Imagine spending six days exploring the secluded backcountry of Yosemite National Park that can only be reached by foot or saddle. Now, imagine doing that without having to carry a heavy backpack, sleep on the ground or cook your own meals. If this sounds like heaven, then Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps are probably your perfect adventure.
Set in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park, the five High Sierra Camps are designed with hikers who want a little extra comfort in mind. The five camps are situated along a loop, each 6-10 miles from the last, making for an excellent 6-day trek that covers 49 miles of some of California’s most scenic country.
You’ll catch incredible sunrises and sunsets from the door of your tent, watch fish jump in mirror-like alpine lakes and experience solitude like nothing you’ve ever experienced before on this incredible trek.
Each camp is made up of a small village of canvas safari-style tents that sleeps fewer than 50 people. You’ll sleep in a steel-framed dorm-style bed equipped with mattresses, pillows and blankets or comforters. Most camps also have wood-burning stoves to heat the tents. Parties of fewer than four may end up sharing one of the co-ed tents with strangers. Each camp has a restroom, and three of the camps have hot showers that are available as water supply allows. Purified drinking water is also provided, so you won’t even have to filter your own water. There’s no electricity at the camps, so you and your family can totally unplug. Family-style dinner is served each night in a dining tent at 6:30 p.m. and the next morning you can enjoy family-style breakfast at 7:30 a.m. The camps can even provide lunches to eat on the trail upon request for $15.50 for adults or $7.75 for children. You can reserve and pay for lunches the night before via cash or credit card.
This once-in-a-lifetime experience is justifiably very popular. A lottery is held each year in the fall for the following season to secure reservations. This trip can be done as an unguided hike, a guided hike or a guided mule ride. Read on to learn more.
Are the High Sierra Camps Open?
The High Sierra camps are only open in the summer and the season usually runs from early July to early September, depending on snow conditions.
The High Sierra Camps were supposed to be open in 2022 but ended up staying closed for the season due to COVID-19 and staffing challenges. The camps are anticipated to re-open for the 2023 season. The 2023 lottery is expected to open on Oct. 1, 2022. Check https://www.travelyosemite.com/lodging/high-sierra-camps/high-sierra-camp-lottery/ for the most up-to-date details.
If you had a 2022 reservation that was canceled, you’ll be guaranteed a reservation in 2023. You will, however, still need to apply in October to secure your spot.
How Much Do the High Sierra Camps Cost?
Prices for the 2023 season had not been announced as of March 2022, but before the 2022 season was canceled, pricing for an unguided hiking trip was $152 per night for adults at the Glen Aulin and Vogelsang camps and $160 per night at the remaining three camps. Children 12 and under were $85 per night at each camp. Prices include a bed, breakfast, dinner and access to restrooms, showers based on availability and purified water.
Because of the popularity of the High Sierra Camps, a lottery is held each fall for the following summer season for reservations. The lottery is open for a set period of time when you can submit your application including your first-choice itinerary (dates and camps) as well as any other alternate itineraries you’d consider. You’ll have the best chances of getting a reservation if you can be flexible and include as many alternate itineraries as allowed. Avoiding weekends and holidays may also increase your odds of getting selected. Be sure to select whether you want to do an unguided hike or choose a pre-set itinerary for a guided hike or a guided mule ride on your application.
After the lottery closes, those who get lucky and receive a reservation will be notified via email. At this point, you’ll have 14 days to pay for your reservation.
In prior seasons, cancellations have been posted on www.travelyosemite.com/lodging/high-sierra-camps so if you don’t get a reservation in the lottery, keep your eye on the site for dates to open up.
How Many High Sierra Camps Are There?
There are five High Sierra Camps, each located 6-10 miles from one another. The camps are Glen Aulin, May Lake, Sunrise, Merced Lake and Vogelsang.
Glen Aulin is the closest camp to Tuolumne Meadows if you are hiking counter-clockwise. It sits at an altitude of 7,800 feet and was created in 1929. The camp is nestled along the Tuolumne River and you can explore a waterfall and natural pool once you check-in. You shouldn’t miss the sunset views of 12,590-foot Mt. Conness. There aren’t shower facilities at this camp.
May Lake might be the most picturesque of the five camps. It’s set next to its beautiful namesake lake, which sits under a ridge that is revered by photographers capturing sunset. Bring your fishing pole and license to see what’s biting at the lake, or test your legs to summit the 10,855-foot Mt. Hoffman. This is the peak that’s reflected in the waters of May Lake and is also the geographic center of Yosemite National Park.
Sunrise is an aptly named camp thanks to its east facing views, which will make you want to wake up early to catch the rising sun. This was the last of the High Sierra Camps to be built and is located along an alpine meadow. This camp is a great choice to spend an extra day, as there are many excellent high-country hiking opportunities in the area. The camp sits at 9,400 feet.
Merced Lake was the first camp to be built in the system in 1916 and is also the farthest from civilization. It’s the lowest of the five camps at 7,150 feet, so it will likely feel warmer than the previous camp or the next camp on the loop: Vogelsang. Because of its lower elevation, this is the only camp that does not have wood-burning stoves to heat the tents. Don’t miss a quick hike to Merced Lake.
The last camp on the counter-clockwise route is Vogelsang. You’ll be sleeping at more than 10,000-feet above sea level at this camp, which can house the most guests: 42. There are a plethora of alpine lakes nearby which makes it a great place for exploration. This camp does not have showers.
