The possibilities for once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trips are practically unlimited throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains, not just in Yosemite but also in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and neighboring national forests. Famed backpacking routes, such as the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, wind through this mountain range, which reaches its pinnacle at Mt. Whitney (elevation 14,505 feet), the tallest peak on the continent outside of Alaska.
If you’re planning to backpack in the national parks, you’ll need a wilderness permit for any overnight trip. Permit costs vary, but generally average $10 to $20 for a small group. Getting permits in advance is not always necessary when backpacking on national forest lands. A major exception to this rule is the Mt. Whitney zone, for which all wilderness permits for trips to be taken between May and October are distributed by a lottery that is usually held in February.
Another practical consideration for backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is that you’ll probably need to carry a bear-proof container with you on the trail to safely store all of your food, trash, and other scented items. Hanging food from trees no longer works here. Bear-proof lockers in the backcountry are few, often full, and sometimes not working, so don’t rely on them.
Backpacking in Yosemite National Park
When summer arrives in the Sierra Nevada high country and hiking trails finally become snow-free, backpackers flood into the Yosemite Valley and also Tuolumne Meadows and other scenic points along Tioga Road, where many of the park’s top backcountry trailheads are found.
Starting from the valley, the 211-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) crosses high Sierra Nevada mountain passes and circles alpine lakes on its epic journey south to the summit of Mt. Whitney. The most popular overnight destination starting from the valley floor is Little Yosemite Valley, a great way to break up the hike to the top of Half Dome.
From the start of the Sunrise Lakes Trail off high-elevation Tioga Road, you can hike back down into the Yosemite Valley via Clouds Rest, an inspiring viewpoint at nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, and still make a side trip to Half Dome en route. Other famous destinations in the Sierra Nevada high country include Cathedral Lakes, Lyell Canyon, and Glen Aulin, all of which offer prime backcountry campsites and rustic High Sierra Camps (HSCs). Run by the park’s concessionaire, HSCs offer simple tent lodging and three square meals a day.
Backpacking Around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
Other national parks in the Yosemite region also offer magnificent backpacking opportunities. Starting from Sequoia National Park, the 70-mile High Sierra Trail travels from the park’s Giant Forest over to Mt. Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
Even if you don’t trek the entire route, a 22-mile round trip to Bearpaw Meadow is highly recommended for its alpine scenery. At Bearpaw Meadow, overnight tent lodging and meals are available with advance reservations.
Other prime backpacking trails start from the Mineral King Valley in Sequoia National Park. A remote old mining settlement, Mineral King has several trailheads that access pretty alpine lakes. Deep inside Kings Canyon National Park, Cedar Grove is the jumping-off point for the Rae Lakes Loop, a 40-mile trip that passes waterfalls, grassy meadows, and pristine lakes, following a part of the John Muir Trail. Other lakes await in the more easily accessible Jennie Lakes Wilderness, off the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.