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It had been nearly eight years since I last visited Yosemite National Park. I was introduced to the park a couple of years after moving to the Bay Area by romantic partners and friends. It was during those visits that I fell in love with the expansive scenery, craggy peaks, clear alpine air, and typical bright-colored granite slabs.
With the busy summer season and the pandemic behind us, I wanted to leave the confinement of the Bay Area. I longed for a change of scenery and distraction from my daily woes, hoping to clear my mind by taking it out of the current environment. Browsing around Recreation.gov on a Tuesday, I found a last-minute permit for backpacking to Young Lakes for the following weekend.
Going back and forth on whether I wanted to go through the hassle of cobbling all my backpacking gear together and taking on the four-hour drive or just staying near the television and couch, I eventually committed.
I left Friday night, with most of the commute traffic subsided, and made it halfway, staying the night at a motel in Oakdale. I arrived at the park early on Saturday, slightly sleep-deprived but excited to be there. At 8am, I was surprised to find the ticket booths at the Big Oak Flat entrance unattended. I proceeded along Tioga Pass Road to Tuolumne Meadows, where I picked up my wilderness permit at the Wilderness Center around 9am.
The process included a free lecture by one of the rangers on how to properly use the bear canister I rented, where and how to pick a good campsite and how to handle trash produced along the way. “C’mon,” I thought, “can we move this along? This isn’t my first backpacking trip.” But silent I kept, nodding and approving of the ranger’s need to instruct even the dumbest visitor to the park. As much as I was slightly irritated by the interaction, considering how much parks were overrun by visitors during the pandemic, rangers likely had come across hikers with a wide array of wilderness knowledge and regard for rules and regulations.
I headed northwest from the Lambert Dome picnic area, puttering along the flat and wide trail through the meadow. After a short section on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I reached Soda Springs, a sight featuring a series of mineral springs and a log cabin built around 1889. I didn’t linger long, for there was ground and elevation to cover. I was heading north on the Young Lakes Trail, making my way through a pine forest with only a few opportunities to get a more expansive view of the surrounding areas. Given it was late in the season, Dingley Creek was a modest and tame stream at best, and that single water crossing didn’t pose any difficulty.
I had been to this park many times, yet I always only seem to remember the majestic views but conveniently forget about the side effects of the altitude. Tuolumne Meadows registers at 8,700 feet, while the series of lakes I was heading towards is located at 9,800 feet. Given that, fatigue started to settle in before the piercing headache, and I had to adopt a slow pace to avoid exerting myself.
An extended lunch break helped me regain energy before reaching the junction with Dog Lake Trail in the early afternoon. A sign revealed that only 1.5 miles were left to Lower Young Lake – a distance that seemed almost insurmountable given how much the altitude affected me. I let the group of male backpackers who had arrived at the junction after me go ahead while I adopted a snail’s pace behind them. “One…two…three…four”, I counted myself into a rhythm and regularity of steps that usually helps me in situations where the going gets tough.
Another sign eventually revealed the proximity of the first lake. I wanted to at least make it to the middle one – trip reports were adamant that the middle and upper lake offered the best camping spots. My body had the last say in the discussion and convinced the rest of the gang to quickly find a site close to Middle Young Lake, set up camp, and prepare dinner.
Something about a body of water always had a particular effect on me. As a kid, I loved to hang out at the public pools in Vienna during the summer break, and my mom and relatives infamously had to coerce me to get out of the water before the pool would close for the evening. Later, I found that lakes, in particular, had a calming effect on me. Just sitting on the water’s edge, staring out into the distance, and listening to the sounds of gentle waves washing onshore.
The setting of the three Young Lakes contributes to their specialness. They are encased to the south by a crescent moon-shaped granite ridge, dominated by Ragged Peak in the southwest. Their waters were crystal clear and, as much as I would have loved to take a swim, bitterly cold. Following a reasonably good night’s sleep, I scrambled (without a pack) up to the easternmost Upper Young Lake, allegedly the most beautiful of the three. I spent most of the morning simply enjoying the environment’s peacefulness, the close-to-perfect weather with sunshine abound, no cloud in the sky, and temperatures warming up to the low sixties. I dipped my legs into the cold liquid until the icy sensation started to hurt, yet it felt so refreshing.
Keeping in mind that I had a four-hour drive in front of me to get back to the Bay Area, I broke down camp late morning, packed my things, and headed towards the trail junction. In order to complete the loop, I opted to head back to Tuolomne Meadows via the Dog Lake Trail. For most of the distance, it again routes through pine forest, with a few clearings in between giving way to views of the Cathedral Range to the south.
Hiker traffic picked up as I approached the trail turnoff for Dog Lake, which I skipped for timing reasons. The trail now navigated through a rocky ravine before eventually leveling off and spitting me right out by Lambert Dome, with a handful of cars and camper vans left in the parking lot late afternoon. All that was left was returning the bear canister before the wilderness center closed for the day, returning to the car, and closing out yet another trip to Yosemite – where nature tires you out and recharges you simultaneously.
The Young Lakes Trail Loop is one of many backpacking trip options in Yosemite National Park. I was interested in camping at alpine lakes, something of moderate intensity and doable over a weekend.
I ended up navigating via the AllTrails app, which offers offline mode. While it is fairly obvious where the trail routes most of the time, the app helped to keep me on the proper track those one or two times when the direction of the trail was not clear.
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 both from the creeks found along the way or when arriving at the lakes. 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
- Modern Hiker: Young Lakes. Detailed guide for doing the hike in the opposite (counter-clockwise) direction.