Backpacking Yosemite’s North Rim

Summit of Mt. Watkins

Courtesy of Columbia Sportswear, I had the opportunity to backpack along Yosemite’s North Rim, together with a handful of other journalists and employees from Columbia. Led by Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, we spent 4 days hiking along remote trails with eagle eye views, blissfully unaware of the touristic chaos happening below us in the Yosemite Valley.

Over 4 million people visited Yosemite National Park in 2010 and out of that, less that 143,000 overnight stay wilderness use permits were issued. So if you are put off by crowds and want to gain a unique perspective on the park, grab your backpack and hike up out of the Valley.

Yosemite North Rim

Scott from Columbia brought a SPOT device to map our route

Day 1 ~4 miles and 3K feet of elevation gain

After an amazing meal the night before put on by Executive Chef Frederick Clabaugh, we left the luxurious comforts of Tenaya Lodge and headed out with our guides Laura and Patrick for the 45 minute drive down to Yosemite Valley. With a brief stop in historic Wawona to pick up our wilderness permits, we made it to the backpackers parking lot behind Curry Village, raring to go.

Due to high levels of snow still hanging around much of the North Rim, we began our hike at Yosemite Falls instead of further west at Old Big Oak Flat Road. Starting from the legendary climber’s Camp 4, the upper Yosemite Falls Trail takes you 3,000 feet straight up out of the Valley.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

An unrelenting climb of over 3 miles, you are rewarded with amazing views of the upper portion of Yosemite Falls and even enjoy a cool misting every once in awhile. The further you hike up the trail, the more the crowds of shirtless men and bikini clad women in flip flops thins out.

The first camp is in a nice wooded area just above Yosemite Falls. After setting up our tents, Nancy coaxed us into a little bit of bouldering before our gourmet dinner of Thai shrimp curry and Climber Pouch Cabernet from Clif Family Wines. After dinner, we had Yosemite Falls Lookout all to ourselves for sunset viewing.

Day 2 ~8-10 miles 2.5K of elevation gain and loss

We awoke to a breakfast of champions including buckwheat pancakes, fresh berries, real maple syrup and endless pots of cowboy coffee. After breakfast, we packed up and crossed the bridge over Yosemite Creek, hiking the ridge up to the amazing views from Yosemite Lookout and North Dome.

Following the Lehamite Creek Trail, we passed through beautiful, undulating forest with a couple of exciting river crossings. Our entertainment for the day was watching a French day hiker in jeans try to cross the river at the most awkward point and fall in up to his waist. Needless to say his children were a bit smarter and decided to cross in the shallow, wide area where we all did.

Snow Creek promontory camp Yosemite

The day ended sliding down steep snow slopes to reach the Snow Creek Promontory Camp, hands down one of the most amazing campsites in the world, with Imax theatre type views of Half Dome.

Day 3 ~4-5 miles and 2K feet of elevation gain and loss

Since we entered the North Rim at Yosemite Falls, we had an extra day to play with so decided to day hike up to the top of Mt. Watkins. After crossing a small footbridge over Snow Creek, the trail heads up the west side of Mt. Watkins for about 1/2 mile until you basically have to bush whack and scramble across granite slabs for the rest of the way to the summit.

Summit of Mt Watkins

At the top you are rewarded with unobstructed views of Half Dome, Clouds Rests and the peaks surrounding Tuolumne Meadows. We enjoyed a lunch of salami, goat cheese, fig jam, crackers and chocolate covered almonds while we soaked in the scenery.

Day 4 ~5 miles and 3K feet of elevation loss

After a quick breakfast of bagels and more cowboy coffee, we hiked the 3,000 feet straight down Snow Creek Trail, past Mirror Lake to the Valley floor. Our senses were quickly overloaded with masses of people, oppressive heat, and the smells of lush foliage. I am pretty sure the tourists on the shuttle bus back to Curry Village were not all too happy sharing the same space as our four days of dirt and stink.

Mirror Lake

Ian and Colby from SYMG met us back at the backpackers parking lot with ice cold beer and sandwiches, a perfect way to end the trip. If you are new to multi-day backpacking or just don’t have the time or energy to plan a self supported trip, I can’t recommend SYMG enough. You get the experience of carrying all your own gear, food and water, but have help with navigation and cooking meals, not to mention access to a wealth of information on everything from flora and fauna, to the history of the park and the best rock climbing routes.

The main purpose of the trip was of course to test out much of Columbia’s new gear, including apparel from both Fall 2011 and Spring 2012. Stay tuned for in depth reviews on pieces including the new Omni-Freeze Ice and Omni-Wick Evap technologies.

What To Bring

The following is a list of all the gear I brought along for the four day backpacking trip. Remember, every little thing you bring adds to the weight of your pack.

  • For hiking- long sleeve shirt, light hiking pants, hat, and light hikers.
  • Buff for sunblock
  • Sunscreen
  • 60L backpack
  • Hiking poles
  • Tent
  • 15 degree sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Long underwear bottoms
  • Insulated jacket
  • Fleece hat
  • Extra long sleeve shirt
  • Extra socks
  • Toiletries
  • Rain jacket and rain pants
  • Bear can to hold food for meals and snacks
  • Group gear including stove, fuel, cooking utensils
  • Water filter
  • Two 1L water bottles- there are plenty of places to refill
  • Camera
  • Cell phone- we had coverage pretty much the entire trip

You can view all the photos from the trip over on The GearCaster Facebook page.

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