Backpacking Tuolumne Meadows to Amazing Young Lakes Yosemite

Epic High-Country Adventure: Here’s what happens when you go backpacking Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes Yosemite. 14.5 mi – 30 lb packs – 5 “Young at Hearts” (translated as: 23.3 km – 13. kg – 5 Oldsters.) We made it to over 10,000 feet / 3040 meters above sea level. See how we did it in the following photos:

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Recently, four friends and I hopped in an SUV and drove to Yosemite National Park to backpack in the High Sierras. I’d first heard about this Yosemite adventure from Jim and Helene Babbitt, who owned Babbitt Trading Company in downtown Flagstaff. Although it’s been over 20 years from the time when Helene revealed that this was her favorite hike, I’d been haunted by the desire to hike the High Sierras ever since.

But, unfortunately, a death in my family, unexpected over-the-top snow accumulation and later, COVID put a damper on four previously scheduled trips. When COVID canceled a 6-day backpacking trip for the second time, I told Dan, my husband, “Once we’re finally allowed on this Yosemite backpack trip, I’ll be too old to do it!”

So naturally, when Monika of Avenues of the World travel agency invited me on this 3-day Yosemite backpacking adventure, I accepted. Now I was finally off! Good thing UNSTOPPABLE Stacey doesn’t let age get in her way—I’m four years older than I was when I first drew Yosemite permits! And neither do my friends—Bob, Diane, Alida and Monika. Of the five of us, four are in their mid-sixties.

Where to begin: Backpacking Tuolumne Meadows

5 backpackers walk across white granite backpacking Tuolumne Meadows
Walking across glacially polished granite bedrock slabs at Tuolumne Meadows

We entered Yosemite National Park from the east. We drove US 395 to CA-120 near Lee Vining and turned west. We proceeded 20 miles to Tuolumne Meadows. We needed to show our reservations with our guides at the park gate since, due to COVID, reservations are necessary for Yosemite National Park entry.

Happily for us oldsters, the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service makes it easy and safe to explore Yosemite National Park backcountry. We signed up with them not only because they procured backcountry permits, but that they offered a guide and outfitting. We met Nick, our guide at Tuolumne Meadows and began our adventure from there. See the map below.

Close up of Tuolumne Meadows Area - We began at the Lembert Dome Picnic Area | NPS map

Yosemite Wilderness Permits

Yosemite Wilderness Permits are required for any overnight stay in the backcountry. Wilderness permits are not required for day hikes (except for hiking Half Dome.) Our Yosemite Mountaineering School guided trip included permits, so we didn’t have to hassle with the online reservation and quota system like we did for the much-coveted Havasu Falls hike.

Current Yosemite Wilderness Permit information.

Young Lakes Yosemite Trail Map

Nick points to our locations on Young Lakes Yosemite Trail Map – Note bear-proof canister in Diane’s backpack | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Did you notice the black bear canister in Diane’s pack in the photo above? All Yosemite backcountry hikers must have bear canisters for food storage. You can rent them at the Valley Wilderness Center and other wilderness centers. However, our outfitter provided the 9” x 12” bear cans. The others told me that Brown bears and grizzlies were in the high country, so I brought my bear bell. Once we talked to Nick, I was relieved to learn that the bears in Yosemite are black bears. So, I put my bell away as we were in the wilderness for peace, quiet and the sound of birds and the wind, not my clanging bell.

Shopping for a new backpack? New packs designed with better technology and the latest, lightweight materials are more comfortable. Check out my Buying Guide to the Best Hiking Backpacks for the latest and greatest!

Close up of Young Lakes Yosemite Trail Map

graphic of map that shows trails for Backpacking Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes Yosemite
Close up of Young Lakes Yosemite Trail Map | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Above is a detail of the Young Lakes Yosemite Trail Map that Nick used to orient us to the area’s geography. First, you can see the dark black line of CA-120, which we drove in on.  Next, look for the trail of red dots leaving north out of Tuolumne Meadows. As you can see, there are many red-dotted trails for backpacking Tuolumne Meadows.

Young Lakes is positioned in the upper-middle portion of the map. The three alpine lakes are connected to the road with red dotted lines that form a loop. Most people backpacking Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes go up the eastern side of the loop toward Dog Lake and return on the western track that meets with the trail to Glen Aulin. Since the east section of the loop is very steep, Nick chose to take us up the west side of the loop and then return down on the east side. Our 60-something bodies appreciated his thoughtfulness. This is a great tip for you, too! Next, we’ll look at the distance and profile map. 

Backpacking Tuolumne Meadows to Young Lakes Yosemite: 14.5 mi / 23.3 km RT

screen shot of hiking route from Monika's hiking app

Monika, the youngster in the group at fifty-something, charted our course on her phone. As long as you use a mapping app that does not need cell service, you can do it, too!

Young Lakes Yosemite Elevation

  • START: 8,584 feet / 2,616 m elevation at Tuolumne Meadows*
  • LOWER YOUNGS LAKE YOSEMITE ELEVATION: 9,880 feet / 3011 m*
  • HIGH POINT: 9,973 feet / 3,040 m at upper Young Lakes Yosemite*
  • YOUNGS LAKE YOSEMITE ELEVATION GAIN: 1,389 feet / 423.4 m*

*according to HighSierraTrails.com

Monika’s app showed that our highest Young Lakes Yosemite Elevation was 10, 361 feet / 3158 m.

Group of backpackers stand on far right of image as one points with hiking pole to horizon
Nick directs our attention to the various peaks and domes on the horizon | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Views of the Cathedral Range are part of the thrill of backpacking Tuolumne Meadows. We got an eyeful as we walked across glacially polished granite bedrock slabs.

