The spectacle of Yosemite Valley and its massive, looming granite walls makes it easy to forget that there are four million acres of protected wilderness within Yosemite’s boundaries. Tackling the vast Yosemite wilderness means that backpackers can escape the crowds that gather along the park’s developed routes and immerse themselves in a backcountry experience sequestered from the throng of visitors who stay closer to their cars.
These developed areas of the park around Yosemite Valley and Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows essentially split the wilderness into northern and southeastern sections. Several access points open these wilderness areas to backpackers: Hetch Hetchy and White Wolf Campground in the north, Wawona Campground and Bridalveil Creek Campground in the south. For those who want to take on Yosemite’s backcountry in small bites, these are great places to start.
That said, the most strategic starting points are clustered along Tioga Road between the May Lake Trailhead and Lattery Creek. The Pacific Crest and John Muir trails intersect at Tuolumne Meadows, backcountry campgrounds are available at May Lake and Sunrise Lakes, and dispersed camping is an option on most trailheads past a few miles up-trail. More importantly, using these trailheads to begin your backpacking trips allows you to avoid costly and time consuming shuttles between departure and arrival points, and both sections of wilderness are accessible—as are the populous spectacles within the valley such as Half Dome. The best options for backpackers, without doubt, are the cluster of trailheads near Tenaya Lake: May Lake, Snow Creek, and Tenaya Lake, but we're including those that leave from Tuolumne Meadows as well. From here, your trip is only limited by the number of days available to you!
Strike out from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley via Vogelsang Camp and return to Tuolumne via the John Muir Trail and Cathedral Lakes. Optional add-ons: Half Dome, and a southern extension via Merced Lake, looping through the Clark Range to Half Dome via Illilouette Creek.
From Tenaya Lake or May Lake, loop through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River via Glen Aulin and White Wolf Campground.
This is a short loop with many possible extensions, including the Pacific Crest Trail to Wilma Lake via Benson Pass and a return south along Jack Main Canyon to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.