Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass provides a rugged yet rewarding stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, definitely worth experiencing for backpackers who enjoy great scenery and don’t mind a fairly committing route.
To shed a few pounds, many travel without tents. Be wary of mosquitoes and thundershowers, though. Bear cans are a necessity, hiking poles are strongly advised and fishing gear will improve meals and morale.
Food, camping and lodging are available in Tuolumne Meadows and Lee Vining near the southern trailhead. Nothing but the road and a parking lot awaits at the northern trailhead. Many finishing trips there meet a driver or hitchhike either west towards Sonora or east towards Bridgeport.
by Eric Vann
Matt Johanson is a high school journalism teacher and a freelance outdoor and travel writer. He is a lifelong outdoors enthusiast with more than 20 years’ experience in the Yosemite area and the author of Yosemite Epics: Tales of Adventure from America’s Greatest Playground. He lives in Castro Valley, California.
EV: How much weight do you carry when you backpack?
MJ: As little as possible. I don’t weigh it.
EV: What are your favorite pieces of gear?
MJ: My bivvy sack, trekking poles and camera. I don’t usually need a tent but I like to have a lightweight shelter for inclement weather, especially in winter. Poles reduce the wear on my knees from steep terrain and the camera produces pictures for my books and articles.
EV: What is your style of Backpacking?
MJ: I enjoy packing light to help me cover a lot of ground on short outings of two to three days. But I also enjoy reaching more remote areas and making a deeper connection with nature on longer trips.
EV: What make Yosemite so unique?
MJ: Yosemite offers the best and most easily accessed wilderness opportunities for hikers, climbers and skiers of anywhere that I’ve been. Incomparable granite walls, abundant day trips and endless possibilities for backcountry travel in summer and winter make it hard to beat.
Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs, and Winter Treks by Matt Johanson (reprinted with permission of Triumph Books).
Chapter 29: Pacific Crest Trail: Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass (pp. 144-155)
Distance: 75 miles
Time: 6 to 8 days
Difficulty: very strenuous
Parking: beside Tioga Pass Road near Lembert Dome (no overnight parking in Lembert Dome lot)
Trailhead: Lembert Dome, elevation 8,600 feet
Highest point: elevation 10,759 feet
Best season: June to September
Permits: required for overnight travel; visit Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center
This rugged section of the Pacific Crest Trail climbs, drops, climbs more, drops more, climbs even more, and drops even more from Yosemite to the Emigrant Wilderness. It’s a physically demanding, high-elevation hike and not for beginners. But for those ready for it, the trek delivers solitude and access to rarely-seen peaks and seldom-visited lakes.
Hiking the hike
Backpackers can travel this point-to-point trek hiking either north or south. This guide recommends hiking north from Tuolumne Meadows to start at lower elevation and on less-demanding terrain. Those who begin at Sonora Pass not only start their hike at 9,623 feet but must immediately climb to the hike’s highest point at 10,759 feet with full packs, many of the hikers coming from sea level with no altitude acclimation! Instead, start in
Yosemite, where the trailhead is a thousand feet lower, and break into the hike with a few fairly mild days.
Before leaving, though, give a thought to transportation. If you drive to Yosemite, how do you get back to your vehicle from Sonora Pass? Or if you leave a car at Sonora Pass, how do you get to Yosemite? Public transportation offers no solution to this problem. Most hikers shuttle vehicles with the help of friends or family.
Park beside the highway near Lembert Dome, or beside the dirt road leading toward the stables (in the Lembert Dome lot, no overnight parking is permitted). Your hike follows the dirt road to a gate and continues past it toward Soda Springs. Pause here to try the naturally carbonated water bubbling from the ground. Soon your route approaches and then parallels the Tuolumne River. After a climb, the trail descends into a wooded area. Shortly after crossing a footbridge, you’ll see Tuolumne Falls and later White Cascade. Descend toward a bridge over the Tuolumne. Across is the popular Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, where most passersby stay a night.