Climbing out of Tuolumne Meadows

After backpacking Tuolumne Meadows, Monika enters the forest, skirting this glacial erratic | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

As we climbed out of the meadow, we entered a mixed conifer forest. So much white granite was something new for me, and I was amazed to learn that glaciers covered this area during the same time as ice covered Wisconsin and northern areas. Since I’d just been hiking the National Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, it was relatively easy for me to spot the glacial landforms at Yosemite. Such as the glacial erratic pictured above.

Close up of backpack with Camino patches worn by Stacey in shorts with other backpackers high on the hill straight up above showing steep backpacking Tuolumne Meadows exit
Climbing up out of Tuolumne Meadows | Photo by Monika Leuenberger

Although the western side of the trail loop was not as steep as the east, there was still a lot of uphill. Fortunately, our group had been training at elevation on trails around Flagstaff, Arizona, and the preparation had acclimated us. We surmounted 2,000 feet of elevation gain in eight miles.

Setting up camp at Young Lakes Yosemite

At Young Lakes Yosemite, Stacey stands in front of her petit gray and yellow TheNorthFace tent with her arm our beckoning you to take a look
Stacey asks, “Would you carry a 32-pound backpack 14.5 miles to stay in this tiny house?” She would!

Once we reached lower Young Lake, we looked for the best place to camp. I was surprised to see so many campers already set up around the beautiful alpine lake. Yes, we were all at least 100 feet / 30.5 meters of a body of water per Yosemite wilderness regulations. But since all have to procure permits to camp here, I thought there would be fewer people.

We set up our tents amongst the white granite boulders. “It looks like a bombing range out here,” said Alida. I sometimes had difficulty finding my one-person tent hidden by the giant rocks when I returned from “communing with nature.” My tent is a similar color and shape yet is smaller than some of the boulders.

Water filters recommended for Young Lakes Yosemite

Stacey sits on white granite rock while Alida stands on beach squeezing water through the filter into Stacey's Camelbak bladder
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey is helped by Alida in the water filtering process at Young Lakes Yosemite | Photo by Monika Leuenberger

I bought a new Sawyer water filter, especially for this trip. Dan and I had a water filter, but it was a bit heavy when you’re trying to reduce the weight you’ll be carrying. I ended up with 32 pounds including 3L water, food, tent, sleeping bag and pad.

Recommended Products

Sawyer Squeeze Filter + 3 pouches
Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter + 2 pouches

In bear country, keep food preparation away from sleeping areas

Best practices include setting up the camp kitchen away from tents | Photo by Monika Leuenberger

Nick showed us how to set up the food-prep area away from our tents. That would keep the smell of food away from sleeping areas. So we kept all our food and toothpaste in the bear canisters. The boulders functioned as tables, chairs and countertops.

Recommended Gear

My Favorite Swiss Arm Knife
Hiking Poles – Amazon will ship to your destination
PhoneHolder – I have one for each backpack
Sun goes down over lower Young Lake | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

Our first evening was beautiful as the smoke from the California fires cleared, and the setting sun illuminated the clouds.

Day Two: Young Lakes Yosemite National Park

view of calm water mirroring the white mountains - 4 trees are siloutted on the bank of lower young LAkes Yosemite Nat'l Park
Morning reflections at lower Young Lakes Yosemite

The following day lower Young Lake was even more beautiful with clear skies and no wind, so mystical reflections of the mountains were everywhere. We left our camps set up with anything that might entice black bears secured in the bear cans and left with lightened packs to explore the other two Young Lakes for the day.

Ragged Peak Youngs Lakes Yosemite | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

On Day Two we doned day packs, or in my case, my almost empty backpack and set out to explore the two upper Young Lakes Yosemite. 

A woman in a hat stands on huge white cliff with granite peaks behind her and a blue lake below
Alida makes her way to the middle Young Lakes Yosemite | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

We did not see a soul at either of the higher alpine lakes and enjoyed picnic lunches at upper Young Lake (below.) We’d read that the trail to upper Youngs Lake Yosemite was rough and difficult to follow. That could be true for people who do not spend a lot of time in the wilderness, but we had no problem. It was a splendid day spending time at 9,973 feet / 3,040 m.

close up of alpine tundra, two Indian Paintbrush orange flowers and a daisy with alpine lake behind
Upper Young Lakes Yosemite | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo
the man at the bottom of the picture looks very small compared to the expansive landscape of tall white mountains and a lake far below him
Bob looks over middle and first Youngs-Lakes-Yosemite | Photo by Monika Leuenberger
Hiking back down to middle Youngs Lakes Yosemite | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

We reached our campsite at lower Young Lake in time to take a swim and relax on a sandy shore. We enjoyed our freeze-dried dinners, after we rehydrated them with water from our Jetboils. After dodging some rain, then admiring the setting sun, we retired to our tents, dreaming about the upcoming day hiking back to Tuolumne Meadows.

Day Three: Leaving the Lakes and Backpacking Tuolumne Meadows

After repacking our backpacks, we headed back down the hill. At the junction of trails we headed east towards Dog Lake. The trail was as steep as promised and we had compassion for those struggling with heavy backpacks coming up the steeper side of the loop.

We feel fortunate that Nick had recommended going up the western side of the loop. And that the smoke had cleared for our day trip to upper Young Lakes Yosemite, for on Day Three, the smoke was back.

If You Go

Yosemite Mountaineering School | Aramark | Yosemite Hospitality

Yosemite National Park, CA 95389

Smoke could be seen while backpacking Tuolumne Meadows

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