Where Are the High Sierra Camps?
The High Sierra Camps are located in the heart of Yosemite National Park’s backcountry off Tioga Road, situated along a 49-mile loop. The full loop begins at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.
Most hikers plan a 6-day loop and spend one night at each of the five camps. The loop can be hiked in either direction, or it can be done as an out-and-back if you only want to stay one or two nights. Multiple nights can be booked at each camp if you want to stay and soak in the backcountry beauty longer, or you can skip certain camps if you want to hike more mileage each day and shorten the trip.
Hiking the full-loop counter-clockwise, the first day is a mostly downhill hike from Tuolumne Meadows Lodge to Glen Aulin Camp. The hike is 8 miles and descends 920 feet, 500 of which is in the last, steep mile.
From Glen Aulin, you’ll hike another 8 miles to May Lake on day two. This section of the trail starts with a short climb, followed by a short descent and then a very long climb to May Lake Camp. The total elevation gain for this section is 1,470 feet. May Lake Camp can alternately be reached from the May Lake Trailhead. This trail is 1.2 miles from the parking lot to the camp, but is steep with a 500 foot elevation gain.
Continuing counter-clockwise from May Lake Camp on day three, you’ll hike 8.5 miles to Sunrise Camp. This is one of the tougher hikes as you’ll first descend 1,200 feet over 3 miles to Tenaya Lake before Climbing another 1,680 feet, 900 of which is in a single mile. Sunrise Camp can also be reached from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead at Tenaya Lake if you aren’t hiking the full loop.
From Sunrise Camp on day four, you’ll descend 2,500 feet in 9.5 miles to the lower-elevation Merced Lake Camp. This is the most remote of the five camps and isn’t very suitable for a one-night trip.
On day five, you’ll hike from Merced Lake Camp to Vogelsang Camp. This will be your most strenuous day on the trail. There are two routes you can choose to take to get there. Both are roughly the same distance at approximately 7.8 miles, but the Fletcher Creek Route gains 800 less feet in elevation than the Lewis Creek route and is slightly shorter. However, the Lewis Creek route climbs up and over 10,700-foot Vogelsang Pass which has incredible views.
On the last day, it’s all downhill back to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge from Vogelsang Camp. The trail is 6.8 miles and descends 1,340 feet in elevation.
Is Hiking to the High Sierra Camps Hard?
While staying in the High Sierra Camps is a bit of a glamping experience, hikers shouldn’t be fooled. The full, 49-mile loop is a strenuous undertaking and shouldn’t be attempted by those who aren’t very fit or are unprepared. Because of this, children under seven aren’t allowed at the camps.
The hikes between the camps range from moderate to very strenuous and each are 6-10 miles. While you won’t be weighted down by a backpack holding all your food and camping gear like you might on an unsupported trip, you’ll still need to carry plenty of water, snacks and your personal clothing and gear. Altitude can be challenging for those not used to high elevations and the ascents and descents will be hard on the body.
If you don’t think you’re up for the full hike, opt to do an out-and-back hike to just one of the camps or book a guided mule ride trip instead. Be aware, even though you won’t be using your own legs to ride a mule to the camps, sitting in a saddle for many hours can also be tough on the body.
What Should I Pack for the High Sierra Camps?
One of the most appealing parts of staying at the High Sierra Camps is that you don’t need to worry about sleeping arrangements or food. The tents are equipped with mattresses, pillows and blankets or comforters, but you do need to bring either a sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner for sanitary reasons.
You’ll want a large and comfortable daypack to hold all your gear for the trip. Pack clothes that you can easily layer for the various temperatures and conditions you’ll encounter along the route. An insulating jacket, a warm hat, gloves and pants are a must even in the summer months as the camps are at high elevation and temperatures can get very cold in the mornings. Synthetic materials or natural wool are the best choices for a long trek like this as they quickly wick away sweat or moisture to keep you warm and dry. Cotton should be avoided.
A pair of sturdy hiking boots with good tread is going to be one of the most important items on your trip. Because there’s lots of elevation gain and the trail is broken and rocky in places, your ankles will definitely thank you for the extra support that a boot gives over a shoe. Be sure to break your boots in before you hit the trail, so you don’t get blisters.
Sun protection is also essential as the UV rays are much harsher at high elevations. Bring a sun hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. You may also want a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt to protect your arms from the harsh rays.
Bring several reusable water bottles or a water bladder that can hold at least two liters of water. While each camp has drinking water for you to fill up with in the mornings, it’s a good idea to bring a water filter or tablets to treat creek or lake water in case you run out along the trail. You’ll want to bring plenty of snacks to keep you fueled along with lunch food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated if you choose not to buy lunch from the camps.
Don’t forget personal items you may need like a toothbrush and toothpaste, sanitary products, lip balm, eye care and medications. A first aid kit is also a must. While there are restrooms at every camp, be prepared if you need to go while you’re hiking as well. Human waste must be buried at least six inches deep, so bring a small trowel to dig a cathole if you need to go. Bring toilet paper and a small waste bag to pack it out in. Those who don’t urinate standing up might also appreciate packing a Kula Cloth (kulacloth.com). These anti-microbial, reusable pee cloths keep you from having to pack toilet paper and can be washed when you get to camp.
Lastly, a pair of trekking poles can help alleviate some of the pressure on your joints and keep you stable as you hike.
For more information, visit www.travelyosemite.com/lodging/high-sierra-camps.