Continue north into Cold Canyon. The trail will climb steadily until dropping into Virginia Canyon. There are worthy campsites along McCabe Creek and Return Creek. But if you can, climb the switchbacks out of the canyon and push on another 3 miles to Miller Lake. This will position you to reach coveted Benson Lake on the next day.
From Miller Lake, descend into Matterhorn Canyon and cross its creek as the trail turns southwest. Then climb out of the canyon and over Benson Pass on your way to Smedberg Lake. This is a great place to stop for lunch, swim, and fish.
The next segment passes a spur trail to Benson Lake. Though it’s a detour from the Pacific Crest Trail, you really shouldn’t miss it (see page 156).
From the Benson Lake detour to Seavey Pass, hikers gain 1,600 feet in less than 3 miles. Take your time and enjoy the ponds and small lakes along the way. Then your path descends and turns west into Kerrick Canyon. About 3 miles down canyon, turn north and cross the creek, which can be challenging in the early season. Now begins the next climb and descent into Stubblefield Canyon. After that, take a break and decide if you’re up for another few miles and few thousand feet of up and down. If not, camp here near the creek. If you can make another push, though, climb over Macomb Ridge and push on toward Wilma Lake. A shady and pleasant walk leads to this lake where a ranger cabin stands.
Turning north, the Pacific Crest Trail leads past Chittenden, Kendrick, Keyes, and Bigelow peaks while passing through Grace Meadow, climbing gradually toward Dorothy Lake. After the steeper climbs you accomplished earlier, this one will feel pleasantly mild. Dorothy Lake offers tree-sheltered campsites and you don’t have to be an expert to catch a fish here.
After climbing to Dorothy Lake Pass, hikers depart Yosemite and enter the Toiyabe National Forest. Passing Stella and Bonnie lakes, descend to Lake Harriet and continue north. Just past two ponds is a junction; turn northwest to stay on the Pacific Crest Trail and head toward the West Fork West Walker River. You will pass Lower Long Lake on your way to Walker Meadows. Now you’re close to civilization again and may start to see some day hikers.
Soon your path turns west through rocky Kennedy Canyon. Even early in the day, consider camping here because few appealing options and precious little water are found between here and Sonora Pass. But hikers making an early start after spending a night here can reach their trek’s end in a day. Make sure to fill water bottles before leaving.
Start by climbing westward to the saddle above Kennedy Canyon. Then your path turns north and becomes a jeep road that zig-zags up long switchbacks to a high ridge well above the tree line. After gaining the ridge, the jeep road drops down to Leavitt Lake but the Pacific Crest Trail turns northwest and traverses a volcanic ridge. You’re now in the Emigrant Wilderness of the Stanislaus National Forest. Eventually snow and snowmelt may give you a chance to refill your water bottles. When the trail passes beneath Leavitt Peak, you have the option to scramble up its rocky slopes to a 11,569-foot summit. The 800-foot climb is a worthy detour on the right day.
Continuing north past Latopie Lake, be wary of steep and possibly icy snowfields, especially early in the day and season, between here and the road. Your final miles twist and turn as you descend more than a thousand feet past whitebark pines and seasonal wildflowers before reaching Sonora Pass.
Take a fishing license and pole. There are many good fishing opportunities and fresh trout will taste better than freeze-dried backpacking fare after a few days.
Consider carrying crampons and ice axes in the early season to safely cross snowfields in the Emigrant Wilderness.
Distances and details
Start: Lembert Dome
0.5 miles: Soda Springs
4.8 miles: Tuolumne Falls
5.5 miles: Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp
17 miles: Miller Lake
23.8 miles: Benson Pass
25.7 miles: Smedberg Lake
29.9 miles: Junction with trail to Benson Lake
32.6 miles: Seavey Pass
44.4 miles: Wilma Lake
53.9 miles: Dorothy Lake
54.9 miles: Dorothy Lake Pass
60.4 miles: West Fork West Walker River bridge
63.9 miles: Kennedy Canyon
67 miles: Junction with trail to Leavitt Lake (turn left)
75 miles: Sonora Pass