My family has been camping and hiking in Tuolumne Meadows, in the Yosemite high country, for nearly 100 years since the 1910s. Tuolumne Meadows is where the less-touristy, more rugged natural environments can be found in Yosemite National Park. There are several day hikes in Tuolumne Meadows that are worthwhile regardless of your hiking or climbing experience. The following guide to the top five day hikes in Tuolumne Meadows will help you plan your next trip to Yosemite’s high country.
Tuolumne Meadows Day Hike #5: May Lake
Although not in Tuolumne Meadows proper, the trail head for May Lake can be found just a few miles along Tioga Pass, towards Yosemite Valley from Tuolumne Meadows. The hike to May Lake from Tioga Pass is only 1.2 miles and can usually be completed in under an hour and a half, depending on your hiking speed and how often you stop along the way. May Lake is located at the base of Mount Hoffman, at an elevation of 9,270 feet. At May Lake you can find some open campsites along with a High Sierra Camp for backpackers, hikers, and campers. But in addition to being a camping destination, May Lake is an excellent destination for a day hike because it offers extremely beautiful scenery, including the calm and peaceful May Lake itself and the towering Mount Hoffman adjacent to the lake. The lake is surrounded by granite platforms that make a good place to sit for a picnic lunch or to fish for trout. While the trout are not large in May Lake, I have always been successful at catching some trout when I have fished from the large granite boulders a quarter of the way around the lake from the High Sierra Camp. The hike to May Lake itself is uphill but gradual and not very strenuous. This makes the May Lake day hike perfect for those who desire an extremely light uphill hike for health reasons or because they are hiking with smaller children.
Tuolume Meadows Day Hike #4: Cathedral Lakes
The trail head to the Cathedral Lakes begins is located within Tuolumne Meadows, about a half-mile from the Tuolumne Meadows campground along Tioga Pass. The Upper Cathedral Lake and the Lower Cathedral Lake are located near the base of Cathedral Peak, the towering cathedral-shaped peak overlooking Tuolumne Meadows in the Cathedral Range. The hike to the Cathedral Lakes is about seven miles round-trip, and the hike is quite a bit more strenuous than the shorter hike to May Lake. Because the hike to Cathedral Lakes is longer and more strenuous, you can expect less foot traffic and fewer hikers to cross your pass during a day excursion to the Cathedral Lakes. This makes the Cathedral Lakes a perfect destination for a secluded or romantic picnic lunch away from the hustle and bustle of the Tuolumne Meadows campground along Tioga Pass. Cathedral Peak is also grander and more picturesque than Mount Hoffman overlooking May Lake. Although you need climbing gear and mountaineering experience to ascend to the summit of Cathedral Peak, you can hike a fair amount of the way up Cathedral Peak itself if you are still inclined to continue your hike upon reaching the Cathedral Lakes. Although the fishing is not spectacular in either of the Cathedral Lakes, I still bring my fishing pole with me when I hike to the Cathedral Lakes, just in case I am in the mood for a relaxing afternoon of fishing and in case I am feeling lucky. In any case, whether you hike to the Cathedral Lakes for the fishing or for a romantic picnic lunch, Cathedral Lakes is worthy enough of a day hike to make my top five list of day hikes in Tuolumne Meadows.
Tuolumne Meadows Day Hike #3: Elizabeth Lake and Unicorn Peak
Elizabeth Lake is located at the base of Unicorn Peak, located about two and a half miles from the Tuolumne Meadows campground. The trail head for the trail to Elizabeth Lake is located within the Tuolumne Meadows campground itself. The hike to Elizabeth Lake is less strenuous than the hike to the Cathedral Lakes but more strenuous than the hike to May Lake. Elizabeth Lake is a charming and placid lake that is also perfect for a picnic lunch or fishing for small trout. If you are looking for a peak to ascend for a day hike, Unicorn Peak presents you with a picturesque view of Tuolumne Meadows and other peaks in the Cathedral range, including the Cockscomb, Cathedral Peak, and so on. As the name indicates, Unicorn Peak consists of two separate peaks that are connected by a land bridge called the “saddle.” You can hike either up the saddle or up the canyon to the left of the “rump” or left-hand peak of of Unicorn. In either case, the hike eventually turns into a hand scramble up a pile of large granite boulders. Although this can be intimidating, if you are careful and watch your footing then you should have no trouble making it to the summit. Once you reach the summit, you can freely walk from one peak to the other, even looking out over the “head” or right-hand side of Unicorn Peak. It is a little known fact that quartz crystals can be found around Unicorn Peak, but please be responsible and leave them where you find them for future generations. The hike to Elizabeth Lake, up and down Unicorn Peak, and back to the Tuolumne Meadows campground will take a good portion of your day, so plan ahead and bring plenty of water and high-protein food for your hike. Although the hike to Elizabeth Lake and up Unicorn Peak is an all-day affair, the hike is well worth it for the beautiful view of the meadows and the rare glimpse of the other peaks in the Cathedral Range.
