaller lakes on the way, fed by the heavy snowmelt earlier in the year. A short four hours after I had left my campsite at Evelyn Lake, I was back at the parking lot with hurting feet but filled with awe from another trip to the Yosemite backcountry.
I did most of my research for this loop using the AllTrails app, which included some points of interest along the route and also offers offline mode for navigation on the trail. While out on the trip itself, I used Gaia GPS for navigation, even though the trail is very well marked and easy to follow.
In hindsight, doing this loop in the opposite (counter-clockwise) direction might be a bit more enjoyable. The climb from Tuolumne Meadows to Vogelsang High Sierra Camp on day 1 is a bit gentler and the views a bit more stunning than coming up from Lyell Canyon.
Start and end of this hike is in Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The western park entrance at Big Oak Flat can be reached in three to four hours by car from San Francisco, depending on traffic.
From the entrance, it takes roughly an additional one hour fifteen minutes to get to Tuolume Meadows.
Any food needed for the trip needs to brought in. Water can be scooped from Tuolomne River, Ireland Creek or one of the lakes along the way. Water from any source should be treated before consumption via, for example, water filters or boiling.
Your standard gear list for backpacking will suffice here, adapted based on the season and current weather conditions. REI has a great Backpacking Checklist (also downloadable as a PDF), as well as an instructional video.
Maps and Trail Info
- Yosemite National Park Maps. Digital park maps with points of interest that can help with trip planning.
- Wilderness Trailheads (PDF). Map listing all wilderness trailheads in the park.
- Tuolumne Meadows Backpacking Trails
- Wilderness Permits. Permit reservation and process.
- Recreation.gov – Yosemite National Park Wilderness Permits
- Current Conditions. Info on road status (open/closed), fire and smoke, campground status, and general trails and wilderness conditions.
- Yosemite Weather Forecast Map. Map linking out to forecasts from the National Weather Service.
- Fire and Smoke Map
- Backcountry Emily: Yosemite’s High Country: A Night at Evelyn Lake. Trip report and extensive details on doing this loop counter-clockwise.
- Weekend Sherpa: Yosemite Magic Trick. Detailed guide on the same itinerary with an extension to Emeric Lake.