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Try Tuolumne
for crowd-beating Yosemite day hikes

Yosemite Valley visitors know that the park has a popularity problem, especially in summer when traffic and crowding hit their peak. But informed aficionados know that the park has abundant rewarding outings outside the valley that most visitors never see. 

For instance, summer and fall are excellent times to visit Tuolumne Meadows. Not only is this high country far less populated than the valley, it’s generally 10 degrees cooler on hot days. Here are a few suggested outings for those new to the area. 

Breathtaking May Lake stands just a mile away from its trailhead off Tioga Road.
May Lake

May Lake casts a gorgeous reflection of the surrounding mountains and you can see it by hiking just a mile each day. Be aware, though, that May Lake and all outings described in this article are at around 8,000 feet of elevation or more; just-arrived lowlanders should proceed cautiously. 

From Tioga Road, take the May Lake turnoff about 2.2 miles east of Olmsted Point. Drive north on the rough but paved road 1.7 miles to a parking area. 

Take the trail leading north for about a mile, gaining 500 feet, to May Lake at 9,329 feet of elevation. In summer, a High Sierra camp operates here. 

If you’re fit and ambitious, Mount Hoffmann beckons. A use trail leads to the summit of this 10,850-foot summit. From May Lake, it’s another five miles of hiking (each way), gaining 1,500 feet of elevation. 

Lembert Dome casts a reflection in Tuolumne River.
Lembert Dome

Lembert Dome looks like a big mountain and feels like one from its summit, but requires just a fairly short and gentle trek to stand atop it. This sloped peak gets its name from hermit John Lembert, the first white settler in Tuolumne Meadows, who claimed 160 acres and built a log cabin there in 1885.

From Tioga Road, turn south onto Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Road and park in the Dog Lake trailhead lot. Hike north, cross Tioga Road and join the trail that climbs switchbacks up Lembert’s southeastern slope.

You’ll quickly climb above the lodgepoles to the shoulder of the mountain’s eastern side. Leave the dirt trail to climb a westbound use path up the granite slope. Glorious views of Tuolumne Meadows get better with every step as you traverse the mountain’s rocky spine. Cathedral Peak, Mount Conness, Mount Lyell and Tuolumne River are a few highlights.

This 2.2 mile round trip hike gains about 500 feet and takes about two hours. 

Elizabeth Lake

This lake is pretty as its name and would attract thousands of visitors if it wasn’t in Yosemite where excellent scenery abounds. As a short day hike with minimal elevation gain, it’s an excellent choice for those looking to acclimate to the altitude and get acquainted with the area. A member of the U.S. Geological Survey named the lake in 1909 for the daughter of a Sacramento doctor. 

Hike through Tuolumne Meadows Campground to the restrooms on B loop. Our trail leads south through a lush forest to a glacier-carved lake. For a better view of the northern mountains, scramble any distance up the neighboring Unicorn Peak. 

This five-mile round trip hike gains about 800 feet, mostly in the first mile. A use path that surrounds the lake is worth a lap and adds about a mile. Most people take two or three hours to make the trip and return. 

White Cascade highlights a hike to Glen Aulin.
Tuolumne Falls, White Cascade and Glen Aulin

Those who know only Yosemite Valley’s scenic waterfalls miss out on many watery wonders elsewhere in the park, including the high country. For instance, Tuolumne Meadows hikers can trek to Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade, both near Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp.

Park beside the highway near Lembert Dome or beside the dirt road leading towards the stables. Our hike follows the dirt road to a gate and continues past it towards Soda Springs. Pause here to try the naturally carbonated water bubbling from the ground. 

Soon our route approaches and then parallels 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, which flows into a pool perfect for swimming on hot days. 

Many visitors spend a night at nearby Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Its name is Gaelic for “beautiful valley.” If you’re looking for an introductory overnight trip, this is a great choice, with convenient toilets and bear-proof food lockers.  

This hike totals 11 miles round trip to Glen Aulin and slightly less for those who turn around at Tuolumne Falls or White Cascade, with around 500 feet of elevation gain, taking most folks from six to eight hours. 

Notes of note

Tuolumne Meadows has an average elevation of around 8,000 feet. So those coming from sea level should take time to acclimate, go easy at first and drink plenty of water. 

None of these outings require permits for day use. Overnight campers to Glen Aulin (and anywhere in the Yosemite backcountry) need wilderness permits. Camping is not allowed at Elizabeth Lake or on Lembert Dome. Highway 120/Tioga Road generally opens in June and closes after the fall’s first significant snowfall, often in November.