Tuolumne Meadows Day Hike #2: Lembert Dome
No trip to Tuolumne Meadows would be complete without a hike up Lembert Dome. Lembert Dome is the asymmetrical dome rising straight up out of the meadows themselves at the eastern end of the meadows. The hike up Lembert Dame can usually be completed in less than an hour, and it is an excellent way to get acclimated to the higher altitude and thinner air of Yosemite’s high country. I often use a hike up Lembert Dome as a warm-up hike before I tackle even greater hikes later in a trip to the meadows. The hike up Lembert Dome traditionally proceeds up the back side of the dome, which rises much more gradually than the sheer granite face of the dome. The Tuolumne Meadows mountaineering school offers repelling lessons down the face of Lembert Dome, and climbers who are more comfortable with ascending up steeper slopes will often take a more direct route to the summit than the easier hike up the back side of the dome. Lembert Dome is not a hike to get away from it all, but instead it is a hike to enjoy the splendor of Tuolumne Meadows up close and in the company of others who also love the meadows. You can sit high atop Lembert Dome, eating lunch and talking with other hikers who have likely been coming to Tuolumne Meadows for many years and have many stories to tell and much to teach you about their precious meadows. Bask in the towering peaks rising surrounding the meadows and prepare yourself for the bigger and grander hikes yet to come.
Tuolumne Meadows Day Hike #1: Mount Dana
The hike to the summit of Mount Dana is, by far, my favorite hike in Tuolumne Meadows. The hike up Mount Dana is not for the faint of heart, but it is still gentle enough for a beginning hiker who desires to hike to the summit of a real mountain. The trail head for the Mount Dana hike can be found next to the entrance booth along Tioga Pass at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. The trail head is located at an elevation just under 10,000 feet, and the summit of Mount Dana is at an elevation of 13,053 feet. The high jump in elevation means that the hike up Mount Dana is essentially a giant stair climb, rising from the tree-rimmed Dana Meadows, above the tree line, ending up at the summit of the second-tallest peak in Yosemite National Park. The Dana Plateau is located about a halfway up Mount Dana and is the perfect place to catch your breath, take a bite to eat, appreciate the view of Dana Meadows below, and appreciate how far you have come and how much higher you have yet to hike up to the summit. The hike from the Dana Plateau to the summit will test your leg muscles more than you imagine, and the hike is seemingly endless as you approach the summit and the air gets progressively thinner. But the difficulty and strenuousness of the hike is richly rewarded by the breathtaking views of Mono Lake to the east, and the rest of Yosemite to the West, from the summit of Mount Dana. As long as you have left early enough to arrive at the summit in time to stay a while and take in the view, you should plan to spend an hour or two just taking in the view and appreciating what you have just accomplished. You have climbed the second tallest peak in Yosemite, and you are, not quite literally but figuratively, on top of the world. There will likely be another hiker, or two or three, also climbing Mount Dana on any given day, and you will inevitably make a new friend or two while you share the glory and richness of God’s creation all around you. When you do finally begin the trip back down from Mount Dana, proceed carefully because hiking downhill is generally more dangerous and more stressful on your legs and knees than hiking uphill. I always bring at least a gallon of water with me when hiking up Mount Dana; although I seldom need quite that much, you do not want to be left without water at the top of a mountain at high altitude. Of all the hikes in Tuolumne Meadows, the Mount Dana hike is my absolute favorite. I have made three successful ascents up Mount Dana, and one unsuccessful attempt that was the victim of forgotten sunscreen and my wife’s blistering sunburn. If you do decide to ascend Mount Dana, bring water, food, sunscreen, and have proper footwear and layers of clothing that you can add or remove. The air can be cold at the top of Mount Dana, and you can get a sunburn very easily. Be smart, and respect the mountain and the rugged environment you are invading, and you will have a successful hike to Mount Dana. Words simply cannot express the majesty of the views of Mono Lake and of the splendor of Yosemite from the summit of Mount Dana.